Day 5 : A damp start

05 November 2015

Day 5 : A damp start

It was a dry morning although it had rained pretty heavily during the night. The weather had started to turn against me, and I knew that if it continued my attempt at navigating the Thames would be hampered. The gear I had selected before I set off was probably not suitable either. I'd entered into the challenge almost completely blind and had drawn from my experience trekking Britain. It was a starting point, a baseline from which to work.

It had been a somewhat uncomfortable night’s sleep, my knee was quite badly bruised. Having had breakfast and packed up I turned my attention to the problem I'd discovered the day before - portaging.

My solution was to attach a length of rope to the nose of the board between two opposing eyelets, one on either side of my kitbag. The theory sounded good but would it work? There was only one way of finding out and that was to try it and see. Taking a length of rope out of my pack I cut it to size, threaded it through the eyelets and tied a simple knot. I was ready to go. Lowering the board and kit into the water I felt confident my modification would work. Climbing on board I found my balance and began to paddle.

It was quite chilly on the water but there was very little wind and I found the paddle quite pleasant. After a couple of miles I began to feel tired and dehydrated. I hadn’t expected that I’d be burning as many calories as I had. After all I had really just been standing on a large reinforced surfboard-shaped balloon floating down a river. The fact of the matter was, even though I wasn’t moving my legs or carrying any kit, paddling a paddleboard requires a lot of upper body strength and really works your core.

It was calm on the water. There was hardly any wind and the river was pretty much still. “The calm before the storm…”, I muttered to myself. At the time I didn’t realise how accurate my prediction would be. I proceeded on, a little more alert and mindful of the weather conditions around me; the density and shapes of the clouds, the smell of moisture in the air, wind direction. There is so much to take in; data to be processed. I was beginning to think my luck with the weather, which had recently been patchy at best, was about to run out completely. Maybe I was making myself a little paranoid. It was a gut feeling, and I never really know when is the best time to follow your gut.. You may as well flip a coin.

My luck hadn’t quite run out. A matter of minutes later as I paddled gracefully along the river, following the bends as they furrowed through the landscape, content in my being, I came upon the Swan Hotel. Seeing a low jetty made from decking board and looking a little soft, I turned my board and slowed to a gradual drift. With a gentle bump the board stopped and the the rear came round placing me in the perfect position to alight.

There was no one about to appreciate quite how much I had learned over the previous days. No longer a novice paddler, I felt more confident. My strokes were more precise and efficient and my balance - well that was balanced.

Balance, that's a tricky skill to learn. I felt very similar to how I did on my snowboard while gunning it down a black run. I felt quite comfortable once I’d found my standing position. Leaning in to corners to help orient the board was also comfortable. I knew I would have to do better though. Moving around the board would be a very important skill I would have to learn. I would need to discover the tipping point of the board and where my centre of balance ought to be under numerous different circumstances and conditions. I still had much to learn.

For now though all I wanted was to pull the board out of the water and up on to the decking without losing my boots or any of my kit. The rope was making a huge difference and by now I had forgotten the struggles I’d had at the beginning of the journey a few days previously.

Having landed the paddleboard on the rickety pontoon, barefoot, I went in search of the bar entrance. Looking up at a window on the first floor I could see a man dressed in white overalls - a decorator I surmised. He waved down at me and frantically began pointing towards the front of the rustic looking building.

The hotel itself was old, very old. It would have seen wars come and go, ushered in the Industrial Revolution. It had history. Passing a window I glanced in. It was beginning to look and feel like the hotel was undergoing renovation. I continued. Passing another window I could see the main bar; there people inside hanging pictures and organising stock behind the bar. The walls were light and freshly painted. The hotel had most definitely been through a process of renovation and by all accounts appeared to still be going through the process. It was looking less likely that I would be able to get a coffee from the bar but, being so close to a village, I hoped I would get lucky and find a small cafe or tearoom.

I circled round the front of the hotel and found Jayne. Jayne had recently bought the ageing inn with her partner Malcolm. Jayne had no previous experience of running a bar but Malcolm had spent most of his life running pubs. The purchase of the Swan was quick, they’d literally owned the pub for two weeks, just six weeks after deciding to invest in the new business venture.

“I don’t suppose you’re open for coffee by any chance?” I asked.

“I’m afraid we don’t open till tomorrow evening” Jayne replied.

As we stood in the old courtyard, me in shorts, jacket and buoyancy aid and Jayne holding a tray of bread crumbs for the ducks, we chatted about the challenge and the more recent history of the inn. During the two weeks before I had turned up Jayne and Malcolm had gutted the old bar area and redecorated throughout. I had turned up while they were adding the finishing touches and waiting for their new coffee machine to be delivered. It was looking less and less likely I would be getting my much needed coffee break.

