Tuesday, 10 November 2015

2 Days 4 star Assessment: with Andy Grimes

Paddlers: from Wyre Forest Canoe Club, Sam K and Jamie B as Mock Students
Location: North Wales

Part 1 / Day 1:  Sat 7th Nov 2015

Chucky put a request onto the club page, Andy Grimes was looking for some mock student for 4 star assessments he was carrying out. After an exchange of messages about suitability it was agreed that Sam and I would be able to go.
I was strapping the boat to the roof of the car at half six, too early for a Saturday, so we could get to the Rhug Estate Farmshop for a nine o’clock start. The roads were clear and in no time we were at Dobbie’s for breakfast, then back onto the A5 up to the Rhug Estate;, which it must be added looks like a great place to grab a pre paddle breakfast. We found Andy, met the prospective four star candidates who would be leading us and Andy 2 the other assessor.

Heavy rain had been forecast for the end of the week and the weekend. It had been delivered as expected providing a large choice of rivers for the assessees to choose from to take their mock students on. After finding out our experience and a bit of deliberation it was decide that the day would have two runs: the Conwy (from Ysbyty Ifan to the A5 Bridge) and the Llugwy (from Cyfyng Falls to Ugly House). Two new rivers to run for both of us.

After travelling up the A5 a bit further we approached the get out for the Conwy run. The forecast rain had certainly been delivered; the gauge for the Conwy had gone from 1.5m to 2.7m in a matter of an hour. The browned river was barely contained in the banks as it thundered across the fields and under the road bridge. After a closer look the Conwy was delayed and put on the list as a maybe for later if it dropped.

Onwards to the Ugly House to look at the Llugwy, it was also in spate but looked a little less intimidating than the Conwy. Ominously a Rescue helicopter was combing up and down the river, an overturned kayak had been seen going through Betws without a paddler. Checking Ogwen Rescue Incident details today it appears someone had lost their boat the day before and neglected to call the Police to let them know.

The group I was with got on below Cyfyng Falls, the closest to a grade 5/6 feature I ever need to be in a boat. We sat in an eddy that was rising and falling like the Glades when the wave machine is on; the flow raced down the river creating a wave train all the way down. After a quick warm up we broke out from the eddy amongst the trees and hopped down a few eddies, avoiding branches as we went.

After a few hundred metres our leader broke out into an eddy. My position was wrong and I was too far in the centre of the flow, I wouldn’t be able to make the same eddy without catching the rock at the bottom; no worries I’ll move to plan B. As I went over the crest I realised the small wave between the eddies was in fact a drop with a diagonal wave below. I didn’t have enough speed resulting in a couple of failed braces and a swim. I was into an eddy with my paddle in no time and the 4 star candidates were then chasing an upside down red mamba.

As I walked down I saw Scott on the bank paddle in hand, he had taken a dunk as he tried to clip onto my boat. We walked around the bend to see his boat pinned to a tree. Phil joined us on the bank, a bit of live baiting and pulling later and the first boat was free. Going down river we saw that my boat had been pushed into a pin by Andy 2. The 4 star hopefuls were now dealing with another pinned boat and then had to get it to the paddler (me) across the river. Their skills and reaction had certainly been tested but all the pieces were picked up quickly.

We were soon back on the water, paddling once more amongst the trees; weaving around, finding eddies and working to avoid getting caught up. A little while later Scott led us into an eddy above a horizon line with thundering water. He got out to scout and came back a short while later saying we had better look for ourselves. We ferried over to the other bank where we met up with the other group. Getting out and walking down we were faced with a solid grade 4 feature complete with a couple of tree strainers and rock pin potential.

