The British Diaries

The 1920’s Boat Diaries: Part 2 “Once a river rat, always a river rat.”

Lizbef realises going from boat dweller to "lady" for a date is harder than it sounds...

“When are you moving the boat?”

Never, a voice said in the back of my mind.

I smiled through it. “When my two weeks are up.”

I had been at the same stop for ten days. I had spent my days with Leela, scouting further along the canal and trying to judge if I was going to smash and destroy anyone’s floating homes on the way through Atherstone Locks. After Atherstone Locks, I was intending on doing the Warwickshire Ring for the Summer and then hole up somewhere near home for the Winter.

But even that I couldn’t make my mind about. Maybe I should do the Ashby instead? Stay closer to home on this famously beautiful 21 mile stretch of canal with no locks, all to learn Maggie better before I took her afar.

All of my life, I had jumped into scenarios and dealt with the consequences later. My life lessons, I called them. Sometimes plunging into the water was the best way to learn how to swim.

The Ashby Canal felt a very safe bet. But would I be a coward if I chose that route? What happened to plunging onwards ahead? Maybe it would be good just to crack on with the Warwickshire Ring and learn everything as I went. Maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to hold off doing locks again- maybe I had to face it and get it over with.

Or maybe I should learn how to properly steer and not crash this God damn boat on a beautiful stretch of water.

The thoughts rolled over and over in my head as the days passed by.

The solitude on Maggie for the past ten days had been… a struggle. Some days I enjoyed the sound of the birds, the water and passing boats and nothing else. Other times, I craved company, my car- just some easy access refuse and water. I had made good friends with a young couple called Xavier and Lily from Mancetter Marina during my stay there, and luckily, they did come and spend the weekends with me.

When they left, I felt like a child watching their parent drive away from the school gates. Sad and strangely vulnerable.

I would have to get used to this life.

I had chosen it and there was no going back.

The fear of doing the Warwickshire Ring was getting to me. And yet, hire boats passed me all the time with newbies as they overcame obstacle after obstacle. Shame would wash over me as I stood watching them- me, a seasoned boater who had become frozen with fear, whilst these people with a couple of days knowledge was willing to give anything a go.

I think what shocked me was the sudden stark difference in how I had felt before. My confidence had been so high. So many people had told me I couldn’t cruise Maggie and that I was a fool. I had simply fallen into the “I’ll prove you wrong” overdrive, shoving all doubt and fear from my mind as I focused on the task at hand.

I would do this. I could do this. There was no room for any other thought.

And then reality had hit.

What if I couldn’t?

Could I do the Warwickshire Ring solo? Could I do locks with Maggie solo? Going up wasn’t a problem- but going down was. With locks in general being about 72ft long and Maggie being 70ft, there’s little room for mistakes. If she got caught on the cill, and I didn’t have the body strength to correct her, then my new home was doomed.

Doomed, doomed, doomed…

The word reverberated around my head.

Alone, alone, alone.

Watching Xav and Lily help each other with tasks made me smile. I was happy for them to have each other, to have that emotional support. To be able to lean on the other and make decisions together. I am a stout believer in doing things solo to build a better relationship with yourself. But maybe it was time to start putting myself out there…

“You’re too picky,” Xavier pointed out to me as we sat around a fire pit outside our boats.

“You are joking, aren’t you?” I laughed. “Welcome to dating in your thirties, my friend.”

“It can’t be that hard…”

I raised my eyebrows and then gestured for him to sit beside me. “Fine, lets pick together.”

Opening my phone, I began to scan. Xavier’s face slowly began to fall.

“Oh no,” he said, his mouth twisting in disgust. “Why is he doing that in his picture?”

I tilted my head to get a better view and quicky swiped left. “Let’s not dwell on it…”

Xav stared, mesmerised at my thumb swiped left. “No, no, no, red flag, red flag, no, no, God no, he’s looking for a hiking buddy, no, no, no, this guy doesn’t know what he’s looking for, red flag, no, maybe, no…”

Dating with a boat can be hard, and now when I look for a match, it’s usually with the added requirement that they can keep cool under pressure, can start a fire and won’t be too precious to shit in a compost loo. On top of that, you have a required age range, emotional intelligence, morals, shared interests, the ability to make the other laugh, locality to take into account and attraction. To top it off, even if you found someone matching all of those requirements, they could still be looking for something, ‘casual’, which is not my cup of tea.

Ah, the joys of dating.

Despite this, after Xavier’s encouragement, I did end up swiping on someone and began talking to them for a week. It was a pleasant experience, and they seemed enraptured with the idea of living on a boat along the towpath. I’m slightly ashamed now to recall how much I looked forward to those conversations.

And so, in my second week of living along the towpath, I went to London on a date to freshen my state of mind, enjoy some of the easy parts of life. I painted my toenails and cleaned beneath my soot stained fingernails, attempted to rid my engine-scented clothes of creases and cleaned the mud from the towpath from my boots. I had fired up my precious gas supply and treated myself to a hot water, scrubbing away coal and dust of boat living.

A lady. I was a lady now.

Regardless of how the date ended, which did not put me in such a ladylike light (we can all pretend, can’t we?) I ended up in a London kitchen.

One thing I have found about boating, is that it eschews you from normality. There are things that others take for granted that, as a boater, gives you a physical reaction.

Sitting at a table, my date walked over to me from the fridge with a tray of plum tomatoes. It wasn’t incredibly fresh, but the taste was refreshing on my tongue. I watched my date take one, his face twisting at the texture and then toss the entirety into the bin.

