Over the Easter weekend 30th March to 2nd April 2018, Steve Cook, independent financial adviser in our St Albans office took part in the 70th Anniversary race of the 125 mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Challenge. This is his story…
The Devizes to Westminster Canoe Challenge is a ridiculous challenge for anyone to consider! To begin with Simon Hawker and myself agreed to enter as a double kayak. Unfortunately Simon badly injured his shoulder two weeks before the event and had to withdraw, so I decided to continue and switched to the single kayak race. Albeit I was in a sea kayak which I would soon find out was going to be a big ask! Simon continued as the main support member and my driver for the challenge.
We arrived on Good Friday at Devizes in good time for my allotted 7.30am start and I even managed to eat breakfast in the car - well one bowl of porridge!
The rain had started already and there was a degree of apprehension in the air from all the paddlers. Devizes was packed.
I set off on the first stretch between Devizes and Pewsey - a mere 12 miles away. On the positive side - there were no locks. The negative was that I quickly established that a sea kayak was slightly less streamlined than 99.9% of the other kayaks and canoes.
Arrival at Pewsey for a drink and snack and then straight off for Crofton - another 10 miles. Crofton is a series of locks and again I quickly found out that a sea kayak weighed about 15kg more than 99.9% of the other boats. Very depressing watching others lift their boats with one hand.
Crofton to Hungerford was next – a 6 mile stretch. Here I was met with a "you need to put your foot down" to get to Newbury in time. By the way, it's another 9 miles. Unfortunately the weather was atrocious which resulted in very slippery conditions, this combined with carrying a heavy kayak time meant time was soon against me.
Three miles from Newbury, I received more words of encouragement and my actual arrival at Newbury was a welcome relief after just under 10 hours of paddling and 35 portages. The rain had not stopped all day and I was somewhat pleased not to be camping like some. How they got dry is a mystery.
Overnight in Newbury brought some welcome relief, some dry clothes and some food. Not for long though as I was one of the first boats off at 6.45am!
On the Saturday I had the "benefit" of two additional support crews and instead of a grunt of encouragement every three hours, I had company every four miles.
The rain continued and trouble was ahead. The bridges were rapidly becoming obstacles that sadly one paddler hit and needless to say the bridge won. He managed to break his nose but thankfully an army medic was on hand. This resulted in more portages than planned and a slightly hairy trip through Reading.
The news then came through that the race was going to be stopped at Reading just as the paddlers reached the Thames. Having fought the sea kayak on the canal and just reaching water where it would come into its own I cannot actually explain to you the annoyance that brought.
For everyone who had trained so hard to then find out they were not going to be able to complete the full course it is an emotional sight. I saw competitors upset at not being able to finish and umpires apologising for cancelling the event.
The basic issue was that between Reading and Teddington there are a number of locks. The locks themselves are fine, it’s the weirs at each lock that presented the challenge. Technically my kayak could have gone over the weir and survived, the other racing kayaks would have been smashed to pieces. Normally the current won't force boats near the weir but in a flood they do.
Competing in the canoe challenge has been a roller coaster journey. I was very disappointed not to have the opportunity to finish the challenge after all my training. I was unlucky that the weather turned against us, as the event has only been cancelled four times in its 70 year history. However, on the positive side my fitness has improved and I exceeded my £2,000 fundraising target by raising over £2,596 for the Alzheimer’s Society and The Essex and Herts Air Ambulance Trust. View our corporate fundraising page.