Sunday 1 October 2017 dawned pretty miserable, with a proper mizzle, and breezy. A small group of us set off by river for Totnes just after 10am. Our mission? To be part of the safety squad for the Dart Struggle Raft Race. Our patch was from the downhill side of Totnes Weir to the Rowing Club slipway.
Every year Dart Sailability offers to be part of the safety squad for this stretch of the race, and every year we try to field a mixture of ability and disability on our boats. It's not only part of being good citizens of the river Dart, it's part of continuing to prove that folk with disabilities deliver value to others, and it's partly a Public Relations exercise, to tell those who may need us that we exist and can help folk with all kinds of disabilities get afloat and have fun. It's not a fund raising exercise, that would dilute the Dart Struggle's own charitable efforts, it's just firmly a part of our own charitable objectives. We do receive a fuel reimbursement, though. It's cost neutral for us and offers us great training opportunities, too.
As Farries Flyer arrived at Vire Island she made her first rescue! A large banner saying “200 yards to go” had fallen from the bridge and was trying to wrap itself around a moored boat. The folk on Vire Island asked us to rescue it.
An hour and a half or so after our departure the Farries Flyer was tiptoeing its way through the shallows to anchor in the weir pool. It's the first time we've taken the largest vessel in the fleet up there for the event. Its role was to be a base and a control point for the two other boats, Support 3 and the aptly named Safety, our main safety boat. The first rafts had already completed the course. This is normal. Safety cover is mainly required by tired crews on big heavy rafts. Early crews are usually far more self sufficient, and safety cover for these is usually kayak based. Even so we have a plan to get a vessel there even earlier for 2018.
About two thirds of the way through the 51 or so rafts coming over the weir one arrived that resembled a submarine rather than a raft. Six seats under water and the paddlers, exhausted, wet, and cold, were half submerged when they remounted. A kayak safety team member came and told us that she was worried about two of the crew, but that they all wanted to finish. Tim and Roger on Farries Flyer called Andrew, Steve, Mike and Nicky on Safety and Support 3, and they escorted the raft to the finish, taking any crew who were too cold and tired to paddle aboard. Those rescued grateful enjoyed the crew's chocolate snacks and blankets.
The final raft of the 2017 Dart Struggle was a bit of a wreck, or we think it was. It was hard to tell! Three exhausted paddlers, though they said they had lost one earlier (no-one said where!!!), an upside down raft, and two tiny paddles. A chap in a Canadian canoe came up to us and told us it was the final raft. “I'm the sweeper,” he said, looking grimly happy. We named him “The Grim Sweeper” at once!
This was the time to weigh anchor and trickle down to Vire Island keeping that last raft safe for the final part of its trip. The three guys aboard forced themselves to finish the race. Go them!!! The Grim Sweeper picked one of them up in his canoe after the finish, and Safety transferred the two remaining crew to Farries Flyer in order to return to the raft to tow it to the Rowing Club.
Then our three crews took the next hour and a half or so to get back to base at Noss, put the boats away, and then declared it a job well done. The Dart Sailability logo was in front of new eyes, and quiet PR had been achieved, plus training our own folk. At the same time we'd helped other people to achieve their own objectives.
Would you like to be part of the safety squad next year? We might even enter a raft!! Who's up for either of those things.