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Here's some trip reports -

Sweetwater Sea Kayak Symposium, Florida, Feb 08

I felt honoured to be invited to the Sweetwater Sea Kayak Symposium, but also a little daunted – I’d been asked to re-orientate some of the top coach education deliverers in the USA into the new BCU schemes. There has been mixed reaction to the changes in the UK, so I had no idea what the response would be like over the pond. I’ve done a few of these re-orientations now, and each one has gotten easier, not least because I have actually directed quite a few of the new Level 1 courses so I’m aware of not only the delivery issues, but more importantly what a great course it is. My apprehension was completely unfounded, the Course Directors out there were so switched on to the philosophies of the new scheme and they couldn’t wait to get stuck into delivering the new scheme. They didn’t have to wait long, the following day we were due to start the USA’s first new Level 1 course, and there were six people booked on. Word must have spread like wildfire around the campsites because when I showed up at Fort Desoto Park, at the very tip of Tampa Bay to deliver the course, the numbers had swelled to twelve! My experience of these courses is bigger is better, so I was extremely happy with the situation.
Sweetwater Sea Kayak Symposium is traditionally just that a SEA symposium so when I rolled up with trailer loads of open canoes, sit on tops and recreational kayaks, courtesy of my new found friend Russell Farrow of Sweetwater, it was all a bit revolutionary. The candidates had a great time experimenting with all the different boats, a range of paddles varying from white water blades, canoe paddles, Greenland sticks and what they call in the USA Euro blades as well as lots of different coaching styles, delivery methods and new skills.
The five days seemed to fly by in the glorious sunshine and warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico – what a great location, it had been a great course due in no small part to the knowledge and skills and of my co-deliverers and the enthusiasm of the candidates. Special thanks go to Tom Burgh, Steve Maynard, Bill Lozano, Jack Phelan, Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme, with a team like that behind me no wonder it was a good course! The candidates all seemed really excited at being the first American ‘new’ Level 1 coaches, I wish them all success in their future paddling and coaching.
Jean Totz did a phenomenal job of organising the Symposium, and keeping everything running smoothly –Thanks Jean!


Russell Farrow organised boats and kit for me, as well as everyone else at the symposium and generally showed me great hospitality throughout my twelve day stay, including a guided tour of the Myakka River (highest population of alligators in the US) and a superb paddle with manatees on the Weeki Wachee River. Look out for Russell’s Vacation to Hell blog, link from the Sweetwater Kayaks website.
I’m definitely hoping to make the 13th Sweetwater Sea Kayak Symposium in February 2009, wanna join me?

Grand Canyon - May 2007

Ever fancied paddling one of the most famous white water rivers in the world?
Ever fancied paddling in one of the most beautiful and fascinating places in the world?
Ever fancied visiting the Entertainment Capital of the world?
You can do all three by combining a paddling trip down the Grand Canyon with a few days in Las Vegas – that’s just what I did last May.
There’s a few things that you may be thinking may make such a trip difficult, the first is the logistics, that’s easy – Google Stan Marks Grand Canyon Kayak, and let him do the rest, then there’s the cost of the venture, with the pound so strong against the dollar, it isn’t as expensive as you may think, then you may be thinking that you aren’t a good enough paddler to undertake one of the most serious white water trips in the world, well according to Stan’s website it’s big water class three, and anyone who can roll (most of the time) can paddle it. It was Stan’s website that convinced me that perhaps this was the trip for me, he promised to show me the best lines, pick me up if I got it wrong, feed me well each day, carry all my gear, tent, sleeping bag etc on a support raft, and provide cold beer each day – that’s it, I was sold on the idea!
The next problem was completely out of my hands, the fact that I was the only one booked on the trip, and Stan was saying that unless there was more take-up, the trip would be cancelled, well perhaps not completely out of my hands! I was running a course the next day at Upton Warren, with a guy called Chris Fawcett from Rugby CC, and I mentioned the trip to him, he was immediately interested and the conversation was overheard by our esteemed RCO, Phil Ascough, who also said he was ‘up for it!’.
Two days later, I fired off an email to Stan, saying that Phil Ascough, Chris Fawcett and 5 others from Rugby CC and me were coming. Kev Roberts from Rugby took on the role of banker and he had soon booked flights, hotels and organised bank transfers to Stan - it really looked as though we were off!

