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…


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?

Mitchell Blades & Werner Paddles; A Comparison

Mitchell Blades have been making paddles right here in the UK for over a decade now, and during that time they’ve certainly honed in on what makes a great, natural feeling set of blades.

Werner Paddles, in contrast, are a truly international paddle giant from the USA, with the largest range of paddles around and over 50 years of experience in the business. They’re well and truly settled on the throne as the king of paddles, but is a revolution on the way?

For the first 7 years of my kayaking life I almost exclusively used Werner’s Performance Core blades, but after a particularly disastrous Alps trip in which I lost my Sho-Guns along with essentially everything else that wasn’t attached to me, I decided it was time for a change.

Having borrowed my boss’ Mitchell Sphinx and Nemesis paddles a handful of times during the intervening period and finding them to be quite balanced and powerful, I decided to go all in and order a set of 194cm Mitchell Blades Carbon Hybrid Predators on a Carbon Crank Shaft at 30°.

Over the past couple of years I’ve demoed a fair range of boat styles from a number of manufacturers, to the point where I’ve realised it’s possible to paddle any kayak well so long as you adapt your paddling style appropriately; paddles, however, I’ve always felt are something that’s more integral to my paddling style, so I was a little apprehensive about the switch, not only between manufacturers, but also to a slighter feather (compared to my usual 45°).

With Mitchell Blades being UK based, ordering my custom paddle was a doddle, the customer service (including a healthy dose of advice on things like shafts, feather, grip distance, blade shape and length) was second to none and the whole thing only taking a couple of weeks from the first phone call to delivery.

The first thing I noticed when my paddle arrived (apart from how good it looked!) was the far greater strength and stiffness of the carbon crank shaft for only a slight weight increase in comparison to the crank shaft on my boss’ older Sphinx blades. Lance (Mitchell, owner) had mentioned this new shaft when I was ordering the paddles, and I have to say it is a vast, confidence inspiring improvement, as although more than capable, the previous shaft was a little too flexible and light for me to completely put my trust in it and commit to bigger power and support strokes.

So, to what is rapidly becoming an all too regular haunt for me and the proving ground for most of my recently acquired kit; the Tryweryn! The more or less consistent water levels and conditions here leave me with nothing to blame other than the kit or myself (and I usually blame the kit)…

Straight away, I noticed the better grip on the shaft compared to my Werners; the textured finish meant that my hands didn’t slip under bigger strokes, and it also helped the Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax® I use on my shaft to stick around a little longer (it’s usually all gone by half way down a river).

I’d expected to get a bit less stability from the Mitchells due to their lack of inbuilt blade buoyancy (Werner Performance Core paddles feature a core of expanded foam which gives more uplift from support strokes, makes setting up for rolls easier as the blades float to the surface and also keeps the paddles on top of the water more if you let go). I was right to some extent, but there was still ample surface area to the Predator blades for the usual purposes, if anything I just had to stop paddling lazily which can only be a good thing! The simpler blades also had just the right amount of flex for some useful feedback and gave more precise control over my strokes, as well as reducing weight towards the end of the shaft for an easier swing during faster paddle strokes (particularly useful if you’re going for fast acceleration or throwing down during a playboating session).

I’ve heard stories of Werner Performance Core blades puncturing and of course, this is less likely to happen in Mitchell Blades due to them being solid (and conversely, more likely to happen in air core blades like VEs), however I never experienced any puncturing with my Werners despite a fair few hard knocks! I also found the blade edge on the Werners to be far more durable, as it features a Dynel® edge and the three layer construction (2x carbon/Kevlar® outer skins and a foam inner) lends itself to a stronger compound edge. There is also the colour of the paddles to consider, as Werner carbon blades are these days only available in black, whereas there are a number of much easier to spot colours available in Mitchell Blades that may save you a long day searching!

I’d definitely say it’s worth demoing paddles at the feather you’re ordering, as I am only just now getting used to the 30° feather and I’ve scuffed a fair few strokes in the meantime! If (or more likely, when) I need another set of paddles, I may go back to around 40° and I’d also consider upping the length to 197cm to make reaching over the high knees on Pyranha boats a little easier.

There are, of course, other paddle brands on the market; Select Paddles are fast becoming popular due to a solid design, some well-shaped blades and a foam core to rival Werner’s, but I personally find their cranks too aggressive and therefore less comfortable on my wrists. Vertical Element (or VE for short) make some beautiful paddles that are around the same price range as Mitchell Blades as well as also being UK based, however their paddles have a little more flex than I’d like and again, I find their cranks less comfortable (they’re a little too angular in cross section). Werner also make cheaper paddles, but I find these, along with Robson blades, are far less durable and wear down a lot faster than others so I generally steer clear. Last, but by no means least are Adventure Technology (or AT) paddles which are stunning, but are like rocking horse poo in the UK and upwards of £450.

