…for the life changing event that was the R.C.C. trip to Mile End Mill
I don’t know how many readers of the Regent’s Blog are familiar with the idea of love languages? The idea that we all have preferred ways we express our devotion to those we love, and that we have preferred ways of receiving affection.
For some people, it’s words of affirmation (“omg baby I love your new drysuit it looks soooo good on you”). For others, it’s acts of service (e.g. someone carrying your boat down to the river without being asked).
My best friend Toby’s love language is, what we call, “committing to the bit.”
(For those who don’t know, a ‘bit’ is an old, vaudevillian word for a joke/sketch/skit. Committing to it essentially means seeing a comical idea through to its full conclusion – whether it’s a stupid impression of your friend or a ludicrous and potentially dangerous plan.)
So this was why, after I’d been joking around about how much I loved kayaking, my friend Toby committed to the bit and signed me up to the Regent’s Intro to White Water course without my knowledge.
To clarify – I had been kayaking approximately four times and on lakes so smooth you’re more likely to capsize in the carpark. Sure, I had enjoyed it, but I’d had zero plans of actually pursuing it. However, with what I can only assume was little to no research and with a cheerful disregard for the meaning of the phrase “white water,” Toby went ahead and signed me up for the course as half birthday gift, half joke. And, knowing Toby’s passion for bit-commitment, I committed.
So this was how I found myself, on Friday 2nd September, loading up the car and setting off on the four hour drive to Llangollen.
The joke, however, was on me. Because, after two days on the River Dee in North Wales, I am now completely and humourlessly obsessed with the noble art of kayaking and humbled by the cruel and wondrous mistress that is white water.
DAY ONE – Feeling a [Mile End] Million Dollars
Having missed the trip away at the end of the course itself (owing to my chronic disorganisation), this was to be my first time ever on white water.
I was super nervous. Partly about the whole slow-and-painful-death-by-drowning thing. But also about everything else: about not having the right shoes; about not knowing what or who an eddy was; about being so embarrassingly bad at paddling that no one would want to talk to me at the pub.
And to be completely honest, on the first morning, it didn’t really click for me.
Despite the incredibly patient and attentive coaching from the two lovely Bens and Christine (who I swear is like a centaur of the water – 50% human, 50% dolphin, 100% majestic), and despite all the reassurances from everyone as we breakfasted, divided up into our groups, and headed out for the day, I found myself tentative on the river.
“I was pretty sure I recognised it from the glint in the eye of everyone I’d met from the club so far. ‘Kayaking-mania,’ I call it.”
We were learning everything from the technical skills, to understanding the minutiae of the flow, to the more fundamental ethos of respect for the river – all within the sanctuary of waist-deep, super gentle water. Ben-squared and Christine made us feel so safe. They had the patience of three Mother Teresas (Mother Teresae?) as we wobbled along, practicing breaking in and out of the flow, ferry gliding, etc. etc. But it just wasn’t making intuitive sense in my body.
Looking back, this was absolutely the best and only way to learn. You can’t understand what the skills are for until you’re actually on moving water, but you obviously can’t get on moving water until you understand the skills. I guess the feeling was a bit like learning how to structure a sentence, or how to decline a verb, before trying to have a conversation with someone in a foreign language. That morning, I was talking at the water, in a totally different tongue.
(I mean, at this point I still thought that the eddy line was a metaphysical concept – the ideological divide between two flows – rather than a very real moving section of water that will knock you over. So maybe I was overthinking it.)
But that afternoon it clicked.
After lunch, we went upstream to a much faster section of water to practice ferry gliding. On the gentle water, if you weren’t at the perfect 11 o’clock angle, you could just kinda push through and mosey on your way. But here, if you were even slightly misaligned, it was goodbye and straight back down the river for you.
After a couple of attempts at battling across, getting halfway, and then being dragged back to the beginning, I watched Hazar (wunderkind from my course who was in another group) glide so serenely across the choppy water. He wasn’t paddling hard at all, but was simply in sync with the flow. I thought: I am going to do that.
And then everything clicked. It suddenly felt like having a conversation with the water. In that moment I realised white water kayaking was like everything I’d enjoyed about being on the water before – the harmoniousness, the synchronicity, the connectivity with the surroundings – but, like, jacked up on steroids and adrenaline.
That was it. The fire of fanaticism was lit. I was pretty sure I recognised it from the glint in the eye of everyone I’d met from the club so far. ‘Kayaking-mania,’ I call it.
Long story short, the rest of the afternoon was exhilarating and scary and ridiculously fun. We got back to dry land, I drank my bodyweight in pints, and went to bed.
