17,296km of adventure

The road ahead

Australia compared to EuropeIt’s a brand new year once again. And while every month and every day is, obviously, a new day for starting an adventure, I think we can’t help but consider each January as a clean sheet of paper.

A chance to write a new adventure.

In a little under a month’s time, I will be making the 17,296km journey from London, England to Perth, Australia — an indefinite relocation. All my life has been packed into boxes and sent across the seas, and now it’s time for me to go and join my girlfriend in her home country.

Making the decision to leave London wasn’t easy for either of us. The girl first came to the UK 6 years ago on a working holiday visa, before being sponsored by a company that could find no equal for her talents. Together, we made the city of London our home. We will both leave friends and co-workers behind, and have both resigned our jobs with nothing to replace them on the other side of the world: but no one gets remembered for the things they didn’t go.

We’ve asked ourselves, and each other, “Is this the right thing to do?” but there is no easy answer. Sometimes, you just have to take the chance. It’s an adventure. The same as hiking the Inca trail, or dog sledding in the Arctic, you have to make the best possible decision — and right now this is it.

It’s a different kind of adventure for me from the usual — there’s not one big challenge, but there’s lots of new things. Australia: The road aheadAside from a new country, and a new city, there will be a new job, new friends, and what amounts to a whole new life. There will also be opportunities for lots of new adventures.

This is it: a new adventure on the other side of the world. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

The Strokes know when you drop your pace

Royal Albert Dock

Royal Albert Dock
Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31505964@N08/3602629469
On Sunday morning, the water in the Royal Albert Dock was calm and flat, and reflected the sky like a mirror.

Sunday mornings in Docklands are unusually peaceful.  London City airport doesn’t begin operating until midday, and the only other people on the water was another dragon boat team — there was plenty of room for our team and theirs to be far apart from each other, so far a while out there the only sound was the splashing of our paddles, and the shouts of our respective team helms.

It’s been a while since I updated about The Year of the Dragon.  Since I last wrote about it, I have raced with my team in the London Regatta — technically, we had two teams: our premier team, and our scratch team.  No prizes for guessing I was in the scratch team — but we also had some Olympic-level athletes in the premier team.  Overall, Thames Dragons came 5th place in all 3 race distances (100m, 200m and 500m) — and most importantly came in above the other London teams.

Now the BDA League is finished and the days are becoming shorter — we have already stopped training on Tuesday nights, since the London Regatta Centre requires us to be off the water at sunset, and sunset is rapidly approaching 6pm in London.  Sunday mornings have stopped requiring sun block, a hat, and a bandana to stop me from getting stinging sweat and sunblock in my eyes.  This Sunday morning, the air was cold when I left the house in a hoody and a jacket and I wondered if I was going to be able to stay warm enough out on the dock.

With the Henley Winter Series coming up,  Sundays have a focus on technique (especially for newer members, like myself) and distance paddling.  I was in the second row in the boat, which was unusual for me — but it’s a good place to be, since you take your timing from the front. It makes it much easier to see what the people at the front are doing if you are sat right behind them, and I could also look more closely to try and emulate their technique.  I don’t know if your position in the boat, other than the front row, is any kind of comment on your ability or just a matter of weight distribution.  Undoubtedly, there were better paddlers sat behind me — this is without question, the man directly behind me would occasionally tell me when my timing was slightly off, but also it wasn’t possible that out of a boatful of people I was even among the best.  That isn’t really important.

Sunday was just a beautiful morning to be out paddling; the sun was shining and the sky was clear.  When I’m on the water I enjoy the very short breaks we have, just for a minute or two to look around me and enjoy the surroundings — there’s no opportunity to look around when you paddle, even if your technique is perfect — you need to be watching the front of the boat.  Although, as a training technique we did try paddling with eyes shut occasionally.  It sounds crazy, but sometimes when you’re racing the water can be rough or there might be so much spray you won’t be able to see — so it’s important to be able to use other senses.  We’d start off with eyes open as normal, get into our rhythm and make sure everyone was in time: then it was eyes shut and keep paddling.  It’s surprising how quickly I’d lose timing: I’d be counting to myself and thinking I was still doing fine, then there’s be a whack as my paddle hit the paddle of the person behind me.

The distances are also a new experience.  In the London Regatta there was a 500m race, which was a distance some of us (myself included) had never covered before — and it was surprisingly difficult.  This Sunday we trained over distances of 1000 and 2000m.  The important thing is to focus on power and pace.

When I was at school, a long time ago now, there was a short time when I was a decent runner: but I was a sprinter.  I got pretty good, but not amazing, times for 100m, but preferred 200m. I performed well in 400m, and got a Gold award for my time, but I still preferred running 200m.  My trouble with 400m was I didn’t understand how to pace myself — I didn’t know how to start the race. With 100 and 200m, all I had to do was just run as fast as I could.  I wonder now if there is something in the power and pace techniques I am learning in dragon boating that could have been applied back then.

1000m was tough and 2000m was even harder — around me in the boat I could hear people breathing hard and panting. The Henley Winter Series involves continuous paddling for half an hour, with occasional short bursts of extra power, and for the newer paddlers like myself this is a new experience: with the short races, you are finished in under a minute.

In a campaign to be a better person, I’ve started going to the gym recently: and after only a week of activity, this week I could already feel the benefit an increase in strength and fitness has on my paddling.  With my adventures in Peru and Norway, I had reasons to train — a reason that I was missing after the challenges.  Now I am finding reasons once again: the year of the dragon isn’t just about the international race I want to build up to, it’s the fitness and training to be a better paddler, and overall being a better person.

