‘One minute to go’ the starter announces. Breathe. Just breathe. ‘Thirty seconds’. I stare down the churning river. Focus. ’10 seconds’. Our paddles raise and poise. They must not touch the water until…’Go!’ Adrenaline surges, hearts pump, muscles strain. Six people, one raft – we swore we came here just for fun but now the competition is on!
How did I end up raft racing in Romania?
If you’d told me a year ago this is where I would be I would have laughed. Since starting work at British Canoeing in 2015 I had done a fair bit of paddling but white water always seemed well beyond my reach. There was always a desire though. I had asked a colleague previously ‘how would I get on the white water course?’ ‘We could find you a way if you like’ he replied.
In the end I found my own way there. With the help of some pretty awesome people. ‘You should try rafting’, another colleague told me. ‘There are starter sessions on a Wednesday night. It’s great fun.’ And so, the next Wednesday I found myself getting slammed in the face with freezing water for the first time…and really quite liking it. Fast forward six months and I’m on the start line of my first race in Romania. A new sport and a new country all in one!
What is white water raft racing?
Lots of us have had a fun time with our mates on the commercial rafting experiences you can purchase in the UK and abroad. I had a great afternoon a few years ago with my best friend and have a lot of pictures to prove it! But raft racing is a little different. Racing in teams of four or six, everyone in the boat has a role to play in ensuring that obstacles are avoided, slalom gates are negotiated, speed and timing is maintained and that sticky situations are got out of without anyone taking a swim!
Over the course of a weekend teams take part in four races; sprint, slalom, head to head and downriver. Each race holds a certain number of points, which add up to your overall score:
- Sprint – exactly what it says; get down a section of river as fast as you can.
- Slalom – just as in canoeing; negotiate a number of sets of upward and downward slalom poles.
- Head to head – (the really exciting one!) set off at the same time as another team and it’s the first to the finish…but…there are obstacles to negotiate along the way.
- Downriver – endurance. A longer course which tests you when you’re tired.
That’s the boring explanation stuff out of the way…
I’ve never raced like this before. I’m used to start line nerves at the beginning of a running race, but this is different. There’s an audience, a crowd. Not only the other teams but locals from the town have turned out in force too. Clutching cardboard cut out paddles they ask us to pose for photos and sign autographs. The music is pumping and the atmosphere fantastic.
My teammates; Beth, Steph*, Kellie, Debs and SJ have a mix of experience. We are positioned in the boat depending on our strengths. My strength is power: vocal and body – I am middle right. Kellie, positioned in front of me, looks sick with nerves. We get into a routine before each race – she punches me in my buoyancy aid, I punch her in hers. We have to do it…for luck.
We’ve had some practice runs on the river the day before racing. Learning where the bigger rocks are. Where there are hidden obstacles. The best line to take. What we will do if it all goes wrong. We are ready.
*This is the same crazy Steph I attempted to run across Iceland with.
The sprint race is up first. And it goes well. That’s all I can tell you – I don’t remember much more. It felt smooth, we were happy and my legs were shaking at the end! We wait, watching for movement from the officials tent. Someone emerges and pins paper to board; we rush to look. We won sprint! Wow, just wow. I am amazed. But was this just a fluke? Did we get lucky.
We still have a long day ahead. Head to Head is up next and then slalom. Downriver is tomorrow. The day is roasting hot and there is little relief form the sun. As we watch others race we struggle to find shade. Our kit is hot and heavy and I drink constantly to stay hydrated.
The head to head is truly exhilarating. ‘Don’t worry about where the other boat is’ I scream, ‘let’s just focus on what we’re doing.’ I don’t really need to tell my teammates this. They’re so cool and awesome. We win our first race and just…just…just win our second too. I am pumped!
Here is a video of that second race…
Could we win this?
Coming to Romania we had declared that we were here for the raft racing experience. Winning wasn’t discussed. But now…now we’re sitting in first place. However, slalom and downriver hold more points. It could all change so quickly.
