Boaty Dawn

It is 06:25 a.m. I woke, about an hour ago, with a sparrow greeting the dawn directly above my head. It sung with such clarity, in fact, that I wondered if she wasn’t inside my bedroom. Uncharacteristically, I opened my eyes a fraction more to assess the situation through the window. A beautiful river mist was rising, thick clouds on the water, swirling, floating, and evaporating. A rising sun piercingly bright at eye height on the horizon. On a boat, in a flat plain, you live at the horizon. I had two choices.

To return to bed. To climb under the covers and sink into blissful oblivion. To maximise on my Saturday morning, to gloat into it infact. Or to get up.

A close friend recently suggested to me that if I got up when I woke, the first time rather than the fifth, I might be less sleepy throughout the day. Or atleast it’s first four hours. The self-discipline this requires however, is generally too awesome for me. The self awareness, presence of mind, internal negotiation skills and counter-intuitive nature of the action are all pitted against me. The slumbering self wins every time.

Today, however, I was presented with a conundrum, a challenge even. The call of the sparrow had resulted in me becoming vertical, and with open eyes no less, far before any sense of sanity or lethargy had been given a chance to over-rule me. Next step: self-discipline.

At rare moments like this, tai chi is my salvage. (What are these moments: when I am lost for activity, when I am seeking the creation of space? Why can’t I just sit and do nothing?) Tai chi allows me to move very slowly, to not speak, to stand outside and watch the day for half an hour. Without this refuge, what would I do? Read a book? Do the washing up? Look at bills? What does one do at 6am? I have no idea. Really. Another reason I never get up: there is no reason, no motivation. (If I have to get up early, for instance to catch a plane, I only succeed begrudgingly and after a restless night.)

I munched around in my wardrobe for a while looking for suitable clothes. Flowing trousers, a top, a warmer top, thick purple socks, my new bright orange sandals. I look the part. Boat crusty doing 6am tai chi by the river as the mist swirls and sun rises into the expectant clouds above that define the approaching day. Of course, in the time it takes me to find my clothes, my shoes, my brain, and to question why exactly I am doing this, the river mist swirls upwards, the dawn glow turns into a morning sky, the day becomes already slightly less magical.

Climbing out of the hatch, the sparrow jumps from my roof, to my bike, and off. Her cheeky work is done. A spider has worked hard all night weaving a beautiful web, now glistening with dew, right across the exit from the deck. I’m sorry to break it, but what alternative is there? The spirits of sparrow and spider, a shoulder each, battle for my will. Once the sun is higher and dew evaporated, I wouldn’t even see that web. Let alone stop to consider the ethics of passing through it.

I make it onto land, the sparrow triumphant, the spider swinging. A feat indeed. Wet grass, long blades, refreshing chill in the air. Looking for a good spot, I leave the boat and walk west to an area most likely to become sunny fastest. In a field, by the river, next to the drooping willows, I begin the motions. Twenty minutes later I am warm, and awake.

I am moored by a field, grass and grains both sides of the river, by a lock, between a couple of boats, though one has gone adventuring recently, a third of the way between Cambridge and Ely. The shorter third gets you to Cambridge though it doesn’t matter really for the writing. It’s a good spot anyway. I get to see light coming through both sides of the boat, unlike in Cambridge where I was moored next to a high wall. I get to stay here with a restful conscience, unlike in Ely where I stayed for two weeks on a forty-eight hour mooring and eventually got asked to move on. I get to moor right next to an authoritative sign that definitively states NO MOORING. The only traffic noise is the commuter train to London (travelling via convenient station nearby) or freight train with squeaky wheels.

I am lucky to have found this spot, to have found my way to the landowner who considers new tenants only via personal recommendation. I am lucky to be in the loop. Now I have a place to moor while my name works it’s way up the Cambridge waiting list. I reckon it could take a year yet: the turn-over is usually faster but not many people will have signed up and paid for a mooring license if they knew they were about to move on. The introduction of licenses on the river has, I think, changed the river culture a bit. And more, it makes it nigh on impossible to join. You can only get a license if you’ve lived on a boat, on the Cam, for over a year. If you don’t have a boat, you don’t even make the waiting list. I’m on the waiting list: the first person to not get a license infact, but seventh in line to the first available license because six ‘temporary’ licenses were issued that have to find permanent homes first. So where do you go if you want to be on the list, and to live on a boat, but have no license?

Truth be told, the mooring situatiuon has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to explore my options, and the river. To use my boat as a boat, with a functioning engine, rather than a floating abode. (No offence to the wonderful Robin at At the beginning of June, I unchained myself from the Cambridge railings and drove to Ely (15 minutes by train, 2 hours by bike, 5 hours by boat). My neighbours warned me: you’ll not get your spot back, last time someone was here his place was taken while he filled up with water.

We puttered away from the big smoke.

Ely was magical. A whole gear more relaxed than Cambridge, which is already two gears down from London. People who smile at you, a chandlery which delivered new batteries and took away my old, a marina with diesel, and rivers to explore in multiple directions. Boaty heaven. Except for the 48-hour mooring rule.

All I want is somewhere to park my boat, and be able to leave it for a couple of weeks while I explore the world elsewhere. Is that asking too much? When I got the eviction notice from Ely I was positively annoyed. I don’t generally like breaking rules but I’m not allowed anywhere (within commuting distance to work) so have little choice. I felt a surge of sympathy for itinerant communities, constantly being shuffled along. And a little amused about now being a proper river gypo.

Now, in my field, I am one of the lucky ones. The ones who pay for priveleges and know the right people. It’s okay though, this boat mallarky is providing me with more than enough challenges, I’m quite happy to have , atleast for now, found a solution to one of them.