Breathtaking pursuits of the wild water daredevils; 'We kept breaking boats. I was getting through four a year, but now I'm down to two'

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The Independent Online
Be prepared for a cross-examination straight out of Savile Row if you want to help England continue their domination in a daredevil new sport. What is your inside leg measurement? Your shoe size? What do you weigh? What side do you dress on? Actually, I made the last one up, but all the others are standard fare for those who buy a custom-made boat for rodeo kayaking.

In the Olympic sport of slalom canoeing, the secret is to keep horizontal. But rodeo kayakers spend much of their time with the boat vertical, as if some giant fish is trying to devour paddler and craft. In its most extreme form, called squirt boating, one of the recognised manoeuvres is a "mystery move", where boat and boater disappear entirely for 20 seconds or more. Jason Buxton, one of our top rodeo kayakers, says: "It's a very personal feeling, being totally underwater in a fast river. You need a good idea of what is going on around you because it gets quite dark, so you often can't see anything. We sometimes hit the bottom in three metres of water."

The sport started in the United States about 15 years ago, but it only really became popular about five years ago, with the advent of lightweight general-purpose plastic boats. When you're playing submarines, a kayak is subject to severe stresses, never mind whacking rocks and other obstacles. Glass-fibre boats couldn't take the punishment. Buxton, 26, says: "We kept breaking boats. I was getting through four a year, but now I'm down to two. Boat development has come on enormously in the past couple of years." Today's kayaks weigh less than 40lb but are sturdy enough to perform moves that previously a canoeist only executed by accident, such as cartwheels and backward flips.

This is not a sport for beginners. Buxton, who manages a kayak-building company in Nottingham, says: "It is beyond the reach of most people, and even too difficult for many good canoeists. You can put a world-class slalom paddler in one of our boats, and they will struggle. That's because you have to unlearn a lot of things. Most of the technique in slalom is on-off, but because we are not concerned with speed, the approach is quite different."

It is, however, attracting immense attention because it is so wacky and exciting. The national canoeing course at Nottingham has five rodeo training courses scheduled this year. The British Championships, a five-event series which starts next month, has attracted sponsorship from tequila maker Jose Cuervo - and that tells you something about the people who ride a bucking canoe.

Steve Block, who was third in the 1995 World Championships in the Cl class, says without a hint of embarrassment: "I guess rodeo kayakers are Pepsi Max men - done that, done that." The boats have wild metallic colours and psychedelic designs. Most leading exponents are young and spend their spare time snowboarding or freestyle skiing if they are not on the water. Rodeo kayaking is all about stunts, and the wilder the better - corkscrews, somersaults, cartwheels, backflips, twists and spins are getting more and more outrageous as its enthusiasts challenge what is possible.

The sport is developing so fast that judging standards have been left far behind. In international championships, a competitor has one minute to perform as many manoeuvres as possible in one spot, and these are judged on style, technique, content and how aesthetically pleasing it is. "Nothing is really written down on judging and because you need judges who have a lot of knowledge on technical boating, the paddlers often judge each other," Buxton admits.

There are three classes: K1, where the paddler sits down; C1, in which a paddler kneels and uses a one-blade paddle, and squirt boating. In an extreme sport, this is far out in left field. The boats are individually designed to fit the paddler and weigh about 10 kilos. Everything is cut away and they have a draught of only a few inches. They ride almost level with the water, and only just float.

Buxton, whose company specialises in squirt boats, says: "You pull the boat on: it is like putting on a pair of very tight trousers. It has to fit you like a glove, because the pressure is incredible. Otherwise it would squash your toes. That's why we take such precise measurements. You're a size 9 shoe? That means I'd have to take another 5mm off the foot fitting."

You sit with your legs out in front and twisted slightly inwards. This sounds very uncomfortable - and it is. "People often find they can only last 10 minutes or so at first because it is too painful. But I can sit for two and a half hours in a squirt boat now," says Buxton, the only Briton to be chosen for two disciplines at this year's pre-world championships in Canada.

These boats are so precisely balanced that leaning forward makes the boat stand on end, and leaning sideways sends the boat cartwheeling sideways. Bob Campbell, the world champion from Otley, can make his squirt boat dive and roll like a dolphin, simply by shifting his body. Look, no hands.

Judging the performance of a paddler who is completely underwater is like trying to evaluate a stunt pilot's aerobatics in a cloud-filled sky. So squirt boats are judged over a measured course rather than by the manoeuvres in one spot. Playing subs is just one part of the repertoire.

Americans may have invented the sport, but in the squirt boat class at least, Britain rules OK. At the 1995 world championships, the first three places were filled by Brits. "The American coach said to me afterwards: I can't believe this - it's like you beating us at baseball or basketball," Buxton recalls fondly.

A kindly observer would describe Buxton as "sturdy", but even squirts can do rodeo kayaking. "You don't have to be ultra-fit or strong," Buxton says. "I do a bit of gym work, but most of my training is on the water." The sport has women's classes, too, although Buxton has no plans to teach his girlfriend. "It would be like teaching her to drive," he says with a shiver that doesn't come from canoeing in February. Block agrees. "It's not really a girl's thing, going into cold water in the winter. Anyway, this sport is very much a guy's thing - because men love to show off."