Monthly Archives: December 2013

I say, women paddling C1 in the DW, whatever next!

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce the two women athletes who will be paddling The Darkness racing C1 in the 2014 Waterside series and DW; Isobel Smith and Megan Middleton.

Isobel Smith is a 19 year old canoeist who paddles for Basingstoke Canal Canoe Club (BCCC). She is currently ranked in marathon division 4.

I had often seen Isobel and her sister Naomi on the water in a K2 during the Waterside race series as they came zooming past with their distinctive hair colour, in perfect synchronisation and almost telepathic communication. They have a seeming effortless paddling style and if ever a coach needed to show students an example of perfect double kayaking, this would be it.

Isobel and Naomi Smith

Isobel and Naomi Smith

Clearly with talent like that, results inevitably follow and Isobel holds more current Waterside records than any other competitor:

Waterside A
• K2 Junior Ladies: Smith & Middleton – Fowey/BCCC 2:03:37 2013

Waterside B
• K2 Junior Ladies: Smith & Middleton – Fowey/BCCC 2:35:50 2013

Waterside C
• K2 Junior Ladies: Smith & Smith – Basingstoke Canal 3:34:01 2012

Waterside D
• K2 Ladies: Smith & Smith – Basingstoke Canal 5:03:29 2010
• K2 Junior Ladies: Smith & Smith – Basingstoke Canal 5:36:03 2012

Waterside Series
• K2 Ladies: Smith & Smith Basingstoke Canal 13:19:06 2011
• K2 Junior Ladies: Smith & Smith Basingstoke Canal 13:19:06 2011
• K2 Junior Mixed: Middleton & Pearce 14:32:40 Fowey 2009

Isobel has also completed three junior DW events:

• 2009 18:15:05 Isobel Smith & Naomi Smith 3rd BCCC & All Hallows
• 2010 16:28:58 Isobel Smith & Naomi Smith 4th BCCC & All Hallows
• 2013 18:25:23 Isobel Smith & Megan Middleton 6th BCCC & Fowey River

Winning:

2009:
• The Junior Team Trophy
• The BSCA Junior Trophy
• Third position plaque
• Junior Ladies Trophy

2010:
• The Junior Team Trophy
• The BSCA Junior Trophy

2013:
• The Junior Ladies Trophy

As a junior she was not allowed to paddle a single boat and moving directly from a double kayak to a single canoe for DW will present a considerable challenge, the biggest of which will be the duration on the water, for example an additional 1.5 to 2 hours effort on Waterside D alone.

The second team member is Megan Middleton who is a member of Fowey River Canoe Club in Cornwall. Also 19 years old and ranked in marathon division 5.

Megan and Isobel - DW 2013

Megan and Isobel – DW 2013

I didn’t think I’d seen her paddle before but my wife Rowan and I photographed some of the crews exiting the Bruce Tunnel on the first day of the 2013 DW. I said to Rowan “look, there’s Naomi and Isobel Smith” not realising that Megan was cunningly disguised as Naomi! In fact I didn’t even know that they knew each other until I had independently approached them both as potential C1 paddlers. No one ever tells me anything!

Megan is the current holder of the DW record for a mixed junior crew; in 2010 she completed the course with her paddling partner Michael Southey in 16 hours 24 minutes.

She also holds the following Waterside records:

Waterside A
• K2 Junior Ladies: Smith & Middleton – Fowey/BCCC 2:03:37 2013

Waterside B
• K2 Junior Ladies: Smith & Middleton – Fowey/BCCC 2:35:50 2013

Waterside Series
• K2 Junior Mixed: Middleton & Pearce 14:32:40 Fowey 2009

Megan has completed the DW four times as a junior:

• 2009 18:31:30 Megan Middleton & Ryan Pearce 5 Fowey River
• 2010 16:24:08 Megan Middleton & Michael Southey 2 Fowey River
• 2012 18:38:04 Megan Middleton & Dan Palmer 3 Fowey River
• 2013 18:25:23 Megan Middleton & Isobel Smith 6 BCCC & Fowey River

Winning:

2009:
• The Oliver Brown Trophy

2010:
• The Oliver Brown Trophy
• The Trans-Class Team Trophy
• Second position plaque

2012:
• The Oliver Brown Trophy,
• Third position plaque

2013:
• The Junior Ladies Trophy

Megan will also migrate to a single C1 for Waterside and DW 2014 and be in competition with Isobel rather than in the same kayak, what fun!

