And then I come upon a ratty old battleship gray and black wooden cabin cruiser with a man drinking an orange concoction straight out of a handle of liquor.
“Beautiful day for a paddle, eh?” I say.
“Where are you coming from?” says the sinewy man with long brown hair, red bandana, and a tinge of an American accent.
“We started in Lechlade yesterday. Headed for London.”
“Hell yeah, I’ll drink to that!” he says, training his beady bloodshot eyes on me.
“Actually, come to think of it, I’ll drink to pretty much anything.”
Martin and Brad have already drifted past, but I’m wishing one of them would’ve been here to meet this man, because he seems like an interesting character indeed.
By the time we reach Oxford I’m borderline hypothermic. But we find sanctuary at a divey neighborhood pub. I definitely catch some strange looks from the locals at the Holly Bush Inn as I stroll in, soaking wet in trunks and surf booties, tracking puddles to the bar. But when I tell the friendly barkeep that we’re weary paddlers on our way to London, the regulars welcome us as old friends. They offer a modest room atop the pub and we stay up till 4 a.m., talking and drinking with the local crew. It’s our first ‘lock in’ in which, at closing time, the bartender ushers out most of the crowd, except the chosen ones, then the doors are locked and the party continues.
Day Three begins with thick hangovers. It’s still cold, but at least there’s no rain for now. An old fellow we met in a pub upstream had told us “the river changes character every 15 miles.” After about 30 miles, the man’s statement seems prophetic.
Near Lechlade, the Thames River flowed through green meadows and farmlands. We saw very few people, and those we did meet were very friendly. But as we’ve gotten closer to London, the Thames has gradually grown in width and the flow has increased. It’s becoming more of an urban river, slipping through city centers, below highway overpasses. We encounter more and more people each day on the banks, and though some stop and eye us curiously, in general they are not nearly as friendly as the folks we met upriver.
On any normal summer’s day, there’d be plenty of boat traffic on this part of the Thames. But the high water has scared away the pleasure craft and canal boats. The only other folks we’ve encountered are young people from rowing clubs of local schools and universities, some no doubt practicing for the prestigious Henley Regatta due to kick off in the coming week downstream.
At our first lock of the day we learn that the river is continuing to rise quickly and has been “red boarded,” the lockmaster posting a large red warning sign saying “CAUTION STRONG STREAM.” During red boards, the official word from the Environment Agency, which governs the waters of the Thames River, is this: We advise users of all boats not to navigate because the strong flows make it difficult and dangerous. But with a little nudge-nudge-wink-wink the lockkeeper tells us the Red Boards simply mean we’ll make it to our next pub a heck of a lot faster.
Perhaps, but even with the help of a strong stream, it’s obvious that we won’t make it to London in time. Our pace has been slower than expected, partly because of lackluster weather, but mostly because we’ve been having too much fun in the pubs along the way.
None of us is terribly disappointed by our impending failure. While researching this trip, I’d watched a video about a source-to-sea trip on the Thames. While it was indeed an impressive feat, I have to say that it seemed like a complete slog to me. Our pace is much more enjoyable.
The problem now is that we’re due to meet a friend of Martin’s at the prestigious, and decidedly high-brow, Leander Rowing Club at Henley-on-Thames in two days’ time. His name is Dan Marett, a rower and local hero on the Thames River, and eight-time winner of the Henley Regatta. We decide to pull over and mull over our predicament at the Old Anchor, a pub in Abingdon, one of the oldest and most picturesque towns in all of Britain.
After some small talk, the hip 21-year-old barmaid opens her laptop on the bar, helping us research local charter boats that might be willing to haul us down to Henley. Problem is, with the red board warnings, no charters are operating. Our dilemma still unsolved, we stick to our barstools, resulting in our second lock-in of the trip—and another round of stout hangovers in the morning.
We still have no clue how we’ll be able to reach Henley in time, but Day Four dawns with bluebird skies and warmer temperatures. For the first time all trip, I ditch my neoprene booties and paddle in a T-shirt and trunks. This was exactly the way I had imagined our trip would be.
About the time we’ve given up on ever reaching Henley, let alone London, we hear loud music approaching from upriver.
“Yo, Mark, turn around,” says Brad. “There’s our ride!”
I turn to see an oddly familiar black and gray cabin cruiser approaching. At the helm is the guy I’d met briefly two days earlier, he of the orange liquor and red bandana. I stroke out to the center of the river and stick out my thumb.
He’s on his way to Wallingford for lunch at the Boat House, and I quickly strike a deal. (“You give us a ride, we’ll buy you lunch.”) We tie our kayaks to the stern of his boat and climb aboard. Our new friend calls himself California Joe. He’s British but grew up in the States, his dad a soldier in the U.S. Army.
Seeing the Thames River from this new vantage point, motoring along, miles ticking by, is refreshing. We get on well with Joe. Though it’s clear he’s high on some sort of drugs—he’s fidgety and never touches his food at lunch—his stories leave me rapt. Tales of gangsters, drug-running and allusions to jail time in the ‘70s and ‘80s, all intermixed with lucid commentaries on religion and world politics. Joe is obviously smart, and just as obviously unhinged. We act as if we can relate to his stories of the underworld, but truth be told, running a river without proper permits is about the extent of our transgressions.
After lunch, California Joe offers to continue helping us toward Henley. Though slightly unsure of his motives, the promise of putting down more miles toward our goal overshadows any concerns we may have.
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