Action sports' lab rat Lindsay Walsh heads to Lee Valley to see how quickly he'll desert a sinking ship...
Standing on Lee Valley’s massive wooden deck area, surrounded by palm trees, wicker chairs and low glass tables you could almost believe you were in a Miami roof top bar ready for a sunsoaked evening of partying.
That is until you see your breath forming little clouds in the air and remember that it’s actually a pretty fresh UK morning in early March, and for some reason you’ve volunteered to jump into a freezing cold, man-made river and have a go at white water rafting.
13,000 Litres Per Second
I’d managed to arrive early enough to watch the course fill up with water. The long concrete channel was packed with stacks of plastic boxes called rapid blocs which would create rapids like those you’d find in any UK rafting river. One of the guys explained it was like giant plastic Lego blocks screwed into the bottom of the course which could be moved and plugged together in different ways to create brand new rapids each time.
A siren blared and water started gushing down the course. The pumps at Lee Valley chuck out and 13,000 litres per second of so within minutes the empty concrete course became a crashing line of white waves.
Lee Valley White Water Centre was originally built as the white water venue for the 2012 London Olympics. Today the £31m facility, located in Waltham Cross, Herts, is still home to team GB’s Olympic slalom squad but what most people don’t know is that the centre is also open to the public and has been since 2010, giving anyone the chance to try out canoeing, kayaking, hydrospeeding and white water rafting.
Lee Valley White Water Centre is open to all levels of ability and experience which was a good job for me because I’d never been white water rafting before and didn’t have a clue what I was doing. The alarming thing about this sport is that you can find yourself in a raft with other people who’re also complete newbies, and as I met my two other crew mates I realised that we were going to be both literally and metaphorically in the same boat.
After collecting our white water rafting kit the day started with a briefing from our incredibly enthusiastic guide, Patrick, whose easy banter and friendly manner made us instantly warm to him. Patrick ran through all of the basic capsize scenarios and showed us how to rescue someone by man handling yours truly back into the raft. With my dignity still vaguely intact we met the last two crew members, a couple of additional instructors which meant that now at least half the boat knew what they were doing.
We headed out onto the practice lake to learn the manoeuvres we’d need to get our raft down round the course in one piece. Following Patrick’s commands from the back of the boat we learned how to move the raft forwards and backwards, spin it in either direction, when to duck down for the more dangerous parts and how to lean over to balance the boat out if it started to flip. We started out tentatively but after only 10 minutes or so the crew were rowing in sync and starting to gel together. Feeling pretty confident we coasted in to the bank for what was about to be the toughest part of our training, the swim test.
Sink Or Swim
As an ex lifeguard I’m pretty confident in the water, so it was with a childish sense of glee that I stood next to a bend in Lee Valley’s beginner course, ready to take the plunge. The plan was for us to jump into the water, assume the defensive swim position with our legs down stream and float through a rapid before swimming back to the bank. After a quick demo from Patrick we were good to go.
Buoyed up by how quickly we’d learned the basics on the lake and the glorious spring sunshine, I have to admit that how cold it was had slipped my mind again.
That blissful ignorance didn’t last.
As my body hit the water the shock of frigid H2O soaking through my wetsuit was instantly all I could think about. I would probably have screamed like a tiny child at this point if all of the breath hadn’t instantly left my body in search of anywhere warmer and drier to be. My chest felt like an iceberg had sat on it and my mind felt like doing anything other than being in the water. Trying to suck air back into my lungs like a cut price Darth Vader I suddenly remembered the tiny waterfall I was about to go over and just managed to get my legs into the defensive position before everything went white.
Coming out of the waves I paddled in a daze back to the bank and dragged myself out to discover that all my vitals had snuck up inside my chest in search of warmth. Judging by the instructors’ grins I wasn’t the first person to have this reaction but I was determined that it would be the last time I ended up in the water today. I just had to make it down an Olympic level white water course having never rafted in my life without falling out of the boat. How hard could that be?!
A Blur Of White
With everyone back on board the raft we left the practice pool by a giant conveyor belt that lifted us to the top of the course. Cresting the summit felt like the beginning of a giant log flume and after just a few paddle strokes we were off down a cascade of white water.
The first run was just a blur of waves, which all seemed to make a beeline for my face with Patrick yelling at us to get down as we hit each of the big drops. Though I knew the blocks on either side of us were made of plastic, they felt like concrete when the raft bounced off them giving us all added incentive to try and stay in the boat. Minutes later we hit the bottom of the course where the new crew members looked at each other with a sense of relief. Before the adrenaline could fade we were heading back towards the conveyor belt, ready for round two.
Our second run involved a lot more paddling and a lot less hunkering down in the boat. At one point we hit a rapid sideways and the edge of the boat started to lift out of the water. ‘Lean left!’ Patrick yelled and the training kicked in. As the boat started to hit its tipping point, everyone dived into the lap of their team mate to the left. The raft stopped rising and seconds later we slammed back into the water and were heading down the course again. Our paddling got smoother through some of the trickier rapids and there were plenty of grins at the bottom of run two. We’d pulled together and it had worked.
The next couple of turns were also a blur as we tried to make the fastest clean run we could. It was exciting to sit on the side of the boats, powering trough the water and responding quickly to Patrick’s rapidly changing orders. It felt good to be growing in control of the paddle and co-ordination with the rest of the team. We spent a couple of runs racing through and then decided to have some ‘fun’.
Front Row Seat
One of the instructors suggested I try out the ‘mascot’ seat. Keen for a challenge I found myself crammed into the very front of the boat, arms outstretched like some bad Kate Winslet impression. This took a toll on two areas, my burning quads and my face which had suddenly become a wave break for the rest of the crew.
Striking a vaguely heroic pose I flew down the rapids bouncing waves off my chin like an old school pirate ship figurehead. This was a real blast and my laughter would probably have deafened the crew behind if my mouth hadn’t been so full of water. A little quiet time might have been the reason for my promotion to boat mascot but I didn’t care. This was the way to travel!
Next up was surfing, but not like Kelly Slater. This insanity involved steering back towards a rapid we’d already managed to get past and then dipping the nose and side of the boat into it. As the guy at the front I had the best view of the rapids which were now racing into the boat. Water came crashing over the bow, there was a couple of screams from one of the crew and I was suddenly up to my waist in water but somehow still inside the raft. The boat spun, jumped and slid across the rapid like a breakdancing walrus but it was a great rush watching it all up close, inches from the pounding waves.
Time For A Dip?
Too soon it felt like we’d finished. Sweating from all the effort I looked out across the lake as the spring sun danced off its mirrored surface. With the warm glow of adrenaline and a hard earned sweat covering my body, the cool clear water almost seemed inviting. We’d come out unscathed, no boat flips, no crew members overboard and I almost wished we’d had a capsize just to see what it was like.
As I felt myself shuffling towards the edge of the boat, ready to take the plunge, I spotted the grimaced face of one of our instructors swimming slowly back to shore. He’d opted to take a quick dip in the lake and was clearly regretting his decision. Thankful for this timely warning I slipped back in time with the team, paddling smoothly as we steered the raft back to dry land.
One hot shower later I was pulling on my socks when a group of guys bundled into the changing room with a rather sheepish looking stag in tow. I congratulated the guy and couldn’t help but notice the slightly concerned look in his eye. I completely understood. Starting a stag with something as fun and insane as white water rafting sets the bar pretty high and from here on the only way was up. I slapped him on the back and wished him luck. He was going to need it…
Check out the Lee Valley website here. The centre is open 7 days a week and costs from £50 per person for a 3-4 hour session.
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