Get to know the women who are empowering communities along canals

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We meet five women from the Canal & River Trust who are empowering their communities get out on their local canals and enjoy the benefits of being out on the water.

Jane, Sara, Vicki, Emma, and Hannah are on a mission to make paddling accessible to everyone. Each of them has embarked on a personal journey in the sport, and in recent years have earned their paddlesport qualifications. Now, they are inspiring others to join in and experience the joy of paddling on their local canals.

They’ve been working with communities in the North West and South West of England to build confidence on the water, share the mental and physical benefits of paddling, and empower women and girls to gain their own Paddlesport Instructor qualifications.

Sara Ponting, Engagement Coordinator

a group on the canal, including a women on a SUP
a women on a SUP on a lake
Paddling was something I’d looked at in the past and thought, I’m not the kind of person that can do that, I don’t look like those I saw doing it. I’d never really considered it as something I would be able to do, especially as someone with a disability I just assumed I wouldn’t be fit enough. But a while back, some colleagues were promoting paddling in the Trust, and they encouraged me to train to be an instructor, being a bit of a water baby I thought I would give it a go, and I loved it. 3 years later and I’m now an instructor working towards a leadership qualification.

Because I was training beside people who encouraged each other, and who all had different challenges to overcome, it was fun and welcoming. Now I’m working towards eventually becoming a coach so that I can help others enjoy it and make paddling more widely accessible for people who wouldn’t otherwise see themselves on the water, like I once did. I work with underrepresented communities and I really see the difference positive role models, flexible opportunities and a supportive network can make. I want to show the benefits paddling can have for physical and mental health, and help others access the water.

Vicki Birch, Participation, Health and Wellbeing Project Manager (North West)

a women stand up paddleboarding on a bright sunny day
a lady in a freestyle boat about to go down some white water
a group in canoes on a misty lake
I got into paddling about eight years ago after seeing an advert in a gym. I was about to give up on Zumba because my coordination was terrible, and I kept bumping into other people. I was terrified about going alone to the first paddle session, but the coaching team were really friendly and welcoming. I was quite isolated and a bit lonely at that time and knew I needed to do something to get out of the house.

I went home raving about the sessions to my family and they all joined me (husband and two kids aged eight and ten). It brought us all together and gave us something we could do as a family. The club ran trips and we met other people with similar interests and our friendship group grew. With the support of my club (St Helens Canoe Club) I became a coach, we grew the club from a couple of paddlers to Merseyside Sports Club of the Year 2018. In the early days, I found I was the only woman on the water, we had quite a few males and children. Many mum’s dropped their kids and watched from the side, so I ran many campaigns to encourage them and other women to join us on the water. We’re proud to say that now, most of the parents join us on the water and many mums have progressed to coaches too.

When I first started paddling I was working in schools. I started taking children with additional needs and saw them blossom on the water with confidence and new friendships. This inspired me to apply for a job on the Desmond Family Canoe Trail, England’s first coast to coast trail. I supported young people to engage in social action and water based activities and have since progressed in my role over the last six years, and I now support our project coordinators to develop their own paddling skills and shape their community offer.

I have paddled flat and moving water over the years, my passion was for white water. Yet during the pandemic I found peace stand up paddleboarding and being close to nature. I had a major operation in October last year and I’m planning my first session back on the water in a couple of weeks. My goal is to build myself back up to running grade 3-4 rivers, but I need to build my confidence back up. I love to paddle on the canal near me in West Lancashire also travel to Wales and Scotland with our camper, the kids, the boats/sups and dogs.

Emma Fielding, Community Roots 

3 owmen and man, smiling, ready to go on the water
a women in a canoe
3 happy women post paddle
I first got into paddling about 4 years ago having never paddled before. At the time, paddling wasn’t widely available in my area, and if you did want to do any outdoor activities it was usually difficult to get to and cost a lot of money. I never had the confidence to try paddling until an opportunity at work came up.

A colleague encouraged me to try a rafted canoe, which to my surprise I really enjoyed as I have a fear of water. As part of my role within the Canal & River Trust, there was an opportunity to get people paddling in my area, so I decided to see if I could overcome my fear to help others get involved. I still remember the first time I got on a SUP in the middle of a lake and the feeling it gave me – I was hooked from thereon in.

Today, I’m a Paddlesport Leader who connects people with paddling from very similar backgrounds often with similar fears. Supporting people to overcome their challenges is so rewarding. Paddling is now part of who I am, it gives me freedom, exercise, a community, and means to feel good.

Hannah Cubie, Community Roots Engagement Coordinator, Wales and South West

For me, paddling has been a route to health, well-being, community and fun for over thirty years. I started paddling as a teenager, using borrowed kit at drop in sessions hosted by a local canoe club. Paddling has taken me to places I had never dreamed of, from river trips across the UK to around the world as an adult.a women in a kayak riding through the wavesMore recently, my interests have turned toward sharing the gifts paddling has given me with others.  I have introduced people to the community through my roles as a Paddlesport Instructor for the Canal & River trust, and as a #ShePaddes Ambassador in 2022 where I promoted women’s inclusion.

Watching paddlesports grow from a minority sport to the popular, accessible, widespread pastime has been a delight and it is a privilege to help people learn what a joy spending time on the water is, something I don’t take for granted. It doesn’t matter where you are and what your financial situation is – there will be an opportunity for you to connect to this sport.

Jane Hargreaves, Community Roots Engagement Coordinator

As well as caring for our 2,000 miles of canals & rivers across England and Wales, mental health and wellbeing is also a major focus for the Canal & River Trust. Having recently qualified as a Paddlesport Instructor, I have spent the last 6 months delivering community paddle sessions on our canals in Sefton, Merseyside, with wellbeing as a core focus.
a women on the water

I undertook my Paddlesport Instructor training with an amazing group of women from the Canal & River Trust, who have been a huge source of encouragement and support for me during the training process. We underwent our training during the winter months, which was a hugely tough but rewarding experience. Practising rescues in freezing temperatures and harsh wind and rain pushed us to our limits, but also showed us how capable and resilient we are.

Since qualifying, I have been working directly with communities and partner organisations in Sefton to remove the barriers to participating in paddlesports, building their confidence and encouraging more people to enjoy our beautiful blue spaces. From beginner paddle sessions, to practising mindfulness on stand up paddleboards, and canal clean up sessions removing plastic and invasive species using our canoes, we have been working with communities to prove that anyone can paddle safely on our canals.

The number of women taking part in my paddle sessions is growing too. This year, we will be working with potentially 18 individuals to train them as Paddlesport Instructors, the majority of whom are women.


Inspired by their journey into paddlesport? Follow the links to find out how you can become a SUP Instructor, Paddlesport Instructor, Coach or Leader.



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