• MAR 23, 2010
  • WRITTEN BY: Aaron Thomas
Name: Ben Oakley
Occupation: Professional Kayaker
Age: 21
Honours: Member of British team since 2004, Ranked 8th in the world 2009, 4th place at 2009 Mersey World Championship & 2009 Brady World Cup, 7th in the 2008 World Championships Team

Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. So what exactly is River Racing?

Ben Oakley, British Kayak Team

Ben Oakley, River Racing

Hi there, no problem, it’s a pleasure. River Racing; or Wild Water Racing is a race on a predetermined section of river. There are two lengths of courses: the sprint, which is around a minute in length and the classic which can be between 15 and 30 minutes long. Racers start at 60 second intervals so it’s just you and the river. You don’t have to follow a particular route; it’s up to you to figure out which line is fastest!

Sounds pretty tough, how many years have you been kayaking and how long did it take you to reach a professional River Racing level?

Well I’ve been kayaking for 11 years now, since I was 10. I have been at a professional level for six years, but I only recently became full time due to my studying.

Where did you begin your training?

I started at my local canoe club in Bradford on Avon but soon joined a training group in Bath where I trained for most of my time as a junior. During my time at university I trained at Nottingham Kayak Club, which had a white water course pretty much on my doorstep.

Is it a strenuous training regime to maintain that level?

Training can be hard, physically and psychologically, especially when the weather is bad and there aren’t many competitions coming up, but it’s worth it in the summer when the big competitions come around. Training for me involves being on the water once or twice a day, with between 3-4 gym sessions a week and running a couple of times to help maintain aerobic fitness.

I have to ensure I eat enough of the right things to keep myself in the best shape possible, but paddling definitely builds up an appetite! I also take some sports supplements, just to be on the safe side.

What training advice would you give to budding young Kayakers?

First of all join a club. Hopefully there’ll be a few people to train with and share vital advice gained from years of experience. You can find your local club at the British Canoe Union’s website:

Whatever the amount of training you decide to do, be consistent. I started by going paddling once a week and slowly built up to several times a day over many years.

Also, I’d say get to as many races as you can as it is great practice and is what the sport is all about.

Do you have any tips for which equipment to use? Is there a division between standards?

Kit is a very personal thing, what suits one person might not suit the next but it’s great that there is a huge range on offer. The best thing to do get going is to get some good advice from either someone in the know at your club or through the river racing website. Whatever you do choose, make sure it’s fitted out nicely for you. A comfortable boat and set of paddles that you can rely on makes the world of difference.

Where would you recommend in the UK to train?

The best place to train is your nearest stretch of water and this is usually where your local club is going to be. The UK has lots of good rivers with some great white water, especially when there has been a lot of rain. I really like the river River Tryweryn, the river River Dart in Dartmoor, when it’s in flood and the river River Usk in South Wales, but the UK also has some decent manmade courses.

And in the rest of the world?

Europe has some great rivers, especially in the Alps with places like Bourg St Maurice, in France, which is considered one of the best venues in the world. Places like Tasmania where the world cup series were held this year, and South Africa where I have just returned from are also fantastic places to paddle.

Ben Oakley, British Kayaking Member since 2004

Ben Oakley on a Wild Water Run

Do any particular countries dominate the River Racing championships?

The UK has been successful across most canoeing disciplines and has won many medals at major championships; I lost count of Olympic medals the guys won in Beijing! European countries tend to have the strong River Racing teams and the Eastern European countries are particularly strong.

What is your best memory of Kayaking?

One of the best things about kayaking is that it’s a very social sport, so although the first time I was selected for the British team and winning my first medal are great memories, probably my most valued are those where I’m on a great trip, exploring new places and rivers with friends.

One of my favourites of the past year has to be landing in Tasmania to find that the entire country had been flooded, making every river flow. Over the space of a few weeks we paddled lots of rivers, some of which hadn’t flowed in over twenty years! The local paddlers were going mad and taking advantage of the opportunity, I was so lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

Have you ever been injured or in any close shaves whilst Kayaking?

White water kayaking can be dangerous, often a small mistake can push you off the right line and you end up paying for it! I have had a few nasty swims where I got beaten about a bit but I have been lucky enough not to break any bones or be seriously injured. I once managed to become wrapped upside down around a rock, which wasn’t fun!

Has the sport developed at all during your time as a Kayaker?

Yes definitely, the hull designs are fairly similar but technology developments have made the boats lighter, stiffer and stronger. A new discipline of River Racing has also been introduced called Team Sprint Racing, where teams of three race for the quickest time in close proximity. It’s great to watch and even better to be involved in!

What is next for kayaking?

The next big race in the UK is the selection for the British team at Bala, North Wales, North Wales, at the end of April. Internationally it’s Spain for the world championships in June. After that it’s the World Cup Series, which is six races taking place in Italy, Austria and Slovenia.

This season the international races are being held on some amazing rivers which can dish up some pretty big white water so it’s going to be an interesting summer of racing, which is definitely the direction I would like the sport to go in.

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