Getting Started

I’d call this the period of indecision. For us it was the three months of thinking that we wanted to do DW, but not being entirely sure if we’d have the time, money or motivation required to do it.

Here are the questions you should be able to answer before telling the whole world you’re DEFINITELY going to do DW:

1. What is the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race?

Doing the race is a big commitment in both time and money, therefore you really need to know what you’re signing up for before you do it. Spend some time reading about the race and talking to people who have done it before. To get you started here’s a potted summary:

This race has been running over the Easter Weekend every year since 1948. You start in Devizes (Wiltshire) and paddle 125 miles to Westminster Bridge in London. On the way you have to lift your boat around 77 locks (portages) and organise being fed and watered by a devoted support team. Competitors complete the race in anywhere between 14 and 30 hours. You can split the race into three sections:

  1. Devizes to Reading along the Kennet and Avon Canal and river Kennet. This is the section with least flow and the majority of the portages. It’s usually done during daylight.
  2. Reading to Teddington Lock along the river Thames. This section has more flow (depending on the weather) and fewer portages, but they are more complicated with big weirs to avoid. This section is usually done in the dark.
  3. Teddington Lock to Westminster Bridge along the tidal section of the Thames. You are only allowed on this section at certain points in the tide so have to perfect the art of estimating how long it will take you to paddle the 108 miles to Teddington. If you arrive late, you may have to wait 8 hours before you’re allowed to carry on. This section has more obstacles (like rowers and ferries) to avoid, can be quite choppy but has no portages. It’s also the fastest flowing section of the course. This is normally done in the early hours of the morning.

This website is tailored to those wanting to do the race all in one go (overnight). There is also the option to complete it over four days which means you do roughly 35 miles each day and avoid paddling in the dark. I won’t give much more information on the specifics of the four day race, mainly as I don’t feel qualified to give advice on it! I would see it as a slightly simpler option so if you apply the same training and preparation advice then I’m sure you’ll be fine.

Feel free to have a read of our story, but here’s some links to detailed information and other individual stories from the overnight race:

DW Official Website

Wikipedia’s Version

Telegraph Article

Jean’s Story

Will’s story

2. What club are you a member of?

We spent a long time thinking about the best way to do DW without spending a small fortune – do we buy a boat? Do we join a club? Who knows?!

We settled on joining a Canoe Club, forking out for membership but saving on the cost of buying our own boat and paddles. I would really recommend doing the race this way as with club membership came a wealth of invaluable advice and you are able to try out different boats as you progress in your stability and paddling technique.

Look here to find a Canoe Club near you.

If you have a choice on clubs then try and join one that is big on marathon racing. Some clubs are more focused on white water or canoeing to a lunch spot for a picnic. These are all great options for weekend entertainment, but the racing clubs are likely to be most enthusiastic about helping you work up to DW.

Top tip (for those at the very start of their paddling career): A canoe club generally encompasses anything described as “canoeing”, “kayaking” or “paddling”. It’s a big faux pas to say that you are “rowing” as this is reserved for the people who sit on the skinny boats with huge oars, facing backwards whilst being shouted at by a small person in the back. Take note of this if you want to make friends quickly at your new club!

3. What boat will you use?

The majority of people do DW in a K2.

This is roughly what a K2 looks like:


K2 essentially translates as a two person racing kayak. So you can sound knowledgeable at your new club, there are also K1s which translate as one person racing kayaks. It’s quite possible that you’ll start off learning in a K1 and then, when you trust your partner enough, move on to a K2. Much like riding a bike, you start off on your own and then take on the tandem later on.

If you’re doing the race overnight then you’re restricted to either a double kayak or double canoe. I can’t help much on the canoe front (apologies), and as the majority of people opt for a double kayak I’d advise doing this for your first DW adventure regardless.

A K2 (and a K1 for that matter) are hideously unstable boats. They are made to be strong and light, built to move fast through flat water. They have stability ratings from 10 (most stable) to 1 (least stable). Hopefully it should go without saying that you should start off by training in a stability 10 boat whilst you learn how to stay upright, paddle and steer. As your confidence progresses you can move to lower stability ratings to increase your speed as the boat will be lighter. There is an important fine line however – doing a race as long as DW with a very choppy tideway section will mean you want a boat that you feel very stable and safe in, potentially sacrificing some speed as a result.

In context, we did the race in a stability 9 boat and still had a few wobbles but didn’t capsize. The club members who have been paddling for many years generally use stability 5ish boats. Super slick medal winners use stability 1 boats, but I would be very surprised to see anyone doing DW in one. Imagine being exceptionally tired and think how likely you are to trip up/drop something/bump your head in that state. Now apply that to trying to balance in a kayak after 15 hours of paddling and no sleep – a stable boat suddenly becomes a high priority.

Before you start your preparation and training properly, make sure you are 100% sure where you can get a boat from. If it is a club boat, persuade them to let you have access to it whenever you need it. Your life will be made much easier by being able to train whenever you can (aka outside of official club hours).

Got this far and still want to do the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race? 

Time to start preparing then!

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© S Hicks 2018




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