Messing about in boats

‘Bad news. The lake’s got blue green algae.’

A serious disruption for my kayak instructor and his watersports centre, as all the summer’s planned activities had to be cancelled until the lake was given the all-clear. And a blow to my plans to complete the kayak events. I had less than two weeks until my self-imposed deadline, and I was faced with finding another venue, date, and instructor.

Women in canoes, not kayaks
Women in canoes, not kayaks

At the Olympics, women compete in kayaks, men compete in canoes. You sit in a kayak and use a double-bladed paddle, in a canoe you kneel and use a single-bladed paddle. Presumably someone believes women are genetically predisposed to sit, rather than kneel, and paddle better with a double-bladed paddle. Canoe sprints first became part of the Olympics programme in 1936. Since the London Olympics in 1948, women have only competed in the kayak events.

Kayaks were traditionally used for hunting and fishing in Greenland, Siberia and North America. They’re built with a closed-in cockpit, designed to prevent water from entering the boat – useful in icy waters.

Brian to the rescue!

At work, I moaned about how blue green algae was affecting the Freyathlon programme.

‘Brian’ll take you,’ said Jane, volunteering her husband in his absence. ‘He spends most of his time at the lake.’

When I arrived at the Danson Park boating lake a week later, I could understand why Brian spent so much time there.

He’d laid out a few different kayaks outside the Meridian Canoe Club boathouse, and was finishing his coffee in the sunshine.


Under Brian’s supervision, I clambered into a couple of kayaks – one felt more comfortable and Brian adjusted the footpads to make sure so my legs were outstretched and my knees were in the correct position.

‘This one’s pretty stable so you’ll be OK in it. And I’ll take the sprint so you can have a go in that later.’ As we carried the two kayaks and buoyancy aids down to the water, I wondered whether I’d failed to manage Brian’s expectations.

Paddle technique

On the dock, Brian explained how to hold and use the paddle. Some of the technique was familiar from paddling with my dragon boat team (Hello Wavewalkers and my fab coaches Eddy and Ciara!) but I suspected there would be more differences than similarities between the two paddling styles.

Boats for hire
Boats for hire

We got into the kayaks and, before we left the dock, Brian went through a few drills to make sure I’d grasped the basic technique.

‘If you do capsize, you’ll be able to slide out easily. And it’s not deep,’ Brian said, sticking his paddle upright into the water. I looked at how much of the paddle was above the water and tried not to think about what I might bump my head on at the bottom of the lake.

We set off.

Paddles up
Paddles up

‘Focus on the trees at the end of the lake,’ Brian called across the water as I started to veer towards the trees along the bank. ‘If you’re going off-course, you can either paddle hard to get out of difficulty or use the paddle behind you to slow down and steer.’

I had plenty of opportunity to try both techniques.

Top of the lake

We reached the top of the lake and circled the island.

‘Try to avoid the nests,’ Brian suggested, as a swan sailed past with its wings raised. ‘And head for the white house.’ I kept looking at the white house but my kayak had other ideas and I ended up zigzagging back down towards the dock.

Messing about
Messing about

We did another circuit of the lake, while I tried to avoid the sailing and row boats, and Brian decided I was ready to get up some speed.

‘Remember to use your core and turn your body. Paddle hard for ten strokes. Left. Right. Right. Left.’

With Brian calling which side to paddle and when, I realised I’d been waiting too long to correct my stroke. I paddled faster and with less calls from Brian for the next lap, which gave him an idea.

‘Shall we try the sprint kayak?’

It would have been rude not to. I looked at the sprint kayak he was sitting in. It was longer, narrower, and looked worryingly less stable.

It was.


I managed to get in, attempted a few strokes near the dock, and was relieved to get out. My kayak sprint skills need work.


Kayak sprint. 9 July 2016. 3.78km in 1:27:50

Danson Park, Bexley

TeamFreya: Brian

Cost: Meridian Canoe Club membership