Activists attempt first descent of River Shannon on paddle-boards to raise awareness of pollution
A group of three adventurers are attempting what is believed to be the world’s first full descent of the River Shannon on paddle boards.
UK-based Shilpika Gautam, Spike Reid and Pascal Dubois have taken on the 260km endurance challenge to raise awareness about plastic pollution.
The trio began their journey on June 30 and hope to finish in Limerick later this week after two weeks traversing the waterways using only stand-up paddle boards.
Speaking to Independent.ie from a pub in Portumna while they wait for the wind to abate, Shilpika described the expedition as a “training journey” for their planned descent of the River Ganges in September.
Under the team name Ganges SUP (stand-up paddle boarding), the group will attempt to paddle-board the full length of the Ganges, a route that is estimated to span 2,500km.
Shilpika said she took up paddle-boarding last year when she was looking for an adventure after growing frustrated with her career in finance.
“I grew up in India but I’ve been living in London for the past six years. My background is very much corporate banking but I sort of retooled my life to do more adventures with purpose,” she said.
“I discovered paddle boarding last year, and I had a sort of germ of an idea that I wanted to leave my career in finance and go back to India and take on a very physical challenge with a purpose. I said okay, why don’t I look at the Ganges?”
After meeting Spike, who has Irish roots in Wicklow, at a fitness class, she decided to plan a full descent of the Ganges, and the pair enlisted Pascal, who is finishing a Master’s in Ocean Plastic Pollution, through an online ad.
“The idea behind this expedition is a stepping stone for a way bigger expedition, the first-ever full descent of the River Ganges in India, which is to highlight the dangerous state of the rivers of our world,” she said.
“Even though it is a very spiritual waterway, known as the River of Life, it is dying after years of neglect. Thousands of tonnes of plastic and other pollutants are thrown into the river and we intend to raise awareness for the damage this is doing, by carrying out research into the level of pollution throughout the course.”
She emphasised that these issues also affect the river Shannon.
“The adventure is a medium for spreading a bigger message. It’s very easy for people to forget that these issues are not localised – whatever goes into the Shannon gets spewed out into the ocean.
“When it gets spewed out into the ocean, it ends up in marine life somewhere and then ends up in a body somewhere. It’s a full circle, and we’re trying to connect the dots there, that’s the message we’re trying to pass on.”
Ahead of their expedition later this year, the team decided to test their endurance on the Shannon because it is the longest river across the British Isles.
“Neither of these expeditions have ever been done before, they’re both adventures but adventures with humongous purpose,” said Shilpika.
“The Shannon is a beautiful river with its own challenges and we very much wanted to explore that as a team.”
The trio are currently battling unseasonably strong winds, and have found themselves desperately searching through the reeds for camping spots when the weather becomes unbearable.
“It’s not the easiest time to go on the river. The winds have been hard on the nose for the majority of the journey so far, which when combined with the heavy rain has made it tough, especially the big loughs.
“But we have really enjoyed it so far, especially the hospitality of the locals and the beauty of the banks. It’s a very tough adventure but very fulfilling at the same time,” she said.
“We trekked the first bit because the river is not paddle-able there. Now we plan to paddleboard the rest of the way come rain, wind or shine through to Limerick this week.”
The total distance from the source to their destination in Limerick is approximately 260km, but with frequent diversions as they fight the winds, it should clock in at more than 300km overall.
The team have funded the trip independently, but have received gear sponsorship from eight companies who provided paddleboards, equipment and riverwear.
“We’re using 12.5ft long paddle boards, they’re inflatable and they can take considerable weight, up to 150kg. As well as our own body weight, we’re carrying all our gear – for camping and food for a couple of days - on the boards themselves,” said Shilpika.
She added that the team have been stunned by the generosity and hospitality of everyone they’ve met along the way.
“It’s unthinkable, that they would let these smelly people from the river into their homes and their facilities to have food and a warm shower and a place to sleep - the things we took for granted in London have become luxuries. Everyone wants to have a chat when they see us on the river.”
You can follow the team’s progress along the Shannon in real time online here.