Devizes – Westminster, 125 miles, 77 portages – www.dwrace.org.uk
Thursday 24th March, 36 hours before the start
I was at home watching TV when a message was put out on social media by a friend of mine in Afghanistan saying that a sick paddler had let a mate down ahead of the 68th Devizes to Westminster (DW) kayak event starting some 36 hours later. A replacement was eagerly being hunted for. With no major plans over the Easter Break, it didn’t take me long to put my honest bid in, saying that I was a bit rusty but was keen to step in. It had been quite a while since I had last sat in a sea kayak, actually over 4 years, and I would have to borrow a paddle. With plenty of previous Adventure Race experience, I was not afraid to take on this classic endurance race of 125 miles and 77 portages for teams in double kayaks or canoes. I had heard of the event before but had no knowledge of the route or timings other than a bench mark achievement is to complete it under 24 hours.
I soon found out that I was on! I managed a brief chat on the phone at 10pm with Boris, my race partner to be, agreeing to meet at Richmond Canoe Club the following morning for a quick compatibility test paddle to see if we could actually paddle together.
Friday 23rd March, 21 hours before the start
11am I met Boris for the first time at the Richmond Canoe Club, a tall well built guy in excess of 100kg. Boris had developed his physique through years of rowing and swimming. Boris had rowed for Oxford in three Oxford/Cambridge boat races which included a victory. He had also swum the Channel on 4 separate occasions and had completed the DW last year in a little over 26 hours. I sure knew I had my work cut out to meet any expectations. We were also joined by RCC Coach Peter, who sorted us a nice tippy K2 kayak, something I had never been in before, a paddle, spray deck and buoyancy aid to use for the event. Boris had only ever sat in the back before, with the steering in the front and, given Boris’s previous experience of the route, we switched this round and hit the water for a 20 minute paddle. To be honest, after an initial nervous shaky start we were soon flying along the Thames. Before it could all fall apart we got out and fixed the boat on the roof of the car ready for the journey to Devizes. I had just enough time to go and buy some neoprene booties to wear, a hydration backpack and a ton of food that would take my fancy and fuel me during the event, which Peter and Boris judged would be about 26 hours.
Friday 23rd March, 12 hours before the start
With the sick paddler dropping out, Boris had also lost half of his support crew for the event. The support is very important in a successful event as they are responsible for restocking us with food and water along the way as well as for communicating our progress. Fortunately, Boris’s wife Vanessa was persuaded to step in at last minute and team up with the original support Mark. Due to the earlier paddler shout out, Toby was also up for the crack and came along to support. So, 12 hours before the start we were at our overnight stop, Mark’s house, a 30 minute drive from the Start which is in Devizes. After lashings of home made lasagne, it was a quick chat through the logistics before getting some kip.
Saturday 24th March, The Start
This race attracted 136 double kayaks or canoes and, once we’d passed the mandatory kit check, organisers allow teams to start when they like from 06:00am. A start time is calculated by the crews backwards to coincide with the tidal lock at Teddington some 108 miles away. Organisers will only let you through this point after high tide so the flow is in the direction of travel for the last 12 miles from 04:20am. With our 26 hour plan, we wanted to be conservative and make sure we had the best chance to complete this challenge due to the rapid nature of our prep. So, we opted for a 07:49am start. We were off in the Tangerine Dream! Amazing, we had made it this far. The forecast for this early Easter was for 40mph winds from the SW and a cool 10 degrees with 2 weather fronts blowing over us during the day.
The start in Devizes
We soon found our rhythm on the first long unbroken stretch of flat canal and settled in to a nice pace. We arranged to see our crew after the first hour for a quick thumbs up that everything was ok, which it was and we were on a similar time to Boris’s previous year’s Race time of 26h03m. During this first part of the paddle, Boris was able to give me the heads up on what to expect over the next 24 hours as I was paddling this event blind. What makes this paddle race unique are the 77 portages en route. This is where the canal hits a lock system and the teams have to stop, get out and carry their Kayak or canoe over to the other end to continue their journey. This was something we had not practiced and each portage is unique. Some were quite high to get out of and required standing in the boats. The first few did cost us a bit of time but we soon found an effective way to tackle each one. After some time into the event, these portages offered a welcome break from the paddling and allowed us a quick stretch of the legs and a drink of water. Another skill Boris had to master was the removal of the dragging weed collected on the bow after paddling over unavoidable patches.
Saturday 24th March, 3 hours in
We were going well and fast approaching the eagerly anticipated and much hyped up 400m tunnel. Boris had warned me about this tunnel; it was pitch black with the only reference point being the tiny white light at the end, the water was choppy from bounce back off both side walls, so balance was going to be tricky! We had arranged to have our head torches on for this section and I am pleased we did. I though before what was going to be the problem? Well, sitting in the back all I could see was Boris’s back and this conveniently blocked me from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for reference! I didn’t know which way was up. The head torch helped me fix a reference to the wall next to us and allowed us to make good progress through the tunnel. For the next 9 hours, we would paddle along the Kennet and Avon Canal negotiating 57 portages, receiving support and supplies from our crew before arriving at our 54 mile point in Reading just as it was getting dark. Getting dark! I remember Boris telling me that, if we hit Reading by 22:00 we would be doing well and the time was about 18:30. Wowzers, we had been flying and found ourselves 4 hours up on our 26 hours. Just after Reading is a mandatory 10 minute stop where teams attach lights to their boats and a kit check ensures we are ready for the tidal stretch. We took this time to eat some pasta and enjoy some hot chocolate. Spirits were high and we discovered we were the first team to arrive there, so we had overtaken everyone who had started before us. The super speedy kayakers start much later in the afternoon and chase the field down, timing their paddle to perfection to hit a fast flowing Thames from Teddington Lock. We, on the other hand, found ourselves is a different situation. After some calculations in my head, I figured that at the pace we were going and now heading on the flowing Thames, with fewer portages to negotiate we would be hitting Teddington about 2 hours before it opened! We had been paddling at under 21 hour pace and we were still going strong.
