25th March 2008
Erika and Camilla Conquer Devizes Westminster
See Hemel Today report here
Erika Henson and Camilla Lennon might seem unassuming ladies if you passed them in the street. They are neither tall nor muscle-bound. However underneath they have a steely determination that they demonstrated at the weekend when they paddled for just under 30 hours non stop in their K2. The weather was atrocious and never above freezing, with wind chill it was often minus seven. They braved freezing blizzards and winds to finish the 125 miles just as Big Ben struck 10 on Sunday night.
It was an exceedingly tough race with half the competitors retiring, it is the longest non-stop canoe race in the world. In addition the Thames was very fast moving but the girls never tipped in. However after one of the 77 portages round a lock, by a weir, there was a strong current at the put-in and the girls found themselves pinned to a tree, but with their calm approach and excellent seamanship they managed to avert disaster and paddle on.
Near the end they were racing against the clock to get to the Teddington Lock "race control" and the tidal Thames. For the organisers close it at a given point after the tide. They just made it. Then it was 17 miles with the flow to Westminster, but no portages for food or water. They had donned fresh clothes and were as re-charged as possible. Then just after setting off a head on blizzard started, "It was like daggers in your face, " said plucky Erika. Meanwhile Camilla had a "torn" shoulder muscle that was badly swollen. They carried on regardless and heroically finished the race. Finally the last 20 minutes were against the tide.
Erika said, "It was toughest mentally, you'd paddle for hours, get to a portage, get encouraged, fed and water by our excellent support crew, and then set off again an realise how little we'd actually been, and how far there was to go. It was hard to think of anything else, if I tried to change my thinking it'd go to how cold it was, and believe me it was cold!"
Camilla, mother of six, commented, "It was exceedingly tough, but we just had to get on with it, despite my torn shoulder I never entertained the thought of not finishing. By the end at portages, every lift and every step was a struggle and on the water every paddle stroke was a huge effort."
Meanwhile the other entry from HHCC, John Houston and Robin Oakley retired. They'd completed the hard first 15 miles - non stop with no river flow to help them - in the dark after a 9pm start in minus 2 degrees. It was a 3.75hr slog. Robin had a terrible cramp - not experienced in any of the five months of training - and then they fell in the freezing water getting out at the first portage. After emptying the boat and running to the other side of the lock they set off again and in the "excitement" Robin forgot to stretch his cramped leg, and almost immediately they fell in again. Robin's leg cramped right up and he was overwhelmed by the cold. They had to retire as did over half the fleet.
On marathon races like this the paddlers heavily rely on support crews. They feed, encourage and water the crews at portages, or in John and Robin's case rescue, warm up and take them home!
It's a lot of map reading and co-ordination to be at the right place at the right time and without support the others simply couldn't compete. Chris Marshall was the girls chief supporter with other HHCC members Shirine Voller and Al Farrance as well as boyfriend Graham Crabtree, daughter Tacha Lennon, with her chap; Carter and friend Karen Hanson. The boys were generously supported by John Bennett, Bob Pearce, Chris Preston, Claire and Katie Houston and Ross.
Hemel Hempstead Canoe Club www.hhcanoeclub.com welcomes all-comers from beginners to experienced paddlers (although under 14s must be accompanied by an adult). Club nights are Thursday evenings from 7pm, but members can often be found paddling or using the gym at other times throughout the week. Located at Nash Mills Recreation Centre, by Red Lion Lane. Membership is great value and allows use of the gym and to borrow craft and benefit from free advice from other members. During the summer term they will provide a low cost coaching session on Monday nights for beginners.
Devizes to Westminster Marathon, 125 miles, 77 portages
Erika Henson and Camilla Lennon Senior K2 29hrs 43mins Second in class
John Houston and Robin Oakley Senior K2 retired
131 boats entered, 71 did not finish