“Would you like to come inside? I could make you a coffee”, Jayne offered. I had begun to think I would need to either continue paddling on to Tadpole Bridge, in the hope that the pub there, according to the map, would be open for coffee. My only other alternative was to stop where I was and boil up some water myself. That would use a sachet of coffee and some gas, two things I wanted to ration as much as possible. I was lead through the back door and into the main bar; I could smell the distinctive odour of fresh paint. The main bar had been given a fresh modern feel without losing its friendly “locals” feel. Working behind the bar, hanging peanuts and positioning glasses, was Jess - and drilling holes ready to hang pictures and fishing memorabilia was Darren. It was all hands on deck, painters and decorators upstairs, furniture unpacked and bottles ready to hang behind the bar.

Before leaving and, of course, having had my coffee I was invited back the following evening for the grand opening. Unfortunately I knew I wouldn’t be able to accept, I still had a fair way to go.

The river was calm and the wind had dropped considerably. There was still a bit of a nip in the air though but I knew that after a few strokes I would soon warm up. As I pushed away from the rickety old pontoon and turned downstream I began to wonder how different the trip would be during the summer months. I would see more narrowboats riding up and down through the locks, the sun setting behind the fields and rolling hills that surrounded me. The birds would be singing and fishing, walkers would pass me by. I imagined the experience would be very different to the solitude I was experiencing.

I had expected to see more people hiking the Thames path. It's a good walk, not too difficult but long enough to be challenging. The path follows the river quite closely and there are certainly plenty of pubs within walking distance of each other. I do feel, however, there could do with being one or two more cafes or tea rooms nearer to the source.

I looked up towards the sky, the clouds were thick and the sun was out of sight. I continued to paddle, my focus back on the task at hand - back on the river. I still had much to learn about paddleboarding and for now I decided I would concentrate on balance. I was standing mid-board, meaning I was half-way along the board, roughly an equal distance from the nose to the stern. This had been my approximate standing position for the majority of my time floating down the river. Carefully I shuffled myself backwards. The board rocked beneath me. At any moment I could see myself capsizing and falling in, a risk I would have to take, a skill I would have to master. I continued to shuffle whilst still maintaining momentum and keeping the board true.

Finding myself about quarter of the way from the stern I stopped and planted my feet shoulder width apart. The river soon began to sweep left so I shifted my weight over and allowed the board to tilt, water lapping over my foot. Paddling out wide I was able to easily control the turn. The river almost immediately swept right. I shifted my body weight over, again the water began lapping over my foot as I paddled wide on the opposite side. My confidence in the board was growing.

Learning to control my balance, for me, is all important for the successful navigation of the Nile. It was something I dearly needed to get comfortable with. Over the next few hours I continued to shift my balance from side to side as the river carried on slithering towards the sea.

I was approaching Rushey Lock when it began raining, the temperature had also dropped and felt near freezing. I pulled my board and kit up onto the river bank and began portaging my gear. Feeling the cold, and not wishing to get wetter than I really needed, I decided to sit beneath a leafy canopy among a small copse of trees.

The rain didn’t appear to be letting up. It appeared to be getting heavier and I was definitely feeling the cold.

It would have been foolhardy to set off again in such conditions. I was in no hurry after all. I had been exposed to extreme weather conditions during my journey hiking the coast, feeling the chills shivering through my bones I recalled one incident that nearly ended not only the trek but could also have ended my life.

I’d been hiking down the west coast of Scotland, in my mind I was on the way home, heading south. The summer had passed and winter was settling in. The long hot summer days had now been replaced by a series of cold, wet and windy challenges. The weather was rapidly deteriorating. Having spent three days solid tackling ice cold driving rain, and water- saturated densely packed spruce forests, I’d reached a small village on the west coast of Scotland. Plockton was a village I had really been looking forward to reaching after being told about the place by Stan, a mechanic for the RNLI. I’d met Stan on the east coast after camping up in my tent outside the boathouse in Kessock. What really caught my imagination about Plockton were the stories of palm trees. Palm trees in Scotland? It doesn’t seem plausible but apparently due to the gulf stream the west coast of Britain has milder winters than the east coast. The milder weather patterns in turn have proved favourable for the plant usually associated with more tropical climates.

It had been a hard few days leading up to my arrival in Plockton. All my gear was saturated, and despite my every endeavour each night I failed to get a fire going. No fire meant no warmth, no heat and no way to dry anything. At the time I was very aware of the possibility of going hypothermic. I knew the symptoms and I knew the dangers. I thought I knew how to prevent hypothermia taking hold and I thought I would know when hypothermia was taking hold. I didn’t.

The thing I learnt from that experience was how dangerous hypothermia was. It attacks the brain first, you become confused, your lips go numb and you begin feeling woozy. If it hadn’t been for a kind stranger I would most probably have crawled into my wet tent, climbed into my damp sleeping bag, fallen asleep and never woken up.

