The Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race (DW) is a 125 mile race that takes place every Easter weekend. It starts on the Avon Kennet Canal in Devizes which it follows for 54 miles down to Reading where you join the Thames. From here you follow the Thames down to Westminster finishing at Westminster Bridge in front of Big Ben. The race is completed either straight through (senior doubles), or over 4 days (senior singles, veteran junior doubles, junior doubles and a non-competitive endeavour class). There are 77 portages along the route (where you get out of the boat and carry it around a lock or weir before getting back in as fast as you can).
The straight through and four day options are completely different events with their own challenges and struggles but also their own achievements. To date I have completed the senior doubles 3 times and the senior singles twice. I would like to keep going at least until I join the ‘1000 mile club’. This is where you have completed 8 DW’s where at least 4 of these need to have been completed in the senior double straight through event, although I am not sure I will stop there if I am still enjoying it. The race is an addiction that it is hard to break.
This is an event where you become highly dependent on your own support crews, friends and family who have given up their Easter weekend to drive manically between locks and then wait around to shove food in your mouth, offer changes of clothes and give support and encouragement. A good support crew are the difference between making it to the end and not finishing.
Selecting the right boat is very important. Your best option is to join a club where you will likely be able to try different boats and get advice before purchasing the correct boat for you. It is always going to be a compromise between the boats that are considered fastest but are also more unstable and the boats that are more stable but are wider and have more resistance in the water. Generally you need to be in the most unstable boat that you are absolutely bomb proof in: when you are on the tideway and could have been kayaking for 24 hours, there are large boats creating big wakes and a lot of moving water so you need to be stable. There is no point having a slim and ‘fast’ boat if you spend hours falling in and swimming around in the water on the race, it won’t be faster then.
It is also important if you are selecting a boat to do the doubles race that you pick a boat that you are both comfortable in. This may sound obvious but too often you see crews where one person has got caught up in the heat of the moment or gone for the easy life of agreeing to a boat their partner likes and it really doesn’t work for them. While a more stable paddler may be able to support a less stable paddler for a certain amount of time they won’t be able to do it for the duration of this race. I have done the doubles race three times and used three boats of different stabilities each time dependant on who I am paddling with and also depends on the leg length of the other paddler, while boats will have a certain level of play in terms of being able to move seats and footrests about the runners/seat pins on which they are set will be fixed and the wrong boat can find those lanky legged bodies with their back rubbing on the cockpit rim (this isn’t a problem that I have ever found myself with, I will grow one day I’m sure).
Do bear in mind that you can change the seat that is in a boat. A lower seat will give you a lower centre of gravity and therefore the same boat will be more stable so this can be an option for making small adjustments to the right boat.
Second-hand boats can come up quite regularly dependant on how much you are willing to spend and how far you are willing to travel and it is quite normal within the sport to purchase a second-hand boat. If you have joined a club there may be boats that become available through the club as normally people try and sell boats within their own club first. Traditionally boats were advertised for sale on Reading Canoe clubs website however since the advent of Facebook there is now a ‘Racing Canoe Clubs ‘Sales and Wants’’ which has a regular flow of advertisements.
The weight of the boat is also very important to consider. You may not think that a boat is that heavy when you pick it up for the first time however when you have loaded it with emergency kit that you need to carry, you’ve had some water splashed into the boat and are picking it up and running around locks and weirs with it 76 times you may reconsider how heavy it is.
In terms of physical training time in the boat is very important and if you are doing the race with a partner in crime then time in the boat together. Again this is where a canoe club can be very important in terms of advice on efficient technique, people to keep you company on long training miles and to motivate you in the long winter months when it is all a bit cold and dark.
I have never done further than a 34-mile paddle in training for this race (the distance of Waterside D). Longer distances tire you physically so you aren’t able to get other effective training sessions in for a few days and don’t actually provide a significant benefit. Your body can only be trained up to a certain point for long distance events and beyond this it is a mental matter. Your training is there to provide a base to try and avoid injury on the event.
Shorter, speed work type training can be used to significantly improve your fitness in combination with the longer paddles. Suggestions on suitable sessions can be found in Brian Greenaway’s book ‘The Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race’ but this will look at intervals and fartlek type work.
Cross training can be highly important part of your training program and running will have some significant benefits in both improving your cardio-vascular and physical fitness but in also reducing the amount of time that you spend on portages. If you are doing a lot of your training in a canal this could also become highly important if the canal freezes when the temperature drops making getting out on the water a bit difficult.
