Liffey Descent 2009 - 50th Anniversary

We set off a little later than expected on Friday morning and sat in traffic for most of the four and a half hours up to Holyhead to catch the ferry to Dublin. I was convinced we were going to miss the ferry, especially given the high winds that were pushing the car around with the topo duo on it. Simon's superb driving skills prevailed though and we got there just 20 minutes before the ferry sailed.

After the torturous drive to Holyhead we were then thrown around on the ferry for a couple of hours in more high winds before disembarking at Dublin Port and realising that our only means of navigation, the sat nav on Simon's phone, wouldn't work because he had no signal. Slightly surprised at this, he was also shocked to hear that Dublin was in Ireland and not Northern Ireland and thus we had to have our passports with us, and that as a country in its own right they had a different currency. Simon's geographical difficulties aside, we managed to find a shop, bought a map and headed out of town towards Clane where we would be staying.

One of our club members, Niamh, had arranged for us to stay at her aunt and uncle's house for the weekend. On the way there we stopped in at Straffan, where the race would start, to take a peek at the Liffey in the full moon. For weeks Simon had been going on about how big the weirs were and but I looked down at Straffan weir from the road bridge and was a little disappointed to see it was actually not that big, despite all the rain recently. Little did I know that in the morning there would be a lot more water pelting down it, not to mention lots of boats, and it would actually take on a more ferocious appearance. We eventually made our way to Niamh's relative's house and experienced a fabulous Irish welcome from Joe and Bid with tea and cake. After a long drive we had an early night to prepare for the exertions of the following day.

In the morning we were given a big fry up by Bid which really set us up for the day, and Joe appraised us of the current weather situation - we were to expect a cloudy but dry day. They waved us off and we set off for Straffan to pick up our race bibs. Simon and I had drawn 777 as our race number which was easy to remember. The car park was already full of paddlers getting their kit ready and it was nice to see a good mix of canoes and kayaks. Some of the canoes had some impressive modifications to ensure that water didn't swamp them at the weirs, my favourites were those with traffic cones duct taped to the font allowing water to splash over and also, I assume, to improve aerodynamics. We had paddlers in costumes, coloured wigs, balloons, there were even some smurfs with blue faces, presumably in honour of the Smurfit Golf Course where the event started.

We unloaded our kit and I went to get our race bibs while Simon drove off to the finish line so the car would be there when we finished. There was a shuttle bus to bring him back but what we didn't know was a) you had to pre-book a space - which we hadn't, b) if you didn't pre-book it would cost 5 Euros - and Simon didn't have any Euros on him, c) all of this was completely beside the point any way because the race official told me that the shuttle was fully booked. As the time passed the messages from the race officials got more desperate, urging everyone to move to the scrutineering point to have their kit checked before getting on the water as the race would start soon. With Simon still not back I suddenly realised that I might have to paddle the Liffey on my own. I sat and waited for nearly two hours. Then finally Simon arrived explaining that he managed to get a lift in an extra shuttle bus. We raced to the start line, had our boat and kit checked and with a flock of other paddlers fought our way onto the water.

Something which Simon didn't tell me was that to get to the start point for the Touring Kayak Doubles you have to paddle upstream fighting the flow and not hitting other paddlers, and by the time we got there I was already tired. One of the most amazing things about the Liffey Descent was the friendliness of all the paddlers. Simon's helmet-mounted camera was a good starting point for most people to make conversation, but no matter at what point we were at in the race you could always be sure that whoever you passed would have a few words. A few were particularly impressed that we had made the journey over from Oxford for the race, although there were people from France, Italy and even South Africa.

The first weir, Straffan, was a good introduction with huge crowds cheering you as you went over and bumped down into the froth below. The topo duo was hard to keep on course, especially with the occasional gusts of wind but with Simon doing the steering and me pointing out directions and hazards at the front we managed to make it through the more winding sections unscathed. Each weir has its own distinct capsize possibilities and the race marshals were brilliant at helping to direct you to the best line down each drop. We passed through them without any incidents but saw lots of people swimming towards the rescue crews with flooded boats. Given that Simon had told me the drops were mostly Grade 4 I was a little apprehensive, and before each weir the adrenaline was really rushing, so much so that afterwards, as I came to the realisation that we had made it through in stylish fashion, my feet were shaking against the footrests.

Eventually, I even came to look forward to the weirs as they were good respite from the rest of the race which, while there were some rapids, it was mostly flat water and hard slog. The crowds on the banks and on the bridges continued to cheer us all on, some people were even sitting in their back gardens watching the race go past and wishing us well. The biggest and best weir, by far, was Palmerstown. As you take a line right down the centre you hit a huge wave which totally knocks you back, particularly if you are sat in the front seat. Then you get another big wave which washes over you so completely that Simon said he lost sight of me through the water. A lovely little wave train then pushes you out and you bump off away to the final weir and the last stretch before the finish line. That last 3 miles were hard work because by then you have paddled 15 miles without stopping. We finally made it to the finish line after 3 hours and 12 minutes.

We made good use of the free meal at the finish line because we were starving at that point, and we also picked up our free Liffey Descent 50th Anniversary t-shirts and wore them back to Joe and Bid's house where we were greeted with another fry up in celebration.

We had an awesome weekend, the weirs were fantastic, the spirit of all the participants was wonderful, and Bid and Joe were brilliant hosts who did justice to the famed Irish hospitality. If anyone wants to take part next year just let me know because we'll definitely be going back!

- Jen

Jen's photos

Simon's headcam video