The Mighty Thames

Sunday, February 01 2004

One of the most enjoyable times I had in England was the spur of the moment boat rental on the Thames. The morning started lazily – it was already hot that day, and because architecture in England is designed for cooler climates, the little 21 Holmanleaze was already sticky and hot. Only occasionally did a warm, round, breeze float through from the windows in the front room, pushed open as far as they’d go, trying to capture any air cooler or moving faster than the air inside. We’d always second guess ourselves, wondering if the windows were open all the way, and go give the white vinyl clad frames of double paned glass another fruitless push.

We needed to get out of the house, which was greedily lapping up every ray of heat directed at it. We needed to get out of the house because in its rooms that could be remembered by the size of the beds that occupied their entire floor space, there were also six people, three of which were visiting from the States, one of which was a teething baby learning how to walk, and the other two, tired of the stifling heat.

I thumbed through the English yellow pages, looking for boat hire establishments. I’d learned the lingo by now, and I knew I’d find nothing under boat rentals. The English are as fond of their vehicles as they are of people, which is why you can hire a boat, scooter, or person for that matter. Ask anyone for directions to the Car Rental place and you’ll be sucsessful only at befuddling the askee with your foreign devil tongue.

I phoned Maidenhead Boat Hire (had I called, I’d have shown up in person), and spoke in a perfect British accent. Or at least that’s what I was told by those within earshot. It wasn’t my intention to speak English to this man, but the situation couldn’t be helped. When in Mexico, I pick up a Mexican accent. When in England, I pick up an English accent. Had I been living in Iceland, I can say with most confidence that I would pick up an Icelandic accent.

But, despite what others told me, I was self concious about my American dialect when speaking to British people on the phone. Especially when it came to negotiating a price. Despite the nearly twice as valuable British Pound compared to the American dollar, I was convinced that when conducting a tourist type of activity, I would be taken advantage of based on my country of origin. Perhaps, deep within whatever twisted mazes of nerves and nuerons in my lobes, I was persuaded to mask my nationality to get what I wanted. A boat.

Maidenhead Boat Hire was out of stock. In our planning, we assumed this might happen. It was a Saturday in England, and it was nearing 11:00am. We’d be lucky, if anything, to find anyone in the entire United Kingdom who could accomodate our tardiness in planning the most important day of the week.

In what may have been a entirely American thing to do, I asked Maidenhead Boat Hire to give me the numbers of his competitors. With what I detected to be some reluctance in his voice, the man on the other end gave me the phone numbers to several boat hire establishments up and down river from our location, and suggested that I’d have a hard time finding a boat this late in the day, and that I should book a trip for next weekend with him instead.

His suggestion was just a bluff, because one of his competitors, down river from us, had a boat, and let me secure it with my American credit card immediately.

And so, we also left immediately. Had we stayed any longer, one of us would have combusted, alarming the neighbors who would then, out of confusion, yell at their dogs.

Six of us squeezed into a British sized vehicle, with a child seat in the back. Surely we were breaking laws, both physical and National. But our destiny was to motor the open waters of the River Thames, with the soft, warm breeze in our hair, our feet dragging in the water, tipping our hats to men on horses in Royal Gardens.

We arrived at the boat hire dock late, having gotten lost en route. It could have been worse, considering that we were both lost, and stuck in severe traffic due to some weekly event in the village we were trying to find.

Within minutes, we had a powerboat under our feet on top of the green river. The air was cool, soothing our tormented bodies. We had no plans but to keep moving in any direction.

The boat was a fine machine. Obviously, it had travelled countless miles on the river. It was weathered accordingly. Vinyl cushions with matching piped seams covered marine grad plywood benches adjacent to the sides of the hull, the cushions prohibiting the benches from drying completly, the wood not wet, yet cool and dark. Beneath the benches were places to store rope, spike, and a hammer to moor up to grassy banks.

The diesel engine of the machine was designed to travel at a maximum speed of 5 miles per hour. The pistons fired so lazily that you could hear your breath between each pop of combustion. The intensity of the engine set the mood for the day.

My memory of where we motored has left me, but there were locks to navigate through, and swans to avoid. Making it through a lock was the most terryfing thing I’ve ever done. Surrounded by yachts costing more than I’d make in a lifetime, I had to literally learn the ropes while navigating a boat for the first time. I expected that the little orange boat we hired would break free, spear an expensive vessel, and sink, taking the whole lot to the bottom of the river.

The day was supremely satisfying. We waved at people, napped on the front of the boat, stopped for lunch, watched kids jump from a train bridge into the river. It was worth whatever insane inflated price we were charged.

So, several weeks later, Carrie and I did it again. But it was wholly uninteresting the second time, and I lost a pair of sunglasses.

The moral of the story: only go on a boat trip on the River Thames once, or you’ll lose your sunglasses.