Friday, January 08, 2010

Struer ‘Limfjorden’ Racing Kayak

Me and the Limfjorden

Jørgen Samson was the designer of a range of racing kayaks used by Olympic champions, including the very first version of the ‘Limfjorden’. I bought mine in 1958, just before the design was upgraded with a rudder and an increased waterline length. Over a period of thirty years from the late-forties, twelve kayaks were designed by Samson and built by Struers of Denmark. They were successfully raced by eleven Gold Medallists. My classic Struer ‘Limfjorden’ kayak was one of the early versions. She was most probably identical to Karen Hoff’s boat, when she won an Olympic Gold Medal in 1946. I believe it was in the summer of 1953 that the Central Council for Physical Recreation sponsored me for a weekend course of sprint racing techniques at the Royal Canoe Club, London. I’m pretty certain the tutor, was the Swede, Gert Fredriksson, who had won a Gold Medal at the 1952 games. Gert had a smattering of English, sufficient to explain and demonstrate his skills. I was madly enthusiastic, but I lacked the financial resources to follow up what I had learned, and I was engaged on a course of studies at the Somerset College of Art, which was time-consuming.

Little materialized as a result of my tuition at the Royal Canoe Club, until 1959 when I was living in Exeter and joined the Canoe Club. There I met other enthusiastic canoeists, such as Dave Salter, Martyn Peart, Brian Davis and Dave Green. The latter pioneered the building of UK racing kayaks in the mid-sixties at his firm Kirton Kayaks, in Crediton, Devon, which continues to flourish today. Both Dave Salter and Dave Green achieved successes at racing, notably in the early years when participating in a series of long-distance races under the rules of the Hasler Trophy. Sailors will have heard of ‘Blondie’ Hasler, who was instrumental in inaugurating the Observer Single-handed trans-Atlantic Race for yachtsmen. He was also a survivor and leader of the Cockleshell heroes who raided Nazi-occupied Bordeaux in their Marine Commando canoes in 1942. (See link below.) Participating canoe clubs for the Hasler Trophy (named as such in tribute to ‘Blondie’) entered their teams in a series of races, usually over a distance of between 12 and 24 miles. These teams were comprised of single and double canoe racers. The Club with the winning teams at the end of the annual series of races was awarded the trophy. I remember participating in a race at Poole Harbour, another from Dawlish Warren to Exeter, and one across the Bristol Channel from Barry in Wales, to Weston-super-Mare in Somerset.

It was during the Bristol Channel Race of 1960 that I almost lost my life. If my memory serves me correctly, there were about 15 single canoes and possibly twice that number of double canoes taking part. The Race was run under the sponsorship and supervision of the Central Council for Recreation, and it was a disaster from the start. As the Mayor of Barry fired the starting gun, a South cone was being hoisted at the Coastguard station! That signified a gale was imminent. The start should have taken place an hour or so earlier, but due to delays in transporting canoes to Barry by road and ferry, the tidal calculations for the stand-of-tide midway between Barry and Weston could no longer be of use. Instead, by the time canoeists were in mid-channel, the ebb was at its fastest, running against an increasingly strong wind. That brought about chaotic seas. The conditions became so bad that only a few canoeists reached Weston. The others either retired of their own volition, or were rescued by boats in attendance, one of which was the Barry Lifeboat.

Dave Shanklin was the only single canoeist to finish the race. He had been a previous winner, and therefore I decided to stick close to him, with the aim of out-sprinting him at the finish, but my plan did not work. The rules of the race stated that competitors were to take a route between Flat Holm and Steep Holm. Dave knew the waters well, and to make the best of the tide, while seeking protection by being in the lee of Flat Holm, he chose a course to the North of the island. Determined to keep within the rules I held my course to the South of the island, but when I arrived at the south-western end, there was a terrifying tidal race causing dangerous breakers. Before I could escape, my canoe was sucked into the caldron, and by some inexplicable mystery I survived. At the moment of reprieve, a shaft of sunlight gleamed from between the clouds to reveal Weston-super-Mare. Joyfully, I assumed I had the race in my grasp, but suddenly the crest of a large wave capsized my canoe and I found myself upside down in a swirling mass of green water and bubbles.

There was nothing I could do to stay in the canoe. When I came to the surface, I found that swimming was almost impossible because the large spray cover around my waist was impeding my movements. I managed to get rid of it and saw that my paddle and seat were floating away. Taking a big risk, I swam for the paddle and tucked it inside the canoe. I wisely let the seat go. In practice, I had always managed to get back into the canoe after capsizing by climbing over her aft deck, but after three attempts I failed, and she was hopelessly full of water. Only because she was built of laminated wood, and because there were two buoyancy bags under her decks, did she remain afloat. I remembered the un-inflated car tyre inner tube around my waist, and decided to inflate it by blowing into the valve. This was impossible, because I just did not have the strength. I immediately discarded the tube and decided that I wasn’t going to let myself drown; so I removed the buoyancy bag from under the stern deck, with the intention of tying it to myself. As soon as the bag had been removed, the canoe’s bow rose into the air, and she resembled an enormous rod-fisherman’s float.

Distressed, and not thinking straight, I found enough energy to stuff the bag back in place, so that the canoe resumed her horizontal attitude. Had I thought clearly, I should have left her pointing to the sky, because she could have been more easily seen by others who may have come to my rescue. At that point it dawned on me that I may not survive. My body was getting colder and colder, and the sea was becoming rougher as the ebb current was taking me and my canoe towards Steep Holm. If only I could stay with the boat and somehow swim her towards the rocky island I may find a place where I could land. I began to think of my family and my freinds. I wondered how they would take it, particularly my mother, if my lifeless body were to be found washed up on some beach. Then I had this brilliant idea of praying! “Please God get me out of this mess!” Within five minutes a low-flying, single-engine monoplane passed over me, and banked its wings. Twice more it did so. Unknown to me, the pilot had dropped three yellow smoke flares, forming a triangle around me. I was really cold, and to conserve body heat, I rolled myself into a ball, while hanging onto the canoe.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the Barry lifeboat to windward. To my dismay, she was on a course heading away from me. I yelled at the top of my voice and waved my paddle furiously, but to no avail. “Well, that’s it!” I said to myself. I was wrong. A few minutes later the lifeboat turned around and headed directly towards me. My elation and joy was almost beyond telling. I had been saved!


There’s a lot more to this story related to things that happened later in my life when I became a Christian. That was when I really began to understand the power of prayer and the greatness of God. I truly understood what it was to be SAVED by His Son Jesus!

John 3:16 ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’


Kirton Kayaks

Struer Kayaks

Cockleshell Heroes

The Central Council for Recreation

Exeter Canoe Club

No comments: