This is not my usual blog. I’m shamelessly using you, as a sounding board. I’m writing my third book and it’s very different from my second which was a practical guide, and from my first which was written in the voice of a child. I don’t know if it’s any good… you are my tasters, don’t be shy, let me know what you think:
In my first marriage, to the fantasising Rob, we lived on a boat, moored on the banks of a small river in Kent. To reach home after a day’s work I had to catch a bus, walk a mile, climb a stile, trudge across a cow meadow, clamber down a bank and, if a cow hadn’t knocked it into the river, teeter across a dodgy gangplank to an always-cluttered deck. Sometimes the gangplank was in the river and – on bad days – so was the generator. Once not only were the gangplank and the generator in the river but a large cow was standing, bewildered and stranded, on the deck. It was before we all had mobile phones so I had to trudge back across the field, over the stile, walk a mile into the village, to the phone box. Rob was at work so, when he had finished for the day, he and a mate turned up to rescue the wonky wood and the drowned machine and the cow. Until then I just had to sit on the riverbank, talking to the cow, plotting a divorce.
The Miss Behave was a converted police launch, a narrow gutted, steep sided wooden vessel, with a smallish cabin and a two bloody great ferocious Perkins diesel engines under the floor of the cabin. When she went full throttle everything shook and thrummed and roared and fell out of the cupboards, and smashed to pieces. Even when she was just gently moving through the water anything breakable had to be stowed away, and you really didn’t want to stay too long below decks, what with the noise and the diesel fumes and the shaking. But Rob loved her, and I loved him, and there’s no reasoning with a young woman’s foolish heart…..
I worked in a paper factory in Maidstone, in the offices, and one of the drawbacks to boat living is that while your colleagues may be delicately scented with Eau de Parfume, you will, however hard you try, carry with you a faint miasma of mould and engine oil. Rob could never see the problem with that, manly smells for a manly man who deliberately echoed John Wayne, but a bit of a problem for a clerk/receptionist in a busy office. At weekends I would take two large bags on the bus to the laundrette, and read a book for a couple of hours, before lugging it all back, clean and fresh, to fold it neatly and put it away in the rot infested drawers and cupboards. It was a year of battling with smells, cows, weather, rats and cold. But Rob loved boat living and I loved him and there’s no reasoning with a young woman’s foolish heart….
We had a cat, Muffin, a lovely tortoiseshell, and that Summer Rob turned up with a scruffy dog. We called him Kipper. I don’t remember now how Rob ended up with this little mutt, but I have no difficulty remembering how much Kipper and Muffin hated each other. That’s quite a problem on a 32ft boat. And then Rob’s sister, who bred Standard Poodles, gave us a puppy (by then Rob had lost his job so he could look after them all while I was at work) and we called the poodle Sidcup. It’s traditional, or was then, to go on a laying-up cruise before the winter sets in, a sort of farewell to the warm days. We set off, down the Medway, on a really lovely September day, intending to get as far as Sheerness, moor up or lay anchor for a picnic, and then return, a nice simple round trip of about 30 miles. As we were approaching Sheerness Rob said we’d find a shallows and moor up, so that we didn’t stray into the busy commercial waters leading to the Thames and the oil refinery. I went below to sort out the picnic in the tiny space we called the galley. The engines were thrumming but only gently so although the crockery and pans were dancing, they were staying in place. And then the engines stopped. It seemed a little strange when there had been no manoeuvring, no call to me to come up and throw a mooring rope or drop the anchor. The door to the cabin flew open and Rob leapt in, down the steps, looking around wildly, shouting “Quick, quick, give me something.” Something? What did he mean, ‘something’? He grabbed at a knife, a bread knife and shouted “a cloth, a cloth” but before I could catch up with him he grabbed a tea towel and he was up and out again, the door swinging behind him. Now I saw the problem, a great gushing torrent was tumbling down the steps from the cockpit. I splashed through it, to find him on his hands and knees, frantically wrapping the towel around the handle of the knife. Water was gushing up through the wooden deck with such force that it was spouting. He wrenched up a deck hatch, and then a plank, and plunged his arm in, his head half submerged. It took some minutes, he came up for air, frantic, and plunged back under…. I could just see the hole in the hull, through water made thick with bilge rubbish and grease. As he rammed the make-shift bung into the hole, the flow almost stopped, just seeping now, no longer a small river. He sat up, drenched, dirty, gasping for air. We had lost the propeller and its shaft.
