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How to… whitewater kayak

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It is no secret that Britain sees its fair share of rainy days, to which the normal remedy seems to be a cup of tea and the telly on. Thankfully though, the wet weather allows us to have some of the world’s best river conditions, perfectly suited for some seriously wet outdoor fun. A leisurely paddle across a lake can be a good way to spend a summer’s afternoon, but hurtling down a river, cutting through frothy white waves is certainly a rush that you will find hard to beat. “It is an amazing sport and will take you to some pretty far-flung places that you wouldn’t be in for any other reason,” says Tom McLay, the senior raft guide at the National Rafting Centre. He ensures WideWorld that all it takes to cut through the rapids is a few lessons and a can do attitude. You’ll be praying for the next bit of rain.

Pick your date

Summer is traditionally the busy season for whitewater kayaking in the UK. The days are longer, the light is better and the weather is warmer, but don’t let that stop you. Britain is blessed not only with vast numbers of kayak-worthy rivers, but some of them such as the river Tryweryn in Wales, are dam-released which allow all-year-round kayaking, even when there is little water elsewhere.

Respect the water

When doing a new activity it is paramount to respect the dangers that it brings. When onboard any craft the main danger is the water. If you do not respect the water then things could end up rather badly. This is particularly true on a kayak. In multi-person rafts you are normally under the guidance of a guide or an instructor, whereas on a kayak you are dependent on yourself and therefore are in control of your own destiny – or not as is sometimes the case.

Baby steps

Paddling out on a placid lake can be easy enough, but when attempting to tackle some whitewater it is important that you at first seek some professional coaching and guidance. There is no minimum amount of lessons you need, you simply progress at your own pace until you are confident enough.

However, it takes time to be able to read whitewater and develop those skills. It is important to keep what you do safe because at times kayaking can be rather dangerous. Get experience.


Whitewater can be pretty tough in places, therefore you would have to have a reasonable level of cardiovascular fitness and strength to deal with some of the rapids. However, this by no means makes kayaking an exclusive sport. People of all shapes and sizes are encouraged to have a go, but the general consensus is that you do get on better if you have a base level of fitness and decent flexibility.

Also, it is not advised for anyone to take up kayaking if they are unable to swim. You do not need any swimming qualifications but for safety reasons a competent level of swimming is needed.

Get what you give

Whitewater kayaking is just as mental as it is physical. In kayaking you get out exactly what you put in. The amount of effort and determination you have will determine how you get along on some of the rapids. Essentially it can be quite a steep learning curve at the start, but once you’ve mastered the basics you will progress quickly.

The proof is not entirely in the pudding, however. Simply learning to kayak is great fun. Navigating your path downriver whilst getting really wet is as emotionally rewarding as it is physically stimulating.

Stroke play

One of the most important aspects of kayaking is keeping the craft under control. To do this there are a wide variety of paddle strokes that you can use. Perhaps the most important are the forwards and backwards strokes, as well as support strokes. The first two are pretty self explanatory, but it is important to master some support strokes that will keep you upright if, for example, there was a wave threatening to flip you. It is also crucial to know how to turn your kayak, whether by performing standard sweep strokes or by leaning the craft. Sweep strokes are essentially a large arching ‘sweep’ motion with your paddle on one side of the craft that will turn your boat in a certain direction.

Eddy’s going to get you

Keeping your wits about you is always needed on the water, especially when noticing the changing of currents. An ‘eddy’ is an area of calm water that is out of the flow of the rest of the river that is essentially used as a parking place for your kayak. Eddys are places where there is no water flow, created by a bend in the river, or if there is an obstruction or a groin out into the river. You should always start and end a rapid in an eddy if you can. Park up, and get out of your kayak, have a look at the rapid and select your line before continuing. However, you must be weary when entering an eddy as the change of current may cause you to flip your craft if you’re not careful.

Gear up

There are five essential items that you need to cast off on a kayak (not including the craft itself!). Most importantly you need to have the two standard pieces of Personal protective equipment (PPE): a helmet and a buoyancy aid. For pretty obvious reasons, both items are an absolute must. Another key piece of gear is the paddle which is used to steer and control the craft when in the water. Aside from those it is recommended that you dress accordingly in a wetsuit and adequate footwear. All of these items can be provided for you at all competent kayaking or rafting centres – if you don’t own them already.

Know your limits

Rapids on rivers are individually classified by a grading system which identifies them by level of difficulty. In the UK the scale ranks the rapids from Grade I (slowly moving water with ripples) to VI (exceptionally severe whitewater, eg. large waterfalls). In a kayak, Grade VI rapids are a complete no go. The UK has a bit of everything, there are plenty of easy Grade I rivers for people to harness their moving water skills, such as getting into and out of eddys, but there are also plenty of tight and technical Grade III-IV rapids. The characteristics of UK rivers are generally quite similar. They are all fairly small, technical rivers that tend to be quite steep compared to rivers in central Europe where they are larger in volume and a lot deeper.

The best course of action when encountered by a rapid that you feel is beyond your experience level is to get out and find a way to walk around it.

For lessons or gear hire, contact: The National Whitewater Centre, Canolfan Tryweryn, Fron Goch, Bala, Wales. LL23 7NU  Tel: 01678 521 083   Email: [email protected]