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Bishop’s Stortford Canoe Club members complete Devizes to Westminster Race

Three members of Bishop’s Stortford Canoe Club were among the 270 competitors who took part in the country’s toughest canoe race.

The Devizes to Westminster Race is an annual ultramarathon event which starts in the Wiltshire town of Devizes and follows the Kennet and Avon Canal down to the Thames.

Rich Winstanley and Joe Fitzpatrick entered the singles event while Kat Burbeck was partnered by Reading CC’s Catherine Drummond in the senior doubles.

Joe Fitzpatrick, left, and Rich Winstanley
Joe Fitzpatrick, left, and Rich Winstanley

The senior doubles paddle non-stop, making it the world’s longest continuous canoe race.

The race usually ends at Westminster Bridge after a total of 125 miles. Despite heavy rain producing the highest water levels experienced for many years and an extremely strong flow, it was intended that the 72 senior doubles crews would go through to finish at Westminster. However, by the time it was Burbeck and Drummond’s turn to set off early on the Saturday afternoon a red flag was already in place on the tideway and, while the race was in progress, it was decided to terminate at Teddington Lock.

The pair reached Teddington at dawn on the Sunday having paddled 108 miles and portaged around 77 locks. Their time of 16hr 54min 27sec put them eighth overall and the first all-female crew.

The course is so gruelling that singles paddlers are required to do the race in stages with overnight stops. Because of the dangerous river conditions, it was announced before the race that the usual four days would be reduced to three, so Winstanley and Fitzpatrick knew in advance they would be finishing at Teddington. This was particularly disappointing for the former as he had wanted to undertake this famous race ever since he started paddling as a child.

The canoes in the staged race set off from Devizes on the Friday morning and experienced some heavy downpours of rain into the already swollen canal. The conditions were not only difficult for paddlers but also the support crews, following them by land to provide food, drinks, changes of clothes and spare kit. In some places the towpaths were completely submerged under water.

The first stage ended at Newbury with Winstanley and Fitzpatrick occupying second and third places, with only a few seconds between their elapsed times.

The route took them onto the Thames at Reading and down to Marlow. Many of the competitors found the strong currents challenging, but the Stortford pair took it in their stride. Fitzpatrick was slightly faster on this second section and ended Saturday in second place, with his clubmate in third.

The following day it was Winstanley who was the faster of the two, reaching Teddington in a total elapsed time of 14:41.18, making him second overall in singles and the first veteran (35+). Fitzpatrick was fourth overall in 15:17.12.

Fitzpatrick reported finding the long-distance event tedious compared to the intensity of the typical marathon races he competes in.

But Winstanley has his sights set on an even more extreme endurance challenge as he and a paddling partner have already been selected, from the thousands of crews who apply each year, to take part in the Yukon 1000 in July.

The unsupported race along the Yukon River will take them 1,000 miles through the Canadian wilderness and into the Arctic Circle to their goal in Alaska.

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