This is your captain freaking
Sailing solo about the canals around Amsterdam, Simon Busch learns to pilot a boat the hard way
At least, I reflected later, it wasn't a submarine. If my recent Dutch boating experience is anything to go by, that country appears to have adapted the ancients' rumoured method of swimming instruction to the teaching of boat pilotage: namely, chuck the squalling brat into the water and hope for the best.
A Locaboat craft, like the one piloted by Simon
We have all heard of rats leaving a sinking ship but - to sail the metaphor into no doubt dangerous waters - these rats, aka my friends, had abandoned the vessel before we even left harbour. I was, then, setting off on a boating holiday minus what most people would consider a crucial element thereof: not the boat, obviously, nor the captain (me, by default) - but the crew. Oh, and any boating knowledge on the part of that captain, unless we count the odd dabble in a canoe and one successful attempt at standing up when surfing. (Later, lost and yawing hopelessly about nameless canals, I would try to draw upon these "maritime" experiences for inspiration in regaining my course. Unsuccessfully.)
Not that my lack of experience bothered weathered Bert, from Locaboat, the company whose vessel I would have charge of over the next three days. Forward. Backward. Stop. "Don't flood the engine!" This was, it seemed, almost all I needed to know to pilot this clumpy, family-sized craft - a kind of big, white, aquatic motorhome - throughout the northern reaches of what I would come to characterise over the weekend as "this desperately waterlogged country".
An emphysemic death rattle
With not so much a roar as an emphysemic death rattle from the engine in my untutored hands, I set sail. Or, rather, I staggered out into the canal, my destination a lake some several hundred metres distant. I felt as if I had discovered a new, and fantastically inefficient, form of navigation, namely zigzagging from one side of the canal to the other - for that was all my pilotage "skills" at this stage would allow.
Once, though, having popped, as if at the conclusion of a particularly difficult birth, from the canal into the great, free space of the lake, I soon felt more confident.There was less chance of collision on the lake - it was like being on a huge, watery Dodgem ride with only a handful of other players - and by the time I had cruised past the first of a chain of small islands I even rationed myself an old sea dog fantasy or two for my amusement.
What an idiot. Navigating the second island - then the third and the fourth - was a doddle but it was when I had looped around and was returning to shore that the trouble began. Some mischievous entity seemed to have hidden all the landmarks on the thickly vegetated banks of the lake while I was away. I puttered down what I hoped was the canal whence I had come, but it turned out to be entirely new territory - a spaghetti-like tangle of progressively narrower channels formed by a mass of tiny private islands.
In this confined space my great white craft began to yaw again, near-demolishing quaint wooden piers, charmingly vintage old dinghies, whole holiday house extensions built over the water. Bewildered, I asked a group of middle-aged Dutch people sitting out on one of the islets enjoying the evening air whether they could tell me where I was. One sprightly man among them leaped into a skiff to draw alongside me, before trying frantically to instruct me in steering as my boat veered crazily this way and that. I had visions of myself ramming his landmass, flinging its inhabitants into the water before it slowly sank. I caught one woman's face among the group battling politeness and pure shock.
The challenge of the lock
Night having fallen, I made it back to harbour: brief respite before having to face, the next day, the challenge of the lock - that part of the canal by means of which vessels were lowered into the river Vecht. Bert had signalled, in his noncommittal way - a passing frown - that the lock might be difficult. That was an understatement. I approached it in my usual, drunken-seeming way, careening down the canal. And when I arrived at the lock itself and tried to attain my place among the assorted craft packed intimately within, I assure you my boat and I behaved in no less delinquent a manner.
LP, Holger Leue
Simon's greatest challenge: negotiating the lock
My pilotage limitations became even starker within this narrow, water-filled corridor, and I was soon engaged in a kind of violent frottage with a gleaming and wincingly expensive looking sailing yacht to my rear. Emitting a kind of capella of shouts and shrieks, the well-dressed crew began desperately fending me off with their feet.
I had swiftly caught the attention of the lockmaster - a powerfully built, florid faced fellow with a protuberant gut below and an angelic shower of golden curls above. "Hard zis way!" he bellowed. (He meant the direction I should turn the wheel.) "Now hard ze other way!"
Well, his remote control steering worked and I soon glided out of the lock and into the freedom of the Vecht.
Freedom, that is, to become utterly lost. I was slowly gaining a sense of how to steer, becoming more at one with this bloated cow of a boat, but unfortunately at the cost of making any sense of the detailed maps that formed part of the captain's induction pack. Soon I was faced with the paradox that the landscape couldn't have looked any less like its representation on the crumpled square of paper I kept frantically glancing at while simultaneously jerking the wheel to and fro.
Land. Here's my advice: learn to love it. Only in its absence do you long for its solidity. By deep dusk I was still boat-bound and half-convinced I had sailed into France, when a row of empty mooring spots hoved into view. I headed for them as if I was on the attack, the boat crunching against the jetty as I leaped monkey-like about the deck to lash the vessel singlehandedly to the shore fore and aft.
And there, slightly traumatised and deeply relieved, I stayed for two nights and a day. I did eventually arrive at Weesp, the medieval town (nice windmills) that had been my initial destination - but I did so along the towpath, on the bicycle lashed to the roof of the boat.
Yet, on the final day, back into the maelstrom of the river I had to go. I won't say my return to the marina was entirely smooth - I had to be helped at the lock by a small child, for example - but it did lack the agonising amateurishness of the journey out. And you know what I was thinking as I handed over the keys to Big Bertha (as I had come to call her) to Bert?
I want a boat. I want my own boat.
Simon travelled to the Netherlands with the assistance of KLM (0871 222 7474) and Locaboat. KLM has 15 UK departure points including Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds-Bradford, Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff and Liverpool. Its fares from London Heathrow to Amsterdam airport Schiphol start from £99 return.
Locaboat (+33 (0) 386 917272) has boats for hire in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Poland. Hire prices start from €553 (£463) for two adults for one week.
For some top tips on your houseboat holiday, visit the KLM webpage on houseboats.
Simon Busch is the editor of MSN Travel.
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