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The loneliness of the long distance paddler

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Devizes Westminster 2015

Text by Peter Hutchison
Photography by Dominic James www.dominic-James.com & Ollie Harding www.olypics.co.uk

Lizzie Broughton and Keith Moule won the 2015 Devizes Westminster International Canoe Race over Easter becoming the first mixed crew to win the Senior Doubles class in the 67-year history of the race, crossing the line in 16 hours 40 minutes and 31 seconds. 

It’s a phenomenal individual achievement for Broughton who last year took silver in the Marathon World Championships and is currently ranked number one in the International Canoe Federation marathon rankings. 

“I still can’t quite believe we won,” says Broughton in typically understated style. Broughton’s achievement takes places in a year that saw another mixed crew finish third – pushed out of second by just 24 seconds – and women in five of the top ten Senior Doubles boats. 2015 was the year that women stamped their mark on DW – this year, the women did.

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Lizzie Broughton and Keith Moule crossing the line at Westminster. Photo by Ollie-Harding (www.olypics.org.uk)

Rewriting the record book
Broughton, from Richmond Canoe Club, and Moule from Chelmsford gave notice of their DW intentions in early January winning the Frank Luzmore Race –the first race of the year from Elmbridge to Richmond and continued to demonstrate their focus, application and strategic planning by breaking records throughout the DW build-up Waterside and Thameside Races.
As Easter approached, Broughton and Moule’s build-up turned DW fans and paddler pundits into weather watchers in the hope that conditions would support a fast time. For all the planning, the weather didn’t play ball.

“It was great to win,” says Moule who like Broughton is in the Team GB Marathon Squad, “that was the main target at the beginning of the winter.” Reminiscent of Ivan Lawler and Ben Brown’s 2011 attempt to break the 37-year course record, Broughton and Moule shared their progress courtesy of YouTube. It’s a bold crew that set out to win DW and break records. To do it publicly lets more people enjoy the experience, increasing support but also adding pressure.

The profile and pressure didn’t seem to matter, the support all along the course was welcome: race strategy and implementation went as planned delivering a winning margin of 80 minutes.

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DW commentators are unanimous in their praise for the achievement. Before the race, course record holder Brian Greenham wished them well for the race, enthusing “they’re an incredible pair.” Long-time DW observer Paul Ralph said the crew were, “looking beautiful all the way down,” while Brian Greenaway of Fowey Canoe Club and a DW veteran of many decades commented that Broughton and Moule are, “one of the fastest crews to ever do the race.” It’s the second fastest winning DW time this century.

It’s testament to the crew’s calibre that people talk of their achievement and records in the same breath. Can the record be broken? Moule and Broughton agree time can be taken off in small chunks, but it would need a year with good flow to break the record. Moule suggests that with a few more strong crews competing in DW, and favourable conditions the record might go in the next few years.

Both paddlers expect to return to DW at some point in the future. However, immediate thoughts are on the marathon season, assessment races and using the solid foundation of training over the winter for the European Marathon Championships in Slovenia in July.

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Portaging Shiplake at dusk. Dominic James (www.dominic-james.com)

K1 – a 125-mile race
Outside the Senior Doubles, there was an incredible 125-mile race in the four-day K1 class. After day one, Samuel Plummer (Leighton Buzzard) and Daniel Beazley (Leaside) were only a second apart, with Tom Sharpe (Richmond) six minutes behind. By the end of day two, Sharpe had converted the deficit to a 20-second lead over Plummer. Day three was a battle of wills, with Sharpe extending the lead to 59 seconds, and day four turned into a 17-mile adrenaline fuelled race down the tideway with Sharpe and Plummer crossing the in the same group. Quite a DW induction for two first timers!

“It was close,” recalls Sharpe, “I thought Sam would have a bigger lead after day one. But with a lead of six minutes, I thought I might be able to make it up.” For Plummer, day two didn’t go so well; racing on his own was unexpected and when the blistering wind on the Henley Straight took it out of him, it was a struggle from that point. Both paddlers are very well respected with their DW performance adding to that and the prospect of promising futures. But for now Sharpe has the euphoria of victory, while Plummer has the reflection of a race well run with the frustration of finishing second.

Everyone – with perhaps the exception of Sharpe and Plummer – enjoyed the tussle. Greenaway said it was, “A real race all the way to Westminster.” Sam was expected to be good down the canal, taking advantage of being a good runner, while Sharpe – being used to the bumpy water that he once paddled down in Exeter – was going to be better on the river. For everyone else, it was great watching the race all the way.

