What happens when you put some of the best paddlers in the world in a field with some incredibly keen students? Add some sea kayaks and you’ve got the Women’s Sea Kayak Festival, this year held in South Devon in August. With numerous beaches and estuaries, varied sea conditions and great weather, it made for an eventful and inspiring three days.
My teeth were clenched and my knuckles were white as I gripped my paddle. I peered out from under my helmet at the fierce white waves hitting the beach. “Punch through the waves. Plant a strong stroke before the wave hits you. Whatever you do, don’t stop paddling.” I tried my best to hold my kayak straight in the shallows, I waited for the water to lift me. And then I was off. Leaning forward, powerful strokes, I could see that the next one would crest right on me. Don’t stop. Strong stroke. Face full of salty water. Here comes the next foamy ridge. Reach and pull. And the next, and the next. Then all I could see was glistening grey, rising and falling. I’d made it through the surf. This was one of my workshops at the Women’s Sea Kayaking Festival – ‘Thrill and Shrill’ was the title, getting confident in rough conditions was the aim.
Brightly coloured sea kayaks are easy to spot, especially when their captains are clad in high-viz helmets. So when the paddler in front entirely disappears between the waves, you can guess that it’s around two metres of swell. My fear had subsided a little. I knew that any one of my fellow paddlers could rescue me if I entered the water, they were all more confident and more advanced than I was.
“Come with me, round these rocks,” coach Eila directed. I was getting better at controlling my boat and better at reading the water. “How about some surfing?” she asked.
“Next wave,” I promised myself.
I was pointing my blue boat into the waves, watching them come; the rise and fall a little gentler, my fists clenched just as tight.
“After this one,” I thought and the next moment commanded myself, “go!” Two quick sweep strokes and I was round, two more strokes and I was moving forward, my whole body engaged. I felt the wave lift the back of my boat and sped up, paddling as fast as I could. “Woooohoooooo!” I shrilled as I ruddered to stay on top of the wave. I skidded to a halt as the wave lost its power, a huge grin on my face. Sun shone like glitter on the water and the grey waves turned gold.
Hips, tuck, capsize, lean back, ‘more cheese Gromit’, deck. Another of my workshops was ‘Greenland Rolling’, how to right your boat if you capsize. Sound confusing? Try doing those steps when you’re upside-down, unable to breathe. The narrow wooden blades of a Greenland paddle seem at first to be an unlikely avenue by which to learn the holy grail of kayaking. “Hold her hands first. Good. Now let go.” instructed coach Rachel, “Did you help? Are you sure you didn’t help?!” When a coach is this good, learning is easy. A day spent practising the steps and techniques and every one of us had a roll.
My final workshop was a relaxed trip through the estuary. “We better get on the water quickly before the tide goes out, the mud here is terrible,” noted our leader. Kingsbridge: coloured houses and strings of bunting, the gateway to the sea. Each high tide wipes beaches clean of footprints, the moored boats provide a slalom course. “Let’s stop here, the sand looks inviting.” A private beach for lunch and a chat. We all have the same things in common: salty skin and sunburnt hands. Friendly voices mulled over our surroundings:
“Look at that house, way up there. I bet that’s not cheap.”
“Imagine being up there watching a storm come in.”
“Shall we take a look at the open ocean?”
Wind in our faces, the protecting rocks behind us, nothing to see but sea.
From the scorching heat of Baja, Mexico to the never-setting sun of Norway’s islands, kayaks create adventure everywhere. But they provide more than that. We shared stories and photos during an evening in our marquee. Hearing tales of loss, trauma, determination, achievement and passion. Of trying to change one little corner of the world, of not being – just finding a different route. Maybe I can do more. Maybe I can do anything…
Written by Hannah Parry: Hannah the Traveller is a musician and travel blogger from the UK. When she’s not discovering adventures abroad (on a shoestring) or running marathons, she’s finding adventures closer to home while playing classical music in London. Follow her adventures here.
Photos provided by the Women's Sea Kayak Festival.