Tag Archives: Devizes to Westminster

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.

The Darkness Duet……any good?

My goodness me, this boat IS good! In preparation for this year’s DW, John and I are spending as much time on the water as possible.

I have made a new spray deck. I have integrated a couple of K1 zip spray decks and it works quite well. At least it keeps us warm.

Full spray deck with integrated  K1 decks.

Full spray deck with integrated K1 decks.


I have amended our DW schedule for:

Canal – 10.5 minute/miles. This gets us to Newbury at 6 hours. I changed from 10 minute/miles when I realised how much time we lose on the Crofton section.

River – 8.5 minute/miles. On every river outing we’ve easily gone faster than this, but for the race it will be dark, cold and we’ll be tired. We are also planning a couple of food and wet kit changes.

Tideway – 8.0 minute/miles. This is likely to be faster, but it depends how and when we catch the outgoing tide from Teddington, and if we have to portage the Richmond half-lock.

So we’re aiming for a tad below 20 hours.

Our latest outings consisted of:

1. River Thames, Dreadnought Reach to Marsh. The river was absolutely racing and we arrived at Sonning in 11.5 minutes from leaving the pontoon outside Marsport. We were at Shiplake in 31.5 minutes and Marsh within 54 minutes. We were scheduled for one hour. We encountered a strong squall on the approach to Marsh and had to battle a strong head wind.

2. Pewsey to Wootton Rivers. Only three miles, but we covered it in 28.5 minutes with a tail wind, and 28 minutes dead on the return.

3. Wootton Rivers to Kintbury. We paddled some of the Crofton pounds and ran others. This was 14 miles at 2 hours 35. We should have been there 8 minutes earlier.

4. River Thames, Marsh to Romney (Windsor). Scheduled 3 hours 20 minutes at 8.5 minute/miles, actual time taken over the 23 miles was 2 hours 50 minutes. On red boards, the river is shifting. Lots of big swirlies, but very few boilies. Big current differences and directions breaking out from the river into the lock cuts and we were steered towards the bank before we could bring the boat round.

The Henley straight was a mill pond. Hambledon lock keeper said we shouldn’t be out in these conditions. Lock keeper at Cookham was surprised to see us and was alerted to our approach as we smashed through the ice on the lock cut.

Ice in Cookham lock cut.

Ice in Cookham lock cut.

However, we are very experienced paddlers, in a C2, wearing buoyancy aids and accompanied by an experienced support team. I would not have been comfortable in a K1, but we are all ultimately responsible for our own risk assessment.

As the water is so high, some of the normal put-ins are not accessible. I’m glad we didn’t have an under stern rudder!

Unusual place to put-in at Temple.

Unusual place to put-in at Temple.


At Hurley, we choose not to portage over the island, but paddled up to the lock (more ice).
Ice at Hurley lock.

Ice at Hurley lock.


The boat continues to impress. It’s hard to gauge how fast it is because the river is so high, but it “feels” fast. It is rock steady in the swirly water and we have never had to execute a support stroke………………yet!

It’s a dream to portage because of the gunwale grip, the portage handles and the decks. Weighing in at 15 kgs doesn’t feel bad at all.

“Onwards” as Dirty D would say.

First boat has left the mold

The first boat is now built. Both sides were laminated and joined in the mold, and it came out really well. It looks stunning in “naked” carbon fibre.

Black, shiny and naked!

Black, shiny and naked!


We opted for a thin layer of gel-coat and a carbon-kevlar-carbon “sandwich”, which created 600 grams of weight/thickness. We used polyester resin which is recommended for the first boat in a new mold. (Don’t ask me why. It was explained but I just nodded and smiled!!)
The underside.

The underside.


The internal flanges which support the seats and footrests give the boat massive stiffness and rigidity. Once the thwarts, seats and footrests are secured, it will be even more rigid and we may consider reducing the amount of materials to lower the weight and cost.
Flanges for seats and footrests.

Flanges for seats and footrests.


The boat currently weighs in at 13.5 kgs. Once I’ve fitted it out, it should be about 15 kgs.
Just get me on that water!

Just get me on that water!


There still remain a number of tasks to complete before the boat is ready for its maiden voyage. These include:

• Smooth the external join surface
• Shape and smooth the cockpit rim
• Add thin layer of resin to cockpit rim to smarten up
• Reduce width of seat/footrest flanges to 5cms
• Make seats (may use Gees platform kayak racing seats)
• Make footrest with pull bars (will start with basic footrests)
• Add central thwart (35mm carbon tube)
• Add front thwart (positioned to enable front paddler to use to get-up/lower-down to seat)
• Add rear thwart (positioned to enable rear paddler to use to get-up/lower-down to seat)
• fix skateboard grip tape to reduce risk of slipping when embarking/disembarking
• Add buoyancy bags in bow and stern
• Add portage handle to front deck
• Add portage handle to rear deck
• Fix the name stickers
• Add a racing number holder

The maiden voyage is planned for Wednesday 9th December 2015.

