Devizes to Westminster canoe race

A fools guide to preparing for this 125 mile race!

devizes to westminster

Devizes to Westminster is a 125 mile canoe race that has been run over the Easter weekend since 1948, it starts in Devizes and finishes under Westminster bridge.

There are many options for taking part in the race, basically if you have a boat you can take part.

The main 2 options are if you have a friend then you can do the non-stop race in a K2 (double kayak) but if your a billy no mates like me then you’ll probably end up in a K1 (single person kayak) covering the distance over 4 days.

Ive called this a fools guide because I am a fool!

Devizes Westminster or DW as its known, probably because it saves a lot of typing, is a test of skill and endurance. I will prepare for the 4 day race and add my ramblings here.

Why do I want to do Devizes to Westminster? Good question, well I guess if I win it could lead to fame and fortune, an invite to Strictly Come Dancing, Sports Personality of the Year, etc, etc. But if I dont (highly likely) then its a personal challenge, something to train for during the long cold winter months. I was diagnosed with depression a few years ago and keeping active both physically and mentally helps me enormously. So there you go, Im doing DW to either dance the waltz with Craig whilst wearing a diamond encrusted mankini on strictly or to just feel good about my self.

Have a look on the DW website for more details about the race.

My background is in cycle racing and sea kayaking, a perfect combination for the Devizes to Westminster kayak race, or so I thought!

The beginning

December 2015, only 3 months till Devizes to Westminster!

My journey to Devizes to Westminster started in late November 2015 by joining my local racing club, Gailey CC, the guys were very welcoming and quickly got me set up in a K1, now at this point I should really explain a little about racing kayaks. They generally have a stability rating from 10 to 1. I guess 10 would be similar to an unstable sea kayak, while 1 is like trying to balance on a pencil! The boat I started out with was a stability 9, good confidence giving boat but not very fast, to gain speed I needed to loose stability. I also needed to get as much practice in as possible and to do that it meant buying my own boat. All the advice pointed at stability over speed, “don’t go for a fast tippy boat, stick with something that is stable and comfortable”.  No problem I thought as I scanned the web sites in search of a boat that suited my meager budget. That’s probably why in mid December I ended up with a pink and green, Kirton Talon, stability somewhere in the region of 2-4! Well how hard can it be, after all I’m used to paddling on the sea in waves! Needless to say it wasn’t long before I was upside down in the canal!

OK, its time to get serious, after all, I’m a UKCC level 2 paddlesport coach and working towards my level 3. I just need to coach myself with a little help from a few friends. Ive decided not to name names at this stage because if it all goes horribly wrong and I capsize on the start line it may cause irreparable damage to their reputations, but of course if I go on to win then I don’t want someone else taking my place on Strictly!

So first things first, balance, the water is cold and dirty and I don’t want to keep falling in, it has a tendency of slowing me down! I removed the seat to lower my center of gravity and make the boat more stable, it worked and I actually got moving. But the advice came in, “you really need to get the seat back in” after ignoring previous advice I thought I’d better start listening, so I adjusted the seat to make it lower and refitted it. Much more comfortable  and not too bad stability wise. The next coaching tip was to paddle for two, one hour sessions per day for a run of ten consecutive days to get the balance. I managed six days and then the Christmas festivities got in the way. Even after these six days I felt much more confident and I was no longer falling in! I continued with this program after Christmas, managing a further five days before New Years Eve arrived bringing with it a bout of man flu!

Happy new year!

January training and man flu!

It took a few days before I could get back in the boat. I continued with the short sessions but was now focusing on technique, with the aid of my GPS I could see the effects of a more efficient stroke as my speed continued to increase. As I moved into the second week of the new year I started to paddle further. This meant lock gates and portaging. Something I need to practice as Devizes to Westminster has a total of 77 portages! It didn’t take too long before I got quite good at getting out of the boat and running past the lock, getting back in and getting the boat back up to cruising speed needed more work as there were some serious wobbles and with temperatures falling I didn’t fancy the prospect of swimming.

How to improve stability and move away from the bank and get the boat going without getting cold and wet? I decided to join in on some kayak lessons at my local swimming baths. This is turning out to be perfect, I can take my boat in and it doesn’t matter if I get it wrong! Back on the canal and confidence is improving along with portaging and average speed. Ive now cracked the 9kph average speed barrier!

K1 racing

A question of paddles!

Flat blades or wings?

