Living Afloat

In late September, some time ago I was due to arrive in Norwich to commence my course at the Norwich School of Art and Design. Not only did I have to arrive there in time but I would bring my home along with me! It had required three intensive months of preparation; the little ship was showing her age.
“Though your lacings have frayed, and your sheets have disarrayed,
Your travellers jammed at the yard, you`ve lost cringle and bung,
And your planking has sprung, and the grease in your pintails gone hard.
Though your garb`d strakes split, and your stretchers don’t fit,
And your paint-works beginning to peel, your gunwales’ have dipped,
And your tillers unshipped, and the deadwoods adrift from your keel.
They once sailed you proud, sung praises out loud,
The pride of the fleet that you served, no more will they shout,
As they bring you about, Is this the reward you deserve?”

(A song by Cyril Tawney close to my heart- having sailed many times in whalers)

Planks needed replacing, rigging required maintenance, Engine to overhaul, new center board case to build, new strakes, new… The list of tasks appeared endless, so too did the rain of that foul summer which prevented me from making the progress necessary to make her seaworthy again. The journey North would prove a challenge without the extra burden of material doubts. The bank account was vermilion, forcing me to make compromises; essential repairs on one side and the desirable alterations to make her a habitable even cosy place in which to live for a while. The reasons for the venture were based on practical need and economy: the prospect of having to live in a bedsit allowing a landlord to get fat at my expense or the sharing of a house with student a lot younger than myself and fresh into life’s temptations was not an option or a thought to relish. With very limited means to live on, my choice became a simple one.
“Oh hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.”
The voyage North nearly ended in the loss of vessel, life and limb but that is another story; suffice to say, anyone who has not experienced their home shipping moderate amounts of seawater, a lee shore too close for my autonomic nervous system to cope with, engine failure, a wind, where even a pocket handkerchief would amount to excess sail being carried, a chest full of pain and broken ribs and recurring bouts of seasickness, should read Rupert Brooks, Chanel Passage:
“The damn ship lurched and slithered, quiet and quick, My cold gorge rose, the long sea rolled; I knew I must think hard of something or be sick; And could think hard of only one thing – you! You alone could hold my fancy ever! And with you memories come, sharp pain and dole, Now there’s a choice – heartache or tortured woe, A sea-sick body, or a you sick soul.”
During that lonely night of `holding on` to an uncertain ground and an even more uncertain future, I peered out into a nightmarish vista; the lights of shore were frequently interrupted by black humped-back monsters, also in attendance that night were white horses chasing them, they clawed their way landwards, their breath as cold as my spirit on that night. I wedged myself into my bunk and awaited my fate and between every aggressive crash and slap of dark unforgiving water on my home I would think of her.
a href=””>Under wraps for winterThe `little ship` is only 22` overall, with a maximum beam of only 8` 3”. The cabin is my nest and despite the lack of headroom and my broken ribs, it is relatively spacious, cosy and very comfortable. She was hand built by craftsmen, mahogany planking on oak ribs, and reflects a time when boats were boats; like creatures of the sea, with a uniqueness or character of their own. They all had one thing in common in that they possessed a charm unequaled by their `Tupperware` counterparts today, the mere sight of which is enough for my cold gorge to rise again!
Facilities on board are very basic, which lends itself to a bohemian existence. Two bunks on either side of the cabin also offer stowage space beneath, which can be annoying if you have to remove a dozen objects from the bunk first to get at anything! Clothing and other personnel items are stowed in the draws, or should be when they are not scattered on the bunks! There is ample room for books on the shelves in the forward part of the boat and sufficient space beneath a small cooker for foodstuffs. Lighting is by 12v electric, gas or oil but I do not recommend reading under oil light. The radio is the only modern extravagant item; the cassette player refuses to operate anymore. Water is supplied by God via an artesian well, which has a tendency to freeze in winter.

