If you finish the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race then thank your support team as they will have done at least 50% of the work. It is such a team effort completing the race and your support team are crucial – don’t underestimate how much you need them!
What do the support team do?
The main role of the support team is to keep the paddlers in good condition – well fed, watered, clothed and motivated so they can keep moving as fast and efficiently as possible.
The support team are also really helpful in guiding the paddlers through the portages, especially when the routes are more complicated and confusing to tired paddlers navigating in the dark. The support team can’t help carry the boat or paddles, but they can help open gates, direct the crew to the correct side of the river and lead them round the portage route.
A chief supporter is also responsible for helping race control communicate to the crew, for example if there are any changes to the race whilst they are paddling.
How does it work?
Once the paddlers have started racing, the supporters then drive round to meet them at points en route where they can access the river easily by car. This is usually at bridges or locks.
It is realistic to ask a support crew to meet you every hour. Sometimes it’s possible for the support crew to meet the paddlers more often than this, but it’s easy to forget how long it takes to drive along windy country lanes and then navigate footpaths down to the riverbank.
Most paddlers won’t want to spend any more time doing the race than they need to, so the critical thing for supporters is to keep them moving. Things like stopping to eat or having a chat can have a huge impact over such a long race. This means that supporters need to keep the paddlers fed on the move and be focused on motivating the crew as much as possible. If you can save 1 minute at every portage then the race will be 1.5 hours shorter!
It normally works something like this:
The boat arrives at the portage and the support team are ready waiting. The crew haul it out of the water and run/walk with it around the lock. The support team open gates, stop traffic and guide the crew to where they can put the boat back in the water. As the crew are moving around the lock and/or as they get back in the boat, the support team puts food in their mouths and swaps over their empty water bottles for full ones. The crew will be holding the boat and paddles so the support team will have to physically feed the crew with tasty bitesize nibbles.
With regards to being physically fed, my father-in-law was on our support team – I’m not sure I appreciated it at the time, but retrospectively it was a great bonding experience!
Who should I ask?
You want to have people who are motivated to do the role. Don’t forget that being a supporter is not easy. If someone comes to help grudgingly they are unlikely to be any good at motivating their paddlers in the middle of the night when they themselves are shattered and wondering why on earth they agreed to do this job.
There will likely be points in the race when you are miserable, angry, tired, wet, cold and don’t want to get back in the boat. You need people who will forgive you for being horrible to them and the kind of people who will know whether you need positive motivation (e.g. “you’re doing great!”) or to be hit with a metaphorical stick (e.g. “get back in that boat now or else”).
How many people do I need?
I’d suggest a bare minimum of two people at any one time, not necessarily because you need two people at the locks, but because they can keep each other sane. There is a lot of waiting around and I wouldn’t expect one person on their lonesome to be able to stay up all night AND drive from lock-to-lock safely.
We found having two cars with two people in each car worked really well. That way the cars can leapfrog each other down the course. With this arrangement the paddlers can have support more often and the supporters have time to stock up on rations or have a nap. A win win situation really!
There’s endless options on how you can arrange it – two cars all the way through, some people for the day shift and some for the night, alternating shifts etc. Work it out with the preferences of your supporters and how many people you have available.
What can and can’t the support team do?
The DW website has some clear rules on supporters so make sure your support team are aware of these. It includes things such as restrictions on access to certain locks, parking restrictions, rules of conduct and restrictions at the finish. If support teams don’t obey the rules then the paddlers can get time penalties and in extreme cases are disqualified from the race.
Key points to note are:
- So long as the support team are providing sustinance or support (e.g. a change of clothes) to paddlers then it’s fine.
- If you’ve got more than one car supporting you, don’t have more than one car at each stop.
- The support team can’t help carry the boat or paddles but they can open gates or guide the paddlers round complicated portages.
How do I make sure my support team are prepared for the day?
It’s a great idea to train with your support team so they know what to expect. The inevitable pub lunch after your training session will also give you a chance to talk through the race with them and answer any of your questions.
If you are training with your support team, I would highly recommend using a tracker such as the ‘Live Location’ broadcast on WhatsApp. Our supporters really appreciated it as they knew if they had to wait for us at a lock or if they’d taken too long and missed us. Our phone batteries seemed able to handle doing the live location for our longer paddles with no problem at all.
We chose to do as much of the preparation as possible ourselves (e.g. making up all the food we needed), but some people find it helpful to get their support team involved in the last minute prep, if only so they know where to find everything in the car on the day.
We sent out some detailed information to our support team the week before the race with timings and our strategy. If you want an easy option, then I’ve made an editable version of that document so you can adapt it as you wish.
Download the supporters information sheet here for £2.50:
Your support team will also need some sort of guide on where to meet you and when. Although they will be able to access your tracker it’s helpful to have an estimate of where you might expect to be at certain points in the race. Have a look at the race page if you want to see how we did this.
There’s a great collection of driving instructions on this DW Supporters Website. It is geared up for the four day race, but the locations are all the same. If you want an easy print-out then here’s one we put together for our support team:
Download the parking directions here for £2.50:
If you’ve got this far through the site then by now you should be ready for the big day – it’s race time!
© S Hicks 2018