It can be highly beneficial to spend a lot of time practising portages. With 76 portages on route even if you lose one minute per portage which may not seem significant that is 76 minutes lost. This can be the difference between making the tide window and not and far more than 1 minute can be lost on a portage. You can watch people taking in turns to get out of the boat, standing up, turning around in circles, playing around with their trousers or clothing, picking their paddles up, putting their paddles down again, picking the boat out of the water, putting it down again, picking the boat up at the ends- you get the picture a lot of time can be lost. You don’t have to be running quickly over every lock to be efficient and keep moving forwards.
Always make sure you try out any food that you are intending to eat on the race in longer training sessions (see point 13 above). This is also a chance to try out events with your support crew if possible and if your support crews can it would be beneficial to try supporting you on the course or at some of the Waterside/Thameside events. If they have experienced races before and know what you want then they are less likely to get flustered and stressed or just get in other people’s way on the event. I would recommend that you go over the portage and then have food as you are getting back in the boat, it is easier to paddle and chew that run and chew and you are less likely to inhale a stray oat and choke (speaking from experience here, choking definitely slows you on a portage. I have also had a support crew taking their own initiative and shoving an untested fig roll in my mouth, I have no idea where they got them from but it just sucked all moisture from my mouth and I was left choking on pastry, lesson learnt).
Make sure you try all kit out before the event. You are likely to use more than one set of clothes in the event, I’ll discuss this later, but this means you need to have tried out all the clothes beforehand. This may sound obvious but so many people suddenly find themselves in the race finding out the trousers they are using fall down every time they get out of the boat at a portage because they’ve got wet and the extra weight is pulling them down or rub in the wrong places. If you are doing the straight through event by a certain point you are likely to have problems with things rubbing no matter what you do but you may as well limit this as much as possible.
When you are in the sport you will see most people using ‘winged’ paddles. They are concaved with the idea being that they ‘grip’ the water better. When you are completing a paddle stroke and place the paddle in the water you are actually pulling yourself and the boat passed the paddle so you don’t want the paddle to slip in the water and loose some of that distance as you pull. These paddles, while being the most commonly used, are only really effective if you have the paddle going into the water at the right angle.
If you originally join a canoe club you will often be given a set of ‘flat’ paddles to try first. This is mainly born from the fact that they are significantly cheaper but also because when people first join they are not often doing an efficient stroke that would actually benefit from a winged paddle. To be able to complete this stroke the top hand needs to be high enough in the air however people who haven’t paddled before won’t have the strength in their shoulders or technique to be able to do this and the lower top hand will give a wider, sweep style stroke in the water which is actually more efficient with flat paddles.
Whatever you are going to complete the race with you need to be well practised with them beforehand.
However, you are doing this you are going to need a lot of clothes. If you are doing the four-day event it depends where you are staying whether you can clean/dry things in between some of the days or if you are going to need new clothes each day. If you are doing the straight through event then you are still going to need some changes of clothes to get you through (more on that later).
The weather for Easter weekend in England can be rather unpredictable. There have been events where the daytime has been glorious sun, people are in shorts and t-shirts and then due to the clear skies when it gets dark the temperature has plummeted as there is no cloud cover to keep the days heat meaning that people can’t get enough layers on and their bodies have struggled to cope with the temperature change; events where paddlers going through the night have had ice forming on their boats, paddles and clothing and everything in between in terms of wind, rain and temperature. The last thing you need is to get cold because then your body if using precious energy that could go on paddling towards keeping warm, this will mean you need to eat more or face exhaustion.
Layers and hats are your friend. A hat takes seconds to change for a dry one and can make you feel significantly warmer. A hat change also means you don’t have to take off all your buoyancy aid, waterproof and the like to change it.
All paddlers taking part in this event are required to wear a buoyancy aid. There are rules on the DW website that are updated periodically about the correct standards that your buoyancy aid needs to meet and they do check this before you race so don’t stress yourself out at last minute and make sure this is correct. There are different sorts available that have pockets for storing things or a water pouch on the back, with different sections cut away to try and make them more comfortable, with straps you can attach a water bottle to so it is worth researching, discussing with people if you have joined a club and if possible trying them before you purchase them.
