Confession: Why I put my friend’s back out for no good reason

In this month’s Confession, a basic outboard blunder puts a crewman’s back up – and out

After more than 20 years I have persuaded myself that confession is good for the soul.

My story goes back to the days of being the proud (but unfortunately, delusional) owner of a Shetland 18ft dayboat fitted with a 25hp outboard, which I’d grandly named Nimrod as a tribute to Elgar’s masterpiece, Enigma Variations.

At the time I was moored on a section of the Chesterfield Canal close to its meeting with the tidal Trent. Until the point of my tale my experience of boating had been as a frequent crew member on an 18ft sailing boat that we regularly took along the Trent and into the Humber estuary.

I had been seduced into believing I knew about boating. But ownership of a little cruiser was a whole new experience, and so I cautiously spent a few weekends quietly pootling up and down the Chesterfield canal with my long-suffering wife, while I got to know what all the flickering needles and buzzing alarms actually meant.

Then came the day of my downfall. My friend Andy had been dropping some none too subtle hints about a “trip out” in the boat. Not wanting to appear completely green I decided to make this my debut on the tidal waters.

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It was a beautiful, sunny day and having done my research with the lock-keeper I was confident nothing could go wrong. We duly loaded up the boat with fuel, food and a couple of bottles, as well as our respective wives.

The day appeared to be going well. Self, friend and wives rode upriver for about 10 miles with the incoming tide then pulled into a convenient cut to refresh ourselves with lunch and a bit of sunbathing and awaited the turn of the tide for our return.

Following the advice of my waterways mentor I calculated the time of our return to coincide with the slackening of the stream to make our entry into the lock less dramatic. Sunny days always attract a curious and sometimes critical audience for such events.

We duly set off, but half an hour later and about halfway back the engine cut out. I threw out the anchor and it quickly became apparent that the fault was a large clump of garden debris which had fouled the prop.

Fortunately an outboard lends itself to an easy fix for this kind of problem. Quickly cleared, we were ready to start up and get under way again. But would that engine cooperate? No, it would not.

We took it in turns to pull and tug at the starter cord, check everything then pull and tug again. Andy hurt his back (resulting in a week of sleeping on a board), I had a hand covered in blisters and our wives completely lost all sense of humour. Was it fuel? Had the plugs oiled up? I just didn’t know.

Just as I was bracing myself against the ultimate ignominy and hail a passing cruiser (manned by blazered, white-capped and no doubt competent crew), I spotted something that made my stomach turn.

As quietly and as unobtrusively as possible I moved the selector lever from drive into the neutral position. One more half-hearted pull on the cord and that engine burst into exuberant life.

I made appropriate exclamations of pleasure accompanied by a sickly smile and set off at best speed to try to get back before the river flow became too difficult.

The return to the mooring was a quiet affair. I couldn’t talk, the girls wouldn’t talk (well not to me, although there was a lot of mutinous muttering) and Andy was in too much pain to say anything.

Despite the strengthening current due to our later-than-planned return, entry into the haven of the lock was without incident. One hefty blunder of the day was enough. Andy never asked to come with me again.

To him I say: I probably put you off boating for life and I still haven’t got the courage to look you in the eye and own up. In the unlikely event that you ever read this, I’m truly, truly sorry about your back.

The author of every confession we print wins the original Stephen Shaw cartoon artwork (above) and an Icom IC-M23 Buoyant VHF Marine Transceiver handheld VHF radio worth £165.

For your chance to win, spill the beans on your funniest boating moments in 650 words. Email your story to:


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