Richard Hammond on: boating | Top Gear
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Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond on: boating

Published: 11 Dec 2014

While we're good at pretty much everything on TopGear, even we will concede that things don't generally go well for us on the water. We cope admirably with the most barren deserts, dense rainforests, empty plains and stark glaciers, but we do rather fall apart when confronted with any challenge involving boats or variations thereof. Our attempts at designing amphibious vehicles were always, until the arrival of the brilliant Hovervan, catastrophic.

It's not so much the design or engineering that stumps us - indeed, these stages have always been executed with imagination and brilliance - it's the use of them where things go a bit wonky. And even in the rare case of the successful Hovervan, it worked, yes, but Jeremy drove it straight into a tree. And then a boat. And then a man in a rowing boat. And then a bridge and another boat and a lock wall and a weir.

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And it was the same with our amphibious cars: James's sailing Herald worked but he sailed it into some weeds and sat there being useless while the boat continued to float and function perfectly. Jeremy's first attempt at an amphibious Toyota pickup worked perfectly, and indeed he would have won that challenge, only he overdid it on the final turn and rolled it. My amphibious camper van just didn't work, but that was an exception to the rule.

The thing is, there's something daunting about being on the water that causes us to fall apart. It might be connected with the fact that the world of water travel is entirely chaotic. Any numpty with a big balance can stroll into the boat shop and walk out twirling the keys to a boat as powerful as a jet airliner. There are licences, sort of, but these are mostly to do with insurance companies being a bit interested in the skills of Johnny Punter hiring a half-million-quid boat for which they are liable if Johnny Punter stuffs it into the harbour wall. And it was for this reason that me and six other stout Herefordian chaps had to spend five days on what amounted to a floating stag trip on the Solent earning our International Certificate of Competency before we could be handed the keys to the sailing boats we had hired to take our families on holiday on the coast of Croatia.

Yes, the holiday went brilliantly, thank you. We travelled as a flotilla of seven boats containing 15 adults and approximately 2,000 children, and had a jolly good time. And I got yet another insight into the chaotic nature of boating. There are no sodding lines down the road, for one thing. We set off, and people sort of vaguely keep to one side or the other as you leave a harbour. There are rules about things like this, but no one knows them or they choose to ignore them. There are rules too about overtaking - not that we did much, propelled as we were by bedsheets on sticks. But again, no one knows these rules or they choose to ignore them.

In any given area of sea, there might, on occasions, be 20 or 30 boats bobbing about with their bedsheets out, along with various pleasure cruisers, a couple of gin palaces skulking silkily about, a 300-million-tonne ferry, a handful of sombre, workmanlike fishing boats, a drunk in a rowing boat and a dick on a windsurfing thing. There are literally dozens of rules about manoeuvring in such a situation; boats should pass on this side or that; the leeward boat has right of way over another, or that might be windward; certain channels are reserved for certain craft, and every bugger has to give way to a boat moving under sail unless it's sneakily got its engine on as well and is displaying a special flag thing to indicate the fact - which he won't be because he wants everyone to think he's zizzing about only thanks to the mystical power of Mother Nature's wind.

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But none of it seems to apply. Everyone just sort of clatters about and tries, or hopes, not to bump into anyone else. Having driven cars in cities all over the world, it was a terrifying revelation to watch as the chaos churned around our little boat. I didn't watch it all, because I had my eyes shut for a lot of the time, relying on the pitch of my daughters' screams to gauge the trajectory and proximity of other craft.

Granted, there are those out there possessed of immense skill in the business of actually manoeuvring the boat. After one particularly lengthy mooring procedure, we retired, sweaty and exhausted with stress to the deck with a gin and tonic to watch as a bloke arrived in a boat twice the size of ours and simply hammered up to the dock in full reverse, stopped about an inch off the pontoon, threw a rope over the back and tied it up. Took him about 20 seconds; I've seen more fuss made about parking a Toyota Yaris outside Morrisons.

But the following morning, this guru of the seas set out into exactly the same chaos as us and simply battered about in vaguely the direction he wanted to go, giving way to no one and adding to the infernal floating bedlam that blighted my every waking hour and haunted the sleeping ones for two weeks.

In short, this is a cry for the nautical world to sort its act out. It is indeed great fun messing about on the water, but the very real and looming possibility of being mashed to a pulp by an oil tanker or cut to ribbons by a multimillion-pound propeller behind a drunken stockbroker impressing his mistress does rather take the shine off it. Look to the roads, chaps, see how we do it and learn. Over to you.

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