Canoe Club: the freedom of the sea
Hastings and District Canoe Club don’t enjoy the most charismatic of club-houses, a concrete shell among the beach huts beyond Cinque Ports Way. Their canoes and kayaks are stored in old shipping containers. But don’t be fooled. On Tuesday evenings between the end of March and the end of October, when it’s not too windy and the sea’s reasonably calm, you’ll see a well-trained and expertly equipped phalanx of paddlers, young and old, march out across the foreshore bearing state-of-the-art Dagger vessels aloft. Seniors help juniors install themselves aboard each with the nose of the canoe pointing at the waves; then it’s a brief slither down the shingle and into the fray.
These home waters are not always inviting. The sea is usually cold and always wetting. If it’s too choppy or there’s a significant off-shore breeze they won’t be going out: they don’t want to have to radio the coastguards for rescue from the middle of the Channel.
There are compensations, though – not just in the friendly company assembled around the tea-mugs, nor in the very modest costs of membership. If you can learn to negotiate the home conditions, then everywhere else is going to seem benign in comparison. Or, even when it isn’t, you should have gained enough confidence to cope. And the club organises regular away trips that test this out.
The club’s excellent website www.hastingscanoeclub.org.uk offers a good flavour of its varied and challenging itineraries already undertaken this year: the river Rother in January flood with the water running so high there was hardly headroom to paddle under the bridges; fighting a weir at Yalding on the Medway in February with the river again in spate; hitting high-breaking waves on a course down the West Sussex coast in early April between Pagham and Hayling Island (several kayaks capsized and couldn’t be righted in the swell, though nobody came in harm’s way); by contrast, later in the month, a gentle 10-mile paddle up the Thames on the incoming tide through the heart of London from Docklands to Putney; and in June longer trips to the artificial white water course at Cardington near Bedford and to the river Canche in the Pas-de-Calais, France.
Basic training programmes are undertaken not at sea but in the Battle Abbey School swimming pool, made available to the club on alternate Thursday evenings all the year round. There you can learn paddling and slaloming, recovering from capsizes and other skills in still and safe waters before venturing out into the natural environment.
The club have four Level 2 (British Canoeing) coaches. Safety is paramount: you will need to demonstrate you can swim (50 metres minimum) and you’ll need appropriate clothing, though the club provides all the equipment. In fact it regularly undertakes safety duties for other water sports including this year’s triathlon events at Ashburnham and the 1066 charity swim between the harbour arm and the pier.
There are around 60 members ranging from age 8 to almost 70. Membership costs £50 per year which covers all sea sessions; you pay an additional £4 per indoor pool session. Casual visitors are welcome: they pay £5 for each sea session, £6 for the pool. Chairman Jason Richardson says that the club would like to attract more juniors but already offer taster sessions to cubs and scouts and to the sea cadets next door, also to local independent schools Buckswood and Claremont.
There is no great emphasis on competition. However the club do organise an annual “Marathon” long distance race on flat water at Tonbridge, where the facilities are provided by the local club, and for some years also ran a regular slalom event at Yalding before finding themselves in a turf war between the canoeing authorities and the Environment Agency.
That’s the beauty of the sea: it doesn’t belong to anyone, and its waves come free – though some days canoeists may feel it exacts its own price.