First Timer's Guide to Kayaking in the Coast to Coast

Introduction to Using this Guide

The purpose of this guide is to serve as a general overview of what I'd recommend as a good skills pathway if you're a first-time Coast to Coast paddler. 

I'm assuming that you've done no kayaking (or very little) in your life before deciding to do the Coast to Coast. So we'll start from the very beginning.

My next assumption is that you’ve found this advice early enough, so that you have time to follow each step from July through to February. If you’re starting earlier than July, good on you for giving yourself plenty of time! If you're starting later than July, you’ll simply need to adjust and prioritise what’s going to be possible for you.

Some of the steps I suggest are obviously easier if you’re located near Christchurch. Hopefully wherever you are in New Zealand (or the world), you can find similar locations and services to those described below.

I do of course have a bias... Some of the services I recommend in this guide are how I make a living as a professional kayak coach here at Canterbury Kayaking. I’ve tried to keep the sales pitch light where possible, and have provided links to more info if you’re interested in these things. However, you can take kayak instruction from whoever you want, and you'll still (probably) be fine.

With that all out of the way, let’s get you on your way to paddling glory in your first Coast to Coast Race.

July/August: Winter Fitness & Foundational Skills

There are a number of things you can do from an early stage to improve your success further down the track. Winter is the ideal time to learn some foundational skills, build your paddle fitness, and get some gear organised.

Gear you’ll need to get started: Kayak booties, paddling shorts, a thermal top, fleece top, light paddle jacket (or lightweight rain-jacket), sun cap and/or beanie.

1. Take a Fundamental Skills Class

Various places around New Zealand offer introductory kayak lessons for beginner paddlers. Even if you’ve played around in kayaks before, I’d still recommend taking this step seriously. Enjoy the chance to have an expert take you through the basics. Gaining some fundamental skills now will help you develop good habits you can practice, and provide an early opportunity to see how naturally you take to paddling.

At Canterbury Kayaking we offer our half-day Introduction to Multisport Course. This is a skills session on a flat-water lake. We will provide the kayaks and equipment for this, so getting started with this first step is pretty straightforward.

2. Join a Multisport Kayak Club

The next step I’d recommend is joining your local kayak racing club. In Christchurch we have the Arawa Canoe Club. Wherever you are in New Zealand, there is likely to be a group of keen paddlers - you just need to find them!

Clubs like this often have a number of novice Coast to Coast competitors joining up over winter, so most will offer “beginner days” where non-members can come and introduce themselves. Go and do it. It’s great to have a group of people to train with, and most clubs have kayaks and gear you can borrow until you get your own.

It’s worth mentioning that the beginner sessions at a racing club will be entirely different to the “skills course” offered by a professional kayak school as in step 1. You should do both.

3. Get Paddling Fit

Once you’ve had a little professional instruction, plus been introduced to your local racing club, it’s time to get stuck in and go paddling.

Important safety note: Do not go paddling down any swift flowing rivers yet – this will help you avoid drowning. I’m serious.

You probably don’t have your own boat and equipment yet, so continuing to borrow from your racing club ensures you'll stick to the safer locations near the club-rooms. Borrowing kayaks also serves as a chance for you to experience different makes and models. And will make deciding which kayak to buy much easier later.

At this stage, you may want to enlist the help of a professional fitness coach or downloadable training plan. There are plenty of coaches around New Zealand that target Coast to Coast. If you can’t find a coach, or prefer the DIY approach, don’t let that stop your training. Just head out for an hour or so of paddling, 1-3 times per week (perhaps with your new club). Make sure you’re working hard, and you’ll get stronger pretty quickly. Once you’ve done a couple weeks of this, it's probably time to “train smarter” for better results.

September/October: Grade 2 Certification

Once you get to spring you should be pretty comfortable and reasonably coordinated in a kayak. You’ve been practising the skills shown to you so far, and have built a decent level of strength and fitness. From this point on, we’ll assume your fitness training continues on in the background, so I won’t talk too much more about this.

It’s now time to get into the most important aspect of your entire Coast to Coast journey, river skills.

