If you’ve not already read it, I strongly recommend reading this posting by Pat Keller on the Tribe Rider Facebook page.  It’s a great reminder of the need to grow your paddling abilities in line with experience, and not rush into bigger situations than you can handle.


It reminded me of a phase in my paddling career when I thought I was immortal.  It started in 1982 and lasted into the middle of 1983. This was an exciting time for me; I’d thrown myself pretty much full-time into slalom training, moved to Melbourne to train with a bigger and stronger group of athletes, and cracked the Australian team for the first time.  I remember doing a trip down the Franklin River in Tasmania soon after team selection in January 83, and feeling incredibly strong on the water, paddling rapids that were usually portaged despite the risk of a mess-up miles from help.  Later that year I travelled to Europe to race slalom internationally for the first time. It was fantastic, four of us shared a battered Opel and drove back and forward across the Alps, racing at weekends and finding rivers to run mid-week.

Looking back now I realise just how much I didn’t know.

We gravitated to Landeck in Austria, paddling the Inn and its tributaries like the Sanne and Otz.   Things changed forever me after a trip on upper reaches of the Inn. We’d paddled the same section earlier in the week, and paid little attention to the fact that it was about half a metre higher this time.  We (a motley collection of Aussies, Kiwis and a couple of Austrians) were all in slalom boats.  The trip included a rapid called the High Judge, and I remember passing over a big wave and dropping into a meaty hole that I couldn’t recall from our earlier trip.  I was relaxed at first, thinking that I’d just roll up and out of the hole.  But it was one of those stoppers that don’t like to let go, and after couple of rolls and getting more water than air it began to dawn on me that I was in trouble.  My boat must have broken, because I was tail down and still getting worked round and round.  Thinking that my only hope was to swim, I let go of my paddle just as my boat, now full of water, flushed from the hole.  Now I was floating down the rest of the rapid in a sunken boat with no paddle. I frantically grabbed my paddle and managed to get closer to the side, where I dragged myself out and onto the bank, exhausted, as my boat washed away.  Water was still draining from my sinuses later that night.

I suppose most of us have an equivalent story of a bad swim or a particularly nasty close shave.  Something really fundamental changed for me after mine. Although it’s a little embarrassing to admit it now, that was the first moment when I realised that I could die doing the sport I loved. I wasn’t immortal, just arrogant.  I learned that I had to take care, inspect more, be more alert to the dangers.  That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped taking risks, but the experience marked a shift in my attitude to rivers and towards myself.   Up until then I felt I couldn’t fail, that I could take anything a river could throw at me. I like to think that I started to develop some humility and respect for the river that day, two qualities that I hope have served me well both on and off the water ever since.

So I’m curious about the path we paddlers take to paddling maturity.  Do paddlers pass through common stages?  How do people survive the testosterone fuelled teen-age years?  Do other people out there recognise that flawed over-confidence I experienced?  How does it vary between men and women?  I had a fascinating conversation with Paula Volkmer about this, and we think there might be different patterns.   Perhaps men suffer more from over-confidence and women tend to limit themselves through under-confidence?  How do people develop a healthy, realistic level of confidence that enables them to paddle to their ability?

Finally, I’ve always wanted to get more discussion going on this blog, but the need to log in and spam have made this harder than I thought.  So, here’s a link to a new Facebook page.  Why not ‘like’ and add your comments here?  https://www.facebook.com/DiaryOfAMiddleAgedKayaker