my cabin

Covering the boat for the most of the time is an awning or cover; this gives a `tented` working area in the well and during the winter months, also provides further stowage space in an `attic` above on the cabin roof. The absence of a bathroom has been ingeniously taken care of: for reasons of aestheticism and nostalgia, I have acquired a wooden bucket for washing in – a Nelsonian touch but is environmentally friendly if used in conjunction with Ecover washing up liquid, which is more than can be said for the W.C! I use the quaint old bucket and chuckit system but to be honest, there is a toilet in the boat yard I mostly use. That reminds me when I was up river once I returned to the boat with a female friend. As we entered the `tented` area under the awning the smell hit us. I had left in haste that morning and left an offering to the Gods in the bucket that greeted our arrival! (As a postscript here, I now see the woman sometimes in the village today 30 years on and wonder if she remembers me!) Last but not least, my heating is provided by a baby pot belly stove. This recent acquisition has pride of place and replaces the rather smelly an old paraffin heater that not only smelled horrible but gave off an incredible amount of water in the form of condensation, which, I discovered after only short space of time, found its way into the bottom of my boat.
Living afloat, brings me closer to the natural environment where the effects of man on the land are not so evident. I am in the landscape and I feel the landscape in me. As I write, I do not need to look outside to know there is a gale blowing from the North West, for as the wind breathes my home responds. I do not need any recorded music; out there cacophonies of screams are crying out to the awaiting dawn. The untamed wind tears the living heart out of the land, it rapes steel and canvas covers flog rhythmically in the untiring force; a rapid ting ting ting of halyard `strings` play for their very existence; each chord played with vigor. There will be no pianissimo with tonight’s performance.
The first couple of months living on the Norfolk Broad were spent exploring; discovering the `Wherry`, the `Ferry House` and many other houses of special interest. This novelty was soon lost when the nights started to draw in, the stove was lit ever more frequently and I began to wonder, had I made the right decision. The boat yard had seen the last of the `blue water` sailors and appeared abandoned and scarred by vehicle tracks and puddles of yellow ochre; an uncertain ground dominated leaving a hazardous surface for my bicycle to negotiate! The land had changed almost overnight; upriver the olive and leaf greens of summer were now just a memory. The trees, beaten by Aeolus, had now been stripped and stood bare along the Yare River. The alders were visible but the larger witch elms, and one or two of the slender branched trees upstream, dissipated into the November greyness; the horizon became vague, irrelevant, everywhere held a veil creating a funeral–like atmosphere. The land was in mourning as the procession of corpses went by; the sodden filth of autumn ebbed its way, eventually seawards, decomposing as it went and among the Sargasso-like forms, could be seen the signs of a civilization striving towards an inevitable and ecstatic end. In the bow wave I nudged aside a Martini bottle, its label half off, then another MacDonald’s container, a plastic cup and the remains of a colour supplement, the cover of which had the photograph of a man, an upcoming people’s hero but of the corporate world and whose name was the same as the pickle jar that bobbed alongside.
I must not give the impression that life afloat is as carefree as one might think, it is quite the contrary. What I am doing by living like this is contravening some by-law and therefore although quite lawful is never the less illegal! It is proclaimed that boats should be used for pleasure purposes only and not for residential use in this boatyard. If it were discovered I was living aboard, I would no doubt have to move on; it would put me in a dilemma to say nothing of the inconvenience. I therefore have to lead a clandestine existence, leaving and returning home when no one is around. After turning off the lights on my bicycle, I run the gauntlet along a half mile stretch of country lane. If any car headlights appear, I scramble over the nearest hedge for cover. There is a dog that sometimes heralds my return at the house at the entrance to the boatyard but this problem has been solved by what Einstein referred to as simultaneous events; on approaching the house and dog, a short wait is necessary before my decoy operates. As there is a railway bridge next to the house, I wait patiently before the signal light changes, then pedal as fast as I can under the bridge as the deafening train crescendos overhead. The next assault is on the boat yard itself; the mud, unfortunately for me, leaves traces of my movements and there is no effective way of preventing this. As I cannot become airborne economically, I carefully return along the same track every time. Under the shadow of darkness, it is a skill not many mortals alive today can boast of. After hiding my bicycle, I step aboard where life is comparatively safe. Each of the six portholes has dead-lights fitted in order to prevent any signs of light or life escaping.Riverside on the edge of civilization (etching)<
