It was a sad week for river-folk as the resident seal, the one I mentioned before with the big face, was attacked by a dog near Hammersmith and had to be put down.  Friends were sending me links to articles about it in every news source (including the Daily Mail even) and according to Pat the neighbourhood forums were awash with angry people suggesting that the owner of the dog should be put down too (yikes) and that this incident was an example of how ‘dogs and cats and pollution were destroying wildlife’…(Personally, I wouldn’t bunch these three things together in my own version of the ‘what’s destroying the planet’ list, but hey maybe they know something I don’t about the workings of domestic pets that puts them on a par with pollution).

So yes, it’s terribly sad because so many of us were captivated by the seal sightings, and somehow, they made lock-down that bit more magical.  The idea that us humans slowing down the pace was allowing local animals to spread their wings (or blubber in this case) and take up more space felt comforting.  As though finally we were doing something nice for the wildlife for a change instead of constantly deafening it with our noise and scaring it with our engines and paddles.  The seal came to be a happy part of our lockdown lives because it also made us feel good about the world and the possibility that we might be able to live alongside these amazing creatures.  BUT ALAS.  This was not to be.  Poor Freddie M.  I have no idea why anyone called him that.  Having seen him up-close, he definitely bore no physical resemblance to the singer- which is probably a good thing for a seal.

Yesterday it was Captain Pat’s birthday and we set out with an ambitious morning plan- to take the kids to school by boat and have a little boat trip of our own.  We decided it was time for Fergus to get some proper sea-legs on him so he came too.  I did feel ever-so eccentric in our filthy little cabin cruiser, kids in luminous life jackets, school bags and guitar case, dog on a string (almost) as we approached the other side and attempted to moor up just by the alley that leads to the school from the river.  We attracted a fair bit of attention too, as people seemed very excited/ impressed/ bemused by the scene.  Mainly I was just concentrating on not letting anything fall overboard or the engine cutting out which would have made the whole scene a little less romantic and people would probably have begun to feel sorry for us.  Pat said, don’t worry, we have paddles but this didn’t really reassure me as I’m pretty sure I can’t paddle against the tide and hold a puppy at the same time, although of course I would do my very best if it came to it.

Anyway, the trip was a success and kids arrived squawking at everyone about how they’d arrived at school on a boat and it was all very jolly.  I bundled them off, got coffee as a treat and went back to the boat for our morning trip. It was the first of the year for me and felt so good to be on the water and heading down that lovely stretch of river which is surrounded just by parks and gardens, no buildings at all for a long while.  Fergus took to the river very well and even did some posing for me as he looked out across the water (see above).  He just needed a brass spyglass in his paw and he would have looked a right royal marine.  What I especially like about him is that he has a very serious sort of face, not a goofy face.  He looks like a no-nonsense sort of dog, one that means business and will get shit done. Definitely captain material.

Then, we were all VERY EXCITED to come across a delightfully camouflaged chunk of a seal lying resplendent on a floating thing.  Come to think of it, I’m not exactly sure what that floating thing is, a pontoon-ish surface in the middle of the river covered in twigs, buoys, slates and bird poo.  Mainly bird poo. In any case, Chunky was clearly very happy to be there and appeared to be dozing.  Here he is, pictured above looking like a velvety sausage. We did wonder if he was definitely alive but then he moved!  We think he was the second seal that was spotted a lot during lockdown, a blacker one with droopy eyes and a long wonky nose.

It occurred to me that he looked a bit like a Clanger, but not pink and without the armour.  Which then made me think how marvellous he’d look in some armour- bright gold and maybe with some tassels.  Which then made me think that if only Freddie M had had some he might have been ok.  So maybe that’s a side-project for the local angry mob?  Put their energy into something more constructive and design a fully functional seal-suit that not only looks MAJESTIC but also protects.

I’d say the seal spotting was just what we needed to soothe our spirits in the wake of Freddie M’s departure.  But, we definitely need to make sure Fergus does NOT get any ideas about taking on any wildlife himself as we wouldn’t want to lose any more seals and also because we don’t want Fergus being lynched by either Chunky or the angry mob of neighbours.  But first things first, seal armour design.


We got a puppy!  Pat has been wanting one for years and I’ve resisted as I’ve never been a dog person, mainly because I’ve never had a dog, as opposed to not liking them.  I’ve always held them a bit at arms length in that nervous way that people who aren’t familiar with dogs do.  I like them, but I’m worried they might bite my face suddenly.  Or if I stroke them that they might do something sudden and unexpected and I might lose a finger.  Thinking about it, it’s now clear to me that this is because I have had no intimate experience of dogs as pets until now. 

