Life’s pretty good
After the success of the first Pirates of the Canal voyage, a second is planned for another epic mother-daughter tale to satisfy our growing curiosity about the world. This is to be even more ambitious, seeing us build our own vessel from recycled materials and Athina is introduced to the wonderful world of engineering. If the Kon-Tiki expedition proved a log raft can sail the Pacific, why wouldn’t water pipes float across Lancaster canal?
Born in Athens I was taught from a young age the ancient Greek ideal, that sport is preparation for life. 2,500 years ago a wise man named Socrates famously said: A sane mind is a healthy body. As a parent I create adventures that combine the two. I want Athina to live, to learn and to accomplish something she’d previously thought impossible. This time we challenge our bodies and set our spirit free with the help of another wonderful sport: Rafting.
The first couple of miles from Preston are deceptively easy. We feel energized and excited; no worries, we’ve done something like this before. In my mind I’ve travelled this journey. But the amusing novelty of the pirate raft is short lived. Although it floats, it is not build for speed and the sheer weight of it (almost 120kg) makes it a herculean task. We resolve to carry on.
Athina at 9 years old is her usual cheerful and creative self. Our paddling techniques vary. We stand up, sit down and lean our backs against each other. A trial and error session. We give the SUP paddle a try and we split the double kayak paddle in half; we prefer the latter. We discover when one of us stops paddling the raft steers ‘off-route’.
Late that evening we reach bridge 37 and the kind lady at Barn and Granary B&B allows us to spend the night on her land. We are grateful to our friends Kat and Dan who form our support crew and we look forward to the dinner that await in their campervan. We move slowly past a little hedgehog content in its search of something scrumptious to eat.
In the morning locals gather to admire the pirate raft with monetary donations for our charity, full of questions about the make of the vessel and the logistics of our journey. One of them invites us to visit his farm. Before long we find ourselves feeding goats, collecting duck eggs and we meet our very first unicorn! (True story- A pretty little goat born with only one horn.)
Surprisingly the duck egg we are given survives the raft adventure; we save it for our traditional pancake breakfast upon our return. Not-so-surprising we forget to add this to the mix!
The following days we get through our self-imposed challenge by completing just one bridge at a time. ‘If we make it to that bridge over there Athina, we will only have XX bridges left’ I remember saying to my little lobster dozens of times during our 6 day adventure.
Every day around noon Athina is fatigued and tells me she’s had enough. Athina is the author of her own adventures, a little person with a mind of steel. I don’t want her to paddle for me, she knows I’m OK going by myself. Kat and Dan take turns in paddling their canoe and walking on the side of the canal keeping her company. She skips and chatters happily sometimes joining in the obedience class for Bally the pup. An enriching experience, one that demonstrates how the presence of fine company adds to adventuring.
At thirty-seven I am doing exactly what most excited me when I was 9 years old even though the canal isn’t nearly as beautiful without Athina on the raft. My stubborn nature for which I seem to have a reputation for, requires me to challenge myself. I do absolutely every piece of paddling to the bitter end, tired but I don’t cut corners. Athinas support is paramount to the completion of this challenge. ‘Well done Mummy! You’re almost there’ she tells me when all energy has abandoned my body.
Like the Greek Goddess of Wisdom she’s named after, Athina, is the astute companion of adventurous souls. In years to come I hope she appreciates how much she’s accomplished.
Soon, I discover that making our own vessel comes with the reward of a physically tougher challenge. In the evenings when everything aches and I reach the point of inward withdrawer in an effort to conserve energy; my crew is quick to pick on this. They tie the raft to their canoe and help me pick up the speed as we paddle together.
The night we reach Bridge House Marina, we witness some of the best sides of human nature. Children on their bikes, smiling families and a host of well-wishers all there to greet us. They receive us with words of encouragement and cheerful clapping. ‘I wish my parents adventured with me like this when I was young’ says in a genuine voice a middle-aged man. ‘I’ve never seen anything as exciting as this in 37 years of living on Lancaster canal’ exclaims another. We are happy to see them. A new sensation takes over my body, everything moves and I feel nauseous on land. But these people have been expecting us with anticipation it would be rude not to give them the gift our time. We chat to all and someone helps us tie the raft safely, there is a storm brewing.
On the fourth day of canal piracy, with 14km to go and everything aching we ask a friendly looking family to give us a tow for a couple of km. The MacDonalds family kindly accept. They are on their first narrow boat holiday and aren’t they in for a treat?!? The boys teach us how to play a new card game; Exploding Kittens. When the time comes to part ways, their eldest son hands us a sketch of our pirate vessel. A true artist who’s produced a masterpiece.
