Tag Archives: Women canoeists

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.

Devizes to Westminster – first female C1 competitors

The Devizes to Westminster (DW) International Canoe Race is arguably the hardest canoe race in the world. 125 miles non-stop from Devizes in Wiltshire to Westminster Bridge in London. In a double kayak (K2) or double Canadian boat (C2)

A kayak is powered using a double ended paddle and has a rudder.  A Canadian or open boat, is paddled using a single blade and a rudder is not allowed.

The DW was first raced in 1948, 66 years ago and the first female competitor completed the race in 1971 in a K2. The DW four day singles event started 29 years ago in 1985 and since then over 1,000 paddlers have completed the race in a single boat including the 2013 event but only 15 of those were in a single canoe (C1).

In the history of the DW, there is no record of a lady paddler ever having completed the event in a C1 and the same can be said about the Waterside Canoe race series which is four races on the DW course leading up to the main event.

Why?

Well first reason on the list is clearly because it is “quite hard”. It is THE most challenging vessel to paddle of all race categories and to do it for 125 miles over four days not forgetting the 77 portages where the boat has to be carried around locks and weirs,  is not for the faint hearted.

Another possible reason is the availability of a suitable boat. The current choice is somewhat restricted to traditional family, wilderness and touring crafts which tend to be large, robust and heavy, to the sprint, high-kneelers which are “somewhat” unstable. There are also American boats but they are few and far between in the UK and prohibitively expensive.

That is about to change.

Over the last three years I have developed a lightweight racing C1 which:

  • Weighs 8kgs fully configured
  • Is made of carbon fibre
  • Conforms to the International Canoe Federation (ICF) specification for racing
  • Is paddled sitting down using a sit&switch technique
  • Has a mid-range stability rate of about 4 – 5
  • And looks absolutely stunning!

For the 2014 Waterside series and DW, two of these canoes known as ”The Darkness” will be paddled by two lady competitors who will attempt to make history.

This blog documents the story of this venture and the progress from when I hand over the boats to the athletes to when they arrive at Westminster Bridge on Easter Monday 21st April 2014.

I hope you find it of interest.