I blame the new coaching scheme!!
In order to facilitate the development of the new BCU awards structure Tollymore National Outdoor Centre had bought some new fancy competition kayaks – including a Marsport “Toucan” K2. Trevor who is Tollymore’s centre manager showed it to me the day it arrived – and said (casually) “have you ever done the DW?” At this point most sane people would say “No – and I never will” – but I made the mistake of just saying “mmmmm No – why?”
Training started in September and we used the QuoileRiver from Jane’s Shore up to Annacloy and back which gives an ideal 10 mile stretch. Trevor quickly saw sense and decided that as his wife had just had a baby – perhaps this wasn’t the year to do the event. Rather than accepting this with some grace and sense, I immediately asked Oisin Hallissey if he’d be interested in joining me in my mid life crisis to train for the event. For some strange reason he agreed (it turned out to be his mid life crisis as well!!) I was obviously delighted as Oisin is about 6’3” and as strong as a horse so should nicely drive me down the Thames.
The Devizes to Westminster race (otherwise known as the DW) takes place every Easter from Devizes in Wiltshire to Westminster in London a distance of 125 miles. It can be done non stop in a K2 or over 4 days in a single. The event has a tremendous history with a modest start in 1948 by 4 members of Devizes Scouts all aged 17 trying to reach Westminster in under 100 hours. The following year although there was no official event – over 20 boats started out to try to achieve this challenge. In 1950 an organising committee was formed and the first official race took place. The first 50 miles or so of the event take place in the Avon & KennetCanal and the remaining 70+ in the Thames. There are 77 locks to portage round – so the ability to do these efficiently is critical – otherwise huge amounts of time can be lost. The DW is the longest and one of the most challenging canoe marathons in the world. You can start at any time you like in Devizes – but have to plan to catch the tide at Teddington so that you have the tide with you down the last 18 miles or so into the centre of London.
So back to our event! Training took place as regularly as we could manage, either on the Quoile or Strangford Lough. What a winter to train through. Most of our training sessions took place in the dark and the majority of these were in sub zero temperatures. One night we came off the water much drier than usual (as we normally end up soaking each other from the paddle splashes) to realise that the water had literally instantly frozen on our hats and buoyancy aids. One beautiful starry night we were doing our usual 10 miles up towards Annacloy. There are 2 sets of telegraph poles and wires that cross the river and we normally turn at the second set as that marks the 5 mile point. However, just as we reached the first poles and lines – there was an almighty flash of lightning. We looked up but realised that it was a perfectly clear night!! We reckoned it must have come from the power line – so that night we only managed about 9 miles as we were too scared to paddle under the power lines. We discovered afterwards that there had been a fault in the area.
About 2 months before the event we travelled over to the Thames to explore the section of river that we would be doing at night – and this was really useful to get a feel for the river and the portages. We also spent some time with Paul Ralph from Marsport who gave us some great coaching and tips for the race. Paul also sells the best pogies in the world (called Box Pogies) – one of the best bits of kit that Oisin and I have ever bought (we should be on commission now).
Our two very long suffering wives Emma and Cheryl were our support crew – and were armed to the teeth with Seamus the Tom Tom, a load of sandwiches and sticky flapjacks to help us on our way.
The morning of the race dawned and we came down to breakfast to discover that Oisin had been up vomiting during the night and was unable to eat any breakfast. At this stage – I really felt that after all the training and preparation – we wouldn’t be able to take part. However, fair play to the big man – he agreed that we travel to Devizes and see how he was. Once we got to Devizes – he felt a tad better and agreed that we would start and see how things went. Finally at about 10.50am we were off through the bridge that marked the start line. The first 15 miles are portage free and we had aimed to keep a steady 5 miles an hour to get well warmed up. A lot of crews passed us at this stage of the race – and I was starting to wonder had we made the right choice to go slow and steady. However, once passed the first portage we quickly began to catch teams again and passed most of the ones who had passed us.
The portages then come thick and fast and at times it is easier to keep carrying the boat rather than putting it into the water as the distance to paddle between the locks was so short.
On reaching Newbury the River Kennet joins the canal at certain times and there is a very welcome bit of assistance from it – although it does come in and out. Lots more portages later we finally reached Reading at about 10.00pm. As we were coming through the town we were on our penultimate portage on the Kennet and Avon canal when we realised that the paddlers in front of us had taken a swim just below one of the weirs. They seemed genuinely surprised that we would stop and help them – but to us it was the absolutely right thing to do.
There is an artificial and compulsory portage at Dreadnought Reach in Reading (just as you join the Thames) and the girls were waiting with clean dry clothes and hot tea and soup. The weather had been awful with continuous rainfall throughout the day – so it was fantastic to have dry kit and a warm drink. At every portage we had begun to get chilled and it was great to get paddling again to warm up. By this stage Oisin was beginning to get over the bout of the pukes and was feeling much more like himself.
With a good flow on the Thames and having paddled this stretch before the miles were eaten up quickly as we paddled passed Henley down towards Marsh and Marlow Locks. By this stage we had over 70 miles done – so were well over half way (a great feeling!!) The strong flow on the river meant that in the middle of the channel there was a good push down the river – but a number of large island actied nicely as kayak traps for the unwary. At about12.30 am we came across 2 stranded paddlers who had obviously capsized at an island and were struggling amongst the flow through the branches. We stopped the kayak and provided some verbal advice – but were unable to do much from a K2. It was however, amazing to see that most other paddlers paddled straight on by without checking to make sure the guys were OK.
Once we were happy that they were safe – we paddled down to Marsh Lock to inform one of the Marshals that they would need assistance to get off the island. The next 50 miles or so were fairly uneventful and we got into a nice rhythm of paddling and portaging. The girls were unable to find the access point at Romney Weir (despite Seamus’ best attempts) and so agreed to meet us at our next point which was Bell Weir. However when we got to Bell Weir we discovered that there was no access to it – so they had gone down to the next meeting point which was Chertsy. By this stage we were getting low on food, liquid and some determination. However, meeting them at Chertsy and getting hot soup and tea soon revived the spirits and we were on our way to Teddington.
The final 18 miles down to the centre of London were very tough as the river seemed to meander endlessly – but finally Big Ben and Westminster came into view. On seeing Big Ben we realised that we had made good time and if we pushed it a wee bit at the end we could make it under 24 hours. Earlier we didn’t think that there was a chance of this and would have been happy to be completing it in under 25 hours. In the end our final time was 23 hours and 51 minutes and we came 59th out of 150 teams that entered (49 dropped out with 101 finishing the event.)
Finishing was quite an emotional experience especially when you’ve had no sleep and been on the go for 24 hours. Your body is completely spent and it took quite a bit of assistance to get changed. The training had really paid off as neither of us were particularly stiff or sore in terms of arms and shoulder muscles – but Oisin had some serious chaffing around his backside and I had some serous tenosynvitus in my left wrist and forearm – but other than that we felt great.
We were raising money for Muscular Dystrophy and NI Cancer Fund for Children and we owe many thanks to everyone who supported us for the DW event.