by Franz Fuls
White water kayakers enjoy making private jokes about the K1 paddling fraternity, and understandably so.
You see, the white water paddlers have a completely different drive behind their exposure to rivers. Pumping adrenaline and having joy rides in a world that is out of reach, and often downright dangerous for Joe Soap is what gets them going. So seeing a K1 paddler bravely charging a Class II rapid is entertaining to them!
K1 paddlers submit to rivers for a different reason. The narrow shape and light weight of these boats (and their big brothers, the K2’s) are made for speed and long distances. It’s the long distances that really put most white water kayakers off. To them it just sounds like a lot of brutal work.
With the upcoming Triwaters Tour I will be paddling an average of 40 kilometers per day for three months (excluding rest days). Most of this will be on flat water. Considering that I am the oldest member of the team I do not want to be the slowest too! Thus I have to do something about it and become paddling fit, and K1 paddling provides this opportunity.
But how difficult would the transition be?
When I heard of the SASOL Lowveld Croc canoe marathon coming up in October I thought that would be a great opportunity to start. At least there is some white water in this race to entertain me, although it looked small. I approached the K1 community to find out more, and learnt that there are strict pre-qualifiers: you must be graded as an A+ paddler to enter.
I was not deterred, and approached the Lowveld Canoe Club. Andre van der Merwe graciously entertained this cocky white water kayaker that wants to quickly learn the ropes in a K1. After a bit of discussion I was tripping down to Nelspruit for the adventure.
How bad can it be?
The club put in at the start of day two of the marathon, as a pre-race inspection, just above Weltevreden Bridge. It is a small rapid, Class I or maybe a very friendly Class II. Ten meters down I was swimming. Displaying the standard set of beginner moves. Darn!
As I emptied by boat I realized that I will have to learn almost from scratch. Being overconfident I suggested going in an intermediate boat, rather than a beginner boat and paid the price. The Athena was super unstable from the perspective of a Creekboat paddler. The bloody thing has a mind of its own when you try to turn! The Bratcha paddle with its big upside down looking scoop did not help either. I was in for multiple swims in cold water, and I knew it!
I took a big handful of swims by the time we reached the pump house, but by then I stopped swimming on flat water. I even navigated some of the smaller rapids successfully. I was definitely starting to understand the boat, although I constantly had this feeling that the boat does not understand me! I was never in any kind of comfort zone.
Below the pump station I took another swim, just to spite the boat for disagreeing with me! (or was it the other way round. Things became a little fuzzy). By that time I was already semi frozen; when Andre mentioned that the road is close and I can take out and wait for a pick-up I needed no second invitation!
Waiting by the roadside I must have presented a sorry sight for the passers by, with me shaking like a rattle. I have not been this cold in a very long time!
In retrospect, here is some advice for white water kayakers wanting to try a K1:
- You probably cannot roll a K1 in its standard configuration.
- Take your white water paddle on your first trip. You will swim less.
- Be gentle. No hard strokes, and definitely no boofs for a start! These boats become uncontrolled projectiles with the slightest encouragement.
- Remember you have a rudder. Keep it straight unless you really need it. Later on try experimenting with it.
- Plan your line far ahead. It takes time to turn these beasts!
- Be prepared to swim. Your white water skills do not count for as much as you think.
I also want to encourage the Canoe community to have a go at white water. It will boost your confidence and technical ability in rapids, and thus improve your performance in the more technical marathons. My gut feel is the transition will be easier for you than for your white water counterparts! Consider this:
- Go with competent white water kayakers. They are going to save your life. If they don’t pack throw bags, slings and carabiners they are probably not competent.
- Wear a helmet.
- Learn the required safety skills.
- Be prepared to get stuck in a retentive hole, and unless you can roll and surf to avoid a swim.
- Make more aggressive, bigger moves with the paddle. White water kayaks are dogs when it comes to forward speed.
- Be prepared to spin out. These boats are designed to do this.
- White water paddles are shorter and flatter. With a new repertoire of moves for your arsenal.
- Do not stop until you can roll, and have done multiple Class III+ rapids successfully.
Looking back I was not intimidated by the rapids I passed on the Lowveld Crocodile river. I accept that there are some bigger rapids upstream and downstream but that’s OK. My fear came in the form of a long narrow fiberglass shape. K1 paddling is an art. It requires a paradigm shift, a refinement of what you need to paddle a white water kayak. Where my previous admiration for the Canoe Marathon athletes came from their endurance skill, I now bow to them for simply keeping those boats upright!
I am in love. There’s an Athena in my garage, with some resin and glass mat next to it. A few nights of TLC and I will be hitting dams and soon after more rivers, learning this new art!
A big thanks to Andre van der Merwe, Bruce Templeton and the Lowveld Canoe Club for taking me along for the ride and keeping me safe!
Watch out for the video of Franz’s baptism by K1 coming soon on Vimeo.