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Four Star Open Canoe

Tandom White Water - Photo cropped from original by Giles Trussell

Below are some thoughts on my recent four star canoe leader training at Glenmore Lodge. This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive guide of what to cover, or even include everything that I covered on the course, however, hopeful people wondering about the course or preparing themselves to become a four star open canoeist might find it useful.

Day One – Open Water

We started off with a few methods for lifting boats, particularly interesting was using the ropes as a slide to get the boat off the higher rungs of the trailer. It involves two people holding the ends of the ropes out perpendicular to the canoe (still attached to the central point on the trailer) a further two people slide the canoe onto the ropes. It will then roll under its own weight and turn the right way up to grab the handles off and carry to launch. I quite liked this method as it definitely saved backs and lifting especially where boats are high on a trailer. It does however, use a lot of people and is probably more time consuming than lifting boats manually. One to use with weaker groups or people not used to lifting boats where you might team up as a four to lift anyway.

Finally, before getting on the water we discussed the tactics for the prevailing conditions (strong, out of remit wind).

With the boats by the shore of the loch we discussed kitting them out. In general attaching dry bags and other items on a length of rope just long enough to reach from the middle of the boat to either end. That way maximum options are available for adjusting the trim (weight distribution for and aft) of the boat. We also learnt the highwayman’s hitch to secure items. I was carrying:

  • First Aid
  • Group Shelter or tarp with a few pegs
  • Spares and repairs – including two pulleys and three carabiners to rescue a pinned boat.
  • Throw line
  • 16ft sling
  • Tape sling
  • Knife
  • Spare warm layer, woolly hat and neoprene gloves
  • Food and drink
  • Kneeling mat
  • Bailer
  • Two paddles (a deep water wooden paddle* and a white water paddle)
  • Pole, in two sections
  • Sail

Finally, before getting on the water we discussed the tactics for the prevailing conditions (strong, out of remit wind). We hugged the shore to find any shelter we could and wait for a lull to get around into the next bay which was very sheltered. We also pre-adjusted the trim on our boat to naturally turn front to wind. With a group we’d have options of carrying, or lining the boat. It was important to brief them not to get between the boat and the shore as well. A canoe is heavy if full of water and blown at you by a gale.

Sorting kit before our open water day - Photo curtsy of Ali Rose
Sorting kit before our open water day – Photo courtesy of Ali Rose

On the water we had to do some strong paddling into wind and looked at where best to paddle. It turned out that trimming forward and paddling up wind was easier for strong wind conditions (with the boat self-correcting into wind and less pushing against it). Trim is crucial in this instance. As the wind dropped we also tried paddling on the down wind side. This also proved effective depending on how the boat was trimmed. My preference fell on the up wind side once you got the hang of the trim. This meant less battling against the wind with every stroke as you didn’t have to push the boat into it and wait for the boat to correct instead you could rely on the paddle to correct as it naturally braced against the gunwale of the canoe. This was totally counter what I had initially thought.

The wind died away a bit and we found enough shelter to give polling a go. This is the process of propelling the canoe using a 12ft long (in our case) metal pole like you were in Venice. Hand orientation took a bit of getting used to, ‘bicycle grip’ where the thumbs point towards each other for wide steering strokes, otherwise top hand with thumb up to give more natural drive. The pole should enter the water as near to the centre as possible allowing the boat to glide past it until it reaches a 45 degree angle and pressure applied to increase movement. Keeping it near the central ‘keel’ line of the boat means minimal correction needed to keep going in a straight line and requires stacking hands over the side of the canoe, a good test of flexibility and balance. There are two techniques for recovering the pole for your next stroke. The first is called ‘wind-milling’ and uses a flip at the rear hand to spin the pole in a large cartwheel with lots of momentum. This should bring it around ready to drop straight into the central line again. I found this particular method somewhat elusive to master and one I really need to practice to make sure I’m set for assessment. The second, more intuitive to me but perhaps less efficient, is where you fire the pole up through your hands to clear the water after moment is achieved. This allows you to bring it forward and reset ready to glide on again. Correction strokes for the inevitable miscalculation in direction can be done using the end of the pole and full turns by using the biggest lever you can muster i.e. placing hands at the end and using hips as a pivot with the far end entering the water to turn the boat – very effective when mastered.

Somehow we’d all escaped falling in during the polling session so we celebrated with a lunch break. We used this to talk about shelter options for groups. Tarps are great with canoes – somehow it fits nicely with the ethos and they provide great shelter from the worst of the weather as we found out with some torrential downpours while we tucked into our sandwiches. They are also versatile – making great sails. At some stage I intend to replace my group shelter with one for canoe trips.

