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Och Aye Canoe: Fife water-sports company owner on her disability journey and setting up her outdoor business

Och Aye Canoe aims to make learning water sports fun and accessible for all.

Sarah Thomson, owner of Och Aye Canoe, loves to take people canoeing in Fife.
Sarah Thomson, owner of Och Aye Canoe loves to be out on the water. Image: Och Aye Canoe

Sarah Thomson could not walk 20 years ago, but now she takes people and sometimes their dogs canoeing in Fife.

Sarah, from Kirkcaldy, had a trapped artery in her leg which left her unable walk.

She had to have a major operation to bypass the artery.

However, 20 years later, she has built her own water sports business.

Och Aye Canoe was started three years ago offering canoeing, paddle-boarding, kayaking and first-aid training.

Sarah welcomes all levels of clients, including children and pets.

Experience of being disabled inspired canoeing business in Fife

Sarah underwent an eight-hour operation called a femoral-popliteal bypass in Ninewells Hospital. This surgery redirected the blood supply around her artery, allowing her to walk again.

A younger Sarah after her operation
A younger Sarah after her operation. Image: Sarah Thomson

Before her operation, Sarah spent the majority of her free time outdoors, and she desperately wanted to keep up with her passion.

She said: “I was very active, I’d been to Everest base camp, I’d climbed Kilimanjaro. And then I couldn’t walk.

“They said it was very unusual for a 22-year-old to have a trapped artery. It was caused by a muscle development problem.

“It took maybe three years for me to build my fitness back up after the operation. And since I loved being outdoors and being so active, I needed something to do.

“I couldn’t climb anymore because my leg couldn’t support that so I took up kayaking and canoeing.”

Sarah volunteered at Lochore Meadows for a while after she began canoeing, and eventually gained her instructor qualification.

Now she coaches all levels, from beginners to people looking to complete awards.

One of the groups that Sarah took canoeing in Fife.
Och Aye Canoe takes people and dogs canoeing in fife Picture shows; Sarah Thomson, owner of Och Aye Canoe. Kirkcaldy. Supplied by Och Aye Canoe

Sarah’s classes are usually kept very small, in the interest of safety. These smaller classes also make it a more relaxed and personal experience which Sarah says makes them more fun.

Canoeing breaking barriers for people and dogs in Fife

Since starting her business, Sarah’s efforts have been recognised on multiple occasions.

She won the Fife Business Award last year, and was a finalist for Kingdom FM’s Local Hero Awards in 2022.

Sarah hopes that her business will inspire others to get involved, even if they don’t think they can.

She said: “Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Help For Heroes and other charities, to encourage others that anything is possible with the right support in place.”

“I just love stuff like that, I don’t think there should be a barrier to people that want to get into sports.

“I’ve got a lot of understanding, since I’ve been there myself and had that experience.

“Anyone is welcome, you just have to turn up and I’ll provide the wet-suit, gear and boat or board.”

Sarah teaches anyone over the age of eight. She offers private lessons, birthday parties, family sessions and team building for companies. She has also had quite a bit of interest in her dog classes.

Sarah also takes dogs canoeing in Fife.
Sarah loves the challenge of working with animals. Image: Och Aye Canoe

These classes involve one-to-one tuition of owners and their pets to turn them into paddle-boarding partners.

Sarah said: “I have dog buoyancy aids so you can bring your pets.

“I’ve had Labradors and they’ve managed, I’ve had Spaniels who are always entertaining. I’m always up for a challenge for a large dog.”

Hopes to expand into retreat-style packages

Prior to starting Och Aye Canoe, Sarah had no previous experience of running a business. She has had support from Business Gateway Fife to set up her company.

She explained: “I was clueless. Even now, I still watch YouTube videos on how to run it.

“This year is the first time I’ve had employees which is very strange for me.”

Sarah currently employs four other instructors to help with classes.

Sarah got a surprise at how big the letters were when she got her new truck. Image: Och Aye Canoe

She added: “My latest big purchase is my truck, which was very daunting because you’re in people’s faces saying ‘I’m here!'”

Sarah has been able to take her customers to various locations like the Falkirk Wheel and the canal in Linlithgow.

She shared: “I am always looking for the next step, and where I’m going next.

“I’d like to offer overnight packages. I want to offer more opportunities for beginners.

“People usually think that you have to be an expert to go on kayaks or you have to stand up on the paddle-boards and you don’t.

“The main thing I’m there for is to help you have a laugh and a good time, while doing something different.”