Friday, 5 April 2013

A long way to paddle... the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race

The Devizes to Westminster Canoe race is a bit of a classic. This year was its 65th running - an event with pedigree! Its not an event I would have originally thought of doing, but a couple years back the idea was raised (in a pub of course...) by my good friend, and companion on many an adventure, Simon Nurse.  A battered, but usable K2 kayak was found but the reality of life kicked in and the K2 remained unused, lying in my garden annoying the missus......

Role on 12 months and the idea again gets raised, this time by fell running chum and adventure racer Gary Davies. However I was due to be away over Easter 2013 when the event is held, so again the idea died...

A couple of months before Christmas, the original plans for Easter (back to Castleguard Cave in Canada) were on hold so randomly I mention to Gary 'oh I'm about at Easter, we could do that canoe race....'. Thus starts an adventure!

Even though the timescales to get ready for such a race are tight, we are still slow to get going. The first challenge was refinding the boat - it had been removed from my garden a the request of my good lady and hidden in a boatyard off the River Ely!

First attempt at using our training boat!
The boat was successfully tracked down and finally late November I got my first taste of K2 kayaking - blimey they are wobbly!! And this was with a K2 with no seats....  After a few miles of successfully keeping a K2 the right way up, our training for the DtoW was off.... sort of!

Christmas slowed further progress, but come January we started to get out more, regularly getting trips of 10-12 miles on the local Rivers Ely and Taff. The key problem with the boat though was the lack of seats. Using just foam pads, bum-ache was rife - a few miles of paddling turned to agony.

It was time to upgrade boats. Our good friend Nick Dallimore, our mentor and advisor, also had a Marsport Falcon we could use. We started to use this boat, initially with just foam pads, to improve stability. Initial sessions were a bit wayward - I was in the front steering and we seemed to be zig zagging across the whole river! Later we swapped roles, useful to do anyway, but steering was still wayward and in the end we realised the problem was with the boats steering mechanism and not us!

Dont let a little snow stop training!
The proper seats then got put into the boat. The extra height proved demanding for me and for the first time we started to get wet - not fun in cold weather and in cold water. Many evening sessions were at temperatures below freezing.... all good misery training.

Events for Gary, and ski holidays in February for me, put a gap in this training. Gary was able to fill this in with training in K1s but whilst I had a few K1 sessions I wasn't confident to go too far from a pontoon in such boats!

March arrives and D-Day approaches. We need to get some long sessions in. With less than a month to the race we get onto the actual DtoW course for the first time. Joined by one of our friends also doing the race, Roly, we managed to get a car shuttle in place to do a 36miles section from Woolhampton to Boulters Lock on the Thames.

Roly on the canal after Woolhampton

The trip proved worthy training with about 10miles on the canal, and the rest on a pretty racy River Thames, including doing the last few locks in the dark. However all was not well.. physically I was fine but mentally I was shot. We used the Falcon with the proper seats in and I never got comfortable in the boat. The constant feeling of not having the control and feel needed for such a boat pushed me, and having a couple of swims in the Thames didn't help. If we were going to do DtoW we were going to need a more stable boat.

Quickly Gary found a Kirton Mirage (a 'wobble factor 5' boat as apposed to 'Wobble factor 4' for the Falcon) based at the Cardiff International Whitewater Centre and owned by Canoe Wales. Waterside D race, 34 miles from Devizes to Newbury, was on the following weekend and we arranged to use this boat for the race.

Lacking support we again met up with Roly who was doing the event with his DW partner Dave and shared their support for the race. Arrival at the race was somewhat fun as the promised rain turned first to sleet and then snow! By the time we were on the water it was snowing pretty heavily and was very cold.

The first 15 miles of this race are without any portage break and are pretty tedious as a result. Matters weren't helped by the weather or the fact I get us wet twice quite early on - once trying to get under a swingbridge and the other catching the wing paddle at the wrong angle in the water as we came to the side. Not good for my confidence.

