Mutiny On The Longboat

You might imagine a week’s holiday on an English long boat with your Australian Naval Officer lover would be the most romantic thing you’ve ever done. You might also think that to embark on a trip in an English spring in the merry month of May, cruising lazily down the river Severn and then on up to Stratford on Avon in all its historical glory would be one of those outstandingly rare defining moments in time. You could be forgiven for hoping that such a venture might provide the right ambience for Mr Right to finally Pop The Question.

You might think all these things. Read on, Impossible Optimist, and weep!

The day you collect your vessel has arrived and your ears are ringing with instructions from the duty boatman, whose last jaded words to you as he handed you the all important winch handle were delivered with a suspicion of menace combined with meaningful in-depth eye contact.

“When you’re winching the lock gates for Gawd’s sake don’t let go of the winch ‘andle! If you do, you’ll lose it and they cost sixty quid which you’ll get charged for. You’ve got a spare but that’s it so DON’T LET IT GO, right?”

You look at him scathingly and wonder at his grumpiness, and why he thinks you’re stupid enough to drop the most crucial instrument on the boat.

Your holiday begins! You manoeuvre down about three lock gates in quick succession and you become familiar with the procedures and the strong pressure you have to put on the winch handle to wind the gates open or closed. Easy, you reckon as you leap from ship to shore and back. An idiot could do this. At the last gate, beyond which the first enticing swathe of open river beckons, you bound ashore and wind the handle in confident glee. Your Beloved stands erect in naval stance at the helm of his vessel, right hand on the tiller, left hand waving about pointing instructions or shading the naval eye (get used to this; the position never alters for the entire seven days. Only the volume changes!). All is going splendidly. And then...... you let go of the winch handle. Who knows why? It leaps into reverse wind so fast you hardly know what’s happening. With the speed of light it smashes into your shin so hard the dark blood flows from the crater it leaves in your leg and the pain leaves you breathless; you’ll have the dent in your shin bone for life. Then, as if a thing alive, the handle detaches itself from the winch and arcs gracefully through the air into the water, entering with the smallest ‘plop’ and instantly sinking without a trace.

Everyone is stunned. For a second even the Royal Australian Navy is lost for words. The onlookers look on, deeply interested and amused. You gaze in futile disbelief at the ripples circling out from where it went in. You pray, promising never to let go a handle again if you can just have this one back, “Oh please!” You don’t look anywhere near the stern of the barge where stands the incredulous Captain of your heart (you’ll never hear the end of this one!). You fervently wish for a miracle..... and you get one! A boy standing on the lock wall brightly says “I’ll get it for for you for a fiver” and he does!! A large magnet on a long piece of string appears as if by magic out of his grubby shorts pocket and within 30 seconds of his first drag of the river bottom, up comes the handle. (This boy will by now surely be one of England’s richest entrepreneurs).

After this uncertain start the day relaxes into just what you’ve hoped for. Oh to be in England, now that May is here, you sigh. The weather is perfect. The wide tranquil river winds through flat green meadows, the flower littered banks are lined with calves and lambs watching the new world float by. The infant leaves on the trees are an impossible green, bees buzz from wildflower to wildflower and butterflies flit everywhere. Church spires, massive oaks, flat meadows and country scenes reminiscent of Constable’s finest works surround you as you drift along on the solidly chugging engine. This is heaven. The river this week will float you through the Vale of Evesham where you’ll drift in the heady scent of apple blossom from endless orchards in full glorious flower. You can’t wait.

You and your Captain decide to find somewhere for lunch and a rest. This proves difficult. All along the river, ranks of ‘Private Property - KEEP OFF’ notices are in evidence. Local landowners are obviously not amused by amateur Boaties’ constant blundering attempts to hitch a ton of nautical battering ram to their diminishing riverbanks.

Finally though you spot a place, and stop for lunch under a leafy tree. You drink a glass of wine in the dappled shade, eat a perfect picnic. The navy settles down with a book and you seem miles from any human habitation. Perfect for a spot of topless sunbathing you decide. You whip off your bikini top and stretch out on the deck, exposing your milk-white bosom to the skies.

“Let me know if anyone comes”, you mutter sleepily to your heart’s desire. He grunts, not really impressed with your bravado. You doze to the tune of a hundred birds twittering in the trees.

After a while your subconscious registers a change in the birdsong – it sounds more like whispering; and tittering? Puzzled, you open your eyes.

Not fifteen feet away an entire boy scout troop lines the banks in varying stages of wide eyed wonder, ranging from nudging, spluttering, red-faced pointing to full ribald, thigh slapping laughter complete with candid observations, and not about the woodland. The loudest sound of all is emanating from the wheezing, red-faced, bulging eyed, contorted form of your aussie lover, still fruitlessly attempting to look as if he’s engrossed in his book. He’s actually crying with mirth you note, as you dive with a howl of horror through the doghouse door into the sanctity of the cabin.

