“I’m going to lead from the back.”

Grandma Hurrell was ahead of her time.

“For a second I get confused every time you say that you are going to do this White Water Leader Assessment.  Why are you doing an assessment on Schubert singing when everyone knows you would fail?” – My best friend’s characteristically damning indictment of my vocal talent the Friday before I head off to undertake a White Water Leader Assessment (aka 4*) with Dan, Daly, oh… and Jane (must not forget Jane).

It might be said that Jane and I took slightly different approaches to preparing for this assessment.  Jane spent many trips practising and seeking to prevent Liza from executing any boat recuses.  I decided that if Jane could do this, then so could I, gamed the assessment by deciding the best venue was the Dart, allowed Jing Jing to swim into a tree on Lovers’ Leap and then had to “lawyer” British Canoeing because of their misrepresentations.   Learning point: they were very easily lawyered.

What could possibly go wrong?

Would the assessment be cancelled because there was not enough water?  Birtles informed Jane that she and the coach were using different apps with different levels so that is why he felt confident and Jane was glum about water levels.

Would there be too much water?  What if it rained all night?

Also, to begin with I didn’t have a boat I could roll (after the whole New Year’s, Llugwy, kayak munching pour over incident).  Happily, I saw a second hand Machno for sale in Devon.   So, we set off at 6.30 (I wanted to leave at six but that was because my sat nav was stuck on no-motorway mode again) on a Sunday morning to go do Newton Abbott only to learn that having lent it to Aime Williams at Lee Valley the previous day, Jane had forgotten her nose clip.  Catastrophe!

When we all had a lunch on the dry February Dart at the White Waters hotel Kate had left her bag there so Jane and I went to rescue it and thought we would stay there.  We also thought we would practice first aid in the deserted bar.  So, I diligently showed Jane the recovery position and (as I had been taught) started with “Hello I’m Ruth, I’m a first aider, help, help, help” and help did arrive in the form of a troubled looking receptionist.  Sorry.  We are just pretending.  No emergency here.

The hotel was nice (Lucy would have liked the geese), but the service at breakfast was reminiscent of Fawlty Towers, minus the laughs.  It took them nearly an hour to get us breakfast as they were only taking one table order at a time.  We thought that Dan would arrive before the guinea pigs for our assessment, but we were wrong.  We arrived basically last and in the rain and not fully changed!  Jane kicked off by explaining about her fear of assessments.  I kicked off by cross-examining the students vigorously on their previous paddling experience.

The students had a range of abilities: one was excellent paddling a slicey boat and the other two were nervous, but better than they thought.  I headed off in the lead and Jane took over a washing machine explaining all the different possible lines.  Dan made me paddle backwards into the flow causing me to go over but luckily auto roll on the new Machno was engaged!  Dan encouraged me to lead from the middle or the back of the group to allow the students to begin to get confidence using their own lines.

In good news Jing Jing’s tree in Lover’s Leap was gone but apparently you are supposed to stop in the middle river left eddy so you can do something if the students swim at the top (oops).  Jane’s expertly deals with all the students diverging in between the second and third step at triple steps as I distract Dan by high crossing.

Then it is on to the rescues: I am an unconscious casualty out of the boat.  Jane has to rescue me.  This is not something we have ever been taught.  It takes a long time to get be out of the water and I learn a lot from seeing Jane cope with it.   I then am supposed to rescue an unconscious Jane in her boat.  I plan to hand of god her but I can’t get my boat close enough.  This didn’t happen to Maradona.  Eventually (and very reasonably) Jane bails (this is particularly bad as her dry suit is leaking) and then I am able to get to the side using one of the students to pull me using the techniques I’d just learnt.   I try to redeem the fiasco by knowing how to do a damage check on Jane, where we are on a map and exactly what I would do to go and get help from the emergency services.  Do you come here often?  Would you like me to show you my group shelter?

We also have to rescue a (conscious) swimmer, boat and paddle.  Jane is excellent at this having spent the winter gazumping Liza’s rescues and I’m ok at the swimmer and the paddle but the boat is a mare.  I do eventually get it to the side and I need to paddle back across but I decide I want to take it up river.  I tether it to a tree.  I get out of the boat.  I empty the other boat.  I carry both boats upstream.  I decide that there is no good ingress point.  So, I go back to where I started and re-tether the other boat where it was.  Meanwhile one of the student’s paddle has broken.  Do you come here often?  Would you like me to show you my splits?  All this takes ages, but my swimmer is safe on the bank so that’s ok.  Good job its warm in late February.  She doesn’t have hypothermia.

After we get out below the weir, Dan tells us we’ve passed.  Woop.  Liza will be relieved.

Some bake bread, others collected toilet paper. But during Lockdown our very own Andreas went on RCC’s Intro to White Water Course.

There is one thing that I believe all paddlers have in common and that is the sense of community. I have not met more welcoming bunch anywhere.

