Since the Waterside D, Jamie and I had not paddled at all as Jamie’s shoulder had reacted badly afterwards. We felt that we had done what we could and any paddles in the fortnight before would not give us any significant training effect so we rested up and prepared.
The 24 hours before I went on a last minute spending spree and bought some sealskin socks, a decent headtorch (Petzl) and a snood which I thought would be useful during the night section. How I would be grateful for these items later on.
On the drive down, Jamie and I made a real effort to rest while Phil and Adam chatted. As we left South London the weather was terrible; low grey clouds scudding across the sky and rain falling freely. It had also been raining all night, filling the roads and rivers. However, as we headed towards Devizes the clouds began to clear to reveal blue sky and although cold, it looked like the start of the race would begin dry.
We pull into the car park and it is a lot quieter and calmer than the D, although you can see the look of anxiousness that seemed to be on all the competitor’s faces. We also now have a little bit more of a clue, so Adam and Phil get the disco down to the scrutineering area while Jamie and I follow. Everything is fine except they don’t like our BA’s. They look too old and the scrutineer calls over the Chief Judge. He has a good look and says that they are the minimum he would accept.
“Don’t bring them back next year.” I think it’s very presumptuous of him to assume that we will be back. Let’s see how this year goes first, eh? ;-) Anyway, with that sorted we go off to reception and collect our number and get our wrist straps crimped on. Some good banter with the crew in there, and then it’s off to get our kit on and stow the safety gear.
There’s a final safety briefing warning us about the high water levels and a possible compulsory portage at Romney and the tone is very much along the lines of ‘If you think you can’t cope, don’t start.’ No way, let’s get started.
We decided on a 10am start but by 9.45 we are good to go and keyed up. The sooner we get on the water, the sooner we can relax so we take the Disco to the water’s edge; wait for the C2 crew who are just pushing off and then settle ourselves in. A quick shake of the boys’ hands and then we paddle gently down to the start. The starter asks for our number and tells us to paddle to the line. We misinterpret his instruction and go paddling straight through! A shout from the side and we stop only to be told to get going again. Mistake number one. There’ll be plenty more.
We’ve settled into the paddle and both of us have said at least once, “We’re doing the DW!” The canal is completely different to the last time we were here; no wash, no competitors forcing their way through and no panic. We catch up with the C2 crew and wish each other good luck before going on and for the first of many times we find ourselves completely on our own.
The first couple of hours have gone smoothly but we are both feeling achy and this brings on doubts in our minds, but we are not paddling with the same intensity that we did during the D. We do our first bit of wash hanging behind a Marines crew for a mile or two who don’t seem to mind. They stop for a feed and we plough on but twenty minutes later they come steaming past us and we let them go off. We don’t see them again. We want to get to Reading feeling fresh and ready for the night paddle. Adam’s waiting ready with fresh bottles of High5 which we take quickly. We want to keep on top of our nutrition from the start. It’s good to meet up with the boys and get the event started properly.
The first portage and it goes smoothly but the conditions underfoot are terrible; thick, wet mud everywhere and we begin slipping badly in our deck shoes. We take it much more steadily than during the D; the last thing we want to do is drop the boat early on and be out before we have really got started. Adam and Phil are waiting at the other side with fresh bottles, chocolate raisins and peanut butter sandwiches. I take one mouthful of peanut butter which I had enjoyed during the D and decide that I don’t want anymore.
We approach the Savernake Tunnel and a crew just in front have gone in but they are ok and sorting themselves out. Jamie gets us through the tunnel without scratching the paintwork.
The tow path looks like the Somme; where the 4 day race has been before the path is terrible. We decide to get back in and paddle one of the longer sections along with another crew. Jamie and I have our first spat. The boat keeps rolling over onto its edge, with me taking most of the weight on my shoulder and I have a go at Jamie about doing more to bring it under control. We slow down, apologise to each other and get things under control before pressing on to meet the boys at the top of the flight for another feed.
