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Up the Oracle Without a Rudder!

A personal account by Rob Whitehead of competing in the Devizes to Westminster race 2023.


Easter arrived and with it the DW full fat version. Paddlers would be going through to Westminster for the first time in four Covid affected years.


The day before the race, we received news that no juniors would be paddling beyond Reading due to the flooding and Thames being on red boards. This was, in my opinion, the correct decision and although Pat and I had paddled to Marlow a couple of weeks previously it was certainly not a place for inexperienced paddlers.


We arrived at Devizes at 8 o’clock, checked the boat in and collected our race number. This was Pat’s first DW but I had been to Westminster before. I had previously entered to enjoy/endure the challenge as a completer not a competitor, but this time was different, with 3 podiums from 3 Waterside races we felt like we were contenders.


Our support for the day was Mike R and Rebecca who were ready to see us off. I was ready to go but missing a vital component, my partner was having his sixth nervous wee.

We eventually set off for what could only be described as a slog to Pewsey. Mile after mile of flat flow free water and with no other boats in sight to work off, it was tough going, we just had to keep on keeping on!


As we neared Pewsey the boat slowed and twitched as Pat was feeling the pain, he is not used to sitting down for so long. At Wootton Rivers we switched positions, had food shoved into our mouths and we were told, by Mike, to up the pace as our main rivals, from Wey, were pulling away.

The tunnel was calm for once and straight forward as there were no other boats around and on exiting the tunnel, we were spurred on by our support crew. In no time we were at Crofton. We decided to run long with Clive cheering us on through the compulsory paddling pound. By the time we reached Bedwyn the sun was well up and we ditched our waterproofs on Ena’s advice.


Flying through Kintbury



Froxfield saw us run both pounds and Mike informed us we had clawed back time on our main rivals. By now we were catching other boats which helped to give us focus. On reaching Kintbury the gap was even smaller and at Hampstead Marshall, the seven-minute deficit was now a credit. The support crew informed us the main opposition had just gone around the bend. At Guyer’s lock, club members came to cheer us on and we upped the pace for the final run in. Dave and Jak ran alongside cheering us on. We reached Northcroft and the sound of the hooter, Day one was done, we were in the lead and very pleased.




A new day and a new support crew, the Taylors from Southampton and Paul and Lynne. Whilst chatting to Mike Taylor, he told me the result was already written in stone, all we could do was paddle our best! If I had known what was to transpire, I would have asked him to shoot the stone mason.

Once again one of the last to leave, our start time was two minutes behind our nearest rivals. The mayor came to see us off and we had our photo taken for the local paper. We were cheered off at 9.30. Mike R cycled alongside us to chivvy us along and to our surprise and delight by the time we reached Hambridge Lane we had the competition in our sights. Paul and Lynne cheered us on at Bull’s Lock as we paddled on. The pace was good. At Thatcham, Pangbourne paddler Faye cheered us on and the Taylors were waiting for us at the turf lock. We kept moving and they kept feeding us.


Tile Mill


At Aldermaston Mike R. wished us well and turned for home, the portages were now flying by and we had our rivals just where we wanted them. However, disaster struck! As we ducked under a low bridge before Theale, the tracker on Pat’s shoulder got caught. Concerned that we might lose it, I lifted my head and hit it on the bridge, a schoolboy error! We managed to extract ourselves from under the bridge in one piece and upright. Once out we upped the pace to make up for lost time. The knock on my head was in fact a silly small cut but blood started to run down my face. The horrified look on Pat’s face at the next portage said it all, I just felt stupid. At Theale I hid my now somewhat red hat in the boat and hid behind the fat end of a K1 to hide my bonce, not wanting the marshals to unnecessarily worry. At the next portage I requested a dark coloured woolly hat and assured the team I was OK to go.


On arriving at Fobney, Paul and Lynn fed us some chocolate and we headed on into the water, for the beach portage. As we pushed off the boat got stuck in the mud, I pushed down hard with the paddle and off we went fine or so we thought.


