One man and a boat

Es­capades aboard a dinghy on Lon­don’s River Thames

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

THE rain was dy­ing away as I headed to­wards my first ma­jor land­mark: Ted­ding­ton Weir and locks, where the up­per Thames — the land of Vic­to­rian gents in straw boaters and stripy suits, the land of Jerome K. Jerome’s fa­mous Vic­to­rian com­edy Three Men in a Boat, in which three mid­dle-class loafers (not to men­tion a dog) be­come em­broiled in a de­light­ful se­ries of lit­tle dis­as­ters in­volv­ing mazes, fry­ing pans and the dog — comes to an end.

Some things from Jerome’s day are still the same: the pork pie will get trod­den on, the lock will lead to em­bar­rass­ment and the sup­plies will never fit in the boat.

Row­ers skimmed past me as eas­ily as water boat­men, their at­ten­dant launches fol­low­ing be­hind, some­times with a man shout­ing plummy-sound­ing ex­hor­ta­tions through a mega­phone. As some­one who takes to the water to es­cape or­ders, one-up­man­ship and the rat race of the world on land, I found their flimsy craft and com­pet­i­tive­ness hard to un­der­stand.

Magic, to a sailor, is har­ness­ing the wind — get­ting some­thing for noth­ing — the sur­prise of a gust, the boon of a side wind and the trial of a head­wind and, best of all, the moment when a change in di­rec­tion means turn­ing away from the head seas and wind and spray and run­ning away from it in si­lence and warmth.

To a ca­noeist, the magic is grav­ity, the free ride, and har­ness­ing ev­ery minute nu­ance of cur­rent to go where you want to. Row­ing looks like a sport that cries out for flat, unan­i­mated wa­ters, like reser­voirs and lakes — a sport that might best be prac­tised in a swim­ming pool if only there were one big enough. My rule is sail when you can, mo­tor when you can’t and row when you must.

Along the banks, the years were peeled back like strata of time. Big white stuc­coed Ge­or­gian river­side man­sions sat by brick-built 1980s homes, play­ing fields, an­other dis­used power sta­tion and the tow­paths that are older than the city. It was as though the river were cut­ting through a canyon of civil­i­sa­tion. By now I was on an easy run, straight be­fore a light wind with just the main­sail up, held loosely by its rope (a sheet in nau­ti­cal ter­mi­nol­ogy) in my left hand, the tiller in my right, al­ways ready to tack or change di­rec­tion.

At Ted­ding­ton Weir, the non-tidal Thames gives way to the tidal Thames, also known as the Port of Lon­don, the Lon­don River or, most dra­mat­i­cally, the tide­way. Here, the En­vi­ron­ment Agency re­lin­quishes con­trol of the river to the cen­tury-old Port of Lon­don Author­ity and lit­tle har­bin­gers of doom started to ap­pear. Lit­tle patches of float­ing rub­bish washed down­stream to swirl around above the locks. Later, a large, dead, sil­very carp, bloated and torn by un­seen teeth from be­low, floated on the sur­face. Per­haps then, this is where Lon­don be­gins.

At Ted­ding­ton, the lock-keeper made his way to­wards me, filled with joie de vivre for the sun that had started to come out, the grass un­der his feet, the sight of a lit­tle dinghy filled with camp­ing kit ap­proach­ing, and he was quick to re­gale me with the tale of the lock’s claim to fame as the set for Monty Python’s Fish-Slap­ping Dance.

At Rich­mond, an hour’s un­event­ful sail later, I dropped sail and, pick­ing up a sin­gle oar and stand­ing at the stern, pad­dled the boat into the first of the 25 locks I would en­counter on the voy­age, but not af­ter a pas­sen­ger ferry locked in to travel up­stream, its dirty stern wave bub­bling brown and frothy, the ex­haust from its diesel mix­ing in like a warm, va­porous fart. The friendly lock-keeper told me to grab hold of one of the chains that hang down the walls and as I held on, we sank into a Vic­to­rian chasm of black, slimy brick­work. Lit­tle splashes of water fell on my face and arms and I won­dered for a moment if the

lock-keeper had pro­duced a water pis­tol to take pot shots at me with.

A moment later the mys­tery was re­solved: the lock wall har­bours colonies of mus­sels, spit­ting the river out as the water leaves them tem­po­rar­ily high and dry when the lock is emp­tied.

Be­cause I was late leav­ing, my ebb tide to take me to Brent­ford, where I’d planned to stop overnight, was slow­ing down as it reached low water. The wind had gone hay­wire, al­ter­nately still and gust­ing lustily from all an­gles, and the lit­tle out­board mo­tor re­fused to start.

Row­ing against the Thames would be im­pos­si­ble once the new flood tide started to gain pace and run from the North Sea back into town.

Soon I was in a com­pletely de­serted stretch of river, with just the dark green vast­ness of Rich­mond Park, a wood­land big enough to be home to herds of deer, slip­ping by be­hind the gen­tly slop­ing banks, with trees grow­ing over them down to the high water line.

On a sunny day it would have been a beau­ti­ful place. Now it seemed bleak.

I longed to swim ashore, walk to the near­est tube and go home, but the Storm 15 was now a noose around my neck.

Af­ter fran­ti­cally try­ing the mo­tor time and time again, I tried talk­ing to it, softly at first, with whis­pers of en­cour­age­ment and flat­tery, then by chal­leng­ing it to defy me.

I hissed at it fu­ri­ously un­der my breath, then fi­nally, in the strange re­la­tion­ship a man has with a mo­tor (and this is a male thing, I think), I shouted at it with great pas­sion and all the colour­ful en­cour­age­ment I could muster, just as a mid­dle-aged woman came into view walking a choco­late labrador on the bank. This is an edited ex­tract from Cir­cle Line: Around Lon­don in a Small Boat by St­ef­fan Meyric Hughes (Sum­mers­dale, $19.99, dis­trib­uted by Peribo).

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