Wednesday, February 24, 2016

High tide trauma

In previous posts, I've mentioned the troubles I sometimes have with my gangplank. This is an issue that causes me unease, especially when I am away, as is often the case at weekends. I don't know about you, but I am the world's worst 'what if' worrier and spend far too much time tormenting myself over what could, might and probably will go wrong when I leave my barge on a Friday to head south. Such anticipation of disasters can be an awful spoiler to enjoying myself, but it can also be a good thing as I tend to anticipate every possible problem. As a result, I am paranoid about checking things before departing. And even then I worry about what I haven't done right up until I'm back again. Healthy huh? Well, maybe not.

Anyway, last Friday, I did my usual rounds, tightening ropes and checking attachments, but of course I have no control over certain factors, one of which is that a neighbour might decide to move; another is that we might have extreme weather conditions that can cause all sorts of havoc. This last weekend, I have a suspicion that both of these unforeseen factors came into force so when I arrived back at the Vereeniging on Tuesday, I found a 'situation' that confirmed all my 'what if' anxieties.

When I stood on the quay looking at the normal scene, I noticed three things that puzzled me. One was that the information board about my barge was missing. Being museum exhibits, many of the barges have an official sign with a description of the boat's history. I had one too, but on Tuesday it had disappeared. The second puzzle was that the rope I'd attached to hold my gangplank to the bollard on the key was broken, and the third was the presence of a very long boat hook on my foredeck. Oh dear.

As I cautiously stepped onto my gangplank, I felt it wobble alarmingly. I crept very carefully down and stepped on board. Then I thanked all my collective neuroses for my care. The steel support on which the gangplank normally pivoted was completely loose and looked liable to tip off at any moment. The plank was also alarmingly close to the edge of the quay, so one puff of our unruly wind was likely to send it sliding over the side.

Bearing in mind it had been rock solid when I left it, something had clearly gone very wrong. Not bothering to change from my work clothes (typical me), I grabbed a spanner and a large five pound hammer and knelt on deck to try and secure it again. To cut a long story short, one pair of shredded tights later and with my dress and boots smudged with mud, I realised I'd need someone with more strength than I had to release the bent bolts and repair the damage. As an interim measure, I loosened the ropes at the back of the Vereeniging, and then pulled it as far forwards to the quay as I could to avoid any risk of the gangplank sliding off. I then used another rope to tie the barge end of the plank to the bollard on the foredeck of the Vereeniging. Satisfied it would not now disappear into the depths, I went inside to change into clothes more suited to the task. Better late than never.

But that got me wondering what had actually happened. I thought about the broken rope, the missing sign and the boat hook and put a few twos together. Over the weekend, we must have had an exceptionally high tide, in which case the rope holding the Vereeniging to the bollard in quay wall must have slipped up and off it. I also noticed I was no long tied to one of my neighbours; they must have moved away for a day. This all meant the Vereeniging probably drifted backwards; the gangplank slid off, hit the information board in passing and sent it hurtling to the bottom of the river; and the rope holding the plank probably broke in the process. I also guessed that some kind soul had rescued my plank with the very long hook and had left it on deck to come and collect later.

And indeed, I was right. It had all happened exactly as my fertile imagination had deduced. My other neighbour came home and recovered his boat hook. He had kindly saved my plank from a certain death although the info board wasn't so lucky. I think I owe him a bottle of wine for helping me out, don't you?

As I've said before, life with a barge on a tidal reach is never boring, even when you are harbour bound. As for my anxieties, I guess they will never be put to rest now. What was that about 'life's rich tapestry'?

Friday, February 12, 2016


Apologies to Carol Hedges. This story was first published as a guest blog on her fabulous Pink Sofa blog, but seeing as my last post was the back story to my life as a resident of the Oude Haven, I thought it would be fun to edit and repost this. It's part of the pre Watery Ways era and so doesn't come into the book.

Most of you know by now that I spend an inordinate amount of time sploshing about in boats and talking to the ducks. That said, it might be quite a surprise to some to know that I loathe being wet, detest being cold and the worst thing of all is a combination of the two. So yes, you've got it. I do NOT like swimming. At all! 

