That time when…. I bought a Lifeboat!
Remembering all the way back to the summer of 2014. I had just arrived back in Exeter on a night train from Penzance; before that having stowed away on the Scillonian on my great escape from the tiny Isle of Tresco (That story requires any entire blog post to itself)
I slept for 3.5 hours in my tiny room in University Halls and then went about quickly finding a job, and somewhere to live for the summer-my contract with the Halls of Residence was due to end in three weeks and there were then 11 weeks of summer before I could move into my room in the new house-share. I was to spend my summer in my University town although I had been expecting to stay in the Scilly Isles as a waitress-that didn’t work out mainly because I don’t like food and can’t carry plates, apparently.
After the first day or walking around hilly Exeter I had secured work as a housekeeper and as a lifeguard, luckily I had achieved the NPLQ-the training required to guard lives in pools-only a few months earlier. Exhausted, yet exhilarated, I went for a walk around the canal basin where I noticed an old and dirty, but huge orange lifeboat. There is something romantic about the idea of living in a boat, being able to power up the engines and sail away into the sunset really appealed; clearly someone was living on here- laundry drying outside and bicycle locked to the guardrail. I continued my walk around Exeters quay-side, stopping in small café a few hours later, where, on a cluttered noticeboard I found an A4 poster with a photograph of a certain orange small ship, at the top, in bold, read FOR SALE.
Naturally, being a poor student with nowhere to live and no money in the bank, unsupervised in a university town during the summer when there are no students, I emailed the seller asking for more information about the boat and received an immediate reply. A lovely gentleman responded immediately and wrote about ‘Charles Henry’ the ex-Selsey lifeboat, an Oakley class 48ft mahogany and aluminium boat. At the time I didn’t know what half of this meant, but now, after years of boaty-life, I realise that Charles Henry was an extraordinary vessel with a fantastic life-saving history. Over the hour that I spent exchanging emails, daydreaming about wearing a Captains hat, skippering a boat to Exmouth and across the channel, sipping hot chocolate despite being in a heat-wave mid-summer in Devon, perfectly fudgelling when I could have been finding a temporary room or extra work. High on the thought of becoming a boat owner (no idea how I rationalised this in my head) I wandered back to campus, passing the orange boat again, except this time, the young lady that had served me my hot chocolate in the café earlier was opening the hatches to the boat and lowering herself into the cabin. I waved and explained I was talking to a man about the FOR SALE poster in the café and she told me that was her partner, currently away building a yacht in Dorset. I was invited in and eagerly popped my head inside to the excruciatingly hot cabin (remember that heat wave) which had been transformed into a living space. I was transfixed- my first lifeguarding shift I spent dreaming of parading around the deck of the boat in my lifeguard uniform.
For the next few weeks I infuriated everyone I spoke to with my manic ramblings of how to acquire the boat. Somehow, with my twisted logic, I made a low offer to buy the boat that had been accepted and was now desperately trying to source the money needed to fulfil that offer. And, during this manic time I somehow also managed to juggle three jobs, three house-moves, a healthy summery social life with Exeter locals and even dates with new people who were put off because I couldn’t talk about anything other than a huge orange lifeboat! Eventually, when reality kicked in, and I finally slept more than three hours, and the manic phase was ending and I accepted defeat; there was no way I would be able to afford the boat by the end of the summer and I wrote a sorry email to the liveaboard couple that had been patiently waiting for my success. They agreed to keep in touch and asked that should my financial situation ever change and my eagerness remain to get in contact.
A dirty and tired Charles Henry in Exeter's Canal Basin
And so, like that, normality resumed, summer was over, and the long days of multiple jobs and multiple dates and multiple day-dreams were replaced with studying in the University library and settling into my new houseshare. After the craziness of the summer, I was relieved to be living a more calm life, if a little boring and for a few months I forgot about the boat, although it remained idle in the Canal Basin and occasionally I wandered past it accidentally on purpose.
