Extreme Novice Kayaking7 min read

The way to Storkower Canal…

Tranquil camping before setting off across Wolziger Lake, Brandenburg

The sun was shining again when I clambered out of the tent. We had kayaked to Wolziger Lake in near darkness and camped near the water.  We were pitched next to a small channel with geese and horses and moored boats and a view through reeds of the rippled surface of the lake. Roxy 2, our hybrid kayak, was resting upsidedown over the bags, and Scott was making tea on the stove. I was looking forward to exploring Storkower Canal, scared of the lock on the water map as usual, and feeling quite sore. The previous day I had drunk too much beer, got two bright pink stripes of sunburn on my legs and then paddled strenuously for several hours. In fairness, Scott does most of the power work and steering from his back seat, and I help by looking at the German water map and taking photos. I let him believe that his kayaking prowess is the ultimate Manc-skill.

Geese, Wolziger Lake, Brandenburg
Brandenburg Lakes
Look how happy I was before… Wolziger Lake. Brandenburg

I love the Beaufort Scale for its precise,  evocative descriptions, which include the phrases break into spindrift and wind felt on face; leaves rustle; vanes do not move. According to  Beaufort, 11-16 knots of wind is a moderate breeze, the comfortable limit for novice kayakers. The water has small waves, becoming larger; numerous whitecaps. We have put a few hundred kilometres of paddling behind us in the last year, but it has mostly been on flat lakes and gentle rivers. So we are not complete novices, but I was keen to stay under Beaufort’s comfortable limits, and was hoping for light air – ripples with appearance of scales; no foam crests. I looked out across the lake and I did spot a few scales and no crests at all. All good.

Consulting the water map, we sensibly decided to go around the shorter edge of the lake towards Storkower Canal, to avoid the motor channel. Every time a motorboat goes past on these lakes, even when they slow down a bit on seeing us, a minute later there is a set of waves that bob us around and feel a little unstable. I didn’t exactly think we would capsize, but I wasn’t keen.

We packed our camping gear into the kayak as some East German men arrived with trailers and boats. The two older men had expensive cars and rubber dinghies with huge motors and a chair positioned in the middle of the boat. They were followed by two younger men with flash trainers and motorboats zigzagged with bright colours, like cars from the eighties. They all zoomed off past us onto the lake and left us to follow at ripple-speed.

Brandenburg Lake District

Last year we wild camped across the lakes and followed the water map on and on down into Spreewald which is like a magical water hobbit land. The Brandenburg Lake district is really remarkable and I had never even heard of it before moving to Berlin. 33,000 kilometres of sandy beaches and lakes and river networks meandering around the city. Endless reeds and ancient forests that merge into the canals with herons and swans and beavers on the edges. This is the area that the Germans of the DDR came to for relaxation. They built little huts or camped in static vans amongst the pine trees. They didn’t build white hotels with moorings for yachts. They didn’t build swanky waterside restaurants with chilled wine. They didn’t build anything. They just left it as vast quiet nature.

That summer we had also met another Mancunian who had found his way into this area. He told us he had not met any English in these parts for 6 years (let alone another northerner). He took us to his little cabin near Prieros. His place used to be the summer house of the foreign minister in the DDR, who had died in the garden sauna. For East Germany, this was posh.

So I knew from our previous trip that the lakes were calm, shallow, safe, with sandy bottoms and clear water…

garden, Brandenburg
Swan – unphased by Wolziger Lake, Brandenburg
‘Light Breeze – small wavelets, crests glassy, no breaking’ (according to Beaufort). Easy peasy.

Novices

An hour later I was soaking wet and gasping, clutching my slippery paddle and heaving it uselessly into the water. We had turned into the waves on Scott’s instruction as it was the only way to reach the channel to escape the lake. A few minutes earlier we had been surfing on the top of the waves with the wind whipping behind us, directly towards the reed-lined shore. It was either exhilarating or terrifying – I hadn’t been sure. But now there was spray from the wave tops flying in my face as we crashed into them and I knew without a doubt it was spindrift – which meant fresh gale and progress generally impeded.  I tried to stay calm because Scott kept telling me that we were completely fine and I needed to just keep paddling and he would steer us round the dancing red buoys into the channel. A huge wave emptied into the kayak onto my lap – maybe it was just worst at the front and we weren’t going to capsize at all. The guy dashing backwards and forwards on his windsurfer didn’t look panicked, but I couldn’t see his face – maybe he was trying to reach land and being dragged out to Wolziger’s howling depths over and over. Maybe he was shouting for help as he passed us, but his cries were whisked away into the air.

I realised I was making whimpering noises and felt like we were just being thrown around and paddling on the spot. Then, on Scott’s well-timed order, I stopped paddling and he turned us away from the wind, around the buoy and suddenly we were surfing again and lurching towards the river. I was shaking. Several other kayaks of the professional German variety, all weathered wood and canvas, were coming into the channel beside us, but from the other side of the lake – the safe side. The sensible side. The best-for-a-novice side. They tied up near the bank where there was a small black triangle on the map – ‘rest stop.’ And never had one been so needed. They all looked very calm and not a soaking wet puddle of panic like me. Scott helped me out onto the bank and we looked back in incredulity at the waves and chaos of the lake compared to the calm green idyll of where we were standing.  He handed me a tin of gin and tonic. Bloody Hell.

‘wavelets’ became waves… Wolziger Lake, Brandenburg
Afterwards – like a different land

We camped that night in a friendly woodland campsite on the banks of Grosser Storkower Lake. The group with the impressive kayaks and all their children were camped there too, cooking on an open fire and singing songs, as though nothing had happened. I checked the wind speeds we had encountered with Beaufort, and realised that in fact, we had been merely in a fresh breeze bordering on a strong wind. It had felt decidedly more dangerous than small trees in leaf begin to sway. The advice for kayakers was:

‘Moderately difficult; novices find boat control difficult and feel unstable. No problem for experienced kayakers.’

I completely related to the ‘unstable’ bit. In the morning I checked the weather forecast for wind, watched as the intrepid cheerful group packed up and launched off into it, and decided to get a cab to the station – with proud novice common sense.

Scott’s wide-ranging, but at times dubious, ‘skills’ don’t always live up to expectation. In this case, his kayaking prowess is indeed the ultimate Manc-skill.

the boat I wish I had been in, Brandenburg
DDR luxury
Moon rising over Brandenburg lakes
Bridge at Storkow, Brandenburg
sunset and calm, Grosser Storkower Lake, Brandenburg
Scott packs the kayak whilst I phone a cab… Campingplatz Dahmsdorf, Brandenburg
Manc-skills are real, Wolziger Lake…

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