Four weeks on and I’ve lifted the household censorship on any words relating to kayaking and have just about recovered from my non-stop 125 mile marathon – baring a dodgy shoulder and a set of stomach muscles rapidly sliding into a growing muffin top like a sad snowman! Despite this, taking part in the 2018 Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race really was a fantastic experience – even if this years race is to go down in history for all the wrong reasons!
Having spent a slightly sleepless night in a Devizes Travelodge listening to the rain pour down outside and trying to ignore whispers of race delays and dangerously swelling rivers, race day finally arrived on the 31st of March. Fuelled up to our eyeballs on porridge, we signed in at race HQ, went through the safety checks, collected our GPS tracker and headed over to the canal with our trusty kayak. It was hear that we were told that because of adverse conditions the race would be split over two days: we would not be allowed to kayak through the night and we’d have to stop at Reading before continuing the next morning. Disappointed by the news, we hugged our support crew one last time, hopped into our kayak and paddled off to the start line. We still couldn’t quite believe what we were about to do…but one short blast of the fog horn and we were off – boat 306!
Ahead of us lay 77 locks and a 125 miles of water way, but in our heads we had cut this down into shorter sections to mentally tick off along the way. The first section was 12 miles of non-stop paddling with no portages (where you get out and run around a lock) and therefore no leg stretching. It would take us roughly 2 hours 30 minutes to complete and would bring tears to our eyes as our gluteus maximi (bums) burned with lactic acid.
Having completed this section we then faced a 1 mile run with our kayak as we arrived at the infamous set of locks called Croften Flight – 9 locks achieving a fall of 18 meters. We had no time to admire this feet of Victorian engineering though, as we struggled through a quagmire of mud to reach the end of the mile where our fabulous support crew were waiting for us with our first round of energy snacks for the day.
18.5 miles in by this point we were just getting our stride and had begun a tally off boats we’d overtaken and boats that had over taken us – the score was 4 – 2! With Newbury in our sights we were spurred on to get section 3 out of the way and having spent most of our training sessions on this section of the canal, it flew by. Before we knew it we’s covered 35 miles and were cruising though Newbury with a score of 7 – 3.
Around 7 hours into our race, the next goal was a slightly longer 20 mile stretch to Reading. Here the canal begins to join sections of the River Kennet and with the heavy rain we’d had the night before and throughout the day, strong flows with pesky back eddies were laying in wait for us. Paddling in a very light weight racing kayak in conditions like this is very tricky – you put the paddle in and pull, only to find the water has already gone – which can really hamper your balance. Narrowly avoiding a couple of capsizes ourselves, we passed a few crews who had succumbed to the river current but amazingly were clambering out of the icy waters only to get back in and carry on!
By 8pm we had arrived on the outskirts of Reading and thanks to the added flow of the Kennet River, we had sped through this section. By this point day light was quickly vanishing, whilst the flow on the Kennet River was drastically increasing and the bank of the river starting to disappear due to the floodwater.
10 hours in we were approaching Reading town centre. It was fully dark. The flooding was so bad that large trees had been swamped and knowing where the river bank actually was had become very difficult. Approaching The Oracle in Reading centre, we were met by a marshal yelling directions at us over the thundering sound of water pounding through the weir.
‘Right ladies! You listen to me and you listen good! That water it will take you out if you get this wrong!’
I felt my eyes widen slightly and a funny feeling creeping into my stomach.
‘As soon as you get back in this boat you need to push off together and paddle straight away: aim for the middle line and paddle like you life depends on it!’ shouted the marshal.
‘If you stop paddling you’ll be in there and there’s no way out for a good 500 meters!’
My stomach churned and I probably went a little white under my covering of mud as I struggled to hear the last of his instructions over the roar of the water. A men’s crew suddenly ran past us, jumped into their boat and paddled off. We watched, gulping, as they desperately fought to stay upright and in the centre section of the pounding water.
‘Like them! That’s what you need to do! Now get in!’
After a second of squealing and hesitation (from me – Georgie was the gung-ho super-hero as always) we pushed off. There was absolutely no skill in this next section. We slapped our paddles from side to side and wobbled around like a two-headed, muddy, rubber duck. Our arms were like lead by this point and we couldn’t really see anything in the dark. But by some miracle we made it through and were spat out into the River Thames like a twig.
We’d done it! The Thames looked like something out of Noah’s ark – a huge great big swirling flood plain! And just as I was shouting to Georgie to hug the right hand side of the bank, a big flood light torch switched on and swivelled on our direction as a mega phone shouted
“Over this way please – come towards the bank! What’s your boat number?!”
We shouted out our boat number and headed towards a jetty lit up by glow sticks where we were met by an army of marshals who grabbed our paddles and pulled us in. We excitedly asked what our race position was. There was an audible silence.
‘Girls, you do know that the race has been abandoned and you have to finish here? It’s over I’m afraid.’
The news was absolutely gutting – apparently our support crews had known all day but hadn’t the heart to tell us – and there was plenty of tears as we walked up to meet our support crew who had blankets and hot chocolate waiting for us!
We’d cover 54 miles in in 10 hours 30 mins, but with the Thames at its highest flow for over 10 years it was no longer safe to continue and after a warm shower and reflection of the white water rapids we’d just navigated through, we agreed the right decision had been made.
Heading home with our heads down felt like a complete failure, but as time as moved on I’ve been able to see that we have lots to be proud of. Not least because we come 2nd overall for senior ladies doubles – and also beat lots of the men hands down – but mostly the fact that we raised £1315 for Crisis, the nation charity for the homeless!
Despite it being cut short, we we’re absolutely thrilled that donations kept on coming in after we’d completed the race and on behalf of Georgie and myself, I like to thank everyone who donated to our cause! Also, a huge thank you to our loving support crews who we couldn’t have done anything with out.
We have both been so amazed by all the support we received that we most certainly will be coming back to finish this off properly next year! Watch this space!