Mark Slater has already established himself as one of the top competitors on the UK Stand Up Paddle scene. Looking for that extra challenge he decided to tackle the classic UK paddle route from Devizes to Westminster, London. 125 miles of canal and river with locks, currents and tides to consider. Not only that Mark decided to do it non-stop. This is his story.
I started to hatch a plan of paddling the route of the classic Devizes to Westminster international canoe marathon earlier this year.
I had originally considered entering into the non-stop category on a SUP, but found this was not possible due to, not only SUP's not being allowed to enter the event, but you are not able to enter the non-stop category solo, even in a kayak.
So a couple of months ago I got around to working out some estimated timings for attempting the route, which starts at Devizes Wharf and follows the Kennet & Avon canal down to the River Thames. The first 107.5 miles, up until Teddington, is in a lock system, then the last 17.5miles to Westminster Bridge and the finish line is on the tidal part of the Thames, I therefore needed to get my timings right so I was with an outgoing tide for the last section of the journey.
I based my timings to Teddington on an average paddle speed of 4.5mph, the one thing I did have against me and my chance of keeping up a decent average speed was the frequency and amount of locks on the canal section of the journey. It was a really time consuming exercise, pulling up to the side of the canal, stepping off the board, then getting down on your knees or belly to pull the board out, while being careful not to damage the board or fin on the metal, wood or concrete sides, I did then find myself running with the board to the other side of the lock, in an effort to keep my average speed up, then again, concentrating while dropping the board back in the water, in an effort not to damage any equipment and scupper my chances of finishing.
I planned to have five 45min stops on the journey where my girlfriend Becca would meet me at pre-arranged stops so I could top up on liquid and food.
I set off at 08:16 on Saturday 14th July from Devizes Wharf.
Mark Slater ready to go!
Stage one was a 23 mile section to my first planned stop. I really tried to not keep looking at my watch, as I know it would be so disheartening to glance down and see you had only been paddling for a couple of hours.
The first leg did seem to really drag though, and it was such a welcome sight, after over 5hrs of padding to round a bend and see my white van & gorgeous girlfriend waiting there for me.
We managed to keep the stop to a minimum & I was back on the canal in 45mins, having eaten a couple of cold jacket potatoes, a banana and a total gainer (which is a high protein, high calorie shake). I also topped up my hydration pack with carbohydrate drink and my bum bag with nuts, dried fruit, flapjacks & malt loaf.
Stage two begins for Mark.
On the second leg Becca phoned to say she couldn't get to our pre-arranged stop due to roadwork's, so she said she would try & find somewhere a few miles further on and eventually managed to get close to the canal at The Cunning Man pub car park, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as shortly before finishing the 2nd leg there was a torrential downpour, meaning I got thoroughly soaked at the end of the second leg, rather than the start of the 3rd and night time stage of the journey.
Stop two's culinary delicacies consisted of cold whole wheat pasta, veg & tinned tuna, mixed with some warmed up vegetable soup, followed by another total gainer.
We managed to keep the stop down to 45mins again and, now in dry clean clothes, I was back out on the water before 9pm. I was a little behind on my estimated times, but as long as I could keep a similar pace up, would still make the high tide window at Teddinton to catch the outgoing tide to Westminster, the high tide being at 11:46 on Sunday.
The one thing I did have against me, and my efforts to keep a decent average speed up, was the fact that night time and complete darkness were fast approaching!
Darkness approaching Mark starts stage 3.
I was hoping there was going to be a break in the clouds and a glorious moonlit night would be bestowed upon me, but the break never came and complete cloud cover stayed in place for the entire night.
Good progress was made up to Reading, but the canal joined the Thames just after and from there on things got a little trickier!
Navigating the river was fine on the wider and open sections, as there was a reflection on the water and it was relatively easy to make out the line of the river, but on narrower, tree lined sections there was no reflection on the water whatsoever and it was so hard to determine which way to go. On several occasions I found myself getting tangled up in trees branches (where I had my only fall), banging into the embankment and just generally standing on my board looking round trying find a clue as to the direction in which I should be heading!
Stand Up Paddling in the dark something of a challenge.
I was wearing a head torch, but found that more of a hindrance, as when taking paddle strokes my arms & paddle shaft would reflect the light into my eyes. It was however useful for navigating my way around the bigger, more complicated locks.
Pulling up at Marlow rowing club at around 2am on Sun morn, meant the end to a very fraught stage 3 and also well over half way through the journey, having now covered 70 miles.
We managed to cut the stop down to 30 mins, I was really struggling to eat, but managed a couple of slices of pizza and more total gainer!
