Barney’s Story

I don’t yet know exactly where I placed in the 12’6″ Head of the Dart race fleet. What I do know it that I chased a N1SCO the full 3.5 miles back from Duncannon, closing to within 100metres but never catching him. So, I pretty much flogged myself over the back half of the course for the benefit of zero places gained.

Note to self: must work on tactical decision making. And maybe a new board?

In the event,I was pretty much 100% flat out from start to finish. The heart rate chart tells a special story.


How did that ever seem like a good idea?

I started SUP in 2011 on a mate’s spare board on Chichester harbour. Then I moved to a house 100m from the River Avon in Bath acquired a couple of 12’6” Fanatic carbon race boards and got properly hooked. Dawn patrol in May, dusk in September, the heat of July – for me it’s about training outdoors, on the water, in an empty space and watching how the River changes through the year.  I’ve been a committed March to September paddler, trail running in the winter, with some exceptions for clear winter days, which can be nippy between November and February.  All this was to change… and not without its challenges

In December a member of the Bath SUP Facebook group flagged up the Head of The Dart.  We’d been to Dartmouth before (painfully without SUP) and I knew how stunning the river was, so I guess I was looking for an excuse. Mrs. Jones had the appetite to visit again… I was looking for an alternative to the Bath Half… I think I can paddle … but how will I stack up … it’s an endurance event…  WTF… I’m IN.

The challenge: cold feet and winter training.

The Rule: if your feet are cold you’re not moving them enough.

I subscribe to this… up to a point…

On many a frost-bitten paddle from October onwards I had dreamt of having warm feet maybe a pair of amphibious UGGs. I prefer bare sole to the board, not least so I’m not standing in the wet bucket of a neoprene sock. Really, I just wanted something to keep the tops of my feet warm. Checked on the google… nothing seemed to fit the bill.

So, I figured how to make a sewing pattern, sourced microfleece and a shell fabric and made myself some softshell barefoot SUP boots.

They are awesome. Sooo toasty.  I used them down to effective temperature of minus 9. Sure, my feet were cold, but they didn’t actually hurt. Between minus 2 and 10 degrees, they were beautiful, even after immersion during portage at the weirs.  I was very pleased with my little invention.


The challenge: winter training (and injury)

A foot injury put paid to the foul-weather Ergo sessions in the local gym, forcing me onto the water in all conditions for endurance and interval training. But when the weather was properly rubbish gym was inevitable. Research into paddle strength and stability turned up that paddle muscle is the same as beach muscle – who knew?

A bit of googling turned up some great routines. Once the guys in the YMCA had got over the shock of me using Bosu and Swiss balls, I was merrily working a series of push/pull super-sets.  I built up, what I think were the right bits of my upper body and combined that with core stability work. I am now Ibiza ready. (Note: It’s all relative)

The challenge: non-SUP life commitments

Knowing that the Dart is a little choppier than my local paddle, I tried to not shy away from testing conditions. Out went my wind, temperature and flow thresholds and I found myself breaking ice on more than one occasion. In late March, with the Avon in flood after the March snow, I rocketed the 1mile downstream leg in 8 minutes flat and then spent the next hour digging my way upstream in time for the school pickup. Arriving in a state of extreme exertion in flip-flops and neoprene, much to my daughter’s consternation.

The challenge: paddling in a straight line.

Ha! There seems to be a whole industry dedicated to this. Still haven’t cracked it…. Maybe this summer… maybe a new board?

The challenge: the recce vs the taper and the joy of new water


As luck would have it, we were due in Dartmouth for the week after Easter. Purely coincidentally, the same week my new 14’ Airline came off the boat. (!!!)

The rule: Do not go ‘epic’ on new equipment on new water just to see the view…

… on the other hand: 10miles to Duncannon and back on new, empty water on a late Saturday afternoon with a magnificent sunset was about as good as SUP gets for me.

But it was bloody hard work. Into a brisk Northerly on the way out and against flow on the return.  The board swam beautifully, even catching some of the chop on the Longstream down from Duncannon.  For extra excitement, I lost my fin upwind of the Higher Dartmouth Ferry just after sunset. After experiencing some confusion, I safely coracled my way to the Dart Marina pontoons. A pint and chaser were swiftly administered. (note: I’m not sold on use of the FCS connect with an external finbox).

