Canoes have long been a staple feature of outdoor activities. But following the death of four teenagers in the 1993 Lyme Bay tragedy, many teachers have questioned the wisdom of letting children tackle the sport, wary of parental anxiety as much as the risk of a similar accident.
The Welsh Canoe Association has been working hard to promote the canoe. Its development officer, Nigel Robinson, says: "Canoeing is an attractive, low-cost sport that's diverse enough to cater for most children in a wide range of environments, from beginners on swimming pools or canals, to more experienced, older children taking on white water rivers or a sea expedition. But we're well aware of the concerns of parents and teachers, and the key to avoiding accidents is having well-trained coaching staff, which is a requirement of any centre that's affiliated to the WCA."
So the WCA provides advice, training, qualifications and licensing for individual schools, clubs and centres to ensure that anyone who wants to learn the sport does so in safe hands.
The training and workshops take place at the association's centre in Tryweryn, north Wales, and cover coaching techniques, safety, first-aid and legislation. This means staff at centres throughout Wales which are used by school groups are fully-qualified and can be relied upon to provide children with an enjoyable and safe time on the water. Instructors are also re-evaluated every three years to keep them up-to-date with developments in the sport.
"We also offer an accreditation system for centres, school canoeing clubs and private clubs which provides a set of guidelines for the provision of canoeing for children, and complements the Adventurous Activities Licensing Authority Licence," says Mr Robinson. Teachers can get in on the act, as the WCA offers specific training for those who wish to run their own pool centres.
But enough of all the admin, what's in it for the kids? Mr Robinson says one of the sport's chief attractions is its accessibility. "Nowhere in the UK is far from water," he says. "And where there's water you can use a canoe." Other obvious benefits include the chance to enjoy the great outdoors and get some healthy exercise, but it can lead further.
From initial practice sessions in swimming pools and on flat water, anyone who's keen could progress to white-water river competitions or multi-day sea kayaking expeditions. After all, Britain has a surprisingly rich heritage in the sport - slalom world champion Paul Ratcliffe comes from Lancashire, and areas such as the west coast of Scotland and Pembrokeshire are among the finest sea kayaking locations in Europe.
Reaching these heady heights requires the kind of coaching the WCA is so keen to promote. A series of awards is designed to monitor a child's progress. "We have award schemes for all aspects of 'paddle sports'," says Mr Robinson. "These include the Pool Blade Award, based in swimming pools, the Star Test, which focuses on control of the canoe, and the Paddle Power award, which develops flat-water skills. All are graded from one to five, five being advanced level."
A growth area within the sport is open boats, the traditional open canoes that fur trappers used. Again there are award schemes for these, and one of the attractions of open boating is that unless you fall in (which you shouldn't) you don't get wet. An open canoe will also take up to three people, allowing for the development of teamwork, which is vital when paddling.
Being out on the open water, whether inland or on the coast, might be an exhilarating and exciting way to spend a day, but it can be an educational experience too. Children may get closer to wildlife than they've ever been before (off the coast of Pembrokeshire, for example, Atlantic grey seals and even porpoises and dolphins often swim within yards of canoes); and they can see geography and geological formations from a dynamic perspective.
The canoe was developed as a means of transport and hunting, so what better way of moving quietly and unobtrusively through a watery landscape?
By the time you read this it may be too late to book your canoe expedition for this summer, but even that's not a problem - as Mr Robinson says: "With good instructors, modern wetsuits and outdoor clothing you can get on the water pretty much all year-round." So if you start paddling now, by next summer your school group could be experts.
Canoe or kayak?
The United Kingdom is unique in using the term canoe to refer to two types of craft. A true canoe is an open boat that can hold one or more people, whereas the lighter craft with a "cockpit" commonly seen bouncing down white water rivers is a kayak. Water is kept out with a spray deck which seals you in and the element out.
Equipment This should be supplied by the centre where you learn, and will include helmet, buoyancy aid, and, if you're kayaking, a wetsuit or dry "cag" (a cagoule with watertight arms and neck) and spray deck. Oh, and a boat and paddle of course.
Welsh Canoe Association, Canolfan Tryweryn, Frongoch, Bala, Gwynedd LL23 7NU. Tel: 016678 521199. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.welch-canoeing.org.ukBritish Canoe Union, Adbolton Lane, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 5AS. Tel: 01559 821100. E- mail: email@example.com; website:www.bcu.org.ukScottish Canoe Association, Caledonia House, South Gyle, Edinburgh EH12 9DG. Tel: 0131 317 7314. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.scot-canoe.orgCanoe Association of Northern Ireland, House of Sport, Upper Malone Road, Belfast BT9 5LS.Tel: 01247 469 907