The Avon Canoe Pilot.

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AVON CANOE PILOT WAS PUBLISHED IN 2007 for a PDF copy click below.

Avon Canoe Pilot PDF

We would also consider sending you a copy on request.

Images supplied by Amy Balkin on a voyage to Cape Farewell.


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Avon canoe pilot is a meditative sport-art project.

It is only itself. Making no associations or allusions to things greater or 
more established than itself.

It exists within the realms of sport/ adventure and exploration.

All activities were performed in a beginners state of mind, which is 
aspired to by many, but is also highly provocative.

Imagine buying a Canoe from e-bay, or some such greed infrastructure and 
then taking it, without experience, to the waters edge. Fear and courage 
combined with presence of mind, delicate physical touches working together 
to produce one, of many, first steps to something new.

During this project, I have been surprised many times, mostly due to 
laziness of memory, of how provocative and powerful a confident new-comers 
entrance can be.

Canoeing down a river should not create fear in the minds of authorities, 
especially ones dealing with safety.

Exploring established territories in new ways does have the power to change 
minds and habits permanently.

We hope you find this pilot useful, but we hope it doesn't spoil your own 
adventures, whether they be in Bristol or anywhere involving water. 
Hopefully, you will also be entertained and inspired by our play, more so 
than reality reality. 


Welcome to The Avon Canoe Pilot.

With this booklet, we intend to inspire and inform people to extend their 
use of both the tidal River Avon and the Bristol Docks.

Bristol is a leisure city, transformed from a post-industrial landscape 
over the past twenty years.

The next logical step in this process is the further extension of both use 
and size of the city waters.

Bristol is a unique city in the United Kingdom in that it offers adventure 
and extreme sports within the city. The Avon Gorge is an excellent site for 
climbing, canoeing and mountain biking, but greatly under-used.

For example, sailing or canoeing under the suspension bridge is so rare 
that emergency service are often called when small craft are spotted in the 

This is a shame.

Bristol is further unique for its city wildlife offering plants that grow 
nowhere else in the world, plus an abundance of rare and wonderful species 
of birds and animals.

It has been our aim to connect the urban centre to the wilderness of such 
places as Denny Island in the Severn Estuary and to share this possibility 
with others. Imagine setting off from Bristol city centre, navigating the 
challenging tidal Avon and then crossing The Severn Estuary, probably the 
most hazardous waterway in the world, to a small island surrounded by 
quicksand. No other city in the UK offers these contrasts and challenges.

The tidal Avon is quiet a hazardous stretch of waterway for large and small 
craft alike. With some knowledge and planning, most of these dangers can be 
transformed to ones advantage for pleasure and adventure.

Personal discipline and obedience to local and international safety 
standards is advisable.

We hope you find this pilot useful, and not to spoiling of your own 
adventures, whether they be in Bristol or anywhere involving water. 
Hopefully, you will also be entertained and inspired by our play, more so 
than reality reality. 

Pedestrian to pilot

For many years I have crossed over the bridges that marry the urban 
territories that the New Cut divides. Like most pedestrians my relationship 
to the river has been remote, following desires and routes that never seek 
or go toward the river. My relationship till now has been one of 

I lived for four years in Bedminster and crossed over from town and back 
daily. There was never a time when I saw the river occupied, the river has 
always been empty of vessel activity. The River Avonseemed somewhat lonesome, 
other and distant; maintaining a strange speed and a fascinating brownness.

Occasionally, we would play on the bridges, often after a night out, like 
every youngster filled with piss and vinegar. Back then the closest I got 
to the New Cut was a night when we hung off Bedminster Bridge. High on 
mushrooms, I think... we hung by our feet with our bodies and hands dangling 
free. As Rachel hung we watched as her keys, money and fags fell into the 
dark waters below. I remember the interesting upside down view and a sense 
of total outrage towards the usual physical rules.

Like most Bristol folk, I have had some fun, some work, and many summer 
evenings down by the docks, looking over at the waters. The memorable 
events in relation to the docks, are few and momentary. As a dare Davey 
Pollop drank a pint of the docks water and was sick for a while. Finnians 
dad, after a world Cup glory moment, ran out of a waterside bar and jumped 
in fully clothed and Lady Lucy lost her skateboard to it some years ago.

Whenever I sat by the bank, it never occurred to me to descend a ladder.