The GPS track illustrates this incident quite nicely:


The cost of this over exuberance? Very sore. Bilateral shoulder/chest/lat muscle lockup due to the white noise of lots of aggrieved nerves confusing my brain. Very sore everywhere and pretty much written off for the whole week leading to the event. My balance was shot and only my arms worked and only then below the shoulder. That was not a proper taper!

Solution: sports massage, hot bath, ice, ibuprofen.  Then my local witch doctor came back from holiday and located the four pressure points that reminded my brain where my shoulders were and which way they were facing.  The cost of this exercise was starting to add up, but at least I could dress myself again without help. 2 days to go…

Challenge: getting the board to the event

Rule: rehearse your logistics

If you are using a roof-rack it’s worth putting it on the car the night before. Especially if it needs a special tool, which you might not have seen for a while.  And especially if you are expected for lunch in Taunton on the way South. That’s enough said on this incident.

Challenge: last minute kit faff (oh dear – should be old enough to know better).

I am used to taking a Buffalo smock on longer solo trips, rolled between my feet. I never fall in, so I’ve never needed to go back to fetch it.  Nervous about losing it and being cold on arrival, I rigged a bungee onto the deck and took the smock with. I didn’t have the chance to test the arrangement and the resulting lump on the front of the board meant that I had to lift the paddle higher than usual on every side change. Quite annoying. Note: virtually nobody had anything on the deck

Moreover, my loved ones fretting about me getting cold gave me the fear.  I doubled up on base layers. I NEVER did this in training even below zero. NEVER.  With that and the apparently optional PFD I was very very very warm.  Idiot.

Note: start cold and race in what you’ve trained in (wait, what? you wanted insight?)

Which brings us to…

Challenge: the start

Once we were all in the water and had a feel for things in the creek at Totnes. I realised that I was bobbing around with the wrong fleet.  Bugger. I quickly scampered through the 14’s and into the back of the 12.5’s just in time for the start and …

… the chop.

Not surprisingly, forty boards all kicking off at the same time in a river which is knee-deep creates some turbulence. I was still surprised.

Properly got the wobbles and nearly ate it straight out of the gate. Those that did fall just kept apologising to the stream of paddlers behind them in a wonderfully British way. I know would have been the same.

Challenge: pace

In short, I overcooked it all the way…

Once the turbulence had cleared the bulk of the 12.5 fleet seemed a long way ahead of me. Shortly afterwards the 14’s and the dragons came barreling through. Some of them let you know which side they were coming. Actually, they don’t.

Note: improved looking over both shoulders or… maybe a new board? 14’?

Once the 14’s were through I was just chasing. Almost all thought of stroke technique, breathing, form went out of the window. The unique beauty of the location passed me by. I was focused on the racing line, the channel marks, the ferry, other paddlers but mostly just relying on muscle memory to haul myself through the water as fast as I could over the first 3.5 miles.

At the mark I took a wide berth. Some paddlers had been blown against it and were flailing.  It was quite funny, but I did not want to add that image to my collection of sporting fails. Once clear of the carnage at the mark I got sight of an Orange bib on a N1SCO, and dug in again for the chase home. Sticking to the right-hand side in the deeper channel gave me the benefit of the rising tide and I closed the gap. All the while, imagining an Orange horde bearing down behind.

Well, I was delighted to stop paddling.  Bellowed in an alarming manner for about a minute after I put the board down by the rowing club. No shoulder pain, slightly numb left foot, and I didn’t fall in. But, holy smokes, what an effort!

I didn’t catch the guy in front. And am pretty sure no-one passed me.  Even the guys on the Dragon with rock music blasting from a boombox. In fact, having checked the pictures and the times, I’m pretty sure there was no one in my fleet behind me… Hmmm … what could that mean?


*in Car on way home from race “No darling, I never want to do that again”

*thinking ‘Did I really come last after all that? Can’t wait to see the fleet stats.’

*very big dinner and porridge before an early bed…

*upon opening eyes next sunny spring morning: ‘Great day for a paddle… Need to be faster’

… hmmmm … ‘For what purpose?’

*google… ….google ….

BINGO! ‘The Exe Hammer Sept 18 2018’

See you there. And back in Dartmouth in 2019.