Skip to main content
Active Thames

Thames awaits new Tower Hamlets Canoe Club’s visually impaired paddlers

Making their club more inclusive

Tower Hamlets Canoe Club

Tower Hamlets Canoe Club is helping visually impaired paddlers (VIPs) take to the capital’s waterways, with the help of Active Thames.

By Emma Blackmore

The Active Thames grant, also supported by British Canoeing and London Sport, has so far funded 14 free induction sessions introducing VIPs to kayaking and canoeing at the club, based in Shadwell Basin.

Alex Etherington-Smith, who runs the programme at the club, is hoping it will become a permanent fixture and inspire others to follow suit.

He commented: “In 2019, I watched an amazing video of blind kayakers going through massive rapids in the Grand Canyon. It inspired me to think about whether my club could include blind and visually impaired paddlers too.

“I have blind friends and know how capable they are in new situations and environments, often needing less assistance than you’d think.

“The Active Thames grant has helped start a programme aimed specifically at a particular community, who are not normally offered the opportunity to do regular kayaking and canoeing.”

Fellow volunteer, Ingo Wickenhauser, said: “I have been amazed to see VIPs’ resourcefulness and determination in overcoming their individual disabilities to participate in the club’s activities.

The VIPs themselves are loving the opportunity to get active on the water. One said: “I absolutely love it. We’re learning things properly, really getting to grips with how to move the boat. Being on the water really makes me happy.”

Another described it as “a life-changing experience”, with a third praising the positive atmosphere at the club.

Jenny Cooper, the PLA’s sports manager, said: “The Tower Hamlets volunteers are doing a brilliant job, making their club more inclusive.

“It’s great to see so many VIPs signing up as members, so they can enjoy paddling all year round – it’s exactly the sort of project Active Thames was set up to support. “

Every Tuesday, volunteers guide the VIPs between the club and local stations.

Each VIP is paired with a trained coach, starting on land with how to get and in and out of a boat, providing visual cues on the surroundings.

Lights, such as head torches, boost partially sighted participants’ ability to navigate on the water.

Entirely blind paddlers are guided by their coach’s voice. A likely next step is a speaker playing music on the boat ahead, to guide them.

Metro Blind Sport and the RNIB have helped promote the initiative to the local blind community, stressing that their friends and guide dogs would be welcome at the club too.

Half of the club’s initial VIPs are preparing for their first Thames excursion, buying the required equipment and taking part in safety drills. One has already joined sighted club members on a canal day trip.

Tower Hamlets Canoe Club

Jenny Cooper, the PLA’s sports manager, said: “The Tower Hamlets volunteers are doing a brilliant job, making their club more inclusive."

A grant has been provided to the local group by Active Thames, a partnership programme led by the Port of London Authority, to allow more people to enjoy the mental and physical benefits of watersports. The Bluetits Chill Swimmers meet daily – sometimes twice a day – and have no fees, no age limits and no expectations.

Imogen Tinkler, 39, set up The Bluetits in Whitstable to welcome everyone from all abilities and backgrounds and create a community of those who have a pure love of the sea. She often meets new members before the sessions to discuss their anxieties about going into the sea to help them overcome their initial trepidation. While a large majority of the group are between 40-60 years old, some members are in their twenties while others are in their eighties. “The benefits of the swimming sessions are huge and it really builds confidence – you can see it every time they come back,” Imogen says.

The grant will allow The Bluetits to support members safely and expand a thriving community of like-minded individuals. For Imogen, the impact of The Bluetits community has been huge and forces her to put time aside for herself while juggling her own business and family life.

“I think when you strip down and you’ve got no makeup on, you’re just in your swimming costume or wetsuit, everyone is equal,” she says. “You build bonds very quickly and you’re doing something that is pushing your limits: if you’re going swimming in the snow, you’re going to remember that forever. You have to trust other people as anything could happen and everyone encourages each other and inspires each other. It’s amazing how quickly those friendships are formed.”

Julie, who was nominated as a finalist for the Physical Activity Hero Award at the UK Active Awards, agrees. “The sea is supportive and nurturing,” she says. “You exit the water, you’re cleaned, refreshed, reset and you’re ready to go out into the world. And it costs nothing. It’s available to everybody.

“It empowers men and women. The swimmers leave the sea drinking from the cup of confidence.”

Back to top