The following day you arrive at a busier part of the river. Not only longboats queue for the lock gates, but also river tourist boats; white, plastic looking things with TV’s and deck chairs you note with disdain. This larger lock takes two boats at a time, and you find yourselves next to one of the gin-palaces, with two elderly American ladies flapping about ineffectually trying to tie up. Your gallant sailor cries “Let me help, Ladies”, and leans across the gap between the boats to take a line for them. Their throw is weak. Sadly, he leans that little bit too far, and, like the winch handle but with a bigger splash, he disappears into the glutinous green pea soup below. Your instant reaction (a victorious “Ha ha I knew it’d be you that fell in first”) is quickly overtaken by the notion that he may not come up. He may even be crushed between the hulls. Quickly you leap into rescue mode. You grab the boat hook, a long wooden pole tipped with a steel hook and six inch spike, and you run around the deck of the barge, looking for guiding bubbles and enthusiastically thrusting the hook end of the pole into the
water to give the drowning sailor something to grab hold of. Eventually, when you are frantic because he keeps disappearing just when you’ve nearly saved him, he baffles you by appearing, covered in green slime, from the other end of the barge where he has climbed aboard by himself. “Why didn’t you grab the boot hook?” you cry in relief at seeing him again.

“Too bloody dangerous mate” he confides. “I was too scared of that bloody spike you were trying to stab me with every time I came up for air”.

Put a Naval Officer on a boat expecting romance and love, and watch the object of your desire transmogrify into an officious, bossy, arrogant, noisy, odious, obnoxious brute. Scenario; you are chugging downstream approaching a lock. To the right of the lock is a weir. As there is a boat already in the lock, you must tie up and wait at the wharf to the right of the weir. Your instructions are being yelled at you in stentorian tones, and you, like the good woman you are, are doing your best to get the job done. This is involving all kinds of physical activity with ropes, stanchions, bollards and a great deal of running about whilst your captain never moves from his spot.. You are poised ready to leap like a deer from the bow to shore and quickly hurl the mooring rope around the bollard, but you still have about eight feet of murky water between you and land. You hesitate. Your commands from the helm become fraught;

“Jump! I said jump! Jump, woman!!”

“Get in closer” you retort; “Its too far!”

“JUMP WOMAN!!” comes the reply.

You take a deep breathe, fearing it will be your last, and miraculously make contact with the wharf, hurling the mooring rope around the bollard and tying it off in a heroically swift execution. You feel gratified and proud of your burgeoning skills and pause to breathe, but your Commandants voice bellows

“Get back here and grab this, quick”. You run to catch the stern rope as the current starts to swing the back of the longboat out towards the weir; you miss it. Strangled cries of hopeless fury are emitting from the evil hulk steering the boat.

“Tie this off you stupid woman; HURRY UP”, as he wildly throws the rope again. Somehow you catch it, but abuse echoes across the water again as you struggle to keep your feet.

“Jesus Christ woman get it round the bollard NOW”.

This treatment is unjust and uncalled for, you feel. You think that it would have been wiser to secure this end of the stupid boat first, and you say so, to a volley of further abuse. Something in your self-esteem rebels and in a moment of feminine fury you hurl the rope back at him snarling “Why don’t you do it yourself”, turn your back on his shocked expression and slow, inexorable drift into the current (and ultimately the weir), and stomp off into a field where you sit in the grass spitting and cursing and fervently hoping he and his bloody one ton barge have gone over the edge.

After a while there’s a tickling on your neck (via a grass frond being operated from a safe distance) and that wheezing, ‘Precious Pup’ cackle as he observes that the crew is really revolting today.

You’re now three days into your voyage and approaching Stratford on Avon. The unpredictable English weather has been unrelentingly stunning; your Aussie Captain is even suffering from sunburn on his tiller hand and grudgingly has to use a tea towel as a glove (“Maybe if he moved once in a while and tried something more energetic...” you grumble as you leap yet another great void in a single bound).

You are now blasé about the whole lock gate thing. The larger ones, which used to be operated by a single cart horse, are now operated by the sisterhood of long-suffering water-born women who unite off the barges to shove the huge, horizontal handles round the central winches. As you and your fellow female navvies assemble on the treadmill in line astern along the bar and slowly wind the gates open and closed, buttocks clenched and heads down, gossip and news prevail. On this particular day on your communal circular grind, you hear that the moorings in the overcrowded old town are all full and boats are being turned back, causing havoc and long queues at the lock gates.

Once back on board, you and The Captain confer and decide to moor up in the next village, avoiding the river crush, and this you do, locking the barge and bussing it through beautiful, quaint countryside to ancient Stratford. Despite severe naval grumblings (“Australian Naval Officers don’t use public transport!”) once there you take one look at the gridlocked River Avon and check in thankfully to your delightful historically wonky, black-beamed hotel. You feel a tiny bit disloyal as you bask in the hot shower, switch on your hairdryer, watch TV. Your leadlight window overlooks Barge City, with boats moored six deep and people having to scramble across everyone else’s vessel to get anywhere. You sigh with relief and eternal gratitude to the lock gate grapevine, and book an evening at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. What’s playing? Romeo and Juliet!

