“Can you drive a boat?” he asks me.
“Yeah, I have one at home.”
“Well, I’ll party and you can drive, and I’ll get you all to Henley.”
Before I know it, I’m piloting Joe’s cabin cruiser downriver during red boards, a boat I’ve never driven before on a stretch of water I’ve never seen, at a time when the authorities are recommending all vessels stay off the Thames.
Joe retreats into the cabin and closes the door—presumably to do some kind of drugs. He returns several minutes later with an electric guitar and amp. His eyes looking as wild as ever, Joe plugs in and proceeds to lay down virtuoso Santana-style riffs, his amp broadcasting the music across the empty Thames.
By nightfall, we make it to Reading, some 12 miles upstream of Henley. California Joe moors his boat along the riverfront, and soon all manner of river pirates and gypsies descend. It’s clear he’s a fixture of the Thames river scene.
We head inland in search of lodging, leaving our kayaks tied to Joe’s boat. We were taking bets on whether our boats would still be there in the morning—based on Joe’s stories his background is shady at best—but dragging the boats with us would have sent the wrong message.
Morning on Day Five, we meet Joe back at his boat as a cool mist rises from the Thames. He’s flanked by a pair of buddies, and all three look as though they’ve been up all night partying.
“Boys, these are the crazy kayakers I’ve been telling you about,” Joe says, pointing our way.
“And these are my boys. This is Pikey, he’s the one who fucks people up,” he says pointing to a lanky man in his mid-20s with a shaved head and a young pit bull on a leash. “And this is Jon, he’s the one who cleans up our messes.”
Alone, Joe seemed harmless enough. But something feels weird, wrong even, about this new situation. Pikey and Jon change the dynamics.
Pikey asks to see the river knife attached to Brad’s lifejacket and begins flicking it here and there with ninja-like precision. Then Joe takes a turn, doing much the same. His movements are deft, born of repetition.
“You go in here and you come up this way—pow, pow, pow, pow!” Joe says, disemboweling a make-believe victim.
Gingerly, Brad retrieves the knife and stows it in his lifejacket pocket. Meanwhile, Jon asks Martin about the value of his camera gear; and then how much my carbon-fiber standup paddleboard is worth.
Joe insists he and his friends want to follow us on our final 12-mile paddle into Henley. But we’re not so sure it’s the best idea.
“We’ll catch up with you in a bit,” he says as we push off the bank. “What kind of beer do you want?”
“Anything is fine,” I call back. “Thanks man.”
At this very moment, it’s painfully obvious to the three of us that this situation could turn really, really bad. We hypothesize the worst. What if Joe and his buddies are planning to jump us and take all of our gear to sell it for drugs? Or something worse? This could be Deliverance meets the Thames.
This is our chance to escape. The three of us begin paddling furiously downriver. No talking. No drifting. Just paddling. It’s the greatest speed and efficiency we’ve summoned all trip. The past days have been all happy go lucky. Pints and easy paddling. Now we’re running scared. Though we’re headed for a decidedly more urban section of the river, first we must pass through another desolate, heavily wooded bit before we return to a more populated stretch and then into Henley.
Soon we’ve covered five-and-a-half miles. When we reach the next lock, we don’t wait for the lockkeeper. We carry our boats hurriedly around the lock to save time. If we can just get a slight lead on the river pirates, they will be slowed by the locks and we’ll be home free to Henley.
It seems to work, and by midmorning we begin to relax our pace just a bit. Then, suddenly, the shrill blast of an airhorn carries around the bend. Soon we can hear Joe’s guitar licks blasting across the lawns of some of the poshest mansions we’ve ever seen. It’s like a scene straight out of a movie.
Pikey is piloting the boat with Joe perched on the stern with his guitar. As they approach, Jon leans overboard to hand each of us a cold bottle of Budweiser.
“You see that,” Pikey says. “One little beer can cause a million-dollar smile.” The smile had been forced—what else were we going to do, act as if we’d been running away?—but Pikey’s commentary comes as a revelation. Joe and his friends are sincerely stoked about our mission. The river gypsies have decided to take us under their wings. Maybe they feel responsible. After all the river is their home and we’re guests on it. Maybe they see us as kindred spirits. Or maybe they’re just a bit bored.
I feel a little silly that we’d been so frightened by these guys. In reality, theirs is the coolest, most colorful support vessel we could ever dream up, providing a mobile cheering section, endless supply of beers and a live soundtrack to our trip. We reach Henley at lunchtime, hours earlier than expected.
We tie up at a pub called the Angel on the Bridge. Joe says he and the boys have business downtown, might even go into London. We bid the gypsy pirates farewell, and watch as their rickety vessel peels into the current and floats under a bridge and out of sight. We’re relieved, and for the first time in two days, we’re able to fully relax. We hoist our beers to the 78 miles and 26 locks we’d passed over the past five days. Sure, we didn’t make it to London but we’d experienced one of Britain’s national treasures in a unique way, and interacted with her countrymen in a manner most travelers will never know.
Then, all of the sudden, we hear the familiar whine of Joe’s guitar. The boat is chugging gamely back upriver, through the bridge’s narrow arch. Pikey, grinning at the helm, proceeds to do laps in and out of the bridge pilings. Everyone on the pub’s patio stops to watch the spectacle.
We salute the boys as they go by.
On their fourth lap, Pikey misjudges the current and the boat slams broadside into the ancient brick bridge. The boat shudders, nearly wrapping on the piling. Something chunks off the stern, the boat slips around the piling, and they are gone.
“Those men aren’t with you, are they?” asks a very proper English woman at the next table over.
“Well,” I say, “it’s kind of a long story.”
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