You don’t need to be a kayaking expert to know that Yorkshire doesn’t get a look-in when it comes to the world’s best white water locations.
The ferocious rivers of the US, Canada and South America dwarf the best rocky rides England has to offer. What’s far more surprising is that it’s on the comparatively tame waters of northern England that Joe Morley has honed the skills to beat those who have grown up with kayaking hotspots on their doorstep.
The 26-year-old from Leeds is a two-time Extreme Kayak World Champion and, these days, regularly helicopters into the remote wilds of New Zealand and Chile. The only reason Morley’s international paddler pals have heard of his home are the ‘Yorkshire!’ stickers he’s proudly plastered on numerous helmets.
His countless international successes are the perfect illustration of resourcefulness triumphing over resources, proof that attitude can be more important than assets. By understanding the approach Morley took to realise his goal – being the best in the world at battling tumultuous white water armed only with a kayak and a paddle – we can all gain the inspiration to achieve our own.
“I was always aware I was at a disadvantage, coming from Yorkshire,” he says. “Big time. Some of the paddlers I admire most grew up on the banks of the Kaituna River in New Zealand. It’s the perfect training ground, with multiple waterfalls that flow every day of the year.” Meanwhile, Morley was stuck in a Leeds classroom.
“I was getting my dad to drive me an hour through the centre of Bradford after school to paddle on a barely moving stretch of dirty water,” he says. “It was always going to be tough. Luckily, I’m happy to take on a challenge.”
This attitude is clear when you meet Morley. Standing more than 6ft tall, his arms swelled by hours of paddling, he’s physically imposing, but also affable and calmly determined. “I’ve always just taken it one step at a time,” he says.
“When I started out, my only aim was to be better than my old man. Then I wanted to be better than the older boys – I’ve always just strived to be better than the guy in front of me. It’s good to dream of being a world-beater from day one, but the best way to go about it is by setting short-term goals. I could see the big names in the magazines and films living the life that I wanted, so I looked at the steps I’d need to take to get there. You’ve just got to keep on keeping on.”
Today, Morley is back on home waters, returning to the virtually unknown spots that were his early kayaking haunts. The further into the north Yorkshire countryside you venture, the further back in time you seem to slip.
The area is all deserted hillsides lined with grey stone walls and tiny, sleepy villages. A sport as visceral and spectacular as white water kayaking, where competitors shoot through razor sharp canyons atop frothing, angry water, feels a million miles away.
“It’s Yorkshire that turned me into the kayaker I am today,” says Morley, unfastening his Lettmann kayak from the roof of his car in the small village of Keld on the River Swale. He first discovered this stretch of the river while in his early teens, when he was on his way to becoming a top-flight slalom racer.
After being named first reserve for the GB kayak slalom team at the London 2012 Olympics, Morley made the move to the more extreme world of white water kayaking.
Where slalom has a focus on competition, with the aim of shaving 10ths of seconds off finishing times, white water is all about the ride.
Contests such as Adidas Sickline, held in Ötztal, Austria, serve up ferocious rivers aimed at proving the mettle of the paddlers competing. It’s here on the Swale that Morley identified the first step in reaching world-class level: making good use of what you’ve got.
“The Swale might not compare to white water in other countries,” he says, “but you can learn things here that apply everywhere. There are big drops, and the calm waters leading to them make for a perfect run-in. You can really pick and choose your line.”
Honing confidence in his own decision-making can make all the difference when faced with the mile-wide waters of the mighty White Nile or the crocodile-infested flats of the Zambezi, and Morley has used the length of the Yorkshire river to his advantage, too.
The Swale is calm, almost motionless in places, but within a few feet it can drop from 9m-high rock faces strewn with hidden knuckles and edges.
A full run of this section can take 20 minutes, and with a shuttle driver Morley can get as many as nine runs in a day, working on his lines and fine-tuning his technique.
“For a lot of the runs we do in New Zealand, you’ve got to fly in by helicopter or you’ll be walking for 12 hours,” he says. “Footpaths are a luxury. It’s just rivers and wilderness on both sides. The Swale is a fairly short section, but it has seven rapids and waterfalls. That’s pretty special.”