While you will be having a support crew along the way there are some sections where they just can’t meet you. I have always carried some of my own fluid and I have never seen anyone on the course that isn’t. There are different options. You can look to the Camelbak/Platypus style reservoirs that go on your back, either in a pocket on your buoyancy aid or in one of the backpacks designed for this. The benefits are that you can carry significantly more fluid that other options so it doesn’t need changing as frequently, however, the drawbacks are that some people struggle having that much weight on their back for long periods and find that they lean back and hurt their back and should it need replenishing it can take time to get it off and refilled.
There are also carriers that can fit a water bottle to the front of a body with a long straw you can drink as you go (please cut the straw to the right length, you will see too many people paddling along with it pocking them in the eye, nose or wherever and can’t actually get it in their mouth). They can be attached to some buoyancy aids or go on straps around the body. The positives are there isn’t the weight issue as much, it can take seconds for a support crew to swap the bottles at a portage and you can get a change in flavoured drink quite regularly. The downsides are if there are longer gaps between where you see your support crews you may not be carrying enough liquid in this way to see you through and for me I don’t know what I do wrong at portages but I seem to end up spilling it out of the straw at every lock.
Some people do look at ways of carrying it in their boat but this always seems to get complicated and go wrong.
I am really not the best person to give advice on this matter, I have a mental block to using any gloves or mitts I have found so far that is not based on any form of logic and there is no reasoning with the illogical. My brain decides I am going to fall in and then I won’t be able to let go of the paddle (I’m no more likely to fall in with them on and all I have to do to let go of the paddle is let go) and then I freeze and can’t paddle.
For the more rational and logically minded you need to try your options and find out what is best for you. Some people use full gloves which cover the palm of the hand for warmth and to avoid blisters although this means that you then don’t have contact with the paddle and can cause problems with either not being able to grip the paddle or in the hand where the shaft is rotating it sticking on the paddle and thus the paddle not moving correctly.
Other options are open palmed mitts/gloves which give you that contact with the paddle while providing warmth. These are however generally made of neoprene and after a certain number of hours they will be sodden with water and not actually that warm any more so you made need to look at options of more than one pair.
Pogies are traditionally used by paddlers and attach to your paddle and you put your hand inside to then grip the paddle. These are probably warmest but due to the time of taking your hands in and out of them at each portage not that useful on the earlier canal section where there are more portages and it is time-consuming taking your hands out of them and back in at every lock.
I am lucky as I have small feet but every year there are debates on the Facebook group among those of larger feet as to what is best to wear. This is because there is limited space between the bottom of the boat and the top deck for your feet to fit (or in my case there is plenty of space, what are you moaning about). This isn’t a problem for people in canoes as they don’t have a deck and less of a problem for people in the back of a K2 as they don’t need to move their feet around to steer and there is more space in the wider back of the boat.
You need to consider the fact that on the canal section you are running over muddy, slippery canal locks whereas on the river section they are generally concrete or paved locks. I use running spikes without the spikes attached on the muddy canal section. Other people talk about using old style hockey shoes, vibram shoes with fingers for your toes and any other thin-soled shoes with grip.
I do find that when you come onto the river section with concrete locks the plastic soles of the running spikes can suddenly become slippery on the concrete and swap to more ‘water shoe’ style with neoprene tops and rudder soles with don’t slip on the concrete and seem to keep my feet warmer. This is all going to come down to personal preference and you do need to try your footwear out beforehand.
There is a certain amount of emergency kit that you must carry with you that are specified within the rules. This will be checked at the race check-in prior to the race and you won’t be allowed on the water without it so make sure well beforehand that you have this prepared to avoid any last minute panics.
Consideration needs to be given on how to carry and store this equipment while thinking about if you do actually need to use it in an emergency can you actually reach it, zip ties and vacuum packing may not, therefore, be the way to go however you want it to be kept dry should you need it. There are two schools of thought on how to carry this.
Some people state that it is best carried in the boat, whether this is secured under seats, attached to buoyancy blocks or the back side of the person in the back of the boats footrest. However, you are going about this you need to think about balancing the boat so you don’t want to be putting it all at the back of the boat say and then having the boat out of balance or having the back person in the double carrying all the additional weight at every portage. You also need to ensure that it is secured in the boat as you don’t need it falling out if you take an unexpected swim if you are emptying water at a portage or just getting over the portage.
The other school of thought is to carry as much of this as possible about your person in pockets on your buoyancy aid or the camelbak pouch. The reasoning being that should you fall in and loose contact with your boat you will still have your emergency equipment with you. The additional benefit is that you don’t have additional weight in the boat to pick up at each portage. The negatives of this second way is that some people find that the additional weight on the front/back of the body makes them lean in that direction when they tire and thus hurts their back. There are also low bridges to navigate on the canal section which most people go under by leaning forwards however with the additional bulk they can get caught on the underside of the bridge.
