81st International Sella Descent
Strength, experience and youth prove key ingredients on the Rio Sella Saturday 5th August 2017.
The day started with a light Asturian drizzle. The misty clouds swept in from the Atlantic and relieved themselves over the Picos de Europa adding a bountiful flow to the winding course of the Rio Sella. The scene was set for the start of the 81st Descenso Internacional del Sella.
Over 1,200 paddlers had gathered for the start in the small Asturian town of Arriondas.
As they assembled at the river bank, a tense air of expectation was obvious among the competitors. Sella Descent paddlers must line the banks of the river for the traditional La Mons start; their paddle shafts securely locked into the starting gate mechanisms awaiting the starter’s gun.
The clock struck 12 noon the cannon boomed and they were off, 1,200 odd paddlers from a dozen countries including the record Irish contingent of 34 competitors. When 1200 paddlers hit the water at the same time over an 800 meter stretch of river bank, chaos ensues for all but the most determined and experienced. The key is to know where you wish to go and stick to your plan. The river at this point is only about 20 to 40cm deep so a quick clean start is essential. Once in the boat a quick bumpy paddle for about 1,000 meters clears the paddler of the extreme clutter of the start line and the infamous Sella descent is under way
Liam McCarthy of Salmon Leap Canoe Club sticks with his group after a start line collision with another competitors paddle.
The first 15k of the race is dominated by sand and shale banks as the river meanders to the sea at the picturesque seaside town of Ribadesella. Competitors of all classes try and get a wash from a faster boat. A K1 will try to wash hang a K2. The slower paddler will attempt to lock on to a faster paddler in many cases forming a group something like a cycle road race.
At this stage all competing classes have started at the same time all in one bunch, so the fastest and strongest must prevail. To introduce a sense of fairness into the race the organisers have seeded the international paddlers and faster boats to the front of the pack in a bid to keep the race flowing in an effective manner. First off for Ireland were Iomhar Mac Giolla Phádraig and Liam Banks (SLCC) in the Men’s K2 Senior Class followed by Ronan Foley of Kilcullen Canoe Club in Men’s K1 Junior. Next up in Ladies K1 Junior was Kate McCarthy (SLCC) followed by the remaining 26 Irish paddlers. At the half way point Ronan Foley (European Bronze Medalist) seemed in a podium position, paddling strongly in 2nd position followed by Deaglan O’Driscoll (SLCC) and Malcolm Banks (SLCC) in first and second place respectively in their classes. Lis Shouldice and Aisling Smith were making great strides amongst the top half dozen paddlers of their class.
This race is not for the faint hearted requiring several trial runs in the preceding days to get a feel for paddling this extraordinary river. The Rio Sella is reminiscent of the Slaney River in Co. Wicklow but slightly wider.
Paddlers approach the bridge from the mountains
As the competitors reach the 16k mark, the shorter course entrants cross the finish line and the remaining paddlers continue on to the town. The final 5k tidal stretch becomes an extremely tactical section of the race, where paddlers jockey for position in the group, avoiding tidal shallows and sand banks. All this is variable and dependent on the tidal level at that particular time, so local knowledge is a distinct advantage. Finally the bridge comes into view and the sprint to finish gets underway with all paddlers having to decide when to go for their final push for the line at the bridge in Ribadesella, the race is over as the boats pass the finish line exhausted but elated. Best performances of the day were Deaglan O’Driscoll and Malcolm Banks 1st and 2nd respectively in the Veteran Men’s K1 and Ronan Foley 2nd in the Men’s K1 Junior. Other notable performances were Paul Murphy Kilkenny Aqua 4th in his 60+ veterans class, Millie Dimmock and Talitha Farrant Thomastown Paddlers 4th in Womens U23 K2, Liz Shouldice and Aisling Smith 5th in Ladies K2, Kate McCarthy 5th in Ladies Junior K1, Maria Wilmot Kilcullen Canoe Club 5th in K1 Fem Vets.
2017 has been a record breaking year for Irish Canoe Marathon paddlers attending the International Sella Descent with 34 paddlers and a total Irish party of 40 all told representing Kilcullen Canoe Club 4 paddlers, Salmon Leap Canoe Club 15 paddlers, Thomastown Paddlers 13, Kilkenny Aqua 1 and Canoeing Ireland 1. Hopefully 2018 and onwards will see an even bigger representation from Irish clubs. The specially convened Ireland after event dinner, celebrated the presentation to Team Ireland, of a trophy for second place for national teams, this is again another first in Irish Marathon paddling history.
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Mark Clinton 6th August 2017