May 22nd 2017

Canoeing 125 miles non-stop with the East Midlands University Officer Training Corps

At the finish line

Harry Dixon and Tom Fuller at the finish line

As teamwork exercises go, taking on the 125 mile Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race is up there with the most strenuous.

Two paddlers take on the challenge itself, but they’re not allowed to stop at any time.

That means a whole team is needed to get them through the roughly 24 hours it takes to navigate the Kennet and Avon Canal and River Thames before passing the Westminster Bridge finishing line.

For members of the East Midlands University Officer Training Corps (EMUOTC) based in Nottingham it’s become the ultimate teamwork exercise – a labour of love that they start training and organising for months in advance.

More than a third of the competitors drop out every year due to its demanding nature, but this year the EMUOTC team not only finished it, they claimed an excellent 64th place out of the 163 crews that started, 44 of which failed to finish.

Officer Cadets (OCdt) Harry Dixon, who is studying accountancy at the University of Nottingham and Tom Fuller, a systems engineering student at Loughborough University, were the two successful men in the boat finishing the course in a time of 25 hours 24 minutes 17 seconds.

But they wouldn’t have been able to get there without the support team led by Team Director, OCdt Sam Dziemianko.

On the water

On the water

He said: “The idea to take part in the event just came from something said over a pint a couple of years ago. We applied to Sandhurst for funding for a boat, which we were successful with, and it’s just grown and grown from there to become an important part of EMUOTC.

“There’s six months of training beforehand which starts with having five potential paddlers and whittling them down to two.

“Then you have the support crew. We had seven on the EMUOTC team.”

As there’s no stopping allowed, the support crew have to keep the two on the water fed, hydrated and motivated throughout the day and night, as well as help them navigate the many obstacles the waterways can throw at them including numerous locks and the strong tides on the Thames.

The EMUOTC team began with two vehicles carrying the supplies needed for the paddlers in a relay following the boat where possible and meeting it at the numerous checkpoints along the route.

Sam, a student studying geography at the University of Leicester knows how tough the task is as he was one of the paddlers in last year’s EMUOTC attempt that ended unsuccessfully after his crewmate developed hypothermia.

He continued: “The main emphasis of taking part is on team development and leadership. The whole running of the training building up to the race and the team on the day is entirely led by the OCdts. It just emphasises the need to work together.

“We learnt from our mistakes last year and put them into practice to support the guys as much as possible and get them to the finish line this year.

“It all starts with the preparation and we were helped by training with the Royal Engineers Canoe Club. As a thank you we lent them two of our OCdts to be on their support crew for the main race.

“They were fantastic and really helped with the training programme as well as providing accommodation for practice races like the Waterside series.”

There are some things however that no amount of planning and training can prepare you for and it didn’t entirely go to plan for the EMUOTC team this year.

The EMUOTC team

The EMUOTC team

“One of the lads dropped the keys to one of the vans in the canal,” Sam says laughing now more than he probably was at the time. “The idea was the vans would take it in turns to drive as close to those on the water and the vans would swap every hour.

“After losing the keys we had to go out and hire another vehicle while one van did two hours of driving. We never did find the keys and that van had to be taken back to Nottingham on the back of a lorry.

“Leading the team was definitely more stressful than being in the boat.”

However for the whole team the experience was worth it, especially seeing the incredibly tired Harry and Tom climb out of the boat at Westminster Bridge. Plans are already being made for next year’s attempt.

Sam said: “Just finishing the race is a fantastic achievement and it was a brilliant feeling.

“It was a really strong and emotional moment at the end that so much teamwork and planning had got us to the point where we had achieved our aims.”

“The main emphasis of taking part is on team development and leadership. The whole running of the training building up to the race and the team on the day is entirely led by the OCdts. It just emphasises the need to work together."