by Paul Chitty

About four years ago I had felt that I would like to learn to paddle but was unsure of my physical ability to do so due to my disability. I am a paraplegic, paralysed from the waist down and have no sensation from my hips and below, due to a motor bike accident in 77 which necessitates life in a wheelchair. Well life can and often does throw all kinds of crap, but just send it back and move forward. I had in the early years played wheelchair basketball but even the adrenaline it produced lacked something. I loved water but felt the only way to access it would be by being taken out on one of these river\ harbour cruises organised for groups of the disabled. No way I thought was I going to be treated like a run of the mill cripple (oh sorry not very PC, I meant a physically challenged person). After some thinking I thought about canoeing and made some phone calls and wrote letters so I could get some advice.

I contacted the BCU who were initially helpful but seemed unsure in which direction to proceed especially when I mentioned using a Kayak as opposed to a canoe. These difficulties were nothing when I mentioned rolling as they didn't have a clue and was then pushed from pillar to post. You need the coaching service they said, who in turn said no you need your regional disability officer. In fairness I think that there are so few paralysed paddlers they didn't know how to proceed, as most paddler's view of rolling is that you need a decent hip flick to roll, more about that later.

After stumbling across the Dorset Disabled Canoe Unit I began paddling in Littledown pool, Bournemouth which I tried a kayak but due to my balance I capsized after only one stroke. Not to be put off I tried a Perception Kiwi, which was far more stable and become my springboard. This boat I did my one star in, now paddling in Poole and Christchurch harbours.

On a visit to Pewsey Canoe Exhibition I tried a couple of boats which were really unstable and felt maybe that I would have to stick with the Kiwi when someone suggested having a go in a Prijon Cyclone, a basic white water boat, just over 3 metres long. That boat was great, stable and a move away from the Kiwi - a real kayak. When I brought the Cyclone a few people were unsure how on earth I would get out of it in a capsize but in the event this didn't pose a problem.

I developed my skills and passed my two star award and after some time was invited on an Exe weekend. I really enjoyed that trip even though I had a few capsizes and swims. I have learnt that as someone who is paralysed you have to take the basic skill and then develop it, as there is an extra dimension due to disability.

I was still having a few problems on whitewater and in the back of some people's minds they were thinking and sometimes suggesting that maybe I was at my limit. I however was determined to persevere, as I was sure that there was more to be done. On a wet October day I and two coaches from Southbourne Canoe club (which by now I was a member) joined the Exe tour, which in normal circumstances is a gentle introduction to whitewater. On this weekend however the river was in spate, a bit more than easy grade two. Along with many other novice paddlers there were a great many swims. The trip was cut short due to the fact that Bolham Weir had a 15-foot towback. By the end of that day I had got wet so many times that I was unsure if I ever wanted to paddle moving water again. The practises that Mike Taylor and Pete Coles had that day in rescuing a swimmer will I'm sure live in their memories for a long time.

I did not realise it at the time but Sunday, the second part of the Exe weekend would be an education. I waited on the banks of the Barle at Tarr Steps watching the river storm past. Instead of paddling my boat I was going down in a Topo Duo with John Cockram, a paddler from South Avon Canoe Club. Everything seemed so easy and I got a good understanding of edge control, breaking in and out, ferry gliding and surfing on a wave. I had tried most of these things to one extent or another but had never had any confidence with surfing on waves. The greatest thrill however was running Dulverton weir, on the left there are steps but the right there are just two drops. The first drop is small and the second must be 8 - 10 feet. As we made the drop I must have swallowed my heart as due to the length I was suspended in mid air momentarily and then plummeted towards the waiting water. As the boat accelerated rapidly towards the water the front of the Topo and me submerged and capsized in an instant. The boat and its occupants were rescued and everyone seemed very concerned about me, but I loved it and the feeling was electric, I just had to do that again - another nutter was born!

From then on I proceeded to tackle my three star but one barrier was my lack of rolling which was non existent. Different ideas where looked at using different techniques but these produced poor results until Pete Cole a coach at the club said that a roll used by C.1 paddlers may be of use. The roll is more of a put across roll which was about 75% effective. With rolling on the way the barrier to my three star was one step nearer, many people were involved but without them and especially Pete Cole it would not have been possible.

Practicing braces outside Southbourne Canoe Club.

I have since paddled the Exe, Barle without incident and mostly survived the Dart loop, (lovers leap rapid must have some of my boats plastic etched to the rocks, ouch!). On a recent club trip we went to the Nene Whitewater Centre near Northampton and had an excellent day and look forward to returning in the not too distant future. The Cyclone that I paddled has been replaced by a Perception Arc and am now a proud owner of a Dagger Infrared, Necky Gliss and a sea kayak (Avocet)


Wanting to improve my paddling I attended two courses at Plas Y Brenin in Snowdonia, which where a rolling course and whitewater week. The facilities at the Brenin are excellent in all areas, accommodation, food and course content. You can use your equipment or theirs, which is of a high standard.

Level five coach Trys Morris ran both courses, the rolling was over a weekend, very intensive but well worth it. Over the two days I learnt a brace roll but as I have very little hip flick I was shown the C to C which is effective and works. Since that course I have begun developing the roll which hopefully will become efficient and become my survival roll.

The whitewater course was excellent though after five days very exhausting but the following gives details of what the course involved.

Day 1. After basic skills instruction from Trys and Ben on rolling skills and boat rescue techniques in the pool our group of 11 was split into two groups as we moved outside onto the lake. The group that I was in lead by Trys began on edge control and the difference in edging and leaning. In the small jet we practised break in\ out and ferry gliding before proceeding down the Llugwy grade 2 to Jim's bridge rapid which came soon even though we must have been out a couple of hours.

