THE EXE DESCENT
From 1968 to 2006 Exeter Canoe Club was probably best know to most paddlers as the organisers of the Exe Descent down river race.
The Exe Descent was run over a roughly 19 mile section of the River Exe from Salmon Ponds weir in Tiverton to the Quay in Exeter. With up to 9 weirs and numerous rapids to shoot, dozens of tight bends, several bridges and literally hundreds of other natural obstacles to negotiate, the ‘Descent’ was justifiably considered a tough challenge for both paddler and boat. For many paddlers just completing the course was considered a huge achievement. For paddlers from all over the country and indeed abroad, there was no question where they would be the first weekend after Armistice Sunday. They would be in Devon for the Exe Descent.
It would be impossible to estimate how many people competed in the 30 odd races held. At one time it was possible to see 500+ boats at the start. In the later years, in the region of 200 was the norm. So its any ones guess, but there must 10’s of thousands out there who have been touched by the Exe Descent at some time.
With all this history, you can see that the decision, made in early 2007, to permanently cancel the Exe Descent was not lightly arrived at. For several years the organising committee in particular and the club in general had been struggling to run the event in the manner which they knew it needed to be run in the modern world.
The main concerns we had had over the years were related to safety. The ever-deteriorating condition of several of the weirs (evidenced by Thoverton Weir breaching and washing away during the winter of 1999 / 2000) had for long been a worry. Although they all remain shootable, some of the weirs require great care in selecting a line, which is not always possible under race conditions.
Of equal concern was the increasingly overgrown condition of the riverbanks throughout. Not only increasing the risk of a swim in many places, but also making self rescue very difficult. The same increase in trees and undergrowth was also making bank side rescue with throwlines almost impossible below several of the weirs.
Which brings us to the main stumbling block, manpower. To stage the race took approximately 110 people on the riverbank and in / on the water. This figure just about provides safety cover at the (now) 8 weirs, together with marshals, scrutineers and last boat crew (to act as sweepers and release the safety cover as the race moves down the river). To this total must be added people to man booking-in, start and finish, as well as process the results and provide refreshments. These were all volunteers. In addition to these we hired in first aid and communications cover specialists.
Exeter Canoe Club could never find enough people from within its membership to man the event. We could do all the ‘admin, management and hosting’ roles on the day, but relied on other local Canoe and Lifesaving clubs to provide the safety cover at most of the weirs. Over the years we found it more and more difficult to get people from both within and outside the club to commit to turning up. After all, we were able to offer little more than goodwill and maybe a pasty and who wants to spend maybe four hours stood in the river at Cowley in late November.
We do owe all those who provided safety cover over the years a huge debt of gratitude. Particularly the beach rescue and diver clubs, after all they were not even helping out their own sports.
Probably the final nail in the coffin was access. We always enjoyed and continue to maintain good relations with the Riparian and other owners along the course, largely through the efforts of our Local BCU Access Officer Adam Box. Access to the river for inspection and safety cover was never a problem. However over the years the School / College campus at Tiverton became more built up, with availiable car parking reduced and only available a considerable walk from the start field. Additionally in 2007 in Exeter we were expecting huge redevelopment works to start around the quay and canal basin. So couldn’t be sure that at the finish there would be room to accommodate the paddlers and supporters, with their boats and transport. It was possible there wouldn't even be a safe route from the river. As it turned out, in late 2009 we are still largely waiting for that building work to start..
Hopefully you can understand that it was with massive regret that Exeter Canoe Club stopped the Exe Descent. But there were and remain huge obstacles to it being run safely, for all entrants in all classes of boat, and we could no longer justify the risk.
So despite rumours to the contrary, there will be no Exe Descent in 2009 or any time in the future organised by Exeter Canoe Club. We have had enquires from various bodies and persons over the years regarding resurrecting the event, but they have nearly all been looking at staging a much smaller event and have still come to nought.
Finally we owe a great deal to the various companies who sponsored the event over the years; latterly Yak Equipment, before them Palm and before them Strand Glass. Without whom the event would never have been what it was.
A huge mention must also be made of Mitch and his crew at AS Watersports for all the support and time given freely to Exeter Canoe Club and the Exe Descent over so many years.
Exeter Canoe Club