Quite a few people take part in the Devises to Westminster International Canoe Marathon (DW) every year, with competitors ranging from existing kayak world medalists to people with only a few months paddling experience. Lots of people complete the Waterside and Thameside series and then DW but don't have another canoeing target lined up, and we think that's a shame so Paul put together a list of races we think would be worth a try. Over the years I've heard of quite a few interesting races, though I should confess I haven't taken part in all of them yet! (At the time of writing I've done five of the races, and although I've done DW as the four day stage race I haven't done it straight through – maybe some time…)
Run on the Yukon river in Canada, this is as much an expedition as a race. The Yukon runs through some real wilderness and just making it to the finish is a big ask. The organisers give you a GPS so they can track you and pretty much wave you off at the start and wait for you 1000 miles later after 7 to 12 days paddling. You have to take a 6 hour break overnight (enforced by the GPS you carry) but other than that you're free to race however you think best. You can use a kayak or canoe, and people have done it in singles and SUPs. It really sounds like a tough challenge, especially carrying all of your food and kit of so long. The organisers website says they've had 300 miles of cold rain, metre high waves and forest fires (not all at once thankfully!) but you can be sure Canadian lakes are going to be gorgeous on a good day. Oh, and they have bears wandering around up there too. The race runs on even numbered years (2016, 2018...) if you're tempted. Or maybe the shorter Yukon River Quest (450 ish miles) or the Yukon 360 (which is on a different river in the Yukon each year and only three days long).
The Yukon river near the start point of the Yukon 1000. Photo by Kieth Williams
If the Devises to Westminster was your idea of heaven then the Cheshire Ring might be as well. It hasn't gained the same popularity and kudos, perhaps because it's shorter. It's 96 mile race along a series of canals with 92 locks and 5 tunnels, and you're allowed to do it K1 unlike DW. You can also enter as a team and do a relay, each boat doing one section, if you don't fancy the whole thing
As well as loving surf ski and being a dominant force on the world championship marathon scene, the South Africans have a bit of a love of river races. The Dusi, Berg and Fish are all multi day down river races that feature weir shoots and rapids unlike the obstacles you'll face in races in the UK. There are more South African races to choose from but these are the major ones, with entries that dwarf many races in the UK and a very high standard at the top with guys like Hank McGregor and Andy Birkett regularly taking top honours. If you want a bit more novelty you can even race a K3 in these races! Dusi has a crazy amount of portaging on it but overall they aren't stupidly long races (Dusi is 120 km over three days, Berg is 240 km over 4 days and Fish is only 82 km over 2 days), and they're a great excuse to go to South Africa and get some sun. All of them are annual fixtures with, Dusi running in February, Berg in July and Fish in September / October.
Competitors shoot a weir on the Dusi marathon. Photo by Clive Reid
The Tour de Gudenå has been running since 1968 but has recently changed format. Traditionally it was a 120 km race split over two days, with each day having two or three stages with a quick rest stop in between them. The race has had entries of over 1000 paddlers in the past and many national teams have sent squads over ( the British team has had a history of sending paddlers ) but sadly entries were declining and the organisers have decided to change the format to a one day race of just 73 km with two stops on the course. The race runs across big Danish lakes and the rivers that join them which make for another race with great scenery, though the new shortened course leaves out the huge Mossø lake which is a bit of a shame ( though when I raced in 2009 the conditions were terrible and I did spend a long time in the Mossø having fallen in in the big waves ). The Tour de Gudenå takes place in September and is near to Aarhus so you can probably get cheap Ryan Air flights to Aarhus airport if you fancy the race
Descenso Internacional del Sella – International Sella Descent
This is an immensely popular race that is the centre piece of canoeing festival in the Northern Spanish region of Asturias during the first week of August. The race has well over 1000 paddlers taking place, all lining up along the river bank for a Le Mans style start, which makes for one of the most iconic sights in canoe racing. The atmosphere is what makes the race really special, there's a train that runs along side the course full of spectators, people crowd down to the river to get in on the excitement, and the party at the end goes on all night. The quality at the front of the race is top notch, with world champions making regular appearances, but a wide range of paddlers take part. The racing isn't over once you've done the Sella though. The next day there's a K4 race in the harbour at Ribadesella. Then over the next week there's several other races including the International Descent of Carrión Palencia, a K4 race with a Le Mans start (the front three paddlers start in the boat but the back paddler has to run across a beach then jump in to the boat at the start) and a 9km K2 race in Villaviciosa (30 ish km from Ribadesella) which attracts a very fast field. The Spanish really love canoeing more that most countries, I've raced in Spain and it's a great experience to see races supported by so many paddlers and so many spectators.
