Life. Life is wonderful. To date, life has exceeded all of my expectations.
That isn’t to say that life has been working out exactly as I had planned it to. On a big scale, and on a small scale, life has provided me with lots of twists and turns. Surely this happens to everyone. If I haven’t always ended up at the anticipated destinations, I have generally wound up where I needed to be.
Krista and I have been paddling the River Thames for almost two weeks. We would have been naive if we thought that our paddling adventure was going to go without a single hitch. In the end, those hitches don’t matter at all because we have adapted to each circumstance, and have been enjoying a marvelous time.
Yesterday morning, Friday, we set off by train from our hotel near the Kings Cross / St. Pancras station to meet Harry and recover our kayaks at the AHOY Centre. The plan had been to paddle a section of the tidal Thames with Harry from the Greenwich region to the community of Gravesend. The distance ahead was about thirty kilometres. Under Harry’s guidance, we anticipated a noon departure to take advantage of the outgoing tide to speed us along. We would pass by, through and under three great landmarks. The first is the imaginary line in Greenwich that divides the western hemisphere from the eastern. The second is a great engineering project; the Thames Barrier protects London from flooding. The third is the Queen Elizabeth II bridge, by far the longest over the River Thames. Each of these is described in blogs I have posted over the past year.
As we packed the kayaks, it was apparent that weather conditions were not perfect. The wind, cool and brisk, was blowing from the east. It would be in our face for most of our route. The skies were threatening rain. One of the team members at the AHOY Centre claimed that he had had a good look the seas we would be paddling while walking his dog that morning. He wasn’t impressed. But Harry was confident that the water was not beyond our abilities. The wind would make the trip more challenging, but he was sure that we were up to the challenge. After loading all of the gear securely in the holds of the kayaks, Harry helped Krista and I push into the Thames.
It was at this point that we almost lost Alfred. While gentle paddling to keep us in place, I saw something cute and fuzzy floating by the kayak on the port side. Floating, and sinking. Although our toy kingfisher, Alfred, had been secured to the deck with bungee cords, Krista must have just knocked him into the water with her paddle. We retrieved him before he sank. It was impressive how much water he had taken on in the short time he was in the river, and how heavy he had become.
With Harry in his solo kayak, and Krista and I in our tandem kayak, with wet Alfred on the deck, we got underway. Harry helped to guide us into circumstances where we could best take advantage of the falling tide while avoiding as much of the head winds as we could. Even so there were times when it seemed that Krista and I were paddling as well as we could without making much headway.
We continued to pass the great city of London. Soon we had left behind the iconic architectural and historical landmarks, and entered the regions of warehouses and docks covered with monstrous shipping containers. Krista and I reflected on the changes we had seen in our river. The wind, the tide and the wakes of passing ships combined to make for a bumpy paddle. Krista said that it was like paddling over something alive. We occasionally passed workers at construction projects and children on school outings, and they all shouted their encouragement to us. Our pace gave them plenty of opportunity to shout; we certainly weren’t racing by.
After a couple of hours, my body started shouting at me. It asked me what in the world I thought I was doing. Krista estimated the waves as approaching a metre in height. I was paddling from the bow of the boat, and each time we crashed down from a passing wave, I could feel my spine compress. Unlike the gentle non-tidal portions of the River Thames, this tidal section required us to paddle without taking breaks. Each missed stroke was a missed opportunity to make progress.
At the Thames Barrier Harry radioed for permission to pass, and we were assigned a section to paddle through. Harry snapped photographs, and I did my best to smile, although I was feeling old and tired.
After about three hours of paddling, we were met by a pair of common porpoises, also known as harbour porpoises. The pair were probably a female, about two metres in length, and her youngster, about half that length. It was a rare sighting, even for people sitting so close to the water. This species of mammal doesn’t ever show too much of itself above waterline. We were heading downstream, and they were heading upstream. We cheered, waved, and resumed our paddling.
We could see the QEII bridge ahead of us. Harry estimated that it would take us an hour to get to the bridge, and another hour to get to Gravesend, our destination for the night. Krista and I conferred, and agreed that it was too much for us. Instead we pulled into the yacht club at the community of Erith. The only person on site was painting the hull of a boat. He told us that there should be no problem in storing our boats at the club overnight. Harry could retrieve them in his car the following morning. The three of us walked to the train station, so that Krista and I could get to out hotel in Gravesend, and Harry could collect his car in London. At some point in the future, I hope that the mayor of Erith will invite me to visit the community, so that he or she can point out all of the loveliest bits. Between the yacht club and the train station, we didn’t see any.
The schedule for Saturday was for Krista and I to paddle from Gravesend to Sheerness, a distance of about thirty-four kilometres. Sunday’s schedule was for the section of the Thames between Sheerness and Whitstable, either twenty-two or thirty-two kilometres, depending on the route we would have to take as determined by the weather. The weather forecast wasn’t good. Krista and I decided to give ourselves a break, and resume our paddling adventure once we got to Whitstable. We would spend the night in Gravesend, catch a series of trains and busses to Sheerness on Saturday, and do the same again on Sunday to get to Whitstable.
But then something magical happened. When we got to the hotel in Gravesend, the proprietors were so welcoming, and the room was so nice, that we cancelled our reservation for Sheerness, and booked into the room in Gravesend for a second night. The Clarendon Royal Hotel on Royal Pier Road in Gravesend is a marvel. Reasonably priced, full of character and history, but without being fussy, it has served the needs of Krista and I to perfection. Take a break at the Clarendon Royal. If you are lucky, you will get a room with a view of the Thames.
Here is the update… Krista and I have paddled the River Thames from its source near the village of Kemble as far as the community of Erith. We have passed under more than one hundred bridges, and don’t feel badly that we missed the QEII. We are in Gravesend. Tomorrow we will take land transportation to Whitstable. As soon as the weather turns in our favour, and after a short break to let our muscles and joints recover from our efforts to date, we will resume paddling with the Roman fort at Richborough as out intended destination. We are safe, warm, dry, and happy.
And Alfred is drying out nicely.