The assessment was ended and those who wanted to were given the opportunity to run the feature while the rest of us set up safety. Andy 2 styled it over the main drop and straight through the guts of the roaring hole, Andy G made it look effortless and two of the candidates ran the sneak line successfully.
Getting back into the boats, we broke out into the heavy flow once again to paddle to the get out; conscious that not too far down river Swallow Falls was waiting to welcome any swimmers or stray kit. At the get out Sam who hadn’t swam all day slipped down the bank into three foot deep water while holding my boat, luckily dry kit wasn’t too far away. The Conwy was called off as time was moving on and the waters had shown little sign of dropping.

We had a debrief with the two Andys, feeding back our thoughts from the day, before the drive back in the rain. There hadn’t been a lot of paddling in terms of time but the experience of paddling in high volume was a first and definitely worthwhile for both of us. We can both say we’ve paddled on the Llugwy too.

Part 2 / Day 2:  Sun 8th Nov 2015 

For day two it was agreed to meet at Swallow Falls for 9.00 am, an even earlier start would be required. On the way a quick fuel stop at Dobbie’s was required, unfortunately the usual breakfast had to wait as Subway was closed when we passed through; that’s ok though, the Rhug Estate was on the way and the food looked good. They were closed too, so it was to be a bacon sarnie from a random cafĂ© in the middle of nowhere. We arrived on time to meet the others and a decision was made on location. Today’s target river was the Glaslyn, one that I’ve been wanting to get back to all year as it is definitely one of the prettiest rivers I have paddled on.

The six boat laden vehicles wound their way through Snowdonia to the get in at Pont Bethania. A quick look confirmed that the water was mid-way on the green tick and we would be good to go. The groups were swapped around for day two, I would be paddling with Andy 2 again and the three 4 star assessees who had paddled with Sam the day before. Everyone got ready to get on the water and shuttle was set. While we waited for the others to get back from the get out a car turned up with the most popular boat of the year, I nearly burst into song but figured Tina would be wasted here.

At this point it was still relatively dry but that would change later. Sam’s group were on the water and making their way downstream quickly. The first leader of the group I was paddling with gave their briefing and warm up before we got in our boats. The water was clear and provided a nice gentle start with an opportunity to warm up gently ferry gliding below the get on bridge; a far cry from the day before. We eddy hopped down the river above the lake and swapped leaders just before the lake, time for briefing two. We started to paddle across the lake as the wind picked up driving waves towards us. Keeping to the right hand side we avoided the worst of the waves but after getting just over half way down the heavens opened again; nothing like a relaxing Sunday paddle. The rain eased off but the weather of the day was certainly letting itself be known.

We got back to some more eddy hopping after the nice surf section on the outflow of the lake. We paddled past Sam’s group, they were on the bank dealing with the first scenario of the day; an incapacitated Andy G stuck in the middle of the river and a boat pin to boot. As we approached the copper mine bridge Andy 2 gave me some directions, I nodded and broke out ferrying towards to center stanchion to cries of “this way” and “ go down the left side of the bridge”. I climbed out of my boat onto the stanchion, letting the boat and paddle drift downstream. Luckily my kit was saved before the 4 star candidates live baited and swam there unconscious/unresponsive casualty from the bridge; a good thing I had a dry suit on.

The approach to Beddgelert was heralded with the boulder garden, the site of a swim last time I was on this river but I was determined to not repeat that this time. The other group were scouting from the bank but our leader had elected to break the section down by line of sight. We broke in and out of the flow, weaving our way around the boulders; or in my case over the occasional submerged boulder. In no time we were through, I resorted to plan B a couple of times and practiced a little ‘purposeful’ backwards styling but no swim. We got out onto the bank and Andy 2 set the candidates four target eddies in a short run of the garden to assess their personal paddling skills. Andy told me to bring my boat up and I was set the target of three. The other group ran through as we looked at our lines, Sam was looking confident as their group hopped from eddy to eddy. We got back on the water one by one, they all made their eddies; I managed the tighter first two before running through to avoid a swim, close but no cigar but hey there is always next time.

