Paddling, like running/trekking and mountain biking, is a core discipline of adventure racing. In races we can be expected to paddle on flat water (dams and lakes), rivers (graded or white water) and the sea. We paddle traditional craft, racing kayaks, sit-on-tops, sea kayaks and rafts. While many adventure racers have some paddle experience, especially flat water, others do not. And certainly most adventure racers are not graded paddlers, with little river experience. Working through basic flat water and river proficiencies is the first step in ensuring your competence and safety on water.
Flat water proficiency is the first level of assessment towards becoming a graded paddler. With a successful flat water proficiency test pass and a paddling license from the local canoe union in hand you can take part in races on dams. After signing off three time trials, where results are recorded, or dam races, river proficiency is the next assessment stage. Only then can you participate in graded river races (starting with C-grade). After three successful C-grade river races, you can move up to B-grade; three B-grade races takes you up to A-grade. But note that if you do your river proficiency and gradings in a K2, then you are graded for a double, not a single. The safety and grading process is outlined in the Canoe South Africa Safety Booklet, which can be downloaded.
The flat water proficiency test has a theory and practical component.
The theory component briefs participants on what to do when you capsize, how to catch a paddle that is floating away, different strokes (steering and back paddle) and various safety elements, including equipment.
For the practical component, participants must bring their boat, PFD, splash cover and paddle. The test requires participants to put their splashy away from the bank, paddle two laps around the dam and use steering strokes and the back paddle stroke. Participants then have to capsize with all their gear on, pop their splashie, turn their boat upright as soon as possible – getting as little water into it as possible, put their paddle into boat and swim the boat to the side. If they lose or drop their paddle, they will fail the test. They are not expected to capsize and get back into the boat from the water – a very difficult task.
Sue Belcher, from Team Lickety Split, attended a recent flat water testing session with coach and GCU safety officer, Bill van der Walt. She was accompanied by three of her teammates. Sue recommends that other ARers do their flat water proficiency test and adds that, “if you can paddle at all, you can pass easily”.
Lizelle and Wiehan van der Merwe also attended. “We first did some theoretical stuff and learned alot about safety. We then got into the boats, checked if all gear and boats were ready, practiced getting our splash covers on without holding on to the side – this was new for us – and then off we went for two laps. We capsized, by mistake, on the second lap so when we actually had to show Bill that we can capsize, we already had some practise! We had no problem with getting our splash cover off. Practicing emergency stops and paddling backwards was also fun,” Lizelle says.
“We all passed and are happy to have the papers now,” she adds. “You really benefit from this proficiency test, as you practice skills that you would never do on your own. Bill also made us so much more aware of safety factors, which was an eye opener for us.”
Race organisers have the responsibility of pre-scouting rivers and water sections on races; thereafter it is your responsibility to ensure that you are proficient in both the craft that you are required to paddle and on the type of water in the race. A flat water proficiency test is the first step.
* Image: This dude is really proficient… Adam van Koeverden of Canada competes in the Kayak Single (K1) 1000m Men’s Heat at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park on Day 10 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 18, 2008 in Beijing, China. (August 18, 2008 – Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images AsiaPac)