The loneliness of the long distance paddler

So what is going to be the main differences from the K2 Waterside and DW experience they both have, to paddling a C1?

Having completed two Waterside series in a C1 and a DW to Teddington myself, I have first-hand knowledge of the sort of things they can expect.

Well first off, obviously you’re on your own. This doesn’t sound a big deal because they are so many competitors on the four day race that isolation isn’t usually an issue. On the canal section the portages are at short, regular intervals and there are bank support crews at most of them.

But you do miss a crew mate. Someone who’s going through what you are. Someone who can pull you through the inevitable low points to which you can reciprocate. It is a special relationship which bonds two paddlers into a team focussed on a common goal. You probably wouldn’t lay down your life for them but you’d definitely kill for them!!

"Billy no-mates!"

“Billy no-mates!”

As with any endurance sport, we all adopt our own unique idiosyncratic coping techniques. There are some athletes who are acutely aware of their surroundings and to what is going on. They appreciate the scenery and observe everything in real-time and can relate a lot of it at the end, what they saw, heard, smelt and how they felt at the time. They can replay lots of little instances which can make a seemingly routine paddle seem quite exciting.

Others tend to withdraw into their own world and shutoff the outside and lose awareness. I’ve been passed by K1 paddlers who are in an almost mesmerised state and just focussed on the rhythm of their stroke. If you speak to them they are almost “woken up”.

I tend to fluctuate between the two. On a long stretch I “shutdown” and quite honestly Kylie could be standing naked on the bankside and I wouldn’t notice! As I approach a portage (especially those on the Thames) I become totally focussed getting it right and wasting as little time and energy as possible, but two seconds after putting-in and pushing-off “brain bleach” has kicked in and I’d struggle to remember much about it.

On the long stretches of the Thames you tend to look forward to seeing your bank support crew a little more eagerly and feel a bit let-down on those locks that they can’t get to. On the remote portages I self-support and give myself a little treat from a squirrelled away tit-bit. “Who needs bank support anyway?”, though I’m looking forward to seeing them soon!

The next issue is that as a solo paddler and especially in C1, you are out on the water for a longer period. Isobel and Megan are used to completing the WS D or DW day 1 in considerably less than six hours in their K2, this will probably be extended beyond seven in the C1, it’s a long time.

So what? Well it means that the end-to-end approach to event preparation, execution and recovery needs to be adapted to get the best out of the race as the way you used to do it may not be the most appropriate. Nothing should be left to chance and likely scenarios should be planned for and communicated to the whole support team and indeed the paddler so that everyone knows what to expect and how to react.

This can help the Bank Support respond better to the needs of the solo paddler. With long periods of solo paddling small irritations, aches and pains have a habit of escalating out of proportion when one starts really a bit sorry for one’s self. This may sound a bit wimpy but endurance events are as much about the mind as the body. I’ve seen paddlers give the Bank Support a right roasting and they hadn’t even done anything wrong!

Every soldier is constantly reminded of the 7 Ps: “Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents P*ss Poor Performance”. OK we’re not going to war but it’s just as relevant for endurance sporting events. Much more of this later.

But there are benefits too. A C1 paddler will inevitably attract attention and a female one even more so as there are not usually many in the race! You do tend to get a lot of encouragement from on-lookers on the bank, bank support teams and especially other competitors. There is a special bond on the dark side and comments from C2 crews are particularly inspiring plus the light hearted banter with the kayakers.

Canoeists do tend to get less wet than kayakers as the paddle is switched across in front of the paddler thus avoiding the splashing, dripping and spray caused by kayak paddles going like windmills, it’s all so undignified! It is possible for the canoeist to keep their hands dry and the single bladed carbon paddle is significantly lighter.

In really cold weather you can’t use poggies because of the need to switch hands, but it is possible to use gloves. Obviously you do lose a degree of empathy with the paddle but you don’t need to constantly feather it as you do with a kayak and keep one hand wet to help lubricate the twisting action of the shaft.

So it will be interesting to see how Isobel and Megan adapt to meet the challenge and any particular methods they develop on the dark side.

1 thought on “The loneliness of the long distance paddler

  1. Francis Soenen


    I’m Francis Soenen from Belgium and was reading your article about “loniless of a long distance paddler”. For the moment, I train for the Yukon River Quest in the Yukon (Canada) a race of 715 km and will try it in a C1. In 2012 I did the race in a tandem canoe, and as you say, during long training sessions I miss sometimes a partner to talk or to motivate each other. I have always my MP3 player with me and if I have bad moments, I listen to the music.
    I was thinking to participate the DW but with all the locks and to handle the canoe (25 kg) by your own, it’s not so easy. In March I go to Scotland for the Great Glen Paddle race.
    In what kind of C1 do you paddle?



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