Sunday, 25 January 2015

Déjà Vu

It's surprising how quickly life rushes past when you are in the "work, eat, sleep, repeat" cycle. Evenings become the blur between each work day, and promises of plentiful blog updates fade into distant memories. Weekends are planned weeks, if not months, in advance and we find ourselves dreamily focusing on what comes next, wishing the working week by so that we can finally get some leisure time. Whilst sailing on Firebird, we found the exact opposite; hours were plentiful, days were lengthy and varied – we lived very much in the moment, thinking only so far ahead as where our next destination might be. Of course, we were still very busy with our unending to-do list and certainly felt at times like we could do with more downtime, but the pace of life and our involvement in it was somehow very different. I would be lying if I said I didn't miss that.

A crisp winter's day on the Thames

The grass is always greener though, is it not? I have vivid memories of cold, wet and lonely watches in less than favourable conditions, when I would think to myself how nice it would be to be sat at my desk, chatting to my friends with a mug of hot coffee. And, I have to say, that is one of the great things about the opportunity we have had to return to work in London for a while. No, not the coffee, but the social aspects of being around those that we have grown so fond of over the years. The opportunity to catch up with our family and friends with ease and face-to-face, rather than through phone conversations, lengthy emails and Facebook stalking. The ability to really feel a part of our social circles again, rather than sailing around the outside of them, peering in and wondering how everybody really is doing.

A cormorant displays the iconic "wing drying" pose for the camera

I do make a conscious effort to remind myself that I must make the most of this time back in London, and appreciate everything that I know I'll miss once we have returned to our new boat in the Canaries. I think that being on Red Kite really helps with that – somehow being around the water just reminds me to slow down and enjoy life. Perhaps it's down to the fact that when we step into our boat, we feel detached from the hustle and bustle of city life, at home in our little bubble and at one with the nature around us. The ducks going about their somewhat noisy business, the swans and geese that come to greet us as soon as they spot us boarding (hoping for food, no doubt) and the gentle lapping of water against the hull as we move around onboard. I find myself wondering whether I'll ever be able to settle on land again…

The view through Red Kite's windscreen. Not a bad one!

Our first month on Red Kite was spent back at Shepperton Marina – the first marina that we ever stayed at, on Firebird. It brought back many fond memories, and we were grateful for the opportunity to catch up with some friends that we had made there, over two years ago. We would have happily stayed in Shepperton, were it not for the fact that the marina is a little over ten miles from work and winter was fast approaching. After retrieving our push bikes from under my parents' house in Somerset, we both cycled to and from work most days, and very much enjoyed it. However, the weather was getting colder and neither of us relished the thought of cycling in freezing conditions, so we made arrangements to move Red Kite to a spot much closer to work.

Captain Mitchell at the helm in some nice, warm sailing gear

After a month at Shepperton, we prepared Red Kite for the passage (read "checked the oil level and started the engine") before setting off, just after midday on a Saturday. The weather was pleasant and we motored steadily towards our first lock of the day; Sunbury. It is a self-service lock, meaning there is no lock keeper on duty to operate the gates and sluices for those passing through, and there were no other boats in the lock. Alex brought Red Kite alongside the waiting pontoon, where I hopped off and secured her lines before heading over to the lock. I went about the procedure of ensuring the bottom gates and sluices were closed, before opening the sluices on the top lock gate, to bring the water level with the upstream Thames. Whilst doing this, I noticed some rowing boats heading downstream towards the lock.

Richmond Lock, opened in 1894 by the Duke and Duchess of York

When it came to opening the top gate, I'm ashamed to admit that I was struggling to push the gate open. This was probably due to the water not being quite level, but only two of the six inlet sluices were functioning and I was getting impatient with the slow progress. Thankfully, a couple of chaps had turned up by this point and one came to help me open the gate. It soon became apparent that they were with the four rowing boats that were by now hovering near the lock gate. As the gate opened, I caught sight of Alex slipping the lines and making way toward the lock. However, to my disbelief, all four rowing boats entered the lock ahead of him, completely disregarding the fact that he had been waiting patiently since long before they had made an appearance.