Whichever means of carrying the equipment that you choose it should be well tested before the race and if you are doing Waterside D in preparation for the doubles race I would carry this equipment with you for this race. If you are doing the singles race at Waterside D in preparation I wouldn’t, just get around Waterside D doing as little damage to yourself as possible!
It is highly beneficial to have some skills and knowledge both yourself and among your support crews on how the boat works and how to repair it when it goes wrong. While you are allowed to change kit, fittings in the boat or paddles during the race you are not allowed to change your boat therefore if you damage it you need to be able to fix it to finish the race. I have been very lucky with the support crews that I have had in this race being highly knowledgeable otherwise my race could have been scuppered twice.
The two main boat malfunctions I have had in this race firstly in the senior doubles at a portage my partner disappeared into a hole up to his waist. While he was thankfully undamaged the boat landed on a mooring post and was not so happy. How the support crew managed to get plumbers mate and duct tape to stick in the rain when we met them at Dreadnaught and then stay on below the waterline for over 70 miles afterwards I do not know but I will be forever grateful.
The second was in the K1 race where my rudder wires snapped while paddling along on day 1. A different but equally amazing support crew, who I had actually mocked for bringing so many tools for repairs earlier that day, repaired it all (memo to self: never mock someone for bringing all the tools). Now with the comradery of DW I think if I had been stuck someone else’s support crew would have helped but I would prefer to not test that theory. Also with a concern about meeting cut-offs and the tide window I wouldn’t want to be in a position of waiting a long time to find out.
The most likely damages on a boat is probably a bent/broken under-stern rudder because all it takes is a slip or a trip at a muddy/dark portage for the boat to be dropped and the rudder bent, therefore, I have always had a spare rudder when using an under-stern at this race. I would always make sure that there were spare wingnuts and toggles for any that could go missing from seats, footplates or rudders and I would always have duct tape galore because it is always useful for sticking the boat or yourself back together. I have always had a spare pair of paddles with the support crews mainly because the first time I did the race someone threatened that I would drop the paddles and they would go over a weir and that would be the end of the race. I haven’t seen that happen yet but I am not willing to test the theory on this one either.
The senior doubles event:
The first time I took part in the senior doubles event was in 2009, I was finishing my last year at university and my dad and I had been planning it for 18 months beforehand. I had been kayaking since I was 13 years old and it was a race we had both been interested in ever since we had first heard about it. We had started in February/March 2008 by completing the waterside series together and the training began in earnest in the winter of 2008-2009. I was still studying away from home and was not getting in anywhere as near enough actual kayaking as training as I would recommend to anyone else doing the event but we did it and we still talked afterwards and everything.
The second time, despite having sworn I would never do it again, was in 2012 with someone from my canoe club. It was commented afterwards that we were one of the few crews left running the portages later on, he replied it was me and he was just following. The water was really low that year with little flow to help us and we were five minutes outside of the 24 hour time we wanted to beat. My partner ended up going straight from the finish line to the back of an ambulance with a combination of mild exhaustion, hyperthermia and being high on too many painkillers that hadn’t been kept a track of. We did, however, beat the Olympic rower Steve Redgrave who took part this year and retired around Marlow. My partner has now forgiven me for getting him involved and can use his hands properly most of the time and everything.
The third time was also with someone else from my canoe club, we delayed putting the race entry in for a few hours because he suspected he had meningitis which the medical professional then diagnosed as a rash from a hot water bottle being on his skin. This was the race where my partner disappeared up to his waist in a big hole at a portage on the canal section and we damaged the boat and we also fell in, despite having never fallen in being in a boat together before and we still can’t tell you why we fell in, at about half midnight above Old Windsor lock. It was a moment of why are we doing this when we were swimming around in the Thames at this time not able to touch the bottom and not able to reach top of the bank to haul ourselves out. We had the tail end of storm Katie and those doing the four-day event, unfortunately, had the fourth day cancelled due to 70mph winds going through London at the time they were meant to race and the organisers just couldn’t find a way to mitigate the risks on the wide and open tideway. Those taking part in the Oxford, Cambridge rowing race that Sunday had some of the boats sinking. This is also the fastest time I have done the race straight through.