And it does. We do well at slalom. Our first run is the fast but another team are faster on their second run. This puts us second in slalom and therefore drops us into silver medal position overnight.
For now though, it’s time to for the race party. I briefly question the wisdom of multiple carafes of very reasonably priced wine the night before our final race. But my doubts are quickly forgotten as we head to the dance floor.
The next morning What’s App messages ping frantically. No one told us the clocks were changing last night. We have lost an hour to add to the hours lost to partying. Strong coffee is chucked down throats as we head to the river for our deciding race.
Boats are set off in groups for this race. We’re in a group with the Bulgarian ladies, who are in pole position and a few of the men’s teams. We have seven kilometers of rocky, white water river to negotiate, culminating in a final drop named ‘the washing machine’. If you go into that bit wrong – well the name says it all!
We start strongly but yesterday has fatigued us. The Bulgarian ladies are stronger and beat us to the finish line. Most importantly for us though – we take the right line on the washing machine and all finish in the boat!
Are we silver raft racing medalists?
Transported back to our hotel, we now have to wait for the other teams to race. We can’t win gold now but will we hold on to silver? The wait seems to go on forever but finally race times are posted. Some swift mental maths, we check and recheck…but it finally sinks in…we’ve done it! My first raft racing competition and we are coming away with silver medals. I am elated!
To add to the joy our men’s team have scooped bronze in their category, against some tough competition.
I decide the best way to celebrate is to drag Steph up a big nearby hill. It had been starting at me for three days and just wanted to be climbed before we left. There was swearing from Steph.
We were now parting from SJ and the men’s team, while five of us went on to do a few days of touristing in Brasov and Bucharest. We grab a life to Brasov, along winding mountain roads. The scenery is stunning; snow capped mountains, rural villages and storks nesting on every other telegraph post. Spirits are high adn we can’t wait to celebrate in Brasov.
We’re staying in the Evil Clown Hostel; yep, it was as odd as it sounds but perfectly nice. I’m feeling sick. Really sick. Steph helpfully suggests I go for a ‘tactical chunder’ in the hope I will then feel better. Fair enough. I head to the toilets. Throw up. Pass out. Wake up wedged down the side of the toilet with, what appears to be a broken nose. Whoops.
Kellie’s face as I stagger back into the room says it all. Beth makes swift phone calls. One of the Romanian raft racing team is quickly on his way to transport me to hospital. Steph is coming with me too but first takes some pics to send to the rest of the group. Who doesn’t love a good injury picture?
The hospital and beyond
It’s March 31st 2019. We were due to leave the EU two days ago but we didn’t. I’ll never know if this would have made a difference to my treatment but on production of my EHIC card and holiday insurance I was treated promptly and for free.
I was super impressed with the Romanian hospital. In around 2.5 hours I was given an ECG, CAT scan, two bags of IV fluids, some anti sickness medication and discharged. I also slept…a lot…even in the CAT scanner. It seems I was dehydrated and had heat stroke. There was no evidence that the party had anything to do with my condition; so I’m sticking with heat stroke!
The Dr. kindly told me I had raised enzyme levels which indicated I had worked physically hard; something I proudly told my teammates. She also mentioned I was bradycardic and I quote ‘something often seen in athletes’. Boom!!!
I was soon back at the hostel, clutching a CD of my CAT scan and feeling extremely grateful to the wonderful Mihai for being my Romanian savior.
My nose had miraculously popped back into place and was only making the gentlest of crunching sounds. My nausea had also receded. So, it was time to get on with the touristing!
Fancy a go at raft racing?
I would never have dreamed I’d be raft racing down a river in Romania. If I can do it you can too! It’s a fantastic and fun team sport and a good work out. I paddle with Notts Raft Racing and if you’re in the Midlands you can too! Check out their Facebook page for how to get started.
If you’re in a different part of the country get in touch with British Rafting on their Facebook page to discover where you can get started. Or, if you’d like to find out more about competition and where you can watch it pop to the International Rafting Federation website here.
I can’t wait to see you on the water!