Monthly Archives: April 2014

DW 2014 – Day 4. Ham to Westminster – 17 miles, 0 portages

The last day dawned bright and sunny, with a mere 4 mph breeze, perfect!

The tideway is often discussed in hushed tones by DWers. Few crews get the opportunity to practice on the tidal section of the race, because of the need for a safety boat. It’s “only” 17 miles but it holds the greatest fear for paddlers.

The biggest challenge is the waves and washes from the river cruisers refracted off the vertical sides of the river. Canoeists often wish they had opted for a more stable boat at this point. But it’s the unpredictability of the tideway which means that the worst case scenario has to be planned for with belts, braces, buoyancy and spray decks.

Just after yesterday’s race, I had replaced the seats in the boats with low profile alternatives, thus lowering the centre of gravity slightly. I had also fitted the new spray decks.

Waiting for the off

Waiting for the off


All the boats were checked, and the senior singles started to gather in the marshalling pond at Thames Young Mariners, ready to be called forward for the mass start. Some paddlers were warming up, others were collecting their thoughts or engaged in quiet conversation. The mood was subdued.

This was the first time we had seen Sam during the whole race and she had constructed some defences to deflect the waves if they came over the front deck.

Preparing for the worst

Preparing for the worst


The safety boats launched and it was time to move out.
Time to go

Time to go


If we were going to stand a chance of getting a parking space at St Thomas’s hospital, we had to leave early and off we sped. As luck would have it, we got the last spot without having to go into the underground part.

Once again, I jumped onto my bike and cycled up-stream. Due to the development work at Battersea power station, I got hopelessly lost in London, but eventually found myself on Albert Bridge and anxiously scanned the river for single blade paddlers. But that river is big and the boats are so small.

Aha! A C1 in the distance, must be Megan. But no, it was Robert Campbell paddling strongly.

A while later, another C1, this time Tom Barnard. “Have you seen the girls?” I shouted. “They slowed down when it got rough” was the answer.

I can imagine the grin on those two guys faces when a flotilla of four river cruisers caused a large wash which meant the less stable C1s had to brace rather than paddle. Sam must have found it particularly difficult which certainly increased my respect for her courage.

At last I saw the bright red spray deck of The Darkness as Megan came into sight.

Megan on her way to Westminster

Megan on her way to Westminster


“Where’s Izzy?” I shouted. “Don’t know”.

Isobel appeared and I started to relax………..a bit.

Isobel at Chelsea

Isobel at Chelsea


The turbulence had certainly scared her but she had overcome it and was looking good (except the hair!)

By this time Megan was way down-stream so I decided to stay with Isobel. I had to cycle fast to get in front of her as the flow on the Thames was phenomenal.

Big river, small boat

Big river, small boat


In the last mile the swell on the water grew, and both Ruth and I looked down on Isobel battling with the waves. She adopted a J stroke to avoiding switching and crossed the finish line ten minutes after Megan. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Megan at the end

Megan at the end


It still wasn’t over for Isobel and she had to adopt of huge variety of paddle strokes to stay upright whilst she waited for her turn to disembark.
Come in number 723, your time is up

Come in number 723, your time is up


Ardent competitors on the water, great friends on dry land, the joy of seeing each other at the finish was palpable.
So, what shall we do next year?

So, what shall we do next year?


The medals were collected and we lined up for the obligatory pose in front of the Houses of Parliament.
So that's it then

So that’s it then


The final results of the C1 class:

750 Megan Middleton, Fowey River CC – (Tideway – 02:23:16) 22:17:03,
732 Samantha Rippington, Brigidine School – (Tideway – 03:03:10) 24:19:00
723 Isobel Smith, Basingstoke Canal CC – (Tideway – 02:33:45) 24:19:05
708 Tom Barnard, Independent – (Tideway – 02:19:13) 25:20:42
754 Robert Campbell, Bedford School – (Tideway – 02:16:45) 25:32:51

Megan Middleton became the first women to win the Devizes to Westminster senior C1 class. The margin was over 2 hours. After 125 miles and 4 days of racing, Isobel Smith just missed second place by 5 seconds.

