It started off such a nice day. Warm, gentle, up-river summer wind, fluffy clouds scudding across…well, you get the idea.
Pete and I loved Lerryn cream teas. Back then, before they invented cholesterol, the mark of a quality cream tea was when a great dish of butter was served together with the clotted cream and jam. We arrived, as usual by inflatable. Not our own of course, but one hired from one of the prominent Fowey ’emmet’ boat hire companies; Bert’s Boats. We were on school holidays and camping in Polruan, pretending to be adults and, since we came down to Fowey so regularly, also pretending to be locals. We thought we knew everyone of import in Fowey, and they knew us. But we weren’t locals, and where we came from they didn’t have much in the way of tides, there not actually being any sea nearby.
As soon as we left the Lerryn tea shoppe and looked at the river (or lack thereof) we knew it was going to be a close-run thing. And when a river looks like a ‘close-run thing’, you stand no chance. Still, with our sense of hope only surpassing our naivety, we dived into the inflatable and pulled the Seagull ignition rope. As ever, it started first pull and we putt-putted all the way out until we grounded … about one and a half metres from the bank, and about fifty metres from the only remaining deep channel. We raised the outboard and rowed earnestly and just about made it all the way out to the remaining channel…which, in the mean time had dried to a trickle. We were stuck, more or less in the middle of the hundred-metre wide river watching the water rapidly receding.
Luckily we had a basic knowledge of oceanography and calculated that the water would return to collect us in – well, either four hours or six..or, indeed, anything in between (I did say ‘basic knowledge’). It was 3 pm and we were on holiday. No problem. We could easily kill that time in talking; planning the rest of our holidays, what we thought of the latest C,S,N and Y album, the best beer in The Lugger (I’m not sure if we were actually even 16 years old. Ah, those halcyon days!), how, if we were going to score, it would have to be with local girls, and certainly not with emmets.
And so we sat on our individual wooden planks as the Mississippi quickly turned into what could only be described as a salt-lake bed, but with a two-metre quicksand base. Not a soul in sight on either bank and no other boats. Well, there wouldn’t be, would there? Our acute embarrassment in being such ’emmets’ remained unstated by either of us, although we were considering the consequences of such foolishness. If the boatmen thought there was any chance we had actually headed in the opposite direction and seaward, the RNLI might be involved. We listened for the sound of the double rockets. We awaited the sound of a helicopter.
It was about 5 pm when we realised what truly unmitigated embarrassment felt like. We heard a vehicle. It was a flatback car and had driven down an, as yet, unnoticed small concrete slipway on the far side of the riverbed. A guy got out. I know it sounds stupid but some ridiculous notion of rescue came into our heads. He donned waders and recovered a spade and bucket from the back. He waded out into the muddy riverbed. He dug into the pliant sand and occasionally extricated a lugworm and dropped it into his bucket. He was shortly joined by more cars on the slipway, and what were, presumably, his colleagues from some sea angling club. They too were bait-diggers. They fanned out from the slipway. We could do nothing but watch.
Incidentally, two other facts you should know about our predicament; both will come more relevant later in the tale. Firstly we were wearing only shorts and a tee shirt. Secondly, we had a tin of baked beans. Don’t ask me how this came into our possession. There must have been a little shop in Lerryn, or maybe the tea shoppe sold simple comestibles. I really don’t know, and how it was acquired isn’t central to the plot anyway.
Meanwhile, those bait collecting characters continued to fan out from the river bank and, as they did so, they progressed across the riverbed getting ever closer to our vessel. Well, I say ‘closer’ but, as stated, they were utilising this fanning arrangement, so they weren’t so much approaching us, as surrounding us,
Now comes the real dilemma. AT WHICH POINT, IF SUCH A POINT EXISTS, DO YOU BREAK INTO CONVERSATION? When you are at shouting distance perhaps? Or may be at normal conversation volume distance? How about when one or more of them are actually alongside you and scrutinizing your bilge?
And, once that decision has been taken, what do you actually say?
“Do you come here often” is just absurdly inane.
How about “The tide caught us out.” Nope; they just may have worked that one out for themselves.
“Do you see many boats stuck in the middle of this creek?” Hell no! That would really make us sound like imbecilic emmets.
