In the past six years I’ve kayaked the Waimakariri Gorge well over a hundred times. On a large number of these trips I was guiding people down for their first time. If you’ve never been through before, and are wondering what the Gorge is really like, I’ll attempt to describe how hard it is, and how much river-time you might need to prepare for your first trip.

How Difficult is the River?

The first thing you’ll need to wrap your head around is the river grading system. Rivers are graded on difficulty and given a grade, or “class” ranging from 1 to 5. The higher the grade, the harder the river is said to be. The Waimak Gorge is grade 2+ meaning it’s just a little harder than grade 2, but definitely not grade 3.

What does that mean for you? To give you a bit more perspective, grade 1 generally means swift water, but relatively clam in terms of rapids. Just about anyone regardless of skills or experience could make their way down a grade 1 without much too much trouble (or so they say). Grade 5 in contrast, represents the domain of the elite whitewater paddler. Grade 5 is a level only achieved by a relatively small group of highly dedicated individuals.

Multisport kayakers paddles through wave on the Waimakariri River
Grade 2 Hamilton Rapid in the Waimak Gorge

Grade 2+ therefore resides relatively low on the scale of difficulty overall. To navigate these waters, you’ll only need to possess what we consider “basic” skills. But wait, not so fast. Nobody has these skills at birth, and they are often counter to natural instinct. The only real way of obtaining these skills is to learn them through a good training course, and practice them lots. Failure to put in the right training here (even at the “basic” level), usually results in failure and frustration on the river as you repeatedly wipe-out.

The common question at this point is “How long will it take an average punter like me to be good enough enough for the Coast to Coast?” I’ll get to that soon… but first you need understand one more critical factor that will really throw a spanner in the works.

The Right Boat for the Job

The best type of kayak for rapids are what we affectionately call “whitewater kayaks”. These are short and manoeuvrable, relatively stable, and are virtually indestructible. These kayaks are ideal for developing your basic skills, and are what you’ll use during your Grade 2 Certificate Course with us. However, if you plan to paddle the full 70 kilometres of the Coast to Coast section in less than 12 hours, you’re going to need something a little speedier than a whitewater boat for the job.

Enter the “multisport boat”. Narrower, and a lot longer than your whitewater kayak, this machine has the potential to cut your time down to around 4-5 hours on the river. There’s no question, you’ll need one of these (or at least something similar, like a sea kayak) for race day.

Flow Rockstar (Intermediate) Kayak and Equipment Ready for Transition at the Coast to Coast Longest Day.
Flow Rockstar (Intermediate) kayak and equipment ready for Longest Day champion Jess Simson at the Coast to Coast Race transition area.

The problem you might find with the multisport boat however, is now everything feels a grade harder than it did in your whitewater kayak. Depending on the particular model of boat you’ve selected, you’ll now have less stability from the boat itself. You will have to rely more on your practised skills and developed sense of river features. More to that, a multisport boat is difficult steer due to it’s length. A foot-operated rudder is required to keep it going “roughly” where you want it. Try not to hit a rock either, there’s a good chance you’ll crack the fibreglass and sink. Feeling stressed yet? The challenge that draws and excites so many competitors each year, is now upon you.

The positive news is that only the unknowing (or the over-confident) would buy an intermediate or elite level racing boat for their first season as a beginner. If you’re smart, you’ll find a nice stable and easy to control beginner multisport boat or sea kayak. This will make the transition from learning the basics in a whitewater boat, to stepping into your long-boat, much more enjoyable and successful.

Here’s How Much Training You’ll Probably Need

With the big question still lingering, “So how long will I need to work on this for?” I’ll try and make it as simple as possible…

To give you starting point, everyone should do their grade 2 kayak course and achieve their required grade 2 certification as soon as possible. There are various different programs around the country for this, each with their own style. The program I’ve designed maximises your time by running over four days in a row. This means you can knock out your initial training with us in just four straight days (the minimum amount of skills coaching we’d recommend) and still come away with a solid foundation to get your started.

If you plan on learning through friends, or in a club environment, you should plan to spend about double the time to reach the same competency level as you would on a professional course (so about 8 days or so in a whitewater kayak).

Multisport kayaker on the Waimakariri River. Cliffs in background.
Woodstock to Gorge Bridge training paddle during Canterbury Kayaking’s Coast to Coast Kayak Course.

Once you have your basic whitewater skills sorted, and your grade 2 certificate taken care of, you’ll need to start building your experience in your longer racing boat on moving water. But before you go barrelling off down the Waimakariri River, you’ll need to clock up some time and experience on easier and less committing runs in your multisport boat. For this phase, I have set-up this awesome four-day multisport training course, which even includes a trip through the Waimak Gorge on the final day. I really think everyone aiming for Coast to Coast Race should do a second pro-course like this, but it’s not a requirement to enter the race.

If you plan to do this second phase of your kayak training with friends or a local multisport club,  expect to put in about double the time as you would on a professional course (so another 8 days or so on moving water in a multisport kayak).

Back Yourself, and Give it a go!

So with just 8 days of professional coaching on the river (or about 16 days informally with a good club), I’d expect most people to have enough skills to enjoy their first trip through the Waimak Gorge with a guide – provided that you’re in the right boat..

I hope that sheds some light on what it might take for you to successfully prepare for paddling the Waimakariri Gorge. Do not let yourself get put off by “horror stories” of the Gorge – usually told by people who had clearly not prepared appropriately. It’s an absolutely stunning place, that is easily managed when you’ve got the skills required. Of course everyone learns at a different pace, and you’ll have your own natural strengths and weaknesses. But the ability to paddle on grade 2 can be gained by absolutely anyone who is willing to to approach the training in a logical manner with a can-do attitude.

If you have any questions about your personal training plan, or have stories from your own expereince, please add a comment below.

Happy training.

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