Frequently Asked Questions - River Canoeing
Where does SOC go river paddling?
Local rivers, from grade 1 to grade 4, give us a wide choice for trips in the printed programme. We will venture as far afield as the Lake District and Scottish borders on day trips, the Nith being a particular favourite at about the limit of the distance we will drive for a day. For those rivers we paddle most frequently we've tried to give some useful info in our Favourite River Trips pages to make it easy to get an idea if these trips are suitable for you. Trips at the hardest end of the spectrum, grade 4-5 do take place, but as these are highly dependent on conditions, they tend to be organised at short notice, rather than way in advance.
We tend to run easier trips more often in the October to December programme, and harder ones more frequently January to March. But venues change to suit the weather, so hard trips may be downgraded to easier which often run with less water. Summer rainfall often comes at short notice, and rivers don't stay up long, so although it is rare that we have rivers in the programme, it is not unusual to paddle local rivers at short notice (particularly the Swale, Tees and Wear), often on a midweek evening in summer.
We do have weekends away further afield, usually on harder rivers in North Wales or Scotland. These are usually hostel-based (most often Bangor, Pitlochry, Crianlarich or Roybridge). Members have ventured down to Devon for the Dart, so we try to avoid just doing the same rivers every year. Touring is also an occasional activity, usually spring before levels have dropped but when it is at least a bit warmer. The Spey and Wye have been the most popular venues, both of which are good for open boats as well as kayaks.
For holidays, SOC has often visited the alps, where snow melting off high mountains gives a reliable supply of water even in summer. There's some river descriptions under the Favourite trips link above. In 2012, Slovenia provided sunny paddling in clear water for two separate trips, whilst Austria in 2013 gave us some bigger, and sometimes harder, water. Norway keeps being mooted for "the year after". For easier paddling and touring, the Allier, the Tarn and the Ardêche (in France) have given members a lot of fun in recent years, but members have also paddled rivers as far afield as Yellowstone (USA), Ecuador, Uganda, New Zealand and Chile!
For a good idea of what we've been paddling recently, view Previous River Trips or see the summaries in the monthly newsletter.
What equipment do I need?
Basically, Boat (with buoyancy fitted), Paddle, Spraydeck, Buoyancy Aid, Helmet (all of which SOC can provide, at a beginner and, increasingly, an intermediate, level - see the next question) and personal clothing. For whitewater kayaking, there's a bit more detail on our River Kayaking: What Gear Do I Need? page which covers the essentials at entry level. There's more stuff you soon see the need for as you progress and there's more advice on our What Safety/Rescue Kit Should I Carry? page.
For Open Boating, the boat and paddle are different, and a spray deck is not needed, whilst some paddlers regard a helmet as less necessary than for kayaking, but remember you can still find yourself swimming or paddling under low branches, so we'd recommend one for all moving water. We'll have a detail page up soon.
I have a... Is it suitable?
There are plenty of people who have started paddling with an old boat bought cheaply or passed down from a previous generation. For flat water, if it fits and you are comfortable in it, and can get out of it safely after a capsize, it is probably OK - that includes open boats with or without keels; sit-in and sit-on-top kayaks and even coracles. On moving water, the criteria are more stringent. Open boats and sit-on-tops with a keel or other moulded shape on the bottom can catch on rocks and are not recommended on even easy moving water. Fibreglass boats are not a good idea in rocky rivers. Sit-on-top kayaks are not really suitable for water above grade 1. Older boats often don't have points to clip on ropes for unpinning rescues and should not be used on harder rivers. ALL boats should have fitted buoyancy bags (airbags) which will keep them floating high in the water and make it easy for a rescuer to get them to shore safely. Grab handles on the end of boats should not allow a hand to go through as this presents both an entrapment hazard and a risk of hand or wrist injury. The inside of the boat should not present any entrapment hazard like loose rope, or a footrest which your foot can slip past. Spraydecks should have a secure release handle and you should always check that it is on the outside of the boat where you can reach it. Buoyancy aids should either be of recent manufacture or be tested to be sure that they still retain adequate buoyancy (manufacturers typically recommend not using BAs older than about three years). Helmets should be a good fit and not move about on the head, and should provide some side protection as well as front, back and top. Helmets shouldn't impair your vision and need to be in good condition with a known history. An impact may leave little or no visible damage, but the structure may have been weakened and may not survive the next impact. If in any doubt, ASK!
Having said all that, there is no doubt that, like used cars, second hand boats can be good value and perfectly serviceable. You can usually try them out without adding enough new scratches to lose their value (unlike a new boat:) and there will be enough people out there familiar with these older models to be able to say whether they are good or bad and suitable for the sort of water you intend to paddle. Similar comments apply to many of the other expensive bits of kit you will need. Be a bit more cautious about safety-critical bits of gear like helmets and buoyancy aids whose history is hard to confirm.