DAY TWO – A Serpent’s Tale
By the morning, I was completely square-one nervous again.
The day seemed to be building up to the ominously named ‘Serpent’s Tail’ – from what I could make out this was gonna be a big, scary rapid that would possibly be the end of my kayaking career and/or life. And on top of this, I had the building trepidation of not having capsized yet, so the question of when I would swim started looming larger and larger.
Shedding the safety blanket of our trusted day-one group, we were in new groups and heading to a different location to embark on a journey down the Dee. It was cool to be amongst all the other groups – fledgling kayakers like myself and seasoned pro’s all travelling down the same section.
“…as I exit the kayak and break the surface of the water, I find I’m smiling like an absolute maniac. I immediately want to go again.”
Actually, that’s one of the things that most struck me about the trip. I probably should’ve guessed from the marvellous vibes amongst everyone I’d met so far, but I hadn’t realised how much of a team activity it would be.
As someone who hates to feel a single emotion, I was horrified to find myself genuinely moved by witnessing how held everyone was by each other. Like, the second someone is upside down, at least four people are straight over to them – to help them T-rescue, to get their stuff, to help them to the bank if they swim. And it was the same with the culture of sharing knowledge – everyone sharing with everyone, the more experienced people being super patient and generous, just because. Of course, I still felt like a total liability – like a useless baby elephant who couldn’t walk yet in a herd of… expert kayaking elephants. But nobody ever made us feel like that for a second. It was so nice.
Apologies for that lapse into sincerity. Won’t happen again. Back to the rapids.
We arrived at Serpent’s Tail.
We got out of the boats and went to suss out the vibe. Steffi, our group leader for the day, had some incredible advice. She said – look at it, then close your eyes and ask yourself whether or not you want to try it. Whatever answer comes to the surface, decide on that. And then that’s it. Decision made. Stop looking at it. Go and do it.
I closed my eyes and imagined the drive home later, having not done it. I imagined explaining to my carpool mates/kayaking parents, Živa and Jan, that I had opted out. Fuck that, I thought. I’m doing it.
So there we are on the rocks, watching a few people go down. We watch as people end up too far to the right edge of the river. So Steffi and Jane say – aim for the left of the first V-shaped drop. That should keep you on the line you want for the rest of the rapid. Just aim for the left and keep paddling.
To the extreme left of the first V, there’s what I can only describe as a total hellscape of rocks and sinister water. I ask the question, “what do you do if you go too far left?”. Jane says, reassuringly, “that’s very unlikely to happen”. In that moment, we knew we’d jinxed it.
We get back in the boats. I’m following Jane. ‘Aim for the left and keep paddling.’
As I break in I realise that, up until this point, I was free to choose what happened next. But now there was quite literally no going back. One singular thought surfaced through the otherwise numb panic:
‘If this isn’t commitment to the bit, I do not know what is.’
What a stupid love language to have. Some people send cute texts. Shakespeare wrote sonnets. I am going to drown in North Wales. All for the bit.
‘Aim for the left and keep paddling forwards’.
And we’re off. Customarily, I’ve committed far too enthusiastically to Steffi’s advice. I’m meant to be aiming very slightly to the left, but I massively overshoot. Suddenly, I am in the aforementioned hellscape of water. I end up facing backwards, somehow managing to stay upright, but now fully reversing down Serpent’s Tail. This is fine. Maybe I’ll die. What do I do?
Of course, I have stopped paddling/thinking. No thoughts, just vibes. Terrifying vibes.
I have zero clue how I’m not upside down yet. I know it’s inevitable at this point. So I breathe in, try to swivel around, and am swept straight under.
And weirdly, as I exit the kayak and break the surface of the water, I find I’m smiling like an absolute maniac. I immediately want to go again. (And, by sheer luck, I made it down the second time!)
I am possessed.
So, uM, ILE END it with this:
In conclusion, I am altered. I am no longer who I was.
I can’t stop watching kayaking videos. I can’t stop problem-solving at work via white water metaphors (astressfulsituationisliketheflow,soIjustneedmoreofametaphoricaledgehere,astrongerfigurativerighthandpaddletheretosmoothitout). I found myself crossing the road thinking about how I would shelter in the eddy in the middle of the dual carriageway.
When I start driving the wrong way down the street to break into the flow, I might have to admit that I have a problem. But until then, I cannot wait to get back on the water.
I am so grateful to Steffi for organising the trip, to all the coaches for being nothing short of brilliant (special shoutout to Ben who had to put up with me for both days) and for all the incredible people I met who made it so unforgettable.
And for anyone wondering, my new love language is receiving cool kayaking content on instagram.