By December I had become too bored at university, knowing I wasn’t doing well in most modules, and bored in my houseshare -my friends, who I adored when we didn’t live together, were slowly becoming not-my-friends in the house and when one of their partners almost hit me in a dispute about the central heating, I ran up to my room crying in a desperate search for change and by some means was reminded about Charles Henry. I opened multiple tabs on my computer, and applied to countless part time flexible jobs which I secured in less than a week. I opened my banking app on my phone and made an appointment in the branch to get a Credit Card and overdraft. I then accessed my finances and realised that if I didn’t use my student maintenance loan for rent in the house I was unhappy in, and worked enough hours in my multiple jobs I would be able to afford the boat by March. It was sorted, I emailed the boat owners to let them know the situation and we agreed to re-convene in March when they would be returning to the UK for Easter. Its safe to say I was not 100% focused on my studies during the next three months although I did not miss one lecture or seminar or deadline, my heart was just not passionate about Art History when there was a real tangible working boat in the water ready for me. In the new year I moved out of the house-share and into a building site where I was granted a free room in return for helping keep the property secure at night. I worked multiple jobs; housekeeping daily for a bachelor in central Exeter, lifeguarding at an indoor pool, presenting guided tours of the university campus to prospective students and their parents with extra enthusiasm for extra tips, selling shoes at an orthopaedic shoe shop on the high street, taking odd jobs like stuffing envelopes and delivering takeaway menus and finally selling off most of my belongings online. I felt liberated-living alone, minimalizing my life, keeping busy, just about getting by at uni and making more than enough money.
And so March arrived, I met with the boaty couple, the key (there was only one) was exchanged and I was hastily briefed on engines, radar, pump out, mooring and surveys. We shook hands and £7000 disappeared from my bank account. A big bright orange boat sat dominating the canal basin-one of the largest boats in Exeter. I spent the first day looking in nooks and crannies. I found a GO PRO Camera (broken), a bow thruster I hadn’t spotted, a collection of RNLI mugs which I later gave a way to a young boy with autism and a fascination for boats and a box of files with details of all the RNLI men that had served on the boat when it worked at Selsey- I had the records of every tiny bit of maintenance the boat had received in its 48 year old life, the details of every time the boat was launched to rescue someone or something, the names of everyone rescued including one dog and the newspaper clippings of the boat throughout history. From the reports I managed to trace the son of one of the previous owners who told me stories of holidays away on the boat, summer trips to Portugal and Cornwall and Scotland. It was a fairytale; that original romantic idea of sailing into the sunset became my life, well, sort-of. The boat didn’t move much but the sun did set infront of it- one warm days I would sunbathe on the deck or launch my kayak from it. One day I got on my paddleboard to clean the orange paint. Each week I would fill the communal bin with carpets and foam and occasionally I’d hire a van to help me take the furniture from the boat into my small storage unit. Everything was going swimmingly and I only failed one module at uni-Chinese History.
But no, the fairytale didn’t last. Being the only woman in the water posed it challenges, often I couldn’t get any work done without being pestered by a minority of men, the sort that had probably never seen a woman in their life, and passers-by would regularly stop to take photos, especially if I was working on the outside. Security was scarce and there were moments when I feared for my safety on the inside when I could hear that drunks had jumped aboard and were walking around the deck. The building site that I was living on was soon to be completed and I was having to find somewhere to live and I briefly ended up living on the boat although my carbon monoxide detector would regularly ring so I would most nights opt to sleep on the deck despite liveaboards being systematically moved on and loathed by Exeter City Council. Checking through the insurance requirements and the general maintenance needs of a boat in water, I needed to organise an out-of-water survey and a yard to do some much-need painting of the hull. If you know anything about boats, you’ll know that lifting a boat out of the water is an expensive and stressful time- Charles Henry hadn’t been out for eight years and desperately needed some TLC. But, there were issues- Exeter City Council or any nearby yard didn’t have the space to lift out such a huge and heavy ship and I didn’t have the money for a crane, let alone all the work required. Sadly, the only way I would be able to afford the work needed to rescue Charles Henry and keep her functioning and insurable, would be to sell her and she was soon gone, sold to some dodgy men from Cromer.
The entire experience started the realisation of the possibilities of a modern nomadic lifestyle. People don’t need to live in brick houses-there are small ships and narrowboats, even vans and buses! Looking back, I notice how I may have been conditioned from an early age to love the alternative lifestyles of liveaboards, mainly from childhood memories of watching Rosie and Jim, a childrens TV show about two rag dolls that live on a narrowboat named Ragdoll. Sometimes I still get upset that I didn’t have the funds to make Charles Henry work; I recently saw her up for sale near Norfolk looking tired out and still in need of some immediate care. Owning Charles Henry gave me enough boaty knowledge to land me a job at Bristol Community Ferry Boats and go on to be trusted to boat-sit at strangers narrowboats throughout the year. Going into van life, I prepared by arming myself with more knowledge and more funds- enough for budgeted work and a little extra just in case. Yes, I still make things up as I go along and have a lot more to learn but I am much better prepared to tackle unwanted attention, unfair laws, or unpaid bills.