Sunday, March 27, 2016

Open steering? Not for the faint-hearted

In that early phase of my watery life, the one where I was still with the erstwhile and before I embarked on single bargehood, I had my first experience of the not-so-joys of an open steering position. The occasion was also notable as it was my first ever trip with Koos, but at that stage I must stress that we were merely friends with no more than a mutual fondness for boats and barges to connect us.

The way it happened was that Koos had heard from Bill (the erstwhile) that I was hankering for a boat trip that would take me somewhat further than up and down the harbour in a rowing boat with a dodgy seagull engine (see Lights Out post). Now in those days, Koos was the owner of two boats: a gorgeous tugboat called Loeki, on which he lived, and his newly acquired (at the time) Luxor, the dumb barge he was building up and converting into a home. Also in those days, he lived in Leiden, a beautiful Dutch university city between The Hague and Amsterdam. We knew him because he'd been in Rotterdam working on the Luxor, but it was the end of both his contract and his holiday, so he had to take it back to Leiden until the following year.

Word got round, Bill conferred with him and before I knew it, I was booked on a mission to accompany Koos on his trip back.

Well, it was a journey to remember, that's for sure. The day dawned dry, but it was grey and the sky was heavy. I can recall looking at the clouds dubiously and wondering if I really wanted to do this. Still, I reasoned, Koos' son would be there too, so we could take turns in crewing.

Some reasoning that turned out to be.

I joined Koos and son, Sanne, on board early on that dreary Saturday morning. All went well as Koos steered us deftly out of the harbour and onto the river. I don't exactly remember when it started raining, but it can't have been immediately or I might not have been happy to go at all. In fact I was visibly thrilled to be there.  Somewhere or other, there is a photo of me sitting smiling on the engine room roof as we motored west along the Nieuwe Maas toward the entrance to the Delftse Schie, so it was still dry then. Nevertheless, before we had left the outskirts of Rotterdam it was definitely precipitating with purpose.

In response to the general inclemency and with no sign of guilty hesitation whatsoever, Sanne disappeared inside the Luxor, found the only chair in an otherwise empty hull and promptly went to sleep. That left me trying my best to help Koos - a thoroughly noble duty that entailed holding a large green and white striped Amstel umbrella over most of him and a part of me. Meanwhile the rain thundered down and bounced off all the shiny steel surfaces rather like a million ping pong balls. It wasn't long before we were both drenched from both ends - bottom and top.

How Koos managed to steer through the downpour I'm not quite sure. He did though. Stoically and even cheerfully despite the fact that his glasses were spattered with rain and kept steaming up.  Every now and then, I would wipe the worst of it off with a soggy hanky, but of course it didn't help much.

And so in this style, we crawled our way north to Delft - the odd couple on the odd barge with the odd and incongruous protective cover of a beer garden umbrella. I mean you can just picture it, can't you?

The Luxor
It should have been a beautiful rural trip, but I don't remember seeing much of the bankside at all; it was effectively obscured by the thick curtain of rain. By the time we reached Delft, my umbrella holding arm was flagging somewhat and the brolly was shaking. At the same time it sported a slightly drunken tilt - quite appropriate really given its origins. This meant we were even wetter (if that was possible), so it was a huge relief to me when Koos decided we needed some lunch and pulled into the quay.

It was also in Delft that I decided I was one of the faint-hearted ones and that I wouldn't make it to Leiden.  So I abandoned ship (in this case, barge) and caught the train back to Rotterdam after some much needed coffee. All this makes it even stranger that later, when looking for my own barge, I ignored everything I'd learnt about the drawbacks of open steering positions and fell in love with the Vereeniging, a very obviously wheelhouse-free boat. I'm still wondering about my sanity to this day, but I'm afraid it can't be cured.

I still have no wheelhouse.
And I still love the Vereeniging.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Spring cleaning

I've been too busy to write a blog post this week. Work is making inroads on my free time again. There are exams to mark and deadlines to keep, so I'm having trouble keeping up with my blogging and tweeting. I'm also teaching some PhDers and that requires my brain, which I need to take to work with me (much of the time I leave it on board, and I'm not joking. I'd much rather be there anyway).

Anyhow, today I took some time out and went off to clean our 'other' barge, the little Hennie H (pronounced Hennie Ha here). We are planning a longish trip this year. Originally Poland was the intended destination, but we've decided that maybe it's too ambitious given my work commitments and the time it would take to get there. So...we've decided to become experts on northern France instead...every nook and cranny that can be explored will be!

But back to the Hennie H, I confess I haven't been very good to her this winter and she has been sorely neglected. We keep her at the marina in Sas van Gent, which is close to our weekend getaway and each time I go to the supermarket, I pass her and wave. In the past few weeks, though, I've been ducking and hoping she hasn't seen me as I know I've let her get dreadfully grubby and green.

Then yesterday, when I went to have our fire extinguishers checked and certified at the marina office (another story involving a bunch of delightful old boys who kept me waiting for two hours in the cold, but told me some good stories as entertainment), I felt too ashamed to let it go another day.