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.

Legs

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


Hats

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!

Footwear

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”.

“Dining out” on DW days two and three

During a training paddle from Pewsey Wharf to Wotton Rivers and back yesterday, I just mentioned to my mate (an 11 times DW finisher) about a DW feeding plan and he gave me his copy of “The complete Guide to Sports Nutrition – 6th edition” by Anita Bean. Seems like she’s rather good at this at this endurance sport lark (http://www.anitabean.co.uk/).

Anyway, the style of the book is really good in terms of readability and it pretty much supports my earlier post about a DW feeding strategy.

The most surprising revelation is how much calorie intake is needed for the effort expended during the race and I’d be surprised if anyone has been able to meet their required needs mostly due to logistics. So it may be worth putting on a bit of fat before the race because you’re likely to need it.

There’s probably a reason why sports nutrition product manufactures use grams to measure carbohydrate values and sports nutritionists use calories, but 80 grams of carbohydrate is equivalent to about 320 calories.

Ms Bean declares that the basic metabolic rate (BMR) for a man is weight-in-kg multiplied by 24, and for the women the multiplier is 22. So for me it’s:

75 kgs x 24 = 1,800 calories/day

That’s just to maintain basic life support systems. You then apply a physical-activity-level (PAL) which is a value from 1.2 (fairly inactive) to 1.7 (exercise hard daily). Paddling is hard so I’ll use 1.7.

So my daily calorie need for racing is:

1,800 calories x 1.7 = 3,060 calories/day

The age of the paddler also has to be factored in as one’s BMR drops about 2% every decade so at 55, I’ll take that to mean:

5.5 (decades) x 2% = 11%. 11% of 3,060 = 337. 3,060 – 337 = 2,723 calories/day.

I’m going to take the ”day” as a seven hour paddling duration, so I’ll need 2,723 ÷ 7 = 389 calories/hour which equals about 93 grams of carbohydrates/hours. This is slightly higher than the original calculation using grams of carbohydrates but I did condense the whole day into seven hours.

This supports my energy need estimation although Megan and Isobel are significantly younger than me and probably burn fuel faster than a furnace.

This still leaves the issue of actually getting the food inside the paddlers, which brings me back to the portage analysis for days two and three.

So, looking at day two, Newbury to Longridge:

Feeding opportunities - day 2

Feeding opportunities – day 2

There are clearly some big gaps when the paddlers should be taking on fuel but the Bank Support can’t get to them. This means that the paddlers have to take responsibility for making sure they eat and we all know how reliable they are at doing that!!

It’s not quite as bad on day three Longridge to Teddington:

Feeding opportunities - day 3

Feeding opportunities – day 3

But that grim pound from Mosley to Teddington clearly stands out as issue. It seems to go on for ever and on an empty “tank”, it’ll seem even longer!

We will have to devise a system to make it easy for the paddler to quickly and easily grab a bite to eat during a paddling stretch.

Feeding and fluid replenishment strategy

In order to ensure an adequate amount of energy over the four race days it is important that the paddler consumes enough calories of the right foodstuffs for sustenance over the period. Easy enough, just keeping eating (and drinking)!

It may be just as simple as that and many athletes have successfully completed the race without any thought of a structured feeding plan and just used common sense, experience (not always) and perhaps a bit of luck. There’s nothing wrong with this and if it works for you then great. But I’ve read a number of blogs and talked to paddlers where DW competitors have suffered from not eating the right things often enough and some of this is the result of a casual, hit-and-miss approach to feeding.

One way to ensure that paddlers consume enough food to provide the calories necessary for fuel and energy is to make a simple plan of what they should be taking on, when and where. A written plan would be invaluable to inexperienced Bank Support teams who are often recruited at short notice prior to the race. They are full of enthusiasm and keen to help but need to be instructed on what to do and how to behave. They would be far more effective if they had clear and concise directions on which food to have ready and to ensure that the paddlers had at least the minimum when they meet at each portage.

This is especially important on the senior race. In the wee small hours of the morning, paddlers are sometimes reluctant and can refuse point-blank to eat. The feeding plan can be used as a “weapon” to force the paddlers to eat as they will have “signed-up to it”. If that fails, then direct violence is the only option!

If paddlers run out of fuel then they are in trouble and it’s hard to recover from that type of situation. Most endurance athletes will have experienced “hitting the wall” or “bonking” as we call it in the cycle sport world. (titter yeah not!) It’s a weird feeling, you are convinced that you’re putting in the effort but you don’t seem to making any progress.

“The simple explanation for its occurrence is that long-endurance exercise depletes the body’s store of glycogen, which produces the energy required to maintain performance. When the glycogen depletes entirely, the body has no more fuel and instead burns fat, resulting in a surge of fatigue and a performance collapse.” Source: Bikeradar.com

According to the Science in Sport (SiS) web site, a cyclist needs 60-80 grams of carbs with 500-1000ml liquid per hour as cycling is prone to sweating. I would suggest that canoeing is a harder effort than cycling (unless going uphill) because there is no opportunity to free-wheel so I’ll use the 80 grams upper threshold.

In April we are not likely to be sweating much (although that is not guaranteed), so it’s a case of taking on enough fluid to maintain hydration but not too much that you require the loo too often. This balance can only be determined through experience as we all sweat differently and we hope to use the Waterside series to set a benchmark, but I’ll use 500 ml as a guide.

Carbohydrate is the best source of energy for endurance events and a guideline as to the amount of carbs delivered by certain food products is:

• A 65g SiS GO Energy Bar contains about 40 grams of carbohydrate.
• A 50g Sachet of SiS GO Energy delivers about 36 grams of carbohydrate per 500 ml serving.
• A SiS GO Isotonic Gel contains about 20 grams of carbohydrate.
• 36g of Jelly Babies (about 6 pieces) contains about 28 grams of carbohydrate.
• A medium size banana has about 23 grams of carbohydrate.
• Homemade marmite sandwich, 2 rounds of white bread plus margarine has about 30 grams of carbohydrate.

To create a combination of food stuffs in sufficient quantity to meet the 80 grams/hour requirement seems quite easy, but you have to consider how long it takes from eating and digestion, to the time it is actually converted to useable fuel to ensure it “kicks-in” when you expect and there are no “gaps”. Basically simple carbohydrates are converted quickly whilst complex carbohydrates are more “slow burning”. So there doesn’t seem much point eating complex carbohydrates in the last hour because by the time they are converted to energy, the race is over.

I have devised a simple schematic of a feeding plan. I’m not saying it’s right because I haven’t tested it, but if I can set something up based on science and logic rather than guess work, I at least have a formal starting point to make managed changes based on testing and analysis.

The timeline is for a single seven hour effort broken down into the minimum 80 grams of carbs and the type of carbs required per hour.

Minimum fuel requirement

Minimum fuel requirement

The rationale behind this is:

• Normal high complex-carbohydrate food the night before (pasta, baked potato, rice etc).
• Nothing pre-start due to nerves!
• Minimum 80 grams carbohydrates per hour. At least one energy bar and up to half litre of fluid plus anything else.
• Flip to electrolyte drink in hour three to break monotony, re-hydrate and replenish trace electrolytes.
• Change from bars to gels for the last two hours for faster energy return.
• Caffeine gel in last hour to get final boost before finish.
• Water in the last hour if the paddler is sick of additives!
• Recovery shake straight after paddling plus protein bars.
• Back to normal food to prepare for the next day.

Ideally food should be taken frequently in small amounts to maintain a constant flow of fuel. But the main logistical constraint is the challenge of getting access to the paddler at the portages.

Consider day one of DW, Devizes to Newbury, 35 portages in 34 miles. So that’s one portage per mile isn’t it? NO! There are no portages for the first 15 miles (but there are bridges) and that’s nearly three hours. Some of the locks are so close together they are considered a single portage and those that can be supported are infrequent and not evenly spaced apart.

So based on a 5 mile/hour speed, the number of times a vehicle-based Bank Support team can get to the paddler is:

The left scale is miles and the right scale is hours. Each access point is named plus the distance into the race.

Feeding opportunities

Feeding opportunities

It isn’t many. So the majority of the calorie intake will be through fluid as this is what the paddler can access the easiest whilst paddling through a drinking system.

There is a limit to what the paddler can eat, will want to eat, or have time to eat at the portages where there can be supported. This can be supplemented with paddler self-support but they must be “trusted” to take on nourishment.

On day two there are about 10 access points over 36 miles and on day three about 9 over 38 miles assuming that the Bank Support can get timely access. Obviously the tideway on day four has no access points.

The point of this narrative is to illustrate how important it is to have a feeding strategy with contingency plans to mitigate the potential risks if a feeding stop is missed or the paddler’s performance starts to drop as an indication of fuel starvation.

My plan is to support the paddlers by bike and attempt to feed little and often.

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.