Waterside B – what did we learn?

Now all the excitement of Waterside B is over, it’s time for some quiet reflection as to what lessons can be learnt from the event.

The first is clearly our prospects regarding performance. Our expectations were erring on the side of caution mostly because we had nothing to go on, but I seriously underestimated the speed that Megan achieved both on land and water, and my carefully laid plans for support and sustenance became redundant from the start!

Waterside C on Sunday 23rd March is 23 miles long and incorporates 35 portages. This time we will plan a little more realistically.

The second is that we really felt the absence of Isobel especially as we had such fun on the water together, though goodness knows how I would have had any chance of supporting them both.

It was a mistake to try to support and take photographs and video at the same time and I ended-up doing a poor job of both. The pictures are not great and I neglected my responsibility on the support front. For Waterside C, I have enlisted the help of my son Chazz to take pictures so I can devote all my attention to Megan (loud groan is heard from somewhere in deepest Cornwall!)

I also forgot to look after myself. The weather was warm and after two and half hours on the bike with no fluid and no food, I paid the price in terms of recovery for two days following. What a fool, especially after all those wise words and planning for nutrition and fluid intake. No excuses, I just got carried away with the event and simply forgot. I can’t afford to make the same mistake on DW.

I was a little over-protective when a fast K2 approached Megan from behind and I “reminded” them to kindly offer a courteous warning in future. Megan assured me that everything was under control and to but-out! Couldn’t help myself there, Megan is younger than my own daughter and maybe it was instinctive. However, lesson learnt and I will seethe in silence next time.

Even though Megan was super-fast over the portages, there is one area we can improve on and that is getting back in. The Darkness has a thwart in front of the paddler specifically positioned to hold on to when raising and lowering on to the seat. I’ve even covered it with cycle handlebar tape for comfort and grip. I will remind her to use it and help make re-embarkation even slicker.



We also made a mistake at one of the portages and got back in next to the inflow. The force of the water pushed the back of the boat out and there’s a limit to the size of gap that one can bridge!

Mind the gap!

Mind the gap!

For someone who has had very little sit&switch paddling experience, she has a fluid and efficient style. However there is always room for improvement and one small area is the position of the paddle blade at the end of the switch. If it is further forward it is immediately ready for the next stroke, rather than forcing it forward and then making the catch.
Push the paddle forward, ready to catch.

Push the paddle forward, ready to catch.

“The aggregation of marginal gains” Sir Dave Brailsford would be so proud!

We need to crack the feeding issue; a girl has got to eat. Now I’ve delegated my responsibility for filming, I can concentrate on getting food into the paddler. Anything, no matter how small, just something little and often (and that especially goes for you too Isobel!! 🙂 )

So, all-in-all a successful day and a great result. Hopefully the mandatory buoyancy aid rule will be lifted for “C”, the weather will be cooler and Megan will be resplendent in Darkside branded paddling kit.


The Darkness takes on Waterside B

Or to be precise, it was Megan who rose to the challenge.

It was the first competitive race for the boat and the first for Megan in a canoe. The event was only confirmed earlier in the week and the recent flood conditions meant that additional rules were applied. Megan had to wear a buoyancy aid and there were two extra compulsory portages.

There were so many unknowns and I had planned a three hour schedule which we thought reasonable, erring on the side of caution, but quite honestly, we simply didn’t know.

The only benchmarks we had were my two previous Waterside A races at 2:52 and 2:47, but they were in early prototype boats. I had paddled the course twice in January in the new boat and recorded 2:43 and then 2:27 with kayak blades.

So, under three hours for a women who had never raced a canoe seemed about right. As Isobel was unable to paddle, we had one simple objective and that was to finish the race.

So, the day dawned and I’d agreed to meet Megan at Great Bedwyn to bank-support by bike. I had this mental image of taking lots of pictures and video, calmly recording times for each section and providing a selection of refreshments and drink as required, and then a leisurely cycle to the next lock.