The pirate-mouse raft is a big hit particularly with the elderly generation. It takes them down memory lane, to a happy place, when used to make their own rafts. We get out the way to allow a tea-room barge to overtake us. The excited 'oldies-but-goldies' bang on the windows for attention, some wave, some clap, others shout 'Go pirates!’ We are awed by their enthusiasm.
Somewhere in Lancaster an 85 yr old opens a swing bridge for us to go through. He smiles and asks politely asks if he may take a picture. Mr John walks merrily by our side and shares his longevity secret: ‘I walk a mile a day’ he says. I take careful notes.
Huffing and puffing before deciding to take a snack break by Lancaster town, we tie the raft to the side of the canal and unwrap a couple of chocolates. Having a picnic on a raft is a new way of life for us. Essentially eating food in any unorthodox way is fun!
A dog comes running towards me and spends a good while sniffing my mouth. Its owner arrives and explains the dog is performing a medical examination. I can’t stop laughing thinking this is hilarious! Turns out Dr Greta is a four-legged medical alert dog. Fortunately, she gives me the thumbs up to continue my journey, no signs of diabetes. But she has one more incredible talent: she can write too.
I am wondering what you are up to now? How far you have got? And I am very pleased to have met you and give you the benefit of my medical knowledge. Lovely to meet two brave, innovative females today
(Possibly one of the sweetest emails we’ve received to date!)
A man peeks out of his narrow boats window looking quite emotional. 'Superb work ladies, may I take a picture of you?' he asks. When we paddle through busy rural areas lots of people offer a hearty phrase of congratulations before continuing on their way. ‘Did you build that raft yourselves?’ they ask. ‘I have boat envy!’ shouts another sailing past us in her narrow boat. Unaware of it, these strangers assist me as a parent to teach my daughter a lifelong lesson on love and generosity.
But it’s not all fun and games. One day when the contrary winds hold us hostage, my head shouts ‘get off and pull the damn thing’ so I do exactly that. After only a couple of steps the ropes are tangled between outgrown bushes. First I curse the 12 Gods of Olympus then I trip into a hole and land on dog poo.
Meanwhile, Athina is happy fishing plastic bottles and all sorts out of the canal. A fine example that we can all be part of the solution in keeping our waterways clean for future generations to enjoy.
As the week progresses the thing I find harder is waking up at some ungodly hour. Athina on the other hand is more efficient than any alarm clock I’ve ever known. Whilst I beg for five more minutes, she gets dressed and reminds me to hurry or we’ll have a late start!
Lancaster canal is one of the country’s few coastal canals of lock free cruising. Featuring an impressive piece of canal architecture, the Lune Aqueduct, it’s a place of natural beauty home to grey herons and kingfishers. Yet the real magic lies with its people. One water pipe raft, two little ladies and a teddy bear are enough to make hearts open.
Testament of this is the chatty lady who rushes home to tell her husband about us. He then makes his appearance, breathless from running, worried he would miss us and asks: ‘Young ladies, how do you take your tea?’ By the time we reach their home he’s standing outside with hot drinks, a handful of chocolates, his entire family and his neighbours who are intrigued to see what the big commotion is all about. ‘Now little pirates’ says one of them ‘I shall tell you something important. Are you aware this canal is also known as the black and white canal? Back in the old days you could see coal being transported from the Lancashire Coalfields, and limestone south from Cumbria. These cargoes gave the waterway its local nickname: The Black and White Canal.’ It’s truly wonderful how they take pride in their heritage. When we look at the canal, we too feel connected to the people who looked out on a similar landscape half a century earlier. We feel the same sense of awe and respect for the waterways as they must have felt. The canal culture has once more captured our hearts. It’s true what they say: Happiness lies in the little things in life, like sharing a cuppa and exchanging a good laugh with a bunch of strangers.
August 26th. It’s our sixth and final day of our mother-daughter adventure. We’ve made it to Cumbria and the landscape is beautiful. Five little swans lead the way and have been doing so all morning. When we slow down, they slow down. When we stop, they stop. A cow enters the canal. We stay there admiring the creature for a long while, taking it all in. An unexpected moment that requires our full attention. We eventually move on and paddle gently trying not to interrupt the thirsty cow. I return my gaze to the swans and they lead the way once more while Athina is left to her own quiet reflections.
We reach the end of the canal at Holme Culvert Bridge and make the executive decision to end our journey. Our vessel travelled 70km in under a week at a frightening average speed of 800m an hour. It remains intact; testimony to the clever engineering and strong build. We will not load it on the truck and throw it back in again for the remaining 2km. We are satisfied with what we have achieved and decide to spare our support crew this dreadful task.
When people ask why do we like exploring the canals so much we think of Sir Francis Chichester famous quote: ‘Because they intensify life’-