I want to take you back to a simpler, happier time. Back when the world was idyllic and orderly and every moment spent on this green and pleasant earth was a joy and delight. Basically, any time before 2020 will do but I’m specifically talking about one week in April 2019.

An unusual gig had come my way from Elaine de Man at Ukulele Adventures. Elaine and I go back to 2006 when we both appeared at the Ukulele Festival of Southern California held in Cerritos. I was there to teach and perform and to debut my new CD: By George! Elaine was there in her capacity as inventor of the Kanikapila Klip – a plastic gadget that clips onto the ukulele headstock to hold your sheet of words and chords.

Elaine’s introduction to the ukulele was by a unique route. While snorkelling with her family in Hawaii her two kids tried to pronounce the Hawaiian fish names and they all joked about how funny it would be to play the card game Go Fish using names like ‘O ‘ili ‘uwi ‘uwi or Humu humu nuku nuku apua’a instead of the normal card names.

For most people the joke would have ended there but Elaine decided to put the idea into reality and the game of Hawaiian Go Fish was born. It’s easy to say “was born” but of course the creation of even the simplest fish-based card game involves everything from consulting fish experts to getting artwork done to manufacture and marketing. She did all that and the game became a best seller in shops all over Hawaii, as well as her portal into the world of Hawaiian culture.

Elaine took up ukulele and soon found that it was frustrating to be in a Kanikapila (the Hawaiian name for a jam session) with song-sheets sliding off your knees – for want of a music stand. This led her to another eureka moment and she created the aforementioned Kanikapila Klip.

Her next major brainchild was the Wine Country Ukulele Festival held in Napa Valley’s St Helena for which she booked me in 2008. Elaine had talked several wineries into hosting the festival. These varied locations created some organizational complexities but they, along with my charming hosts Judy and John, provided a delightful backdrop to my introduction to California’s most famous wine growing region.

It takes a certain type of fearlessness to take on projects that have no roadmap, as well as endless opportunity for glitches, but Elaine has continued to organize festivals and ukulele events. One day an email popped into my inbox asking if I wanted to teach ukulele on a bicycle-boat tour of the Netherlands. I laughed when I read it through. Typical of Elaine, she comes up with an idea of something she fancies doing and, instead of simply doing it, like most of us would, she basically turns it into a week-long party that she has to organize.

It certainly sounded inviting. Travel would be aboard a luxury three-masted sailing ship: a barquentine, called the Leafde fan Fryslân. Built in 1937 the ship carried cargo on the Baltic Sea until she was converted in the 1990s to include thirteen cabins, a kitchen, restaurant, bar and hot tub. The bicycles for the twenty-plus passengers were to be kept on deck and unloaded every morning. The Leafde fan Fryslân was to chug her way along canals and rivers to the open sea while the passengers disembarked daily to pedal along polders, glide down country lanes and cycle through villages to each new port of call – all under the guidance of a multilingual tour guide. Every evening there would be ukulele time in the form of classes and play-along sessions – which was my job.

Elaine suggested a themed-songbook and, between us, we gathered songs that included:

anything Dutch (Port of Amsterdam, Tulips from Amsterdam, The Windmills of Your Mind, Tiptoe Through the Tulips…)

anything to do with cycling (Mungo Jerry’s The Pushbike Song, Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, Pedal Your Blues Away, Rawhide – aka. Saddle-sore ha ha…)

anything to do with boats/water/sailing (Somewhere Beyond the Sea, Moon River, Jamaica Farewell…)

anything to do with weather (April Showers, Blue Skies, Four Strong Winds…) The finished pdf book bulged with great songs and was emailed to all our fellow travellers.

With my travel booked and suitcase packed the day came to drive to my local airport. I say “local” but getting to Manchester airport involves driving across the Pennine hills and through one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the UK. Like anyone, I get jittery at the anticipation of travel. “Will I wake up and make all my connections etc.?” But all those worries disappeared with a last-minute email from Elaine saying that the ship was to set sail many hours before the time stated in the previous information:

Instead of leaving Sunday morning the ship was now leaving Saturday at 2:30pm sharp (to get through a swinging road bridge that had a very specific opening time.) My flight landed at 1:30pm (which, as we know, generally means 1:40) and what with deplaning, customs, getting out of the airport, finding a cab and driving across Amsterdam to the docks where I would then have to find the right ship… I realized, with a groan, that it was pretty much impossible to get there before sailing time.

A flurry of emails followed and a solution came from the bike-boat tour manager giving me an alternate location where I could meet the ship. It read:

Ship will arrive at 16.00 h at a little quay in Zijkanaal C close to the Buitenhuizer bridge in Haarlem.

Take a taxi there.

Don’t come very early, because there is nothing. It is really in the middle of nowhere.

So there it was, I had a plan B. I needed to find a little quay on a big canal in the “middle of nowhere.”

Nevertheless, as I flew across the North Sea, I still had hopes of making the earlier sailing. But what can you do when they seat you at the back of the plane and you’re one of the last to get off? Once off the plane however, I shot through the airport, careened through customs and skidded up at the taxi rank to discover I just might make it on time.

I looked at the driver; he seemed friendly. In my pocket was a nice new Dutch phrasebook but I had no desire to start flipping through its minutely printed pages and instead jabbed a finger at my home-printed map and gesticulated wildly at my watch. He got my message, that time was of the essence, and we raced across Amsterdam.

At the docks the taxi crawled along as we craned our necks to see if the ship was visible from the road. There it was! In that moment I wanted to become a black Methodist preacher and lean out of the window bellowing, “Glory be! Praise the Lord and Hallelujah!” Oh, what jubilation was in my heart. But, instead, I held onto my stoic white British reserve and tipped the driver while offering my profuse thanks. Then off I went to meet my new shipmates where a ginning Elaine shouted, “Yaaay, my last one’s here. We can go!”

The Leafde fan Fryslân motored through the centre of Amsterdam and by 16:00 we’d arrived at the little dock in Haarlem, “in the middle of nowhere,” where I would now be standing if things had not gone to plan. The quay was a barren concrete platform with nowhere to sit and no shelter for miles. From within the comfort of the beautiful old ship, and cradling a cup of tea, I looked through the window to see large globs of wet snow swirling in the wind. Yuck. It’s nice when things work out.

To be continued: Part 2 – the tour begins for real