The Shannon Sprint Kayak Challenge
Kayaking the longest river in your country has to be high on every kayakers list of achievements and the River Shannon has been on mine for a couple of years now. Not only is it the longest river in Ireland it is also the longest in the British Isles. For most people kayaking this mighty river is a leisurely trip, enjoying the sights and sounds that could take weeks to complete but I wanted to take a different approach. My plan was to kayak as fast as possible from start to finish and set the standard for the "Shannon Sprint".
Planning The Shannon Sprint
When I started planning this trip I found it very difficult to find any useful information online for any craft other than cruise boats. I read some blogs and articles about people kayaking down the Shannon but there was no definite start and finish point, no time to beat and not even accurate distances from A to B. I didn't just want to paddle down the river, I wanted to set the bench mark for a new challenge and needed something more concrete than here and there.
After some time on Google I discoverer the "Shannon Sprint", a challenge the Navy do every few years with new recruits. Starting at Battlebridge in Co. Leitrim and finishing at Sarsfileds Bridge in Limerick City. This where the similarity ends however as my idea of a challenge doesn't involve a power boat and a support crew of 60 people! Instead I was going to do it under my own power with a support crew of 1.
Now before any purists tell me that the Shannon starts further upstream near Dowra - I know! But in an effort to create something measurable I needed a start and finish point and the Shannon Sprint course was the best option. The Shannon Navigation ends at the top of Lough Allen and there is no definite place to start from there either. The 10km stretch of canal above Battlebridge has three portages and two of them are very awkward for a kayaker, with a dangerous road crossing on one. I did deliberate over the start point right up until the last minute but I think I made the right decision choosing Battlebridge.
I paddled away from Battlebridge Lock at 9am on Tuesday morning. I was to meet my sister Mary who offered to do support at Carrick-On-Shannon after about 20km to check everything was OK and I didn't need to change gear or anything else. Luckily I had someone willing to do support for me, as I don't believe it would be possible to carry everything and still be able to portage the locks with an 18 foot kayak. Things were going well and I cruised on to Tarmonbarry, the 40km mark where I was going to stop for a quick bit of lunch. The next section was tough as the wind picked up and a very heavy rain shower started just as I paddled away from the lock. It soon cleared and I was nearing Lanesborough and the entrance to Lough Ree.
Lough Ree was very challenging- the wind was blowing a force 3-4 from the NW, navigation was difficult and the vastness of the lake made it feel like an inland sea, that and the huge sea gull colony. I train almost daily on a lake and I have big respect for them and I know how things can change very fast and how punishing the wind can be.
As soon as I entered the Lough Ree I had to battle the wind and chop as I searched for shelter. I managed to island hop the first few km's but eventually I came to the first of two crux crossings. The first was a hop from the back of an island to a headland. I paddled hard out into the wind so I could turn and run with it and still make the headland-it was about 3km but had serious consequences if I capsized with a few miles of open water ahead of me. I was paddling with my knees together as the Nemo is more suited to touring than rough sea kayaking. Next was a very big, exposed 5km crossing from one headland to another. It was a down wind run but it was wide open and I was worried about squalls from the west hitting me. Thankfully it went well and I got off the lake after 3 tiring hours. After 86km I finished at the lock in Athlone around 7pm. As we loaded the kayak onto the car I manged to close the door on my finger! For a few minutes as the blood drained from my face I thought it might all be over. Luckily it wasn't too bad once the bleeding stopped.
After a good nights rest and my finger not looking as bad as expected I got on the water at 9.30am. The first 10km flew by but then my mind spiraled into a world of negativity. I felt very strong physically but I could not put a positive spin on anything. All I wanted to do was get to the next town, get off the water and go home. I questioned my reasons for doing this. Why was I here? It wasn't a race, very few people knew I was there, what harm if I packed it in?.....These are the demons that try to break you!
My MP3 player wasn't working and I hadn't any coffee for breakfast, maybe that was the problem. I got to Shannonbridge and Mary was there with coffee and a sandwich. I said I would paddle to the next town and make a decision about continuing. As I left Shannonbridge the wind picked up behind me, the coffee started to kick in and my MP3 player was working again. Things were looking up!
By the next meeting point I was back in full focus and eating up the miles. I felt great but Lough Derg lay ahead and after Lough Ree I was a bit apprehensive. My plan was to get on to the lake and hand rail my way down the western shore. Lough Derg is narrower than Lough Ree so there is less fetch and the waves were smaller thankfully. It is still the second biggest lake in the Republic and is a daunting paddle. My target was Williamstown Harbour about halfway down the lake. I got there at 7pm and felt good after paddling 80km. I was tempted to continue but the next leg was a big open crossing and would be safer the next day.
Another good nights rest and porridge and coffee for breakfast, I was ready to take on the last day of the challenge.The forecast was for less wind, about 10kmph from the west. The exit from Lough Derg is very wide and requires a 5km crossing to avoid a very long paddle around the shore. I got to the headland and could see white caps in the centre of the lake the wind was in my face from the W, SW so I decided to go for the direct crossing. Times like these you have to stay cool and focus on the water ahead of you. Thinking about the open water around you is not helpful but also not easy to clear from your mind. Progress was slow into the wind but I was getting closer to safety. Eventually I turned towards Killaloe and the last 30km.
Finding the exit off the lake was difficult and I had to check my position on my phone. In Killaloe I stopped for a quick break and had a call from the Limerick Leader and the local radio station. Both curious to hear about what I was doing.
Back on the water and onward to Ardnacrusha Dam and the big locks. With a total drop of 100ft, I was feeling excited and anxious about the experience as I paddled the long reservoir above the dam. I had a 20 minute wait at the top as a boat came up and then I paddled into the chamber to begin my descent. It wasn't as claustrophobic as I thought it would be, but it was windy, cold and damp. The process is slow and split between two locks. The first is about 60ft and the second 40ft. After about 1 hr the final gate opened and I was free to sprint the last 5km to Limerick City.
A big thank you to the lock keeper who was very helpful from my first call to him a week ago.
Again due to a lack of reliable information and planning on my part I had to make a last minute decision about my approach to Limerick. There are rapids on the river that are covered by the tide, but I didn't know if they would be covered when I got there so I decided to take the safer navigation along the Abbey River. It probably adds a 1 km or so but not much. When I got back on the Shannon proper the rapids were covered of course but I didn't care I was finished. I paddled under the finish line - Sarsfields Bridge at 3.30 pm, having paddled 209 km in a total elapsed time of 54 hrs 30 minutes.
A new bench mark for what has the potential to become a classic challenge. The Shannon Sprint will test all your skills from navigation and planning to endurance paddling and rough water handling. Take on the time or just complete the course. It would be great to see some other attempts and this challenge growing -
So who will be next to take on the Shannon Sprint Kayak Challenge?
Thanks to my sponsors for the amazing kit as always. I wore my Kokatat Goretex cag most of the time and CRAFT base layers and leggings throughout the trip. Also thanks to Iveta Kalvane for the loan of her beautiful kayak and Mary Horkan for doing support.
Daily mileage and paddling time.
Kayak instructor, athlete, business owner and outdoor enthusiast from the west coast of Ireland.
Paddle & Pedal Blog HERE