Where Slalom Meets Wild Rivers

London Slalom, Circa 2017.


We all know the paddler, that kayaker that seems to place each stroke perfectly, harnessing microcurrents to fly from one eddy to the next, using momentum to float above the water as if no resistance existed. Once in a while, you can catch this smooth paddler slip up, throwing a slight overhead draw, exposing their shoulder in that well-known slalom position, revealing the secret to their on-water finesse and skill. It’s a dead give-away: an ex slalom kayaker.

Hundreds of hours spent paddling in concrete channels isn’t something most whitewater kayakers envy. Slalom courses or artificial rivers are a tragic by-product of the development of this strand of competitive kayaking. A sport that once thrived on the wild, technical whitewater of natural rivers has now been condemned to concrete ditches.

2012 Slalom London Olympic Channel

The arguments are sound: consistent water levels and flows, the ability to change features using Lego-like blocks, and the added safety elements of being able to ‘turn off’ the river. Many would argue that kayaking on anything but a wild river is almost sacrilegious. But the skill sets that come from paddling a slalom boat on an artificial course, and the base that a formal training routine can build when a kid is part of a slalom team or club, can turn into talent that’s clearly identified—and even coveted—on wild rivers.

This is not to say that all the smoothest paddlers come from the slalom course. Some of the world’s most stylish and skillful kayakers have paddled exclusively in plastic boats on creeks and wild rivers. But tracing some skill sets back to slalom allows a breakdown of the kind of skills often overlooked when kayakers learn from friends instead of coaches.

David Bain is known for his expedition kayaking, for throwing down speedy Sickline runs resulting in podium finishes, and for making technical lines look easy. He is also an accomplished slalom paddler, representing England and Great Britain for six years, developing two-bladed skills on the whitewater of Nottingham’s slalom course. But before that, his parents—who were once wildwater and slalom competitors themselves—took him sea kayaking on holidays and lead him down his first whitewater rivers.

Swimming isn’t something David does often on the river, but his very first whitewater experience was based around swimming. “Dad put me in two wetsuits, sent me to swim down a section of the river and then fished me out at the bottom,” says Bain. “He said, ‘Now you know the worst that can happen. Now we can go kayaking.’”

Today, he’s taken his passion for kayaking and turned it into a career working both the sales and marketing sides of NRS’s European territories—but he still takes a lot of time off to paddle. And whether he’s in a glass boat on an artificial river, or a plastic boat on a wild one, his fluid kayaking style remains the same, thanks in part, to his slalom roots. By dissecting the toolbox of skills he built as a slalom kayaker and further honed on wild rivers, we explore how a slalom-base can evolve into expert river running.

Bain’s first descent of the Karangarua River, circa 2016. Photo: Gradient and Water

One Stroke, Two Functions
In a slalom race, seconds count. Milliseconds count. So, efficiency stems from not just placing your strokes intentionally, but using them intentionally. Watching a slalom kayaker navigate an upstream gate is the best place to observe this. Fewer strokes mean less time and a smaller chance of swinging a paddle blade into a gate. “You will notice how they use fewer strokes getting in and out of eddies,” say Bain. “Each stroke has more than one function.”

Similarly, this skill is used on wild rivers in moments when you need two strokes but only have time for one. “A slalom paddler, and indeed experienced creek paddlers will slice a rudder stroke seamlessly into a boof,” say Bain. Maybe this is what makes the pros look so smooth on the lip of waterfalls. To use strokes for multiple purposes takes some practice but more importantly, requires intentional effort when paddling. Eventually, it can become a habit.

Tight and Technical Lines
Navigating down a slalom course requires precise and technical paddling. A race course will use whitewater features to challenge paddlers, taking minor whitewater and turning it into a nail-biting race move. Bain identifies this as a key skill he has taken from his time as a competitive slalom kayaker. “Slalom kayakers are used to taking tight and technical lines down a rapid,” he says. “On a wild river this means being able to do something difficult with the skills and confidence that you know you can get there.”

The boat and paddle may vary, but the head game remains strong. “Slalom paddlers also use a very vertical stroke,” says Bain. “And their strokes are very placed, specific and definitive which increases their accuracy on a wild river.”

Switching Gears
Composed and steady to explosive and powerful, slalomers depend on varying cadences. Slalom workouts isolate and hone this skill, prepping body and mind to take it slow on some stretches of whitewater and blast through others. “What it comes down to is that slalom paddlers spend countless hours with the sole aim to increase speed and accuracy, which is what they enjoy. Slalom paddlers have fun, yea, but they have a greater aim – perfection.”

When river running this ability to change pace or “step it up or slow it down,” as Bain explains, is a valuable tool. It also adds to the enjoyment of a run. “It’s just fun…when you need to catch up to buddies, chase boats, or make a line. Everyone can pick up their tempo but slalom paddlers have more practice paddling at that tempo—it’s almost just natural for them.”

Bain racing a Slalom Boat in the 2019 Bitches Tidal Race.

Reading Water
A natural river behaves very different than an artificial one. Anticipating what a feature will do to your boat, reading micro currents and assessing if a move is within your ability are skills that both slalom paddlers and creekers use. So, although the water itself may be speaking a slightly different language, the skill of reading water is transferable.

“Because slalom paddlers practice certain moves over and over, they are able to easily recognize the moves they can make and cannot make, just from looking at whitewater,” says Bain. “If you spent that much time on the water doing different moves and sequences in a creek boat, you would be that accurate too.” This boils down to making a habit of looking at whitewater with an intention or move in mind instead of just scanning for hazards. You also develop a habit for creating a plan B and C, useful in both genres of the sport.

Any type of paddler can identify the difference between a confident river person and a cocky one and both types exist on wild rivers and slalom courses. Having the skills and experience to know you can make a move safely and smoothly means you’re paddling with confidence, and as a competitive slalom kayaker, this skill is invaluable. If you have a high level of confidence in your ability to make a line—you can easily make a judgment call,” say Bain. Which can apply to scouting a wild rapid or a race course. When you trust your skills you are self-confident.

Bain has some advice for those going from the slalom course to wild rivers. Take it slow. “Although [slalom kayakers] are really skilled they need to take it easy getting into [wild rivers]. Risk management is a big part.” In the wilderness, you’re out paddling with buddies and risk management is up to you. There’s no coach on shore yelling directives and warnings.

Re-learning whitewater features and how they behave has a steep learning curve, too. “While you might be really sure you can hit a line, you don’t know if you can get through a stopper. People who go from wildwater to slalom should remember boats and skill sets are different but it only takes a short amount of time to tap in.

Gaula River, Norway circa 2016.

When asked if he prefers a course or a wild river, Bain’s answer is the same as most of us: wild rivers all the way. “Competitive slalom caters to spectators, and with the constant flows and consistent features, it takes the chance and the matrix away from the paddle sport and removes the unpredictable elements,” he says. Learning to trust your skills and predict your reactions is part of what slalom taught Bain. But it’s the unpredictability that brings him back to local runs and new first descents. “Kayaking is meant to be about spending time on whitewater with friends,” says Bain. Both river runners and slalom paddlers can agree on that, it’s the most important skill.