One thing that is highly important is that you really get on well with your partner before you start. You are going to be spending an awful lot of time together in the training and in the race and when things are going wrong at 3 am you need to know how they are going to react and deal with the situation. You are both going to have different high and low points through the race and you need to be able to get each other through this.
In terms of support crews, we have always used three crews: one crew from the start at Devizes down to Dreadnaught/Marsport during the day and then two crews from here down to the finish through the night. These two crews leapfrog each other on different sides of the river. This has always worked well for us as it means that there is a lot of support through the night, particularly if one of your support cars get themselves stuck in a carpark in the early hours (!). I know some people will use the same support crews throughout the whole race but when you still need someone alert enough by the end to drive you out of London safely this may not be the best approach but then this could depend how far you live from the race and how much support you can muster.
Dependant on the tide times and tide window there is often a large number of crews trying to get on the first start at 7 am at Devizes Wharf. There is often the possibility to go through kit check and registration the night before if you are intending an early start time however you need to have booked a limited number of time slots on Friday evening to do this. The information to do so will normally only come out a couple of weeks before the event otherwise you will need to complete this process on Saturday morning.
Boat/kit check is lots of nervous paddlers trying to remember where they have stored everything that is required as emergency equipment while wondering whether the months of training they have put in will be enough and whether it is too late to pull out now. One year at boat check (the second time straight through) there were a lot of camera crews, I thought they had decided it was me who was really interesting but it turns out it was Sir Steve Redgrave. All of the straight through crews now get a tracker before getting on the water which does make things a lot easier for support crews worrying whether they have lost their crew and waiting for them to go through the physical checkpoints and this to be updated online.
You then get on the water and there is a rolling start of setting off whoever is there waiting at 1-minute intervals. I always feel better the moment you get over the start line and get moving there is a relief from the adrenaline that has been building up and the realisation that you now actually need to do it.
There is a bum-numbing 14 or so miles without a portage, although a lot of people will stop on route for a chance to get the blood flowing to their legs again. A couple of portages and then you get to the infamous tunnel. As no tunnel monsters have yet been proved this is a disorientating couple of hundred meters where you go suddenly from daylight to dark and can’t see any wash anymore before coming back to daylight in time for Crofton flight, this is a flight of 9 locks within close proximity. Some of the pounds between the locks it is quicker to run between that put the boat back in and paddle and some people will run the whole flight, however, this could be very energy sapping this early into the race and I have never taken this option on DW. If you are going to stay on the bank around the sections between the locks then run, if you are going to walk then you will be quicker getting in your boat and paddling.
The section from Crofton down to Newbury has numerous locks, a couple of low bridges to go under or around if you are not so confident at your ability to bend and plenty of opportunity for your support crews to get to you for food and moral boosts. I have always had a bit of a stop at Newbury to get a bit more food in than mouthfuls at the end of a portage as you have done 34 miles by this point and you need enough energy to keep you going later on. It was also here that I had what I am sure was the best cup of tea of my entire life on the storm Katie year. The first year leaving Newbury was the thought of this is the furthest I have ever paddled now.
Leaving Newbury if the water is high enough for flow then you will start to get more flow coming in to help you along a bit from this point as you set off towards Reading. Apart from the potential of flow it is more of the same in terms of quite frequent portages with a couple of low bridges along the way. Going through the Oracle shopping centre in Reading can feel quite bizarre seeing all these people shopping and eating out on the bank holiday weekend rather than getting wet in thermal clothing and getting blisters on their hands. After Reading you reach the Thames, TURN RIGHT! And a few hundred meters you come to Dreadnaught Reach (also called Marsport because they run a kayak shop from here).
Dreadnaught is at 54 miles into the race and is a compulsory portage where you need to make sure that you have lights on your boat and buoyancy aid from here on in. Again this is a place where I’ve always had a bit of a longer stop because when I’ve reached this point it is now getting dark so the temperature is dropping and I’m in clothes that have been getting wet all day. I, therefore, have a kit change and some warm food. This is the place where we have the changeover of support crews so there are three crews here with allocated tasks beforehand so we make sure that everything that needs to be done is. You don’t want to be getting penalty time because between you the right lights didn’t end up where they were needed. I have always found it a bit surreal setting off again from Dreadnaught into the twilight and getting jealous of the support crew that is going home to their beds.
The next 54 miles I find I come a bit obsessed with time, are we going to get to Teddington lock on time for the tide window!
