Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race 2012

This is a long one, so get yourself a cup of tea first.....


This was to be my third start in the DW with one completed attempt at the Senior Doubles in 2010 and one retirement in 2011 after 17 hours. Adam and I had been training together since the summer of 2010 so the best part of two years were behind this latest attempt. For Adam,  it was to be his last attempt so we wanted to ensure that we knocked it on the head this year. We had been let down by our technique in the past so the focus over the winter had been to do plenty of technique work rather than just concentrating on distance. Like many people, we had not been able to do as many big sessions as we would have liked but all in all, we went into this race feeling better prepared and more confident than in 2011. That said we desperately wanted to get this right and complete, with so much effort having gone into it. However, the DW Gods could still have the last laugh.

I spent the four days before the race on holiday so Adam was left sorting out the final nitty gritty. Extra torches, lots of food, more base layers, extra socks; we probably went a bit nuts in those last couple of days, not wanting to leave anything to chance. Dad, who was going to be support crew with John from Devizes to Dreadnaught had gone back down to recce the portages again during the week to ensure that they were comfortable with the meeting points. On Good Friday we loaded up and travelled down and when we arrived at the Travelodge we made the final preparations to the boat before we headed off to the kit check. It was here we discovered that we didn’t have the Garmin despite much rummaging around. I had written a thorough checklist and had ticked it off into a box, but could I find it? Bah, we’d just have to do without.

Devizes Wharf was nice and quite and after hanging around for our slot we got a marshal to check things over and all was good. It was only afterwards Dad told us that the other marshals were all standing around Sir Steve’s boat that was having his kit checked as well. Anyway, we went off to get our race number and safety bracelets crimped on and as we came out we bumped into Steve so we took the opportunity to wish him luck. He’d probably need as much as anyone else who starts the DW. We trooped off into town for a meal and then it was back to the Travelodge and in bed by 9.30 for a  wake up.

Let’s go
After the worse continental breakfast I have ever had, ever, we got down to the wharf by  and got our boat straight to the front. We bimbled around, used the portaloos, had some food and then decided to get on the water with 10 minutes to go. We spent a very uncomfortable time trying to keep relaxed and stationary while the clock ticked down. Eventually I took pity on Adam and held onto a narrow boat while a C2 crew decided to create waves. Thanks a bunch.

We got away at just gone 7 and for the first 10 minutes were in 3rd place in the DW. J We took a while to settle down and relax and thankfully not many crews were coming past us so there was not too much wash for us to contend with and it was just a case of finding our rhythm and getting those first couple of hours done. At 
Honey Street
we took fresh bottles and carried on towards Pewsey and the first of our portages.

Capsize and Crofton
At Pewsey we were already over 10 minutes up on schedule; we felt really comfortable and relaxed but Dad and John urged us to cool our jets. We didn’t feel that we were pushing at all and I had thought beforehand that a small buffer might be useful later on. As we left I thought about our pace and effort level and it seemed spot on so we continued on. We approached the Savernake Tunnel with a couple of crews ahead of us but we had a horrible transition through. I zigzagged all over the place and we felt particularly wobbly. Of the four times Adam and I have been through it was by far our worst go and as we came out we could see that the couple of crews ahead whom we had been keeping pace with were now more than 200 metres further ahead. A short while after Savernake we had a capsize. There was absolutely no reason for it as it was a particularly benign piece of water. Thankfully the water was not cold which could have well caused us to become tense so we emptied the boat pretty quickly and got back in. The rudder didn’t seem right but on inspection all seemed okay but when we got going again the rudder was stiffer than before. After a couple of minutes a C2 crew removed a piece of weed which they could see poking out and immediately it felt better. The capsize really annoyed us at the time but with hindsight I think it helped. We focussed more and were more relaxed in the boat determined that would be our only one. It seemed that our time buffer was already coming in useful. A big shout out goes to the crews who went past as we sorted ourselves out. Every single one checked we were ok and offered support. Thank you. J

We took the Crofton flight much more steadily using more walking breaks and we paddled one of the longer pounds so that we would keep our heart rates down and able to digest our food. With a couple of the bigger and more iconic obstacles out of the way it was now time to get our portaging as smooth as possible as we headed towards Newbury. About an hour out of Newbury I noticed the first signs of an ache in my right wrist. Although it’s common for peoples’ control  hands and wrists to fatigue and is a common cause for retirement it is not an injury that I have suffered before. I started to be much more careful in opening my hand to alleviate it, but of course it immediately started to play on my mind. I just hoped that the nurofen would be able to control it for the rest of the race and stop it from getting worse.

