Below is the first chapter of Brian Greenaway's book "The Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race" which explains the origins and evolution of the race over the last 60 years. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DW Organisation. We would like to thank Brian for permission to reproduce his work.
Unlike many of the world's great races, the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race (or DW as its often called) does not follow an immediately obvious or logical course. It is not a complete descent of some mighty river, nor is it an epic journey from one great city to another. Devizes is a sleepy market town set in the English farming county of Wiltshire. Running through the town is the 200 year old Kennet and Avon Canal, a small and cheaply built navigation that once linked the sea port of Bristol to the town of Reading, and onwards via the River Thames to London. Although Wiltshire is noted for its sites of prehistoric interest, it is perhaps hard to believe that these bare uplands were once the most densely populated region of southern England. In contrast, Westminster, as the seat of British Government, contains the present day nation's law-making and administrative nerve centre. Why then do these two vastly different places represent the focal points of the world's toughest canoe race? The answer is, of course, peculiarly British. It starts with a group of men in "The Greyhound" pub in the village of Pewsey, just outside Devizes. It was 1920 and a national rail and bus strike was looming. Alternative means of transport were discussed in the bar, and the outcome, as with all good bar-room talk, was a wager: whether or not it was possible to get down the River Avon from Pewsey to the sea at Christchurch in under three days, a distance of some 70 miles. Four intrepid souls took up the challenge in a 20-foot sculling skiff and duly won the bet with 10 hours to spare.
Then in 1946 a conversation took place in the same pub with one of the original participants. Three RAF men and a local farmer took up the challenge, reaching the sea in a time of 51 hours. A local resident then offered a prize to anyone who could better this time, and the scoutmaster of the 1st Devizes Scouts, Ollie Brown, wanted his scouts to take up the challenge in their home-built canoes, but as the prize was specified for sculling boats and local residents only, they were unable to do so.
In 1947 one of the original Avon descent participants, Roy Cooke, was planning to try to reach London via the derelict Kennet and Avon Canal and the River Thames in less than 100 hours. He was unable to see this through, and the project was taken up by the Devizes Scouts, with the encouragement of locals who put up a sum of money for Scout funds if they could succeed in "taking a boat from Devizes to Westminster in under 100 hours, all food and camping kit to be carried in the boats".
At Easter 1948, Peter Brown, Brian Walters, Laurie Jones and Brian Smith, all aged just 17, set out on the first DW run. Great interest was generated nationally, with progress reports and photographs appearing in the national press, and the local cinema in Devizes interrupting programmes to give reports of their progress. At the finish a large crowd turned out at Westminster Bridge to see them successfully complete the challenge in a time of 89 hours and 50 minutes. Later that year several crews tried to make the run, but were defeated by thick weed on the canal. So it was established then that Easter was the best time to run DW.
The following year, 1949, despite no formal race having been organised, nearly 20 boats set out from Devizes to attempt the run. Most failed, including Percy Blandford making the first attempt in a single. Two crews from Richmond Canoe Club brought the time down to 49 hours 32 minutes. The interest shown in the event prompted Frank Luzmore, a member of the Richmond crews, to run an annual contest.
1951 saw an outstanding performance by the SAS crew of Dansie and Dry bringing the time down to just over 24 hours. A phenomenal achievement given the primitive boats and the requirement to be self-sufficient. Despite success from Richmond in 1952, crews from the Special Forces, Royal Marines, SAS, and the Paras were to dominate the race for the next 20 years with a change of the rules in 1971. DW has always attracted strong characters and over this time competitors included Paddy Ashdown for the Royal Marines, and Chay Blyth and John Ridgeway who both competed in 1961 for the Paras.
One reason for two decades of domination by Forces crews was the similarity between active service and the demands of DW. Each was like a military exercise, demanding training, preparation, teamwork and logistical planning. The Royal Marines were, in effect, professional canoeists. The special boat section of the Marines had been formed at Poole Harbour during the Second World War, and their exploits in canoes were made famous in the film "Cockleshell Heroes". To this day the British Canoe Union annually awards the Hasler Trophy, named after the leader of the "Cockleshell Heroes", Blondie Hasler, to the most successful canoe club in marathon racing.
