6 members of the Big 5 Kayak Team paddled some of the worst winter conditions that the UK has seen for many decades to paddle 184 miles from Cricklade in Wiltshire to near the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, near Dartford. The team ages ranged from 14 year old Aaron Buckingham, already a potential slalom star of the future and Div 1 K1 paddler to 56 year old Geoff Tilford, a former GB sprint paddler. Richard Harpham, joint team leader commented “For most of Thursday we were undecided whether to postpone to better conditions with our main concerns being the safety of our support crews. In the end after studying plenty of weather reports we decided to go for it. I am so proud that all 6 completed the length of the Thames despite paddling as much as 18 ½ hours a day for 3 days and battling blizzards, night temperatures of -6 degrees and difficult river conditions.”
In fact the Environment Agency had issued precautionary warnings not to paddle the river and in some stretches no vessels at all. The team all experienced kayakers included Dave McCarthy, a local outdoor education teacher at Sharnbrook Community College and level 3 coach and Aisling Ni Chuinn, former Irish international wildwater racer and canoe polo player. What linked the team is a love of paddling and all are members of Bedford’s Viking Kayak Club with the exception of Dave Gordon, Richmond who was a former international pole vaulter. Dave Gordon explained “Having learnt to paddle for the first expedition around the Isle of Wight I have had a steeper learning curve than most. Nothing quite prepared me for the extreme nature of the second challenge, the River Thames. Not only was it 185 miles in temperatures close to or below freezing but it also involved 55 locks or portages. Each one involved clambering out of the boat and carrying / dragging it distances up to a few hundred yards. Each time your muscles ached a little more and we all felt a little bit colder.
The team started at the head of the Thames in Cricklade which is the highest navigable point in full blizzard conditions. The Daves left just before 7am planning to paddle the whole distance together in sea kayaks, a mammoth task. Geoff and Aaron set out slightly later in their 2 person sea kayak followed by Richard and Aisling in sea kayaks as well. Conditions were testing with heavy snow and extreme cold, by lunchtime the snow had eased and the team paddle to Newbridge for their first kit stop and hot food. “We decided to paddle sea kayaks for the first day given the poor conditions and just in case we didn’t meet our support crews due to impassable roads. That said our support crews were amazing for the 3 days and basically kept us going, refuelling us with food and changing us to dry clothes, ” Aisling a former winner of the infamous DW (Devizes to Westminster) 125 kayak race explained. The single kayak teams finished at 10.30 that evening, some 18 miles short of the planned stop at Reading Canoe Club. Geoff and Aaron put in a sterling effort and paddled through till 1.20 am to reach Reading. The kind folk at Reading allowed us use of their kayak club for sleeping, showers and food for which we are extremely grateful.
The next morning saw the crews head off at different times. Richard and Aisling switched to their K2 (2 person) racing kayak and made much faster progress. Their hard work was not rewarded when they suffered a rudder steering failure just past Marlow and were forced to make some running repairs which took the best part of an hour. “ our feeling of despair having been flying along and making up the time from the previous day was huge, sitting in the cold snow for an hour fixing the boat was not a happy time!”. Once fixed they continued their tortoise and hare race with the 2 Daves who by this stage had re-overtaken them. All the teams made it to Richmond Canoe Club on the second day, Aaron and Geoff with the shortest distance having covered more ground made it in just after 10pm. Rich and Aisling arrived at 11.30 pm absolutely delighted to have finished the gruelling 80 mile paddle. Dave and Dave came in at 2.30 am having paddled for over 18 hours non-stop.
Richmond Canoe Club, the largest canoe club in Britain hosted the Big 5 Kayak challenge that evening allowing them to use their showers, have hot drinks and generally get some rest. The team slept in Richmond (albeit not enough sleep) at support crew houses, thanks team! The next morning saw a slow muster at Richmond CC and at River lane just up the river which at this point is tidal. We were joined by Helen Reeves, Olympic Medallist and BBC commentator, Rob Bates (who paddled the Isle of Wight leg) and Mike Newbury, a Viking club member. Alex Tongue from Avoncraft canoes and kayaks also joined the team as driver of the support RIB for central London. The team set off in great spirits to enjoy the sights of the Thames and paddle through to Dartford/Tilbury. The sun was shining and it was a stark contrast to the previous few days of snow and cold weather. We stopped at Chiswick Canoe Club for some moral support and banter and then pushed onto Putney (the start of the famous boat Race). Helen and Mike left at this point as they did not plan to complete the whole 40 miles planned for that day.
We pushed on to Central London to enjoy seeing the sights from the comfort of our sea kayaks. There is something special about paddling through the capital city, past the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben (which struck 3 as we passed), London Eye, London Bridge to name but a few. Everyone enjoyed the experience and we pressed on as the temperature chilled again and the day changed from sunshine to a grey day. We made the Thames Flood Barrier at 4.30 pm and waved goodbye to Alex who had to head off to get the support boat off the water. We paddled on trying to keep aching limbs moving and mindful of using the tidal advantage whilst it still lasted. The last few miles were again in darkness as we tried to find Erith Yacht club amongst a multitude of lights on the banks of the Thames, no easy task given the size of the huge estuary at that point. Dave Gordon in one of the many hours paddling in darkness calculated that almost 35 % of our paddle would be darkness. Then we saw it a welcome flash of light from Simon, one of our support crew and we were home, safe and sound. Erith Yacht club were fantastic and made us hot drinks and provided biscuits which were most welcome. Given we had paddled much of it in different groups it was great to enjoy our success together as a team with our support crews. Erith Yacht Club is located on a 70 year old Norwegian RORO ferry. This is about to be returned to the Norwegian government the Erith will be the first recipients of the London 2012 legacy fund to build a new club house for young people in the area.
As they say the pain lasted for hours but the memories of our kayaking expedition will undoubtedly remain with us all for a life. It was fitting we should end at the sailing club, make new friends and have a chance to enjoy the moment. We are all clear that this was about 2 key objectives, safely paddling the length of the Thames in a challenging way and of course raising money and awareness for the Muscular Help Foundation and their work. We that we will enjoy the success of our team endeavour but recognise we now need to push on and get fundraising. Please visit our justgiving site.