Widwater racing is a competitive canoe/kayak discipline whereby the athlete must manoeuvre a 4.5m long and quite unstable craft down a section of river as fast as possible. The boats are constructed from composite materials such as carbon, kevlar and fibreglass and must weigh a minimum of 10kg including mandatory airbags fitted in the bow and stern. Wildwater racing boats are not permitted to have rudders. Instead, the athlete must tilt the boat to one side, utilising the boat’s curved profile to effect the turn. The boats must adhere to a minimum width, with the widest part of the boat being on the deck behind the cockpit. This ‘winged’ profile creates good secondary stability when the boat is on edge for turning. Wildwater athletes use ‘wing-blade’ paddles to produce more power and efficiency.
Wildwater courses vary in difficulty and technicality, ranging from class 2-4 whitewater and no two courses are the same. Even the same course can differ from day to day (or even during the same day) due to fluctuations in water level. The athlete must select the fastest route through the rapids whilst avoiding hazards such as rocks, wave trains and powerful river hydraulics which can slow the boat down or even cause a capsize. Experienced athletes will however use various river features to their advantage to further enhance boat speed beyond physiological limits. Refined technical skills and ‘river reading’ ability are as important as aerobic capacity, endurance and power.
There are two forms of wildwater race; classic and sprint. Both are time trial whereby the athletes are set off at intervals (usually of one minute). The classic race ranges from 10-30 minutes and is thus aerobic in nature. The athlete must learn all the intricacies of a 4-10km section of river and must be familiar with the course at a variety of water levels because variations in flow may create different options for faster lines. Some courses can be learned in just a few runs however other courses, such as on the Loisach River in Germany, can require 40 runs down the course before the athlete is able to get a ‘clean line’ without hitting any rocks!
The sprint race is usually held on a very difficult section of white water and there are a number of heats, with the top 10 athletes making it through to the final. The race is between 200-600m (45-120 seconds) and the sprint races are either contested on artificial white water courses or on a natural river. Due to the difficulty of the white water and the short duration there is very little room for error in order to get a good result. Sometimes 10 athletes can finish within the same second.
Competitors are placed in classes based on gender and boat type as follows:
K1 – solo kayak, male
K1W – solo kayak, female
C1 – solo canoe, male
C1W – solo canoe, female
C2 – tandem canoe
Wildwater racing is a very ‘free and natural’ competitive sport; there are few rules, no whistles, no boundaries, no umpires and virtually no infrastructure. Just the athlete and the river, racing against time. Every training run and every race is a journey. That is the beauty of wildwater racing.