Other Stuff

Messing about in boats: a short story for our time.

Believe me my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats- The Wind in the Willows

Arniston: Around 1995: Recently married, my husband and I hired a little boat (a rubber thingie with a tiny engine, I imagine around 15horse power engine- why horse I ask?) and bumped our way out of the harbour. ‘Bumped’ because we first reversed into a harbour wall, being novices and all. As we entered our mooring spot, I noticed next to us, a work colleague in his very swanky rather large motorboat. I remember feeling quite sheepish. I waved cautiously, pretending to be having fun and I think he just looked at us.  We had an unimpressive outfit. He was a boat guy. Clearly.     

Around the year 2000: Years later, when my husband and I were holidaying along the Garden Route at my mother’s home with two young children seventeen months apart, I would observe the seemingly endless fun on the water down at Swartvlei as we came down the pass towards the beach.  

‘Why don’t we get a little boat?’ I suggested. ‘It’ll be fun for the kids.’ My husband wasn’t one for collecting ‘toys’ and we never did. We compromised. Or rather, I, unrelentingly, bought a little inflatable boat (it could only fit us with the two little ones) for his next birthday’ and we paddled around in it a few times. Not often.     

Around the year 2015: We have spent years holidaying on the Garden Route. It’s a beautiful, expansive bit of mountain with lakes and sea in the Western Cape. I never tire of the drive there from Cape Town, navigating the undulations of the Overberg, stopping in the historically beautiful midway stop of Swellendam (or usually on either side in Riversondered or Riversdale for a perfect coffee) and the first view of the Wilderness beach. Since my mother and late stepfather moved there in 1992, it has been our place of rest in December. For now, nearly 30 years.

With my husband’s parents moving to Thesen Island (Knysna) around the same time we became more enamoured with the life of boats and the canals, despite my initial feeling that it resembled something of a Desperate Housewives kind of life. Picket fences and all. Too close, too uniform and oh my word, too much of the material world.

It struck us that we could hire a boat for the holiday- which we then did. And it worked fabulously. It would be delivered fully serviced, clean, and would be expertly launched with all but the engine to be started. When we were ready to leave, it would be collected, hoicked up onto the waiting trailer and off it would go, our holiday dirt still clinging to the side. The daily rental rate was perfectly proportioned for the amount of time we were (realistically) inclined to use the boat in a single year.

Around 2017 or thereabouts: It was around midnight when the doorbell rang. I feigned surprise but knew that it was the delivery of our ‘new’ boat. Despite all rationality of never becoming a boat owner, my devoted family man had bought a boat. It was almost an act of defiance, I think. ‘Ag, you’ll never get a boat Dad’, we taunted, knowing his aversion to things that don’t make financial sense. That ol’ cliché: you know the best two days of owning a boat… (the day you buy and the day you sell for those not in the know)

 Around two hours later, and the boat was finally manoeuvred down our awkward driveway. There was no way in hell we were ever going to be able to get it out again. Or move any cars around it with ease.

There was only one way out, practically. We needed to ‘straighten’ the one rounded wall. It entailed cutting back my beautiful pincushion bush (I ran around like a mad thing collecting the branches being hacked and had bunches of them around the house for days), breaking down the wall, rebuilding it and doing a little re-paving.

What actually happened was this: the front end loader that delivered the bricks reversed a little too far back and bashed into the pillar at our front door. The pillar looked like that emoji with the eyes pointing inwards. Calls to a quantity surveyor confirmed the suggestion of some scaffolding to hold up the pillar while we sourced and ordered the bricks to rebuild it. Then the truck who delivered the bricks bashed into the gate. On this day- as it happens- we (my husband and I) were supposed to fly overseas (I cannot imagine doing that). This meant leaving the children and I hate those goodbye days. Still do (note to self: one of the few positives of a pandemic: we don’t stray too far from each other and those feelings of separation anxiety are fewer.)  The taxi was waiting outside not long before the plane was supposed to be starting up its engines and I was leaving my children with a broken, unsecured gate and collapsed wall. Not so stressful elsewhere perhaps but in South Africa, sadly, we all have gates and walls.

All for the sake of messing about in the boat.    

2020 New Year’s Day: This time last year, I was around the same stretch of water in and out of boats, doing what I’d been doing for the last nearly 30 years. Seeing family and spending time near water. But I remember feeling a sense of foreboding I couldn’t explain. That number – 2020 -just had an eerie feeling about it. It was inexplicable. I recall sitting outside watching the water and feeling that the world was hurtling to a standstill: the politics, the plastic, the pollution, the global warming, the glibness, the consumption, the (takeaway) cappuccino cups! And so when the world starting reeling with the effects Covid pandemic, it almost felt…right. Or at least real.

Who could have known? 

Water has been an important part of my sanity in this pandemic. Swims in the pool in the rain when lockdown began, morning mid- winter freezing oceans, so many sunrise swims, swims in dark rivers and crowded canals.

This time in the boat was short-lived. The beaches were already closed but we pushed our luck a little more on the Knysna lagoon. It had only been four days when it was announced that the Knysna estuary was closed on account of a bandit of boats too close together. Not socially distancing.

We had to get off the water.

But I’d become quite attached to the boat. So I just carried on sitting in it, even if it wasn’t going anywhere. I’d go and sit there to read. And sneak a swim in the canal.   

[2021: Update: I wrote this piece in the middle of January and then kept it back. Sometimes the blog doesn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right, talking about silly boats and our fun being curtailed while this pandemic wreaks havoc and pain and loss all around. Am I entitled to frivolity? Am I allowed any joy?]

But today’s already the first day of February. I missed posting a January blog and I get annoyed with myself about that. There is no more time to waste. Who knows what’s waiting in the wings.

 In Cape Town people are now protesting to open the beaches.

 Cape Town beach protest: ANC wants arrests, while Winde calls ban ‘nonsensical’ | News24

That would be nice. I would love that. Our summer is more than half way done.

Politics will pervade and people will suffer pain while the pandemic persists.

But the sun already rises an hour later than it did in December (6:08 today) and well no-one really knows what the future holds, huh?

Have they ever?  


Here I am- about as glam as I can! Caught in the act with Miss Benson’s Beetle in hand!

2 thoughts on “Messing about in boats: a short story for our time.”

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