John Paul Bichard
I come from a long line of sporting cowards: generations who squirmed at the very thought of raising the pulse by more than a few beats, who paled at the prospect of having to stretch further than the TV remote control and I was happily of the same opinion, sitting for months on end playing video games, scorning all who ran, jumped, swam and did other silly things that got them out of breath and injured. Ever since the torture of games periods at school, I figured, sport was just not for me.
However, in the space of six months, the deep held beliefs of my ancestors have been shaken to the core. There was a warning blip on the radar last summer when I took the plunge and started skateboarding to requite a childhood desire to be cool but that, so I thought, was the beginning and end of any attempt to raise my pulse for any length of time. Now, sitting here, writing this, I realise that I am not only a convert, but I have been caught hook line and sinker by the black art that is paddling.
Like some bizarre plot in a sci-fi movie I find myself transformed into a kayaker – out on the water several nights a week, learning moves in a playboat, even managing to put in a confident roll. I have notched up more than a few miles and daring adventures in a sea kayak and our bathroom is constantly stacked with drying equipment and weird synthetic clothing. The walls of my sedentary existence have come crashing down around me, but up to last weekend, I could still hold out some hope, still find one weakness in this newly found uber-sport.
Slalom - I understood it was meant to be fun, exciting even, but somehow I just didn’t grasp it. I tried out the boat: a carbon kevlar dart weighing next to nothing, slipped nervously through the water, turned on the spot – but it hurt like hell, I'm talking the need for duck feet, knees that bend backwards, armour plated thighs and stainless steel lower vertebrae. So the boat was designed for the Barcelona Olympics – I'm not an Olympian and I certainly wasn’t in Barcelona.
After a few false starts ‘this season’ we finally got up at 6.30 on a Saturday morning and traipsed bleary eyed over to Holloway. I wasn’t really giving in to this quaint anomaly of kayaking, I was only doing it because Louisa had an opportunity to race in div 2, whatever that was! Well OK so there was a faint whiff of curiosity, but Cardington? That’s Bedford, a concrete ditch barely running with water and scattered with fibreglass ‘rocks’, if nothing else, this was going to be hilarious. Sure enough, turning off the A1 into an industrial park I almost wet myself with mirth, I wont prolong the agony: chemical toilets, a caravan with an ancient PA crackling out the odd announcement, a tent serving bacon sandwiches, kids so small they couldn’t find kit to fit, hell even the rain was holding off in sympathy.
But never say that I don’t keep an open mind. The ditch? Well at least there was a fair bit of water flowing through it, thanks to the recent rain and the fibreglass ‘rocks’ were an effective bolt-on obstacle system that allowed said ditch to be turned into a pretty decent, varied stretch of busy, multi-drop, recirculating, eddy filled water – there was even a semi-respectable drop at the bottom with two well positioned upstream gates in the froth. OK, the worm was turning as, reluctantly, the excitement was starting to build.
Practice session is an odd term when one has never embarked on a pursuit previously. I will admit to being more than a little nervous as my turn came to disappear through the narrow sluice and attempt to pass through the pairs of stout striped poles. Apparently, holding ones paddles horizontally in front of the face to knock said poles out of the way isn’t quite what is expected, but at least I made it to the bottom and those drops were great fun. Steady now!
As practice drew to an end and the race order was pinned to a makeshift notice board, it started to dawn on me that this wasn’t as bad as I thought. Far from it, this was turning out to be not only exciting, but it was challenging: (I can hear the howls of derision from all the hard core white water nuts out there but stick with it!) having to edge the wrong way into a drop to catch the next gate, starting a bow rudder whilst emerging from the mini stopper at the bottom of the course only to turn tightly and ferry glide back across to turn up through the next gate, this was making me think.
The first run. I was psyched up, strategically nudging my opponent (OK so he was a 9 year old welsh kid who’s mum was proffering words of encouragement from the bank, but hey!) 10 seconds…..5 seconds..3 2 1 - oops, nearly put my paddle through the grating to my right, charge to the sluice and…back paddle!?!!?? I went through too timidly, all the finesse and confidence of the practice session cruelly evaporating as I caught the turns too low, hesitated and almost swam. Then… horror!!! I missed gates 9 and 10, not that I had managed to get them earlier but I somehow thought that the sense of occasion, the aggression, the adrenaline… then it kicked in, I was feeling focused, dug my paddle in deep, hit the turns and managed to claw back a vital few seconds on the bottom part of the course. Exhilarated but gutted, I clocked a reasonable time of 174 seconds but had amassed 108 seconds in penalties that positioned me only three places from the bottom, barely beating the six year old with the oversized kit and the kid who swam. I was sunk. They say pride comes before a fall, I had fallen, my strategy for the next run was simple, pick myself up by the buoyancy aid, lose the pride, focus on gates 9 and 10 and SMILE.
The second run was at 4.40, there had been rain on and off all day and the cold had set in, but armed with my new-found humility and focus, I launched myself into the barely known. The previously competent first few gates were still ragged. Convinced I had again missed it, I barely squeezed through gate 9 followed by a bit of deft…OK desperate, back paddling to regain gate 10. With nothing more to lose, I managed a clear and pretty decent run to the finish. Anger turned to heady exuberance as I discovered I had only touched 4 gates, missed none and cut 11 seconds from my time to finish 10th out of 16 in my class. Now I just have to work out how to cut the remaining 60 seconds off my time to get up there with the div 2 paddlers. Sixty seconds, 21 gates, if I can only shave 3 seconds off each gate…yeah right!
Despite the rain, the clumsy plastic kayak, the school sports day atmosphere and the humiliating misses, I headed for the car park and home with a spring in my step. I had started the day a cynic and finished a seasoned novice! The dents to my pride were minor and I had learned to respect my considerably younger and highly competent combatants. As I finish this article, I’m getting ready for an evening train ride to this weeks slalom at Ironbridge Gorge in the Black Country, This time I will only be paddling the practice sessions albeit in a sleek carbon kevlar number. I might even try a spot of judging. I will be there on the bank photographing away, shouting support for Louisa, Olaf and Roger, all highly competent division 2 paddlers and you never know, I might even pick up a few more tips. I won’t say I’m hooked on slalom but I’m starting to realise that if I want other areas of my paddling to improve significantly, want to sharpen up my technique and build confidence then this is a superb way of doing it.