A recent family holiday was spent in Croatia, staying in the medieval town of Trogir in Dalmatia. One of the many delights was the amount of travelling around we did on water. The roads once built to speed up travel have become so clogged up in the summer months that the only way to get anywhere is by the boats they were designed to replace. The entire coastline is dotted with ferries, water taxis and private boats of all descriptions as well as the odd cruise liner, serving towns in the region including the colourful city of Split, various islands and local beaches. It’s a wonderfully serene way to get around. But the ‘slow travel’ highlight of our holiday was when we decided to hire our own boat for the day (the first time we’ve ever done this) and cruise around the Adriatic…
It’s nine thirty on a hot morning in late August when we arrive at the boat hire place and select our vessel. It looks a bit tatty but boasts a ‘five horse power Suzuki engine’, although perhaps they are only sea horses. The man in charge spreads out a map and shows me where we are meant to go, his suggested itinerary roughly following the coastline. I point to a tempting mass of blue space on the left hand side of the map but he shakes his head. ‘Too much open sea’, he says, then mutters something darkly under his breath, possibly Serbo-Croat for ‘There be dragons…’
‘You have driven a boat before?’ he asks. I hesitate. I once steered a barge on the Stratford & Avon Canal, and I’ve seen a fair bit of pedalo action in my time. As nautical CVs go I guess it’s not exactly Sir Ben Ainslie though. ‘No, I reply, ‘not as such’. ‘No problem,’ he says, ‘is easy. Easier than car.’ I think it best not to mention that I don’t do that either.
He beckons me over to the boat to give me a demonstration. I try to rope my son into coming with me. He’s recently had his first driving lessons and happily doesn’t seem to have inherited my low capacity for spatial awareness. But the man waves him away. He only wants to talk to the head honcho.
I know it’s important to concentrate very hard on what he’s telling me, but the harder I listen the more my mind seems to keep wandering off. Anyway, it seems there are only three or four things you have to do to get the thing going: put the engine into neutral, make sure the accelerator is on the low setting, pull the starter cord and switch the engine to the forward position.
I watch him do it a couple of times then he gestures for me to have a go. I’m flummoxed. It’s amazing how many permutations of three of four things there are. And apparently it’s important to get them in the right order. He shows me again. I follow it now but the problem is getting the engine to fire up. ‘You must pull harder’, he says, laughing. Evidently this is some kind of test and I have to man up. I pull as hard as I can but there’s just deathly silence. He smirks and pulls out the choke, which is clearly a shameful option of last resort. He suggests I try again. I give it everything I’ve got. It splutters like a wet fart then dies on the wind. Maybe I just want it too badly.
I sense the eyes of my family on me, and am aware out of the corner of my eye that some random strangers have also gathered to watch. Sweat is trickling down my neck. There must be a knack to this. An obscure memory flashes into my mind of a story once told by Kenneth Williams about a temperamental toilet chain in a bedsit, and his landlady’s advice on how to make it flush. ‘You ‘ave to surprise it!’ she said. I pause for a long time and, just when I think the engine is least expecting me to, I give the cord a good sharp yank. It roars into life, or as much of a roar as a five horse power engine can muster. I punch the air, Tim Henman-style, as relief gushes out of me.
He then tries to show me how I can tilt the engine in and out of the water if I want to, but frankly why would I? I’ve reached information overload by now and am not really paying attention. The crew members climb aboard, ropes are untied, I shove the engine into forward and we’re off!
I’m flushed with success and, once we’re past the other moored boats, accelerate towards the wide blue yonder, a sea shanty already on my lips. I waste no time in assigning roles to the crew. I feel it’s important to have some form of hierarchy at sea. My wife is appointed First Mate and my son and daughter are designated Able-Bodied Seamen. I want to keep things fairly informal though (we are on holiday after all), and suggest they might call me ‘Skip’. No-one replies. I guess they can’t hear me above the din of the engine. Never mind, I’m absolutely loving this sea-faring lark, and even before we’ve got beyond the harbour walls a new life plan has begun to crystallise, involving sticking our house on Airbnb, buying a boat and decamping to the Med. We’re so getting a boat!
We stick fairly close to the coastline and things go well for the first couple of hours. It’s a lovely morning, I grudgingly allow everyone to have a turn steering and the crew are in high spirits. Everything feels so wide open and free out here. But then, as Macbeth might have said, vaulting ambition begins to overreach itself. We edge closer and closer, and then well beyond that bit of the map which is meant to be strictly off-limits.
All of a sudden there seems to be an awful lot more water than there was before, stretching in all directions, probably as far as Italy, or maybe Bolivia. The wind whips up and the sun-shade canopy on top of the boat begins to sway alarmingly on its rickety poles, which we now notice are held together with bits of sticky tape and Elastoplast like Jack Duckworth’s spectacles. A sharp gust sees the whole edifice swing over to one side of the boat, blocking my view, and for a worrying few minutes I have no vision at all to my starboard (or possibly port) side. There might be other boats, ferries or even, god forbid, ocean-going cruise liners up ahead and I would have no idea.
The crew manage to wrestle the canopy back into position and hold it steady with great difficulty against the wind. But it’s too dangerous and we’re forced to remove the poles and take down the canvas roof, resigning ourselves to spending the rest of the day roasting under the searing sun without any shade. Meanwhile the waves seem to have become a good deal choppier and the boat is lurching from side to side. I notice that the First Mate is beginning to look a little green around the gills. A long-buried memory floats into my mind, a holiday in the early days of our courtship: a remote Scottish island, a small boat, a rough sea…it didn’t end well.
