Steve Backshall's top tips on canoeing
Scout Ambassador Steve Backshall shares his thoughts on the adventurous possibilities of canoeing and how Scouting can help get more people paddling. We join him on the water as he shares his top tips for everyone from beginners to seasoned paddlers, and tells us why National Go Canoeing Week (27 May- 4 June) is the perfect time to get involved.
Steve, hello! So, how old were you when you first went canoeing and how did you get more and more involved?
I have very old grainy photos of me at about six or seven years old canoeing for the first time when I was on holiday, but I didn’t seriously get into it until I was about 11 or 12 with the Scouts. I did it in accordance with DofE so I started off learning to do my expeditions in a kayak, and it was just an absolute life-changing experience. I know that sounds ridiculous but it’s a little bit like when you get your first bike and all of a sudden it’s a passport to a whole different world of freedom. Except that in a kayak, you can pack it full of your tent and your sleeping bag and your food. And you can go away, sometimes for several days, to places that other people can’t get to. It’s so liberating, particularly for a young person. That’s when you’re searching for ways to branch out and feel like you’re an explorer. For me, the kayak was the first way that I did that.
For young people wanting to get into it today, what’s the first step? Who should they speak to? What sort of research should they do? Where can they try it out?
We recognise that it’s not instantly clear to everyone how you can get involved and I guess that can be quite intimidating. So, National Go Canoeing Week is a way where people can find things that are close to them, at whatever level suits them. That might be someone who’s maybe a little bit frightened of the water and is not looking for something huge and adventurous but is going to go for baby steps and do pretty much what we’re doing now – sitting in a Canadian Canoe which on flat water you have to try reallyreally hard to capsize it. It is something anybody can do – I was doing this the other day with my 83-year-old father-in-law, no problem whatsoever. But, canoeing has so many different elements to it, so many different disciplines that even if you are an experienced canoeist in an open canoe like this, you could then try white water, you could try sea kayaking, you could try flat water, you could try stand-up paddle boarding. It’s an opportunity for people at every single level to give it a go.
Canoeing seems to perfectly combine skills and adventure – which is obviously what Scouting is all about – can you tell us a few specific skills young people are likely to learn in a canoe?
I think one of the big things about Scouting is that the motto ‘Be Prepared’, it’s about having skills, experience and understanding to be able to tackle absolutely anything that life throws at you, and canoeing is the absolute perfect example of that. So, the first thing you do when you get in a boat is you learn how to do a simple paddle stroke but after a while as you start to build up your skills you’re going to learn about how water works, you’re going to learn about how a white water river flows and forms and the safe way to find your way out it. You’re going to learn about tides and currents out at sea. You’re going to learn the ways you can be safe in water environments that completely transcend paddle sports. It’s a way of gaining confidence around water which I think is just absolutely essential. We know water can be an absolutely enriching part of life but it can also be potentially very dangerous. Knowing how to act around water and in water safely so that it’s fun is to me critical, particularly for young people.
So beyond the physical benefits, how has canoeing benefitted you both mentally and socially?
If I’m in the country there is not a single day that I don’t get out on the water. It is obviously something I use as physical exercise but also a way that I use to just get away. I live in quite a well-developed, well-populated part of England and yet I can get in my canoe and paddle a mile away from the main centre and I can feel like I’m in the wilderness, like I’m miles and miles away from the rest of civilization. I see a kingfisher every single day of my life and to me, as a naturalist, that’s something that always makes me feel good. It gives me peace of mind, it gives me a place that I can get away, absolutely get away, and it gives me the potential of adventure and expeditions right here in tame old Britain. Sea kayaking is to me one of the greatest ways of having an expedition. There are still many big firsts that are waiting to be done in the field of sea kayaking. And in a world that appears to be ever-shrinking to know that by learning one simple skill, of learning how to sea kayak, you could become the first person to circumnavigate a massive island, the first person to cross a body of water in a sea kayak, well that’s a pretty enticing prospect.
