The Canada One/Un Brigade was together for the first time on Saturday, June 2nd at the University of London Boat Club on the Thames River just below Kew Bridge. From l-r: Terry Guest, Jeremy Ward, Donald Ross, Laurel Raffan, James Raffan, Melissa Murdoch, Pilar Bauta and Geordie Dalglish. Terry and Donald Ross are Canadian Canoe Museum board members. Melissa, Pilar, and Geordie are long time supporters of the museum through the W. Garfield Weston Foundation and Laurel, who originally agreed to come along as a “roadie” to help with logistics and communications, got promoted to a paddler’s spot in the Canada One (after security clearance by the London Metropolitan Police aka “The Met” … no outstanding warrants for her arrest … phew!) when another colleague from the Weston Foundation had to withdraw.
So there we were, all together for the first time ready to have our first practice and dress rehearsal for the pageant.
The first thing we did was head down to Chiswick Boat House, a short distance downstream from the University of London Boat Club, to get individually accredited.
This involved presenting our Boarding Pass, which came from the Thames Jubilee Pageant Committee as proof of our successful security clearance from “The Met,” along with our passports and other photo ID. When all was tickety-boo the marshall then snapped a wrist band on everyone, which was proof of our clearance to get on the river.
Eight paddlers. Eight accreditations. All Good.
Only one problem.
Through the hard-working officials at the Canadian High Commission in London, we had contracted a driver to travel to Brize Norton Air Base, where Canada One/Un had arrived and was stored, to retrieve her and bring her into central London. Unfortunately, having risen in the wee hours to get to Brize Norton first thing in the morning, the driver had not the correct paper work and on arrival he was denied entry at the gate. Turns out that storing one’s belongings in a ultra-secure Royal Air Force Base is a very good thing, until that same ultra-security makes it impossible to retrieve your things.
The first I heard of this was a phone call on the train en route to the University of London Boat Club. First the pageant office called to say that the driver was trying to connect and then I connected with the driver who was in a state of high pique having driven all that way only to be turned around at the gate. He’d had enough, he said. He was going home.
As the train rattled along toward the put-in, I sat there, with now less than 24 hours before the pageant was set to begin, thinking that after all this effort by so many people … after all arrangements, all the hours, put into acquiring, renovating and refitting the boat, after all the hours of travel … and the expense … we were going to have a crew of paddlers who would now be spectators because our canoe was locked up tight in a military air base in Oxfordshire.
I called the driver again, to ask him if he might turn around and return to Brize Norton Air Base, while we worked through the problem of permission. Nothing doing, he said. He was heading home and would not even start thinking about turning around until we had the proper permissions and paper work in order.
And, as the gravity of the situation came crashing down, I remembered that it was Saturday. The High Commission would be closed. All of the people we had been working with would likely be taking a much deserved bit of R&R before pageant day.
At that point, thanks to the capabilities of my old voyageur (wood-powered) iPhone, I sent a mea culpa mayday call to our collaborators at the High Commission, hoping against hope that one of them might be on-line or have their Blackberry turned on on a Saturday morning to receive our distress call.
For the longest time, nothing happened. I called our driver again. No way. He was not turning around. He had been humiliated at the gate and was in no hurry at all to return, especially if he was going to be turned away a second time.
But then … a chime on my phone. An email from Vera Alexander at the High Commission. “Got your msg. Will call now.” And then, a few minutes later, another chime. “We are making the calls now to Brize.”
A little while later, “We’ve talked to the driver. He is on his way back to Brize.”
And so the non-canoe issue was defused and turned toward a happy—if heart-stopping—conclusion.
There was no point in the crew staying around once we’d all been accredited. We couldn’t practice, so they headed off to other preparations for the pageant. Jeremy, Laurel and I stuck around the put-in waiting for the canoe situation to get sorted out. An enterprising Radio Canada reporter had found her way to our put-in and was delighted to have a chance to chat with us about the Canada One/Un story while we were waiting. I’m sure she recorded a touch of stress in our voices . . . being canoeists without a canoe.
My London-based nephew, Rev. Graham Singh, eased the tension considerably by showing up with a lovely picnic hamper and his adorable toddler son, Hector, as maître d’. This was a tasty and timely diversion from the problem at hand.
After lunch we had a chance to meet and get to know the members of the New Zealand Wakka Canoe team, with whom we’d be traveling in the pageant. Here is Jeremy talking to Joe Conrad, one of the senior captains.
But then, a shout from the site marshals. Hallelujah!!!!! Our canoe had arrived.
And our new Maori friends helped unload her.
And, as a total and wonderful surprise, we had a completely impromptu joint canoe blessing ceremony. An elder from the New Zealand team spoke about their canoe and its traditions, followed by a Maori prayer from another member of the team.
And then we explained some of the deep traditions of our canoe and gave thanks for safe passage, deliverance from harm . . . and delivery from Brize Norton!
We took turns smudging both canoes and each other with Canadian sweetgrass and sage in an electric moment of connection between two cultures in the presence of the great mysteries that bring us together in the powers of the universe.
And the, for good measure, to round out the blessing, nephew Graham brought in the “host perspective,” that of the Church of England, and said a prayer that brought the whole event full circle. Had our canoe arrived on time, this would never have happened.
Finally, Canada One/Un was on the banks of the Thames, rigged and ready to go!!!!!!!!!!!