Workum à Bolsward à Harlingen à Franeker – Day 3
Finishing the other end of Workum this year meant the boats were over 2 miles away, it caused a bit of a dilemma for the event organisers and competitors alike. We had to be ready early in the morning to take everything we would need for the day to the skippers meeting, and how would we get there? In the back of a van apparently, it was slightly worrying hearing the driver say good luck as the door closed and plunged us into darkness, it was a fairly surreal experience but oddly quite fun, once I found my torch.
A narrower start line meant that there was split for the top 10, then a gap with the rest of the fleet, bunching up with the rest of the 50+ paddlers made for a tight and slow start, the lead two groups got well out of reach very early on and I just had to race my own race and do the best I could. There had been talk in the morning of a possible downwind section along the main shipping canal once we reached Harlingen and that was a positive mental idea to hold onto while I battled headwinds most of the morning. Before long, Rory Smyth came motoring passed and I latched on to the draft, he was keeping a solid pace and he was making gains on the big group up ahead of us, it took nearly most of the morning leg to catch the group but he managed it, just as we got there and the main group turned a corner they got blasted by a gust of wind from the back, the pack sped up and I lost the back of the draft, I clawed with every remaining bit of energy but the gap just grew and grew. The train snaked off into the distance never far away but enough to be disheartening, I rounded a corner and saw the old rest stop, a lonely looking patch of grass that normally was bursting with life, it made me really appreciate the efforts of all of the event organisers and volunteers that work so hard to make these areas functional for the competitors to refuel. I heard paddlers behind me but I was losing them on the corners, banking my C14 into the bend and keeping my speed up, before long thought they caught up and we worked as a team for the next few km to the new rest stop at Arum.
We restarted the afternoon, straight into the wind and rain, I took the lead but it was hard going, one of the Fanatic Strikes overtook and I tried to draft him, the head wind and 3 days of intense paddling had taken its toll and he too started to pull away, it was just myself and Pascal Bleys now and we worked together all afternoon to try and keep a good speed, both praying for a decent downwind run on the shipping canal. We meandered round each corner, assaulted by the wind, hugging the banks wherever possible to get some form of shelter, my legs were killing me but having someone else there kept me going and not slowing down. I managed to use some of the knowledge from previous years to help Pascal while he was out front, we came through to the shipping lane and I took the lead, we slowly started to close on the paddler in front, Emiel Halma, a paddler I had raced in 2013 right here in Friesland. I started to flag and needed Pascal to take over after a good 6km of the canal; I also wanted to have a rest before we hit Franeker in case we had a sprint finish. The gap between ourselves and Emiel levelled out and we were also being chased down by another paddler although it never looked likely he would catch with only 4/5km to the finish. As we entered Franeker I noticed Pascal was struggling to turn the board sharply, with 2 corners in quick secession I saw my opportunity, I sprinted through the city with everything I had, determined to catch Emiel, knowing there were a few bridges, leaving it as late as possible to duck to get plenty of speed up under each bridge I was gaining quickly. Emiel clocked me gunning for him and put on a burst of speed, we pulled level and it was a real sprint finish under the last 2 bridges towards the line.
Franeker à Dokkum – Day 4
The last of the long days, but also the ‘hell of the north’ as it is also known. Surprise, surprise, more wind for us to contend with, thankfully though it was slightly more favourable at times, being occasionally on your rear quarter. But first we had to contend with the start line, the narrowest start line I have ever seen in any race but packed, board to board with paddlers, the start was chaotic to say the least. Even before we started the wind was pushing everyone over towards the bank, one or two paddlers fell in, and considering how little space there was I’m surprised they found water to fall into instead of just falling onto a board. The start gun went and clattering of boards and paddles filled the air as everyone battled to try and get their blades in the water, many having to turn their paddles flat to enter the water then twist once in the water to engage the blade. If you get a get a chance, take a look at some of the video’s that are making their way onto the net! A true mix of emotions and feelings came across me, I was exhausted but also fresh and geared up ready for the day, the thought of almost finishing the race was in my mind but at the same time the lack of training and conditioning was really taking its toll whenever I needed my body to react. It wasn’t long before I found myself paddling with Pascal and Rory once again, I was happy to keep them near me as I sat just ahead of them in the rankings so as long as I could keep them close they were never going to leapfrog my position but we also worked well together and had a similar pace so it worked well all round.