The river snaked its way into Reading to County Lock, the marshals directed us into the lock to re-join the river. Pat and I had talked this through and recently had paddled through here successfully. Pat would lock the rudder on and paddle hard. I would paddle and support where needed. What could go wrong? Our first attempt to paddle out and we were washed straight back into the side. Once again, we headed out but this time we were washed into the undergrowth past the portage, only then did we realise that the rudder was not working. Now past the point of no return, we were well and truly up the Oracle without a rudder!


All we could do was edge slowly forward, Pat paddled and I tried to steer whilst keeping us upright in the fast-moving water. We eventually made it round the bend into the Oracle but struggled to get hold of the bank, once close enough to the side, Pat shoved his paddle through the safety wire and yelled at a woman to grab it and pull us in. Using one hand, whilst holding her phone and carrying on her conversation, as if this was a usual occurrence, she pulled us to the side. Pat grabbed the fence and now secure we climbed the fence and hauled out the stricken K2 behind us. A marshal, came over and helpfully pointed out our broken rudder wire.


A split-second decision had to be made, ring the support crew and be recovered with about a mile to go or run? In all honesty there was no decision to be made, we were representing Newbury CC and besides, quitting is not the Whitehead way! We legged it, cutting a swathe through the bemused Saturday afternoon shoppers.

In no time we were heading out of the Oracle across the road and down an alleyway back onto the towpath. Now running, not quite Hasler portage speed, but we were shifting. I urged Pat to up the tempo. A wise guy walking down the path swigging from his can of lager, suggested we tried rowing our boat, I suggested he go forth and multiply or at least I wanted to!


We could now see down the straight canal and the last portage came into sight. As we neared it, the marshals informed us we should be portaging across the lock island. Pat informed them the rudder was broken. Passing under the railway bridge, the Thames was now in sight. On rounding the bend, I once more urged Pat to up the pace.


I think deep down inside, I knew we had lost but while there was a tiny glimmer of hope we were going to give it our ALL. A few hundred yards to go and we could see the high viz vested finish line marshals. Pat now yelled to give it one final push, I struggled to keep pace but we crossed the line. I dropped to my knees the race was done, and I was double done!

I regained my composure and breath. We received our medals and walked despondently away, now surrounded by our super support team and explained our reasons for our land-based arrival.


Congratulations, commiserations but no celebrations for us. Pat found the winning Wey crew and we congratulated them from behind a painted-on smile. They were cleaner, technically better paddlers with a higher cadence than us but our rag tag, rough and ready style had, somehow, matched and bettered them, at least on day one.


Pat, to his credit took it very well, this would certainly not be his last DW. For me, it was a bitter pill to swallow, I knew that the disappointment would fade with time and this would be a waterside tale recounted later down the line, but for now it hurt. I resisted my temptation to vent my anger on the boat, handed Paul my paddle and informed the team I had no further use for it, I was done with paddling and I was supposed to be the adult!

We had lost by 1 whole minute; it was time to go home.


Special Thanks

Mike Richmond, Good Friday driver, Mr Cool. If you need telling to get a move on, he will tell you.

Rebecca Bird, top treats lady. The most excited person not in a boat.

The Taylors, Lynsey, day 2 driver, delivering Mike and Katie to the portages on time. Mike, the portage enforcer, a second too long and he’ll send you on your way, the clock is always ticking! Katie, the lemon cake queen, also capable of shoving three different food types in your mouth at once.

Paul Jackson, the navigator, can find all the hard to get to portages, off the beaten track.

Lynne Hutchinson, Newbury CC social glue and most ardent of cheerleaders.

Patrick Whitehead, when I asked him to paddle faster, he paddled faster, when I asked him to run faster, he ran faster, when I asked for 100%, he gave me 100%, I couldn’t have asked for more.


Postscript

I said I was done with canoeing, I lied.

PPS

Who’s free next Easter!

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