The John Griff Column: When opportunity comes knocking – or ringing

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Sometimes an opportunity presents itself when you least expect it to. It might be a career thing (it happened to me when I joined the BBC), or something far more personal and immediate. What do we do under such circumstances? How good are we at recognising those opportunities and grasping them when they arise? Such was the challenge for me last week.

This weekend sees the excellent annual Crick Boat Show taking place in the county – it draws people from all over the country and beyond. Friends of ours have a boat which they keep on the River Thames, packing up a bag or two of clothes, a bag or two of supplies and their dog, and heading for the towpath at the first chance. It’s a lovely boat too. Beautifully built, she’s Dutch, steel built, a little over 40 feet long, a little over 13 feet wide – and weighs in at just over 12 tonnes. She has a low profile, so doesn’t tower above the water. Altogether she’s a lovely, craftsman-built piece of floating architecture with teak decking, a single diesel engine and all the mod-cons for a comfortable time on the water, whatever the weather.

I was at home doing some work last week when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was Ian – could I help him out with a spot of crewing? Immediately my mind raced, just as it had when, out of the blue almost 20 years previously the same thing had happened and it was Radio Northampton asking if I might be interested in taking on their afternoon show, because the regular host had decided to move to the Lake District. At the time I’d decided to play it cool and said that I would give the corporation a night’s thought and come back to them the following day. In reality (and despite the fact that at the time I was living in Surrey), I’d decided that I would take up their kind offer before the call ended. Come what may, I would make it work, because opportunity generally knocks sparingly.

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Here, the same thing happened. Of course, I’d be delighted to help – who wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to cruise the Thames for a couple of days and watch the countryside glide past at a sedate 5 knots? It took me back to a family holiday when I was living with my parents in Wootton and we and our next-door neighbours had taken a 55 foot-narrowboat from Llangollen to Chester and back. One of my most memorable holidays, I was amazed by how much there had been to see and do. I found myself captivated and have harboured (excuse the pun!) the desire to own a boat ever since. You can imagine therefore that I was a little crestfallen to find out that on the dates being proposed by Ian I was due to be doing some work. Nuts.

Journey's end and an opportunity grasped - making the most of what sometimes offers itself.Journey's end and an opportunity grasped - making the most of what sometimes offers itself.
Journey's end and an opportunity grasped - making the most of what sometimes offers itself.

Thankfully we managed to work something out where we were both available at the same time, so at 5am the following morning I found myself on the road and heading for an island in the middle of the Thames at Reading, where the boat was moored. Arriving at 6.30 we quickly got ready to leave, cast off front and back, and headed for our first destination of the day – Caversham Lock.

Our route would take us past Reading, Sonning (where the Clooneys live), Henley, Marlow, Windsor, Staines, Chertsey and on to the filmland and the Shepperton Marina, where the boat was due to be lifted out of the water and given a through service inside and out. Our journey time was estimated at a day and a half non-stop with a night moored up somewhere in the middle. On the way we were expecting quite a fast-flowing river thanks to recent rain, with a little more of the wet stuff falling for good measure. On the first point we were spot on. On the second we were completely wrong, as was the Met Office. Never mind - shorts and t-shirts were the order of the day.

Ian did the locks, whilst I did most of the driving in between. Controlling a boat doing that kind of speed isn’t hard - but you do have to anticipate where it’s going to go as you start to turn the wheel, and judge speed and distance accordingly. If you’re turning, you actually have to wind the turn off at the wheel almost as soon as the boat starts to change direction – otherwise you overshoot and it’s easy to lose control. On our journey we came across a young lady who had that day picked up what she anticipated as being her future live aboard accommodation in Central London. Completely unprepared for life on the water, she was wildly putting in vast amounts of both power and steerage and literally ricocheting from one side of the Thames to the other as she fought to maintain control. Having tied up briefly in order to get into one of the attended locks downstream of Bray, both Ian and I looked on with rising alarm as she cannoned from side to side as the river narrowed towards an approaching lock. Sure enough, she hit first one side of the lock opening and then the other, rather like a giant, aquatic arcade game. We urged her to cut the engine, throw us her lines and let us walk her boat into the lock while she stayed aboard. Ian was so concerned for her safety that he went aboard himself to give her a slightly less impactful crash course in boat handling before she continued. As with most things, slow speed and small alterations in direction yield the greatest results and before long she was a lot more competent at handling her vessel. Ian was still concerned for her wellbeing, but we spotted her the following day as we continued, so at least she made it to Day Two!

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Our own journey passed without incident – which was exactly what we both wanted. Having left the boat at Shepperton we were then driven back to Reading by Ian’s wife and I returned home, thankful to have been able to take advantage of the opportunity which came my way. In life, if you’re lucky and can be flexible, it’s possible to have your cake and maybe eat it too. Something to recognise and be grateful for when it happens.

And the best thing? In a few weeks’ time the boat will need to be brought back to Reading again. My bag is already packed and I’m waiting for the phone to ring…