Chasing the Dragons

Image credit: photo by Andy Wilkes
Source: http://ow.ly/cQyf3

The Year of the Dragon is off to a strong start, with two training sessions now attended (and, most importantly, completed).

I was slightly disappointed that after my first training meeting with the illustrious Thames Dragons I then had to miss the next two dates.  Work commitments first meant that I would miss Tuesday night’s training, and then a wedding reception in Essex was to keep me away from Sunday morning.  I was disappointed and reluctant to miss them, and even tried to work out if it was possible to do all three.

If I missed dinner with my colleagues, could I go to training, finish by 9, then hot-foot it back to central London in time for the after-dinner drinks?  If I went to a wedding reception on Saturday night, could I get up extra-early on Sunday morning, just to drive back to north-east London for training?  It may have been physically possible to do these things, but it wasn’t practical: there would be plenty more opportunities to come.

Last night was the next opportunity to attend.  There was a temptation not to go when I was invited out for a drink by my colleagues, but I have committed on paper — or, at least, online — to the Year of the Dragon and I’m determined to see it through. If I start not bothering this early on, then the adventure is as good as over already.

Instead of a warm, sunny Sunday morning when I’d worn shorts and applied sunblock, last night although still warm was threatening rain from the start and I knew that evenings on the river would need insect repellent before it would need sun protection.  I arrived on the train in plenty of time and enjoyed the downhill walk to the river, and was glad to see that many dragon boaters were already there — including members of the Typhoon Dragon Boat Club in their team uniform — but also some reassuring members of my own club.

There were a few people that were clearly regular dragons that I hadn’t met before, along with a man who was returning for his own second session like me, and then a couple of completely new people.  You can tell a newbie when they come along, slightly hesitant, and ask “Is this dragon boat racing?” and then questions about how we would be racing, and if you fall in the water.  There is no actual racing, this is training. Later it was asked if anyone goes to races — I don’t know if the question meant did my team member personally race, did the team race, or if anyone actually races.

I can see clearly the areas I need to focus on for improvement.  While my first session was focused on keeping time with my other team members rather than paying attention to the shouted instructions or speed, this time I felt I should at least start considering myself part of the team and acting accordingly.  There are times when we start from what is called a standing start — you start with the paddles are buried in the water, then set off at a break-neck pace. Much like you would in a race.  The only trouble with this is being able to keep up — and if you can’t keep up with the speed, you can’t keep in time.  And the timing is the single most important thing.  The other things I need to improve include not taking the paddle past my hip (I think the key is reaching much farther forward) and the occasional tendency to splash half the boat with water.  I have no idea what goes wrong there.

Very soon, I am going to take out formal membership. And before long I am going to have to face that The Year of the Dragon is a very real adventure, and a challenge, even if it is entirely different from my previous adventures — and this means I am going to have to stop thinking of it as something I do for fun a couple of times a week, and actually start training for it.  There might not be a dog sled and a frozen Arctic tundra up ahead, but if I am going to compete within the year, I need to take it seriously and train.

I like my corner of London

Royal Victoria Docks, Silvertown
Royal Victoria Docks, in London’s Silvertown

I like my corner of London.

It might not be very exciting, and sometimes I feel like it lacks character of other places in the east end — and it is like a foreign country compared to west and south west London. Just the same, I like it here.

I live in London’s Docklands — the more recent incarnation of the docklands.  It was one of the world’s most thriving docks at one time, and probably important for a very long time given the right combination of tides and places to unload.

Due to its importance, the area was heavily bombed during the second world war — while wealthier parts of the city in places like Kensington were left almost untouched by the war.  The inevitable march of technology all but killed the docks — bigger ships could no longer reach this part of the river, and the rise of shipping containers meant that fewer people were necessary to unload ships; the job could be done by cranes instead.

Docks closed and the area all but died out, until it became a new financial district in the later decades of the twentieth century.  But this isn’t intended to be a history lesson: to learn about the Wapping dispute (newspapers moving from Fleet Street to Wapping) and the Docklands Light Railway, you can visit the excellent Museum of London Docklands.

Some say that multiculturalism in Britain has failed.  I expect the people that say this are the people that want it to fail, the people that say that “immigrants” will never successfully integrate into the society’s where they settle, and everything is a powder keg of unrest and distrust.

I don’t see that here.

While you don’t exactly have large multicultural groups all holding hands in a circle and singing “Kumbaya” like Joan Baez, it is also one of the most diverse places I have ever known.  On a sunny day in Thames Barrier Park, you will see people of all creed, colours, races and religions sharing the space in friendship — and there’s no clear line where any one group of people starts and another ends.  Sunny and warm evenings around here encourage everyone to open their windows and doors, and what you get is a fantastic combination of cultures — music, televisions, even calls to prayer — all mixing together in the air.  You might call it noise pollution, but we reserve that term for the nearby airport.

Romantic visions of cultural melting pots where everyone mixes together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts may not have ever quite proved true — after all, most people tend to stay close to friends and family and the things they know — it does happen.

I’d like to see Docklands mature, beyond what is currently either big media companies and large financial institutions or islands of housing. They’re trying — whoever they are.  London Pleasure Gardens has recently opened in Silvertown — an area that has been largely forgotten since the decline of the docks, but still has so much of the history that I love, including old cranes by the water, vast warehouses and monolithic grain silos.  I’d like to see more community though, the things I like in other parts of the east end — where every third or fourth shop is a local grocer, old theatres (even if they are now cinemas), reminders of what places once were written in the brickwork above the buildings.

You can’t manufacture something like that, it has to come on its own.  While you can’t just make a place’s history or character (and it looks terrible when new buildings try to copy the style of older existing ones), maybe you can sometimes do something to encourage one.