The next time these two women are in a similar picture frame as below, they will have completed the 2014 DW in a C1.

Megan and Isobel - DW 2013 © Copyright - Olly Harding

Megan and Isobel – DW 2013 © Copyright – Olly Harding

Wanted – two lady C1 paddlers for 2014 DW

So I’ve spent all this time developing, testing and manufacturing the sit&switch racing C1 of my dreams clearly I wanted to be the first to mark up some sort of competitive achievement in the boat. With Easter being later in the year and high tide at Teddington scheduled for 07:35 hrs (reasonable!) on day four, the 2014 DW was an obvious target especially as I still have unfinished business following my failure to negotiate the tideway in 2012.

But what I really need is a milestone, some “badge of honour” to pin on the boat to give it credibility. Another male paddler DW finish doesn’t stand out. Reluctantly I decided to forgo my own ambitions and try to recruit a female paddler or two to become the first women to complete the Waterside series and the DW in a C1, The Darkness.

I put out a wanted request on a couple of canoe web forums to see who might be interested. I was staggered by the quality of female athletes who responded, some outstanding paddlers all with a list of impressive credentials and achievements. I would have liked for them all to paddle my boat but I could only self-fund two canoes.

They all proved that they could have risen to the challenge but I had to make a business decision based on giving the boat the best chance of making it to Westminster and to manage the logistics of locality to enable the creation of multi-media PR and marketing material. Photographs and video are two of the best media for promoting a tactile object like a canoe and I need paddling footage.

The two canoeists had to be comfortable in the boat and confident with the stability and the C1 sit&switch paddling technique. As there are so few women C1 sit&switch paddlers it could be either C2 paddlers or kayak paddlers willing to come over to the dark side.

Canoe paddlers are already familiar with sit&switch and the need to anticipate steering strokes rather than react to the direction of the boat, as they are used to paddling without the aid of a rudder. However, traditional canoes tend to be quite wide and very stable, unlike The Darkness.

Flat water racing kayakers sit the knife-edge of very slim and unstable crafts rated at 1 or 2 on the stability scale, but they can depend on a rudder to maintain their intended direction and they have a paddle blade at each end of the shaft. They could easily cope with the 4 to 5 stability of The Darkness but they would have to learn sit&switch and how to steer a canoe. Concentration, reading the water early and complete empathy with the boat are essential to get the best out of a canoe and that only comes experience and experience is spawned from practice.

It is important that anyone contemplating this challenge has enough time on the water between now and Easter to become familiar with canoeing, so my two boats are already allocated and I hope that the weather allows time for practice.

Another key requirement is DW experience. Being able to paddle the boat is one thing but you still need to know what the DW is all about and it would be unreasonable to expect someone to compete in their first DW in an unfamiliar vessel.

You need to know the portages, the approaches to the locks, avoiding the weirs, where to get out and where to get back in again. Which portages to run, which ones to shoulder the boat and which are best to just use the cockpit. You should know what to expect from your bank support, where they will meet you and where you are on your own. The importance of feeding and fluid intake over a prolonged period.

You need to know what it feels like after five hours paddling knowing you still have two to do and then to do it again on day two and again on day three, in all weathers. You have to get used to being one of the slowest boats on the water and not one of the fastest. You should be ready to cope with the Henley straight with two foot waves and the wide expanse of water downstream of Hammersmith bridge where the banks are a long way away.

We all had to do it the first time but for most of us it was with a mate in a K2. In a C1 you are “billy no-mates” and you have to pull yourself through the low patches by yourself. You have to know about coping with suffering because there is no doubt that you will.

Add to all this, a positive attitude, confidence in your own ability, enthusiasm, fortitude and no qualms about being in a different type of boat.

No female paddler has yet conquered the DW in a C1 and I’m asking a lot of the two women in my boat, but I’m confident that they will be climbing the steps at Westminster bridge on Easter Monday 2014 as they have done on a number of occasions before.

Westminster bridge 2013

Westminster bridge 2013

DW 2014 – bring it on!

The DW 2014 is the first opportunity to test the boat under real marathon race conditions. DW is considered to be the hardest canoe race in the world. It is not the longest but it is certainly one of the most arduous and dangerous.

