What is boating to me?
Well it is probably not what boating is to you!
I’ve been reflecting on the first three years of boat ownership. I bought new – a Piper 49ft replica Dutch barge – with no interest in fixing, fettling or converting. I mooched around on the Thames for a couple of summers, then over to Belgium for a couple of winters, then cruising in France.
So far so good, apart from Brexit and Covid, but these are just things we have to cope with, my question really is more esoteric, more philosophical, more reflective. Generally I am not a boater. I don’t get all flustered and excited when a barge from the early 20th century goes past, nor am I prone to gasps and palpitations when talking about inclined planes, boat lifts or tunnels a mile long. Sure, I can appreciate the design, engineering and sheer spectacle of some of the feats of ingenuity, but I really can’t get over excited by them.
A good bottle of Pomerol, a cassoulet simmering with succulent pork and beautiful beans, or the lightness of touch and fullness of fruit of a tarte tatin – now that gets my blood racing.
The cities of Europe are breathtakingly beautiful filled with Cathedrals, stone buildings from a bygone age, cobbled streets, shops that close for a two hour lunch, memorials to the brave and the dead, unusual objets d’art litter the walls and window cills everywhere you look. My other boaty friends tend to drool over this sort of thing, off they go, hither and thither at the crack of dawn, camera in hand, walking miles through the well and less-well trod paths of towns and cities throughout the land. Back they come, imploring me to visit the Rue de something-or-other, the Abbey of the whatever-it-was, or the gargoyle that looks just like me (quite common, that one!).
For me though, a nice little local café serving fresh coffee, in those little demi-tasse, so strong that the sugar is a necessity (even for a diabetic). A bar in the middle of nowhere run by a geriatric, with the only other customer, a local, cradling their cognac as if it is the first time they had tasted this miracle of the distillery, and wondering what language I am speaking. For me, this is what boating is about.
The canals and rivers of Europe are many and varied, I have friends cruising as far north as Sweden and as far south as the Med. As far west as Atlantic coast and as far east as the Black Sea. The great rivers and capitals of the continent have witnessed the passage of many of my peers, the Thames through London, the Seine through Paris, the Amstel through Amsterdam and so on and so forth. Many miles are ‘boated’ each year, for me this year is huge – around 500 miles. For other this is just playing at it. On they plough, seemingly racing to be at their next mooring, 20, 25, 30 miles a day. Six, seven, eight hours cruising. A flight of 17 locks in half a mile. And so they go on, and on, and on, and on, and on.
For me though two – at the most three – hours at the helm, pushing along at around 4mph (walking pace) is just about right. Pulling into the next village, a promising town, or a lovely city centre mooring. Excited by what I will find, but under no pressure to even step ashore. As a matter of fact I’m not even sure I need a boat to do what I do! I’m basically travelling around France, going to places that many have been before me, but I have never seen. Drinking beer and wine that many have imbibed before me but are new to me. Tasting food that many have enjoyed before me but for me it is the first time. For me, this is what boating is about.
Boating to me has actually very little to do with ‘the boating’.
It is not steering the thing through the rivers and canals. It is though looking at the rivers and canals and fields and landscape as they pass sedately by, marvelling at nature and breathing the fresh air.
It is not mooring the boat in a tight spot using discreet puffs of fore and aft on the throttle and swinging the wheel from port to starboard. It is though, for me, using the bow and stern thruster moving sideways into a large space and doing so without a modicum of nautical know-how.
It is not putting in the miles or the hours to tick off another landmark or visit a ‘must-see’ attraction. It is though, for me, stopping cruising before my shoulders hurt, finding something interesting in the most unexpected of places and eating and drinking very nicely. And friends, strange as they may be.
This is what boating is for me.