‘There’s nothing half so much worth doing as messing about in boats’, so said Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows – set nearby on the Thames.
For novices at Reading Canoe Club it can seem a little far away this ‘messing about’, as you are encouraged to join time trials and circuit training, core focus and rowing machine sessions to carefully calibrated rock music.
The offer of a ‘Gentle Social Paddle’ with a pub lunch sounds just the ticket to adjust the balance.
As usual for RCC the proceedings started at the crack of dawn. We were ordered to be at the club by 9 for drill with our paddle and life saver.
A friendly and expectant crowd milled around at the corner of The Warren where the club is located. Boats were loaded, lifts were arranged, satnavs coordinated. Suddenly the trailer rushed off – to deliver the boats to the start point and then to be parked by the finish at Abingdon. Several minutes later a very handsome canoe was brought to the road for loading. O dear! Too late! Back to the shed! I didn’t realise at the time this was ‘my’ boat.
North of Oxford the Thames is split into several streams and one of these near Wolvercote is our start point. One of the first to arrive spotted kingfishers flitting around the water by the bridge.
It was here I learned that, because a boat had been left behind, three of us would be allocated to a boat with two seats.
One of my co-canoers was desperate to get going – maybe to claim one of the two seats, so I felt obliged to join him. We floated around on the water, quite comfortably while others threatened us from the bank.
When Nigel was ready we floated off, pushing hard on the paddles. These Canadian canoes are steered by the person sitting at the rear. Me, I sat in front and just kept at it. I never saw what my steersman (or rather, steerswoman) did, but I could detect a little critical banter between our midshipman, perched on a pile of life vests in the middle of the boat, and the boss in the back. Eventually we got rid of the dissenter when he climbed over to another boat with three seats.
There’s a pleasant rhythm to this – paddle for 10 minutes, drift downstream and rest for 5 enjoying the springtime ambience, paddle for another 10 minutes, rest on the current, and so on. I can imagine Water Rat and Mole had such fun.
“I want you now to focus and push hard we’re getting behind”. “No! Don’t stop! The others will soon overtake us again”. “Push hard!”. “Push!”.
Paddlers do it on opposite sides of the boat. To relieve pain and avoid ‘paddle shoulder’ you need to regularly swap sides. Unfortunately on our boat the steering only worked on the right side so no swapping.
Portage or Pottage?
This tributary touched the west side of Oxford and for a only a short while we travelled through the town. Our first lock was conveniently open to us and all the boats descended while afloat.
By the time we reached our second lock some of us were thinking about lunch – pottage in the pub with a pint would have been perfect. Nigel had another idea called portage. This involves dragging a wide and heavy boat up onto the bank with ropes and then walking several hundred metres past the lock and launching again in the water. The only good thing about portage is it uses different muscles from paddling.
The pub eventually appeared at another lock. About two thirds along our trip this was well placed and a long table and food that was pre-ordered meant a good and convenient service.
Pottage was available, or a range of roast meats as a traditional Sunday lunch. Immediately following we had a little more portage to get around the lock.
It was good to know the largest part of the trip was behind us. Some of the paddlers, encouraged by their lunchtime sustenance, headed down the river standing in their boats. Me, after a rest, I was ready to try some different muscles but, unwilling to take responsibility for steering I was at the front again and again on the left hand side.
I learned a little about trim. How my heavy weight at the front was not ideal with my light weight coach at the back – making it harder to move through the water.
As we approached Abingdon we came level with Culham Park Motocross Track with a race just about to start. We were in a spectacular position to watch from the river as the bikes roared up and down the escarpment above the bank.
“Don’t stop! We need to get on while the others are watching so we don’t get behind!” For a while we were in front, followed in short order by a couple of boats with those who were not motocross fans.
“Push hard now, we’re nearly there!” Round one bend, then another, then another, then another. Eventually Abingdon bridge appeared. One boat stopped by the car park with the waiting trailer. Club members have been trained to follow Nigel so everyone else ignored this good example and continued to the other side of the bridge following the leader.
We disembarked on downstream side of the bridge and then carried boats back along the river, under the bridge to the car park.
We have to express our thanks to Nigel without whose planning and leadership we’d still be milling around somewhere near Oxford. And to Seamus who followed up the rear to make sure the slower ones did not get left behind. And to Mims the coach who shouted at me regularly from the back of my boat, working tireless to keep me in line. And all the drivers, and haulers, and paddlers who took part. And of course Old Father Thames!
Article by Paul Myerscough