Winding up the dramatic Noce valley, surrounded by tall sandy coloured mountains and hundreds of acres of fruit trees, we could never have guessed that the week ahead would be so eventful and emotional – and not in a good way.
We knew very little about the river, only that the race section was pretty continuous – but the nature of the continuity was unknown to us until we pulled up on site and saw the fast flowing, rocky, alpine river. Myself and Fran met with our GB2 R4 team-mates Becky Russell and Sarah Shepherd, who had already recceed the river, got in with the locals and secured us use of a raft for training (despite having an epic 4-day drive from the UK – putting our 45hr mission to shame).
GB2 R4 Team aka Welsh Dragons (Lowri, Sarah, Fran and Becky)
All the GB Teams!
The event was to include 4 races: a straight sprint down the slalom course which would also be used to seed you in the head-to-head races. Head-to-head involves knock-out tournament style races, where two teams race and only the winner progresses to the net round. Slalom involves going round poles in a certain order and direction as fast as possible, while trying not to hit them – just like canoe slalom. Then finally it would be the downriver – a 12km race down continuous and as times pretty pushy grade 3-4 white water – a real test of endurance and skill.
Before getting to the Noce our training had been rather limited by the fact that there had been no water in the UK, we didn’t own a raft or rafting paddles and were rarely all available on the same days – however, we’d slogged our way endlessly around Bala lake (including surely the first ever circumnavigation by raft!), got a few runs on the Tryweryn together and even ventured to the Menai straights. It’s at this point we really must thank Kate Blyth for use of a raft and regularly being our 4th team member for training, despite having no aspirations to race!
The opening ceremony
After the customary opening ceremony (which luckily ended up right next to a gelateria), the European Rafting Championships 210 began. Things kicked off with R4 sprint and head-to-head races. In our first race together, we ranked 13th out of 16 – but by dumb luck this put us against the GB1 girls in the first round of the head-to-head. They have got gold in H2H at both of the last World and European Champs, so we knew it was a tough draw. Starting in the unfavourable river right eddy and with a deflated raft floor, we remembered how the best competitors rise up against such challenges and started full of determination. With a powerful and aggressive start we battled with GB1 for the lead around the first bend, but in the end their experience and strength showed through – they went on to win gold again. We finished the day in a respectable joint 11th place.
The Mens event was dramatic right to the end. GB1 men ranked 2nd in the sprint and convincingly made it to the finals of the H2H. While battling for the lead with the Russians, Adam’s paddle broke! Luckily they carry a spare but in the seconds it took to untie it and get back on the power, the Russians had edged ahead. Overtaking was something rarely seen on this course and despite being on their bumper the whole way down, the GB1 boys had to settle for another silver medal.
On Day 2 it was the turn of the R6 teams to compete in sprint and H2H. Sadly the GB medal count wasn’t so impressive as their focus is more on R4 due to upcoming R4 World Champs, but big up to GB2 ladies who pulled themselves back from a disappointing sprint to win the first of their H2H races.
As Friday rolled around, all teams were preparing for their slalom runs. The course looked tough but achievable. R6 races were in the morning and we were due to be in the afternoon. With no practice runs allowed, we were keen to pick up a few tips and tactics by watching some of the R6 teams. As the ladies began their second runs, we sat mid-way down the course watching the tough 6-7 upstream combo. All of a sudden there was a lot of noise from downstream and we soon realised a team had flipped before the finish-line. With 6 girls in the water, the few safety guys on live bait downstream of the flip began to jump in but not everyone was rescued by the end of the slalom course. Unlike most UK slalom courses, this was part-way down a natural river and once you went past the take-out eddy, you were into a very fast and continuous alpine grade 4 – with very few eddies, even for a kayak. Two of the girls swam into this rapid – one was rescued pretty early on but in the carnage and confusion, no-one seemed to realise there was another girl in the water. In fact, the safety guys went back to their posts as the race was still on-going. No message had been sent to the top of the course to stop the race. Those of us watching from upstream hadn’t seen beyond the finish-line and since the race was continuing and the safety guys were back on their posts, we presumed everything was sorted.
Several teams completed their second runs, unaware of the incident. Each team had been helped into the eddy by one of the safety team and helped out of the river. Finally, after several minutes there was a realisation that there was a competitor missing. There were no safety kayaks or rafts on the water, so no easy way to make chase until a couple of rafts were put back on the water and some of the competitors got back on to head downstream to try and find her. The competition was finally halted, but most people still didn’t realise what had just happened.
Branka swam over 5km and was finally rescued by kayakers who just happened to be on the river downstream. She was given CPR on the bank and rushed to hospital in a coma. Sadly, I received news a couple of weeks ago that she did not make it. My thoughts are with all her friends, family and team-mates; this must be an extremely difficult time for you.
The following day a vote was held whether to continue the competition and with the majority of teams in favour, the event carried on. However, all GB teams pulled out of the competition; along with a few other nations.
This was a tragic incident and what makes it so sad is that it was totally unnecessary and totally avoidable. So many mistakes were made and simple preventative measures not taken. I can only hope that the right lessons are learnt from this horrible event to ensure that the same mistakes are never made again.
Rest In Peace Branka.