Long Time Dead...

You're a long time dead. So what's the hurry? This was a billboard ad by the Government, trying to stop people from speeding on their roads. But after heavy-footed drivers, it probably applies more to travelling kayakers than anyone else! Andy England imparts some paddling wisdom about taking the time to really learn.

I'm in a dilemma. I want to talk about some sobering facts to save lives (i.e. preach) but don't want to sound old (proving that I already am). I'm not a person known for being stuck for words, but this article has proven to be a hard one to write down. I want to share vital observations that I and other local paddlers have made about the dangers that kayakers face in this country. What makes it so hard is that I will never forget the experience that made me sit down to write this, and it is this experience that I can't share with you.

So let me start with where I'm coming from. For me, this year marks twenty years of kayaking. I have been recovering from a dislocated shoulder and my back cracks, just about hourly, from a kayaking injury ten years ago. But I'm very much alive and will be kayaking white water for a very long time to come.

I've been living on the West Coast of the South Island for five years now. I'm lucky enough to meet lots of kayakers from all around the world, and to helicopter in to beautiful white water rivers almost daily in peak season. A lot of the people I meet are well-known paddling explorers, long in the tooth like Dave Manby or getting that way like Andy 'Corkboy' Phillips, but far more are wide-eyed excited paddlers on their first big trip to the West Coast.

Of the last five kayaking deaths here in New Zealand, four were 'tourists' to the Coast. So what's my point? These deaths are horrific, for the people involved at the time and the family and friends afterwards. They are all terrible accidents, but I think there are three identifiable factors contributing to this sad and worrying trend.

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You're at most risk when your skill level is high but not matched by sufficient river experience. Don't be hasty, take your time and be very good at what you do. Make sure your progress through the grade of rivers you choose is frustratingly slow when you're away from home. Don't feel compelled to hurry it!

Everyone gains experience at the same rate - one kayaking trip is one kayaking trip. Sometimes people learn more than others from the same thing but this is only a generic rule. Some people acquire physical skills faster than others and their actual skills accelerate beyond their experience. This can be especially true of paddlers who spend a lot of time practising freestyle.

Technically, they could paddle a piece of white water better than the old guy in his Mountain Bat, but what are the dangers they are unaware of? Dangers that the old guy will recognise from experience and will avoid at all costs.

Your rescue team is right there with you on the water! Sieves are a common and dangerous feature of West Coast kayaking. A guidebook can give you the flavour of a run but gets out-dated quickly.

Moreover, they can never replace true river sense. Learn to identify sieves and other river hazards, and avoid them. If in doubt get out and scout, by no means should you be afraid or embarrassed to walk around rapids.

Lots of young paddlers are in that 'red zone' where they can do amazing things but they don't have the experience to weigh situations up properly. Most of us hurry to get there. It's a fun place to be, pushing your limits and getting away with mistakes. And our sport is usually very forgiving - until suddenly, it isn't!

In Europe and America, white water kayaking generally is a forgiving game. Millions of years have smoothed the riverbeds so that, apart from exceptional circumstances, swims just mean a bruised ego and an expensive night at the bar.

In New Zealand, especially the South Island, riverbeds change every year. Rocks often reassemble as sieves and while water passes through quite happily, swimmers don't! And whether or not you'll get out of one is really down to chance. Sieves have to be avoided and in order to do so you have to know how to recognise them. This isn't rocket science, but it takes time, river hours and absolute concentration all the time.

Tasman Whitewater Response Unit. A team of highly experienced kayakers, who volunteer to help the New Zealand Police in Search and Rescue situations. They're based in Hokitika, and were originally set up to rescue kayakers in trouble from the scary West Coast gorges.

They paddle together, train in rescue and search techniques and are available within half an hour of an emergency phone call. But, despite this, in reality they are used mostly to assist in body retrieval.

The crux of this is that concentration and mental preparation are hugely affected by the people we paddle with, especially when we don't have a heap of experience of our own to draw on.

Lots of people going to the West Coast do it on their own. Here's a typical scenario: You've finished university, your mates aren't able to go but you know there'll be people to paddle with when you get there. You buy an old crappy van and get your gear to the Mahinapua campground, Hokitika and go to the pub.

You meet a group hiking in to the Styx tomorrow, have a few more drinks and off you go to bed. You're in! You wake up early, excited. You don't really know the rest of the group properly, so you head to town and get a coffee, check your email. Vans are buzzing around, people talk about options. No one really knows what's happening and all of a sudden it's mid afternoon. You start to hike, but you have to readjust your system a few times, and you've hardly been fit lately. You sweat out last night's beer.

Sitting in the eddy, you feel weak and unsure about all the horizon lines in front of you, but you can't tell these people, what will they think of you? They all chat, make some bizarre signals and sweep gracefully around the first corner seeming to forget all about you… What do you do now? You want to stop them and work things out, but it's too late. You chase!

Not a good picture is it, but it happens and this is the other form of hurry that worries me. Local paddlers are often getting off the river when visitors are only just arriving. Logistics take longer when you're not familiar with a place and this can often cause a last minute rush to paddle something before the end of the day. When you hurry, especially in unfamiliar environments, you might just overlook that vital swirl in the eddy… Get my drift.

Okay, lesson time over. Except of course it isn't - the lessons are out there on the river, waiting to be learned. But I hope this article will go a small way in helping you to prepare yourself for the real deal. If you're not absolutely clear what the three key lessons are in what I've said, read this again. Wait until the next time you're on the toilet, and bring a highlighter. If all that fails, the answers you're looking for are in the info boxes contained in this article. But if you need to do that then you should probably stick to what you know, gain some more experience and get your river team ready for next year.

It isn't always possible to travel with your ideal team, but it is vital to get to know the group you plan to paddle with - In the end your lives all depend on each other.

No one likes bossing others around, but do make sure your feelings are heard. No one likes to be the scared one, but remain utterly honest to yourself and your group.

Don't push your limits with a group that is new to you; instead do an easier trip until you are familiar with each other. If you find that your new group doesn't mesh well with your approach, find others to paddle with. Always leave yourself more time than you need - do not rush it!