The rest of the race started to go much better. Paddling technique improved and our portaging technique got pretty effective. Going through the 480m long Bruce tunnel was also quite an experience! Water levels on the canal were pretty high and as we arrive at the finish in Newbury the canal is racing along, but we successfully cross the line without further mishap in a little over 7 hours.
Packing up at the end of the Waterside D race
Again physically I'm fine, but I still not convinced I have the skill sets to properly take on the DW race in a K2, especially as it is looking very likely conditions could be pretty challenging. Somehow I'm convinced to continue and a very last minute entry is accepted by a very busy but accommodating race secretary.

During the week before the DW race start I'm back on the Kennet and Avon Canal, but this time in a Canal barge on a short family break. The weather is soddin' freezing, and on a number of mornings we are icebreaking through the canal. The race plays on my mind. Water levels on the Thames are still high, the weather is going to be very cold, and the issue of the K2 boats sits heavily on the my mind. Rarely have I been through such a psychological roller coaster ride for a challenge.

Suddenly during the week the race looks unlikely. Water levels on the Thames are high and the organisers have released a self assessment form to judge whether you should take part. Conditions have also affected our support team - two good friends who had kindly volunteered only a month or so previously, but without any experience of the event and course. Wisely they realise they are not prepared for the task and pull out. It looks like game over, and personally I can live with that!

My team mate Gary is more persistent. Somehow he manages to persuade an experienced hand at supporting the DtoW, Chris Gazeley, to help us out. Although it will only be him and Gary's wife Dawn supporting us, Chris seems to be willing to give it a bash - so the game is back on! Time to confront my demons...

A last minute change of boat completely changes my mental state on the event. It is decided to change tact and use a heavy but stable tandem seakayak, a Nelo Waterman, that Gary owns for adventure racing. This is great - no battling the demon of the K2 kayak for me! The extra misery of the weight is something I can happily handle. Roly is happy as well - he and Dave get to use the more stable Mirage instead of their Falcon!

So come Good Friday and I get home from Devizes and the family canal holiday, frantically pack and sort kit to travel back to Devizes for the race! We pick up Chris on route, check in to the travel lodge, and pop down the pub for food and a couple of beers, and to meet Roly and his crew.

The morning arrives, we sort out some breakfast before heading to the event start. Fairly efficiently we sort kit and the boat, get kit checked and then register. Definitely no going back now. We do a final check of the boat and then make a decision on how to portage a heavy boat especially on the long Compton section. We decide we'll run with it and dump the portage wheels.
Preparing the boat
We plan for an 0800 start time, with an overall plan to complete in 25 hours. We do manage to get on the water for about 0800, but as we hadn't used the boat yet we have a little additional faffing to sort seats and rudder lines. At 0823 we cross the start line.... only 125 miles to go!
Approaching the start line.......
The first few miles worry me - the right shoulder is hurting from the start. Gary is frequently telling me the paddle cadence is dropping but I'm focusing on micro adjustments of paddle style to shift the pain. After a few miles the ache subsides, although the arse and right leg start going numb instead. We have a couple of brief feed and drink stops which gives the chance to shake out the leg and bum, and then on we paddle.

After 3 hrs we hit Lock 51 - our first portage. Thankfully we have the chance to get the legs moving again. Chris and Dawn efficiently get some food down our necks as we carry the boat across the lock. We opt for a change round as well - Gary goes up front to see if the back is more comfortable for me, and off we go again.

This next section is going to be a tough grind. Over 30 portages will take us to Newbury at the 34mile mark. We hit the Bruce tunnel, and again have a disconcerting paddle through the dark tunnel! At Compton we run the 6 or 7 locks that are close together rather than keep putting in and out of the canal, which is the tactic most teams seem to employ around us. Being runners the tactic works well and we end up ahead of a bunch of teams that had recently passed us on the canal.
On the Canal
So we paddle on - hit a portage, get out, get in, paddle on. Suddenly disaster - after a portage our rudder goes haywire. We stagger on in a drunken swagging across the canal frantically trying to avoid other competitors. Eventually as we approach Hungerford we managed to locate some tools, We had fortunately come to a halt outside a Scout hut! 20 minutes of fettling and we are back in the race.

