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I Rowed The English Channel In A Bathtub

10/09/2017 22:30 | Updated 13 September 2017
Tim Fitzhigham

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Imagine if you will, I'm out rowing in the middle of the English Channel. It's a lovely stretch of water. It's very difficult to row, however, and I'm rowing quite quickly, really, really quite quickly. Fast.

It's the fastest I've ever rowed in my life. It's so fast that my lungs are beginning to die. And the reason for this incredible burst of speed - some would say legendary burst of speed - is that just behind me, bearing down on me, is an oil tanker.

It's five hundred metres long, and it is bearing down on me with incredible speed, which is why I am rowing faster than anyone has ever rowed in their life. I am desperately trying to get out of the way of that massive oil tanker.

Did I mention, by the way, that I am sitting rowing in a bathtub?

It's in moments like this that you question how these things happened. It started in a bathtub very like the one that I was rowing in, about eight months beforehand. I was lying in the bath, and I had this idea. I was thinking to myself, I wonder if anyone has ever rowed the English channel in a bathtub? And then I started looking it up, and the more I looked it up, the more it looked like no one had ever rowed the English Channel in a bathtub.

I thought, Someone should row the English Channel in a bathtub. And then the more I thought about that, the more I thought, You know what? The person that should row the English Channel in a bathtub, that should be me.

I said this to some friends of mine. I said, "I'm going to row the English Channel in a bathtub."

And they said, "Good luck with that."

So I started to go into the preparations for this. Now the key preparation was... get a bathtub. So I phoned hundreds and hundreds of bathtub companies, and nobody would get involved in what I thought was an incredible project, until finally one of them wrote back. I got my bathroom company. And not just any bathroom company. I got the finest bathroom company in the entire world to give me a bathtub. Yes, that's right, ladies and gentlemen, I got a bath from Thomas Crapper and Company.

english channel

A third of a ton roll-top Victorian copper bathtub. The sort of thing that you see in a museum. A fantastically beautiful piece of bathroom kit. It goes up and has a fluted roll top. It's a gorgeous Victorian artifact.

And on that beautiful artifact, I screwed two outriggers from a rowing boat that would take the center of gravity slightly further out, which would help me to spread the weight over a wider area, so hopefully I'd be more balanced, and I wouldn't sink.

A problem began to arise. The English Channel turns out to be the busiest shipping lane in the world. There are more tankers, container ships, frigates, and just general traffic going up and down that tiny stretch of water than any other stretch of water in the entire world.

Some of these tankers, as discussed, are huge. But what I didn't realise is that they also have giant stopping distances. Some of their stopping distances are twenty-five kilometres. That means that by the time they have seen you and applied the brake, they have already gone through you, and somebody is calling the undertaker.

They go north to south, these tankers and container ships and frigates. And I have to go from east to west, from England to France. So I am going to be crossing the busiest motorway in the world, at right angles to the direction of traffic, riding a concrete snail.

This is problem number one. The second problem is that half of the English Channel turns out to be owned not by Great Britain, but by the French.

Now. I wrote to the French government and said, "This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to row the English Channel in a bathtub." They were kind, and they were generous, and they were helpful. They sent me tons of stuff to read, and it was like years and years of stereotypes of the French not being helpful to the British were just blown away. And all the time they were going into the French parliament, and passing a new clause in the shipping act of France, making it illegal to row a bathtub in French water. And that, in the context of my plan, was a bit of a blow.

Now I thought to myself, This must be an initiative test, right? So I went to the Ministry of Transport, in Whitehall, and I said, "Now, this is what we're going to do, gentlemen. We are going to register my bath as a British ship."

And to my shock, horror, and amazement, they said, "Yeah, fair enough, Tim, that's a good plan, yeah, yeah."

They put me on the captains' register. They gave me a small ships' registration certificate. They sent me a letter that genuinely said: "Dear Mr FitzHigham, Please find enclosed the paperwork for your newly registered British shipping vessel [bathtub]. Please keep it with you at all times and in all places, even on the high seas. To assist you in this aim, please find enclosed, we've had it laminated. We think the French are going to want to see this."