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Junior Double crews working down the canal by Dominic-James (www.dominic-james.com)

These girls did – more girls could
Broughton’s victory tops a year when women achieved on many levels. James King and Thomas Diaper of the Army Canoe Union finished second, just 24 seconds ahead of Reading Canoe Club’s Alexandra Lane and Radek Zielski. Three other mixed and female crews were in the top ten.

The Junior Veterans four-day stages race was also won by a mixed crew with Amber Owen and James Treadgold from Reading CC taking the honours.

Back to Brian Greenaway who first completed DW in 1965. He recalls pushing to allow women to enter Devizes Westminster in the 1970s when he was part of the organising team, suggesting that one day a woman will win. The official first female entries were permitted in 1976 with the entries rising to allow awarding of trophies from 1980. Thirty five years later the Devizes to Westminster Challenge Cup will be picked up by a mixed crew.

But for all the increasing success at the top, female DW competitors continue to make up just one fifth of the entry field. Organisers hope that the success of women in DW2015 will start to push entries higher.

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Teddinton early morning portage by Dominic James(www.dominic-james.com)

A fair wind blows – DW2015 weather
For newcomers and seasoned DW watchers, the conditions always play a surprising hand. The weather was fair for the time of year. Slightly cooler than ideal, a steady northerly wind – particularly strong on the Saturday – was the greatest obstacle to progress.

TV presenter and Strictly Come Dancing competitor Steve Backshall recalls the fierce headwind that slowed him and partner George Barnicoat to a snail’s pace along the canal section. A snapped rudder wire after 17 miles slowed progress further, and another broken cable required a 30-minute run to get it repaired. Despite the obstacles, they still finished with an impressive time of 23 hours and 17 minutes. Hopefully the pain and frustrations of a troubled race are softened by raising over £45,000 for the World Land Trust to save rainforest in Colombia.

Paddlers on the four-day race endured the worst of the head wind from Reading to Henley, and had to contend with standing waves along the Henley Straight. Paul Ralph called the conditions on day two “hideous,” reporting some chose to portage rather than fight conditions along the mile long Straight, made worse by cruisers making the most of the long bank holiday weekend.

Over four days,
Junior Doubles winners were Daniel Palmer and Connor Peters from Fowey River Canoe Club who, as with last year, beat second place Matthew Hayward and Harry Shearer from 8th Norwich Sea Scout Group. Across the Junior Doubles numbers of entries and improving quality across the class continues to show through as more schools and clubs link up. Some will also be benefitting from the National Schools Championships organised between DW, Canoe England and Marsport every November.
But while conditions were fair, retirements were still at just under one third, with most drop-outs coming from the Senior Doubles. Greenaway suggests the tide times at Teddington may have played a part. Beyond the physical and mental endurance that’s key to DW success, the schedule has to hit Teddington (mile 107) at high tide. This year’s early high tide may have pushed crews to be too ambitious in leaving Devizes, when aiming for the second tide on Easter Sunday afternoon would have been a safer option.

Following the race
While it’s great to be in the race or alongside supporting, the introduction of GPS Tracking technology across the Senior Doubles opened up the race to hundreds more. As well as helping support teams to link up with their crews, the tracking technology pulls in people who wouldn’t normally follow the race. What Greenaway called the ‘brilliant technology’ had people from across the world watching on desktops, tablets and mobiles.

But while the technology makes it easier for supporters to follow online, there is simply no short cut or reduction in the dedicated training that’s required for a crew to successfully finish DW. It remains one of the toughest personal challenges of physical, mental and strategic endurance.

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Junior Doubles crews setting out by Dominic James (www.dominic-james.com)

The low down on DW

What:
Devizes Westminster International Canoe Race is a 125-mile marathon from Devizes in south west England to Westminster in the heart of London. It travels along Kennet & Avon Canal to Reading joining the River Thames to the tidal Thames at Teddington. There are five races: the non-stop Senior Doubles and the four day stages event for Senior Singles, Junior Doubles, Junior Veterans and the touring non-timed Endeavour class.

When:
DW takes place over Easter weekend. Next year this is 25-28 March 2016.

Where:
It starts from the Wharf in Devizes, finishes just downstream of Westminster Bridge, central London.

Preparation and Training:
The race is open to all. Dedicated training is essential and would ideally start at least six months before the race.

More information: Visit www.dwrace.org.uk

About thepaddlerezine (555 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler ezine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK and WindsurfingUK magazines

1 Comment on The loneliness of the long distance paddler

  1. I did DW in 2014, winning the junior mixed doubles. Waiting a few years before I try the straight through!

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