An Interview with Open Canoeist Ray Goodwin

“The canoe was seen as the unskilled cousin of the sport, something you paddled if you couldn’t paddle a kayak. Most canoe articles in magazines were about kayakers that had gone off to do a wilderness canoe trip. There were exceptions, but they didn’t seem to break the perception. Nearly all the kayakers we met on the Wales trip, were very dismissive of us because we were in a canoe. So we had one lot doing the theme from Hawaii Five-O but not acknowledging us otherwise and another enquired if we were having a nice afternoon out ‘boys’. Our Circumnavigation of Wales changed a lot of people’s opinion of the canoe.”

You have a long list of accolades and achievements to your name, including the first circumnavigation of Wales, many canoeing and sea kayaking qualifications, climbing qualifications, filming for a national television network and now you’ve published a book. Would you describe yourself first and foremost as Ray Goodwin the adventurer, Ray Goodwin the canoe guru, or Ray Goodwin the outdoor specialist personality?

I love adventures. Guru and personality are labels others can apply if they wish. Mind I was once introduced to a paddling group as a canoe guru, one person asked what a guru was. From the back, a voice piped up, ‘one down from Loel Collins.’
Ray Goodwin will do for me.

You didn’t start canoeing until slightly later in life. What was it – when you were in your 30s and already an accomplished climber that attracted you to canoeing and sea kayaking?

Circumstances as much as anything had me take to the boat. I had taken a year off to travel and climb and came back to work in an outdoor centre. I was happy to climb in any conditions but soon ran out of folk that would tolerate my adventures. Instead, they started dragging me out kayaking on wet days. My boss was a keen sea kayaker so that got me going on that. Then a series of climbing trips were a dismal letdown, poor weather meant I was spending more time waiting for good conditions rather than doing. At this time kayaking, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado became an attractive proposition so I spent more time devoted to paddling. I didn’t really get into the canoe until I was nigh on forty but what I brought to it were an adventurous spirit and a lot of experience of wild places and water from river running and sea kayaking.

It’s been almost 20 years since you and Rob Egelstaff completed the first successful circumnavigation of Wales. Could you tell us a bit about the canoeing and kayaking scene back in 1992 when you did it? Was it something that was calling out to be done, as soon as the right people stepped up, or was it viewed as ambitious even for the hardened expedition paddler?

These were very exciting times, there were a lot of creeks that had never been paddled before, if they were paddled, little knowledge about them meant they felt like first descents. But it does amuse me when I find out some had been paddled before. All of that was in my kayaking days. The canoe was seen as the unskilled cousin of the sport, something you paddled if you couldn’t paddle a kayak. Most canoe articles in magazines were about kayakers that had gone off to do a wilderness canoe trip. There were exceptions, but they didn’t seem to break the perception. Nearly all the kayakers we met on the Wales trip, were very dismissive of us because we were in a canoe. So we had one lot doing the theme from Hawaii Five-O but not acknowledging us otherwise and another enquired if we were having a nice afternoon out ‘boys’. Our Circumnavigation of Wales changed a lot of people’s opinion of the canoe. Rob had done a trip from Chester to Gloucester by going up the Dee and after a bit of canal going down the Perry (a stream really) and the Severn. It was the key for our round Wales trip. Over a meal and a fair degree of liquid refreshment Rob broached the concept of the circumnavigation. Originally we were going to do the coast in sea kayak but that soon changed, we decided the whole trip was to be in a canoe. I still have vivid memories of that trip, in particular, surfing a large set of waves in an overfall off of Milford Haven. Rob was totally airborne in the bow and couldn’t reach the water with his paddle. An awesome few minutes that I didn’t relish at the time. It was so groundbreaking that it has never been repeated in canoe to my knowledge. I did the trip again in 2010 acting as a guide but this time we used fast Kevlar We no nah canoes on the inland section and used the canal system to access the Vyrnwy and Severn rather than go up the Dee, and did the coast in a sea kayak. It is a brilliant trip.

And how about your more far-flung adventures over the years? How pioneering was your first trip down, for instance, Bloodvein River in Manatoba?

Native people, fur traders and trappers have canoed the Bloodvein for thousands of years so not at all groundbreaking. In agreement with my customers, and I knew these guys well, we did not take any communication devices or any stoves. Once we had flown in we were committed to sorting anything ourselves. With three very wet days and the river in flood we had very long days of canoeing, portaging and then collecting, sawing and splitting wood to cook on. It was a gruelling learning experience, to say the least. But very typical of me in that give me a skill and I want to use it in a real context.

Have there been any really scary moments over the years, hard lessons learned, perhaps? Do you think there is still plenty left not yet done for pioneers of the future? Where should they be focussing their attention, in your opinion?

Oh, there have been a few very scary moments. Some have been climbing others have been paddling. Twice I have looked up to a water surface way above me and wondered if I could reach it in time. Once was rescuing a kid from a viciously re-circulating stopper on the Tryweryn, I got an award for that one, the other was due to a bloody stupid mistake on my part on the Bloodvein; it’s recounted in the book. It’s getting hard to be a pioneer so we have to look at style and commitment. In many ways, we are playing an intricate set of games and by deciding on the kit and backup we decide the level of seriousness of our undertaking.

What’s the most important characteristic to possess on a challenging whitewater expedition in a canoe? Is technical ability all you need, or do you need something else as well?   

Caution! If you are in a remote setting you have to think hard about the consequences of a mistake where a boat or kit could be lost. It is something I have had to learn the hard way. Once I am in the zone then good lines attract me and I should perhaps portage more than I do.

You’ve shown an interest in leadership and guiding from a young age – qualifying as both a Mountain Leader and a teacher in your early 20s, and you are now a highly respected canoe and sea kayak instructor. What is it about imparting your wisdom to others that attract you? Would you say it’s an end in itself or has it been a way for you to spend your life doing what you love and meeting new people?

When I first worked as an assistant mountain instructor back in 1972 it was initially about being in the hills but I loved being an instructor, working with folk and seeing them develop. So I suppose my career has had two strong strands throughout; my own love of adventure and the outdoors and then a real pleasure in instructing and guiding.

How has the sport evolved since you first got involved? Would you say it’s more accessible now than it was then? What has affected these changes, would you say?

It is far more accessible now and I listen to the adventures and travels of young instructors with a great deal of interest and envy. There are a lot of good people out there doing things. The Internet has made things a lot easier to sort out but it has also made the world smaller. Also, the culture is so different when I was a kid the only people I knew who had been abroad had served in the Second World War. I now talk to students who have been all over the place. For many now, it is normal to travel.

In a world where there is an increasing number of people getting involved in paddle sports and government cuts to services that provide outdoor education would you say it’s fair to describe the outdoor educator market as over-subscribed? What does it take to be an outdoor instructor nowadays? Will hard work and enthusiasm cut it, or does it take more than that?

I think there have always been more people wanting to instruct than there is work and that is true of almost any level in the industry.  Hard work and enthusiasm will take you a long way but you have to maintain your own interest in the activities and enjoy working with people. If you want to get to the top you also need to source ideas from others; by working and observing good people and using DVDs and books to increase understanding. But having said that you need your own ideas and an ability to question received wisdom.

How long was your book, Canoeing, in the pipeline?

I first started muttering about it fifteen years ago but I am really glad I did nothing about it then. It would have been a very different book back then. So I suppose some eight or nine years ago I started making a real effort to get the photos. I felt strongly that even the books I admired hadn’t got that side of it completely right or were now dated.

Was writing it a case of sitting down and thinking about how to structure a book with technical instruction on canoeing, or is the wisdom in there the result of ideas that have been occurring to you slowly over time?

There had to be a structure so I broke it down into sections and then into smaller bits on each topic, stroke or manoeuvre. That way I could concentrate on individual items at any one time, appropriate to where I was paddling or working. Some really productive stuff came out of working on staff training for PGL in the Ardeche, there were great places to photograph and a lot of enthusiastic coaches to bounce ideas off of. Over time the structure changed and in the final stages of the design and editing by Pesda Press things became refined. I continued to incorporate new ideas right up to the last weeks to the frustration of my, (almost very understanding), editor Franco Ferrero.