We had wanted a canoe for sometime to complete another exploration of 
underground spaces in the city. One evening in a pub I met Jo. She had a 
canoe and was the first to take us out and finally we convinced her to 
sell it to us.

Now that we had a vessel to enter the water, the potential began to unfold. 
The apprenticeship in becoming a pilot began here in 2004.

Kayle Brandon 


The tidal Avon is probably one of the most dangerous waterways in the UK, 
with one of the highest tidal ranges in the world and many dangerous sand 
bars and rocks.

Over the centuries many ships have been lost whilst navigating it.

The unaccountable, unduly influential and overly secretive Merchant 
Venturers of Bristol were in control of it's pilotage for 250 years

Now, as in the past, you will not see any female faces in positions of 
authority in either the docks or on the tidal Avon except for the regular 
crews of the Avon canoe pilot.

In the spring of 2007, an Avon canoe pilot attempted to guide and rescue 
foundered sailing boats at the mouth of the Bristol City Docks. The 
skippers refused to reply to verbal and visual contact in an attempt to 
preserve middle-aged male pride. Being rescued by some dirty punks and 
women was going to be too much for them. So they stayed stuck in the mud.

The Avon canoe pilots have successfully guided many small craft up and down 
the tidal Avon on many occasions. Several of the guided vessel crews are 
now themselves canoe pilots. 

A pilot's manifesto

A pilot must know their waters, territory and the word on the banks.

A pilot needs to acknowledge their place in representing the wild ways of 
the river, and the social relations of the urban dockland. They must train 
in deciphering the elemental and psychological conditions of the waters 

The pilot needs to be fit and able to guide and seek. She must know both 
bodies and let movement become absolute. The mind of the pilot needs to be 
open to the unexpected and able to give way to irresistible forces.

Challenge the current status quo and make way for new !

A pilot should host the newcomer, participate in anarchy and increase chaos 
as the river does.

The pilot should participate in keeping the waterways open, support life 
forms, activity and expression; increase the folk value by fusing common 
relations; preserve and maintain the wealth and health of the waters that 
keep the pilot buoyant.

The pilot may come across murky social waters, fixed habitual conceptions 
and crystallised constraints. They may become jostled by established powers 
and drowned by competitive trends. Meet these trials like a river meets a 
stick, a bird, a shopping trolley. Take it, feed it, shape it, bear it.

Seek the help of friends when entering into the pilot's mission.

Research Methods

An active educational training programme for the beginner pilot.

Research methods enable the potential pilot to engage with the complexities 
of entering new territories.

They have been formulated to reduce the distance between the known and 
unknown. A researcher needs to be able to access tools and techniques 
swiftly, hence the methods developed here employ shop standards and simple 
starting points.

When introducing a new channel, established channels become disrupted. 
These research methods may ruffle feathers as they gate crash systems.

These methods double up as social events, recreational things to do with 
the days.

They do not require specialist schooling. They do require a state of 
experimental adventurism.


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The territories of exploration are divided by time, regulations and 
established behaviours.

Liberal access is of utmost importance. If we can't establish independent 
entrance points, we will be at the mercy of the lock-keepers. The tide already 
holds us to a timetable, we do not want to be bound to a human one as well. 
The times they offer are OK, but we want more flexibility.

The slipways are in a state of disuse, forgotten, and buried under years of 
mud. The mud banks act as a natural deterrents to Homosapien water entry. 
The main lock is open three hours before high water, then it closes.

We have developed some tools and techniques that extend times, entry points 
and range of access to the New Cut and River Avon.

We have invented and renovated access points and also extended the function 
of existing barriers.

Notes for general access:

Many of the points require a degree of walking; vessels can be heavy and 
cumbersome. Using a wheeled contraption for the vessel would greatly reduce 
the unpleasantness of entering water from unclassified or abandoned access 

Carry extra lengths of rope, these will aid you in lowering, or hauling the 
vessel out of high banked places (the distance between water and bank is 
relative to the tide timetable determined by various gods).

All manoeuvres can be reversed, aside from mud launching. All can be done 
by one person, but are much easier with two. 




Blue Flag, Disco Canoe and Mud Launch research  
are in collaboration with Birgit Binder.
Participation from:

Publication design:

Thanks to:

Supported by:

Further reading


Heath Bunting is an Artsadmin bursary recipient.

Kayle Brandon.