It was supposed to be a rest day….you know, the kind where you chill out on the river bank, eat iced cream, get a sun tan and rest your weary muscles from a solid week of paddling in the French Alps. With a few of our team members still riding high on adrenaline from some amazing paddling the last few days, the decision was made to find a section of river where we could get the biggest buzz from the shortest distance paddled.
A section of river Guil know as Chateau Queyras seemed to fit the bill quite well being Grade 4 for about 500meters. The “Chateau Q” section is a tight gorge where the river narrows extremely producing a powerful channel of pushy water containing waves and stoppers for most of its length. At its grade it is a committing run, which always looks smaller (and easier) when you scout it from high above on the road. This is a section of water that sticks firmly in the memories of those that have been down it, some because they thought it was great fun and some because they found it terrifying!
I really should have noticed all of our subtle changes in behavior as we started to get our kit ready to get on and paddle. Everyone in the group seemed to slow down, as if getting into kit too quickly meant that we would have to get on the water sooner. Clearly putting your cag on slowly and fiddling with foot rests can delay the inevitable scary/fun experience that you have signed up for by saying yes to this section of water. We even spent quite a while scouting the run as much as we could, taking time to put on climbing harnesses and to get down into the gorge to get the best view possible. We had been all paddling well the last few days and it felt like as a group we had done all that we could do to get prepared for this section
Jack decided that he would try and eat his baguette before he got on the water, but instead of actually eating it, he would just tear bits off, take a tiny bite and then drop the rest on the floor. He got nearly half way through his lunch before I asked him why he was wasting his food, he told me he didn’t even know he was doing it. I looked across at Will who was usually so full of life to see him sat there silently, certainly not being his usual jokey self. James suddenly turned into a professional kayak drummer, tapping away frantically on his boat and his knees a bit oblivious to what was about to happen to him. Crispin unfortunately was having spray deck issues as he was borrowing a bigger boat for this section. Where I personally would have said “no chance” if my spraydeck didn’t seem to fit properly, he had no problem in approaching anyone who remotely looked like a paddler in the car park to see if he could borrow their kit. Then it came to me, the only one who had been down this infamous bit of the river before. I sit there in a zen like pose, feeling a bit like Yoda, the old master, the one everyone is relying upon to guide the way. I try and offer some wise words to the team, things I thought may help ease the nerves, but this seems to fall on deaf ears. Maybe my Yoda like state is my tell tale sign of dealing with pressure too.
As we sit there on the river bank, Crispin is still struggling to get his spray deck to fit. At this point we should have called it a day, but no one seemed to recognize that as a group we were not in the right state of mind. Crispin once again dashed off to find a spray deck from another random person in the car park and this time returned with one that seemed to just about fit the bill.
After what felt like ages we pushed off from the Eddy and into the inevitable narrow chute, which once you have left the eddy has no point of return. Once you’re in, you’re going to the bottom, whether you like it or not! I pulled rank on this one, saying I would go to the front, with my philosophy being that any carnage would be behind me. This proved to be a good decision.
Feeling focused, experienced and paddling well, my moves flowed really nicely all the way through the initial section. My boat felt easy to keep on line and I was riding up and over the waves with no problem at all. After the main crux of the rapid where it becomes its narrowest and the water gets a bit more focused and powerful, I managed to turn around and have a look at how everyone else was doing. Instead of seeing the team charging over the top of the waves and flying through the stoppers, I see upside down boats and heads bobbing in the water. James and Jack were out….
This was always going to be a tricky place to rescue anyone, but thankfully only two of the team were swimming which left three of us to execute the rescue mission. The swimmers were pushing hard for the side, desperately trying to get traction on the smooth walls of the gorge to get themselves out. I imagine this is what a spider feels like when it is trying to get out of the sink when someone is running the tap.
Jack actually managed to get hold of a small edge on the side of the gorge and pulled himself up and onto the steep gorge wall, while the other two surviving paddlers from the team worked hard to give him support so he can get out. This meant that James was still in the water and after swimming through some powerful water was incredibly tired. Even though he got to the side several times, the walls were just too steep and too smooth to get hold of.
Recognizing that James just needed something to hold onto, I offered him the back of my boat and he took hold without hesitation. I spotted a small eddy just above the final rocky section of the gorge and charged hard for it. With James literally swimming for his survival, he kicked hard and I paddled hard, swinging him into the eddy at the last minute. Safe to say James took in some of the best oxygen he has ever had in this eddy. Jack however was still stuck in the gorge part way down with 2 options, climb out or swim down. He opted for the land based option and climbed out!
With everyone finally safe and on their way to being reunited, we started to walk out of the end of the gorge and get back to the cars so we could find get dry and potentially start looking for the boats that were clearly long gone. As we moved towards the get out point, we spotted some green plastic sticking out from between the rocks, it was Jack’s boat!
The boat was pinned like a needle, with the back end sticking high out from the water between a set of rocks, with the water around it flowing incredibly fast. There was no way to paddle to it, wading out wasn’t an option because of the power of the water but the boat was literally only just out of reach. We fashioned a paddle hook with some gaffa tape and a karabiner strapped to the end of the paddle and using the chest harness on my PFD gained support from the team to try and hook the boat. With my chest almost touching the water and my feet still on the bank, the team managed to lean me out and holding only the paddle at the very end we gained enough reach to just about clip the boat!