Avon descent - Australia
Adding another continent to a potential kayaking work tour, the Avon Descent is another long race, 52 km on the first day and 72 on the second, but it's open to all sorts of boats, K1s, surf skis, WWR boats and even a category for 10 hp power boats! There's some really fast paddlers up at the front but its also a race that's an achievement to finish, with lots of rapids and weirs as well as long (30 km) flat stretches.
A single day race of 130 km down the Dordogne in France the Dordogne race is open to any type of boat but features some (small) rapids, and a couple of portages, so WWR boats and old K1s with over-stern rudders are popular. It's one of the longer single day races still going, and in a lovely part of France, so surely worth considering! The promo video from the 2016 edition should give you some idea what it is like:
Closer to home, some domestic descent races and other classics
Hopefully you're inspired and full of ideas now but perhaps before you get yourself in to some great kayaking adventure you should practice on a few smaller races a little closer to home. And even if you're not up for descent races and crazy challenges it can sill be nice to get out and do some races that are a little more interesting than the majority of 4 mile lap based courses. So here's my picks.
The Avon Descent is only 10 miles but has six weirs to negotiate and runs in early November.
The Liffey descent is always popular, and people travel over from Britain every year. The Liffey is a little longer at 28 km with 10 weirs and a portage, and we hear there's a bit of a party as well... The Liffy runs in September or October each year.
The Royal Paddling Challenge has run since 1874 (in Kingston) and is the oldest canoe race in the world (apparently). It takes place every summer around July. It's a mass start race with categories of Men, Women, Boys and Girls and is a 10 km race on the Thames so not the most novel of races but still special by virtue of being the first!
The Bath to Bradford race is a old school marathon race, run from “A to B” with shallow sections (an overstern runner is recommended) and tough portages up locks, the course is either 8 or 12 miles.
The Medway marathon is run by Tonbridge Canoe Club in August. It is another A to B race, up stream for a change, with some slightly awkward portages (up steps!) but it's a nice calm stretch of river for the whole 28 km.
Marathon international de la Loire, featuring a beach start, a long portage through the town, some small rapids and a hard turn off the fast flowing main river near the finish the Loire marathon has a variety of technical aspects to keep things interesting. It runs in September each year, so a decent time of year for a quick holiday to France!
Ross Warland Memorial Relay Canal Challenge. Organised by Banbury Canoe Club each year in memory of Ross Warland this is a 20 mile out and back canal race, a great excuse to get some miles in, and the competitors food is quite possibly the best I've had at a race (hot soup goes very down well after a race in November!). You can also do a relay of 2, 3 or 4 crews if you want. Iron Bridge, actually a Hasler Series race, but on more interesting water than usual. The Iron Bridge race has some sections of rapids on its 4, 8 or 12 mile course. Apparently the prizes are quite good too.
Waterlands International Marathon. Quite a high level race ( they even specially invite the top 15 in the world to come ) the Waterlands Marathon is run along dikes and canals near Amsterdam but one of the main draws is a portage on to a reed bed. As the reeds are soft you can paddle your boat straight up on to the bed before getting out, making for some impressive pictures. Kayaking is a fantastic sport, a great excuse to get outside, push yourself and to travel to new places, so hopefully you're feeling inspired now. If you think we've missed any worthy races off the list then comment below and let us know.