On Floaters

That’s the thing about float tubes, they’ll kill you given half the chance.  I’ve had a on-off-on-again relationship with these most treacherous of watercraft for many years now and I still find myself, at best, wary of them. 

The first such device that I ever saw belonged to a friend of mine’s father. It was one of those original belly boat things. He fished in an old RAF knitted bobbly hat and when he took to the water he kinda reminded me of those Barbie Doll and crochet covers for spare bog rolls (that you probably still get north of the Boerewors Curtain). He was however very proud of it – the hat and the boat – and showed them off to everyone he could find. 

We’d be stringing rods and tying tippets and he’d be looking for hikers and birders to impress. Some poor twitcher a few hundred meters away would zero in on a bird, swing his binoculars within 60 degrees of our general direction and he’d shout at the top of his lungs “What, this thing? I had it imported.” and then describe its features and ample pocket space and a million other facts that nobody could possibly give a flying fuck about. We certainly couldn’t give a damn. When people would feel compelled out of a sense of politeness to say something in return (it’s what most people do when they’d rather tell someone to piss off) they would invariably remark that it looks rather expensive. He would just slowly raise his eyes to the heavens and murmur on about the missus finding out, dinners with the dog and nights on the sofa. I imagine that it’s the sort of look that Elton John gets when asked about his latest bespoke, hand-built Roller. A sort of ‘I’m a smug bastard, come here and slap me’ look. 

He had a ridiculously unfair advantage over us. Any angler with an unfair advantage over me I view with venemous contempt. If this advantage stems simply from his having a wallet more plump than mine I place him on my list of ‘utter bastards’. It occurs to me that I need to set the time aside to review this list – it’s getting too long to be properly manageable and I may need to employ some sort of Dewey decimal type system of organising it. I need to separate the professions (lawyers, bankers) from the blue collar guys (plumbers, motor mechanics) from the corporate types (managers, HR practitioners) from the clergy, politicians, traffic officers, teachers, bouncers and the ‘other’ anglers (bass, papgooiers) etc.  [Believe it or not, I have a publisher (just not anything to publish). She keeps telling me about ‘cultivating a core, loyal readership’. How am I doing?]

After spending too many days hauling like a mad man trying to reach a particularly productive channel while ole ‘just another 15 yards, lads, almost there’ was bobbing around in a stupid hat with a bent rod we decided that the playing fields needed to be leveled. The last straw came the day that I was in water two inches below the top of my old-school PVC waders and I stepped into a spring. I literally crawled up the bank to where I could raise my head above the water and take in deep draughts of life giving oxygen. My life flashed before my eyes and it was thoroughly disengaging. “Screw that”, I thought, I’m not going down with so little to show for it. It was a turning point and plans were hurriedly set afoot to ensure that even if my life didn’t grow more exciting at least I didn’t have to look at it. Like most things I embark on in my life I had no feckin clue how wrong I was. 

Beers were drunk, paper was scribbled on, furious argument was conducted and the construction of our own water craft was soon underway. A roll of 3mm nylon rope, duct tape, some shade cloth and a disused truck tube were procured (or, really, stolen as we put the hardware on our employer’s account). Using the tailgate of my truck as a workbench we fiddled away a Friday night until we were satisfied that we had the tools of trouty destruction to hand. On completion of the task at hand we were almost entirely not quite certain that our boats were seaworthy – but that was good enough for us. 

[If you didn’t read that last paragraph with the theme tune of of ‘The A-Team’ playing in your mind then you seriously, seriously missed out. I even threw in a superfluous and quite untrue (this is not a work of fiction) reference to duct tape. Read it again and hum the tune.] 

Armed with our floatation devices and severe hangovers (boat building is thirsty work) we found ourselves kitted up and on the bank of our favorite lake at sunrise. We wasted away a good half hour and an incredible dawn rise in a tit-for-tat game of ‘you go first / no you go first’ until I slipped on the clay bottom and landed on my arse, in my boat. What do you know? It floated. 

