Sean’s shares his thoughts on becoming an advanced white water leader

I joined the club in May 2011 as a complete novice not knowing a canoe from a kayak or a spray deck from an air bag. I got hooked immediately and haven’t looked back since.

In my second year of paddling I recall on my third or fourth trip down the Dart Loop having a discussion with Gemma and Clarissa how I’d be comfortable kayaking on water up to Grade 3 or maybe a single G4 rapid. I kind of stuck with that principle for the first two years but then was dragged (never kicking and screaming) off to some steeper creeks and bigger volume water. By this stage I’d started my progression to being a coach but wasn’t ready for the leadership challenge – at that point this was for the gods of kayaking (Christine, Mark Rowe etc).

On a cold and wet Scotland trip I met my paddling buddy Daryl and over too many scotches he convinced me to head out to Uganda with him the following February for some Grade 4/5/6 water. That is now water under the bridge and I make the trip to Uganda every January now.

Club Wave

My mindset on water gradings has changed as too have my thoughts on coaching and leadership.

Within the first three years of paddling I was leading on G3/4 rivers and it was then that I decided to do my Moderate Water Leader (Kayak) (or 4* as it was known then). I did this in North Wales and when I’d finished I thought to myself that the qualification was great but the club was paddling harder water and I was leading on harder water but not actually qualified to do so. The Moderate leader is for grade 2/3 water and I was then leading on 3/4 water.

I did my 5* leader training (as the Advanced Leader award was called at the time) up in Scotland over two days in May 2015 on the Loy, Coe and Orchy, Levels were up high and chunky and the rain was pouring out of the sky. Paddling the gorge of the Lower Coe in these flows definitely put the group on edge. I left the course thinking I’d had a great (even if nail biting) course but that I’d be taking my time to get ready for assessment – if I even went for it. The step from moderate to advanced is actually quite large – you’re assessed on Grade 4/5 water.

Later that same year I did my Moderate Water Endorsement (coaching qualification for moderate water) training and assessment. I was comfortable at this level of coaching and wasn’t really pushing leadership on the harder water except on club trips. In the January of 2016 I started showing friends and newbies down lines on the G4/5 rapids of the Nile in Uganda – and loved it! So I signed up to do my 5* assessment that September.

The provider I went with did a two day skills refresher followed by the two day assessment. We trained on the Etive, Spean Gorge, and a whole day running laps of the Upper Moriston. The first time over the first big waterfall was eye opening to say the least – I was not in my comfort zone. I got it into my head that the assessment was going to be a nightmare and really didn’t get much out of the training days as a result. I absolutely loved the Upper Moriston and can’t wait to run it again – I will however skip the rope work practising of lugging boats and people up and down cliff faces! I don’t like edges at the best of times so dangling over the edge self belaying down the cliff was one of the worst experiences in my kayaking career!

The training and assessment had us clamboring up and down rocks, ridges and cliffs, paddling blind down rapids with no paddles and taking on some G4 rapids forwards and backwards. We paddled the Meig which is a river I really want to get back on – total wilderness canyons, gorges, steep drops, pool drops and big rapids.

We finished the assessment on the Findhorn Gorge and that is where I found out that I failed the assessment. My paddling skills were okay but I was not displaying the confidence required of a leader on the water and appeared to be second guessing myself – all of which was pretty accurate. I’d got my head out of the game and then I kept asking myself what the assesors wanted to see and trying to deliver that – instead of just getting on with leading.

Eight months later I pulled my finger out and did the assessment and skills refresher again. This time with a resounding positive outcome. Back up to Scotland and onto the Etive, Spean and Findhorn again. We also paddled one of the most complex rivers I’ve paddled – the dam release River Conon which hadn’t released in over five years starting with a grade 6 pourover into a grade 5+ rapid, onto another grade 5 drop, to a grade 5 rapid we ran, to a grade 6 complex rock slide which was one of the major assessment factors then onto a couple more grade 5 drops and rapids before we were all so exhausted that the grade 2 paddle out had us second guessing ourselves.

It was a long journey in getting the qualification and I’m very happy to have it now. Does it make me paddle any differently? Yes. More time goes into the planning and then the scouting and river running – I’m no longer just a member of the group. As a qualified leader I need to be able to take control at any moment and be ready to enact rescues and extractions if required. It’s also why I will adamantly refuse to take someone in my group on a river – if I’m to be responsible for the person, I’m not taking that person on water or into scenarios that they cannot cope with – I don’t care that it might be there one and only chance to run that section or that no one else will take them – there’s usually a reason for that!

Would I recommend doing the advanced water leader qualification? Absolutely. Even if you only do the training – it puts so much of club trips into perspective and really points out hazards and huge gaps in your own and other people’s paddling and rescue skills that need to be addressed.

I’m still planning on doing my advanced water endorsement for coaching but right at this point in my life, I’m focusing on my raft guiding, racing and rescue skills. I’m still paddling rivers – I like to get out and enjoy a river – from G2 to G5 – it’s about experiencing the river and nature and the friends you share it with.