One of the most famous canoe races in the world takes place in England every Easter and has done since 1948. The Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon is a serious test of skill and endurance as it pits canoeists against each other over 125 miles (201 kilometre) course that used to take place over four days but is now completed in a single day.
Before it became an actual annual race, the idea came from a man called Roy Cooke who wanted to see if it was possible to canoe to Westminster from Devizes in less than 100 hours. Unfortunately for Cooke, sections of the Kennet and Avon Canal, which is the only route he could have taken, was derelict so he was unable to undertake his challenge.
Devizes locals were intrigued to learn whether it was indeed possible to complete the trip in under 100 hours so devised a plan to see if they could make it happen. The locals agreed to donate some money to the Scouts if Devizes Scouts could make it from Devizes to Westminster in under 100 hours while carrying all camping equipment and food in the boat.
Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon First Run
The idea quickly gained pace and interest and there was some national press coverage so when 17-year-old Scouts Brian Walters, Brian Smith, Peter Brown and Laurie Jones embarked on this epic journey, there was a substantial crowd at Westminster Bridge at the end of the course cheering them on as they arrived. The quartet completed the journey in 89 hours and 50 minutes. A group from the Chippenham Sea Cadet attempted the same route a month later and shave plenty of time off the record, completing the course in 75 hours and 50 minutes.
A year later, on Easter 1949, almost 20 boats tried to beat this time despite no official race being planned. Richmond Canoe Club smashed the record by completing the Devizes to Westminster route in 49 hours and 32 minutes.
The race began gaining popularity so one of the members of the Richmond Canoe Club organised the race and an annual event, while another donated a trophy for the winner. The first official race saw 17 boats take to the water, but only 10 managed to complete the course. Richmond Canoe Club won the inaugural race and set a new non-stop record of 34 hours and 52 minutes.
Armed Forces Dominate the Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Marathon
British armed forces began competing in the now annual race as they saw it as the perfect training exercise. As the members of the armed forces were extremely fit, strong and well-trained in canoeing, they dominated the race and, except for 1952, won every race held between 1951 to 1970.
The rules were changed in 1971 so that boats did not have to carry food and camping kit and support vessels were allowed. This was because crews were now completing the course in a single day so the majority of the equipment that used to have to be carried was now redundant.
In more modern times, the course is split into four stages and is open to senior doubles, junior doubles, junior/veteran split, senior singles and a category called Endeavour which is a doubles class that is not competitive. The current course record was set in 1979 by Brian Greenham and Tim Cornish who finished in 15 hours and 34 minutes.