But you live on a barge, I hear you say. 
Very true, I reply, but I live on it and in it, not under or around it. That's for the ducks. Not me.

So. This story is about the time I got arrested by the Water Politie for supposedly trying to hurl myself off a bridge in Rotterdam. Now keep what I have just told you about my predilection for keeping dry and this will make you laugh. It still has me chuckling and it's fourteen years down the line.

A water police launch
courtesy of Wikipedia

The way it went was this: When I first came to Rotterdam, and as I mentioned in my last post, my erstwhile husband and I (sounds like the queen doesn't it? Only her husband isn't erstwhile - not yet anyway. Neither is mine, actually. He's just not mine anymore) decided to buy an old barge to fix up. Which we did. Now he and a few others went off to collect said barge from a harbour in Amsterdam, but because I had to go to work, I couldn't go too. 

The arrangement was that they would let me know when and at what time they were approaching Rotterdam and I would go down to the river to see them in. The other part of the plan was that they would pull in close to the river wall before sailing into the harbour, and I would jump on board and do the last half a kilometre with them - just for the fun of it (yes...well, it sounded like fun at the time).

That was all well and good as a plan. In practice, it didn't happen that way.

The thing is it was late November, so the evenings were dark. Added to that, my husband and his crew were late. By the time I got the call to go down to the river, it was already about eight o'clock. And cold.

So, I wrapped up warm, but just in case I emptied all my pockets of anything of value. I was going to jump on board the barge, see, so I thought I'd better not have anything that I didn't want to lose just in case things fell out of my pockets as I was launching myself off the quayside (it does sound a bit 'off the wall', doesn't it? Sorry).

Please note that at no time whatsoever did I imagine going swimming either accidentally or on purpose.

Well then, off I trekked down to the riverside. I found my way to the appointed place, the quay next to the harbour entrance, and there I waited - in the dark.

It was pretty icy, I have to say, so I started pacing up and down, every now and then peering over the edge to see if I could spot any barge lights approaching. Nix, nada, nothing. Not for ages.

I waited and waited and paced and paced.

But then I did see some lights. A boat was coming hurtling towards me at great speed. As it approached, I saw it was a police launch. Then I saw another one and from the way they were positioned, they both seemed to be interested in me. I started to worry. Maybe they thought I was - you know - a lady of ill repute. I tried moving along the quay, but they followed me there. And then back again. Then after walking away from the side a bit, I noticed they just stayed put, which unnerved me even more. Why were they just watching me?

After playing 'follow me' up and down the quay for a few more minutes, I decided enough was enough. Our new barge was nowhere in sight, so I thought I'd better just go back to the harbour and wait there. Anything was better than this rather disturbing standoff. I waved jauntily at the water cops (hoping they'd be happy to see me go), backed up the steps quickly, ran across the road and headed back along one of the harbours.

Well no sooner had I gone fifty yards or so, than a couple of police vans came screaming up the road towards me. Then another one came from behind and blow me down, a whole regiment of policemen leapt out and grabbed my arms (I never said I wouldn't exaggerate).

The ensuing conversation was too bizarre for words:
"Good evening, mevrouw," said one. "Can I see your ID?"
"Why?" said I.
"Well, mevrouw, we had a report from a bus driver that a woman was trying to jump off the Erasmusbrug."
"Really? Well that wasn't me."
"But you were there, yes?"
"Yes, but I was waiting for someone...coming by boat."
"By boat." Picture cop's cynical grin.
"So why were you waiting there for a boat, mevrouw? There's no, how you say, jetty there."
"No," said I, "I was going to ju...." 
Oops. Better shut up now.
"You were going to what?"
"Erm, I was going them on board."
"Where is your ID, mevrouw?
"I'm sorry, I don't have it with me because I was going to ju..... join them, that's it...join them...and I didn't want to risk ...."
Picture cop's second cynical grin.
"And you weren't going to jump in the river?"
"No. It's true," I said. "Look," I went on frustrated now, "Anyone who knows me will tell you I'd never do that. Never!"
"But we don't know you, mevrouw, and the bus driver said..."
 "Look, I don't care what he said. Why don't I phone my husband and you can speak to him. He'll tell you too. I would NEVER, EVER do that!"
The disbelief on their faces was almost rude. I mean as if I would lie about something so true.
"Do you have a phone, mevrouw?"
" left it at home...with my ID..."
"Because you were NOT going to jump in the river. Is that right mevrouw?" I blushed.
By this time I was surrounded by about ten policeman, all vying with each other to hold on to me and make sure I didn't make a break for it and hurl myself into the adjacent canal. If only they'd known. Just the idea makes me shudder - even now.

