There comes a time in every chaps life, after he’s bought the boat and after he has begun to work through the long, long list of DIY jobs that need doing, after he’s prevaricated and fluffed around like a land-lubber, when he simply has to move his boat. I mean really move it, on the water, out of the marina to a specific location and then back again. It simply can’t be avoided.
My time came when I looked at the Cardinal’s gas system. The system for LPG, that is, I don’t mean that the boat burps or has flatulence or anything, although, perhaps in times of nautical stress…
When I read the broker’s advertisement for the boat I actually misread it, and it turns out that there wasn’t so much a “full-size cook” in the galley as there was a “full-size cooker”. A subtle but important difference. The former does clever things with asparagus and copper saucepans and usually for six guineas a year all in (two Sunday afternoons a month off), while the latter generally needs servicing once a year by a “Gas Safe Registered Person”. Someone to poke around in the burners and the oven and the grill and make sure that the thing hissed where hissing should be and didn’t hiss where it shouldn’t be.
I am a chap who always endeavours to kill at least two birds with one stone, the previous occasion being two peacocks and a flamingo when I tried to beat my own record for stone-skimming while visiting Mummy and Daddy and Nanny at the old family seat (it’s quite a small lake in the upper formal garden, so a chap can’t be expected to avoid hitting wildlife all of the time). Anyway, I found a rare “Gas Safe” person who was also qualified and willing to service the Cardinal’s diesel central-heating boiler at the same time as the cooker; two jobs, only one fuss, splendid. Mr Gas-Safe could only see us if we took ourselves to him some few miles up the canal, around a bend and at a place called ‘Barbridge’.
Ding ding ding ding ding. Oh – go on then, if we must.
One of the delights of England’s canal system is that, where the population is sufficiently fond of flavoured ethanol to keep such establishments in business, there are canal-side pubs. For the uninitiated, a pub is not a bar. English pubs, the proper ones, are more akin to private houses full of acquaintances and strangers. Imagine coming downstairs in your jim-jams to find that someone has knocked down most of the internal walls, put the Swedish Chef and a hundredweight of cabbages in your kitchen, installed urinals in the cloakroom, filled your cellars with two-dozen micro-brewery beers – and then left your front door open all night. Well, Barbridge has a pub called, imaginatively, The Barbridge Inn, and while it’s not quite the full jim-jams, it’s not bad, not bad at all. It has canal-side moorings…
Aside from his willingness to give us an appointment in under a year, Mr Gas-Safe had one other thing in his favour. His missus runs a narrowboat hire concern and runs courses on how to handle narrowboats. Mr Gas-Safe’s missus was to be dispatched to meet us at the Cardinal’s marina moorings and to accompany us on the voyage to Barbridge, offering sage words and pithy newbie suggestions along the way. Being a seasoned professional, her sage words and pithy suggestions could be relied upon to be useful, and to not be the “Oh god oh god oh god” and “Does this lifejacket auto-inflate?” and “Aaaargh – we’re all going to die!” calls of all of my previous boating experiences (Cleethorpes Boating Lake; rowing-boat).
The day arrived, as such days always do. Mrs Gas-Safe arrived soon after, and in a blur of adrenalin and action I suddenly found myself at the Cardinal’s helm (the waggle-stick and throttle), reversing him out of his mooring. Somehow, as always happens when there’s a competent professional around, the rest of the trip just sort of “happened” and was over and done with. I have little recollection of it other than occasionally responding to sensible suggestions.
“Loosen your fingers on the tiller before you leave fingerprints in the steel for all time.”
“It’s no good just standing there playing dead and staring into space, you need to put the boat into gear and apply a touch of throttle now.”
“It’s customary at blind bridges and junctions to use the boat’s horn rather than simply screaming like Emo Philips and then crying like a big girl’s blouse.”
I don’t even remember tying the ropes on the Cardinal’s new, temporary mooring – but that’s because I didn’t tie the ropes, Mrs Gas-Safe did (someone had to). After ringing the Chadburn repeater for “Finished with engines”, Mrs Gas-Safe found time to deal with me. I was still on the stern, eyes wild and squinting at the horizon, alert for any sign of Atlantic breakers or some monumental seventh swell, wondering if it was too late to lash myself to the wheel (even though the Cardinal hasn’t got one). She kindly used a Magic Marker and a spare hatch-cover to write out a large notice and hold it in front of my face. It gradually came into focus.
‘Nous sommes arrives. Vous can lettez go of the tiller and relax now.’
Why it was in French je ne sais pas, but perhaps it was in English and I just felt as though I’d just piloted Kon-Tiki at right angles across the shipping traffic flow of the English Channel.
Well, the moorings at Barbridge can be rather splendid. If you are lucky, as we had been, there are four or five moorings right alongside the pub. Hop off boat, three strides across the towpath, open the pub door and hail the barman to begin pulling pints and frying chips. They serve food all day (this is fortunate, since I can eat all day) and they serve food all evening (ditto). The Cardinal had his cooker and diesel-fired central-heating boiler serviced and I spent the afternoon and evening looking for the bottom of a bottle of Hendrick’s gin and shovelling treacle tart and custard down my neck. Then, as I have done countless times before, I slept that night virtually on a pub’s doorstep, although this time, for the first time ever, I slept out of sight, under cover (on my boat) and undisturbed by Her Majesty’s roving constabulary.
Of course, the thing with such days is that the following day always also dawns. I opened the flaps at both ends of my empty box of Aspirin, held it in my hand like a stubby telescope and surveyed the scene. The pub was closed. The Cardinal and I were moored miles from “home” – and facing in entirely the wrong direction. One thing about England’s canals and narrowboats is that the boats are generally longer, much longer than the canal is wide – narrowboats can only be volte-faced in especially-widened points dotted around the system. “Home” mooring wasn’t just back that way, it was three miles further on, then turn-around, re-trace those extra three miles and only then back the way we’d come yesterday. I wiped a stray tear away as it trickled down my leg, and I bit a knuckle (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, an official pose for use in dramatic moments). I did what anyone might do in the circumstances; I rang the long-suffering brother and hinted that if he didn’t turn out to help then I would tell the authorities where some of the bodies were buried. He turned out.
We slipped the Cardinal’s moorings, pushed his bows out into the gap between boats occupied by inexcusable sots, drunkards and hung-over ne’er do wells (I have some hypocrite-DNA and a tendency towards the “holier than thou” when under the influence of Industrial Aspirin) and we set off to get back to our home moorings. Everything went well, very well. Surprisingly well. Well, at the “winding hole” (turning place) there were three families of gongoozlers and their dogs (and their cats and hamsters, and one small boy holding a glass tank with two or three goldfish in it). No matter. For some reason, some absolutely accidental reason, I turned all of the Cardinal’s fifty-seven foot length around as though I’d been doing just that for centuries, and sometimes even when wholly sober.
We got back to the right-angle-under-a-bridge canal junction where we had to turn, the junction where previously I had screamed like Emo Philips – and I gave the regulation polite parp-parp (albeit a parp-parp on the 120db horn, being answered by several nearby railway train drivers…) and slung the Cardinal around the tight bend in a casual arc. This was getting good. Someone had obviously forgotten to wake up the Universe, Karma was not in operation and my hateful stars had abandoned me in favour of some other ragged individual on the emotional edge. A mile farther on there came the lock, the big deep lock just before the “home” marina and our target berth. There were folk there just helping out. Spontaneous help! Volunteers! I drifted in and the Cardinal didn’t even kiss the bottom gates. This was really too good to be true.
Once through the lock I met a cross-wind. Actually, it was more than “cross”, it was incandescent, it was insane. There being a chandlery, a service-point and a marina immediately on the other side of the lock there were boats everywhere, boats at every angle, boats on every corner, boats lining every straight. Moored boats, boats stuffed with people… all watching. The moment I nursed the Cardinal’s bow out of the lower gates several screaming banshees took hold of it and we careened towards the diesel pumps, avoided those by the skin of my teeth and headed instead for something with an obviously new paint-job, reeking of Brasso, wax-polish and indignation. The nice, neat, straight-line plan that I had forged went up in a puff of smoke to be replaced with a manoeuvre choreographed by Benny Hill.
I even forgot to wait and collect the Bro (he’d earlier leapt ashore like a windlass-wielding gazelle to work the lock gates and paddles). This left him with a fifteen-minute walk around the lock, over the road bridge, through the marina’s car-park and thence down to the far end of the moorings. When he arrived the Cardinal and I were still out on the water, pirouetting like a paper-boat, out of ideas and with me looking like a right plonker. Whatever I did, I couldn’t get us pointing at our berth. I could get us stranded alongside other boats (my apologies), I could get us stranded, blown against the path on the edge of the marina (ducks make such great fenders, although they are single-use only; apologies). I’d run out of ideas to fight the wind, with my single-prop, slab-sided fifty-seven foot long home behaving like a vast sail.
I’d like to be able to report that I eventually figured it out and followed some cunning plan worthy of Baldric, but in fact, as is usual in my life, happenstance and pure serendipity took pity on me. Somehow the Cardinal’s bow lined up with the narrow gap of our mooring. Carpe diem, carpe the ruddy chance when presented – I wellied it, I gave such throttle to the engine as it had not seen before during peacetime. Mindful then of the Physics (of momentum and inertia and bodies in motion and wotnot) I slipped the Cardinal into whatever the maritime equivalent of “neutral” is (can’t be Switzerland, that’s land-locked) and I let Science rush us along the pontoon. Came the moment when a light spot of reverse thrust was required to kill our forward motion, and at that point it finally dawned on me what the Fates had planned all along.
In the grip of an episode of some sort of “physical Tourette’s syndrome” I slipped the throttle into forward instead of reverse. Being then also on the tail-end of my medication, I also gave it far too much in the way of “flooring it”. The poor, long-suffering Brother leapt once more, this time for safety, as the poor, long-suffering Cardinal rammed the marina pontoon as though to climb out onto dry land (probably the safest place for anyone while I was at the helm). It was very much akin to a re-enactment of the Normandy Landings, and I fully expected a company of Marines to leap off the well-deck and begin firing and throwing hand-grenades. Sounds came to me of crockery leaping out of cupboards, of glassware having shattering experiences and of the pontoon pilings surrendering. The swell generated as we slipped back into the water rocked every boat in the marina and swept cygnets and ducklings off the nest for miles along the canal. We were home. Well, “beached” is probably the correct technical term.
The cooker and the central heating have been working splendidly ever since though, so I must have done something right.