On the Canal

I’ve long harbored a secret love for the British canals. My friend’s parents introduced me to the canals many years ago and, slowly, my (semi-)annual visits to the UK have become dominated by cruises with them. So there I was, early 30’s, with a couple of retired folks, moving through cities and countryside at four miles per hour. Healthy food, old movies, and to bed by 9pm.

Going to bed early makes sense when you’re with them. They’re serious travelers. The sort of people who prepare a binder’s worth of itineraries and sub-itineraries for every trip and make the most of their experience. I envy them, sometimes, when I spend a day in a pub reading a book. On the canals, though, it can be a bit tough. Here we are in the most inconvenient form of conveyance following the longest possible route to a destination at a pace slightly slower than walking speed. But there’s always a plan. Today we’re going here, here, and here. When we get there we’re going to see this, this, and this. No time for lunch, we’re meeting so and so at Bridge 25. Top speed to the Valhalla Sector! We must intercept the rebel fleet or else the galaxy will be lost!

My ideal canal boat holiday would be to wake up at 6am, motor along cheerfully till about eight or nine, then moor up at some secluded, rural spot and have a champagne breakfast. Deploy the camp chair on the towpath and settle in with a good book. Vodka tonics all afternoon, watch the cows stare at me, and engage unwary hikers and bikers on the towpath in creepy, awkward conversations. Candlelit supper back on the boat while watching bad sci-fi, then to bed early because I have to move eight miles tomorrow to prove that I’m not some sort of gypsy squatter.

I often dream about this leisurely sort of canal life. In my dreams, I’m wearing a World War One officer’s uniform and talk like an annoying anglophile pretending to be a Brit. “Pip pip! I say old boy!” and so on. My subconscious often embarrasses me.

I think the lure of the canal (besides the boats themselves – equipped with all the mod-cons and strangely more comfortable than my apartment) is that “armchair sailor” routine. It’s you and your little boat and endless, plodding hours of self-reflection and inspiring scenery. Then, after a hard day on the cruel waters, you pull over three feet, moor up, and go to Tesco’s for porn, beer, and snacks. Pump out the toilet, fill up with water and gas, adjust your eye patch and tri-cornered hat, and off you go to moor up next to some cows three miles down the canal and watch Ealing Comedies all night.

The big problem with the canals comes in the late spring, summer, and early fall, when all the holiday people are out and about. I hate people and crowds anyway, but a crowded canal takes my phobia to whole new levels. Now all these people I hate are piled ten to a boat, drunk, screaming, and whipping around like maniacs.

It doesn’t help that canal boats, themselves, are all in possession of a supernatural evil. Here you are trying to steer this 100 foot monster and keeping an eye out for hazards, then up comes another boat from the other direction. As you pass, the boats are always drawn to each other, so the battle begins. Then you almost fucking die at every fucking bridge. Round the blind turn you go into a bridge that’s big enough for one boat and, half the time, there’s another boat full of drunken maniacs screaming through from the other direction. You see each other, panic, throw the boats into reverse, and try to keep your heart from exploding.

Then you get your urban canals, or crowded areas, where you’re creeping along and under the gaze of steely-eyed live-aboards, shifty-looking towpath thugs, and canal-side homeowners who seem to feel that canal boaters are roughly equivalent to an outlaw motorcycle gang.

I won’t even talk about taking the boat out onto the Thames. That’s only for people who are on a Zen-like quest for humility.

Most frightening of all are the stories of disaster. Tales of people getting sucked into weirs, endless reminders of weird water-borne diseases if you fall into the canal (which you will), British Waterways workers at a canal-side pub cheerfully talking about how many bodies they dredged up that week, and urban areas where gangs of kids jump down onto your boat, race through it grabbing whatever they can, emerge at the back deck and punch you out, then leap to safety. When you’re poking along at a couple miles an hour, you’re an easy target. It’s the modern-day version of raiding a stagecoach, I guess.

The thing I really don’t understand are the ubiquitous anglers. These lunatic fishermen who spend entire days fishing the canal. So you have to navigate around them and their lines, and move slowly, and be stared down by all of them because they feel like you’re intruding.

It’s a fucking canal, assholes! The fish are about as safe to eat as a light bulb. And, besides, since when was a canal about fishing? It’s about canal fucking boats. Fishing the canal with any serious intent – recreational or otherwise — is like trying to start a garden in the center lane of a highway.

Inevitably, you’ll encounter the angry angler. You try to be polite because any sane person has to assume that all of these angler types are gun-wielding psychopaths. There’s no other explanation for their presence or actions.

Anglers are assholes even if you’re hiking the towpath. They’ll set up all of their equipment right there so you have to step around them. They’ll stare you down, snarl at you. If you’ve encountered them from the towpath side, it’s a bit more obvious that all anglers are severe alcoholics. They’ve been out there for 12 hours catching two-headed canal fish, drinking bottles of gin, and shaking their fists at canal boats. Just them and the fucking water rats.

But, still, I dream about being on the canals, and I pine to go on yet another canal boat holiday, and I’d even entertain thoughts of living on the canals if I had a million bucks or so, but I wouldn’t ever really wander too far. I’d stake out some deep countryside area and just sort of hang out there. Back and forth. Hiking the lonely towpath, having a BBQ as the moon rises over the rolling fields, wearing my World War One uniform and running wildly around in the dark while drinking gin and screaming incoherently.

Maybe even take up angling.