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Aug 13, 2014

Creek kayaking makes a splash at Malabar International River Festival

Sixty participants from 11 countries paddled it out in the narrow and rocky rivers of Kerala, India for a whopping prize money.

WRITTEN BY

Anil Nair

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The world’s best kayakers say Kerala’s lesser known white waters can be mecca of the sport.

An Indian woman paddler is born:

For a whole week towards the end of July, while her friends woke up, took their bags and waited for the school bus, 14-year-old Naina Adhikari strapped on her personal flotation device, slipped into her kayak and paddled in gushing creek river water in Kerala, South India.

Adhikari is India’s youngest competitive female kayaker participating in the 2nd edition of the Malabar International River Festival (MRF), held in a couple of rain-fed river channels in the monsoon-rich town of Kodencherry in Kozikode district located at the foothills of the western ghats . (Ghat means a series of hilly steps that lead down to a body of water) .

naina“Kayaking means everything to me. My aim is to be a professional competitive kayaker and win medals for India. I am very excited to participate in this international event. It is also a fantastic opportunity for me because I get to see the best in India compete with some of the top notch in the world,” she says adjusting her yellow competition t-shirt.

In what is a rare instance in India, the teenager wrote to the MRF organisers asking them to convince her school authorities to grant her a week’s holiday to participate in the international competition and a week to practice. And, that is just what happened.

But the churning waters of Chalippuzha and Iravanjipuzha (puza means river in the local language Malayalam) at the competition site was very different from the placid Nainital lake where Naina usually practices. “Kayaking in these narrow, rocky waters is not easy. I did not practice in such a setting. What I saw and learnt from the senior kayakers was that in competitions it was not about strength, one had to have grace and technique to be a good paddler in all rivers and waters. I will train hard to be one,” says the teen participating in her second international competition.

The upcoming kayaker won the best newcomer prize at the Ganga Kayak Festival, the other international competition that happens in the rapids of the Ganges in North India’s Rishikesh. The second edition of the MRF is special to her for two reasons: her uncle and mentor Bhuwan ‘Eddy’ Adhikari‘s participation and three-time Adidas Sickline champion Sam Sutton’s presence in the international competition.

“Everything I have learnt is from my uncle ‘Eddy’ who is a legendary kayaker in India. The fact that Sam Sutton is here from New Zealand is the other rewarding element about this competition. He is a world champion,” she adds, gleaming.

Kerala: from backwater to whitewater

For decades, the calm backwaters of Kerala or ‘God’s own country’ has been the picture-perfect destination for domestic and international tourists looking to spend a few days in tranquility on wooden houseboats. And with the kayak competition into its second year, there are hints that the paddlers have made the right kind of splash.

“The Malabar International River Festival is a unique competition and we are eager to  market Kerala’s whitewater tourism to the world since many have already been here as backwater tourists,” C. Moyinkutty, the local MLA or representative of the people said on the sidelines of the event.

Following last year’s success, the build-up for the Malabar International River Festival began in early August with the organisers holding whitewater rafting sessions for the public and students in the Chalippuzha and Iruvanjipuzha rivers in the district in early July.

This was enough time to spread the buzz about the participation of international champions like Sutton and Max ‘La Bomba’ Benetton, who was recently chosen as Woodland’s water sport gear ambassador.

And the forecast for August by the MRF organisers was not to expect a mere drizzle of kayakers on the otherwise sleepy town. A downpour was a better word…. of kayakers, their colorful boats and kayaking culture that spread around Kodencherry, blended with its Malayali society and made an imprint on its fertile red soil.

Balancing himself on a black rock by the bank of the roaring Kutiyadi river, kayaker Manik Taneja, as one of the main organisers of MRF, said in the past three years they had discovered only about 10 per cent of the rivers that had quality whitewater. There was more in this region. His vision for the international event was to highlight to the world the quality and quantity of whitewater available for competitive kayaking in Kerala’s rivers.

DSC_5485Paddlers from USA, UK, Italy, New Zealand, Korea, Czech Republic, France and Scotland made their way to India and then this remote part of Kerala –Kodencherry– based on Manik and team’s exploratory reports that the rapids around this snoozy town were like no other place in India. Manik explains that the rapids that are part of the competition are of class III+ and class IV+and that given the rocks and the eddies, it’ll be quite a challenge. Also there’s the frequent and famous torrential Kerala downpour that changes the volume of water all the time.

“We’ve got tremendous support from the government of Kerala and even the local community prior and, as you see, during the competition. Men, women, children in tow have flocked in numbers for this event,” adds Manik, also co-owner of Madras Fun Tools — a Bangalore based kayak equipment distributor. But, that’s just a front, he’s always in the water with kayak and paddle.

Like most of his ilk, it’s tough to keep him on terra firma and before he seals himself firmly in his dry suit and position himself in his boat he says he’d be thrilled if, over the years, he can develop this into a multi-sport week involving mountain biking, bouldering, paragliding and call it the Malabar Adventure Week.

