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20 April 2006

Devizes to Westminster 2006 report

After two and a half months of training, mental preparation and logistical planning we arrived at Devizes Wharf on Saturday morning, together with our support team, bristling with anticipation for the race ahead.

Mattias and John check in with the scrutineers (click to enlarge)Crews time their start to arrive at Teddington for high tide so the wharf was considerably less busy than the last time we were here, at the start of Waterside D, as many people would already have started or would do so later in the day. None the less, there was a palpable air of excitement as we carried our boats into the scrutineers’ enclosure for a final safety check.

After good luck wishes and a team photo with our supporters we put in and made our way to the start line. At 09:26:30 we set off, just a few minutes after our planned departure time.

Shortly after the start we encountered 'Saddam' the swan. We carefully paddled past the hissing beast and thought we had avoided his wrath but when we had gone about 100 metres I heard an ominous beating of wings behind me. We paddled harder as it grew louder until the crazy bird flew straight into my back. I resisted the temptation to take a slice at his neck with my sharp carbon fibre paddle blade and he clung onto the back deck for a few seconds before finally letting go.

The first support stop at Honey Street (click to enlarge)
There are no portages for the first 14 mile ‘pound’ to Wootton Rivers so we had arranged to meet our support teams at Honey Street (8 miles) and Pewsey (12 miles). The first stop went to plan and we had a slick change of drink bottles.

At the second stop, however, as we reached up to the high wharf to change the bottles Julien and I lost our balance and capsized. We were a bit embarrassed but no harm was done and we quickly dried out as we paddled on towards our first real challenge: Crofton (18 miles).

The Crofton Flight is a series of seven locks spread over about a mile which most crews portage, running with the boat on their shoulders. While John and Mattias are strong runners, Julien and I knew we would struggle with this section and so we had all agreed to paddle a couple of the longer pounds.

After Crofton our next target was Newbury (34 miles). This was the furthest distance that any of us except Mattias had ever paddled in a single day and in my mind I had been thinking of it as the start of the race proper.

After the exertion of Crofton I found the section to Newbury very hard as this is where the portages are at their densest (there are 35 locks in the 20 miles between Wootton Rivers and Newbury).

Portages were never a strong point for Julien and I and at each one we would see John and Mattias leap out and run around the lock, usually paddling away as we reached the put in. We would then work hard to catch them just in time for the next portage where the same thing would happen all over again.

John and Mattias arrive at Newbury (click to enlarge)By the time we reached Newbury after nearly seven hours I was feeling exhausted and emotional. While the support team fed us and congratulated us on our progress so far I just wanted to cry.

Things gradually improved as we continued toward Aldermaston (43 miles) and the last part of the canal section that any of us had paddled on before. The new terrain and the increasing distance between portages helped my morale and Julien and I began to find a good strong pace without the frequent interruptions for tiring portages. It was also, by now, a beautiful spring evening and I thoroughly enjoyed this section.

The next milestone was Reading (54 miles) and the end of the canal. Like most crews, we had planned on a full kit change and a hot meal here and as we got nearer I think Julien must have smelled dinner and he picked up the pace. We arrived at about 20:00 to a mass of supporters and crews all relishing what, for most of us, would be the one break in the race.

Yolanda and Sam, just two of our superb support team (click to enlarge)Thirty minutes later, feeling much more comfortable in dry kit, we set off in darkness on the Thames.

At this stage I felt quite intimidated by the dark and the long night ahead. We are nocturnal paddlers and most of our training in London has been on the Thames and the Regent’s Canal at night but it did not prepare me for the pitch black of the rural river. I was also very conscious of the fact that ninety percent of retirements happen between Henley and Windsor and I viewed this section as the crux of the paddle.

Once again, Julien and I found a good strong pace helped by the slight flow on the river, the deeper water (which results in less hull drag) and the longer distances between portages which were now three to five miles apart. In fact, the portages were now perfectly spaced to be welcome breaks rather than the irritating and tiresome interruptions of the canal and our night time supporters did a fantastic job of meeting us at nearly all of them.

While Julien and I were going from strength to strength, John and Mattias were beginning to struggle, although we did not realise this at the time.

