Kayaking with a disability

Belle Cartwright talks about white water kayaking with a disability

When I first learnt that I was disabled it felt like my life had crumbled away, much like the bone in my knee had. I had no confidence, no drive and no hopes or goals for the future. What pulled me out of this was rediscovering my love of sport.

Initially I took up rowing, having rowed prior to being disabled. Slowly my confidence grew and I become good enough to join the GB Paralympic Team, with dreams of gold at Rio. Unfortunately, right before my first international I found out my legs weren’t classifiable and I was back to square one.

Determined that I wasn’t going to let my legs get the better of me, I spent my time focussed on rehabbing to get out of my wheelchair and onto a crutch. Through sweat, determination, hours in the gym, lots of physio and a lot of tears and temper tantrums I made it on to a singular crutch. Despite my improved mobility I felt like I still had a huge hole in my life and knew I needed to find a new sport. A few weeks later I saw an advert for a white water kayaking course at Lee Valley so signed up straight away.

I was initially terrified of being in a boat on the white water. In one of my last rowing outings I had had a nasty incident of being flipped upside whilst still attached to my strapping, taking 5 minutes to release myself from it whilst my head was only half an inch out of the water. My near drowning experience made me look at water differently and I started to really fear it. At Lee Valley, my first coach Jess, who was aware of the incident, worked slowly to build my confidence up.

Through the initial struggle and many swims, I found that pulling my deck released me from my boat every time and slowly but surely I started to relax. This allowed me to actually start to learn to kayak and use features to help me rather than just surviving or warring a constant battle against the river.

Beyond the mental challenges of paddling, the only times I run into difficulty are when physically carrying, lifting and loading boats, attempting to scramble along a bank, and the obvious challenge of getting in and out of the kayak in the first place. Long paddling trips and the cold also take their toll as I need to regularly stretch out my legs and take breaks from being in one position too long.

Through making small tweaks to my boat and equipment I’ve found paddling has become a lot easier. I now have a crutch that folds in the middle so it can fit in the back of the boat. I also set up my boat so that it helps me adapt my paddling style to my physical limitations.

The other big difference for me is in how I assess consequence and risk. If I break an arm or dislocate a shoulder it would become impossible for me to live without full time care until it healed. As a result I have a rule, if I feel a rapid is above my ability with high levels of consequence, I simply won’t run it until my technical ability improves. I still make mistakes leading to small mishaps including a knee dislocation and mild concussion, but for the most part the rule has worked.

Despite the risks involved, I love kayaking. It’s not just the adrenalin and challenge that make this sport great, it’s because when I’m kayaking I am asked what I can do not just what I can’t. Joining Regents Canoe Club has enabled me to meet some truly awesome people. The club have been super inclusive offering free coaching by volunteers and they’re always willing to lend me a hand with carrying and chasing boats, particularly if there’s a pint or two in it at the pub after.

This article was originally published in Canoe Focus Spring 2016