My Manbag is Better Than Yours

Several months ago, I bought myself a Watershed® Ocoee Dry Duffel Bag from Go Kayaking North West, and I honestly think it’s the best step forwards in equipment I’ve made since I moved from separates to a drysuit; here’s why:

Everything is Now in One Place*

Coaches say this all the time on Rescue courses, but it really does help to have all your emergency kit in one, easily accessible place – now if anything happens on the river, I can just grab my Ocoee and have my First Aid Kit, Small Group Shelter, Phone, Simple Repair Kit, Warm Hat, Survival Bag, Head Torch, Snacks, Warm Drink and Car Keys on me for whatever the situation is.

Better still, if I’m not near my boat or I’ve already got my hands full (metaphorically or literally), I can just ask someone else to ‘go grab the orange bag from the back of my boat’ – no long lists, no confusion, no faff.

(*My more ‘immediate’ rescue kit like a Knife, Whistle, Sling, Pin Kit and Throwline are usually even closer to hand in my BA pockets or elsewhere on my person.)

It’s INCREDIBLY Dry

During a canoeing trip on the Spey, I had my Ocoee under the seat with Waterproofs, Suncream, Lunch, Drinks, a Camera, Snacks and a few other bits in; despite plenty of splashes, some rain, being left outside overnight and a fair few hasty closures before hitting a bigger rapid and getting swamped, there wasn’t once a single hint of moisture inside the bag over the whole 3 days.

There’s a great story on Watershed’s blog about an Ocoee that was lost in a river for 3 months, you’ll be amazed at the ending…

The Build Quality is Reassuringly Reliable

The bag fits snugly under the seat in an open boat, and even though it’s been dragged in and out of there many times against the gritty bottom of the canoe, as well as regularly being stuffed in the back of my kayak and yanked out again by one of the straps, there isn’t even a hint of wear or weakness.

The US Military use these too, so I’m sure there’s plenty more than just canoeing and kayaking that it’ll withstand! Much better than worrying about your bag being plagued with miniature holes if you treat it roughly.

It’s Just the Right Size

Being duffel style, the opening of the bag (measuring around 33cm) is along it’s longest side, so it’s super easy to see exactly what’s inside and get to the bigger items without having to take everything else out too. The Ocoee is also an ideal size to carry all the essentials and still fit in the back of your kayak (it’s around 15L capacity and measures roughly 23 x 41 x 20cm), so you don’t have to fuss with lots of smaller bags or part-fill a bigger bag and then struggle with hundreds of folds on the closure and having to squeeze out loads of excess air.

Watershed also do a bigger Chattooga Dry Duffel, and an even bigger Yukon Dry Duffel, as well as loads of other cool things like Padded Dry Duffels for Cameras and Kayak Airbags that double as Storage Bags.

It’s Really Easy to Carry

The integrated carry handle feels strong and is super comfy to hold, which is great as the bag could get heavy if fully loaded with camera kit. The bag itself only weighs a little over half a kilogram, which isn’t unreasonable compared to other ‘heavy-duty’ duffels.

If you’re filling the Ocoee full of heavy equipment, carrying it for long distances or need your hands free, you can purchase a separate Shoulder Strap which is a great addition!

Plenty of attachment points on the bag mean you can easily mount the shoulder strap where you like, or attach the bag to something else you’re carrying, as well as being able to easily secure the bag in your boat so it won’t float off during a swim or if you get swamped.

It’s Highly Visible

Ok, this may not be an exclusive feature of Watershed bags alone, but it’s still good to know that if I put it down anywhere and forget where it is, the light fades or worse still it floats off, it won’t be too hard to find again thanks to the bright orange colour.

You can also get the Ocoee in Blue and Clear, or if you don’t want to be seen, it comes in Camo, Black or Brown too!

It’s Easy to Use

The ZipDry® Closure is really quick and simple to seal, but incredibly effective; it does need lubing regularly though to make sure it closes fully. This type of closure is much more reassuring than a fold closure, and you can fold it down too for extra peace of mind; it’s also easier to leave a little gap for squeezing air out.

Better still, you can get the Ocoee with an inflate/purge valve, so you can get all the air out to make fitting the bag in the back of a kayak easier, or so you can ensure you have enough air in the bag for it to float if you’re canoeing or rafting.