But in the end, one of them had a phone and so I was able to give him my husband's number to call. I wasn't allowed to speak to him myself. Oh no. They had to do it. Hubby, of course, thought it was an absolute hoot, and nearly got me locked up for a lark, but in the end, he had the decency to confirm my story. Apparently he'd come into the harbour from the other end, but he'd forgotten to tell me. Brilliant. 

The upside was that the police gave me a lift to the mooring in their van complete with flashing blue lights. It seemed they still didn't really trust that I wasn't going to go late night skinny dipping. Can you credit it?

So this, friends, was my baptism into the world of the Oude Haven. Fortunately for the cops and for me, it wasn't a wet one, but I'll never forget that's how it all began. 

Next time, I'll tell you the story of how we got stranded on the river at night in a rowing boat with no lights. 

It's all part of life's rich tapestry isn't it?

Our first mooring spot 

Monday, February 08, 2016

Watery Ways - the story behind the book

There may be some readers here who don't know and might be wondering how I came to be living on an old Dutch barge in Rotterdam at this somewhat advanced stage in my life. Well, I suppose I wasn't so 'senior' when it all started, but I was definitely on the wrong side of forty five, so it wasn't exactly a youthful sense of adventure that drove me to this wonderful floating life.

I first left my home in South Africa at the end of 1998 to follow my husband to the Netherlands. He was working for a film company in Amsterdam at the time but was living in Rotterdam. He'd been gone for a year and decided he didn't want to go back to SA, so being ready for a new adventure myself, I agreed to shut up shop, leave my job and have a go at life in Europe again. No thoughts of boats and barges ever entered my head. I'd been living so long with SA drought and water restrictions the only boats I knew were the canoes on the  puddle-that-used-to-be-a-lake in the park. But then when I arrived in Holland, I discovered this whole new world of life on the water. I was like a child in my own wonderland.

The hold of the Hoop with Sindy as a puppy
In those early days in Rotterdam, my husband had an office in one of the city's working harbours and I was fascinated by the commercial barges that came in and out. They often moored up against the quay outside the office and I would walk along them surreptitiously peeking through the net curtains of the windows in their back cabins. I was so taken by the idea that people both lived and worked on their barges that when said husband suggested we buy one ourselves, I never hesitated - this being in spite of the fact I hated sea travel, loathed being wet, and abhorred the cold. I suppose I conveniently forgot about all that. In wonderland, you don't usually do rational stuff like pros and cons, do you?

In any event, we bought an old barge that needed renovating some time that year - I forget exactly when. It was a beautiful hull, but the built up superstructure was horrible and anyway, by that time, we'd got to know some people in the Oude Haven, a harbour designated for restoring historic barges. We'd been lurking around the yard with serious intent as we hoped to get a place there to restore our own. Anyhow, this all took some time, a great deal of stress and more money than we'd ever imagined. The strain took its toll and to cut a long story discreetly short, we as a couple didn't survive.

Rescue for me came with an invitation to go back to South Africa to work at my old company. I'd already been back for a few spells to help them out and now they wanted me for a longer period. I knew it wouldn't be permanent but it was an offer I made no effort to resist. So in the course of 2000, I found myself back in Johannesburg. I loved being in my old home town again, and I was lucky enough to travel all over the country too,  but as time went on I knew I had to make a decision about life.

