I’ve written a short piece about a canal boat holiday. It happened years ago, so long ago that the photographs below are stuck in an album and we look like youngsters. The story is true… although I may have embroidered the middle bit just a little… but it really did happen.
We were enjoying our canal boat holiday in Norfolk. It’s a sedate way of travelling. Put on the kettle, wander along the towpath, gaze into the impenetrable brown. There’s no current to move boats along, only the steady chug of the engine, horse power but no longer literal. And then we saw the sign.
'Report to the lock keeper. You are about to enter a tidal river.'
We knew it was approaching. The Great Ouse. We’d been warned about it but the sun was shining, the lock keeper was cracking jokes. How bad could it be? I love rivers, all that rushing water, all that life. While waiting our turn we were given our instructions, 'Turn right. Head for the orange flag a few metres up river.' A few metres? No problem! 'Have your engine on full rev. You’ll need it,' he added.
The lock filled. The gates opened. Our metal boat was punched by a watery fist. Wind kicked its frame. Our engine roared. Spray slapped my face. The orange flag was a long way off. I turned to look back but all I could see was a blur of water. This river was predatory. I was gripping the side rail, trying to push away thoughts of my mourning family. Who would tell the kids? How would they manage? Then Mr A’s voice shook me back to reality. 'Get up here! Help me hold the tiller! We’re heading out to sea!'
Together we leant on the tiller then I lost my footing on the slimy metal deck. He reached out to help causing the boat made a violent lurch. 'I’m ok!' I yelled. 'Get the tiller!' Grabbing the rail, I hauled myself up. Water dripped from my clothes and hair, I squinted into the spray. 'The flag! Look!' I pointed. I’d never been so pleased to see an orange flag approach. Two men in life jackets were by the lock.
'Throw us your rope!' one called. I edged my way towards the bow, unhooked the hefty coil of rough, water-sodden rope and tried to swing it out to them. The rope landed with a thud on the water. I hauled it in. I tried a second, a third time. My hands hurt with the cold, the wet, the rope, the indignity.
'I can’t do it,' I sobbed.
'Come and take the rudder!' yelled Mr A. I edged back towards the stern but the wind was pushing me, pinning me against the boat and we were being buffeted away from the flag, towards the open sea once more.
At that moment the boat listed to one side. If we took on water here we’d drown, I knew that. But then, just as it looked as if the water would flow over the side, a hand appeared on the rail followed by an orange-jacketed body and there, on the deck, stood one of the lock keepers. With an expertly aimed throw the rope was tossed to the shore and our boat was hauled away from the currents and into the lock.
On the other side we moored up, brewed up, changed into dry clothes and walked back to view the scene of our tidal terrors. We picked our way along a narrow path down to the very edge of the river. The sun glinted on each crest of each tiny wave. A fish, unidentifiable in the bright light, wove past us. There was a smell of salt, a tang of seaweed. I could feel the tension draining from my body. I do love rivers.