The Old Man of the River, 20.11.2013

It’s time for another tale. This is a real story and dates back to the summer, an Indian summer, just gone.  It was early August. We had only had Hawisia for a few weeks by that point, and had cast off from Egham marina, setting sail for London by way of the Thames.

After two days of sailing along the Thames in high Summer, we found ourselves stuck. It is an odd thing to be marooned on a boat, but we were. The boat was moored by the beautiful banks of Hampton Court Palace, the Tudor castle whose solid red-bricked beauty once entranced Henry VIII.

We were waiting for the tide – an experience which few know who have always lived on land. We were waiting because we had to sail along the tidal section of the Thames, which begins at Teddington Lock and ends at the Thames estuary. In order to enter the Grand Union Canal all boaters on the Thames need to sail down a short length of the tidal Thames, between Teddington and Brentford Lock. All in all it takes about an hour and a half to sail, and it is quicker if you are on the slipstream on an ebbing tide. But you have to get the timing just right. If the tide is going in or coming out too quickly you run the risk of being pulled out to sea. A large boat with a strong engine can survive this treatment, an old narrowboat with a 40-year-old Lister engine, with air vents in the engine compartment only 30 cm above the water level, cannot.

That is why tidal waters are a tricky business for narrowboat owners. Choppy water, seas and volatile water masses should be avoided at all costs. Otherwise the engine runs the risk of filling with water, and failing. Many boats which leave Teddington Lock late, or run the courageous passage all along the Thames to Limehouse Cut, are pulled out to the Estuary or are forced to moor up on a pontoon overnight. This can also happen if the locks happen to be closed, or you have not forewarned the lock keepers of your arrival.

I had made a critical error the previous week and confused the tide times: our boat crew was ready to sail and we were set to go, ready to brave the Tidal Thames. I had an old friend from university on board who had years of experience with boats. Yet I made the wrong calculation. The specified window of opportunity, one hour either side of high tide, was actually at dawn not at eleven in the morning as I had thought. My experienced boater friend checked the calendar just in the nick of time.

So we were delayed in our passage east and had, for the time being, to stay put by Hampton Court Palace, until the crew and proper time had come to essay the Tidal Thames once more.


There are far worse places to be marooned than Hampton Court Palace. In fact, by some estimations it is one of the loveliest sections of the Thames in the Greater London area.

Healthy hedgerows and thickets lined the mud-hardened footpath beside the river. The large fields beside the palace grounds were full of tall blonde grasses and meadow flowers. There were also home to happy families of rabbits and hares. It was easy to get lost among these grasses when the hot sun beat down upon your head and you had nothing but the narrow passages of beaten-down grass to serve as guide.

On the journey back along the riverbank from Hampton Court rail station I would pick small bouquets of fine lilac-coloured cornflowers and St John’s Wart, mesmerised by the chemical-yellow radii of their inflorescences. The common wayside flower of St John’s Wart is an old remedy for depression. Their taut young calyxes have the same pressurised solidity as rosehip buds.

That summer I was drunk on the fumes of wild flowers and diesel.

My natural propensity towards migraines was activated mercilessly by the strong-smelling fumes that rose up from the inside of the boat. When we bought Hawisia I imagined the smell was simply newly-varnished wood, that the previous owner was kind enough to apply. But I was wrong. As it turned out, there was some residual diesel in the main cabin bilge, and a minor oil leak from the pipes leading away from the diesel tank. What might have been barely noticeable in winter became a constant torment to me in those heady days of August 2013, when temperatures in England reached thirty degrees and more.

In those days we were both working in East London. Gideon was working at Brick Lane Bikes and I still had my café job on the Bethnal Green Road. In order to get back to Hawisia in Hampton Court, each evening we made an astounding journey across London. Gideon would cycle it occasionally and his commuting time was over two hours. I was less brave, and took the train in and out each morning and evening. It felt like we were having our summer holiday while we were still at work – creeping away in the evenings to a place where no one in the whole world would find us.


I say all this by way of introduction; because if it hadn’t of been for this particular set of circumstances we would never have met the old man of the river as we did that evening.

Because of the time of year, it was still light though it was already eight o’ clock when I started the twenty minute ramble along the footpath beside the palace, to return to the boat. A little bored, I heard the boat before I saw it – as the unlikely sounds of ‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael snaked along the river and the sexy cool of evening. The velvet blue boat steaming past beside me along the river was called ‘The Misty Moon’.  The owner, who seemed to be enjoying all the boons of boat ownership, was standing proud and erect by the rudder. He was looking straight before him, and confidently navigating with his back to the rudder.

Canal boats are not fast, and I was roughly keeping pace with him as I walked along the river bank. However, soon the spectacle of the blue boat faded from my mind; my thoughts were preoccupied with plans for dinner and the thought of seeing Gideon again.

I had just rounded the corner and seen the public bench which marked where the boat was parked when I noticed two things simultaneously: straight before my eyes, Gideon’s face appearing in one of the boat windows: and then, beyond that the shocking sight of a man in the highest paroxysms of pain. It was the pilot of the Misty Moon. The svelt strains of music had now become the perverse accompaniment to some dance macabre, as the man lost all control of his boat, and his body and arms were contorting and flailing about as helplessly as a wriggling fish. Lolling, in a half-conscious state against the railings of his boat, it appeared that he was having a heart attack. His boat no longer held a straight course but was aiming directly at a ninety-degree angle for the river bank before our boat.

