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5. The sea dog

We arrived at one of our favourite moorings on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in July: a U-shaped mooring set in a natural bay on the side of the river.

The base side is a concrete quay, and the two side arms of the U are grass banks which slope down into the water.  The base side was already full with other boats as we approached that afternoon, so we swung around to one of the side arms, and drifted quietly in to the grass bank.  We knew that there were rings set into the grass – though they can’t be seen until you are standing in the grass – so we hopped off, found two convenient rings, and tied Calando up to them.  Stopped the engine, did the usual checks, and settled down to sit in the sun with some books.  We planned to stay for at least a couple of days.

Sometime later, we heard the sound of another boat engine, coming towards us.  It was unmistakably a hire boat; it was about 10 metres behind us, practically stationary, and there was a lady standing on the bow, looking anxiously towards our boat.  We heard her shout, clearly in Italian, “For God’s sake Antonio, there’s a boat in front of us, please, oh please don’t hit it!”

We looked at each other, and Michael, also hoping not to be hit, said “I’d better go and offer a hand.  I’m sure they want to moor behind us.”  Claudia nodded her agreement, but kept on reading.  After all, our going to offer a hand was something we often did, and usually one of us was enough.

Michael stepped onshore, and walked calmly back along the grass bank.  The hire boat was now about 3 metres out from the bank, but still comfortably behind Calando.  Michael could see that whoever was steering was coming to terms with the fact that boats don’t usually move sideways easily, but was struggling a bit with how he was going to manoeuvre closer to the shore.  The lady in the bow now had a coil of rope in one hand, the other hand clutching the rail tightly.  She was of indeterminate age, dressed for cold-weather sailing, no matter that this was mid-July.  There was a man with few hairs on his head at the stern, looking towards the shore, wondering what would happen if he failed to leap 3 metres onto the grass bank and landed instead in the water.

Michael decided to concentrate first on the lady in the bow.  He gave a small wave, and the lady kept looking towards him, but with an expression that spoke of thinking that Michael must be waving to someone else.

He waved again, and called out “Bonjour, madam!”  He was rewarded with a look of suspicion, almost of fear, as though the lady thought he must be some sort of hostile port official.

“Passez-moi la corde, je vais vous aider” shouted Michael, and the lady looked around, as if trying to find a way to retreat from a madman, or more likely that she had not understood a word of what he had said.

Michael turned back towards Claudia, who was still reading peacefully on Calando.  “This isn’t going to be easy,” he said, “ I’ll have to try in Italian.”  This had a double meaning, because there are very few Italians on the waterways in France: and the previous time we had seen some, Claudia had cheerfully called out “buon giorno” to them, only to see immediate panic stations as they gathered together their things in lightning speed and sped away from us without ever looking back!

At any rate, Michael turned back towards the lady on the bow, and called out “Passami la corda, io penso di aiutarvi”, which more or less means ‘throw me your rope so that I can help you’.  There then followed a series of shaking the head (no, no), nodding (yes, yes), and finally with courage but a look on her face of impending disaster, the lady threw her rope towards Michael.

“Keep hold of your end,” shouted Michael, “I’m going to pass this end through a ring and throw it back to you, so then you can pull yourselves in to the shore, tie up your boat, and get off.”

The lady was galvanized into action.  She caught the rope, and then had the courage to ask where she should put it.  Michael offered other brief instructions, and the hire boat moved into the bank.  The man on the stern finally stepped off, but carefully averted his glance from Michael.

Michael saw that everything was reasonably under control, so started to stroll back to Calando.  As he did so, he heard the lady calling to someone as yet unseen.

“Isabella!  Isabella!  Come out here quickly.  This is very exciting!!  I have just met ‘un vero vecchio lupo di mare’ (roughly translated, an old sea-dog).  He can talk in all sorts of languages, and he knows everything about boats, and he just showed me how to tie a knot in our rope, and he’s living on the boat close to us, and you must come and see him, and oh this will be a lovely holiday, oooh la la la la!”

Michael arrived back at Calando, where Claudia glanced up at him from her book, a sign of amusement playing around her mouth.

“Vecchio lupo di mare, eh?”, she laughed.  “You’d better be careful, you silly old bear, now those ladies will expect more from you.”

Michael basked in his new title, as well as the idea that he had a safe place to come home to.




Indeed, it was not much more than fifteen minutes later that the two ladies, now clad in shorts and other frilly summer apparel, approached us on Calando where we were again sitting reading our books.  Their gaze encompassed Claudia, but their attention was clearly directed towards Michael.

“Excuse me, signore” said the lady-from-the-bow, “but is it true that you can speak some Italian?”

“Well yes, a bit” said Michael, while Claudia made an effort to snigger into her book as if she had just read something amusing.

“Oh please, sir, do you think you could help us?” she begged, adopting the attitude of a young lady-in-distress.  “This is our first day of having rented this boat for our holiday, and this is our first stop.  But already, we cannot make any water come out of the taps, nor out of the shower.  My husband has tried to understand the problem, but he doesn’t know anything.  We should tell the hire-boat company of our problem, but we don’t speak any French.  Please, do you think you could come and look on our boat, and perhaps speak to the hire company for us?  I will be very, very grateful.”

Michael was sufficiently moved by this pleading, and his previous thoughts of having been considered a ‘lupo di mare’ to say “Yes, of course, I’ll come and have a look now.”

Claudia sighed, as if to wonder when Michael would stop and relax with her.  “Stai attento” she said, at which the lady-from-the-bow exclaimed “but Signora, you are italiana?”

“Yes” said Claudia.

“Signora, please forgive us if we borrow your husband.  He is such a kind person, but we do not wish to take him away from you.  We did not know…..”

“It’s ok, for a few minutes.”

Michael went to the hire boat.  The ladies stood attentively close to him.  The husbands now appeared, but kept their distance.  Three children were leaping around, shrieking at each other.  Michael had already figured out that either their water pump was broken, or there was a problem with the circuit breaker, so he said so, and asked where the circuit breaker panel was.  This was a silly question, because nobody had any idea, perhaps not even what it looked like.  Michael, gathering his wits, considered that probably it would not be the best idea for him to start opening all their cupboards to search for the panel.  He proposed that it would be best to look on the plan of the boat (“what’s that?”), or to telephone the hire boat base and ask them.  A mobile phone was thrust into his hand, and he remembered that they did not speak French.

He phoned, explained, and the man at the hire boat base told him what he wanted.  As he’d expected, the panel was in the bathroom, where the ladies had thoughtfully already put some of their underthings on display – they took them away with the usual playful tittering while Michael pretended not to notice, flipped a switch, and the water pump came to life.

“Oh, how clever you are to know all these things” gushed one of the ladies.  “My husband doesn’t understand anything at all.”

“Nor mine” said the other.

“Oh thank you, thank you.  How can we thank you properly …”

The men had now retreated outside with a bottle of wine, and were probably plotting how to get rid of this phenomenon who was taking all the attention of their wives.

Michael reflected that it can be quite dangerous to be seen as an old sea dog.

(c)2009 Michael Marriott