Newbury arrives, after close to 8 hours. Our average speed is only about 4mph but we knew this section would be slow. Chris emphasises strongly that we have to pick up the pace or we wont make the tidal window at Teddington.

Fortunately after Newbury the canal picks up pace. In fact there is quite a flow in a number of places, and our boat is able to pick up some extra speed. We plough on to Reading enjoying the extra pace and the handling of the boat on some of the racier sections.

Darkness arrives before we hit Reading. The canal is flowing fast here, and its quite surreal to be paddling through a civic centre. Soon we're through the portage at Blakes and out onto the Thames. Dreadnought, a compulsory checkpoint, is quickly reach and our support are ready and waiting amongst the chaos. Quickly we have pans of a tuna pasta concoction thrust into our hands and fruitcake thrust into our mouths almost simultaneously. Chris and Dawn ensure we feed and drink, and quickly pack us off on our way in the boat. Chris urges us to keep the pace up.... Just over 70miles to go....

The night is clear so night vision is good, although the moon is yet to rise. It also means its cold, very cold. The Thames is still flowing strongly and we can feel the pace of our boat pick up. Somehow we're still paddling quite strongly and progress feels pretty good. We gradually pick of the lock portages and generally without too much of a problem. Marsh is quite a long and awkward portage, and one where the cold hits us which leaves us keen to get paddling and sort of warm up again.

Every so often our fabulous support team of Dawn and Chris appear, throw food and drink down our throats and get us going again. We're grateful for our tub of a boat on the lumpier bits as we watch racier K2s struggle with some of the chunkier water, and even spot a couple go over (fortunately close to the river bank).

The moon rises and it becomes a very beautiful but bitterly cold night. We paddle on, time becoming a blur. One moment its midnight, the next three in the morning, and soon twilight is on the horizon. On we paddle, various aches and pains shifting around the body.

The sunrise is superb and soon we are in the daylight again. The boat has got heavier through the night as it now has a layer of ice covering it! We negotiate the ice covered 'rollers' at Molesey lock and its now a mere 5 miles to the tide way at Teddington. Baring no major mishap we'll hit the tidal window at Teddington for the final phase of the race.

Those 5 miles prove a grind as bodies really start to tire. We hit Teddington lock where our support gurus drag us out of the boat, thrust warm pots of porridge and tea into our semi frozen mitts and get us nourished for the last section of the race. Gary's shoulder is starting to hurt and a dose of anti-inflammatory is administered.
Feasting at Teddington

We push on through the 'roller' at Teddington, fitting spraydecks on the way, and it's onto the tidal Thames. This section isn't as dramatic as I imagined given the conditions, and is a bit of an anticlimax.
Heading for the portage at Teddington (Dawn Davies)

We have 17 miles left to the finish and its going to be a final hard grind. Initially we are very slow as Garys shoulder gives some severe gripe, but gradually he manages to get the paddling going again and we again make steady progress.

Unfortunately we hadn't really learnt the geography of this section so are unclear what sort of progress we are actually making. Bridge after bridge goes past, but no landmarks we recognise. The paddle grinds on.

Eventually a passing team informs us we're at Putney Bridge with about 7 miles to go. We paddle on. Central London starts to appear, and then we glimpse Parliament and Big Ben! Almost there! Westminster Bridge appears, and loads of cheering souls. We've made it, we actually made it.....

We cross under the bridge to great support from the crowd. The finish crew catch us as we flop out of our boat, and step marshals each grab us and assist us up the steps - we can barely walk. The boat follows us up and suddenly we are on the embankment in the tourist throng, all very very surreal.
At the finish!
Chris and Dawn are waiting and in true fashion Chris shoves foods into our mouths! It's all pretty fantastic! We stagger to the car, elated at finishing this extraordinary event. Clean clothes are grabbed, we change and shower and eat. The body hurts and we are all very tired. Chris and Dawn haven't stopped and without them completion would not have been possible. Diolch yn Fawr iawn team!

So the final question - would I do it again? Certainly, though I'd get myself properly sorted with K2 kayaks for the next time! Easier to carry :-)

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