The Devon & Cornwall Sea Birds
Female paddlers in the southwest have set up a network open to all paddlers regardless of age, experience, skill level or type of craft. Whether it be sea kayaking, white water rivers, slalom, marathon boating or surfing - if it involves water then this group will give it a try.
The first organised weekend event was held at the beginning of December in Plymouth, with paddlers in the region being made aware of it via word of mouth, emails and the southwest's numerous kayak and canoe clubs. The agenda was simple - time on the water and time discussing options for the network. The instructions, too, were simple - bring a boat (or hire one from the host club) and a cake.
The hospitality of the Mountbatten Watersports and Activities Centre made for an enjoyable weekend both on and off the water. A dedicated meeting room had been provided and this enabled the group to get to know each other and agree what was wanted from a female-focused network. Whilst a few of those present had been involved in organising this first event , they were keen to make it clear that the network has no 'leader' but is managed by all who want to be part of it. Similarly, it will have no club house or regular paddling venue but will instead use the web to coordinate and organise events in various southwest locations and further afield.
The first decision of the weekend was what type of boat to paddle. Of those who had brought their own boat with them, most were sea kayaks and as the Mountbatten Centre had a good selection of sea kayaks available, the decision was easy. The light winds and intermittent sunshine were a real bonus, contrary to the forecast of rain and force 5. We started with a gentle paddle up the estuary and stopped for lunch on the beach at Saltram House. Then, fortified with several varieties of cake the group headed off to Drake's Island from where the fetch home provided an opportunity to try out a sail (AKA orange bag) rigged between a couple of the boats. It wasn't particularly successful at propelling the kayaks in the right direction but it was good for increasing visibility against what was, by now, a steely grey sea and sky.
Back at the Mountbatten Centre, over tea and more cake, the group settled down to the important business of deciding a way forward for the network. Firstly, what could it achieve? Well, at the very least it's a means by which paddlers in the southwest can meet each other and go paddling, whether as an organised event such as this one or as ad hoc paddles arranged between individuals. It's also an opportunity to improve paddling skills and learn new ones in a supportive, fun and non-competitive environment. For example, the group this particular weekend comprised a wide range of experience in sea kayaks. At one end of the spectrum were those for whom this craft isn't their usual boat of choice, at the other was a Level 3 coach who had undertaken a circumnavigation of the British Isles. Those with more experience in these boats were able to provide help and encouragement when it was needed.
There are also plans to hold paddling days or weekends in disciplines that will be new to many of us. A couple of the women (who are competitive surf kayakers) have volunteered to hold a training day near St Ives in the new year and a coasteering weekend is also planned.
Why female-focused? Well, the emphasis here is on focus rather than exclusivity. It's envisaged that males will be welcome at many of the events organised through the network, but the focus of the events will be to meet the needs of female paddlers.
Clearly there's no shortage of female interest in paddlesport, with recent BCU figures showing that almost half of 2011's `Go Canoeing Day' participants were female. For now, however, the sport is male-dominated, with females accounting for only 24% of current BCU membership and 23% of BCU coaches - and this can have a negative effect on female paddlers. One of the women talked about her own experience of learning a new kayaking discipline and how, once the women decided to train separately from the men, their skill levels improved much more rapidly.
For me, a relatively novice sea kayaker, it was the first time I'd paddled in a group where women outnumbered men and I was surprised at how much more confident I felt and how much less self-imposed pressure I heaped on myself.
The next weekend paddling event being organised by the group is 4-5th February in Hayle where female paddlers in the southwest will have another opportunity to get together. The challenge now is to widen awareness of the network to female paddlers who don't belong to clubs. For further details of the February event, please visit Facebook and go to the Devon and Cornwall Sea Birds group page for upcoming paddle events!
Written by Fiona Cooper, Saltash Sea Bird