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We are all between swims…

I took my first swim for quite some time last weekend, and thought I’d share some musings on it with you all. (If you want to just see a beating, scroll to the bottom of the page, cringe and then go practice with a throw line so you’re as accurate as Jonny was!) As a professional whitewater kayak coach I spend a lot of time telling my students that we are all between swims, and that swimming really isn’t a big deal. I feel I live up to my beliefs, never belittling swimmers, either those who I’m teaching, or members of other paddling groups who I happen to be able to help out. I strongly believe that in order to get better at things we have to make mistakes and learn from them.

My boat, after we parted company…

As this was the first time for a while I had a swim I expected to be frustrated and angry with myself – I’ve been a sponsored paddler for the best part of a decade, undertaken multiple first descents, introduced countless numbers of people to whitewater, led experienced paddlers on challenging rivers and currently train and assess the next generation of coaches. Surely I’m not meant to fall out on a rapid that is well within my comfort level – especially as I had won paper, scissors, stone and chose to go first!

Here’s where the story begins…

Fellow Pyranha Paddler and all round nice guy Jonny Hawkins and I had managed to align the stars and end up with a few days off at the same time, and a promising forecast for a mission that he had been eyeing up for a few years, in the far North West of Scotland, where gauges are far between, and rumours abound of epic rivers not yet recorded in guidebooks. He showed me a few river notes on a well known online UK rivers website of these two runs, the Corriemulzie, a wee burn that flows into the Eineg. He had a friend who had highly recommended them to him, and the flows looked good to go. I’m a big fan of an adventure, and exploring a new run so I was sold.

One of the many tight rapids in the Corrimulzie

To cut a long story short we paddled a couple of classic runs on our way north, and arrived at the Bothy (a remote shelter, kept by a charity for lovers of the outdoors) as light was fading. In the morning we rose to find the overnight rain had bought the levels up to what we guessed was a premium level, so we set the shuttle and jumped on the Corriemulzie. This gave us an excellent 4km of classic grade 4 Scottish burn bashing, with tight lines, small eddies and countless horizon lines. We were paddling well as a team, taking it in turns to act as blind probe, jumping out where we felt we needed to and having a great time. All too quickly the run was over, and we were at the confluence with the Einig, the main event of the trip – 7km of the best whitewater Scotland has to offer.

The Einig certainly didn’t disappoint, it’s a fantastic run, and we were having a great time. The river is bedrock in character and we were enjoying the countless ledges and drops characteristic of Scottish kayaking. We had inspected a couple of times and portaged a small drop that twisted into the wall when we came to a far more substantial horizon line. A scout, quick discussion on safety and the classic game of rock, paper, scissors and I was off…

Jonny loving life on the Einig

I’m not sure how I came to be upside down after the lead in drop (due to operator error with the camera, we’ll never know) but I was. I remember fighting to get my paddle to the surface, and feeling the force of the water forcing it under. Just as I was switching to try a roll on the other side I felt my knee out of the thigh grip and I made a split second decision that I didn’t want to go over the second fall half in and half out my boat. I kicked out, failed to get a breath of air and went over the main event, into a retentive hole.

I remember trying to get a breath of air, and being recirculated for a while. I saw my boat in the hole with me, and pushed myself up off that and looked across to the bank. Jonny had scrambled down to the river & I saw he was ready to throw his line so threw my arms in the air to let him know I was ready. Complete Kudos to Jonny (and I definitely owe him a beer for this one) he hit me first time, in a situation where it really mattered. After we’d gathered all the bits, I had some time to reflect, and draw out some thoughts on what had just happened:

Not where I’d planned to be…

I feel it was the right choice to run the rapid – I have enough experience to know when I should be portaging, and when I can see a line I know I can hit. The decision to paddle a rapid not only from seeing a line, but also wanting to run that line. I’m still not sure how I ended up upside down in the first place, I can only assume that I mistimed my boof and landed in the backseat.

Paddling with someone who you have trust in makes the decision easier, as does knowing that you have a strong partner or team to help you out when it all goes wrong. Practice with throwlines is key to being able to help your buddies out when you really need to. I often preach on rescue courses that when were using our safety kit it’s already gone wrong, but this really highlighted to me the importance of being really good with the kit we carry.

Comfort in the water is crucial. I spend a fair amount of time teaching on safety and rescue courses, and introducing paddlers to whitewater swimming techniques. Whilst getting surfed in the hole I was aware enough to look for weaknesses that may allow an escape, try a couple of different techniques to get out of the stopper and look for my boat to give me a little more buoyancy (and hopefully get a breath of air!). It also meant that I could be aware of what was going on with Jonny, and let him know that I was ready for him to bag me.

I will confess to being surprised as to how little I find myself minding that I swam, despite some ‘playful’ comments from my friends. I think that reflecting on the decisions taken, not just on that day, but in my paddling career leading up to this mean that I’m comfortable with all the decisions that were taken, and the trust in the team and my comfort in the environment have allowed me to consolidate some thoughts, and practice what I preach when it comes to whitewater kayaking. Just remember… ‘We’re all between swims’