A Very Long Way
Easter weekend. To many, this means a lot of things – chocolate, lambs, chicks, family, the resurrection of Christ etc. But to canoeists, the Easter weekend means something else. Every year, the Devizes to Westminster, or DW, takes place over the Easter weekend. This is a 125 mile non-stop canoe race that starts in the town of Devizes and finishes under Westminster bridge. The first 52 miles are on the Kennet and Avon canal, which then joins the Thames at Reading to take the paddlers another 55 miles to meet the tidal section of the Thames where the final 18 miles take place. Along with this, the paddlers have 77 locks to portage and must paddle through the night.
To keep the paddlers going, each team has a support crew who follows them in cars and meets up with them at locks to feed them, change their drinks and top up on paracetamol. That was my job last night. Two ladies, Helen and Colette, from the Canoe Club took on the challenge of the DW and I was part of the support crew doing the night shift. The whole experience reminded me of when I did it last year, which Heather wrote a post about here. We arrived at the first place we were meeting them at 6:30pm and followed them through the night. The first job we had was to help them change into a set of dry clothes as they’d finished the canal section and were about to start on the river which they would be doing in the dark. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to pull 5 sodden layers off of a soggy person, but it’s not easy! And putting on 5 dry layers on a soggy person isn’t very easy either, but we managed it and I’m sure they felt better for having some dry clothes on. After some hot soup and a toilet stop, we made sure all lights and glow sticks were turned on and then sent them on their way.
As we were taking on the night shift from the day shift support crew, there was a whole lot of shuffling food and drink and spare clothes around in different cars and trying to work out where everything was. Eventually we got everything sorted and so we darted off to the next lock to top them up again. My main aim at this lock was to squeeze as much lucozade into Helen’s mouth as she was feeling a bit sick. I suffered hugely with the same problem last year and the only thing that helped was downing a bottle of lucozade at every possible stop! I thought it would be quite a hard job as she’d said before that she didn’t like lucozade at all, but she seemed willing enough and then asked for more at every stop we saw her at, so it was obviously working for her too – so if you ever feel sick, stock up on lucozade! After this, both of them seemed to be fairing pretty well and seemed in good spirit and managed to get about 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
It must have been about half past eight by now, so we decided it was about time to worry about our own stomachs and fill them with chips. We bought them and then drove over to the next lock where we sat and ate them before Graham, who was driving, had a 20 minute nap. Only, after five minutes, Colette’s family who had been crewing from the start knocked on our window to hand over some things they’d forgotten to give us earlier. We shared out our leftover chips and some cake that my mum had given me and then headed over to the lock to wait for Helen and Colette.
When they turned up, we got garbled messages of, “My arm…paracetamol!…OW!…banana…more lucozade…first aid kit!…OWWWWW!…my arm!”, and then as they were paddling off, “BLISTER PADS!!”. I knew that the next lock they were being met at by the other support car wasn’t very far away, so I hurriedly texted them so they would have time to get everything they needed before walking over to the lock. One of the downfalls of using a phone in the dark is when you look away from the screen, you’re instantly blinded. It was because of this that I managed to walk into a concrete post and practically snap my leg in half. Ok, so it wasn’t that bad but it felt like it and I expected a huge bruise, but so far there’s nothing – my mum reckons I’ve bruised the bone or something? It’s always disappointing when the appearance of an injury doesn’t match the pain of it.
Anyway, it turned out that Helen and Colette were suffering worse than me and were struggling with a particularly horrible, dark stretch of the river which is also the longest time without seeing your support crew which slowed them down quite a bit. Graham and I found a bridge that we could cheer them on at and ended up waiting for over an hour until they came through. We didn’t mind though, it gave us a chance to see the other boats coming through (Sir Steve Redgrave was in one of them – he decided to have a go at canoeing and try the hardest race possible!). It also felt like we were in some sort of special, secret club standing there in the middle of the night where only certain people driving past knew why we were on a bridge with a few other people at that time of night.
At the next lock, we met up with the other support crews to move some things around because Graham was going home and I was moving in with Danny and Elena (who had been the other car supporting at the same time as us) because I so wanted to see them finish at the end. Another car had showed up to take Graham’s place, so we moved most of our stuff into their car. Colette’s family, who were meant to be sleeping in their car but were too excited/worried to sleep much turned up too, so all in all we had 8 people at this lock! While we were waiting for them to turn up, we saw Sir Steve come through with his parter. They looked a little worse for wear and had quite a long stop to stock up on lots of food before carrying on. When our crew came through, we fed them and squeezed more lucozade into them and they actually looked pretty good – tired, but strong.
We got to the next lock and had a 20 minute nap before a text from Isla, Colette’s daughter, said that they were parked at the start of the tidal section of the river and were going to sleep there for a few hours before Helen and Colette reached them. We sorted out what we were going to take to the lock and walked up there to wait. We were chatting away when I felt my phone vibrate. It was Colette. They’d had enough and wanted out – they were exhausted, her arm hurt and Helen was feeling sick again. She said in quite a garbled manor that they would meet us at Windsor by the leisure centre, so we grabbed the things and ran back to the car before racing to the leisure centre. I rang the other support cars to let them know and they said they would meet us there.
We were the first car there by a long way, only we couldn’t find Helen and Colette ANYwhere! We ran all over the place looking for them, calling their phone but getting no answer and we couldn’t make any sense of it. We were getting really worried because they could easily get hypothermia if they’d stopped paddling and were waiting for us. But just when we were about to think of a plan of action as to what we should do next, they paddled in to where we were waiting – apparently they’d rung us from the lock before and paddled down to give us a chance to get there. We got them changed into dry clothes as quickly as possible and then sat them in the cars with the heating on full. Colette was on her own, which is a bad idea for someone with possible hypothermia, so I went and sat in the sauna car with her. I was practically sweating, but she was still cold so I just kept talking and talking to her, making sure she was talking back. It was clear she was absolutely devastated and thought she’d let everybody down, which is absolutely ridiculous. To put it in perspective, Sir Steve pulled out at the next lock down due to “tiredness”, and over 1/3 of the paddlers also retired so they were in good company!
They managed over 18 hours of non-stop paddling and got about 85 miles through the course, which is no mean feat! I should think they had a nice long lie in and got waited on hand and foot today. As for me, well I got to bed at 5:30am, woke up at 10:30 until 12:00 when I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I went back to bed and slept until 4:00 – just in time for my Grandma to arrive for Easter tea.