Transfixed and mortified, for a moment everyone was motionless: I, Gideon, the black woman-pedestrian on the path, the elderly white man who was boating past in a rowing boat. It felt impossible to know what to do. The first person to react was the elderly boater. He managed to board the narrowboat, and take control of the rudder. Gideon, as agilely as a cat, managed to jump from a nearby tree and into the mariner’s boat. Though he had only two days experience navigating boats, he managed to bring the old boat safely beside ours and lashed it onto our rope posts.

While I was helping to bring the Misty Moon to safety, I noticed that the man seemed to have recovered slightly. Though he was still clutching his back in pain, bent at an uncomfortable angle, he was in control of his faculties and managed to communicate with us, though with difficulty.

The woman on the tow path had called an ambulance, and many people now were watching the rescue effort. I jumped onto The Misty Moon.

“How do you feel? Are you in pain? Do you need an ambulance?” A litany of questions.

The old face smiled at me, smothered in a wiry shock of white hair. “Na”, he drawled. “It’s just me back. Sometimes me back goes. I just need to lie down and take some painkillers.”

“Does this happen often?” I replied, concerned.

“Ay, sometimes. Sometimes. But it’s bad when it happens on the water, because then I can’t do anything. When my back goes, I’m done for.”

“Are you sure you don’t want an ambulance?”

“I’m sure, I’m sure,” he replied. “I just need to get some rest, then I’ll be alright.”

I reported the news to the woman on the bank. Soon the crowd dispersed. The paramedics came anyway, but he waved them off with the same insouciance as he had used to counteract my questions. He was alright, he insisted, it was just his back.

He went in to lie down.

Gideon and I formulated a plan to go and explore the pubs in Kingston, just down the water. But I was reluctant to leave the boat before I had spoken to the old mariner and seen that he was alright. So, for that reason, I did something that boaters don’t generally do – I clambered onto his boat, knocked on his front door and entered.

The Misty Moon had the sort of low ceiling you would expect to find in a traditional narrowboat. It was probably built in the sixties. I could see a rugged couch in the living room, a pot plant, tins of dog food and spam. But he was lying down on a makeshift bed in the entrance to the boat, beside him he had made up an identical bed, for his dog. His dog was a large, toffee- and black coloured sheepdog.  She didn’t bark when I entered.

The mariner was lying in a strange trance on his bed. The boat smelt of dog biscuits and damp. He craned his neck back to look at me as I came in.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I explained. “It’s just that we are going out now to find a bite to eat, and I wanted to make sure that you were fine before we left. We’ll be back in two hours or so.”

The man smiled at me. “I’m fine now,” he explained again, “It’s just me back. When it goes, that’s it.” He stopped, it was clearly costing him a lot of effort to talk. I tried to leave, to spare him the trouble, but he wanted to say something more.

“I’ll be asleep by then – I tend to go to sleep at nine o’ clock. But I wake up at dawn. I’ll be off tomorrow. Early. I need to get down the river, to do a job.”

“Oh, so we might not see you before we leave? Do you work on the river?”

“Yes,” he replied. “I fix boats.”

“How long… how long have you lived on a boat for?”

“All my life.” A pause. “I cannot remember a time when I did not live on a boat. It is the only way to live … for me. I can do what I want this way. I don’t need anything. I’ve got my dog, a bit of diesel. I have everything I need right on this boat. I don’t need anything else.”

So I sat, gently talking to the old man in his boat. I felt it was a sanctuary that few people ever came into. I think, despite the pain, he wanted to talk to me. And as I sat, and looked at his tired, brave face, and stroked the beautifully-kept mane of his strong, loving dog, I felt like I had stumbled across the spirit of the river itself. It was experience talking to innocence: his haggard, pure love of the water, his love of solitude and self-sufficiency met my hopes and dreams for the future. I told him that it was a new boat, we were new to river life, and a little frightened. It was the first time that we had ever piloted a boat before.

“Ah, it’s easy.” He replied. “You’ll soon get the hang of it. You should do what you want,” he said. “Live your life.”

And those words: “Live your life”, followed me like a phantom off his boat and remain with me still.

Before I left his boat, he noticed that I was touching my forehead. “What’s wrong?” He asked. In his great tenderness, and despite his pain, he had noticed my own.

“Oh, it’s just a slight migraine.” I said. “It’s the diesel-smell on our boat, it gives me a headache and I don’t know how to get rid of it.”

“Well, if you like I’ll see to it tomorrow, before I leave”, he said. I couldn’t believe my luck.

“Well, if it’s not too much trouble…”

“Ah, it’s not too much trouble at all. You helped me, you moored me beside you. But I can’t look now, because of me back.”

“That’s fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“In the morning?”

“Yes, in the morning.”

But that night I forgot the promise I made to the old river man. By the time that I finally woke up the sun was streaming fully through our windows, and it was already nine o clock.

However, The Misty Moon was still moored beside us. I feared suddenly, for the worst, but then I saw his head appear.

“I said, I’d have a look over”, he said. “So I waited.”

The patient seaman climbed onto our boat, he eyes roved. I took him inside. “Yes,” he said. “I can’t smell anymore but I can taste the diesel on my tongue.” You’ve got an oil leak. Then he explained how you check for the leak in your engine. “Run your finger along the pipes,” he said, and his gesture suggested the same sensitivity as a lover. “Then when you feel oil, you know where the leak is.”

It was simple enough advice, but it helped enormously. My gratitude was wordless, and tinged with a kind of sadness for the lovely old man.

Then with an awkward movement, he swung his legs back onto his boat, and started up the engine. It trilled and sang perfectly. Then he gently glided away, my heart filled with sorrow. The boat slid out of view, the transcendentally named boat of the misty, dark, skies, and I felt with a certainty that I couldn’t justify, that I would never see the boat or her owner, again.

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