Devizes to Westminster Canoe Marathon 2011

Posted on 28 April 2011

Over the Easter weekend 6 Leaside Paddlers completed the punishing Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race. In a battle of skill, stamina and concentration four young people and two adults from Leaside raced 125 miles from the heartland of Wiltshire to Central London. In the Junior Doubles class, the pairings of Fede Pollame & Aoife Philips and Caoimhe McLaughlin & Isobel Wilson finished in times of 24hr 23m 29s and 25hr 15m 50s respectively. In the Senior Singles class, David Campbell finished in a time of 23 hr 9m 36s and Roland Bohn retired after 14hr 44m 9s.

In her own words, junior member Caoimhe McLaughlin tell her story of singing, strange food and paddling for up to seven hours a day.

“Five minutes before we were due to begin the race on the Friday 22nd in the morning, I saw a man wearing a jumper with the slogan ‘Devizes to Westminster, 125 miles, 77 portages, 1 race. And one bad idea!”

This annual race which takes place over 4 days of the Easter holiday has been nicknamed the ‘Canoeist’s Everest’ and attracts competitors from all over the world. Our Leaside instructor, Darrell Woodhead, persuaded four of our young members to do it, including myself, Isobel, Aoife and Fede. We are all aged between 15 to 16 and had only been paddling for 1 year beforehand. To undertake such a challenge against paddling veterans was a definite test of our strength, endurance and determination, but through constant support and encouragement we all completed the race on Monday 25th April.

Paddling for an average of 7hrs 30mins each day for 3 days took its toll. In the evenings we had to be self-sufficient and set up camp by ourselves; also cooking for ourselves. You can imagine how hard this was to do when we could barely move. The days seemed endless; left paddle stroke, right paddle stroke, and because the canal all looked the same it seemed we were getting nowhere, but we managed to keep our spirits high by singing and talking to each other whilst paddling. Another big help was the constant bombardment of food and water at each portage as we ran it. Our support crew would jog alongside us, changing our drained water bottles and stuffing a concoction of banana, sausage, fairy cake and wine gums all in our mouth at the same time. While they tasted wonderful individually, together it didn’t quite work!

The first day was 34 miles from Devizes (start) to Newbury, then 36 miles the next day to Marlow, then 38 miles on the third day to Teddington. The last day we nicknamed ‘Glory Day’; only 17 miles and an average of 2 hours paddling to Westminster Bridge and the finish!

Coincidently, it was my birthday on the third day and the DW organisers gave me a shout out on their website, while my support crew presented me with a homemade chocolate cake which went down very well!

While we all faced trials and tribulations on each day (such as a concussed Fede due to hitting his head going under a low bridge), the last day though the shortest, required the most concentration and skill. Being a Bank Holiday, the River Thames was packed full of pleasure craft which we had to weave our way around while they created huge waves, throwing our tippy boats off balance. Support stroking our way to the finish line, and distracted by the cheers of the crowds lining the banks of Westminster, both crews only just made it without capsizing! The relief and elation of finishing was immense, especially combined with the adrenaline rush of staying upright on the river and then finding all of our family and friends waiting at the finish line. Once we were awarded with our DW medals, we were finally free to relax and enjoy the sun beaming down on us. Caoimhe and Isobel finished with a total time of 25:15:50. Fede and Aoife finished with a total time of 24:23:29

This experience was definitely challenging for all of us, and each one of us dealt with it differently. However, given time to recover, we have no regrets of doing it and DW may very well see us there next year!”

Caoimhe McLaughlin

Congratulations to all those who took part. A big thank you to Darrell Woodhead who trained our young members, the support crews and all who went down to Westminster to show their support