This March saw the first British Canoeing Leadership and Raft Guide course held on the River Spey for a group of 32 individuals undertaking our Outdoor Instructor training Course – eight of whom are female and all passed their raft guide assessment. The new BC award aims to increase the number of qualified raft guides, therefore allowing more opportunities for people to get out on the water. Herein follows the experience of one of those individuals (Lianne). I would like to share my experience as one of the newly qualified raft guides and my thoughts on being one of the few female paddlers to take part on this course. When I took up the stick for the first time, guiding a raft down the Findhorn River, nervousness and doubt filled my mind. With the power of the water, size of the raft and combined weight of my crew, I felt with my small stature that there was no chance I would have the physical strength to be in control. However, during the following training sessions I was pleased (and relieved) to discover that relying on strength and muscle was not the answer. We learnt how to read the river, noticing signs of upcoming hazards well in advance, and changes in the strength and direction of flow. We were introduced to techniques that utilise the power of the water to assist in guiding and controlling the raft, and learning to command your crew in the right way at the right time to assist in manoeuvres. Putting these techniques into practice meant that even the most petite of our group could drive this huge inflatable bus safely down the river. With the mastery of these techniques, nerves turned to smiles and doubt turned to laughter. I quickly fell in love with rafting because, to put it simply, white water rafting is really, really fun! There is this great feeling of a shared experience on the raft and a strong sense of team spirit as you float together down the river and bounce down the rapids. As well as learning to navigate down the river, a large part of the course is dedicated to white water safety and rescue. From rescuing a victim of foot entrapment, to using pulley systems to recover people from a stranded raft, we covered a variety of different scenarios and methods with which to handle them. The knowledge I gained from this side of the course was invaluable to me as a paddler in general, giving me the confidence to deal with emergencies on the river if they should arise. The assessment was spread over two days, testing our ability to guide the raft down the river avoiding hazards, breaking into and out of the flow, making eddies and picking features on the water to have a play on. At the end of each day, we were tested on our ability to rescue swimmers, conscious and ‘unconscious’, and on our rope work and pulley systems. Alongside this, we also had to complete a raft flip- swimming 10 metres to a raft, entering it, flipping it over, getting on top of the upturned raft, flipping it again and then re-entering it (all in the space of 2 minutes). The word ‘assessment’ usually sends cold shivers down the spine, but I can honestly say that an assessment in rafting is fun. It was a chance to put ourselves into the role of guide for the first time without input from our coaches, choosing our own lines, communicating with the other raft guides and creating an enjoyable experience for our teams. It acted as a window into the future- to see what being a raft guide was going to feel like and it felt great. In a predominantly male industry, it is important to encourage and celebrate the rise of female paddlers (especially raft guides), leaders, guides and coaches within paddlesports. The SCA (Scottish Canoe Association) is actively exploring ways to do this, with a calendar of female specific events on offer. Understanding and underpinning the obstacles that may hold women back is crucial to this initiative. Within the group of 32 candidates that took part in this course, 8 of us are female. We took some time to reflect on our motivations, concerns, challenges and achievements during the training and assessment period. Sharing our experiences with you, we hope to inspire more women out on the water, whether its to paddle recreationally or to become a professional. My biggest challenge during the assessment was the raft flip drill. In other versions of raft guide assessments, an aid was/is allowed to assist the guide back into the raft, but for the SCA they are a believer in technique first and foremost. My first couple of attempts left me distraught. I struggled to find the arm strength to pull my body weight up and push myself over the side. Females are undoubtedly at a disadvantage here, having more than just a buoyancy aid to get over the tube. But, with much appreciated guidance and support, I remember the surprise and delight when I first managed to wiggle myself into the raft from the water. It was then that I once again realised that this isn’t a drill succeeded only by brute strength, but technique. On the day of our raft flip assessment, a group of girls stood together, cheering each other on from the side. One by one we all found our technique, and consecutively mastered the raft flip. It was a really special moment for me, and I was equally as excited for my friends as I was for myself. That day, my greatest challenge became my greatest achievement. I cannot overstate the difference it made to me having a female presence on the raft guide course. To have a group of individuals who shared the same setbacks and struggles created a feeling of solidarity and support. I didn’t carry the burden of feeling like the one and only girl who couldn’t do it first time round, I was part of a group of girls fighting for each other to succeed. So what did the other girls think? Here are a couple more insights into the course, assessment and what it was like becoming a female raft guide… ‘My concern going into the course was how confident I would feel being in charge of a group of boys on the raft. However, it was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be and it gave me loads of ideas on how to deal with big groups of guys in the future whilst making it fun for them. My biggest challenge was having the strength to individually guide the raft down the rapids, but I soon realised how to use my crew to assist in manoeuvres when I was struggling. I surprised myself at times with how much I was able to control the raft on my own to avoid rocks and get into eddies, and this made me feel much more confident in my own abilities. My favourite moment during the course was when I started to be able to read the river and pick a line. The raft flip drills also proved a personal challenge, but it was really inspiring to see the other girls in the group, who were experiencing similar problems, finding their way through it. It gave me the inspiration I needed to believe that If I kept working at it, I would be able to achieve it too. When I started rafting, I was convinced it was something I would only enjoy as a passenger as I lacked the strength and confidence to guide. Having completed the training and assessment, I know that I can do it and feel really positive about continuing to develop my rafting skills.’ ‘One of my favourite moments of the course was watching the women group together as they developed the strength and skill to complete the raft flip drills. We all had to work out different techniques and some spent days practicing. It was inspiring to see this kind of determination and problem solving. We have learned to be strong and adaptable because some things in life don’t come easy to us. It made a big difference to me being able to share the experience with other females and form a community. We could talk about the things we enjoyed as well as the things we struggle with, and these can often be specific to women. Being with other female paddlers made things feel less pressured and competitive, and we had the chance to be ourselves without any judgement. The thing I struggled with the most was finding the motivation to get out in the cold temperatures and the windy, wet days as we trained over the winter. It took a lot of inner strength and encouragement from team members to get out on the river. I would like to make the most of the raft guide qualification I have achieved and feel that raft guiding will be a great activity to pursue abroad.’ I also thought it important to find out what the boys thought of the raft guide course (so there was more than simply a female perspective), to see if we are indeed that different after all. Here are some male insights into the course, assessment and what it felt like to become a male raft guide. ‘Going into the assessment I felt pretty confident and comfortable with my ability after our days of training. My biggest challenge on the assessment was getting the best time with the raft flip drill- it turned into a bit of a competition between a few of us with who could do it the quickest. My favourite moment was picking a line down a particular rapid and eddying out at the bottom. All my training fell into place and I got some really positive feedback from our coach, who described it as a textbook manoeuvre, which made me feel pretty good. I am definitely keen to pursue rafting as it is probably the most inclusive paddlesport. You don’t need that much skill to take part and everyone can get loads of enjoyment out of it. The vibe on the raft really adds to the experience, and as a guide it is great because you are right there, able to get to know people more than when everyone is in their own boat.’ ‘My greatest achievement on the assessment was surfing a wave and being able to hold it for a substantial amount of time. I had been trying throughout the training days and hadn’t quite held it, so finally getting it felt great. A challenge for me was guiding an unfamiliar raft on the day of assessment- it was bigger than the ones we had used previously but it presented no problem once on the water. I am excited to pursue a future as a raft guide because I really love the bond that is created between the guides on the river. Working and spending time together on and off the river creates a family vibe and it is something I am looking forward to being part of.’ ‘On the day of the assessment, I was very aware to not use my crew too much to make the manoeuvres and therefore wear them out too much. For me, raft guiding is a series of achievements- making each eddy, surfing the wave, ferry gliding across the flow. Raft guiding is something I will continue to explore- it is something you can take all round the world. Asking the girls whether it made a difference to have a female presence on the raft guide course, the answer was a definitive yes. So I was intrigued to know if it made a difference to the males too. Here are some of their responses (also a definitive yes). ‘Having female paddlers on the course bought a nice balance to the group. When it’s all guys, things can get a little competitive so having a female energy made us look out for each other a bit more.’ ‘With female paddlers around, there was much less ego and it encouraged good tactics as we weren’t just muscling our way down the river. Having a female presence isn’t just good for other females, it is good for everyone.’ ‘It was nice to have a female energy on the raft- it was inspiring to see the girls tackle things in different ways, I have a lot of respect for the effort and adaptability they showed.’ Coming out the other side of the assessment, I have not only gained an amazing qualification that will provide me with many great opportunities, but a new passion to get obsessed with, and also a newfound strength and confidence in myself. It has also inspired me to get more involved with the female specific events available as going through this experience with other women made me realise the importance of these opportunities and how much positivity I can take from them. Finding our confidence can be easier when surrounded by women, so that when we get on the water, we are not apprehensive, but just focusing on having a good time. We face different challenges to men, and at times, we may have different approaches. This shouldn’t make us shy away or feel like we have something to prove. The males on the course benefited from our presence as well as we did from each others. I am so happy to be part of the new wave of raft guides, and proud to know that 8 of us represent the growing number of female leaders in the paddlesports industry. I feel excited for my future as a raft guide and urge people who haven’t tried it to give it a go. It is a great activity to enjoy as a family or as a group of friends but also a fantastic way to meet people too.