When joining any paddling group, I have always been amazed by the knowledge sharing, the shared faff, all the help with boat carrying, rescuing people when they swim. And so, it comes the time in ones paddling progression when you want to do more for the group, you want to be a safe and contributing member of the paddling group and the best way to learn those skills is White Water Safety and Rescue course.

So, a group from Tower of Hamlet canoe club has signed up to the WWSR course in Wales and invited members of Regents club to join them. Again, welcoming and sharing!

So me and Emma joined 4 members of the THCC and off we went to Wales. We stayed at a lovely Airbnb in the middle of nowhere surrounded by sheep. A fire was lit, some wine drunk, and some new friends made.

On Saturday morning we met our couch Fraser Marr at a nearby coffee shop, where we went over all the theory before deciding to paddle one of the gems of North Wales, the elusive Conwy River (often too low to paddle, we got lucky and caught it as it was going down). The river did not disappoint, it is one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve paddled in UK and it also offered some real opportunities for rescues and decision making. Do we paddle a rapid that has a tree stuck in it? …. The answer was no

Do we get a person to swim across a river to their boat or we get a bot to them? … Well now we get to the most important lesson of the weekend. It DEPENDS. 

On Sunday, in contrast to Saturday’s river journey, we spent most of the day either in the Dee, or on the side of it, practicing different rescues. Hand of God rescues came first above Horseshoe Weir, safe management of a group as we moved down chain bridge rapid towards Serpents Tail, and every method of fishing a swimmer out of the water you can imagine in the rapid itself. This involved a lot of jumping into the water at Serpents Tail rapid and scrambling out over the rocks in the eddy’s below. Learning how to swim safely was as important here as learning how to rescue said swimmer – we definitely tested our drysuits thoroughly!

I really like lists so here is a list of things I took away from that weekend: 

  1. People, please put airbags in your kayaks. It is a pain to rescue a boat full of water. 
  2. Physics is a skill to be used in kayaking, and not just associated with The Big Bang Theory
  3. Rescuing an unconscious paddler is easier that it looks, but I hope I never have to do it
  4. Jumping into rapids is fun, but hopefully won’t be needed often
  5. Using common sense in safety and rescue is super important. And getting that just means paddling more. So yay to paddling more
  6. Get the right kit! BAs with quick release straps are vital
  7. River knifes are very handy, primarily for making lunch
  8. Check yourself, your friends and your gear before going out 
  9. Chocolate is an important snack 
  10. Kayakers are amazing people

Emma has also made a video to captures the weekend away. Please have a look 

Jenni, Matt M and Adam B recall their White Water Safety & Rescue Course on 12-13 May 2022.

Lying on an isolated rock in the centre of the river surrounded by the rushing torrents of a Dee that barely reached scrape, Jamie clutched his leg and cried for help.  Everyone flew into action. Jenni and Matt M took up position on river left while me and another Adam headed for the right bank, and someone else covered downstream.

Having enjoyed the wading practice, I decided that was the only option to reach the rock and without speaking to anyone set off on foot. It was quickly apparent that when the water reaches your neck you are no longer wading. Fortunately, I reached the eddy below the rock before being swept embarrassingly downstream, away from the injured party, the group and my kayak.

Jamie told me his spray deck was caught. I had meant to buy a knife the week before but forgot. Other Adam, still on the bank, brandished his but was too far away to help. I suggested he throw it to me but he refused, putting the life of our coach in grave danger. Instead, he threw a line to attach to Jamie and we brought him back to the closer right bank, pretending the spray deck issue was sorted. However, that bank had no access. So, after a short discussion Jenni and Matt threw a line from the left bank. We then attached two lines to Jamie, one from either side, and between us, ferried him across the river to safety.

“None of us can enjoy this sport safely without the support of the people we kayak with and I’m glad to have learnt new skills that will help me give back in future.”

Adam Brill

This scenario felt like the culmination of two days of learning. At first, we had been indecisive and disjointed in our rescues. But here, wading exploits aside, the whole group seemed to come together and work seamlessly to find a solution. Everyone recognised the most useful positions and instinctively spread out to cover all bases. We all understood how to use the ropes and where to stand, to manoeuvre Jamie through the water without putting him in more danger. The communication was good and the plan to get him from one side of the river to the other worked without incident.

I have been part of the club for three years now and kept putting off the WWSR course in favour of kayaking weekends. It always sounded more fun to be dropping down rapids and surfing in waves, than swimming and tying ropes. But in all that time I had never used a throw line, didn’t know the proper technique to rescue a boat full of water and had never been truly helpful in a rescue. I was only taking responsibility for myself, not for others, while others were looking out for me. None of us can enjoy this sport safely without the support of the people we kayak with and I’m glad to have learnt new skills that will help me give back in future.

The course was fun in its own right, from live baiting to swimming in stoppers, dragging canoes off rocks and various rescue scenarios. It was also really valuable and on the couple of trips I have done since I have already started to think more about where safety might be needed, the best positions to be in if things go wrong and how important communication is both within each group, and between the different groups on the river.

