Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 June 2018

Malcolm Guite relaunches his beloved canoe, in the footsteps of an eccentric Victorian explorer

I HAVE at last rescued Willow from where she languished under tarpaulins in a muddy field, spruced her up, and launched her again on the Great Ouse. Willow is my lovely little replica of the “Rob Roy” sailing canoe.

John “Rob Roy” MacGregor was one of those eccentric Victorian explorers whose exploits are still celebrated — indeed, some claim that he invented the sport of canoeing. But his way was not competitive: instead, he revelled in individual freedom and a desire to see as much of God’s good earth as possible.

Having seen birch-bark canoes in Canada, he came home to design and build his own little canoe: slender, clinker-built, with cedar decks and a stepping place for a light mast and single sail. My Willow follows his original lines, but, in truth, looks more like a smaller version of the light Elven boats in The Lord Of The Rings than any­thing from The Last of the Mohicans.

MacGregor didn’t just paddle and sail: he wrote. And the vivid account of his adventures, published in 1866 as A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe, was an overnight sensation. On the opening page, he praises the life and prowess of the canoeist thus:

He can steer within an inch in a narrow place, and can easily pass through reeds and weeds, or branches and grass; can work his sail without changing his seat; can shove with his paddle when aground, and can jump out in good time to prevent a bad smash. He can wade and haul his craft over shallows, or drag it on dry ground, through fields and hedges, over dykes, barriers, and walls; can carry it by hand up ladders and stairs, and can transport his canoe over high mountains.

I have to say, this is all rather too athletic for me: I turn to sail and stream for drifting and ease. Of course, MacGregor praises that, too:

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You lean all the time against a swinging backboard, and when the paddle rests on your lap you are at ease as in an armchair; so that, while drifting along with the current or the wind, you can gaze around, and eat or read, or sketch, or chat with the starers on the bank.

That’s more my style.

And so I have relaunched Willow, and found a place to keep her where I have easier access to the river, and where it’s broad enough for me to have some fun with Willow’s little red sail.

MacGregor was a devout Christian with a social conscience, a philanthropist, involved in the Ragged School movement and other charities. But he never draws the links that one might ex­­pect between the gospel and his chosen mode of adven­ture.

For me, though, to be borne afloat on water, to love and study its grace and movement, to sense the smallest zephyr and hoist one’s sails to it, steering with whatever skill one has but content to be borne before the breeze and take the adventure that comes . . . all this bodies forth so much of what the gospel tells of the Spirit: free as the wind, refreshing and life-giving as the stream.

It takes a lifetime to be “born again of water and the Spirit”, but a little of that lifetime, carried along visibly by the grace of water and wind, might help with the inward and spiritual journey.

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