At Hurley (68 miles) we were held up at the portage and they got several minutes head start on us. When we set off we picked up the pace to catch up with them. Despite taking a wrong turn and having to come back on ourselves, we caught them in about three miles and I wondered if they had slowed for us to catch up.

Our pace was now so good and so comfortable that we kept it up and when I turned around at Cookham (74 miles) expecting them to be right behind us there was no sign of them. This was my first hint that something was wrong.

We waited as long as we could but we were starting to get cold as it was now about 00:30 and we set off just as they reached the put in after the portage. At the next lock, Boulters (77 miles), Mattias told us that John had stopped to be sick. I thought nothing of it and assumed he would feel better afterwards.

I will not forget this number in a hurry (click to enlarge)I enjoyed the next leg from Boulters through Maidenhead to Bray (79 miles) as it is very familiar to me and I was happy to be able to give Julien, sitting in front, a bit of steering guidance and even some local history.

At Bray we stopped for some very welcome coffee and waited for John and Mattias. When they arrived Mattias told us that we should activate ‘Plan B’. I was shocked.

From the outset we had planned to paddle the race as two crews together to support each other through the inevitable low points but acknowledging that if one crew had a serious problem we might have to split up.

Julien and I had not appreciated the severity of the problem the others were suffering but John was now dehydrated and being fed dioralyte solution, he desperately needed calories but could not keep anything down and he was cold.

Mattias bravely told us that we should go ahead and that they would slow down and aim for the evening tide at Teddington. Reluctantly, and with a sinking feeling about their chances, we set off alone.

We were now almost at Windsor (84 miles) and over half way through the non tidal section of the river, it was 02:00 and we were both surprised at how good we were feeling. I also realised now that, providing we were careful and nothing went wrong, we should make it.

My focus shifted from getting over the night time crux to reaching Teddington (108 miles). Teddington is the milestone. From here the Thames becomes tidal and one can almost float down the last 17 miles to Westminster with the tide.

I knew, however, that our schedule had slipped a bit and that the tidal barrage at Richmond, three miles downstream of Teddington, would probably be raised two hours after high tide at around 07:00, just as we would be getting to Teddington. This meant we would have a little further to go to catch the tide and an extra portage (after seventy seven one more would be no hardship).

So from Old Windsor Lock (87 miles) I was focused on one thing: getting to Teddington. The next twenty one miles would get harder and harder and I began to feel the first twinge of tendonitis in my right (control) wrist. This is the curse of paddlers and I knew it could become a problem so I redoubled my efforts to fully open my hand on the pushing part of each stroke.

SWE bars. Mattias secured sponsorship for us from a Sweedish power bar manufacturer and they kept us going throughout the raceNow our pace began to slow a little and we were disheartened not to find a support crew at a couple of locks as our fuel was running low. One kind supporter of another crew gave us some coffee and we tapped our emergency supplies of Kendal Mint Cake which kept us going.

When we next met our supporters, Dave and Yolanda, they told us the inevitable news that John and Mattias had retired. They made it as far as Old Windsor (18 hours, 37 minutes and 87 miles). I did not allow myself to dwell on this too much except to think that we had to finish for them.

Dave reeled off the names of the last few portages we had to get through before Teddington, telling us it was only a handful more. I knew he was exaggerating how few portages were left and glossing over how many actual miles were involved but we soldiered on.

At around 05:30 it started to get light and while this gave us a definite lift it also had a downside. After Molesey (103 miles), the last lock before Teddington, the daylight exposed the river stretching out seemingly endlessly in front of us after every bend with no hint of a lock.

By now my arms were starting to tire and I knew I was running out of fuel. Every stroke became harder than the last and I could see that there were many more to go. This five mile stretch from Molesey to Teddington was, for me, the hardest part of the race. Forcing myself to keep paddling took an effort of will I would not have thought possible.

I kept thinking that if we could only get to Teddington I could stop and rest, until the next tide if necessary. In fact, I began to form a negotiating strategy to use with the support team. I would tell them I was going to wait for the evening tide and then let them beat me down to an hour’s rest which I figured was the most we could afford if we were to catch the morning tide.