For young people who are already canoeing, how would you suggest they build physical strength and improve mental agility?
Oh, that is just a fantastic question. Obviously it depends a tremendous amount on what their discipline is but something that is fundamental to paddle sports, whether you’re a flat-water kayaker, a stand-up paddle boarder or a white water paddler, is core stability and core strength. It’s critical for every single walk of life to make sure your midsection is well toned. It’s your natural corset, the part of your body that keeps you physically stable and in check.
I would say start off a routine whereby you do whatever core exercise you want for 45 seconds and then move onto another core exercise for another 45 seconds and then another one, and don’t stop, just keep on doing it, and build it up and if you can get to 10 minutes and then take a break and then do another 10 minutes, then you’re doing really really well. There are an almost infinite amount of exercises that you can do to build up your core, some of which are really exciting – things in calisthenics, things using silks, and poles and parallettes. It’s fantastic and absolutely essential for paddle sports.
– And in terms of improving mental agility and finding the strength to work through difficult periods…
Yeah, I would say, put yourself out of your comfort zone. We learn most when we are most vulnerable. I certainly have learned the most from the times that I have been a bit frightened. When I’ve been not entirely comfortable. And maybe having to work that bit harder to get through something. If you are already a paddler, try a different discipline. Go Canoeing Week is a perfect opportunity for you to try out stand-up paddle boarding, try out white water, try out sea kayaking. It’s a way of seeing all the different types of skill that you can use through paddling. And usually you find that some of the skills are transferable. So, I started out with white water and I found that when I switched to sea kayaking, it was absolutely effortless for me, because I already had a very strong row, I already had very good ways of moving across the water, a good strong stroke, but then I found that you paddle for an hour without dropping your hands and you are in pieces. So, obviously you start building up your strength and your endurance and then you go back to white water and all of a sudden you find that you can paddle longer and harder because you’ve built up the endurance from sea kayaking. So all of the different disciplines feed back into the whole and you know I would encourage anyone who has young people that you want to get into the outdoors and into adventure, get them canoeing.
Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation on the water? Can you tell us a bit about it?
I have. But I have to say straight away that this is not what people have to worry about, it’s not going to happen to you, particularly not in this country. But I was filming hippos in South Africa and I was in my kayak, filming one particular hippo and we were coming towards the end of the day and we were just about to wrap things up when all of a sudden someone went ‘oh, but, it’s behind you.’ And it wasn’t, it was a totally different hippo that had come down river and wanted to get past me to the other one. All of a sudden all of our planned scenarios went out the window, you could hear the crew going ‘It’s coming straight for you! 20 metres, 10 metres, 5 metres, Steve, get out the water!’ It was absolute pandemonium. I have seen hippos do all kinds of damage to both boats and to people. They’re territorial, they’re grumpy, they’re unpredictable and we were very very close. Afterwards we all stood on the bank, shivering and shaking and going ‘wow, that was too close for comfort.’ But thankfully, people who are trying out Go Canoeing Week in this country, don’t have to be worried about hippos.
In dangerous situations, how important is trusting your instinct?
I think instinct is all well and good but the best instincts come from solid training. You find that if you do something a hundred times, or a thousand times, it becomes mechanical, and in situations of stress you fall back on what you’re physically comfortable doing. You know if you have done an Eskimo roll without your paddle 200 times and you hit a big rapid and you lose your paddle, you’ll all of a sudden find yourself back upright and not even be really sure how you did it. There is no substitute for training. And your instinct always improves with the amount of time you put in.
Any useful safety tips in tricky situations on the water?