Today, then, I walked the three kilometres from our place to the barge and set about a thorough clean up. The green was mean but I rubbed and scrubbed till I could rinse it all away. Two and something hours later, this was the result.

A scrupulously clean little barge - well there are a few nooks and crannies still to be done, but I was very cold by the time I'd finished, and more than a bit wet too, so the three kilometre trek home was needed to get my coagulated blood moving again.

That apart, I believe it's the first day of spring today or tomorrow, so I thought I'd show you the daffs that are out in force in the harbour, despite the bitter wind.

And then below is a nice old tug boat moored near us. The owners were sitting in their wheelhouse enjoying their afternoon tea. Sometimes I wish I had a wheelhouse too. It's such a lovely place to sit especially in this weather!

And just because it was there, I took a photo of one of the biggies going through the bridge - which was open I hasten to add - on the Gent-Terneuzen Canal. Our marina is a harbour just off this marvellous waterway.

Well that's it for this week. More stories from the wet and wondrous next weekend, but for now, I hope it warms up for everyone in the coming days. I will confess it's just a bit too cold for me right now!

Friday, March 11, 2016

The making of the memoiries

A smallholding in Dorset - home before Africa

Memoirs have become an incredibly popular genre of book in recent years, haven't they?  I don't know when it started, but for me, the first memoir I read, which was Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence got me hooked on reading about people's lives in foreign countries. I loved it, and it was without doubt what inspired me to write about my life in South Africa. I think I even mentioned it in the first pages. 

Jus recently, though, I started thinking about this whole travel/living abroad writing area and what makes some of us feel impelled to publish our adventures, and I've decided it's probably rooted in our in-built spirit of adventure (see Jo Carroll as a prime example).

Like many of those who have set off for foreign parts, my (erstwhile) husband and I took ourselves off to South Africa when we were in our twenties. We both had a great drive for adventure and were in no way  daunted by having two small children to take along with us. Back in 1981, we were stony broke in England and we were fed up with being cold as well. The decision to up sticks and head off to the 'bottom end' of the world was thus an easy one when the temperature in our Dorset flat was as cold inside as it was out - and that was well below zero.

A dirt road in Africa...following the dust trails

The funny thing is we never thought that going to Africa might not be a sensible thing to do; nor did we wonder how we would survive with no job offer, no home and precious little money. Such was our determination to get up and go that we did just that: got up and went. And it was the best thing I have personally ever agreed to do in my life.

I loved Africa; I adored its wildness and the sense of adventure that just being there evoked. Now, I wonder if even then I was mentally writing a memoir; I absorbed and observed so much, capturing a multitude of details in my mind's eye. I honestly think I stored every experience so I could take each one out and re-live it again later on.

That sense of adventure took us to many remote places by all sorts of means. We travelled in and with what we had, which sometimes meant old and decrepit VW beetles (although these were actually ideal for climbing up muddy, mountain dirt roads). One year, we spent a holiday in the Namib desert using a small VW Golf, crammed to the roof with camping gear while the children were sandwiched between heaps of bedding and supplies. During that trip we scaled roads and mountain passes that were intended for four-wheel-drive-only vehicles. But we didn't care; we  bounced over rocks and riverbeds as if our little city car was a Land Rover, following in the dust trails of the real off-roaders. There was not much left of our tyres when we returned to civilisation, I can tell you. In fact we had to scrap the whole car shortly afterwards - the poor thing was wrecked - but the memories of the experiences have never died.

Out in the bush

Every day in Africa was an event and I loved getting up to the promise of a new day full of sunshine and anticipation. What this meant was that when I left to return to Europe, I already had a memoir waiting to be written. I'd never kept a diary, but all the stories were in my head and all the impressions, feelings and emotions were in my heart. The ultimate result was my first book, African Ways.

But that drive for new experiences and a vivid, different kind of life did not leave me, even when I arrived back in a cold, wet, colourless (to me) Holland. I couldn't bear the idea of living a standard life in a standard apartment in a standard suburb in the city. The only way to make sense of the change was to embark on a new adventure, so that's what I did.

As those of you who read this blog know, following divorce and a return spell in SA, I rented the beautiful Dutch barge, the Hoop. Then I bought the Vereeniging, which I set about converting into a home. Again, my writer's instincts began recording everything that made this new life so special to me. I kept a journal for a while, but most of the content of what became my second and third memoirs, Watery Ways and Harbour Ways, came from events, images, conversations and the many humorous incidents that occurred as I learnt (literally) the ropes of my new life.

The Hoop

But then the bug started to itch again and the desire for something new to look forward to started plaguing me. Before I knew what I was really doing, I'd bought another rusty old boat, but this time in Belgium. This was a new challenge, a new country and a new culture. Koos and I roamed the country by boat or by car every weekend for three marvellous, memorable years, enjoying every moment. The imprint of our experiences there took a few years to mature, as they did with my earlier books, but eventually they had to come out in a fourth memoir, Walloon Ways.

I've been very lucky, I know that, but if I analyse things, nothing I've done has been particularly wild, brave or dangerous - I'll leave that to Jo! It's just been a case of going with the flow, not resisting change and living life with a certain sense of wonder - often about what's going to happen next...