Finally, we rounded a bend and saw what I almost dared not hope was a lock in the distance. We pulled in to the bank and I dramatically announced that I could go no further. Julien turned around in the boat and gave me a quizzical look. I felt pathetic.

The supporters rallied round and fed me hot soup, power bars, glucose tablets and Nurofen. Yolanda threatened to call my wife, Deborah, and tell her to talk me back onto the water. Then Mattias and a very tired looking John arrived to add their encouragement. I knew I would go on and that I was certainly not going to let everyone down at this stage.

After a few more minutes rest we portaged the lock and set off for Richmond. Julien pointed out that it was now just a Sunday morning paddle and as the calories kicked in my strength returned and I knew he was right.

After Richmond and the tidal barrage we really started to fly and as the sun came out and the church bells rang in Easter Sunday I felt there was no better way to be coming home to London.

Normally when we paddle on the Tideway we keep close to the bank and out of everyone else’s way but on this Easter Sunday morning it was our river and we paddled right down the middle to get the maximum tidal assistance.

The supporters cheered us on at several bridges and, although our paddling slowed a bit in the last five miles, the tide kept us moving fast and soon we began to see landmarks that meant the end was near: Millbank Tower and the London Eye in the distance.

About to cross the finish line under Westminster Bridge (click to enlarge)When Lambeth Bridge came in to view I smiled to myself. We have often paddled here from Wapping in training and always imagined ourselves finishing DW as we paddled the short reach from here back to Westminster Bridge.

Big Ben struck 10:00 as we crossed the finish line 24 hours, 34 minutes and 125 miles after we had set off from Devizes. We had finished a creditable 33rd of the 115 crews who had started the race but all that mattered was that we had finished.

As we were lifted out of the boat by cheerful fellows in dry suits my spirits soared and Julien and I hugged each other and all of our supporters, who had gathered on the beach by Festival Pier.

The knowledge that we did DW is still sinking in and it gives me a thrill every time I think of it. This race is by far the toughest thing I have ever accomplished and I could never have done it alone.

Champagne reception with our support team and Bart (click to enlarge)Thank you Julien. You were a machine. I was just about able to follow your pace but I could never have set it.

Thank you John and Mattias. Without your enthusiasm and camaraderie I would never have persevered through the freezing night time training on the canal and without your planning and organisation we would never have got to Devizes.

Thank you Yolanda, Dave, Helen, Alison, Mishi, John, Sam, Andrew and Craig. You guys were fantastic. There is no doubt that DW is a team event and you were there supporting us every stroke of the way.

Thank you Barking and Dagenham Canoe Club. When we were floundering in our search to find suitable boats in time for training and the race we were taken aback by the generosity of your offer to borrow a pair of stable K2s. They have suited us perfectly.

Finally, thank you Deborah and Bart for putting up with this mad scheme over the last three months.

16 April 2006

We did it!

Julien and I paddled under Westminster Bridge at 10:00 this morning, 24 hours, 34 minutes and 125 miles after leaving Devizes yesterday morning. My body is in bits but I feel elated.

Unfortunately, our other crew had to retire at Old Windsor.

I will write up a more detailed account in a day or two.

Myself and Julien pose at the finish (click to enlarge)

13 April 2006

Training summary

Now that training is over I thought I would carry out a little review of the last two and a half months. I was always a bit concerned that we were not doing enough as the general consensus seems to be that paddling three times a week for three months prior to the race is the minimum training required and we left it a little late getting started. That said, we were all used to paddling 10km at least once a week in the preeceeding months as well as various other activities.

The table and graph below give a summary of what I have done since the beginning of February. One interesting statistic that emerged is that I have paddled a total of 313km in that time. The race itself is, of course, 200km!

Activity Sessions km Time
paddle 19 313 37:41
gym 10 n/a 10:00
swim 6 7 2:55
bike 4 78 3:31
run 4 10 0:55
walk 1 10 2:30
Totals 44 417 57:32

Graph of hours spent on various training activities by date (click to enlarge)

12 April 2006

Race progress online

I thought I would post details of the race progress tracking tools provided by the DW organisers. We will be listed under 'overnight crews' as we are entered in the Senior Doubles event. Julien and I are boat number 346 and John and Mattias are boat number 347.