We arrived at Newbury, still 5 minutes up so we decided to get out of our wet tops as we were starting to cool off and we felt a lot better for this. Dad and John had some tea and coffee for us and after that we felt happier and good to go.

Swing bridges

Portage at Burghfield

Adam was looking really good, well, as good as he’ll ever look. ;-)  I could tell that his confidence was high, which was really encouraging for the rest of the paddle on the canal. A couple of the swing bridges were open but the last one was quite low. I thought we could do it and initially so did Adam. We paddled hard at it and I got my head down only to hear Adam shout “No!” and the boat came to a complete stop with me under the bridge and Adam holding the front of it. Doh. We managed to inch our way over to the edge where Adam could get under it also as we pushed ourselves through. The people standing along the bridge were quite surprised to see us emerge unscathed and dry. During this section we were receiving a lot of support from Bob, as well as Dad and John, as his crew, Laurence and Lesley were just behind us. Bob was great, giving us loads of encouragement and as I turned round I found my mouth crammed with a jaffa cake and a slurp of energy drink before I had time to refuse it. He was a top bloke, popping up at various points along the route giving us advice. We saw Laurence and Lesley a few times at a couple of portages and they were finding it tough. Their day was made harder by a problem with their rudder which cost them some time and after that we didn’t see them again. Unfortunately, they didn’t finish, retiring at Shiplake, but I am sure that they will learn from it and come back stronger next year.

Leaving Burghfield

As usual, our portaging became a bit more clumsy and haphazard as we got tired. At one portage we decided to get out at a low grass bank instead of the higher portage point. As a result I found myself face-planting into some stinging nettles and had a numb forehead for an hour or two. Unfortunately, that was not the only thing going numb. My right hand was steadily getting worse again and I was finding it painful to open it, which meant I gripped the paddle all the time making it worse. All of a sudden I had a shooting pain down the inside of my wrist which made me stop paddling straight away. We were both worried and I immediately started telling myself not to panic. I could tell Adam was concerned and I just couldn’t believe that we may be dropping out before we had even got off the canal. We were still comfortably on schedule so we soft paddled for a bit, determined to not let the situation get out of control. It was great to have a quick chat with Hodge at Burghfield lock, who had come down from the midlands to offer his support and then we saw Bob for the last time at Fobney as he led us down to the get-in. I ended up knee high in mud instead of in the boat but eventually we were on our way, covering the last few miles to Dreadnaught.

Dreadnaught came into sight and we were bang-on schedule. We had lost the 10 minutes we had in hand from the first pound, but all in all it had gone well. We met up with a good crowd. Mum had come down with Adam’s Mum and Colin and Phil and Alex were there ready to take over from Dad and John. We got dry kit on and had some hot soup, coffee and a sausage sandwich. We said bye to Dad and John. They had been brilliant. While the adrenalin had been pumping for us they had been calm and reassuring and been a great support team. They were now able to head home for a well deserved rest.

All in all we were there for 20 minutes and set off feeling pretty good. Adam looked fresh and determined while I secretly worried about my wrist. I had a feeling that it was going to be a particularly long night.

The Thames
Leaving Dreadnaught
So we were now on the Thames and able to get our heads down and pick up some speed. While there was very little flow I was expecting the greatly more spread out portages would allow us to pick up our average speed. In the back of his mind, Adam’s big intermediate goal was to get to Marlow in order to get past where we had bailed last year and we were confident that this was now in the bag, but my wrist was getting worse again. We had a couple of short pounds to Sonning and Shiplake before we met up with Alex and Phil at Marsh. When we got there I got them to strap my wrist up with duck tape (is there nothing that can’t be fixed with it?) It helped to support it just enough to take the edge off of the soreness but I could tell that this was a situation that was only going to get worse. We began switching from cold food to predominantly hot food. Towards the end of the canal I had reached new depths of culinary ghastliness; 2 mini scotch eggs, a jaffa cake and 3 jelly babies in one go. I think with my skinny neck that I must have looked like a boa constrictor digesting a sheep, swallowing that lot. My favourite during the night became Heinz tinned spaghetti that Alex heated up and spooned into me. I normally can’t stand the stuff but I found it really easy to eat and filling. Adam was on coffee, chocolate raisins and soup which the boys kept coming throughout the night.

