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Devizes to Westminster kayak race

Picture the scene: it’s 8am and you are in a canoe somewhere on the Thames with nothing much more than a hat and waterproof jacket. You have been rowing nonstop for five hours and have another 15 to go. It’s freezing. And then it starts to snow.

Last weekend, while the rest of the country was spending the Easter break in front of the fire, about 250 intrepid rowers were taking on what is arguably the toughest endurance row this side of paddling the Atlantic.

Called the Devizes to Westminster, or DW, it is a nonstop 125-mile ordeal open to anyone fit enough – or mad enough – to take part: racing two-man kayaks, competitors have to contend with sleep deprivation, exhaustion and hypothermia, not to mention cavernous blisters and chafing bad enough to draw blood, just to reach the finish line.

Because most teams take a full day and night to finish, it has become known as the Le Mans on water, after the 24-hour Le Mans motor race.

This year marked the 60th anniversary of the inaugural DW event, in which two crews paddling homemade canoes completed the route in just under 77 hours.

Today’s elite crews compete in carbon-Kevlar racing kayaks that cost upwards of £2,000, and cross the finish line in about 17 hours. For most, 24 hours is a more realistic target, though many don’t make it – on average, about a third of the field drops out each year.

But this year it was not just the rowers who were to brave sub-zero temperatures and sleep deprivation. As the journalist charged with covering the event, I too would discover what it takes to paddle across the south of England in 17 hours, following one of the race’s elite crews on road and foot.

Stuart West is the over35 world marathon kayak champion; and on paper he and his paddling partner Dave Pedlar are the fastest crew in the race. As West knows only too well, however, speed isn’t everything. “Dave and I did the race for the first time last year, and we had a nightmare: I hit my head on a low bridge and later suffered temporary – and still unexplained – blindness, and Dave snapped his paddle. We ended up finishing fifth, but we were both bitterly disappointed.”

At the other extreme are Peter Hutchison and Rob Stainsby, by their own admission rank outsiders, who are aiming for a time of 22 hours. In 2005 Hutchison got to Isleworth, west London, but with just two hours to go – and after 20-odd hours of battling winds, tides and fatigue – was forced to abandon the boat through exhaustion.

The race has a staggered start, with the slowest teams starting first, and is divided into three sections.

The first follows the Kennet and Avon canal for 54 miles and includes more than 50 locks. At each lock competitors have to clamber out of their kayaks, haul them onto their shoulders and run as far as the next stretch of open water.

Many of these so-called portages are short, but at Crofton locks near the village of Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire, the nine locks, creating a total rise of 61ft, force the paddlers to carry their kayaks for almost a mile.

Hazards on the second section, from Reading to Teddington, include a series of potentially lethal weirs. Memorising the position of each weir in order to avoid it is crucial, particularly when negotiating the river in the dark.

However, it’s the tidal section – or tideway – between Teddington and Westminster that presents the biggest challenge: swirling currents and the wakes of passing speedboats threaten to capsize all but the most skilful paddlers.

Timing is also critical: because it’s impossible to paddle against an incoming tide, crews have to reach the tideway when the tide is on its way out: if they arrive too early they have to wait for the tide to turn in their favour; too late and they run the risk of the tide sweeping them back upstream before they reach Westminster.

This year the tides dictated that competitors had to set off from Teddington no earlier than 3pm and no later than 6.30pm on Easter Sunday; to reach Teddington in time West and Pedlar had to leave Devizes at about 2am that morning. Hutchison and Stainsby set off even earlier, at 9pm on the Saturday night.

It’s bitterly cold when I arrive in Devizes.

Competitors are having to scrape ice off their kayaks to attach their race numbers, and the forecast is for overnight temperatures of -4C. Hutchison is understandably nervous, and not just because of the weather. Is he haunted by his experiences of 2005, I ask. “Definitely,” he nods, “but at least this time I’ll be more prepared for the massive highs and lows that a race like this involves.”

West and Pedlar set off 4½ hours later. “I’m just raring to go, to be honest,” West says confidently. “Last year we worried too much about what other people were doing. This time we’re just going to paddle our own race and see what happens.”

Two hours later, at the first big portage, West and Pedlar dart past the bonnet of my car, where I am cocooned in my sleeping bag, and disappear into the darkness. I follow them to the next big portage at Crofton locks, but even driving at breakneck speed I make it only just in time.

At Froxfield lock, three hours into the race, they overtake another team on a shorter portage, running so fast that even without a kayak I struggle to keep up. Getting back into their boat, they request water, painkillers and iced buns.

And so it continues: at dawn West asks for a replacement hat because the peak of the one he’s wearing is covered in a quarter of an inch of ice. At Aldermaston it starts to snow, and by the time we get to Theale it’s coming down thick and fast. They don’t stop to rest until they get to Reading, 53 miles and more than eight hours into the race. Even then it’s only for a few minutes.

We learn from the timekeepers that they’re winning by 15min, but as the miles ebb away, so does their lead: at Marlow it’s 12min, at Windsor it’s 7min and by the time they get to Shepperton it’s down to just 2min. Win or lose, it will all come down to the 17-mile stretch between Teddington and Westminster.

In the event they paddle under Westminster Bridge in 17hr, 33min and 15sec. They’re so cold and exhausted that they can hardly speak, let alone stand. Instead they stare ahead with confused looks on their faces.

It isn’t until they’ve had a chance to eat, drink and warm up that they can face finding out the final result: after 17½ hours and 125 miles of paddling, they’ve been pipped at the post by just 45 seconds. “There was nothing more that we could have done to go faster,” says West. “I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do it again, but I definitely won’t be doing it next year.”

Only later do the competitors learn that it’s been the coldest Easter for more than 40 years. Of the 127 crews that set out from Devizes, less than half made it to Westminster, one of the lowest percentages in the race’s history. Hutchison and Stainsby capsized in choppy water just 400 yards from the finish and had to be picked up by a rescue boat.

“That’s the DW,” Hutchison says with a smile. “It would be far too easy to see it as a disaster. We had a great run, though we could have done without that little splash at the end.”

Next year’s DW is due to take place on April 10-13. For more information go to

Paddling by numbers

17hr 32min 30sec this year’s winning time in the DW senior doubles class
33hr 00min 18sec this year’s slowest time in senior doubles class
125 number of miles paddled
90,000 average number of strokes paddled
127 number of teams to set off
60 number of teams to finish
77 number of portages (stages where rowers must carry their kayak overland)
1 longest portage in miles
51hr 36min slowest time in the past five years

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Interesting Kayak related Articles

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