Messing about on the river

Rafts and vessels of all shapes and sizes will be seen at this weekend's festival. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Rafts and vessels of all shapes and sizes will be seen at this weekend's festival. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Fancy taking the plunge in a raft made from milk cartons? Or what about casting away the anchor in a floating bar?

Budding engineers have the chance to put such wacky inventions to the test today at the annual Edinburgh Canal Festival and Raft Race.

And what a day it should be as thousands of people are expected to line the towpaths of the Union Canal at Fountainbridge to celebrate one of the Capital’s biggest assets - whatever the weather.

“Ever since the festival began it has been a success and I think it will continue to be, hopefully encouraging people to make more use of the canal area,” says event organiser Pat Bowie, of Re-Union Canal Boats.

“And come rain or shine, the event is prepared for the Scottish weather.”

This year the programme of events is packed to the rafters, with free boat trips, live music, a bike assault course, belly dancers and a break-out area for under-fives offering just a small taster of what is planned.

When it comes to free family fun, the community run festival - now in its fifth year - proves hugely popular every summer. And without fail, the raft race from Lemington Lift Bridge to Edinburgh Quay is one of the biggest draws.

“It seems like the more degrees you’ve got, the quicker your raft sinks though,” laughs Pat. “One of the most memorable we’ve had was a raft called The White Stuff, made by a mum and her two wee girls from milk cartons.

“But over the years we’ve had lots of different rafts including a hamster wheel, a wedding car, one shaped like a bed and we’ve even had a floating bar which featured a table and two bartenders.

“Paddling pools are also popular but they never last long.”

The Raft Race started seven years ago by a group of friends and in its first year some 32 teams took part. Now organised by My Adventure Edinburgh, so far organisers say 12 teams have already officially registered with many more expected to take part in heats today before the gruelling final.

There are lots of prizes on offer this year, including certificates and vouchers, as well as accolades for the Fanciest Float, the Fastest Raft, the Daftest Raft and even the most Recyclable Craft. A hand carved toilet seat previously won first place in the latter category.

The aim of the Canal Festival itself is to encourage local people to use the waterway, and the Edinburgh Quay area at Fountainbridge in particular, as well as to attract more visitors and tourists.

This year there is certainly plenty to keep everyone entertained, with canoe taster sessions by Forth Canoe Club, face painting and stalls on the schedule.

Tomorrow also sees the inclusion of a science tent where children have the opportunity to take part in practical experiments, including recreating the “soliton wave”.

The phenomenon - a solitary wave which maintains its shape while travelling at constant speed - was first described by Scottish scientist John Scott Russell in 1834 while he was watching a boat being drawn along by a pair of horses on the Union Canal.

In 1995, an international gathering of scientists witnessed a re-creation of that famous moment while in Edinburgh for a ceremony to name a new aqueduct after the scientist.

Children will get the chance to do their own recreation of the wave - but this time using the less scientific method of the humble rope and paper clips.

Free boat rides may be one of the oldest activities on the festival’s schedule, but they still prove to be one of the most popular.

“People love the free boat rides, it just gets busier and busier every year, even if it is bucketing with rain,” says Andy Devenport, boat co-ordinator at the festival and member of Edinburgh Canal Society.

“We now issue tickets to those wishing to sail because it is such a popular activity. There are now only limited spaces.

“The organisation of the activity is always stressful but it’s always well worth it in the end when you see so many people enjoying themselves.”

Also on the agenda tomorrow is a timeline of the canal area, as well as wall art from the Fountain Bridge Canal Initiative with a variety of pieces on display that people from different cultures will hopefully relate to.

“The time line will allow the people of Edinburgh to share their experiences with us,” says Pat. “We want to hear about what they have done around the area or memories they may have.

“It’s a chance to bring everyone together and really get involved.”

The Edinburgh Model Group will also be attending the festival this year for the first time, displaying a selection of their model boats both in and out of the water.

The origins of the Canal Festival stemmed from a desire to showcase what locals already knew what a huge asset to Edinburgh, but was something that may have slipped the attention of those living in neighbourhoods outwith the canal.

“Edinburgh Quay is such a fabulous location and I felt it was not given the recognition that it deserved,” says Pat.

“When I spoke to local businesses and other community groups they felt the same way, even members of the public, so I knew we had to do something that would attract people to this area.

“We always get a fantastic turnout rate whatever the weather. However, this year we are hopeful for a sunny day because it has rained the last few years.”

The festival kicks off at 12pm today at Lochrin Basin, behind Cargo bar (129 Fountainbridge).

Scottish artist Richard Demarco and Lord Provost Donald Wilson will officially open the event when they arrive on a VIP boat, piped in by Hamish Moore.

• For more information go to www.edinburghcanalfestival.org.uk.