Freestyle ShePaddles Trips

Introduction to freestyle ladies day

If you don’t already know, I am a massive kayaking enthusiast. I love running white water rivers as often as I can and love a good down river play day. What I really don’t do much of however is actual freestyle kayaking. 6 months ago in a post Christmas – New Year haze, I was tagged in an online post. The post was from GB Freestyle advertising an introductory ladies freestyle day at Hurley, coached by world renowned freestyle kayaking coach Jacko Jackson and previous junior world freestyle champion Ottie Robinson-Shaw. Their aim was to spend the day with 10 female kayakers who had little experience of freestyle kayaking and introduce them to Hurley (one of the best freestyle features in the World). What an amazing opportunity! I put my name down straight away, thinking that is was unlikely I would get picked. So when I received a message a little while later saying that I had got a space, I was equally surprised and delighted! This article is an opportunity for me to share what happened that day and the positive impact it has had on me.

Ottie is on the GB freestyle kayaking team and a role model for female kayakers around the world!

Before getting to this day, there was just one problem and that was that I did not actually own a playboat. Luckily Ness, the amazing woman organising the day, offered to lend me a small Jed to go in. So with the promise of a boat, I arrived at Hurley one cold Saturday in January feeling a mixture of excitement and nervousness. I was excited for three reasons. Firstly I had never paddled at Hurley before but have a lot of freestyle friends who love it. Secondly I am a huge advocate for everything and anything that is aimed at getting more women into kayaking. This day was happening because of the kindness and passion of others both about freestyle and about increasing female participation. Enthusiasm is infectious and I was about to spend the day with a group of like-minded (and mainly female) individuals. Yipee! And thirdly after four years of white water kayaking, I was excited to actually give freestyle a proper go. Having moved to Nottingham, one of the freestyle hubs in the UK, I decided if I was going to get into freestyle, now was the time to try it. The nervousness was because I had not been in a playboat for over three years and I had never paddled at Hurley before.

Jacko is well known for his expertise in freestyle kayaking – we were very fortunate to have a whole day with him! A truly lovely and talented man.

Luckily as I started chatting to the other women in the car park I realised that we were all in the same boat. None of the ladies who had been invited along were freestyle kayakers. Most of them owned a playboat but it was clear that everyone was feeling a bit nervous and conscious of their own abilities. After some introductions, chatter and a warm up, everyone relaxed and we got onto the water. To get to the freestyle weirs, it’s a 5 minute paddle from the get on so super accessible. Having just about squeezed my legs into the small Jed, I felt a little unsteady on that paddle. I was completely unused to a lack of front and back ends to my boat and couldn’t believe how different the ferry glide felt. I did a quick roll on the flat though and was relieved at how easy a playboat felt to roll which gave me some confidence for the day.

It was great to realise that Hurley was in fact not scary at all!

We started off just by ‘having a go’ whilst Jacko and Ottie watched us. I was surprised at how okay it was. Having watched some kayakers at Hurley before, I thought the gates looked fairly intimidating. But in my first few attempts, I was able to surf across all three gates which I was quite pleased about. Everyone repeatedly gave it a go throughout the morning and even though none of us could really do more than surf it, it felt as if progress was being made. The only exception to this was the star of our group Emily who was happily spinning in her first few attempts and was now working on getting a loop! (The rest of us were very much in awe of her.) We had a lunch break at Jacko’s house in which we did some video analysis of our morning runs. Jacko and Ottie gave us each something for us to work on in the afternoon. I really enjoyed this part as it was great to see from a better angle how everyone else had been doing and also compare our moves to the near perfect technique shown in Ottie’s videos. (If you have never seen Ottie’s freestyle videos, go check out her social media. She is one of the world’s most talented freestyle kayakers and her kayaking is truly stunning to watch!)

Not sure if this eddy has ever seen so many ladies! It was a sight to behold!

Feeling refreshed and focused we went back for the afternoon session. It was clear after the first couple of rounds that people were tired. I think that we were all surprised by how tiring the morning had been and there were a fair few more rolls and swims occurring that had in the morning. It did not matter though as we helped each other out collecting the boats and the odd t-rescue if we were quick enough! Fishing out boats in a playboat was a new experience to me but luckily not quite as hard as I had thought it would be. I was grateful to have a solid roll and lots of practice at holding my breath. One of the really nice things about Hurley is that it gets flat really quickly after the feature. This means that even if you don’t roll up straight away, you can just wait a couple of seconds to try again as it calms down very quickly. We ended the day as it got dark and all of us with huge matching smiles on our faces. Although we were exhausted, it was clear that the aim of the day had been achieved. Each of us had the confidence to come back to Hurley with our own friends and continue the experience! Jacko and Ottie had essentially opened up the doors to another kayaking venue for us. We said our thanks and goodbyes and left happy.

Inspired to buy a playboat!

Three months after this event, an ex-demo Exo GuiGui Helixir from Flow Kayaks came up for sale. This boat had been recommended to me by lots of my freestyle friends as perfect for someone of my size. I took this sale post as fate and bought it! Unfortunately this also happened right at the start of lock down. Being the proud new owner of a playboat sadly coincided with not being allowed to go kayaking. So I enjoyed it in the garden for 2 months and adjusted the outfitting until the rules relaxed and I could take it out on the water. Now that the white water course is back open, I have been able to spend more time getting used to playboating. It is clear that I have a lot to learn but I am loving it. It is always great to have a new challenge! The nicest thing about it is how encouraging and welcoming the freestyle community have been. I have had so many offers of help from people that I both know and also who are strangers to me. No one minds that my achievements are small and my goals humble. (If I can learn to loop it, I will be ecstatic! Video of my first attempt below!) Hand on heart I have to say a big THANK YOU to Ottie, Jacko and Ness for inspiring me to get involved!

All photos by Tom Clare

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