UNLEASHEDxUGANDA round up. Athlete perspective.
In 2017 I competed in the first UNLEASHED competition in Canada. A multi stage event testing athletes in both freestyle and racing events. It was easily the event I enjoyed competing at the most throughout the year and really tested Athletes at the high end. In my opinion it was the future of High end whitewater competitions and is so visually impressive that all non-kayakers can easily understand it. So when the SEND boys (Adrian Mattern, Bren Orton, Dane Jackson and Kalob Grady) told me they planned a similar event on the White Nile, Uganda I knew I wanted to go.
The event was super important to me for 2 reasons. 1: The event format is pushing the envelope of what is possible with high end whitewater competitions and I want to be a part of that progression. 2: The impending completion of the Isimba dam project will flood much of the remaining whitewater on the White Nile, so I had to paddle it one more time. I paddled in Uganda in 2010 before the completion of the Silverback dam, so I was aware before going that much of the whitewater I paddled in 2010 was now underwater.
I travelled to Uganda a week and a half before the competition started to get settled in and get used to surfing waves again. The night of January 5th all the Athletes met at Nile River Explorers base camp for the opening meeting and info on stage 1 (of 4).
The opening meeting really set the tone for the competition. 4 stages that will test your skills to the limits with the goal to display high end whitewater that a wider audience can understand. Prepare for a challenge and remember to make smart choices as to if you will compete at each stage.
Stage 1: Cuban Wave Big trick, Itunda rapid.
The Cuban wave is in the centre of Itunda rapid. If you have never paddled the Nile the Itunda rapid is one of the biggest rapids on the river. The Cuban wave lies in the middle of the rapid, and behind it are three stout holes (Ashtray, The Bad Place, The Other Place), all capable of dishing out savage beat downs. To catch the wave you have to cross an eddy line which is more like one huge whirlpool. I had high hopes going into this event but ultimately it couldn’t have gone worse for me.
All the athletes were split into 2 groups, each with an hour and forty five minutes of wave time. Top three tricks would be scored.
This stage was the most frustrating for me. Getting to the wave meant crossing a strong whirlpool type eddy line. Attempt after attempt I was just getting eaten up by this whirlpool, sometimes held down, sometimes pushed downstream but every time missing the wave. Finally on my 10th attempt and last of the day I was able to catch wave, but in all my excitement I wasn’t able to score any tricks which would have moved me up the leader board. After stage 1 I was Tied 22nd with Alan Ward (who also was having a tough time catching the wave.) This still put us ahead of a couple of athletes who chose not to compete in this stage.
Needless to say, not a great start to the competition.
Stage 2: Dead Dutchman Boater-X
The in between competition days there was a mandatory practice lap required at the Dead Dutchman Rapid if you wanted to race Stage 2. I had never seen Dead Dutchman rapid, although I had heard it was one of the most challenging and consequential rapids on the White Nile.
The Scouting day was intense. I headed to the rapid with Craig Ayres (GBR) who had run the rapid before. As well as a big crew of athletes, including Alan Ward (GBR), Aoife Hanranhan (IRE), Katie Kowalski (CAN), Andrey Pesterev (RUS), Nick Beavis (GBR), Bartosz From Poland and Darby Mcadams (USA). The mood was tense, from the scouting spot you can see most of the line, but it looks BIG. In the safety meeting the previous night organizers had outlined where not to go and it was easy to see why. Some of the hydraulic holes to the edge of the rapids where no go spots. But there was a line for sure. Lots of people were on the fence about weather or not they were going, personally I find it best to just make a choice and get down to business as soon as possible, the more time I spend looking the worse I feel. Craig, Andrey and I hopped in our boats to fire it up first. I nervously ran through the line with Craig and Andrey in the eddy one more time, then we fist bumped, exchanged “see you at the bottoms” and went for it.
The lap went great, much smoother and less stressful than I expected, although I still had some reservations about racing with 5 other people around me I felt much happier with a lap under my belt. Darby and Alan came down in the second wave. Both greased their lines.
That night at the safety meeting athletes who decided they would race had to write their name on a chalk board. If your name wasn’t on the board 15 mins after the meeting concluded, or you had not completed your mandatory practice lap you would not be taking part in Stage 2.
The most nervous I have ever been before a Boater-X race (which are usually not stressful). The mood amongst all the athletes on the shuttle up was tense to say the least. This is a truck full of some of the world’s top kayakers and to a one they were all nervous. One more quick scout with all the athletes then it was game time.
