I’m proud to be a member of the boat-owning underclass

Mort Smith’s new weekly column looks at the lighter side of life on the River Thames

MOST people’s image of boat ownership is coloured by what they see in television dramas or by the glossy brochures and nubile young ladies promoting the gleaming, multi-million pound yachts at the boat show. If you’ve got a boat, folk assume, you’re a fat cat with money to burn and far too much leisure time.

Undoubtedly true, in some cases – you only have to look at some of the outlandish gin palaces which cruise up and down the Thames any sunny Sunday afternoon during the summer months with their radar antennas whirring (what, exactly, do they expect to find on radar that they couldn’t see by just looking out of the boat?) to believe the hype.

But in addition to the floating fat cats, there is a whole boat-owning underclass (of which I’m proud to be a member) which spends huge amounts of time and limited amounts of cash trying to convert their small charges into comfortable home-from-homes.

Generally speaking, messing about on the river is the best cure for stress I know. Just setting foot in the cockpit of the old Seamaster Admiral cruiser I co-own with my brother produces a wonderful feeling of release and relaxation.

But in order to reach that stage of enjoyment there’s a lot of filthy, tiresome, back-breaking work required – which is something the glossy brochures carefully omit.

My brother and I bought our boat midway through last year from a couple of weathered old fishermen on the Medway who used her for angling trips in the Thames estuary. She was filthy dirty, stunk of fish and possessed a venerable diesel engine capable of producing its own fog bank every time it started. But she was ours and, having brought her home to her new berth in Shepperton, we must have spent weeks talking about how we were going to ‘do her up’ and turn her into our own version (albeit smaller) of the glossy brochure boat.

Which was great until we put her in for the obligatory boat safety scheme inspection which is the first step towards obtaining an Environment Agency licence to navigate on the Thames.

What we got was a list of around 23 different reasons why the boat should have been condemned. There were leaks in the diesel fuel system, the batteries weren’t secured, the fire extinguisher was illegal (hey – at least we HAD a fire extinguisher!), the gas cooker had a leaking tap, the locker for storing the gas bottle didn’t have a vent overboard – the list went on and on. We sighed collectively and started working our way through the list thinking it would just delay our triumphant inaugural trip on the river by a couple of weeks. How naive can you get?

We quickly learned that boat ownership is not all gliding through idyllic countryside with just a quiet rippling sound for company.

It can also involve hanging upside down in the oil-splattered bilges of the boat (with your breath coming out in clouds of steam in the freezing air) while trying to unscrew a fuel filter bowl which can only be reached by dislocating one’s left shoulder. Or bashing one’s head repeatedly on a bulkhead while trying to disconnect a battery lead with a spanner that’s about ten centimetres too short to reach the clamp nut.

It’s amazing how many new swear words my brother and I have each learned during this process – and instead of two weeks, it’s taken us nearly four months to reach the nirvana of a safety certificate pass. But we’ve done it and, when the weather starts to get a bit warmer, we’ll make that inaugural trip and all the grief and swearing will fade to a distant memory.

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