A poetic introduction to our boating days

A poetic (?) intoduction to our boating life

Part One

The reason why we went boating

bid the race of the rat goodbye

was my wife got a horrid illness

and was told she'd probably die

We decided then to take stock of our lives

reach our graves without a regret

'cause the hair on her pillow and fear on her face

is something we'll never forget

Her biggest weapon throughout those dire years

was humour she used like a staff

to prop herself up in the darkest hours

but doubtless the loudest laugh.......

was our choice to go and live on a boat (good grief!)

to travel the UK canals

we built one ourselves and cruised for two years

lost money but made plenty of pals

You must be mad, our friends had said,

all your chattels was money well spent

You can't just possibly throw it all out.

Red rag to a bull, off we went

From Shropshire to London then west out to Bath

in The Avon's gentle flow

we moored by the weir below Pulteney Bridge

Bath's Ponte Vecchio

Then Bristol's Floating harbour

housing two historic ships

The Great Britain of steel and the Matthew of wood

made worldwide, seaborne trips

Below Tower Bridge on the Thames we sailed

Washed up on the incoming tide

We'd entered the river from Limehouse Lock

for a magnificent, capital ride

It was rush hour, Friday, 5 PM

we were scared if the truth be told

in the wakes from passing tourist boats

we pitched and rocked and rolled

Off up north to the Liverpool / Leeds

with many a stop on the way

It all took us months at sedentary pace

sometimes less than two miles in a day

After two great years we expanded our goals

while wishing to still stay afloat

A search, an offer, and a bit too much cash 

bought a charming but knackered old boat

This one, a barge, aged one hundred and ten

The hull at least, not the rest

The exterior really did not look half bad

but inside proved rather a test

All types of plastic and fag ash and dust

no colour, all monochrome

but we thought we could see well beyond all this mess

and transform her into a home

Two years spent while hacking about

In a land that speaks with strange tongue

In The Netherlands, a town called Zwartsluis

whose praise I have regular sung

The natives embraced us with arms open wide

admired us for having a bash

they were friendly and open and warm to us both

particularly when we paid them in cash

The first trip, a cock-up it has to be said,

when we were forced to pull into the pits

a nasty, clunking grinding noise

saw our gear box fall in bits

We were lucky indeed to break down where we did

because just outside was a lawn

attached to a boat-yard with flashy new boats

but it proved to be a false dawn

The boss of said boat yard was mighty irate

that a foreigner dressed like a tramp

had attached himself with some scrappy old rope

and informed us at once to decamp

The man wore white shorts, white shoes, white hat

a medallion and strawberry blond

he reminded us of a foreign film star

in a nutshell, James van Bond

We explained our dilemma from our bank-side deck chairs

'broke down,' we were sad to report

despite all his gestures, pointing and ire

I didn't understand his retort

We sat near our crippled craft and watched

a container port 'cross the way

huge ships came by to unload their goods

our commercial matinee

These massive ships, like a fish to a bear

were six times longer than us

For a moment or two we wished we'd bought

a camper van or a bus

They towered above us, what a weight, what a size,

hydraulic wheelhouse raised high

forty containers drift by in the breeze

manoeuvred with practised eye

We had to be rescued, towed back, then repair

put a dent in our annual costs

but without a connection 'tween engine and prop

the point of a boat's rather lost

Our second venture saw no change in luck,

our goal just two hundred feet

to the boatyard to have new batteries installed

and a minor repair to a cleat

Our boat blew sideways in barely a breeze

and collided with a boat on the bank

we crushed an ornate wooden tiller

like a mollusc squashed by a tank

With an awful squealing, rending sound

the beautiful tiller died

reduced to twigs in the blink of an eye

it drifted away on the tide

That repair cost two hundred pounds

and driving our boat proving hard

how would we fund our round-Europe trip

when so far it's been ten quid a yard

Undaunted by these minor mishaps

we set off on our first major cruise

the memories of the money we spent

thankfully dulled by the booze

We arrived in the province of Friesland

land of lakes and small waterways

Located away in Holland's north west

a place we could quietly graze

We could lose ourselves in the inlets and creeks

and moor up for free on the isles

with no-one to bother us, no folk at all

and views 'cross the landscape for miles

Despite the fact that the country is flat

there is always something to see

marsh harriers ride the constant breeze

over wetlands searching for tea

Occasionally away in the distance

we'd see a tall ship under sail

the morning fret, the Mary Celeste

in the mist through a watery veil

I think I set fire to one island

was it me? Not wholly convinced

but it took me three hours to extinguish the flames