On the approach another crew has stopped at the bank and seem to be inspecting their rudder so as I approach the lock about a mile further on, I call out their number to see if they have any support there in case they can help them when they arrive. My mind’s not on the portage and as we lift I lose my balance; There’s an awful moment when I realise that I either put my foot through the bottom of the disco or I go in. I go in. The water isn’t too cold but I know that these silly mistakes can mean the difference between failure and success. I get pulled out by Jamie and we quickly get in and paddle. I feel embarrassed and notice that the people at the side look shocked and are probably thinking that I’ve blown our chances of finishing. It’s not too cold but it’s not going to get any warmer either. I have been in this position before when we have been training, so get on with it, get to our support and get some dry clothes on.
We meet Adam and Phil and they immediately get me two new base layers, shake off my cag and get some hot chocolate inside me. Straightaway I feel warmer and happy. Great. Let’s get going again
We’ve been paddling for almost seven and a half hours and while we feel a bit achy and have taken some ibuprofen we feel confident, although we are now moving into unchartered territory. I am worried about the left turns coming up, even though I have them clearly written down on my route cards, stuck to the boat. I need not worry, it is clear where to go and there are a small number of other crews that we are swapping places with regularly. I relax and begin to enjoy myself.
We encounter our first really low bridge and we eye it suspiciously, but standing next to it is Alan who is supporting one of the other MPCC crews. Alan has competed in the DW to a high standard many times himself and encourages us to go under. Jamie’s a bit hesitant and stops paddling too soon but I keep us going; we both duck and emerge out the other side without any worries.
There’s another one later on and this time a fast crew have managed to get themselves stuck underneath with two other crews now backtracking to portage. We portage around them all and put 200 metres over them. We have a little chuckle but they soon come steaming past.
At Theale we had been given our head torches by Adam and Phil but they could not find Jamie’s good one. He’s at the front so we swap and my headtorch is quite frankly, useless. Jamie goes into the undergrowth for a pee while I settle into the disco. I cannot see that there is a significant recess under the wooden banking and the boat tucks itself into it as I lower myself down, leaving with me with nowhere to go except into the canal, again. This time, the water is significantly colder and leaves me gasping for breath. Jamie’s pulling me out again and I spend the next couple of minutes being angry and swearing. It takes us a good five minutes to empty the boat and get going, by which time I can see my breath in the air as we paddle hard towards Reading and the much needed kit change and hot food.
It’s surreal. We go through the centre of Reading and the clubbers are out watching us as we put into the weir stream which is a foaming torrent and there is a standing wave not twenty metres behind us. One crew is struggling but just about gets out of trouble before they get spun round. The crew immediately in front do it right, as the rear man hangs on while the front man give a big push to get the nose into the flow. We do the same and before we know it we are barrelling through the centre of Reading and it feels like being on a water flume. We have broad smiles over our faces as this really is great fun.
We reach the Thames with a right turn and immediately in front of us is Marsport, our compulsory stop where we will have a kit change and hot food. I have been looking forward to this for the last 30 minutes as I am still ringing wet and need my dry clothes. We get the boat out and Alan is there to meet us.
“Sorry boys, but Adam and Phil are 15 minutes away.” Our faces fall and I am temporarily at a loss as what to do. Thankfully, we had arranged to meet our parents there with hot soup and hot chocolate, so as I begin to shiver I start getting as much hot drink inside me as possible. A strange situation then ensues. We are standing in a group and on one side is Alan, a tough former Marine who knows everything DW and he is trying to get us back into the boat as quickly as possible so that we can meet Adam and Phil at Marsh and get our change there. On the other side are our Mum and Dad who want to wrap us up in space blankets and give us a cuddle! We reach a compromise. I get on a tee shirt and fleece that my Mum has spare while Alan gets me back into my cag. Even though the cag is still wet, with dry layers on I am instantly warm again. As Jamie has not been in twice he’s ok to keep onto Marsh and change there. I begin to notice the activity going on all around; it seems that some crews are literally having three course meals but we had always decided that for us it was going to be more important to keep moving down river and not stop unnecessarily. We are at Marsport for no longer than 10 minutes before Alan is guiding us down to the water and sending us on our way.
