Dordogne Integrale

Argentat, 27th May 2017

Ceri Salisbury

So, a day later I can think properly about the Dordogne Integrale race. This time yesterday I was trying to sleep while my bed felt like it was bobbing down a rapid, and my addled mind was making complicated calculations about distances to the next stop.

Firstly, the photos don't lie - the Dordogne is a breathtakingly beautiful river from Argentat to Castelnaud, with everything from chateaus to caves to white cliffs to mountains covered with oaks.
In terms of our race, the CCC boats, mine and the K2 of Lucia and Nanette, edged their way forward over the start line at 6.20am, along with around two hundred other boats of wildly varying sizes and shapes. In an unfamiliar and disturbingly tippy boat, on a wide and fairly fast river, my start was more of a cautious tiptoeing forward, but the girls blazed off in the front bunch, leaving wash and cheering behind them. At first I allowed caution to be the better part of valour, and was overtaken by sea kayaks, old ladies and combinations of the two.


The first forty-five kilometres of the race are the most interesting, technically, with a few nice rapids (I could see why some crews put large and un-aerodynamic blocks of foam on the front of their boats), a fish chute and lastly a smallish weir that I saw in the videos  and thought looked a peach.

By this time a few things had happened. Well up in the top ten, Lucia and Nettie had had a bad wrap at the chute and after some hair-raising moments made it out alive and more or less unscathed, but with a somewhat battered boat and sans spraydecks and paddles. I came past a few minutes later and saw the doom-laden tableau of Nicolás and Rodrigo bending over a boat on the bank; and although Oliver, on the footbridge above, politely applauded my frantic paddling down the channel, I could see he was distracted. Rodrigo shouted to look for the paddles, and this was actually something of a relief, since the girls were nowhere sight and I thought for a horrified moment he was going to ask me to look for bodies.

I continued on, a bit unsettled, and one of many wobbles turned into a swim that took me a few minutes to conclude. In my swimming I failed to get on the downstream side of the boat, so it filled with water and I gave thanks mentally to the club that owns the boat and had put in just enough buoyancy. Eventually I made it to the side and got myself together and back in the boat, only to find that the pressure of the water on the rudder while I was swimming, along with some appalling oversteering at corners, had snapped the metal pin holding the rudder to the boat, and while paddling in circles has a certain dizzy charm, one can't do it for a hundred kilometres.
Leaving the boat on the bank, I took a leisurely walk through an industrial estate, a small village, a large village and eventually found my way back to the first checkpoint (there were six checkpoints/food stops on the race, none of them compulsory portages - in fact, one could go from start to finish without getting out of the boat. A nice change from DW and canal paddling generally).


I reached the checkpoint just as the salvage crew were about to drive down to the next one to see me. Up til this point I'd assumed the race was over for us and team CCC could go home to drink wine and fix boats. It was not to be. Less than two minutes after getting back to my boat, Nico and Rodrigo had the rudder reattached with cable ties, and me back in the boat, not quite sure how it had happened, and mildly affronted that I had to keep paddling, when a big part of me (mainly the part I sit on) really, really wanted to stop. I secretly hoped the rudder would come detached again and I could stop at the next checkpoint. Unfortunately they teach boat repairing well in Asturias (I blame the Sella) and the rudder worked perfectly.

Now came the weir, which I had been anticipating with mixed feelings. On one hand, it really didn't look that big in the pictures, and I get few opportunities nowadays to really get down with the local crayfish, anyway. On the other, I wasn't confident in the boat, and a swim could have had serious consequences. So I was coming towards the optional portage thinking I should be sensible, but everyone was standing on the bank cheering and I felt half a century of South African paddlers calling shame down on my head and I decided I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do it. In short, I shot (not exactly in style) and I made (barely, with a big wobble). Thoroughly pumped, I thought 'onwards!' and drank the last my water.


I was now an hour and a half down. The first crew that I had passed after the repair were in a skiff and surrounded by a genial haze, so I knew I had some ground to make up. The SUP-ers were going relatively slowly (yes, people do this race on SUPs - 150 this year, set off shortly before the sit-down craft, and finishing surprisingly soon after them), so they were good markers to aim for.
The next stop was the halfway point, at sixty five kilometres, and I was incredibly glad to see Lucia, Rodrigo and Nico, waiting with energy gels, bars, proper drink and encouragement. It reminded me vividly of DW 2016 when another crew's race was cut short and this identical trio jumped in their car and supported my boat all the way to the end. I don't know how many supporting credits I owe these guys, but at this rate they're all going to have to do multiple DWs so that I can repay them.

After the weir it was really just grinding out the miles, and I had the chance to appreciate how much more I have to learn about reading rivers. There were no more real rapids, but just staying in the fast water proved too much for me,  time and time again. But I got to look at the spectacular scenery, practise my French on the paddlers I overtook (one of whom was the elderly lady in a plastic sea kayak who, it transpired, had been the third female K1 up until that point), and generally appreciate the experience.

I think the second half took me about five hours, which I was reasonably happy with. But mostly I was just happy I got to experience the fantastic Dordogne Integrale. Now it's time to enjoy a bit more holiday and then go back to work and explain why I need a cushion on my desk chair.  
Massive thanks to the people and clubs that made it all happen! Bring it on #DordogneIntegrale2018.