Using a tarp to provide shelter - Photo curtsy of Ali Rose
Using a tarp to provide shelter – Photo curtsy of Ali Rose

Talking of sailing, after lunch we set about rigging up a raft and a couple of canoes with solo sails. This is fairly straight forward. The best idea though is to check the rig you’re using before being assessed. Some require the poles in particular orientations where subtly different lengths can make a big difference. This brought back memories from my childhood sailing days and made me consider the effect of lee boards on turning the boat. These can be used for “rudderless” steering and placed/angled correctly require less effort to hold. Another item on my list to practice and master before assessment. As with everything in canoes, trim makes a big difference and setting it back will allow the boat to surf downwind much better.

After dropping the sails, and in calmer waters, we spent a bit of time looking at strokes. These included linking strokes and knifing Js. We were using lots of turning strokes and did both forward and reverse figure of eights. A good session to do with groups before getting on a river as it allows you to assess their ability and enabled us to check for “three star” performance.

Rescues were next and simpler than expected; the curl and X methods being the two main types, as well as dealing with a swamped boat and an empty upright boat. We also talked about having strategies available for scenarios such as dislocated shoulders and what to do in strong winds to look after the group if a member capsizes. Depending on circumstances, should you get them to shore potentially having to paddle or line back to the group, or should the group follow the rescue leaving them exposed to the elements with the possibility of further capsizes?

Finally we paddled back. Throughout the day we discussed Communication, Line of sight, Avoidance and Positioning (CLAP principle) and its application such as where we might position ourselves in the group/why. These are key topics for the four star and leadership on water in general. They are beyond the scope of what I’m discussing here but worth having an excellent understanding of before assessment.

Back at the centre, tea and cake was followed by a homework exercise – what river would you do in your area ‘tomorrow’ with the current forecast?

Day Two – The Spey

In the morning we discussed potential river trips from our homework exercise. The area around Torridon is good for open water and there are a few short rivers that could be worth a look. In general the geography of the west is for quick run off and therefore short sharp rivers. Some to look at include the Balgy, the Ewe and the Carron.

After this discussion we drove to the Spey. While the shuttle was taking place we had a play with tracking and lining. These are methods of moving your boat up and down the river while controlling it from the bank using ropes. Saving you getting wet feet and enabling you to move kit against a wind or flow you couldn’t paddle into. There were various rope options shown. These included a single large loop, attaching extra lines to the front and back, using a bridle, or using a throw bag and extra long painter. All the options worked but my favourite was the throw bag and painter. This involved less rope being around and therefore seemed less hazardous and complicated then the other methods. In a stronger flow or more technical section a bridle seemed to give the best stability so a second section of rope or throw line could be used in this instance with the painter tucked away.

Setting off on the river it was immediately apparent we wouldn’t be doing lots of ferry gliding or eddie hopping as many were washed out and the river itself was wide and pushy. This combined with a strong wind made for some physical paddling.

I was in the boat with a kneeling thwart and found this much better for moving around than using feet tucked under a seat as I had been the previous day. This is probably due to an old ski injury but when I purchase my own boat I may make the seat a little higher then average to alleviate this ‘problem’.

We focused a lot on leadership as you’d expect from a four star river day. A clear brief was very important. Make sure the following points were covered:

  1. Swim brief – what to do? (make sure you’ve been seen, get to the side then go to help, keep the paddle if able).
  2. River signals – eddie, point where to go, one at a time, all down, stay where you are. Make sure the group repeat these or have some form of ‘I’ve understood message’ to keep things simple.
  3. Distance to follow (e.g. two boat lengths), position of members within the group.

We also discussed the option to right a capsized canoe with a quick curl so it was easier to tow, even if it remained swamped. A swimmer could do this for you and save valuable time if they felt it appropriate. Worth thinking about rather than the usual, leave your boat and get to the side, approach.

Rescuing a swimmer - Photo by Giles Trussell
Rescuing a swimmer – Photo by Giles Trussell

I went second with the leadership and used gestures well but perhaps a touch early on some occasions. I also need to get comfortable with standing in moving water so the line ahead can be seen better. This seems like a really useful ‘trick’ to master giving a much better viewpoint over features.

While heading down the river we had a lunch break and used it to look at rescuing a pinned boat. I’m familiar with 3-to-1 pulley systems from my experience as a climber but seeing the 4-to-1 pulley was good. It has the advantage of being able to reset without having to slide a prussik. Some people refer to this as a pig rig. While hard to describe it involved a carabiner on the boat, a second carabiner on the loop at the bottom of the throw bag. The rope then runs from the top of the throw bag to the boat carabiner, up to an anchor (e.g. tree with sling and a third carabiner) then back to the second carabiner on the bottom of the throw bag before coming to your hands to pull. The anchor and boat carabiners can have pulleys to lessen the friction when pulling.

