Sarah Keight – My journey to becoming an advanced canoe leader

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I had worked at centres and had done a lot of flat water canoeing and got my three star in 2008 at Symonds Yat. So, when I moved to Llangollen to work, the Dee provided the perfect playground. I booked onto my moderate canoe leader training and at this point I could not really afford the kit or extra coaching but just loved to get out. The trainers feedback was what really pushed me to persue it. He said canoeing needs more smiley people like you Sarah, you’re good at this, you should do it more. A fitting example of the power of our words as coaches.

So, I found myself an ex-demo Venture boat and fondly remember paddling home from work some days, learning to control my canoe on the bottom wave at Mile End mill, building up to paddle Serpent’s tail and eventually Town falls. I enjoyed taking friends and trainees out but did not use the qualification in a professional capacity at this stage, as I worked with children. In 2018 I decided to book onto advanced training. I enjoyed the week but shortly after was a student for an assessment. Although I paddled ok, the thought of leading people in that environment scared me and I was put off for some time. 

Over the years I struggled to find the right group of people and ‘align the stars’ with levels, people and paddling advanced water. However, once I moved away from the Dee, I realised how much I missed it. Financially, I was able to access more coaching, attending refresher courses and volunteering at events to shadow other leaders. Just trying to get out there as much as possible. These last few years I have been extremely fortunate to learn from lots of different coaches/leaders, paddling and working all over the country and most importantly with fun people. I found my crew!

So finally, what made me book my assessment and get the confidence to turn up?

  1. So many paddling friends have supported me, boosted me, and told me I can do it, in particular my female paddling students. They thank me for my coaching but really, they are empowering me and pushing me to progress. Asking when I will be able to sign them off for their next award or run another Paddle UK course. So, I thought I better go and get the qual!
  2. At the English canoe symposium, I had the pleasure of paddling with Emy  McLeod. I loved being out on white water with her and realised how unusual it is to be out with another female the same age as me. I was used to watching my male counter parts in these waters but on reflection, had found it harder to relate to them. Feeling inspired, I was super keen to arrange to go paddling with her in Scotland and we got some dates in the diary for February. I finally thought, yes, I can do it too and I booked my assessment for the end of our paddling week. Eeek, I had committed!
  3. Letting go – I attended another assessment as a student. It finally felt achievable. I had spent most of my career with under 18s who were complete novices. I was used to having everything covered, being in control. It was during this course I realised you just cannot do that in an advanced environment, some things are out of your control. I realised the big difference, you are taking paddlers out, they are already going out regularly, can paddle grade 2/3 and just need a little bit of guidance from you. They must take some responsibility for their paddling in that environment. This was a light bulb moment for me.

The assessment days

Open Water – North Wales, Trawsfynedd reservoir in biblical winds

White Water – Scotland, the Upper Findhorn

Both assessments were amazing and unbelievably challenging in equal measures. At times it was incredibly physical, and I felt the strain of manoeuvring in fast flow and performing a self-rescue in choppy water (yes with good technique it should not feel too tough, but it is still a massive boat!). I struggled particularly with the lining task on the uneven terrain and felt quite exhausted by it, having layered up for the rescues. Self-doubt crept in and I had to bury that down and crack on, as I just wanted this lovely group of people to have a great day out on the river. The assessors were amazing and really helped me to feel at ease. Which I am grateful for, as I have experienced several assessment styles and know that added pressure from an assessor does not work well for me.

The relief! I had finally done it and the day went well. Leading the upper Findhorn in canoe is no easy feat. I even managed to swamp part way down a rapid and stay up right, giggling my way into an eddy.

A huge part of me getting to the point of assessment was becoming independent with the loading of my canoe, so I was able to meet people in various locations. Many an hour I have spent battling with that and once I did pass, I cried with the relief of it all – it had been hard work but an amazing journey.

Next steps. I have a busy few years ahead of me. I am now developing my small business SKapades. I enjoy paddling with everyone, but I am really pleased that more women are approaching me for coaching and leadership. I can see the positivity growing within our community and I hope we can help get more women out on the water, they all help to inspire each other and continue to empower me. I have recently applied for tutor roles for a few awards, including canoe leader. I can’t wait to get out and support future leaders and share just how much fun you can have in the big boats!


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