Banbury paddlers, Joe Petersen and Shaun Harte (now based at Falcon Canoe Club), took on the ultimate kayaking challenge of the Devizes to Westminster race.  Held over the Easter weekend, this non-stop senior doubles event sees paddlers race overnight in a time trial over 125 miles with 77 portages.  Joe and Shaun made it to Westminster in an amazing 17hrs and 2 seconds, taking 5th place, within 20 mins of the crew in 2ndplace.

With the volume of rain the UK had seen over the weeks leading up to the race, the Thames was flowing extremely fast at over 140m3/second and the annual race was nearly called off.  To ensure race safety, organisers put in place an even stricter set of criteria than normal to allow crews to race and encouraged crews to defer their entries.  Many crews including Banbury’s experienced C2 crew of Chris Hills and Lee Dean deemed the conditions unsafe for them to join the starters.  Just 38 crews started the non-stop race, now in its 75th year, and only 30 completed the challenge to reach Westminster. The tricky but fast flowing river conditions did mean that the course record of 15 hours and 34 minutes that had stood for 44 years since 1979 might be broken. It was a tense watch for everyone following on the online trackers but the record was indeed broken by Tom Sharpe (Richmond) and Keith Moule (Chelmsford), recording a blistering run of 15hrs, 19 mins and 35 seconds.

Teams must time their start so that they get to the Tideway at Teddington at high tide.   Arriving too early means waiting for the tide to turn, getting there too late risks a 12 hour wait for the next tide.  As fast paddlers, Joe and Shaun left Devizes at 4.30pm on Easter Saturday, to tackle the first part of the race along the Kennet and Avon canal. As darkness fell, the crew lost their main light making navigating more tricky and with the cold coming in sooner than expected they had a kit change at Newbury where their support crew were also able to replace their light. Shaun suffered an upset stomach through the night after struggling to take on food at support stop, but they managed to persevere through to the Thames where Joe said ‘despite the flow on the Thames being below what we had anticipated and being quite behind schedule with the cold mist drawing in, we settled into a good rhythm on familiar water.‘  Portaging at Eton Bridge, the pair learned they were currently in 3rd place but only one minute ahead of the 4th place boat so they decided to up their game. Joe said ‘the next 20km towards Elmbridge felt phenomenal, however, it came at a price and the boat and our bodies were dead in the water as we came through Hampton Court as the sun rose’.  With every stroke now inflicting more pain they reached Richmond Canoe Club still with 2 hrs of paddling to go. Conditions on the Tideway were near perfect though and the pair paddled the tideway with ease until an Uber boat came past at Vauxhall Bridge, leaving them feeling like they were out at sea.  Shaun said ‘the Uber boat kicked up about 4 different types of waves so we were forced to sit there support stroking.  It didn’t improve until the line, but we managed to keep it upright (with visions of my dad’s race in 2017 in my head) and paddled through Westminster Bridge’. Shaun’s father Will Harte and his partner, Neil Urquhart, had fallen in just before the finish line and were forced to finish the race on foot.  Shaun’s DW race as a junior in the 4 day event seven years earlier had also been cut short due to stormy weather, so he was especially pleased to be able to paddle to the finish line at Westminster opposite the Houses of Parliament.   The 4 day junior, junior/veteran and Endeavour race also held over the Easter weekend was stopped at Reading this year due to the high flow rates in the rivers.  

Both Joe and Shaun thank their amazing support crew of family and friends for lifting their spirits, keeping them fed and hydrated and encouraging them throughout the race.  Joe and Shaun are raising money for Sarcoma UK in memory of international paddler, coach, inspiration and friend James Smythe who died on Easter Monday last year. They have raised £1415 to date.  

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