Samantha Rippington became the first women to complete DW in a high-kneeling C1 and only the third person to do so. She deserves huge respect for this amazing feat.

Big Ben chimed and the fat lady let rip, and it was all over…………until next year.

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DW 2014 – Day 3. Marlow to Ham – 38 miles, 13 portages

Day three started at Longridge Activity Centre at Marlow and I was at the start before Isobel and Megan. I fitted the light weight spray decks in front of, and behind the paddlers as we expected rain today. I also covered the seats with fresh plastic bags and taped some energy gels to the gunwales, as we would not see the girls very often due to fewer portages.

The third day is Isobel’s favourite, and she set off with a smile on her face which didn’t diminish all day.

Isobel sets off

Isobel sets off


Megan was later starting, and I left with my trusty driver (and wife!) Rowan to get to the first portage at Cookham, after nearly five miles.

I haven’t Bank Supported before, so we’d spent the previous evening carefully planning the access points, with a view to using car and bike in combination. In my haste I lost track of time and as soon as we got to the car park, I jumped on my bike and zoomed off towards the river. It was a very (unnecessary) convoluting route to the lock and those who were there before me, assured me that the girls had not gone through yet.

And so I started to wait (and worry), wishing once again that I smoked! To pass the time, I walked up-stream as far as I could and watched the boats approach. I even wished Liz Murnaghan and her junior partner Max a “Happy Easter”.

Isobel and Megan were in good spirits as they portaged the lock in their usual effortless style and set off down to Boulters.

Knowing that Bray and Boveney were out-of-bounds, we drove to Romney, parked in the station car park and cycled down to the lock where there were “hundreds” of supporters, and a friendly lock keeper who told me he was known as the “Rottweiler”.

The paddlers portage path was designated on one side of the lock and the supporters were restricted to the other side. This meant that you had to time your support with care otherwise you would be on the wrong side at the get-out or put-in if the locks gates were open.

Eventually Isobel turned up, deep in conversation with a K1 paddler.

Sorry, I have to go now

Sorry, I have to go now


The portage was faultless and I phoned Ruth to report progress. Megan’s parents turned up, so I didn’t wait before we set off for Bell.

We parked on a large grass car park next to the river. The weather broke and the rain fell, accompanied with thunder and lightning………..great!

I rode up-stream, found Isobel and shouted some encouragements.

Isobel in the rain

Isobel in the rain


I’m never too sure if paddlers do find it encouraging hearing from their support. I had a very limited repertoire of things to say:

“Keep it going” – Well I’m hardly likely to stop.
“You’re doing well” – Based on what?
“You’re looking good” – Have you seen my hair?
“Go, go, go” – As opposed to stop, stop, stop?
“How do you feel?” – Is this a serious question?
“Do you need anything?” – Apart from a G&T, my bed, a rest and a tail wind, no not really.

And my favourite….”keep paddling”!

Megan at Runnymede

Megan at Runnymede


Soon afterwards, Megan appeared out of the gloom.

Leaving the other support teams to go to Penton Hook and Chertsey, we headed off to Shepperton and watched both Isobel and Megan make up several places in the length of a lock.

Isobel portaging Shepperton

Isobel portaging Shepperton

Megan portaging Shepperton

Megan portaging Shepperton


The last place we saw the girls was just before Molesey, where Isobel took on food, but Megan decided to carry on trying to catch Isobel. But Isobel was “on fire”, it was her favourite day and she had eaten well. Megan started to tire on the last section and wasn’t able to close the gap.

We waited in the increasing rain at Thames Young Mariners for them to finish to rapturous applause.

Isobel passes the finish line

Isobel passes the finish line


Megan completes day 3

Megan completes day 3


At the end of the third day, the C1 class times were:

750 Megan Middleton, Fowey River CC – 19:53:47
732 Samantha Rippington, Brigidine School – 21:15:50
723 Isobel Smith, Basingstoke Canal CC – 21:45:20
708 Tom Barnard, Independent – 23:01:29
754 Robert Campbell, Bedford School – 23:16:06

Megan has extended her lead to 1 hour 22 minutes, a comfortable cushion for day 4. Isobel had pulled back all the time she had lost yesterday and closed the gap to just under 30 minutes, surely too much to recoup from the 17 mile tideway?

DW 2014 – Day 2. Newbury to Marlow – 36 miles, 31 portages

By the time I got to Newbury at 07:15, Isobel had already left and a very quiet and focused Megan was “champing at the bit” until the starters allowed her to get going at 07:30. There was no sight of Sam or even her boat, and Tom and Robert were somewhere along the course.

Another warm and sunny day in store, but the head wind was ever persistent.

I chased after Megan on the bike and watched the portages being effected with ruthless efficiency as she pursued Isobel. As we had not paddled the Waterside B course, the route was not so familiar.

Megan at work

Megan at work


But there is a limit to how hard one can keep pushing and Megan reached it just before Aldermaston, when cramps in her legs started to cause enormous discomfort. The lock cut into Aldermaston was agony as she twisted and turned in the seat to try and ease the pain. On the bank I felt absolutely useless, and phoned ahead to the team to ascertain what could be done.
Megan being re-built

Megan being re-built


At Tyle Mill she was anointed with ibuprofen gel, and a plastic bag was put over the seat to allow more movement. It worked! Soon she was back up to full speed and I was very relieved.

In the meantime, Isobel was making good progress being supported once again, by Ruth on her bike.

Isobel before Fobney

Isobel before Fobney


Soon they were together, and after some serious chatting, it was back to the job in hand.
Back to the job in-hand

Back to the job in-hand


It was on to Fobney where Megan took the muddy route under the bridge…….
Fobney - the muddy route

Fobney – the muddy route


……. and Isobel took a more unorthodox route and avoided the mud.
Fobney - the clean route

Fobney – the clean route


Onwards through Reading to meet the Thames and the compulsory portage at Dreadnought Reach.
Megan taking on sustenance

Megan taking on sustenance


It was all going fine until Marsh when Isobel hit-the-wall BIG TIME!
Isobel being brought back from the brink

Isobel being brought back from the brink


I have seen this scenario on a number of occasions and it does cause concern when the athlete suddenly losses all strength and coordination. Isobel struggled to carry the boat, was dizzy and her speech slurred. There is only one solution, eat like crazy! Isobel grabbed everything on offer and a combination of gels, energy bars and sandwiches soon saw her back to normal.

Ruth was back on the bike and escorted Isobel along the Henley straight and once again, I chased after Megan.

I hate the Henley straight! It can be calm and flat, or have wind and waves like “the North sea”! Today was an energy-sapping head wind with irritating waves.

Soon it was out of the way (until next year!) and we were focussed on the next portage where Howard, on request from Isobel, had secured some chocolate biscuits.

Chocky bickie anyone?

Chocky bickie anyone?


We were relieved to get day 2 over with and the girls started their recovery with a protein shake.
We just can't get enough of the recovery drink!

We just can’t get enough of the recovery drink!


After the second day, the C1 times were:

750 Megan Middleton, Fowey River CC – 13:28:09
732 Samantha Rippington, Brigidine School – 13:51:14
723 Isobel Smith, Basingstoke Canal CC – 14:51:04
708 Tom Barnard, Independent – 15:50:58
754 Robert Campbell, Bedford School – 16:09:51

Megan had taken the lead by 23 minutes, but Isobel’s “wobbly” meant she was now a whole hour down on Sam.

But this is DW, and the “fat lady” hadn’t even cleared her throat.

DW 2014 – Day 1. Devizes to Newbury – 34 miles, 35 portages

It was bright, warm and sunny when we got to Devizes for the start of day 1, basically a re-run of Waterside D.

On WS D, we enjoyed a 10 mph tail wind, but a nagging head wind was to dog us all day.

We couldn’t understand why parking was such a problem because the junior K2s should have all left and the senior singles start afterwars. Unfortunately a body had been found in the water just 100 metres up from the start and the Police had closed the canal until it was cleared.

Of all the scenarios the DW organisers had envisaged, a dead body was probably not on the list of contingency plans. But all credit to them, they stayed cool and waited it out.

So Devizes wharf took on a carnival atmosphere as hundreds of frustrated paddlers milled around waiting for the start.

Devizes wharf, waiting to start

Devizes wharf, waiting to start

At last the Chief Umpire announced that we had the all clear and boats could get away. Megan wasted no time before she was on the water and gone, with me in pursuit on the bike.

Isobel still had a list of people she simply had to hug, and it was some twenty minutes later before she crossed the start line in the company of her mother Ruth, who cycled the tow path.

Megan moving up the field

Megan moving up the field


Both women had paddled the course only 12 days before so knew how punishing the first pound is on the bum and legs, and both executed a false portage to ease the discomfort before Wootten Rivers.
Isobel in great company

Isobel in great company


At Honey Street I managed to deter the swan from Megan, but it had a good go at Isobel, who gave it a piece of her mind!

Megan was soon catching some of the early starters including some of her C1 competitors, but there was no news of Samantha Rippington in the high-kneeling C1 who. As race favourite, she presented our biggest threat.

Not a kayak in sight

Not a kayak in sight


Unbelievably, another swan has taken up residence just after Pewsey, and Megan heard the familiar sound behind her, of wings and feet on water as he came in for the attack. She simply turned her head and scowled at him. Respect to Megan, but I felt quite sorry for the poor guy as he slinked away.
Megan ready to sprint

Megan ready to sprint


Soon we hit the serious stuff as the portages were upon us and it’s what Megan and Isobel do well. They just pluck the boat from the water and run.
Isobel coming through

Isobel coming through


Highly experienced kayak paddlers, they have adopted two different single blade paddling styles. Megan prefers a long power stroke whilst Isobel has a much higher cadence.

I followed Megan down to Kintbury and pedalled back up the course to find Isobel who was in fine spirits and going well.

The crews were well supported by their parents and we were very cautious to ensure that only two people supported at any one time.

The best support in town!

The best support in town!


Bank Support - Cornish style!

Bank Support – Cornish style!


It was a long day, and although the head wind never abated, the sun shone.

The C1 category finished thus:

732 Samantha Rippington, Brigidine School – 06:37:54
750 Megan Middleton, Fowey River CC – 06:40:01
723 Isobel Smith, Basingstoke Canal CC – 07:13:33
708 Tom Barnard, Independent – 07:58:28
754 Robert Campbell, Bedford School – 07:35:07

Megan was 2 mins, 7 secs in deficit to Sam with Isobel 32 mins after. Tom and Robert were paddling boats with far superior stability, which is a handicap on the still waters of the canal, but were they to have the last laugh later in the race?

It all kicks off tomorrow

After all the waiting and preparation, the start of the 2014 Devizes to Westminster International canoe race is almost upon us.

BBC weather forecast as at 16:00 hrs BST:

Friday: 7 to 12 degrees, sunny, 9 mph north easterly breeze (in the left eye!)
Saturday: 5 to 12 degrees, sunny spells, 11 mph north easterly breeze (still in the left eye!)
Sunday: 7 to 10 degrees, cloudy, chance of rain, 15 mph north north easterly breeze (more towards the front!)
Monday: 8 to 13 degrees, cloudy, 10 mph easterly breeze (head wind although the tideway twists and turns)

A warm, dry and sunny DW will be a new experience for Isobel and Megan. How they’ll miss the snow, ice, cold and wet. Even the weather is brighter on the dark side!

Thanks’ to our Waterside experiences we are well prepared for the event having learnt some important lessons and put right some of our mistakes.

One key learning is the issue of sustenance; athletes have to eat to be at their best (and drink). So, I’ve bought 20 lemon and lime energy gels which should see us through the first three days (must get some for the girls too!  ).

Isobel is going to take fluid with her instead of waiting for the portages. This will be especially important due to the warm weather.

Megan has fitted a pump and Isobel has some new paddle shoes (or at least she’d better have, as her current ones are due for retirement).

Yep, they have definately had it!

Yep, they have definately had it!


I’ve had my bike serviced and I’ve recce’d the course up until Hurley.

Our article should appear in Canoe Focus this week, so a little more valuable exposure.

Marsport have made me some bespoke spray decks which I picked up today. I cannot speak too highly of their performance. I took the boat in to be measured last Wednesday and Paul and I made a paper pattern for the “tailor”. He discussed the requirement her on Friday and the finished article is with me today.

It completely covers the open area and has a zipped access all the way to the feet, leaving the front thwart available for grabbing. A couple of stiffeners on the rear deck area held reduce sagging, and it fits perfectly. This should really help on the tideway if the boat washes are big.

Ready for any unexpected tsunamis!

Ready for any unexpected tsunamis!


Spray deck by Marsport

Spray deck by Marsport


No doubt DW will throw up some unexpected challenges, but we’ll muddle through.

38 years ago in 1976, the first female crew “officially” completed the DW. 28 years ago in 1986, the singles event was introduced. In 2014 we hope the first women will complete DW in a C1.

See you at Westminster.

DW 2014 C1 – “runners and riders”

The DW start list has been revealed and there are five paddlers in the C1 class and more women than men.

There is of course Isobel and Megan. With Waterside D under their belts, confidence is high. I am hoping they are eating themselves silly between now and Good Friday building up some reserves for the four day ordeal.

Tom Barnard who joined us for the WS series, is paddling the Wenonah Advantage. Tom has two C2 Endeavour finishes in 2012 and 2013, so has recent knowledge and experience.

Robert Campbell’s name is on the start list. He has eight DWs to his credit including a straight through K2 in 1995 and two K1’s in subsequent years. He did three Vet/Juniors, plus C1 finishes in 1998 in 2008. If he finishes, he will be the first person to complete three C1 DWs.

And then there’s Samantha Rippington. Sam will be paddling a high-kneeling C1 “stick” and she certainly has my respect for attempting the race in such a challenging boat. Sam completed DW in K1 in 2006 and 2007. She took five minutes off Megan at WS C and has got to be the favourite for the win.

So, highly experienced and talented field, which should provide an interesting race.

See you all at Devizes.

Waterside D 2014, last, longest and hardest in the series

Sunday 6th April was a big day today for Darkside Canoes with both Megan and Isobel paddling The Darkness C1 from Devizes to Newbury, 34 miles with 35 portages. The first time a female C1 paddlers have competed in the last and longest stage of the series.

So, the day before, Saturday, I had phoned Isobel and received assurances that everything was under control and she’d meet me at Devizes wharf ready to start at 07:00 hrs.

I’d also spoken with Megan and arranged to meet her parents Terry and Rosemary so I would recognise them on the bank. We met at the Travel Lodge at Leigh Delamere services on Saturday night and went to “The Star” in Hullavington where, would you believe it, they sold Doombar ale from Rock in Cornwall. (almost as good as a Cornish pasty from Newbury!).

It was raining early Sunday morning on the way to Devizes but had stopped when we arrived and we managed to avoid getting wet the whole race. The wind was gusting predominately from the south west, but frustrated the paddlers as the canal twisted and turned on its journey to Wootten Rivers.

Megan was setup and ready and was one of the first boats to set off, benefitting from clear water. Isobel started 8 minutes later and I also commenced my bike ride to Newbury.
Isobel_waiting_to_start_WS_D
Those 8 minutes meant that the chasing pack of K2s were soon passing.

I have always found the washes a difficult encounter in a C1. The longitudinal waves seem to cause the most instability and it often occurs just at the vulnerable switch phase. However Isobel had not a moment’s hesitation and was rock solid as armadas of K2s slowly overhauled the C1.

This was a new phenomenon for Isobel who was more used to overtaking pretty much everyone on the water.

Isobel in the wash

Isobel in the wash


The camaraderie and banter of crews on the Waterside is a lot of what makes it special, and many crews offered words of encouragement as they caught Isobel. However, I had to smile a one exchange as the identical clothing, boat and distinctive hair colour caused some misidentification:

Catching K2: “Keep it going Megan”
C1: “I’m not Megan”
K2: “Well done Naomi”
C1: “I’m not Naomi”
K2: “Looking good Isobel”
C1: thinks……hallelujah!

It was time to chase down Megan who had the training advantage of the previous two Watersides races whilst Isobel was stuck at work.

Megan at work

Megan at work


The last two races she had managed to finish before the rest of her Fowey team, but it’s a long way to Wootten Rivers and time enough to be caught and it is so difficult to wash-hang in a C1. No doubt there was some Cornish banter exchanged!

Then I had my first puncture and by the time I was back on the bike, both girls were well gone, but I knew that they were being well looked after by their established bank support teams.

That first long stretch is a killer on the bum and legs and many crews were jumping out for a “false” portage to ease the discomfort. Megan also ran for a while but was really suffering as she approached Wootten Rivers and nearly portaged again with 1,000 metres to go.

Meanwhile, Isobel had dropped about three minutes but was still paddling strongly. She too stopped to stretch her legs but simply stood up in the boat at the bank side.

Surprisingly the Honey Street swan was rather subdued and just glared at the boats muttering under his breath.

What a relief to get out for the first portage and Isobel made the most of it by running the first lock.

Isobel running with The Darkness

Isobel running with The Darkness


Again I chased after Megan in order to pop a light on the front of the boat before the tunnel. Isobel had already put light sticks on her boat.

The first pound had taken its toll on Megan’s back and a couple of pain killers were required to ease the pain.

Time for another puncture and the last of my spare tubes. The wheel was very muddy so I washed it in the canal before fixing it, not realising that the end of the skewer had fallen in the water. This meant that I had to ride the bike with no fixing on the front wheel just when the tow path became muddy. A quick phone call to my wife and a spare wheel was waiting for me at Great Bedwyn.

Try doing this high-kneeling!

Try doing this high-kneeling!


We were soon at Hungerford and then onto Dun Mill where the “professional” bank support were waiting.

At Kintbury, Megan took on some energy bar and paddled off to Marsh Benham and the next and last feed point. I went back to find Isobel who was in great spirits and exchanging banter with all the male crews!

Isobel paddling on the dark side

Isobel paddling on the dark side


At the last lock in Newbury, I foolishly tried to be “helpful” again and asked the K2 crew to go long, totally ruining Isobel’s planned put-in strategy, I will learn to shut-up, honestly!
Now that's not something one sees very often

Now that’s not something one sees very often


Fired-up from the previous two races, Megan’s performance was phenomenal. She finished first in 6 hours, 42 minutes, 41 seconds, fast enough to come second in the Ladies K1 series by only 10 minutes, in a C1!!
Megan crosses the finish line

Megan crosses the finish line


Isobel finished 16 minutes behind in 6 hours, 58 minutes taking second place. It was her longest session in the C1 by far and an outstanding time of sub-seven hours.
Isobel finishes second

Isobel finishes second


I was also pretty pleased to have finished, it had been a long day.
Pleased to be at the end

Pleased to be at the end


In November last year, we set out with two objectives. Number one was for a female paddler to complete the Waterside series in a C1 for the first time. Not only did we achieve that goal, but Megan won the series. Isobel also showed that the longest and most difficult stage was easily within her capabilities and if it wasn’t for work commitments………
Waterside 2014 series winner and D 1st and 2nd

Waterside 2014 series winner and D 1st and 2nd


Obviously I would never tell them, but I was so proud of their achievements. Not only for their athletic prowess, but their positive attitude and boundless enthusiasm, they just get in and do it.

I did manage to capture some video footage which I’ll put together later in the week.

We all know what the second objective is!