Mawddach Marathon and Mawddach Paddle Sports Festival

We had intended to spend the weekend in Barmouth for the Mawddach Paddle Sports Festival but as Saturday was wet and windy we decided just to head up on Sunday for the Mawddach Marathon. The Mawddach Marathon is a 20km kayak race up the Mawddach estuary and back. It starts at Barmouth, heads upstream with the incoming tide to Penmaenpool and then returns with the outgoing tide to Barmouth.

Mawddach Paddle Sports Festival

We drove up on Sunday morning through thick drizzle and cloud. The weather was supposed to brighten up though. We arrived to a grey but no longer raining Barmouth an hour later and pulled into the car park. Low cloud still hung over the hills as we took a look around.

Low Clouds over Mawddach Estuary

Low Clouds over Mawddach Estuary

There was still a breeze blowing but the waters of the Mawddach Estuary were looking calm. We were a little earlier than intended so stalls were being set up and boats assembled on the beach. Anna and I wandered around the quay and then headed off to register for the race. There was an option of a one-way race called the Mawddach Ascent or the full 20km Mawddach Marathon. My first and so far only kayak race had been the Colwyn Bay Blast earlier in the year. This had been a 15km race that I found tough going. The full Mawddach Marathon was 5km further but I hoped that with the tidal assistance it would be OK. I was also in a new boat which had the potential to be faster, but that I haven’t fully got to grips with yet.

Guided Mawddach Estuary Paddle

Once registered we simply chilled on the beach for a while. People were lashing canadian canoes together ready for the raft race later in the afternoon and before long others started to gather on the beach ready for the guided paddle. The weather was improving all the time and slithers of blue sky could be seen heading our way. The beach was soon awash with brightly coloured canoes of all sizes and shapes, each bedecked with lashings and dry bags packed full of things needed for a day out on the water. We were a little puzzled as to why some people who obviously had all of the kit and knew what they were doing would pay to go on a guided paddle up the estuary. Surely they could just go for a paddle up the estuary whenever they wanted?

Getting ready for the Guided Paddle

Getting ready for the Guided Paddle

Over in the harbour there were stand-up paddleboard have-a-go sessions taking place and on the quayside were stands selling hot dogs, cakes, teas and coffees along with stands for the RNLI. I wouldn’t quite say it was a hive of activity as it was all fairly low key, but there were things going on and a Samba Band turned up for a while as well.

Eventually, after a fair amount of pfaffing the guided paddle set off and soon disappeared under Barmouth Bridge and out of sight. They were heading to Penmaenpool, the same route that we would be following in my race later. They were however mostly only going one way and would have more assistance from the tide which was currently in full flood.

Setting off on a guided paddle

Setting off on a guided paddle

We had a burger and a cup of tea and then headed back to the van to get ready for the Mawddach Marathon Race.

The Mawddach Marathon

There wasn’t much to get ready. Shorts and rash vest on. Buoyancy aid and number vest on and then carry my surf ski and paddles down to the beach. That was it. I did have some water in a hydration bladder within my buoyancy aid and a phone (just in case) in a pocket too. I also had a dry bag with some energy bars and a spare layer of clothing attached to my ski. I remembered once we were on the beach that I didn’t have my GoPro though so Anna popped back to the car to get it.

A few other people turned up and we had a bit of a briefing from the race official. Unfortunately the number of entrants was quite low just 5 of us doing the full 20km Mawddach Marathon. We all had a bit of a chat as masses assembled behind us getting ready for what looked like being a very fun and popular raft race.

Ready to Race

Ready to Race

The race organiser briefed the rafters and then returned to set us off. We had to start in the water today rather than doing a le Mans style start. Not ideal for me as I have yet to master sitting still in my new ski without falling out. I still find it very unstable and if I’m not moving it’s worse. Thankfully we were in shallow water and I didn’t wobble out. Although I think Anna and Morgan were secretly hoping I would just for the comedy factor.

