Monthly Archives: March 2016

Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race – 2016

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.

Weather forecast for race day.

Weather forecast for race day.


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.

And we're off.

And we’re 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.

Moving off from one of the 77 portages.

Moving off from one of the 77 portages.


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.
Negotiating a fence at Dunn Mill.

Negotiating a fence at Dunn Mill.


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.

Bank Support in action.

Bank Support in action.


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.

Approaching Teddington Lock.

Approaching Teddington Lock.


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.
The start of the tideway.

The start of the tideway.


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.
The end.

The end.


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.
All done.

All done.


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.

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Three days to DW and we’re ready

The Devizes to Westminster 2016 international canoe race starts on Saturday 26th March and I think we are about ready.

As John is retired and I have managed to get time off work, we have been training like pros. We are lucky that we live within easy access to the DW course and all our training runs have enabled us to better learn the course and also practise the portages.

The Waterside and Thameside race series did not figure in our race lead-up as we know those parts of the course so well, and being in a race environment doesn’t really add any value. There are also the risks of injury and potential for damaging the boat.

During the last few months since the maiden voyage on December 11th, we have gelled as a crew and our paddling technique and fitness has improved immensely. We have tried a number of different things such as spray decks, drink systems, clothing, food, portage options and bank support. If we fail to finish, it won’t be due to lack of preparation.

I changed the rear footrest for a more substantial model which still keeps the pull bar. The pull bar is great for ensuring that your feet are always in the same place on the footrest.

Rear footrest - redesign

Rear footrest – redesign


We have canoed all sections of the course several times and we paddled from Aldermaston to Teddington in the dark in preparation for the night time. We really enjoyed paddling the Thames when it is “on red boards”, mostly because the boat is so stable. The difference in times can be a factor of twenty minutes in twenty miles.
Red Board river condition warnings

Red Board river condition warnings


We have set a schedule for sub-twenty hours and have tested our real speed against our anticipated speed on the canal and river sections. The tideway is being left to chance as we don’t have access to a safety boat or other crews during the day. But quite honestly, we’ll be so tired at that stage, we won’t really care.

Our main objective is to finish. We both need one more straight-through towards qualification for the 1,000 mile club. This is also a great opportunity to test The Darkness Duet C2 in the race for which it is primarily designed.

Our start time from Devizes is very much influenced by the water conditions and the weather. If we can get some decent rainfall in the week leading to the race and the Thames rises, we may delay our start. We were hoping for a light tail wind and cool conditions (about 10 degrees) to Dreadnought Reach, and then an overcast sky, no wind and temperature no less than 8 degrees all the way to Westminster. However, we’ll cope with whatever is thrown at us in the knowledge that it’s the same for everyone.

From the weather forecast, it now turns out that Saturday will be dominated by strong southerly winds from mid-day until Newbury. It is also likely to rain for some of the time, but at least that should prevent freezing temperatures. It should all calm down as night falls and we may even have a tail wind up the Henley straight.

We have found that a good cloud cover far better reflects the light than a clear sky. Also, a clear sky usually means low temperatures and the possibility of ice.

The boat is marginally slower in the dark and we take extra care on the portages at night, which has a small impact on timings. The water level fundamentally transforms the nature of the get-outs and put-ins at the portages as the drop to the water changes. Sometimes the approaches to the rollers at Sunbury, Mosely and Teddington are underwater and we end up with wet feet.

We will start with a full spray deck at Devizes (the one I made). This will reduce the impact of the wind on the boat and keep us warm and dry. At Wootton Rivers it will be removed to expose the small spray deck underneath. This should keep out most of the rain and the water from switching the paddle.

Small spray deck

Small spray deck


The small spray deck will stay on until Dreadnought Reach. Here it will be removed and replaced with another full spray deck which has been manufactured by Marsport. It takes a little time to un-zip at the get out and zip-up at the put-in, but it’s worth it.

The picture below shows the professionally made spray deck on the left, and my home-made one on the right. The main differences are the fit around the cockpit rim, and fewer seams on the Marsport model.

Professional Spray deck on the left, home-made one on the right.

Professional Spray deck on the left, home-made one on the right.


Our emergency mandatory kit will be secured by bungees under our seats. This makes it easy to remove for inspection and is above any water swilling about in the boat.
Emergency survival kit secured under the seats.

Emergency survival kit secured under the seats.


We’ll also have a spare paddle secured in the boat, under the spray deck.
Spare paddle under the spray deck.

Spare paddle under the spray deck.


This will be moved to above the spray deck for the tideway.
Spare paddle on top of the spray deck.

Spare paddle on top of the spray deck.


I have a small torch secured to my buoyancy aid. We’ve tested the light sticks and were surprised that they didn’t affect our night sight.

We have a small torch integrated into the front portage handle. This is wrapped with cycle handlebar tape and is secure and comfortable.

Front light.

Front light.


An even smaller torch is integrated into the rear handle. This shines towards the ground in front of me when the boat is being carried upside-down, so I can avoid trip hazards in the dark.
Rear torch for portaging.

Rear torch for portaging.


For fluid intake, we have opted for the Marsport front bottle holder and bottles with the short tube. These are mounted on the front of our buoyancy aids.

We are planning one stop for substantial food intake, and a complete change of clothing as we go into the night. We may also change our tops depending on how wet and cold we get. It does take time to do these things, but the benefit is worth it.

We have a detailed plan and schedule for the race, plus mobile access to the DW real-time tracking site at:

http://live.opentracking.co.uk/dwrace16/

We are boat number 357 in a C2 category of 18 boats. There are some considerably experienced and fast crews, including some “super stars” from the USA, so we are realistic about our race chances and our gaol “just to finish” remains our number one objective.