2020 has been a year like no other – at least in my lifetime. From a paddling perspective, I started the year with aspirations of maintaining my ranking in the UK slalom Premier division and a week paddling steep creeks in Val Sesia in May. I was raring to go having spent 6 weeks off the water at the end of 2019 while I recovered from an ear operation.  Years of exposure to the cold and wet had finally caught up and I was completely deaf in my  right ear. Wear ear plugs youngsters!

Needless to say, I didn’t get to Italy and the slalom season was cancelled. But I’ve still had some paddling highlights, that have re-affirmed to me the importance of getting on the water and being outdoors with friends.  I thought I’d share my peak paddling experiences (so far) of 2020.

Open spaces in a sea kayak

Without a slalom season to focus on I decided it was time to broaden my paddling horizons.  I’ve been sea kayaking a handful of times over the years, and always enjoyed it. I thought this was a good year to do more – after all, there’s plenty of coastline, it’s easy to keep distant from other people, and I don’t need to travel out of the country. After a bit of online research and plenty of advice from the sea kayaking UK Facebook group, I found a used Aries 155. This is relatively short and manoeuvrable but can still carry enough gear for a weekend trip.

My first outing was the North Devon coast in July. We spent a week there on a family holiday and it was our first time away from home since the lockdown. I didn’t venture too far as I was paddling alone, but I enjoyed being on the open sea – I’d missed seeing a big horizon – as well as messing about in the surf in a creek boat.   My next sea trip was to Scotland, to paddle the Ayrshire coast with my old friend and colleague John Anderson. On the way up I stopped to solo camp for a night on the banks of Loch Ken. The rain stopped as I loaded my kayak, and the late afternoon sun broke through the cloud as I paddled up the loch in search of a campsite.  I found a sheltered, isolated spot on a small promontory, under a big oak tree. People had obviously camped here to fish, but to me it was a little patch of wilderness. The water was still and grey, the mountains capped in cloud. Brilliant to camp for the night with just the trees and loch for company.

Loch Ken campsite










John grew up in Ayr and over the next few days took great delight showing me around his hometown and waters. We started one trip from Donald Trump’s golf course in Turnberry but unfortunately, the weather didn’t allow us to attempt the open crossing to Ailsa Craig, a spectacular granite outcrop 16 kilometres offshore. I’ll definitely return to explore more of the Scottish coast and lochs.

Taking a breather in Dunelm


The forest by the River Dart

Britain was buffeted by a major storm and experienced its wettest ever day in early October. My river paddling buddy Dean Gagnon sent me a WhatsApp message at 2.30 pm on Friday and by 5 pm I was driving west to Dartmoor. We awoke on Saturday to discover that in a freak of nature, the rain was falling everywhere in the country apart from where we were in south Dartmoor. Instead of a bumper day with multiple rivers in spate, we had a low – medium level Dart as our only option. So, after a leisurely breakfast we headed off to run laps of the Upper Dart.  The river level was adequate to enjoy the main rapids and it wasn’t too scratchy, but the surrounding forest was truly magnificent – the trees still in the full leaf of summer, resplendent with ferns and moss-covered rocks. After the confinement of lockdown it was invigorating for my soul to be on a natural river again.  As we left to drive home, the rain started falling and didn’t stop for whole night. Better timing next time?


Dean on the Dart


Buzzing on white-water

Lee Valley Whitewater Centre is my local paddling spot, and as a pumped artificial course it lacks the beauty of the River Dart but makes up by being only 20 minute’s drive away. Two moments stick in my mind this year when I was almost overwhelmed by the joy of being on whitewater.  The first was my first time back on the course in August, paddling a creek boat in the sun and enjoying the feeling of whitewater after a 6-month absence. Then again last weekend, when for the first time since early March I was able to enjoy a ‘proper’ slalom session, with gates over the full length of the course and no plastic boats to dodge. Ciaran Lee Edwards had set the gates in some favourite combinations, including a swooping double upstream move on ‘main wave’ leading into a jump over the next stopper. With more luck than I deserved I nailed the move, managing to time my jump and sailing over the water into the final gate. I caught Ciaran’s eye as he sat in the eddy, and I think our smiles were at least a mile wide.

Looking ahead

There’s no end in sight to the pandemic, and I fear things will get worse over the winter before they get better. But I remain hugely appreciative – perhaps more than I would have been – of the moments of joy, freedom and companionship I’ve experienced on the water. Those of us lucky enough to paddle, walk, climb or ride outdoors are blessed, let’s make the most of these opportunities and appreciate what we’ve got.