In this month’s Paddler Spotlight, we’re thrilled to catch up with 2022/23 #ShePaddles
Ambassador Saira Is-Haq and delve into her journey into paddlesport.
Saira believes that the people we encounter in life mould us into the individuals we become
as adults. Her supportive mother and enthusiastic friends Ian and Phil, have all played
significant roles in making her feel welcome in a sport where she initially felt different due
to her cultural background.
Saira’s venture into competitive kayaking began with a gentle nudge from her work colleague.However, it wasn’t just her colleague who played a significant role in her paddling journey, Saira’s mother, Ian Puckrin and Phil Puckrin have all made crucial contributions. Saira has always looked up to the Puckrin family and felt honoured to spend time with them to develop her own paddlesportcareer.
Saira’s mother, although initially puzzled by her daughter’s passion for paddling, never hesitated to offer her support. Even the sight of Saira heading out for a paddling session in chilly and rainy weather couldn’t deter her enthusiasm. Her mother’s unwavering encouragement became a symbol of her love and support.
“My mum was brought up near the sea in South India, where kayaking was more of a necessity to get from one village to the next. The last time I visited India, the kayaks used to paddle around her city were made from tree trunks with hand dug out holes in the middle, and mostly used to take food to the market. I could always see the curiosity in her eyes as I drove off for my long day of paddling. She’s amongst the special people in this world that have encouraged my paddlesport development, even in an environment where I felt quite different as an Asian Muslim female, who didn’t go to the pub after a river trip.”
Saira tried her hand at white water paddling but found she mostly didn’t enjoy the rapids. While she possessed the skills to navigate them, she felt uneasy among some of the other paddlers who often celebrated challenging waters with post-paddle beers. It was during this time that she met Ian Puckrin, a dedicated kayaker and athlete who introduced her to kayak racing.
“Wednesday evening paddles on the local river was enough for me but I started to feel like I needed more from kayaking. I came across a keen kayaker and athlete, Ian Puckrin, who introduced me to kayak racing. In wobbly boats, we paddled the K2 in all weathers and in the dark too.”
Together, Saira and Ian navigated the waters in wobbly boats, even in the most challenging
conditions. It was through Ian’s mentorship and encouragement that Saira found herself paddling on the river three times a week, fueled by the desire to tackle the legendary Devizes to Westminster race.
“I’m a true believer that the people we meet help shape who we become as adults and much like my supportive mum and my enthusiastic friend, Ian made me feel that although I may have been the only Asian girl in the club at the time, with cultural difference, I could still paddle and be invested into paddlesport.”
Much like his dad, Phil Puckrin, who is now 79 years old, has been a beacon of support and
encouragement to Saira and many others in the paddling community. His dedication to paddling, from his incredible rolling skills to his exceptional organisational abilities, has inspired Saira to keep paddling. Phil founded the York Canoe Race in 2006 and still helps organise events such as York’s Festival of the Rivers Canoe Race today.
As the event grew, Phil extended his warm welcome to participants of all levels, from top UK K1 representatives to paddlers with additional needs from his hometown of Sunderland. After passing the event to a dedicated committee, Phil ventured into a new discipline, combining canoeing with orienteering, showcasing his enduring enthusiasm for the sport.
“I started getting to know Phil at the pool sessions. He could roll and I couldn’t, so watching
his sheer determination to roll every time made me believe I could do it. I got to know him more off the water when I was the secretary at the York Canoe Race and with the CanoeO event. The more I got to know him the more I was astonished at his organisational skills and paddle stamina, I started to wonder what drove him to be so committed to this sport and asked him this question several times. His humble response is always with a smile and ‘You just have to keep going…you know’.
Oliver Chamings, Phil’s friend, shares with us the impact he has had on the club.He said:
“Phil is a permanent source of motivation to every athlete who comes
across him, dedicated to only positive words and finding reasons to be on the water.”
When I met Phil for the first time he was in an old red sea kayak. Phil himself was retired at the time. This is the boat he still paddles in today, most days of the week on the River Ouse, south of York. He has paddled Canadians, white water kayaks, K1s and K2s. Through years of racing (and winning several) inland and salt water courses and other events at York, Durham, Amble and across the Lake District. Only flat water races ever halted Phil’s advance, slower times over shorter distances debarred competition as his stamina-favoured longer distances.
His paddling continues year round, warming-up first on the riverbank for up to 45 minutes. Adverse weather doesn’t deter him, come sun, wind, rain, flood and even 4 inches of snow, he paddles on. In the cold years of 2009 and 2010, he merrily brushed inches of snow off the pontoon prior to discovering the bow waves were slowing down as the water reached its freezing point.Abandonment occurred only when his fibre glass hull became an ice breaker.”
Saira is keen for clubs to encourage people of colour into their clubs and hope others like Phil will continue to support this.
“The hurdles I’ve struggled with in getting the Asian community involved in
kayaking has been mainly surrounding the cost of the sport, not being able to swim and them feeling like they wouldn’t fit in. Looking at the sport from the outside they may feel like it was something they couldn’t afford, or they might not be accepted.”
In her role as a #ShePaddlesAmbassador, Saira has been working closely with the York Mosque Scouts Group to make the kit accessible to her community and help Scouts work towards their paddlesport badge. They now have an active Watersports Muslim Scouts team with equipment to borrow. See how you can get involved over on their website.