Additional gear you’ll now need: More sets of thermals (tops and leggings), a second fleece top, a semi-dry top or fully-dry top, a 20L dry bag, and a skull cap.

1. Learn to Roll

Not only does learning to roll help to alleviate the usual nervousness associated with being “trapped” upside-down in a kayak, it is obviously highly practical.

If you can roll back up, you won’t be swimming every time you lose your balance. This is a massive advantage when learning to paddle. We offer evening rolling classes at Canterbury Kayaking, and spaces often sell out quickly.

2. Attend a Grade 2 Certificate Course

This is probably the most exciting aspect of taking on the Coast to Coast Race for the first time. Your first experience with grade 2 whitewater will be thrilling, and challenging.

Many places around New Zealand offer a Grade 2 Course for Coast to Coast, and not all are created equal. Most providers have differing philosophies on what skills or experiences are of most benefit to you in this early stage. Due to this, program designs and layouts can be vastly different from one another when comparing providers.

Although, I believe that Canterbury Kayaking’s Grade 2 Certificate Course is the best in the country, there are other providers that offer good programs too. Making a very generalised comparison, our grade 2 program has more of a focus on whitewater skills, safety, and rolling, rather than multisport speed. We believe in promoting confidence around the sorts of features that tip many competitors out on race-day.

Remember, the thing that will make the biggest difference to your overall success on race-day is how much quality river training you do after certification is complete.

When booking a course, it’s also worth thinking about what happens if weather or river-flows are not favourable on the dates you’ve chosen. Canterbury Kayaking courses run regardless of the weather due to our location options. But other providers may need to reschedule you, and this is quite common during the spring months. Check with the provider you’re considering, and factor this in, along with what happens if you don’t pass your certificate right away.

November/December: Skills Development & Experience

As I mentioned in the previous section, whether you’ve passed your grade 2 certificate by this point or not, the success you have on the river during Coast to Coast will be determined by how you focus your time during these next two months.

Additional gear for this stage: Your own stable multisport boat or sea kayak, adjustable wing paddle, spray skirt, PDF, helmet, whistle, survival bag, paddling pants.

1. Set-up Your Equipment

Buying all the gear is great, but I’ve included setting it up as a separate step here, because it is super important. Your new racing kayak probably handles differently to the kayaks you’ve been borrowing thus far. Take plenty of time to gain familiarity with your new gear in a safe place first.

Does your rudder system work properly? Does your boat require airbags, and are they tied in? Can you sit in your seat without your legs going numb? Or do you need to make adjustments to the seat angle or install a more comfortable seat? All of this needs to be worked out now. Do so while continuing on with your paddle-fitness plan, and try and use your race boat as much as possible for this.

2. Get more Whitewater Experience

Whether you did your grade 2 course with Canterbury Kayaking, or somewhere else, chances are you did at least a couple of days in a short whitewater kayak without a rudder. As instructors, we all know how much whitewater paddling helps to improve your confidence and ability quickly. So embrace this advantage, and go do more of it.

Contact your local whitewater kayaking club well in advance of wanting to join them. You can normally hire a whitewater boat from the club for the weekend. In Christchurch, we are lucky to have the Canterbury Whitewater Club. They are very supportive of new paddlers and many of them have done the Coast to Coast themselves.

You won’t regret an extra couple of weekends having fun playing around in boats. Just remember to bring a positive attitude, be gracious and appreciative when offered help, and respect the fact most whitewater members paddle just for fun, rather than to compete in races.

3. Get Some Instruction in Your Race-Boat

Ideally, you want to be taken out in your race-boat on the Waimakariri River. But there are places in the North Island you can go too. I hear the Mohaka is good, but a flight to Christchurch might be just as easy or difficult depending on your location.

At Canterbury Kayaking we run our Intermediate Multisport Course. This is three-days of instruction in your race-boat, based on the Waimakariri River. It’s extremely popular for obvious reasons.

This additional time with a professional instructor also provides a second chance to reassess your grade 2 certificate. For this reason, I always recommend booking this course well in advance. Knowing this next skills course is coming up will help to take the pressure off during your initial grade 2 course.