and I haven't smoked a fag since

It's peaceful now but come holiday time

the waterways are transformed

as thousands of natives take to their craft

a tsunami of boaters is formed

Sailors and rowers and powered craft

rush like mad from A to B

never stopping to savour the things in between

there's so much that they never see

We make the most of our journey by boat

smell each flower, see the birds, stop and talk

if your goal is solely the quality of pitch

you're better not boating at all

As their summer vacations come to an end

they retreat to their ports like the tide

and once again we are left all alone

with no need to dash off and hide

My favourite town is called Makkum

where the canals meet the mighty north sea

ocean schooners, trawlers and yachts

meet canal folk like Jan and me

Fishing boats dry their nets in the breeze

bejewelled they dance in the sun

while gulls impatiently wait for scraps

when the fishermen's cleaning is done

Wonderful ancient sailing boats

collectively called the brown fleet

that once plied their trade in these watery lands

now transformed into holiday retreats

Masted and rigged, they quietly await

their next crew, perhaps from Nantucket  (where's this going?!)

who pay a small fortune to live rough for a week

and defecate in a bucket

These boats are part of Dutch heritage

and a glimpse of days gone by

in a land where water rules the waves

it's a battle just to stay dry

A fourth of the country is in danger

of flooding by rivers and sea

they've built dykes and locks and inland lakes

and battle the tides constantly

God himself created our world

but Holland was made by the Dutch

the natives are naturally a stoic breed

and nothing bothers them much

We hit land in Leeurwarden at party time

with a festival going full bore

music and dance and costumes abound

street theatre and people galore

Some extraordinary outfits we see that day

the Dutch really do go to town

steered by the pope, a boat full of nuns

playing flutes and fooling around

A steam punk revival trundles past

on machines built out of scraps

they look like apocalypse meets Mad Max

a extraordinary bunch of chaps

In a sun-dappled, dozy courtyard

a jazz band oozes away

outside a Koffee Shop, purveyor of weed

fans mutter, 'yeah man, yeah'

Then gliding by on the river

a brigantine, blue with twin masts

Full rig with a white-bearded skipper

and hornpipe music, full blast

What a sight this wonderful ship truly is

that we glimpse 'tween summer-green trees

as he heads off up north on this inland canal

his pennants dance in the breeze

We follow his wake some time later

toward Holland's most northerly cape

through a land of windmills and plains

great place if you need to escape

We arrive at a town called Lauwersog

on a lake that bears the same name

in the wind the rough, shallow waters

caused our skipper Jan to proclaim...

'what on earth are we doing on here

bouncing and bucking around

on a lake in the middle of nowhere

if we sink we'll never be found.'

There are many channels to get off the lake

Green and red buoys mark the line

the problem was they were hidden by waves

it doesn't help that I'm colour blind

The skipper was driving and clung to the wheel

hanging on performing her role

as the nose of our boat took another dive

down a gloomy watery hole

Relief unsurpassed as we found our way off

past colourful buildings shore-side

we saw an eel smoker, a shop and some homes

where the fishermen all must reside

A rainbow arcs through an upcoming storm

the fractured sky black and blue

it's heading our way, no way to escape

so we may just as well battle through

Vicious winds and torrential rain

batter and blow for a while

till we emerge damp and dripping to a whole new world

into crystal clear blue sunlit skies

The heat of the sun and the rain on the steel

make us steam like an autumn morn

We peer through the mist and refracted sun

the next golden hour has been born

We pass a beautiful windmill

against slate grey clouds it's pure white 

as we look round to see where we've come from

it's as if we're being chased by the night

The ancient city of Groningen

is a place we linger a while

it's mixture of students and culture and boats

one particular thing made me smile

On a square by a church in the centre of town

bikini-clad girls played a game

on a beach made up of imported sand

played volleyball to common acclaim

A Sunday it was right in front of the church

the elderly worshippers distraught

but nobody watching the game that day

gave a damn what the church-goers thought

Boats line the canals throughout the town

the majority joined up to the mains

reminders of the waterways golden age

before the advent of trains

A glimpse in our rear-view mirror

is like looking back at the past

as we continue our journey to southerly climes

where things happen far too fast

But come back we must, things need to be done

our boat needs some TLC

some vital parts that were stuck to the walls

have parted company

After a dodgy, costly start to our trip

things improved so we'll take the chance

of a trip of even great angst

destination France.

© Jo May 2017

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