|The Oude Haven from The Helling|
I was looking at the barge on the slipway at the Oude Haven today - a big, bulky tjalk that belongs to one of our friends, Daan. He's working on the bottom this week, and the weather is not being kind to him. Luckily, he doesn't live on board this one. It's an ongoing restoration project that's a kind of hobby. He and his wife live on another, very beautiful tjalk a few kilometres east of Rotterdam along the river.
|Koos, doing Koos impressions while assisting Philip|
Watching him work put me in mind of one winter when I had the Vereeniging on the slipway, or 'on the slips' as they call it in England. Here in the Netherlands, we call it the helling. The way it works is if you are prepared to do your bottom cleaning stint in the winter months, you get quite a nice discount, so given the expense of this enterprise, it's quite an attractive proposition financially. The discount is on account of the days being shorter, colder and generally a lot more uncomfortable than they are in the summer, which of course makes it much less attractive physically. They aren't kidding!
The year in question was, I think, 2006. I seem to remember it was in February. It snowed a lot, that I do know, and Philip, the main personality in my Watery Ways book, was helping me with some welding below the water line. As a matter of fact, about the only place where we could work unimpeded was the bottom since being under the barge, we were protected from the elements, but yes - as you've already gathered - it was very cold. Philip and I communicated in a series of grunts and sign language - he from behind his welding mask and ear plugs, and me from the cocoon of scarves and hoods I wrapped myself in. We must have looked very strange, waddling around like dressed-up telly tubbies, and poking at the bottom of the barge with various implements of a fiery and tarry nature.
|On the Helling, on the Vereeniging|
|Philip working on the rudder|
What's still worse is that the hull is suddenly exposed to the elements on every side. Normally, it wallows happily in a bath of water which insulates it from extremes. In the winter, the water temperature is rarely as cold as the air temperature while in the summer, the reverse is true. Out of the water, then, with its nice protective bath gone, it is much, much colder in bad winter weather. The iron hull freezes and everything creaks and warps as the metal contracts. Or does it also expand? I know I contract in the cold, but then maybe that's me just shrivelling up! In any event, the cold gets into the fabric of the boat and changes it quite dramatically. Cupboard doors won't shut, floorboards warp, everything is out of kilter.
I guess you could say the barge itself feels like a fish out of water...
Oh and then there's the wind! This too, wraps itself around the entire hull and draughts seem to issue from gaps and cracks you never knew it had. The nights I was on the helling that winter, I slept in double layers of everything, socks and nickers included.
|View of the Vereeniging in a snow shower|
These memories often come back to me when I watch the other barges on the helling. The oddest thing of all about it is that the recollections I have are fond ones. Never did I wish I wasn't there. Never did I feel I should have chosen another life. Sometimes, yes, sometimes I wondered what on earth I was doing, but even then, I wouldn't have changed it. Sometimes, like now, I wonder why I have.