Lining up to start

Lining up to start

We were soon given the go and headed off up the estuary – The Mawddach Marathon was on.

The sun was now out and the hills of Snowdonia ahead of us were bathed in sunshine. We headed out across the calm waters of the harbour and under the Barmouth Bridge. I started off very conservatively, just getting the feel for my boat. After the Colwyn Bay Blast in which I came last, I was expecting everyone to disappear off in front of me anyway so I was quite happy to just let them go. As we went under the bridge there were two people out in front. Glen in a blue Nelo Surf Ski and another guy who’s name I didn’t catch in a sleek sea kayak. A little further behind them was another guy in a sea kayak and then me a little further back again on my Kynsna BLU ski. I could only assume the fifth guy was behind me. I couldn’t look to see though as I had to concentrate on where I was going. If I try to look around at the scenery or even worse attempted to look behind me then I’d end up swimming. In order to stay upright I have to look at the nose of my surf ski or immediately ahead!

Heading Upriver

I chose to look immediately up ahead at those in front of me and follow their path through the meandering channels of the Mawddach Estuary. Although it was now almost high tide, it was only a relatively small tide and the sandbanks were still a little shallow in places. We had a little help from the tide but as high tide was less than an hour off it wasn’t a massive boost. We did however have a brisk wind on our backs. It was also creating small wavelets that were a help too.

Before long I caught and passed the guy ahead of me, making polite conversation about the conditions as I did. I was now in third place with the other two guys ahead of me locked in battle but still in sight. Things were heating up, not only in the race but for me too. With the wind on our backs and the sun blazing it was quite warm with little to cool us. My eyes soon started to sting. I’m still not sure if it was from splashes of saltwater or little beads of sweat. Although I didn’t feel as though I was trying hard enough for the latter as I was keeping things well in control. This after all was the easy part and I would need to keep plenty in reserve for the much more difficult return leg into the wind.

The two in front of me took a wider line into one part of the estuary and I decided to stay more central. They headed a little towards the southern bank, following the main channel and the stronger tidal flow. I kept a more direct line with the wind on my back and made use of some little wavelets over a sandbank. The plan seemed to work as I pulled up alongside them even though I was a hundred yards or so further out into the estuary. They saw me though and the guy in the sea kayak picked up the pace, dropping Glen on his Ski. As we headed into the first bend of the river I was in second place with just one sea kayak ahead of me. I caught him up as we rounded a bend and then picked the wrong side of the river to be on. He hugged the left hand northern bank while I was on the shorter route on the inside of the bend. This wasn’t such a good idea as it got quite shallow here and I could feel my rudder dragging across the top of the sand a little. He pulled ahead again but I was soon back into deeper water and gaining on him. We rounded the next bend of the river into nice calm waters as we were now sheltered from the wind.

Just ahead of us was the bridge at Penmaenpool, the George III pub stood on the banks overlooking it and our yellow turn-around buoy floating on the water. On the banks were a collection of brightly coloured canoes and kayaks belonging to the guided paddlers all of whom looked on clad in similarly bright coloured canoeing kit. The bright yellows and oranges of their dry tops and cagoules were indistinguishable from the marshals to whom we had to shout our race number to. I didn’t hang around to look at them properly as I was in a race but I can only assume the guided paddlers were enjoying a picnic on the river bank and had been suitable refreshed by beer from the the pub.

I rounded the buoy immediately on the stern of the guy in first pace and pulled up alongside of him as we started our way back down the Mawddach. Glen in third place wasn’t far behind.

Back to Barmouth

I had been taking things really easy on the way there barely putting in any effort and just gliding gently along. I’d forgotten my heart rate monitor strap but I’m fairly sure my heart rate was only around 100bpm. Things were now about to get a whole lot tougher though and I was up with the leader. I’d never expected to be in a race, but if that’s how it was going to be then I had plenty left in the tank and plenty of energy to pick up the pace and put in a decent effort.

