DW Whats it all about?
The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race is the longest non-stop canoe race in the world. It starts in the quiet market town of Devizes in Wiltshire and finishes 125 miles later at Westminster Bridge, directly opposite the Houses of Parliament in the heart of London. It is held over the Easter weekend each year and has been a fixture in the British sporting calendar since 1950. But DW is much more than just a canoe race - its an adventure! It forces competitors to dig long and deep into their reserves of physical and mental stamina which is why the race is often called the canoeists Everest. Having the technical skill to paddle a kayak or canoe is essential but the most important quality needed to complete DW is raw determination. And the reward for making the mighty effort needed to cross the finish line is a sense of satisfaction so profound that many paddlers cant resist coming back year after year.
The race can either be completed in one continuous effort or paddled over four days. The Senior Doubles event (often called the straight-through race) is non-stop and is exclusively for adult paddlers in a two person boat. The Senior Doubles crews set off from Devizes and simply dont stop till they get to Westminster, 125 miles and 77 portages later. For elite crews, this journey may take 17 or 18 hours the race record has stood since 1979 at an incredible 15 hours and 34 minutes - but it is a real achievement to break 20 hours and the bulk of paddlers take around 24. But however quick a crew is, everyone has to paddle through the night. Coping with deep fatigue in the hours of darkness is just one of the challenges facing DW paddlers in the straight-through race.
Alternatively, the race can be done, in daylight, over 4 days. On the first day paddlers cover 34 miles, then 36, 38 and, on the final day, a mercifully short 17. The competitive 4 day classes include Junior Doubles, Senior Singles, and Veteran / Junior Doubles. Do not mistake the 4 day events for a soft option. Each day sees intense racing and the cumulative toll this takes on body and soul is considerable. Some of the most exciting racing, from a spectator point of view, takes place in these classes because the boats do not get so strung out as in the straight-through event.
Finally, we have also introduced a non-competitive 4 day Doubles category the Endeavour Class - for adults who prefer to take their time and enjoy the beautiful scenery the Thames Valley has to offer.
The course itself falls naturally into 3 sections. The first 54 miles runs along the Kennet and Avon Canal and is punctuated irregularly by over 50 locks. The water is placid and, apart from avoiding numb bum on the first 14 mile stretch, negotiating the deceptively long Bruce Tunnel, coping with the frequent portages and running for up to a mile at Crofton Locks, there are no great technical difficulties. Within the canal section, a significant landmark is reached after 34 miles at Newbury because between there and Reading, where the canal comes out into the River Thames, there is a little helpful flow on the water created by the River Kennet weaving in and out of the canal.
The second part of the course is the 53 miles along the River Thames from Reading to Teddington, This section has slightly more flow - depending on how much rain there has been in the weeks leading up to Easter - and fewer locks so it is inherently faster than the canal. The main challenge on the Thames apart from keeping going - is to ensure that the boat is correctly positioned when approaching locks and weirs. There are a number of dangerous antiscour weirs and it is crucial to steer well clear of them so as to avoid being swept over. Memorising the layout of the weirs in advance is important for all paddlers but particularly for straight-through racers who will be negotiating the river in the dark. Full diagrams of the river locks are issued to all entrants.
The final section of the race is the 17 miles from Teddington to Westminster Bridge on the tidal section of the Thames - the Tideway. This stretch often has big boat washes thrown up by pleasure craft and speed boats so it is important that paddlers select a boat of sufficient stability for their technical level, particularly as this section is undertaken when paddlers are at their most fatigued. It is also imperative to arrive at the Tideway when the tide is flowing out because it is not feasible to paddle against an incoming tide. This fact leads to an important characteristic of the race, namely that each crew must calculate how long it expects to take to get from Devizes to Teddington and select its start time from Devizes accordingly. A crew which underestimates how long it will take to reach the tidal section will find that the tide is coming in and they have to wait hours for it to turn again. This, of course, has a disastrous impact on their overall race time. Equally, a crew arriving too early at Teddington will have to kill time till the tide turns and starts to run out.
