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It was the summer of 1957, and I was a lieutenant in the Royal Marines studying
at the Royal Naval College in London. It also was the year that I had escorted
a girl called Camilla throughout the London Season as she ‘came out’ as a
debutante. And it was to see Camilla that I would paddle solo from London to
Paris that August.
Camilla’s brother Nicholas was my close friend. Together we trained for sports,
partied, and schemed to outwit rules. And after the last ball of the season, we
were together at the Hyde Park Hotel, in white ties and tails, saying our
goodbyes to Camilla at 4am. By 9am we would be attending our final lecture for
that semester – “present and accounted for,” albeit asleep.
But right now it was, “Goodbye, Camilla. I’ll see you in Paris, mid-August,
even if I have to come by kayak.” For Camilla was going to Paris to polish her
French for six months, and I was very nearly broke.
Finding a kayak without enough money to buy one was a challenge. But I thought
that I might have a solution. My tailor made my uniforms, knowing that I
couldn’t afford to pay for them, but trusting me to pay when I could.
Therefore, the man who handcrafted kayaks for the Royal Marines Special Boat
Section might do the same. So I took a bus out to Twickenham by the River
Thames and introduced the owner of the Tyne Folding Boat Company to my mission.
The proprietor, Mr. Hershfelt, was old enough to be my father. He was wearing
overalls and rimless glasses through which he peered at me as he asked, “What’s
wrong with the ferry, it’s a big ship, there should be room for you?”
“That’s true,” I replied. “But I want to make my journey from your shop down to
the mouth of the Thames, then I’ll go around the coast to Dover, cross the
channel and go down the Cote du Nord to Dieppe. From Dieppe I’ll paddle inland
and use the rivers to get to the Seine and end up in Paris.”
Mr. Hershfelt stroked his grey head and asked, “Why do you have to start from
here? Why not from Calais?”
“I live in London and want to leave from London. You make the best boats for
such a journey, so here I am. Besides, I’m a Royal Marine and you make kayaks
for our S.B.S” This last bit I added in the hope of winning his support.
Then I told Mr. Hershfelt that with the train fare to Dover, then the ferry
fare and paying for meals, and then hotels in Paris, I’d be better off spending
my money on food and a kayak. I told him I could live out of a kayak
indefinitely, and offered him monthly payments.
He agreed that the journey I proposed would be interesting. And he said, “Yes,
I have a boat, a bit soiled, but otherwise new.”
We went below into the workrooms and emerged with a wood-framed, blue-canvas-
decked folding kayak with a rubberized hull. Mr. Hershfelt mentioned several
times that the boat’s structural flexibility and its foot-controlled rudder
would be “superior features of the boat in rough water.”
I left ten pounds (about $40 in 1957) as a down payment and contracted to pay
five pounds per month for the next seven months. With that over, I pushed the
kayak on its little trolley out onto the road and set off at a smart pace for
the river. I had this awful feeling that Mr. Hershfelt might change his mind
and reclaim his property. As it was, he followed at a slower pace to watch me
take off, and my parting glimpse of him was of an elderly man shaking his head,
either at my folly or some fond memory of his own youth.
A few cautious strokes pulled me clear of the bank and I started gliding
downstream. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the sun was delightfully warm, and
soon I was reviewing a pastoral scene of such tranquil beauty that it looked
like a painting by Constable. The cows, though they stood quite still at the
water’s edge, all turned their heads to watch me pass.
There were miniature beaches from time to time, each one a private place for
small groups of mallard. And zipping ahead of me from beach to beach was a pied
wagtail, letting the ducks know that something was coming downstream. Mute
swans were necking by the rushes, quietly uttering small grunts and squeaks
through their nostrils.
Suddenly, a claxon blared, and my reverie was broken as a small passenger craft
cruised by – human voices, lots of laughter, white faces, red faces, petrol
fumes, no one listening to the tour guide’s voice over the loudspeaker, “On the
right you can see the roof of the Star and Garter Home for Disabled
“Dear God,” I thought, “how lucky I am to be here on this river, alive and
well, strong and self-propelled.”