I don't think I have ever been prouder to be British than when I looked down and saw in my hand laminated paperwork.

There was another problem that I became aware of, and that is: I couldn't row. I also knew nothing about the sea. Nothing at all. Never been on it.

So I phoned loads of people to try to get someone to talk to me about the sea. I tried all the various organisations I could think of. Nobody had time to talk to me. I tried the Coast Guard. They seemed to be busy.

In the end, I did what anyone would do in this situation. In total desperation, I phoned the Royal Navy, and by mistake, at the switchboard, I got put through to an admiral.

Now, the only sailor who's ever existed in my entire family is a great uncle. And he said to me, a long time ago, "Tim, if ever you're talking to a member of Her Majesty's Royal Navy, always start the conversation with the question, 'How are your futtocks, old man?'"

What the heck is a futtock? I had absolutely no idea, but I thought, Well, I'll give it a go.

So I said, "Ah, Rear Admiral, how are your futtocks, old man?"

And he replied, "At their furthest reach, dear boy. At their furthest reach."

Now I asked my great uncle about this, and he said, "Yes, Tim, that is the correct nautical response to, 'How are your futtocks, old man?'"

I said, "That's fantastic, Uncle. But what does it actually mean?"

He said, "Well, that's the thing, Tim. Nobody actually knows."

I thought there was something incredibly British about the fact we had both just had a conversation that neither of us had understood a single word of. We might as well have said, "Ah, ostrich hairy gusset strap, Rear Admiral?"

"Yes, Plantagenet blue ass cheese, dear boy."

But the both of us were just too darn British-ly polite to admit to the fact that we didn't understand.

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Now after this slightly weird beginning to the conversation, me and the Rear Admiral are getting on really rather well, and after a while I plucked up the courage to say, "You know this vessel that we're talking about taking across the busiest shipping lane in the world? You do know it's a bath?"

And then the line went dead.

And then the line crackled into life, and the voice said, "Well, same rules of navigation apply, dear boy. I'm on board."

So in one second, I suddenly had the Royal Navy backing the bath project.

Then I decided to do what any great British explorer I'd ever heard about has done in the history of Britain: I decided to write to the Queen, and tell her what I was planning to do and say, you know, "Do you mind if I have a crack at the Channel in a bathtub?" And to my shock, horror, and amazement, she wrote back.

Should we just recap on what's going on here? I've set off to row the Channel in a bath, and I now have a letter from the Queen saying, "Not only do I not mind you rowing the Channel in a bathtub, you have my heartiest support. Good luck, and let me know how you get on." So now, just to get back to where this story started, I'm in a third of a ton roll-top Victorian copper bathtub, there's a tanker bearing down on me. I'm rowing like no one's ever rowed in their entire life, desperately trying to get out of the way of this thing, because about two hours beforehand, I had taken what, as it transpired, was not a very good navigating decision. I had thought, I reckon I could probably get 'round the front of that.

So I'm rowing in front of the tanker as fast as I possibly can, and my only thought is, I'm about to die. I'm about to get killed in the English Channel in a third of a ton roll-top copper piece of Victorian bathroom equipment. And a thought popped into my head, and that thought was, quite simply - who has right of way?

Now in my bath, I had a radio, and the sailors' almanac. And so as I was frantically trying to row with one arm, I was flipping through the sailors' almanac, desperately trying to get to the page that tells you about who has right of way in the English Channel.

I finally got to it, and it says, massive big tankers (like the one about to crash into me) have to give way to sailing ships. Sailing ships have to give way to rowing ships. Rowing ships have to give way to rowing ships of restricted maneuverability - and that's got to be me in a third of a ton roll-top Victorian copper bathtub.

So I grab the radio, and radioed up to the tanker captain and said, "I am in a bath! I am in a bath! Back down! Back down! I am in a bath! Over."

There was total silence, and then the captain responded, "Do you want me to scrub your back?"

Then the weirdest thing happened...

This excerpt is cross-posted from The Moth's latest book, All These Wonders, for a special edition of HuffPost UK's Life Less Ordinary blog series. You can buy the book here and listen to Tim tell his story live here.

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you've got something extraordinary to share please email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.

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