“There’s nothing-absolutely nothing-half so much worth doing
as messing about in boats.”
Kenneth Grahame’s words from my childhood sprang into my mind as clearly as if I was sitting reading Wind in the Willows rather than watching children messing around with small wooden boats. It was an unseasonally hot spring day and I was enjoying my last lunchtime in Paris munching a baguette while sitting next to the Grand Bassin in the Jardin de Luxembourg. The murmur of lunching office workers drifted past on the breeze interrupted by the occasional shout of glee from a group of young men kicking a ball around on the terrace behind me. More interesting were the manoeuvres taking place around the pond in front of me where our future naval commanders ran while they shouted encouragement to their yachts which were skittering across the water.
Armed with just a small pole some of these children nearly fell in with their enthusiasm to push their boat off from the side and out towards the Armada assembling at the centre of the pond. This flotilla of boats, about 24 in all, sailed under different flags including the pirate flag. There were shouts of delight as they watched them sailing in a gentle breeze, lean over with the gusts and then go about. Arguments would develop when one boat rammed another, and competitions were hosted to get to the other side.
Watching these children at play reminded me of summer afternoons spent playing in the lagoon on Cylinder beach on Stradbroke Island with my son and daughter. Their source of entertainment were two wooden yachts. These gorgeous boats were handmade, with fabric sails hoisted by string and tied with small hooks. They sailed beautifully and were in constant use over the summer holidays.
On the flight home I racked my brain trying to remember where these may have been stored because they are not the sort of toy to give away even after a child has progressed to other toys. Sadly, I think they were left at the beach house when my parents sold it and I hope another child had the opportunity to sail them on the lagoon over their childhood summers.
Thirty years later my son has two little boys just entering the right age to use small boats like these so I decided I would find wooden boats for them. This is not as easy as it sounds because plastic boats are cheaper and computer toys more popular. ‘A heritage toy that is out of date,’ one store assistant told me. A phrase came to my mind, ‘Slow Toy’ which after much research, I discovered was a movement started by Thierry Bourret in 2011 to offer children toys that encouraged them to use their imagination and that stood the test of time.
After much searching online I found the maker of these wooden boats in France with a retail outlet in Lille. I almost leaped on a plane straight away but was held back by my husband who fortunately was soon spending a few days in Lille so he was tasked not to come home without two small wooden boats in his suitcase. As soon as he had finished his meetings, rather than play tourist, this wonderful man dragged his travelling companion around the streets of Lille until he found the shop and had then had the joyous task of choosing the hull and sail colours. We are now the proud owners of two little timber boats and they will never be given away. The Tirot business was started in 1946 in Brittany and is continuing to produce wooden boats that really do float and catch the wind in their sails.
I was so excited when I picked up the two beautifully wrapped packages, I kept poking the paper like a child. No way was I going to wait until Christmas to give the boys their boats. They came over the following weekend and I loved watching their faces when they unwrapped their presents. I found very old photos of their dad and his sister playing with their boats in the lagoon and together we planned a boating expedition to our local creek. Now I will have the next generation messing around with boats.
We are so lucky to have a creek at the bottom of our street which curves its way through acres of parkland and bush reserve. Although a lot of the banks are covered in weeds which local groups are trying to eradicate, there are now areas which are accessible for parents and children to paddle and play in the water. Armed with our boats, the three of us walked down to the creek looking for a sandy beach area where we could launch our vessels. It had rained recently and there was lots of water swirling across the pebbles and around the reeds growing down to the edges.
The warm afternoon air was tinged with the smell of ‘curry grass’ which grows in large clumps by the creek while above us in the trees, Lorikeets squabbled and fed on the eucalypt flowers. It was too early for most walkers and we had the creek to ourselves. Only the ducks watched as we wobbled our way over the rocks and onto a small pebbly beach beside one of the bicycle crossings. There was just sufficient breeze to send the little boats off into the centre of the creek where of course Nanna had to wade and return them. We made ports, dams and moated castles for the pirates to raid. Large juicy tadpoles were collected and let loose in the dam to be bombed very inaccurately using bright blue Quandong berries as catapults. I had two junior admirals telling their midshipman what to do. Their laughter at Nanna getting wetter by the moment was like water music.
There was so much to do, with digging and sailing, exploring and swimming. Two-year old Tommy had no fear of the water and would head out to the middle of the creek very happily falling into large holes and almost disappearing below the surface with me hot on his heels. It was then as I bent to retrieve this sodden child I noticed a long snake swimming across the creek towards us. I grabbed the struggling toddler and using as calm a voice as I could muster I asked 5-year old Harry to climb onto the bank. ‘What’s a bank, Nanna?’ he asked.
This was when I realised the snake had changed direction and was being swept towards Harry. With Tom on my hip and moving as fast as my water filled Wellingtons would allow I scooped Harry up telling him to lift his legs above the water. Both the children sensed something and were still and quiet as we watched the snake swirl past on the current and swim onto the creek bank where it slithered into the grass. The mood of the afternoon had changed dramatically and we decided we would feed the ducks instead of playing pirates. I hadn’t quite anticipated that type of excitement when I had suggested an adventure but it provided much discussion at home with Harry’s mother telling me that he kept asking about what snakes ate, where they lived and where they slept.
It was a lovely afternoon with a ‘Slow Toy’. We exercised our imagination, made up stories, created scenarios and used the sand and pebbles on the creek bank to build our castles. I cannot wait to do it again but this time Grandpa can come as Game Warden.