Preparations for the Jubilee Paddle

Our intrepid free-range Executive Director James Raffan has been busy in London, assembling his crew of voyageurs and making final preparations for the big day on Sunday, June 3rd. The Canadian High Commission in London has mounted a splendid banner in honour of the occasion.

Here's the next chapter of the Jubilee adventure in James' own words.

To get to the Watermen's and Lightermen's Guild Hall to attend one of several briefings for coxswains and skippers of craft in what they're calling the "Man-Powered Squadron," the original plan was to take the tube or the bus.  But, at the last minute, the Canadian Tourism Commission phoned and asked if the museum would be interested in working with a contracted film crew to do a video clip about Canada One and the wonders of canoeing in Canada.  I assured them that someone could be found.  And, instead of heading downtown on public transit, the film crew turned up and we all went to the banks of the Thames at Tower Bridge in a private London cab.

The only problem was that the Thames and its banks (we were actually shooting right outside the new city hall so that didn't help) were crawling with police and security personnel.

And, as it turns out, commercial film crews need to pay for a permit to film in London town.  The producer told me about this on the way down, so I was a little prepared when he and the cameraman were arrested in the middle of the shoot … not really … but they were accosted by a security officer who requested to see their permit, offered to help them get one at city hall, and then asked them to "move along."

So there we will be in Canada One on Sunday with 999 other vessels, paddling under the Tower Bridge and 14 others through central London.  The whole  flotilla route is about ten nautical miles, with the Man-Powered Squadron at the front.  When we get to this point on Sunday, we'll have couple of miles yet to go, through the avenue of sail (where larger sailing vessels which can't pass under the bridges will be moored on either side of the river) and on to the Isle of Dogs where we'll take out.

On to the briefing at the venerable guildhall of The Company of Watermen and Lightermen, the men who loaded, unloaded and tended … and still tend … commercial ships on the Thames, 16 St. Mary At Hill (the building in the middle with the lighter façade) just behind the Tower of London off Lower Thames Street.

You could almost smell the sweat and the fish in the neighborhood and, inside the building, you could easily imagine candles instead of electric light bulbs in the chandeliers in our meeting room.

Only in a Thames guildhall (which is now a relatively fancy conference and meeting venue) would you find a chap in a nicely tailored suit, duct-taping the projector cord to the brocade carpet.  This was the concierge, or the maître d', who made all the skippers (as we they dribbled in from their jobs around London) feel welcome and invited us all for "tea" in the adjoining room before getting underway.

Tea, of course, was served in china cups with the crest of the Watermen's Guild on the saucers.  And beneath the filagreed ceiling on immaculately maintained 150 year old walls were oil painting of past heads of the guild and a crest of the organization over a marble fireplace.

Instead of Excalibur held aloft, as you might find in Arthurian heraldry, this shop has an oar held aloft and the central image of a Thames skiff flanked by Admiralty dolphins  over the watermen's motto, "jussu superiorum," which, if my Grade 10 Latin serves, means something like, "at the commandment of our superiors" or "always do what the boss says."

The briefing itself began with a word from Lord Robert Salisbury, Chair of the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant Foundation, who said that with 4500 applicants for places in the flotilla and only 1000 positions, the first thing he needed to do was commend the PLA (Port of London Authority) on their diplomacy in "saying no to 3500 skippers."  But then he commended everyone in the room for "showing extreme enthusiasm for an activity that many people thought was completely bonkers."

There were nods all around the room, however, when Lord Salisbury mentioned the reason for the flotilla.  Sixty years on the throne for Queen Elizabeth II.  "She has been a beacon of stability," he said.Salisbury went on to say that his friend, the head of the BBC is reckoning that the Thames Diamond Jubilee Flotilla may generate the "largest television audience ever," attracting 3-3.5 billion viewers worldwide.  Yikes!

The main briefing was led by the Commander of the Manned Squadron, retired police officer, Malcolm Knight of Thames Alive (the company organizing this component of the pageant).  He walked us through the detailed planning that began … in November 2010!  Getting 1000 vessels going the same way at the same time on a tidal river is going to be a challenge.  "The schematic of our positions on the river is really a wish," he said, as he explained that the distance between vessels would be "feet not metres."

For the Manpowered Squadron, there will be 55 motorized safety boats in a great "U" around the clot of rowed and paddled craft and, we were told, if someone falls out of our vessels … "don't stop and pick them up … let them slide back and they'll be retrieved by the trained safety personnel."  And on we went to protocols for bridge jumpers and a list of other very scary possible threats to a happy day on Sunday.  I left feeling comforted by both the quality and extent of the planning.  But even after a very thorough 90 minute briefing, Malcolm was till inundated by questions from coxswains and skippers with questions.

Me, I had my one question answered (about whether the Canada One crew would be able to get on the water the day before the pageant for a practice) and headed on to the nearby Church of St. James Garlickhythe where Hudson's Bay Company personnel have asked for safe passage since 1683.

Maybe the film crew and I should have come here before we did the filming at Tower Bridge.

Onward!