We started losing time as we approached Hurley and it was a combination of two things. Firstly, our portaging was taking longer as we got food inside us but more worryingly we had to stop on the water every 10 minutes or so for me to rest my wrist. I would take the opportunity to dip my hand and forearm into the water hoping that the cold water might help keep the swelling down and reduce the discomfort but there was no doubt in my mind that we were potentially going to be out the race. Adam was getting tired but was still in good shape and at Marlow we were 40 minutes down on schedule but half of those were from the Dreadnaught stop, so things were still looking pretty good, all in all. We were keeping up with the crews around us when we were actually paddling but it was the constant stopping which was causing us to gradually lose ground.

The length of time that we were paddling became shorter and shorter. I was using the micro-chunking technique to break it down as much as possible. We’d paddle to a tree, a light, a bridge, whatever landmark that looked about 5 minutes away and then have a quick break while I dunked my wrist. 

Cookham proved eventful. We couldn’t see Phil at first, standing by the pub so we lost a bit of time coming back to pick up a feed and we then went and paddled into the weir stream instead of towards Boulters. In all we lost a good 7 or 8 minutes there. The next few hours were a real struggle. I was becoming increasingly concerned about my wrist and discomfort was now moving well and truly into pain territory while Adam’s control wrist was also seizing up and he was looking increasingly fatigued. Slowly but surely, our extra time in hand slipped away as our portaging slowed drastically. We were letting faster crews through which was fine but that was costing us time that we didn’t have. On the water, we were still paddling well despite having to rest my wrist every 10 minutes or so. We had a couple of crews who put in the water in front of us having caught us up and we were comfortably keeping pace with them. One crew we held onto for over an hour only losing them when we stopped at another portage. We were able to use these episodes to gee ourselves up and give ourselves confidence that we could still make Teddington by 8 o’ clock.

I can’t remember how it happened but as we went through Old Windsor and Bell I got my calculations wrong. By this time it was . I must have asked a marshal how far it was to Teddington. I had then done some maths (not my strongest subject at the best of times) and deduced that there was no way we were going to make Teddington by . As we paddled towards Bell I broke the news to Adam. We’d given it a go but it wasn’t going to happen. Adam was looking very tired and my right hand was literally a claw on the paddle shaft. I genuinely felt that it was over. We pulled the boat out and Phil came running up, telling us that we had not lost any time on the last 2 pounds. We told him that we were not going to make Teddington and that we were going to call it a day. Phil looked at us like we were nuts. “What do you mean, you’ve still got 40 minutes spare?” Adam and I just looked at each other. We had decided that if there was still a chance of making Teddington by 8 then we simply had to carry on but I have to say it took a lot of mental strength from Adam to get back into the mystere. He was beginning to hurt and daybreak was still a long way off, but we were now paddling on a much more familiar part of the course. We just had to keep ticking off pounds and hopefully Teddington would be in the bag but we would have to be much quicker with our portaging and feeding.

We got to Shepperton at 5.26 which in theory should have been plenty of time but the weather was deteriorating. Adam was going off his food so at Molesey I was literally popping chocolate raisins into his mouth like coins into a slot machine in order to help him keep some calories going in. I got a piece of steak pastie from a supporter for another crew which was absolute heaven before we headed off on the last pound with 4 other crews down to Teddington. We had 75 minutes for the last pound. We normally do it comfortably in 45 but it was going to be a very close run thing. I can honestly say that over those hours between Penton and Teddington we were genuinely racing, trying to stay in the race. Again, we had to take it in sections; get to Ravens Ait, rest; to Kingston Bridge, then teapot island and finally Teddington lock. There was a big crowd of supporters for us there and the adrenalin was really pumping. The last 10 hours or so had been really hard and at many times it had seemed likely that we wouldn’t get there. We were the second to last boat through Teddington and we made it through with 4 minutes to spare. I celebrated by having a little cry.

