Plas Menai is the Welsh national centre for watersports and I was enrolled on a weeks kayaking course to improve my skills to prepare for my 3 star assessment. Gaining this award means you can then train as an instructor to take groups out kayaking. The skills required are those for kayaking on white water, something that is generally lacking in the south east of England. So I was to have my first taste of rapids, swells, surf and sea.
It turned out there was only one other guy on the course. The instructor also had someone helping out who was training for a higher coaching award meaning we had a one to one ratio! We started in the pool practising some basic skills and then it was off to a local tidal river. We practised breaking in and out of a fast section of water that poured through a tunnel under the bridge. The trick is to keep the edge of the kayak facing upstream high with your knees as you turn downstream otherwise the force of the water catches your edge and flips you over.
Day two saw us driving to the river Dee where there was a white water slalom section of several rapids. We paddle and portaged (carried) our kayaks upstream to above the top rapid. This time we practised breaking in and then sitting in an eddy before breaking out a different way. We also learnt how to use the force of the river to manoeuvre the boats instead of paddling. One exercise involved gliding into the rapids with the paddle above heads with our eyes closed! Then we headed down stream shooting rapids one at time, learning how to signal each other and how to ‘read’ the water. The last drop was the biggest and we had to paddle hard to not get caught by the ‘stopper’ (like getting stuck in water going down a plug hole).
The next day we drove across Anglesey with a change of kayaks from the short fat river boats to long narrow sea kayaks. These feel more unstable but make it easier to paddle long distances with less resistance. We set off from the beach and paddled round headlands to a cove where we practised manoeuvring the sea kayaks which is a lot harder compared to the little river boats. Also rather confusingly you have to lean the opposite to the way you want to turn in these boats. Having practised (if not mastered) these skills we continued round the rocky coast at one point passing through a natural archway which involved a tricky three point turn!
The Menai straight itself was our destination for the fourth day. The tide fills in from each end of the straight making for some dramatic changes in tides and water levels. We broke into the fast water from behind the pillars of a huge bridge gliding across from one pillar to another. Later as the tide changed we paddled down to where there was a big area of standing waves caused by a broken weir. We had to really battle to get into the waves but then we were able to sit surfing them. To end the day we made the rather daft decision to paddle all the way back down the Menai straight to the centre. A couple of hours later we eventually got back!
The last day it was back to the coast for a leisurely paddle round Puffin Island, it was the wrong time of year to see any of the puffins but this was more than made up for by the seals bobbing up next to our kayaks! I finished by trying to perfect my rolling back in the pool. What a week, it went so quickly. Being able to transfer the skills I had practised in Shoreham on a flat river to a situation where I had to use them ‘in anger’ on white water was invaluable in improving my abilities, hopefully passing my assessment and so being able to start taking other members of the group out kayaking.