Flat water kayaking is an easy sport to get into, but if you think the next step into the adrenaline-fuelled world of white water paddling is beyond you, think again.
Just ask 35-year-old multiple slalom champion Jana Dukátová. At 14, the Slovak athlete was a promising flat-water kayaker, until she discovered the buzz of the rough stuff. "Flat water was too boring for me," she recalls. Now she's one of the best white water kayakers in the business.
Here Dukátová explains why you need to give it a go, and how you can build the skills to master it.
What's so good about white water compared to flat?
Flat water kayaking is really beautiful, but once you try paddling rapids, you experience a completely new dimension. There's always something new waiting for you on the river, some new kind of challenge. White water is never the same, and there are so many features you can play with: surfing a wave, playing in a roll, dropping into waterfall. As you improve, there's always more new fun stuff you can learn. You'll never get bored.
What flat skills do you need before even thinking of white water?
The key thing is to be totally comfortable in navigating the kayak in any direction. That's obviously important on the flat anyway, but when you get onto white water it's absolutely essential to be quick and skilful at moving your kayak around, because there are always so many obstacles in white water that you have to avoid.
What extra techniques do you need for white water?
On flat water you can just keep the boat flat all the time, but on white water you need to be able to edge, or lean your kayak. You need to be able to keep control of it when it's starting to tip, because that helps you to be stable in currents. Learning how to eskimo roll is also a big advantage, because it really does give you a lot more self-confidence, and helps you to progress much faster on white water.
How do you learn those extra skills?
Both those techniques can be learned indoors in a pool, where it's nice and warm. That's a good place to start, but they can only truly be tested when you get onto some moving white water.
What things should you have on your tick list before you hit white water?
You should be a good swimmer, you should know the basics on how to read white water, and you should know how to stay safe on the river.
How much about making the transition is about confidence?
Like with any adrenaline sport, confidence is really important. If you have a fear of white water, you'll never learn how to master it. However, be aware that too much confidence can also be dangerous. White water can be extremely powerful.
When, where and how did you switch from flat to white water?
I did flat water kayak racing for a few years, but when I was 14, an artificial white water course was built in my home city, Bratislava. When I saw the rapids, I immediately decided to switch to white water.
Despite having some pretty good paddling skills on the flat, the new course was Grade 3–4, and that was way too hard for a white water beginner, so I actually had my first white water experiences on easier courses in Dolny Kubin, which was Grade 1–2, and Liptovsky Mikulas, a Grade 2–3.
What grade should people target to start with?
Start easy, finish strong. You should keep this in mind when thinking about white water. It's good to have Grade 1–2 for the very beginning, when you learn to read currents. Once you feel confident, you can progress to the next grade. If you go step-by-step it also makes it much more fun.
Throwing a white water beginner into a Grade 3 course would be more about surviving than having fun, and that's not going to be good in the long run.
What are the most common mistakes you can make when starting?
A common mistake is skipping the easiest white water levels, which I believe are really important if you want to enjoy kayaking later on. Another mistake often comes in picking the boat. When the volume of the boat is not appropriate to the paddler's weight, it can make things very difficult. If you have the right boat, everything goes much easier.
How do you progress from basic white water to the rougher stuff?
Once you feel you and your boat are stable in all moves on lower grade rapids, then it's time to try the same on rougher rapids. The basic principles are the same, no matter how rough the white water is. You just need to be more and more precise as you progress to big white water, because the current is faster, more powerful, and mistakes have bigger consequences.
What are the easiest tricks or fun stuff to learn to impress your mates?
I'd say surfing a river wave in your kayak. It's really fun, and it looks pretty cool when the huge current flows under your boat, but really, your kayak just stays in one place without any effort.