Does SOC have equipment to use?
Since a clear out of old boats in 2012, we've been adding more modern boats. There are a small number of boats that see a fair bit of use. These include a large Coleman open Canoe, which is good for family days out on lakes and deeper rivers up to about grade 2. There is a Corsica kayak, which is a solid whitewater boat, though bigger than a lot of the more popular models you will see on the rivers. It's a good boat for beginners and probably not ideal for harder rivers so is listed in the inventory as suitable for up to grade 2, but used to see regular use on the Swale which has a few grade 3 sections.
The two most modern boats are a Fluid Solo creek boat in the small size, which seems to be big enough for adults up to at least 1.75m tall. It's a forgiving and easily rolled boat that is not easily stood on end in stoppers, and suitable for rivers up to quite hard grades. We recently acquired a large Burn, which is suited to all grades of river, but does need energy to drive, and is best suited to larger paddlers. Finally, we have a Topo Duo, which is great for being taken on harder water than perhaps you'd venture on in your own boat, or for if you would like to take a family member out on a river under very close supervision. For many years, the Topo was probably the most often-used boat in the store.
All the boats have spraydecks, and should have buoyancy bags - users should check carefully to ensure that buoyancy hasn't been moved to another boat before use (this is far less likely to happen now the older boats have gone). We have a selection of paddles (both for the open boat and the kayaks). As with boats, our stock of paddles has been updated and as well as some older (and often quite heavy) models with 75-80° feather, there are some more modern ones at 45° and even one at 30°. We have helmets, but these are older ones considered best limited to easy rivers up to grade 2. Buoyancy aids have also been updated, but the club ones are still basic adult and junior models suited to easier rivers. A well-fitting helmet is probably the first thing you should invest in, and your own buoyancy aid should not be far behind, especially if you want technical safety features like a cows tail and quick-release harness.
Boats are generally £5/day per cockpit (or £25/week), with priority given to those who have already joined the club. Odd items of gear like spraydecks, paddles, PFDs, helmets, throwlines... are £1/day (or come included when hiring a boat). If equipment has not been booked out by members, non-members may hire it for use on club trips and pool sessions only, and pay 50% more than the members' rate. There are more details on each boat linked from the Equipment for Hire page.
How do I find out river levels?
For local rivers, club members will often drive past and have an idea of what their local river is doing (Tees and Wear in particular) so if a trip is in prospect this sort of thing will be on the Canoe Section mailing list (or you can ask!). The other obvious place to ask in on the UKRGB Inland forum. The following sources of information have proven useful:
Scottish Dam Releases from wheresthewater.com
These guys make a real effort to find out where water is going to be released on schedule (or for maintenance) to help plan summer trips to find some whitewater.
Environment Agency gauge info for England and Wales
The EA have started making a real effort to report data, though the number of rivers available is still a bit limited, and only data for the 48 hours prior to the last report (usually early morning) are available. When the facility was new, it was down for maintenance quite often, but this has improved and now only single gauges seem to be offline for a few odd days. However, a lot of our local catchments are included, and I'll be adding links from our Favourite Rivers descriptions and trip report "Additional Notes" pages. UKRGB river descriptions often refer to good levels for rivers by reference to these gauges.
SEPA gauge info for Scottish rivers
SEPA gather data to fulfil their statutory obligations and make a lot of it available online daily (most updates are in the morning later than you would need to set off, but give at least an idea of levels and trends). SCA have had longer to calibrate what gauge levels work for each river, so this is a really useful resource, and more rivers seem to be becoming available over time since a major overhaul to the system in 2011.
Canolfan Tryweryn release info a few days ahead
If you are in Wales and it fails to rain, the Tryweryn often releases, but the days can change at short notice so always check before travelling (the nearer the time, the safer the bet). Be aware that the centre is shut in November and December, and the river releases only on environmental criteria which may mean less than the usual 9 to 16 cumec release. This may be less than the minimum level you are allowed to paddle the Upper, and the Lower is not worth bothering at these lower levels.
The link used to be to the release events diary, but BCU and/or Yorkshire region are so utterly useless that they seem to have let their domain registration lapse and all links to the Yorcie site are broken :-( Best bet is to google for "BCU Washburn Calendar" which typically delivers a screed of club copies of the events diary. This is always provisional, so you should check whether a given release is going to happen before travelling ! In 2010 some releases late season were cancelled, owing to the water shortage. A lot of reservoirs were not very full after a very dry March in 2011, so there were some cancellations thenr, too, but some extra releases later. In 2012, we noted one or two releases not being at the usual level (possibly because the reservoir downstream was too full), but also we've seen the top dam overtopped, giving an even bigger flow ! There's again been a dry spring in 2013, so maybe some releases won't go ahead. Moral: check before you travel!