First of all I would say always use one of these (he points to his floatation device). For some people it might not be seen to be very cool to wear a life jacket, we don’t usually call it a life jacket but, you know it can seem like it’s a bit of a geeky thing to do. I have to tell them from the bottom of my heart that all the Olympic gold medallist paddlers who are on the water here today will be wearing one. Every single person that I’ve ever been on an expedition with will be wearing one. And likewise anything that requires a helmet, wear a helmet. You know, don’t worry too much about what it looks like. It can save your life and it’s absolutely critical.
Would you say you’ve always been a thrill-seeker?
I would say I was more of a thrill-seeker when I was young. Now I get my thrills from slightly different things. I get my thrills from beauty, from being outdoors, from wilderness, from being able to be away with close friends. And being on expeditions forms a kind of friendship you don’t usually get in normal life. You can forge a friendship in a long weekend on an expedition that might take years in normal life. And that’s kind of where I get my thrills and I’m very lucky that I get to do that pretty much every single day.
Moments of high adrenaline? I guess nowadays I’m much more realistic about those, I don’t seek them quite the same way as I used to in my twenties but because I’ve been doing this for longer I actually can do much more hard-core things than I ever could do when I was in my teens and my twenties, because I’ve built up the experience to be able to try harder things.
Do you have any tips for Scouts who are a little nervous on the water?
I would say confidence in the water starts with being able to swim… and being able to swim well. I am not an advocate of pushing young people towards doing anything that they don’t want to do, with the exception of learning to swim. And I think that as soon as you can and as young as you can just do it, force yourself to do it, because it will pay enormous dividends and you’re never going to be fully confident in and around the water unless you’re a strong swimmer.
You obviously care a great deal about conservation, how do sports that make use of natural resources, such as canoeing, remind us to appreciate the environment and conserve it as best we can?
That is an absolutely terrific question. One of my favourite quotes and simplest quotes of all time comes from the great marine explorer Jacque Cousteau and he said ‘People protect what they love’. The second that you get into a boat and you get on the water then you are going to appreciate it better than those who are stood on land. After a while you start to build empathy and an association with water and with the natural environments that it flows through. By doing that after a while you’re going to learn to love it and you’re going to want to be an advocate for it, you’re going to want to be seeking to preserve it, to conserve it. That is another really good reason to encourage young people to get out on the water. Our freshwater and our eco-systems face extraordinary challenges and we need people who want to do their bit to preserve them.
On a canoeing expedition, how can we make sure we don’t do any damage to the environment?
Litter, first and foremost, don’t do it. Take everything away with you that you bring in. If you are wild camping, be very careful to observe all of the laws and the regulations of where you are. So in Scotland for example there are far fewer wild camping regulations than they are in the rest of the UK. Be very careful about taking your boat in and out of the water, it can cause a considerable amount of erosion. Be very aware of tides and tidal flow because we have huge tidal ranges in this country and it’s very easy for you to leave your bonfire or your things down on the beach when you’re camping and then come back the next morning to find it’s all been swept away. Be very careful about your use of fuel, and your latrine facilities. Be very careful to not let solid waste go into or close to fresh water.
What has been your most exciting or inspiring canoeing experience?
I had a sea-kayaking trip a few years back where we did a circumnavigation of the Scilly Isles and paddled back to the mainland. It’s about 40km of open sea and we had a day that was one in a million. The water was like velvet the entire way. We saw two different species of dolphin, two different species of seal. We had a Fulmar (a kind of bird) that stuck with our boats for about six hours, just going around and around and around. We had a Minke Whale and her calf pop up in between our boats. Sunfish, Basking Sharks. I had a Leatherback Turtle paddle into my boat. And this is in England. This country that we have a tendency to think is tame and dull and boring but it is a day that I will never forgot, one that equals anything I’ve ever done in the Amazon or the Himalayas or anywhere else. And it was in this country and made possible by one of these (he points to the canoe).
Interesting that you mention the Amazon. In 2020, 50 UK Scout Network members are going on a canoeing expedition down the Amazon, what are your top tips for them?
