Devizes to Westminster 2016

26/27th March 2016

A small army of Cambridge Canoe Club paddlers headed out to Devizes this Easter to race or support the 125 mile DW race, often known as the "canoeists Everest" - the longest non-stop canoe/kayak race in the world.

After months of preparation Cambridge CC had entries in three classes: Maria Worrall took on the ladies K1 race, which is run over four days in stages.
Freddie Purcell (racing for Richmond) with Rodrigo Hortal went in to the non-stop overnight race as favourites to win the Men's K2/overall race, and Oli North and Ceri Salisbury started as favourites in the mixed Doubles non-stop race.


Maria started the race on Good Friday, in sunshine and warm temperatures. However, the pleasant conditions didn’t last long. Weather is notoriously unpredictable at Easter, adding to the challenge of this race. This year Storm Katie threw everything at the competitors: 40mph winds, heavy rains and hail storms all made the racing on Saturday and Sunday even more challenging. Maria successfully completed the first three, (the longest three days) of the race, from Devizes to Teddington – on the outskirts of London. Unfortunately the final day of the stages race was cancelled as Storm Katie created unsafe conditions for the final 17-mile stretch down the tideway to Westminster, and instead competitors were awarded their medals in a damp windy field in greater London. Frustrated to not have had the opportunity to paddle under Westminster Bridge, (but still a great achievement to complete the first three days) I’m sure Maria will be back next year, for that obligatory photo with finishers Medal posed in front of Big Ben.

Oli and Ceri set off at 10.15am on Saturday, in pouring rain and howling winds. They set off on a 22 hour time schedule, and settled in quickly to maintain a solid pace which allowed them to constantly edge ahead of their predicted time schedule.

Freddie and Rodrigo set off much later, around 2.45pm (the aim is for all crews to get to Teddington, the 110 mile mark at high tide. If you arrive too early you are held until the tide turns, and too late you need to wait until the second evening tide - 12 hours later).

Oli and Ceri looked strong throughout, as the night fell the conditions improved as Storm Katie abated. Throughout the night Oli and Ceri kept their spirits high (well mostly) and despite the challenge of darkness and multiple hours paddling they kept increasing their speed. They were professional, strong and worked together throughout the long night paddle. Helped on by a support crew of Donna, Neil, Christian, Pete C, Nettie and Oli’s brother Robin, the crew were kept warm and well fed. By the time they reached Windsor, they were more than an hour ahead of their predicted schedule, and still getting faster! Very impressive after nearly 90 miles of non stop paddling, 15 or so hours. As they approached the outskirts of London, it was apparent that they may be too early for the tide, but thankfully they reached the tideway just at the opening of the "tide window" and could pass through this check point without delay.


It was all going so well, and according to the DW trackers, they were set to finish in well under 21 hours… but disaster struck. The tideway - the final 17 mile stretch into central London - takes the paddlers past famous sites such as Battersea power station and Tate Britain, and under the iconic London bridges to the finish at Big Ben at Westminster. It is by far the toughest part of the race. After paddling for 20 plus hours, to paddle this wide, bumpy fast flowing stretch of the river is a huge challenge (think sea kayaking in a racing boat!). By this point the crews are exhausted. Oli and Ceri struggled with balance, they mustered enough energy to paddle to Lambeth Bridge, where they were just 800m from the finish line, unfortunately here one big wobble caused them to capsize. Unable to swim to the bank due to the strong flow, and nearly instant hypothermia from the cold river and exhaustion, they were unable to complete the final 800m to the finish line in their K2, and instead crossed it at high speed in a rescue boat. Heartbreaking, as they were in spitting distance of the finish, (but relieved to be safe). Despite the final swim, the chief umpire of the DW race awarded them an official finish time, which has earned them a second place in the Mixed Race. The first UK crew, as the mixed race was won by an international crew (from Michigan, USA) who set a very impressive new record in the mixed C2 class!

Freddie and Rodrigo, were supported by Lucia from Cambridge CC, three paddlers from Richmond CC and a friend of Rodrigo’s, Nico, who travelled over from Paris just for the weekend! The boys faced a lot of pressure, with the “runners and riders” list, published a week or so before the race placing them as favourites to win – but against a tough field of experienced and international crews.

Despite great preparation and a solid winter of training, this was not to be their year. Freddie became unwell early on in the race, not being able to keep any food or water in his stomach. Despite the chundering, the boys kept pushing for another 2 or 3 hours, keeping a steady speed. But this took its toll: Not being superhuman, continuous exercise does not mix well with continuous vomiting! Freddie blacked out at Reading (having either fallen/collapsed or blacked out five times prior to this) and his support crew mustered around him to look after a now very unwell paddler. Freddie showed great determination to continue as long as he did, but it was not possible to continue. The boys retired at Reading, around midnight.

Rodrigo decided that it wasn’t time to go home, despite having paddled 54 miles. Instead Lucia, Rodrigo and Nico joined Oli and Ceri’s support crew to support Oli and Ceri down the last 40 miles of the race – a fantastic show of support, and a great club spirit! This was hugely appreciated in the exhausting early hours on Easter Sunday morning.

Despite none of our paddlers getting to paddle under Westminster Bridge, and the huge disappointment that goes with this, they should all be proud of what they did achieve during a very difficult race as well as the fantastic results they generated in the Waterside series that led up to the DW event.

The DW race is like no other, it is a huge challenge, and I am sure they will all be back next year more determined than ever.

For more information, or if you fancy taking up the challenge yourself see the DW website and speak to any of the racers.


Photos: (1) by Chris Worrall (c) 2016, (2) by Christian Wehrenfennig (c) 2016