The Central Otago Whitewater club was formed in 1989 to protect the whitewater rapids of Central Otago and has become nationally prominent for developing top New Zealand kayakers.
The club’s chairman, Gordon Rayner, is well known as a top slalom kayaker and still competes internationally at masters level. As a lawyer and campaigner, he is a tireless advocate for Central Otago’s whitewater rivers.
Interviewed at his Alexandra office, Mr Rayner talks about these efforts as a club achievement – with his own role taking very much a back seat.
“We’ve worked for years on river protection particularly on the Kawarau River and its tributaries,” he says of the club.
Mr Rayner was involved in the campaign to have the Nevis River protected, having made the first descent of the Nevis Bluff rapid in the Kawarau river in 1983, which has been described by others in the sport as the “stuff legends are made of”.
As part of this river conservation effort he is proud of the club’s role in the creation of the Hawea Whitewater Park, paid for by Contact Energy as mitigation for the loss of whitewater rapids with the construction of Central Otago’s hydro-electricity dams and resulting lakes. The facility is in its fifth summer of operation and has also become an attraction for landlocked surfers and bodyboarders.
“It has been pretty successful,” he said.
The club was in the process of planning a new feature for the park, which would operate at low river levels during summer, he said.
While the club concentrated on protecting whitewater environments and kayaking opportunities, it also began to show real success in competition, particularly slalom at the junior level.
“The club has had 17 kids compete at junior world championship level – 14 from Dunstan High School and three from Mount Aspiring College.
“I think we found a niche for our local schoolkids,” he said.
“Our junior programme has been going since 2000 .. using slalom as a tool to get good river-running and water safety skills.”
“Life is all about the opportunities you give to the kids.”
He laughs and says that might be a bit philosophical but also points to the success local teenagers have had at the junior world championship level in cycling and ice hockey as examples.
He credits the club’s strength to the support of the community and the families involved.
“A volunteer base does all the work .. traditional Kiwi volunteers,” he said.
“That is how it [the club] grew .. There is a lot of loyalty. It is a family. We are lucky that we have people who get in behind it and make it happen.”
The club is proud of its members’ successes. Kellie Bailey is New Zealand’s chief slalom judge and an international judge and judged at the Rio Olympics. Finn Butcher (21) is competing well at the international level and has his sights set firmly on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
As part of its highly successful junior programme the club fundraises to employ a European coach each year to run its summer junior kayak programme in Alexandra and Wanaka.
This year’s coach is Miro Matejka, of Slovakia.
“We want to get more kids involved. We begin with lessons in the pool in winter, basic slalom skills on flat water in springtime and then a whitewater camp in January.”
Participants then go into the coaching programme with all the basic skills in place.