After celebrating the end of term with my uni friends, I set my alarm for 6:45am yesterday to be picked up and taken to help out at a canoe race. A few people from my canoe club are taking part in the Devizes to Westminster (DW) canoe race this year, (here‘s a post I wrote about it last year, in short it’s a 125 mile non-stop 24 hour canoe race) and my mum and I, along with a few other people, are helping them out by following in a car and meeting them at locks to provide food, water, dry clothes and anything else they might need along the way. As a warm up to the race, there are a series of other races that get longer and longer, starting at 13 miles and building up to 35 miles, finishing two weeks before the actual race which takes place over the Easter weekend. Yesterday was the longest of these races – Waterside D – 35 miles, taking about 6 and a half hours to complete. And of course, the weather chose this day to drop a load of snow everywhere.
It was as we (me, my mum and our family friend from the canoe club) were travelling to the race and the snow was getting worse and worse, that we looked at the ground getting whiter by the second and decided that we would just have to turn around and go home. The people racing had another support crew with them, we were just there to practise our roles before Easter, and my mum gets a little nervous when the snow looks threatening. It was only when we were back at the canoe club nibbling on some cake before heading back home that we remembered we’d been given an entry form for another crew entering the DW, to hand in to the race organisers. It was the last day the entries could be handed in. The crew had been training for this for months. We just had to go back and hand it in. My mum didn’t fancy the ride in the snow again, so she went home while I went off to crew with said family friend. It was freeezing, but I was armed with the rest of the cake, a flask of hot chocolate and my warm hat (which I shall not be taking to another canoe event – I forgot just how muddy everything gets!).
We rang the other support crew while we were on our way, and managed to catch up the crew after we’d handed the entry in. When we arrived at the first lock though, we realised just how muddy the day was going to be. This wasn’t even the worst bit – just past the lock there was a mini flood that the competitors had to wade through whilst carrying their boats round the lock. It was nearly knee deep! Thankfully we could sort of edge round it on the raised bank, but it was very slippery and I nearly ended up submerged several times!
Now, let me explain to you the roles of a support crew. The number one role is probably giving them food. This may sound simple in itself, but it has to be done on the move – the paddlers jump out of the boat at a lock, pick it up, run round the lock and get back in before paddling off again. Somewhere in this time frame, you have to cram as much food into them as possible so they have enough energy to keep going. The food has to be in bite sized pieces and should be high in energy. On the menu today was chopped up mars bars. Well, they started off chopped up and in nicely sized bits, but as the day went on they just merged into one big gooey clump. We ended up breaking bits off with our fingers and then it’s the normal process of aiming vaguely for their mouths while you run along side them. This is no easy task and usually ends up with chocolate smeared across their face and you tripping over a mooring post about to be trampled by another team coming up behind you.
The second role of a support crew is to provide encouragement. This, again, sounds easy enough but when someone’s been paddling for the best part of 5 hours, it’s a fine line between encouraging them to keep going and sounding completely patronising. Shouting, ‘Keep going!!’ might boost their moral at one point, and at another have you dodging a paddle being aimed at your head with the reply of, ‘What do you think I’m going to do?!’. Ok, it’s not usually that bad, but you do have to watch what you say. Our paddlers were in high spirits most of the time though, and seemed to enjoy the race which was good.
The other two jobs of a support crew is to provide vital statistics – ‘HOOOOOW far do we have left now?!’, and if possible, snap a few photos to capture the grimaces on their faces. The whole routine goes something like this:
– Arrive at the lock, find good places for your paddlers to get out and in again.
– Stand for ages looking out for signs that your paddlers are coming.
– Recognise some of the paddlers coming in from the funny slogans on their custom made DW kit.
– Debate between you about whether you can see your paddlers arriving in the distance.
– Realise it is them and jump up and down showing them where to get out.
– Remember you have to take photos, manage a few blurry snaps while you break off a clump of mars bar goop which you proceed to smear all over your camera while you try and get it back in your pocket while you ask how your paddlers are feeling.
– Run alongside your paddlers while they carry the boat. Try and get at least half of the mars bar clump into their mouths as opposed to eyes/ear/hair/nose while avoiding holes/posts/stray water bottles.
– Try and remember how far it is they have left. This is simple if you’ve remembered to check the distance sheet before you left the car. If you forgot, it results in some very dodgy mental maths, trying to think how long ago it was you last saw them, how far they had left to go at that point and what sort of speed you reckon they’re averaging. Always end up overestimating so they have a sense of relief that it felt like a very short 10 miles as opposed to a horrendously long 6 miles.
– Direct them to the best place to get back on the water, wait for them to get in and offer a last piece of mars bar with the risk of having your fingers chomped off if they accept and can’t quite coordinate eating with pushing off the bank to start paddling again.
– Take a few more pictures of them paddling into the distance.
– Go back to the car and try and direct to the next lock.
As you can imagine, this can be quite tiring! But I really enjoy doing it. If I’m not on the water doing the race, this is where I like to be. There’s been a lot of rain recently, which made for a few floody bits. Thankfully the actual canal was ok, but some of the rivers running alongside had burst their banks.
At the end of this particular race, there’s a very whizzy bit where a river joins the canal and quite a few teams had some wobbles. Our team coped perfectly though, and finished the race in just over 6 and a half hours. More importantly, all the support crew finished with fingers intact and no sore heads from being hit with a paddle for accidentally tripping up your paddlers whilst trying to take photos. It was a very nice (if not cold, wet and muddy – but when is a canoe race not any of those things!) day and I really enjoyed getting back into it all. I can’t wait to start my training again over the holidays, and I’m also looking forward to crewing for the big DW race over Easter. Although, if it rains or snows any more it’ll be a close call as to whether they actually run it at all. Fingers crossed!