Morley deftly flicks up the heavy kayak from the ground onto one knee and then onto his shoulder in one practised movement, before clambering up a rock face.
This drop is typical of the larger Yorkshire obstacles he trains on: it’s technical, requires extreme levels of precision and isn’t for the faint-hearted.
An overhanging cliff face leans into his planned trajectory, meaning a bobble in either direction could send him either straight into it or onto a jagged outcrop of rock on the opposite side. The low water levels make this ride the kayaking equivalent of a tightrope walk.
Morley sends it. The boat accelerates downward fast, its pilot leaning forward with his paddle tucked to one side. He hits a knuckle halfway down and the boat momentarily breaks free of the spray, becoming airborne before plunging bow-first into the watery mist at the base of the cliff.
Morley disappears from view. The striped base of the kayak is briefly visible before he rights himself all too close to the rock ledge he’s just narrowly avoided. Yorkshire may not be a hallowed kayaking ground, but this is far from child’s play.
At home in Nottingham the following morning, Morley flicks excitedly between weather sites on his laptop and phone as he eats his porridge. In New Zealand, a helicopter ride into the hills – with the guarantee of white water – is only a phone call away.
But here, he has to work hard to get the most from a day’s paddling. Morley learnt early on that when you don’t have the best resources at your disposal, research is everything.
“Finding white water in Yorkshire is a bit of an art form,” he says. “There’s heaps of water-watching involved. Websites and apps have sensors connected to the river to give you an idea of the levels.
But if you’re a two-hour drive away, things can change completely by the time you get there. You have to be an expert on time frames.”
All the effort involved results in an even greater appreciation of his native waters. “A good run down one of the Yorkshire rivers is much more rewarding than, say, paddling down one in Austria, because you’ve really worked hard for it,” he says.
But there’s no need for concern about the local weather today – Morley has an appointment with a reservoir, illustrating another important step on his path to success: innovation.
The stained concrete walls of Thruscross Reservoir tower high above a busy car park as brightly hued kayaks begin to emerge from vans and motorhomes. The water is vented from the reservoir, turning the small winding river at its base into a rampant, swollen white water run.
This annual release of water has become an essential date on many a Yorkshire kayaker’s calendar, but it wasn’t always so. A determined Morley and his kayaking dad made this their own personal training spot so that Morley’s progression didn’t stop when the rain did.
“Years back, my dad got in with the guy who had the key to the dam,” he says. “We’d go in these tunnels and corridors beneath it and turn this big manual wheel to release the water. We were almost left in charge.”
Neoprene-clad boaters slide onto the reservoir’s surface and flick handfuls of bitterly cold water at their faces to acclimatise themselves. Morley expertly blasts a cloud of vapour into the air and grins. “It’s great being back here.”
His skills on the inky-black surface are obvious; while others capsize and thrash around, he glides through the water with the minimum of movement, any change of direction stemming from his hips combined with fleeting, deft dabs of his paddle’s blades.
“In the big contests, a lot of international paddlers get stuck in these stoppers because they’re not used to them,” he says, pointing towards a submerged log that is forcing paddlers to one side, many of them capsizing in the process. By contrast, Morley, with his bow pointing upstream, has been eerily stationary for minutes.
These holds are something that he and his dad built into the course over several years, painstakingly lugging logs and boulders into the water to alter the flow and create the perfect training ground. This is the sort of dedication and hard graft that marks out a champion.
Morley is packing up. He’s about to return to what constitutes normal life these days: six months of globetrotting, with multi-day kayaking trips on some of the world’s fiercest rivers combined with demonstrating his skills in international contests.
But the foundations of those skills were built on cold mornings like this, on quiet Yorkshire waterways. And no matter how many exotic locations Morley visits, he won’t forget that.
“It’s sweet to think I’ve made it this far having had a bit of a handicap,” he says. “It just shows that anything can be done with the right support, ambition and hard work.”