We spent that first day with silly, self-satisfied grins on our faces, kicking along without a trouble in the world, casting willy-nilly, hither and thither, congratulating ourselves on our ingenuity and celebrating our thriftiness. I’m not going to suggest that I’m an anal retentive ‘safety first’ kind of a guy but I will admit that you get a lot of confidence knowing that if you get into trouble you can just stand up – we never ventured out into anything over knee deep water. After lunch our bravado (read Dutch courage) grew and we made our first forays into deeper water with startling success. My boat was a winner – it listed a bit to starboard and resulted in me crossing lakes in a sort of a corkscrew pattern but I was well pleased and it was ok by me. (I considered trimming down my port flipper to balance it all out but it seemed like a lot of unnecessary effort.)

But, those who forget this are bound to end up a tear-jerking epitaph – a float tube is designed to kill you. I admit, it’s not specifically designed as a vessel of aquatic death in the way that a nuclear submarine is, but it sort of has a tendency toward demonic possession that renders it deadly to its occupant. You will not, heed my words, bob about in one of things without at some point having your life flash before your eyes at least once. 

Take ole ‘why don’t you guys buy a decent boat, one like mine, you look like clowns’ for example. He came very near to catching his well-earned karmic return on investment when a serpent crossing the lake mistook him for a piece  of dry land and hastened itself onboard. I’ve told that story before so I won’t go there again other than to say that sometimes the universe comes through in spades and that a 6 weight Fenwick hollow glass road is no match for a serpent hell-bent on taking respite on your lap.

Our own homemade craft were no less forgiving. Mine developed a slow puncture that I couldn’t find and repair. In truth, I couldn’t find it because I never bothered to look for it. I’m like that. Lazy. By the end of a day I looked a little like a taco with my almost completely deflated tube folded in half about me. I would float perilously close to breast deep and with a dimished ability to cast a fly with three square meters of vulcanized rubber pushing up under my armpit. When the fishing was good I’d give myself an extended series of ‘last casts’, sinking lower and lower in the water and never truly knowing whether any of them would, indeed, be my last cast. 

For some years I didn’t fish for trout as I went away to study, met a girl, never came back and was forced to cast heavy lines and baitfish imitations (how truly shit must it be for your entire species to be relegated into the category ‘bait’?) in coastal estuaries. On moving up to KZN I very slowly gravitated back to trouty pursuits and inevitably started scratching around for another water craft. By this time I was married and was a father to two beautiful young kids. Not being prepared to shuffle off this mortal coil and to leave them fatherless I determined that the nylon rope and truck tube was not an option.

A colleague who was more inventive than I (tighter than the Venus de Milo’s arsehole) suggested a fantastic design. I had a rubber duck maker construct me two pontoons over which I laid two aluminum tubes held rigid by a plastic chair. I threaded a tie down strap through the tubes and hey presto there it was, a kick boat. 

It looked great but the best part of this boat was that it floated high. It kept my shocking casting from slapping the water all around me and with pretty much just my ankles downwards in the water I was warm, dry and toasty. This thing was safe. Incredibly safe. If one pontoon were to burst (I love how we worry about this – why the hell would a pontoon or tube inner simply up and burst?) the other would be fine to hold onto to. Sitting so high and dry required very little by way of layers and layers of warm clothes so even if I were to fall out I wouldn’t have to worry about becoming overwhelmed and encumbered by restrictive clothing and I could swim my way to shore. I was much pleased. 

It was not long however before the seed of a particularly noxious weed blew into my carefully prepared garden of kick boat bliss. Blew. That’s the clue. When you’re sitting that high and dry and the wind came up the whole game changed. The damned thing was like one of those racing yachts with me acting as a spinnaker. Just as I’d line myself up nicely parallel with a weed channel the slightest gust of wind would spin me off axis and send me careering off across the water. 