There are some sites making data for English Rivers available (usually paid for by anglers) which I'll be adding as I find them, although I suspect that these are effectively superseded by the EA gauge pages above. Both the EA and SEPA gauge info needs some interpretation to get an idea of what is a good paddleable level. This has been going on for some time for the SEPA gauges, but has only just started for England and Wales. Visit the guidebook pages on UKRGB for updates as this progresses. Where available, I'm including a link to a relevant gauge (or web cam) in the Favourite River Trips page for each river, along with our estimate of what the levels mean in terms of paddleability. We've also created a comprehensive list (with links) of all the gauges which either have live data or National River Flow Archive data. Note that this is a very big web page (1.2 Mb) - if you are likely to need to use it often, please save a copy to your own computer.
Is this weekend's trip suitable for me?
Along with "Where and when are we meeting?" and "What's the water level like?", this is possibly the question we are asked most frequently. The answer obviously depends as much on you as on the river and reading a guidebook (see question below) is often useful! The programme will usually indicate the grade of river, and particularly is likely to flag up beginners' trips, but a check on the weather is always worthwhile since the same river may be a lot less appealing if it is cold, windy, or very wet. There are some rivers that appear in the programme so often, or are venues that we paddle when a hoped-for trip can't happen because of the wrong conditions, that we have put descriptions, with photos of typical club trips, in our Favourite River Trips pages. If that doesn't help, you should contact the trip leader (as you need to anyway, if you are wanting to come on a trip) for advice. He/she will also be able to answer those other questions about meeting place and conditions - or likely changed venues! It's best to express an interest early, but not expect to know meeting place and conditions until a day or two before the trip. Most trip leaders will put this info onto the section mailing list, often with a list of the people he is expecting to come, so that car-sharing can be organised. See the next question for joining our mailing list.
As we do have to cope with people we've not paddled often with, we are now quite keen on a decent warm-up at or very close to the put-in, so we can see whether people are coping with the conditions on the day. Please don't take offence if we suggest that you shouldn't paddle with us after the warm-up - we've had a couple of scares over the last few years where it turned out that conditions were outside the expected range and some people were not able to make crosses or eddies that were essential to the safety of the trip.
Finally, with the relaxation of our long-standing ban on formal coaching, some trips will be designated as coaching trips by the trip organiser. Please don't turn up unannounced on these trips - they take a bit more organising, and may be limited as to numbers. Please let the organiser know if you are interested - whether as a learner or a minder.
How do I join the Canoeists' mailing list?
The mailing lists (one for each section and a couple of others) were originally hosted by topica, then became traditional majordomo lists (which was a great improvement), and then changed to Mailman from 2011-03-25. With the new website in 2014, we had a system to which you could only subscribe to if you had a logon account to the website, and then only with the email address that the web system holds for you (only one mailbox per member, which was a bizarre and unhelpful restriction). With anti-spam measures getting more and more onerous, our kosher Mailman system was not coping as well as one would hope. As a temporary measure, we moved on to Google Groups. As is so often the case temporary measures which work for 90% of people never get dealt with to provide a permanent solution which works for the other 10%. If you are one of those 10% (as I am) you are probably out of luck. If you are one of the 90%, I still can't help you to subscribe to the list - I've been trying to add a new email address for an hour and a half with absolutely no progress. It really is arcane and probably requires intervention by an actual human. Whilst that is possibly no bad thing, I don't know who that human is, so I suggest emailing everyone on the committee to complain. Mailman was in heavy development to make it compatible with new anti-spam stuff, so ought to be fixed by now. Please lobby the committee to move back to a system which works for everyone, not just "most users". There is an official club policy that communicastion should only be by official mailing list, and if it doesn't work 100% of the time for 100% of members, we have egitimate cause to make vocal complaiNT.
Are there any good guidebooks?
For rivers we haven't described on this site, or any you'd like a different view of, there are community-contributed online descriptions at UKRGB, but also lots of traditional printed guidebooks which usually fit in a pocket for reference when you are out and about. Here's some guidebooks we've found generally useful - you'll also find some books mentioned in the Favourite rivers pages for non-UK (and maybe non-English language) books.
Nick Doll's A Canoeist's Guide to the North-East is our local guidebook, and has more detail on the North East Rivers than anything else that covers the area though it is now becoming a little dated (most noticeable if you read the harder rivers like the Upper Swale). Paperback: 264 pages, Publisher: Cicerone Press (1991), ISBN-10: 1852840668, ISBN-13: 978-1852840662, Dimensions: 17 x 11.6 x 1.4 cm. Currently about six pounds.
