Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Messing In Boats

"Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats"
Or, in this particular instance, homemade rafts propelled by grit, determination and a fair amount of hope and blind luck down the River Stour one gloriously sunny Saturday morning that looked as though it had been lifted straight out of The Wind In The Willows.
Ages ago, when it was still getting dark at 6pm, I blogged about a gorgeous pub in Fordwitch called The George and Dragon?  At that time do you remember me telling you about the plethora of events that were coming up that we wanted to go to?  One of them was the Raft Race.
This annual charity event takes place on the beautiful River Stour just outside the pub.  Ellie reminded me that the event was on when we were out one Friday, and I made arrangements to meet her and John at the pub for some lunch and to enjoy the race.
I arrived slightly early, worried that there wouldn't be anywhere to park (not a concern in the end), grabbed a drink and settled down in the sun soaked beer garden.  Kids were running everywhere, bobbing for apples in the buckets near the boules and playing catch with tennis balls and velcro covered paddles (does anyone else remember those from their childhood?)  The marquee was being set up, the BBQ had been turned on and people were pulling on wet suits and swimming trunks.  The party atmosphere was starting to take hold!

We relaxed in the blazing hot sunshine, chatting about John and Ellie's new house, work and rehearsals for the latest Players production that Ellie is in.

There was no formal sign that we could see, but all at once people gathered up their drinks, fetched children's heads out of buckets of water, hitched up long summer skirts and crossed the road to pick a spot on the river to watch the race from.
The river was crystal clear all the way to the bottom and simply beautiful in the late morning sunshine with huge dappled trout flashing between the reeds, sunlight sending sparks of glitter up from their scales.  As we stood waiting, the raft parade came up behind us in less than formal procession and absolutely no solemnity to speak of.  First up was the Pirate Ship
A sturdy looking contraption topped by a proud mast and the Jolly Roger, manned by a crew of salty blaggards in full costume.  There was even a wooden plank to either side (useful for carrying).  These guys looked professional, as though they meant business and they had done this before!

Next there was the Dream Boat.  I must admit, I raised my eyebrows at this one! It was basically a stripped down bed frame with some ballast duct-taped underneath.  I wasn't convinced on the aerodynamics and its speed potential, let alone its ability to actually float!  It also didn't look all that comfortable to sit on and would have been quite heavy to manoevour I would imagine.  Those PJ's were a nice touch though! 
The final entry was basically a floating square.  I didn't think it looked sturdy enough to support anyone's weight, let alone actually float down the river!   Just goes to show you should never judge a book by its cover, or in this case a raft by its apparent lack of lifesaving ability.

Three boats, three of us, we all selected our flagship and settled down on the bank to cheer them on.  Each raft was crewed by a mixture of adults and children, and the kids looked like they were having an absolute whale of a time.  This is such a brilliant day out for kids - they get to have fun making the rafts, playing in the river and race with other rafts as well.  I was a bit surprised that more rafts weren't involved, although apparently in previous years they have been.
Now I have no idea what the rules are, but I'm guessing you need at least 4 people on a boat, it must float, must be made by hand and can't be motorised, and of course you have to pay the entrance fee which goes to charity.  Beyond that, I really think that the sky and your own imagination is the limit!

All three boats got settled into the river a bit further up, everyone took their positions and they were away, speeding gracefully down the river like a flock of giant swans.

Kind of.

It was more like a doggy paddle by a golden retriever with a stick in its mouth that is bigger than its body.

The Pirate Ship got stuck and went in circles for a bit before eventually straightening up and joining the race again whilst the Dream Boat had a complete and utter disaster when its crew managed to break an oar and punted itself into the river bank.  The floating sheet was steaming ahead though!
I'm telling you, it was tense.  It was exciting.  It was frantic.  Bets were going back and forth, thousands of spectators were screaming themselves hoarse.   Just look at those crowds, can't you feel the pressure, the stress of it all?  You could have cut the air with a plastic BBQ knife
Not one ship capsized, a fact I was heartily disappointed by.  I mean, what fun is a raft race where at least one of the rafts doesn't end up like duck with its bottom in the air?

Hot on the sails of the Giant Rice Krispie Square (as it shall forever now be known) came the Pirate Ship.
They didn't look like they were sitting quite as high, or as comfortably in the water as the Giant Rice Krispy Squre was!  In fact, the guys at the back looked decidedly soggy.  A lot of style, maybe not quite so much substance?   The kids were squealing with laughter and there were big grins on the faces of the men as well, and that is what the Raft Race is all about. 
Finally, bringing up the rear, was the Dream Boat.  They made the best of a bad situation with a broken oar, but punting is clearly not the fastest way to get down a river.  Especially when you are trying to punt in between the slats of a bed.

They made it though, eventually, and crossed the finish line under the bridge to riotous applause (after getting stuck in the bank again just before the bridge and hitting one of the small children over the head with the punting stick by accident as they tried to get free.  The next time I saw him, said small child had a bag of ice on his forehead, poor mite!)
After all the teams had made it safely across the finish line and all the participants had stripped off their life jackets and dried off in the toilets, dripping water all over the stone slabs of the ancient pub floor, we made our way into the garden for some lunch and to listen to the singer. 
Against a backdrop of chilled out summer classics, virgin Bloody Mary's, the smell of the BBQ and steak sandwiches, our conversation revolved around the Raft Race, and what our entry will look like.
Oh yes, this wasn't just a random excursion.  This was an advance scouting party, an information gathering expedition.  This time next year, The Canterbury Players will be partaking in the Fordwitch Charity Raft Race.  Things will get very, very soggy!

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