Easter Sunday, 2017: coming around the final corner and seeing Big Ben in the distance reading 11am meant we had made it in under 24 hours and the finish line was less than half a mile away. Relief, tears, joy, and disappointment; we had missed our target time but were in great shape and only minutes away from a finishers medal, a shower and solid food.
A few years ago, John’s shoulder packed up during training for a DW attempt, in kayak, and after much soul searching tried out sit and switch canoe which, being a lower stroke, seemed to cause less aggravation. Having completed DW C1 in 2016 somehow the conversation came around to C2 with Paul who had played in the C1 but nothing more serious that a loop around the danger sign.
We borrowed an ICF C2 (Wenonah) from, as it turned out, one of the top C boaters in the country. Paul and John have kayaked for years, John completed DW in C1; how hard could it be? Like anything on or in water there is specialist knowledge, setup and technique to master. Paddling the C2 and exploring the Thames and Grand Union canal, bank to bank, including dragging ourselves through a bank side bramble bush at speed to cries of ‘this is going to hurt ……..’ was disheartening not to mention painful.
Coincidence would see us meet, on the water, one of the other top C boaters in the country and a few tips, critically about trim (weight distribution to us non-digger folk), had the boat going broadly where we wanted it most of the time. A session up on their water (Grand Union at Tring) being the hare (read road kill) to their hounds helped immensely and we started searching for a boat of our own.
The boat has form; it won C2 in 2016 in a record time and the first time a C boat has podiumed amongst the kayaks. It deserved (and got) a more relaxing DW this year.
We trained every Saturday and Sunday morning from October with around 30 miles a weekend from December so with half the crew having less than 6 months in a C boat 4th in class (canoe) and 30 / 160 overall in the overnight in under 24 hours is a great achievement but close does not win the cigar. The ‘never again’ statements on the tideway are perhaps leaning towards ‘unfinished business’ three weeks later.
We had hoped to be under 23 hours and based on conservative calculations from training paddles (allowing for tiredness etc.) we should have been closer to 22 hours than 23, but, and this is the big one; although we knew the canoe to be more affected by flow and depth than a marathon kayak (less hydrodynamic?) we did a very good paddle two weeks before on the Thames at low flow rates and figured we could maintain close to that speed on the river but two weeks later it had dropped even further and our river speed was slower than our canal speed. Others made the same comment about this year’s conditions; good weather, rubbish flow.
We had great support and that’s critical to the DW; Tracey and Nonu the dog kept an eye on us for much of the course. Dougie saw us off and through most of the canal and then re-joined Tracey in the wee small hours to back her up for driving. A friend Lucy joined in for quite a bit of the night, Nick saw us off at the start and quite a few other club members were spotted at various stages – some even marshalling. Did I imagine Tom at Marlow (disturbing if that was an hallucination)? Although we don’t necessarily acknowledge the spectators it’s nice to know that people are there, even if they’re supporting someone else the cheers, go diggers and etc. are good for morale.
Our crew (in terms of food and water) were all Paul’s family with his brother Mark doing the driving – Charlotte took the lead support role with Alex and Mark’s son Jake. They did a faultless job. With a lot of planning and the crew delivering we got the mix of fuel and drugs just right for us for the event. Of course, anyone that finishes would say they have got it right but few boats with a crew over 100 combined years went faster than us (okay, 3) so for our circumstances and fitness we got it right. Best estimate is ca. 6,000 calories consumed, each.
Saturday started overcast but pleasant and the first 15 miles (from Devizes, no locks) went well and pretty much on target or a little ahead in speed terms. We agreed not to race or chase anyone on the water on the day but rather stick to our plan – it’s funny how a faster boat (302 and second in canoe for example) catches up, then pulls over at Pewsey wharf and we don’t so we overtake, then they catch again, drop a paddle, fall back, get overtaken, catch, have a longer stop than us, catch, overtake and eventually get away. We reckon they were also slower by ca. 1 hour from their probable target time based on their form from Watersides / Thamesides results.
One of the fast C2’s retied quite early this year. If they had finished they would have probably been 2nd / 3rd overall meaning 6 C2’s under 24 hours. In the last 6 or 7 years sub-24 in a C2 would put you on the podium more often than not, even last year when the record was smashed. This year there were more C2s and overall a faster field despite the flow. And that field did not include the best in the country though they were at the start supporting the eventual winner (who should have gone sub 20 on paper).
We were virtually incident free and John’s hands were blister free – crazy. John’s shoulder survived (no idea how many Naproxin / Diclofenic I was fed though) but I am drug free again and recovering well. Three weeks on and we were within 30 seconds of our club time-trial best – stamina rather than speed probably.
We did have a few slower portages in the night where the momentum was lost but not enough to make a huge difference – I think if ca. 22 hours was still on we may have hustled a bit more – hard to say – it’s easy to linger if you are not racing the clock.
John did have pain (rubbing) inner thighs and a painful bum. Turns out there were impressive blisters and extreme nappy rash from quite early on. Same knickers and cycling trousers as always but a new pair of neoprene paddle pants over all that – perhaps a little tighter and maybe sweat from the day contributed. Nearly all healed up. Lesson there – change nothing from training.
We had built plenty of leeway into our Teddington arrival but in hindsight we should have started 30 – 60 mins earlier – that’s the catch – do you go too conservative on timings and be too early for the tide or too aggressive and then end up chasing your tail? Since we were 2 hours after the tide the first 3 miles of the tideway are held at just below peak by what’s called the Richmond half lock – it essentially comes down like a guillotine to maintain a basin of water – presumably for recreational use by rowers etc. That also means that the next mile or two has virtually no tidal feel so we’re 5-6 miles in before the anticipated tideway flow started to pay off. With very sore / numb bums and time gone it didn’t seem to matter to lose a few more minutes so we stopped twice for a stretch and to strip down as it got very hot - we were still dressed for night.
We also had a strong head wind in parts which was not forecast for London. Having said all that, we realised that sub 24 was on and somehow that’s a nice psychological time barrier so we did find the reserves to raise the work rate on the tideway to make sure we made that cut-off; it’s not easy doing math in your head (especially elapsed time math) after more than a day awake but we had some magic (over the counter) capsules for brain function / alertness that helped.
Both Paul and John were conscious throughout the event. Perhaps it’s easier if you’re unconscious.