Saturday 24th March, 12 hours in
We were going well and now had the tough mundane canal section to Reading (54 miles) behind us in ten and a half hours. The race changes after Reading as it gets dark, very dark, and we are on the flowing and wide and meandering River Thames. Our ground speed picks up and there is a level of navigation needed as the river twists and turns and splits in places. We chose to paddle in complete darkness and use our adapted night vision to track the banks either side of us. The locations of the portages are less obvious and only confirmed by some dimly lit glow sticks. We took our foot off the gas since we were so far ahead of time, and made sure we looked after ourselves and didn’t make any silly mistakes during this challenging part of the event. We were caught by another boat from behind who had also mis-calculated their potential as we would both be held at Teddington (108 miles). They were a bit all over the place and despite having the whole width of the Thames they managed to bump into us! Boris really came in to his own, navigating and steering the kayak impeccably through the 20 remaining lock portages. Portages by this time are tough. Everything is quite sore and the repetitive arm strains are exaggerated by lifting the kayak with one arm and running through. It was during two of these portages that I hit a low point in the race as my left arm was giving me so much pain in the shoulder joint. I put it down to the lack of practice, the nature of this enduring event and the fact that we had eased off the pace a bit. I was struggling to power on my left side. Luckily, the pressure was off and Boris just asked me to keep with his timing. It was thanks to Boris at one Portage that I got him to pummel my shoulder to free up what felt like a trapped nerve or strained tendon. This helped the range of movement tremendously and we kept ourselves going towards Teddington lock. This part of the journey took us through Henley, Marlow, and Windsor, where we saw the castle all lit up with the Queen’s standard flying.
Sunday 24th March, 03:40am 20 hours in
We made it to Teddington Lock 40 minutes before it opened and were greeted by our support team. Easing up the pace during the night section was a wise move as a stop any longer than 40 mins at Teddington would have been more damaging. It also came at a good time for us as Boris hit an energy low so we were able to comfortably stock him back up for the remaining two and a half hours and he also took a new set of warm clothes before having a sit in the warm car. I sat in the front with a couple of pain killers and a nice cup of warm blackcurrant. Mark massaged the pain out of my shoulder as we both waited for the lock to open. It was a good feeling knowing that this last paddle on the tidal Thames would still see us comfortably get under the 24 hour mark and that all of our previous efforts were not lost. We would be joining the Thames as it turned from its high tide at 04:20. Hitting the Thames here 3 hours later, teams would experience a much faster flow over the remaining 17 miles.
Sunday 24th March, The last two and a half hours
We were back on our way, refuelled and pain free. It was still dark, but we had quite a bit of urban lighting along the banks to keep us on track. The Thames got wider and wider as we approached the city and the buildings got higher and higher. As I mentioned, Boris was an Oxford Blue back in 1992 and he really knew this stretch of the river well. This was also the day for the 162nd Oxford/Cambridge boat race which would take place on this same stretch on the following tide in the afternoon. The high winds against the flow made for choppy waters. It was tough going for us and we really didn’t want any silly mistakes this far into the event. We stopped one last time at Putney Boat club before the final push to finish under Westminster Bridge. My GPS watch had stopped hours ago, and all I could remember is that we started at about 07:50 the previous morning. As we approached The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge came into view, I could see the towering clock tower of Big Ben with his big hand on 48 minutes. I knew it was going to be close to the 23 hours and we put in a final push to the cheering crowds and our support team who lined the bridge. We had made it across the line, it was such an amazing achievement and journey we had made. We had actually done it! Soon after we were greeted by a crew who helped us get out of the kayak, and we clambered up the Westminster steps to meet our crew. We were tired and exhausted but you could have seen in us the satisfying sense of achievement. I said it was going to be close, with our finishing time credited as 23h00m01s! Were we disappointed, hell no! We had completely exceeded all expectations and had a blast doing so. Our result put us 34th out of the 136 who started. Boris was keen to get home and catch the Boat Race and a nap before going to the the dinner that evening. I was kindly dropped off at home and completely flopped out. What a crazy 58 hours it had been.
Approaching the Finish
The end of a great journey
This is a great race with so much history. Medal earners include James Cracknell, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Paddy Ashdown, and Rebecca Stephen (British Everest Summiteer). I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to have completed it with such a top guy as Boris, and non of this could have been completed without the super support of Vanessa, Mark and Toby who got it right all the way through. My Thanks go out to them for giving up their Easter for us. I’m not sure I will be in a rush to return, my arms still hurt and my fingers still tingle, and this event took a lot out of me. Luckily, no one can take this achievement away from us. If I was to put a mark down, I think I could be part of a team to achieve 20h 50m. That would require circumstances coming good on the day again.
Thanks for reading,
Yours in Adventuring,
Below is a video from the Canoe Show capturing the winning teams performance in the 2015 event.
The Strava track for the first 54 miles of our Kayak to Reading