Chile white water adventures

For a few years I’ve had the privilege of coaching at the Simposio de Kayak Pacifico del Sur, near Valdivia in Chile. It’s a great event with fantastic organisers – and best of all, they invite us to stay and explore this amazing South American country!

In 2015 I spent a couple of weeks in the Pucon area of Chile’s aptly-named Rios Region, white water kayaking with Kate, Roger and Christian. Late November is a fantastic time to be there, with moderate-high river levels, warm temperatures and no crowds.

We kicked off the adventure with a visit to Puesco Fest, a celebration of Mapuche culture, local music and white water paddling at an idyllic venue close to the Argentinian border. After our weekend of partying we moved on to Pucon, where we paddled a few of the local classics. A road trip also took us further afield in this region blessed with white water gems.

Rio Trancura

As an occasional white water paddler, this combination of rivers created a perfect week of exciting Chilean challenge – highlights included the pool-drop rapids of the Trancura, the high volume tiderace-style waves of the San Pedro, the express-train speed of the Fuy and – jewel in the crown – the steep boulder garden canyons of the Maichin.

As a sea kayak coach in the tide races of Anglesey North Wales, I often use psychological strategies to assist my clients in more challenging conditions. Progressive practice, goal setting, focusing attention, positive self-talk – all help in situations where anxiety can affect performance. In Chile, the boot was on the other foot! I frequently found myself displaying the responses that I sometimes see in my clients…

It is said that we coach best what we most need to know – well, I really needed to know a few coping strategies during my white water week in Chile. Most useful was ‘Yes or No’ – the information on graded river sections was broad-brush and vague, so rather than rely on guidebook numbers, I simply inspected the rapids where necessary and made my own decisions.

This was particularly useful at ‘Last Laugh’ on the Upper Trancura, which our local paddling buddy ran with style. I was tempted but could see that the rapid was a step up from anything I’d taken on that week and was running at a high level. The line looked feasible for me, but a cross-seam move early in the sequence looked very missable (for me!). I didn’t fancy the consequences, and so I walked. I found it very useful to apply the distinction between ‘technical challenge’ and ‘consequence’, two rather different elements that sometimes get treated as one, with unhelpful results.

On the Rio Maichin we enjoyed low-volume technical class IV paddling in a wonderful gorge setting. As the gradient increased we inspected the crux rapid of the run, a bouldery line with a twisting drop halfway down the steep section. Checking out the options, I accepted that I wanted to run the rapid, knew I was able – but found my anxiety levels increasing.


I needed to apply a couple of coping strategies – first, a careful inspection of the line to identify visual markers that would help me with the key section. I took a broad-external focus to the easier water above and below, trusting that my boating skills would suffice. Where it mattered, I zoomed in to a narrow-external focus to check the exact speed / direction of the water, spotting rock / wave markers to aid my positioning in the rapid.

I also ‘chunked’ the rapid, targeting a river-left eddy that I could confidently make, just above the hard section. This allowed me to simplify the task, rather than dealing with the entire run as one long challenge. A bit of goal-setting, if you like.

I also used some positive self-talk (broad-internal), attuned to my physical responses, relaxed my muscles and reduced my breathing rate (narrow-internal), followed my usual routine before leaving the top eddy – and focused on the moment. I got the line, needed to roll after the steep drop, but made the bottom eddy – and felt great!

The locals styled it and made it look easy – but that’s the point of mental training. The level of challenge was higher for me, so the steps I took to prepare were suited to me in the moment.

Our time on the Chilean rivers was fantastic – I love the rewards that white water kayaking brings. I paddled in excellent company and thank Kate, Roger and Christian for the time we spent together.

Rio Trancura

Ben May and ‘little John’ of Kayak Chile were our excellent outfitters in Pucon and were fantastic, hospitable hosts, full of useful information and great fun to spend time around. If you’re planning a trip to this part of Chile, look no further for advice, boat rental, shuttles and much more.

My biggest thanks go to Pueblitos Expediciones of Valdivia, organisers of the Simposio de Kayak Pacifico Sur – without whose invitation and friendship I would never have returned to Chile for such wonderful adventures. Muchas gracias mi hermanos!


Wild BC sea kayak: Bella Bella to Port Hardy

In July 2015 Kate and I explored the remote British Columbia coastline north of Vancouver Island, between Bella Bella and Port Hardy. It was a fantastic trip, as the images show. We covered 160 miles in 8 days, including three 30-mile days, back to back, to make the most of the conditions. Despite a forecast for strong winds we enjoyed sunshine and light following winds for much of the trip, all in an almost entirely-unpopulated wild corner of the Pacific North West.

Paddling the outer coast, including a trip down the west side of Calvert Island. Camping with wolves on Goose Island. Dodging waves as we escaped Wolf Cove. Solitary campsites among huge driftwood logs. Forested ocean shores. Paddling through classic BC coastal fog to Vancouver Island.

Sometimes, a paddling trip is just that – a chance for renewal, to breathe fresh air, sleep under starlit skies, to ride wind and tide towards our destination. All cliches for a great reason…

Wild BC sea kayak: Okisollo

Our BC tide race tour now took us to Quadra Island, home to Surge Narrows and Okisollo tidal rapids. From our camp next to Surge’s playful eddy lines, we paddled north to Okisollo, a 2-hour trip to reach the fabled venue.