Also…

Another thing that really impressed me about Watershed’s products was the option to order them without packaging, which not only saves you money, but is also even more environmentally friendly than recycled packaging.

Lunch on my Own Private Island

The flask peeks out to check if the coast is clear, little does it know that Mat is watching, and thirsty!

The Watershed Ocoee is absolutely amazing for canoeing, kayaking, rafting, general outdoors use or anything; it might look a little like a handbag, but with all the advantages it brings, I couldn’t care less!

Have you ever used one?

A Different Kind of Horizon Line

Horizon lines are described to us early on in kayaking as a point downstream where, from a distance, it becomes difficult to see how the river transitions from a high elevation to a lower one.

At present, I feel like I’ve just paddled over a horizon line of sorts in my personal paddling…

Freefall

Praying for a pencil and not a splat.

My time in Manchester University Canoe Club was fantastic for the development of my skills; at the start I was regularly paddling new rivers with new people giving me tips, and then I was leading on those same rivers and seeing them in an entirely different way whilst really enjoying helping others progress in the sport. Towards the end however, I began to feel like I was stuck in a rut of paddling the same rivers over and over again.

After a while of this stagnation, I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t capable of paddling anything above Grade III, and the thought of paddling IVs made me quite nervous. Those nerves made me wobbly even on the rivers I knew well, and that’s when I decided I had to move on and do new things.

Much the same as a literal horizon line, at first I had no idea of what was up ahead or how difficult it may be, but with each new river I’ve paddled recently, I’ve gotten closer to the horizon line and the whole thing has become clearer.

I’ve now paddled a handful of new Grade IVs and realised that I am up to it, and that the previous Grade IV runs I know and love aren’t unusually easy, which makes me feel confident about doing more in the future!

Any suggestions?

Huck It and See: The Modern Approach to Whitewater Kayaking

I remember the first time I ever kayaked on a river; it was a Wednesday evening around half way through 2004 on a section of the Irwell that runs through Bury, known locally as ‘The Burrs’. I was lucky enough for this to be one of my school sports lessons, and despite being reluctant to take part in almost any other sport, I was more than happy to be sat in a Pyranha H2 on a cold English evening about to paddle my first section of whitewater.

At the time, I was oblivious to the features of a river or the risks they bring with them, so I can’t honestly say that I was scared, but I felt more than comfortable being supervised by one of the school’s outdoor pursuits leaders. Now knowing the relative calmness of The Burrs compared to other rivers, the venue for my first stint on moving water had clearly been well thought out, and the instructors were well-equipped and ready to deal with any situation; I can say this with confidence, as I actually neglected to pack any kit for myself and ended up wearing a mish-mash of spare kit!

Over the next few years of school, college and university, I paddled with various groups of people, but the constant during these trips was the sense of inclusion when we were on a river which made it unlike other sports; there was none of the constant one-upmanship, none of the petty arguments over who was the best, and regardless of your ability there was always something new to learn and someone willing to teach you.

The real beauty of kayaking to me was that there was something for everyone, whether you wanted to push yourself hard and become the next big thing or just relax and enjoy a day on the water. Most of all, there was no pressure to run things you weren’t comfortable with.

One Down

A cold day on the Upper Tees.

Recently however, things seem to have changed…

There’s a new disregard for how much control you have on a rapid, and a tendency for some groups to get rowdy about throwing themselves down things they have no business even standing next to.

Pushing your limits is another part of what makes kayaking what it is, but ignorance of the need to weigh up the risks of running a rapid against the rewards is just foolish. Worse still is the culture of mocking people for not ‘manning up’ and running something they aren’t ready for; to me, it’s far more embarrassing to pinball down a rapid or run it on my face than it is to walk around it.

Kayaking isn’t like football or rugby; the game doesn’t stop as soon as someone gets injured, the river will keep thundering over the rocks and the only people around will be those you are boating with (or even those who just happen to be nearby), and they are the people who will have to put their lives at risk to save yours.

This isn’t the only problem though; people outside of the kayaking community who encounter groups being reckless will assume that all kayakers are the same, giving us a bad reputation and strengthening arguments against us in terms of access so that they can keep us off the rivers ‘for our own protection’.

