Sports with a difference

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of The Merseysider magazine. Please note prices quoted may have changed!

The Olympics and several other recent British triumphs have stimulated an incredible interest in a wide range of sports, and many people are now trying activities they’d never considered before. If you’re thinking of taking up something new, here’s our guide to three of the activities on offer in our region. Our intrepid reporter CHRIS COUGHLAN sampled introductory lessons in windsurfing, fencing and climbing.

WINDSURFING

This was the first activity I tried. Windsurfing is now an Olympic sport, and because of the coastal wind strength the West Kirby Marine Lake is popular with windsurfers from all over the North West. The Wirral Sailing Centre is based at the lake and offers a range of water sport activities and courses.

I opt for the windsurfing taster session. The afternoon course is due to begin at 1.30pm and I arrive a little early. West Kirby Marine Lake is less than half an hour from the centre of Liverpool and easily accessible from all areas of Wirral. It’s a bright, sunny afternoon and conditions seem perfect, if a little calm. The lake is busy with people taking afternoon strolls around the perimeter, enjoying the autumn sun.

It’s soon time to start and I’m greeted by Mike Bird, our instructor for the afternoon. Along with schoolfriends Carl and Tom (both aged 9), teenagers Becky and Alex, and their dad Andy, I sign in at the office. First we’re asked to change into wetsuits (which are provided). The changing rooms have a shower, so we’ll be able to clean off if – or after – we fall into the lake.

Outside Mike is waiting for us by a test windsurf board, complete with sail, propped onto a pivot. He explains we’ll be using this to learn the basic moves involved in windsurfing. He spends about 45 minutes teaching us three basic manoeuvres, including how to get onto the board when in the water, how to position yourself correctly to catch the wind and hold the sail, and how to change the direction of the board.

After a bit of practice, everyone could handle the moves and, feeling confident, we all head for the lake. Mike takes each of us out to the middle by boat. Then it’s time to jump out and onto the board. It’s quite easy getting onto the board and I find I’m fine balancing and standing up. Pulling the sail up is surprisingly easy too.

Any feelings of apprehension have well and truly disappeared by the time I’m standing up and away I go, the slight breeze taking me on a course parallel to the promenade. There was not much wind, but enough to carry us along – probably perfect for beginners, as it gave us the chance to practise the manoeuvres we’d been taught. I managed not to fall in for at least 20 minutes, slowly getting to grips with how to point the board and move in different directions. This may have made me over-confident, as when I attempted to quickly spin around the board and change direction like a pro, the inevitable happened.

The water was not quite ice cold (as I’d expected), but it definitely woke me up! The lake was also unexpectedly shallow, only reaching to my chest. But jumping back up onto the board was not difficult and within a minute I was back sailing. When I tried some more tricky manoeuvres I started to lose my balance, but still managed to hold on for decent periods.

The afternoon ended with a quick go at paddle boarding. This in simple terms is standing upright and paddling with an oar on a large board, much like the boards we’d used for windsurfing. This came relatively easily to all of us, especially as we’d already learned how to balance and sail the windsurf boards. It was a nice way to round the session off and enabled us to continue practising some of the lessons Mike had taught us – including getting back onto the board when we fell off…

The verdict Despite being a watersport, the introduction to windsurfing course is a really accessible activity that absolutely anyone can participate in. Mike the instructor ensured everybody felt comfortable and confident before venturing out onto the lake, and the pace of the session was nice and relaxed, which was perfect for beginners wishing to learn the ropes of windsurfing. No extra kit is needed, as the wetsuit and the buoyancy aid are provided by the sailing school – so there really are no barriers to starting an activity like this. I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon at West Kirby Marine Lake and I’m keen to return for more practice – perhaps with a stronger wind, so I can pick up more speed!

The windsurfing taster session costs £30 (£25 for juniors). Longer courses are available. Other activities offered by the Wirral Sailing Centre include sailing, canoeing, kayaking and powerboating.

Location: Wirral Sailing Centre, West Kirby Marine Lake, South Parade, West Kirby, Wirral CH48 0QG

Website: www.wirral.gov.uk

Tel: 0151 625 3292/2510

FENCING

Next up was fencing, which I’d enjoyed watching on television during the Olympics. I went to the Liverpool Fencing Club in Mossley Hill. The club’s around 20 years old and several of its members have achieved success in national and international competitions. While I was waiting for the beginners session to begin, I chatted to club member Dan Hepner, who’s been fencing for 8 years. He started as a teenager in London, then continued when he was studying at Liverpool University, where he was captain of the men’s team. ‘Once you’ve had your first session it gets in your blood,’ he tells me.

At the start of the class we spent several minutes warming and stretching, guided by our instructor Keith McCarthy. As we were doing this Keith stressed the importance of a proper warm-up before a fencing session, due to the main body movements that are involved: when lunging, for instance, it’s easy to get strains and muscle injuries. Although the warm-up was quite long and strenuous, it should be relatively easy even for the sport or exercise novice.