We caught up with the others again at the confluence of the Colwyn. They were being assessed on their rescue skills, the group I was with had to demonstrate their rolls before we bimbled off downstream. On reaching the bridge for the dinky, dooey, miniature railway we got out on the river left beach, it was time for the guys to show their rescue skills. They were assessed on throw line and kit rescue technique. Before long Andy had me swimming too, for a boat based swimmer rescue. “Get out on the other bank”, “while you’re there grab my paddle and bring it back” he shouted over, that’s one way to make sure you get your kit back I suppose. I had a few more swims to help out giving me the opportunity to practice my swimming, as if I need that. We headed down to the get out above the gorge, stopping for a quick surf on the way. We got out just in time for the heavens to open again, hastily changing before heading back to Swallow Falls to feedback on our days to the two Andys.

All in all it was a great weekend with some new experiences; the first time paddling a river in spate, the need for constant paddling was a bit different to the normal pool drop run; a dry run of the Glaslyn. 
I found it interesting paddling with two different groups over the weekend. I think we take for granted what we gain from our paddling peers sometimes; they know what we can do, when to push us and can help boost our confidence. Stepping away from that group dynamic does raise questions in one’s own confidence and abilities. The most natural river leaders seem to be those that can generate that confidence in group members. I had a bit of mojo beating on Serpents the week before and the weekend was invaluable for getting some of that back. 
As a weekend I would recommend anyone to get involved if you haven’t done anything like it before. While the weekend is about the 4 star assessment I found the little bits of coaching to be most valuable and I will jump at it should the opportunity present itself again; the paddling with a bruised coccyx I’ll quite happily forgo though.


An Epilogue from Sam

I won’t bore you all by repeating what Jamie’s already told you about the journey and final destinations. I will begin by telling you I was filled with fear when arriving at the Llugwy! A walk down to the bank showed a river in spate flowing quickly with a continuous wave train and bouncy eddies. It is safe to say I may have a taken a little persuasion to get on the river…but eventually I was on! This was a brand new experience to me…a continuously flowing river that made eddy hopping a necessity both to allow inspection and avoid running the river in about five minutes. This certainly put my skills to the test and after making several eddies the decision was made I would portage the next section of big continuous rapids so soon after getting on. So a portage later and back on the river for a slightly friendlier big bouncy section! The rest of the river continued like this….with me stressing at every break into the flow….and grinning like mad woman with every eddy I made. The day ended on a high (not mentioning the minor slip down the river bank) with a big sense of achievement and despite saying I could only do Saturday found myself unable to resist the invitation to come back tomorrow!

Day 2 – Time to tackle the Glaslyn! I was really looking forward to this after hearing Jamie rave about what a stunning river it was to paddle. A very different start to the day with a nice gentle paddle with nothing more challenging to contend with a little wind. A good workout paddling the lake in gale force winds and big waves to contend with, and a pause in the assessment allowed for a few top tips and coaching advice from Andy. Back on the river we hit the first rapid and pulled into an eddy for some surfing, after much umming and ahhing finally decided to have a go on what is likely the biggest water I’ve attempted surfing on and managed reasonably well. The river now became a little more continuous with a few small features to navigate and my confidence was coming on in strides….until the inspection on the boulder garden where my well known nerves came flooding back. Watching from the bank I saw Jamie almost trip up on a rock making the eddy we would be heading for (but avoided a swim nicely!) and began to consider a portage. After some more persuasion I ran the garden, making several eddies and no swims and feeling rather proud of myself! The last stretch of the river started getting bigger and bouncier and I was loving it and was just a little disappointed when the start of the gorge meant it was time to get out.

Over all a fantastic weekend with some great opportunities; paddling new rivers, meeting new paddlers, experiencing paddling with people you don’t know and plenty of opportunities to build on my ever growing confidence in my abilities. Me and Jamie both had a great time and took lots from the weekend (even if we were really there to help the 4* aspirates) and had plenty to talk about on the long drive back from Snowdonia!