Occasionally, even the most organised of perfect Virgos find ourselves central to something whence we ask ‘how the hell did I get here?’ Take last Friday for instance. It was a strangely sunny morning in Trowbridge. I’d passed an uneventful night chez Bartlett. They have some new cats now so there’s no need for the man of the house to be up all hours attending to the needs of the previous zombie felines; the mewing, walking dead. No international cricket matches on either that required him to comprise his county’s contingent of a global television audience. For Wiltshire, it was relatively normal.
Spookily, however, by the time I got to the other side of this small town, a thick fog had descended; although, once I reached Bradford on Avon, the sun had reappeared and the sky was a welcome shade of blue. Despite the many miles I’ve trudged alongside the Kennet and Avon, and the hundreds of words I’ve written on towpath observations, both here and in the other country, I was about to embark on my first ever canal trip by boat. During the course of this, there would be five calls of ‘man overboard’ and one ‘fire in the galley’ necessitating an emergency mooring. See what I mean about ‘how the hell…?’
It began badly. What amounted to verbal fistycuffs took place on the quay before we’d even boarded. I’ve noticed this about folk who mean well on the canal: it’s nothing short of a major power struggle. These are very nice men (and never women) who are driven by a need to be ‘IN CHARGE’. There are too many titles. In this case, we had a Boatmaster, a skipper and a chairman. Both the new volunteers attending the health and safety training, and those more experienced, did the right thing and looked away; and sniggered behind our hands. Fortunately, there was something else interesting to look at: a swan had managed to become trapped between the lock gates and other canal volunteers were busy on a rescue mission. They filled the lock with water, then, opened the gates so the errant bird could glide serenely through. The swan had a bubble coming out of its head saying ‘and?’ We were about to clap but were called to account by the leader of the moment demanding to know if we were paying attention. Well, no, now you come to ask. Skipper and the Boatmaster were in a bloody heap on the towpath.
An interim explanation of sorts: wanting to give something back to the canal, I applied to be a volunteer writer. At first, I found myself subject to the control of a patriarchal elite to whom the concept of freedom of speech has yet to be introduced. Subsequently, however, I met Derrick who is a ‘good sort’, driven by the well-being of the Kennet and Avon. He introduced me to the local chairman who, upon agreeing to be interviewed, somehow recruited me to volunteer crew without me even noticing that I’d been aquatically groomed. Clever stuff that. Today marks our three hour session of essential health and safety training.
Nemo-like, we set sail in the direction of Hilperton but just as I was relaxing into the trip, ‘man overboard’ was called. Clearly, I hope, they can’t actually throw a man overboard. They threw a safety ring over instead. People who seemed to know what was occurring – that is, everyone except me – jumped to stations in an attempt to rescue the ring. They crawled along the gunwales like watery mountain goats, doing stuff with poles and ladders. Let’s face it, five minutes ago, I didn’t even know what a gunwale was. And now I do, there’s no way I’m going on one. It might’ve worked if everyone else on the canal knew a training exercise was taking place. That might’ve stopped the owner of a moored canal boat assuming the ring had accidentally fallen and helpfully prodding the ‘body’ with a long pole.
‘Fire in the galley’ and I’m in charge of the first-aid bag which is quite cumbersome. When a fire is spotted, a member of crew is supposed to blow their whistle. This alerts the rest of the crew without frightening the passengers by mentioning the word ‘fire’. We didn’t have any whistles so the woman next to me shouted ‘whistle’ three times. That’ll do it then. Everyone except me and the person in charge of the phone evacuated the boat on which ‘skipper’ had executed an emergency mooring. Sadly, your author is not fleet of foot: hindered considerably by the enormous first-aid equipment, I had to be helped down the gangplank and back ashore. If you click on this picture, you’ll see how far from the bank we were at the point of escape. Any further and the ‘man overboard’ and ‘fire in the galley’ exercises could’ve been carried out simultaneously.
The chairman accidentally put the emergency phone in his pocket and skipper forgot to remove the hammer and peg that secured the mooring. Thus, ten minutes back into the return journey, a conscientious passer-by was chasing our boat downstream with said implements. Yet another emergency stop was made to retrieve the hammer and pin at which juncture, the Boatmaster demanded to know why we’d crashed into the bank. Meanwhile, I’d been asked to play the part of an awkward passenger and stepped readily into role. ‘You’re very good at this’, remarked one of the more established crew members as I complained noisily about the number of people falling off the boat. ‘Years of practice’, I replied, demanding complementary alcohol.
Eventually, we arrived safely back at Bradford on Avon, as will you dear reader should you wish to join us. Next time, I’ll be a real-life member of the galley crew journeying down the canal to the Dundas Aqueduct. Come aboard – if you dare.