I opted for a, ‘Hi.’ It was meant to come out all cool and laid-back like sixteen-year-olds think is appropriate, It came out sounding like a cross between Frank Spencer and Kenneth Williams. Attempting to communicate was an error of judgement.They had totally ignored us before my welcoming salutation. That, in hindsight, should have been a sign. They certainly continued to ignore us after it. By ignore, I mean, we were actually invisible. Not so much as a side-ways glance, let alone some facial expression suggesting that we were moronic idiots, which, under the circumstances, would have been both appropriate and deserving. As they continued around the boat on their way to the opposite bank, digging trenches that formed ephemeral patterned channels in the mud bed, we learnt another valuable lesson. No, we could not have got out of the boat and lifted it back to the bank; at least not without a military ‘Cumberland’ pontoon. We had no option but to sit it out. The bait diggers had special boots and they still sank down to waist-level. We chose to ignore their presence as they made their way back to their slipway and passed us, the unseeable emmets again.
The way the brain operates is weird. Maybe a qualified psychiatrist could explain why Pete and I felt it necessary not to talk to each other while the diggers were within hearing range. We just starred at each other; not at the baiters, not even beyond our gunnels. I’m sure our self-imposed silence did nothing to ameliorate our embarrassment.
One at a time, the cars left. We were on our own again. But we knew the tide had turned and the sea was on its way to rescue us. And just how did we know this? The wind velocity abruptly increased to about Beaufort Number 3 or 4. Not in itself a problem, but accompanying it was a significant temperature drop. It was now cold. But we were okay; we were sixteen…ish. An hour later as the sun was visibly dropping behind the curving river bank, we weren’t okay. We were really quite, quite cold.
Pete and I never argued. That’s why we would always go on holiday together. But we must have argued then. Don’t ask me what about. All I remember is him threatening to wallop me over the head with what he thought was the only weapon on board; an oar. Now if I had taken up the other oar, I’m sure nothing good would have come of the conflict. But he had forgotten the can of baked beans. And by now, and being sixteen (did I mention that?), we were hungry. We forgot our hostility and returned to the possibility that we might be able to crack the tin open with something. We tried smashing it on one of the sharper protrusions on the Seagull. We gave up on that or, indeed, any actions involving the oars for the same reason: we had no plasters or bandages on board. Those old iron rowlocks would have done the trick. Our rowlocks, of course, were cutting edge reinforced composite rubber ones
By the time we saw the tidal bore heading our way we were shivering and probably hyperthermic. Still, just as the moon is wont to obey the rules of its synodic orbit, so our path home reappeared. Driving into the wind, we arrived back at the Fowey jetty just around dusk. No welcoming party; no one to throw a foil blanket over us and give us a mug of steaming cocoa. Equally, no one to express concern as to where we had been all this time. ‘Bert the Boat’ had long since abandoned his post and returned to his cottage, oblivious to our absence. We would return in the morning to pay him his hire fees. Neither he, nor anyone else seemed at all concerned about our absence. Did they know what happened? Did they care. What about those furtive glances from the remaining Quayside traders? Were they thinking, “Bloody idiot emmets”? Nooo,. Surely that was just our frozen imagination playing tricks; clearly no one either knew or cared where we had been, or how long we were out there. Under the circumstances, best we just fade away..
We decided not to stop off for a drink but to head directly along the Esplanade back on the passenger ferry for Polruan. We would pick up some pollock and chips from the chippy there just up from the Quay, and then get back up the hill to the campsite. It was only 9pm and two hours before the last ferry. But the way we felt, we just wanted to be on the same side of the river as our sleeping bags, and as soon as possible
We walked the half mile trek from The Fowey Quay to the Polruan Ferry jetty and wandered into the blockhouse shelter while we waited for the water taxi. In there were two girls who we had noticed only the day before loitering outside The King of Prussia. Not what you might call pretty in a cute sense, yet they possessed a certain worldliness (they may have been eighteen). That free-spirited mysticism so commonly found among the daughters of boatmen (Yea, right!). But more importantly, they were definitely local, and so were, in our minds,highly eligible. Pete and I had well-practised chat-up lines just for such occasions as these. We looked at each other; the signal to start. One of the girls beat us to our routine and cut us dead with five short words “You got back OK then”.
We both just about managed a one word response: “Yep”