This weekend’s Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge was a predictable affair with the sporting action being overshadowed by the bad language of the winning crew’s cox.
So I picked a rather different boat race to watch this weekend – the Grandtully Slalom – a premier event on the UK’s canoeing and kayaking circuit.
This ‘grand prix’ featured some of the UK’s best canoiests and kayakers including members of the British Olympic team.
Set on the attractive banks of the River Tay, the Grandtully Slalom is a fun way to spend the afternoon if you’re looking for a spectator sport with a bit of a difference.
With the London Olympics now a distant memory, I’d almost forgotten how much fun I’d had watching the canoe and kayak events in August 2012.
Who could forget Etienne Stott and Tim Baillie winning their gold medals for Great Britain in the Men’s Canoe Slalom?
Simply watching this white knuckle ride experience makes the goose bumps stand up on the back of your neck.
So it was a thrill to see the duo back in action this weekend at the Grandtully Slalom on the River Tay.
To add to the great atmosphere, it was also brilliant to see the wealth of new talent on display throughout the event,
With the recent snow, it was a surprise to see that the water levels were so low, but the racing was still tough especially in the chilly temperatures which hovered around zero degrees.
Unsurprisingly, Etienne and Tim made the men’s Premiership C2 event look easy as they manoeuvred their canoe effortlessly through the white water, avoiding penalty points and winning in a time three seconds faster than their nearest competitors.
They were also happy to share Etienne’s glistening, gold medal with Tony for a few brief seconds!
He’s been posting this image on social media sites ever since with the claim that he won it in the wine drinking slalom at London 2012.
Etienne and Tim were not the only British Olympic team members in action. A number of our top women were also competing in the canoe and kayaking events.
Queen of the Kayak proved to be Fiona Pennie from the CR Cats/Peak UK Club, one of Britain’s best women, who narrowly missed out on an Olympic place at London 2012.
She’s a very athletic competitor and a former silver medallist in the Slalom World Championships in 2006.
Fiona looks physically strong and held off her nearest rival, Lizzie Neave from the Stafford and Stone Club, by over a second on both of her runs down the Tay.
The River Tay’s fast-flowing waters guarantee competitors a bumpy ride especially in high waters, although today’s lower water levels made life slightly easier.
This section of the river is dubbed ‘grade 3 water’. I wasn’t sure what that meant as I’m a canoe slalom novice when it comes to spectating – but I soon found out!
It turns out that Grade 3 is the middle point on the official canoe water scale which translates as ‘hard’ with fairly continuous rapids and pacey sections. That means ‘bumpy’ to me!
This isn’t the place for beginners which is just as well because this is a serious sport which doesn’t come without hazards and potential dangers… and today the water is looking extremely cold too.
Depending on the water level this is a challenging course with tricky whitewater and a strong eddy on the right hand side immediately after the top fall.
There is also a fairly fast, open section before the middle course which throws up waves and eddies, which tested the less experienced competitors.
Just past the middle section the flow passes either side of a large rock in the centre of the river, known as the ‘boatbreaker’.
This would set my alarm bells ringing if I was a kayak or canoe competitor!
The course finishes under the road bridge culminates in a flat pool below the bridge but not before throwing up a few tricky eddies.
The goal in the slalom is to run the rapid river course without touching any of the ‘gates’, some of which have to be navigated upstream (the red gates) and others downstream (the green gates).
If you touch a pole with a paddle, boat, buoyancy aid, helmet or any part of the body, a two second penalty is added to the competitor’s time.
If a gate is missed, or the competitor goes through in the wrong direction, the penalty is 50 seconds. If you fall in and capsize your boat, it’s time to go home…
Each competitor takes two runs with the best timed run counting in the final reckoning. It looks tricky and it’s a miracle that more competitors don’t end up in the churning water.
Later in the day a few leisure rafts are allowed through – and two get stuck, edged between the rocks, before heading back down the river, throwing their crew around in the boats.
One thing’s for sure – these water sports require nerves of steel… and for the winners, that is perhaps the secret of their success.
I’ve never been to a canoe slalom before so was struck by how many young kids were putting in strong performances in the junior competition.
There’s also the strange spectacle of parents and coaches shouting ‘up up up’ – or was it ‘hup, bup, hup’ – as they run along the water cheering on the canoeists.
The hubbub sounded like a herd of wildebeasts but I’ll confess that it did add to the atmosphere.
One little boy who looked about 12 years old flung his kayak down in disgust and stormed off in tears after a disappointing run.
His dad threatened there’d be “no racing or kayaking for you next week” but the tears flowed and off he sprinted, inconsolable.
It’s just one sign that up and coming British canoeists and kayakers are taking their sport very seriously.
Perhaps they now dare to dream of Olympic gold after the success of Etienne and Tim in London?
And even the Olympic team members were pushed hard by the new generation of competitors.
Looking further ahead, perhaps the young lad who ran off in tears of frustration will have his day at Rio de Janeiro’s Olympics in 2016?
This is one sport to watch…
Inside track on Slalom’s spectator events
If you fancy going wet and wild, you can check out this type of event around the British Isles on the UK Slalom website.
The Scottish Canoe Association (SCA) keeps a set of permanent training gates on the Grandtully site for those with a decent level of competence at the sport.
Grandtully is approximately 20 miles north of Perth and around 3 miles from the nearest town of Aberfeldy from where there is an hourly bus service (approx 10 minutes journey).
A local water sports club runs white water rafting trips on the River Tay.
Over the road there is a SCA campsite with toilet and shower block, which can be used by sports people, motorhome overnighters and campers.
For those looking for a relaxing coffee and a ‘mega chocolate hit’ there’s a chocolatier over the road from the canoe course!
For those interested in this year’s Grandtully slalom event, the full results of the canoe and kayak events can be found on The Slalom UK website.