I have learnt on this stretch that the Marlow straight you will always have a head wind and that it is possible to fall asleep and keep paddling although because I was steering I got caught out because we crashed into the bank, that hallucinations can get very weird such as a charging elephant at Runnymead, that anyone who has offered to be your support crew and stand at three in the morning waiting at a lock telling you how amazing you are doing when you look like shit, feel like shit and have descending to grunting in response truly is a superhero especially when they have found you a cup of tea at 3 am or are managing to make you interested in food when none of the supplies you prepared hours before aren’t seeming interesting anymore. You will lose interest in food but you need to keep the energy coming in.
It is on this section where it really helps to know the course because the portages aren’t always obvious to find the get out points and if you get it wrong it can take some time to find a point where you can actually reach the water (speaking from experience here of running around with a boat on a road trying to figure out how to get through locked gates back to the water). Some of the portages require you to go over the lock island, some around the lock, some over the boat rollers and this is all when it is looking rather different to when you may have seen it in daylight. What may have seemed an obvious marker in daylight becomes useless if it isn’t illuminated.
You also need to start navigating around islands in the water while paddling on this stretch. I find that this can get rather disorientating with shadows which make it seem like there is no way to go forward because it is all land so again it is rather useful to know the course if possible as it will make it easier.
Teddington is the last lock, however, your support crews aren’t allowed to come down onto the boat rollers here so you need to meet with them somewhere just before the lock to get your last food stop because for the next 17 miles you are only going to see them waving from bridges at most. I have always had a spare kit bag here to get changed into but have never actually done more than change a hat by this point. I have also had some cliff bars shoved down my buoyancy aid for later then got to the lock a few hundred meters down to the lock at Teddington, lent forward to get the boat out of the water and promptly dropped them in the river. That was a very sad moment that nearly prompted tears at that time.
I have generally found that I have been so focused on getting to Teddington with the tide window that when I actually get there I then have the realisation that I have 17 more miles to go, which feels like saying you must go to the end of the earth by this point. If you have hit the tide window according to plan this should help you significantly however if you are late on during the tidal window another lock could have been lifted which you will need to climb over with water flowing around your ankles while trying to get your boat over the barrier. I haven’t done this, I don’t plan on doing it if I can help it and it will only happen if you hit the tide window really late on when there will be a lot less help from the flow as well as the obvious hindrance of wading around in the water trying to get the boat over a barrier.
This section can feel excruciating, in the straight through race I have never made it through this section without getting out to stretch legs, bums and backs on the banks. When I was doing this race the first time with my dad I was having to tempt him back into the boat because his body was cramping up by now and he’d rubbed his back raw on the cockpit rim, when I was doing this with the friend who ended up in an ambulance by the end when he got out of the boat he would start walking backwards unless I held on to him. It is scary to look back on this second one now and think that we were out in the middle of the tideway because if we had gone in I’m not sure he would have been able to save himself but at the time I wasn’t compos Mentos enough to see the danger and he wasn’t complaining so we kept going. Third time around I remember us both lying on the bank moaning about how much our bums hurt and trying to figure out where we are.
On the tideway you will start to see some very large boats that make very large wakes, sections of concrete banks which stretch meters above your head, the flow swirls and eddies around moored boats, buoys and bollards out in the water which can catch you unawares if you aren’t paying attention and then you get the port authorities boat flying up and down the river making a wake a meter high which really doesn’t help. This all feels so far from the canal where you started.
Each time before the race I have tried to learn some of the bridges as distance markers along this stretch so I know how far we have to go. Each time I’ve got to this section my brain has melted out of my ear, I can’t remember any of it and I have no idea where we are. I’ve tried calling to supporters on bridges asking how far there is to go but most of them don’t know and give all sorts of wild guesses or ‘just around the corner’ ‘about five miles’ and ‘about 8 miles’ all coming from people standing on the same bridge.
When you do finally get around the right corner and can see Westminster Bridge and the houses of parliament in front of you is normally only the first moment I actually believe that I can get there. It is also at this point that you need to be over on the right bank as you go between a line of moored boats and the high concrete bank, this means the water swirls around the moored boats and I have a big wobble and think I am going to fall in right in front of the spectators. Plenty of boats go in on this last stretch each year as people suddenly relax on seeing the finish line and a certain number of people will swim across the line each year. A horn sounds as you go under the bridge to let you know that you have crossed the finish line!
Just beyond the bridge is a set of steps down into the water where people in waders up to their waists in water will be calling to you to keep paddling to them. They’ll help you out of your boats, which you will probably need and marshals will carry your boat up the steps for you to pass it to your support crews and your finisher’s medal will be put around your next. Now is the time for celebration, smiles, hugs and maybe a few tears.
