Goodbye to all that...
27 August 2021 | or 'The Whine of the Ancient Mariner
They call it 'Swallowing the Anchor'.
"What do they call 'Swallowing the Anchor'?", I hear you cry in a 50:50 mix of inquisitiveness and frustration. "And anyway", you continue reproachfully, "What a silly name. Nobody can swallow an anchor. Even a blue whale would have trouble." (1)
Let me put you out of your misery. This colourfully surreal, if anatomically challenging, term refers to that sad point in the life cycle of the full-time liveaboard yottie when he finally accepts that the game is up. It's over.
No more relaxing drinks on the aft deck in an idyllic Turkish anchorage. No more snorkelling over Roman-era ruins, just a few metres off the boat. No more exploring Roman amphitheatres and bronze age sarcophagi. No more romantic, candle-lit meals at the waterside restaurant, watching the boat bobbing peacefully while it waits patiently for your return. No more ghosting along in light winds, the only sounds being the hiss of the water against the hull and the lapping of the tiny wavelets. No more sharing the night watch with a pod of playful dolphins cavorting and barrelling round the boat. No more early morning standing on deck with your first cup of tea, watching a huge loggerhead turtle flopping lazily round the hull.
On the plus side, no more anchor watches in crowded hurricane holes. No more wrestling with jammed sheets as a sudden squall knocks the boat on her beam ends. No more contorting yourself into a bucking locker to try to find out why you've suddenly lost steerage on a rocky lee shore. No more white-knuckle climbs up the 12-metre mast to free a jammed halyard. No more peering myopically at the radar screen when the visibility drops to five metres in the middle of a busy shipping lane. No more leaving at sparrow-fart so you can get into your next mooring before it fills up with preening Italians in minute budgie-smugglers. No more having your anchor lifted five times a day by people who really should know better. No more wriggling into a wetsuit that might, just, have fitted you twenty years ago, so that you can spend 45 minutes under 16 tonnes of violently pitching boat, surrounded by jellyfish, while you cut free the wrist-thick rope that's welded itself to your propshaft.
Nope - that's it; our yottie concedes (to himself if not to anyone else) that the great publican in the sky has called Time Gentlemen Please on his peripatetic nautical lifestyle. The proximal cause can be almost anything, among the favourites being: failing health, fading fitness, slowed reaction times, the arrival of grandkids, suddenly finding some potentially disastrous and unaffordably expensive flaw in the boat, losing your house and pension to some dodgy boiler-room scum in Nigeria or the Cayman Islands or Mrs Yottie running off with a 23-year-old Greek fisherman who knows how to make her feel like a woman (2). The distal cause, though, is almost invariably Anno Domini in some guise or other.
The term swallow the anchor has undertones of sudden, probably short-lived, finality. It implies a purposeful decision, a cogent plan, firmly carried out with regret, yes, but also with grit, determination, and honour.
Not us, though. We can't even do that right. It wasn't so much that we swallowed the anchor, more that the thing slithered across the deck and wriggled itself surreptitiously down our oesophagi while we were mentally engaged elsewhere; extracting the cat from the water, or trying to work out why the bloody fridge has stopped working again. Our change of circumstance has been inordinately drawn out, ill thought out, badly planned, woefully researched and appallingly executed.
Same as all our other important, life-changing decisions, then.
Throughout our lives, however, this arrant foolhardiness has, fortunately, been well mitigated by far more than our fair share of luck. Things always seem to work out. (3) Our move to the inland waterways was supposed to be a gentle staging post. We were still going to be full-time, water-borne nomads, just in a slightly less frightening environment.
Things started off as planned. We sold Birvidik to an upright couple who we judged could be trusted to look after her properly (4) and then drove to, and around, the Netherlands looking for our dream canal/river boat, which we found in a mere five days.
We spent our first winter in Amsterdam, and it was here that we experienced our first little nagging doubt as to whether we had researched this rather drastic move as thoroughly as it warranted. We had blithely assumed that liveaboard life on the inland waterways would, in general, follow the patterns, norms and activities of life on a sea-going boat, only with much smaller waves.
We were wrong.
Liveaboard life on the inland waterways is qualitatively different from that on the open sea. These differences are particularly pronounced in the areas of freedom of movement, overwintering and social interaction. The first of these is driven by geographical imperatives. The last mentioned is a numbers game. The middle one bridges the two.
In terms of freedom of movement, comparing the inland waterways with seagoing is like comparing the French legal system, based on the Napoleonic code, with the British one, based on precedent and Magna Carta. In Britain something is permitted unless specifically prohibited by law. In France, something is prohibited unless specifically permitted. At sea, a boat can go wherever it likes as long as the water is deep enough and the area isn't, for example, a live firing range (5). It's like driving a car on a gigantic, completely empty car park. The inland waterways are more like driving down a narrow, single track, country lane with occasional passing places.