That was back in November and our trip in May seemed a long way off. We emailed kit lists back and forth, we chose to hire boats, so that was discussed by email, we discussed everything from suncream to airbags, but still May seemed a long way off, then suddenly we were all at Birmingham Airport with kitbags and paddlebags loaded!
Soon we were in Las Vegas – that’s an experience in itself, after being awake for 26 hours we decided to hit the town, so went to see Aerosmith at the Mandalay Bay Hotel. We weren’t really here for the Vegas bright lights, gambling and stretch limos (we travelled in these because it was cheaper than two taxis), we were here to go boating!
Stan arrived, we bundled into various minivans with kit and kayaks on trailers and on the roofs, and headed off on the four hour drive to Lee’s Ferry – the get in.
We spent the night under the stars at Lee’s Ferry then in the morning loaded all our kit onto our 38 foot long, 10 ton support raft - yep you read that right, the raft was huge! And set off with kayaks down the Colorado – we were at last on the river.

Having the support raft was superb, it meant that we could paddle light boats – no kit in them at all, and we could take all kind of luxuries – folding arm chairs, thick comfy bed rolls, enough food to feed a small army, ice for the margaritas and so much beer!

The river was awesome, big volume rapids, but not technical just point and go mainly. The were huge wavetrains which seemed to go on forever, but once you had got over the initial shock of the enormity of them you quickly realised that it was pretty easy paddling really, but so intimidating at first – more akin to being at sea than on a river.
As good as the river itself was, that was just part of the experience, we did hikes up the side canyons most days and those were absolutely stunning, so diverse. One minute you were in the Arizona desert feeling as though you were being fried alive, next you would turn a corner into a beautiful woody glade with birds singing, treefrogs hopping around and fantastic waterfalls and cool, clear pools to swim in.

The Colorado in the Grand Canyon is only 10% white water so there were some pretty long flatwater paddles to be done, again the raft was so useful as we would all climb aboard, lash our kayaks to the side and chill out while our guide motored us to the next rapid. This was my downfall I’m afraid, I got so chilled out that when we arrived at the next rapid I often elected to stay on the raft, this may have had something to do with the amount of cold beer consumed on the flat bits! Being on the raft through the rapids was awesome though, and I thoroughly enjoyed that part of the trip too – it was all part of the whole Canyon experience.

The guides were great, finding us spectacular campsites and providing food which was out of this word, no roughing it with freeze dried rations for us! Some lunchtimes I was so full I couldn’t paddle, so again a good excuse to laze on the raft and drink beer! The final night party was a sight to behold with everyone dressing up for the occasion – Ken from Rugby CC, somehow managed to turn up in a sparkling gold cocktail dress, and we still had ice for the margaritas!

Arriving back in Vegas after 12 days on the river, camping each night in some truly spectacular wilderness locations, was a real culture shock and I was a little dazed by the bright lights and madness – worlds apart from the breathtaking sunsets of the Canyon. Next day we flew home and the trip so long in the planning was over!

The quality of the white water, combined with the truly awesome scenery of the Grand Canyon and the whole experience make this trip, in my mind probably the best white water paddling trip on the planet! Whetted your appetite? check out Stan’s website

You can check out our trip photos at

Sakhalin, Russia November 2006

I’m standing up to my knees in snow on the other side of the world about to embark on the first kayak descent of the River Lyutoga. It’s about minus 5, there are mini ice bergs floating past me heading down the fast flowing water, I’m about to paddle a kayak which was in vogue 15 years ago and I can’t help thinking, ‘How did I get here?’
It all started Christmas 2005 with one of those ‘out of the blue’ phone calls.
“Yes, I’m a BCU Coach”
“Yes, I’m happy to work abroad”
The ‘where’ was Sakhalin, an island off the Eastern coast of Russia, my job was to train some of the employees of a European owned leisure centre how to coach paddling.
The guy on the other end of the phone, Phil enquired as to whether I could coach canoe or kayak, I do both which was kind of fortunate because Phil had no idea what boats he had got, as they were in a container under fourteen feet of snow!
Next problem was that he wanted me out there early Spring and my diary was looking pretty hectic, the only time free was Spring Bank holiday week, and this was free for a reason – I had quite a few paddling trips already booked for this year, Alps, Canada, Finland and Spring Bank was my chance to earn Brownie Points with my wife by taking her away for a few days without boat! Time for some careful negotiation! My wife is not only the most wonderful person I’ve ever met, but also the most tolerant, and with little more than a shrug, agreed that I should go.
It all got a bit hectic then, I had to get a visa cleared in time to get my passport back ready for a trip to Finland in May which was back to back with the one to Sakhalin. Passport arrived on the Thursday morning, I flew to Helsinki the following day. Finland is always wonderful, I went out there with my old paddling buddy, Dave and we spent seven days camping in North Karalia, coaching paddlesports to a multi-national group of wilderness guide students. By coincidence there were three Russian guys on the course, and so I tried to learn a little about Sakhalin from them, they looked as though I was talking about another planet, and that’s when the whole Russian geography started to sink in! My enduring memory of the Russian students was one of them, after not quite passing his three star, tried to bribe me for the ticket!

