What an experience!!! Almost as soon as we were off the water, our phones and traveling computers literally lit up with well wishes after the broadcast, many people admitting they got a bit teary to see a canoe from Canada—crewed by The Canadian Canoe Museum—on the Thames. Looking at a most excellent series of photos taken by my cousin Jennifer Pelly's husband, Marco Venelaar (who live here in London), it's a wonder we didn't bump or crash into more boats than we did. Here's Marco's shot shows the kind of river traffic we were in while I was chatting with Peter Mansbridge on the phone (we're one of the two red blobs between the Blackfriar's bridges just left of the center of the photo).
It was pretty busy on the river at times!
So … as promised, the story of what happened after Tower Bridge.
I'd warned the hardy paddlers of the Canada One/Un crew that our recovery point was way down in Greenwich at the bottom of the Isle of Dogs … several miles beyond Tower Bridge. Which would have been all fine, except that a bunch of things started to happen at Tower Bridge that made this last leg a seriously gruntish bit of paddling.
The rain, which had been falling steadily but lightly, started to fall with enthusiasm, even by British standards. The heavens opened and the wind, which had been steadily in our faces, increased to about 15 knots, gusting higher. And the safety boats, which had been for the most part putting along at 4 knots with the rest of us, started to hit the power and start herding us like motorized border collies on a herd of tired cats. Which would have been fine as well, except that most of these safety boats were deep-hulled ocean runabouts that make a huge wake until they get up on the step and start planing. So in addition to the wet and the wind, we were starting to experience waves from every direction (which were echoed and returned from the hard brick, stone, and piling vertical sides of the river bank. That chop made Canada One/Un wiggle her posterior and spin from crest to trough like Mike Duffy on a disco dance floor. It was c-r-a-z-y.
There were several recovery points on both sides of the river downstream from Tower Bridge. Marshalls instructed all vessels to head to the right side of the river, to get us moving toward our take-out locations but also to clear a path in the middle of the river for the rest of the flotilla—those aforementioned 600+ power boats that were going to run us over if we weren't quick about getting out of the way.
As a goodly number of the larger pulling boats started converging at slip ahead on the left, I asked a marshall who was running more or less beside us if that was Popular Blackwell Rowing Club, our take out location. "I think it might be," he said. But then, as we eased up, the landing master on the shore cracked out on a loud hailer from the shore, "Make way for Canada One/Un through the crowd. They've got a long way to go yet."
Well. That little bit of news was not the best thing for morale aboard the good ship Canada One/Un. By now it was about five p.m. and we'd been on the water for nearly six hours. And, in spite of putting into service the snappy and stylish dollar store ponchos we'd stowed in the pockets of the pfds for emergency extra rain protection, we were all happy but seriously wet, tired and cold and, as it turned out, we had another good half hour of hard going to before getting to our destination.
The take-out was a gong show. Many of the paddlers were so cold that they were effectively unable to contribute to the process of taking the boats out of the water. And this was where all the big boats were. The wakka, a dozen dragon boats, a German church boat, and other miscellaneous human-powered craft including Canada One all had trucks and trailers trying to get down what was essentially a one-lane slippery concrete slip. Many paddlers were more or less incapacitated by the cold. Our Maori brothers had held discipline until Tower Bridge but covered their bare chests with T-shirts and warm-up jackets with their traditional rain capes on top but, as dignified as they were, always, they were cold. And, the instant their 1000 kg canoe was lifted onto the truck that would take it back to the Netherlands, where it lives, the lads were finally free to seek their own remedies for … and headed straight to the bar. Others were a bit farther gone than that and were treated for hypothermia by the paramedics on the scene. Word was that several dozen people in total were treated for hypothermia at the recovery points. Happily, only few were transported to hospital.
The Canada One/Un crew fared better than most but it was still this last leg was a trial for everyone, especially the youngster on our crew, our "20" year old. CCM board member and long time supporter, Donald Ross, was born on February 29th, 1932—a leap year—so this year "my last as a teenager" he celebrated his twentieth birthday. Paddling amidships, had managed to get soaked through and through on the top, so we pulled out some of our extra clothes and did a quick switch right on the wharf. The rest of us agreed that if we could be as fit, able and game as Donald is when we're his age that this would be a good thing, a very good thing.
After Canada One/Un was safely secured back on the trailer (Gary the truck driver didn't have any trouble with his access paperwork this time to get into the secure zone of the take out at this location) and all our soaked gear stowed back in barrels for shipment back to Brize Norton (whooo-weee, those barrels are going to be some ripe by the time they get back to Canada in a fortnight), with the help of Dominique Lizé-Beaulieu and Christie Tucker, two of our honorary team members from the High Commission, we tried to get taxis to take us home. But that was a totally lost cause.
Gone as well was cell service. Christie Tucker and I tried three different cell phones to connect with CTV News Network to fulfill a post-pageant interview request. We'd connect with the control room and all would be well, but then it would be as if everyone on the line was speaking Klingon. Voices were electronically altered (by overloaded cell networks?) that we reluctantly but finally gave up. Sorry CTV.
So, in the end, we figured out that standing around in the rain, tired and hungry, was not going to make anyone feel any better. Geordie, Melissa and Pilar bailed to the relative dryness and warmth of a nearby train and rest of us were not far behind.
Back at the Frontline Club in Paddington, we ran a big hot bath to rehabilitate Donald's core temperature back up into normal ranges but nothing would do, during this lifesaving procedure, that he had to crack our bottle of Moët and Chandon Diamond Jubilee Champagne kindly provided by Geordie (a second bottle and a set of plastic flutes disappeared into the train with the other half of the crew with giggles amongst shivers and chattering teeth) and toast our tour de force. Donald disappeared into the bath with a plastic flute of ice cold champagne in his hand.
When they were changed and dry, Jeremy and Laurel headed out into the gastronomic marvels of Praed Street for something hot to eat and turned up with an massive paper sack of scrumptious Indian takeout. Food—hot food—never tasted so good.
And as we were toasting the Queen yet again, there was a knock on the door and there, in her sensible shoes and matching crown, she was, popping round to thank us for a stylish and stalwart performance in the pageant. We asked her if she'd join us for dinner but she took one look at the mess we'd made with the nano-thin foil take out containers (one of which imploded during serving) and politely declined.
With his core temperature back into normal ranges, in a new suit of clean dry clothes, and very much renewed and restored by a continuing grape therapy and a hot meal, Donald was ready to party. He suggested that we all head out to Edgware Road to check out the local disco action.
Happy, full, warm and exhausted, he'd outdone us all in a long and wet but sovereignly satisfying day.