In Brazil as a small child dogs were ONLY guard dogs.  Growly dark shadows kept in kennels on a chain at the back of the dusty garden and let out after all the doors to the house where bolted and everyone was in the bedrooms upstairs.  Not surprising then that I’ve always seen dogs as suspicious, double agents… hmmm- you might be all cutesy and fluffy here in England BUT I’ve seen your tropical kin prowling the gardens after dark, yelping and howling, waiting for some bony intruder ankles to chomp at.  There were no doggy cuddles on the sofa in my childhood.  (In fact the only pets I’d had before this were some tortoises when I was about 4 years old.  I do remember loving those tortoises but apparently I showed it in a strange way by turning them all upside down and wandering off.  I must have thought it was funny, or maybe I just didn’t want them to escape.)

But now we have Fergus!  Fergus is a Scottish dog, which is why we called him Fergus.  He is a Border/ Lakeland Terrier cross. This meant nothing to me just months ago, and now I’m all over the dog breeds.  Pat decided to bite the bullet and get the pup around mid-December when we heard that there were some available at the bargain lockdown rate of £350,000!  Well, we thought, we’ve got nothing else to spend our money on at the moment so we might as well buy an entity, a living entity in animal-form and frankly £350,000 pounds is nothing when you consider the fact that you are acquiring an actual life.

So when lockdown was announced on whatever date that horrendous day was- Dec 31st or something- Pat announced that he would go and fetch the pup in a week or so.  This news, along with the prospect of homeschooling in the dark for probably 200 days (January is my least happy time even when there isn’t a pandemic on) prompted over 2 weeks of anxiety, dread and stomach cramps. I might sound light-hearted about it but it was genuinely frightening to me to entertain the idea of bringing a living creature into our lives in this hideously precarious time and I pretty much turned to mush.  Pat was very steely about the whole thing, determined and a bit distant which made me confused at the time.  So off he went on his Friday afternoon road-trip to the Scottish border for an overnight in a travelodge followed by another 6 hour return drive back.

For 24 hours the kids were beyond excited, leaping about the place while I drank a lot of rescue remedy (why do they make those bottles so small?)  Pat meanwhile made it to ‘Bread and Beer Cottage’ (yes!) the wild home of Fergus and his siblings, where the pups lived amongst the chickens.  The breeder turned out to be a Deerstalker and apparently these dogs are excellent hunters!  So useful that will be for us!  When the apocalypse comes we will be basically self-sufficient.  Fergus was not the pup we had baggsied but the seller had two pup sales fall through so Pat was able to take his pick of the three.  Of course he picked the one fashioned most in his own image; scrappy, orange-faced and cheerful.  (Since then, the two of them have been grooming in each other’s image, Pat’s beard is bushier and Fergus’s ears are hairier).

Fergus is shaping up to be a right little river dog.  He is hardy and friendly and curious.  Everyone who meets him is immediately charmed and he is already a local celebrity at the park where he rolls around on his back letting all the other dogs lick him.  I’m becoming all tuned in to dogs and their world and I can even put my hand right in his mouth and he has a very gentle chew on it, which is very sweet.  And when I meet new dogs now I have an air of dog-person as I confidently stroke them and ask appropriate questions about their heritage (to the owners not the dogs).  If they jump up at me, I am not phased.  

Meanwhile, it’s interesting how much chat English people have when it comes to dogs.  My mum has always complained about how nobody talks to each other ‘here’ but that’s because she’s never had a dog!  All these years and we had no idea that the gateway to community integration was just a furry-friend away.  Even though this is a lockdown (errr) it’s practically a carnival in the park on a Saturday morning, especially at the moment with all the new lockdown puppies around.  Who needs the Sambadrome when you’ve got Westerly Ware?  (sob sob…)

Anyway, Fergus is a great addition and even though I nearly divorced Pat that week, I am pleased to say I may forgive him for fetching that waggy bundle of fun just in time to distract us from the endless Covid winter days.

Not enough space

A neighbour who lives on land recently expressed her sympathy at me about how hard it must have been to be living on a boat during this COVID fun-time.  I’m not going to lie and say that COVID has been fine, it hasn’t, but this is nothing to do with being on a boat.  In fact the boat, and the water and our community are the few things that have stayed constant and made me feel grounded during this shit-show of a year. 

This neighbour hasn’t ever even been on the boat and it bugged me that she felt she should share her condolences when I had never expressed any problem with our being short of space on a boat.  I think sometimes people assume you live on a boat because you can’t do better.  She seemed so concerned she even TOUCHED my arm. In the middle of a pandemic!  Her eyes said- ‘I’m sorry for you being all squished up inside that dirty floating metal thing’.  Poor us!  With our grubby little hands and feet all covered in coal and oil and our lack of hot water to wash with and not even having a toilet and only being able to pee overboard when it’s high tide. 

Ho ho… if only! This middle-class boat life has its moments, but on the whole we are bona-fide, living-the-dream-spoilt.

