Canoe is man’s last challenge to cancer

Roger Horwood has spent the last four years building this Canadian canoe between battling cancer and chemotherapy.

Roger Horwood has spent four years handcrafting a Canadian canoe – a project, he says, that would have taken him only six months had it not been for a few “minor interruptions”.

The “minor interruptions” he’s referring to so playfully are cancer and a string of surgeries, including one to remove all the organs from his pelvic area.

As the cancer does its best to kill him, Roger, 72, has busied himself with creating a thing of beauty from meranti, beech and imbuia.

He and his wife, Sharon, had been visiting their daughter in America in late 2009 when he was taken to hospital with a terrible stomach pain. A colonoscopy revealed stage-three colon cancer.

“I wasn’t supposed to be awake when doctors told my wife and daughter I had cancer. I was still coming out of anaesthetic and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be interesting’,” recalls Roger.

He believes everything in life – whether good or bad – is an experience. The good side of that equation, Roger will tell you, is Sharon, and she says that’s been his approach to everything in life in all the years she’s been married to him.

“He is such a wonderful person and such an inspiration. He is the perfect example of positive attitude,” says Sharon.

Surrounded by family photos and looking out onto a beautiful garden at their Royal Ascot home, Sharon talks about the man she married 45 years ago and how she would do it again “in a flash”.

“He needs a challenge always, and this canoe is his last challenge,” she says, as Roger can be heard tinkering in the garage. Sharon says he does his best thinking in there.

The garage is fragrant mix of varnish and fresh wood shavings. At its heart, is the canoe. Roger hovers over it.

His voice is even-toned, soothing; the English accent still there even though he has lived in South Africa since his 20s.

Covered in dust with a pencil behind his left ear, he looks remarkably well for someone living with six cancerous lung nodules and two stoma bags.

“It’s a lot of repetitive work: cutting a strip and glueing it on,” he says of his labour of love.

“My mind is in neutral and I get a lot of thinking done.”

He was inspired to build the Canadian canoe after seeing a picture of one in a magazine at a wood show in Knysna four years ago. Refusing to pay for the building plans, he designed it himself and mapped it out on the garage floor with koki pen. He points at the remnants of the marks on the floor.

Weighing about 80kg, the canoe is 5m long and 900mm “in the beam”.

Asked why he has built the canoe, Roger says: “I love a challenge. It’s part of the reason why my life has been the way it has.”

A qualified English and physical education teacher, Roger moved to South Africa in 1969.

“He followed a girl here. Not this one,” jokes Sharon, pointing at herself.

His early years in South Africa included teaching at a boys’ school in Pretoria, being a rugby referee and working as an insurance broker.

In 1972, he became a committed Christian. He studied theology for three years and served in churches in Claremont and Camps Bay among others.

Chemotherapy, he says, was one of the toughest challenges he’s experienced.

“I’m surprised I didn’t die of that. I’ve never been so ill in my entire life,” he says.

The chemotherapy didn’t stop a tumour from growing in his pelvic area, and, in an attempt to save his life, he went to the extreme.

“We had to take everything out. Basically everything is gone except the colon,” he says.

He talks calmly about what lies ahead and praises Sharon for supporting him throughout: the diagnosis, the chemo, the surgeries.

“She’s an angel with a Duracell battery. I’m not in a hurry to die, but I’m looking forward to it. My only concern is leaving Sharon behind.”

Roger plans to launch the canoe on his swimming pool in a week’s time to check for leaks before heading down to Milnerton lagoon for a paddle.