Rapid: the sweet smell of Liffey success


“Don’t let me die in Palmerstown.” On Saturday, non-canoeist CONOR POPEtook a deep breath and a mouthful of Liffey water, in his first ever Liffey Descent

I SPEND Friday night, the night before my first Liffey Descent, imagining all the ways it could kill me. There are many. Drowning is obviously my number one concern, what with the raging torrents and the terrifying weirs and the rapids and the stoppers that trap you under the water.

There is also the possibility of having my head crushed by a rock and, of course, there are the rats, lurking behind every tree waiting to pee in the water and infect me with Weil’s disease.

I am seriously wishing I’d looked up what the Liffey Descent was before agreeing to do it.

On Saturday morning there is no turning back, and by 12.30pm I am at the start in a three-man Canadian canoe. Yiani, from Greece, is captain and here to win. Also in the boat is Sean “pain is a sign of weakness leaving your body” Murphy. He wants to win too, after coming last last year – in fairness, back then he had a dislocated shoulder and a broken boat to contend with.

My team-mates are hard-core paddlers. I’ve never been in a canoe before.

The first weir at Straffan, just a few metres from the start, is where 60 per cent of participants first come a cropper. As we approach its edge, the foaming white water’s roar barely manages to drown out the roars of hundreds of paddlers who’ve already succumbed to its fury.

I am terrified.

We go over and survive. As bodies are catapulted from canoes and kayaks all around us, we crash into the raging torrent, wobble violently before righting ourselves and pushing those bodies out of the way with the nose of our canoe.

After Straffan it’s welcome to “the jungle” – a heavily wooded stretch of the Liffey which can tie paddlers up in knots, literally. Branches strike our helmets as we push through the field.

Every time I slack off, Yiani bellows words of encouragement at me: “Come on! You are a monster. Keep it lit! You are a machine!” (I’m really, really not).

We emerge from the jungle and fall over another weir, still upright. Amazingly, we’re in second place in our category as we pass through a lake – a long, tough, and boring stretch – and then hit the wall. Literally.

At the Leixlip dam we have to get out and sprint 500 metres around the grey concrete. “These guys aren’t competing,” says Yiani as we push other people, who look very much to me like they are competing, out of the way. On the other side we throw our canoe into the water where it does not land on the head of an unfortunate man in a small kayak. Okay it does, kind of, but he was slow getting out of the way and doesn’t seem to mind too much. Okay, he does. Sorry.

The water flows faster now, and we hit weirs with increasing regularity. We’ve gone through six and have yet to go for a “swim” – paddlers call capsizing “swimming”, it makes it sound more fun.

I’m growing more confident. In fact I’m convinced we’ll get down without a single swim.

Then we arrive in Lucan and, beside the bridge in the town and in front of one of the largest crowds of the day, we (okay, it was me) manage to tip our boat over.

The next weir is the Wren’s Nest. I have heard of the Wren’s Nest, and the stories were all terrifying. If you do it wrong you can get caught in a stopper and thrown around like a shirt in a washing machine before you have to be hauled out by a diver (the Irish Canoeing Union takes safety very, very seriously and has rescue canoeists and divers at all the danger spots.)

We don’t get caught in a stopper. Instead we just tip over. Again. Then it is on to Palmerstown.

Even before the event the organisers had described this as the weir of doom (I’m paraphrasing) and just before noon a log got lodged in one part of the weir creating a, well, logjam. We’re all forced to take on the weir at the same spot, and few people manage to do it without a swim.

We tip over. I plunge to the bottom of the river and drink a glass of Weil’s disease (probably). I pop up and miraculously I am still holding my paddle. Yiani has warned me that if I lose my paddle we are doomed to defeat.

I am also holding Yiani’s paddle.

Just as I start to feel a bit smug, I sink under the water again. I am a bad swimmer at the best of times, and this is not the best of times. I am holding two paddles and am being attacked by giant waves. Within seconds I am surrounded by rescue canoes and before I can say “Don’t let me die in Palmerstown”, they’ve hauled me to a shallow spot.

It takes us ten minutes to hit the water again. But when we do we’re still in second place. We paddle on furiously and minutes later cross the finishing line, alive and in the medal places.

I’ve never been so relieved to stand on dry land. And never so proud of winning a medal, even if all the credit goes to my team-mates.

28km from Straffan to Islandbridge

THE LIFFEY Descent is 52 years old and has grown into one of the biggest canoe and kayak races in the world, attracting competitors from Canada, South Africa and Australia.

In 1960, the first race was held to coincide with the Boat Show and went from Capel Street Bridge to O’Connell Street and took just a few minutes. A year later the organisers decided to make it more challenging and ran it from Balbriggan to O’Connell Street. It involved at least one night’s camping for most of the competitors.

The following year the smell of the Liffey in the city centre forced the organisers to move it upstream where it stayed.

It became a major event in the Irish and international calendar in 1988, when it attracted even greater sponsorship (from a whiskey maker) as a result of becoming a central part of Dublin’s millennium celebrations. That year around 1,000 people, hard-core canoeists and novices alike, took part, and the numbers have rarely dipped below that since.

Now the descent is sponsored by the (more appropriate) Great Outdoors.

It runs 28km from the K Club in Straffan to Islandbridge in Dublin. It has all the thrills and spills of a whitewater race, as the ESB releases 30 tonnes of water from the Poulaphouca Reservoir on the morning of the race to ensure faster times and more fun.

This year the event had to be postponed for the first time. It was due to take place on September 10th but – and people who remember our terrible summer may be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at this – a shortage of rain meant the ESB did not have enough water to flood the river.

The move to October saw a small fall-off in the number of participants, but the weekend numbers were still said to be in excess of 800.

There is a range of categories; the most eagerly watched classes are the K1 and K2.

While big Canadian canoes can complete the course in around three hours and 10 minutes, the fastest times for course are always recorded by the K2 racing kayaks, which can go from start to finish in around one hour and 55 minutes.