This is the fourth of the eight boat stories.
Experts agree: the best way to learn something in depth is immersion. Whether you’re trying to pick up a new language or learn a new skill like boating: in at the deep end, you’ll be the wiser for it.
Many boaters will say that you’re not a real boater unless you’ve fallen in ‘the cut’. ‘The cut’ refers to the canal, which is usually only a couple of feet deep, rendering the point about depth moot. Rivers are another beast altogether.
A nice cup of tea and a lie down
I’ve fallen in by mistake only twice. The first time I found myself falling backward I didn’t immediately register what was happening until it was too late. But something deep in my lizard brain knew, and as I tumbled backward I extended my arm. I landed in the water and my cup of tea landed gently on the roof. Not a drop spilt.
On the other occasion I once again involved tea separation. A crisp November day called for a boat trip, and the boat trip called for tea. I was at the stern of the boat with Beth and the cups of tea were at the fore. So I handed over the helm to her, just for a few seconds — no need to explain how to steer or stop — whilst I went to fetch the tea.
Moments later I found myself clinging to a fender off the side of the boat, up to my neck in the cold November Thames, as we slowly crashed into another boat. I’m still not sure what happened, but once again, there was my tea on the roof.
Oxford’s famous Port Meadow. Notorious amongst boaters, the channel is wide, flat and for the most part shallow. Only the deep central part of the river is navigable. Many is the boater who’s deviated from the course and run aground. I helped tow another boat off the flats once. History is littered with boats that weren’t so lucky, and were stuck for weeks.
For this reason, though I love Port Meadow I’m always extra vigilant. Years ago, I was had some friends out for a boat trip. It was a hot summer’s day, the wine and camembert were flowing and we were in no particular rush to get anywhere. We chugged along at tickover, the engine going fast enough only to keep itself going fast enough to keep going.
And as we idled in the summer heat, a very gentle breeze nudged us sideways, and I steered to compensate. Because rudders need power to steer, and there wasn’t much, we gently slipped sideways and drifted to a halt.
No-one paid much attention to our unscheduled stop, as we hadn’t been moving very fast anyway but visions of being stuck on the bank for perpetuity sidled into my head. We were all enjoying ourselves, and no-one wanted this boat trip to end, but no-one wanted the boat trip not to end.
I nudged the throttle. A bit more power. Nothing. We were stuck.
I stripped to my underwear and lowered myself in. The bed of the river was soft and squishy, a fine silty mud. It pushed itself into the space I didn’t know I had between my toes. A coupled of heaves and we were free, floating again. I got back onboard, furiously paddled my feet to clear off the gunk, and we went on our way.
But my feet were covered in red spots which wouldn’t come off. Scrubbing revealed them to be little blood blisters. I can’t have been in the water more than a couple of minutes, but something had got to work on my feet.
No harm done, they went away after a few days. But what was in that water?