A Narrow Escape?

by Celia Dillow

"It's not a Narrowboat; it's a Motor Cruiser."

Nevertheless, it is narrow, and very long. I had booked the largest boat on the Broads so that we could all fit in comfortably. I had not considered how difficult it would be to steer, park or stop it. Another thing I had not considered was that, with three generations of men on board, everyone was captain.

Granddad had decided to celebrate his 80th birthday in a narrow boat with his family. As the day approached we had misgivings. He might not manage to get aboard, we might not manage to be nice to each other, and it would definitely rain. The boat was long and tempers were short. Perhaps this narrow escape would be no escape at all.

But there is something very soothing about a watery land and, as we moored for the first evening, calm crept up on us. Once the engines were shut off there was deep peace. Far from traffic and people and lashed to the bank, we rocked softly. There was the slap of water on the hull, a blackbird's song and the magic of river-light leaving the day behind.

You can't sleep in. Once one person moves around in the narrow space, everyone has to get up. The engines must go on to power the heating; we couldn't let Granddad get cold. The early morning silence retreated as we prepared for the day. Ducks know the rhythms and routines of the people on the water. They sailed close, politely expecting toast. Fuelled by tea, we were ready for the chaos of departure. Amid panic, loud shouts and general grumpiness, we slid away from the bank.

The water broadened into a sheet of silver and we made majestic progress. This bit was easy. There were few other craft and the banks were reassuringly far away. Hours slipped by beneath Norfolk's huge sky and lovely light. Moorhens and coots fussed in the sedgy margins of the water. There were herons and geese and teal; buzzards turned in the soft air and a harrier hunted over the reeds. A bright kingfisher briefly buzzed the banks and under our bow. The rhythm of the river was relentless and restful. I sat in the stern and watched the neat lines of our path reel out behind us. Grebes ducked and dived in our wake, it was very, very peaceful. As an early chiffchaff shouted his name from the willows, I noticed that the channel had narrowed. The banks were much closer; in fact our boat was longer than the width of the water. I relayed this information to the captains, who consulted the map and decided that we should attempt a turn. The swans and dabbling ducks disappeared, a cloud covered the sun and the birds stopped singing.

It was a grumpy, ugly, noisy manoeuvre. The engine screamed. There were ropes and anchors and curses. Everyone had an opinion about the tides and the currents and the wind. Passersby were sympathetic, keen to help and secretly glad they hadn't sailed into a similar pickle. But people are kind, and slowly we hauled the mighty craft around and headed confidently back to the safety of the broad river. The captains placed the map prominently in the cabin and looked at it often and noisily.

I read the handbook and told them that we should be aiming for a 'calm, confident and quiet' approach to our mooring routine; and that we should gradually be building up our level of watery skills and competence.

There were other tests of our patience and teamwork, too. We needed to fill our water tanks and this meant negotiating a public space or boatyard. The map indicated where the taps and hoses were. We approached at an appropriate speed: not too fast (avoid crashing), not too slowly (the river carries you away). When we were reasonably close to the quay we all jumped off, then realised our mistake and all jumped back on again. Someone threw a rope but it wasn't attached to the boat. Grumpily, we filled our tanks.

The days passed in a succession of such episodes, deep peace followed by high panic. There were small adventures and big laughs. As we approached our final mooring, a barn owl was questing on the water meadow and curlews were calling in the gentle evening. Swans came close to observe. At exactly the right speed, we nudged the bank and tied up: calm, confident and quiet.

As Granddad stepped confidently onto the wharf, we realised that the river had worked its magic. We had learned our craft, and our narrow escape had been just perfect.