Freestyle Trips

Euro Open 2023 – Making freestyle fun!

You might have seen the videos of scores of paddlers floating down Holme Pierrepont on inflatables and wondered what was going on. The answer to that is the Dewerstone European Open! Euro Open is a freestyle focused event that happens at the end of August every summer in Nottingham. It is one of my favourite events and one that I highly encourage people to attend. Here is my recount of Euro Open 2023.

Saturday – Freestyle Competition

Euro Open is split into a freestyle competition on the Saturday and other fun paddling events on the Sunday. For the freestyle competition you are either entered as a novice, intermediate or expert. Then there are further divisions between juniors/seniors and females/males. This year the novice category was competing on Jaws and the intermediates and experts in the Inlet gate.

Saturday briefing. Photo: Jack Ledwith

Saturday started with collecting your bib and a participant briefing by chief organiser James Ibbotson (Ibbo). When I collected my bib, I was thrilled to discover that I had been given bib number 1! My weekend was absolutely made after this!

Novice Freestyle

Last year I entered the novice category and won a silver medal for senior women so this year I moved up to intermediates. This meant that I was able to judge the novice category instead and spent the next 4 hours sat by Jaws judging each of the 11 heats. The lovely thing about Euro Open is that all of the heats are mixed. In every novice heat there was a mixture of senior/juniors and males/females.

Myself and David Rodgers (later replaced by Matt Footitt when David had to go run the squirt boating event) worked as a team for scoring. David/Matt would shout out the moves from each paddler and I would record them on a tablet. It was a hugely enjoyable morning. What I really love about the novice category is that no one takes it too seriously. Everyone is there to have fun and just give it a go. There were a huge number of swims – quickly fished out by the awesome safety team. But every swim resulted in a huge round of applause by the crowd and support from fellow paddlers. The smiles were large from both paddlers and the crowd who had come to support on the bank.

Yellow hat to make sure you know where to throw the chocolate! Photo: Jack Ledwith

Scores for the novice are awarded in two ways; for actual freestyle moves, for example a spin. Or for the fun moves including the classic cosmic donkey (bounce up and down whilst making donkey noises), Harry Potter (twirl your paddle like a wand before throwing yourself upside down) and Crowd Pleaser (anything that exerts huge cheers of applause from the crowd). I also appreciated the four paddlers who threw chocolate bars at me as a bribe during their runs! (Don’t tell anyone but that bribe absolutely worked!)

Paddle spin for the win! Photo: Jack Ledwith

As a thank you for my judging efforts, the wonderful Kerry then appeared with some homemade curry at lunch time. I had forgotten about food with all the excitement so this was a very welcome offering!

Intermediate and Expert Freestyle

With the novice heats wrapped up, it was time for my own heat! The intermediate and expert heats are combined so I shared my heat in Inlet with a wonderful bunch of random paddlers. There were paddlers who were there to compete seriously and those like me who were just there for some fun. For a mixture of reasons I had only been in my playboat once since the last Euro Open and so my expectations were low. My two goals were to have some fun and try and stay in my boat! The expectation that I would score any points was not high!

Lovely Becky smashing it in Inlet! Photo: Jack Ledwith

I was lucky to have some really lovely people to share my heat with. As I dropped down into Inlet, the wonderful Irish freestyle legend Béibhin Butler and my good friend Caleb Newsome yelled out encouragement. As I went under the bridge into the hole, the crowd around Inlet started to cheer me on as well. I had just spent the week helping with the GB Academy Freestyle Camp and was rewarded by lots of very loud and supportive juniors leading the cheering! I tried a spin but was quickly upside down and out the hole. Rolling up I was then greeted by massive cheers by the entire Irish junior freestyle network who were sat below Inlet.

Smile! Photo: Jack Ledwith

I had two more rides in Inlet and each was the same. No real freestyle moves but lots of smiles and lots of kind cheering from the crowds. On my final ride, I decided to give out some crowd pleasing moves. Some kisses blown to the judges, a paddle spin and then a loop attempt (really just a big pop out and a splat on my face). Rolling up, there was lots more screaming and I felt utterly blissful. I knew I probably hadn’t scored a single point but it was so fun and this was because of the amazing crowd atmosphere. On top of that, I had rolled lots and stayed in my boat!

It was have been easy to talk myself out of doing it but I was so glad I had given it a go. Not a single person there cared that I couldn’t do any freestyle moves and just made me feel utterly supported and loved. I sat below Inlet as a safety boater for Caleb’s ride (he decided to try a ride without paddles) and reflected on what an awesome community the kayaking community is. I would never call myself a freestyle paddler, but Euro Open and these amazing people make giving freestyle fun! Big shout out to Ibbo who has worked hard over years to make it an event as welcoming and fun as it is.

Feeling happy in my number 1 bib!

