Lines in the Sand

by Alistair Wasey


Over the past few weeks spring has stealthily arrived here in England. It doesn't take a practiced eye to spot it's advance: from every tree and bush has sprung a too-green beard of fresh growth; while birds have taken every available spot for nest building. In the meantime I have begun the summer-long task of removing enormous bees from my window and it appears that the frogs have been having a wonderful time in the garden pond.

To the discerning connoiseur of Britain's fickle seasons, between summer's vanguard and winter's frosty rearguard, spring may be discerned in more subtle ways. Epoxy has returned to it's liquid state, and Kirstin, my rowing double partner has been appearing at the boathouse wearing progressively fewer layers. More importantly, the fair weather canoeing season has opened!

"Lord" Brian is a nutter, and one of the nicest blokes I will ever meet. Standing far below my shoulder height, with legs weakened by childhood illness making walking difficult for him, this small wiry, but engaging man, the same age as my Father has weathered the Winter by simple expedient of finding fast-flowing white water and scaring himself half to death in a canoe on it. Brian will emerge grinning and laughing from a thorough dunking that leaves men a third his age white faced. The man is a legend.

Fortunately, we were able to encourage Brian to forgo these dangerous pleasures in favour of what was intended as a more stately and altogether more relaxing day on the river - a twelve mile cruise down river over a couple of knots of current through the Duke of Westminster's estate into the historic town of Chester, which dates back to the time of the Romans. However, the local wildlife had opinions about our gentle pursuits!

All began well as we cruised quickly, but with little effort, as a strong flow from Wales pushed us down river. From open fields we ghosted past banks bedecked by the human detritus of a waterside life: summer houses in various states of disrepair with an occasional gleaming example inviting our closer attentions. We rounded a corner past the last of these dwellings to be met by a large and bad tempered swan. Swans in this country are a sacred beast and, through laws of old, belong to the Queen. They are phenomenal birds, with a wing span of six feet, and with more than adequate power to break a human arm. One is always somewhat in awe of these birds, especially when meeting them on their own territory as it were.

Most swans may be dealt with fairly easily. One paddles quickly and quietly past them, giving them as much room as is practical, and once away from their nest, you are left alone. This swan however, was a loner and had Attitude. We were treated to a spectacular display of a Swan In A Bad Mood. We realised later that it's neck was severely distorted, as if at some time it had been broken and had set badly. One is always respectful of an injured wild animal.

After a couple of miles of constant attention from this swan, we sought refuge on the bank hoping that in the time it took us to have a barbeque it would lose interest. We noticed some heifers far away at the other side of the field, but as none of us fancied another run-in with the swan, decided to risk it.. "Watch out, they'll come and play with us soon" joked Richard. How right he was. With the canoes arranged around us and the sausages cooking nicely we soon became the centre of attention for a ring of Heifers, and one bull. This presented a problem as a few tens of tons of interested Beef could do rather a lot of damage to a ton of humans and their gear. The cows shortly became insufferable and in the best traditions of our Maritime isle we beat a hasty retreat to the water. Better the Swan you know, than the Bull you don't know!

Drifting down the river, attended on the bank by our friends the Heifers, and escorted at a distance by our friend the swan, we consumed what could be salvagedof the sausages, munched a cookie or two, and set our faces for a long and somewhat hungry paddle to the one secure barbeque site we could be sure of. The swan soon left us alone, and although we passed two other breeding pairs, there was an implicit truce declared.

The Barbeque was superb, and as we huddled around it against a keen April wind we were glad of our many layers of clothing and resolved to purchase a windbreak at the earliest opportunity. It certainly went to show that the unexpected can always be guaranteed to happen and we were fortunate indeed to have a member of the trip who had some experience in dealing with animals, without him, we might have been in a far worse situation. An advance party of three of completed the journey in fine style paddling the final three miles as fast as we could, to arrange cars and trailers to receive the stragglers. I had the bow seat and it was sheer pleasure to hear the bow wave creaming just beyond my ankles, and some of the finest English countryside passing on either side.

Now, after last month's railing against powerboats, when the opportunity to get a qualification in Powerboat driving dropped in my lap, I jumped at it. For a nod and a wink less than one hundred of my English Pounds Sterling I was able to have two days instruction at Salford Quays in Manchester. Salford Quays is a place I feel very reflective of our very English eccentricity. Manchester is something like 30 miles in land from the coast yet for many years one of England's greatest ports. Interestingly, the port and the canal connecting it with the coast is still in regular, if sparse use. From my desk at work I am used to seeing an unending procession of cargo ships bringing grain to a local mill.

The legacy of this is an intriguing waterscape in an inner-city setting. There are a number of basins of varying sizes connected by small canals. Until relatively recently, these areas were run down, the water polluted and dead, but a rescue attempt for the area has been tremendously successful and makes this an interesting and pleasant place to visit. Of course, it was tricky to take too much of this in while driving at 30mph along a tiny lake no more than 500 metres long, coping with the wake thrown up by other launches in the combined space, but I appreciated it later.

The course was devised by the Royal Yachting Association and provides an internationally recognised standard of competence. It was primarily a practical course, although theoretical aspects covered basic boat maintenance, essential gear, clothing and safety items, basic navigation, weather interpretation among other areas. The practical aspects of the course dealt with manouvers such as coming alongside, approaching a buoy, high speed manouvering, and most importantly, man overboard drill. The course was worth doing for this one exercise which is infinitely transferrable to any form of water based transport.

What I liked about this course was that it wasn't overly technical - it was rather like learning to drive a car: a skill that may reasonably be gained by almost anyone, but it did tell you the fundamentals - how to be safe, how to handle your vehicle, and what to do when things go wrong. No matter what your level of competence I would advise anyone to do one of these courses - it went over many things I was aware of, but there were some things I wouldn't have thought of without it. Man overboard for example - the importance of pushing that prop hard over away from the person in the water just wouldn't have occured to me. The ability to practice skills in a controlled environment was also very important to me.

All in all, money very well spent, and an internationally recognised qualification gained. Of course, it also means that I can drive the rowing club launches which radically increases my opportunities to yell at people!

While on the subject of rowing, after last month's article, David Romasco of Kent Island Boat Works emailed me, tongue-in-cheek: "I think you've not got the right perspective on this; seems to me, after reading your account of chilling accident after accident with rowing shells that we (the rest of the boating public) should in fact be impelled to upgrade our horsepower and speed so as to avoid these hurtling needles of doom."

I posed a question about a "highway code" for the waterways. I've found them in the form of International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea often referred to as the Colregs (as I am informed). I wonder whether it would be possible to write an abridged version for inland waterways in a more accessible form - preferably one that even we oarsmen can read and understand!

Next month - the trials and tribulations of organising a regatta for 11 to 18 year olds! May 12th, wish me luck!

Take Care

Alistair Wasey