Since 1948 paddlers have been flocking to Devizes, the medieval Wiltshire market town, to the start of one of the world’s toughest canoe races.
The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race, commonly known as the ‘DW’, is a canoe and kayak ultra-marathon and widely recognised as one of the toughest endurance races on the sporting calendar. The annual event held over the Easter Weekend, starts in Devizes and finishes 125 gruelling miles later, downstream of Westminster Bridge in central London, just opposite the Houses of Parliament.
Three of the five race classes – Senior Singles, Junior Doubles and a Veteran and Junior crew, compete over the four days starting on Good Friday and finishing on Easter Monday. The fourth class – Endeavour, is a non-competitive four-day event for older paddlers who have completed DW in their earlier years. However, it’s the fifth class – Senior Doubles, that is the main attraction.
Senior Doubles consists of a crew of two adults who must race the 125 miles non-stop from start to finish, starting on Easter Saturday and finishing about twenty-four exhausting hours later on Easter Sunday.
The race starts from Devizes Wharf and the competitors paddle their way along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Reading in Berkshire. There they pick-up the River Thames and continue downstream to Teddington in south-west London. From Teddington the final 17-mile stretch is on the extremely challenging tidal section of the River Thames. Along the way they must overcome 77 portages – sections on the course where the crew must get out of the water and carry their boats around locks or obstacles.
Pat Denham, a retired British Army officer, and two times Senior Doubles finisher (placed 16th with a time of 19 hrs and 15 mins, and 22nd with a time of 22 hrs 52 min), gives a personal insight into the race:
“The DW is one of those endurance events that must be added to the bucket list of things to do. The thought of spending twenty-four hours or more, cold and wet in an unstable craft, battling testing water and changing weather conditions might seem a bit mad. But there is a certain draw that brings competitors in from around the world.
The training, preparation and the event itself, tests all the physiological and psychological elements of self-discipline and mental resilience. It is a race against other crews, the conditions and the clock. However, there is a certain camaraderie amongst marathon canoeists young and old, that engenders competition and an unrivalled sense of achievement when the odds are often stacked up against them.
For the novice or the experienced paddler, whether competing seriously or just doing it to complete the course, the ability to succeed requires detailed planning and a well drilled support team. Moreover, participants must be physically robust, determined, and have the mental strength to overcome anything thrown in front of them. The paddler must be of a mindset that they are going to complete the course and if they are competing, that they’re going to win.”
Planning and Preparation
The DW organisers describe the race as a ‘serious test of skill, physical and mental stamina and planning.’ As in any competition, adequate training and preparation are essential for success. With time and facilities not available to most DW paddlers, Pat recalls the preparation required to meet the physical and mental demands that the organisers allude to:
“We had the added advantage of being in an organisation that could commit us to a full-time training camp, where I learned a lot about myself and others around me. A ninety-minute run in the morning,
with a coach training for the London Marathon, followed by a six-hour paddle, coached by ruthlessly hard people who didn’t accept failure, put us under extreme pressure. But it strengthened our mental resolve and the will to succeed.
There were great days when everything was spot on, and others when nothing seemed to go right, but at no point was I ever going to give in. Pain is just a feeling – it is the power of the mind and mental strength that gets you through.”
Continuous racing for around twenty-four hours or more is not without its risks. Familiarisation with the route and any potential hazards is imperative for both performance and safety:
“A good percentage of the race is during the dark hours, so it is important that the crew learn and memorise the route inside out. There are some dangerous weirs on the Thames – heading down the wrong channel into a portage could place them in severe danger,” warns Pat ominously, before adding:
“Training must be undertaken where possible on the Kennet and Avon Canal and the River Thames during the winter months. That in itself is mentally and physically demanding, particularly to a novice on a cold January morning where the boat may well be breaking ice on the canal. One wrong paddle stroke and the boat is over, the crew is in the freezing water with their body temperatures rapidly decreasing.
In capsize situations, the crew must focus their minds, and communicate with each other while keeping hold of the boat and paddle. They must try and block out the shivering and shaking, drag themselves and the boat to the bank and quickly get out of the water.
Now for the hard bit – there’s only one way to heat the body’s core up again – get back in and start paddling, or jog along the towpath with the boat to warm up before getting back in. Standing around and feeling sorry for yourself dilutes confidence, and funnily enough, does nothing to get you warm. Once a crew has fallen in a few times they either adjust quickly to what is required or hang up their paddles.
Throughout the training, all times will have been accurately recorded to provide the coaches with the information required to forecast a crew’s anticipated completion time. This will have included any results from the Waterside and Thameside series of races in the weeks leading up to the event. These races act as an excellent performance progression benchmark. They provide crews and support teams with racing experience over some of the course enabling them to tighten up their paddling and portaging skills, tactics and procedures.