I had nothing of my own in SA anymore; I was staying with friends; and the end of my contract was looming.

The Hoop as she is now. Still in Rotterdam, but
a different harbour

At the beginning of 2001, I headed back to Holland. This was, I thought, my chance to make something new for myself and of myself. I'd also found myself missing the boats and the barges, so I had this plan. It was to work, save money, buy my own boat and go to France.

A Godsend had come in the offer of a barge to rent. My dear friend, Philip, who saved my day rather often in those early years, had one I could rent. It wasn't very luxurious, he said, but it would be a roof when I had none. It was also a floating home. Since I hadn't had much chance to get a feel for life on the water before I hotfooted it back to South Africa, I wouldn't have cared if it had nothing of life's luxuries at all. As it happened, it didn't, and that's where the story of Watery Ways begins.

The wheelhouse of the Hoop - where the toilet remained
throughout my residence

The lovely Hoop on which I lived for a year and a half had no running water, no electricity, and no toilet when I moved on board. The electricity was my first challenge, the water came later, and the toilet remained where I found it for the duration of my occupancy - upside down on the seat in the wheelhouse. But that was all part of the charm - and so was Philip, and Koos, and a whole plethora of other wonderful, quirky people. This was my Watery Ways background.

And I never did get to France - although I haven't given up that dream yet...

If you'd like to read more about that first year of my watery adventure, my book is currently reduced to 99p or its equivalent on Amazon's Kindle. 

Friday, February 05, 2016

Wet and windy or just plain watery...

"Today was one of those days when I realised the full measure of my dislike for being cold and wet. It was totally undiluted (or rather overly diluted) yuk. And then the crunch came when my umbrella blew inside out on the zebra crossing where the rain and wind were competing with the cars in a race up the road. I clutched onto what remained of its frame, huddling under the flapping, soggy fabric and fought my way against the tempest to the safety of Buttons, my little Daihatsu, which I'd parked some distance from work to save money on parking (I also have this insane idea that it's better for my health, but it really isn't, not in weather like today's it isn't).

Anyhow, once ensconced in my personal haven, I got to thinking about other times when I've been wetter, but not half as miserable. And yes, there have been a few...

The first one I really remember well was when my girls were small and we were spending some time with my father in London. It was a very hot summer (remember when we had those?) and in Essex the temperature was up in the high thirties. Anyway, being that hot cooked up some good old cumulo nimbus clouds and we had a humdinger of a thunderstorm. The three of us were walking down a road between my father's flat and where we were staying when the heavens opened. Now we were used to tropical South African storms and this equalled those and some. Within seconds we were totally drenched...but I mean so drenched that even our knickers were wet through. And so we laughed and danced in the puddles and enjoyed it to the full. There wasn't really much else to do, and I don't think I've ever had such fun in the rain since.

Early days in the harbour

The second occasion was in my early barge days in Rotterdam. We were having a barbecue on board and friends came round to join us in their rowing boat. I wasn't very agile then...well, I'm still not, but I've learnt how to get extract myself from sticky and potentially embarrassing situations a bit better these days. Anyhow, these friends asked me if I'd like to go for a spuddle with them. With innocent enthusiasm, I literally jumped at the chance - which involved launching myself overboard and landing in their rowing boat while I was still holding on to the side of the barge. Not a clever move, that. The boat swung away leaving me stretched like  a suspension bridge between it and the barge. The more I tried to cling on, the further it floated until I just had my toes curled round the rim on the side. My self inflicted torture was greeted with no help and much hilarity by everyone around. Beasts.

Eventually gravity gained ground and I collapsed. But while the bottom half of me was in the water, I was still gripping somewhat perilously onto the barge. Luckily a friend, who happened to have an arm in plaster, grabbed me with his good arm and hauled me back on deck. I still don't know how he managed that; I was laughing too hard to ask at the time, but it was pretty heroic.

