Race kayaking 125 miles to create native woodland in Devon!
Tim Baker, Portwrinkle
The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon 2019
Early in the morning on Easter Sunday, my fellow Portwrinkleman Doug Reid and I paddled our K2 racing kayak under Westminster Bridge in London, thus successfully completing the notorious 125 mile non-stop Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon. In the process, we raised over £3000 for local tree planting charity Moor Trees which aims to re-instate a more equal balance between humans and the environment by nurturing and planting native broad-leaved trees at many sites across the South West.
This event, often referred to as the ‘Mount Everest of canoe races’ has been running since 1950, and comprises a 125 mile course on the Kennet and Avon canal, and later the river Thames, with 77 ‘portages’ around locks on the way. The recently deceased Lord Paddy Ashdown, who won the folding boat class
during his time as a Royal Marine famously said about the race: “It was crippling. We took 25 hours to finish the course, and I can only think of one person in history who has spent a worst Easter”.
We only began learning to paddle the very narrow racing kayaks in September last year, after becoming enthralled by the race and the legendary exploits of past competitors. A fully committed winter of training ensued, supported and accelerated immeasurably by the excellent coaches and team at Fowey River Canoe Club, Golant. Gradually, we transitioned from taking frequent capsizes and long, cold swims, to being able to stay in the boat for longer periods of time, learning to paddle faster and ‘portage’ our boat efficiently. The environment at Fowey really made us raise our game in a way that would have been impossible on our own – the standard at the club is so high and we felt that we had to really work hard to do justice to the coaching effort they made with us and to substantiate our bold ambition! Training and racing in one form or another relentlessly continued up to 5-6 times per week, with double sessions every Saturday.
The build up to the race culminated in the Waterside Series – a set of four races run by Newbury Canoe Club. This gave us the ideal platform to test ourselves, our equipment and learn to work with our support team – an essential component of any successful ‘DW’ race. We were surprised and delighted to contribute to earning a piece of silverware as Fowey took the series team trophy, led by winning performances in many classes.
So to 0900 Easter Saturday; with a tough and memorable eight months of training behind us we paddled away from the start line at Devizes Wharf in Wiltshire cheered on by our support team. The race has broken many people who have been overwhelmed by the ultra distance, so from the very start we tried to stay present and focus on the next paddle stroke.
The day was extremely hot, and despite this we made good progress down the canal past many now familiar landmarks, with the help of extra hydration at each supported lock. At 1854 that evening we arrived, dead on schedule, at Dreadnaught Reach outside Reading marking the start of the Thames section of the race. We were quickly helped into our warm gear to survive night on the river, having received hot food a little earlier, and with that we paddled off into the twilight. It’s worth noting that although technically a race, for most crews the DW is essentially tackled as an individual time trial, although it is common to pass (or be passed) by other boats along the way.
Navigating the river at night proved fairly straightforward – a full moon and clear skies provided plenty of light to avoid the many weirs and other hazards, and to find the correct line into the portages. We did at one point almost plough into a large can mid-stream which would have been costly, but Doug (steering from the front cockpit) took last minute evasive action sparing us a certain swim. At some point throughout the night our pace began to drop behind our planned schedule – fatigue was finally taking its toll. I made a mistake at Marlow lock and fell in – we just carried on. Later, we both fell in after trying to climb out onto some high, undercut pilings at Bell Weir lock – something we would have normally managed easily but in our exhausted condition we lacked the stability we needed. This mistake was more problematic – I got very cold after struggling to empty the boat and get it out of the river prompting an off-the-cuff kit change. Around the same point in the race we damaged our front light – again we had to stop to jury rig a replacement.
Discussing the race with Doug in hindsight our big strength was our mental state – at no point did either of us even consider giving up in the face of these setbacks. The small hours of the night is when lots of crews finally succumb to tiredness but we kept plodding on – having invested so much of our winter in training we were not about to stop, and more importantly we thought of our coaches, our incredibly supportive families and friends and the many people who had sponsored us for the race. We did not talk much during the race, but periodically asked eachother ‘are you alright?’ with the answer always ‘yep, are you?’. Despite the fact that we both knew we were in bits, this got us there.
Another big factor in the race this year was the unusually low flow on the Thames. The final stretch of non-tidal river from Windsor to Royal Canoe Club seemed to go on forever; we were now paddling very slowly and were forced to take regular breaks to rest our shoulders. We put in for our final support stop at Royal and portaged Teddington rollers onto the tidal Thames at 0619 to comfortably catch the ebb tide.
The final 17 miles to Westminster passed by slowly and surreally – the early morning sun began to beat down and we experienced a mixture of excruciating bum pain (there are no stops on this section of the course, so we had to get out on a couple of mud banks for a stretch) and an exhausted zen state of realization that we were now definitely going to finish this absolute monster of a race. It felt like no-man’s land; there were many other crews in similar states to us, limping slowly under bridge after bridge. We would have liked to paddle faster but the tanks were nearly empty and what little remaining strength we had was almost exclusively used to keep the boat upright. I thought that I had memorized all the bridges but had missed a couple, causing us to think we were nearer the finish than we were, but finally we spotted Vauxhall bridge and the MI6 building, shortly followed by Lambeth bridge and beyond that the finish banner hanging on Westminster bridge. Heading down the bank inside the London Fire Brigade pontoons, the cheers grew louder, but just 100m from the finish we were fighting the worst water conditions of the race as wash from a commercial vessel combined with the swirly chop and reflected off the sheer concrete banks, forcing us to brace up for stability. Eventually we were able to resume paddling and managed to power through the line upright and steer to starboard into the arms of the receiving team at the steps beyond the bridge. The time was 0908. It was a euphoric and emotional moment climbing the steps to be greeted by our families as we realized that we had done what we had set out to do back in September, compete in and complete the toughest and longest non-stop canoe race in the world.
Our finishing time was 24 hours 12 minutes placing us 52nd in the senior doubles class. Out of the 145 boats in our class that left Devizes, 31 retired, placing us in the top half of the boats that finished – we were delighted. We later found out that the two other crews from Fowey had both sadly retired due to illness and fatigue (including our good mates and race favorites Dan Palmer and Pete Wilkes), leaving us as the sole finisher from our beloved little club.
The following morning, we were back at the finish line (proudly wearing our medals) to cheer in the Fowey boats competing in the 4 day stages version of the race (for singles and juniors). Notably Matt Collinge and James Drage won the junior men’s doubles, and Alice Bray placed 3rd in the senior ladies singles to cap an excellent club performance.
Doug and I would both like to thank all the kind people who have supported us in this undertaking. It has been very exciting to see how people have enthusiastically connected with both the kayaking and the local tree planting cause that we have been promoting. The benefits of the latter are wide ranging – climate, biodiversity and flooding resilience to name a few.
There is still time to donate to our charitable campaign! To do this (and to learn more about the valuable work of Moor Trees, or even to volunteer) please click the link below.
Donations via this campaign will close at the end of May. All money will go directly to the charity.
Finally, if you fancy having a go in a racing kayak, beginners are very welcome at Fowey River Canoe Club!