The start of the Danube
During our first ten days on the River Danube, we have very quickly come to realise that this river is a fickle mistress. One minute the water is flowing quickly through beautiful scenery, a gentle tailwind helping us on our way... The next minute, the flow has vanished and we’re battling headwinds and waves comparable to our days on the sea around England, our progress all but halted. After the routine we had established on the Main and Main-Donau Canal, this sudden change and unpredictability has come as somewhat of a shock to us.
Adjusting to the new river was not helped by the number of hurdles that plagued our first few days. Joining the Danube we were taken aback to discover that the river flowed at a significantly slower rate than we had anticipated, a result of the hot and dry spring and summer. We knew we had to cover at least 60km each day in order to reach the Black Sea in time for Kate to start university this autumn, but we started to question whether this was really feasible.
To make matters worse, during our first afternoon on the Danube we encountered a storm that set us back by several hours. Forced onto the bank to wait out the thunder and lightning, we huddled under a scrubby tree as the wind and rain battered us. After Kate’s phone ended up in the Danube later that day (an ordeal it never recovered from), we could not help feeling both disheartened and frustrated with ourselves for thinking we were on the home straight.
Not ones to sit around moping about these things, it was not long before Kate and I were running through our options and trying to resolve the situation. The solution we landed on was to start setting our alarms for 5am and to paddle until the evening in order to cover our ambitious daily target.
Throwing ourselves into this new routine, the following morning we paddled away before 7am, having watched a sensational sunrise, armed with the necessary mug of coffee. Those first few hours of the day have quickly become our favourites; each morning has been so incredibly peaceful and still, the air cool and fresh, and a thin wisp of cloud gently hanging over the water. As the sun breaks over the tree-lined hills, it casts its warm glow over the river, the forests and hills beyond melting into the hazy horizon.
It is during these calm mornings that we make the most progress. By the afternoon the weather tends to take a slight turn as the wind picks up, a storm often rolling in to keep us company for a while. This does not usually cause us too much grief as the scenery has been so spectacular that it is not hard to take our minds off the headwinds. On an almost daily basis we are amazed by the magnificence of the mountains and forests that the river winds its way through, castles and monasteries perched high on hillsides above us.
Occasionally we have had to resort to playing some music on our small speakers to distract us from the battle to make progress. The vast industrial outskirts of Linz was not a particularly pleasant section as the wind whipped up choppy waves and white horses, but singing along to cheesy songs at the top of our voices made it all the more bearable. That said, music has also heightened our enjoyment of some already pleasurable situations, for example listening to Strauss’ Blue Danube while paddling through a mesmerising mountain landscape. The finale of the piece perfectly coincided with a dramatic beach landing, a hilarious memory that will forever be conjured up by hearing the music.
Amidst the beauty of our surroundings there have been some moments that stand out. Kate and I were both very happy to see our wonderful friend Andy who is currently cycling from London to the Black Sea (we like to think we played a part in this choice of summer adventure). We tried not to let it get to us too much that it had taken him just over a week to cover on a bike what had taken us several months to kayak...
We have also passed the beautiful cities of Regensburg and Passau, the latter of which is best known for being the point at which the Rivers Inn and Ilz join the Danube. Here, the river water changes from a dark brown-green colour to an incredible chalky blue as the glacial water of the Inn merges. The water becomes noticeably colder here as well, though we did not let that stop us from taking our daily evening dip later that day, a few kilometres after reaching Austria!
We have so successfully refined our morning routine that on one day we managed to cover over a third of our daily target distance before 10am. As a reward, we stopped to explore a quaint, beautiful town. We wandered along the cobbled streets, lined by low timbered buildings in an array of pastel shades, before ducking into a cafe to treat ourselves to some long-awaited apple strudel.
Unfortunately, the Danube decided to make it clear that it was not entirely impressed by our relaxed attitude. Paddling away from the town, we were immediately hit by a ferocious headwind that almost stopped us in our tracks. Shortly after passing the marker indicating that we had 2,000km remaining, a well-intended yet misjudged tow from a small boat resulted in our beloved Benji sustained a severe enough injury that we were forced to get off the water immediately. Though both Kate and I were ok, a large wave resulted in the fibreglass around my cockpit being torn and I found myself sitting in a rapidly increasing amount of water.
Unsure of the extent of the damage, it would have been easy for Kate and I to panic or even turn on each other. Thankfully, our reaction was to snap into action, trying to find a way of repairing Benji so we could continue as soon as possible. This was easier said than done as we were not very well-located to find help. After a tense twenty-four hours during which numerous solutions slipped frustratingly through our fingers, we decided to reach out to a wonderful friend we made in Germany, Wolfi.
Once again, Wolfi came to our rescue, immediately recruiting a friend and his family to help us. A few hours later, Falk, Charly, Alexa and Louis arrived to help carry our bags and wheel Benji to a yacht club to try to arrange the necessary repair works. As soon as we arrived, Benji was surrounded by half a dozen Austrian men, all discussing the best way to repair the damage. We are incredibly relieved to report that thanks to the hard work of the fantastic men at Wassersportclub Altenwörth, Benji has been pieced back together and we will shortly be continuing on our journey, glad to have this ordeal behind us.