The five fundamentals of canoeing are: vision, posture, body weight, planting the paddle and body rotation. We quickly realised however, that with Pete it was more about cups of tea, roast pork sandwiches and ice cream.
The experience of being on an empty river with the sun at your back and the tide and wind in your favour, is the antithesis of modern life, whatever level your canoe skills. Hide your mobile in a waterproof pocket and look around you because slow and steady is the only way forward.
‘Putting in’ (technical term) at Lostwithiel was an easy five minute walk for us from home. A friend had put us in touch with canoeing legend, instructor and inexhaustible tea-drinker Pete, who takes out small groups every weekend. Trips always involve tea, occasional fry-ups and if you’re lucky, Pete’s famous pancakes.
Everyone in the group canoed solo, while I sat at the front with my husband steering at the back. Pete soon gave me the confidence to move back however and I begin to steer the boat using the most important stroke: the J-stroke.
I learnt to push the paddle through the water for power and twist it at the end to straighten it again. Our neighbour (another) Peter, school teacher Debbie and canoe enthusiast Andy (who never stayed still) were twisting and turning the paddles in little underwater dances, clearly several levels above us (Google ‘canoe ballet’ to get an idea of what you can potentially do).
Instruction from Pete was low-key and deliberately simple. “There is no point in trying anything more complicated until you’ve mastered the two basics strokes: the forward stroke and the J-stroke. If something goes wrong you need to be able to use these, whatever you see anyone else doing.” He talked us through safety, the necessity of capsize drills, the basic equipment and the importance of escape routes out of the river if the weather does take a turn for the worse.
We snaked our way out of Lostwithiel, past the Canadian geese and swans of Shirehall Moor, pulled up to several little beaches for tea and a chat, until we reached the grey stone hamlet of St Winnow. Locals flock here for Angie’s pasties, roast meat sandwiches and cakes served from April to September out of a caravan on her farm.
A roast pork sandwich with apple sauce and crackling, honeycomb ice cream and two cups of tea later, we were ready to hit the water again and make our way down to the boathouse dating from 1890 that was once used by King Edward VII to “besport himself with young ladies.”
Out came the umbrellas (excellent sails) and the wind and tide lulled us gently back into Lostwithiel. No kingfishers this time, but we’d been tipped off for the best places to look on our next paddle.
For a low-maintenance, minimum stress and blissful afternoon, hire yourself a canoe and re-acquaint yourself with life without noise (one of the most famous canoe strokes is entirely noiseless), abundant bird life and the comings and goings of the tide. And don’t forget your flask.