The Tideway
The tideway from 2010 is blotted from my mind. I now know why. It’s bloody horrible. We got going again with fresh bottles and a bag of food in the bottom of the boat and we paddled steadily down to Richmond where we had to portage the half lock. There were 3 other crews there and we stood around chatting. I don’t think any of us felt particularly inclined to get back in the boats and we were on a bit of a high knowing that we were on the final leg and that Westminster was at least theoretically, in the bag, but I was also conscious that we were on borrowed time with us starting this section so late into the tide window. There was mud everywhere. I’m not particularly prissy but it was pretty nasty and I realised that there was mud in the tube of my drink bottle which meant I was not to have any fluids for the next few hours.

By now Adam’s back and shoulders were suffering and my coccyx was really sore and while we were making good progress on the water, paddling with the C2 crew that we had been with at Richmond, Adam was having to get out of the boat often in order to stretch. I was getting tetchy as I just wanted to make progress and that’s hard to do when the boat is stationary on the shore. We must have stopped 4 or 5 times with every stop costing us at least 7 to 8 minutes. We had lost 2 of the crews that we started the tideway with but we were constantly swapping places with the C2 crew as we made our way through South West London and into the centre of town. The traffic was not too bad; we had a few rowers to deal with but they were all really friendly with one of the support vessels even giving us a gee-up through his megaphone.

 The real problems started with a few miles still to go. Unbeknown to us the tide had turned and with that we started to get some pretty big washes to contend with, the worst ones being those thrown up by the safety boats as they rushed down river. We just hoped that the crews behind were ok and had not got themselves into too much trouble. By this time we were crawling along the bank just to ensure that we stayed upright and Adam saved us from a capsize caused by another wave. We were both running on empty when Westminster came into view but it didn’t seem to be getting closer. I estimate that it took us well over 20 minutes to cover the last mile or so as the tide was now beginning to flow back upstream and we had very little left to actually move the boat forward. The last couple of hundred metres we could here our families shouting and cheering and they couldn’t understand why we kept dropping our paddles; we just had very little left. The rib told us to go through the second arch.
“Not the first arch?”
“There’s no water in it.”
 That might be a problem then. So the last 100 metres, and I paddled while Adam supported. As we went under the bridge and steered to the steps I just felt completely done in; I was more spent than any other time I could remember. Two lovely chaps helped me out the boat and up the steps, both promising me that I’d be back to do it again and when I got to the top I just burst into tears. I felt pretty silly especially as I was faced with dozens of tourists looking on with completely bemused faces and taking pictures while I cried and hugged Adam. I have never felt relief like it. After all that effort that we had put in over the last 2 years we had finally been able to complete the DW. It was every bit as special as the first time I did it with Jamie.
The last 10 metres

Being helped up the steps.

Jones and Kew; 28hrs 40 mins 87th /161


The aches and pains have subsided although I still have a bit of numbness in my right hand, and my coccyx, well, let’s not go there. Mind you, I really don’t mind, I am just so pleased that I was able to help Adam get to the end and complete this very special race. If you’re thinking of doing it; do it. You’ll never regret it. It might take you a while but it will be so worth it. But join a club and learn to paddle a boat first. Trust me, it’ll help. ;-) Adam’s on holiday so I’m not sure how he’s healing up, but like me, I’m sure that he’s not bothered  and he can bask in the knowledge he’s done something very special. I found our Garmin in one of the boxes when we got back home. I knew I'd packed it.

Thank You to;

Dad, John, Alex and Phil – Simply brilliant. Upbeat, unflappable, funny and prepared. We simply could not have done it without you and we could not have asked for a better support team.

Bob – Without his help and guidance with our technique this year I do not think that we would have finished this year. Cheers mate.

Lee – Thanks so much for coming down to cheer us on, the documents you lent us and the never ending good vibes. Cheers mate.

Organisers, marshals, supporters; THANK YOU.

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