My top tips: Avoid chaffing at all costs, don’t allow any chaffs or blisters to develop. Treat them super, super early, even if it feels like overkill. The thing about the rainforest and jungle environments is that tiny teeny cuts, scratches and chaffs can turn into something quite big, even into a tropical ulcer if untreated, within days. And that is just expedition ending. Yeah, so be really, really careful to treat any of those things as soon as you possibly can. And be very, very careful about the water you’re drinking – purify everything that you drink. And be very careful about bugs, don’t underestimate it, particularly around dusk and dawn, mosquitoes are rife and the diseases they transmit can be life-changing, so yeah, be really careful. But more than anything, enjoy it! What an opportunity!
For young people or parents of young people who might think the costs of canoeing could be prohibitive, are there ways to get involved without it costing too much?
Of course, and Go Canoeing Week is just the way to get started. There will be things in everyone’s price range, because really this whole initiative is about trying to get people interested and involved.
Canoeing is not an expensive sport. You know, I do a lot of outdoor sport, some of which can cost the earth. Scuba diving for instance, the expense is ridiculous. Kayaking kinda isn’t. There are loads of opportunities, even if you’re going to get your own stuff, you can get on e-Bay, get a whole bunch of second-hand kit, and get yourself started for a couple of hundred quid and that’s to be completely self-sufficient. But just to go out for a day on the water that’s not going to be beyond many people’s pockets.
When it comes to adventure, who has been your greatest inspiration?
My dad, far and away my dad. When I was a kid, my dad was my absolute idol. He seemed to be able to do anything he turned his hand to, effortlessly. He was very adventurous, very driven by the outdoors - he still is now – and I wanted to be him. So yes, my dad was absolutely my inspiration.
Why should Scouts get involved in National Go Canoeing Week?
I think it’s a really natural connection. Scouting, to me anyway, is all about getting young people excited about the outdoors and about adventure. And canoeing is, to my mind, the very best way of doing that, without exception. So it’s a natural link-up. I know there are plenty of volunteers and leaders in Scouting who may not have connections with canoeing yet – National Go Canoeing Week is the way to get those connections. This is the way to get started on building relationships that could last way into the future and get thousands of Scouts out on the water. So, it’s a great opportunity. Please, to all the volunteers and leaders out there, take advantage of it.
Besides canoeing, what sort of skills can young people learn in Scouting?
My association with Scouting has only just started again and I feel like I’m relearning Scouting all over again. It’s obviously in a very different place to where it was when I was a Scout, and I find that exciting. I love the fact that Scouting is both staying true to the values that it’s always had and the timeless things that will always interest young people, but it’s also finding a way of connecting with the future. It’s finding a way of managing to assimilate everything in the modern world while still being aware of the things that has made Scouting special. It’s endless and I would encourage anybody out there to get involved in Scouting, and through Scouting get involved in paddling.
Any other tips you’d like to share?
I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last 23 years travelling the world, doing expeditions for a living, and I’ve been to some of the most far-flung and exotic parts of the world and yet some of my fondest adventure memories have been right here in this country with a paddle in my hands. And I’m not just saying this: this can change your life.
National Go Canoeing Week – how to get involved
National Go Canoeing Week is an opportunity for everyone to get out on the water enjoying a canoeing adventure. Whether you’re completely new to canoeing or an experienced paddler, there are a variety of events happening to welcome you onto a canoe for the first time or to try out a different form of paddling. However you paddle, you’ll contribute to a national mile count being tallied up for a great cause. British Canoeing is aiming to reach a target of 30,000 miles across the country.
Every mile you paddle counts. All you have to do is log your miles and they’ll count towards the main target. You’ll also be in with a chance to win a prize and be featured on British Canoeing’s home page.
- The mileage registration process opens on 27 May and stays open until midday on 12 June.
- Visit the National Go Canoeing Week website to find out what miles count, (for instance, what kind of boat/craft you can use, when these miles count, how to register, etc)
- Log your miles here.