What with our lengthy separation and the memory of Benn’s hard, lonely, and wet winter aboard Pas de Deux still fresh in mind, it is sometimes hard for Benn and me to remember why we ever wanted to live on a boat in the first place.
Boats are tiny, cramped, and weird. Everything is perpetually damp, water drips from the ceiling in the winter, and there’s no room for our stuff. We constantly have to monitor everything — how much energy we use, the amount of water in our tanks, the state of our propane supply. Twice a day, the tide flows out, exposing all of the abandoned shopping carts and beer cans and prams and other rubbish that the people of Ipswich have kindly thrown over the wall, offering a not-so-scenic view of the muddy riverbank and flooding our boat with the smell of rotting vegetal matter and old fish. At low tide, we have to walk up a slippery ramp at a 70 degree incline just to get to shore. If it’s snowing and icy, there are days when we cannot leave at all.
When I think of other people, with their luxurious gardens and bookshelves and attic spaces and spare rooms, it takes some effort to remember why we’ve decided to forgo all of that comfort in order to suffer through cold winters and blazing summers aboard a floating shed.
We remind ourselves of the obvious advantages: we are able to live very cheaply and therefore spend less time working for other people and more time working for ourselves; we can change our location, our neighbors, and the view from our bedroom window at will; we don’t have a mortgage. Because our housing costs are so low, we are allowed to go on vacations that we could never afford if we lived in an expensive apartment and had to struggle to pay rent, utilities, council tax, and whatever mindless forms of entertainment we’d need to help us forget our lives. (And, when I say our costs are low, I mean that our yearly housing costs are the same or lower than the average monthly housing costs in the UK. That’s pretty low.) We own our own home, we have no debt, and France is just a day trip away.
We tell ourselves these things, but they don’t always offer much consolation. Benn asked me the other day if I could even remember what it felt like when we first moved onto a boat. Why did we actually think we liked it? What ever made us want to live on a boat, when a nice house or apartment is so much more respectable?
When we moved onto our first narrowboat, Waterloo, we really had no intention of remaining on boats forever. Our plan was just to babysit the boat until Benn’s brother moved on 6 months later,while making just a few drastic and wildly ambitious renovations to the interior. Sadly, in the end, none of our spectacular DIY plans came to pass. (Sorry, Barnaby.) Instead, we spent the summer motoring around our beautiful little river system, learning how to moor our mammoth 57-ft boat, blundering through 100-year-old locks, and figuring out how to tie knots that were vaguely secure and functional. (Thanks to our sailing training, we have since realized that those knots were not, in fact, secure and functional, nor were they likely to do much to impress others with our boating expertise. You live and learn.)
Our first trip was to Jude’s Ferry, a pretty average pub whose primary advantage was that it lay at the end of the navigable section of the River Lark, past a stretch of tree-lined water as pure and beautiful as any I have ever seen. Wending through the gentle bends of the river, along banks shaded by willow trees and thick with lily pads, was like sliding through a Pre-Raphaelite painting. We sailed in the wake of Roman soldiers and the Iceni, Anglo Saxon heroes of epics long since lost or forgotten, and the Medieval merchants who followed the network of rivers and streams from the Wash to the Suffolk market towns in the days before the Fens were drained. We had left our old lives behind and became a part of the history of the water and of the land, sharing in the lives of all the people who had ever lived or travelled along that river, bathed in it or were baptized, swam, farmed, traded, soldiered through wars and revolutions, trapped slithering eels in reed-woven baskets, harvested peat to feed fires and fertilize fields, filled heavy iron cauldrons for cooking, and fished for bream, tench, and pike in its deep, clear pools and eddies.
It is hard to describe the thrill we first felt pulling through the river at sunset — or, more prosaically, when I went into the cabin to make coffee and realized that — hey! — I was in my kitchen and it was moving. Everything we owned, including our house, with its bedroom, kitchen, and vaguely serviceable living room, everything we needed to work and live and create, everything that made up our entire lives was there with us in this new, foreign, fascinating place. We realized that, on this boat, we could live anywhere — our lives and our surroundings were entirely of our own choosing.
We never got over this sense of radical freedom, and, years later, when we would go to Ely in our second, much daintier narrowboat, we would still feel a rush of pleasure at realizing that we were living in our very own house on a beautiful Medieval quay, surrounded by 15th century homes, 18th century warehouses, and a lovely old Victorian maltings.
It wasn’t simply the aesthetic beauty that gave us such pleasure; it was an overwhelming sense of triumph at having unlocked the secret to living entirely on our own terms. There were people who had worked their entire lives to afford a house with a view of that river, and we had achieved exactly the same thing for free. And, once we were tired of it, we could just pick up and move wherever we wanted. The very next night, we might moor up in the center of a wild bird preserve, with nothing surrounding us but calm water and rush-lined river banks. Two days later, we could be in the breathtaking Medieval center of Cambridge — without having to pay for parking.
We bought a sailboat expecting it to increase that feeling of liberty a thousand fold. Narrowboat life has its charms, but after having explored our river system, we were ready for a bit more action. In a sailboat, we could go anywhere — not just along the coast of Britain, but in the entire world.
When your boat isn’t moving, however, and you are confined to a small, damp space in which even the simplest daily actions — cooking, showering, heating water to wash dishes — are frought with inconveniences, it isn’t always so easy to remember that sense of liberation. Our experiment in living freely has come to a hitch early on, as the very real demands of the world — like, say, having the legal right to reside in the same country — have shown us that we can’t have everything on our own terms, after all. We now find ourselves in the position of having owned and lived on a boat for nine months without ever having once moved it from its mooring.
When we bought the boat, I made Benn make a solemn vow never to take it out without me, at least at the beginning. Because I was only in the UK for the summers, while Benn lived there year round, Waterloo and Lilebelle came to feel like his boats, and I often felt like a guest aboard, awkward and out of sorts. We didn’t want that to happen with Pas de Deux — she is both of ours equally, and we wanted to be certain it would always feel that way. Now we are at the end of June, however, I’m still not with him. Every day, Benn goes to work and comes home to a lonely boat that demands quite a bit of upkeep without giving all that much in return.
So, we’ve come to the conclusion that Benn must take out Pas de Deux as soon as he can, with or without my help. He needs to remember why we chose the liveaboard lifestyle in the first place — and I need to be reminded vicariously through him. The helm seat is too rickety to be trusted at the moment, so Benn is building and designing a new one. It’s been hard for him to devote lots of time to Pas de Deux while he’s working so much on other people’s boats. Once those repairs are done, however, he’s going to motor it upstream (he refuses to put up the sails without me) and see what life is like outside of the marina.
Who knows? Maybe by that time, I’ll finally be there, too!