125 miles from Devizes to Westminster Bridge along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Reading where it meets the river Thames and onwards to London. 77 portages around locks and weirs where paddlers pick the boat from the water and run with it to the embarkation point.

One particular portage at Croftons poses a dilemma. A number of locks are so close together some competitors feel it is quicker to run the entire mile and a half rather than paddle the short canal sections between. Again this depends on the weather especially the strength and direction of the wind.

The unpredictable vagaries of the British weather makes the Easter date for the race a complete lottery which is why comparing the finish times between two different years is not a true reflection of performance. The annuals of DW folklore is littered with stories of frozen canals, thick fog, strong winds, driving rain, ice and sub-zero temperatures and even snow to a warm, balmy day.

The second major factor is the water conditions. Clearly the volume of recent rain fall has a determining impact on the water level in the Kenneth and Avon canal and the speed of flow on the river Thames and this has a huge influence on race times.

Some years after a particularly dry Spring, the flow on the Thames is glacially slow affording very little assistance to the paddler. The water is low which increases the height of the banks at the portages making it slower and more arduous getting in and out of the boat.

Other years after sustained rainfall the speed of flow increases and so does the volume of water going over the weirs on the Thames causing challenging currents and rapids. It is a foolhardy paddler who has failed to familiarise themselves with the weirs and risks the wrong approach to the portage on the wrong side of the river.

The weir at Marlow

The weir at Marlow


No one has died on the race (yet) but some paddlers have lost their lives during training and a number of boats have gone over the weirs, chewed up and spat out downstream. Only once has the race been abandoned after it had started, the year in which the record was beaten. Unfortunately the time didn’t count.

Boulters weir

Boulters weir


The last seventeen miles is on the tidal section of the Thames, “the tideway”. The journey on this part of the race all depends on the time of day as this determines the amount of river traffic. No one is permitted to paddle the tideway on an incoming tide, but the speed of flow does change as the tide flows out from high water.

Large boats on the tideway cause a big wash from the bow which can swamp a kayak or canoe and even cause it to capsize. Even when safely over the main wash, the waves are refracted from the vertical sides of the river, meet other waves and create very choppy water. If you are unfortunate to capsize, it is sometimes a long swim with the boat to the side and a convenient place to empty is hard to find.

So, the boat will have to cope with a variety of conditions and demands from the paddler.

Clearly the light weight of the boat will be a bonus on portages. The low profile will reduce wind resistance and also enable the paddler to negotiate some of the very low foot bridges over the canal. The open cockpit makes getting in and out quick and easy.

The sleek, slim hull with zero rocker should make the boat fast and the gunwales and spray decks should cope with choppy water conditions.

Ideally we need sustained rainfall until a week before Good Friday. Then warm winds to dry the muddy banks at the portages. After that, four days of overcast mild weather with a slight tail wind and then for the Thames “boaties” to have a long lie-in on Easter Monday. I think this is all quite reasonable!

That only leaves one last “minor” consideration………the paddler.

The Darkness – in detail

So what’s going to help propel these women to glory in Westminster at Easter 2014?

The Darkness - racing sit&switch C1

The Darkness – racing sit&switch C1

The first consideration was the weight of the boat. With umpteen portages in a typical marathon and the 77 which have to be negotiated during DW, it is important that the boat is as light as possible to make this easy. So much time can be lost on portages while the paddler picks the boat out of the water, runs the length of the portage and re-introduces the boat to water prior to embarkation.

The Darkness weighs 8 kgs including seat and buoyancy and is quick and easy to get in and out. It also has a comfortable and secure place to grip on the inside of the gunwales.

Carrying grip

Carrying grip

All boat surfaces were considered for reduction especially the parts which are above the water line. As a canoe doesn’t have the benefit of a rudder, it is up to the paddler to compensate for side winds which attempt to turn the boat towards the wind direction in a similar fashion to a weather cock, hence the term “weather cocking”. So the deck area is low profile.

The Darkness - side profile

The Darkness – side profile

Straight line tracking is also an important consideration to reduce the number of times the paddler has to switch the paddle to the other side of the boat in order to maintain the intended direction. The Darkness has zero rocker along the length of its hull thus providing excellent directional stability.

The seating and paddler position is crucial to provide a firm, efficient and ergonomic paddling platform. An adjustable solid platform which supports a moulded foam seat, is fixed with four stainless steel bolts and wing nuts between two parallel rails.

Seat platform configuration

Seat platform configuration

It is 7 cms high from the bottom of the boat. Different sizes, shapes and heights of foam seat can be fitted between the upright seat supports which should be able to cater for most people’s “foundations”.

Cockpit

Cockpit

The seat solution also enables a different foam seat to be used during various stages of the DW. For example, a high seat can be used for the canal section where the water is flat and still. The height allows more leverage on the paddle but it does render the boat less stable as the centre of gravity is higher.

A lower seat may be appropriate for the tideway where the paddler may encounter large washes from the Thames boat traffic plus the refracted waves from the vertical sides of the river.

An adjustable footrest is fitted consisting of two aluminium square profile tubes inside each other to provide a telescopic cross member secured on two rails with stainless steel bolts and wing nuts. It is covered with skateboard grip tape to prevent the paddler’s feet slipping along it.

Footrest and front thwart

Footrest and front thwart

The front thwart provides a really firm and well positioned bar to help the paddler get out of the boat and to lower themselves onto the seat during embarkation. It is wrapped with racing cycle handlebar tape for warmth, comfort and good grip.

Buoyancy is afforded by a 12 litre Palm Infinity airbag in the stern and a 35 lire bag in the bow.

The front deck has quite a steep angle to allow a good sweeping arc for when the paddle is switched from one side to the other and to dispel water if a wave washes over the bow. It rises to meet a flange which forms the gunwale along the top of the entire open cockpit.

Front deck profile

Front deck profile

As well as dispelling water, it also enables the use of spray decks. An ICF compliant open cockpit must be at least 2.4 metres long and the gunwales must not extend in towards the boat greater than 5 cms. This means it is a quite a large open area into which rain, spray and water dripping from paddles can enter the boat. A spray deck front and rear reduces the impact.

Spray decks

Spray decks

I’ve left the most important design consideration to the last; “as everyone knows” to achieve ultimate performance the boat must look cool!

There are some fantastic looking vessels on the water but most rely on pigmentation in the construction to “hide” the imperfections inherent with carbon composite manufacturing processes and they do look pretty. The Darkness is naked of all cosmetic embellishments and is a celebration of the profound beauty of carbon fibre. It is stunningly beautiful and proud of its dark sleekness.

The Darkness - in all its glory!

The Darkness – in all its glory!

Have we thought of everything? Probably not but any short comings will be uncovered during DW.

DW C1 hall of fame

The DW opened up to single boats 1986 and since then 15 paddlers have completed the race in a C1, 4 of them twice and all of them men.

The DW C1 hall of fame is:

1988 Marcus Gohar – 18:09:18 (high kneeler)
1989 Marcus Gohar – 18:42:19 (high kneeler)
1992 P Wea – 22:13:55
1998 R.H.Campbell – 21:41:57
1999 A.C.Baggs – 27:11:14
2002 Russel Light – 24:49:23
2003 Arthur Haskey – 26:16:29
2004 Craig Hill – 30:32:17
2006 Arthur Haskey – 25:02:21
2008 Sean Martin – 21:11:06
Robert Campbell – 24:11:43
Simon Dale – 26:27:46
2010 Sean Martin – 20:10:28
Mike Carson – 21:09:11
James Heath – 24:13:08
2011 Anthony Wilson – 32:41:28
2012 Marcin Ponomarenkow – 19:44:35 (high kneeler)
Kevin Dobson – 25:11:51
Colin Smith – 25:51:11
2013 Anthony Wilson – 28:10:33

The first was Marcus Gohar an extraordinary athlete from Richmond Canoe Club who set the record on his first attempt in a high kneeling Delta C1. It was challenged in 2012 by Marcin Ponomarenkow also from Richmond paddling a modern high kneeler which did not have to conform to the minimum width restriction, but with low river conditions is was still too much to ask.

Marcus paddled again the year after perhaps just to prove it wasn’t a fluke but one cannot compare DW times across the years because the weather and river conditions vary so much.

Arthur Haskey a DW veteran, was the second paddler the complete the race twice winning the class both times as the only competitor. He paddled a Wenonah Advantage.

Arthur Haskey - C1 at Westminster

Arthur Haskey – C1 at Westminster

Sean Martin from Richmond Canoe Club used a Wenonah J203 C1 to complete and win twice in two of the years when there was more than one competitor. Sean developed a very efficient sit&switch paddling technique for the American spec boat.

Sean Martin - Wenonah J203

Sean Martin – Wenonah J203

Anthony Wilson has won the DW C1 twice taking the longest time of anyone to compete the 125 miles but as the only competitor in the class he could afford to take his time plus the fact that his boat must have weighed a ton!

Anthony Wilson - DW C1

Anthony Wilson – DW C1

Craig Hill from Marsport won the 2004 event in a sit&switch C1 and it is his ambition to complete the race also in a high kneeler. Unfortunately he had to abandon his only attempt (so far) due to injury.

Craig Hill - Chilli C1

Craig Hill – Chilli C1

The small number of C1 finishers reflects the tough nature of the class and no lady paddlers to date. That will change in 2014.

The boat you’ve always wanted

Imagine you had a blank sheet of paper and someone said you could write down all the features you would want from a new canoe design. In the three years I spent paddling the various prototypes it gave me a chance to think of ways to improve all the annoying little things that we tend to adapt to as paddlers rather than fixing the causes.

When I designed “The Darkness” I had compiled a list of ideals and aspirations based on three years of testing concepts and now have a boat which in my opinion, is the best compromise between the possible, the practical and the constraints imposed by ICF regulations.

My “shopping list” included:

• lightweight (less than 10 kgs)
• maintains a straight line
• low profile to avoid catching the wind (weather cocking)
• conform to International Canoe Federation (ICF) regulations for competition
• be stable enough for a developing paddler (say wobble factor of 5) and far more stable than a high kneeler
• be faster than a touring C1
• be lighter than a touring C1
• be paddled sit&switch
• be affordable
• fast and easy to get in and out
• able to fit a spray deck
• a front deck which didn’t inhibit switching the paddle
• adjustable seat position
• adjustable footrest position
• height adjustable seat
• a seat solution to cope with different shape and size bums!
• a hybrid which would work equally well with kayak paddles
• it had to look cool

Of course there’s always room for more improvement and what it lacks is objective input from different paddlers but I’m satisfied with the result as I know “what bad feels like” and it is a sheer joy to paddle.

The Darkness

The Darkness

Developing a sit&switch racing C1

Over the last three or four years I have been trying out lots of canoe concepts in an attempt to identify the optimum sit&switch racing C1 design.

When I first crossed over to the dark side, I bought an eleven foot C1 from Ebay (where else!!). This was my first experience of a C1 and I soon adapted it for sit&switch rather than kneeling. I did try kneeling but I lost the ability to walk fairly quickly.

The boat had too much rocker, was too short and weighed 22 kgs so I sold it on Ebay, although I did enjoy shooting Symons Yat in it.

First C1

First C1

It then occurred to me that the best starting point was a K1 which I could then adapt. So I duly acquired an old touring K1 and cut the deck off and built a C1. This was quite successful but made of fibre glass, it still weighed 20 kgs

Converted general purpose K1

Converted general purpose K1

The next idea was to use a white water racer. I got this from Ebay and set about converting it. Unfortunately it was miles too unstable and I ended up the water on the Basingstoke canal canoe club challenge.

White Water kayak conversion C1

White Water kayak conversion C1

So I got a Marcos kevlar K1 hull and increased the freeboard height with some plastic planks and won the 2010 Waterside series for C1. It was the year where we had to run the first 8 miles of “C” due to ice.

Macros C1

Macros C1

In order to get rid of the planks, reduce the weight and improve the deck, I cut the deck off the white water racer C1 and secured it to the Marcos hull.

WW_C1

This worked rather well and I built the rear deck from carbon fibre. I also built carbon fibre extensions to the hull on the bow and stern to improve straight line performance.

Stern section hull

Stern section hull

Bow section hull

Bow section hull

As I now had some experience with carbon fibre, I built a C1 from scratch using an Espada K1 with lots of foam changes to the shape to wrap the carbon fibre around.

Espada C1

Espada C1

This was a bit of a disaster as the flat hull ended up so unstable but I still paddled it in 2011 Waterside D and won the series.

I build another boat using the Macros hull and a made up deck for the next carbon fibre version. This is the boat I paddled DW 2012.

DW C1

DW C1

I had reached the limit to what I could do with the tools and facilities at home so I was faced with a decision, do I quit now or go the whole hog and get it done by professionals. Well I certainly couldn’t go to my grave without giving it a shot, so “The Darkness” is now a full production canoe to the highest professional standards, but more about that later.