We woke up to a balmy Saturday morning. Gideon and I decided to take advantage of the good weather and finally do a (long overdue) pump-out at the dock by Springfield Marina.
The weather felt even more irresistible because of the persistent squalls of January rain that had been plaguing London that month. The boat had suffered its part: the walls of the bedroom cabin were increasingly yielding to damp, the wooden panelling had become distinctly humped and warped in places by the disfiguring rain. Each evening that I pumped out the engine compartment, at least four litres of rain water came squirting through the extractor pump.
So when I drew the curtains of our bedroom window that morning and found a square of enamel-blue sky glaring back at me, I felt both surprised and grateful. Comforted by the sort of gentle hangover that makes your stomach and retinas feel warm, Gideon and I decided to make a dash up river towards Stoke Newington in order to use the Springfield Marina facilities before they closed at 1pm. By the time that we had breakfasted on eggs and toast and drunk the compulsory pot of tea, it was already 10.30am.
Seduced as we were by the good weather and clear sky, we failed to really take account of how gustily the wind was blowing, or what the effect of several days’ heavy rain might have on the River Lea’s current. In addition we had never piloted further north than the Hackney Cut and the Hackney Marsh filter beds so we were in unfamiliar water.
To begin the going was very calm, but this changed when we emerged at the Cut. The Cut (as the name suggests) is a point at which the river divides in two: most of the water joins the quick-flowing branch of the river that charges down the weir and around the outside of the filter beds, the rest flows along into the ‘navigable’ arm of the river Lea which the boaters use. So, as we were rounding a bend and approaching the Cut I suddenly noticed that our embattled old 1970s pleasure cruiser was being sucked towards the weir. Inconveniently enough, the strong wooden posts which once may have acted as a ballast against unpropitious calamities, had fallen down, so that it was at least possible that our boat could have been dragged down towards a very inhospitable part of the river indeed. However, I revved the engine into maximum speed, while Gideon piloted, and at full throttle the stalwart Lister Engine summoned up just enough oomph to fight the current and clear the hazardous Cut.
The stretch of the River Lea between Hackney Cut and Springfield park is very lovely indeed; it meanders along, broad and serpentine, flanked by the flat banks of the Walthamstow marshes. The passage here is wide enough to make easy turns in a 60ft vessel if you would wish to, and the prospect across the marshes is wide open: allowing you to see straight across to the miniature aluminium city of the Walthamstow water reservoir.
This part of the river is also home to the Stoke Newington rowing club which is perched on one side of the banks very close to the marina. It is the central terminus from which a number of small craft – rowing boats, kayaks and canoes – cast off, in order to perform their morning peregrinations. These rowing boats have a long trajectory, and even in Hackney Wick, Gideon and I became accustomed to seeing strong crews of fit young men and women each weekend morning, making their fleet and stream-lined journeys up and downstream, alongside flocks of wild swans and water fowl.
When you are moored at bank-side the sight of pencil narrow rowing boats, with their wholesome cargo-loads of muscle and energy can be a comforting spectacle, even if it does fill you with a sense of your own inadequacies. But when you are piloting upstream, fighting against a strong current, wind and with severely diminished powers of steering, it is not such a welcome sight. Emerging into this popular stretch of the river in the early afternoon on a Saturday, Gideon and I had not reckoned on the number of small crafts out on water. We passed half a dozen small boats with no mishaps at all, and then, at last, the marina was within sight.
It is always a good idea, when boating, to have a strong sense of your end-point. Communication becomes almost impossible across a distance of 60 ft, with strong winds that carry away your voice, when one member of the crew is up on the prow of the boat, ready to hop off with a rope, and the other is bound to the tiller.
As we approached the docking point, we realised that all the space beside the pump out and diesel station was occupied by other boats. So at the last minute we decided to moor alongside a wide beam and wait our turn. But at the moment when it was most vital for Gideon and I to communicate, we were least able to… Gideon had decided to perform a slightly ambitious manoeuvre – a reverse park into the space beside the wide beam. It was all going well, until the nose of the boat began to stick out too far into the river, and was of course quickly dragged round and tugged downstream.
I looked around and noticed that I had parties of at least four rowing boats surrounding the narrowboat, unsure of what to do and unsure of what we were doing.
“Where are you going?!” one shrill teenage voice cried out to me – it was one of the blonde teenage rowers.
I could not tell her. Gideon could not hear me and in his distress, suddenly looked helpless and unsure of himself. Our long, heavy boat was quickly being dragged by the force of the current straight towards that group of adolescent, girl rowers. Panic seized me, but the volition of the boat could not be stopped. We were heading back down stream whether we wanted to or not.
Luckily we were now parallel to a small river inlet, safe from the strongest of the river currents. Somehow Gideon managed to manoeuvre the boat into it. Greatly relieved, we pulled up beside some well-to-do docked marina boats, and looped our ropes hastily around their mooring posts. We were secure for the time being.
I had heard many rumours about Springfield Marina. Some said that the management was very unfriendly to itinerant boaters such as ourselves – the “uncivilised” ones – without a formal boating address. Others said that you could only top up your water if you spent £20 of more – otherwise you were charged. The pump-out fee was £20 – a price that is now normal on the canal thoroughfares of central London. Though the information about prices was accurate, I found the swarthy man who serviced the boats and helped perform the pump-outs, quite friendly. He was businesslike enough- but it was Saturday morning and he had a lot of work to get through.
Before too long, our turn had come, and we spent our spare moments talking to a friendly boat couple who were also filling up with water and buying coal. One – a man with long, thick clusters of Rastafarian dreadlocks – had a facial expression permanently fixed into an encouraging smile – his beautiful girlfriend with dark hair – perhaps Catalonian – was talking to me about their water tank.
While we were waiting and working, we watched a tense panorama of boats swirling and circling about powerlessly in the river Lea like ducks in a bath. They too were trying to get across to the Marina, but were struggling to stay in control of their steering. In a way I felt relieved to see that we were not the only boaters who struggled with the crossing. One boater – a single woman on her own – was very much in trouble at one point. Though I took hold of her back rope I was unable to pull her in.
“Let go of the rope, it’s not worth it,” the stalwart servicemen commanded.
As I turned to look at him, I glimpsed a long deep scar on his face that proved he knew what he was talking about. So I let go of the poor woman’s rope and watched it sink helplessly into the Lea.
“Pull in your rope! Pull in your rope! It’ll get stuck in your prop!” our new friend called out to her.
She obediently began to pull it in and was rescued by some boats on the other side of the water, but not before she had bumped into a few rowing boats, whose occupants were scowling at her and prodding her boat with their oars.
A bald man who looked like an experienced boater, with a gnarly, weather-beaten face, looked grimly upon the scene.
“It’s so dangerous boating today,” I said to initiate conversation.
He grunted approval, “Yes. The water’s very high. I haven’t seen it so bad as this before.”
Then he turned away.
We were, in the end, unable to top up our tank with water, but conceded this as a sacrifice we were willing to make, given the challenges of the day. We had spotted a lovely mooring beside a high bank covered with brambles and thicket, on the Walthamstow marshes. It’s just opposite one of the loveliest and most genuine of the East End pubs left – The Anchor and Hope. We made for this spot, under Gideon’s by-now expert direction.
They say the best teacher is experience. The River Lea taught us a lesson that day that will not easily be forgotten: Take caution ye who set sail on a windy day at high water! It will not be an easy ride.