I got changed as the final heats finished and then watched many of my friends compete in their finals. There really is something magical about watching the best paddlers showcase what is capable in a playboat. I feel so proud to call so many of those who competed in those finals (and then won medals) friends. What amazing humans they are! Although my favourite moment was when Niamh and Sophie Macken (sisters) finished their junior women final and Niamh pushed her younger sister out of her playboat making her swim in the eddy. Their lovely mum Amanda stood with on the bridge laughing at her wonderful daughters.

Guess the Macken. Photo: Jack Ledwith
Prize Giving & Party

Once the finals were finished it was over to the rugby club for the prize giving. With only 3 women competing in the intermediate ladies category, I picked up the third place medal. My final score for the competition was 2.5 points, which was 2.5 points more than I expected and honestly I was thrilled. My freestyle friends found this hysterical with many of them saying ‘so you got…. half a shuvit?’ I wore my medal with pride!

You can see all the results here.

Myself and lovely Matt Stephenson. Photo: Ross Amory

Following the prize giving, there was a toast to commemorate a beloved Irish freestyle paddler who had recently died – Danny O’Brien. Danny was well known and liked in the freestyle kayaking community and many of his friends were there at Euro Open. It was a sad moment of the evening but I think many of his friends appreciated the opportunity to raise a toast to Danny and share their favourite stories of him with one another.

The evening party hosted by River Legacy then followed with Pete McColl as the DJ. Knowing almost every junior paddler at the event, I spent a lot of the evening stood near the bar eyeballing teenagers. Luckily they all seemed to understand the message and were happily buying their cans of Fanta and Coca cola. It was a nice evening and opportunity to catch up with friends – old and new. I was exhausted from a week at camp and so left before the end of the night, although I heard the dancing got quite energetic soon after I left.

Sunday – Boater X, Big Balls race & Inflatables

Boater-X & Big Ball Race

Sunday morning came and I kicked off the day with the very first heat in Boater-X. Heats consisted of 4 paddlers with the top 2 paddlers going through to the next round. I made it through my heat and then the semi finals, securing a place in the ladies final later on that day.

Once the Boater-X heats were out of the way, it was time for the big ball. race. Having never competed in one before, I was not quite sure what to expect. Each heat had 4 or 5 teams with each team made up of 5 paddlers. The first two teams who could get their giant inflatable ball down to the end first went through. Usually at these events I end up in quite a feisty competition with Becky Green. So for this event we teamed up! We also had David Rogers, Ross Amory and Baz Walker. The next few minutes were utter carnage.

Photo: Jack Ledwith

Tactics seemed to involve either trying hard to get the ball down the course or focusing on sabotaging other teams attempts instead. Most teams tried to do both. The hard thing about it was not getting down the course or throwing the ball, it was trying not to get hit in the face / hit other people in the face with a boat. My favourite moment was David taking another team’s ball and just holding upside down in his boat until he floated enough downstream that they had missed the finish line. We somehow went through to the semi finals in our heat but then got knocked out.

Our dream team! Photo: Jack Ledwith
Inflatable Race & Freestyle

Next up was the best events of the weekend: the inflatable race and inflatable freestyle jam. Last year I found myself an inflatable turtle then nicknamed Myrtle which survived the carnage of the event to last another year! Swimming down the course with a couple hundred other paddlers on inflatables was something to behold. The freestyle jam was held on Fairy Wave with scores of paddlers lining up to surf their inflatable.

Matt Stephenson on Fairy Wave. Photo: Jack Ledwith

I decided I would only have one quick surf to try and save some energy for my Boater-X final. That quickly went out of the window however as it was just SO MUCH FUN. 45 minutes of surfing Myrtle the Turtle later and I was spent!

Turtle high five! Photo: Jack Ledwith
Finals & Prize Giving

Luckily my Boater-X final was immediately after. There were 6 women in this final and only 3 medals. 20 seconds into the race I slightly regretting having not rested at all that day as I contemplated if I even had the energy to roll up let alone compete for a medal. I placed 4th in the end, with Tamsyn coming in 1st, Becky in 2nd and Jen in 3rd. Coming 4th to 3 GB team members isn’t too shabby!

Tasmsyn – winner of the ladies Boater-X. Photo: Jack Ledwith

A quick shower then the closing prize giving and talk. This was Ibbo’s last ever Euro Open and so quite a special event. Ibbo has run Euro Open for years now and really transformed it into an event that is both welcoming and fun, whilst still having enough competition for those who compete seriously. A huge thank you to him for all his hard work over the years and to everyone else who volunteers and helps out. What a legend!

Ibbo the legend! Photo: Jack Ledwith

BIG THANK YOU to my lovely friend Jack Ledwith who kindly let me use his incredible photos for this article. Check out his Instagram for more photos!

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