I once saw a DVD in my local paddling shop called ‘Whitewater Self Defense’ and that, I feel, is a perfect title; kayaking should use the awesome power of the river and turn it against itself for your benefit, using disciplined, carefully developed but powerful skills to find that smooth, controlled line through the chaos.

What do you think?

Eddy Cuisine

As any kayaker will know, all the excitement and pumping adrenaline can get exhausting after a few hours, especially if the weather is miserable or you’ve taken a swim or two!

If you have any experience of River Leading or being an Assistant Kayaker with a Uni Club or another newbie-focused group of paddlers, you’ll also know that it’s important to keep your group’s morale and energy levels up; the former can be done through a good blend of encouragement, trust building and a healthy dose of awesomely awful jokes (Tom Parker has that last one nailed), but when it comes to the latter, apart from ensuring your group have had a hearty breakfast, what else can you do?

Eddy Cuisine

A picnic on the banks of the Tryweryn.

River Snacks are the key! In this blog post, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of a few tasty morsels that have graced my BA pockets over the years…

Trail Mix

Per 100g: Energy (kJ) 1685, Energy (kcal) 404, Protein 7.0, Carbohydrate 38.5, Fat 23.7

This was a common thing to see paddlers pull out in a plastic zip-lock bag when I started kayaking, possibly due to it being popular with hikers (as the name suggests) and these generally being the sorts of people who would also go paddling. Trail Mix offers a reasonable amount of short and long-term energy, but there’s a moderate choking risk and a high risk of allergies being a problem if you’re offering it out to others. It’s also a bit tricky to eat on the river, involving a lot of eating off your hands which isn’t great in the mucky and germ-filled environments kayaking involves!

Sesame Snaps

Per 100g: Energy (kJ) 2130, Energy (kcal) 509, Protein 9.4, Carbohydrate 54.5, Fat 28.2

I hadn’t heard of these at all until a friend suggested them on a recent paddling trip, but they’re pretty good! Sesame Snaps offer more long and short-term energy than Trail Mix, taste a bit sweeter so work better as comfort food, and come in a pretty waterproof and robust packet that should cope with being bashed around in your BA. Unfortunately, a lot of people with nut allergies are also allergic to sesame seeds, so it’s worth checking with your group before offering these out.

Penguin Bars

Per 100g: Energy (kJ) 2147, Energy (kcal) 513, Protein 5.1, Carbohydrate 61.1, Fat 27.1

Penguin Bars are my go-to snack; they’re yummy, easy and cheap to get hold of, robust and some of them even feature a picture of a kayaking penguin on the front! They (and other similar biscuits) also offer more long and short-term energy than both Trail Mix and Sesame Snaps, and you can easily pop a handful in the pocket of your BA. The only disadvantage with Penguin Bars is that their packets aren’t completely waterproof, and if you leave them in your BA for a few days they can get soggy and the chocolate discoloured, making them a little less appealing.

I haven’t made any mention of energy, recovery or protein bars as these can be quite expensive, however if you’re after any of these just for yourself then it’s worth looking at something like Battle Oats. Whatever you eat on the river, make sure to eat it in an eddy so you don’t spot an unexpected Grade VI and choke!

What’s your favourite eddy snack?

Going Solo: Alone with the River

For many years, I considered those who ventured out to rivers on their own to be reckless individuals with no regard for their own safety or well-being; however, I was recently offered a fresh perspective on solo boating during a 4* Training day with Dave Kohn-Hollins (I won’t try and reproduce his words here, as I’ll most likely misquote him and lose some of the sentiment; instead, I’ll simply recommend you book yourself onto a course with River Flair).

The message I took from my conversation with Dave and the thoughts it provoked in my mind, were that in any leading situation you tailor the venue to suit the group and the conditions on the day, and there’s absolutely no reason why that approach can’t also be applied to a group size of one.

Of course, in order to pick a river that is suitable for a solo run you’ll need enough modesty to take an objective and impartial view on your paddling abilities; for this reason, I’d encourage you to really get to know yourself and your limits not only in kayaking, but in life in general.

