In the record books?
Day 1: It all started well, a lovely couple had inexplicably agreed to get up at 5am, take some pictures, and sign one of Guinnesses' very official witness statements.... And so it was; at precisely 5:34am I set off, aiming to achieve something that I had been hoping to tick off since watching Roy Castle and Kris Akabusi on Record Breakers in the early 90s. The smooth start took a potentially abrasive turn in the first 30 seconds as I took my vaseline out and promptly dropped it straight in the river. I like to imagine that there is a swan somewhere near Lechlade with delightfully full and soft lips these days.
The thing about the sort of endurance events that I like to do; that is, ones which last 1-3 days, and are a miniature war of attrition is that they don't necessarily provide the most interesting narrative. Far too long to produce any of the 'seat of the pants' drama that you might get from tightrope walking across the Grand Canyon. Nowhere near long enough, or difficult enough to generate the kind of buzz that swimming around Britain, or crossing continents can provide. The interesting elements from the first 15 hours of the record attempt can be summed up as 1) The Vaseline incident, 2) I think I've lost some of my phone chargers, 3) I have found my phone chargers, 4) Some lock-keepers do not like signing witness statements.
However, after that, things got a little more interesting. You may remember that the day before the paddle had been spent dropping items off at two designated campsites so I could save the weight of carrying my food. Well Day 1 was coming to an end and the campsite at Clifton Hampden just would not hove into view. To this day I cannot really explain what went wrong, but I had massively underestimated the distance between Abingdon, and my campsite. I was now facing an issue. It was around 8:30pm, light was fading fast, and after asking around, it seemed that my campsite was a good 6 miles away. All the equipment I needed for a good night's sleep, and more importantly a meal, was at least 2 hours away. Enter my heroes. David and Lin weren't expecting to be part of a world record attempt when they were watering their Thameside garden that night, but when they were needed, boy did they step up. Upon hearing of my plight they found me a tent, a sleeping bag, a flask of tea, and pointed me towards some common land where I could pitch for the night. 18 hours and 40 miles into the journey it was finally time to get some rest. Dinner that night was a large Dairy Milk that my parents had thoughtfully stuffed in my bag just before they left. That glass and a half has never tasted so good.
Day 2: The weather warning
The day started in David and Lin's tent at 3:30. A quick nibble of Dairy Milk, a hasty pack of the kit and away I went (not without scrawling a thank you note for my saviours). An unfortunate outcome of my miscalculations the day before meant that I was now 6 miles behind schedule for Day 2, and more importantly 6 miles further away from the supplies I had left at Hurley Lock. It was crucial to make it to the lock that night in order to finish the final day and meet my admittedly self-imposed 2.5 day target. There was nothing for it, it was time to put the hammer down and go for it.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans, and my sporting event wasn't the only one being affected. Unbeknown to me the World Athletics Championships taking place less than 100 miles away in east London had been postponed for the day. The IAAF obviously deeming it silly to try and get on with any sporting activity with high winds and rain for the next 24 hours. Unfortunately, my clock had already started, and Guinness were not going to let me pause for a weather break. I had no choice but to keep paddling. One of the delightful/agonising things about the Thames is that is meanders back and forth on itself as it travels through south-east England. This means that there is no particular wind direction which can help you 100% of the time. The howling gale that could help me as I approached Reading was all to eager to push me backwards as i paddled into Henley.
Inch, by agonising inch, paddle stroke by agonising paddle stroke I made my way down river. I encountered tremendous kindness, one lock-keeper giving the lasagne she had just heated up for her lunch (I later realised it was the first warm, non-sugary snack I'd had in 36 hours), I also encountered tremendous ignorance. Thank you to the giant cruising boat that hounded past me way over the limit and whose wash sent me towards the trees. Paddling after you to tell you to slow down was the pick-me-up I needed. Other than that I mostly had the river to myself. One of the lock-keepers I met that day told me that all the 'keepers along the Thames had been calling each other to take bets on when the 'wet paddleboarder' would quit. I'm pleased to say that that moment never came. 18 rain-soaked, wind-lashed hours later I arrived at Hurley Lock, I'm not afraid to say that this was a fairly emotional almost damascene moment. I had been dreaming of the warm dry sleeping bag that had been stashed at this lock ever since I stumbled onto the water that morning. Little did I know that there was one more delightful twist in the day. My bin-bag of kit had sprung a leak in storage, and the kind lock-keeper who had left it out for me had unfortunately left it 'hole-side-up'. My soaking wet body, would now get to spend the night in a soaking wet sleeping bag. Miraculously my matches had survived the day so I did get to have a warm meal. True to form, I mismeasured the amount of water needed and made a rehydrated curry so hot that I got to experience shivering and sweating at the same time. None of this mattered though. I was on schedule. 24 years since I'd seen Colin Jackson set the 110m hurdles World Record and asked my Dad what that meant, I was on course to set my own. That was all the tonic I needed to get myself a good 3 hours sleep.
Day 3: What a difference a day makes. I awoke to glorious sunshine and to only mildly moist kit. Hurley Lock looked like a different place compared to the evening before, and I saw at least 4 kingfishers before I got on the water. I set off downriver and through a who's who of Thames Valley commuter towns. Taplow, Marlow, Staines, Windsor, Chertsey, Sunbury, all of them passed by in a riot of colour and cheerfulness. At Molesey Lock I went through my final portage, and set off for the final three miles to Teddington. The finish was entirely surreal. Something that meant so much to me was conducted at the exact moment that many people were going about their daily errands. In fact it was hard to convince the witnesses who signed my final logbook that I had really been in Oxford the day before. Time passes slowly on water, but there seems to be a lot you can do with it if you put your mind to it.
Once I was finished I went home, had a pizza, had a big sleep, and spent the next day watching athletics. It was only when I went to watch highlights from the second day that I realised the weather had stopped play for them. It had been tough out there, but sitting there, on the sofa, a lifetime dream accomplished, a few rainy days, and a lot of Dairy Milk didn't seem like that big a price to pay!
Guinness World Record for the Fastest Solo Paddleboard down the Non-Tidal Thames