Just over 5 months ago, a group of children sat in a classroom to hear about an extreme challenge called DW: a 125 mile, 77 portage international canoe race from Devizes in Wiltshire to Westminster in London over the Easter bank holiday weekend.
The children, and those parents who attended, were cautioned about the rigorousness of the challenge but were also told of the pride they would feel if they completed the race, reaching the steps on the River Thames opposite Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in the early hours of Easter Monday.
Five months later, after a demanding training regime that involved eight grueling races in all weathers and varying river conditions; over 1/4 million paddle strokes and running over half a marathon carrying a kayak, that dream became reality for an extraordinary and very special group of 12 paddlers who emerged from the Thames up the steps beside Westminster Bridge in the summer sunshine as young adults!
Early every Sunday (including relentlessly through both the Christmas and Easter holidays and a few weekdays in between), the DW squad have been out pounding the rivers around Guildford and racing over different parts of the DW course, honing their technique & skills.
At school, during the week, the squad have been using the state of the art gym facilities at Seaford to improve their fitness and endurance, supported by a couple of dedicated sport staff. The squad have also used what little available free time they have had to get together in small groups to encourage and spur each other on in the local gym and on runs.
In the final week, last minute preparations were undertaken. They visited the remaining locks and portages that had not yet been paddled. They checked camping gear, set-up their tents and purchased the final bits and pieces they would need for this extreme challenge (mostly gels and first aid equipment!).
On Thursday afternoon, the paddlers, coaches and support teams congregated in Devizes for scrutineering by the DW race committee who ensured that all boats and safety equipment conformed to the race regulations. They then headed off for a final supper and a decent sleep before an early morning start on Good Friday.
Amidst much excitement (and nerves), the six kayaks of Will/Ollie, Henry/Archie, Barney/Ben, Mark/Kaj, Beth/Coni and Zoë/Fliss embarked on the start of Day 1: 34 miles and 35 portages from Devizes to Newbury. The K2s started at a searing pace on a day when temperatures were forecast to head into the early 20s – beautiful for spectators but too hot for over seven hours of continuous paddling.
All the boats continued their relentless pace until Barney/Ben were halted by a catastrophic steering mechanism failure before Hungerford meaning that the pair had to run over a mile, carrying the boat, before finding help that took nearly an hour to fix. Undeterred, the pair headed at an even greater pace for the finish line, determined to reduce the effect of the delay. At the end of a harsh first day, all the boats finished within 15 minutes of each other, ready to set their campsite and make their evening meal.
Day 2: 36 miles and 28 portages from Newbury to Marlow. The day saw all the crews pick up at the same relentless pace from the day before as the temperatures rose further. A couple of head injuries before Aldermaston Wharf by both Fliss and Archie as a result of hitting a very low bridge meant both crews had to await a medical assessment before continuing. Archie needed a bandage to stop the bleeding and later that evening visited A&E to be glued! Again a stunning performance by all the crews meant a strong overnight placing for all pairings, despite flu starting to do the rounds of the girls’ crews. The whole team again pulled together to erect their tents and indulge in the creation of another ‘culinary feast’.
Day 3, Easter Sunday, saw the sun rise early along with temperatures heading towards the hottest Easter on record. With blistered hands patched up and 38 miles and 14 portages ahead of them, the K2s left Marlow for Teddington and the Tideway for their longest day yet. The support teams and coaches put in some extra stops to refuel the crews, apply sun- cream and supply some much needed encouragement to bolster the paddlers’ spirits for the long stretches between locks.
It is a testament to all crews that yet another astonishing day of personal times were posted placing all boats in a strong position for the last day’s paddle down the Tideway. The girls team were now contesting for second place overall in the Junior Ladies event. Exhausted but in good spirits, the squad prepared their last night’s camping. With a final coaches’ safety briefing prior to the final day’s race down the Tideway, the squad prepared for their last night under canvass before the 3am campsite alarm call!