In tune with international standards, a 15 ft high, 30 ft broad wooden ramp was erected on the stony bank of the gurgling Chalipuza (where most of the competitions were held) by the hands of a special set of lungi (bright printed or monotone wrap around cotton cloth) wearing local carpenters and workmen who did their job with ease amidst torrential rain and electricity cables strewn around.

Babu, the foreman of the ramp-building team was happy with the unique structure he was tasked to erect. Wiping away rain water from his eyelids he says he is delighted to be part of the “kayaking movement” that his town was witnessing. “It’s a fantastic thing for our otherwise dull region. Nothing ever happens here except since the past two years when these kayakers have been storming our tea shops, houses to live and rivers to fight it out for the competition,” says the podgy worker as he hammers another wooden plank that would be so crucial for an appropriate take off.

NEIL0332The Kerala government’s involvement and publicity of the Malabar International River Festival had resulted in the presence of over 6000 people, most with negligible knowledge of the sport, lined across the rocky banks of the Chalipuza, with tree cover on either side. The football mad region has suddenly found a new reason to gather and cheer.

And the competition begins

The competition categories are kayaking sprint (individual), boater cross (group race), free style/playboat competition and mass boater cross. On day 1 is the playboat category on Kutiyadi river at the scenic Chhakittapara village which is about a an hour’s drive away from the main competition site.   

Playboating is a category where the spectator gets to see some extreme and skilled moves by the kayakers, who’s task is to resist the waves and do as many technical maneuvers as possible to impress the judges and win points. And Max Benetton showed why he was considered the best in the world as he calmly rode the whitewater surf, perched on top for a while and did some air loops, cartwheels, blunts, spins and air screws inviting shrieks and applause from onlookers.

Ayodhya Prasad – Rapid Raja 2013  — the title given to the overall winner beelines towards the ‘put in’  (start point) behind other paddlers and says with a wink that he hopes he can repeat last year’s feat. The handsome paddler, considered by most kayakers present at the venue as India’s best competitive kayaker today meant serious business right from the first whistle of the competition. NEIL8357

“He takes on the first rapid, does an eskimo roll and easily swirls past a rock and gets his back on the second rapid and tries to stay steady (which is a necessity). He attempts an audacious cartwheel but can’t hold against the current and has to move away…Oh blimey….that’s what whitewater can do to champions too,” kayaker turned MC for the event James bellows on the microphone on stage.

“I have never seen so many people gather to see a kayak competition”, remarks UK paddler Joe Rea-Dickens dripping wet, shouldering his kayak and waving to cheering spectators. Adventurer / kayaking film-maker Joe is among the 4-member UK Pyranha team member who was eyeing the jackpot prize money worth USD 9000 that includes kayak gear and cash.

Joe’s brother Dan, described by the MC as a terrific kayaker who is also available for the ladies, says while he sponges water out of his boat, “Arguably, it is one of the highest cash awards given in any kayak competition in the world. We also get to clash paddles with some of the best in the world in lesser-known rivers in Kerala. What’s more?”

With chart toppers like the Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys are back in town’ belting out of the iPod, thanks to the UK paddlers’ track listing, it was impossible to hear what the local announcer was yelling on another mike. But when it was clear that he was announcing the arrival of  Sam Sutton, all eyes turned to the road from the rivers’ happenings.

_DSC3909Geared up in an orange drysuit and standing over 6’ ft, Sutton was a giant of a figure compared to the tiny stature of the locals who surrounded him in a flash. Suddenly the word “Messi” was heard first in whispers and then in loud cheers. Sam Sutton, with a striking resemblance to Argentine footballer Lionel Messi, immediately struck a note with the football-crazy Malayalis.

And how does an extreme kayaking champion overcome his 20-hour jet lag? …Slide into a kayak and take a rapid head on. A few mystical moves like the air screw sealed Sutton as the winner of the Rs 50,000 prized ‘Woodland Rodeo Competition’ in no time.  UK’s Dan Rea-Dickens and India’s Viru Bhandari followed him on the podium.

As the sun turned orange in the coconut country skyline the kayakers retreated to their rest places wet and worn-out. Balam a paddler from the Himalayan state of Rishikesh remarked that the competition was tough this year with the presence of Sutton and other international paddlers.

“They get so much more time to prepare for competitions and they also participate in many. We work as rafting guides most of the year. There is no infrastructure for competitions like this in India so it is tough to prepare for a slalom race. Also, we spend on travel and stay during competitions from our earnings. This makes victory even sweeter for us at the Malabar International River Festival,”  says the paddler.

So, is kayaking going to be a serious affair in Kerala or would it be just a flash-in-the-pan when the MRF happens? Apparently not, going by Kerala chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s announcement the next morning. Chandy said the government would set up what is India’s first government-backed kayak academy at the event site itself in Thussaragiri. Remarkably, till about three years back this place was hitherto unknown even to the kayakers.

_DSC4117“This place has the potential to be a tourism and whitewater sport hotspot. We will do our best to promote it that way,” the Chief Minister said inviting loud applause from both crowd and kayakers. With that, it was time for the participants to hit the water for the remaining events — Men’s giant slalom run and the mass boater cross.

