Thanks to Sean Conway and winning his 2016 Adventure Scholarship, on the 8th of August my daughter Athina and I set out on an amazing adventure to canoe almost 130 miles across the Leeds Liverpool canal. The plan was to complete the journey in BoatyMcBoatface; our inflatable kayak, in 6 days. We would carry our own gear and camp along the way rediscovering the historic journeys made by canal-boat people 200 years ago. Not only was this fantastic adventure designed to encourage others to live more adventurously and try out canoeing but also to raise money for the Jane Tomlinson Appeal.
Dr Peter Maw, from the School of History at the University of Leeds, has written extensively on canal history. He said of our journey: “Pirates of the Canal provided a unique opportunity to revisit some of the past glories of the Leeds and Liverpool canal, in a way emphasising the hard work and endeavour that characterised the British canal system in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century heyday. Indeed, the aim to complete the journey from Liverpool to Leeds in six days was roughly the same timeframe that horse-pulled barges would have hoped to complete the same journey two hundred years ago!”
It is no surprise, I’m sure, to hear that we had an amazing time! It took us a week to complete the Pirates of the canal adventure. The delay mainly being down to the torrential rain and strong winds; which of course wasn’t backwind! Embarking from the Slavery Museum, at the Albert Docks, our voyage planned to encompass all that we love in life: sports, history, nature and adventure. We set off from Liverpool with winds of up to 30mph forecast and we knew then it could be a tricky day. Sadly the forecast was correct and we found we were only able to complete 12 of the predicted 25 miles - the wind just kept blowing us back to Liverpool!
Undaunted, we started our second day knowing for certain that a storm was brewing. The temperature dropped and the sky darkened but we had some ground to make up. Canoeing in heavy rain was not impossible, but certainly made it a super-human challenge and it rained for another five days. We often wondered if there was more water in our boat or in the canal! But even then soaked and wet to the bone, we still smiled and still loved the journey. We enjoyed the experience of self-reliance whilst being challenged by the natural elements. When the storm eventually subsided, paddling the remaining miles was hard work as we were already exhausted.
Athina was over the moon with all the animals she got to see and meet; dogs, swans, frogs and even cows. So many blissful moments where we felt completely at ease with the environment. A peaceful break, with unlimited time to watch and touch and listen to the sounds of nature. Too little to paddle the route, Athina was still an essential part in this journey’s success. On looking back, I doubt very much whether I would have been able to cope with this challenge if it hadn’t been for my little lobster. She helped me take the boat in and out of the water, pull it on wheel when negotiating the locks, tunnels and low bridges (almost 100 of them in all!) and she lifted my spirits when days got tough. She was the little voice reassuring me we can do this every time my hands ached or when I said I felt cold and tired. She didn't complain once and really has the spirit of a true adventurer.
Despite being behind schedule, there was time. Time to examine and touch the frog that ended up riding in our boat. Time to contemplate the cow enjoying a little foot-wash. Time to chat to the curious walkers and time to pick apples and berries from the side of the canal. Time to be quiet while Athina had a little snooze and time together to enjoy a hard-earned slice of cake in a cosy café. Time to laugh at the dogs splashing in the canal, trying to ‘rescue’ us and almost capsizing Boaty McBoatface! On occasions time seemed to stretch out forever and yet now that time seems to have gone in a flash.
The constant rain may not have taken its toll on our morale but it did on our gear! After days of being wet the glue which held my shoes together eventually gave up the ghost, providing Athina with belly laughs of amusement. Athina spent most days wrapped in a silver survival blanket to keep her warm and our mascot, Bobby Bear, had to be hung on a fence to try to dry out!
Along the way we met so many wonderful and interesting people. Mike, from BBC Merseyside Radio popped along to meet us on our first day. We were able to have a chat with him, whilst still on the water. The people living on the canal were one of a kind. We will always remember their great humor and the kindness they showed us. On the third day we were spotted by Ken, who exclaimed to his wife; “Mary, look what I've found on the canal, two drowning rats!” They took us aboard, offered us a hot drink, dried Athina’s hands and gave us a tour of their narrow boat. Their generosity moved us- for while they barely knew us, they shared what they had with a couple of strangers that day.
I try to give my daughter experiences so she can develop her own awareness in her incredible abilities. We found it extremely touching when a family with disabilities following our updates on 'Made In Leeds TV' had been waiting at the locks near Kirkstall. The father had talking disabilities and I struggled to understand what he was saying but fortunately Athina did and she would explain for me. They were keen to help so we gave the young boys a chance to carry the boat out the water and around the locks. They wore the vests, held Bobby Bear and had an endless list of questions for us!
This adventure was a lesson in its own right; A chance to see the world from a whole new perspective, an opportunity to reflect on what is truly important and of real value. To ask ourselves how in the world places of such astonishing beauty and valuable history, had been forgotten? The Leeds and Liverpool Canal is UKs longest canal and part of a project currently being developed, to become the country's first ever coast to coast canoe trail. The views of nature and historic buildings were totally different to any you get from the land. One of my favorite moments of the trip was coming across Stephen Turner and his famous Exbury Egg. I recognised the egg - an energy efficient, floating, workspace which Stephen built and is now touring the country - from Grand Designs. Stephen happened to spot us on the water and we were able to talk to him extensively about the egg and our adventure.
Our inflatable kayak, Boaty McBoatface, served us proud and we only came to grief once, when a rusty nail gave us a puncture on the last day. Even this did not stop us for long; we evacuated Boaty and used teamwork to patch and reinflate! This gave Athina a massive sense of achievement and she still remembers it as one of the best parts of the adventure; nothing that Team AA can’t fix! As Cadi Lambert (Go Canoeing Development Officer, British Canoeing) went on to say later: ‘This adventure was no mean feat for an adult but for a child of eight years old to keep going, with a smile on her face, it was quite remarkable.’ We do hope this trip shows people just how easy and fun it is to get into canoeing and what wonderful experiences families can have together on the water.
When we look back at the pictures and as we record our story, the treasured memories just flow and we’re there again. We parted from Liverpool towards Leeds with enthusiasm and commitment and as we progressed we discovered our own family values and strengths. We raised £1,500 in total for our charity and British Canoeing went on to nominate us for this adventure. We came second in the 2016 National John McGregor Challenge Awards (Endurance-Adventure-Exploration-Performance) in recognition of the most exceptional and inspiring canoeing challenge. But one must remember, appreciate and cherish the silent background heroes and so with a truly grateful heart we thank our friend Andreas for being a terrific support crew.
It is apparent to us is that winning Sean’s Adventure Scholarship has been a life-changing experience. Thank you Sean- Moments like this a quote says things better than we would and perhaps this one captures the essence of our adventure:
‘It is good to have an end to journey toward;
But it is the journey that matters in the end’