I was helped mentally, setting off from Marlow, knowing that I only had a maximum of two more hours of paddling in darkness. What was also helping was the fact that even though I was still in the lock system section of the Thames, due to all the rain we have had recently, there was now quite a bit of flow running with me on the river.
I had a really good run to stop 4 at The Bell of Ousley Pub in Old Winsor. Throughout the early hours, after first light the sun had broken through the cloud and it was a beautiful start to the day. It was another quick 30 min stop where I managed to consume some cereal and more total gainer!
My spirits were really lifted now, I was feeling in pretty good shape and it looked like I was going to comfortably make it to Teddington for high tide.
Back in the water for the next stage.
At 08:16 Sunday morn I had made it Chertsey Lock, meaning it was exactly 24hrs into my journey. Now according to the calculations carried out by the Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon officials, Chertsey Lock is 95.2 miles from my start point of Devizes Wharf, which I think could possibly be a UK and maybe even a European record for the furthest distance covered in 24hrs on a stand up paddleboard.
I did also then go on to reach Sunbury Lock, which is exactly 100 miles from my start point in 24hrs 56mins, which also possibly could be a UK and European record. If anyone does have any info on any other European distance paddles to rival either of these times and distances, please let me know (I am aware of the phenomenal paddle in Canada where approx. 240 miles was covered down a fast flowing river in 24hrs).
By this time I was starting to get a bit of a craving for something a little more tasty to eat and maybe even treat myself to some naughty nibbles for the last section, so I gave Becca a quick call and asked if possible could she get me some bacon & egg rolls to eat at the final stop and Snickers & Mars Bars for snacks.
Cup of tea for Mark (Lifeboat tea - the best !).
I arrived at Teddington in fantastic time, getting there before 11am, which was well ahead of schedule, meaning I could allow myself a break in excess of 1 hour!
There was a little confusion over the tide times, the info I had stated 11.46, but a boat owner whom I had passed earlier, along with Adam Stiling, who paddled with me for the last ½ a mile up to Teddington said the high tide was 12:30.
After having eaten and topped up hydration pack & bum bag, I was pretty anxious to get back out and get the final leg completed
I was still feeling pretty much ok and didn't want to hang around too much in case I started falling apart, so after just over an hours break I set off at 12:00 for the final 17.5 miles. I didn't seem to be going that fast to start with, but knew I would hopefully get more help once the outgoing tide got a bit more flow on it.
Andrew Pieterse paddled up to meet me, and stayed with me for about a mile, which lifted my spirits a little.
I didn't have any bearings on distances along the way, so I couldn't judge how fast I was going or how much further I had left, the only mental note I had made was that Westminster Bridge was the bridge before the London Eye, which would be easy to spot!
I didn't seem to be going that fast, so I tried to mentally prepare myself for up to a 4 hour paddle, so when I rounded a corner to be confronted with Westminster Bridge & the London Eye in front of me after only 2hrs 40min I couldn't believe it
I went under Westminster Bridge at 14:42 Sunday 14th July, making my total elapsed time from start to finish 30hrs 26 mins
The only task left now was to find a suitable landing site, ideally on the South Bank. I contemplated trying to land on the London Eye pontoon, but thought that may be a little tricky and eventually found a little embankment with steps up to the South Bank.
A walk in the park. Well not really. 125 miles in 30 hours 26 minutes, an amazing achievement for Mark.
A group of inquisitive children lent over the railings & quizzed me as to my reasons for being there, this was then followed by several strange glances as I strolled along a very busy South Bank with board and paddle in hand to the welcome sight of my van & Gorgeous Girlfriend waiting on double yellow lines as she had been unable to find a suitable parking spot. The board was quickly loaded onto the roof; I then sank into the passenger seat and opened a beer in celebration of my little achievement.
I have to say a massive thank you to:
- Becca for driving the van, sorting my food out and being 100% supportive, without Bex I would not have been able to complete this challenge.
- Fanatic Boards, I used the 14' Flatwater Carbon which is an amazing board, I felt comfortable on it at all times and it's just a great board to paddle.
- ION Clothing & Accessories, the hydration pack, shorts, leash and SUP jacket were all fantastic.
- K-66.com, thanks for all your support.
- Quickblade Paddles, I used my trusty old Kanaha, 4yrs old & still going strong, but now have a shiny new Magic awaiting my collection.
So all in all, things went pretty much to plan. It was interesting to see how the mind & body coped with the stresses and strains and both seemed to hold out OK.
Anything I would do differently or recommend for somebody else attempting the same challenge?
Have some handles fitted to side of your board to make it easier at the locks and try and have a more varied selection of food for both snacks & meals at stops, dried fruit & nuts can get a little boring!
What's next? Who knows?