Megan and The Darkness

Megan and The Darkness

As the weather turned out to very warm, Megan elected not to wear the thermal leggings and just a short sleeved base layer. So much for my specially designed clothing!

Megan had been allocated a 10:15 late, fast start which fitted in with the contingent from Fowey Canoe Club who travelled up from Cornwall that morning. So John (the bank support car driver) and I casually made our way to the start for about 9:15, only to get a text saying “where are you, I’m here and I want to get on the water”.

Megan digging the water

Megan digging the water

Of course, time seemed to accelerate as we made ready to race. And then it just got faster as Megan crossed the start line at about nine thirty five.

The first three portages were a blur. I had just not expected Megan to be so fast and committed across the locks, I mean, aren’t portages an opportunity to rest? My carefully planned feeding scheme was right out of the window and I only got her to eat a piece of energy bar, a piece of banana and a gel (which she said was disgusting!) over the whole race.

Megan pushing off

Megan pushing off

Megan did consume most of two 500ml bottles of energy drink.

The pattern was set, and Megan’s speed over the portages meant that catching K2s had to repeatedly overtake her on the water as they were left standing at the locks.

Megan on the dark side

Megan on the dark side

She ran the short pound at Froxfield, was well past Hungerford on the hour and was in Kintbury half an hour later.

I cycled ahead to checkout the early portage at Dreweats and the additional one just after Marsh Benham. There were a group of watching ramblers who stepped hurriedly aside as they weren’t expecting Waterside racers to be quite so assertive!

We saw very few other boats on the water and were only overtaken by a couple. With the warm sunshine and high water, it was a great paddle. Not so easy on the bank though.

Megan finished in the incredible time of 2:25:28. To compare this with a “normal” Waterside ‘A’ time you could add on another 5 minutes to get through Newbury lock to the wharf, not forgetting the added portage this year.

Crossing the finish line in 2 hours 25 minutes

Crossing the finish line in 2 hours 25 minutes

She won her class event and was quicker than forty five other crews including seven K2 seniors.

In the words of Victor Meldrew..

I don't believe it!

I don’t believe it!

Just seen on Facebook that buoyancy aids are to made compulsory for all paddlers on Waterside B (on the A course) This is ridiculous, the K&A is a CANAL for heaven’s sake.

Most of the Waterside paddlers are vastly experienced athletes and several months into training for the Devizes to Westminster. Many have paddled this canal section during the floods. They have also paddled far faster and more challenging stretches of water on their own.

So come Sunday when there will be marshals, bank support, hundreds of other paddlers and many people on the bank, competitors have to wear a buoyancy aid. This smacks of Nanny State and H&S for the sake of it.

OK, it’s fair that Juniors have to wear them, but it’s Megan’s first WS as a senior and she was so looking forward to not having to wear a BA.

But far worse than that, the BA will obscure all my darkside branding and strap lines! 🙂 All that commitment and investment to promote the brand and it will all be covered up! It’s too late to get branded buoyancy aids, didn’t think we’d need them.

For those who choose to wear a BA, that’s your decision based on your own risk assessment, but we are all grownups and are capable of making up our own minds.

What is the world coming to!

A race on the dark side, at last.

A thousand blessings on Newbury Canoe Club as they have arranged the Waterside B race to go ahead on the Waterside A course, hurrah!

So this weekend, Sunday 9th February, The Darkness will be raced in anger from Great Bedwyn to Newbury, 13.5 miles with 21 portages. Actually it will be 20 portages, as the race will finish up-stream of Newbury swing bridge with a compulsory portage through Newbury town centre. That should be interesting for the Saturday shoppers.

The girls have been testing a selection of sports energy bars over the last week with mixed reactions. The jury is still out but the banana flavour (or isoamyl acetate to give it its proper name) is showing strongly.

