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Cokethorpe Paddle to Victory!

Held every Easter weekend for the past 69 years, the Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon Race (DW) is a 125 mile canoe race which starts on the Kennet and Avon canal in Devizes and finishes on the Thames in front of the Houses of Parliament. This year Cokethorpe entered three K2 teams (two-man kayak) of James Bennett (OC 2016, Swift) and Matt Turner (Lower Sixth, Feilden), James McDonald (Lower Sixth, Queen Anne) and Louis Suen (Lower Sixth, Feilden), and Felix Macken (Lower Sixth, Vanbrugh) and Matt Dray (Lower Sixth, Gascoigne), with Mia Biles (Upper Sixth, Gascoigne) in a solo K1 kayak. A grueling three days of kayaking tested their strength, stamina and mental focus but the hours of training paid dividends with some outstanding results. Felix and Matt won the U17s competition and the Cokethorpe team won the Junior Team competition by a convincing margin. 

According to an article in the Telegraph; 'To put the race in context, the DW is not for beginner kayakers. In fact, the race is normally the culmination of years of paddling, and just finishing is considered an achievement - indeed it's one of the most grueling events in the pantheon of endurance races.'

This amazing challenge is offered to pupils from the Fourth Form to Upper Sixth. Under the expert tuition of coach, Ian White (who himself is only one of a handful of international athletes to compete the race, non-stop, in under 16 hours), the team gradually built up their skill and stamina. Training during games sessions at School, and increasingly on Sunday mornings, their expertise and strength grew steadily over the months of training. From spending most of their time swimming back to the boat, the novice paddlers become increasingly competent.

Just after dawn on Easter Friday, a rather tired but fired-up team met at the Wharf in Devizes – set up to cater for the 350 crews competing in this International event. The three Cokethorpe K2 teams and solo K1 kayak started paddling.

The energy being expended during such a race means the competitors need to be given high energy drinks and foods throughout the day, so each support team drove to various portages (mainly the lock gates where the teams need to get out of the water and run with their kayak past the lock to re-enter the water) and ‘posted’ high-octane food  into the team members as they ran past.

Seeing them paddle into Newbury tired and exhausted after between five and a half and seven and a half hours of strenuous exercise on day one was a relief, which soon turned to elation as it became obvious that the Cokethorpe team were doing rather well. Felix and Matt were leading the Under 17 competition by 30 minutes on the next crew, and the Cokethorpe team were winning the Under 19 team event. Cokethorpe were also thrashing the schools’ competition beating teams from, amongst many others, Kimbolton, Bryanston and Eton. Sadly, Cokethorpe were not able to compete in the schools competition as they didn’t have sufficient students, so OC James Bennett was a ‘ringer’.  All of the paddlers camped overnight – supporters were not permitted to help them set up camp or cook – a true endurance event.

Day two saw another early morning and our four boats set off from Newbury, finishing in Marlow. This is a beautiful stretch of the Thames and the teams paddled through some stunning scenery. At the end of day two, Felix and Matt’s individual lead had widened and the teams were still comfortably in the lead of the Under 19 event.

Day three was a beautiful sunny day and the teams were in good spirits as they set off to Teddington – the last lock of the Thames before it becomes tidal. It was amazing to watch the paddlers as they persevered through blistered hands, numb shoulders (and very bruised behinds!) to continue to the end of another grueling day.

The final morning was an early start to catch the tide. All the supporters hurried down to Westminster to watch our team come in. Seeing these tiny little craft zooming down the Thames (which is enormous at Westminster) past the Houses of Parliament was an astounding sight. We were all immensely proud that every team member completed this phenomenal event. And to top it all Felix and Matt (who, before Ian got hold of them were complete novice kayakers) won the under 17s event and the Cokethorpe team, including James Bennett, Matt Turner, Louis Suen, James McDonald and Mia Biles thrashed the other Junior teams to win the team trophy too – a truly David and Goliath win!

This is an incredible opportunity to compete in one of the world’s leading canoe events. Training for next year’s Devizes to Westminster International Marathon canoe race event starts soon, and we hope to field another strong team for 2018.

Congratulations to all of the competitors for completing this challenging endurance race.

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