The critical piece of information from all of this, is the ability to be able to predict the departure time from Devizes to ensure that the crew meet the outgoing tide – roughly one hour after high tide at Teddington Lock. This calculation will enable them to maximise the river’s outgoing tidal flow to Westminster. Too early or too late and they are fighting against the current, or in the worst case, they may be held back until the next tide by race control.”
The Crew and Support Team
To be successful in the DW it takes more than physical and mental strength. A high level of skill and technical ability is a must, as is a compatible partner and well-drilled support team. Pat explains:
“Understanding your partner’s strengths and weaknesses is key to success. I was lucky to be partnered up with two great paddlers, but this is not always the case, and crews must work hard to develop a strong bond so they know how to support each other through the highs and lows.
They must learn to paddle in both the front and back cockpits. The forward part of the boat itself is much narrower and appears to be less stable. A long-term ‘back man’ may well find it daunting, along with the additional responsibility for steering the vessel by way of a small tiller guided by the feet. Every paddle stroke counts – the front crew member must maintain a stable position and develop a constant rate – one that the back man can follow and keep seamlessly in time with.”
In any ultra-endurance event, especially on a linear course, over a prolonged duration, it is the unsung heroes in the support team that can be the difference between success and failure:
“Support teams must be highly motivated and supportive, but also strong enough to stop the crew from giving up when the going gets tough, unless of course, they are injured or in potentially life-threatening circumstances. Anything less is setting the stage for potential failure.
When work commitments negated any further participation as a competitor I diverted to the supporting role. I thought it was tough enough paddling the course but the level of concentration required and the ability to react to unplanned events for a well-drilled support team must not be underestimated.”
Registration for the Senior Doubles commences at 0600 on Easter Saturday in prior to the start window which is open between 0700 and 12 noon. During the final preparations crews are issued with a race number and an emergency kit that is secured into the boat. Pat describes the atmosphere and tension at the start of the race:
“So, the training is complete and the big day has arrived. Nerves are rising, some will talk more than normal, others will be remarkably calm and silent, waiting with trepidation for what is about to come. The boats will have been meticulously checked with new parts fitted where required. Mechanical boat failure during the event can massively hinder progress.
Besides the mandated kit list stipulated by race control, thermal layers with a windproof cagoule is the desired dress. But make sure it is fully serviceable, this is money well spent. I wore a very old Helly Hansen for the first one I did and the motion of my body twisting as I planted my paddle for the duration of the race left me with open skin abrasions on the stomach and under the arms. I knew something was hurting but I never complained and it was definitely not going to stop me.
As for comfort, don’t expect any of that. A numb backside from a small wooden seat is to be expected for those with bony posteriors. And of course, there are no toilets, so learning to adjust your body position to release your bladder while inside the boat is an art in itself.
Portaging smoothly and efficiently can win seconds, or even minutes, and is something that must be practised. An experienced front man will seek out the best place to portage to gain maximum momentum over rival crews. The back man will draw his paddle in hard to force the boat alongside the bank to protect the nose. Smashing the nose of a carbon boat into a concrete bank can cause serious damage and a premature end to the race.
Out of the water, crews must move quickly up the towpath, jostling for position with the aim of getting the boat back into the water first. I suffered constant numbness of the legs which made portaging interesting, my legs moved in the right direction but I had no idea how, because I couldn’t feel them at all.
Having a well-drilled support team that meets the boat at every opportunity along the route is vital. One that is there early enough to watch the boat into the portage, is fit enough to run alongside them on the towpath, can change drinks bottles on the move, and is able to push food into the paddlers mouths as they get back into the boat. Trying to digest food after a long portage when your breathing hasn’t stabilised is an interesting concept and takes time to adjust to.
On approach to Westminster Bridge, and the steps where you clamber out of your boat for the last time, there is no huge fanfare. For most, the finish is around 0800 or later on Easter Sunday, most people are still in bed, blissfully unaware of what has been happening on their own street, let alone on the River Thames for the last twenty-four hours.
For the crew that sense of achievement is overwhelming for some. Physically and mentally drained of every ounce of energy, cold, shaking, sometimes delirious, they walk up the steps with their boat and get a medal popped over their heads. The support team will whisk the boat away and then it’s hot food and drinks, shower and homeward bound.
As they look back on what they’ve achieved there is some joviality amongst the crews as they start their race analysis, recapturing the highs and lows. Most just want to sleep but their bodies are still filled with adrenalin and the thought of a few celebratory drinks later.
Those who complete the DW often go back for more and make it an annual outing. There are those of course that say ‘never again’. But strangely, once the pain has gone, and the months drift by, the
thought that ‘it wasn’t that bad really’ drifts in, and the draw for another go at the ‘big one’ seeps in. It only takes ‘reckon we could go faster this year?’ or ‘you’ve done the DW haven’t you, fancy doing it again with me?’ and the gauntlet has been laid down.”
Words: Pat Denham & Ian McHarg
Images: © Diane Vose; Pat Denham; British Canoeing; Gazette and Herald; Hereford Times