So, what is this DW thing anyway? Well, as previously mentioned it's the Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race. A race in single or double canoes or kayaks, which takes place over the Easter weekend. It's open to anyone who thinks they can cover the 125 miles between Devizes in Wiltshire and Westminster Bridge, London, using paddle power only. The first 52 miles of the course is along the Kennett & Avon canal to where it joins the river Thames at Reading. The remainder carries on down the Thames to Westminster in central London.
In fact there are two separate races held concurrently. The first one, the one I'm aiming for, is the four day event which sets off on the Easter Friday and is separated into four, daily stages, with overnight stops, covering the whole of the Easter weekend. From Devizes wharf to Newbury is the first daily stage of 33 miles. The second day covers Newbury to Marlow on the Thames, 35 miles. The third day takes the race to just past Teddington lock, a further 37 miles and the last day finishes with a relatively short distance of 17 miles to the finish line at the steps of the old County Hall at Westminster bridge. The other race, run over the same course, but a completely different kettle of fish, starts on the Easter Saturday morning and continues non-stop, the full distance, overnight into Sunday.
Why Easter? Well it's a convenient four-day holiday to accommodate a four-day race. It’s also because after the Easter period and into the summer, the canal section is prone to a heavy build-up of a blanket of weed, that fouls rudders and paddles, and generally slows the boat’s progress. Easter is also the original ‘moveable feast’ and is set to occur on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon. Which as far as the overnight race is concerned, having a nearly full moon gives it’s contestants the benefit of at least some level of natural light, to an otherwise unlit river.
Unfortunately the 125 mile course includes a number of obstacles throughout the race. Not least are the 77 locks which have to be negotiated one way or another. The fastest option is to ‘portage’ the boat by carrying it around the lock, and along the towpath to the other end. Being able to exit the boat, lift it out of the water, run (if possible) with the boat to the downstream end of the lock, and get it back in the water with yourself inside it as quickly as possible, is an advantage. It has been estimated that portaging takes up five miles of the overall distance of the race, so you may see that a light boat is a pre-requisite. My version of the Laance is glass fibre throughout and weighs in at 12 kilos. Already, putting the thing on a roof rack is beginning to become a bit of a chore, and the lightweight Kevlar version is becoming more attractive by the minute.
Near the beginning of the race, a mile or two after Pewsey wharf, is the Bruce tunnel. This is a 460 meter long tunnel under the Savernake forest. It was constructed at the same time as the canal as the landowner through whose land it goes would not permit a deep cut through the forest. Although the tunnel is dead straight, the only illumination is ‘the light at the ends of the tunnel‘, and it is easy to become disorientated in the darkness. There’s also no towpath and little room for overtaking. It’s also open to normal canal traffic, usually houseboats, coming the other way. There’s a safety boat provided by the race, but in the event of a capsize in the tunnel it would usually be necessary to swim/wade your way out.
Just after the tunnel comes the ’Crofton Flight’. This is a series of six locks which span a distance of about a mile. This is more of an obstacle than a hazard as the question arises whether it’s quicker to portage the boat the full mile around all six locks, or return to the water and paddle between each one. Really it depends on how fit you think you are.
There are other hazards in the form of weirs, mainly on the Thames or lock ‘cuts’ which channel the water overspill around locks. Each of these cause cross-currents near the locks (I’ve already experienced one of those) that can take the unsuspecting unawares and deposit him/her in the water. At the eastern end of the canal there are a number of road swing-bridges across the canal which have a clearance of about 2 - 3 feet, depending on the height of water in the canal at the time. These were never intended to have any sort of traffic ‘under’ them and consequently have a number of steel girder ends exposed to the oncoming paddler. The question here is whether to risk scalping (as a number of contestants have experienced) or take the safer but longer route and portage around them.
The DW contains one other ‘very’ major consideration for the crews in the overnight race to think about very carefully before setting, erm, foot on the water. It’s a sting in the tail of the race caused by a celestial influence that can put them out of the race on it’s very last knockings...
But more of that later...