The weather plays a starring role in the yottie's existence. The seagoing yottie is primarily concerned with wind direction and strength, and the subsequent sea state. Consequently, he always has one nervous eye on the weather. (6)
Mr Inland Yottie, on the other hand has different priorities. Wind and sea state don't usually bother him that much. He can tie up virtually anywhere, and you can't build up much of a seaway with only a ten metre fetch. No, what bothers him is rainfall or, if he paid attention in geography lessons, snowfall. Or, if he got 'A' level geography (before it metamorphised into 'O' level geography with four re-treads and a sprayjob), snowfall and melt rates in countries other than the one in question. It is mainly the winter accumulation of snow in Switzerland and Germany that that acts as the reservoir for maintaining the water levels in the French inland waterway network.
For the inland yottie, water level is all. It can vary (depending on the geographic position) from as dry as a bone to more than eight metres above standard reference height. Either way, you're stuffed. If it's too low, you ground in the channel and you're stuck there until the water rises again. This could be months. If it's too high you ground in the middle of the high street, just opposite Intermarché and blocking the entrance to the Mairie. That's assuming that you've been lucky enough not to have been rolled sideways over a weir beforehand by the 10-knot flow.
And I used to worry about the Alderney Race.
The other geographical feature that looms large in defining the differences between the two cruising styles is climate.
Seagoing yotties, as the name implies, tend to stick close to large bodies of water, or The Sea as we nautical types call it. The sea acts as a heat buffer and keeps temperatures more or less in the Goldilocks zone. The inland waterways, as their name implies are, well, inland.
As in not near the sea.
As in away from the moderating influence of large amounts of water.
As in having a continental climate.
As in blistering hot summers and (more importantly) absolutely ball-achingly cold winters, with temperatures dropping down to -20 degrees C or even lower, and snow drifts you could lose your boat in. In fact, in which you could lose the entire bloody waterway. It becomes impossible to differentiate between the canal or river and the surrounding countryside. It's very disorientating to arrive at your boat and see it poking up from the snow, in the middle of what you thought was a field. And this leads us to the numbers game.
He's a sociable cove, your average yottie, especially if it involves alcohol and especially in the winter, which is generally regarded as R&R time. The Med has a finite number of top-notch wintering holes, which therefore tend to be well patronised, frequently warranting reserving a spot up to a year in advance. As a result, most good overwintering holes have a potential winter social pool of anything up to 400 yotties. In Amsterdam there were a total of two.
You can see why. Amsterdam is a compact, lively, stimulating city. It has a first-rate public transport system, friendly, almost universally anglophone people and an endless cultural cornucopia of things to see and do. The winter weather, however, is absolutely bloody vile. The default setting is howling wind, driving rain and temperatures hovering around freezing. Rest easy, though. Amsterdam has a temperate climate. Toul, where we have wintered, is heading for fully fledged continental climate status.
Virtually no-one overwinters aboard in inland Europe. We certainly didn't. We hauled her out, winterised her and buggered off to Spain for five months, book-ended with flying visits to Portugal and Jersey. We were now only on the boat for six months out of twelve. By default, almost without noticing, we had lost our exalted status as full time, liveaboard cruisers and were now downgraded in the yottie hierarchy to part-timers.
OK - I can live with that. At least we still lived on the boat for more of the year than we did anywhere else.
Then Brexit lumbered over the horizon, closely followed by covid. Between the two of them they effectively put the kybosh on cruising in any incarnation. We haven't even seen the boat for two years now.
So, after nearly two decades of being Cock of the Walk, we're now plummeting down the yottie pecking order. At this rate, by next year we'll be on a par with vermin - just below resort speedboat hirers and fractionally above jet-skiers.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
I am Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.
(1) You're more right than you think, sunshine. A blue whale's oesophagus is a mere 10 cm in diameter. It couldn't swallow a whole grapefruit, let alone an anchor. And certainly not Jonah.
(2) This, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the fact her miserable state pension brings in more in a month than he gets from his entire yearly catch.
(3) Luck, good or bad, plays a much larger part in the affairs of men than is generally recognised. Napoleon, when selecting new generals, always opened with the question "Is he lucky?" Napoleon, obviously, knew bog-all about statistics.
(4) It is surprising how anthropomorphic the majority of yotties get about their boats. When we sold Birvidik I, it felt like a betrayal. See
(5) We have failed on both these counts
(6) This is expanded upon at: