New Internationalist

Sinking assets

Boats are sinking assets. Yesterday I thought for a moment I was about to discover the truth of this a little sooner than expected.

There’s a neat round hole in the bathroom floor of my barge. Out of idle curiosity I shone a torch into it, down into what I think is called the bilge. There seemed to be rather a lot of water there. Apart from the stuff for drinking and washing, water is supposed to be outside, not inside the boat. This much I knew.

Pete happened to be passing. He did a lot of laborious work renovating this boat, and so he knows it inside out. He took a look. The expression on his face was grim. Eva and Dan were summoned. They fetched a vacuum cleaner and started to suck the water out.

‘This boat does not leak!’ said Pete.

‘Of course not!’ I said, having only just bought it off him.

‘If it is leaking,’ he added, ‘we’ll have to take it off to the boatyard pronto.’

But, once the water was out, the bilge stayed dry. Relief all round, though I sleep a little restlessly.

Today at dawn I rise to shine a torch once more into the hole in the bathroom floor. The bilge is still dry. I try the hot water, and immediately the bilge begins to fill again. Hidden away behind the hot-water tank is a damp patch.

I have found the leak! Of this I am inordinately proud, despite the fact that this means the tank has split. It will have to be replaced.

I fondly imagine that we’ll make off to one of those specialized boating supply shops called chandlers. Not a bit of it. We head for a mega retail park outside the nearest city. It’s a sunny Sunday morning. The place is seething with cars to the point of gridlock.

There are three DIY superstores more or less next to each other. The first has the right kind of tank, but not the right size. The second has the right size, but two kinds of tank, and we’re not sure which is the right one. The rising price of the copper, from which they are made, means they are now almost twice as expensive as they were just a couple of years ago.

We retreat to consult with Pete, though not before I have bought a plastic bucket and a length of rope – a very practical means, I have always thought, of swilling water from the river over the decks to clean them and of dousing the flowerpots I mean to decorate them with. Eventually. Among other things.

Back at the mooring we sit down for a cup of tea, looking out across the river and the floodplain to a large chocolate factory, from which, when the wind is in the right direction, drifts a faint scent of cocoa. Jack and Beth, a young couple who drive powerful motorcycles and are renovating a very large Dutch barge as their first home, remove their soiled, bright-red overalls and head for the pub across the river.

On the opposite bank is a group of young men pulverizing grass with at least three very rowdy motorized ‘strimmers’. They have a large white van, and a rather battered vagrant boat moored to the bank. They are preparing for their annual ‘party’ next Saturday night, to which we are duly invited – but advised not to go. The term ‘party’, I am told, only loosely applies to the drunken dust-up that habitually ensues.

What’s legal here is hard to tell. It depends on British Waterways, who own the water, the landowner who owns the land, various ‘authorities’, the police and, well, custom and practice. My personal status rests, it seems, on a photograph taken in 1945 showing ‘houseboats’ moored to the same spot.

The mooring itself was, until Pete and his partner Flor bought it a few years ago, pretty much derelict, a dump for wrecked cars, disused scaffolding poles, sunken boats, bonfires of old tyres.

Yet, when a warm sun shines on a Sunday, like today, people flock to this spot to paddle, potter, even swim.

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