Due to security problems, the 2017 event took place a few weeks after the Westminster terrorist attacks, support crews now need to take the boats away from the finish line area and back to the cars immediately. You get to go and use a hot shower in a heated changing tent and learn which bits of your body have rubbed the skin off when you stand under the shower and it smarts. From here you can go and get your fry up from the food tent which is all in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital and meet up with your paddling partner and support crew and reminisce and find out about their antics over the night (eating fish and chips on route, getting lost in dark lanes, locked in carparks etc.).
Last time I did the straight through race I was asleep within about 10 seconds of the car starting home, I got dropped off at home where I managed to shuffle in up to bed and woke up a few hours later with shoes, coat, hat and medal still on and a housemate standing there with a cup of tea and painkillers saying ‘do you want these? You were talking in your sleep, well more moaning and swearing’.
The first time I did the race I swore I would never do it again but three years later it drew me in with the question of could I go faster and now I keep going back for more. I do find the days after the race are a mix of a high that I have done it and a post-race blues of what do I do with myself. Normally I manage to resolve this by finding another adventure.
The 4-day event is broken down as follows:
This is the event that is completed by the senior singles, junior doubles, junior veteran doubles, and the endeavour (non-competitive class). The junior class is predominantly undertaken by juniors from private schools who have been training and are completing the race as part of their ‘personal development’. These competitors are generally very determined, enthusiastic and show a great deal of camaraderie between themselves and all other paddlers on the course. Their support crews are often inexperienced parents who haven’t figured out that there are other people actually doing the race so should stand out of the way until little Horacio arrives and are self-righteous if challenged by anyone (this may be considered a vast sweeping statement but is an issue I have encountered every year on the build-up races and during the DW and I always remember Horacio’s parents as being particularly obnoxious).
During the evenings those competing in the junior doubles event have to camp on site while those competing in the senior singles, junior veteran and endeavour classes have the choice of camping on site or finding your own accommodation elsewhere. I have always gone home each night as we live close enough to the route where I am able to actually get some sleep in a warm bed rather than risk camping in March or April. Why make something that is hard even more difficult than it needs to be.
I have done this event twice so far and have always done it when I haven’t felt I was fit enough to do the straight through event or when I was having a bit of a crash in confidence in my abilities. I would like to do this event next where I am fit and confident and can give the race my all rather than getting itchy feet for the race and entering just to do it to get around. That is one to plan for the future.
You need to go through boat check and check in on the first day at Devizes Wharf. Your check-in window and start window on the first day will be determined by what class you are in, unless you think you are going to be one of the slower boats on the course and you can apply to the race officials beforehand to start earlier. Your start window for the next two days will be determined by how long it has taken you to get to that point and it is a mass start by class on the last day.
At the boat check all of your emergency equipment will be checked so you will need to get it out of wherever it is stored. This is due to problems in the past with people trying to get away with clothes that would fit an action man doll but not the person paddling. This is the kit that you will be relying on in an emergency so don’t scrimp. They will also be checking that your boat is water worthy and has things like appropriate buoyancy. I have seen a schools crew here who had tried to make their own bulkhead rather than use buoyancy. The fact that the material they had used had holes in and wasn’t secured in place was rather quickly picked up and they were sent off to buy buoyancy bags and remove it before they could continue because it was downright dangerous and would have allowed the back of the boat to fill with water while making it difficult to empty.
Once you have your piece of paper to say your boat and equipment has passed the checks you can go and register and get your race number and the like and from here on in you are good to set off. The start for the day is done on a rolling basis, a couple of boats come up each 30 seconds-1 minute and are set off in a slow trickle in this way.
The course follows the same route as the straight through described above and the first day is the course of Waterside D if you have done this race beforehand however you finish a couple hundred meters earlier at a leisure centre which confused me the first year as there was someone on the bank waving their arms to get you over to the left for the finish line. You can use the leisure centre showers and then I have gone home from here for the night. This has also meant I can use different support crews on different days so no one needs to give up their entire bank holiday weekend for me to do silly races.
Your start time for the second day depends on how long it took you to finish the first and you are given a start window on that basis. While this day is longer in terms of miles you should start to get some flow from here on in so this day should be shorter in terms of time on the water than the first.
