New Internationalist

My maiden voyage

A dapper couple wearing shorts arrive in an SUV and make off in a smart blue narrowboat. Smart boats are rarely lived in, more usually ‘leisure craft’. British Waterways - a QUANGO - is apparently convinced that these craft represent the most profitable, and therefore the only, future for the inland waterways. They have a vision of ‘marinas’ like car parks dotting the waterscape around desirable ‘canalside’ urban condominiums. There will be no-one to be seen actually living there, like the 20,000 or so of us who do so already.

The male half of the couple introduced himself, and I got the feeling (perhaps only in retrospect) that he expected me to know that he is - I later discover - the host of a local daytime TV auction show. He quotes the great length of his narrowboat emphatically.

I was just getting used to the idea that from now on this is my small but perfectly formed and stable new home. After an excursion on my bike to buy the daily newspaper, I was settling down to read on the deck it when the crew arrived.

‘Want to take her out?’ they said.

The barge hasn’t moved since I arrived here. It is said that the longer you live on a boat the less inclined you feel to take it anywhere. You tend to forget that you have a very large engine in your home, a propeller, a rudder and a steering wheel. But the point of a boat really is that it can move.

The fact that I had so far not moved at all, when my plan is to explore the English inland waterways, find out about the people who live on them, and perhaps eventually even travel through Europe this way, was becoming a bit of an embarrassment.

It was a beautiful morning and, well, there would be another newspaper tomorrow.

So off we went: Pete, Flor and their son Jeb; Bob, my neighbour the mutli-skilled miracle man; Dan the water rat; Flor’s sister Eva; Kat, who’s just back from playing volleyball with the Zapatistas in Mexico; and me.

I soon began to appreciate that when you are moving more than 30 tons of steel it is wise to have as many hands as you can find - and best to avoid being ‘short-handed’. Things you weren’t aware of can creep up on you at any time.

Besides, boats are not much like houses or caravans and nothing at all like castles or cars. If you’re taking your home for a spin on a fine Saturday morning in June, then the more who come along for the ride - and preferably know something about crewing boats - the jollier. ‘Taking the boat out’ becomes an excursion with whatever friends and neighbours happen to be around.

But perhaps ‘off we went’ makes it appear a bit too simple. Life afloat seems to be a constant, and potentially lethal, sequence of things to be switched on or off in the right order. As someone who regularly confuses right and left, I may not be ideally suited, in a practical sense, to this way of life.

The engine had to be started. It’s a magnificent lump of metal, adapted from a Dutch truck, ‘marinized’ and almost brand new. But it hadn’t been started for several weeks. Dense clouds of disgruntled smoke engulfed my neighbour Bob’s boat. Cooling water belched into the river. Eventually the engine settled down to a contented, expensive-sounding hum.

Then the complex cradle of ropes and poles which holds the barge in place had to be undone - a puzzle to compare with any that I’ve failed to solve in the past.

Finally, with Pete at the helm, we began to move - a rather disconcerting experience, your home drifting off, without your quite knowing where.

At the lock around the corner the vagrant boat from across the river was moored, filling up with drinking water and having a wash. Apparently the party last weekend had not been an unalloyed pleasure for its host. Most of the ‘guests’ had been uninvited.

For those of you who are not familiar with them, I’d better say a quick word about locks. Since, in order to flow, rivers have to go downhill, in order to be navigable as well they sometimes need to be made to descend in gentle steps, rather than over rapids, waterfalls and the like. This requires two sets of gates across the river, usually with a weir to one side so the water can flow past them if it wishes. If you are going down, you fill the pool between the two gates until it reaches the upper level; you open the top gates, drive your boat in, close the gates behind you, then open hatches in the bottom gates so the water drains down to the lower level. Then you open the bottom gates and chug off to the next one. To go back up again, you simply reverse the process.

Locks are one reason why river travel takes so long - another is the four-mile-an-hour speed limit. No-one on a boat ever agrees to meet anyone at a specified time and place.

With a barge like this the practice of going through locks is, however, not quite so simple as the theory. Ideally, you have one person at the helm, two holding ropes to keep the boat in place and another two to heave the enormous wooden lock gates open and closed. That makes five. In the Netherlands these barges were routinely driven by just one person. But then the Netherlands is flat, and there aren’t many locks. Any thoughts I had about ever setting off on my own rapidly receded.

At this point, having lowered our speed to about two miles per hour, Pete suggested I take the wheel. After all, the point of our excursion was to teach me how to handle my barge, something Pete used to do professionally. Steering 30 tons of steel, all your worldly goods and the fate of several other people, even at two miles per hour, was enough to tense every muscle in my body.

‘The one thing to avoid’ said Pete, ‘is panic.’

The wheel is an attractive thing, like a cartwheel with protruding spokes. But if you hold it in the wrong way it can take your fingers off. And it’s not at all like driving a car. You don’t just point it in the direction you want to go and go there. Wind, the movement and depth of the water, a submerged supermarket trolley, can easily take you somewhere else. So you have to spend your time spinning the wheel, constantly making adjustments, occasionally leaning out of the wheelhouse to sound a blast on a horn, warning rowing boats, canoes or whatever of your approach.

Stopping, turning round or mooring require more nerve than I currently have, and I leave them to Pete. We stop off at Bumbles - one of a few watering holes around the country that you can only access from the water. It is run by a genial ‘semi-retired’ couple. He used to work on racing cars, but has now slowed down a lot.

We sit outside in the sun. Dan’s liberal cursing has to be restrained in deference of the ladies sitting at a table behind him.

This is the first time I have ever found my home outside a pub. Come to that, it is the first time I, with a band of intimate strangers for company, have driven my home through the sunlight along a wooded gorge, all but in the centre of a city that remains silent, hidden from view.

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