Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race
Over the Easter weekend we had eight fantastic people represent the College at the annual Devizes to Westminster (DW) canoe marathon. This race is the culmination of a tough season training, made tougher this year by the strong winds curtailing several training sessions. Over 30 students showed initial interest in taking on this challenge in September, numbers quickly dropped when the true commitment needed became clear and we were left with eight students to take on the Waterside Series.
This is a series of 4 races starting at 13 miles and finishing at 35, the final race being our qualifying race for DW. The students performed brilliantly during these races and really got a taste for what it involved, along with the parents who joined them for support, feeding and hydrating them along the route, becoming a well-oiled pit crew by the final race. Unfortunately one of our paddlers couldn’t complete Waterside D so wasn’t able to continue onto DW, this left us with his partner Olly Acaster without a partner. After looking at many options, staff member Frankie Gilbert stepped forward. Frankie has previously completed the race twice when she was a student at the College, so she knew what she was getting herself into, however with only two weeks before the race this was going to be a very tough challenge with very little training. Her selflessly stepping forward to enable Olly to race was very brave (or stupid!).
The DW race is the world’s longest non stop canoe race for the seniors taking part at 125 miles with 77 portages along the route, where paddlers have to get out of their boat and carry it across an obstacle such as a lock or low bridge. Those paddling in K1 (single) boats or Juniors (in K2’s) complete the race over four days, covering over 30 miles each day on average and camping overnight in between. This year, due to Covid restrictions at the usual finish at Westminster Bridge, paddlers were stopped 17 miles short at Teddington at the end of day three. Still a very impressive 108 miles.
Maundy Thursday, crews travelled up to Devizes to register and get kit and boat checks completed, before trying to sleep before the early start on Good Friday. After some final preparations we excitedly waved off the four boats to start their race, led by Hannah Gardner and Matthew Rush. 34 miles later, some very tired paddlers arrived in Newbury suddenly aware of the actual size of this challenge they have taken on. Emma Broad & Izzy Johnson, a notoriously happy crew had a tough day, they spent most of the day without seeing any other crews, which can be very demotivating and psychologically tough, but all arrived determined to continue. Hannah’s hands were terribly blistered after the first day, the next few days were going to be very painful for her. Students erected their tents and cooked themselves dinner whilst their support crews retired to nearby hotels to try to clean and dry kit and prepare food and supplies to support the next day.
Day two has staggered starts for the racers depending on the finish time the previous day. There are three start windows (slowest paddlers first) then the fastest 15 paddlers from day one are set off at 2 minute staggered intervals. Three of our crews started in the second window, a great position to be in, our youngest crew Olly Sheldrake and Joe Stewart finished day one in 13th position so were in the fast starters window, they were also the second fastest under 17 crew of the day, two minutes behind the first place boat. Paddlers raced to Marlow for the end of day two, a very tough day for some of our crews, Olly and Frankie had a small accident early on in the day, hitting her head on a low bridge, before the footplate in their boat coming loose leading to canal side repairs, to finish their trio of bad luck on day two, a mile from the finish line the wash of a large boat caught them sideways causing them to capsize. They arrived to Marlow, cold and broken but with the support of their support crews and the other paddlers they got themselves straightened out and ready for the next day. Hannah also had a tough day with her blisters causing her severe pain. Emma and Izzy made up for their first day and raced the day beautifully, arriving smiling and happy just in front of Olly and Joe who had maintained their 13th position.
We started the final day strapping hands and trying to plaster blisters as best we could. Three of our crews were still in the second start window so got on the water ready for the final 37 miles. Olly and Joe waited for their start window, once again in 13th position.
Emma and Izzy had another fantastic day and were a breath of fresh air at the portages, when everyone else was broken, they arrived smiling and chatting, they finish 6th out of 12 junior female crews racing, barely had a blister between them and looked like they were ready to do it all over again!
The results from day two showed that Joe and Olly had made up the two minute deficit and were currently sitting as the fastest U17 crew on the water. We pointed out the crews to watch who were set off before them, if they could keep within two minutes of them, the title was theirs. As support crew we watched the trackers and the boys stormed off with the bit firmly between their teeth determined not only to keep their lead, but win it comfortably. They overtook their closest rivals within the first hour of the day and continued to extend clear water between them, crossing the finish line in an impressive 19hrs and 2 minutes finishing in 8th place overall and the fastest U17 crew. Olly and Joe will be invited to Newbury in June to receive their trophy and additional medals.
Our two mixed crews both had tough days, they were very sore and very depleted from the previous days and really had to dig deep to keep going. Watching them so physically broken but finding the mental strength to get back in the boat and continue really is inspiring. Both crews had an unfortunate capsize on the last lock, so decided to wait for each other and paddle in to the finish line together to huge shouts of ‘Oggy Oggy’ from the bank.
We are the only state school that enter the DW race, and were once viewed as the underdogs, but now our reputation now proceeds us. The umpires and officials often compliment our paddlers for their politeness, determination and sense of fun on the water. Whether finishing in a top 10 position or dragging themselves across the finish line with their last bit of energy, they never disappoint and demonstrate such grit and resilience that you can’t help but be inspired by them.