Messing about on boats is one of those innate New Zealand pastimes that come with the territory of a Kiwi upbringing. (Ironically, this upbringing included many a warning that one should never actually “mess about” on a boat. ‘Have fun in the water but do what you oughta’, right kids?)

Growing up, my dad would take my brothers and I out on our little dinghy with the outboard motor strapped to the back. Life vests on, away we’d go to Ward Island, the distinctive blot in the middle of Wellington harbour. “Dad, can we go out on the boat?” was one of the recurring pleas of my childhood.

So it felt rather apt to be out on a boat with my brother again this summer. He was visiting me from Sydney, and a friend had arranged a day out on a narrowboat in the Lee Valley. Turns out, messing about on boats is a very British thing as well. In fact, in The Wind in The Willows Rat tells Mole, “There’s nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as messing about in boats”.


The folks at Lee Valley Boat Centre must have been heartened by this notion too, because all their boats are named for Kenneth Graham’s characters. We were heading out on one Mr Otter, with picnic packed, drinks in the cooler, and a playlist all lined up and ready to go.

Our optimism about the weather was somewhat admirable, considering it was late May – and the Bank Holiday. This is the time of year when spring is dragged kicking and screaming into early summer, and in the throes of its reluctant tantrum the temperature plummeted and the skies were menacingly grey. We were all freezing; huddled on the tiny benches in the narrow cabin, which just fit us all if we hunched together, side-eyeing the coolerbox and wondering why we didn’t have the foresight to bring tea.

(Although we managed.)

Partly as an attempt to distract myself from the possible onset of hypothermia, I opted to be the first designated driver; I’d steered a narrowboat a couple of times before – years ago an old friend had bought a houseboat on a whim (as you do), and I’d offered to help him bring it down to London via the maze of canals. He’d had no idea what he was doing, I’d had no idea that he had no idea, so we’d had to ask a neighbouring boatie for a few tips and suddenly I was steering someone else’s home down a busy waterway, my heart in my mouth.

In truth, steering a narrowboat is rather easy, because nothing happens quickly. If you are going to crash, it happens in slow motion, like two snails preparing for a head-on collision. You just have to keep an eye on what’s ahead; if you see a corner in the distance you should start steering now, and the boat will chug slowly and gently in response. Patience and planning are key. Perhaps the trickiest thing to master is that if you want to veer left, you steer the tiller to the right. Get that mixed up and next thing you know, you’re taken out by a tree.

Locks, on the other hand, require a little more nous. Or, for fellow novices, a handbook. Always read the handbook when you take out a boat, it’s one of the rule of the high seas. (And the low ones as well.)
This guide from Lee Valley Boats is pretty comprehensive.

But a few important tips to get you started: always go slowly into a lock, make sure the back of your boat is a good couple of metres from the gate or you’ll get stuck on the raised cill when the water drops, and always know where your lock key is. It also helps to have a crew when you’re narrowboating. People to run ahead and check the water levels, others help loop the ropes around the bollards and people to open and close the gates. How boaters do this alone or in pairs astonishes me. But I suppose that’s the difference between us and, well, people who know what they’re doing.

After all our hard work we moored Mr Otter alongside a local pub, locked the doors and shutters and stopped for lunch. Fish and chips all round in the beer garden and thawing out in the sun which had suddenly burst forth through the dismal skies. It turned out to be a glorious afternoon.

Sunshine! That was what we were missing. Now with the sunlight sparkling on the canal, cyclists and dog-walkers drifting past along the bank, music playing on our speakers, everybody draped over bits of the boat, there was an overriding feeling that actually, this messing about on boats thing is rather glorious, isn’t it? That Rat was right – there really isn’t anything else half worth doing.