Recently, there have been a lot of articles in the wake of the #MeToo campaign highlighting abusive and sexist experiences, even in the world of outdoors sports – many of which will resonate with the female kayakers out there. This article is not intended to take away from those voices at all (and I certainly have had some bad experiences myself). Instead my aim is to take a different angle on this male-dominated sport. In my experience, most men in kayaking are supportive allies to the badass women who get out there on the river. I think we also need to look at ourselves and our own approach to the relationship between men and women in sport – very much in the vein as Sheryl Sandberg’s call for women to ‘lean in’ – and I don’t mean for your boofing (although that would obviously also be useful!)
In my experience of kayaking, I have many advantages (in my opinion) as a female kayaker. Just one example is that, given that we are an rarity, people are open to kayaking with us more often. Guys often want to encourage women in the sport or enjoy the different dynamic of a mixed gender group. Other female kayakers are often keen to paddle with other women.
When someone says or does something – sometimes the best approach in life is to take it at face value and not assume that there is a (sexist) meaning behind it. For example, when I first started paddling at Hurley, I had no idea how to front surf, or even get onto the wave. A number of talented Hurley regulars offered to show me how it was done. Another female paddler commented to me that she thought it was sexist and patronising. However, in these circumstances, why take a negative outlook? You need the help, and there are experts around to help, why assume a male beginner would not also be offered the same help?
Equally, if someone makes a negative comment (which isn’t overtly sexist), perhaps they are equally unpleasant to men?
You may well come across a sexist in your time as a kayaker, but thinking positively – there are a great many people who are not.
I do not want to generalise, but I have certainly allowed myself to become reliant on others from time to time. When I first started kayaking, I would choose a person whom I trusted and tail them wherever they went on the river. Whilst there is a time and place for that, you should also balance those experiences by taking your own decisions and choosing your own lines from time to time. That is when you will begin to improve.
In Chile we went to inspect the Middle Palguin waterfall (now sadly gone) and I was the first in our little group to make the decision to run it. That wasn’t what my group were expecting, and it really has stuck in my mind as a moment of success in my kayaking ‘career’. You need to be self-sufficient so that you can make the right call about when to step up, and when to walk away.
I have found (and this is something that I still need to improve on) that in circumstances where you are primarily paddling with men who are often physically stronger – I can sometimes just allow the male members of the group to take over when there is a rescue situation. If you don’t keep up your practice here, you might find that one day you don’t have the boys there to do the rescuing and you are a bit rustier than is ideal! Get involved and LEAN IN.
Let people help you
In direct contradiction of my point above – when you need help, let people help you. Of course, you should avoid being that one female kayaker who expects the boys to carry her boat for her because she is too lazy to carry it herself (she gets dropped pretty quickly in my experience). Having said that, I am never too proud to take help when I need it (I am scared of heights, so often struggle with carrying my boat up high – so friends have helped me across a short stretch I can’t manage alone). I would also expect to help my companions carry their boat when they need help. It isn’t about gender, it is about working well as a team. Aim to pull your weight and LEAN IN.
Lead the way
I recently met some ladies who had tried to organise a girls’ kayaking weekend away, so that they could practice leading. With only two women confident to lead, they had enlisted some male paddlers to join in. Despite much encouragement from the lads, who were really very supportive and confident in the ladies’ abilities, the ladies did not want to lead when they found themselves in this group.
You are not going to have many chances to lead if you’re only willing to try it in the ‘safe space’ that is a group entirely comprised of girls. Of course, there are domineering men who won’t give the girls a go at leading, but that is not at all my experience. Instead, sometimes we choose to limit ourselves, often because we are scared to fail in front of others. Try it out, get out ahead and lead – it will help your confidence no end, I promise! – LEAN IN.
Don’t be scared to fail
This is somewhat a continuation of the point above – sometimes men in our sport learn faster because they aren’t worried about failing. There are numerous sayings around how success in life can be attributed to failing a number of times and learning from that experience. Of course, I am not encouraging you to put yourself in harm’s way, but sometimes what holds women back is that they don’t want the embarrassment of failing. They don’t want to lead the guys in case they get the line wrong or they don’t want to surf the wave in case they capsize and swim in front of everyone.
This reminds me of some advice I gave my sister in negotiating her pay deal in a job – what is the worst that can happen if you ask for a higher salary – will they withdraw the job offer? Of course not. So you have to feel the fear and do it anyway. Obviously, this is subject to the caveat that you need to understand your limits – not in the ‘women, know your limits’ sense, but in the sense that you don’t want to put yourself in harm’s way, just push the boundaries safely so that you can improve! (Jake Holland’s article has some good advice on this topic here).
Do you have any top tips to add to my list? Get in touch and let me know.
Please note that, by necessity, this article makes generalisations about both genders – of course, there will be exceptions, but it just isn’t possible to write an article like this without some sweeping statements in the interests of getting the debate going!
Cover image: Zambezi River – photo David Ernst