Nage en Eau Vive
La Nage en Eau Vive, is an extreme(ly crazy) sport played out in French rivers. Its translation, ‘Swimming in live water’ pretty much says it all.
Basically, people get into wet suits, flippers and helmets; take a kick-board (a.k.a.: body-board) and throw themselves into rivers. It’s like white water rafting. Without the raft.
The father and one of the daughters of my French host family loved La Nage en Eau Vive. The dad trained three times a week at the local swimming pool; the daughter trained twice (I guess she didn’t want to miss out on the Monday night ritual of the eating pizza in front of the TV, which the dad considered sacré bleu).
They told me about the different types of La Nage en Eau Vive they did, and the best analogy I can think of is skiing. There is the equivalent of cross-country (or trek) which is all about endurance (and starving off hypothermia in French rivers). There is also ‘downhill’ or descente, which is a race to the bottom of a river. And then there is slalom, in which the swimmers have to steer around the markers of a course in the fastest time.
A quick look at the Commission Nationale Nage en Eau Vive’s website, shows that there are other branches of this sport, including free style, rapid-racing and orientation en eau vive.
Versions of this aquatic sport are played throughout the world. It is known as hydrospeed in parts of Europe and as riverboarding or white-water sledging in New Zealand. But the French claim they invented it. The story goes that raft guides stuffed a big sack with life vests and went down rapids on it in the late 1970s. Soon, swimmers made more sturdy kick-boards, on which a person can hold (for dear life), as well as up prop most of their body.
These kick-boards were refined in America and New Zealand. Soon nage en eau vive enthusiasts were developing foam version that were lighter for better buoyancy and manoeuvrability.
When my host family’s local club was organising a family weekend, where kids as young as eight (and l’australienne) could have a go on a little courses, I jumped at the chance to go with them. The more experienced swimmers did a number of longer and more dangerous swims over the weekend. Would I go on these?
“Elle est australienne. Elle peux nager, bien sûr,” the dad said, when anyone asked whether I would be jumping in.
“Ouais. Peut-être que je nage seulement avec les enfants.” (Maybe I’ll stick to swimming with the kids.)
I jumped in with five children and two experienced swimmers, who were going to stay at the front and the back of the group.
I remember kicking off, and thinking that floating along was a great way to enjoy the scenery.
The current quickly got stronger. I could hear water crashing down over rocks.
The kids were laughing. My grip tightened.
We got closer and closer to the rapids (or huge waterfall, in my mind). My board lurched over rocks and I screamed. My French was patchy at best, but like every other Anglophone (especially those whose fathers are obsessed with war movies), I knew, “M’aidez. M’aidez, s’il vous plaît.”
My friend was running alongside us. She started laughing, spluttering as she tried to keep up with us. We swam into a calmer part of the river and towards the bank.
She had to stand for a moment to catch her breath, before she helped drag my kick-board onto the bank. I scampered up the bank, my fingers scratching through mud trying to get a grip so I could pull myself up. I look at the kids, who had swum to the shallows and were sitting down to pull off their flippers. I could my friend’s eye, and we both burst out laughing.
All images © Laura griffin