The 2014 International Canobus Championship kicked off in the vibrant town of Jarnac on Saturday 28 June.
320 participants, 40 canoes, one river. Which team would be the king of the Charente?
Rugby clubs, insurance firms, cognac distillers, winemakers – you name it, they had thrown together their most athletic** men and women to field a team of 8 who would take up an oar and power a canoe over 500 meters, around dangerous obstacles,*** on the turbulent Charente river****
For weeks past you could hear the coarse shouts of ‘hup, hup, hup’ as they powered down the river, synchronising their oar strokes as they prepared for the big day. You could see the front rower stretched out over the river, driving his paddle into the water, perfecting the turning technique. All for this moment. All for a shot at the championship.
On Saturday morning the sun was shining. Jarnac was abuzz*****and the crowds were gathering on the banks of the river, setting up their shade cloths and umbrellas and ladening their tables with wines, cheeses, fruits, pastries, tarts, quiches and cakes.
The first contestants were huddled together, life jackets on and oars in hand, having last minute whispered conversations discussing strategy after discovering their placement for the heat******. They filed into their canoes, 4 a side, and glided up the river to the starting line. Finally the five boats were ready, side by side, and on the count of Trois, Deux, Une C’EST PARTIR! they were off.
The water turned white under the 40 paddles furiously beating the water as the boats shot forwards. You could hear the cries of the rowers as they set a rhythm for the team. You could see the canoes beginning to manoeuvre for the best position for the first turn. 20 meters in, CHAOS. After a tranquil start, boat 5 sped forwards to smash into boat one, using it as a buffer to give them the inside line and help them turn more quickly around the first markers. Boat one and five locked together, pushing boats 2, 3 and 4 further down the river, jamming their oars beside their boats and leaving them nowhere to go except for out wide.
Now boat five was in the front. ‘HUP, HUP, HUP’ were the cries as they paddled furiously up-stream, driving their oars into the water, trying to get ahead. But boat one was not far behind, they recovered from the initial collision and were gaining. Turn two was looming, boat five was angling towards it for a tight corner, but not tight enough. BOOM, boat one crashed into the side of boat five, pushing them out wide and once again taking the inside line. Now it was down to the final turn then sprint to the finish.
Boat one in the lead. Boat five a little behind but catching. Boat 2, 3 and 4 close together, but not close enough to be a concern. With the final corner just ahead boat one starts digging in their oars to turn. Not wanting to get pushed out again they cut it close, almost too close. It looked like they were going to miss the buoy and get a penalty but no, no, it’s perfect! What a line! What a turn! Boat five is close behind but can’t get their nose in. Boat one powers ahead for the final sprint. Boat five chases but can’t catch them. Boat one crosses the line in 2:35 with boat five not far behind.
After 10 hours of races, the consumption of much food and wine and a lot of excitement, the Jarnac rugby club secured their place as the 2014 canobus champions!
I was a late-fill in for a team. Apparently after participating in a practice session I was deemed as good enough and found out that I would be a member of the team a day before the competition. Somehow (and I am really not sure how) our team came 6th overall out of the 40 contestants. It may have been due to successfully ramming the opponent’s boats not once, but three times in the final race to take the win.
The course was made up of a short sprint of 20 meters where the boats then had to navigate a turn around three buoys, sprint up-stream 200m to turn around more buoys, sprint back down for a final turn then 30 meters to the finish.
*By international I more mean national. One might even say local.
**Athletic might also mean whoever could be found to participate. Maybe.
***Obstacles were in the form of three inflatable buoys.
****Turbulent could also be defined as gently flowing, if you don’t have an imagination.
*****When I say Jarnac was abuzz, it is partly because it’s quite rural so there are lots of insects. It was also a little bit to do with people talking. There were maybe a few hundred spectators there.
******By discussing last minute strategy, it was more talking about which boat we would get and (in my case) yawning at people a lot because I cycled 20km there as a warm-up at 8am.