What's that sound?

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This is the third of the eight boat stories.

I spent the first week aboard my floating home-to-be surrounded by the sounds of nature trampled underfoot by the chugging of the diesel engine, the wail of tungsten carbide disc on steel, underscored by a whirring petrol generator. Though nature is famously noisy, that week definitely represented the triumph of industry over environment.

That is not to say that the soundscape was entirely unsubtle. We spent happy hours gliding through canals, the gentle rippling of the water as it bubbled and folded round the stern. Even in these quiet moments we were not entirely alone with nature. The occasional scrape as we glid over submerged shopping trolleys reminded us that we were cruising man-made waters excavated, then filled, by hand.

The big idea behind that first journey was twofold. Firstly, the boat was not where she needed to be. Secondly, I needed to learn to pilot my new watercraft and the best way to learn anything is immersion (more on that in a future story). I was to arrive at my home mooring at one with my boat.

But a boat is naught without water. Water confers both purpose and character. Without water, a boat can’t fulfil its essential purpose. Without water a boat has no personality. And river water is different to canal water. I spent my first night on the Thames in a boat once again unfamilar to me.

Most of the time canal water stays relatively stationary, only moving to let the occasional boat through a lock. The river, by contrast, is never settled. On summer days the water is languid and slow, lower in the saddle, with less water to go round. Things start to pick up around autumn, and come winter and spring, levels and speed rise. With speed comes an unexpected cacophony of water. Eddies form in unexpected places, standing waves emerge, and floatsam flies past the window with speed and force.

My bed was about a foot from the floor, which put it at about the same height as the surface of the water. Being about 2 metres wide, the options for how to arrange a bed in a narrowboat are somewhat limited. So I lay with my head by the wall, centimetres from the water, with only a few millimetres of steel hull dividing us. I slept floating on the surface of the water, in a delicate steel bubble.

I had imagined that living that much more embedded in nature than I ever had previously would give me a better feel for the seasons, for the rhythms of nature over the course of the day, month and year. But, truth be told, my relationship was entirely reactive and not nearly as atavistic as I had hoped. Some days when I have to leave my home I step up, some days I step down. And for a few weeks every couple of years I need to shimmy into a canoe before I reach dry land.

The river is restless. The constant gentle lapping of water against the hull is always on the rise or fall.

And to this day the sound of the water on the hull is unpredictable. It doesn’t seem to be correlate with particuarly high winds, fast-flowing or high water. Sometimes I’ll say to myself “I bet there’s a full moon” and, more often than not I’ll be right. But there lies the the limit of my sagacity.

The lapping of water, creaking of ropes, once you know what they are, can be comforting. Combined with the constant pitching and rolling, there must be some amniotic metaphor that I don’t care to draw.

I awoke with a start. Something, or someone, or something, was doing something they shouldn’t. Some kind of scraping noise, it was hard to put a finger on exactly what it was, and as sleep fell away suddenly I was in a cold bed and something wrong was happening. Was it the ropes? No. Was something stuck under the boat, or worse, was the boat stuck? I rushed out of bed and looked out.

Nothing. Just the usual assortment of ducks, geese and the like. A swan or two, but certainly no more than that. I went back to bed. The sound continued, a kind of intermittent scraping, like fingernails on floorboards. Again, I looked, and this time I saw the cause. Ducks were nibbling at the pondweed that was growing on the side of the boat, scraping their beaks against the hull to eke out whatever they could. That sound has since come to be of great comfort. It means “time to wake up, the ducks are up”.

There are a thousand other sounds peculiar to boat living. One that still surprises me is the rattling of tiny gas bubbles. They build up under the hull on hot days and rush out when you cross the floor from one side to the other, slightly tilting the boat.

And the sound of birds. Blackbirds, bluetits, corvids, woodpeckers and the rest. We have grown especially attuned to the annoucement of the kingfisher who makes a public ‘pip pip’ before proudly flashing a blue streak up the river. The clattering through the undergrowth of the occasional pheasant. And the swish and crash as squirrels hurl themselves out of trees and somehow never miss.

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