In conclusion: There are advantages and disadvantages to all paddles, but at an RRP of £385 for the Werner Sho-Guns and £340 for Mitchell Carbon Hybrid Predators, unless your pockets are overflowing with cash that you need to spend, go for the Mitchells… Especially if you’re as prone to losing paddles as I am! Having said that, my first set of Werners lasted 6 years without any wearing down at all, only time will tell if my Mitchell Blades can match that… but at the very least, they’re a worthy contender to the throne.

#kayakpaddle #whitewaterpaddle #carbonpaddle #Werner #MitchellBlades #Paddles #review #comparison #VE #VerticalElement #Predator #Sho-Gun #Select #Robson #river #AT #AdventureTechnology

REVIEWED: Level Six Emperor Drysuit

I first heard about Level Six’s new Emperor Drysuit through this video made by Rapid Media at the Outdoor Retailer Show 2012, and understandably (I think so, at least) got quite excited about the release!

Level Six are a Canadian paddling equipment brand that have built up quite a reputation over the past couple of years for making outstanding equipment that’s not only highly durable, but also looks great too! That’s somewhat of a magical balance that a lot of other well known brands seem to struggle in striking as consistently as L6 have.

Having used their legendary Reign Dry Cag constantly for around a year, including a week-long Scotland trip and a two week stint in the French and Austrian Alps (on the not-so-sunny days), the seam tape unfortunately started to peel in a few places. I contacted L6 directly, and despite the amount of use the cag had seen, they couldn’t have been more helpful and agreed to replace the cag under warranty. At the time I was also using some Palm Sidewinder Bib Dry Pants, but the fabric socks had long since stopped being dry, so I decided to be cheeky and ask L6 if I could pay the difference and get the Emperor suit instead; in an even more strikingly awesome show of excellent customer service, they said yes!

So I was finally getting my Level Six Emperor suit (my first ever drysuit, after 7 years of kayaking!), and already being familiar with the Reign, I had some idea of what I was in for due to it being a combination of that and their bombproof Reign Dry Pants; but this drysuit is far more than just the sum of its parts. At an RRP of £599, the suit comes in around the same price as other manufacturers’ top end drysuits (the Palm Stikine suit has an RRP of £625), and I feel it justifies this price tag for the reasons I’ll detail below.

When my drysuit arrived, my first impressions were that it looked even smarter than in the photos and videos I’d seen so far and the fit was much more comfortable than I was expecting (I’d gone for the Large size in Tin/Charcoal/Kiwi Green, and I’m a 6’1” guy with a 36” waist and a generally ‘well-rounded’ character). After a few tries, I got the hang of zipping and unzipping the well positioned rear entry on my own and I was raring to get out on a river and really put the suit through its paces!

A week or two later, the opportunity finally came along in the form of a Manchester University Canoe Club trip to the mighty Tryweryn; what better way to test a drysuit than a day’s worth of standing in the water lining swimmers and unpinning boats! On putting the drysuit on for the first time with the rest of my paddling kit, I realised just how roomy the suit was as I spent a short while squeezing all the excess air out of it. The extra room is welcome on the cold days however when I’m swaddled in thermals and any excess is mostly taken in by the buoyancy aid and spraydeck over the top.

After getting on the river, I immediately realised what a good option the TiZip® Master Seal was on the shoulder-to-shoulder entry, as I could hardly notice it at all and it had no negative effects on my paddling. I had a decent 15 minutes before the inevitable first piece of carnage arose in the form of a swimmer’s set of paddles getting pinned out of sight underwater on the chipper (for those that aren’t familiar with the Tryweryn, the chipper is a large metal grate designed to catch tree branches and other debris which often includes boats, paddles and swimmers, before it heads down the main section of the river).

The carnage, for once, was actually welcome as it lead to the first impromptu ‘real’ test of my new drysuit; I climbed along the steps on the chipper and stood waist deep in the full flow against the grate at several points whilst I felt around for the missing paddles. The search continued for around 5 or 10 minutes before I eventually found the paddles and made my way to the river bank. When I was back on dry land, I checked the suit over and it had stood up well to being under the high pressure and wearing against the rusty metal grate. My only niggle was that the reinforcement panels on the knees had trapped some pockets of water between them and the waterproof panel underneath. There are drainage flaps to alleviate this occurrence, but as they are quite flat they weren’t opening up enough to allow the water out quickly, but nevertheless I still felt completely dry underneath and I wasn’t expecting the suit to be under those kind of pressures very often.

