Frankie pumps up her first white water trip to Mile End Mill

After completing the Introduction to White Water Kayaking course with Regents Canoe Club, a few of us signed up for our first ‘proper’ white water trip. The Intro course was great and taught us lots of essential skills and knowledge. This was, however, my first serious attempt at putting it all into practice. I was full trepidation, excitement and panic.

I felt a bit like a kid who had been allowed to go to the movies for the first time without an adult, I didn’t know what I was going to see, I wasn’t quite sure how to get there and did I have enough money to buy the popcorn?

So, here’s my very personal reflections of being that kid again who’s full of excitement of the unknown.

Everyone was down for breakfast early; the dining room was full of energy and anticipation. The experienced kayakers shared stories from previous trips and the new kids on the block listened with bated breath. We were keen to absorb as much as we could in the hope it would make us better kayakers. The sun was shining and the water levels high, so a good day ahead was anticipated.

We squeezed ourselves into the living room for the river briefing. The trip leader, Jo, outlined the format for the day; who was in which group and with which river leader. The tension was rising [already??] as we checked each other out eagerly hoping to be in a group with someone we knew. Important messages about listening to your river leader and water safety were interspersed with jokes and frivolity. Although good humoured the risky side of this new sport was beginning to sink in. Briefed and ready to go we packed ourselves into the cars, headed for the riverbank and waited for the movie to begin.

One of the many impressive features of Regents Canoe Club is the quality of the river leaders/coaches [we did not have any part in the aggrandising of this post]. They are all volunteers and are great enthusiasts for kayaking. We gathered into our smaller groups appreciating the ratio of 1-2-1 or 2 – 1 leaders to beginners. The number of leaders per beginner ensures you get personalised, focused coaching and lots of attention to help build up a trusting relationship with your coach who in turn inspires you with confidence and self-belief.

Launched into the water we ferry glide to the other side of the riverbank, find an eddy and take stock of the River Dee. Simple indeed to an experienced kayaker but to beginners like myself it was my first achievement to get across safely, wobbly in bits but I can correct myself and I remembered to breath.

My river leader Emma talked us through the next stage of trip. Jo went ahead and set the line for us to follow.  We hit our first small but significant rapids. “sit up straight, gently lean forward, angle your boat into the eddy and paddle. Don’t forget to smile.” Paddling hard, concentrating on the eddy line, feeling the water and wow, I’ve made it. I’m shaking, happy and breathing again. Thank god for the eddy to have a few moments to be still and gather myself.

We do this routine again and again working out way down the river, meeting bigger, faster more furious rapids. The relief of a peaceful eddy increasingly becomes more precious and welcomed. Throughout our paddle Emma encourages, advises, demonstrates and believes in me. This is almost becoming fun.

We stop for lunch and the chatter is as loud as the water gurgling around us. More of the same for the afternoon as we are encouraged to face more challenging rapids, have fewer rests in eddies, paddle higher upstream into the white water, manoeuvre breakouts and break-ins. The aim is always to raise our standards, improve our technique and build up our confidence.

Someone has capsized and is swimming, their boat flashes past, a helmet pops up in the water and the river leaders are there, saving the person, catching the boat, checking the person is OK. They make time for the swimmer to regain control and find some calmness, continuing to give encouragement and talking through what happened and what to do the next time.  The focus on learning and support never ebbs. They go hand in hand at RCC. It is so reassuring to kid who has got herself into the movies but is not quite sure this the film she wants to be a part of.

Tired, heavy muscles and wet bodies drag themselves back to the hostel. The chatter is endless, the energy high and enthusiasm infectious. A quick shower, curry and bed – exactly what the doctor ordered. A lovely end to a good day.

Morning briefing again. Energy levels lower, a few bad swims the day before have left their bruises and dented confidence. We are heading for the Serpent’s Tail, which is not for everyone. We are told that your river leader will let you know if they think you can do it; always respect their decision; be prepared to swim. The tension is palpable, nervous rattle around the room and then Jo tells us they are mixing up the groups. “No!” I scream inside. My group was my comfort blanket, they know me, I know them, Emma said I could do it!

Nothing to fear as my new river leader Kate is wonderful and instantly picks up on my anxiety and reassures me. [Really? Kate?] My new river buddy is great too and together we are up for the next challenge.

We check out the next stretch of river. The Welsh mist is slowly draping itself around us, noises are muted, the mood is sinking, the dankness seeping into our minds. The horror movie is about to begin.

We have a short paddle to warm up, practice our ferry gliding, breakout turns and try to pick up our energy. We reach Serpent’s Tail. Everyone gets out, surveys the river, watches aghast at the size of the rapids, cowers at the power of the water, feels humbled by its strength, respects its beauty. There’s much talk about which line to take, who is going to do it or not, the sickly feeling of fear is upon all the beginners. We watch again as some other kayakers brave the rapids, they bob about in the water like a used cork, some swim, only one or two make it. These are experienced kayakers, yet they are not winning against Serpent’s Tail.  More contemplating about should I or shouldn’t I do it? Kate assesses the risks and talks to both myself and my river buddy about the river conditions and consequences.  She thinks I can do it. ‘Holy Shit” that means I’m on, Emma catches my eye, “You can do it Frankie, go girl!” I’m physically shaking by now and start the short walk across the rocks to my boat. The collective nervous energy and nattering rocks gives way to peacefulness. Kate talks me through the line we are going to take and tells me to follow her, keep the line, lean forward, paddle hard and breateh. Once in the water a strange calmness overtakes me. I can and will do it I tell myself.

We’re off. The first stretch uncharacteristically tranquil. I hear the roar of the water but can’t see anything except enormous brown waves frothing over the rocks like the Guinness advert but with fury and ferocity. Keep the line Frankie, PLF and lean forward. I’m following in the eddy line down; I can’t see Kate but am heading for the left as agreed and keep leaning forward.  I’m over, out of the boat, travelling faster than ever before. I see a slither of green on the rocks and there’s a throwline for me. I grab it, hang on, but I’m still under the water not coming up, think my shoulder is about to dislocate, the tension on the line is rigid, suddenly my head is above water. I scramble over the rocks, I’m overjoyed, feel top of the world, where is Kate I want to hug her? I managed a mere 8 seconds in the boat but I’m as high as a kite & the adrenalin rush is making me giddy. I want to cry with joy.

After a lot of deep breathing, words of comfort, encouragement and support from everyone I calm down. I’m emotionally and physically shattered.  My movie has exhausted me, worn me out, left me wabbit.

Would I do it again? You bet.

Words of advice? Be prepared for the emotional journey of your life in just 8 seconds. It’s the best movie ever.