“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
No part of the British Isles is more than 75 miles from the sea. A desire to visit it, look at it, paddle in it, swim in it and finally cross it, is deep rooted in British consciousness. For those of us who grew up in the 1950s a bucket and spade holiday was an essential feature in the calendar.
As well as the bucket and spade, a toy boat was also de rigueur. We used to have a model yacht based on the Endeavour series. At weekends we would go to Lindow Common[i]
in Wilmslow where there was a small lake and sail it across the lake. Then in the summer of 1959 we took a holiday at Criccieth[ii]
in North Wales. My mother was expecting my brother Andrew and my father only joined us for the weekend. We were sailing the yacht in the shallows when the wind took it out to sea. My father, a very strong swimmer, swam out after it but though he swam several hundred yards he had to give it up and came back safely to the intense relief of all of us. I often wondered how far round the world that little toy yacht travelled.
My first experience sailing in a real boat was with the Senior Scouts. On one trip we stayed on Combs Reservoir[iii]
in Staffordshire and were taught how to row properly. I even received a certificate for this feat. I have never forgotten the command “Toss oars!” on which you pull in your oar, hoist it up in the air and then bring it down flat in the boat all in one movement. On another we stayed on Lake Windermere[iv]
, the largest inland water in England, and did some basic sailing. More memorable was when my friend Neil and I rowed across the lake and discovered a large metal container. It floated, and with a makeshift oar, Neil steered it back across while I brought in the real boat.
In 1967 I went to live with an American family in Minnesota as an exchange student. They had a lovely house on Lake Minnetonka[v]
. Minnesota is known as the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. There are actually closer to 40,000 but Minnetonka is one of the largest with about 125 miles of shoreline and innumerable bays. We had a motorboat, which during the summer months was a great source of fun, though, as with snow skiing[vi]
, I found that water skiing and I did not go together.
Despite my certificate in rowing I was not attracted to the sport at Oxford. Perhaps unfairly I associated it with the Hooray Henry crowd. College sports were financed by a levy on all students. The budget was then fought over by the different sports captains. The College boats were easily the most expensive sporting assets and replacement would absorb most of the total annual budget. It became a great focus of contention particularly as so few participated in the sport compared with the more popular games of Football, Rugby and Cricket.
However, I do have many happy memories of punting in my student days. Punting is the essence of messing about in boats. There should be no competitive aspect to it, although there were occasions when we raced back from up river pubs.
Peter was a good friend at New College whose father had converted half a pontoon raft into a serviceable canal-going vessel. With another friend the three of us enjoyed a four-day trip from Wolverhampton down to Stourport and back on the Staffs and Worcester Canal. The whole time we were within 5 minutes’ walk of a bus ride back to Wolverhampton. But it was a different world, relaxing and peaceful. Even when we passed through a major town we saw it from a different perspective.
Some years later, on the same river as I had learnt my punting, John Eustace, who had recently joined Pedigree Petfoods from Procter & Gamble at the same time as me to be my line manager in the Thames Region, planned an away day for the management team in a hired cruiser. He and I drove from Goring to Oxford to pick up the boat and a barrel of beer. We then planned to take the boat back down to Goring to meet the rest of the team that evening. A journey of 13 miles by road had taken 30 minutes. However, the same journey by river was a) much more than 13 miles and b) would take much more than 30 minutes. It took all day and we needed to exceed the speed limit of 4 miles per hour. Fuelled by the beer, we arrived in Goring late in the evening having negotiated the last few locks without official assistance.
With Sony, Pentland and NXT there were enjoyable days sailing in the Solent. I organised another away day for my management team at Sony and we set up a race between two Sunsail yachts. Such was the competitiveness of the Sony management that both crews claimed victory. At Pentland a colleague, Nick, invited my wife and daughter and me to join him and his wife for a delightful summer day’s sailing across to the Isle of Wight and back. Then I again organised an away day for the NXT management team, hiring a colleague Jon’s boat, a beautiful craft that had been designed by the chairman, Farad Azima.
Over the years these occasional forays into boating combined with similar excursions when on holiday in places like Cyprus, Mauritius, Sardinia and Tahiti and others have kept a dream alive that one day I would have my own boat. The emotional side of me expressed this desire quite strongly. The rational side of me said that it would be like standing in the shower and tearing up twenty-pound notes.
Nevertheless it was with great pleasure that we bought an apartment in Chile overlooking the Club de Yates de Higuerillas, a very exclusive yacht club in a marvellous location by the Pacific. My wife thought it might be the opportunity to buy that boat. We then discovered that just joining the yacht club carried an entrance fee of US$ 8,000 and promptly gave up the idea.
Instead we have gradually gravitated to messing about in somewhat bigger boats. Cruising is a very attractive way of holidaying because you only have to unpack once but wake up in a different place every day. So far we have cruised luxuriously in the South Seas, comfortably in the Baltic and somewhat roughing it in the Mediterranean. This year we have just returned from a cruise on the Rhine that took in three countries in seven days and innumerable churches and cathedrals. River cruising has the additional charm of a constantly changing landscape on either bank.
Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.