February 9, 2014

How we disappointed the blondes

The Disease Called Cruising

10. Cruising the Canals

WE WENT to England and found what we were looking for at a tiny boatyard in Faversham, 30 miles south of London. She was a Thames Estuary One-Design, a lapstrake centerboarder about 18 feet long. She was called Salty Dog.

My friend Bob bought her for 100 pounds. Somebody had added a small cuddy-cabin. We added two bunks and a kerosene cooker. Then we set off for Sweden.

We were young then. We had heard rumors about those gorgeous Swedish blondes who ran half-naked through the woods, pursued by young men with birch branches or something. We needed to check the truth for ourselves.

We slipped around the coast to Dover and, picking our weather, crossed the English Channel under sail to Calais, France. There we entered the vast system of rivers and canals that criss-crosses Europe. With the mast down, our little Seagull outboard shoved us along at four knots through the lovely countryside.

We had adventures with locks, opening bridges, non-opening bridges, the Seagull, and, above all, the local populace. People invited us in for drinks and meals. They opened their homes to us.

One quiet Sunday afternoon in Belgium we stopped at a pretty little village to fill our water jugs. A large fountain outside the nearby cafe turned out to be a burst water main. We went in and asked if we could fill our jugs.

The proprietor laughed and pointed outside. “No water,” he said. “Have a beer while it gets fixed.”

We sat down at a table, and an inebriated foreman crane driver immediately came across and asked Bob to put out his pipe. “It stinks,” he said.  Then as an afterthought he added: “That your boat? Where are you from?”

We told him we’d bought her in England and sailed across. “Omigod!” he roared.  “Across the North Sea? In THAT peapod?”

He plied us with cigars and gin. He invited Bob to light his pipe again. He dragged strangers over to meet us and buy us drinks. Soon the whole village seemed to have crowded into the cafe. A crew of workmen, sent to fix the burst main, joined the roaring party.

Then the mayor arrived to find out why the repair was taking so long. “Meet our friends from over the North Sea!” cried the crane driver. “Our dear, brave friends.”

 The mayor bought drinks for everybody, including the repair gang. They finally got the water under control at 11 p.m. That called for more celebrations.

At midnight, the cafe proprietor’s pleas for everyone to leave were dismissed with loud guffaws by our glowing, crane-driver host.

“Our friends sailed to see us in that tiny boat,” he said, pointing to Salty Dog in the gloom outside. “Right across the stormy North Sea. You wouldn’t throw them out now, would you?”

In the end, he didn’t have to. An irritated squad of policemen arrived on motorcycles a half-hour later and shooed everybody out.

We were glad to collapse into our bunks.

We never did see Sweden on that trip. We never did get to chase those lovely blondes through the woods. Friendly people in France and Belgium and Holland just keep holding us back. It took us three months to get from Calais to Amsterdam, which is about 125 miles as the seagull flies. We ran out of time. We were sorry to disappoint the blondes, but we had to get back home.

Today’s Thought

The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.

— William Sloan Coffin, Address at Trinity Institute, San Francisco, 7 Feb 81


Adolescence is a period of rapid change. Between the ages of 12 and 17, for instance, a parent can age as much as 20 years.

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