When Ursula Martin got cancer, her plans for an epic European adventure were put on hold – although she still walked round Wales. Now? They’re back on. And they involve a boat.
I visited my boat yesterday. That sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Just did a little bit of work on my boat. Yeah, I’m a boat owner, no big deal, just got my own private pleasure cruiser. Wait, no… come back, I’m not that kind of columnist. This won’t be a glossy humblebrag about a lifestyle you can only ever aspire to – I’m writing this in a caravan that has no electricity and a gas leak; but that’s another story.
Want to know what I did yesterday?
I scrubbed algae from the underneath of my boat, grimy water running in grey streaks down the white fibreglass.
I ran a screwdriver along the cracks and furrows, prising moss from the window frames, flaking off peeling paint, checking the depths of any damage, noting any loose screws.
I pulled out the plants growing in the gathered leaves and mulch down in the depths of the drainage holes.
I scrubbed the deck, then pulled up as much of it as I could, checking the hull was intact.
I discovered that the front window in the cabin lets in almost all the water that is poured onto it – there are small mushrooms growing on the inside sill to prove it.
I also discovered that the front connection to the trailer is unsealed and loose, the plug for the bilges is rotting and cracked and the back board that holds the engine on is coming away.
If I put this boat in the water, it would sink for at least two reasons. There may be more.
Yeah, I’ve got a boat. It’s a 300 quid boat and it lives where it belongs, in a rowdy ramshackle boatyard, quietly rotting in a Welsh estuary.
“I don’t want to just live in one small town and do one small job. I could settle down, lovely as that would be, but I’ve got unfinished business.”
So why am I telling you this? This is not a boat appreciation or a DIY website. No, the interesting story comes after the boat rebuilding. And before.
To get to my boat yesterday I hitched over the mountain that lies between my caravan and the boatyard and got picked up by a German couple. After the Brexit banter they asked me what I was planning with my boat and when I told them I was going to take it through the European river system to the Black Sea they laughed in disbelief (don’t worry, I’m used to that) and asked me why. I’m used to that too.
Well. This is what I told them.
About five years ago I was travelling around in Europe and part of that travelling was a kayak journey down the Danube: I went 2,500km from Ingolstadt to the Black Sea. I wound up living in Bulgaria for the winter and was planning to walk back to Britain the following spring, not in an epic adventure with a blog and Twitter feed kind of way, but just to travel by walking, meandering, stopping wherever I liked and probably hitching whenever I got tired.
Plans changed, though, when I returned to Britain for Christmas and found out I had cancer. Yeah, that’s right, ovarian tumour, major surgery and no more Bulgaria. I was ill for a short time and then things had changed. (This is the short version of the cancer story, the kind you breezily summarise for strangers when you’re trying to keep it light-hearted.) No more adventuring abroad: I needed a home for a while, to put down roots again.
I returned to Wales but couldn’t stay still for long. I decided to do a long walk around Wales. I could walk to my hospital checkups, raise money for charity and tell women about the symptoms of ovarian cancer. So I walked for 18 months, covered 3,700 miles, raised £12,000 for charity and now I’m finished and I’m writing a book about it.
Yep, that’s me, that’s my ridiculous story. Don’t call me crazy; it’s really annoying.
“All I need to do before I leave next June is write a book, learn how to use a boat and save several thousand pounds. Yeah, I don’t know if I can manage it either, I only know that I’m going to try.”
Thing is, I don’t want to just live in one small town and do one small job. I could settle down, lovely as that would be, but I’ve got unfinished business. Cancer interrupted me and I still want to walk across Europe. I want to travel the rivers, revisit my Danube journey but with less physical effort – hence the boat.
Do I know how to use one? No! Doesn’t matter, I can learn. I’m not sure of the right words yet. Ropes are called lines. The bit you wind ropes onto are called stanchions. The floor is called a deck. Do I drive the boat? Sail it? It’s a motorboat. Pilot it?
When I get to the Black Sea, hopefully to the Crimea, depending on the threat of my being called a spy and/or having to cross disputed territory, I will let the boat go free and walk home, via Spain.
All I need to do before I leave next June (prime Channel crossing weather) is write a book, learn how to use a boat and save several thousand pounds. Yeah, I don’t know if I can manage it either, I only know that I’m going to try.
So that’s what this article is about: the start of an adventure, how to make it actually happen. It doesn’t begin on the day I close my door for the last time, but months earlier in dreams and penny pinching; paint scraping and internet searches for European waterway regulations. I’ll write you an intermittent update about all these things, about whether my boat floats and whether I learn to drive it and all the things I need to do to get it to cross the sea; then all I need to do to is walk home again.
Actually, my adventure started years ago but the latest story about it starts here.
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A woman who walked around Wales, incorporating two hospital appointments, nine rivers, five trails, 3,700 miles, two charities. All because of one illness: ovarian cancer.