After getting the line set up so that we couldn’t lose the boat, we simply all grabbed a hold of the line and started to pull. Much to my surprise with only a little bit of force the boat started to nudge. We moved ourselves a little to get in position for the final big pull and started to drag the rope towards us as hard as we could, but as we moved the boat we were in for a little surprise.
As Jack’s green Mamba started to move, we noticed a red flash under the water, it was James’ boat! None of us could believe the chances of this happening, Jacks boat had actually got pinned on James’ boat that was already submerged under the water out of sight between the rocks. Using a similar technique to clip the first boat, we quickly had James’ boat also clipped and on a separate line. Ready to pull Jack’s boat, we once again moved into position, gripped the rope tight and started to pull. With minimal force Jack’s boat came free, moving the other boat with it at the same time, with us all letting of a little cheer! At least we were now all safe and we actually hadn’t lost any gear.
We all finally got ourselves out and to the cars at the get out, we shared a few hugs, pats on the back and all breathed a little sigh of relief. Just as we were about to get changed, faintly in the distance I could hear shouts and whistle blasts, another group was coming through with swimmers just like ours……
The situation that happened that day got me thinking about how we could have made the descent of the rapid more memorable for the right reasons. I would like to share a few selected tips that I think will help us all have a better day on the river!
Sleep well, eat well
Being rested and physically fit for the task ahead is often an underrated tactic for paddlesport. Be aware of your body and get plenty of sleep, especially if you have something big planned for the day after. If you are paddling day after day, you will actually paddle better if you schedule in rest days.
Being well fed is also really important. Think about your diet while you are paddling and whether you will be carrying lunch on the water. Take time to work out what you enjoy eating for lunch and what works best for you so that you don’t feel heavy or bloated in your kayak afterwards. Staying hydrated is also incredibly important too, as we are in the water we often don’t recognize how much we are potentially sweating (and therefore loosing fluids) while we paddle.
Think of your body as an engine, without the right fuel and servicing, the engine wont run well and might break down!
Prepare your kit and equipment fully
A failed piece of kit or equipment during paddlesport without a doubt is going to impact on your time on the water. At best this impact could just be marginally annoying or at worst it could be fatal. Take the time to check over your kayak to make sure bolts, fittings and foam haven’t come loose, I have incorporated this into my pre paddling routine and it only takes a minute to do. Even the best kayakers could swim if the boat fittings start to move.
As you are getting on the water take time to fully check and squeeze your spray deck under the cockpit rim. After a deck implosion (and scary swim) in Uganda at the bottom of a powerful waterfall, I always make sure that my deck is 100% secure!
Think about what you are carrying in your boat and in your PFD. Are you prepared for the situations that might arise if you or one of your party are in trouble. Do you have the means to call for help? What would you do if you and your boat are separated at any point? Where are the keys for the shuttle?? Is the kit you’re carrying appropriate for the level of challenge and the environment you are expecting?
Know and work within your limits
As paddlers we are constantly working hard to push ourselves, making sure that get as much as we can from our time on the water. Having an understanding of our own personal limitations and also the limitations of the group is incredibly important. If you are stepping up a grade in your paddling, try and pick safer higher grade rapids where the consequences will be lower if you make a mess of things.
Scout Your Rapid Well
Can I see the line?
Can I paddle the line?
Am I prepared for the consequences of being off the line?
Can we put cover in place to effectively keep me safe?
These are the things I think about when making a decision about whether or not I can run a rapid. If I cant answer yes to all of these then for me the decision is made, Im walking around! Often we can get to a rapid and we can see the line and we could paddle it, but should we be off the line we are not happy dealing with those consequences. Ive found that the times where I or someone else has ignored or answered no to those questions, but then still got on and paddled, we have either had a near miss or an incident.
I have also fallen previously into the trap of scouting rapids from high bridges and thinking they look small and then paddling them and thinking “oh my god this is crazy!” Remember rapids always look easier from a distance, try and get as close in as possible to see the rapid and if you can look from both banks and at different angles before committing to getting on.
Work as a Team
Even though we are often paddling our own boat that we have total control over, teamwork on the river is essential. Look after your paddling buddies and they will look after you!
I find that a really quick get together before you get on the river to check in as to what everyone is carrying and as to what the plan is can really help to make the trip much smoother. Clarification of signals is essential as I have fallen foul of misinterpreting one groups “come down one at a time” signal for “everyone come together”. Often checking what kit you are carrying between you too can be a real lifesaver. It is a disaster when you all think everyone else is carrying split paddles and then find out no one has them when you need them!
Listen to Your Gut Instinct
Your gut feeling telling you not to get on or not to run a rapid should in my experience be listened to. Often our gut instinct falls on the side of keeping us safe and is ultimately your brain processing the information it is getting and saying “this doesn’t look like it will work out well for us!”
Look out for all the little signs and changes in behavior that you or your team may be showing. This can often be physical representations of nerves or anxiety and will without a doubt affect your paddling.
If in doubt, get out!