As all teams stretch the rules to the limit and the rule book grew in size to close loopholes, the decision was taken in 1971 to allow crews to receive support along the course. Gone were the spurious food items and equipment that met the requirement for "all food and camping to be carried in the boats". And gone too were the clandestine rendezvous at hidden points along the course that made a mockery of the idea of being self-sufficient.
1971 was a defining year in the race, with civilian clubs and military crews in a genuine battle for supremacy. Richmond Canoe Club, in many ways the pioneers of the race proper, took up the challenge. They entered a strong team of four boats, all with paddlers who had all represented Great Britain at international level. One member, Peter Lawler, had even been to four Olympic Games and had previously set the Junior DW record that had stood for nearly 10 years. Lawler with his partner Chris Baker won, bringing an end to the services' stranglehold on the race. With their other crews coming in 3rd, 5th and 7th, Richmond also broke the team record, and more importantly, gained the first ever team victory by a civilian club.
Since then, civilians have won the race more often than not, and started setting all the course records culminating in the present record of 15 hours 34 minutes, which was set by the outstanding Richmond / Reading partnership of Tim Cornish and Brian Greenham in 1979. These performances reflected Great Britain's rise to pre-eminence in international marathon racing. Though the military still dominate the team event, the present team record is still held by Richmond Canoe Club, set in 1994. With the establishment of a world championship in marathon racing, many of the best civilian paddlers were reluctant to jeopardise their chance of international selection by participation in DW, leading to a resurgence of success by the services. Since 1998, civilian teams have dominated the podium places.
The demand for a junior race was met in 1953 when compulsory overnight stops were introduced. Originally there were only two overnight stops, but this soon developed into the present-day format of three overnight stops at Newbury, Marlow and Ham, with a mass start to Westminster on the final day. The first race saw only two crews entered, both of which were from the Chippenham Sea Cadets and finished in a time of 37 hours 18 minutes. By 1961, with the entry of junior leader army regiments and police cadet units, numbers had grown steadily to the present-day figure of over 50 boats, reaching a peak in 1970 when 100 crews were entered. The establishment of a Schools Trophy in 1975, however, has produced a steady influx of public schools into the race, and entries are now rising again. Schools are now responsible for 90 percent of the junior entries (1998).
It is good to note that DW seems to have done no harm to our top paddlers, as many of Britain's top sprint racers including world sprint champions Grayson Bourne, Ivan Lawler, Jeremy West and Alan Williams, have started in the junior DW. The junior men's record is currently held by the Richmond / Royal pairing of Steve Jensen and Tony Richardson in the phenomenal time of 14 hours 13 minutes, faster than the senior record, but then they did have three nights sleep on the way down! Also, they are the only junior crew ever to have won the senior Waterside race series outright.
WOMEN AND DW
From its inception, it was assumed that DW was much too arduous for women, and, when the rules were formulated, women were excluded from the race. The first woman who is known to have done the race was Sheila Burnett of Cambridge University Canoe Club, who, with her partner Colin Dickens, in 1971 finished in a time of 46 hours 50 minutes. However, they were subsequently disqualified by the committee when it learnt that Sheila was, in fact, female and they were removed from the race results. Sheila went on to represent Great Britain at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Two years later in 1973 another lady, Anne-Marie Evans, entered under an assumed name with her partner Jonathan Hutt, both members of the Canoe Camping Club. They finished in a time of 49 hours 57 minutes. This time the committee allowed the result to stand and awarded them finishing certificates, while still firmly stating: "There is not and will not be a women's class, since the committee will not encourage women to enter".
With time, attitudes changed and in 1976 M. Hossack and D. Johnson of the Leverton Canoe Club became the first female crew to finish the race, with a time of 31 hours 6 minutes, and were placed 33rd out of 83 starters. In 1980, trophies were finally presented to the winning ladies and mixed doubles classes. Since that time, women competitors have gone from strength to strength, and in 1987, Susan Freeman of Hereford Canoe Club, paddling with her husband Andy, gained an unprecedented third place overall. The highest placed ladies crew to date has been that of Mary Garret and Sheila O'Byrne of Richmond Canoe Club, who in 1983, were placed 6th overall. The most successful woman competitor is Danielle Sellwood from Richmond Canoe Club. In 1994 she lowered the mixed doubles' record to 17 hours 35 minutes with Brian Greenaway. They, one year later, with her partner Sandra Troop, Danielle lowered the women's record to 18 hours 47 minutes. Finally, in 1997, in coming 3rd overall in the race Danielle became the first woman ever to win the civilian trophy.