This was a more complex wave than Skook, demanding a ferry out to access the steep section, with a bowl to surf, a shoulder to fall off – and the occasional wave face collapse. On a small spring tide, the power of the feature was less violent than Skook, though still a challenge to surf well.

I watched as Kate shredded the wave, paddling with an elegance befitting this west coast surf girl.

With more surfable time during the tidal phase, I relaxed into the Okisollo experience more than at Skook. Time on the wave face felt smoother, less tense, with more fluent transitions between moves. Rides began to flow, with more precision and less energy lost to fighting the wave.

I noticed that the balance between contact and pressure inside the boat was more suited to the clean waves at Oki. Too much tension creates a loss of fine tuning, with gross movements from edge to edge, rather than a smooth adjustment of hull shape. My Oki moves felt more fluid than the more edgy, hesitant weight shifts I made at Skook.

I also felt more ‘ahead’ of events at Okisollo. Looking at the two clips, I lead with my head more on the latter day. At each venue I rotate my upper body fully into the desired move – an ingrained foundation skill for me – but my head position is better at Oki. At Skook I was often bow-watching, rather than focusing on where I would be in a few seconds’ time.

My sense of – and response to – position on the wave is also better at Okisollo. In the trough or high on the face – each time my posture and weight shifts are suitable and well-timed. At Skook, I sometimes found myself down in the trough of the wave without arc or momentum to climb back up the face – behind the curve, late to the party.

Finally, my stroke linking and blade placement is cleaner and better-timed at Oki. I felt far more blade pressure at Skook, combined with occasionally-messy blade entries.

I was more relaxed at Oki. My fourth day on BC tide races, I was more in tune with the at first-unfamiliar kayak and paddle (excellent kit! Thank you Kate / JF for the Sterling / Saltwood set-up!)

I was also more up to speed with these fast glassy BC tide race waves. Much of my UK tide race paddling is at exposed headlands, where eddy lines are messy and waves break unpredictably. It’s a different challenge. I felt, at Okisollo, that I was ahead of the game at last.

I also took a more pro-active, dynamic approach at Oki. I decided my desired boat position and took action. At Skook I was a little uncertain, wary of the wave and tended to respond – rather than shape events. As a result, my surfing at Skook was less fluent.

I know this because I took time to reflect, watch the footage and compare. I’m stoked (as they say in these parts) to get back to Skook and step up! Remember, we can all be our own best coach. Watch, focus, do, reflect, plan, set goals, go paddle, repeat…

<p><a href=”″>Nick Okisollo</a> from <a href=””>Kayak Essentials</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Wild BC sea kayak: Skookumchuck

Last summer I took a trip to the famous British Columbia tide races. Traveling with Kate, we visited three classic venues: Skookumchuck, Surge Narrows and Okisollo.

Driving north from Vancouver, we took the Sunshine Coast ferry and drove to Egmont, camping close to Sechelt inlet, home of the famous surfable standing wave known simply as ‘Skook’.

A new venue for me, I was keen to get afloat and curious to witness the large spring tides coinciding with our visit, guessing that the exceptional conditions would simply create more exciting surfing. Kate advised me that a 10-knot tide was ideal for long boats, while our sessions would encounter 16-knot speeds. It all sounded great, to this naive Brit visitor at least.

We paddled a few km to a spur of rock, the submerged ledge of which creates the Skook surf wave. Arriving at LW slack, we enjoyed mellow surfing as the wave gradually developed. Within 30 minutes we were blessed with a 20-metre wide face of ever-steepening green water, becoming more dynamic with the passing minutes.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 21.10.34

In a borrowed Sterling Reflection my only view was the deepening trough upstream of the wave face, dominated by a huge green slab of water pouring over the rock ledge. I was looking into a pit several feet lower than the eddy from which I had recently exited.

Anxiety won the day and I returned to the eddy – just in time to see the wave close out as the crest collapsed into the trough, creating a powerful recirculation. Lucky timing! It was easy to imagine its potential effect on me and my boat. Returning to shore, I settled down for an afternoon of sunbathing.

As the peak hours approached and passed, I felt little desire to launch into the mayhem of the top wave, a turbulent washing machine promising only carnage. I also had no wish to challenge the appalling conditions extending a kilometre downstream of Skook, on the biggest tide of the year. Possible? Certainly, and surely paddled by some. But not me, not today.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 21.29.05

The closest experience I could compare was high-volume Alpine white water paddling, with added whirlpools. It looked nasty, a likely swim – and a certain horror show if unseated. I cracked open a beer, gazed at the sky, and chilled out until the final hour of the flood tide arrived.

I waited impatiently for the white wall of foam to relent as the wave began to reveal occasional breaks, the recirculating crest reaching less far into the trough. As the wave turned green I jumped afloat, crossed onto the wave and enjoyed a minute of fabulous surfing – before the crest dumped on me again. Buried in the trough, I felt a mix of frustration at the end of a fantastic ride, anxiety at Skook’s watery grip, and delight at experiencing a classic BC tide race adventure – immersed in a turbulent void in the ocean, in a suddenly-inappropriate vessel.

Digging myself out the trough like a car from a ditch, I spun back into the eddy and launched into the wave as it greened out again. The next 45 minutes were bliss, enhanced by Mike and Kate’s excellent company. Lapping the service eddy, we exhausted the final minutes of the huge spring flood, revelling in the wonderful energy of the wave.

Oh, and the next day? We did it all again…