Last October, a group of Seaford Year 12 students decided they wanted to take on a challenge. But not just any challenge, they decided to take on the Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race.
The Devizes to Westminster race starts in Devizes Wiltshire, and finishes just downstream of Westminster Bridge in the centre of London, opposite the Houses of Parliament. The first 52 miles is along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Reading, the next 55 miles are on the River Thames to Teddington, and the final 17 mile section is in the tidal portion of the Thames.
It’s a race that, in total, involves paddling 125 miles and 77 portages, and many describe it as the “Paddler’s Everest”. Senior Doubles may take the race on in one go, but all other classes must take the race on over 4 days. Many adults have tried, and failed, to complete the race, and many would not dare to take it on. So, deciding to take on such a challenge was a brave and bold decision indeed. Especially as none of the students had spent much time in a kayak before.
Year 12 student Henry Lunt first came up with the idea of taking the challenge on. He was inspired by his father, Charles Lunt, who had completed the race a couple of years previously with his good friend Bill Marks, after a couple of failed attempts. Charles recalls that Henry wanted to take on a challenge and “thought that maybe, in future years, this might be a challenge he’d like to undertake, but it snowballed from there.”
Devizes to Westminster recommend a minimum of six months training and preparation for the race, but it was already October when the students first started, and Charles and Bill took it upon themselves to help train them.
“I think when we signed up, no-one fully knew what we were in for,” said Evie Marchant, who paddled the race with Ethan Speller. But Bill and Charles told them that it would be a painful experience. “I said to them that we’ll be taking them to hell. And just when they think it can’t get any worse, we’ll take them to a new level,” Charles joked. “Such is the challenge that faced them, and the amount of work they’d need to do to complete the race.”
When the students first got into their kayaks, conditions were cold and icy, and the true scale of the task they’d taken on became very clear. Just keeping the kayaks balanced, let alone paddling in them, was incredibly difficult.
“Very gruelling training,” Henry admits. “We started off falling in, every other metre. We’d get in, and some days we wouldn’t get beyond the pontoon. But once we got our balance, we’d go 3-4 miles. And then we started to enter races, going 16, 24, 32 miles.”
Cally Nugent was Henry’s paddling partner. “We’ve been training for every weekend since October, waking up at 5 in the morning some mornings.”
Evie Marchant’s father, Dominic, has been the official photographer and videographer throughout their journey, and you can see his video of the students taking their first steps, below.
After a few months of training, the students started taking on a few races, building up in length, as the big race grew ever closer. From the end of February, they took on a race almost every weekend, including the Waterside A race; 17.5 miles from Newbury to Aldermarston Wharf; Aldermarston to Reading; 19 miles from Reading to Marlow; 23 miles from Pewsey to Newbury; and a 35 mile Waterside D race. In order to qualify to Devizes to Westminster, the final race had to be completed, and once the students had done that, they were all set for the big weekend over Easter.
You can watch some of Dominic Marchant’s videos about their preparation races on Youtube.
Initially, there were six Seaford students involved in the challenge, making up three pairs. But, only a few weeks prior to the big race, injury struck, and Izzy Hart no longer had a partner. At that point, Charles wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d given up. “She had a bad shoulder,” he said, “But she was determined to keep going.” And, fortunately for Izzy, a student from Heathfield was in a similar boat, lacking a partner, and so Franny and Izzy teamed up.
The experience of paddling together certainly forged a strong bond of friendship between them. “We definitely built up a good friendship,” said Izzy. “I don’t think you can spend that much time kayaking with someone, spend 24 hours plus in a boat with them, outside, without becoming great friends,” said Izzy.
Return tomorrow, for the second part about their epic journey.