Stroll along London’s Regent’s Canal these days and you’ll see something rather unusual: Amongst the dog walkers and joggers is a communal canoe, padlocked to the fence. A colourful plaque hung to its neck is emblazoned with the colourful lettering: The Community Canoe.
Situated near Hackney’s Broadway Market, the Community Canoe does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a free canoe that can be hired by anyone. Come rain or shine, budding paddlers can take it all the way from Hackney to Regents Park – for free.
Conceived in the summer of 2022, The Community Canoe was launched as a way of opening up opportunities for local people. Users can unbolt its padlock and take the canoe out for a day, after simply firing off an e-mail.
Whilst not quite regarded as a canoeing hotspot, London and its waterways are ideal for some water activities. The placid waters of Regents Canal provide an unrivalled route, stretching from East to West London.
Despite canoers being the most likely of boaters to own their craft, getting a canoe out onto the water is usually no mean feat. A brand-new canoe can first cost up to £2,000 and purchasing a licence, allowing you to paddle in London, will set you back another £122. If renting, prices span between £25-£35 an hour. Needless to say, due to its high-cost nature, canoeing is not for everyone.
Until now. Raphael Holca, a Hackney resident, is the founder of The Community Canoe. Hailing from Canada, Raphael found that he wasn’t using his canoe much after moving to London.
“I had a canoe for a number of years, and was not using it as often as I had been. I thought it’d be more fun to do something shared with it. Instead of it just sitting at home and no one using it, make it accessible to other people,” he told Artefact.
So, Raphael launched The Community Canoe. He padlocked his canoe to Hackney Wick’s portion of the canal, created a colourful sign with a WhatsApp contact number, and waited.
After enjoying London’s canal so much himself, Raphael was hopeful that others would jump aboard.
“It’s such a different experience to be in London out on a canoe. It doesn’t feel like a 12 million-people city, it feels like you’re out of the city for a little bit. The whole canal is really green,” he said.
“I really like going to Hackney Wick: you can paddle all the way there and there’s a few pubs that that are right on the canal so you can paddle to the pub, lock the canoe on the side of the pub and just walk in, which I think is quite unique. It’s also beautiful,” said Raphael.
Interest spread quickly and Raphael received a flurry of WhatsApp messages.
“So, at first, I actually had my WhatsApp number there, which I think was more fun because I had direct interactions with people which is also part of the fun of it, but also pretty busy,” he said.
Due to the demand, Raphael created a new online interface, where individuals could seamlessly sign-up. Those who contact The Community Canoe’s e-mail address now receive an auto-reply, inviting them to book a three-hour time slot. After selecting a date and time and providing ID, passengers are given the code for the canoe’s combination lock.
“It’s like self-service. So, the oars are locked inside the canoe, and you can just go and unlock it with the code and take it away. I have little instructions about how to use it with local pictures and how to lock it, too,” said Raphael.
Since its launch, The Community Canoe has become more than just a free rental service. It’s become a way of unlocking laughter and opportunity for the community – and putting trust in strangers.
“I think London is a big city that can appear maybe impersonal at times. And I wanted to do something that could bring people together – where there’s something shared and also free and not commercial. Just to bring people together a little bit,” said Raphael.
Raphael still occasionally uses his canoe but, when he doesn’t, he trusts strangers to take it out. This is highly important to the success of the project, and Raphael believes that broadcasting a message of trust can only be met with positivity.
Raphael told Artefact: “Sending a message of trust is probably the key. Strangers are worth trusting, people are good people at their heart. And I think if you give them trust, they’ll behave well and do the right thing.
“The more you trust people, and the more you broadcast that message, the more this is what you’ll see in the world.”
Since the summer, passengers of The Community Canoe have been highly trustworthy. Previous passengers have even gone to the lengths of purchasing a new canoe lock after the original jammed.
However, there have been some anomalies. During the first weekend of The Community Canoe’s launch, it went missing overnight.
“The first week that I had [the canoe] out, there was a couple [that contacted me via WhatsApp]. That night, I came home quite late and [the canoe] wasn’t back; it was like 2:00am.
“I thought: ‘Come on, it’s only been the first week and the canoe’s gone.’ I went out the next day and it still wasn’t there at 9:00am. And then I called them, and they finally came back at 10:00am, so I don’t know where they took it for the night,” said Raphael.
Despite this, the positive response garnered from The Community Canoe has been overwhelming and has even forged new friendships.
London Fields resident Matt first got in touch with Raphael through The Community Canoe. Previously a Dublin-based water sports teacher, Matt was interested in getting back out onto the water – but quickly realised how difficult it was in London.
“So, I was exploring the possibility of buying a canoe and how I could get it onto the water in London, and I very quickly realised that there is lots of paperwork that you need to do, you have to jump through hoops; it’s incredibly difficult,” Matt told us.
“I was ranting about that one day, then the following day I was walking on the canal and saw a sign for The Community Canoe. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It seemed too good to be true. It was a complete solution to the problem that I had been ranting about 12 hours prior.”
After booking a time slot, Matt, his partner, and his dog, took the canoe out during the summer of 2022. “The three of us had a jolly old time on the water. London is surprisingly green; people don’t realise it’s covered in beautiful parks and gorgeous nature. And I think it’s something a lot of us who live in London really crave. I grew up on the coast, by the water, and realised that there’s this incredible resource on our doorstep.”
After hiring the canoe, Matt and Raphael stayed in touch and soon became friends. Both sharing an interest in facilitating opportunities for others, new plans began to be forged.
The pair are now working on a new instalment of the project, and plans to adopt the canal between Hackney’s Cat and Mutton Bridge and Mare Street Square have been developed.
“The Canal and River Trust have these adoption programmes where you can adopt part of the canal and then you’re sort of in charge. You can also do what you want with it, within the guidelines,” Raphael said, and he has reached out to people who have previously taken the canoe out, asking them to help build veggie boxes and plant vegetables along the canal. The project will also include putting benches along the paths and keeping the area clean. The aim remains simple: bringing people together.
“We’ve received this verbal agreement from [The Canal and River Trust] and they are very supportive of the new project and also very supportive of the canoe. So now we’re just finalising the project; it’s probably going to be a few months maybe before we get the final approval, but I think it’s all going to work out,” said Raphael.
Before reaching out to The Canal and River Trust, Raphael had concerns about what they’d say about his canoe. He worried that he’d be asked to remove his canoe from the canal. However, the Trust was highly supportive and even offered to fund life jackets for people using it.
“I think it’s making [the area] better for the people that walk along the canal, but also for the people that participate in the project,” Raphael said. “There are few things that I enjoy more than sharing a project with other people, when you can build something and then make a positive impact on the community and people around.”
It may have begun with a canoe that needed dusting off, but The Community Canoe project has transformed into something greater. “There’s been beautiful friendship and now another project that will hopefully encourage others to also selflessly give up their time to the benefit of others. That feels like it’s at the heart of what Raphael was thinking, so it’s achieved its goal,” Matt said.
Emerging from lockdown, rebuilding a sense of community in London is no easy task. Hackney – renowned for its eclectic residents – is no exception. But by putting trust in strangers and providing free opportunities for the community, bonds are beginning to form.
“[The project is] really all driven by an individual who’s willing to take a risk and Raphael really encompasses that. He has no agenda and is very much driven by wanting to bring people together,” Matt told us. “I think that attracts likeminded individuals, so I suspect the people who are taking a day off with the canoe all share the same values.”
Whether you’re a serial paddler or a canoeing newbie, the Community Canoe is ready and awaits its next passengers.
Featured image courtesy of Raphael Holca