If the tool works as advertised you should be able to see our split times recorded at various checkpoints en route as well as an ETA for our arrival at Westminster (should you wish to come along and cheer us over the line on Easter Sunday morning).

Our current plan is to start at 09:15 on Saturday and, optimistically, our progress should look something like the table below. Inevitably, we expect some slippage and we will be very happy if we finish within 24 hours!

Location Elapsed time Time of day
Devizes 00:00 09:15
Reading 10:00 19:15
Teddington 19:30 04:45
Westminster 23:00 08:15

11 April 2006


Children's activities at Shadwell BasinWhenever I tell anyone about my Easter plans the first thing they say is "are you doing it for charity". When we conceived this endeavour raising money for charity was the last thing on anyone's mind but the more people asked, the more it seemed like a good opportunity.

We have therefore chosen to support the Shadwell Basin Project by raising funds through sponsorship. 'The Basin' is the outdoor activity centre in Tower Hamlets, East London where our club is based. We have the use of their facilities on a Tuesday night but for the rest of the week the centre is used to run programmes for local school children that include kayaking, sailing and climbing.

If you have been following our progress here and would like to help support this very worthwhile cause (and give our morale a boost at the same time) then please consider sponsoring us through our online sponsorship page.

9 April 2006

Waterside D - the movie

Waterside D - the movie (click to download)Here is a short video shot by Yolanda condensing last Sunday's Waterside D race from six and a half hours down to just over a minute (click on the picture for a 3.3mb download).

Note Julien and I demonstrating that we are good to go for another 91 miles as we cross the finish line at Newbury.

Winding down the training

This morning I had a gentle 1,000m swim to wind down the training programme. Then I went shopping and bought dozens of power bars, sesame snaps and Kendal mint cakes.

This evening we all got together to sort out the food and kit and pack it all away in labelled bags so that by Friday we should be ready to get up and go. We also did some last minute boat maintenance so, bar a handful of outstanding to-dos, we are now about ready. OMG.

5 April 2006

Enough of training - let's do it

John, Julien and I paddled from Wapping to Lambeth Bridge and back tonight in sea kayaks again. We made it there on slack water in 49 minutes and back, with a little tidal assistance, in 39 (13 km round trip).

This may well have been our last training paddle and I am glad. I think we have all reached the stage where DW has taken over too much of our lives and now we just want to get it done.

2 April 2006

Race report - Waterside D

Embarking at Devizes Wharf for the start (click to enlarge)Today we raced in Waterside D, the last of the Waterside Series and the last milestone in our training before DW itself in two weeks time. The race is 34.3 miles from Devizes to Newbury with 35 portages including the dreaded Crofton Flight (seven locks too close together to be worth paddling and therefore portaged in one go - just over a mile).

After finding Waterside C so tough two weeks ago I was more than a little afraid of today's race but it went well and I feel very much more confident about DW now than I did then. We finished 21st out of 42 starters in 6:33:48, Mattias and John were just ahead of us in 20th place with a time of 6:32:05.

About to pass under Horton Bridge, about 3 miles into the race (click to enlarge)In the last race we were competing with each other from the off and this led to Julien and I getting quite demoralised as the others disappeared into the distance. This time we agreed to paddle together collaboratively, as we plan to on DW, and this approach certainly raised my moral and I think helped us all.

The other big difference from last time was support. For the first time we had a support crew, Matt's girlfriend, Yolanda, who did an amazing job single handed. She must have met us half a dozen times during the day, replenishing our food and drinks and cheering us on. I had not appreciated what a boost it is to see a friendly face waiting for you at a portage ready with fresh supplies. I can see that we will be deeply indebted to our support crew as we already are to Yolanda.

Congratulating each other after the finish (click to enlarge)The conditions also helped us today with a strong tailwind blowing all day, the weather was a mixture of sunshine and showers - neither too hot nor too cold. If it is similar in a fortnight's time we will be happy.

The race was not totally without incident: Matt sampled the Kennet & Avon canal at about two thirds distance when he was a bit over enthusiastic embarking after a slippery portage. After that we kept the pace up to keep him warm.

Thanks to Yolanda for the photos. Video clips coming soon.