We would start in a line facing upstream and when David Silk (who had been forced out of this stage with a shoulder injury from Stage 1) yelled “GO” it was game on. I was in the first heat. At the “GO” we were all close together as we got closer to the rapid. The last thing I wanted was to screw up at the entrance to the rapid because I was jostling for position too much, besides I was pretty sure all the placing would change mid way through anyway, as the course was a decent length. I dropped back into 6th place and entered the rapid. First making the critical right turn, passing the fist big hole to the left. At that point I could see all the other athletes in my heat with Dane breaking away from the crowd heading left and the other 4 going more right. I decided to play smart and tail gate Dane through the middle part of the rapid. I passed into second place, then a rogue boil flipped me. I rolled up facing upstream, a quick look around and I knew I was about to go into the big Wave/hole in the middle on the Rapid. I took a deep breath. Then I was upside down, it was dark. When it calmed I rolled up and looked around. I was perfectly online and Dane was just rolling up slightly behind me. We both started racing the last 400m to the finish. He pulled slightly ahead of me but I kept charging, not daring to look over my shoulder and check how far away the others were. Anyway the top 3 from each round would advance so as long as I kept up I could make it. I finished round 1 in second with Tom Dunphy (IRE) just pulling ahead of Andrey to take third. After snapping a few pictures of the other heats I walked back to the top, ferried across ready for the Semi finals round. This time I had more of a plan to try and replicate what I had done in round one.
I started deliberately at the back of the pack, entered the rapid and started making overtakes. The water was getting higher, it was noticeable at the entrance of the rapid. Yuesf (UGA) and Dane had pulled way out in front whilst Tom and I were tight around the corner. Tom and I were still close at the big wave hole section in the middle of the rapid, side by side in fact with Tom downstream of me. I shouted at him “GO GO GO TOM” just as we were about to hit the biggest wave/hole. Tom flipped as we rode up the shoulder, the down current of the shoulder grabbed at my stern and started flipping me too. I braced on Tom’s boat but it was pointless. The next monster wave/hole was on us. I felt being pitched up with Tom’s boat beside me, on top of me, underneath me. I could feel our boats hitting one another. I tried to tuck my head between my arms to avoid being hit in the face. When I rolled up I was hit by a new wave that had not been there in the first round. It surfed me but I was able to stay in control and get to the edge. I could see Yusuf and Dane out ahead of me and I started hustling to catch up. I was closing, I could make the finals and turn around my miserable perforce from the stage one. Then out of nowhere I hit a boil and slowed down for just a second. In that second Kaelin F. (USA) got ahead of me. I was hustling to get back into third place. My bow was touching his stern. I was working as hard as I could. I could see Craig in my peripheral catching up too. In the end Kaelin stayed ahead and I tied 7th place with Tom Dolle in the other semi final.
After stage 2 I was 15th overall.
Stage 3: Best Ride Competition, Nile Special Wave
The mood amongst the athletes took a significant turn toward being relaxed through this stage. A best ride comp on Nile Special wave, where athletes would be scored on the tricks they pulled off, with multipliers for style and use of the wave. I had been hustling all morning trying to snap photos and by the time I had gotten back to my boat for my first 3 rides (of 6) I was exhausted. My first 3 rides were a write off. Luckily only one counts so I had a snack, some water, shot some more photos and then got back in for round 2. Fortunately the snack paid off and I was able to get one reasonable ride, although I definitely wasn’t able to pull off all my tricks I was able to net 12th place in this event pulling me up into 13th overall after stage 3.
Stage 4: Mass Start Race, Hair of the Dog Rapid
The final round of the competition. All the athletes Men and Women Would start at the same time and race down the Hair of the Dog Rapid. A long race made much crazier by having all 21 men (4 out with injury) and 5 women for a total of 26 kayakers all trying to get down at the same time.
This stage was nuts, there were people ahead of me, behind me, to my left and right. As we entered the rapid the pack started to split but being on a rapid as wide as this one there was not enough space. We were on top of each other, some people were flipped whilst others paddled over them. Rogue eddy lines and boils changed the order constantly. After not having the best start I kept charging trying to get back to the front, but the front racers were ahead by a bit. I tried to make a pass at the end but crowded finish line held me out. With only one shot at this one it was a tough blow to not make the top five that I so badly needed to crawl back into the top 10 overall.
At the end of the Competition I was 15th Overall.
I had been aiming to come in at least the top 10 of this comp but after a miserable results of stage 1 I struggled to make a Rocky Balboa style comeback. Even still I am always stoke dot be a part of the UNLEASHED Competition series. In my opinion this competition is the future of high end whitewater competitions and is pushing whitewater more and more into the public image with visually stunning content that is easy for ‘non-kayakers’ (muggles) to digest. I hope to be apart of the next event this spring.
Keywords: adventure, dewerstone, explore, jackson, kayak, kayaking, kokatat, travel, unleashedxuganda
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