Messing about on the river

English: Building a Dugout Canoe at Basecamp K...

English: Building a Dugout Canoe at Basecamp Karuskose in Soomaa National Park, Estonia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a means of transport, boats must be among the very earliest discovered by mankind. A wandering caveman probably saw something like a log drifting down a river and had a brainwave. All he had to do was climb aboard and he could float effortlessly wherever the river went. Logs are not particularly stable, so it wasn’t long before he became fed up with falling in and had the idea of hollowing out the log to make a boat.

The form factor of modern boats has not really changed that much from these early days. With the odd departure into hovercrafts and hydrofoils, pretty much every modern boat relies on Archimedes principle of displacement in order to float. There have been advances in things such as instrumentation and propulsion but the shape of modern vessels has barely changed from the prehistoric dugout canoe.

I have always been fascinated by boats and having just finished The Voyage of the Princess Matilda by Shane Spall, I find myself pleasantly reminded of the days when we had a boat. It was a small cabin cruiser which we moored down near Staines on the River Thames. It is barely a 15 minute drive between Staines and Windsor by car, but in our boat it took 4 hours. Firstly because rivers aren’t straight. Secondly, because boats aren’t quick and lastly because there are 4 locks that lie between them.

The nicest feeling in the world is waking up early and drinking a steaming hot cup of tea whilst sat in the morning chill on the back of your boat. The swans would drift silently through the mist with Windsor Castle as a backdrop.

We had our fair share of thrills and spills and how I didn’t receive a ducking is beyond me. I came very close on a couple of occasions. The first was when I leapt from a moving vessel onto a mooring pontoon. That was when I learned the valuable lesson that every action has an equal and opposite reaction and I barely managed to keep my footing.

English: Canal boat entering Lock on the Thame...

English: Canal boat entering Lock on the Thames river. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second time was in a lock. It doesn’t matter how much practise you have at going through a lock. It is still very easy to mess it up and when it goes wrong, it causes much merriment among anyone there to see it. My brother was driving, I was on the rear rope and my sister in law on the front rope. Somehow I managed to end up horizontally with my hands on the side of the lock and my feet on the boat looking down into a rapidly expanding chasm of water. Somehow I managed to crab my way to the front of the boat.

So why did I get rid of it? Boats are expensive. A friend of mine maintains that a boat is something you pour money into until it sinks. Take any product or service and insert the word “boat” and the price trebles instantly. We just weren’t getting enough use out of it to justify the expenditure.

Also – boats get filthy. If ever there was a technological advance worth making, it must be the self-cleaning boat.

Where would you like to go today?

English: Hong Kong SAR passport stamps

English: Hong Kong SAR passport stamps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I started work, I had never been up in an aeroplane (unless you count a brief flight over Dunstable downs in a glider). As kids, holidays consisted of a couple of weeks in a holiday camp or caravan park. I think the furthest we ever went was Minehead in Somerset. The entertainment was a mixture of bingo and the odd knobbly knee competition.

When my employer said that they wanted me over in Zurich for a few days, it was a cue to my fellow employees to start winding me up about how scary flying was. Although I had grown up on a diet of 1970s aircraft disaster movies, I took no notice and as the thrust of the aircraft’s engines pushed me back in my seat, an involuntary smile lit up my face. I loved the sensation of speed and the feeling of lift as the aircraft took off. The view through the window of the verdant English countryside slowly shrinking away was sublime. After hundreds of subsequent flights, the appeal has somewhat diminished.

At the time, the only people who flew were either on business or a package holiday. Air travel was expensive and usually booked through travel agents. 30 years ago, budget airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet didn’t even exist. Today, they fly the best part of 130 million customers per year on a combined fleet of over 600 aircraft. It’s fair to say that they revolutionised the way we book, pay for and undertake our international travel. They were among the first to offer direct internet booking and their variable prices per seat tended to significantly undercut the prices of the traditional operators. The other airlines eventually followed suit and air travel is probably cheaper than it has ever been, opening up ideas like commuting to another country or just nipping over to see the Geneva motor show for the day.

Cruise ships also used to be way out of reach for most travellers being solely the reserve of the rich and famous. Most cruise ships up to the 1960s were converted liners rather than purpose built. Over the past few decades, there has been an explosion in the number of companies offering cruises. Both the number and size of cruise ships have ballooned. Coupled with the cost reduction in air travel, prices have tumbled in real terms. Not only that, but today’s cruise ships have gone to great lengths to outdo each other in terms of the entertainment offered on board. On some ships you can play golf in the morning, go surfing in the afternoon and go climbing in the evening.

A NASA astronaut jokingly advertises a recover...

A NASA astronaut jokingly advertises a recovered defective satellite for sale during a space walk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the whole, people have become much more adventurous about where they go on holiday although it varies from country to country (roughly 38% of people in the USA own a passport compared with 80% in the UK).  It wasn’t so very long ago that travellers heading to Africa would probably go on a steamship and be accompanied by a big game hunter in a pith helmet. Nowadays, many people go on safari for their honeymoon.

What will tourism look like 30 years from now? There is no doubt that for many of us, spaceflight tourism will become commonplace. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture has all but sold out of the first 500 seats at $200k a throw. You can even charter a spaceship from him for a million dollars. The American government have even come up with a set of procedures for space travellers. Will I be partaking? Well, no, not at that price. Even if it was cheaper, it all sounds a little bit dangerous with roughly 1 flight in 50 resulting in fatalities.

I wonder how long it will be before we get an “Easyrocket” or “Ryanspace”