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Paddler Spotlight: East London's new community paddling club

In our final Paddler Spotlight of 2023, we hear from Katy Hogarth from Moo Canoes, who has been at the heart of a project in East London to establish a new community paddling club.

In June 2022, a local housing association, Poplar HARCA and British Canoeing Delivery Partner, Moo Canoes, came together to develop a programme of paddlesports activities for a proposed new pontoon in East London.

Fast forward to today, the newly established club around the Teviot Estate in Poplar proudly features a purpose-built pontoon that extends onto four miles of uninterrupted waterways. This includes London’s oldest canal and the rivers around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The new club’s home even boasts access to the River Thames. Katy shares the journey to getting here.

Words by Katy Hogarth

Pictures by Sylvie Belbouab

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An active community club needed to be established at the heart of this programme, but there was no history of a club here, and no latent paddling skills in the community. The Teviot Club project set out to up-skill local residents, showcase existing local opportunities to participate in watersports, and form a new kind of club created by exactly those who often face barriers to our sport.

The access problem

The expanse of blue space on their doorstep has never hosted a club before. High tides on the neighbouring River Lea flooded into these canals until 2000, so the canal walls that held them back rose over a metre above the current water level. The original towpath was lost in the 80s and only made accessible to pedestrians again in 2003. Local access to the water for residents was never possible until now.

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Aside from the physical barriers to the water, club members have collectively faced cultural, structural, institutional, and individual barriers to sport. Working to tackle as many of these as possible, the Teviot Club project initially set out to up-skill local women so they would have the confidence and agency to forge a path for this new community club.

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Across the board, local sporting opportunities weren’t always well promoted, and there were few opportunities for all levels of fitness, age, and ability. When it came to paddlesports specifically, the nearest paddlesport club was a 50-minute walk away and had a £50 induction fee, creating a significant financial barrier even before considering the costs of membership, sessions, and gear.

This community has a high proportion of non-swimmers. Understanding that lack of swimming ability doesn’t need to exclude people from watersports has been fundamental, and is still a problematic barrier across much of the industry, with several local venues unable to host sessions for this reason.

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Tackling barriers

Working to address as many of these challenges as possible, a programme was initially developed for nine women to try a variety of paddlesports over six sessions on Tuesdays, 11am-1pm. Posters were put up in local community centres, and shared at other sporting hubs. Within a week, there had been over 30 applicants for these places, so the programme was expanded to accommodate 18 local women.

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This first cohort embarked on their paddlesports journey in Autumn 2022, trying bell boating, rowing, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding and outrigger canoes. Showcasing the range of watersports already on offer across East London was an important part of the project, so the new club could complement and support local provision, rather than clash with activities already taking place. 

Two further cohorts of women have since been able to splash through the programme, thanks to funding from London Sport, British Canoeing, Active Thames and the Hill Trust.

Rather than launching straight onto the canals or open water, the first few sessions for each cohort were conducted in indoor pools, with the support of the Black Swimming Association, looking at water confidence and safe floating in buoyancy aids.

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Paddle Safer Training

This September, as well as introducing the third group of women to the water, the project focussed on continuing to upskill members of the first two cohorts, running development sessions and looking at options for safety and rescue training.

Working within the limitations of school hours, suitable equipment, water temperature (and quality), and the need for all-female options for cultural reasons, running a full PSRT was proving challenging.

Working closely with British Canoeing, we were able to tailor-make a Paddle Safer course which all three cohorts of women would be able to attend together, giving them a basic level of skills and confidence.

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Using the clear, clean waters of the lake at Lee Valley White Water Centre just days after the Slalom World Championships, the club members donned wetsuits and took to the water. Being able to see the bottom, stand in shallower sections, and not worry about getting caught in weeds made a huge difference to their confidence.

This was the first time the three groups of women had met each other too, and bringing the whole club together on the water like this created an amazing atmosphere of camaraderie and fun.

Modules were delivered as practically as possible by a diverse all-female team. The participants were able to try closed-cockpit kayaks and practice capsizes and falling from SUPs for the first time.

In total 50 women were involved in the day, including 11 paddlesports coaches and a female photographer who has been documenting the project.

I feel empowered to achieve more and keen to help other women who are struggling with their mental health to experience the joy that this has brought me and many of the other participants.

– Tanjina, Cohort 1
Results so far

Many of the women have achieved their Discover award, and collectively they have developed the confidence and agency to stand for committee positions and forge a new Affiliated Club.

54 women have been able to join the project as participants. 20 female coaches and instructors have worked together to deliver 41 training sessions alongside 5 male colleagues. Several family paddle days have taken place during school holidays and on weekends, with the women working as volunteers on taster sessions to engage their own relatives and the wider community.

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Whilst the club isn’t exclusively for a particular demographic or gender, forming it around a committee of women of colour will ensure they always have a voice and are able to build the club as they choose.

Swimming skills aren't prevalent within the members. Re-scripting their relationship with the water, and tackling generational skill-gaps has already shown positive results for the wider community, with several of the women having built the confidence to take their own families to the beach, kayaking in Qatar, white water rafting in Scotland, and even paddleboarding in China!

I love that I can experience activities on water at my age and meet such fantastic women from all kinds of societies. It really feels like the club brings the people of the world together.

– Bushra, Cohort 1

There are still many barriers the club has to tackle - they have no equipment yet, and nowhere to store it. Two members have taken their PSRT, but as yet the club doesn’t have any of its own instructors or leaders. Water quality and lack of wetsuits or drysuits continues to pose a barrier to rescue training and progression.

What they lack in real estate and qualifications then make up for in determination, and this project has formed new friendships and made impactful changes to their lives. Hopefully the club will thrive and offer watersports opportunities to this community for generations to come.

With thanks to: British Canoeing, London Sport, Hill Trust, Poplar HARCA, ELCAN CIC, Black Swimming Association, SBOAC, London Youth Rowing, the Royal Canoe Club, Moo Canoes, Outrigger Club United Kingdom, Surrey Docks Fitness & Watersports Centre, LVWWC and GLL.

We’d love to hear about the great work happening in your community. You could be our next Paddler Spotlight feature in 2024. Find out more about the initiative here and share your stories and photos with us via our form here. Or if you prefer drop us an email at [email protected]