Waterside A - feeding plan

Waterside A – feeding plan

Hopefully it will be equally appealing during the race because I have a feeding plan for Waterside A which I hope will keep the paddlers sufficiently fuelled to the end. I discussed this with Isobel and Megan during our training day recently and I’m still not sure that they are convinced.
Hopefully I’ll be able to persuade them to eat the things they need little and often by providing support by bicycle, and the things they prefer at the static support points.

Unfortunately Isobel is unable to get the time off work so is not able to participate in the race. However, Megan will be making the trip up from Cornwall with a contingent from Fowey Canoe Club.

She has been allocated a “fast group” signing-on time which is a bit puzzling as the C1 is probably one of the slowest boat types in the event. This does mean though, they’ll be lots of boats to chase but the portages will be carnage by the time we get to them. I have advised footwear with substantial grip!

The weather is looking promising with next to no rain forecast for this week and hopefully into the weekend, because after what we’ve put up with, I think we deserve a break.

So, I’ve just got to get through this week and not worry too much as although I’m not even racing, I’m as nervous as an expectant father. (wish I smoked!)

If you see Megan on water, please give her your support and if you see her in the water, please give her your help.

Go girl!

Team Darkside Canoes – training day

Well we didn’t paddle Waterside A, but we did get together for a training session and had a really fun day. (I’m starting to get the hang of this fun lark!)

Anyway, all the branded clothing turned up just in time for a team photo call so we all met as Isobel’s house for a “serious” planning meeting prior to going out on the water.

Megan and Isobel had just returned from a cultural tour of Amsterdam earlier in the day and seemed somewhat jaded from all the museum tours and architectural appreciation walks. No, I wasn’t aware that the Amsterdam Stock Exchange is the oldest stock exchange in the world, but hey, wait until I tell all the lads at the pub!

We discussed how training was going, the layered clothing plan and my ideas for a feeding strategy, all based on logic, research and sound analysis. I proudly produced a selection of sports energy bars, gels and drink additives which I have used extensively myself, and invited the girls to try them during training. However, it was not quite received with the unbounded enthusiasm I’d envisaged. Apparently athletes are quite particular about what they consume whilst racing and each item was inspected with suspicion and the list of ingredients examined in detail.

We still have time to reach a consensus on nutrition, but “you can lead a canoeist to an energy bar, but you can’t make them eat”! I think I may have to make considerable compromises.

Megan and Isobel got changed into the new gear and we drove down to Mytchet where we posed for some team photos.

Two elite paddlers and an old bloke.

Two elite paddlers and an old bloke.

Can we get on the water now?

Can we get on the water now?

Eventually we got on the water and I was keen to see Isobel and Megan in action.

Let's do it.

Let’s do it.

It was clear almost from their first paddle strokes that they had the measure of the boat, absolutely no hesitation or uncertainty. A strong and powerful application of the paddle soon had The Darkness skimming along to the point that we almost lost contact with my son who was trying to keep up, running along the bank taking photos.

It felt really good paddling together in our Darkside livery and my confidence soared for our prospects at DW as we moved into a comfortable cruising speed.

The Darkness on the move

The Darkness on the move

It was the first time I’d seen The Darkness being paddled by someone else from the water and I was pleased with the way it performed.

On route to Westminster

On route to Westminster

So we were paddling along at quite apace and then the girls boats came together momentarily. I saw this as an opportunity to make a break and started a racing commentary about an Olympic final and I was about to win gold. Suddenly the mood changed and I witnessed raw and uncompromising competitive spirit as the girls immediately responded, driving the paddle into the water and overhauling my boat as we approached the portage.

The next surprise was that they simply would not yield to each other and contested the portage right up to the lock gate, neither was prepared to let the other get an advantage! They may be good friends on the bank, but offered a sniff of a contest and their racing instinct subconsciously kicks in……………….wow!

Catch me if you can.....oh, you can!

Catch me if you can…..oh, you can!

We also took some video footage and I’ve knocked up an early compilation at the following link:

video link

A good day, great fun and a massive step forward.

