Part 21

Time was ticking away and tides were ebbing and flowing but still the boat was not ready to move. This was not too worrying yet as we were still working on finding a mooring that we could bring her down too and it would be tricky if she was ready before we found a mooring. Simon had a plan for this that we moored her on a buoy in the middle of the Thames as a temporary measure if necessary. In my mind this was a desperate stakes measure as the thought of rowing across the Thames to get to our boat and needing to get back in the boat every time a call of nature occurred was not my idea of fun. Simon kept searching in the internet and was confident that eventually we would find something.

Easter was quickly upon us and with the arrival of another school holiday I was hoping we might take a few days out for R and R ourselves. It was nearly a year since we had got the boat and most weekends and holidays had been spent driving up and down the M1 to work on her. A break was definitely needed.

‘I have in idea for a little French trip,’ Simon said.

Perfect idea, pictures of cheese, wine and sun naturally flew through my imagination. We could put our feet up, lay in the mornings and allow our bodies some time to recuperate from the toll months of work put upon them.

‘We can go to Cambrai in France and learn how to drive a barge on the French canals. When we finally take Misterton over you need qualifications and this will be enough to get us to somewhere in France to do the longer course on our own boat. The trainers provide you with French meals, we can stay in a nice hotel by the canal and it will be warm and sunny. On the way back we can top up with duty free at Citie Europe and do a little shopping. It will be great fun.’

‘France, food and shopping, that would be great,’ I pondered.

‘We well be learning together how to move a barge and it will be really helpful for us when we move Misterton in the summer, we’ll be able to take her on little trips up and down the Thames with confidence. I don’t have much experience driving a bigger barge and it will be good to both get the same knowledge,’ Simon smiled at me.

I did agree with him, as I was slightly concerned about what would happen when we went out on trips on Misterton as common sense told me that a boat her size required more skill than Iris, I didn’t think the jump and hang onto the rope for dear life approach would work on a barge the way it does on a narrow boat. It would be sunny, we would have relaxing evenings and although it was another holiday with a boat theme I could see the sense in it.

We turned up to Cambrai on a Monday afternoon, and as we drove into town, the sun shrank and the rain clouds expanded and I was regretting the wardrobe I had packed already. As it was April I had brought my snow coat as I had nothing else that was waterproof and sensible for being on a boat with. I was feeling thankful that I had this as when the car stopped and we exited into the French climate, I realised it was quite cold.

We went to the hotel, it was three star and near to the boat so we could get up at a civilised hour and take a gentle stroll down to the boat. I realised quite quickly that the three stars were possibly a little out of date. The room was big enough for a double bed and very little else, the en suite was en suite but the shower had been made for fairy folk. When I tried to move my hands and arms away from the sides of my body I hit against the side of the shower, it seemed to me that it was the shower equivalent of a straight jacket. Still we would not be spending much time in the room as we were here to learn about barges on the canal and as long as it was clean and dry would suffice. I tried not to dwell on the fact that it cost considerably more than the premier inn in Goole for considerably less comfort.

The first evening we strolled down to the boat to meet our instructors and fellow boat mates, we were all going out for a meal together to bond. The two boat mates were a kiwi couple, Ronda and Ken, who had arrived in their own barge, Somewhere, which they had brought over from the UK. They had retired and this was their first big trip. We were already bottom of the class, they had arrived in a boat, we were by car, I was beginning to think I would be the bottom of the class, not a position I felt comfortable with. The two instructors were from the UK, and were very lovely people, in semi-retirement, I was beginning to realise that in the boat world we were definitely youngsters, this feeling of novice and young was one I had not experienced for sometime, but one that was not altogether unpleasant.

The restaurant was lovely if very French, the options for vegetarians were minimal, and even fish eating vegetarians like myself and a little choice. The fish dish I had was saturated in butter sauce, not something I enjoyed since my discovery of weight watchers cooking with all the taste and not much fat. I picked at mine, although I think Simon enjoyed his more along with the good red wine. I was not drinking, not often something I do but occasionally health demanded it. The evening was pleasant enough, but it was like going out to dinner with aged aunties who were all tippling but me. At the end of the meal I was happy for us to beat a hasty retreat back to three star jacket and wish everyone au revoir.

In the morning we woke up, Simon opened the shutters and we were greeted by proper French drizzle. We were going to spend a damp day learning canal craft. Still Ronda and Ken had made we laugh a lot the previous evening so I was sure it would be an adventure. We turned up and were taken through the basic safety drill of the boat, we were also introduced to the toilet system, and one that required 12 pulls on the handle to ensure it flushed everything out. I made a mental note to tell Simon such a toilet could not exist on Misterton.

