I’m ashamed to say I’d been out with Robson only once since a challenging and enjoyable 5 Star Canoe training at the back end of 2012 with Jules Burnard of Voyageur Coaching, so I had some trepidation in getting back in the canoe. In fact on our last mid-January jaunt with kayaking self-styled guru Daz Clarkson-King and friend Nigel Conway, we took a dip on the Dee’s tricky and as it turned out; sticky Serpents Tail in bitter, snowy conditions.
After a 2 ½ hour drive up the M6 and feeling the unfitness of the January gloom I met the rest of my group for the 2 day assessment. I was to be a mock student to gain useful tips and ideas for my own assessment later in the year and clearly to blow the cobwebs of the cold, wet, snowy, windy winter out of my stiff joints.
Ullswater in the top East corner of Cumbria’s stunning Lake District was the venue for day one of the assessment and would prove to be a challenging paddle, with winds gusting in ever-direction changing squalls. These really were 5 star conditions for the 3 candidates!
My ongoing personal relationship with Robson Brooks requires me to paddle as often as possible in varying environments with the aim of making conclusions on characteristics of construction, materials, design and features. I’m like a test pilot or semi-pro demoer. I’ll come to that bit later!
If as a paddler, you’ve never experienced being a mock student on the path to personal improvement then surely you have missed a trick. Neither paying for your role nor being assessed makes for an economical and relaxed couple of days in the hands of candidates who you’d hope could look after you in the event….and a couple of “Guru” assessors whom you can pick and glean information from in the satisfaction that you are not paying them a pretty penny.
So, the three assessment candidates led Emma, Bex, Ken and I in challenging winds, clustered and rafted crossing the lake from one island to the next. At times we hunkered down low in our canoes when the wind lifted with hurricane blasts, only to drop down again enough for us to proceed to the next destination. Robson Brooks is a big volume canoe with high gunwales, excellent for chunkier pilots but putting lighter paddlers at a distinct disadvantage on open water in these conditions and it’s worth noting that with so much rocker, Robson is inclined to turn unless harnessed. Trim would be key if the wind would make up its mind as to which direction it wanted to blow and plenty of it. I started the day with a large rock in my bow and the girls had opted for dry bags filled with the wet stuff in their canoes. This was what I was here for and I was enjoying every minute!
At lunch and after cheap white bread sandwiches and my life-giving flask of tea we cracked on with the third assessment candidate and sailing. The wind had abated by this time, mercifully and as sleet and rain lashed down on our backs, Bex and I hurriedly rigged our canoes with a small group shelter on a glass pole mast. We launched our canoe raft, pleased to see that everything was holding together. Promptly the mast snapped and the sail dropped. This truly was improvised sailing as I physically held the mast up to catch enough wind to make progress and Bex steered a course to the opposite shore. We made the shore despite the failed gear with great relief and de-rigged to paddle our return once again.
Expecting to carry on into the descending darkness I think all were relieved to be told that due to the challenging conditions of the day a night navigation exercise would not be required and that all the candidates had completed day one satisfactorily. Relief ensued from all and we packed up boats and gear to return to the bunkhouse via food at the pub.
Day two and we met at Chollerton on the Upper Tyne which is a big, wide river fed by Kielder water. Additional assessor Kim Bull and another mock student, Stuart had joined us and shuttles were run, kit was donned and the sun even made an appearance. 4 of the mock students were to be led by one candidate at a time starting with Ben. After a sloping river wide weir just below our get-in, the first few kilometers were easy, wide grade 1-2 rapids with no particular challenges for us mock students or Robson Brooks. In fact Robson made easy work of the eddy hopping and ferries with its generous rocker giving easy, capable turns. After the candidates proved their skills and judgement with some upstream travel we broke for lunch below a long wave train. More cheap white bread sandwiches were shoveled down and more flask tea and onto moving water rescues. This gave us mock students a chance to watch and relax whilst candidates Ben, Chris and Rick got wet rescuing themselves and each other.
Time was pushing on as we returned to our canoes to complete the last section of the trip and the crux rapids in Wardens Gorge. The English white water guide suggests grade 3-4 through the gorge so this would create challenges for both assessment candidates and mock students alike. Due to the SSSI status we were unable to inspect the gorge from the banks. Each candidate was given two mock students each and off we went. As I started to descend into the gorge behind my leader and Stuart, I was surprised how large the holes where. My best description would be that there was a series of great playable holes and waves (for kayaks). Those that have paddled beyond grade 2-3 in canoe will know that your lines need to be tight and accurate to avoid filling your canoe like an overflowing bucket, thereby rendering the craft virtually uncontrollable…..capsize follows swiftly after. Robson did not let me down as we danced with the waves and stoppers teasing the edges as we found a line through. Robson Brooks generous rocker and high freeboard made easy work of the rapids keeping me dry enough to negotiate the worst of the chop. I ran a right hand line skirting the boat sized cauldrons until a half enforced break-out into a V shaped, walled in eddy on the right. My leader was by now chasing Stuart, the mock student and his canoe around the corner, so I broke back in and followed. We retrieved Stuart, boat and paddle and continued to the egress at Hexham (the base for the Tyne Tour) What a climax to a great couple of days canoeing.
So how did Robson Brooks stand up to the two days?….I liked it. I liked the speed both on the flat and through the chop. The generous rocker means I can spin into and out of eddies with ease and the bow lifts over small waves with ease and remains dry when other canoes bury the bow and take on water. The deep gunwales can catch a blade as you switch to your offside on cross-deck strokes but I love that it keeps dry when running rapids. My previous Wenonah Prospector 15 was a smaller boat, similar characteristics but crucially a much wetter boat and remaining dry was challenging on steep white water. When I want to track a line on the flat bits I could heel Robson right on its edge, kneeling into the curve in the hull and it will be both directionally and laterally stable.
As I’d dragged the Robson out of the van on day 1, those that hadn’t seen the Brooks before were intrigued. The stealthy black looks, the unfamiliar Armerlite construction which looks very much like carbon fibre, the hull shape, all drew questions and admiring looks. The Brooks certainly stands out from the hum drum staple of green and red offerings. Its wood and web seats slung below vinyl gunwales and ash carry yoke perhaps the only universal canoe parts, otherwise Robson certainly looks different enough to be interesting.
Pick Robson Brooks up and you’ll be surprised and relieved at the weight (around 27kg without kit), of course this one is the 15ft version so I am bound to compare it to similar sized canoes in its class, the Mad River Explorer 15 and the Novacraft and Wenonah Prospectors. If your thinking 15ft Royalex that does pretty much everything; flat, white water, sail, carry loads, tandem and solo, Robson Brooks should certainly be close to the top of your pretty-short list. On my two days up North and on previous outings I have grown fond of Robson and I’ve been impressed with its performance and solid durability, despite looking to some like a carbon fibre canoe.
I now look forward to my next adventure with Robson as I make mental notes of Scottish multi-day trips on lochs and rivers. Surely Robson Brooks (15) is the canoe to take?
Length: 15′ / 456 cm
Weight: 59 lbs / 27 Kgs
Material: Recyclable Armerlite
Capacity: 550 lbs / 250 Kgs
Many thanks to Jules Burnard of Voyageur Coaching and Whitewater Consultancy.