First we had to contend with one of the most important aspects of the day, Klunen! I had warned Rory the night before of the need to be at the front of the train by the time we hit the portage (Kluning) and we were being chased down by Dan Ashford dragging a lot of other paddlers with him, it was imperative we got to the lock before them in order to stay ahead. Both Rory and Pascal were doing most of the work in the train during the first part of the race but whenever we hit a direct headwind I would take the lead to strengthen our position knowing we could keep away from Dan in these sections. We got to the lock about 40 seconds ahead of the other group and that was more than enough, we ran up the bank and launched the other side and went at a sprint to keep a gap, we snaked our way through the narrow windy canals all the way to the rest stop and refuelled, the most memorable part of this stop was when Joanne Hamilton-Vale offered me a blanket….. I calmly said “don’t insult me Jo” or words to that effect, the thought was appreciated though. After the rest Rory, Pascal and I all took 2-3 km turns out front to try and catch the group in front, they were always within sight but never really catchable, at times we got a nice tail wind pushing us towards Dokkum the last of the 11 cities and our speeds pushed in excess of 10kph which was a welcome change. As we got closer we agreed that we would all cross the line together as we had worked all day and this suited me. We paddled through the city which was packed with people for a festival, underneath a stage that bridged the canal and paddled through the festivities, it was an amazing atmosphere as we crossed the line and we only had one short day left to go!
Dokkum à Leeuwarden – Day 5
The last day of the 11 cities is always a brilliant feeling, everything you have worked so hard to achieve seems within reach and the thought of paddling a mere 27km seems like a walk in the park, and but face it, it’s still a long old way to paddle! The start line is wider so you actually have space to think but you head towards a bridge which causes immediate problems. Having such a bad start here 2 years ago I decided I would just go under one of the shorter sections of bridge that would be less congested, my error before was being indecisive so I made the call early on. I was right up there with some of the lead paddlers but I knew it couldn’t last, their pace for the first 1km is so fast even drafting was not an option, I paddled as fast as I could in the hope to get a gap clear of the main fleet. Before long Rory caught up and it was time for us to work together once more to get this year’s 11 cities finished. As we paddled back away from Dokkum the same way we had paddled the day before we tried to shake a few of the others that were drafting us, again side on winds blasted us but it wasn’t as strong as previous days and everyone’s mood reflected this ‘easier day’. Keeping an eye on the horizon I saw the towers in Leeuwarden, I hadn’t noticed you could see them from so far away before but with every paddle stroke it felt like the finish was within reach. Although I had no goals headed into this year’s race after the first days success I really wanted to hold onto a top 15 finish, currently sat in 14th place with 2 minutes to spare over Rory I was very wary not to drop off the draft when it was his turn out front, I couldn’t be sure if he was going to make a move at any stage but as we got closer to the finish it felt increasingly likely I could hold out baring any complete disasters. Just before the historic 11 cities bridge Pascal caught us up, he must have been paddling like a man possessed to catch us as he wasn’t in sight all morning. It was great that all three of us were once again paddling together and as we passed each paddler on the tour or some of the female competitors we whooped and hollered helping ourselves just as much as them to complete to course, spirits were high and passersby were cheering and wishing success. A few km from the finish we passed Chris Parker who had a brilliant week but had run out of steam to stay on his draft train, he jumped on board and we all headed in for the final few turns. Rory was paddling hard and Pascal had started to lose his position, still worried that I could lose 2 minutes I sprinted into the wind to catch back up, it split our train and it was just the 2 of us for the final km, we decided to paddle across the line together once more in the true spirit of this race.
Filled with a great sense of achievement and elated from just making the pain stop it reminds me of just how special this unique race is, no matter what your goals or motivation for entering, it means so much to everyone just to finish the 5 days. You make friendships that last and meet some of the most dedicated volunteers that work around the clock so everything runs as smoothly as possible. Although I felt some of the family atmosphere had been lost this year as the event grows and grows and becomes more of an international event it still has a very special feeling that no other race can match. I would recommend this race to anyone who wants to test their character and resolve, you don’t need to do the race, the tour still covers the same distance but allows you to experience the beautiful scenery Friesland has to offer, while racing it becomes such a blur but there are sections that really are so special and it would be nice to stop and take it all in. By the time all the rest stop adjustments have been removed I paddled the course in 23 hours 13 minutes 07 seconds, to paddle that amount of time over 5 days really took a lot of mental and physical will power so the paddlers who undertook the route non-stop have my upmost respect, however I have to just mention that Mike Kranenburg has my full admiration, he paddled both the non-stop followed by the 5 day race in order to raise money for cancer research, a true athlete and one of the nicest guys you could possibly meet, if anyone wants to support Mike please head to http://www.alvarum.com/mikekranenburg2
Time to head back to the Shire now and enjoy a slower pace of life, See you on the water!
Words by Crispin Jones.
To have a paddle with Crispin (and buy him a well deserved drink!) you’ll find him at Waterborn in Kingsbridge, Devon. Who’s up for the challenge next year?!!