I’d tried to have a drink of water so that I was ready but haven’t yet perfected this art. As I mentioned before, looking anywhere other than directly ahead of me is likely to lead to disaster. Stopping paddling for any reason is sure to end in a similar watery fate. I couldn’t quite feel the nozzle of my hydration tube, I couldn’t take my hands off the paddle to find it either. Eventually I decided that a drink was important enough to force myself to have one so I briefly stopped paddling, shoved the tube in my mouth between paddles, wobbled a little and quickly resumed paddling. Once stable again I took a few slurps and decided that would have to last me until I was safely back on dry land.

As we rounded the bend back into the estuary we headed into the stiff breeze. The tide had turned and the wind against tide was creating some small confused chop. Not only was the wind making things more difficult but the chop was making my base a little wobblier than I would have liked. It also made it difficult to pick out the varying colours of the water between the deeper channels and the shallow sandbanks.

What’s more, my sudden need to concentrate more on staying upright meant that I wasn’t able to put more effort and power into my paddling. The energy and intent were there to move into first place but the technique and skills were lacking. Staying upright and dry were more important. I managed to inadvertently find a few patches of shallow water too and once again had to take shallower paddle strokes as there wasn’t enough water for a full paddle stroke as my rudder dragged across the top of the sand. Each time I did this the gap opened up between the guy in first place and me in second. I could only assume that Glen in 3rd might be catching me up as well.

As we got ever closer to the Barmouth Bridge, the tidal assistance increased and the water deepened. I was once again gaining on first place although by now I think the gap was too large for me to close. The wind was increasing though and I still wasn’t able to put in as much of an effort as I would have liked as priorities were concentrated on staying the right way up. We soon approached the bridge. I was in 2nd place, about 100 metres behind the guy in first.

I made my way into the strong currents and whirlpools below the bridge, and then out into the calmer water of the harbour. At last I’d be able to put in a final effort now that the chop was no longer trying to tip me up. Someone shouted from the little beach to my right. It sounded like Anna so I looked over to see if I could see her. BIG mistake, I told you I couldn’t look anywhere other than straight ahead and this just proved the fact. It was only the smallest of glances to my right but within a micro-second I was upside down and swimming!

I turned my ski over and tried to remount. The current was swirling it around though and it took me a few attempts. A couple of times I got in, only to fall back out again as I tried to get going. Glen in 3rd place was now coming under the bridge and was about to pass me. He slowed to a stop to make sure I was OK and a safety boat also approached to check that I was OK. I was of course fine. Yes my re-mount needs more practice but I was quite happy. They soon realised this when I was able to talk to them in a nice calm manner and make some sort of joke about fancying a swim. I then managed to remount and Glen and I crossed harbour and the finish line together. We had finished the 20km Mawddach Marathon in just under two hours.

Anna and Morgan were waiting on the beach for me and they (along with everyone else) had been watching me fall off and trying to re-mount the whole time. At least I’d provided some entertainment for them.

An afternoon in Barmouth

Morgan had a quick go in my ski then couldn’t remount so I had to swim out to get him. We then packed things away and spent the afternoon chilling in Barmouth complete with a hot dog, a cup of tea and some nice big ice creams.

Ice Creams

Ice Creams

The finishers of the Mawddach Marathon were presented with a finishers medal in the yacht club and then we headed home. A good day out, I was pleased that I didn’t get completely left behind in the race this time. It’s a shame the field of entrants was so small as it’s a good race. It was all fairly laid back and friendly but if people had wanted to race seriously then there was opportunity for that too. The scenery is of course spectacular and the course is safe and varied. I don’t know why there weren’t more people racing.

Mawddach Paddle Sports Festival

Mawddach Paddle Sports Festival

1 Response

  1. Mum says:

    Wish I’d been there , sounds Luke a fun day out was had by all xx

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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography…. The list goes on.

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