By ten o’clock, there was still no sign of Chris and Hugo. The two photographers were trading anxious glances, perhaps wondering if they were the unwitting victims of a prank by their picture desk editors: “I need you to drive to the Arse End of Nowhere and shoot a story about a couple of nutters planning to use a pedalo to go around the world. You know, one of those things they rent out for five quid an hour on the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. Come in number ten, your time is up!”
It certainly sounded like a hoax.
Just then, a flatbed lorry with orange flashing lights rumbled through the marina entrance, a creaking Land Rover lashed to the top. An equally dilapidated looking trailer bore something resembling an oversized canoe, painted white. If it weren’t for the Automobile Association stickers on the side of the cab you’d be forgiven for thinking the gypsies were in town.
The ramshackle procession ground to a halt and the driver’s side door burst open, letting a waft of smoke billow out into the crisp morning sunlight. The driver emerged looking wild-eyed and shaken, and staggered off in the direction of the public lavatories. Next came three characters stepping straight off the pages of a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic book. The leader was the spitting image of Freewheelin’ Franklin, a pirate with crooked teeth, ponytail reaching down past his backside, and a two-prong waxed goatee dangling from his chin like the whiskers on a catfish. Fat Freddy followed, freckled, with a ginger Afro. The last of them, Phineas Freakears, was tall and lithe with a large rudder for a nose, and locks of dark hair hanging around his head like lampshade tassels.
Spotting Steve and I by the water’s edge, the trio altered course in formation and floated towards us as if on a cloud. All of them were grinning like Cheshire Cats.
“Aarrr, yer mangy dogs!” roared the pirate.
“Thought you boys weren’t going to make it,” Steve replied tersely.
“’Course we’d bloody make it Smithers!” retorted Hugo. “Mainly thanks to good ol’ Eddie here and his AA card.”
The ginger Afro bobbed and grinned and strafed the air with a machine gun laugh. “Hehehehehe! Got a call from Chris just after midnight last night, asking if I’d kept up my AA membership. Next thing I knew we were all in the Toll House having a – hehehehehe! – lock-in, waiting for the recovery van to arrive.”
“Bloody lucky,” said Chris, alias Phineas, looking furtively over his shoulder to make sure the driver was out of earshot. “The AA guy twigged we didn’t have any money for fuel, but we’d sprinkled some sugar around the petrol cap. Spun him a yarn about having an argument with some skinheads in the boozer. Bastards must’ve poured sugar in the fuel tank after they got kicked out. What could he do?”
“Worked bootifully!” boomed Hugo. “Couldn’t start the motor could ‘e? He’d blow it good ‘n proper loik. Had to call for a flatbed.”
Steve was now smiling, won over by the latest ingenuity that kept the expedition moving forward on financial fumes.
An hour later, the virgin hull slipped off the back of the trailer into the reservoir. Standing waist-deep on the boat ramp, Chris wrestled the one-inch stainless steel propeller shaft through the deep-sea seal leading into the hull. He then fastened a two-bladed, fifteen-inch aluminium propeller to the end.
Steve and I climbed gingerly aboard, the hull wobbling unnervingly. A fighter-pilot-style cockpit of polycarbonate windows served as a protective shell, at the rear of which a builder’s breezeblock doubled as a seat. The propulsion system comprised the A-frame of a cannibalized bicycle flipped upside down and bolted to the keel. Both the crank arms and front sprocket remained attached. But instead of a back wheel, the chain powered an industrial gearbox turning the drive through ninety degrees. This, in turn, spun the propeller shaft.
Steering was like operating a sports kite. Two lengths of rope ran forward from the top of the rudder to a set of pulleys either side of the cabin. The pulleys turned the lines 180 degrees back to the pedaller, who pushed and pulled a pair of handles salvaged from an old angle grinder in alternate directions for port and starboard.
With the photographer from The Times perched on the roof, nervously clutching his camera, Steve lowered himself carefully onto the breezeblock, and pressed his bare feet to the pedals. There was a squeal of complaint. Then the boat moved forward, grudgingly. Only a few feet, but it moved. And we were still afloat.
The expedition now had sea legs.
 Cartoon strip hippies from San Francisco with a talent for smoking vast quantities of marijuana and defying authority.
All Rights Reserved – © 2012 Jason Lewis