Travel: A paler shade of white water

There's no raft, but just as much of an adrenalin rush. Eric Kendall tries hydrospeed
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The Independent Culture
SUCKED OVER the weir, you hardly dare to breathe. The first white water passes like a minor roller-coaster hillock - a relief but tantalisingly scary at the same time. Too easy, much too easy... both your kneecaps are still intact. Suddenly the rapid grabs you, accelerating with frightening speed towards a standing wave. It might look like a wall of water, but it is more like the tip of an iceberg, only in this case the invisible bulk below the surface is a rock.

Instinctively you haul yourself aboard the float which is designed to protect your vital organs but leaves you horribly exposed from your thighs to the tips of your toes, with only a padded wetsuit as token protection. If - as is quite likely - you are going backwards, or worse still, upside down, your whole body is in for a battering and your helmet will definitely come into its own.

Hydrospeed, best described as white-water rafting without the raft, is every bit as mad as it sounds, a kind of Poohsticks played with human beings. Half the appeal may be in its simplicity - just you, a float that looks a bit like a plastic toboggan and the water - but it is played in an environment where common sense tells you not to go at all. And once you are in it, white water is definitely "I have started so I will finish" territory; it does not let go until the water has run its course - not so much an adrenalin kick as a series of kicks, adding up to a prolonged beating. "Taking the plunge" gathers new meaning.

As with tapioca, it is hard to imagine who screwed up enough courage to try it for the first time. Perhaps it was just a gentle Eeyore-like float down a river that got out of hand. Whatever the story, it has become one of the things to do on violent rivers, needing almost none of the skill of a canoeist but all of the courage and more.

The basic techniques are dictated by survival. Moving in deep slow water, you hang onto your float with arms outstretched and kick your legs, as though doing lengths in the local pool. When approaching rocks, rapids or falls, you pull yourself up by the float handles to bring your body onto the float for protection.

It is not a question of getting it right or wrong. You go with the flow, though if that sounds relaxing, think again. With a clean run, there is only time to worry about when your legs might crunch into a hidden rock. If they do not, then what happens around the next corner becomes the major preoccupation. Striking a boulder head on to swirl sideways and then backwards, gushing, foaming water forces its way into your nose, mouth and ears while its power and speed freezes your mind; but you always seem to bob to the surface in the end. Sweeping over the biggest rapids, whichever way up you are, the exhilaration of the ride crowds out any other thoughts, until the next strike.

It is definitely not an activity for swimmers who do not like getting their hair wet.

The Spanish Pyrenees is perfect hydrospeed territory with good white water and fine summer weather. The Parc Olimpic del Segre (tel 00 34 9 7336 0092, fax 00 34 9 7336 0192), La Seu d'Urgell, was the venue for the Barcelona Olympic white-water events and now runs hydrospeed as well as white-water rafting and canoeing. Top Team Ski & Raft (tel/fax 00 34 9 7362 1367) in Sort and the mountain guiding organisation, Compania de Guias (tel/fax 00 34 9 7455 1336) in Benasque run hydrospeed river trips. High Trax (tel 01433 670 186, fax 01433 670 128) include hydrospeed in their mountain biking/adventure sport itineraries in the Pyrenees.

Operators offering hydrospeed should provide all equipment - float, wetsuit, helmet and buoyancy aid - along with instruction and guides. Non-swimmers should watch from the riverbank.