Over the next few months I used the Emperor drysuit fairly regularly (more or less every weekend), during which time it saw a couple of cheeky swims, a heap of time wading into rivers to rescue boats, one or two livebaits and some hacks through forests and over rocks on portages or on the way to Get Ins and from Get Outs (including a few of my usually graceful moments where I end up falling on my ass for no reason or crawling up muddy slopes on all-fours). Through all that use and abuse, the suit remained completely dry and sustained no visible damage (with the exception of the neck adjustment Velcro® tab delaminating, which is cosmetic at most). Anyone who knows the epics my club gets into will know that the above is a real testament to the durability of the Level Six Emperor! I particularly like the Cordura® reinforcement as it’s in all the right places, including on the shoulders which is a high-wear area (due to abrasion from the shoulder straps on BAs and carrying boats) often overlooked by other manufacturers.

The Emperor suit is constructed mainly of Level Six’s eXhaust 3-ply material, which is billed as being breathable and lives up to it for the most part. I’m always dubious of breathable paddling kit as this property is lost as soon as the material becomes wet, but the Emperor suit is far from sweaty even during the most strenuous paddling (usually when I’m miles off my intended course and staring at an ominous horizon line). The suit is, however, thick enough to keep you comfortably warm without becoming a human mountain of fleece on the coldest winter days (it pairs up very nicely with the Level Six Hot Fuzz Undersuit at times like that). I would say it is slightly too warm on some sunny days, but this is arguably not what the suit is designed for and a time when I should be wearing my Palm Fuse Semi-Dry Cag and Sweet Shambala Shorts instead.

Level Six’s DCS (Dual Cinch System), which they use on the majority of their whitewater cags and drysuits, provides an absolutely fantastic seal on your spraydeck. I originally felt a little unsure of whether the strap buckles would be uncomfortable or get in the way, but I’ve had two or three L6 items that feature the DCS now and barely noticed the straps on any of them (I did sell my Astral GreenJacket however due to constantly getting the straps on that mixed up with those on my cag, amongst other reasons).

My main criticism of this drysuit would be the fitting on the legs; the crotch is quite low (my inseam measurement is around 32″) and I found that this restricted my movement quite a bit, meaning I couldn’t easily lift my legs to get over anything higher than a fallen tree during portages without pulling the suit up. I did eventually end up accidentally splitting the seam on the inside of the leg, but in another show of infallible customer service, Level Six replaced the suit immediately (I went for the red this time, which also features some reflective piping as opposed to the green piping on the tin coloured suit). A couple of simple solutions for the leg fitting would be a double stitched seam on the inside leg, raising the cut of the crotch and/or adding adjustable braces to the inside of the suit (which would also be useful when you’ve got the suit half on before/after rivers) to hold the legs up higher; hopefully L6 will implement some of these on later models.

The Emperor comes as standard with a TiZip Master Seal pee zip and you get plenty of lube for it too, which I’d recommend you use regularly on both zips on the suit as it’ll make your life a lot easier when you’re bursting for a wee or trying to get out of the suit as your mates run the shuttle. Fabric socks are also a standard feature and L6’s are bombproof and roomy, I find wearing warm socks underneath and thin neoprene socks (such as the Palm Index socks) over the top help increase their durability and warmth and also control any baggyness if your feet don’t fill the dry socks.

Other neat little features are water resistant hip and chest pockets (the chest one even contains a little key pouch and emergency whistle) and a fleece lined hand warming pocket on the front, although I find this completely inaccessible under my Palm Extrem Buoyancy Aid. I should also mention that despite the seam tape issues with my Reign Cag, I haven’t had a hint of a problem with the seam tape on the Emperor (in stark contrast to my Palm Fuse and Zenith cags which have both been back for retaping twice in a year, although Palm’s repair turn around and customer service was fantastic).

In conclusion: The Level Six Emperor Drysuit is a reliable, highly durable suit with a plethora of awesome extras that is great for Autumn/Winter/Spring boating and will stand up to the harshest of creek boating. The suit is by no means perfect, but it’s up there with the other top suits on the market; if you want something a little cheaper and aren’t too bothered about the extras, check out the Typhoon Multisport 4 suit (RRP £499), and if you’re an exceptionally tall person, have a look at the PeakUK Whitewater One Piece suit (RRP £599) instead.

#L6 #drysuit #surfaceimmersionsuit #paddling #kayakinggear #kayakingequipment #Canadian #Canada #LevelSix #Emperor #review #test

Alps 2013

Here’s a sneaky peak of what my friends and I got up to in the Alps this summer, featuring my much missed boat, paddles and GoPro 😦

#Kayaking #Alps #France #MUCC #ManchesterUniversityCanoeClub #AlfieONeill #TomFyall #MathewWilkinson #Pyranha #Dagger #GoPro #Werner #MitchellBlades #PalmEquipment #SweetProtection #River #Whitewater #Paddle #High #Wet