OC on the Usk

Following a lead from Roger, Alice and I pursued the chance of a free day on the river paddling big open boats.
The catch? We were to be students on a Level 3 OC (Open Canadian) coaching assessment. One of the examinees was world famous Mr Kayakojacko himself, who had been hunting for willing guinea pigs like us.
The other catch? It was January.

The rendezvous point was in the village of Llangorse, in the Usk Valley. We had spent the previous night in a B&B at Crickhowell, a 20-minute drive away. The morning was bright and ‘crisp’ as we were introduced to the team. It instantly became obvious that we were the only students, and with 4 coaches to be assessed, our learning experience was going to be full-on. Adrian the assessor took us to one side to explain that he would take a back seat and let the team take turns in imparting their knowledge on us.
We then set up the car shuttle and met up again at the put-in at Llangynidr Bridge. The River Usk is one of Mid Wales’ classic touring rivers. It runs between the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains. It is graded 2-3 with a mix of shoots, shallow rapids and deeper smooth sections.
So over to the pro’s..

With the boats and bank still a little frosty we manoeuvred our craft from the roadside to the riverbank. Alice and I were to paddle together in a 15’ prospector with all the coaches in their own canoes. The two of us had never paddled together before, and we innocently clambered aboard. After a 10-metre warm-up on the flat and into a river right eddy we were ready for our first rapid. Off we went, straight down the middle, bumped down to the bottom in our swamped boat. Looking back at the river guide, we avoided a notorious stopper that forms below the bridge.
We tipped the water out of our boat, and realised that although the two of us were promised a no-swimming day (accidents notwithstanding), it was going to be wet.
Two novices paddling together have two issues to deal with: learning the skills and learning to communicate at the same time. Our boat was remarkably quiet when we had to get technical.
Throughout the day our skills Achilles’ Heel seemed to be the reverse ferry glide, a stroke that needs the two paddlers to let each other know what they are doing.
It was decided to portage the Spuhler’s Folly ledge, a drop into a long stopper. With our boat speed, we could have spent some time exploring the feature.
With all four coaches having to work on us, Jacko, Chris, Steve and James, we were bombarded with skills. We both had chance to wade in the icy water whilst lining the boat upstream and downstream, a handy skill for dragging a canoe through the shallows.

After a lunch break and more boat emptyings we were also introduced to poling, which is punting the boat with a 12’ canoe paddle shaft. Jacko probably picked the wrong spot for the demonstration, with the water in the centre of the river getting ever deeper, but we got away without any ‘hilarious’ moments.
It was finally decided to split the two of us up. I got to run a few sections solo, while Alice’s work rate (and body temperature) raised by paddling with someone who knew how to catch the first choice eddy, and actually pick the route down the river through judgement and not luck.
The group finally cruised down to Crickhowell. With all the activities, an 11km trip had taken five hours.
Now for another good bit about a trip like this: we helped put the boats on the trailer, said our goodbyes, and were gone-no more kit to pack away. After a quick motorway tea break we were back on our way to London, and at our homes just after 8.

Alice and I both learned a tremendous amount about OC paddling, had a good day on the river, and it worked out much cheaper than signing up for a regular day’s coaching.
I would thoroughly recommend this method of getting some experience in an unfamiliar class of paddling.


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