“What are you doing??” I stared at him, not even aware that I had opened my mouth.

“They’re past their best,” he explained, brow raised as he took in my indignation. “In fact, I think you picked the worst one. You must have tasted how soft it was.”

“They were fine!” I couldn’t believe a whole tray of them had been thrown away. Oh no. I realised what I sounded like. “I can’t stand wasting food,” I said quieter. I had been in plenty of scenarios when all I had to eat when some pasta and half an onion. Nothing got wasted. You had no idea when you could next be in dire straits.

But that’s me, I reminded myself. And I’m usually always in dire straits. It’s not like that here. He’s not like that here. He’s an adult. A responsible adult wouldn’t let themselves get to the point of surviving on half an onion and a handful of pasta.

But to be honest, there was a certain joy in trying to save every scrap piece of food. Being inventive. Imagining that I was the main character in one of my stories. There was some satisfaction in knowing that you had barely anything and it being enough.

Once a river rat, always a river rat, I supposed.

I gazed around the beautiful house, the fine clothes and looked down at my still creased skirt that I had tried my best to make presentable.

Even my phone charging cable was covered in some sort of boat grime.

For a moment, I felt embarrassed.

I was a far cry from the girl I was six years ago, always hitting the gym, wearing the nice cocktail dresses and heels.

Now I was a boat scallywag, trying to make a good impression. Trying to find a partner in this city .But I know that boating, sailing and cruising had changed even my language. There’s no time to be delicate. There’s no time to be self concious about subject matters.

From my perspective as a woman, dating is hard when you have a boat. It’s hard to come across as feminine, when you’re covered in bruises, smell like engine oil and have calluses on your palms from bringing the boat in along the towpath. 70% of your clothes are still in bags ready to take to an elusive laundrette and the other 30% are creased or too small. And even when you rejoice in the hard decisions you have to make, or the manual tasks, some people get threatened by it in dating.

Some people see only that. The boat. The thing about you that makes you special.

Take it away, and you’re just a girl pouting over thrown away tomatoes.

However, the weekend in London was a great experience. It reminded me what it was like having someone to look after me after doing the job solo for so long. We parted with promises to see each other again soon.

On the train home, I stared out of the window with a ridiculous smile on my face. I had dared myself to imagine cruising along the cut with someone. Lying on the roof next to the other person, retelling stories and staring up at the stars. Having a cup of tea made for you in the morning or walking along the towpath in the winter to collect firewood.

It had been refreshing to go on a date that genuinely seemed to enjoy all of the things that I had been taught were my “compromises” or “negatives”. I felt accepted. Celebrated. And by the time I had gotten off the train, I happily walked the forty minutes along the towpath to Maggie, still with that naive smile on my face.

I felt incredible, invincible. I wanted to be that. Prove that. And regardless of not knowing at the time that I would never see this person again, and that sometimes pretty words, are just pretty words, for a moment, I was swept up in the fantasy. The fantasy that I was great. That I could achieve greatness.

That night, I celebrated my London date success with two friends, Tommy and Deakin. We spoke about relationships, what had happened on the date, boat work and my intentions to move her the next day. I felt strong. I felt good. I felt powerful.

Maybe that was just the rum.

The next morning, we were all a little bit delicate. My newfound courage had begun to slip way, bit by bit and faster than I had expected.

“Maybe the wind is too high to move today,” I said as an excuse. “Tomorrow will be better. I’ll move tomorrow…”

Disappointment flooded me. I wasn’t this great person that got excited at a challenge. I was still this scared little girl, pretending- always pretending. I exhaled slowly, battling with myself as I wondered when I could pull myself together. As I was making a cup of tea whilst the boys remained in the sunshine, a boat went past.

I glanced up, spotting a lone woman stood behind the tiller, without a care in the world. I watched her as she cruised along with a big smile on her face in the sunshine. I wanted to have her confidence. Her experience.

The spoon I was holding hovered in the air for a moment, tea dripping into the sink from a squeezed teabag. Each drop hit the basin like a countdown.

That lady wasn’t scared. She was just… doing it.

Throwing the indignant teabag into the sink, I swung my body out of the side cratch and hauled myself up. “If I don’t do it now, I won’t do it at all,” I announced to the boys.

“Do what? Move?” They blinked blearily down at me.

“Yes. The fear will just get worse and worse.”

“But you said about the wind-“ Deakin interjected, fingers frozen around a half-eaten biscuit midway to his mouth. He had made a very comfortable cacoon with a duvet and pillow on the roof and was loathe to move.

“I was bullshitting,” I said, irritated at myself. “We’ll move now. There won’t be a better opportunity.”

They nodded, surprised and I ducked back below, heading towards the engine. With a few movements, Maggie’s Armstrong Siddley engine thunked into life, reverberating through her entire length like a pulse.

I stared at it for a moment, my heart thudding along with the machine.

It didn’t matter how someone had made me feel in London. It didn’t matter that a woman cruiser had given me confidence. What mattered was the reality that I was already great. And that only I could bring my courage back.

I had crossed the South Atlantic Ocean. I had done the Caribbean Sea. I had solo cruised a 32ft canal boat. I could do this.

And I would do it for me.

I thumped on the ceiling a few times. “Time to go, boys!”

As I slid the tiller and pin into place, I picked up the Captain’s hat hanging on the hook and placed it on my head with a smile.

It was this river rat’s time to go.

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1 comment

  1. You are a bjourne storyteller! Loved it, and what’s more, Expectations are nothing more than premeditated resentments, so carry on and everything will turn out exactly as it should be!

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