I was greeted by Rozie and my daughter Leoni as I arrived at Birmingham Airport at 8pm, the next morning Rozie gave me a lift back to the airport at 6am to catch the flight to Russia! Told you she was tolerant!
There is no direct flight from Birmingham to Moscow, so a change first in Frankfurt, then on to Moscow, this was going very well! I had to change airports in Moscow, but had three hours, so no pressure, or so I thought! I got into Sheremetyevo Airport about 20 minutes late, no problems, then joined the passport check queue, or rather crowd, I have never seen anything quite so disorganised in my life. To cut a very long story short (ask me about it over a beer), it took over an hour to clear immigration, my transfer had left, I got the scariest taxi ride ever across to Domodedovo Airport, they haven’t quite got to grips with e-tickets yet so I’m running from desk to desk trying to find my paper ticket, I got to the desk with 25 minutes to spare for the girl to look me in the eye and say “NYET!” If you do much travelling in Russia you better get used to that one, I then had to get past numerous other ‘Nyet’s to rebook for the next day, and then find a hotel for the night. Welcome to Russia!

So after an unexpected night in Moscow I board the worlds longest internal flight, Moscow to Yuzhno Sakhalinsk, 9 hours aboard a Russian airliner, I had heard all sorts of horror stories about flying in Russia, there’s an aircrash every three days, the airhostesses are ex-shotputters, etc. Luckily these stories did nothing to stop me having a very pleasant flight and I was soon in the capital city of Sakhalin - Yuzhno Sakhalinsk.
I found a very pleasant girl holding a placard with the name of the company I was working for, I told her my name, but obviously I wasn’t on her list! I was getting used to that trying sinking feeling, when I had a text announcing Phil was on his way, I just had to reclaim my luggage from a lady whose only vocabulary consisted of ‘nyet’, but I was getting good at this game now!
Because of the delay in Moscow I only had three days in Sakhalin, so was very keen to get started that day and soon met my students and sorted out what kit I had. Kit was reasonably good, Old Town 158s, half decent paddles, BAs, throwlines, drybags – not bad!
First obstacle to overcome was the language, three of the students had pretty good English, one or two knew a little English the rest could say Hello! I talked one of the guys, Alexay into being an interpreter. On a Coaching Processes course years ago I learnt the concept of thinking carefully about what you want to say before you speak, talking through an interpreter is the ultimate test of that particular coaching skill. I soon got into the swing of saying half a dozen words, letting Alexay translate whilst I carefully thought out the next 6 words of wisdom. I explained the parts of the boat, the Bow (like bow and arrow?), the Stern (stone?), Thwart (????), ‘hmmmm, may need to be a little more practical’ I thought.
Luckily we had access to a very nice swimming pool in the leisure complex, so we were soon J stroking lengths, and practising pivot turns at the ends, very civilised! My next little challenge was to learn names, Russians don’t seem to have much choice when it comes to given names so I had two Alexays, two Igors, two Evgenys as well as Dmitri, Maxim, and the identical twins Nadia and Nastia.
They were all quick to learn, which was good, we had lots to do! Next day I wanted to get out on some open water, so we ordered transport and met early for a prompt start. One remnant from Soviet days is the never ending bureaucracy and I was about to have my first taste of it. First of all the driver has to have a bit of paper stamped, then the van has to have an authorisation slip, each boat has to have a registration, this was all in order – we were good to go, except we didn’t have the right bit of paper for the trailer! Not to be outdone we ordered a seven and half ton flatbed, that arrived with a Hyab crane, we wouldn’t need that, but it ws useful to tie our canoes to. Then we couldn’t go North, because as a foreigner without the right bit of paper, I wouldn’t be allowed through the police checkpoint, but no problem the guys new of a lake not far away, no police checkpoints, only army ones – no problem!
We arrived at Tankova Lake, and it was very pretty, snow capped mountains all around, this was perfect.
The group started getting changed, I’d mentioned warm, waterproof clothes and suitable footwear. Suitable footwear ranged from fake designer slip on patent shoes with silver buckles, trainers, army boots covered in black bin liners and gaffa taped up the leg to thigh length waders. As I gave out the BAs I made sure that Nadia and Nastia, who had turned up in identical clothing, even down to match baseball caps, had different coloured ones, that really seemed to confuse them, and as soon as I turned my back they were matching again, it was all a little surreal!

