Willimantic River race offers paddlers a chance to compete

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Mansfield - posted Tue., Apr. 16, 2013
Willimantic River Downriver Canoe/Kayak race
Eric Jones and his daughter, Phoebe, prepare to compete in a NECKRA-sponsored race down the Willimantic River on April 14. Photos by Melanie Savage.

More than 60 die-hard paddling fans showed up for an April 14 foray down the Willimantic River, sponsored by the New England Canoe and Kayak Racing Associates. The 50-degree weather continued a trend of an early spring season characterized by cooler-than-average temperatures. NECKRA’s first downriver race of the season, the “Scantic Spring Splash,” was held March 30 in Enfield. The Willimantic River Downriver Canoe/Kayak race was the fifth in the series. Taking paddlers down approximately 8 miles of the river, from Heron Cove Park in Tolland to the Eagleville Dam in Storrs, the race featured Class I and Class II rapids.

Organizers Ashlee Anderson and Brian Beaupre revived the Willimantic River race after a nine-year hiatus. “We haven’t done this race in a number of years,” said Anderson. Recent spring rains had brought the level of the river up to navigable levels, according to Anderson.

The Willimantic was flowing at a decent clip, representing a bit of a challenge for beginning paddlers. “Most of the members of NECKRA are more advanced,” said Anderson. With 16 races total offered in the downriver series, “I’d say a good four or five races you get into Class III or IV rapids,” said Anderson. “A lot of people will choose according to their ability level.” Completion of four races qualifies a paddler for series competition, with the top seven finishes counting toward the final score, according to a NECKRA booklet.

There are different categories of competition, including long kayak, short kayak, and canoe, and different age levels and experience levels, with a system of handicaps serving as a leveler. In recent years, according to NECKRA downriver series “Team Mom” Rosemary Nutt, short kayaks have become the most popular. “Years ago, everybody was doing the canoes,” said Nutt. “Now it seems to be the kayaks.” There were a few of the longer, faster kayaks participating in the April 14 event, and a handful of canoes. But the bulk of the 51 entries were short kayaks.

Among the canoe racers were Granby resident Eric Jones and his daughter, Phoebe. Jones competes regularly in NECKRA events. When the difficulty level of the river permits, he competes with Phoebe. For the last two years in a row, Phoebe has finished among the top female canoe paddlers in the downriver series. For the more difficult races, Eric will paddle alone. He said that there are enough races in the series that even families with younger children can compete. “You can pick the difficulty level of the races you participate in,” he said.

As paddlers staged their boats in the frigid, early-spring water, there was one turnover before the race got started. But the majority of boaters set off without a hitch, released in waves according to gender, age and craft style. Ahead of them were 8 miles of river, a trip expected to take approximately one and a half hours. Boaters were required to wear helmets and life vests. And at each of five bridges under which they’d pass, there were vehicles stationed. “If anybody needs to they can get out, into a warm car and get a ride,” said Anderson. “Safety is a top priority.”

A NECKRA flat water series offers 24 events for boaters to choose from. For more information about NECKRA, including a list of remaining races in both series, go to www.neckra.org.

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