In the past half-decade I’ve kayaked the Waimakariri Gorge well over a hundred times, guiding a large number of people through for their first trip. If you’re still 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.

Level of Difficulty

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

What does that mean for you? To give you a bit more perspective, grade 1 would mean just about anyone (regardless of skills or experience) could make their way down without much too much trouble. Grade 5 in contrast, represents the domain of the elite whitewater paddler – 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. To navigate these waters, one must only 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 and practice them. 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.

It's all about the Boat

The best type of kayak for paddling river-rapids are what we affectionately call “whitewater boats”. These are short and manoeuvrable, relatively stable, have excellent outfitting (hip and knee bracing), plus are virtually indestructible. However, if you plan to paddle the full 67 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.

Enter the “multisport boat”. Narrower, and a lot longer (around 4 metres longer than your whitewater boat), this machine has the potential to cut your time down to around only 4-5 hours on the river. There’s no question, you 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 at least a grade harder than it did before. Depending on the particular model of boat you’ve selected, you’ll now have far 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 so difficult to steer (due to it’s length), that a bolt-on, foot-operated rudder is required – just to keep it straight. Try not to hit a rock either, there’s a good chance you’ll crack the fibreglass. Feeling stressed yet? Just wait until your legs and toes have fallen asleep from the Coast to Coast mountain run prior, and there are 300 other paddlers on the river with you. 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 year as a beginner. If you’re smart, you’ll find a nice stable and easy to control multisport boat (or sea kayak) that’s not too long. This will make the transition from learning the basics in a whitewater boat, to stepping into your long-boat, much more enjoyable and successful.

How much Work to Put in

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. Our course maximises your time by running each day back to back – plus includes rolling. 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.

If you plan on learning through; experienced friends, in a club environment, or less than ideal course (such as a whitewater park), you should plan to spend up to double the time to reach the same competency level (so about 8 days on the river).

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 skills sorted, and your certificate taken care of, you’ll need to start building your experience in your racing boat on moving water. But before you go barrelling down the Waimak Gorge, you’ll need to clock up some time and experience on easier and less committing runs in your multisport boat. Again we have a 4 day course for that, which includes a trip through the Waimak Gorge.

Again, expect to put in about double the time (so another 8 days) if doing this aspect of your training with friends or local club (the Gorge itself however, should only be done with a professional guide for your first time through).

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

Don't Stress, You'll Love it

I hope that sheds some light on what it might take for you to successfully prepare for paddling the Waimak. 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. These skills can be gained by absolutely anyone who is willing to to approach learning to kayak in a logical manner with a can-do attitude.

Happy training.

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