At the end of May I like many Londoners was idly wondering from what vantage point I might catch a glimpse of the Jubilee Pageant. The 90,000 tickets to Battersea Park on my doorstep had quickly sold out and it became clear that getting anywhere near to the river on the day was likely to be a nightmare.
Then on a Tuesday a fortnight before the Pageant I arrived at the Serpentine at 6.30 a.m. for my twice weekly swim with a friend, William de Laszlo, formerly a captain in the Grenadier Guards. As we set off for a run around the lake he casually enquired if I had done much kayaking. I replied ‘a bit’ in a non-committal way. I was then astonished when he asked if I wanted to kayak with him in the Pageant. He seemed startled by the zeal with which I accepted, particularly after I admitted that the sum total of my kayaking experience was a day’s paddling at school, about 16 years previously. In due course I would add two hours’ training on a novices’ evening at a canoeing club.
If you are thinking surely there had to be some sort of qualification to be eligible to participate in the Pageant you would be absolutely right. Most crews and participants had applied many months previously and entry to the Pageant had closed in February. The kayakers were drawn from local kayaking clubs and other worthy groups. Certainly everybody had extensive kayaking experience.
De Laszlo had signed up to participate with a friend of his, Oliver Hicks. Between the two of them they had an impressive aquatic pedigree. De Laszlo holds the world record together with three crewmates for the fastest circumnavigation of Great Britain (2010 miles) by rowing boat set in 2005. Hicks is one of the youngest people ever to row across the Atlantic solo. I, by extremely unimpressive contrast, had been punting a few times at university.
The organisers were no doubt also impressed by De Laszlo and Hicks’ vessel: Selkie II. Selkie II is a special kayak designed for ocean going and which has been used to recreate World War II routes. The boys were the complete ticket; they had derring do, military service, and a special boat to support their application. However days before my invitation Hicks literally jumped ship and told De Laszlo that he would be rowing with Ben Fogle. Hicks is fundraising to row around Antarctica and he, quite reasonably, felt that some media attention might help boost his profile.
Thus it was that Hardy was substituted in at the last minute with no achievement whatsoever to his name. I asked de Laszlo if we could spend a few hours paddling in Selkie II. He explained there was a slight hitch in that she was in a boatyard having her rudder fixed and would not be ready in time for the Pageant. With two weeks to go, therefore, we had no boat and no time on the water together. The other problem was obtaining accreditation for me. By the skin of my teeth the police, who probably had more pressing things to do, processed my application on the Wednesday of the Pageant just as I was on the point of trying to prevail upon Rafferty LJ to phone the Commissioner to vouch for me.
Another last minute concern was when de Laszlo mentioned one morning that he had been speaking to a journalist from the Telegraph who was interested in him, Hicks and Selkie II. De Laszlo had explained that he had a new crewmate and we would be in a new boat. Slightly deflated the journalist had asked him what this new crewmate had done to earn his place in the Pageant. De Laszlo said to me: ‘I hope you don’t mind but I told him you were a Q.C. Otherwise you just didn’t sound terribly interesting.’ Needless to say I did mind. Things got worse.
De Laszlo told the journalist that the new boat was a green kayak, about 24 feet long, called Q One. The one I collected a few days before the pageant was red, 18 feet long, and prominently named Ardeche. It was Hicks’ spare spare kayak and though rotting in the outside for some years was assured to be seaworthy as it had done London to Devizes seven times (or so he insisted). I was not reassured by the large sections of crumbling epoxy patches and trailing duct tape.
The day before the Pageant we spent spraypainting a Union Jack onto the boat which did a good job of concealing its condition. We went in the afternoon to a briefing at Shadwell Basin some way downstream from Tower Bridge. There the Harbour Master reminded the assembled and proficient looking company of kayakers and me that we were all there because we had confirmed an ability to kayak at four knots for several hours uninterrupted. He asked anybody not able to do that to raise their hand. I did not raise my hand feeling that 4 knots did not sound very fast. To our relief we were told that we did not need to transport our boat from Fulham to Shadwell, only to paddle it back to Chelsea the next morning. Instead our boat would be ‘scrutineered’ for seaworthiness a couple of hours before the start.
So it was the day of the Pageant broke grey and drizzly. De Laszlo and I negotiated our way past the police cordon with the boat lashed precariously to the roof of his mother’s car. It was 0900 and we had one hour at Cremorne Wharf in Chelsea before the kayakers arrived from Shadwell basin. We negotiated the precipitous slipway and, five hours before the Pageant proper, we got into the boat together for the first time. I say got into the boat but the reality was that this was an unfortunate moment to discover that I did not really fit into the the boat. With my knees jammed into the rim of the kayak we essayed a few turns just upstream of Battersea Bridge. It did not take de Laszlo long to remark that things seemed a little moist amidships and before long it was obvious we were taking on water.
We landed the boat and spent two hours debating whether by dismantling all the steering and swathing the hull of the boat in duct tape we might be alright. Meanwhile the merry band of very professional looking kayaks had arrived from downstream led by a jaunty fellow called Harry who took one look at our boat and laughed his head off. To my immense relief Harry offered us a brand new two man sea kayak with seats like armchairs, ample storage space and, most importantly, no holes. We had some Union flags on sticks to attach to the boat and while struggling ineffectually to tie one of them on I was offered help by one of the other kayakers who I was astonished to see had no legs and only one arm. He turned out to be a Royal Marine captain who had stepped on an IED in Helmand. It chastens me to confess that he still managed to tie a better knot than me.
Before long we were back on the water and HM the Queen and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh were cruising about 20 feet away on a launch to their barge. Shortly thereafter the boats under oar arrived having rowed down from Putney. We let the extraordinary profusion of boats past us as per instructions and there was then a mad scramble for the middle of the stream accompanied by confusion as to whether we were supposed to be before or after the dragon boats.
Crews had been under strict instructions not to stop beside the Queen on her barge under any circumstances and, of course, that is what most of them did. This prompted the Harbour Master’s deputy immediately to our rear to bellow at us through his megaphone to keep moving. Compelled forward we immediately broke ranks with the other kayakers and entered into a melee of gigs, Viking longboats, lifeboats, gondolas, skiffs and every manner of craft that could be imagined. It was obvious within the first few hundred yards which boats would end up needing a helping tow.
Because umbrellas were impractical de Laszlo and I had decided to wear bowler hats to keep the rain off our heads. Until we got to Blackfriars Bridge we were in fact relatively dry but when it did start raining it was relentless. We had realised that sticking to our prescribed position in the middle of the river meant we were a huge distance from the masses of spectators on the banks so we decided to take a course close to the North Bank. Periodically we would doff our hats to the crowd to loud cheers. After seven shattering miles we were damp but delighted.
Max Hardy 9 Bedford Row