I set off to do my first demo, the water was very shallow, as I got about twenty feet from the bank I was still only in six inches of water, I couldn’t find anywhere deep enough to get the paddle in. I asked Alexay why the lake was so shallow and he explaned that this was a tank testing lake, it was deep at the other end, and may be safer at that end because the tanks drive through the shallows very fast. I did a quick dynamic risk assessment, moved the group to the deep end, and kept a careful eye out for anything with a turret!
“Anything else I should know about Alexay?”
“No Phil, no problems, only bears, always watch out for bears – they will eat you!”

The truck came and picked us up in the evening, and we did the whole thing the next day, and the next, over the three days we got most of the students a 2 star and CST, and the three with the best command of English even did Level 1 Coach, no problems with tanks or bears.

Everyone had a great time while I was there and were keen to book me for a return visit, Sakhalin has a similar climate to Siberia, long extremely cold winters, so the canoeing season is quiet short. I suggested getting a fleet of kayaks for in the swimming pool, these were duly ordered and a return visit was planned for November.
November came and I found myself once again on my way to Sakhalin, no problems in Moscow this time, I flew in and out of the same airport. I arrived in Yuzhno and was surprised by just how cold the biting wind was as I walked across the airport apron, there was two feet of snow everywhere, glad I’m not boating in this I thought.

Phil was there to meet me with Elena, Phil hadn’t got the right bit of paper to drive, but Elena had – nice to see nothing much had changed. I got my luggage from the ‘Nyet’ lady and we set off to drop my bags at the hotel. Then Phil dropped the bombshell – no kayaks! although being sent seven weeks ago from the UK, they were either still in transit somewhere, stuck in customs in Vladivostock, or simply ‘disappeared’
What was I going to do now?
I managed to borrow two old kayaks, a Mountain Bat and some spurious Ace boat from the boss of the estate who used to paddle quite a bit, but these boats hadn’t been used for years, in fact no one has really kayaked in Sakhalin, from what I could gather.
So the plan was to teach the students how to paddle kayak, give them some teaching points and drills so at least when/if the kayaks showed up they could get on with it. First session in the pool, about twenty Russians turned up all wanting to learn to roll, I managed to put some off until the next day, and then tried to teach some skills first before it degenerated into a ‘who can roll first’ competition, they are a very competitive nation – you can see why they won the Space Race! I ended up running rolling sessions every evening, about the third one a chap called Igor showed up on his own. Igor speaks no English at all, my Russian by now consisted of Hello, Beer, Thank You, Good Bye! I suppose that talking sometimes gets in the way of teaching a motor skill like rolling, it didn’t that night – it was very visual/kinaesthetic coaching, and Igor became the first native resident of Sakhalin to roll a kayak!

So what to do with the rest of my time in Sakhalin, the trailer had it’s paperwork sorted, but then the hitch was the wrong one, then the lights wouldn’t work, long story short, we ordered a big box bodied truck and set of to Izmenchivoye an inland lagoon off the the Sea of Okhotsk. The guys had been practising and were keen to get assessed for three star, although it was cold to start with, the wind was dropping and the sun was quite strong. This was looking ok.
The guys got changed and then handed round a bottle of Vodka, I stopped them and explained that although I respect their culture, as BCU coaches they can’t be seen to be drinking vodka at 10am before getting on the water. They looked very sheepish, apologised profusely and put the vodka back in the truck, then returned still apologising about the vodka and handed round a bottle of cognac – it’s still work in progress with that issue!
The guys were doing really well with their three star skills and only had to demonstrate rescues; I was a little concerned about this as the only thing stopping the water from freezing was the fact that it was sea water. They had a bit of a debate in Russian, looked a bit sheepish again round the back of the van, then stripped down to their boxers to save getting their clothes wet. You can’t knock that for enthusiasm!

So that brings me back to standing on the banks of the Lyutoga about to paddle from Ogoniki to Petropavlovskoye, try saying that after a few vodkas or cognacs. Although this is almost undoubtedly the first kayak descent of this stretch of river, the guys I’m leading have done it a few times before in canoe, and as it’s a lovely little grade 1 bimble with a couple of grade 2 rapids, I’m sure that it will be paddled many times when that container full of kayaks finally arrives.

Sakhalin is a truly fascinating place, mountainous with lots of snow, there must be some phenomenal boating to be had out there, you just need to be aware of the 20 hours to get there, all the bureaucracy, the police checkpoints, the military checkpoints, the shockingly bad roads, the bears, the tanks, the salmon poachers (they’ll shoot you!), the cold, oh and the vodka!