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An Inspiring Paddling Book

I just read Alistair Wilson’s autobiographical account of his life as a paddler. He has done sea kayaking, competitive flat water kayaking, and some exciting expeditions, including running the Colorado River and its rapids through the Grand Canyon in an open two-person canoe.

He was also the founder of Lendal paddles, which he ran for several decades. He started with wooden paddles and later transitioned to fiberglass and carbon fiber, introducing many innovations along the way.

He started out enjoying sea kayaking off the Western coast of Scotland in his youth. He made several of his own kayaks from kit plans, mostly of lath covered with canvas. He graduated from college as a civil engineer and worked for a couple of years for the highway department, but felt called to make boating-related products for a living, so started his own company. He made wooden kayaks at first then later transitioned to paddles.

There was not a lot of competitive kayaking in Scotland when he first started out, in the late 1950s. There were not even any K1 kayaks (single-person kayaks used in competition) in Scotland at that time. But he was able to compete at a high level by making long drives down to various places in England, and first became British champion in 1962, which he repeated multiple times. He was also on the 1964 and 1968 British Olympic teams. He eventually could not keep competing because of the time demands of the long travel to compete and retired from competition. Ironically, shortly thereafter he was coaxed out of retirement when a high-quality competitive venue was created on a lake in Scotland not far from home. The British championships were held there in 1971, and he became British champion for the last time at that event.

After retiring from competition he remained active as a sea kayaker, and participated in multiple exciting events including the Grand Canyon trip mentioned above, as well as expeditions in Alaska and Newfoundland. Unfortunately, in his 60s he started suffering from Afib. I can relate to that because I got it for about a year leading up to my heart valve replacement. It is no fun and can be debilitating when you are trying to exercise with intensity. Alistair dealt with it for 13 years, but was able to keep it under control enough to stay fit for his adventures.

What was exciting to me aside from reading about the competitions and expeditions was his description of the training required to become an elite paddler, both on and off the water. With “lower-body” activities like cycling and hiking as my primary hobbies, I need motivation to devote enough time to upper body training. Wanting to stay in shape for activities like kayaking helps. This book inspired me to “take it up another notch”.

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