For most people, canoeing is a leisurely way to spend a sunny day of the weekend. But for the 30 paddlers who took to the French Broad on Saturday morning for the first stage of Asheville’s latest canoe and kayak race — the inaugural French Broad Classique — canoeing is a fast-paced sport with no down time.
The race is the idea of adventure sports athlete Andy Kluge, an avid paddler of the French Broad: He organized the race as a way to get people out onto one of his favorite sections of the river. “I’ve been paddling this section of the French Broad for the last six years, and about a year ago I decided to organize this race because I’d been to a lot of other races, I’ve seen how they are organized, and I thought, ‘This section of the French Broad would make a great race,’” Kluge said.
The 30 participants of the two-day-long canoe-and-kayak race launched at the Blantyre put-in and paddled north through Henderson County. The first day of the race took participants through a scenic, 18-mile section of the French Broad that meanders through open forests and farmland north of Asheville.
The participants, who traveled from as far away as Florida and Michigan for the race, paddled as swiftly as they could down the blue-green waters of the French Broad. They aimed to put in a winning time — and to beat the rain that forecasters were predicting for late in the day.
Fortunately for the participants, the rain held off until after the first stage of the race was complete. “We were really lucky,” said competitor Lecky Haller. “Right after the race, maybe 20 minutes after the last boat came in, the rain started coming down,” he noted.
And rain it did.
Heavy rains throughout the evening Saturday caused the French Broad River to rise more than one foot overnight, a cause for concern for many participants, most of whom are more accustomed to paddling flat-water lakes than the swift moving water and occasional rapids of the French Broad. “The chance of carnage was high,” Haller said. “The water came up a little bit overnight with the rain — which is good — but there are a couple of pretty big rapids today for these types of open boats.”
On day two, the first such rapid came at the Long Shoals Road bridge, where a large wave train with waves more than three-feet high threatened to swamp open canoes as racers came through the swift current. Most paddlers opted to skirt the rapid by taking a rocky channel around the waves, but it wasn’t without consequence for a few of the paddlers whose fiberglass kayaks and canoes suffered some minor scratches and dings.
Haller, a member of the U.S. Olympic team for 20 years, chose to run the rapid straight down the middle — a decision that could have easily gone wrong for someone less experienced. “I was planning to run it,” Haller said after the race. “But I wanted to run it right of center, and I ended up right in the center where the really big waves were. It was pretty dicey.”
Ultimately, no one flipped in the higher waters, and the event left each participant with big smiles and exhausted arms. “We were really pleased with the turnout and the quality of the paddlers we got to come here,” Kluge said. “Everyone was really excited and enthusiastic about it. It went really well.”
As far as the future of canoe and kayak racing in Asheville goes, Kluge wants to keep organizing the event. “We definitely want to keep it going and we want to grow the event and hopefully keep attracting some top paddlers to the area.”
For more information on the French Broad Classique, and other canoe races on the French Broad River, go to www.fbcanoeracing.org.
Story, photos and video by Eric Crews