What gap in the market does Canoeing fill: it’s clearly very detailed in its instructional element, but there are anecdotes in there too. How would you sum up your target readership?

I didn’t want a dry instructional tone. I have a real passion for the canoe and wanted that to shine through and the stories and anecdotes illustrate the whys of the instruction. I hope a beginner can pick up the book and get a lot of good advice from it to get them started as well as inspiration for the future. For the more experienced it will be something to dip in and out of for new ideas or confirmation of current practice. As for coaches, the book is born out of my own experience as a coach and there are plenty of ideas in there.

You’re quite a literary canoeist, your expedition reading list includes the eclectic mix of Jane Austen, Robert Pirsig and Winston Churchill! Did the experience of writing Canoeing encouraged or inspired you to write more?

I think I still have something left to write but whether that surfaces as a book is something else. There are a lot of stories untold and definitely things that make me who I am. Writing is a very protracted thing for me and I am sure my partner Lina would not be happy with the advent of a second book just yet.

Which of the above authors would you say you’re most similar too?

Definitely not Pirsig! I hope I am far more understandable and accessible than that. As for Austen and Churchill they were both storytellers even though Churchill’s was that of the British people, their empire and wars. I am a storyteller but not in that league. I think there is a large chunk of my mother in there, she always had us kids riveted with her stories, of being a bus conductress, a welder in war time and countless adventures and mishaps. The book is dedicated to the memory of my Mum.

Back to paddling… Canoeing and sea kayaking are growing sports, and historically iconic guidebooks and instructional books have become a sort of paddlers’ ‘bible.’ Do you think the influence of the internet spells the end for these books, or will the printed word always hold more sway than what you can read on an internet forum, do you think?

It will become harder for books during the evolution of technology I can think of ways of making the information still more accessible. In an electronic version of ‘Canoeing, maybe’ a ‘reader’ could see the sequence of photos, single photos with text or a video of the complete manoeuvre and text or sound. All could be embedded so the viewer chooses how they access information.  So the printed may be replaced by the electronic one.  Not that I am planning that any time soon. Forums are great but it’s hard to know the experience of the person who is supplying the information. I have seen some very experienced people give up posting because idiots have rubbished their opinions.

You feature heavily in the 2004 Ray Mears Bush Craft series, in which you travel down the Missinaibi River in Ontario.  Tell us a bit about working with Ray.

A few years before, Ray had phoned to book some coaching for himself. I thought it was one of my mates doing a windup. Fortunately I had managed not to say anything crazy before I realised it was genuine. Sometime later I coached Ray for a few days and we had has a great time sharing stories of Canada and its history and characters. Instead of being paid I asked for some coaching on bushcraft, something I was becoming aware of as lacking in my own journeys in the boreal forest.
We got on well and I got the invite to be a part of Ray’s Bushcraft series. We started our journey with quite a big crew (eight additional folk) but Ray was very wise in insisting we use a different campsite so if they wanted to film they had to paddle or walk to us.  This way we naturally dropped into the banter of mates on a trip. There was no script and other than the journey, there was little structure. The sequence of me using a bow drill to light a fire was at my request because I had never attempted it before. No pressure to succeed then! The latter part of the journey was done with just four of us. It was amazing to watch the sheer efficiency of the man. I have never seen anyone else so quick at getting things up and running, I thought I was efficient until I worked with Ray.

Neither of you were tempted to form a longer-lasting television partnership and become the two Rays?

I think the two Ronnies had that sewn up better. Seriously I would have bitten anyone’s hand off but that was never a serious proposition.

We’ve resisted the silly hypothetical questions until this point, but we have to ask: if you were forced to choose, would you pick canoeing or sea kayaking? Why?

It would have to be canoeing but I would so miss many favourite places and I would never get to go to Greenland.

Same question for paddle sports versus climbing?

Paddle sport (does that mean I can still go sea kayaking?). But only as long as I can still go hill walking.

Thanks very much for talking to us Ray.

To Order Your Copy of Canoeing Click HERE