There is normally a que to get on the water for this start because there is only space for a couple at once. This day covers the courses of Waterside B, Thameside 1 and Thameside 2 so you will have some understanding of the course if you have done these races. This will take you down through Reading, join the Thames and make sure you turn right before working your way down through Henley to Marlow.
The last lock of the day you paddle across the top of the large weir at Marlow which you can hear the water going over from quite some distance away. Getting back in after the portage you will be on a pontoon on the left-hand side of the river however you will need to move across to the right-hand side of the river before the island which you can see from the pontoon as you need to pass between the island and the right-hand bank. How easy this move will be will depend on the amount of water coming over the weir behind you on the right. Carry on down this channel until you hear the horn to indicate the finish line.
You finish at the outdoor centre at Longridge where there are showers available and then I head off home for food and sleep.
Day three I always find it very hard to get up for, by now I’m stiff, tired and my body sure knows that it has been doing something for the last two days. While this is the longest day due, hopefully, the help of some flow it will still be less time on the water than the first day. Because there is only the Luzmore race that covers the last part of this day’s course and whenever I have done the straight through race it has been dark and I’ve been doolally by this point this is the section of the river I feel I know least. Again you start this day based on your finish time over the last two days (it gives you an incentive to paddle faster as you then get a later start window and longer in bed).
I find that by day three you have been seeing the same faces passing each other on the water so people start talking to each other more. You may also pass some slower boats that are doing the straight through event that are aiming for the second tide window on the Sunday afternoon who are generally very tired and deserve a bit of encouragement to keep them going.
You go over the lock at Teddington to finish the day and the finish is on the right-hand side below the lock where there is a Thames Young Mariners site. It can be a bit of a steep bank to get up to get off the water but there are willing hands here to help you. There are showers and there is normally a bit of a wait to find out the exact start times that you need to be there for the next morning.
The last day I always find a bit nerve-wracking because the tideway scares me. When you do the straight through race you are too doolally by this point to think about it but when you are getting on for a fresh day with a mass start at this point it brings it to the front of your mind somewhat. The tide time can also mean that you are starting in the dark which can make it seem rather surreal.
The marshals will be more interested in kit checks this morning, particularly making sure that you have any lights that you need because of the bigger risks on the tideway. You then all get on in a pool that has access to the river by a channel where there are normally a few nervous faces trying to be the last ones on the water so they don’t need to hang around too long feeling nervous. Once out on the river it is then a matter of lining up for mass starts.
I have always been very cautious and nervous on this section, feeling very small on a big section of water. While the early starts mean you could be starting in the dark this does also mean there are fewer large boats moving around which is a definite benefit. I have tried to count bridges to have an idea where I am but this never seems to stick by the time I am on the water. It is a matter of just trying to keep my head together and move forward and let the tide do the rest. Those racing at this point will be flying down this section towards the finish.
The last section, like the straight through race, is between the bank and the moored boats on the right-hand bank where the water swirls around you making me concerned I will fall in during the last moments. Finally under the bridge to the people in waders waiting at the bottom of the steps to haul you out and carry your boat up the steps.
The difference between finishing this race and the doubles race is that the elation I feel at the finish line lasts all day. Rather than falling asleep for the afternoon once I am home I am busy eating most things in sight and have even gone out to the pub for a sunny bank holiday afternoon. I was struggling to walk and busy chattering away about all the things I could do next on a post-race high after one pint of cider but hey I’m a cheap date. I find that the effects of the race hit you a couple of days later when I physically feel at my worst.
This is only really a quick summary of the race but should give you a flavour of all the things you would need to consider when embarking on the race. The race is a real journey through the winter months of training, whether that is eating your emergency race chocolate with your partner after a rubbish training session trying to figure out how to fix the lean, having that eureka moment when you crack the perfect portage or laughing over the ‘bright idea’ to store food that really doesn’t work in practice. I have been lucky enough to have done the doubles race with some true friends and to have had some absolutely amazing support crews along the way who I would not have finished the race without their help, assistance or advice.
I really don’t know how the people who complete this race with families at home find the time to complete the training but they do. They must have very understanding families to have the months of training, the talk of training over the dinner table, the odour of canal or river water from drying kit around the house (after a certain point all kit takes on eau de canal that you can’t seem to get rid of) and the complaint of blisters on your hands or other delightful ailments.
I don’t know where the compulsion, or maybe it’s an obsession, to find out what your body can do comes from but sometimes it is good to push that boundary and find out. There may be many times during the training or the race that you think you can’t go on and that is where the challenge really begins.