Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race

Devizes, UK

Category

Canoe / kayak

Type

Organised annual event

Duration

1-2 days (or over 4 stages)

When

April (annually)

Difficulty rating

9/10

What is Devizes to Westminster?

Only the longest non-stop canoe race in the world.

Located in England and frequently referred to simply as “DW”, the race starts in the lovely market town of Devizes in Wiltshire, before finishing in the heart of London at Westminster Bridge, 125 miles later.

Is It Tough?

Oh yes, this is one of the toughest endurance events in the world and is only open to those with the necessary determination and commitment to train for it.

 

The race is a severe test of skill, physical and mental stamina and planning which produces a memorable sense of achievement for those successfully completing it.

Type of Event

This is a canoe/kayak marathon.

Canoes and kayaks are referred to in the event Rules as “boats” and must be manned by a crew of one or two persons, depending on the class in which they are entered.

Propulsion is by single or double bladed paddle only.  In order to qualify for the Canadian Trophy only open canoes propelled by single bladed paddles are permitted, while rudders are not.

No other form of craft are permitted within the scope of the rules, including rafts, inflatables, paddleboards, surf skis or other sit-on or stand-on boards.

Who can take part?

The event is open to everyone, however a high level of fitness and kayak/canoe experience is required and highly recommended.

See event website for classes and entry criteria.

When & Where?

 

The annual race takes place in April. The next event is due to start on Friday 10th April 2020.

 

The race starts at Devizes Wharf in Wiltshire, and follows the Kennet & Avon Canal to join the River Thames at Reading before finishing 125 miles later in the heart of London at Westminster Bridge.

Just tell me again, how far is it?

It is 125 miles long and there are 77 portages.

How long does it take to complete?

  • Expect to be racing for anywhere between 16-24+ hours (non-stop)

  • Alternatively the race can be taken on in 4 stages.

 

Fun Facts

  • The current course record of 15 hours 34 minutes was set 40 years ago in 1979 by Tim Cornish and Brian Greenham of Reading Canoe Club.

  • The race has been held annually over the Easter Weekend since 1948.

 

Give me some rules

The course starts at Devizes Wharf, passing along the Kennet & Avon Canal before joining the River Thames at Reading. Immediately after the canal joins the river there is a compulsory portage at Dreadnought Reach (Wokingham Waterside Centre).

 

The course continues downstream to Teddington, reaching the finish 50 metres below Westminster Bridge via the tidal section of the Thames. Only the navigation channels of the Kennet & Avon Canal and River Thames may be used. The backwater cut at Windsor passing under the dual carriageway is not regarded as a navigation channel for the purposes of these rules.

All portages must take place on the tow path, except where otherwise shown on the official Route Plan, Portage Diagram or as ordered by an official.

No other route is permitted. All relevant bylaws from the Canal & River Trust, Environment Agency and Port of London Authority (PLA) must be adhered to.  On the tideway, PLA bylaws require boats to keep to the correct side of the river, so do not cut corners or paddle against the left-hand bank.

What’s the History?

The idea of canoeing from Devizes to Westminster was first suggested by Roy Cooke, who had been part of a team who had attempted to canoe along the River Avon from Pewsey, near Devizes, to the sea at Christchurch in 1947. He then planned to see if it was possible to reach Westminster from Devizes in under 100 hours. At the time, much of the Kennet and Avon Canal was derelict, but still in water. He was unable to attempt the course, but a number of locals offered some money for Scout funds if the Devizes Scouts could succeed in “taking a boat from Devizes to Westminster in under 100 hours, all food and camping kit to be carried in the boats”. Four of the scouts, Peter Brown, Laurie Jones, Brian Smith and Brian Walters, all aged 17, attempted the route at Easter 1948. The event generated much interest, with some national press coverage, and a large crowd gathering at Westminster Bridge to see the end of the feat, which was completed in 89 hours 50 minutes.

Chippenham Sea Cadets attempted the route at Whitsun 1948, and managed to reduce the time to 75 hours 50 minutes, but several attempts later in the year were thwarted by the amount of weed in the canal. In 1949, although no race had been organised, nearly 20 boats attempted the course at Easter, and although many failed to complete it, two crews representing Richmond Canoe Club completed it in 49 hours 32 minutes, and a team from Bristol Scouts managed 53 hours 10 minutes.

In view of the interest shown, Frank Luzmore, one of the competitors from Richmond Canoe Club, decided to organise the event as an annual contest. Albert Weibel, another member of the Richmond Canoe Club, donated a trophy for the winner, and at Easter 1950, 17 boats took part in the first official race. A team from Richmond Canoe Club won again, by completing the course non-stop in 34 hours 52 minutes, closely followed by a team representing the Royal Marines. Ten of the boats completed the course.

The armed forces saw the race as an opportunity for training, and because they organised the backup support as a military exercise, won the race from 1951 until 1970, with the exception of 1952. Teams from the Paras, Royal Marines, SAS and Special Forces competed, with Dansie and Dry, representing the SAS, completing the course in just over 24 hours in 1951. Officially, every boat had to carry cooking equipment, camping equipment and a host of other standard items, and no assistance from a support team was allowed. Even water could only be obtained from official watering points.

As the main race soon became a one-day event, rather than a four-day one, much of the official kit was redundant, and there was widespread breaking of the rules. In 1966, one of the crews who finished the race was disqualified, two crews had time penalties added to the time they actually took, and 49 of the crews who failed to finish were deemed to have broken the rules, and so would have been disqualified if they had finished. The military teams, with their radio networks, were particularly good at offering support, in particular food, to their teams at remote locations, where they were unlikely to be seen by race officials.

Recognising that the military had an unfair advantage, the rules were changed in 197, so that boats did not have to carry “all food and camping kit”, and the use of support teams to supply food and drink was allowed. Peter Lawler and Chris Baker, both from Richmond Canoe Club, and who had canoed for Britain at international level, took up the challenge, and succeeded in beating Paganelli and Evans, who had won the race for the Paras in 1968, 1969 and 1970.

 

This Race Doesn’t Always Go Smoothly

In 2000 heavy rainfall had brought the River Thames up to flood levels with fast flowing water. A number of crews found the conditions on the Thames challenging, especially during the darkness of night-time for the non-stop crews. After an incident at Old Windsor weir the race committee took the decision to abandon the race. As some teams had already reached Teddington (and were waiting to access the tidal stretch) when the decision was made, they decided (against the race organisers instructions) to remove their race numbers and carry on unofficially to Westminster.

In 2001, along with a large number of events in the UK, the race could not take place due to a nationwide outbreak of Foot-and-mouth disease restricting unnecessary access to the countryside (and thus large parts of the course).

In 2016 storm force winds on Easter Monday meant that a decision was made to cancel the last day of the staged race and the results were based on the times taken to reach Thames Young Mariners. This decision didn’t impact the non-stop race, which had already finished on Easter Sunday.

In 2018 heavy rainfall prior to the Easter weekend and throughout Good Friday once again brought the River Thames up to flood levels with fast flowing water. The race committee initially made a decision that no night-time paddling should occur on the Thames, but with conditions worsening then decided that all classes would finish at Reading (Wokingham Canoe Club at Dreadnaught Reach).

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