When Dan suggested we attempt the 13.5 mile Stour Descent from Sturminster Mill to Bryanston school, I had in mind an easy, almost effortless paddle down a fast flowing river. The reality was somewhat different…
The initial idea was that Dan and I would canoe together and that Peter McBride, who like me had no idea what he was letting himself in for, would find another club member to paddle with. But with no willing volunteers Peter and I paddled together while Dan kindly agreed to paddle on his own.
On arrival at the start we were met by all manner of kayaks and canoes. Everybody seemed a lot more experienced and organised than us. Registering for the race we were asked, ‘have you done the race before?’. I replied that we’d never done any race before, never mind this one and in fact we’d never even been in a canoe together before. The race official gave us an incredulous look that seemed to say ‘are you mad?’. We were given a wristband with ‘A14’ written on it indicating which archway of the bridge to start from and the number of minutes past 11 o’clock as our start time. It was already getting too complicated for me…
After the briefest of pre-race briefings Peter and I had our own. The conversation went something like this:
Peter L. “Can I sit at the front?”
Peter McB: “I was going to sit there”
Peter L: “But I don’t know how to steer”
Peter McB: “Oh my God!”
Peter L: “Did you bring any food?”
Peter McB: “Just a Mars Bar. I wish I’d had some breakfast now”
Peter L: “Oh my God!”
Dan’s start time was 4 minutes before ours so we waved him off and wished him good luck. The moment we were given the order to go all thoughts of this being a gentle, non-competitive paddle went overboard. Two other double canoes started at the same time as us but both got away faster. I was determined to (try and) catch them. Within a few minutes we’d caught up with one of them and without too much trouble managed to overtake. Strangely we also overtook a K1 but I think he must have been paddling backwards. Not long after we caught up with Dan who, being only one person and therefore lighter, was struggling against the strong wind.
Nobody passed us for a good half an hour despite there being several canoes with start times just a few minutes after ours. When other paddlers did start to pass us they were all in kayaks, with not another canoe in sight. I say ‘in sight’ but the river was very narrow in places and with many twists and turns and it was almost always impossible to see how far behind the nearest boat was. Peter McB skilfully steered us under trees (prompting me to ask, “Are we going through this tree Peter or shall we go around it?”) and paddling through reeds, short stretches of fast water , under over-hanging vegetation and over very shallow water with the boat scraping along the riverbed.
All too soon we arrived at Fiddleford Weir which Peter McB had been dreading and that I was quite looking forward to. We had different ideas about how to tackle it but a race official on the bank all but made our minds up for us:
Official: “The portage is on the left”
Peter L: “Can’t we go down the weir?
Official: “you look like a couple of complete amateurs that have no idea what you’re doing. I can tell that you’ve never been in a boat together before and don’t really know how to paddle that thing. If you really want to risk injury and making total fools of yourselves; go ahead, go down the weir…” (he didn’t actually say that but that’s what he meant by pointing out where the portage was).
Discretion being the better part of valour we portaged the canoe over the corner of a muddy field and were back on the water again within about 3 minutes. Even in this time two canoes had gone down the weir and had overtaken us. (We later learned that there were several capsizes at the weir including at least one canoe).
It’s compulsory to shoot the next weir and we fortunately manged to stay upright and didn’t take on much water. After this more racing kayaks passed us, many in K2’s just like the ones Dan and I had unsuccessfully tried to paddle on the millpond-like Thames earlier in the year. It takes a special skill to keep these boats upright through such a challenging course and not all managed it. A passing paddler in a K1 told us that he’d already capsized twice.
The next obstacle was a compulsory portage up a steep muddy bank and back over another. I really struggled to climb up the bank and fell back into the boat on the first attempt. Trying to get back in at the other side I slid down the bank and just managed to jump into the boat, narrowly missing going in the water.
We must have been getting tired on the final stretch as we seemed to have slowed down. A metal canoe passed us which reminded me of the Burt Reynolds film, “Deliverance” and that it didn’t end well. Just when we’d convinced each other that we probably only had 3 or 4 miles to go we unexpectedly reached the finish. We had no idea how far behind Dan was so rather than wait for him before all going back to the start in Peter’s vehicle to get my car, I hitch-hiked the 11 miles back. Carrying my buoyancy aid so it would be obvious I was a fellow paddler, almost every passing vehicle kindly offered lifts in the wrong direction but eventually, two members of Fowey River Canoe Club took me back to the start.
Retrieving my car I headed back to that finish just in time for the awards ceremony where Dan was name checked as he was second in the C1 veteran class (over 35 solo canoe). Peter and I managed 5th place in the C2 veteran class having completed the race in just under 3 hours. Having never paddled a canoe together before we were quite pleased with this result. But before you ask… no, we won’t be canoeing the DW together…
Peter Loy 08.12.2015