Surviving the Liffey Descent, Or Why I Love/Hate Lucan Weir

Last Saturday was the annual (River) Liffey Descent race in Ireland, the biggest canoe and kayak event in the country, and one I know intimately.

liffey descent 2014In my teenage years, I was a keen white-water kayaker. [Jargon alert: in the US, people tend to refer to the sport as kayaking, in Ireland they refer to it as canoeing.] I paddled several times a week and competed around the country on my school team. The highlight of the year was the School’s Liffey Descent, which takes place a week before the “real thing,” the adult race. Over the years, I’ve paddled the Liffey several times, and the river still holds a certain mystique. 

The full Liffey Descent is a 28km race from the K Club in Co. Kildare to the Trinity Boathouse on the outskirts of Dublin. Paddlers must negotiate 10 weirs and a short portage around a dam. The fastest paddlers finish in about two and a half hours, while most of the recreational kayakers will take about four. The Liffey, like most Irish rivers, is relatively flat, with occasional weirs or very minor (class one-two) rapids, so for the paddler the experience is one of longish sections of slog (especially across the reservoir) with regular short bursts of excitement.

A lot of the excitement comes from the challenge of trying to shoot the weirs in the optimum spot in close while in close proximity to 800 other paddlers. Each weir has a recommended route, but a few have options for easier or more-difficult shoots, and sometimes what’s more difficult in theory is actually preferable that day due to overcrowding on the easier line. But for spectators, the congestion around the weirs is nirvana. (Check out the video below to see what I mean!) The crowds gather early in anticipation of lots of unwilling swimmers, and reserve the loudest cheers not for the technically-skilled paddlers, but for the spectacular flame outs.

On my first descent, when I was only 15 or 16, I made the blood-thirsty spectators very, very happy at the Lucan weir.

About half-way through the race, you come to Lucan weir, a beautiful spot. There’s a short section of weir on the (river) right that connects the bank to a fish ladder in the middle of the river, before continuing to the opposite bank in a very long and relatively high weir that is incredibly picturesque in full flood — as it always is for the Liffey Descent. The banks are grassy and an arched bridge carries the road across the river a short distance past the weir. It’s a spot made for picnics, fly-fishing, and sketching.

I chose the easier shoot to the right of the fish ladder, and thought I was playing smart by taking it slow and allowing the paddlers in front of me to clear the shallow stopper at the bottom. But then I proceeded to carelessly slide down the weir dead straight! (We were taught to always slide down at a 45 degree angle.) The front of my boat disappeared into the stopper, there was a clunk as I came to a sudden stop, and as the boat leveled off at the bottom of the weir and I paddled through the stopper, I saw the nose of the kayak was broken, bent to one side like the nose of the Concord. That’s when I realized the crowd was cheering wildly as my damage became fully apparent. The bastards!

I soldiered on, but soon realized I was taking on water as the boat began to slow and get less maneuverable. “Great!” I thought. “There goes any chance of a respectable place.” I let another team member know my predicament and set about slogging on to get through the rest of the descent without too much swimming.

The next weir was Anna Liffey, which isn’t particularly challenging, but is gorgeous when viewed from a kayak in the middle of the river in flood (unfortunately for spectators, it doesn’t look so special from the bank). I zipped down it, drawing a few snarky comments from the rescue guys on the state of my boat and proceeded towards Wren’s Nest, the largest and most-infamous weir on the river, and the one that in my mind loomed the most difficult even with a perfect boat. After fifteen minutes or so of running through various scenarios in my mind — Should I take it backwards? (Hell, no!) Shoot it to the right? Power through and try to go out in style? — I took the chicken option and portaged it. I needed to empty the water from the boat anyway.

On the bank, I realized word of my epic stupidity had got back to our kayak instructor, who was already there to survey the damage and seemed ready to pop the boat on the trailer and declare my race over. However, since I’d made it that far, it seemed a shame to give up. So, I got back on the water below the weir and managed to complete the descent. None of the other weirs stick in my mind as much as those three, but — even though I had to stop several times to empty water from the boat — I completed the race without capsizing, which was a personal victory.

Most other races and rivers blend together in the mind after 25 years, but my first Liffey Descent stands out. Not because of a great personal performance, but because of the unexpected challenge I had to overcome, and the fact that the river didn’t beat me.

Notes

If you’re interested in watching the Liffey Descent as a spectator, my personal recommendation is to stake out a place on the bank at Lucan Weir. You can enjoy the action there for a while before driving a short distance to Wren’s Nest, where you can be assured of even more wipeouts and spectacular capsizes — as well as some pretty great white-water skills, but those aren’t what spectators remember.

Link: Canoeing Ireland guide to the River Liffey for kayakers…

I haven’t paddled in Ireland in quite some time, as boats and gear are too expensive to keep the equipment at my parents’ house for a couple of weeks use each year. But, watching videos of this year’s Liffey Descent on You Tube has planted a seed of desire to paddle the river and shoot those weirs again. Perhaps, it’s time to plan a trip to Ireland to compete in the Liffey Descent? Watch this space…

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