Naturally with conditions fading around me now, the memories of my experience in Plockton came flooding back. Under normal conditions the change in weather wouldn’t have bothered me. Under normal recreational circumstances I would simply climb into a car and head home to climb into a nice warm bath. On an expedition you rarely have such luxuries. You have to rely on yourself, you have to ensure you stay warm and dry and above all else stay fit and well.

My trusty pack, as ever, suited as a superior place to park my backside. The canopy of autumn leaves kept the majority of the driving rain off me. I’d been sitting, motionless, for a good twenty minutes by now and the rain did not look as though it would be letting off any time soon. I had passed a tap during my portage so I decided I could afford an extended break for a coffee and, feeling a little hungry, pulled out a pack of freeze dried loveliness. Drinking a hot beverage and eating a warm meal are both excellent ways of keeping your core body temperature up and keeping my core temperature up was rapidly becoming imperative and extremely important.

I was beginning to feel chills, my hands stiffening with the cold. It wasn’t as extreme as the -12 temperatures I’d experienced in Scotland during the winter whilst sleeping beneath a tarpaulin but for it was cold enough to cause concern. I unpacked my thermos mug and stove, and grabbed a packet of freeze dried munch. Normally I would save my rations until my evening meal but, considering that I wasn’t that far from civilisation I decided that on this occasion it couldn’t do any harm, and if I needed to I could replenish my supplies at a village shop or store I was bound to come across further downstream.

It only takes a couple of minutes to boil water and I soon had a nice hot coffee in my hand while I waited for my chicken curry to hydrate. Despite what people might think the ration packs I’d settled on actually taste delicious and support a good stable, balanced diet. The first mouthful always tastes good, not just good but great and welcome.

With spoon in hand I soon devoured every last morsel, scraping the package clean, making sure I had every ounce of goodness. It did feel good, the warmth emanating from my stomach and traversing through my body to my chest, but although I was ready to get back on the board and continue paddling the weather was still bad and it simply didn’t look as though it would let up any time soon.

Sitting on my pack, exposed to the elements, although sheltered from the wind and rain, I knew I would have to soon decide what to do next. I couldn’t simply stay where I was, it would be foolish. I had two choices available to me, launch the board and paddle on to the next lock, or stop and set up camp and take shelter.

There was no point in getting unnecessarily cold and wet - I was on a training exercise. Looking over my shoulder I could see a small clearing just large enough to set up a temporary camp amongst the trees. I would be sheltered from the wind and the trees would provide some cover from the cold rain. It wouldn’t take long to pitch up and it didn’t mean I would have to stay the night, just long enough to let the bad weather pass. I sat considering my options, willing the sun to appear from behind the clouds, hoping for a break in the rain.

It didn’t take long for me to decide. I grabbed my pack and wandered over to the clearing and unpacked the tent, sleeping mat and sleeping bag. Although I was now feeling toasty inside I knew it wouldn’t be long before I would soon get cold again and once again face the onset of hypothermia.

The rain stopped soon after I had climbed into my temporary shelter, but for how long? It didn’t matter - my priority was to ensure I stayed warm. Filling my saucepan with water I decided to make another hot drink. My bones were beginning to ache now, a sure sign that I was still in serious danger of becoming ill. This was becoming serious, I climbed into my sleeping bag, a four season duck down sleeping bag good to -30. The sleeping bag had done me well during my previous expedition, it was cosy, it was comfy, it was homely.

Having just got camp ready and not feeling 100% I decided it would be foolish to pack up immediately, and figured it was probably a little over optimistic to think the bad weather had completely passed. My priorities were clear in my head - rest, recoup and re-assess.

Tucked up inside my sleeping bag like a cocoon and lying in the foetal position, rubbing my arms and legs, I drifted off to sleep. I woke an hour or so later to the sound of rain hammering down on the outer flysheet and felt pleased that I had made the right decision to stop, for I would surely have found myself caught out and suffering more than was necessary. I wasn’t going to be going any further; still in my sleeping bag, I reached over to my kit bag and grabbed an evening meal, spaghetti bolognese followed by my last packet of custard. This was indeed a custard moment.

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Current Adventure

Paddleboard the Nile

The challenge is to paddleboard the longest and most dangerous river in the world, the River Nile, all 4265 miles, from its furthest source in the Nyungwe rainforest in Rwanda, through Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan and finish at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt. Live tracking will be made available online, along with updates using satellite technology. It will be an extreme interactive educational adventure, bringing awareness of other cultures, our effect on nature, and, the determination of man. It should take between 7 and 9 months. Experience has taught me, however, that such expeditions can throw you a curveball at any moment!

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