Heading down the Thames on Red Kite

Now, perhaps we just don't understand the etiquette of the inland waterways, but all our previous experiences have taught us two rules; 1) there is definite first-come, first-in queueing system that is ordinarily adhered to at locks and 2) small craft like rowing boats generally allow motor vessels to enter first and secure their lines, before coming into the lock with them. In my humble opinion, the second rule is common sense in terms of safety, especially when you consider the varying levels of boat handling on display by fellow boaters. However, these young rowers were seemingly oblivious to any notion of good manners or safety, as they charged in ahead of Red Kite and left her very little room to enter. From the lock gate, I attempted to signal to Alex that he should return to the visitor's pontoon, as I doubted his ability to fit Red Kite into the lock without mowing down at least one of the row boats. Unsurprisingly, given our lack of planning in defining any kind of hand signal protocols, he didn't understand me and continued moving slowly and steadily toward the lock.

A nice, hot cuppa helps warm the cockles whilst underway!

By now, there were some more support staff from the rowing club near the downstream lock gate, and I was shocked to hear one particularly brash woman yelling, "Shut him out, Bill! Shut the gate!" Charming. We arrive first, do most of the work in opening the lock and now she wants to prevent us from locking in! Thankfully, I was by now concentrating on guiding Alex in safely and taking his lines to prevent any collisions, rather than being tempted to give her a piece of my mind. In the way that only Alex can, he expertly manoeuvered Red Kite into the lock, ignoring all the helpful advice being shouted at him to "put it in reverse, you need to reverse!" We secured the lines, and enquired with the rearmost set of young rowers as to which rowing club they were from. We fully intended to write a letter to of complaint to Walton Rowing Club about their members' behaviour in the lock but, of course, the moment passed and the intention faded with it.

Teams of rowers head around the red bollard, to begin their race

Whilst in the lock, another (much friendlier) lady approached us, and said that she thought that the river downstream was closed, between 13:00 and 16:00, for a rowing race. By now, the time was just gone 12:40, so we would have no chance of making it to the next lock before the closure. We had checked the river condition before setting off from Shepperton, but hadn't seen anything about the river closure on the Environment Agency website. A quick check of the website confirmed that the river was indeed closed, and so we motored out of the lock and moored alongside the downstream visitor's pontoon. After a spot of lunch, we made the most of the good weather by peeling Red Kite's old name off her bow and transom, whilst watching teams of rowers circling the nearby bollard as they began their race back down the Thames. We wondered whether it would appear a little suspect, two hooded "youths" on a boat, removing its identity, and a passing comment from a pair of young rowers who wondered whether we might be stealing the boat confirmed that, yes, it did.

Looking astern from Red Kite, to watch the sun set

The river reopened a little before 16:00, so we carried on our merry way. By now, there was no chance of us reaching our destination by the end of the day, so we decided that we would spend the night in Teddington, as we had with Firebird when making the same journey after our honeymoon. As dusk approached and a beautiful sun set behind us, we enjoyed being on the river as night began to fall. Hampton Court Palace was lit up beautifully and passing through Kingston soon after, we admired the bridge with it's blue hue that reflected so perfectly in the still water. We arrived at Teddington and paid for our night's stay, before heading to a nearby pub for dinner.

Kingston Bridge lit up at night, creating some wonderful reflections

Sunday morning, we awoke bright and early to a misty day, and locked out into the tidal Thames just before high tide. This meant that we were able to pass through the open sluice gates at Richmond, which remain open two hours either side of high tide. We were also able to make the most of the ebbing tide to reach our destination in good time, without needing to overwork the engine. As a sailor, it's not often that the tide seems to be in your favour, making it extra satisfying on those occasions when it is. We realised how strong the tidal flow was as we prepared to moor up alongside the visitor's pontoon in Brentford. After passing the pontoon, Alex turned Red Kite to port, through 180 degrees to head back upstream, and really had to increase the revs to make headway against the current. It's at these times where we find ourselves praying silently "please don't let the engine fail" and, thankfully, it didn't.

Red Kite in her new home - surrounded by icy pontoons

So, now here we are, settled a mere twenty minutes walk from work in a lovely spot near the Thames. As I type this with two fan heaters blowing and a dehumidifier humming away, it again brings back memories of being in London during winter on Firebird. Crisp winter mornings, icy pontoons, talk of how this will be our last cold winter in the UK; it makes me smile to think that we really never know how life is going to turn out. All we can really do is set our plans in motion and go along for the ride. The one thing I realise now more than ever is that it's not always about reaching our destination, but enjoying the journey we make to get there. And given how much I've enjoyed everything up until this point, I'm perfectly happy to be experiencing this feeling of déjà vu.