“Brilliant!” you cry. Your poor Captain groans; he would have preferred something more warlike and murderous. But you have a wonderful candlelit dinner in an atmospheric little crooked restaurant before sitting, entranced, through a professional and engrossing production of history’s most famous love story. You steal a romantic glance at your heart’s desire to share this very special moment with him. He’s nodding; sound asleep! On the stroll back through the balmy spring night to the hotel you thankfully shake your head at the spectacle of the river melee, but once in the huge four-poster bed in your cosy room you realise there’s something amiss; there’s no sound of gently rippling water whispering past the hull, no rustling of the willows on the riverbank, no occasional duck’s quack or the plop of a water vole. Nostalgically you admit it; you’re hooked.

You’re regretfully on the return journey. You’re so far into the river scene you fear you may never recover. You’re bowling along at your gentle chug, apple blossom and baby animals everywhere basking in the hot sun, when your sun-tanned sailor suggests that you stop for lunch, a swim and a glass of beer. You happily agree, unaware that your swim might happen sooner than you thought. (You’ve been getting some great mileage out of the fact that the professional sailor on board was the one who fell in first; never let a chance go by!) As you employ your usual aquatic shore-leap to lasso some sturdy, stationary object, you somehow end up not onshore but dangling upside-down on the outside of the hull hanging with one leg hooked round a stanchion. You frantically grapple with the edge of the deck, trying to get back on board before anybody naval notices you’re over the side; you’re still dry after all; you might just get away with it. You manage to hook an arm over the next stanchion, intent on undetected recovery; however, you haven’t allowed for the weight of your nether end, and as you loosen your leg hold your lower half descends with alacrity into the drink! There you remain, hanging on for grim death by your hands, dragging along in in the bow wave Escape is impossible. Far from not wanting to be noticed, as your strength wanes you are now yelling at the top of your lungs for help. A futile mission as it turns out as you can’t be heard over the throbbing of the engine. You can see through the cabin windows into the stern cockpit, and your Aussie lover is looking in puzzlement at the space where you were, and where you are now not, wondering where you went! In the end, in desperation and frustration at not being tied up yet, he actually deserts his post at the tiller and sprints up the deck to discover you trailing like a wet sack off the side, in imminent danger of losing your bikini bottom and hoarse from howling for help. “Ah, here you are”, he casually comments, and proceeds to haul you unceremoniously back on board using the mooring rope which never found its tree. You stand dripping and exhausted on the deck, thanking God for continued life and strong bikini elastic, when he innocently adds

“You should have mentioned how badly you wanted a swim; I’d have stopped earlier if I’d known”.

It’s the last day and you are negotiating the final series of Lock gates which take you upriver to the boatyard. You glance at the spot where the boy retrieved your winch handle, but there’s no sign of him.

“Probably investing in his own magnet factory” you think.

You have one more lock gate to negotiate before the trip is over. A pretty stone road bridge arches over the top of the lock giving welcome shade from the still idyllic hot sunny weather and you confidently go through the motions of what has become almost second nature by now. As the lock fills with water, raising the longboat slowly up to the correct depth, you sit on the wharf contemplating the Captain of your Heart’s magnanimous “I’ll cook you breakfast in bed for a change” offer this morning. You remember how pleased you were at such a thoughtful touch on your last day, and how you waited in anticipation for breakfast to arrive on a tray, perhaps even with a wildflower in a glass beside it. You remember how suprised you were when a large bowl of warm, greenish tinned chicken curry complete with spoon stuck in its glutinous midst was plonked unceremoniously on your lap.

“Curry?” you weakly uttered.

“Mmmm, eat up” came the cheery reply.

You snap out of your reverie and notice that, oddly, your Beloved has altered his Formal Stance. He seems to have abandoned the upright one for one with a sideways tilt. The underside of the bridge seems to be getting lower and lower as you watch in fascination, now necessitating a close to 40 degree angle of stance and a distinctly apprehensive naval aura. Increasingly, doubt nudges. Is there something you haven’t done? Course not! But suddenly you realise there is! You’ve forgotten to close the upriver gates! The mighty flow of the entire River Severn is gushing unfettered into the tiny lock, overfilling it at alarming speed. You’re about to jam the barge, with your Heart’s Desire atop it, into the cold, unyielding stone of the underside of the bridge, and cause your own Niagara Falls to flood the series of locks and longboats beneath. You can only imagine, horrified, what chaos and mayhem might result from your daydreaming oversight. You leap gazelle-like to the gates and winch like a madwoman, grinding them shut in record time. The flow stops, and once again, calm prevails. Phew. You risk a glance at your bent Captain praying he missed your embarrassing gaff. The look he shoots you back is most definitely a sideways one... .

Months later, when memories of life afloat with a Naval Officer are but a nostalgic glimmer, he Pops the Question.

And you say yes!

S O'Driscoll

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