We set off, a small group of ‘intrepid’ paddlers, wondering what we had let ourselves in for by signing up for the four star training. We met Joe, our trainer, at a burger bar in a lay by just north of Bwlch, mid Wales. Manda turning blue, with the air temperature at minus 3 degrees, tried to persuade burger bar owner to sell her half a cup of tea – she almost succeeded! The mist was supposed to burn off but stayed with us for most of the day, keeping the sun and it’s warmth out of sight.
Next, a short drive to the river, the confluence of the Edw and Wye. The session started with an in depth talk about kit and equipment. Stu was excited by his new tow-line, only to be disillusioned as to it’s usefulness on white water, so it was disappointingly discarded (saving it for the sea kayaking though). We’ve all got bits of kit to get, including candle, compass, cable ties, denso tape, flashing, group shelter etc etc etc
Early lunch, with medical history and previous experience duly noted by Joe, then on to the water with chilly toes. Signals agreed upon, with a view to use the minimum number, newly introducing a ‘pull your deck’ signal to indicate get off the water NOW. Misinterpreted by Manda as exit boat immediately, wherever one is on the river – haha – in reality it means get off the river asap safely.
Before long and unbeknownst to us, we entered Hell...Well, Hell Hole actually.. Choices of routes were given. Martin and Olwen quickly choose the easy route, leaving Manda, Stu and Kate to probe Hell’s hole. Stu led the trio first down the shute, and true to form, turned upsidedown and parted with his boat. To be fair he did warn Kate and Manda , he said he would eddy hop and for them to follow but not to run him over. Joe was at the bottom to fish him out. Manda decided that Stu would be her role model and as is the well renowned domino effect, followed suit – apparently not rolling as she was reminded of scary rivers from the programme Human Planet. Kate, with the benefit of watching the stricken lines, bombed safely down. In the mean-time Martin and Olwen ambled gently down a shallow zigzag route on the t’other side of the river. This was followed by practice side surfing in an itsy bitsy stopper – levels were really really low as this wave has a nasty rep usually.
Further down the river, just under a bridge there was a surf wave that Olwen had to be dragged away from or she might just have been there still! Finishing the day with what apparently lets most 4* aspirants down on their assessment, reverse breaking into the flow, holding position and reverse ferry gliding. First attempt sees Olwen surprised as rather than crossing the flow she ends up doing the upside move that Stu has perfected, but reassuringly resurfaced quickly.
So, on to another day and another early start (9.00am meet). As BCC members we rose to the challenge and were only a few minutes late. The bunkhouse continental breakfast consisted of cereal and white bread toast – not even a fruit juice offering – so we had decided that the burger bar in the lay by was an attractive proposition for bacon butties, only to be hugely disappointed as it wasn’t there... Fortunately, as good 4* trainees, we had organised a packed lunch, so at least got a few carbs before setting off to throw ourselves into the Usk. Dummy runs of eddy hopping on the road in the lay by, using vehicles as rocks got us a little bit warmer. Seeing Stuart ‘swim’ in the road was entertaining.
It was bothersomely cold (a pub discussion on acceptable expletives the previous night prevents me using the word that would more appropriately reflect our thoughts). Manda, counting up her under layers , regretted that her drysuit had not been returned from a stitching repair.
On the water at the Chapple – no service today, so no problems re using their lay by. It was a short run down to the first ‘feature’. This is where the fun begins. Breaking in and out of the flow, lovely S across the river from eddy to eddy. No problems, good edging, smooth, calm, safe, reliable and competent (get it guys??!!). But, then, oh no. Got to do it backwards. Not as easy as Joe made it look!! First three rolls of the day go to Stuart (not counting the bread ones we had for breakfast).
There was more emphasis on leadership skills today. So limited play on the surf wave above Mill House falls before off to scout the ‘raging torrent’ - not! How many eddies could we make? The levels were low, so routes down were numerous – river left, river middle, river right! Just a few more rocks to dodge . Manda led Martin and Olwen, followed by Kate leading Stu and Joe. None of us picked the boof line! All stayed upright and made lots and lots of eddies, signals galore, communicating well – well done teams. Bit more eddy hopping and signal practice in the rock garden, then a bit of a surf on a lovely wave – roll count up to five for Stu. Martin looking cool, calm and collected on the wave (photo on BCC facebook profile).
As the weekend was drawing to a close, we were all terribly disappointed that the river was too shallow (and cold )to practice swimming and rescues. What a shame! The sun came out for the end of a fantastic weekend, where we had all pushed out our boundaries, gone out of our comfort zones, come away with action plans to improve our paddling and leadership skills.