Our next target is Waterside A or is it B, no it’s B on the A course. See you in two weeks and don’t get in their way!!

Waterside A cancellation, a huge disappointment

Thanks to the instant communication capabilities of web based social media, the canoeing community were made aware of the cancellation of “Waterside A” very soon after the decision was taken and judging by the reaction there are some very disappointed paddlers including myself.

Based only 15 miles from Newbury I have paddled that section of the K&A regularly over the years so I know how the water levels rise and fall according to recent rainfall within the area mostly by the level of the boat compared with the height of the banks at the portages.

During the recent (and continuing) period of incessant rainfall I have seen the levels rise to those I’ve never seen before and have enjoyed paddling from Great Bedwyn to Newbury achieving my personal best time. The current from Kintbury to Dreweats is particularly welcome and the last lock at Newbury is very exciting.

Even though the outfalls are sucking large volumes of water out of the canal into the River Kennet and contributing equally significant volumes where it rejoins the K&A, at no time have I ever felt uneasy and in my opinion it is a very safe journey for the paddler. There have been a couple of instances where a boat has found its way down an outfall but it isn’t anything like the weirs on the Thames, as the water quickly disperses mostly over fields.

Quite honestly if competitors are reticent about paddling the K&A in these conditions, what chance will they stand on the Thames? Probably best to consider sprinting instead!!

So, if the conditions pose little or no threat to the paddler, why was it cancelled? I suspect it is mostly due to the organisation and logistics of bank support.

I know Waterside and DW is only once a year and we do try to ingratiate ourselves with the local community, but the arrival of a considerable number of people and vehicles at the same time in the same place does impose quite an impact on the local roads and the banks of the K&A and this time both the roads and the canal banks are flooded.

I took a few photographs on Saturday 8th February whilst doing a course recce:

This is the road to Marsh Benham, 10″ deep.

Road from A4 to Marsh Benham

Road from A4 to Marsh Benham

This is Hampstead lock. You can see where the water has destroyed the concrete which is now piled up by the lock.

Hampstead Lock

Hampstead Lock

This is the tow path from Copse to Hampstead. The canal is literally overflowing!

Tow path from Copse to Hampstead

Tow path from Copse to Hampstead

This is the outfall just downstream from Marsh Benham where the Kennet meets the canal. OK it’s a bit more powerful than usual but easily avoidable.

Kennet Outfall - downstream from Hamstead (Marsh Benham)

Kennet Outfall – downstream from Hamstead (Marsh Benham)

This is the other side of it. Best avoided!

The other side of the outfall

The other side of the outfall

I do sympathise with the organisers and I know it is not an easy decision to take, but at least they have let people know in good time and are at this moment, meeting to consider alternatives. I remember being in a similar position a few years back when as the organiser of a cycle time trail, I had to stand up in a packed village hall and announce to 300 riders that the event they were waiting to start was cancelled. I was struck off a few Christmas card lists that year.

This is also a bitter blow to my carefully laid plans for my new sit&switch C1 to make its first appearance at a competitive event. I guess The Darkness will have to stay out of the light for a little longer

DW 2014 fashion. What the best dressed paddler is wearing.

Getting clothing right for DW is a challenge mostly due to the unpredictability of the British weather. This isn’t helped due to Easter not being at the same time each year. As such, the intrepid paddler and their faithful Bank Support crew need to be prepared for every eventuality and adapt in real-time if and when the situation changes to ensure the canoeist doesn’t get too hot, cold or wet and is able to remain comfortable and competitive.

Often the day starts out cold, possibility frosty with an annoying little breeze which chills the fingers. Then paddlers get warmed up, the sun makes a welcome appearance, the breeze drops and it can almost be a pleasant Spring day. Later the clouds may build and we are treated to a rain shower, a little sleet and possibly some hail just to finish it off. As the late afternoon moves into the evening, the temperature starts to drop.

If a paddler gets too warm, they need more fluid, too cold and they burn calories trying to keep warm, too wet and they can become uncomfortable, miserable and cold (and cross!).

So how can a clothing system be defined which will cope with all these demands? A layer approach is clearly the best solution. This has been popular in most adventure sports for some years and there are some amazing “integrated layer systems” which work really well but are jolly expensive.

But the principles are straight forward allowing the athlete to choose the type of garments which are appropriate, affordable, comfortable and don’t make their bum look big!

As a racing cyclist I’ve amassed more outfits than Cindy over the years and cyclist have a huge wardrobe to choose from for every type of racing, weather, terrain and conditions. The big pockets on the back of cycling jerseys bulge with arm warmers, leg warmers, knee warmers, gilet, wind proof top, waterproof top, gloves, over-shoes and ear-hole warmers and a mobile phone (to beg for collection if it becomes too nasty!).

M.A.M.I.L. in action!

M.A.M.I.L. in action!

As a fully signed-up member of M.A.M.I.L. (middle aged men in lycra) I can personally vouch for the versatility of the fabric and I use similar garments whilst canoeing.

For this DW and Waterside, I have designed a number of clothing items based on typical cycling attire into what I hope will be an affective layer solution for Megan and Isobel.

Base Layer

As this is next to one’s skin it is very much a personal choice. However, it needs to be close fitting and have good wicking qualities to promote removal of sweat away from the skin to the outside of the garment where it evaporates quickly. I’ve started using compression tops which squeeze the torso in specific places to aid blood circulation around the muscles. It is also very good at flattening ones tummy!

Mid Layer

This helps trap a layer of warm air within the base layer and I have defined an option for warm weather and one for the cold. The warm option is a short sleeve lycra cycle top made by a German company; owayo custom sports. They are close fitting with a three quarter zipped front.

Darkside short sleeve top

Darkside short sleeve top

The pockets in the back are for fluid and emergency rations.

The cold weather option is a long sleeve lycra top but with a fleecy lining.

Darkside long sleeve top

Darkside long sleeve top

This also has some big pockets at the back. It can go over the short sleeve top if necessary.

Top Layer

The top layer is the weather proof one, something to keep out the wind and rain or both.

These wind jackets have a full length zip which enables them to be put on or taken off very quickly and will also go over a buoyancy aid.

Darkside wind jackets

Darkside wind jackets

They do have a small zipped pocket.

The option for rain at the moment is a gilet. As a sleeveless garment it should not impede paddling too much and should keep the majority of the rain out. I did suggest an umbrella but surprisingly this was not enthusiastically supported.


Let’s not forget the legs and I’ve opted for winter paddle leggings from Flatwater Essentials. Close fitting, comfortable and very warm.

Darkside leggings

Darkside leggings


I’m leaving this up to Isobel and Megan but I see the need for a peaked cap if it’s sunny, fleecy warm hat for the cold and wet, and perhaps an ear warmer for in-between. However I do put my foot down on any hat which has kayak branding!


Seventy seven portages across the four days, ranging from a short dash around a canal lock to the long run at Croftons. The mud at Fobney, the bridge run at Marsh and slippy rollers at Sunbury, Molesey and Teddington to name but a few. Ideally shoes equivalent to the multi functionality of a Swiss army knife are required.

The Darkness footrest

The Darkness footrest

The choice for kayak paddlers is somewhat restricted as they have to get their feet under the deck and need to be able to feel the tiller bar (except the rear K2 paddler of course). A lot of racers opt for bare feet so they can really emphasise with the boat through the footrest. This is fine but you do get cold feet and risk injury on the portages.

A canoe has an open cockpit so feet size is not really an issue.

In my opinion the ideal compromise is the minimal running shoes which are quite popular at the moment. I don’t mean the ones with the individual toes, but the shoes with very little cushioning and support, with a good grip sole and a mesh upper. Trouble is they are so expensive.

So, in summary we have a top-to-toe clothing strategy using lessons learnt from competitive cycling. Let’s see how it works in “the field”.