As I hurtle into a surging bank of white water the wave barrels up over my kayak, blinding me with spray. I feel the cold, dark world flip onto its side and suddenly I’m underwater, upside down, in a current that’s spewing along at a foaming gallop. I’m also sealed in. Searingly cold water is forced up my nostrils into my skull, giving me an instant ice-cream headache. Vaguely remembering the capsize drill, I grab the kayak’s spray deck, wrestle it off and eventually haul my legs out of the boat. When I open my eyes again I’m beached on a sloping, concrete bank, staring into the white, dead eyes of a drowned pigeon. Better you than me, pal.
MF’s education in freestyle kayaking began an hour earlier in a millpond. Pete Astles, top European at last year’s Freestyle Kayaking World Championships, is trying to get some essential kayaking knowledge through our waterlogged ears. We’re at the National Water sports Centre in Nottingham, which boasts the UK’s biggest artificial whitewater run. But before we’re unleashed into the raging torrent we have to learn the basics.
Summoning up the skills that got me my Cub Scout Canoeing badge, I dig the paddle into the water. I’m OK at first but things start to go wrong once I’ve built up some speed. I spin out of control and almost flip over, just like a novice snowboarder, while quizzical ducks look at me like I’m a disgrace to my species.
But this sawn-off kayak is doing exactly what it’s supposed to — turn on a dime, with force. This allows pros such as Astles to do loop-the-loops and cartwheels on standing river waves — for kicks. And now it’s my turn.
I wait nervously with Pete at the start of the whitewater run, which is basically a concrete sluice of water diverted from the River Trent and filled with obstacles. I watch as a raft full of shrieking day-trippers is swamped by the first wave and plunged into inky green water.
‘Now’s good. Go straight for the middle and carry as much speed as you can,’ Pete yells over his shoulder. His arms windmill and his kayak shoots towards some very angry H2O that’s discharging at 26 tonnes per second.
I follow in his wake, aiming my twitchy craft in a vaguely straight line, and pile on the power.
The current picks me up and hurls me forward. The wave breaks over me and I’m through. A stupid grin flashes across my face as I paddle into a gentle left-hand turn but it morphs into a gum of panic as the current grabs hold of my kayak like Neptune’s fist. Fortunately I was listening when Astles told me to lean into turns, and a stab with the paddle averts a soaking.
But getting wet isn’t the only danger facing men who mess with waterfalls. ‘The biggest danger is when you’re river running [navigating white water]. You get nasty holes called pour-overs where all the water recirculates upstream. If someone ‘goes swimming’ in one of those they can’t escape from the tow-back and get recirculated in the hole. It happened to one of my friends in the Himalayas – I watched him almost drown before he was flushed out,’ says Astles.
But he adds that there’s no room for fear in a kayak. ‘You have to get over that fear of being in a kayak underwater because it will hold you back. You can always swim if things go wrong.’
I hold onto this dim hope as we career towards the deepest hole and biggest wave of the run, which is used for free styling competitions: the Big Hole. Astles has spent the past two weeks arranging obstacles
Men’s Fitness gets-ambushed by some 141Im angry wafer Id to make the water run faster and the wave higher. I dig the blades of my paddle deep into the water, twisting my torso for greater power as we approach. This is much more than an arms and shoulders effort. I slam down into the hole but I’m not carrying enough speed to punch through the wave. My kayak stalls and I’m at the mercy of the
I’m not carrying enough speed. The current flips the boat and dumps me onto my head current, which promptly flips the boat and dumps me onto my head.
‘Most people think kayaking is mainly about arm muscles but generally it’s more upper body strength. You use your pecs, lats and abs and it’s pretty physical. Even after a couple of good 45-60 second rides you can be absolutely pumped because it’s anaerobic and you’re often holding your breath. Training wise I do a solid hour on the water and that’s plenty – I’m pretty tired after that,’ says Astles.
Men’s Fitness is currently overexerting its flailing arms to grab the lifeline that has been thrown from the bank. Astles rescues my boat and I look around to realise that I’ve ‘swum’ 50m of the course in about four seconds – the water’s literally sprinting.
‘I once bailed out when I was paddling on my own here and lost my boat. The current took me all the way out into the Trent. Luckily I caught up with the kayak and paddled back,’ says Astles. ‘Fortunately no one saw me.’ Don’t worry, Pete. Your secret’s, ear, safe with us.
Taking my cue from Astles, I refuse to see near-drowning as a setback and return to the start of the course. This time I carry more speed into the Big Hole and fly out of the other side, to the appreciation of the audience on the bank.
It’s hardly a trick, but then whitewater kayaking is all about getting away with it and looking good while you do it. ‘I always tend to perform better in competition than training. Some people get nervous with a crowd there but I find it makes me better. It’s all about showing off,’ says Astles, who then does just that. He paddles into the standing wave of the Big Hole and then unleashes a jaw-dropping sequence of cartwheels, spins and loop-the-loops, rolling his kayak through three dimensions. Just staying in the wave takes a huge amount of strength but the reflexes, power and control needed to freestyle are, in a word, awesome.
‘I do most of my training in the boat and you do get really kayak-specifically strong. Before a major event I train twice a day for a few weeks actually in the hole I’ll be competing in because if you know the wave you paddle better. Ideally you’d mix this with some running and cycling to give your upper body a rest and build cardiovascular endurance,’ says Astles.
Frustrated by my lack of cartwheel skills, I wonder how long it would take to be able to freestyle for real. ‘The first thing you’ve got to do is learn to roll properly. Once you can roll in white water and get what they call a rolling move in water you can learn quite quickly. It can take anything from three months to three years to get to that level,’ says Astles.
For now I have to make do with trying to conquer the whitewater course. The elation of getting through the Big Hole ends when I realise that I’m going about twice as fast as I was a second ago and we’re passing through a double hairpin, scattered with eddies and cross-currents that try to dash me against the concrete walls.
KAYAKING FOR FITNESS
Most of the drive comes from the upper body – the pecs, back arms and shoulders. A strong, stable core is vital when turning and rolling.
COORDINATION * * * * * Thinking in 3D is difficult when you’re upside down underwater – you have to know where you’re going.
CARDIOVASCULAR * * * * * Being fit will give you an edge but most of the work is anaerobic – holding your breath is a big part of the sport.
FLEXIBILITY ***** Staying supple will reduce muscle soreness after a heavy session and you have to have a flexible torso to maintain control.
DIFFICULTY TO LEARN ***** You can pick up the basic skills surprisingly quickly so you can get stuck into your first tricks in a few months – but once you’re hooked it will take years to get into the top leagues.
The adrenaline is pumping hard but my strength is draining away. I clamp my jaws together, fix my eyes on the next bend and let bloody-minded grit take over, batting slalom poles out of the way as I go. We swing left into a patch of speeding green water and the final obstacle jumps into view. It’s a super-steep plunge to the right into a foaming barrel. Astles accelerates, dips at the last second and shoots towards the hole, cresting out of the other side like a salmon. I slide sideways and paddle with all my strength, dropping into the hole, but then I just stop. I laugh, disbelievingly, as I realise that I’m surfing on the wave. My paddle blades are churning into it but I’m going nowhere.
‘Don’t stop” shouts an urgent voice from the bank, reminding me that I’m about to be dragged back into the hole and pummelled into froth. My muscles are screaming for mercy but I claw the paddle through the water, and then I’m out the other side. It may look more like freefall than freestyling but I’m definitely showboating and it feels great.