We decide it’s sensible to turn around and head back towards land. But we’re now sailing into a stiff breeze and making very slow progress against the tide. The sun is overhead and we’re cooking down here. I’m sensing a subtle shift in mood below decks. A fight has broken out between the two Able-Bodied Seamen over a bottle of mango flavoured ice tea. The First Mate appears to be projectile vomiting over the port side (or possibly starboard). We’re so not getting a boat.
Eventually signs of civilisation appear and we head over to the shore where enticing tables, chairs and shade have been spotted. We attempt to moor the boat but someone shouts and tells us we’re not allowed to stop there. We have to back out and I shove the engine into reverse. I must have pressed something by mistake because the engine suddenly jerks upwards and is now waggling around and poking out of the water at 45 degrees.
I shift into forward gear but the propeller is churning half air and half sea, making a terrible racket, and we’re barely moving. I struggle with the engine, pressing every lever that can possibly be pressed, trying to shove it back down into the water, but it keeps popping back up. It’s like wrestling with a greasy pig. I have no clue how to fix it. Behind me I hear the First Mate cry out in despair, ‘This just isn’t right. People like us shouldn’t be allowed to hire boats!’
We manage to crawl about 50 yards along the shoreline and eventually come to a sort of floating jetty. We tie up and clamber off, having to wade waist-deep through water to get to the shore, which doesn’t seem to improve morale much.
Reaching the restaurant, I’m confident things will sort themselves out after a decent lunch as they so often seem to do. Plates of pasta arrabiata and a jug of cold beer duly arrive. The First Mate, however, opts for a small hunk of dry bread and a stomach-settling bowl of thin tomato soup. Her smile is even thinner. I sense mutiny in the air, especially when it turns out you can get a bus just up the road from here all the way back to our apartment. I try to salvage things by declaring my firm belief that ‘the worst is now behind us’, that for the remainder of the voyage the sea will be ‘mirror-calm’. It’s too little too late though. In football parlance I think I may have lost the dressing room. I resign myself to the loss of a valued crew member.
After lunch we bid farewells, and the remaining crew wade out to the boat and attempt to hoist ourselves back on board, which turns out to be a good deal trickier than getting off. Eventually I manage to clamber over the side, gashing my knee in the process, and belly flop onto the deck like a landed tuna, blood dripping from my cut. The kids follow, incurring a couple more minor flesh wounds. They cast off the ropes and I start the engine, but the propeller is just spinning through air and it’s obvious that with an engine only half submerged we’re just not going anywhere.
We drift about 50 yards out to sea but appear to be just turning round in circles no matter how much I accelerate. I examine the engine from every possible angle again, but still can’t for the life of me figure out how to get it back down into the water. Half an hour later the situation is becoming desperate. We’re stranded miles from the boat hire place. The First Mate, doubtless about to hunker down on a sunbed with a Kindle and a chilled mojito, is frankly well out of this.
There’s an ‘SOS’ phone number painted on the inside of the boat but I’m not sure this situation really qualifies. If only there was a ‘General Ineptitude’ helpline that would fit the bill perfectly. My son suggests we shout to people on the beach for help. ‘But what makes you think they will know what to do either?’ I ask. ‘Dad’ he replies, ‘I think everyone knows apart from us’. I have to concede he may have a point. We all jump up, waving our arms and bellowing ‘Help!’
A guy on a jet ski some way off turns and whizzes towards us, probably thinking we are in real distress. I point to the engine bobbing up and down. He mimes the solution but I’ve no idea what he’s trying to tell me. He shrugs and powers away again. For a moment I think he’s just buggered off and left us, but then I realise he’s gone back to the beach to pick up his mate. They whizz back towards us and his mate climbs aboard, grimacing at the blood seeping from my knee, then fixes the problem in about two seconds by pulling on some lever which I swear wasn’t even there earlier.
I feel like hugging them both but settle for a sheepish grin and a thumbs-up. I’m still not quite sure how he fixed it, but as long as I don’t attempt to put the engine into reverse or try and stop anywhere for the rest of the day, everything should now be fine, barring something unforeseeable like a surprise incursion by Somali pirates.
We spend the rest of the afternoon pleasantly cruising around the coastline, taking it in turns to drive, lounging around and dangling our feet in the water. The mood of tranquillity is only temporarily interrupted by a large boat flying the French tricolour, which steams past on our port side (or possibly starboard), churning up some pretty big waves which almost capsize us. It disappears around the headland only to return five minutes later, now passing us on our starboard side (or possibly port), churning up some more big waves, their four man crew giving us a cheery salute as we reel from side to side, water sloshing all over the decks. As they turn and begin to perform a figure of eight around us, it’s clear they have enjoyed a long and satisfying lunch and are looking for some sport. I am minded to give them the finger, but have no wish to trigger an international incident so just smile amiably through gritted teeth.
All too soon it’s late afternoon and time to return the boat. I begin to head back towards Trogir. Behind me, to the west, the sun has sunk lower in the sky, the sea now calmer and flooded with golden light shimmering on the surface of the water. It’s one of those perfectly still, clear moments that seem to hang in the air for ever. But summer is coming to an end, three days from now we will be back in London, another month and my son will be at university, the first to leave home. Time and tide. I glance back once more into the golden light, then turn and drive on towards the harbour.
As we approach the boat hire place I slow the engine. There’s now a lady on duty and she waves to me from the quayside. I wave back. She carries on waving. She certainly seems very friendly. In fact now she’s waving with both hands quite vigorously. It dawns on me this must be the maritime signal for ‘Stop you pillock!’ I cut the engine and throw her a rope. It’s too late to stop the forward drift but luckily she manages to grab the rope, almost gets pulled in, but just manages to steady us in the nick of time before we smash into the propeller of the boat tied up in front, saving the day and doubtless the hefty damage deposit I was forced to hand over this morning.
We climb off the boat and, with the ground still swaying beneath us, stagger back to our apartment, sunburned, bloodied and grinning stupidly.