This is a boys’ only adventure now. There is me of course, Andrew who has just had his 70th birthday and is a mate from my time in Libya around 1978, and Linus a five year old Hungarian Puli. Julianne has gone home for pressing family and business reasons and Veda, Andrew’s wife, has released him to do the fill in from Erith near Greenwich to Dungeness, the starting point for the channel crossing. We missed about four days’ paddling to get to do the channel crossing at the booked date,
I was going to just keep this fill in quiet for now and put it in the book, but have decided honesty is the best policy. I have known this since I was nine because that is what Miss Perkins taught us. In fact I think she taught Peter Searle better than anyone else as he seemed to write out those lines more than anyone else in the class. So here is the story so far.
We left Andrew’s in Cambridge, drove to Maidstone in Kent, established the van and went to the Erith ramp where we floated the kayak at 2.00pm. The tide still had a couple of hours to come in against me but the wind was south westerly, quite strong and gusty. The route was the last of the tidal Thames and into the Thames estuary.
There were a few wind turbines about plus the big oil fired power station at Dartford (1475MW) that was being built in 1977 when I was in the area. Oil fired stations can be fired up in four hours which is important strategically and was critical to London power supply after the storms in 1987.
I had the sail up to help push against the current, but with the gusts my paddle had to be in my hands at all times to prevent capsize. With a few ships going up and down the Thames I thought it best to stay on one side, but my natural inclination came to the fore and I cut the bends to shorten the distance and also to dodge the current as much as possible.
After passing ships with huge open backs where two 40ft containers on top of each other were being wheeled in, the last bridge before the Seine was above me. All of these big bridges are magnificent from underneath. They are huge, towering monsters testament to the engineers who design them and the engineers that build them. Dartford Bridge was no exception but equally impressive is the fact that the bridge is only for southbound traffic and two tunnels take the north bound traffic.
Passing Gravesend there was a huge cry from the bank which was a long way off. I was sure it said “Steve” so I waved and thought I could make out Andrew but couldn’t see Linus. Tacking back across the shipping channel with the wind from the side I was confused. With no map I wasn’t sure where the river went. Was this correct or did it go the other way? This is the bloody Thames River and I couldn’t decide which bank to be on. A container ship came around the corner and was lining me up. “Good news and bad news together,” I thought. I knew my decision was right but container ships move quickly and I was unlikely to win a battle with one. With a few hundred metres to spare I passed the buoy inside which the ship would not come. Good news. All good news.
A ship coming down river led the rest of the way so my lines were more confident. I called Andrew on the phone at 5.00pm as per schedule, advised that I would be at the pickup point at 6.30pm, had an orange and a drink and set of along the southern shore eastwards which is on the opposite side to the World London Gateway Port. For a few miles along here the wind was pushing me off the bank but I was tacking back towards the bank and fighting a current that was pushing me north. Eventually the current eased and I was close to the bank again.
Ahead were white spots on the water. Water? Nope, it was mud. I could just make out Allhallows where Andrew would be. There is a yacht club there with two launching ramps that I had seen on Google Earth and had confirmed on the web site which give boat ramp locations. The shipping channel was more than a mile offshore so I let the wind take me away from the land at about 45 degrees and stopped paddling. Progress was quite slow despite the strong wind so I dipped the paddle to get my speed up again. Mud! Mud at about 20cm deep and about half a mile away from the bank. Then the rudder hit bottom and finally the kayak scaped the bottom.
Straight towards the shipping channel I went and after about 300m again turned east. The tide was dropping rapidly but I tried to stay in about 30cm of water. Allhallows drew nearer and there was a steep shingle beach which I hoped indicated deep water. Just need to find the channel I thought. I got to where I thought the boat ramps were, about a mile out, and no channel in site. I called Andrew who said he could see me and that perhaps about a quarter mile further on I might be able to get a break in the mud, but that the water was draining rapidly.
I crawled eastwards with the paddle strokes just swishing the top of the water. A buoy floated nearby which I thought might mark the channel. It didn’t but I angled a bit more towards the bank anyway. Another two hundred metres later and the water got deeper. I headed in and when I looked up Andrew had the car headlights on, exactly in the direction I was headed. The current was quite strong but varied a lot. Paddling at what would normally be just over 5mph my speed against wind and tide dropped to as low as 1.3mph but lifted sometimes to as high as 3mph.
It was a bit of a slog but I could see the channel, see that it curved around to the boat ramps. Another ten minutes and I was dismayed to note that it then stopped in a 30m wide U-shape. Andrew called. I beached on the mud to take the call. “A local guy says the mud is too soft to walk on,” he said. “Stay afloat. He has called the coast guard.”
I tried that but decided not to go backwards too far and within a couple of minutes I was aground again. “Stuff this,” I thought. “What is a bloody coast guard going to do? They can’t get up here in a boat.” The mud didn’t feel too bad so I bailed out and started dragging the kayak, careful to use it to take some of my weight so I didn’t sink out of sight. After 50m there was a channel to cross with fast flowing water. I put my bum back in the kayak leaving my feet outside with their thick coating of ooze.
On the other side there was a shiny area with a slope that I reckoned I could stand on so that’s what I did. It worked OK and I was able to move up the slope, onto the flat and then towards the bank, a mere 300m away. It took a few rests. It took a few loud grunts and when I didn’t concentrate I had to pull my leg out of mud well above the knee. Andrew came down to the edge of the shingle in his gum boots and waited. I had no shoes which was fine because they would have been sucked off my feet anyway.
Eventually I got to Andrew who took the front of the kayak while I took the back. The beach had small pointy shells on it, about the size of marbles. With cold wet feet these hurt a bit, but then I saw the oysters. Bloody hell! There was still just enough light to see so I made sure that I didn’t tread on any. Perhaps it was more good luck than good management but after two rests we got to the steps at the wall unscathed. The ramp was another hundred metres away and I was buggered if I was walking any further. A couple of locals were there, plus two coast guards. Andrew took the bow up the ramp and someone else grabbed the back and hoisted the muddy mess to the top of the wall.
I was pretty tired, definitely very wet and very, very muddy but hey, this is supposed to be an adventure. We chatted with everyone, made a good friend in John the coastguard, washed off with a hose from a kindly local and headed for Maidstone well after dark. Probably everyone thought that the Australian they met was stark raving mad. They did have their day livened up though, and they can probably share their story about the daft bugger over many cups of tea.