Ropes all safely stashed we continued further down the river. We did some surfing before finishing with the rescues. These were more straight forward than I expected given the flow. Paddling a swamped boat is hard, as is having a person on the end of the rope. Both are however very do-able and a swift response with plenty of effort makes the rescue much simpler. We also used this time for a bit of boat handling or messing about as I like to call it, managing to get three of us into the 13ft boat provided plenty of laughs.

The homework exercise for the second day was to think about what skills I felt I was stronger or weaker. From the days so far it felt like I should work on my ‘trad’ skills, particularly polling. I also needed to work on reversing the boat as we’d done precious little of this so far.

Day Three – The Findhorn

This was an “extra” on the requirement for the course but I certainly found it very useful. It allowed us to concentrate on learning areas we felt weak on and try other conditions that weren’t available on the other two days. We had this day as a second river day, all of us feeling we could improve more by trying our skills and leadership on a different type of river. For this trip we went to the Findhorn.

Lucy in a half way eddie as she leads us down river - Photo Giles Trussell
Lucy in a half way eddie as she leads us down river – Photo Giles Trussell

While the shuttle was happening we set up and launched the boats with our challenge being to ferry glide facing downstream and set into eddies. This initially proved tricky as we experimented with paddling on the downstream or upstream side of the boat and with the trim. After a few amusing pirouettes. The key was unlocked – as always, trim – and smooth progress was made. My preference was to paddle on the upstream side of the boat and trim well forward. This allowed prying off the front of the canoe to steer and also moved this steering nearer to the end of the canoe making it more effective.

Having master ‘setting in’ we ‘set off’ down stream looking at leadership styles again.

The section we were paddling is often described as bottom end grade three or upper end grade two. This gave us an ideal opportunity to see where the remit of the award would extend to. I would definitely call it grade three in the conditions we found it.

Playing on a wave - Photo curtsy of Ali Rose
Playing on a wave – Photo curtsy of Ali Rose

We spent the initial section doing S-turns, setting and playing on a wave. This didn’t seem to have much to do with leadership but once we discussed the fact that doing this early on gave us all confidence for the rest of the river and would potentially allow us to look at the group and see how able they were for the more challenging sections to come. A useful idea and ideal for what we later came to do when looking at portages and lines to take on rapids.

A bit further down the river we came to a shallow section with a big eddy at the bottom. This was ideal for practising our polling. This time on moving water. As an aside, Harry Rock is a legend at this particular art-form and worth looking up having been several times ‘world’ champion. However, I am not Harry Rock . A bit of wobbling, some amusing moments of almost capsizing and floating off down the river followed by even more practice left me just about able to get up the edge of the main flow or hold position. Definitely a skill I’ve added to my list to spend a load of time working on.

Time was pressing on so we carried on down further and stopped to look at a couple rapids, we discussed when you might do this with a group and how to judge the grade of a rapid. The ‘is it within remit?’ question. All being keen to test ourselves we paddled some grade three and I think it would be true to say, learned a lot from it. It’s a testament to the enthusiasm and skill of the others on the course that we got to do this and I feel really lucky to have enjoyed this experience with them.

As our get out approached we got to the trickiest rapids of all and to add even more fun the first of these we paddle tandem. This was great fun though at the bottom our boat was so full of water we had to get out and empty it.

We still had more to cover and had to wait back while a couple scenarios were setup for us to deal with. Shouts suddenly came and we paddled around the corner to find a bit of wood “trapping” a victim in the boat and a second boat full of water and pinned against a rock. Quickly dividing the work we set about sorting the situation out. Prioritising the trapped paddler. It’s surprising what you find out about kit doing something like this. One of us stating ‘I had to be very careful not to cut my hand while sawing as it was wet and sliding over the handle of the saw.’ Something I hadn’t thought about until this point. I’ll definitely be looking for a grippy handle when purchasing a folding saw for canoeing.

All that remained was to paddle the alarmingly named ‘chaos corner’ and we reached our get out and the end of the course.

It had been a fun, educational and rewarding few days. Next step spend some time preparing for assessment.

Thanks for Giles for running such a good course and Ali, Lucy and Hannah for putting up with me / making it so much fun. I’ll look forward to more adventures with you guys soon.

Also thanks to Giles and Ali for the photos used in this post.

How many people can fit in a canoe
How many people can fit in a 13′ canoe? – Photo Giles Trussell