For the last few years, I’ve been supplementing my whitewater time by paddling slalom and going to a handful of races. I think every whitewater paddler could benefit from spending some time in a pointy boat doing some pole dancing. Here are five reasons why:
1. Transform your backyard run
Most of us don’t live next to the Little White, or five minutes from the Fairy Glen. Slalom transforms your local stretch of grade 1-3 into a series of hard moves that need to be linked together perfectly to go fast. It’s like paddling grade 5 but without the consequences. Think you have your local spot dialled? String up a gate or two and try doing a couple of staggers and you will be alarmed at how hard it is.
2. Starting at the top and finishing at the bottom is not good enough!
In whitewater, I started out judging myself and others on the difficulty of the whitewater we paddled regardless of how well the section got paddled. Too often we fall into the mindset that someone is a good kayaker because they ran such and such river or rapid. But in slalom, it is not enough to have started at the top and rolled up at the bottom. You need to drive the boat around the river, make tight lines fast with the right strokes and minimal mistakes. These are all great skills for when you get back on hard whitewater.
Do forty-five minutes to an hour of slalom practice and I am done. Exhausted. Can’t make another up without falling in. You are constantly working, pulling as hard as you can. On a river trip, in contrast, you are frequently resting. Floating the easy bits and only paddling the bigger rapids. That is until you get onto something hard and continuous like the Skjoli in Norway. A continuous class 5 run where being on the back foot can be disastrous.
4. Upstream gates are the most fun
Outside of slalom there isn’t really anything like it. It’s a bit like doing a dip turn in an RPM but it’s also not. The feeling of nailing an up-gate is so epic. It’s also really hard. You put most creek boaters into a slalom boat and get them to try and go through and upstream and it’s almost laughable.
5. It has retaught me how to paddle
I thought I knew how to do a sweep stroke (wrong again), sure I could do a good rudder (nope!), I was good a surfing across holes (not even close), I knew how to paddle forward (I now realise I still don’t). The precision you need and the feedback that you are getting from having gates up and a clock ticking gives you makes you totally re-evaluate how you are paddling. It’s simultaneously gutting, to realise you suck, and great, because you get better and learn new ways to use the river.
I suck at slalom, I regularly get beaten by kids half my age (and those are only the ones who aren’t in prem yet!) but I love it and I think you would too. Loads of clubs have slalom boats you can borrow and training sessions you can go along to. Not sure about using a carbon boat? Why not just use the gates and get out in your RPM or other slicey boat? I promise you will learn loads.
Thanks to Carl Sunderland and David Turnbull for the photos.