Many of you will know that I underwent a total shoulder replacement last October, and although the new shoulder is fabulous in many ways, it has so far prevented me from most boating activities – especially rowing.

Imagine my surprise when I received a call from Jim Stockton the Monday before Australia Day, suggesting that he and Penny Braybrook take me rowing the next day!   Jim suggested that I provide the vessel and he provide the muscle – no rowing for the David, he said, the Jim will do it all!! All I had to do was extract and load the boats etc. and be ready (together with the Margaret) at 8:00am for an hour’s row!

We had decided to launch into the Yarra at Lower Homestead Road (upstream from Warrandyte) and row towards Lilydale.   Depending on snags and willow trees, you can go about 5 kilometres in that direction before the river shoals out. We would go partway up the river.

Now some of you know that it takes more than a couple of minutes to prepare for an hour or two on the river, and as I was taking the Joansa on its trailer and the Acorn on the roof of the wagon (both are 15’ clinker rowing skiffs) I decided to get an early start that same day with the Joansa and all the gear.   So ended day 1.

Day 2 – the Day – began at 6:00am with more preparation, and when Jim and Penny arrived for the 8:00am start we all loaded the Acorn on top of the wagon, hitched up the trailer and headed off.

It was decided that Margaret and Penny would take the Acorn, with Margaret using the forward rowing setup from the stern thwart and Penny rowing in the conventional fashion from the pointy end. Why the forward facing rowing system? Well, it’s a lot easier to row when you can actually see where you’re going!

I will not pretend that there was a lot of enthusiasm and confidence flowing from the girl crew, but to their credit they determined to give it a go – at least for a short time. The girls seemed to have brought along a bag or two, which I assumed was ballast they had thoughtfully brought along to assist with the boat’s trim.

Jim and I were assigned the Joansa, with me as steering advisor.

Upon arrival we found several canoes clogging up the ramp, including a stitch and glue bright finished ply example and it’s builder, Dave (another Dave).   Dave insisted upon letting us admire his workmanship and exchanging boatbuilding experiences, and so we were a little late getting underway, but eventually we made it to the water.

There was minor excitement as the girls unexpectedly (and uncontrollably) drifted downstream towards some skiff destroying shoals, but by the time Captain Jim had our boat underway they were on top of the situation and managed to lead us upstream – actually, I don’t think we caught them for a couple of kilometres.   Apparently 1 x Jim power with David ballast is not as efficient as 2 x girl power with bagged ballast!   We did manage to pass several canoes during the trip, never-the-less, and that they were going in the opposite direction is an irrelevancy, to my mind.

What a great experience it is to be on the river.   Is all this scenery really around us all the time? My captain seemed to be more interested in the scenery than rowing, at times – although after he had pulled into the shore and forced me to gather and eat blackberries, I felt that he may have been on the right track.   The captain noticed birds, bees and other stuff that normal people would be unaware of! We even saw a pair of kingfishers and the girls reported sighting a wallaby (onshore, I believe). Despite his distraction at times, my captain/crew performed magnificently and showed no sign of fatigue and never once complained.

So what is the condition of the upstream Yarra?   Well, there are many trees down (mainly wattles) and much of the river is clogged with snags and willow growth.   The willows are a real problem and there were at least 3 points where the navigable opening was less than 2 metres between trees and/or snags, and we were only able to proceed because the current was down – even so, both boats became pinned against obstacles on different occasions and were freed with some difficulty. The Acorn and its trusty crew actually managed to mount the fork of a snag, and we would have gone to their aid if we hadn’t been so busy laughing!   Progress for all was quite slow because of the need to navigate around snags.

Towards the end of our upstream journey, it appeared that the river didn’t go anywhere!! After careful reconnaissance ‘though, we found that the willows had actually linked midstream!   Jim and the girls did well to penetrate through to the other side – you can’t use oars once you enter a jungle like that.

After an hour and a half of rowing, the girls (who had thought that they would turn back after a short row) pulled into the shade and revealed that they hadn’t brought ballast after all – but water and ….. FOOD. Yes, Penny (bless her little socks) produced a huge stack of lamingtons and some sort of fruit cut into slices. Even though a man goes for cake normally, I had some of the fruit too.   It was ok. Could there be a better way to spend Australia Day than on the water amongst Australian wildlife and lunching on lamingtons and mangoes?

During the lunch break I checked that my captain was fit enough for the return journey, and reassured, we all chatted for a while. We had been discussing how the power lines over the river seemed to zig and zag, crisscrossing the river several times. Why would the engineers design them that way? Penny explained that it was because the lines were carrying alternating current.

On the homewards run, even as a passenger I could feel the difference in motion and speed going downstream. Jim told me that at times he was really just keeping the boat straight, with the river doing the rest. Margaret reports that the current assistance did not seem to extend to their boat.

After a fairly uneventful trip back (I think the girls did manage to snag themselves again – but so did we) it was safely ashore and back home for the rearrangement necessary to get the Joansa and Acorn away. What a great day! It never ceases to amaze me how interested people are in our home built boats, and how kind they are in assisting with launching, retrieving, unloading and loading etc. even when we know it’s unnecessary – it seems that many people just like to be involved.  

Thanks Jim and Penny, for your kind and thoughtful gesture.   Congratulations Jim, Penny and Margaret in rowing for 3 hours without complaint – looking at you afterwards, I reckon you could have managed another hour. Well done!

David O’Dempsey