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Just scrubbed my bottom. Well the bottom of my little sailing boat to be more precise. The fouling (marine growth comprising weeds, barnacles etc.) is fearsome in these parts. A consequence of warm water combined with a great part of it trapped in an estuary and merely flooding backwards and forwards on each tide, rather than being totally ‘flushed out’ daily.
My friend John and I (I’ll call him John on these pages because that’s his name) are planning another epic voyage to the Channel Islands shortly but the weed and other stuff on the hull was slowing the boat’s progress to almost dangerously low speeds. I enquired at a couple of the local boatyards what their fee for the job would be and was astonished. Hardly surprising therefore that many of the proprietors of these facilities take six weeks holiday in the Caribbean each year. Right in the middle of the busy period!
So, John and I, not being multi-millionaires, decided to do the job ourselves. We beached the boat at half tide and set about scrubbing with a large array of brushes and scrapers. Hard work. Very, very hard work. The barnacles in particular had taken up residence in some profusion and despite a recent coat of antifouling paint. Clearly they liked it where they were and had no plans for imminent relocation. They were stubborn to say the least.
This episode reminded me though of the time many years ago when I lived in Singapore. I kept a boat in the Straits of Jahore on the north side of the island in a shabby little marina called Sambawang. Long since replaced by an industrial estate in Singapore’s inimitable style. I had asked the inscrutable Ong (I’ll call him Ong on these pages because that was his name) for a quote for slipping my boat and having his boys clean the bottom. For his price I could have bought a reasonable second car and so rejected it. Deciding to do the job myself instead.
A couple of weeks later I turned up at the harbour armed with an array of hoes, brushes and scrapers.
“Hello Ong. How are you today?” I enquired cheerfully of Ong who was sat motionless, as usual, at the end of the pier (he seldom used any of the muscles he had been equipped with) peering out to sea on his upturned orange box.
“Me well thank you. And you?” Ong responded, politely.
Courtesies over I then set about trying to determine exactly what lived in the Straits of Jahore and whether any of the occupants might have designs upon putting me on their menus should I decide to enter their home. It hadn’t escaped my notice that I never saw anyone swimming there.
“Any sharks in the Straits Ong?” I asked.
Ong chuckled. “Oh no, no shark he live here.”
“How about Conger Eel?” I continued.
“What that?” asked Ong, clearly curious.
“Oh a large fish. All neck, no body. Big mouth. Lots of teeth. To bite your head off with!” I replied. Trying my best to appear cheerful.
“Oh no. No what you call him? Conga Eel. If he did we eat him. Velly tasty I guess.”
“Any Portugese Man O’ War then?” I asked. Trying to conceal my nervous shivers as I spoke.
“No. No Portugese Man O’ War. He no allowed here.”
“Good. Thank you Ong.” I bade him farewell. Loaded my tender, complete with a case of beer, Memsahib and a large box of bar-B-cue chicken wings (in that order, I didn’t want to risk getting lunch all wet) and set off across the harbour to my boat.
Once onboard I asked Memsahib to hold the end of a stout rope whilst I tied the other end in a Bowline around my waist. Donning snorkel and mask I prepared to dive.
“Pull the rope like hell if you fell a sharp tug!” I implored. I still feared that if push came to shove she might need to pull me from the jaws of a ‘large white’ that Ong had forgotten to mention.
I spent the best part of two days scraping and scrubbing. There were things living down there and hanging onto the hull of my boat that I swear came from a different planet! I looked at them and most of them looked back at me. I didn’t like it but I was determined to continue and save a small fortune by avoiding Ong’s extortionate charges. Apart from that there were a dozen or more of my ex-Pat mates on shore all propping up the piece of corrugated iron and plywood that Ong had nailed between two palm trees and optimistically referred to as a ‘Bar’. He got a couple of his Coolie Hat clad boys to knock it up one afternoon to serve his captive clientele of yachtsmen with drinks. At prices high enough to turn you to drink. I didn’t want to be seen to give up in front of them.
I like the sea. Providing I’m on it and not in it that is. There are things that live in the sea that are best not even described let alone met in the gloom. Most it seems to me have teeth and large appetites. On this occasion though most of the creatures looked quite benign. Friendly even. When one disturbs marine growth though someone will always turn up to investigate and to take advantage. A little like the flocks of seagulls that follow freshly turned soil behind the farmer’s plough. All looking for surprised worms. Whenever I applied my hoe to the hull and began scrapping, shoals of largish Angel fish would turn up all googly-eyed and clearly hungry. They wore black and white stripes and resembled a sort of mobile marine version of a Zebra Crossing. They tickled as they scurried around my shoulders and arms as they tried to gain pole position to grab the next tasty morsel I scraped off the hull.
Finally I finished the job to a reasonable standard, so packed everything up, including Memsahib, and returned to shore and to Ong’s bar for a well deserved beer. “You’re mad!” admonished Kiwi Bruce by way of a greeting. “Didn’t you see those Zebra fish down there? One sting from the spikes on their fins and yer dead!”
I was in a slight state of shock but one tempered by the suspicion my ex-Pat mates might just be winding me up. There were a dozen or more of us habitually at Ong’s bar, all from different countries and from every corner of the globe but all with the shared complaints of Singapore’s puritanically restrictive government, the oppressive heat and humidity and Ong’s exorbitant prices. All were ‘good eggs’ though and the camaraderie and laughs we shared in those days have provided me with memories I’ll treasure to my dying breath.
“Ong, you plonker, You never told me about the soddin’ Zebra fish.” I remonstrated.
“You no ask!” said Ong.
I’ve finished scrubbing now.
For the day anyway.