Three coaches had volunteered to help with this Sunday’s session. Dean and I had been out of action for several weeks (me due to injury and Dean as he had been away) so we had agreed to meet before the members would arrive and learn from Leon what had been working well and how we would run the session. Although it probably feels a bit of an imposition that we ask members to let the club know in advance if they wish to paddle on a Sunday morning session, this is essential for us to ensure that we have enough coach cover, and to work out how best to run a safe and enjoyable session within the government and British Canoeing guidance.
Everything is carefully worked out according to what the river flow and weather are doing. We tend to arrange where we go so that we have the return journey in the same direction as the flow is going – to make it easier to float home after our refreshment stop!
As coaches, as well as guiding the group to paddle according to the correct Thames navigation rules, it is most rewarding to also pass on tips and hints and help our paddlers develop their skills.
This week was a particularly tricky one for navigation as the tide was coming in until about 11.20am at the club when the flow would start to go out again. This “turning point” happens earlier the farther upriver you are, so for example the flow would have turned to start going out at Kew by 11.00am. When you paddle WITH the flow, the standard place to be is on the right hand side of the central part of the river, known as the fairway. If you are paddling AGAINST the direction of flow, then you paddle on the edges of the river (known as the inshore zones).
So we knew that as we headed off up river towards Kew we would be going WITH the incoming flow, but at some stage we would meet fellow river users coming down river who would also be in the middle of the fairway coming towards us as the river would have already turned where they were. At that point we would therefore be going in a direction that is now AGAINST the flow of water and so we would need to move out of the fairway to the appropriate inshore zone. This is always an “interesting” time and requires a good look out to see what everyone is thinking the river is doing and working together!
We were keen to get all three groups on the water as quickly as possible so they would get as far up to Kew as possible before the tide would turn.
Launching on an incoming high tide needs extra care to ensure the paddler is comfortable and ready in their boat before being pushed away from the pontoon and that there is sufficient safety cover and a coach on the water in case anyone has a wobbly moment. So with our groups allocated, we maintained social distancing, got the boats off the racks and everyone fitted leaving space on the pontoon in case the RNLI needed to run by! We launched Dean’s group first, then Leon’s, leaving my group of 5 who were the most experienced paddlers to launch last.
It was lovely to meet Dai who is himself a very experienced coach and he kindly volunteered to help with the launching. Frank was trying a seakayak for the first time, and quickly worked out the importance of keeping the body central in a narrow more “twitchy” boat, and being longer how a good sweep technique is required to turn them!
Everyone had expressed an interest in learning more about the navigation rules, and this was a particularly good day to learn! We were a strong group who were all very capable of being out in the middle of the river (which can be daunting as a beginner). Keeping together is important when you are travelling in the fairway, so with Dai in the lead and me at the back we kept a good look out and adjusted speed as necessary. I pointed out how to know where we should be: on the right hand side of the fairway as we are looking upriver. The demarcation between the fairway and the inshore zones are marked by buoys – green conical starboard ones on the Middlesex side, red square port ones on the Surrey side. So everyone looked ahead for the green buoys and made sure we placed our group just to their left. We should also go through the middle arch of the bridges and therefore lined ourselves up well in advance so there is no need to alter course too close to the stanchions!
It was a lovely sunny day and the Thames is beautiful. As we came through Barnes Bridge the SW wind made itself known and became a great opportunity to see what we can do to make our forward paddling more efficient! Body position? Foot pressure? Shoulder rotation? Paddle position?
Sure enough just before Chiswick Bridge I saw the upriver traffic coming towards us in the middle of the river, so I stopped the group, confirmed the river flow had turned and so it was time for us to move out of the fairway into the inshore zones. Which side of the river that inshore zone is (Middlesex or Surrey) changes according to the bends in the river, so paddlers can “work the slacks” where the flow is easier to paddle against. There are some places however on the river where it is possible to paddle on either side, and this is one of them! So with most of the rowers crossing to the “correct” Surrey side inshore zone, we just moved a little to our right to be in the Middlesex inshore area, keeping a good look out for the rowers who would be heading back to their clubs on that side of the river, but where we knew we could remain all the way up to the pubs at Kew Road bridge!
There are relatively few places on our stretch of the river where there is room to spread out to practise skills without getting in the way of other river users. Behind Oliver’s Island past Kew Rail Bridge is one of them and with time on our side, we took a little time there to practice turning and moving sideways before the group headed off for refreshments.
On our way home Frank wanted to try sitting his boat in the eddy behind the nearest Kew Road bridge stanchion, so we did! Its fun to start to feel what the flow of water is doing under your boat and Frank Eliza and Cai all had a go, learning how to use a bit of speed and correct angle of the boat to come out of the eddy and turn with the flow down river. Its safe here to turn towards the shore and keep away from any other river traffic. Time had come to set off home again, so we moved back into the fairway but this time looking out for the red port buoys to keep them just on our right!
There was still time once past Barnes bridge for some more tips and it was super to learn from Dai a new way to teach the sideways sculling draw, much to my and Eliza’s delight!
It was then home and with Julius on the pontoon to help, we all got off and everyone helped put away the boats that Julius didn’t think were needed for his taster session. Another lovely day on the river!