Switzerland may be landlocked but it boasts some of the most varied canoeing in Europe – mountain-fed rapids, big lakes, wide flat rivers and relatively quick access to a host of canoeing venues in France, Germany, Italy and beyond.
I came to Geneva in 2009 and joined the local club, which is based on the Rhone. I was initially disappointed not to be canoeing on Lake Geneva, or Lac Leman as it’s known to the locals, which is the largest fresh water lake in Europe. But that disappointment was tempered by the knowledge that the high level of boat traffic and the frequent and strong regional wind, La Bise, combine to leave the water unpaddleable for all but the most hardy (and stable) canoeist.
Geneva Canoe Club is a bit of a step back in time. It’s at ‘Jonction’, which is the part of Geneva where the Rhone joins the Arve. The Rhone is fed from Lake Geneva while the Arve comes down from the mountains. If you’ve ever skied at Chamonix and seen the muddy brown rapids that swell during any thaw, well, that’s the Arve, and it’s pretty muddy and brown in Geneva too – not to mention freezing cold.
The canoe club is located behind the municipal bus station and you’d be right to assume it’s distinctly unglamorous. The whole place is made of concrete blocks and covered in graffiti. The club does have its own minibus and trailers, handy for taking off to the mountains in plastic boats, which is the club’s main focus, but otherwise it doesn’t have extensive facilities beyond showers, a toilet (bring your own paper) and changing rooms. There are, however, many different types of canoes in the boathouse, everything from bats and squirt boats to open Canadians, K1s, K2s and sea kayaks. If you look hard, you can even see a faded red sprint C1 gathering dust in the upstairs boathouse.
Canoeing at the club is varied too. Some use the slalom poles on the fast-flowing Arve, others train up and down on the 1,500 metre stretch on either river above the club or else they paddle downstream. Be warned – there’s a current! On my first few sessions, I paddled too far down and the return trip was a long lesson in not biting off more than you can chew.
The members at Geneva are a friendly lot but I’ve met few Swiss. My training partners there were French, Polish, and German – as well as the occasional Brit. The cosmopolitan make-up of the membership reflects the fact that Geneva is a centre for international organisations.
I left Geneva in early 2011 and since June I have been working in Lausanne, further along the north side of the lake, some 35 miles away in fact. The canoe club there is recovering from a fire a few years ago which resulted in the total destruction of its boathouse. It’s a vibrant club and there’s plenty of activity, lots of students from the university, employees from the nearby sports federations (including the International Canoe Federation) and many expatriates.
I arrived in Lausanne with a 30 year old Kirton-made Lancer, bought as a training boat from Trevor Melham. I canoed on the lake for a couple of minutes before realising that I was going to have to invest in a surf ski. Unlike Geneva, the lake at Lausanne is wide and exposed, the rowers go out at 5.30 most morning and there’s a good reason for that.
A matter of weeks later and my Epic v12 arrived, courtesy of Ivan Lawler. Having got to grips with the push-pull rudder, I found using the ski pretty straightforward. I can’t say it’s helped my already dodgy paddling technique but at my age and ability I don’t worry too much about that. My training (and I use that word loosely) partners are Stefano Pastore, a derivatives broker who was once the Italian Junior National Champion in white water racing and Antoine Goetschy, a French former world champion who is also the former secretary-general of the International Canoe Federation.
My arrival seems to have spurred both of them to train harder and it has to be said that our combined weight loss is something even Rosemary Conley could dine out on. After three months of long paddles and wave bouncing we felt trim enough to tackle our first challenge, a two-way crossing of Lake Geneva. Paddling across a lake might not sound too challenging but the 9 mile one-way crossing to Evian (home of the eponymous water) is across the deepest stretch of Lake Geneva, some 800 metres in places, apparently, and it can be incredibly rough.
The plan was to pick the last hot Saturday in September and make a return crossing, stopping only for lunch (well, it is France, after all). We were to leave at 8am, giving us a good chance to get across before the commercial boat traffic started – but our plan was scuppered by our Italian friend on the not unreasonable basis that to be there for lunch we did not need to leave until later in the morning.
So we met at 10.30, tried on our rather tight-fitting buoyancy aids and stowed our bag of Euros, taking to the water at 11. We had the bit between the teeth and covered the crossing in a little over an hour, just one hour five minutes, in fact. That’s a tidy speed in a surf ski, for us anyway. I irritated my partners by wash hanging, justifying it on the basis that there was a second trip to make and I foolishly (and somewhat dishonestly) promised do the work on the return leg.
I figured that a coffee and biscuit were in order but my partners, however, had other ideas and decided that we were having a ‘proper’ lunch. We had a civilised two-course meal just along the waterfront from the Casino in Evian. It was great to bask in the 28 degree heat, chatting excitedly about our adventure and all quite oblivious to the fact that although we’d liberally plastered our faces in suncream, we’d forgotten to cover our legs. We all paid for that oversight the next morning.
The return trip was somewhat slower, one hour and nine minutes. I disgraced myself in my friends’ eyes by wash hanging almost the entire way back but as the whole trip had been my idea and I’d rather overdone it – at their insistence – over lunch, I felt I was entitled to some latitude. We bounced around on a few very large washes as the ferries from the CGN company raced past on their way between Montreux and Thonon-les-Bains but otherwise it was a pretty smooth crossing and we got back to Lausanne in time for a civilised cup of tea and the hot solar-powered showers next to the club.
With this crossing under our belt, we’re now mulling our next challenge. The Masters’ series of marathons in 2012 appeals but I think we need to train a lot harder. Realistically we have only another 6 weeks before it gets too cold to paddle surf skis. Motivating oneself will be key I suspect, especially since the paddling gloves will only take one so far. Minus 10-15 degrees is a good temperature for roasting chestnuts on the open fire, not freezing your toes off on a rough wintery lake.
I’m not sure we’ll do all that much competition next year but it’s unlikely to stop us making rash and foolish plans over a few beers. My view is that relying on one’s experience and wash hanging ability of 20 years ago is not going to get us around the 30km of an international marathon – though I suppose it depends how good you think you were. As Antoine says, “the older I get, the better I was.”
This article was first published on the Royal Canoe Club website on 22 September 2011