Preface – Simon Wyndham is a professional video producer and cameraman of over 15 years industry experience. He is a waterphobe who took up whitewater kayaking in August 2010 after a lifetime of not being able to swim or go near water in any way shape or form. Original article by Simon Wyndham and edited for Sportscene by Sarah Quart and John Gregory - @gregiej
Put simply, trying canoe slalom could benefit many recreational paddlers today to sharpen their skills. However, while the Olympics have elevated top tier canoe slalom competition, has this made the idea of this discipline more inaccessible to the average recreation paddler?
Spend any amount of time at places like the river Tryweryn site in North Wales, venue for the 1981 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, and you will rarely see recreational club paddlers mixing with the slalom paddlers. Slalom training is taken very seriously; even to an almost obsessive degree. To be the best in a sport you have to train hard and that can occasionally cause some friction when that training takes place alongside recreational users. It is this seriousness that often puts off general paddlers from taking up slalom. They see the paddling equivalent of lycra clad cyclists hammering their way through a course all the while being shouted at by their coaches and make the decision that this really isn’t for them. A bit of lazy paddling followed by a big piece of cake and a cup of tea in the cafe would be a nice way to spend the day, thanks!
On the other side of the coin I don’t think many truly dedicated slalom paddlers run rivers for fun. This is in part due to the amount of training they need to do in order to be the best. They may not really be aware of the access issues that abound on our waterways. They are skilled on slalom courses, which are often held on limited sections of natural rivers, but most often on artificial concrete channels. Slalom paddlers could benefit from challenging their skills on bigger white water on natural rivers.
Canoe slalom could be viewed in the same way. It was developed originally to refine certain aspects of river running in a safe environment. In a white water environment it helps to develop superior reading of the water. As one high level slalom coach recently told me after he had tried to coach a slalom group many modern slalom paddlers actively avoid crossing stoppers; unfortunately many slalom courses are set up to avoid this river feature. The modern moves in slalom such as 180 degree pivot turns are designed to work specifically in slalom boats. Such moves, while fun on a river, are designed for a specific application, namely to get around upstream gates smoothly.
Much of slalom does not emphasise crossing deep into eddies, river running strategy with a group or safety management. Slalom is a single part of paddling in a bubble, and while it makes serious slalom paddlers skilful at handling boats they may this miss out getting on wild river runs with friends. Likewise, there are a lot of recreational paddlers who could really do with learning and practicing slalom. For beginners in particular slalom practice would help immensely. As a result we would have developed a more positive dynamic style and emphasise the positioning of the boat in the flow. Slalom gives flow, and lets you understand how to keep that boat moving and play the river in a different way. Is there a risk of slalom skills becoming a lost art demonstrated on natural river, unless by ex-slalom paddlers in plastic boats?
To all plastic boat paddlers out there; slalom boats are fun! They are pure performance machines. They like to move and do not like to be paddled passively. Much like a F1 car needs to be driven hard, slalom boats are the same. They are less forgiving of poor paddling technique. They are narrow and tippy as the edges catch easily. The hull itself made from carbon fibre is extremely rigid and this gives feedback from the water. This is further enhanced by the carbon fibre seat being glued firmly in place to the boat. A slalom boat will hold a line very solidly while you are driving it forward and with a little sweep stroke and it’ll spin on a dime. Edge and it will carve a turn like a knife. The length will catch you out and that tail will take a few bashings the first few times out but you get used to it… eventually.
Recently Cheltenham Canoe Club along with Wyedean Canoe Club both recreation white water clubs started running slalom training at Symonds Yat with a view to competitions there again in the future. This is one of the most positive things to happen in a good while. The Symonds Yat rapids on the river Wye close to the English – Welsh border has a long history of canoe slalom and would be an absolutely fantastic place to once again hold slalom competitions in England. A return of slalom to Symonds Yat is good for the beginner or less experienced paddler who can gain confidence practicing slalom gates on white water.
Any recreational river running paddler would be highly recommended to give slalom a go at an early stage. Likewise slalom paddlers really should get out on natural rivers with the general recreational paddling community more often.
What do you think?
Blog Simon Wyndham: http://kayakjournal.wordpress.com
Video production company Simon Wyndham: http://www.5ep.co.uk
Photography: www.sweetwatercoaching.co.uk (Dennis Newton)