This year was the 70thanniversary of the demanding four day, 125 mile paddle along the Kennet and Avon Canal to the Thames at Reading and on down to London, finishing under Westminster Bridge. This involves 77 portages where boats have to be carried round locks, adding on a distance that is similar to a half marathon run. School crews undertake the challenge over four days, with compulsory camps on the three overnight stops.
Cranleigh did not have any returning paddlers this year, so all four of our boats were novice; keen, fit and determined, but nonetheless without the wisdom that only experience can bring. We had been training since September with sessions on the River Wey in Guildford two or three times a week, as well as lots of gym sessions and as many races as we were able to fit in. It should be noted that this all represented a significant time commitment and many weekends given up to paddling. Unfortunately, due to heavy rain and bitterly cold weather a couple of the key training races were cancelled, a problem solved by a fun weekend camp at Marlow in the snow – all very character building – Mad Dogs and Englishmen – however core skills have to be taught somehow.
Eventually the time came when preparation had to cease and the actual event arrived. The crews and their family support teams assembled on the Wharf at Devizes on the evening of Maundy Thursday. Boats and compulsory safety kit were checked and the crews were able to head off for an appropriate last supper and a comfortable bed. It started to rain.
Good Friday dawned and it rained (a lot). All out crews got away as planned and the supporters chased them down the course, leap frogging past each other and feeding any Cranleigh crew that cheeped at them in the soon familiar baby bird style. Logistics were greatly helped by the trackers which had been fitted to each boat, allowing precise locations to be pinpointed at all times. It continued to rain. Our boats strung out in more or less the expected order and all crews paddled strongly, navigated the tunnel, and coped amazingly with the huge number of portages. Due to the rain and the passage of many muddy feet these portages were all getting increasingly difficult and churned up, resulting in several unscheduled swims and slips for unwary crews. Eventually all our crews made it into Newberry in fine form and in what turned out to be very impressive times. Archie Collins and Ben Whalley taking just over 7 hours; Harry Pite and Hugo Bonsey 6 hours and 56 minutes; Chris Shaw and Charlie Wilson 6 hours and 47 minutes; and Will Dahl and Jack Collins a truly impressive 6 hours and 26 minutes, making them one of the fastest stage race doubles. This was probably the best aggregate first day time for Cranleigh ever – truly impressive from a group of first timers.
Camp that evening was particularly squalid with liquid mud coating everything. It continued to rain and worried rumours were beginning to spread about the viability of the race as ‘Red Boards’ were being placed on the Thames. Nonetheless, everyone was up and doing at 05:30 the next day and hit their departure gates bang on. The now well-oiled, if rather muddy, support crews swung into action as the boats headed off through glorious English countryside – and more rain came.
By now it was becoming apparent that water levels on the Thames were getting dangerously high and the 24 hour straight through race had been altered to avoid any night time paddling. It therefore did not come as a total surprise that the Race Committee decided to pull the plug on the event at Dreadnought, Reading, just after the canal enters the Thames. Inevitably this led to great disappointment and anti-climax, but, seeing the scary images on the internet of the weight of water going over the weirs on the river, it was clearly a safe and sensible decision on behalf of the organisers. This also came as a real blow to Miss Baily who had been entered in the straight through race.
In the end Cranleigh crews were provisionally placed 14th, 28th, 31stand 32ndout of 72 school boats, with the vast majority of those beating us being return paddlers. This means that we are likely to be the 6thSchool team when final results are published – a really great result for a team of first timers. A particular mention must go to Ben and Archie who flew along the course on the second day, pulling back several places.
Well done to Miss Baily for organising things and coaching the crews so well; several compliments were received on our paddlers’ good technique. Many thanks to Mrs Young for moral support, tea and widespread mothering; to Mima Young, OC and 2017 Junior Ladies champion, for additional help and coaching, and a massive vote of appreciation to the family support teams who cheerfully exposed themselves to some pretty grim conditions during both the build-up and the actual race for the sake of their paddlers. The DW committee and their 300 plus volunteers and helpers are also owed a huge debt of thanks for their year-round effort to make the race fun, challenging, but above all safe.
Looking ahead, things are set for a great Easter in 2019. I do hope that the gang will be back to join the new recruits and that the Cranleigh Crew will be bigger, better and bolder paddlers than ever before.