Black-Light: The Devizes-to-Westminster canoe race

‘We live in cities, you’ll never see on screen.

Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things.

Living in ruins, of a palace within my dreams.

 

And you know;

We’re on each other’s team.’

 

Lorde  //   Team

 

It’s 3am and a voice calls my name through the darkness. It’s quiet at first, muffled by my sleeping bag wrapped tightly around my head. “Chris - you’re up next on sentry duty mate”.

 

I groan, and have to fight the sleep from my eyes. I think to myself, ‘I only came off 10 minutes ago – how am I back on again?’ Trying not illuminate my waterproof shelter - I press the back light button on my watch to see the time. The voice is right, it was 3 and half hours since I finished my last shift providing security for the team. Now I must get out of my warm sleeping bag, change into cold, sodden clothes to go and lay in the pouring rain in the dark. It then occurs to me that I chose to do this – 15 and a half months of Royal Marines Commando training.

 

You have an identity in the military. It may not always be the identity that you want, but it's there. It defines you, gives you status, displays your authority and often communicates what your role is. For me, this was a source of pride and confidence.

When I came to leave though however; I was underprepared for the journey that would follow.

It’s 3am and a voice calls my name from the darkness. It’s quiet at first, muffled by a scarf wrapped tightly around my head. “Chris – you’re steering us towards the bank”.

 

I groan, and think to myself “I’ve just fallen asleep again – how does this keep happening? The quiet voice is right, I have just knocked the steering handle of our 2-man kayak towards the bank.

 

We’ve been going for almost 20 hours. Paddling in near darkness, the only thing we have to guide us is the moonlight reflecting off the water, making it look like thick black oil.

Wearing cold and sodden clothes, we shiver almost uncontrollably; we’ve been in the canal 4 times already today.

 

It was cold. Freezing cold.  And now the thought of rolling over again was putting serious concerns of hypothermia into my head. Falling in the middle of the canal, some 20 metres from the edge, would take us at least 6-8 minutes of fumbling to get to the bank. On top of this – we receive a message that we are in danger of getting disqualified; we’d come into the last checkpoint with just 15 seconds to spare!

 

Now we couldn’t afford to fall in – nor afford to take it too slow.

 

An hour later, we meet our support crew at the halfway point: they’ve driven an hour off their planned route to bring us hot pizza. I could’ve cried with joy when I saw this gesture – they sit us down, wrap us in towels, give us dry clothes and encourage us to keep on going.  This is true support.

 

Suddenly, the challenge didn’t seem quite so impossible.

With around 50 of the 125 mile race still to go of the, we decide the best strategy is to take more smaller breaks. Whilst this sounds counter-intuitive when you’re so close to being disqualified, the rational made perfect sense:

 

The longer you paddle for, the more tired you get. The more tired you get, the more likely you are to fall in (because you’re exhausted brain can’t balance you properly so you overcompensate on the wobbles).

The more you go in the water, the colder and more tired you get (by shivering to stay warm) and the slower pace you average (by taking longer breaks to change clothes and warm up).

 

Sure, we wouldn’t be troubling the race leaders – far from it in fact; we were in the bottom 10%: this had become a battle of the will just to keep going. As I watched my exhaled breath in the cold April night, I was reminded that even when it feels like you're on the ropes and failure is inevitable; it doesn’t take much to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and crack on.

 

Just keep going

Of the 4 boats in our team that had been training for this, we were the only other boat that was still in the race. We’d lost one team to injury before we’d even got to the start line, and a second had crashed and damaged their boat during the race.

Our one other boat team was paddling a much more stable but slower kayak. And the two paddlers had a combined age of 105 years.

We’d been lucky to make it to the finish line; we hadn’t been nearly as prepared, as we should’ve been – as the team captain, I took responsibility for this. I realised I had ignored advice from people that had done it before – because I thought I could figure it all on my own. But I also ignored the people saying that said complete novices shouldn’t do it.

 

Reflecting on the race a number of years after, I realised the race had mirrored my career transition: the uncertainty; the challenge; the reliance on those around you, and the learning that comes with attempting something you know little about:

 

1.  It’s going to be uncertain, and you need to deal with that.

 

2.  Rest before you really need to rest.

 

3.  Listen to people that have done it before, but keep an open mind.

 

It’s 3am and a voice calls my name from the darkness. It’s quiet at first, muffled by a pillow pressed up against my ear. “Chris – you need to get up, the race starts soon…”

Street scene: Ben Shirley Blue vantage photography

Street scene: Ben Shirley Blue vantage photography