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First Step towards Adventure - Canoe Skills with Tollymore National Outdoor Centre

Posted on February 2, 2016 @ 11:18 AM in Adventure

Every wanted to try a new activity but didn’t know where to start? Tollymore National Outdoor Centre has created a series of ‘First Step’ skills courses perfect for complete beginners.  From canoeing to climbing and mountain biking to hill walking navigation these skill focused courses are all about trying new things and gaining confidence in the great outdoors so when the opportunity came up to attend the First Step open Canoeing Skills course I was raring to go!

Tollymroe canoe course

Our instructor Amy leading the way

The course started with a coffee (as all good courses should!) where we had a chance to chat whilst everyone arrived.  We were then introduced to Emma and Amy our instructors for the session who took us through the plans for the day.  After a few intros to find out everyone’s skill level/experience we headed down to the store room to get kitted out for our day of canoeing. 

I’d been in a kayak a couple of times but never a canoe so my experience was definitely limited (illustrated by my first question on seeing the boat; ‘How do you know which way is the front?!’)  This was by no means an issue however as all the courses are designed that experience is not essential.  Everyone was there for different reasons; some were already members of clubs but wanted to gain the confidence to take their families out on their own, others wanted to improve their skills to paddle with their more competent partners (and hopefully avoid a few domestics on the water!) and the rest, including me, were there to simply get out and have fun in the outdoors.

Tollymore National Outdoor Centre has to have one of the most extensive kit stores around, so there was no need to worry about having to own any expensive gear.  The store had everything from wetsuits, helmets, buoyancy aids and cagoules to dry bags and neoprene boots (which was great if someone, say hypothetically, forgot to even bring a rain coat!).  A few people brought their own kit to try out which was also an option and a good way of putting new gear to the test in supervised conditions. 


Getting kitted out in the store 

After a quick change we headed to the storage units to get our canoes and loaded up the trailer.  The crafts were surprisingly light and with good team work and some expert knot tying skills it wasn’t long before we were ready to go.  A 20 minute drive to our starting point at Annacloy (during which I may or may not have prematurely tucked into my lunch supplied by the centre– the temptation of the homemade flapjack was too much!) we were dropped off with the gear before the bus was shuttled to our end point in Downpatrick.

Getting ready to launch the canoes; team work makes the dream work! 

We partnered up, two to a canoe and before we knew it were on the water ready to go - they say the best way to learn is by doing and that was definitely the case with this course.  Emma was on hand in her own canoe to expertly paddle between everyone keeping an eye and instructing. The river was pretty fast flowing at the start but everyone managed excellently.   Learning how to confidently stop in Eddys (my first canoeing term for the day which refers to calmer spots on the side of the river) was first on the agenda. This allowed us to wait on each other and keep everyone in sight as we paddled the meandering river downstream.  It wasn’t long before everyone was comfortable with each other communicating between the back and front of the boat.  Although the Spring time lambs were bouncing about in the fields beside us it was a cloudy, chilly day however our wetsuits and layers which we had been advised to bring kept us warm - the arm workout was also a good insulator! 

Some curious lambs on the riverbank

Once everyone’s confidence was up we were shown one of the most important canoe skills, the J stroke, which helps correct the direction of the canoe whilst paddling forward.  As we attempted to get to grips with it, Emma paddled between us checking our technique and making sure we were on the right track.  It wasn’t long before we were stopping off on dry land to stretch our legs. Realising it was already lunch time the sandwiches were opened and devoured – a picnic never tasted so good!  After getting a few more tips on our strokes on dry land it was time to hit the water and swap places in the canoe so everyone got the chance to experience steering at the back.  After lunch a group of swans led the way as we continued along the river, blue skies finally breaking through the cloud.  The journey was very peaceful as we paddled beside countryside with even a rogue seal popping up to say hello.  The chat was flowing as we took in the stunning views across to Down Cathedral before pulling up ashore to stretch our legs in the idyllic setting of Inch Abbey ruins.  After some exploring we got back in the canoes and headed towards the tunnels below Downpatrick Rd Bridge (a much talked about subject during the day) it was clear everyone had gained a lot of confidence throughout the session as we paddled on through the interesting canoe sized holes without worry.

Exploring Inch Abbey; approaching the tunnels under Downpatrick Road Bridge

On the other side it was a short paddle to the mini bus waiting for us at Jane’s Shore in Downpatrick where we loaded up and headed back to the centre for a change and a coffee.  I had a fantastic day out with a great bunch of people and felt our instructor created a very positive and chilled out learning environment with an emphasis on encouragement rather than competitiveness.  If you are looking to improve your skills, learn something new or want to do something completely different whilst having a laugh then this is the course for you!

Activity Provider:

Tollymore National Outdoor Centre
+44(0)28 4372 2158


First Step Open Canoeing Skills Course

Cost per person, per day:  £67

(Includes all technical equipment, in-course transport and a packed lunch)

For future course dates check out the Tollymore National Outdoor Centre Events Calendar 

Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson  Marketing Officer

Sarah joined the marketing team of Outdoor Recreation NI in 2011. A firm believer in giving anything a go at least once (unless it involves jumping out of a plane at 6,000ft!) she is always looking for new adventures in the outdoors and can often be found wandering the Mournes or Glens of Antrim attempting not to get lost!

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