4. Get Some Kayak Racing Experience

There are a number of good opportunities out there to experience actually racing your multisport kayak down a river.

The Rasdex River Race Series is based on the Waimakariri River, and consists of three relatively short 15km races over three separate weekends on easy grade 2.

The reason these races are so beneficial, is that they provide a chance for you to paddle on your own without an instructor beside you. Plus, entry fees are relatively cheap compared to professional guiding or instruction.

There is normally some safety-cover provided in hazardous zones. Enter as a “novice” and they’ll normally keep an extra set of eyes on you for increased safety.

January: Pre-Race Confidence & Preparation

Your paddling should be coming along pretty well by this point. You’ve got your certificate submitted to Coast to Coast, your gear is all set up, you can roll, and you’ve had a go racing your kayak on easier grade 2. Now it’s time to dial it in for race weekend.

Final gear to pick up: Any race specific layers like a short-sleeved paddle jacket, electrolyte/fuel mix, helmet visor and sunglasses.

1. Do a Guided Waimakariri Gorge Trip

When starting out, you might imagine that once you’ve got the hang of paddling, you’ll simply grab a mate and cruise down the Waimakariri Gorge every weekend before the race. While this is a nice concept, in reality it's often not the best idea, and can be dangerous.

Taking on an isolated section of river like the Waimakariri Gorge requires more than just basic paddling skills. The logistics, emergency equipment, good judgement, and rescue skills required to safely paddle the 67km without help will probably still be beyond your capabilities (even by this point).

There are a couple of companies that offer Guided Trips down the Coast to Coast section, and Canterbury Kayaking is one of them. Ideally, you’ll want to do more than one guided trip during January if you can.

Sometimes the weather or river flows will force a trip to be called off. So factor in the possibility of a trip being cancelled when developing your overall training plan.

2. Waimakariri Classic River Race

Another way to get experience through the Waimakariri Gorge is by entering the Classic River Race, which is held on the same 67km river section as the Coast to Coast.

The race is open to anyone with a valid grade 2 certificate, and is always on the checklist for those preparing for Coast to Coast in February. Find out the date of this year’s race, and add it to your calendar now.

Ideally, you would have already paddled the Gorge with a professional guide prior to doing this race. Going into a race like this having never paddled the section before is a pretty bold move to put it gently, but some people do it.

There are safety personnel in key spots, but you’ll still want to be confident that you can handle yourself in your race-boat (67km is a long way to swim).

3. Join a Club Trip through the Gorge

If you’ve been through the Gorge a couple times with a guide, and proven yourself in the Classic Race, you might be lucky enough to be invited to paddle the Gorge with a club such as the Down River Kayak Club.

Don’t expect to simply email the club the day before a trip and be able to tag on. Club trips are normally reserved for official paid members only (who’ve been paddling with the club for a while). Novices are chosen carefully, as the number of newbies can quickly outnumber trip leaders if not managed carefully.

A club trip is a great way to gain another river trip a low-cost, but for most people it’s often easier and safer to simply book another run through with the professionals.

4. Rest & Study

The final stage is to back off on the fitness training. This is called tapering and helps your body be in the best state possible for race weekend.

This is a great time to go over your notes from everything you’ve learned about kayaking and the C2C river section. You’ll probably have some river lines to commit to memory, and you’ll want to establish some land-marks plus a game-plan for how you’ll pace yourself down the river.

Check over your equipment. Consider what gear has the potential to break on you, and have a plan (plus the tools and knowledge) for how to fix things.

Create a transition plan, and resist the urge to deviate too much from what’s been working for you so far.

Further Notes

Everyone learns at a different pace, and your mileage may vary. You may have unique challenges to overcome such as limited time, less-ideal location, budgets, physical or mental challenges, etc. Customise your plan to suit your needs.

Remember that no one ever complains they were too good at kayaking for their first Coast to Coast, so plan to do as much paddling as you can.

If you’ve got a question about anything mentioned (or not mentioned) above, or have advice you’d like to see included in this guide, please comment below or contact me and I’ll do my best to respond when I'm not out on the river myself.

Happy paddling.

Sam Milne.

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