Master and Commander, the Slim Version

The author's wife, Debbie Ikins, mooring the couple's
The author's wife, Debbie Ikins, mooring the couple's "narrowboat" in the English countryside. (By Charles Ikins)
Sunday, May 27, 2007

Charles Ikins of Alexandria is the latest contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to share the dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip can be the next guy's day-maker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report -- and become eligible to win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: Two weeks in command of aptly named "narrowboats" (6 feet 10 inches wide, 45 feet long) in the West Midlands of England, navigating some of the country's 4,000 miles of canals and rivers. By renting in the off-season (November through March), we spent $500 a week vs. $2,000.

WHEN: November 2006. Everyone told us we were crazy; they were wrong. There was only one cold and rainy day, and a hot mug of tea and cinnamon toast can make most anything bearable.

WHO WENT: Captain (nominally): me. First mate: Debbie, my wife. Our dear friend (she had to be, given the boat's width) Jackie and a Marine buddy of mine, Chris, also joined us for part of the trip.

WHY: Debbie attaining a "certain age" (hint: AARP was expressing an interest in her); the opportunity for a slow-motion (4 mph) pub crawl through the English countryside; learning something new together.

GETTING THERE WAS . . . easy. We prefer Gatwick Airport to Heathrow (less crowded). We drove two hours north to rendezvous with the Olya at Sawley Marina in Nottinghamshire, the first of our two narrowboats. (We split the two weeks between two routes, the Trent and Mersey Canal and Coventry Canal.)

IT MADE IT ALL WORTH IT WHEN . . . I cruised down the Trent and Mersey Canal, tiller in hand, the smell of Thanksgiving dinner wafting up through the hatch.

BEST LITERARY FANTASY: Driving the boat all day, then reading "Master and Commander" by Patrick O'Brian at night.

I GRITTED MY TEETH HARDEST WHEN . . . I ran the boat aground on a bank while turning it around.

PROUDEST MOMENT: When I no longer ran us aground on a bank while turning the boat around.

BEST THING ABOUT THE BOAT: The radiators, which kept us toasty all night long.

WORST THING ABOUT THE BOAT: The metal top hatch, which, when I forgot to slide it forward before exiting, nearly compressed the top of my cranium.

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