Fish River Canoe Marathon for Dummies Part 1
The Fish River Canoe Marathon in Cradock, Eastern Cape, is probably the only river race that can rival the ocean for sheer enjoyment. The water is big with relatively few rocks. Last year I paddled the race for the second time, and for the first time in a K1. Here is what I learnt along the way
Firstly choose the right boat. If you are able to sit stationery indefinitely, reverse the boat, be able to remove and refit your splash cover easily and feel comfortable in moving rough water than you probably have the right boat. I paddle a Fenn Elite and chose a Kayak Center Sniper. I was a little nervous about the lack of stability at first but it turned out to be a fantastic boat.
Secondly be fit. As a novice you will use more energy and fatigue creates mistakes. Even if you are not racing, being fit makes the whole adventure more enjoyable. Its a 4 hr paddle on day 1 and a 3 hr paddle on day 2. So it’s a long day out.
Thirdly get to Cradock 2 days early and trip, trip, trip the river. You can study videos and read guides as much as you want but actual tripping is invaluable. If you swim an obstacle while tripping, go back and do it again until you have it mastered or it will become a race nemesis. The only exception to this is if a tripping mistake could damage your boat. I did not trip Soutpans rapid for this reason and paid a heavy price on race day.
Day 1 begins with a Le Mans start on the banks of the Grassridge dam.
You leave your boat at the waters edge and everyone lines up 50m back on the bank. Set up to the right of the start area in the reeds. This keeps you out of the chaos and being on the extreme right will give you a better angle for the take out on the other side of the dam.
After the dam, there is a short portage around the dam wall. This is the longest portage of the race at about 500m. Put in right up against the low-level bridge. Wait in the queue if you have to, but it’s worth running hard to grab this spot. Most seem to miss it as it does not look ideal as you approach it. There are reeds to create a calm pool and a small eddy which makes getting into the boat easy. The angle also shoots you into the moving water in the right direction. The water below the put in is calm for several hundred meters so there is no need to put your splashy on right away.
Shortly after the put in is the super fun Double Trouble Weir. It’s a double step down weir. Ie you drop down a slide onto a middle platform, and then a second drop at the end.
Paddle with purpose but not super fast. Drop in just left of centre. Make sure you are centred in your boat and your splashy is on tight. The first drop is easy and a non-issue. Once the platform, the water, coming from the right, will push you left towards the wall, but it also rebounds off the same wall meaning you will end up about 1m of the wall which is perfect. Your goal is to have the boat dead straight as you take the second drop. Aim the boat at the apex of the stopper wave. I found stopping paddling early, while still on the platform, gave me the opportunity to get centred, calm and balanced in the boat. Both paddles must be out of the water as you hit stopper.
Tow golden pieces of advice I was given. Keep your eyes up and look past the stopper, not at it. Let the boat do the work and carry you through the stopper. As a surfski paddler I wanted to reach over the stopper and pull myself through as I would with an ocean foamy. This does not work as the water is so aerated it has little traction and I just ended up unbalancing myself. Delay that first stroke for a fraction and only start paddling once through the stopper.
Once settled hard right rudder to avoid the bank and paddle off. Many say Double trouble is a 50/50. But I think its quite easy if you set up correctly on the platform. Having said that I tripped successfully but swam on race day! Paddling footage starts at 45 sec in.
The next obstacle is toast rack. This is a very low bridge that you will need to duck under. It’s a very easy obstacle. You can choose any gap in the bridge but I recommend the extreme right gap, simply because it’s padded in case you hit your head. Paddle strongly up to the gap slightly to the right as the water will push you left into the pillar. Duck really low and brace right so that you do not hit your left blade on the pillar. If you do swim it’s shallow, so just stand up and get back in.
A word of caution, the rapid 80 m below toast rack is significant and I think 5 x the obstacle Toast Rack is. Do not focus on toast rack. Rather focus on getting through the rapid cleanly. If you swim at toast rack do not let go of your boat. If it goes through the rapid you are into the Willow tree section so catching your boat and remounting will be very difficult. The good news is there is plenty opportunity immediately below toast rack to sort your self out.
This rapid is made up of several big stopper waves. The water will push you from right to left as you approach the rapid. Stay in the middle of the river and go with the flow. There is no correct line through the rapid, just avoid the willows that are touching the water on either side. The stopper waves are at an angle so you will have to turn to the right as you approach to make sure you hit them squarely. Paddle purposefully so you have the momentum to punch through. A swim here could be a long one but you and the boat will be undamaged. This is the first taste of the rolling wave trains which will be a constant feature of the whole race.
There are significant Willow Trees from here to Keith’s, and again after Keith’s. In fact, they are a royal pain in the ass all the way to Soutpans. The trees hang low with their branches in the water. One has to duck and dodge branches while negotiation small rapids. They change every year so trip, trip, trip. Swims here are mostly harmless but time-consuming. Paddle strongly so that the rudder works but not too quickly. Too much speed and you won’t have time to take sharp corners. Also, this section is full of powerful eddies. I found powerful paddling here to be dangerous as a strong paddle stroke that suddenly slips in an eddy could cause a swim. It slow but faster than a swim.
There quite a few rapids in the willows. None are big but they can be challenging when you have to duck and brace to get through the willows while trying to negotiate a rapid at the same time.
Simple, get out, portage. Only shoot it if u happen to be paddling a crock. Run the length of the rapid and head into the bush below the rapid. About 40m into the bushes there is a broad path down to the river and an easy put in. I suggest putting your splashy on as there are thick willows soon after and you don’t want to be distracted. If you are confident putting your splashy on mid river then go ahead and save precious seconds. Here is what it looks like from a paddler’s perspective.
Brak River Portage.
At around 19km there is a portage of 200m. The get out is well marked. The Brak river Weir is huge and very dangerous and totally unshootable. The get out is on the left and follows a slippery muddy path. You have to climb over a split pole fence. Push your boat over the top and climb through the fence. It’s a steep descent to the river and not much room to put in. Put in on the left of the gap if you can. If you have to queue then this is a good time for a GU.
At 26km is another portage. This was not well marked and only had a small kid waving a flag, so I am not sure if this is always a portage.
From here to Soutpans weir there a lot of willows with some strong eddies. Personally, I get pretty sick of the willows by now.
This is a tiny weir with a small chute that’s easy to shoot. The hardest part is seeing the entrance as its not always clear. If you swim it’s an easy shallow put in mid-river.
Below the weir is a difficult underrated part of the river. About 300m below the weir there is a left channel, it’s small and easy to miss but it’s the preferred route down to the real Soutpans. Personally, I prefer to stay with the main channel under the willows. Both options include decent rapids so look sharp. The main channel comes out in line with the entrance to Soutpans rapid while the left channel brings you out river left meaning you have to cross the main flow to line up with soutpans entrance. There is plenty of time so it really makes no difference which channel you take.
This is a much talked about obstacle. I am not qualified to discuss this I have not successfully shot it. But here is the theory. Line up with the arrow on the bridge. This will drop you into a lateral stopper wave and this is where one can get into hassle. Head up and look fwd and let the boat do the work while staying central the boat. The rapid thereafter is no more challenging than any other rapid on the river. Stay river right. Conventional wisdom is stay super right but I don’t thinks its necessary. The second half of the rapid is much steeper and here it gets interesting. Definitely be river right. The bottom drop is into a big stopper with a second decent stopper right behind it. Paddle into the drop with purpose so you can punch both stoppers. Angle the boat slightly back to the centre of the river so you hit the stoppers square on. If you swim its no big deal as there are lifeguards and a big pool. There is second rapid further down but you should be able to get your self sorted before then.
Most folks will say the main events are over and now its a flat paddle to finish, not true. There is still plenty to trip you up.
At 36 km is second short portage at Katkop weir. Get out river right. The put is on a steep bank and can be tricky. Get in and paddle away and put your splashy on mid-river.
Glen Alpha Bridge
At 42 km is the bridge and a proper rapid just below it. This rapid is hectic and is well underplayed. Head under the bridge anywhere. Just have speed so you are not drifting. Once under the bridge head river right and down the rapid. There are some decent waves to contend with as well as quite a few big rocks with big pour overs that are a real hazard. Look for them and be ready to steer positively in the rapid. They main rock is near the end of the rapid. Its river right so as you get near the end of the rapid head back towards the middle of the river. The rocks are easy to see if you are looking for them.
This is the last rapid of the day and pretty minor. Its only an issue for some due to fatigue. Stay river right and bob down a fairly minor rapid.
Sprint to the finish. Anything under 4hrs is a great time with sub 3.45 being exceptional. The record stands at 2.45 which is insanely fast. – k1