We settle into the night phase of the event and we are very much at home. Jamie’s feeling a bit sick from eating hot chocolate and soup but it soon passes and we push on quietly with only another two or three crews near us. It’s a beautiful evening. When we get to Shiplake I encounter the only person in the whole event who I take a dislike to; he’s unnecessarily aggressive when wanting us to get out of his way at Shiplake. We let him through and follow him down to Marsh.
So this is where Adam and Phil should be and for Jamie’s sake I hope they are. I am quite warm but Jamie did not get any dry clothes and he is starting to feel the cold; this is the person who has not felt the cold all winter when we have trained in temperatures below freezing but we have never paddled for 13 hours before and it’s starting to tell. We get out and are told that there’s been an accident and a competitor has broken their leg and we are escorted by marshals across the bridge, where Adam and Phil are waiting. I smile and give Adam a “Where have you been?” comment but there’s no point making an issue of it; they both feel bad and are soon helping Jamie get into some dry clothes, giving me more drink and preparing us for the next pound.
The last two hours have been sublime, exactly what I thought the DW would be and more. It’s quiet, really quiet and stretching out in a chain in front of us are the lights of six or so crews and I am reminded of Chinese lanterns on the water. It really is beautiful. My only concern is the fact that I am finding it hard to keep in time with Jamie as every eight strokes or so I go out of phase. I realise that this is probably the first stage of me getting tired and my body is wondering why it is working pretty hard instead of being asleep. I worry about it for half an hour and then just accept that it’s happening and by 2 o’ clock I am back in synch again.
A couple of other things happen. I remember seeing Dan and Kev, another one of our crews come barrelling past us; Dan is hunched over, really working hard and they get caught by a strong side current on the approach to a lock. They control it and just plough on; great stuff. Later on, we get caught out in a similar manner and end up in the scenery. We get ourselves out and paddle down the lock cut where a marshal asks us if we had seen a crew capsize. We say no but it’s only when we have left him that we realise that he probably meant us as I guess he saw our lights disappear when we got dumped into a bush.
We keep alternating between bits of the course that we know and have paddled before and those that we don’t. On a long stretch we catch up with a crew and start chatting. They have only been training since January and are in good spirits and we share some banter. They pull ahead and then suddenly stop and we ask if they are ok. One of them is having a wee and he can’t paddle and wee at the same time! We leave them to it but we don’t see them again. I don’t know who they were but I really hope they got to the end.
Adam and I had recce’d this earlier in the week and I knew that we were to meet him and Phil on the jetty behind the pub. The water is pretty turbulent and we overshoot and Jamie tries to turn us around. I convince him to skip it and another supporter shines his torch on the arrow that points the way to the lock cut. We press on.
We are back at the scene of our complete disaster during training just a few weeks before. It’s cold again but this time Adam and Phil are there and prepared with hot chocolate and ritz crackers. The two of them are in really good spirits and are keeping us going with lots of praise, encouragement and food. They really have been fantastic throughout. Considering how long we have all been going for we are all in excellent spirits and rising to the challenge.
This is the part of the course that I have been worried about for some time. In high flow conditions the weir can be very dangerous, however the organisers have decided to not put in a compulsory portage before Eton Bridge. We err on the side of caution and keep well to the right of the island and then enter the lock cut, while a fast crew plough straight through next to us. We need not have worried and we continue on. I have the feeling that we are now heading for home.
For the first time there is some light in the sky and we are very much on home turf. We know every landmark, bend and straight on this part of the river. When we started the race some twenty hours before there was a lot of doubt as to whether we would get here but I now realise that we have earned the right to be here. We’ve put the hours in and now we can enjoy this moment. We paddle down the lock cut at Sunbury and I can see that we are not moving fast by any means, but I don’t care. We’ve paddled 100 miles and that’s a hell of an achievement. We are absolutely buzzing.
