‘We’re heading for a tree,’ I cried out to Elizabeth who was at the bow of the Canadian canoe we were piloting down the Dordogne last week. We were on a four-day canoe course so we had the necessary credentials to brief our customers on the basics of canoeing. Steering being one of the absolute essentials.
‘Turn left,’ Elizabeth screamed at me.
‘I’m trying, but every time I steer left, the boat goes right,’ I complained as we careered towards a large overhanging tree lying flat on the water’s surface.
‘You’re putting the paddle in the wrong side,’ Elizabeth exclaimed. ‘The other side!’
But it was too late to argue about the fineries of ruddering, as moments later the bow crashed into the tree, allowing the powerful current of the river to push the canoe broadside against the solid trunk.
From his boat the instructor kept yelling at us to lean in towards the tree, not away from it. This, we learned later, would have kept the boat stable, allowing us to simply push ourselves away. Instinct however told us otherwise, and we couldn’t help leaning away from the danger, resulting in the canoe tilting towards the rushing water, as my beautifully illustrated diagram below shows.
There was only one possible outcome. The canoe filled with water and capsized in seconds throwing us into the river like underweight fish discarded from a trawler.
The instructor, clearly shaken by this abject display of boatmanship, launched himself into a standard rescue procedure. Which entailed shouting at me very loudly about the importance of listening to basic instructions. Namely, keeping to the middle of the river and away from the banks as I was told.
I’m exaggerating a bit. He was very calm, and simply instructed us to swim to our now upturned boat, grab onto it and wait until he could get to us. When he did, we swam to his boat, while he righted ours (how I’ve no idea). We then got back into our now perfectly waterfree boat and sheepishly paddled to the shore to take stock of what had happened.
Luckily nothing was lost or damaged, including ourselves, and so after we’d changed into dry clothes, which had been kept dry in barrels, I prepared for my explanation into why I’d steered into a tree on a river that is over 100 metres wide.
‘I got confused steering,’ I admitted to the instructor. ‘I have the same problem driving as it happens,’ I then added. The instructor’s eyes widened when he remembered that my job this summer was driving customers round windy mountain passes in a minibus. ‘But I think I’ve got it now,’ I continued picking up a paddle. ‘To go right, paddle left. To go left, paddle right.’
The instructor looked at me blankly, wondering who on earth had hired this buffoon. ‘Err, yeh, sort of,’ he finally answered. ‘There’s a bit more to it than that, but you’ll pick it up – in about a hundred years,’ I heard him quietly mutter to himself.
‘Look, the best thing for you guys,’ he continued, ‘is to stay in the middle of the river. Be careful and pay attention to your surroundings. ‘
He finished saying this just as three local fishermen drifted by in a flimsy wooden boat backwards, all standing up, rod in hand, fag in mouth, chatting to each other as though at a family barbecue. It made a total mockery of what we had learnt and what had just happened. It looked so utterly simple. Monkeys could do it.
Later that evening I asked Elizabeth if she’d been scared. ‘No,’ she replied. Not at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. You?’
I paused, thinking back to the bit where the water engulfed the canoe. The sheer power of the water washing us away downstream like sticks.
‘I was terrified,’ I finally answered. ‘I thought I wasn’t going to come up. I had visions of my foot getting caught in an underwater root or branch, dragging me down. And what’s more, it would have been a terrible start to the job.’
HOLIDAY REP DROWNS IN CANOE ACCIDENT. HIS OWN STUPIDITY BLAMED!
I’m being slightly flippant, but there is something to be learnt from last week’s incident. While the locals can float down it on wafer thin rafts smoking and chatting as though in a bar, I can’t. I don’t understand the river. I went too close to the edge and was made to look like an idiot. Fair game. I can take that.
However, what I will say is this. How many of them have been capsized, washed down the Dordogne for 500 metres and come up still wearing their glasses? Well, I did. Which means I can still read and write this blog, which for some of you I guess isn’t much consolation, and you’re probably secretly hoping I’d got my foot wedged into that underwater root and never come up. Well, tough, I’m still here…