Jenni, Matt and I are all at different stages in our experience. But the course was equally beneficial to all of us and is something I would recommend to everyone, even if they are at an early point of their development.

Mark in action

I’d like to share my experiences from recently completing the new 2-day British Canoeing (BC) assessment, White Water Kayak Leader (previously call 4 star white water kayak). The BC web site provides details, but the main aim is to be able to lead a group of four paddlers of BC 3 star standard on river graded 2/3. You also need to demonstrate personal paddling and rescue skills, and theory. www.britishcanoeing.org.uk/courses/white-water-kayak-leader/

I did the training last year with Andy Turton (tynantoutdoors.com) and since we had a good time we booked him for the assessment and I’d certainly recommend them. It was a dry January week leading into our weekend in North Wales. You need two days on different moderate white water and they can’t both be the Dee, so when we heard the Tryweryn was not releasing it was almost cancelled. But the less paddled Vyrnwy, another dam release river, was. It was also a really good river for this grade and leading newer paddlers. Lots of interesting sections, small rapids, eddies to catch, blind corners, small waves to play on.

There were 4 people being assessed, including myself, 4 intermediate paddlers to be led and one assessor. The assessor rotated who was leading, the others had to mostly hold back and not assist. When I was up to lead the very first obstacle was a low bridge whose arches were full to varying degrees of tree branches. So first bit of leading was a portage and walk round a field, interesting start. Back on the water things picked up, with a number of rapids and tricky corners successfully behind us. Only main difficulty was trying out an eddy hop on a longer rapid section which ended with a swift change to “all down!!” as people started falling out of the small eddies.

Although my leading ended I managed to demonstrate my rescue skills, racing to a paddler stuck in a tree. I quickly pulled him and boat out, while being live baited. Unfortunately said paddler took another little swim on the next rapid and I decided to walk out with him. But our walk was not long as most of the rest called it a day due to the failing light levels. The second day was on the mighty Dee and covered all you would expect up to Mile End Mill. We got on above Horseshoe Falls and this section is really good for beginners.

I’ve paddled a number of years and much of the course felt familiar as I’ve picked up directly and indirectly good practices from experienced Regents paddlers. Every time I’m on the river I observe really good skills or ways of communicating, but also learn from mistakes which inevitably happen. River leading is not easy and it is a continual learning process. The dynamics of the river and multiple paddlers places a great responsibility on the leader.

Usually with Regents we peer paddle or have groups with a range of experience. This is a great help to me but can mean I rely on other for things I’m less good at. In the assessment you have to demonstrate good all round ability, which is challenging but focuses your attention to improve on those known weaknesses or less practiced areas.

Some things which the course made me think about are: planning, preparing and thinking ahead; visualising the river in terms of the ability of those you are leading; quickly adapting to situations; instilling confidence in those around you; creating a fun adventure for all the group.

I think the course is valuable for all intermediate paddlers who are looking to develop or more advanced paddlers who may or may not be already leading.

I started a River logbook, which is required for the course, and provide this to fellow members as an example. I think it’s really useful and wish I started it earlier in my paddling career.

Mark Don.

Mark's first aid kit

Mark Donaldson on the importance of first aid training for kayakers

In December I took a 2-day outdoor first aid course, the type recognised by British Canoeing as suitable for kayakers who will often be outdoors and not immediately accessible to emergency services. Since kayaking this is the second time I’ve taken such a course, and this time I booked: www.reactfirst.co.uk/First-Aid-Outdoor.asp

I highly recommend React First, they were very professional and knowledgeable. The 2-day course was well structured and paced, cover a wide range of topics and focused on the essentials with a real hands-on practical approach. I came away feeling much more confident and felt the careful repetition and building up of exercises means key steps have stuck in my mind.

I think there is little point is giving you a blow-by-blow on what happened on the course. It’s my opinion that everyone, whether kayaking or not, would really benefit from such a course. But being a kayaker it really is essential. Beyond the course I recommend we all give time to continued learning and practice. There are many good books, on-line guides, and free videos.

There is no substitute for the training, but having the right first aid kit is also important. So along with this article I have attached a spreadsheet with a breakdown of what I currently (or intend to) carry. This includes some web links to example products with prices I’ve found on-line. I hope you find this helpful, and also welcome any advice others have on this topic. Click to view the spreadsheet.

In addition to first aid, I think it’s important we all ensure we have a copy of our emergency details about our person and ensure those who are your contacts also have a copy. I’ve attached a template I use myself (click to view). I keep a small print copy in my wallet, and in my dry wallet with my mobile on the river.

Other tips:

  • Lots of free useful videos at: www.youtube.com/user/stjohnambulance
  • Register your mobile for 999 text service. When reception is too weak for calling 999 a text may get through and your phone will repeatedly try sending. www.emergencysms.org.uk/
  • When planning for trips, make a note of the nearest NHS services: