This post describes our race experience during DW 2016.
After months of training, planning and practicing, inevitably came the day of race; Saturday 26th March.
The previous day, the DW four days crews had set of from the start and completed the first 34 miles to Newbury, in glorious spring sunshine and a light tail wind. Unfortunately the weather was about to change as storm Katie approached the UK. The forecast for Saturday was heavy rain and 40 mph+ winds.
But, the conditions are the same for everyone which even the most thorough planning could not influence. Fortunately we were well prepared.
The boat, kit and mandatory survival kit were checked by the Marshalls. We then had wrist tags attached to ensure the crew did not change during the race, and to help identify our bodies if required!
A real-time tracking device was also attached to John’s buoyancy aid just before we embarked, and at 11:56 hrs, we set off.
I find the first few miles a bit of an anti-climax especially after all the months of training and preparation. We soon got into our stride and were paddling well. We had to stop a couple of times to get the accumulation of weed off the bow.
We had two bank support crews who would be with us for the entire race. They took it in turns to meet us at the various bridges and locks to change fluid bottles and to shove (literally) food into our mouths.
At Pewsey Wharf we recorded 2:01:45 and were in 32 nd position. Half an hour later Wootton Rivers was our first portage. By this time our bums were numb and the legs took a bit of persuasion to work as we disembarked. The top spray which kept us dry and warm was removed to expose the smaller version which would not get in the way for the many portages to Reading.
25 miles in at Hungerford we had climbed 4 places to 28th and went through at 4:42:45. We had lost some time running the 1.5 miles between the locks at Crofton due to the state of the tow path. It was very wet, muddy and slippery and it was difficult to hang on to the boat in the strong wind.
At Dunn Mill we had to climb over a fence. John used the stile whilst I took the fence. I could not hold onto the boat and it crashed down onto the dog waster bin and sustained a big gash in the hull. Fortunately the boat is built using a layer of Kevlar sandwiched between two layers of carbon fibre, so we got away with it.
As we approached Newbury the wind and rain was taking its toll. At one point the boat was blown violently sideways into bushes on the bank. We were cold and wet, and our pace slowed. We had lost 4 places and down to 34th place. Our bank support team were waiting with a complete change to top clothing. The whole operation took nine minutes.
This made a huge difference, and our morale and the speed of the boat climbed. At the 43 miles point at Aldermaston we had regained 2 places and recorded 8:07:45. It was now dark and we activated the light sticks on our buoyancy aids and switched on the front light.
As the River Kennet periodically joined the canal, we benefitted from the flow as we set off to Reading. The rain kept falling but the wind eased a bit. During a portage at Woolhampton John lost his footing, fell heavily with the boat on top of him. This was the first of five such falls and each time I thought our race was done. But John just got up and was back in the boat.
It was the usual fun ride through Reading town centre, silently gliding past the bright lights and people out for a Saturday night to the next check point at Dreadnought Reach. We had gained another 2 places and were in 30 th position in a time of 10:05:45. The small spray deck was removed and our new, full length version was put on.
The portage at Dreadnought Reach is always busy as many crews take the opportunity for a full kit change and to take on hot food. By the time we got to Marsh lock we had climbed 8 places to 22nd position at 11:11:59.
It was now eleven o’clock and we had a full kit change and hot food and within ten minutes, we were back on the water having only lost 2 places by the time we reached Marlow in 12:53:38.
Once during the night, the wind pushed the boat towards the bank and some overhanging trees. We hit a thick branch at speed and John took the full impact on the chest. The boat immediately came to a halt and the branch pushed us backwards as it regained its shape. As we fought to stay upright I thought our day was done, but it was the padding in his buoyancy aid which protected him.
As the race continued, many crews started to tire and by the time we reached Bray after one o’clock, we had climbed to 19th position at 15:38:20 and at Old Windsor up to 18th.
We reached Shepperton sometime after four o’clock at 17:16:05. Our bank support was doing a sterling job keeping us motivated, fed and watered. We were getting sick of energy bars and sweet things, and were grateful for the occasional swig of coffee. We had taken another crew somewhere in the dark and were now at 17th position.
Dawn broke on the last five mile section before Teddington Lock and we were paddling like machines, three months of training paid off and we were on “automatic pilot”. We managed to overtake a lot of boats whose crews were tiring and shot up to 14 th.
When we got on the tidal sections for the last 17 miles we overtook every boat we encountered. The Thames was really rough and many crews sought the shelter of the banks. We stayed in the middle where the current was strong and fast. It was risky, but we wanted to finish as soon as possible.
We gave the race everything and when we climbed the steps at Westminster, we were like zombies! We finished in 12th position in a time of 21 hours 20 minutes and 43 seconds. Not quite the time we’d hoped for, but very happy with the result.
The finish village at Westminster is very busy, there are boats kit, paddlers and people everywhere. But we managed to find our support, grab a shower and shove everything in the car to get home. The boat had taken quite a battering, but as our bodies will heal and recover, the boat will mend.
So after all the training and preparation was it worth it? Is has to be an emphatic YES.