Most of the boats in the race are kayaks, whether K2s or K1s but there is usually a good turnout of Canadian canoes, particularly in the straight-through race. Finally, some of the military crews enter in folding boats (Kleppers) but the weight of these boats makes them suitable only for the strongest competitors. Whatever type of boat you choose, it is important to achieve a high level of stability because the most difficult technical section of the course is encountered when paddlers are most tired it is better to err on the side of a slower, more stable boat if you are in any doubt about your ability to handle a faster boat in difficult water.
It is vital to prepare thoroughly for the race. It is difficult to generalise about how much training is necessary but most crews should be thinking of an absolute minimum of 3 outings per week for the 3 months leading up to the race. For newcomers to the sport, people starting from a low fitness base or those aiming for fast times, the training will clearly need to be longer and more intense. As noted above, all paddlers must reach a level where capsizes are few and far between. It is important to practise portaging because with 77 locks on the course, much time and energy can be wasted if you dont handle portages smoothly. It is also important for paddlers in the straight-through race to be comfortable with paddling at night and this should be incorporated into the training.
We strongly recommend that paddlers participate in the Waterside and Thameside Series in the run up to DW. These 6 races range in distance from 13 miles to 34 miles and cover a good proportion of the course. The races offer an excellent opportunity to test kit, fitness, portaging, feeding and all the other ingredients necessary to complete DW as well as familiarising paddlers with the layout of the course. The times achieved in these races will also help you calculate how long you might take for DW itself. Links to these races can be found on the website.
Whichever class a paddler decides to enter, a key part of race preparation is to arrange suitable Support. Particularly in the straight-through event, it is simply not possible to be self-sufficient in food and drink. Crews should aim to be fed and watered roughly every hour and this typically means arranging to have 2 or even 3 cars leap-frogging one another down the course, meeting the paddlers at pre-arranged points to give them whatever supplies they need. Even in the 4 day events, crews will be on the water for upwards of 5 hours per day and need to be re-supplied regularly.
For those paddlers doing the straight-through race, accommodation is simple; paddlers may choose to stay in Devizes the night before or drive there on the morning of the race depending on the start time they have decided on. For those paddlers doing the 4 day race, however, accommodation needs to be arranged each night. Camp-sites are set up at the end of each stage and for Junior Doubles crews it is obligatory to camp. For all other classes in the 4 day event, it is optional so for paddlers who prefer home comforts, it is possible to find local hotels, bed and breakfasts or simply to go home.
If you are interested in entering the race but have no previous experience of canoesport, we suggest that you contact the nearest canoe club with a marathon racing section. Within the UK you can obtain information about canoe clubs by checking the British Canoe Union website (www.bcu.org.uk). If you have difficulty locating a suitable club near you, please contact us and we will try to help.
RAISING MONEY FOR CHARITY
We encourage paddlers to raise money for charity and award a trophy to the crew raising most money for their chosen cause.
All finishers in the competitive classes receive a medal and a certificate and there is a wide range of prize categories both for individual crews and teams. These include prizes for Senior Men, Senior Women, Veterans, Mixed, Military prizes, Overseas, Scouts, Universities, Schools, Cadet and so on. A full list of prize categories is on the website.
DW is run entirely by volunteers and we are always looking for people to help with a range of tasks, from marshalling, to stuffing envelopes, driving, preparing food etc. If you are interested in helping with the race, please contact us or check out the website for details of specific help we are seeking.
If you are interested in learning more about the race, we would initially advise going through the material on the website. Next, we strongly suggest reading the booklet entitled The Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race by Brian Greenaway. Running to 50 pages, the author, drawing on his unparalleled experience of the race, explains in detail the historical origins of the race, how to train for it, what kit is needed, how to calculate when to start, how to organise a suitable support operation, what to eat and much more besides. This booklet is a goldmine of information and may be purchased for £16.50 (inclusive of postage) by sending a cheque made payable to DW Organisation LTD to Wokingham Waterside Centre, Thames Valley Park Drive, Earley, Berkshire RG6 1PQ.
We also encourage paddlers to attend the DW Introductory Seminars offered free by Marsport, details of which are also available on the website.
If you have any other questions, please get in touch and we will try to help.
So, why not make next Easter one to remember - enter DW and conquer the canoeists Everest!