With no engine power, we were sitting in the middle of the estuary, heading towards a busy sea lane, and night was falling. Two adults, two dogs , a cat and a tiny dinghy with the smallest Seagull outboard known to man. We still had electrics so we got the bilge pump working, while we looked at the chart and tried to work out where the tide was taking us, while simultaneously trying to plan how we could abandon ship, if it became necessary, and get us all ashore safely. By a stroke of almost- good fortune, the tide was taking us towards a sandbank, and Rob decided to steer towards it (in as much as we could steer) and hope to run aground. We decided that if the worst came to the worst and we had to abandon the boat, I would take the dinghy, with Sidcup and Kipper (it was like that Chinese puzzle, the fox, the cabbage and the hare) then I’d return and take the cat and Rob. If we could use the outboard we would, if not we would row. The running aground bit worked perfectly, we could hear the bottom scraping gently on the soft bed, the movement slowed on the boat and then stopped, and we were stationary. Sadly we were quite a way from land and by this time we weren’t sure how close we would be to the navigation channel when the tide returned. Rob threw out the anchor, which suddenly seemed like a tiny safety pin holding a rhinoceros in place, and we sat there, helpless, hoping for a passing boat, for one of the distant ferries to see us, but no boats came, no one saw us. As the tide rose, our batteries ran down, the bilge pump stopped, and the port and starboard lights went out. Now it was dark and we were sitting ducks. We could hear the anchor scraping. How far were we drifting? Where were we? As one of us operated the pump, the other kept watch for oil tankers. We simply had no idea if we had strayed into the main shipping channel.
Do we row ashore or stay put? We had to work the bilge pump by hand, a slog, a relentless slog, taking it in turns, but barely able to keep up with the water seeping in. We knew the estuary quite well, a wide, treacherous area of quicksand and mud flats, impossible to navigate safely, and so we agreed that we’d leave The Miss Behave only if she was going under. Our hope was that with the morning we would be seen and rescued.
As dawn broke we were huddled in the cockpit, exhausted from all the hours of pumping, and once again the tide had gone out. I made tea on the gas stove and we warmed our frozen hands, glumly facing the idea of losing not just our home but all our belongings. And we were still paying off the boat loan. ‘Would insurance cover us?’ I asked, and Rob shrugged. We had the cheapest policy going, the barest cover to satisfy the loan company, so probably not. And then I saw something glistening, maybe 400 yards away. I have great long distance vision and I knew, somehow I just knew, by the shape or the shadows or by serendipity, what it was. Our propeller and shaft.
Rob was derisive. There was no way that a heavy metal shaft would have followed us down river. We must have drifted a mile or more. It was a piece of rubbish, an old metal strut or a lobster pot or something. But I knew what it was. I was absolutely convinced. So, complaining, Rob sloshed over the side into the thick mud and pushed the dinghy out until it floated, and clambered in, swearing. I watched him rowing, slowly at first, an exhausted very fed-up man, and then I realised that his strokes were getting faster. As he neared the shining object he just about fell out of the dinghy in his excitement, and I could hear his shouts across the shining mud “It is! It is! You beauty!”
It took some time to get it on board the dinghy, and by the time he returned he was black from head to toe and completely exhausted, but triumphant. As the tide came in he detached the propeller and somehow, between the two of us, we managed to fit the shaft back into its housing in the hull. We still had no power, the engine still couldn’t engage with the shaft, and the prop was lying useless on the deck, but we were more or less water tight. By nine o clock we had been spotted and were given a tow back to the boatyard.
The dogs exploded with joy to be back on dry land, the cat was allowed out of her carry cage (where she had been in case we had to row for shore at short notice) and we had a huge fry up.
We found the insurance documents. We weren’t covered, at all. They were out of date. The repair and the recovery would come out of my wages. When I heard Rob recounting the ‘adventure’ with himself as hero and me as compliant side-kick, I really could have smacked him, quite hard. But I loved him and there’s no reasoning with a young woman’s foolish heart….