Lockdown number 1 was like a cheery little dream, all impromptu canoe trips, shipwrecks, sunshine and not enough work on to keep us from exploring the river.  We set out on the big banana (our canoe) most afternoons and found secret waterways off the main river that we never even knew existed.  We saw the resident seal many times and once so close that I got a proper look at his face.  Such a big face he had- I hadn’t ever really been so close to the face of an animal that wasn’t a dog or a tortoise ever before. (I’m not a cat person).  He looked right back at me, with eyes that said – come any closer and you might regret it.  I almost shrieked with excitement.  I think I did shriek with excitement.  The seal didn’t like that and slunk away under the water, re-emerging by the shore to an expectant crowd of onlookers.  It then rolled itself out of the river, sideways, (like in action films when people jump off moving vehicles but much slower) and came to a stop, finding itself the perfect spot for basking in and being adored from. The two local seals came to be a big feature of lockdown 1 and all of us on the mooring would share seal spots and come running up onto deck whenever one was seen.

One afternoon we headed off down river and found a secret pathway which got narrower and narrower until the big yellow banana was almost grounded out and we were using our paddles to push the earth, rather than the water, away.  We got stuck a bit and had to reverse out, which  was awkward but then very excitingly, the water started jumping a lot and the canoe even started to wobble, and this time my daughter shrieked as she didn’t like it and thought it might be shark, which of course it wasn’t.  The canoe was surrounded by all these very lively big fish swimming about like crazy, crashing into each other as though they were in that ikea marketplace.  We got a good look and later identified the fish- apparently they were bream! And they were all wriggling like that because they were mating, or spawning or however it works.  We sat in our canoe for a while watching them, mesmerised, as they bumped us about in a frenzy.  Well, I did.  I think Nina was squawking a lot about wanting to go home. 

All things considered, during the first lockdown I noticed that the thing about living on a boat is that you do have less space, but you also have all the space- right there around you. And when the sun comes out the river opens out for you… all those horizons and all the light. Dammit, that’s good!

The Non-Start


We had another run-in with the RNLI who have become our personal rescue service these days.  They should re-brand with the slogan ‘Towing Seahorse Most Weeks’.  We could make them a film and everything to promote it.  Our short trip to Eel Pie Island was over before it even started as the engine failed as soon as we had untied all the ropes.  We were then left dithering sideways mid-river while the tide pushed us towards towards Kew Bridge.

I was watching Pat as it happened and he said:  ‘Why aren’t you moving faster?’ (To the accelerator stick with the bobble on top that I am a bit afraid of’).  And then he said ‘Fuck’ as the engine sort of died.  Then he stuck his head out of the window of the wheelhouse at Louis who was helping us with the journey and said ‘Fuck’ at him, as though it was a command.  Then he ordered me downstairs with the kids, to be honest I had already decided that would be the best place for us.  Sammy had no idea what was going on and was happily chewing on his bottle.  Nina said ‘Oh.  But I want to go to Eel Pie Island’. And then ‘I’m hungry’.  And finally ‘ I’m going to put my rollerskates on’.  Perfect footwear for the situation.

I do believe I kept my cool as the boat drifted.  I ran up and down the stairs a few times, looked about, told Nina to keep Sammy still and got my phone from the bedroom.  I took a picture and put it on Instagram and then I asked Pat if I should call someone meaningful.  Pat meanwhile had put the anchor down and called the coastguard saying PAM PAM Seahorse a few times.  (I love PAM PAM!  How exciting- I might start all my conversations with PAM PAM, makes everything sound more energetic. PAM PAM Simone here.)

Even though we had put the anchor down the boat was still drifting and that was alarming.  Happily, we were drifting through the central arch of the bridge which is better than into it.

SO to cut a not very exciting rest of story short, the RNLI appeared, saved the day and towed us back 10 metres to our mooring.  We nearly squashed a few rowers.  FUN TIMES.  So we were back where we first began a few hours later and a bit paler.  Pat was particularly pale and I felt a bit sad for him as he had been very excited about the little trip and the independence of it all.  Just ‘popping’ to eel pie island to have the boat re-painted.  It takes a lot to ruffle the fur on that old sea dog. Well, he’s more a barge dog really.  Yes.  Disappointing but not too disastrous.

The Big Trip


I’m sorry to say that the big trip we did in May this year to Chatham went undocumented as it was all a BIG SUCCESS and we made it there and back in one piece having had the most perfect sunshiny weather all the way through and a lot of beautiful stretches of cruising along.  We had NO fires and NO problems and we were practically in the sea. We joined as part of the DBA rally, which was funny in lots of ways.  The DBA are a bit of a prehistoric organisation and resistant to change so we were one of the few young families (apart from our neighbours who came along for the ride on our boat) to join in the trip.  A lot of the boats are newer than ours and very tidy indeed.  The demographic is mainly older retired couples doing trips around the norfolk broads.  All very n i c e.  Not hugely (erherm) diverse.

Anyway.  We had a great time and put the kids in a wash tub on the roof of the boat which Pat had used on a shoot he did for Virgin Money.. ha ha.  The wash tub contained them and also amused them.

Thinking back on this voyage it is really miraculous that it all went so smoothly and actually it was totally entirely magical.  I drove (steered, really…I was a bit scared of the accelerator stick) the last part of the journey coming in to Chatham as the sun went down.

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