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Keeping a straight line is easier said than done

By Hannah Farquharson

CAREFULLY balancing so as not to fall in I was apparently in one of the Richmond Canoe Club's most stable boats. Standing on the bank our photographer was just waiting to snap away with his camera should I end up swimming and I could just imagine the laughs I'd get when I crawled, dripping, back to the office.

As I sat in the kayak listening to Tim Joiner giving me my instructions all I could think about was remaining upright and going in a straight (ish) line.

Richmond Canoe Club has been in existence for 61 years and, like many people on a Saturday morning, I decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

It was over-cast and windy as I took to the River Thames under the guidance of Tim, one of the club's 20 coaches.

In front of the clubhouse at Landsdowne Boathouse, Petersham Road, Richmond, I was asked to paddle in wide circles slowly learning to co-ordinate the rudder at my feet with the paddle in my hand.

Once Tim was certain I had some kind of control we headed off in the direction of Eel Pie Island.

As we glided across the top of the water, me wobbling from time to time, Tim continually gave me advice on my stroke explaining that canoeists use their whole bodies, not just their arms, to propel themselves.

Pulling furiously with my arms I was unstable yet alongside me Tim, who has been canoeing for five years, was moving effortlessly.

He told me to keep looking straight ahead and turn the paddle into the water twisting at the trunk and gently pushing off my legs.

As we reached Eel Pie Island Tim decided it was time for me to demonstrate my control as we slalomed between five buoys.

He paddled off in front and I decided to take it slowly and eventually made it through without missing a space.

Much to my relief we then took a quick break on the beach in front of the White Swan pub before climbing back into our boats and heading out for some interval training.

Used by those who compete in sprints I was to paddle hard for 20 strokes and then return to my normal pace.

So off I went, pulling as hard as I could trying to remember the technical aspects of the stroke.

Tim was, of course, miles ahead of me by the time his 20 strokes were complete but it gave me a very brief idea of what the competitors at the club put themselves through.

"We are probably in the top five clubs in the country," says Tim who describes Richmond as a very friendly club. "Some of the best paddlers in the country will stop for a moment to help improve your stroke. The standard to which people aspire is fantastic."

As we paddled back towards the clubhouse I realised the impact the wind has on the river, struggling hard as it blew in my face.

Founded in 1944 Richmond Canoe Club attracts mainly local members although their reputation means people do travel.

"Until about four or five years ago we had a couple of hundred members," says Tim. "Now we have about 350 members, the largest canoe club in the country. Everyone gets on and is determined to get out and enjoy themselves."

The club recently secured its future on the riverside with plans for accommodation above the club.

As I enjoyed a cup of tea and warmed up I chatted with member Peter Hutchinson.

"There are a range of disciplines," he explains. "In paddling there are two types of boats, kayaks and open canoes."

Disciplines that can be competed in include 200m, 500m, 1000m and 2,000m sprints and 5,000 to 20,000 Olympic events with people competing on their own in K1s and with a partner in K2s.

"Richmond's best performing discipline at the moment is the Devizes to Westminster race," says Peter explaining that competitors paddle non-stop for 24 hours eating as they go through locks. "That's the big thing at the moment, people talk about it and tend to do it in K2s. A crew has got four people to support them. They build up camaraderie and last year 14 crews from here did it."

For those who would like to give paddling a go Richmond Canoe Club offer trial sessions for just 10 on Saturday mornings. It is run on a first come first served basis but once people have attended for two or three weeks they are guaranteed a place.

On a sunny morning there can be as many as 120 people paddling on the river. There are six or seven different groups and paddlers move up after three to six months.

"Paddlers are encouraged to race and invited to join the club for a cost 90 a year," explains Peter.

"Once a coach is prepared to sign you off you get a club key and you can come down at any time. We are very safety conscious and we don't sign you off until we are confident you know what to do if you fall in."

People begin in stable boats as I did and are then encouraged to move on and change from flat paddles to wedge paddles.

The club's top instructor is former Olympic coach Trevor Weatherall and there are many others who have chosen to qualify - something the club funds - to pass their knowledge onto others.

So what attributes make a good paddler?

"Someone who likes the water," says Tim. "Not necessarily a brilliant athlete, but almost certainly a swimmer. A person who gets an enormous thrill out of doing something well."

Last summer there were fears river sports would suffer after sewage poured into the Thames during heavy rainfall killing thousands of fish.

But Richmond Canoe Club was not put off and neither were their members as they were encouraged to continue paddling but ensure they remained above the lock for three or four days.

"For us it was very local and very short lived," says Tim. "It washed away quickly and we took sensible precautions for about a week."

Paddling on the river was relaxing and provided a completely different perspective of the borough and it left me wanting to know more about the technique and when I could have another go.

9:28am Friday 17th June 2005

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