For more comprehensive (and recent) coverage of most rivers we're likely to paddle, there's English White Water which has the added bonus of including quite a few photographs taken on SOC trips - including the cover photo of Tony Hammock on Dogleg on the Upper Tees. The level of detail is not that great, as you'd expect to fit the whole of England into one small guide (a bit big for a pocket), but it is adequate and certainly saves buying a whole lot of individual guides for regions you don't visit frequently. Paperback, 304 pages (Ed) Franco Ferrero, Publisher Pesda Press, ISBN: 0-9531956-7-8 B&W and Cyan plus 32 pages of colour photos, Dimensions 140x200mm. Significantly more expensive at about £16. A new edition is in preparation in 2013 and may make it into print this year.
Stuart Miller seems to have paddled anything and everything you could possibly fit a boat on to research this utterly comprehensive guide to a much bigger area than the first edition title suggests, covering the whole of NW England - that's why the title has changed for the second edition. There's a lot in here you probably wouldn't want to paddle, and finding the right river can sometimes be confusing as rivers flow from one sub-area to another, but the detail is great and the research recent. (1st edition, paperback: 368 pages, Publisher: Rivers Publishing UK (2003), ISBN-10: 0951941380 ISBN-13: 978-0951941386 Dimensions: 20.8 x 14.6 x 2.2 cm ) A new edition (that's the one illustrated) is planned for 2013 - don't have an ISBN or a price yet.
Peter Knowles' guide is excellent for British paddlers visiting the French Alps, and covers all the easier rivers as well as many harder ones, although the extreme hair boating trips in the upper reaches of some rivers aren't included (you need the rather sketchy French guidebook for that, best bought out there). Most SOC members who have been on recent trips will have the previous edition, but the 3rd edition (coauthored by Ian Beecroft) looks even better and covers an extra area with several new rivers. There's a lot more colour in this edition along with the detailed maps and descriptions, which have been thoroughly updated - published late 2011. Softback: ISBN: 978 0955061448, 224 pages; 240mm x 170mm, RRP £19.95 (but on sale for as little as 15.96).
We're reluctant to recommend places to buy books, and Amazon are dire for sending you junk mail/email, but if you want to buy online, buying from various publishers (hopefully managing to avoid the dreaded Amazon) via the UKRGB website at least puts a bit of your cash into a useful community resource...
How to call for help?
Paddlers should carry a whistle to attract attention, as this is a lot more obvious than a shout in a noisy environment. You can't get very badly lost within the confines of most UK rivers, but if you need to get off, or call for outside help, it is useful to know where roads (and phone boxes) are, so carrying a map in the group is a good idea. Mobile phones often have no or poor signal in deep valleys, so finding a route to climb up to get signal may also need local knowledge or a map, and being able to tell the emergency services an exact grid reference will always save time.
Remember to take details of names and numbers of people involved when setting off to call for help - it is useful to be able to write this stuff down, especially if you're on a trip where you don't know everyone. Finally, if you can't get good signal, or your location is too noisy for a mobile phone, it is possible to send a text (SMS) to 999, but only if you have registered in advance for this service (it is intended for hearing-impaired users), so it is worth doing this right now! Click: How to register your mobile for SMS 999 calls (texts). Don't put this off.
Can I make videos as good as Bomb Flow?
OK, maybe nobody's ever asked me that, but I'm keen to encourage others to produce videos of the club's paddling :- it's not that difficult and I know an increasing number of people have waterproof cameras that shoot video, and quite a few have helmet cams. That means you're accumulating footage - all you need to do is put it together.
To get as good as Bomb Flow (or, nowadays, Substantial Media House), it will involve a lot more effort, time, and people than we have on a typical club trip, but club trips can provide enough material for worthwhile short videos, especially if folk collaborate and share footage. Whenthe club was running photographic competitions, I put together a Hints and Tips page - this is mostly applicable to whitewater paddling trips, but contains some stuff which will be of use for sea trips or, indeed, other activities.
What happened to the whitewater gallery ?
The gallery under joomla never worked well (the words obscured the photos, then the gallery upload code proved to be the route used to hack into the site, so it was progressively downgraded until the new site was built to be more secure). The new site has galleries, but (as yet) no way to add the words and all-important photographer credits, so Canoe Section looked for an alternative way to provide the pictures along with the accompanying explanatory text. The interim solution below now only works in older browsers, if you don't see a gallery, follow this link to see the gallery offsite. Which ever way you get it, click near the middle of the right hand edge of the big photo to go to the next (a white arrow should appear as your mouse crosses it). You can use the arrows on the line of thumbnails to scroll through lots if you are looking for one particular photo.