Day 4: Final preparations and checking of safety equipment for the arduous and, potentially, dangerous paddle down the Tideway to Westminster (17 miles) started early in anticipation of the 5.30am sunrise and a 5.45am group start. The Seaford crews, one of only a couple of squads with first year paddlers, were only a few hours away from posting some astonishing results. All paddlers set off with everything to paddle for and, as expected, six exceptionally strong boat performances saw all kayaks finish strongly and complete what is widely considered to be one of the hardest endurance events. They had completed the canoeists’ Everest, 125 miles and 77 portages in the Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race, and collected their well-earned finishers medals.
Astonishingly, and revered by many of the other teams, the Seaford College squad finished as follows:
Zoë/Fliss – 28th
Mark/Kaj – 33rd
Beth/Coni – 39th
Barney/Ben – 50th
Henry/Archie – 55th
Will/Ollie – 64th
Seaford College Team Blue – 8th
Seaford College Team Gold – 10th
Seaford College – 2nd
Zoë/Fliss – 5th
Beth/Coni – 7th
Zoë/Fliss – 6th & 1st ladies
Mark/Kaj – 10th
Henry/Archie – 18th
Will/Ollie – 22nd
Despite the sad incident that occurred in the final moments of this year’s challenge, and our thoughts and condolences are with the paddlers’ family and friends, and during some soul searching by all the devastated DW organising committee, one of the organisers searched me out to inform me that Seaford had been chosen as the number 1 school for embracing the DW ethos of helping and supporting not only themselves, but also for looking out for and helping others. Seaford paddlers, supporters and coaches had been judged by the organising committee to have been the best behaved, most supportive, of all those involved and they were always friendly. A better prize and accolade could not be more encompassing of the Seaford family!
I am overwhelmed by the team’s achievement. 12 intrepid and fiercely determined individuals left Devizes in six kayaks just after 8am on a Friday morning as children and finished just after 8am on Easter Monday morning at Westminster Bridge as adults. It has been an enormously rewarding and proud achievement in aid of a hugely positive individual, Ellie Holt for whom they have currently raised £6000.
Ellie’s story is one of sheer inspiration and true grit and determination to see nothing but the positivity in her desperately sad story! Ellie’s ability to shine such a bright light in the face of such adversity was the squad’s rock when the crews needed inspiration. Please visit her funding page and read the REAL reason why 12 teenage paddlers were so determined to reach Westminster on Easter Monday morning. http://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/get-ellie-eating
Finally, I would like to express my sincere thanks to a number of instrumental people. As I have regularly said, the DW challenge is primarily about each paddlers’ incredible & personal journey and they have been a pleasure to coach and it has been a delight and honour to part of their extraordinary story. Without the parents’ and support teams’ energy and commitment, none of this would have been possible, so thank you!
On a personal note, I have been blessed with an amazing coaching team. Unending thanks to: Bill, Dominic and Linda, who has been coaching alongside training for her own DW race. And Henry, who every weekend came down from University to be ‘on duty’. Their unquestionable commitment to ‘the cause’ & fearless ability to question, discuss and support every decision made has been humbling; to Deryn & Lynn (Dominic’s & Bill’s long suffering other halves) for lending them to us every week; to Annette for her support in the thankless task of organising hotels & to Mimi for sorting restaurants & meals. To every teacher who has supported the paddlers during the races & around the school campus; to the Outdoor Education & CCF department who has supported the whole DW team and weekly handed over their minibus & helped with the camping equipment; to the accounts department, in particular Marion & Ciara, for putting up with my last minute demands; to Louise Jackson who has put up with the DBS ‘irritations’ caused by the coaches and to two ‘behind the scenes unsungs’, Toni & Daisy, for their unquestionable desire to help with transport and paddler fitness training and everyone else who has been enthusiastic and supportive of this incredible team. And, finally, thank you to my extraordinary wife, Mimi, for putting up with me (& all the kit) for yet another (8th year!) DW. Thank you everyone!