The steady progress and improvement of women's performance reached a pinnacle in 2015 when Lizzie Broughton of Richmond Canoe Club with Keith Moule of Chelmsford Canoe Club won the Senior Doubles with a time of 16 hours 40 minutes, 80 minutes faster than the second placed crew.
The junior Ladies' event was introduced in 1978 and the pioneers in this event were the police cadets. The race now mirrors the junior race, with most of the entries coming from the public schools. The current record, held by Rachel Bland and Jo Turvey of the Royal Canoe Club and set in 1988, is 18 hours 45 minutes. Jo Turvey went on to represent Great Britain at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, reaching the final of the pairs event but this time in a rowing boat!
Junior mixed doubles were added to the race in 1981 and again the police cadets provided the first winning crew. The current record is held by Worcester Canoe Club.
OTHER RACE DEVELOPMENTS
Concerned for the safety of paddlers attempting to run DW non-stop in singles (some successfully, including one by a Hungarian in a racing C1), the committee introduced a singles event in 1986 using the same stage format as the junior race. This event has proved especially popular with foreign competitors as knowledge of the course is not so vital.
A junior / veteran class was introduced in 1989, with the intention of giving parents an opportunity to paddle with their offspring. However, judging by the entries in the race so far, most parents have been wise enough not to risk it, and have let their children paddle with someone else!
A welcome initiative to the race in the 1980s , introduced by the chairman of the committee Peter Begent, was the formal encouragement of competitors to raise money for charities by being sponsored to complete the race. Now, every year many thousands of pounds are raised by paddlers for numerous charities, and the Pfeiffer Trophy is awarded to the crew raising the largest amount of money.
The most thankless job on the race committee now must surely be that of Trophy Secretary, who now has to keep track of well over 60 trophies. If you win one, look after it and hand it back in before the next year's award ceremony.
THE FUTURE OF THE RACE
While the race continues to thrive, and is now well established in the British sporting calendar, the organising committee are under constant pressure to balance modern approaches to risk management to the race. The event now lives dangerously close to the modern obsession of trying to legislate adventurous activities out of existence, for fear of being sued by participants. The whole point of being challenged by the adventure of DW is that there is risk involved. Risk of failure, risk of injury, and even risk of death. Though there has never been a fatality during the race, there have been several in training, and several near-fatal incidents have occurred during the race. It is the responsibility of any entrant to consider this possibility and make sure they do all they can to avoid such an outcome.
The human character gains in confidence and self-reliance from the achievement of overcoming challenges like this. DW is a challenge that virtually every one can take up and succeed at. You don't have to go to the Antarctic or pay someone to drag you up Everest. The life-enhancing effects are the same. The services and Public schools probably know better than anyone how to develop human potential, and is no accident that they are the biggest supporters and participants in the race.
Finally, the race depends on a whole army of volunteers in order to function at all. Without volunteer workers and an organising committee the race would never happen. Many thanks go to all those people who have made the time and effort to make this great event possible; your efforts have been supremely worthwhile! And if you're looking to give something back to the race, why not volunteer to help.
[This summary has been adapted from the introductory chapter of The Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race by Brian Greenaway. We have kindly been given permission to reproduce that chapter in full.]
Since the last printing of the book, there have been a few further changes. In 2002, the Endeavour Class was introduced to allow older paddlers who may have done DW earlier in their lives, and also inexperienced beginners to join DW as a 4-day tour of the course without suffering the stress of racing. This non-competitive class is also free from the restriction of overnight camping within 200 metres of the course, allowing the use of hotel and B&B accommodation.
The 1000 Mile Club was introduced in 2011, an honour recognising the achievements of those who had completed the race eight times. More details available at 1000 Mile Club.
Finally, the National Schools Canoe Championships. 2013 was reintroduced as an inter-schools event to allow schools early marathon training and better prepare teams for the DW Race.