I recently indulged in the other boating sport – kayakingAlex Lee for Varsity

In an act of betrayal and secession, I recently indulged in the other boating sport – kayaking. Continuing my never-ending quest to find a sport I enjoy and stick with, I signed up for a beginner’s kayaking course, run by Cambridge University Canoe Club.

A change of scenery

Even as a relatively inexperienced rower, I have rowed between the boathouses and Baits Bite Lock far too many times to keep track. Passing the same landmarks along the river can get quite stale, quite quickly. It was therefore refreshing to venture upstream of the iron curtain (Jesus Lock) towards Grantchester Meadows, where the canoe club is located. The novelty of the sport combined with the novelty of the stretch of river was a welcome distraction from the overwhelmingly repetitive aspects of rowing. Entering the rowing rabbit hole in Michaelmas of first year and never leaving it can easily make you forget about the various activities on offer beyond, even just on the river. With just 24 weeks of Cambridge life remaining for me, I feel increasing pressure to make the most of my time here, which means finding ways to escape the clutches of the rowing bubble.

“Without the pressure of consistency and razor focus upon me, I felt at ease to frolic and meander around how I wished”

The technical aspects

Immediately upon getting in the kayak, I realised that moving from one point to another would by no means be a direct trip. My initial attempts to paddle in a relatively straight line were quickly interrupted by prolonged periods of spinning around on the spot. This felt unfamiliar, as I’m more used to sitting in a boat which takes around 3-5 business days to spin 180 degrees. However, after some guidance from the course instructors and a bit of practice, I quickly got the hang of paddling around, even if I was still prone to the occasional mishap. The speed with which I and everyone else around me seemed to adapt demonstrated how kayaking is simply more intuitive than rowing. While I do not doubt that high-level kayaking is extremely technical, part of the appeal to me was that I could just hop in the boat by myself with almost no prior experience and get by.

Rowing is about the mastery of a single action, repeated thousands of times in pursuit of perfection, whereas being in a kayak offered me much more liberty with my movements. Without the pressure of consistency and razor focus upon me, I felt at ease to frolic and meander around how I wished – words which are hardly imaginable to the troglodytic rower mind. However, with great liberty comes great responsibility. Kayaking entailed a much greater need for adaptability and awareness of my surroundings, both of which I am used to having outsourced to the cox. Given my inexperience and inability to paddle competently, punts creeping towards me at very harmless speeds had me frantically trying to get out of the way.

The vibes

Kayaking gave me a chance to relax, enjoy the paddle, and talk to other people while doing so. The laid-back vibes were a pleasant distraction from the sometimes incessant seriousness of rowing. But as someone who is generally incapable of enjoying any sporting activity in a leisurely fashion, I did feel that I was in some way less suited to the art of kayaking on the Cam. As much as I despise the feeling of my body being flooded with lactic acid during ergs and races, I also enjoy the sense of accomplishment obtained from pushing my body to new limits, otherwise known as ‘Type Two’ fun. Luckily for me, kayaking more seriously beyond the beginner’s course can offer physiological challenges and, because the rower erg simply isn’t enough, there are even kayak ergs out there! Now, I can base my self-worth on not one, but two different numbers telling me how fast I’m going. But perhaps, the leisurely experience of kayaking was a valuable reminder that not every sporting activity has to be performed excessively seriously. Rowers in particular could benefit from remembering that there is no shame in partaking in sports for the sake of having a bit of fun.

“The laid-back vibes were a pleasant distraction from the sometimes incessant seriousness of rowing”

The aftermath

Word of the dangers of taking a dip in the Cam spreads quickly in this establishment, so (un)luckily for me, the kayaking course was the perfect opportunity for me to empirically test these claims. The instructors described the process to safely recover from a capsize: flip yourself over, tap the side of the boat three times, pull off the spray deck and then eject yourself out of the boat – simple, right? Though slightly frantic, the capsize test was, in fact, surprisingly quite simple. I completed all the steps and emerged from under the water soggy, but otherwise relatively unscathed.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that for the rest of the day, my body was not feeling sore, as it would following a rowing outing. When rowing, the boundary between an easy zone two paddle and a physiologically demanding, fast paddle is easily blurred by demands to put down more power and faster bursts. More often than not, this leaves my lower body in a state that makes cycling up Castle Hill to go to Aldi feel like climbing a mountain. Now, when my legs are burning from rowing but I still crave some exercise, I can go for a kayak and give them a rest, since my kayaking technique is not good enough to use my legs properly. Then again, I guess I could also say that about my rowing technique.


Mountain View

The highs of May Bumps

Unfortunately, what I avoided in muscle soreness was compensated for in a different type of debilitation. Yes, I claimed to emerge from the water “relatively unscathed” – that was a lie. The stretch of the river by Grantchester Meadows was not the only novel location I ventured to that day, as I would soon find myself in Addenbrooke’s for the first time. As it turns out, the rumours about the risks of ingesting a mouthful of Cam water are in fact true. Even with all their differences, I think rowers and kayakers can both agree that the vast amount of shit polluting our water is quite frankly lamentable.

Despite the horrors of waiting all night for blood test results to confirm I didn’t have any brain-eating amoeba, or whatever horrors inhabit the Cam, and the subsequent few days of illness, I would still consider my first proper taste of kayaking (and Cam water) to have been a positive experience. A big thank you goes to Cambridge University Canoe Club for running the course and introducing me to the joys of kayaking.