River view from my homeI am not the only life form in the area. One night my imagination was over stimulated into a state of paranoid exhaustion. I awoke to hear the patter of feet above me in the attic; a bogey man perhaps? Sudden movements of rocking the boat enabled me to rid the intruder for a while but it only left me wide awake to await its return. Unable to see outside, my mind conjured an amazing assortment of possibilities. Once, I awoke to hear the cover being peeled aside, followed by certain movements of the boat, as something stepped on board; In the light of day of course one can be rational; the wind was blowing in an unfamiliar direction, the cover had not been secured properly and the rocking of the boat was simply the boat `snatching` on her warps after being blown away from the quay, but where did my sausages, bacon, bread and cheese go? After a little detective work the mystery was solved – RATS! And that’s when my paranoia really became pathological; I became obsessed. I purchased four of the largest rat traps imaginable, a sack of rat poison, placed rat guards on all the ropes and purchased an automatic air revolver. I waited in vain because there were no more visitors that year; they had gone elsewhere to hibernate.
The winter was severe, but it must be said I was never cold. I broke out of the boatyard cut just before the ice imprisoned all for my last sail on the river. It is always amusing sailing with black smoke belching from the stove pipe, sometimes a downdraft from the jib smokes out the entire cabin and there is not much you can do about that. The boat would never pass the Boat Safety Inspection in the next millennium! On the waterfront life was as ever varied; no longer were there leisure craft speeding by, their wash disturbing the calm, the breakfast things and creating an avalanche with the washing-up. Coot and Mallard ducks befriended me and sometimes stepped on board. The occasional Cormorant could be seen overlooking the frosted wetland from his vantage point high in the leafless trees and below him, the plastic boats lay sterile, ice bound and inert, awaiting the chance to display their predictable and monotonous colours.
It was cold outside, very cold. One night – it is always night-time when I become haunted with the wonders of what only isolation can bring, I gazed aloft. There, clear of the urban mess, away from the stagnant necklaces of halogen lights that pierce the smog, away from that nebulous orange glow that always clings to the so called civilized settlements, excluding the wonder and clarity of it all, up there one can see forever and everything, and on nights such as those, when the soul is king and his subjects sleep, you can hear, actually hear, that brief moment of conception before the ice is born. An eerie squeaking mass was growing all around me; I witnessed the growth and development of it all. As every pure crystal formed there was a celebration; I could hear bells ringing and the reverberations were not only perceptible to the human ear but as I returned to my bunk, rejoicing could be felt by anyone who had taken the time to listen. As the heavens looking glass reached adolescence, cracks were heard; the river level was dropping and large chunks broke away affecting the entire surface, their resultant resonant cries wept me into a deep sleep.
And so when spring emerged, I did also. The cover was ceremoniously peeled away exposing the gleaming mahogany sides. She was given a fresh lick of black gloss, brasses were polished and she felt alive again. And so too were the blue water-men and women, who also emerged from their suburbs to board their maintenance free toys, start their over powerful engines and speed off in pursuance of that great Norfolk Broads illusion; quaint old waterfront pubs, windmills and picturesque sail boats that are only seen in any great numbers on postcards and souvenirs, but some of them, and one in particular, will find their way back off the main river into the tranquility of the boatyard cut, away from the myriad of traffic on the main rivers and broads and into a sojourn, a solace till the mob depart again. Until then I will take pity on a solitary swan, who also appears to have tired of the turmoil outside and I eavesdrop on two blue watermen who observe the disadvantages of maintaining a wooden craft; looking at me scraping off some loose paint. Their voices sound critical and I hear one remark, ” He hardly ever uses his boat!” But we know better don’t we? (Written in 1987)