Time is slipping by with most thoughts drifting towards Devizes to Westminster while normal life is getting in the way of my training, I have to go to work! But hey I’m doing ok, its late January and my average speeds are around 9.5kph for two hour paddles with portages. My attention turns towards my paddles, I’m using flat blades and fairly small ones too, these are my sea blades. Most of the advice has said stick with the flat paddles as it will take too long to learn to use wing paddles, just try to get some with slightly larger blades, perfect idea, back to the internet in search of paddles, 2 days later I’m the proud owner of a set of wing paddles!!

Time to get serious!

Coaching session 28th January

As Devizes to Westminster draws inevitably closer its time to get some serious help!

I headed off for a coaching session, with nerves jangling I climbed into the boat praying that I didn’t capsize! It was a bit of a wobbly start but I soon settled in and shook off the morning cold, all went quiet as I paddled along while being observed, photographed and videoed, then came the information.

I need to work on posture, trying to get slightly further forward, reaching out with my front arm and shortening the stroke, trying to do this all at the same time almost resulted in a swim, but it didn’t take long before things started to come together.

Later that day I went out again on my own and worked on the new technique, I have an annoying habit of dropping the right side of the boat which leaves me off balance leaning to the left, I keep trying to adjust my seat and sitting position but leaning forward seemed to correct it, now I’m happy and going faster.

At the end of the session I decided to risk my first ever paddle with the wings, careful at first, got the boat moving, they feel very different to my flat blades, speed building along with the confidence, but then came the inevitable wobble, not normally a problem, with a small support stroke but the wings didn’t offer the same support! It seemed like an age watching the murky ice cold water of the canal getting closer before, splash! gasp! splutter! ugh! more practice needed…

Devises to Westminster training

The Waterside series

K1 marathon racing

The Waterside series are 4 marathon kayak races which are classically used as a build up to Devizes to Westminster. For further information, results and photos visit the Waterside web site

The races gradually get longer as the series goes on.

Unfortunately I missed race A which is 13.5 miles with 21 portages from Great Bedwyn to Newbury.

I was lucky enough to make the rest of the series, although I’m not sure my body would agree at the end of each race!!

Race B – Newbury to Aldermaston and back – 17.5 miles, 19 portages. See photos from Chris Worrall

Race C – Pewsey to Newbury – 23 miles, 35 portages. Photos from Chris Worrall

Race D Devises to Newbury – 34 miles, 35 portages. Photos from Chris Worral

Races B & C I did in the club boat the Trimmer as it was super stable and I had a great time.

Race D I did in my new boat the Knyser Racing CX Maxi which was a bit tippier, so a bit more caution was used…

Race B is an out and back race covering the first part of the second day of the stage race of Devizes to Westminster, on the way out going with the flow and then paddling uphill on the way back! This was my first race and it was a lot of fun, I just took with me everything I needed in the way of food and drink. I was hoping for a time of around 3 hours and managed 3:00,50 and 12th place.

Race C was an A to B type race so I was joined by my support crew who looked after me en route. This race featured the 800 meter Bruce tunnel at Savernake, it was pretty lively in there with wash of the other boats and of course dark but I made it through without incident, then comes a flight of 9 locks at Crofton. With the trimmer it was too heavy and bulky to carry so I paddled a bit in between. After that it was a nice run up the canal with locks at about 1 km intervals. Properly tired at the end but with a time of just over 4 hours and 8 fastest Vet I was happy.

Race D is the longest in the series and is the same as the first day of Devizes to Westminster for the stage race. Being in a new tippier boat the tunnel was my biggest worry so my plan was to go off early and get there before everyone stirred up the water too much… As the weather looked like it was going to be good I didn’t bother with gloves, big mistake! We had a 15 mile paddle before reaching the first lock and this section of canal was full of debris from there the reeds etc had been cut, in places the boat simply ground to a halt! My hands were totally numb by about 10 miles because of the cold shortly followed by my bum because the seat was too hard. Concentration wandered as I tried to get some warm blood into my fingers while wiggling my bum to try and ease the pain there, I passed a small group of people who cheered me on which picked up my spirits and then I fell in!!! The water was freezing!!

Back in the boat and heading for the tunnel, I was second boat on the water, the first being a long way ahead, the water was glassy smooth, final portage before the tunnel and I had to put on my gloves, more time wasted but my hands no longer belonged to me… At last the tunnel, 250 meters to go, the water inside was as smooth as silk, what perfect planning, until a K2 and 2 K1’s came thundering past and messed up the water. Into the bouncy tunnel I went, heart pounding, and a few support strokes but I started to relax and managed to get through. Relief! It was then time to relax and head off to Newbury. 6:27 and 7th place. I was hoping for closer to 6 hours but with all things considered and lessons learned it was not bad. The next time I do that route will be in the Devizes to Westminster race…

Waterside D race