In stronger winds I’d gaily flit across the surface like those stones that we would skim across the water as youngsters. It was totally useless. I could never settle down to fish. I’d either be kicking like a madman to hold position or be spiraling out of control like a lunatic. Slalom waterskiers didn’t traverse the water at the speeds and with the tight turns and jumps over their wakes as I did. It must have been something to behold. When the first gusts of an approaching wind struck shore bound kids would shout across the water to me, imploring me to have a go. As soon as the wind really set in not even the bravest of them would attempt a ride. 

The thing was always covered in vomit (I suffer terribly from motion sickness) and as I spiraled faster and faster yet and centrifugal forces grew I would lose various items of gear and apparatus that would be catapulted from this demonic craft to sink slowly and eternally into the green depths below. I still suffer debilitating tinnitus and occasional blackouts from the number of G’s that were forced through my poor body. Truly, this thing would not rest until it killed me.  It was like some form of aquatic Christine, the possessed car in the Stephen King novel. All I wanted was a bit of tranquility in my stressful life and the opportunity to provide an occasional home made trout patè for my wife’s book club meetings. All I got was sick and hurt. 

Don’t be stupid. Of course I tried an anchor. We’ve all heard stories about ships dragging their anchors until they wreck against the shore and this was no different. The kick boat took an enormous weight to anchor it stationary – roughly 25kg. Two trips to Highmoor and the 2.5km walk in with gear, boat, fins, lunch and an old weightlifter’s weight was enough for me and I devised another method of anchor. It’s pretty ingenious I think. I would carry up a stout canvas bag and a length of nylon rope. At the spillway to every dam there are rocks. I would simply fill the bag with rocks, tie it off with the rope! Attach it to a pontoon and I’d have an anchor. Getting it to where I wanted it wasn’t easy. Raising it when I wanted to move on was even worse. I’d tug and pull at the rope and the whole craft would lean over until a pontoon raised from the water like a ridiculous hobiecat. It was hopeless. I had visions of a really proper wind picking up, me straining against the anchor line until something gave and then being launched like the cork from a champagne bottle through the air, over the dam wall and to my death in the rocks of the old stream bed bellow. Gravity is a cruel bitch. 

That kick boat lies in my garden shed under piles of old tools and newspapers and broken gardening implements that I hold onto but will never actually ever use. I don’t miss it much. 

These days I’ve shaken off much of the yoke of cheapskatedness and I sprung for a factory built float tube. Actually, that’s a lie, I’m as tight as ever – my family bought me one for my birthday a few years back. Warm tears well up in my eyes whenever I sit on it and realize that my family do love and care for and that despite a fairly reasonable life insurance policy they’d prefer not to see me drown at the hands of a home made float tube. 

The new tube is fine. It’s pretty safe, I suppose, but compared to what I had become used to its akin to standing on terra firma. If I have one thing against it its that it sits at an uncomfortable depth. The kick boat sat high and dry and the belly boat plunged you navel deep on launching. This thing just keeps frigid water kinda lapping at the nuts. You no sooner warm up than a little wave drowns the twins. It’s not easy to concentrate with all that going on down there. You have to protect yourself from the elements despite the fact that the elements are, as I mix my metaphors, a breeze compared to falling out of a tube in waders and becoming one with the weeds that grow on the bottom of your favorite lake. 

A pair of waders can set you back around four grand these days and come with the added disadvantage of you looking like a complete twat. I don’t care that my old blue 3mm Banzai wetsuit with the pink stripe down the side isn’t chic in the modern world of designer trout apparel. It keeps ’em warm and that’s what counts. I took appalling levels of abuse over it a few weekends ago when fishing with a few lads in the Midlands. All I heard was questions along the lines of why I don’t own a pair of those new breathable waders. I have been considering it. My wetsuit isn’t keeping my balls quite as warm as I remembered it did. It was all good natured until I lay down on the bank facing them, opened my legs for a stretch and showed them my full glory through a gaping hole in the seam of my crotch. Needless to say a new pair of waders has been ordered on my behalf and for my account. I have mixed feelings about this. 

I suppose I’ve now got to paddle around like some yuppie who watched the movie in my store-bought float tube and snazzy waders. Oh, the humiliation. But that’s the thing about float tubes, they’ll kill you given half the chance.