Tuesday 19 June 2018

We're all in the same boat

There is something about navigating through water in a small vessel that has come to symbolise our struggle as human beings. The concept of a voyage, with people pitched against the elements, has enjoyed mythical status throughout time, from the Aeneid and Moby Dick to J.K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. On Sunday my family went canoeing with our cousins, adding - I felt - our small contribution to the boating canon.

Hennerton Backwater, near Wargrave on the River Thames
Paddling down Hennerton Backwater
Credit: William Lam
In a flotilla of three canoes - our inflatable and two hired Canadian canoes - we paddled down an idyllic stretch of the River Thames from Henley to Wargrave. We may have been unlikely literary heroes in our shorts and hoodies, but the way in which each crew tackled the challenge of reaching the George & Dragon pub in Wargrave spoke volumes about our attitudes to life.

Bon voyage

With the Canadian canoes, we split into a boys' boat and girls' boat, leaving my husband and teenage daughter to crew the inflatable. The 90-minute journey upstream was characterised by banter and friendly rivalry, though it quickly became clear that each boat had its own unique culture. 

The girls' boat took a more leisurely approach, meandering up the Hennerton Backwater with a finer appreciation of the scenery on offer (yellow buds on the lily pads, weeping willows, riverside mansions, cobalt-blue dragonflies). Even the sighting of a driverless lawn mower caused some excitement. Safe to say, the boys' boat had an entirely different agenda - they were determined to win the 'race', to arrive at the pub before anyone else (which they did).

Inflatable canoe on River Thames near Shiplake
The inflatable in its heyday
On the return journey, the same dynamics came into play, with a few noticeable differences. My niece grew a little impatient of our lackadaisical approach (oddly she didn't share our interest in fantasy homes by the river) urging us to stop talking and keep paddling. To be fair, she had a brother in the boys' boat and was not entirely immune to competitive pressures.

The other surprise was the inflatable canoe. Content to occupy the middle ground between meandering and power-paddling on the outward leg, it took the lead in the final strait. The crew was motivated - it has to be said - by a slow puncture along one side of the dingy. "We had to paddle fast or we might have sunk," my daughter observed, summing up the situation quite cogently. 

Different strokes

On metaphorical level, I felt all three boats demonstrated equally valid approaches to life. On the one hand, the boys adopted a goal-oriented strategy, apropos of ambitious career types, while the girls demonstrated a more mindful approach, seeing life as a journey rather than a dash from A to B. The inflatable was obliged to take a more reactive course, adapting with aplomb to potential hazard and hardship (sinking/capsizing).

I am not suggesting that we have to choose one particular method to navigate through life - quite the opposite. Challenges come and go: sometimes we're expecting them, other times we have to rise to the occasion. Whatever the case, it often helps to be single-minded and to set goals. That said, it's also important to take a moment to admire the water lilies and the robotic lawn mowers along the way. A little of everything to keep us on an even keel... 😉 Aeneas, who had a rather torrid time of it in the Aeneid, should have paid heed.

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