In couples one would be on the wheel with an instructor and the other would be working the ropes with the instructor. To help us on our way we were all shown the correct way to throw ropes on a barge.

‘The major difference between a narrowboat and a barge is that in a barge you take the rope to the bollard, on a barge you never get off the boat you wait for the bollard to come to the rope.’

This sounded ridiculous to me, how could a bollard come to the rope, surely you still needed to take the rope to the bollard, one clearly moved and the other was static, it was common sense to me. Although slightly concerned by the instructors’ explanations I kept smiling and zipped my coat up further. I noticed the kiwi couple looked suitably perplexed and in the good old manner of classic school children behaviour we were soon bemoaning the mannerism and attitude of the teachers. Simon seemed reluctant to join in, and I wondered if at school he had been the quiet boy in the class that all the teachers loved.

Then they announced that Simon and I were to take control first, Simon was captain and I was on the ropes, that was ok I had plenty of practice on the ropes of Iris so did not feel too worried.  Simon did a great job steering and manoeuvring the boat, the instructors were impressed and my rope technique was not too bad either. First hurdle successfully completed, despite the numerous lectures and tales of fingers being lost if I did not carry out my role sensibly, I managed to enjoy myself. The day progressed nicely with everyone taking it in turns at the helm, when it was my turn I was pleasantly surprised and how light it felt and after a wee while began to feel quite at home as captain, maybe I would have to be captain on Misterton after all instead of first mate.

We returned to the mooring and I mistakenly thought we were through for the day, but no at this point our instructors produced the waterway code, equivalent to the highway code for roads, and asked if we had studied it ready for the test tomorrow.

I gave Simon my best Paddington bear glare, test what test there had been no mention of this in all the discussion prior to our arrival. I had never seen the book never mind studied for the tests.

We returned to the hotel after an hour of painstaking instructor reading through the whole code, as a kinaesthetic learner this was about as useful to me as a hole in the head and I felt bored too tears whilst worried that on my holiday I was going to have to sit a formal test. It was bad enough that all my holidays always had a boat theme and would probably remain that way till the boat was finished, but now I had to do a test as well, I was beginning to wonder when the fun would return.

I set the alarm for early the following morning and Simon smiled expectantly at me as we were awoken by the wonderful tone of the nokia mobile alarm clock that pierces into your subconscious and rudely brings you to the land of reality.

‘How are you babe?’ he asked.

‘Fine,’ I replied, ‘getting up early to study for our test later on today.’

‘Oh,’ he looked disappointed, I suspect he thought I had other motives for getting up early, but I was too proud to come on a course and then fail whilst Simon breezed a pass. I owed it to women’s lib to pass this one first time, not second attempt as on my driving test, otherwise it would haunt me for the rest of our married life.

Day two on the course went smoothly, very much a repeat of the first but the order of captains changed around, and I was the first Captain of the day, I was a little shocked to be but afterwards was delighted that I had managed a 360 degree turn in the basin and took the boat in and out of two busy commercial locks. My confidence practically was much improved. At the back of my mind was always the looming test, could I remember all the little pictures and symbols and meanings. They weren’t all straight forward, and the whole port and starboard thing was getting complex. Port and starboard on the boat remained consistent, but port and starboard on the banks related to the way the river flowed and therefore one way the boat was port to port ban and the other became port to starboard. I was sure this was going to catch me out.

When we returned to the mooring we were all taken below to sit the exam which was 20 multiple choice questions and you needed 70% to pass. I glanced to my right at Simon’s paper and saw he had totally different questions, no opportunities for accidentally seeing the box he’d ticked and ticking the same on mine for this one. AS I read through my paper I realised I had 19 multiple choice and one where I had to write five places where you were not allowed to moor, Simon’s was straight multiple choice, where was the equality in question paper there?

I scribbled away furiously and ticked the boxes as well as I could remember then handed mine in. The instructor looked at it and smiled but did not give me the result. I stopped myself screaming out have I passed or what, sat on my hands and waited patiently. Finally Simon handed his in and it was marked, so we were all ready.

‘Mary, Ken and Ronda you have all scored 70% so congratulations, Simon,’ I held my breath, surely he had passed he knew so much already, ‘you have 100% well done,’ the instructor said and then proceeded to play the classical hallelujah chorus whilst offering everyone a glass of champagne.

I smiled as Simon and could already hear him in my head as we had a disagreement going down the river, ‘who got 100% in the test, I must be right,’ that 100% would be haunting me forever.