Jokes aside, what this all amounts to is my conclusion that having a spirit of adventure is almost a prerequisite when it comes to a certain type of non fiction writing. There are many different types of memoir, but you could say that mine - the living in a foreign land type - are the product of  my own desire to make every day worth remembering and to always be willing to try something new. I don't always succeed these days (advancing years and all that), but I do believe this attitude has helped me make the most of the experiences I have had.

So with that I'll raise a glass to you all this weekend and say cheers! Long may the adventurous soul in me survive - even if I don't... :)

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Lights out

While reminiscing on my sloshy past, and reminded by my story of my run-in with the water police, I was musing on the adventures I had in the harbour before I moved into my single-woman watery life. These were events that happened in that sort of trial period I spent on the barge my ex-husband and I bought before I went back to South Africa.

I should mention at this stage that said husband, who I shall refer to as Bill for convenience, was very suited to the life of an eccentric barge owner. Just one symptom of this was that he had a passion for old Seagull outboard motors, loving their clean aluminium casings and fine-crafted design. In the boat's small workshop he had several of them undergoing various stages of dismantling and repair. Each one was lovingly nursed back to health before being despatched to a new home, hand-picked for the owner's ability to demonstrate proper respect for a vintage outboard engine.

A duck's eye view of a relatively small barge

At that time, we also had a small rowing dinghy and Bill used to test the success of his repairs by putting his nurselings on it and going for a turn around the harbour - or at least trying to. While his outward trip would invariably start off Seagull motor-driven, as often as not his return would be oar-driven with him providing the power. He was nothing if not tenacious though and always convinced of ultimate triumph even though this often seemed to be a long time coming. So when one night he suggested we test out his latest rescue job on a moonlight cruise on the river, I was understandably hesitant.

All the same, Bill was very persuasive and somewhere around 11pm, I found myself climbing into the rowing boat and taking up position. It was pitch dark with only the lights from the surrounding office blocks to show us where we were going as we puttered through the harbour and out towards the river. Not a hint of a moon in sight.

"Shouldn't we have a light?" I asked Bill.
"Hmm, yes, I've got a torch," he replied.
I wondered whether the river police would think that was quite the same thing.
"And the oars are here, aren't they?"
"No, I left them on board. It'll be fine. This motor's perfect!"
No sooner had the words left his mouth and we had left the harbour than the engine popped twice, puffed a plume of smoke, and died. 

There we were, out on the Maas in the middle of the night in a rowing boat with no oars, no proper light and no engine. Yes.

Daytime view of the way out of the harbour

Now bearing in mind this river is the main arterial route between the Port of Rotterdam and the German hinterland, the skippers of the huge container barges that plough its course do not stop for tea at six o'clock; nor do they settle down for an early night in front of the telly. They keep on going all night long (and I mean all night long!). As a result I didn't find the situation particularly amusing. The idea of seeing the bows of one of these monsters bearing down on us was just very slightly worrying.

"Er, Bill, what are we going to do?" I tried to sound calm, but it came out as a sort of strangled squeak.
"'Don't panic, Mr Mainwering'!" This was his answer to everything (anyone remember Dad's Army?). "I'm sure I can get it started again."
"Yeah, but what if you can't?" My 'what-if' syndrome has been around a long time, probably nurtured by this kind of incident.
"Just don't worry! You'll only make it worse!" was his waspish reply. 
I couldn't imagine how I could make anything worse than it was. 
"Hold the torch for me, will you?" he snapped.
And so I pointed a quivering torch in his direction while he tried in vain to pull-start the motor. At least, I thought, anything heading our way would see the torch light wavering madly on the water - I hoped so anyway. If it just slowed them down sufficiently to give us time to leap overboard, we might live long enough to swim to relative safety. 

But after some further yanking, encouraging and then cursing, Bill realised nothing was going to convince the motor to cough into life, which was my cue to forget his strictures and to panic without reserve. 

Luckily hysteria sometimes has the odd effect of making me resourceful. There was a broom lying in the bottom of the boat. I whipped it up and plunged it in the water 'rowing' for all I was worth (it's amazing how strong fear can make you, isn't it?). To Bill's surprise, it actually worked and we began heading back towards the harbour entrance, albeit at the angle of a directionally challenged crab. To compensate, Bill had the idea of removing the plank he was using as a seat; he began paddling with it on the other side.  To my immense and almost pathetic relief, it wasn't long before we were safely under the bridge again.

Another 'brooming' trip with daughter, Mo

We used the wall to push ourselves through it and once on the other side, we were able to 'broom' the boat back into the harbour. By this time, my Herculean strength had collapsed like a pricked balloon, and I was completely exhausted. We made for the nearest jetty, tied the boat to it and staggered the rest of the way home. 

Bill wanted to bring his ailing baby with him and for once I made no offer to help. Well, after what he'd just put me through, you can't blame me, can you? 

And that was it. I don't remember now, but I expect it took me a few days to forgive him. What I do know is that he never suggested a moonlight cruise again.