A year or so later, I took another dive off the side of a friend's barge, but this time I'd just had a lovely hot bath and in my pleasantly relaxed state, I climbed out of their hold and straight overboard. My hosts thought I'd decided to go turkish and were a bit surprised, but not half as surprised as I was when I hit the water fully dressed in leather jacket and jeans with my mobile phone in my pocket. After they hauled me out, I walked home adorned with twigs and leaving a trail of water and weed behind me. The local pub-goers had the grace to say nothing as I passed.

My first harbour home - The Hoop
Ah yes, those were memorable occasions, all of them. Soggy surprises they may have been, but much more fun than our friend Frank or George or whatever they like to call these winter gales now.

The book where some of these
soggy surprises are described

Watery Ways, my memoir, is reduced this coming week to the special price of 99p, or just over $1,00. If you'd like to give it a try. The offer starts 6 February and will run until the 20th.

And just to finish off, do you remember getting hopelessly wet like this? Unintentionally, of course.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Why the stars don't matter

I've had a bit of a lightbulb moment today, and it has to do with the number of stars we receive from Amazon reviewers in response to our books. Some of you who read my blog are also writers, and I expect that like me you cannot help but fret over the number of stars your books are given by reviewers. Well, fret no more because I've finally realised they honestly matter very little. Now isn't that liberating?

I came to this conclusion today while I was beefing up on the set book my CPE (English Proficiency) students have chosen to read for their exam. The book is by Penelope Lively and it's called Family Album. I haven't read it, but I thought I'd take a look and see what others have said about it.

Now the reviews from the major critical players (e.g. newspapers, famous people etc) are really glowing - ecstatic even, but then I had a look at what the readers have said. This seems to be rather different, but what is even more interesting is that the star ratings themselves are ambiguous.

Of the forty three customer reviews, only ten are five star. This surprised me considering Ms Lively is often vaunted as being one of the great writers of our time. However, that in itself wasn't the liberating factor. It was more that there are a number of reviews that undermine the value of star ratings at all.

Just for example, one reviewer gave Family Album three stars, saying the book was 'astutely written' and an interesting study of family life in a large old house. You'd think from reading this that the reviewer quite liked the book, and that three stars should therefore be quite positive, yes?

Not necessarily.

Another three star reviewer (the review, not the person) described it as 'turgid and unengaging' and proceeded to be, quite politely, very negative about the book. This would suggest that getting three stars is pretty lousy, wouldn't it? Kind of confusing when the other one was pretty positive.

Yet another reviewer gave the book four stars and then went on to be quite negative about it too, giving the lie to the intended idea that four stars means the reviewer liked the book very much .

So what does all this mean? Well, and this is the liberating part, I came to the conclusion that star ratings really don't mean as much to readers as they do to writers, and that as a result, we shouldn't worry too much about them either.

As a reader, I wish I didn't have to give stars. I'm constantly dithering and often wish there was a half star available. Actually, one of the things I like about Goodreads is that I don't have to rate a book to review it. That's really great as when I can't decide on how many stars I want to give, I can just leave that part out. So, when I see the reviews for Penelope Lively's Family Album and the mixed messages the stars send, I think others must have the same problem.

When it comes to my own books, I admit I've got my writer's hat on and my perspective is somewhat different. And it's also true I've sometimes been puzzled by the odd two or three star rating that has had quite a positive review attached, or at least, nothing negative (although I confess there have been a few of those too which I try to ignore). So seeing this range of comments and stars for Penelope Lively has comforted me no end.

What I do appreciate is genuine critical comment, and if it's relevant, then I take it and try and use it. That said, the reviewer who complained that when he started reading Harbour Ways he found it was about Holland and not about the English canals is one I dismiss without a second thought. Why anyone would admit to being so dumb in public, I'm not quite sure as the description of where it is set is very clearly written in the blurb. But others have suggested the pace could be faster now and then, or that the maps should be better - well, these I take seriously. But the range of stars? No, not anymore, not after seeing what I've seen today.

So, now I have to finish up by saying thank you to Penelope Lively! Thank you for (unwittingly) helping me get switched on to this realisation... this has definitely been one lightbulb moment that will keep on shining for me for as long as I keep on writing.