Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon

Every Easter kayakers and canoeists set out on the demanding 125 mile course of the Devizes to Westminster canoe race. The race is in its 64th year and is one of the toughest endurance races open to amateurs. Starting in Devizes, Wiltshire, a quiet market town, the course runs 52 miles up the Kennet and Avon canal to Reading where the next 55 miles are on the River Thames to Teddington Lock. The final part of the journey is on the tideway down to Westminster Bridge. The course encompasses 78 portages where you have to get out and run around locks. This year saw the RAF crew of Warrant Officer Mick Chandler from RAF Cranwell and Sergeant Dave Duff from RAF Marham rise to the challenge.

A plan was hatched in October last year and it was agreed we would enter the 2012 race. This gave us six months of intense training to physically and mentally prepare ourselves for what is arguably the toughest canoe race in the world. Months of planning and hard work are required. Unlike most crews who could meet up and train three or four times a week and complete two hour water training sessions, Mick and I are located three hours apart, so we needed a different plan. We did a lot of running, circuits and weight training during the week and then at the weekends we used the ‘Waterside’ series of races as our long distance in the boat together. This meant only six times together in the boat from Christmas to the race.

Unlike some competitions there are also a lot of variables with this race which makes finishing a massive achievement. How cold will the night be? What food will be suitable? Which drinking system is best and easiest to refill or change? How much flow will there be on the Thames? What time do I need to leave Devizes to make sure we catch the tide right at Teddington lock? The timings for the tides is crucial as a delay earlier on in the race will mean hitting the tides at the wrong time and finishing the competition virtually impossible. If we fail will we be letting down our chosen charity? Who do we want and more importantly will be willing to support us, feeding and watering us and motivating us through to our goal? A lot to think about.

From competing in the support races in February and March we were able to work out our average speed against the time we wanted to achieve. Our ultimate aim was to beat the RAF record of 19 hours 52 mins set in 1984. Our schedule was set for 18 hours 50 mins. Despite a lack of rain and news that the river was at its lowest level for 30 years, resulting in a slow flow on the canal, the mood at RAF High Wycombe (our chosen base camp) the night before the race was positive. The team comprised a total of nine people. Two paddlers and two support crews of three and four people.

Devizes: Easter Saturday. The race day had arrived; kit all checked and boat held in the scrutineering enclosure. After a spot of lunch there was an opportunity to take stock and focus on the challenge before 13.15 our allotted start time. At 12.00 it became apparent something was not right as I had noticed crews were leaving earlier than planned – they must know something we don’t! We started to prepare to leave because conditions were indicating we may not get to the Teddington 107 mile point in time. The decision was made to bring our start time forward and at 12.27 we are on our way with an all girl crew tactically starting with us to gain our wash. We turn the first left hander and we were given the answer to why everyone was going early. A head wind! I knew from that moment the record attempt was off, but remained positive; after all we had another team to work with. Unfortunately this plan did not work out as the other team were clearly not up for doing their share and sat allowing us to break water! By Crofton Locks the weather had deteriorated and I was feeling cold so we had to stop to put on windproof jackets. This meant drink packs and buoyancy aids coming off but it needed to be done. By the time we reached Newbury it had become early evening and the sun was out and conditions were quite pleasant. We had lost the female crew who started with us, as they got ahead in our unscheduled kit stop and I was now beginning to enjoy myself, especially as Mick had just informed me we were now starting the third set of six, 20 mile stints.

It was not far after Aldermaston when darkness fell, it was around this point we caught the girls again and they stayed with us all the way to Reading. Reading is the 54 mile mark and a significant point in the race. It is here the Kennet and Avon canal meets the Thames and we were due to stop for a short pit stop to get warmer gear on for the night as it was 21.30 and take on as much food as possible, more than the bite size chunks of sandwich, malt loaf, banana, hot cross bun and jelly we had been getting at each portage when running around the locks. Wet stuff off, in-between mouthfuls of soup. Dry kit on with mouthfuls of rice pudding. Eight minutes later we were off into the night feeling good. There was a bit of moonlight which made navigation easier and the temperature was holding around 8˚C. What’s more we were on our own again. It only felt cold when we stopped paddling to portage. At Maidenhead you benefit from street light ambience which is welcome after the dark bit just after Marlow. Windsor is good because it is another fairly well lit place, Bell weir, mile 90 and it feels like you are getting to London as you pass under the London orbital. Sunbury lock and we hit the 100 mile point and the day broke. Only 25 miles to go. Although it was not much further I started some serious low points which resulted with a quick trip to the riverside for a stretch. These were early bad signs and Mick switched on to it. He kept our focus all the way to Teddington where I knew we had to get to before the tide cut off or it was race over. We had come too far to fail now!

Finally, we reach the tideway and it is here where you gain the help of the outgoing tide for the last 17 miles which should take about two hours. Strange, it all seemed a bit flat and calm. It was grey and dreary and I could hear a lot of aeroplanes above from Heathrow. It then dawned on me Richmond half lock might be shut. This would explain the lack of flow but would mean a very difficult and muddy portage. A few more corners and my suspicions were correct. It was at this point Mick was having a major low and was concerned we were not going to make it. I was feeling pretty awful but told him we would, this race had been teamwork and mutual encouragement at its best. Shortly after this I reached my lowest point and started leaning back in the seat. A cardinal sin in canoeing as it will pull all your stomach muscles. Mick was shouting at me as he had perked up again, but I just did not care – I was in survival mode. At the London Eye came into view, we were soon picked up by the Marshall boat and given directions to the line. Even this wasn’t straight forward and required careful steering as the moored boats were approaching very fast. We heard a big cheer from the crowd as we passed under Westminster Bridge, arriving into the hands of the divers who helped us from our boat. The last stint took 2 hours 30 minutes. Mick says his lasting memory will be of Big Ben showing 09.45 and the divers telling him he would need to get his feet wet, after 21 hours of keeping them dry – now that was a shock! As we ascended the steps on to the embankment there were people everywhere as we looked for our support crew, a friendly face, I started swaying and pinballing off random strangers before falling backwards. Luckily I was caught and eased back into a wheel chair. My wife appeared from the crowd with a packet of pancakes which lasted about 30 seconds!

We finished 10th out of 161 overall. We were the second Veterans team back and third in the Services after the RM and an Army team. We finished in 21 hours, 18 minutes and 10 seconds. We were 3 hours 30 minutes off the winners, 2 hours 30 off the RAF record but none of that mattered because we had finished, beating Sir Steve Redgrave and three other Olympian rowers who had come from the dark side to experience the joys of going forwards. All four failed to make it all pulling out around Windsor. More importantly we could hold our heads up high when collecting our sponsor money which we were raising for the Kandoo Club in King’s Lynn. We were very sore for a few days with aches and pains, but surprisingly only one blister!

A lot of hard work went in to organising this massive task, thank you to everyone who gave up their own time to help us. The people who helped with fund raising and profiling the event. Everyone who sponsored us or donated to this very worth while cause, especially Paradigm Services. Our support crews who did a fantastic job of navigating, staying awake, depriving their own needs to keep us fuelled for 21 hours. Finally to Mick for putting up with me for the whole day and night and not being able to get more than three feet away from me and making the dream become possible. We made it!

See next month’s Marham Matters for news of Dave and Mick’s fundraising efforts and cheque presentation to King’s Lynn’s Kandoo Club.

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