Next Keith introduced us to fencing by taking us through several basic motions. With all of the beginners lined up, he faced us and we were instructed to mimic his actions as he demonstrated how to lunge forward, retreat and parry an attack. I discovered that fencing is actually more complex than it looks when you watch it on TV. I’ve often thought, ‘That looks easy, I reckon I’d be pretty good at that.’ Unfortunately when I performed the movements I quickly realised that it takes time to develop the precision and agility required to do well in this sport.

After we’d learned the basic fencing moves as a group, Keith paired us up to practise in a one on one situation. Again I found it a little more complicated than I’d anticipated as I tried to put together a lunge, retreat and parry of an opponent’s attack, but things started to fall into place the more we practised. I noticed that smaller and lighter opponents tended to be more agile and quicker on their feet, and harder to beat as a result. However, it’s not all physical: as Keith explained, it’s almost the sporting equivalent of chess, requiring tactical and strategic thinking as well as agility to beat an opponent.

The verdict Fencing is much more than a simple combat sport involving swords, as I learned from this first lesson. I’d certainly recommend the beginners’ fencing course, as it’s an accessible way to try what for many will be a new and unusual sport. The lesson was designed to accommodate beginners of all abilities, and allowed us to spend time learning the basics while also training alongside more experienced club members. No extra kit was needed, and if you find you like it you can go on to enter tournaments and maybe take up sabre fencing.

At the time of writing, the 5-week beginners fencing course has a special offer price of £35 (usual price £50).

Location: The Liverpool Fencing Club is based at the Body and Mind Gym, North Mossley Hill Road, L18 8BG

Website: liverpool-fencing-clubs.co.uk

Tel: 07917273550

CLIMBING

Finally it was climbing. Awesome Walls in Bootle lives up to its name and is one of the largest indoor climbing centres in Europe. Climbing walls start at 6 metres and go up to a jaw-dropping 17.5 metres in height. The centre has been created from what was formerly a large sandstone church. Inside, the building’s very atmospheric as it’s still recognisably a church, with arched doorways and stained glass windows. It’s ideal for climbing as the internal walls are so high.

For the taster session you need to work in pairs, so to make things easier I took along my mate Joe. Once we’d signed in we were greeted by Mike Nolan, who was a very friendly and helpful instructor. Mike’s been climbing since the age of ten, when his dad took him to Awesome Walls for his first lesson. He now climbs in North Wales and the Peak District when he’s not working at the climbing centre.

Mike began by giving us a harness each and explaining how to fit it and tighten the straps. He emphasised the importance of working together as a pair and checking each other’s harnesses. Our first experience of climbing was ten minutes moving across a low wall only two feet above the ground. Like all the walls in the centre, it was fitted with strategically placed footholds and projections for us to grip with our hands, but it still proved surprisingly difficult. Mike explained that it’s always best to move your feet before your hands so you have a better vantage point for manoeuvrability.

Our next task was to climb a high vertical wall. I looked up and when I saw two 6 year olds at the top I thought, ‘This can’t be that hard, can it?’ But of course it’s easy to think that when your feet are firmly planted on terra firma.

After careful instruction on how to slot our ropes through the harness, Joe and I each have a short practice climb and get comfortable with moving up a wall rather than across it. We’re taught how to ‘belay’ – the art of supporting your climbing buddy while he’s on the wall. If you’re on the ground, you’re responsible for controlling the release and support of the rope so that your partner can continue to climb up the wall. Should they fall, you will take the strain on the rope to ensure their safety. If you’re climbing a real mountain, your life is literally in the hands of your partner so you need to have complete faith in them.

Next up was a taste of the highest wall in the centre. From the ground it looked pretty daunting, but now we had a reasonable mastery of the basics we both felt surprisingly comfortable with the climb.

This was the final part of the official lesson, but Mike told us we were free to climb for the rest of the afternoon if we wished, which made the session excellent value for money. We decided to try bouldering, an activity which as its name suggests replicates the experience of climbing natural boulders. It’s difficult mentally as well as physically, as deciding your moves is like a problem-solving exercise. It involves no ropes and is limited to very short climbs (before you fall off!) above a crash pad, which ensures a fall will not result in injury. It’s a fun activity that requires a lot of upper body strength if you’re to make it successfully to the top.

The verdict Climbing is a superb beginner activity and is really accessible, with the centre (for a small charge) providing all the equipment you need. The introductory session provides good value for money, especially as once the lesson was over we were free to carry on climbing. The centre has a variety of climbing surfaces, including walls which curve upwards at an inverse angle for the more experienced climber.

The one-hour taster session at Awesome Walls costs £19 (this includes equipment). Lower rates for group bookings. Other courses are available, including sessions for children aged 6+.

Location: Awesome Walls, St Albans Church, Athol St, Liverpool L5 9TN

Website: www.awesomewalls.co.uk

Tel: 0151 298 2422