Messing about in boats

Railway stations and airports are all well and good but nothing really compares to arriving somewhere by boat. It’s intrinsically romantic, the slow pace of it, as the destination comes gently into view. Life might be all about the journey and not the destination but arriving by boat gives you time to get used to the idea of exactly where you’re headed. You might even be able to read a book or have a meal while you ponder it.

Who knows, maybe the enjoyment of travelling from water to land is even more significant, something hard-wired into our cells, harking back to the moment primeval fish tiptoed out of the water and evolved into new life forms some 400 million years ago.

I cherish my memories of crossing the Channel to France, either the short hop from Dover or the longer crossings to Cherbourg and Le Havre. I’ve never done it without experiencing some kind of excitement, the joy of knowing I was going to the Continent, somewhere that always filled me with hope. Taking the Eurostar train means you get stuck into your crossword in England and don’t even notice you’ve finished it in France, and where’s the romance in that?

Is there a better way to arrive in Venice? The first time I saw that city was as a thirteen year old arriving at the Riva degli Schiavoni, where all the boats tie up, on a ferry from nearby Punta Sabbioni (we were holidaying in Lido di Jesolo, everything that Venice is not). Venice revealed itself like a mirage across the water, becoming ever more incredible. Visconti’s film of ‘Death in Venice’ had already been released, and there is surely no better cinematic example of an arrival by boat. As the steamer nears the city, Aschenbach glances disdainfully at a garrulous, aged fop with a painted face, not knowing that this is an omen of what he will become. The whole film is a masterful blend of beauty and corruption, which Venice perfectly embodies.

I’ve lived in Australia’s great harbour city for over twenty years but I’ve never sailed through the Heads and into the city, although the ferry from Manly gives you a pretty good idea of how wonderful that would be – the harbour curving around until you get a full blast of the city’s holy trinity of Bridge, Opera House and Harbour. More prosaically, a few minutes from home, a sweet little passenger ferry plies an hourly route between Cronulla and Bundeena, as it has since the 1930s. It’s a great way of accessing the Royal National Park to walk in its bushland and spy whales from its clifftops. On weekday mornings, two ferries work the route from Bundeena, bringing the village kids to the local high school, which I think would be a pretty special memory to carry with you through your life.

Cronulla ferry

Last year, I did quite a lot of sea arrivals, starting with the various Cal-Mac ferries that connect the Scottish islands, including the Hebrides. Every trip was an event, especially with the jarring chorus of blaring car alarms set off as the ferry juddered over sudden waves. Even in Scottish rain, standing outside on a metal deck, it was glorious to see the islands come into focus. Announcements made in Gaelic added to the sense of remoteness, away from the mainland, and the pleasure of entering a wild and robust culture all its own. I’m not sure you’d ever get the same sense of arrival by being plonked down from an aircraft from Glasgow although I’ll admit the British Airways plane landing on the beach at Barra has more than a touch of adventure.

passing the Isle of Skye

We ended that year in boats of all kinds, most notably a cruise ship, albeit a small one. How remarkable it was to arrive in Antarctica after a day or so at sea, to hear the ice in the freezing water bump and scrape along the hull (polar-strengthened, thankfully). It was like turning up on another planet, somewhere I’d never believed I would ever visit, given that the heroic tales of Shackleton and Scott battling the elements had been a big part of my growing up. What schoolkid could forget Captain Oates as he said, with admirable understatement, that he was going outside and might be some time (Great British indoctrination starts at a young age). I’m certain our Norwegian ship’s team  relished pointing out precisely why Amundsen had pipped Scott to the Pole but it was remarkable to pass the rocky shelf at Elephant Island where Shackleton’s men survived for months while he rowed to South Georgia for help. What journeys!

Later, in South America, we took ferries across lakes and around rocky coastlines to be dropped in new environments. The sense of adventure was there the moment you walked the gangway – whether into the disappointingly windowless catamaran that speeded us across the murky River Plata from Buenos Aires to Uruguay or aboard a small passenger boat dwarfed by Andean mountains as we crossed the lakes from Argentina and into Chile.

in Patagonia

I think that any journey by boat is an occasion. You appreciate the elements in the rocking movement, in the sudden spray on your face, the wind in your hair, even when it’s only a sedate cruise around a lake. Absurd though it may sound, even boarding a punt carrying a couple of cars from one bank of a river to the other can evoke a spirit of adventure. Every journey is tinged with danger and every trip has a philosophical edge to it. You can’t arrive somewhere without a journey: discuss. Journeys across water therefore stand for so much more than simply getting from A to B, as we move with the flow of life itself.

on Lake Lucerne

Mark Twain said, ‘There is no unhappiness like the misery of sighting land again after a cheerful, careless voyage’ and maybe that’s it – the languorous quality as we submit to the voyage although with an eye to the horizon and trusting that we will, in time, arrive. As we enter a new year, I, for one, can’t wait to be welcomed on board once again.

Do you enjoy journeys over water?

Categories: memoir, Other, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I agree. the arrival in Venice never gets old…..

  2. Hello there. On a related subject: Have you read The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson? A brilliant, captivating book about water and Planet Earth.

  3. What a gorgeous post. And so true.
    It immediately made me think of Venice! Catching a Vap down the Grand Canal always remains so exciting. When I travelled in style to Venice in celebration of my 60th I treated myself and my family to water taxis – always the height of sophistication in my eyes. Arriving at the Gritti Palace in a water taxi is something I will never forget.
    I love your local ferries. How cute are they? They reminded me of the ferries that putted between the Greek islands in the 70s. They no longer exist now, having been replaced with larger much more industrial boats. But I remember sitting out on the deck, eating peaches and looking out over the fabulous colours of the Med. Could anything be better?

  4. Your mention of announcements in Gaelic reminds me of the time I caught the ferry to Sweden. There were looong announcements in Swedish then a curt message in English: “That information was for Swedish passengers only.” What did they get told that we didn’t?! I’d still like to know!
    Catching the ferry from Bergen to Newcastle was wonderful at the start for its slow glide past Norwegian houses and forests, but out on the open sea the waves were like mountains and the horizon tilted alarmingly and I spent a goodly amount of time vomiting in my cabin!
    I love the trip to Manly on the ferry. Never fails to thrill and delight.
    Lovely post.

    • I was so sad to see the Bergen to Newcastle ferry service had stopped as I’ve always wanted to do that, thinking it’d be a lovely way to travel. But now I’m not so sure. I was expecting mountainous seas going to Antarctica but it was relatively calm. Maybe my love for boat travel might waver somewhat if I’d had your experience!

  5. I am with you: nothing more joyful than arriving by water at various destinations (unless the dreaded cruise ship!). Venice to Croatia was special. May 2021 bring you many joyful travels!

    • Ha, I had similar feelings about a cruise ship. There used to be a hydrofoil service between Venice and Split which I thought would be pretty spiffy but was probably just too fast… Thanks for your good wishes and the same back to you, with all your lovely lakeside voyages on tap!

  6. Ive been to Venice a number of times (and loved it), but after departing by boat did I love it more. I know recommend that all my friends either fly into or out of Venice, if only to experience the thrill of the arrival or departure…. the train is nice, but not as remarkable!

    • I don’t think there’s a city quite like it to arrive into or depart from, in all modes of transport (even, perhaps, car, given there’s a parking station there, although I’ve never done that one).

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