Having pondered over the pros and cons for a while, I decided to take the plunge and head to the Tryweryn on my own (I do paddle other rivers too, I swear!) I chose this particular river as I know it well and felt comfortable that my abilities were at a level to cope with its grade and sort myself out should I get into any difficulties. At the Tryweryn, I also knew there would be other people around if I desperately did need help at any point.

I stopped at a couple of my favourite haunts on the way over to Wales, namely Starbucks and Go Kayaking North West, both of which served up an awesome cup of coffee! I spent a short while chatting to the guys at GKNW, but by the time I’d reached the mighty T and got changed into my paddling gear I was glad of the late start, as the first 5 minutes on the water with no one around were absolutely terrifying!

Not being part of a group on the river felt completely unnatural, and although I knew I was more than capable of looking after myself, it took me a good while to properly settle in and start pushing myself to make more technical moves… Even the ones I make routinely on each trip over that way.

However, as much as I love leading groups and helping others progress, when the nerves did eventually subside I realised the time I’d usually spend managing a group could now be spent on developing my personal paddling; throughout the day I was able to run and rerun sections, aiming for cleaner moves and harder eddies each time.

The knowledge of having to be self-reliant was a big contributor towards the sense of thrill (and fear during the first couple of minutes, it’s a fine line) whilst on the river, but it was definitely a confidence building experience. By the end of the day I was absolutely exhausted, but I’d gotten a lot more practice than I usually would have on a group trip, become comfortable in a boat again and made a bunch of new eddies… and friends!

A key point to bear in mind when considering your own solo mission is that ultimately, the only person that will get hurt by any poor judgement (or any other mishap) will be yourself; something far more reckless that happens all too often in boating these days is arrogant paddlers throwing themselves down rivers they don’t have the skills or experience to cope with safely and obliging others to put themselves at risk to save them when something inevitably goes wrong.

If you do choose to give it a go, definitely make sure someone knows where you’re going and when to expect you back, and have your phone, a whistle and all other necessary gear on you. I’d also recommend making sure you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt first (maybe even one or two safety and rescue courses, like WWSR) and that you only go it alone on rivers you know well.

As for me, I’m now looking towards my next solo mission to another of my favourites, the Kent

Would you go it alone?

All Before We’d Even Set Off… (Scotland 2012)

I didn’t notice at the time, but it seems like all the trips so far this year had just been building up to this… and it didn’t disappoint!

In the few days before the trip, the climate in Manchester had slowly been making the shift from arctic tundra to a place where it was almost vaguely acceptable to go outside in a t-shirt. Although not great for river levels, the sunshine certainly added to the growing excitement for the annual MUCC foray across the border into Scotland.

The Group

Left to Right: George Babington, Mathew Wilkinson, Charles Swannie, Andrew Lamb, Emma Sture, James Stewart, Lewis Renshall, Nicholas Kasch

When the morning of the trip finally came around, I spent the majority of it going over the plans to make sure I hadn’t missed anything whilst I packed my usual mountain of kit, including roughly 6million sets of spare river shoes (I should probably donate some of those to Oxfam). I then set off to Manchester Van Hire (via McDonald’s, where I discovered the Creme Egg McFlurries had returned, in one short second altering the landscape of my food plan for the week completely) to meet Nick and Lewis.

I arrived a little late at Man Van to find Lewis stood outside, but no sign of Nick (who was bringing the purchase orders so we could actually pick up the vehicles). The guys at Man Van showed us around the Ford Galaxy and the Van (which was a fair bit smaller than expected) and then we sat down inside to wait for Nick. After a little while, the kind people at Man Van told us we could just take the van and then Nick could give them the purchase orders and take the car when he finally turned up.

Trees Are Not Our Friends

Lewis loves wood, but not like this!

So Lewis and I set off for Brookbank to pick up our newly repaired splits (and take another broken pair to be fixed, we don’t have much luck with them…). On the way, Lewis managed to get in touch with Nick, and we found out he’d somehow gotten lost and/or got caught in a time warp (his explanation was so vague that we still don’t know which) somewhere between his lab and Man Van. A few minutes later, we heard from Nick again, this time telling us he’d lost the purchase orders as well as his sense of direction on the same journey. We instructed him to try and find them and if that failed, to go and ask Janet in the AU Office to print out some more and then head to stores once he had managed to finally pick up the car.

Silence of the Lamb

The mysterious villain prepares his next victim.

In the midst of all this disorganisation, Lewis and I had arrived at Brookbank, so we made the splits exchange and headed straight back to Manchester and to stores. On the way we got a call from the rest of the group who were now there and waiting, but strangely hadn’t seen any sign of Nick yet. He still hadn’t turned up by the time we arrived at stores (even though we’d also been to mine to pick up the rest of my kit), so we just got on with packing the van. Even when we’d packed everything he still hadn’t arrived, so we decided we were going to walk to Scotland… luckily he rounded the corner in the car just as we reached the end of the road up to stores.

Canoe Club Triumphs, Despite The Smell

Everyone MUCCs in to reach 7th place at BUCS Slalom.

Published.

Thankfully the article wasn’t a scratch-and-sniff.

Determination is a word that best describes MUCC’s efforts in last weekend’s BUCS Slalom competition at HPP, Nottingham. At the very start of the weekend, the majority of the group were delayed by a minibus that was so full of affection for 1st gear, it decided half way along the A50 that it never wanted to leave it again. Two hour’s wait and some gentle clutch persuasion by the AA man soon fixed that however, and the weekend was back on track.

The team had suffered a number of injuries prior to this competition, preventing three of their best paddlers, Andrew Williams, Clare Hawkins and Ben Brisbourne (two injured knees and a broken back respectively) from competing. Everyone was determined to try their hardest to plug the gap however, and the three injured members had even come along for moral support (helped substantially by the aid of Andy’s bull horn and several comedy tunes). The exuberant Lewis Renshall even came along as an additional cheer leader!

Give 'em Helliwell

Sam Helliwell gives the evils to an upstream gate.

On the Saturday morning, pumped full of Coca-Cola to ward off the River AIDS (HPP’s water is notorious for making almost everyone who paddles it ill in one way or another, or sometimes both ways at the same time), the team travelled from the scout hut they were staying in to the site of the course for the beginning of the event. Canoe Slalom is where competitors paddle down a river, weaving across it and going through as many gates as possible, some upstream and some downstream, in the fastest time. The Men’s individual kayak heats were first and the course saw some sterling performances from Ben Saxby, Frazer Pimblett, Tom Fyall, Chris Williams, Alfie O’Neill, Sam Helliwell, Mathew Wilkinson, Mike Fenton & Nick Kasch, some of whom had never even done slalom before. There were some swims, but everybody was in good spirits, and the members who weren’t paddling did just as much exercise running up and down the bank yelling at the competitors in encouragement, so much so that there were a few sore throats at our celebrations in the local pub after.

Two is Company

Tom Fyall and Frazer Pimblett make C2 look easy.

Sunday morning came with bad news, the course had been shut down due to the increasing volumes of what was referred to as water, but at this point was probably more accurately described as sewage. The team was disappointed by this, and began lethargically packing up and readying to head home, when another call was received announcing the course was open again! Everyone bundled into the vehicles, and made it to the course for a quick safety brief (essentially saying; don’t swim, and if you do, close every orifice as tight as physically possible). The smell on the river was noticeable to say the least, but nevertheless everyone gave it their best and got some fantastic results in all the events held that day. Both the girls (Susan Warden and Louise Maddison) rocked the Women’s individual kayak heats and Frazer, Ben, Chris, Susan and Tom powered through the C1 event (kneeling up with only one paddle, difficult stuff!). Mathew and Jonathon Winter provided comic relief in their drawn out build up to, and then short but sweet C2 run, and then Frazer and Tom showed everyone how it’s done. Later in the day there were 4 valiant Team kayak runs, which rounded off the day nicely for some incredibly thorough showering and then the prize giving.

Teamwork

Alfie O’Neill and Chris Williams show off their teamwork.

Taking the injuries and small team size into account, everybody was incredibly proud of their 7th place out of the 24 universities present, and there were some noteworthy performances from Frazer, Tom and Chris, finishing 7th in the team event, Tom and Frazer finishing 5th in C2, Susan finishing 18th in the Women’s kayak heats, and Ben finishing 23rd in the Men’s kayak heats. Overall though, fun was had by all, and nobody got seriously ill or mutated by HPP’s questionable water content!