My fascination with the canoe started in my late teens. I’d been paddling for a few years, starting in my Scout troop’s old wood and canvas double kayaks, progressing through various fibreglass tandem and solo kayaks and had built my first boat – a magnificent orange Snipe which was to serve me well for many years – which that summer I was taking to Scotland and my first trip on the Tay. We were a kayak club but that didn’t stop one of our members bringing a battered slalom C1 which he launched, with the rest of us onto Loch Tay early one morning after our overnight drive north.
How uncomfortable he looked – legs bent awkwardly behind him, ankles flexed unnaturally, perched on saddle high above the waterline seemingly ready to capsize at any moment. But he didn’t. And despite having only one blade, he kept up with us kayakers, across the loch and under the bridge at Kenmore into the river. We journeyed past Aberfeldy and Dave – for that was the canoeist’s name – was enjoying the trip as much as any of us and not complaining of any discomfort.
We reached Grandtully, our destination for the day, mid-afternoon to find the rapid running well and apprehensively made our way down through the foaming and, to our then less experienced eyes confusing, white water. I still remember the thrill! But I also remember when we went back for subsequent runs down through the rapid noticing the ease with which Dave seemed to move his canoe from one eddy to another, surfing here, breaking out there and performing S-turns everywhere.
That afternoon opened my eyes to how graceful and efficient canoe paddling can be on white water and I soon found myself seeking out opportunities to emulate Dave’s performance and begin to master the art myself. And the more time I spent in a canoe the more I began to appreciate how learning to be fluid with one blade, maximising power when needed and slicing into the next manoeuvre – without, where possible, taking the blade from the water – brought a new efficiency to my paddling in both canoe and kayak. My breakouts in kayak improved immensely as my bow rudders morphed into power strokes and back into bow rudders as I entered and left slalom gates and eddies. Practising cross-deck strokes in canoe improved my trunk rotation and confidence to go cross bow in the kayak too, generating more power for tight turns and sea kayaking. And everything I learnt on moving water helped me enjoy paddling on quieter rivers, lakes and canals too.
As those that know me will have heard me say, I love being out on the water and am very unfussy about which boat I use. But I don’t think I’d enjoy paddling with a double blade quite as much as I do if I hadn’t learnt the subtleties of using a single blade along the way.