Why am I running away?
It’s raining again. Droplets run Matrix-style down the windows, the sky fading from grey to black beyond, the river surging beneath. I look out at the choppy, relentless waves and feel uneasy. The Thames is a beast with which I’m not familiar. I have been battling it for four days, fighting the current, avoiding weirs, and looking on as cruisers roar past, their wash rolling up the side of my vessel and slapping loudly against its flat hull. My narrowboat is not suited to river life.
My mooring tonight is in Henley. The regatta is tomorrow, the rowers out for their final preparations, disturbing the water with their blades so that I knock against the platform where I’m clumsily moored. I’ve moved the fenders twice to no avail – wherever I tie them seems to be the wrong place. Mooring on the Thames is difficult. The town pontoons turned out to be private, and returning to the previous spot was less straightforward than I’d hoped, with some unfortunately-timed gusts of wind, a very shallow bank and a near collision with a passing rower making this one of the more stressful moorings. I’d lashed my lines to what appeared to be little more than a fishing platform, only noticing the words ‘No Mooring’ once I’d disembarked. With the rain sluicing down, finding somewhere else was decidedly unattractive. But soon the river patrol motors over: it’s OK – I can stay, for a fee.
The rain is getting me down. In the four days since I left east London it has rained every day, sometimes pelting, sometimes seeping, always enough for me to become utterly saturated standing on the tiller deck. It is not at all what I had hoped for my summer cruise. Boating, it seems, is not all gin and tonics. For a sweet moment, the downpour subsides and a break in the clouds allows the evening sun to pour unrestrained onto the water and rebound in blinding reflections. A full rainbow arcs over the water, emboldened by the solid grey clouds. I leave the boat and stand on the waterlogged banks, the air still, the sun dazzling, as the perfect curve of the rainbow splashes the sky above my boat.
I am at the beginning of a two-week, 180-mile journey to a new life in Bristol. Since I moved aboard three years ago, it’s been at the back of my mind to travel somewhere beyond the River Lea, my favoured cruising ground where I constantly shuttle between London and Hertfordshire. That’s what boats are for, after all; it would be a shame not to take advantage of the fact that I can move home without actually moving home. Bristol seems as good a place as any: a small, environmentally aware, bikey city, with plenty for vegans and a rich history. I have a couple of friends there. And I’ve never really gone anywhere on my boat. People often buy their vessels outside London and bring them into the capital, the resulting cruise an introduction and (often literally) crash course in boat handling, the statutory adventure and accompanying tales almost a prerequisite to life afloat. I didn’t have that. I bought mine in Enfield, my first cruise being on a chilly New Year’s Day where I motored for two hours through torrential rain then ran out of diesel.
So this is my adventure, my boat move that never was. I’ve been looking forward to it for six months, imagining the beauty of the canal, the long, hot summer and the inevitable tan. But now, after four stressful days of cruising, all I want to do is turn around and go back. The Thames is a struggle, an unfamiliar waterway on which I feel entirely overwhelmed. I have forgotten the promise of a new life in Bristol. All I can think about as I negotiate these waters beneath the overbearing skies is what I have left behind. I mourn my job, my friends, a city I know and love, my darling sister and my boyfriend. Most people move towards something. I feel that I’m running away.
And so it is, in times of struggle, that we forget why we do these things. It would be so easy to pack it all in and turn around. Heaven knows I have thought this before, on long, solitary cycle trips, or in dark moments at sea. These hours of solitude force me to really examine my motives. Why would I yank myself up at the roots to surround myself with unease? In the past I have described myself as fiercely independent; I’ve never held down a relationship for longer than two years or a job for longer than five. Am I always destined to be dissatisfied, to be restless, to hold people at arm’s length? Is that why I’m going? The feeling of being too comfortable, that there is more to life? It’s frustrating, my inability to settle. Why can’t I be happy with what I have?
But it is these adventures, these experiences and challenges that makes up the rich tapestry of our lives. To do is always better than to not. We must take these opportunities when we can: when looking back we want to remember what we did, not regret what we might have done. Yes, I had a wonderful life in London, a rich, fulfilling life, a life that could have kept me satisfied for years to come. But truth be told, If I hadn’t set sail, I would spend the next year wishing I had.
As I continue my journey, people will tell me they admire my independence, that they envy my lifestyle, and I will usually respond benignly, with only a hint of how much I am struggling. Arriving won’t solve things. But eventually I will find a job, make new friends, and learn how to live on this unfamiliar waterway. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know what I’m looking for. Neither does it matter particularly if I find it. Simply being here will enrich my existence, embolden my character and add a few lines to my face, all of which will tell a story. And when I am satisfied with my adventure, maybe then I can go home.