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5 Coast to Coast Kayak Training Mistakes to Avoid

Every year, hundreds of beginners are learning to kayak for the Coast to Coast Race. Here are the 5 most common Coast to Coast training mistakes, and how you can avoid them.

Mistake #1: Over-Boating

With so many different models of multisport boats to choose from, buying the wrong boat for your ability is a common first mistake. If you’ve had a look around at the options already, you’ll notice quite a difference in the length, and more importantly – width, of each model. Essentially, the longer and narrower the design, the more potential speed you’ll be able to generate (but the more skill you’ll need to keep it upright and under control).

In an effort to make things clearer, manufacturers will class different boats into different categories: “stable/beginner”, “intermediate”, and “advanced/elite”. Now let’s imagine you’re a beginner with no river paddling experience, aiming to do Coast to Coast in 6 months time. Which class of boat should you buy? You: “Well I don’t want to be in the stable/beginner category, that sounds a bit lame, surely I can be better than that. The advanced/elite category sounds too egotistical, I’m not trying to win the thing. Let’s grab an intermediate boat, that feels like a good compromise, surely I can handle it”.

If you’re reading along thinking that sounds pretty logical, I don’t blame you, but my reaction… Noooo! If you’re a beginner, get your butt in a stable boat where it belongs. Trust me, you won't regret it. That’s the reason these designs exist, for you to learn in and have success. You’ll be much faster in a boat you’re stable in, and you'll enjoy kayaking a lot more. There’s going to be enough to learn in the next few months without having a boat that’s constantly trying to put you in the drink.

If you’re worried you’ll out-grow a beginner boat in a couple months, well… you probably won’t. It takes a few seasons to become comfortable in the intermediate category. Every year there is a large number of people looking for a more stable boat just a few weeks out from the Coast to Coast race, and finding one at this late stage is not always possible.

For an example of a really nice beginner multisport boat, check out the Flow Aspire. If you’re wanting to play it really safe, and not worried about your race-time, consider a lightweight sea kayak like the Barracuda Beachcomber.

Mistake #2: Giving up on Learning to Roll

Learning to roll simply makes sense. If you flip, you can simply glide your paddle across the water, and gracefully resurface to complete the race. Brilliant!

Well, if you’ve ever actually tried to learn how to roll, you would have discovered the dirty truth – it’s not quite that easy. The kayak roll is a complex movement that requires plenty of patience, persistence, and a good coach to guide you.

At Canterbury Kayaking, we teach rolling as part of our grade 2 certificate course, with about three out of four people leaving the course with a roll. We also have evening rolling classes that anyone is welcome to attend. The problem many people face however, is once the course is over, they lose their roll through lack of practice.

Now is the time to repeat, repeat, repeat. Make this movement second nature. Make it your highest priority to have a roll that works “in combat” (in the real event). You may have a roll that works in the pool or lake, but frustration develops when you swim on the next river trip.

While many people are discouraged from practising their roll after a swim, you should be encouraged! If you can roll in the pool, there is no practical reason that it can’t work in combat. You have come this far, all it may take is to practice a few dozen more times, and next time… Boom, it works! No more swimming. Don’t give up on learning to roll.

Mistake #3: Too Much Time on Flat-Water

This pains me to watch. The race we’re training towards is on grade 2 whitewater, so why on earth are we spending more than 90% of our time paddling on dead flat water? It simply doesn’t make sense.

Now I do get it, we aren’t all so lucky as to have the Waimakariri River right on our doorstep. Yes, it is logistically easier to head to the local pond than to organise a crew for a river trip. There’s certainly a safety component involved too. I would never recommend first-year paddlers get on a grade 2 run without a qualified guide or experienced support group.

So what is the solution to ramping up your moving water time safely?

Firstly, upstream paddling. Find a local river, free of trees and debris (or other potential hazards), and put your boat in pointing up river. There doesn’t need to be rapids, a steady flow that you feel safe on will do. Paddling up against the flow is a wicked workout. Plus with every stroke you’ll be building your comfort with having moving water under your boat.

Secondly, take advantage of your local whitewater club. There is a good reason we paddle whitewater boats in our grade 2 course. It’s because on these runs, you get to spend a large majority of your day playing and learning on grade 2 river features. You’ll spend very little time on flat water, and therefore your moving water skills will skyrocket. Throughout New Zealand, there is a whitewater community in nearly every town, you just need to find it. Get involved in as many trips as you can.

Mistake #4: Stepping up too Fast

I know I said you have to get off the lake. But turning up for a full Waimakariri River Trip before you’re ready may spell disaster for your self-confidence.

The mistake is forgetting to take those baby steps that make the road to success a smooth one. Even with a freshly signed grade 2 certificate in hand, a Waimak' Trip might still be too much of a jump right now. You probably need to keep building your comfort with easier runs, until you feel so solid on these, it feels like the lake.

I realised the importance of this a couple years ago, and have since created our Coast to Coast Skills Course. Without going into too much detail, we essentially help you make the step from basic training, to the Waimak Gorge. We do this through a series of fast paced, baby steps, or “progressions”. We spend a brief time on the lake, then move to faster and faster water through a series of drills. Before you know it you’ve successfully paddled the Gorge.

Think about how you can break down your goals into bite sized chunks. It’s not necessarily about moving slower, but rather through a logical process that builds success on top of success.

Mistake #5: Cherry Picking Advice

Advice only works if you follow it. Remember that kung-fu movie where the guru will only work with the apprentice if he pledges to follow all instructions without question? Well, I’ve never asked a client to trust me to that extent, although it is tempting sometimes...

The problem with taking some advice from me, a little from a book, some ideas from the guy at the kayak shop, and more advice from your uncle who did Coast to Coast back in 1983, is that there’s very little continuity, and this leads to confusion. Everyone has a different take on how you should best train for this race, and this can leave you feeling like every step is the wrong one.

As coaches, some of the stuff we tell you to do might not be all that fun, or even make much sense in the moment. But beware of cherry picking for only the advice you want to hear, while missing the crucial things that can make all the difference. Doing the easy stuff is easy, doing the hard work is often where the biggest advantages are. Choose just one or two qualified coaches or advisers, and trust their advice.

If you'd like to discuss your paddling skills plan for Coast to Coast, feel free to contact me or leave a comment below.

- Sam Milne.

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