Three Hours in a Boat – Part 1

September 5, 2009

This year I went on a canal boat holiday.  It didn’t go very well.

Me and the missus like having holidays in Britain.  Often all we require is a decent quality hotel with and, this is the most important bit, a full English breakfast.  Once I have a plate of sausages and bacon inside me I can deal with pretty much anything Britain wants to throw at me.

This year I’d suggested we might want a change of pace. Something different.  How about a canal boat holiday?  I mean it looks pretty simple.  Look at all those senile old gits who go on canal boat holidays – if they can do it then it’ll be a breeze for us!

I booked with a likely looking company on a nice stretch of canal.

Within a few weeks we were sent a DVD to watch to show us what we should and shouldn’t do with our boat.  It largely featured the exploits of a cockney idiot and his long suffering family.  Cockney idiot goes the wrong way up the canal.  Cockney idiot fails to turn his boat around jamming it across the width of the canal.  Cockney idiot ties up his boat across a footpath garrotting a passing cyclist.  You get the idea.

Oh how we laughed that anyone could be so stupid!

Suffer Holiday

At long last it was holiday time.

We arrived at the boat yard and was met by a chap called Mackenzie who ran the place.  He wore a khaki rugby top, khaki shorts and a general air of senior ex-military.  The type of person who only owns a dog because he misses having people to shout at.

Mackenzie offered to help us with our bags.  I took the bags out of the back of our taxi cab and he looked at them with a raised eyebrow.
“You haven’t brought much” he said.
“Really?” I said, surprised.  I’d thought this was a barge – not exactly known for their capacious storage
“Haven’t you brought any food?”
“Umm, no – we thought we’d get some along the way.”
“Okaaaay…. well that shouldn’t be a problem” he said offering a weak smile that indicated that this might be a problem.

He then explained to me how we could procure some food.  We’d need to steer our boat two miles to bridge 68.  This doesn’t sound like a long way but the top speed of our boat is 2mph (I’ll type that again: top speed) and so it’d probably take us about three hours to get there at which point it would be quite dark.  From the bridge we would then need to walk a mile down a road without lighting or a path for pedestrians to arrive at – wait for it – an all night garage.

I suppose we could get a loaf of bread, some scotch eggs and a few tubes of Pringles.

It’s either that or we’d have to eat whatever we could find in the bathroom on our boat.

Lightly toasted sanitary bags liberally topped with Aquafresh.  Yummy.

Maybe we could enliven the meal by wearing the complimentary shower caps as party hats.  Yeah, that’d cheer us up.

A Lesson in Futility

With little time to waste my lesson in how to steer a canal boat began.

Immediately I noticed that my instructor was not particularly engaged in the task at hand.  Here’s how I can best sum up his teaching technique: Have you ever had a friend show you how to play a fighting game on a games console in the most cursory fashion so he can immediately get on with relentlessly kicking your arse for the rest of the afternoon?  If you have then you’ll know what I was going through.

He told me how to check the rotors and how to start the engine.  So far so good.  He then explained to me about steering using the tiller.

The tiller is a three foot long pole at the rear of the boat.  When you want to steer the boat left you push the tiller right.  To go right, the tiller goes left.  In fact it’s a wee bit more complicated than that because the 12 foot long boat pivots from the centre so in fact what happens is when the tiller goes left the front of the boat goes right and the back of the boat goes left.

It dawned on me pretty quickly that this was going to be a big problem for me.

Let me explain: I’m a thirty-five year old man who struggles to tell left from right, under even minor pressure.

An Illustrative Example of My Ineptitude

Just to illustrate how I struggle with left and right here’s a true story.

I was, for reasons I won’t go into, in the London Dungeon: an attraction that has more in common with a ghost train than actual London history.  As you go through it you’re dragged from one place to the next by down-on-thier-luck actors or shoved onto rides.

Anyway, I got off a ride and found myself at a place where I could go left or right but there was no sign to indicate which was the right way.  After two seconds of trying to work this out a voice from behind the wall, deep and grave, said “Go to the left to continue the nightmare! BWA-HA-HA-HA-HAAAAaaaaa!”

I continued to look around with a vacant expression on my face unable to work out which way was left.

The disembodied voice tried again: “Go to THE LEFT to continue!”

I was still confused so I decided to just pick any direction as it was a 50/50 chance.  The disembodied voice was pissed off: “NOOOOoooooOOOOooo!” it howled, “You’re going the wrong way!”

I backtracked and went the other way.

I was confused.  But not as confused as the four German tourists who’d decided to follow me.

Anyway, back to the boat.

So we started the boat and I got a fairly hopeless lesson in steering the damn thing. Mackenzie stood next to me with his arms crossed staring at the bank while droning his instructions.  Occasionally he’d push me aside to adjust the tiller or the gears without explaining why.

It went something like this: “Now go up a gear. No, that’s too far. The boat’s veering left so you need to correct it.  No, the left.  Now let’s imagine we’re passing a boat on the right.  Let’s slow down.  Slow down.  More than that.  Now steer to the right.  Steer right.  The tiller goes left.  No, further to the left.  Now correct the boat.  Straighten up.  More than that.  You’re going to hit the bank.  Further to the left.  No, the left.  Turn the tiller right.”  And it continued like that for about ten minutes.

Clearly the lesson wasn’t going well.  I had moments where it would all start to make sense and then it’d go horribly wrong again.  But eventually Mackenzie decided to get off the boat.

Within ten seconds of Mackenzie leaving I had managed to turn the boat so it was drifting sideways.  Mackenzie had not walked far and clearly he saw this.  He shouted back: “LEFT! LEFT!”  I turned the tiller right.  “NO! TURN THE TILLER LEFT!”  It was too late.  I had now jammed the boat into the concrete banks across the width of the canal.  “FOR GOD’S SAKE PUT IT INTO NEUTRAL!!!”  Naturally I hit reverse.  Scrape scrape scrape went the boat.  Ooops.

The instructor jumped aboard, corrected the boat and said I might need some extra tuition.

Actually what he said was that I was almost certainly the worst student that he’d ever had as everyone else had mastered it about one mile ago and he couldn’t understand what the hell my problem was.

Another five minutes of tuition later and unsurprisingly I wasn’t any better.  He asked me “Are you feeling more confident now?”
“Not really, no”
“I think you’re doing fine!” he said in a surprisingly jolly tone.
“Ummm…”
“You’re doing really well!”  His jolity was not infectious.
“Urrrm…”
“I have got other boats to get out this evening you know” he snapped.
“Oh”
And taking that as confirmation that I was a happy little sailor he left the boat

I then steered the boat for another hour and a half.

I’m not sure how to explain what it’s like.  When I was doing well it was just like an unimaginably boring computer game where you balance a grape in the middle of a plate.  When it didn’t go well it was stressful as I bashed into stationary boats, held up other oncoming boats or scraped the side of my boat along the inside of an old stone bridge.  I felt something I’d never felt before in my life: I was simultaneously stressed and bored.

I was hating every minute of it.

[More to follow in the next exciting instalment!]

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One Response to “Three Hours in a Boat – Part 1”


  1. […] part first but that’d be a bit weird.  I’d recommend you start reading part one first: Three Hours in a Boat – Part 1 I Can’t Take Any […]


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