And with the hanging gates stationed, Italian kayaker and co-organiser Jacopo Nordara signalled the start of the event. Sitting in his kayak wedged between a mangrove bush protruding out of the water and a rock is the competition safety in-charge Chandra Ale, a renowned water sports and rescue instructor from Nepal. “There are adequate number of safety kayakers for the competition,” Says Ale, a NOLS certified expert as he guides a photographer to redo the knot of the highline that was to be used for aerial photography.

A heavy night of partying did not seem to kill the focus of Czech Republic’s Mira Kodada who turned the tide on all other participants by winning the Woodland All-weather Boater-X challenge on day 2. Kodada, an internationally acclaimed kayaker combined power paddling and slick steering of his boat on the ‘Game of Thrones’ rapid. Kodada is new to India, but not to extreme kayaking and competitions. Back home, he is the race director of Devil’s Extreme Race, an international open competition. 

“Maarinikkenum…maarinikkenum (stand aside… stand aside),” yelled Sarah Kingdom who had come all the way from Sou_DSC2900th Africa to volunteer for the event.  A mountain guide, she was trying her best in her spur-of-the-moment-learnt Malayalam to keep the crowd (A) from falling into the swirling water (B) from blocking the judges’ view of the participants and (c) applauding (kaiaddekenum).

Sunita Chauhan, a rafting instructor from Rishikesh and among India’s two women kayakers, sips tea and runs her hand through her hair to ensure the vermillion has not been washed away by the rain. “I am very lucky to be able to compete even though I am married. It is unusual for married women to take part in such competitions in India. I wish many more women will take up paddling like me,” says the 28-year-old. Sunita, second prize winner in the women’s category asserted on the importance of Indian paddlers taking part and winning such competitions as they only made a modest living by guiding tourists on rivers.

Amidst heavy showers, the focus quickly shifts to the most ferocious rapid on the Iruvanzipuza which was aptly called the ‘Malabar Express’, a 20 minute road trip away from the competition’s main venue Pullikayam bridge.

Kiwi takes the crown:

10495571_705135689551740_3191958433459313314_oSam Sutton — the champion that he was in the international arena– had apparently made up his mind to walk away from Kerala with the crown. The ace paddler was in fifth gear right from the start of the final event ‘kayaking sprint’. The Kiwi stormed through the frothy water, caught a perfect line on the left of the river, avoided rocks with grace and had his hand out at the finish line before most spectators knew.

Sutton emerged the all-round winner of the competition and was crowned as ‘Rapid Raja 2014′. The Kiwi champion got an honorary elephant ride around the festival venue along with Jin Yoo, the womens’ champion. “I see Kerala as a whitewater mecca. It has the potential to be a place where the best kayakers in the world can come to explore as well as compete,” the champion of the 2014 Malabar International River Festival says signing off.

Photo credits: Neil D’Souza, Sharad Khayali, Vishakha Rai, Ishani Sawant, Harsimran Kaur. Siddharth, KK and Mojin.

Sutton had jetted into India but the MRF organisers ensured he had a memorable jumbo ride too in true Kerala style with the winner’s crown firmly on his head.

Woodland Rodeo Competition 1st Prize Rs. 50,000 + Gift hamper from Woodland (Sam Sutton) 2nd Prize Rs. 25,000 (Dan Rea-Dickens) 3rd Prize Rs. 10, 000 + USD 50 gift certificates from Level Six (Viru Bhandari)

Woodland All-weather Boater-X Challenge 1st Prize. Rs. 50,000 + Gift Hamper from Woodland (Mira Kodada) 2nd Prize Rs. 25,000 (Sam Sutton) 3rd Prize Rs. 10,000 + USD 50 gift certificates from Level Six (Ciran Heurteau)

Men’s Giant Slalom Competition 1st Prize. Rs. 50,000 + Gift Hamper from Woodland (Sam Sutton) 2nd Prize Rs. 25,000 (Ciaran Heurteau) 3rd Prize Rs. 10,000 + USD 50 gift certificates from Level Six (Bradley Lauder)

Men’s DownRiver Time-trials 1st Prize. Rs. 50,000 + Gift Hamper from Woodland (Sam Sutton) 2nd Prize Rs. 25,000 (Bradley Lauder) 3rd Prize Rs. 10,000 + USD 50 gift certificates from Level Six (Mira Kodada)

Intermediate Category 1st Prize. Sweet Rocker Helmet (Kaman Rana) 2nd Prize. Suunto Vector Watch (Arjun Sagoi) 3rd Prize. Salomon Fellraiser Shoes (Matteo Bassini)

Women’s Category 1st Prize. Sweet Strutter Helmet (Jin Yoo) 2nd Prize Suunto Vector Watch (Sunita Chauhan) Special Prize Rs. 8,000 Gift certificates from Woodland to Naina Adhikari for the youngest competitor (aged 14)

MRF 2014 Rapid Raja. Rs. 100,000 (Sam Sutton).


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