Day 2. After breakfast we all got into the van and went to Llangollen, the Nomad slalom site which is a good grade 2. There are various rocks, which can be used as break out points and a couple of small drops and stoppers. When the Tryweryn is releasing the level is higher as it flows into the Dee, but alas it was not. Practising whitewater techniques there was good and crossing on a wave great fun.

Day 3. We had hoped for rain but this was not to be and so we moved away from rivers this day and went surfing on Anglesey's West Coast. The waves were big and glassy, breaking only near to the shore, ensuring everyone caught some good fast rides. After building up some confidence and a rest on shore I was all set for some more action but the surf began dumping and so for safety we moved to a less risky location. After a short drive we came to Four-Mile Bridge which is tidal and water is forced through a small archway producing a strong jet with nice waves. Here more experienced paddlers tried stern squirting but my efforts were somewhat pathetic so I hope to get hold of a boat with less volume and try again.

Day 4. We returned to the Nomad site at Llangollen to hone our skills from the previous visit. Using the features of the water such as standing waves and stoppers would be the order of the day. Paddling upstream to some relatively fast moving water we practised forward and reverse ferry gliding, breaking in and out before moving down onto more demanding water. The plan was to breakout at the bottom of a small drop that looked relatively simple. That is line up and punch the drop, cross eddy line and low brace into safe area. Well that being the theory, but in practise my run turned out slightly different. I saw the line that I needed and got speed up as I came down the drop but cut into the eddy to early and hit a submerged rock in the main flow, which threw me and the boat up into the air. As I landed at a strange angle with my head virtually in the water I expected to capsize but I was amazed at my quick reaction and a high brace which returned me to a upright position as I continued my journey into the eddy.

We were shown how to cross from one side of the river to the other using a low brace once we had punched into to stopper sideways. I tried it but as I have no control in my legs lifting my upstream side is not possible so extra commitment to the paddle is required. I punched into the slot at 45 degrees and as I dropped into it braced with extra lean but was unsure of the outcome. The first thing to happen was that the paddle sunk alarmingly, oh bugger I thought you've done it now. But in the next instance the paddle rose and I was shot across the stopper. The feeling was wonderful as I was jerked up and down with strong sideways vibrations. All the while I felt in control even if I was unsure how this would end. Two-thirds along its length there was a churning hole that all of a sudden grabbed me and sucked the stern in. As this occurred the bow lifted followed very quickly by a capsize, I managed without even thinking about it to position the paddle downstream and was quickly rolled up for a short period. The instructors watching must have thought a rescue was in order and had me out into calmer water of an eddy. In all I tried this four times and loved every second, and cant wait to try it again with a greater degree of success. I don't know who was the most surprised when I pulled it off, me or the other paddlers watching.

In the time that I had been on the water my wheelchair had been noticed on a couple of occasions. Once someone had asked Trys who it belonged to and she pointed to a group of us on the water and they were unable to decide which paddler belonged to the wheelchair. The second occasion a teenager paddled over to and asked if I was the disabled guy and when I replied yes he was amazed that I could paddle as I used a wheelchair. I don't consider disability a barrier and is only a problem if you let it be. Its like the physics of a Bumblebee flying really, they're not designed to be airborne but fly they do. If you want to do it have confidence in yourself because that is all that is usually required, combined with a little variation in technique.

Day 5. Our final day and we were all feeling shattered but we all gave it our best shot. We headed east long the A.5 and turned towards Bala, ending at the Tryweryn. We all looked at the water, which to most of us seemed immense and I could feel knots developing in my stomach. We were split into two groups, advanced and lesser paddlers, I was with the latter and so thought that I was in for an easy days paddling, how wrong I was. The 1st group headed up to the grade four stuff while we went down to more sedate water.

We drove to the campsite and got on at the top and all seal launched into the river. We began breaking in and out of the fastest water I had experienced all week and before I knew it we were going to break out below a drop. At the bottom of the drop were what to me seemed huge standing waves. Apparently I never had enough speed as I tried to punch myself through the current and was swept over a wave sidewards and then over the next wave, which I capsized. My feeble attempt at a roll was just not good enough and a swim followed. Trys must have paddled so fast from the eddy she was in, as when I emerged from my boat all was in readiness for me to be rescued and brought to the shore.

We went back to have lunch and then returned to the campsite only to be told that we were all running it again, I was terrified, convinced that another swim was inevitable. Stomach churning and head spinning I thought no way but with determination I fought against the fear which pulsed through my body. After seal launching into the river and warming up everyone made the drop, which they were all surviving. The longer I left it the tenser I became and not wishing to leave it any longer I paddled at top speed and launched down the drop. My line for the top breakout was not good but as I made it through the standing waves my fear disappeared and confidently broke out slightly lower down. I had been convinced that this would be impossible run but this was not the case. Had it not been for the excellent coaching I received from Trys and Ben I doubt if I would have ever attempted the impossible, thanks.

Playing at Woodmilll Weir.

At the Nene Whitewater Centre.

On the Dart below triple falls.

Finally are there any other active disabled paddlers out on our rivers as I have yet to see them. In the three years or so that I have been paddling I have only come across two other disabled whitewater paddlers. I would love to meet them as we might be able to learn something from the experience.

PAUL CHITTY. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

P.S since that article has been written I have gone on to take the canoe safety test and in the Spring will be doing my level 2 coaching award.