Liffey Descent - Ireland’s Premier Paddling Event

By Donal O’Mathuna

This summer I was visiting Columbus and, at the same time, preparing for a kayak race back home in Ireland. I’d like to thank John Lane and Columbus Outdoor Pursuits for providing me with all the equipment I needed to paddle regularly. They suggested I provide you with an account of the race. I’m a recreational kayaker, but every year the Liffey Descent offers a unique opportunity to paddle my local river in a torrent of water. My approach to preparing involves an hour or two of paddling three times a week. This gets me to where I can finish the race in about three hours without being in agony for the last mile or two.

The race is 18 miles long along the River Liffey. This rises in the Wicklow mountains, just south of Dublin city, and eventually enters the sea through the middle of downtown Dublin. Last year’s 50th running of the race saw a record entry of just over 1000 kayakers and canoeists. This year, about 800 paddlers took to the water on September 4.

What makes the race unique is that high water is guaranteed. You might not think that could be a problem in Ireland, but sometimes we do have dry spells (some even last more than a few hours). However, the Liffey has three hydroelectric dams on it, and our electric company releases millions of gallons of water for the race. All this water raging over 11 man-made weirs and a few rapids makes the Liffey Descent Ireland’s premier paddling event, and one of the top in Europe.

The race starts at the K-Club in Straffan, which hosted the 2006 Ryder Cup golf tournament. In front of spectacular greens and a 19th Century mansion, the race starts in five groups. First go the real racers, with K-2 kayaks followed by K-1 kayaks. These flimsy fiberglass needles will fly down the course in about two hours. Every year, several end up walking to the finish line with various pieces of their kayaks under their arms. The third group are Racing Canadians, a hybrid kayak paddled like a canoe. Then come the general purpose kayaks – hundreds of them! Finally, the open Canadian canoes take off, those hardy lads who insist on going where only kayaks ought to go.

About a mile into the race the first weir is encountered. Various types of weirs were built on the Liffey to assist with navigation. Most are walls about 3 to 6 feet tall, with a slope of about 45 degrees. They can go straight across the river, or be built at an angle. Others are V-shaped, which makes for interested (and large) stopper waves at the bottom where the water coming from each wall collides.

The first weir at Straffan Bridge provides a magnificent vantage point for those who would prefer to stay dry and enjoy one capsize after another. Capsizing becomes more likely below the weir while trying to avoid people splashing around after their boats and trying to get to shore. The mayhem and carnage is monitored carefully. On the day, about 120 men and women are in the water at the various weirs to guide the capsized to safety. These include professional water rescue services and highly skilled kayakers who give up their chance to paddle the race.

After Straffan comes The Jungle. It will take almost 45 minutes to meander along the twists and turns of this narrow section of the river. Overhanging trees and swirling currents are the obstacles here, along with those who suddenly lose the ability to paddle in straight lines. Capsizing here can mean a long swim before finding a bank to empty the kayak and restart. It’s usually in this section that you hear the ominous sounds of the first serious canoeists thundering down on top of you, demanding passage at the narrowest of places. They see gold, and not the little kayaks who might be in their path.

After slogging through The Jungle, the sound of roaring water is welcome. Two straight-forward weirs bring a refreshing splash of water, and then the two sets of rapids. At about 75 minutes we reached Leixlip Lake, another reservoir. If the water is low, this can be challenging as it feels like the weeds are grabbing onto your hull. This year, the water level was good and after 20 minutes we reached the top of the dam. This is the one portage in the race, coming about half-way. At first, it’s a welcome relief to stretch the legs. After carrying the kayak 500 yards, I’m ready to get paddling again.

The next weir goes diagonally along the river for a long way, making it very shallow. I lost the nose of my kayak on this last year, so this time I went for the sluice at the end of the wall. Most of the water rushes through here, making huge waves. This is where I came the closest to going over, but managed to hold on. The weirs now appear every 5 or 10 minutes. The most notorious is Wren’s Nest, a large V-weir. If you shoot it at the V, and are less than perfect, you will be bumped and bruised along one wall. I took the easier way down one of the sides.

Then comes Palmerstown, another V-weir. This one you must shoot at the V. The water comes at you from left and right and lifts you up onto a vertical wave, only to throw you at another wave and another. It is brilliant! Safely through this, a couple of small weirs, and then the last mile to the finish. This mile goes on and on and on. But then you see the finish, and have to pass that guy up ahead! I finished in 3 hours 3 minutes, the end of another exhilarating and exhausting trip down the Liffey.

Words don’t do justice to this event. Check out YouTube for lots of interesting videos, and www.LiffeyDescent.com for more details. Visitors for the race come from all over Europe and South Africa. The Irish Canoe Union organizes the event and is happy to help anyone interested in participating from overseas. Maybe some day we’ll see a team from the Buckeye State!


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