It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it wasn’t, it was daytime - it just looked like night because you couldn’t see through the rain. Still, inches of standing water on the roads and the prospect of aquaplaning all the way to Essex has, I suspect, never dampened Mike’s enthusiasm for a CAP outing, so off we went. After a brief interlude where we lost an entire navigation canal due to a dodgy sat nav cable, we arrived safely.
Since I started coming along to the club’s events, I’ve noticed a few things about CAP trips: in general, they start with a teashop; end with a pub; and involve donning large amounts of neoprene in some pretty odd locations. This was no exception so, some time and a lot of hopping up and down in a car park trying to squeeze into a wetsuit later, I was ready for… well, some hot tea and the world’s largest flapjack.
And so it was from the safety of the teashop, we watched the rain hammer down the weir in front of us doing its impression of Victoria Falls, while some of the others did a shuttle run with the cars. Life was warm, dry and generally good, if you ignored the menacing weir.
The first weir is a sort of horseshoe shape into a frothy bubbling mass of water below,I got to opt out of being the newest and least foolhardy of the troop, and I watched all the others making its descent look suspiciously easy.
The next one I had a go at as it was straight and gently sloping and everyone slid down in style, paddling through the wave at its base with no problems. A wave which proved just that little bit too tempting for Keith, the bow of whose boat is drawn into weirs by some mystical force.
We watched him battle to keep upright for a while, then we watched him give up and bail out, and then, once he’d been safely popped on the bank, we watched him shinning along the weir on the end of a throw line so he could launch himself down it and wrestle his boat free. It all got a bit ‘Steve Irwin’ for a moment, but eventually both of them broke free, sorted themselves out and on we went.
The Chelmer has been described as ‘five weirs with a long slog between them’. But this misses out the beautiful scenery, the peace, the tranquility and the open spaces. It also neglects to mention all the sneaking past grumpy fishermen (and some very friendly ones); portaging boats around fallen trees and slightly-too-ferocious weirs on the muddiest or riverbanks; and all the going round or (more often through) willow trees - forwards, backwards, sideways or the wrong way up. And through it all, the lilting tones of Ivan (our coach-du-jour) could be heard as he yelled “paddle!”, ‘paddle now!!’, ‘don’t stop paddling!!!’ and the all-important “DON’T HOLD ONTO THE TREES!!!!” with actually remarkable patience as we got stuck in various branches.
So was a good time had by all? Of course it was :o). And the first two minutes was even caught on Rich’s camera, before it decided that rivers and electronics just didn’t mix.
Underground, Overground, Wandling Free
My first CAP outing was to the Arun, in flood; my second was the Chelmer, in flood. I was beginning to see a pattern forming. The Wandle, however, wasn’t flooded even though, given deluges of late, it should have been. But as we headed out the water levels were dropping and there was just the right amount to make the paddling properly fun.
Having experienced on previous trips just how quickly the water can rise in the Wandle, and how fast you can come out of a boat when it does, Mike and Gary had been out the day before checking that it was safe. It was a relaxing paddle, with lots of laughing, chatting, generally avoiding trees and bits of concrete where possible, and paddling through them or over them where not.
Keith had been finding things around the river to keep him entertained all morning and had adorned the front of his boat with a toddler’s scooter. No reason. He just wanted to. Later we found a kayak which had probably floated away from its mooring in all the wind and rain of the previous few days. So he adopted that instead.
Along its short navigable length, the Wandle has weirs, riffles and even a slalom made out of concrete blocks to keep you occupied. Wherever there was an obstacle, like a steeply sloping weir, low bridge or pipe to limbo under, Gary (our coach) could be found beside it watching over proceedings, giving instructions where needed and helping everyone through.
The ‘attraction’ that Mike really sells this trip on is the 700m pitch black tunnel under the Arndale shopping centre. Black doesn’t really do justice to exactly how dark it is in there. As I floated through with Reiko in front of me, I could just see the hi-vi strips on her buoyancy aid slowly fading into nothingness. And then I could see nothing at all, but I could definitely hear the sounds of the CAP members behind me merrily ramming into concrete posts, paddling into walls and bouncing off each other’s boats. But we all made it out at the other end - all except for Keith’s adopted kayak. Who knows where it is now, silently gliding through the Arndale Tunnels in search of freedom.
And all too soon we were at the end of the river, where it makes its way out into the Thames. There was one more obstacle, though, for those who wanted to: a final weir with a 12 foot drop. Gary wasn’t all that fussed about doing it, having been over it too many times before, but he humoured us, slid over the edge and a little later could be seen lining himself up to help anyone who came a cropper. Keith went next, disappeared over the edge and a little later appeared on the far side. One by one, the others followed, appearing on the other side forwards or backwards as the mood took them.
Having declined some of the weirs on the Chelmer, I decided this was my chance to practice. It was shallow water and the end of the trip - what could possibly go wrong? I paddled over the edge, have no recollection of the drop at all, and got stuck twice in the white water at the bottom. But I stayed in my boat and eventually made my way out, smiling apparently. Had anyone told me that both Gary and Keith had capsized at the bottom of it, I would have run away. But I’m very glad I didn’t.
So apart from all the bizarre changing locations, I have found that CAP outings are characterized by a few key things: Mike will have planned everything out very carefully (his attention to detail is legendary); the conditions and the forecast will have been checked and double checked; whatever you’re doing the coaches and the other club members will be right next to you with instructions and encouragement in equal measure; and, because rivers can be unpredictable beasts, the coaches will be well prepared for the worst (or the best, depending how you look at it).
Then of course there’s the pub at the end of the trip. This time we enjoyed our own reserved table in front of the roaring log fire, a superb Sunday roast lunch and a pint of tasty Wandle bitter.
Thanks, as always, to Mike for doing the huge amounts of checking and organising, Ivan and Gary for coaching/herding. Thank you also to Rob and Gary for hauling us and our boats up the long ladder out of the Wandle; to Keith for providing the entertainment and, finally, thanks to all the CAPers who have made my first few trips and all the pool sessions in between so much fun and for making me feel so welcome.