We get to East Molesey and meet Adam and Phil. As I get out I see Carole, a family friend who has given us so much advice over the last few months. She offers me some DW cake which she has made which is lovely, but in her other hand is a tub of skinned orange segments. Flippy heck, I want them instantly and take a big handful and shove them into my mouth. I’ve been eating sugary, snacky food and forgotten about fruit and my body just craved it instantly. I tell Phil to get me grapes at the next stop. I want fruit!
We put in at Molesey and begin paddling, heading towards Kingston, our home town. We pass under the bridge and the temperature drops and it begins to rain steadily. With the worsening of the weather, so does my mood; I start to get very teary and emotional and I really don’t know why and as we approach Teddington I am feeling awful. There’s a good group to meet us there; Ad, Phil, Mum and Dad, Jamie’s wife and girls and Carole and Mike. I can barely raise a smile and unlike 90 minutes before, I am not talking at all. I have hit rock bottom and I dawns on me why. Since we started training for the DW it was all about getting to Teddington to catch the tide. Even during the race itself all you could hear was crews talking about was getting to Teddington. Well, there I sat in the Disco, tired, cold, low on calories, and yet I still had at least another 2 and a half hours to go. The tideway also held its own problems. We felt a little like newly qualified drivers about to drive on a motorway for the first time and I was anxious about what the tideway would entail. Mentally, I had completely got it wrong.
Jamie had done brilliantly well. He had been in the bow for the whole race and coped with some pretty tricky conditions and at Teddington looked quite perky. I wanted to get going and just get this thing over with, so Jamie took the opportunity to have the longest wee in history which really got my back up. The marshal warned us to watch the rudder as we put in over the rollers but we still managed to bend it as we left. It looked like our bubble had well and truly burst. I had scoffed more oranges and grapes but my tank was very low and the fact that we were setting off on a long paddle with only water in our bottles was not the best decision.
The Tideway and Westminster
We lasted about 45 minutes before we had to beach the disco and get out. I was being rubbed raw and Jamie’s calf was very sore, so when we saw another crew heading to the left hand bank we followed them and before long there were four crews standing around, stretching and getting ready to carry on. We bent the rudder back and got on with it. Understandably, things became more tense; we had a few small boats that were creating a lot of wash but Jamie got us through them really well. A helpful rower encouraged us to get into the centre to find the best flow but we were more interested in just staying upright. Our stroke by this stage had completely disintegrated. A number of times I found myself hitting the centre of my paddle shaft against the cockpit, my stroke had dropped so much. In fact, they were more like support strokes as we basically floated down and we were in awe of the crews who passed us who were still paddling hard. We stopped once more and worked out we had another six bridges to go and we could see two of them, so it was back into the disco; all we wanted to do was get this thing finished.
After a while the London Eye came into view abut we could not see the Houses of Parliament at all because we were on completely the wrong side of the river. Eventually I saw the DW banner on the right side of the bridge and a safety boat guided us across towards it. As we picked our way round the moored boats we found ourselves contending with big rolling waves that almost capsized us metres from the line. We could hear our families shouting and waving but I could only look straight ahead at the steps where we would be able to get out and had zoned out completely. As we passed under the bridge I felt nothing but relief that we had finally got to Westminster.
Afterwards, I felt very faint and had to be helped up the steps but within a few minutes I had perked up enough to get changed and eat a bacon sandwich almost in one mouthful. I got home and slept for three hours before waking up again and then sleeping solidly for ten hours.
This really was the most amazing event. The organisers, marshals and other crews are a fantastic bunch of people as there is a great camaraderie between all the competitors undertaking this race and I can fully see why crews return to it year after year. Will Jamie and I be one of those crews? I have a terrible feeling we will.