You’re never too old, and it’s never too late

Mature gentleman pouts at the camera whilst standing on the side of a boat suspended above aquamarina waters. You're never too old

Would you chuck everything in, buy a boat you can’t sail, and head for the Med?

Stephen ‘Paynie’ Payne talks about how he threw caution to the wind – quite literally – by impulse-buying a boat, setting sail on a European adventure, and completely changing his life in the process. Proving you’re never too old to learn new things. Either that, or hurrah for a brilliant midlife adventure/crisis!

[All images provided by Stephen Payne]

Portrait of Stephen Payne with sea streching out behind him.

Stephen Payne

To be honest, I’m not doing well with this whole ‘silver’ thing. Not long ago, I got an email inviting me to join the AARP. For those who don’t know, that’s the American Association of Retired Persons – worst of all, I’m not even American.

And the other day, a damn teenager offered me their seat on a bus. This does not make me happy. In my mind, I’m still 38. But if I write this, I guess there’s no going back and I’ll be officially old. Excuse me while I shake my stick in the air.

My impulse purchase

In January 2020, I was relatively unhappy with UK politics. I’m not one to sit on my laurels and fret, so I bought a boat. Before I took this action, my knowledge of boating could be written on a relatively small postcard, but on 7 January 2020, I made a silly offer on a boat and, lo and behold, it was accepted.

Before I took this action, my knowledge of boating could be written on a relatively small postcard

By “boat”, I don’t mean a real boat. I mean a boat with motors. No stick. No rag. But you can’t really sail on the River Thames anyway, so it fitted my needs well. Then it occurred to me that I needed to take the boat somewhere that wasn’t England. France was only 21 miles away.

Panoramic shot of Stephen stood on his boat in Bray Marina, in the UK, before setting off to France. You're never too old

Bray Marina, UK

So, I started the process of gaining the documentation and knowledge required to exit the UK, cross the channel, and traverse France all the way to the Mediterranean. You need appropriate insurance, an International Certificate of Competence, which is attained by passing the CEVNI test (that stands for Code Europeen des Voies de Navigation Interieure, in case you’re interested). And a resounding belief that anything is possible. Simples.

So… I’m doing the impossible…

At 2:30pm on Saturday 26 June, I exited Ramsgate Marina for the last time. My adventure had officially commenced. Four hours later, I was in France. I paused in the lovely town of Calais for a few days to get my bearings, before setting off south towards Paris. On the boat.

Photo take on board boat churning up water around it.

Crossing to Calais

Stephen Payne sat at the cockpit of the boat, holding a walkie talkie

Crossing to Calais

My adventure was paused slightly in the city of St Omer because a large lock gate was being replaced, so I took the opportunity to get to know France better. I bought a bicycle and explored the local hood. A major problem with France is that the bread and baguettes are so delicious that it’s tempting to just eat them instead of actual meals. But I have almost infinite willpower and ate some other foodstuffs as well.

While I was there, I shot a music video for one of my neighbours. And that ended up paying for my entire stay and a full tank of diesel.

Boat stopped at the edge of a canal in St Omer, France

St Omer

On Thursday 19 August 2021, I arrived in Paris. My intention was to spend one week there, but it was so nice, I stayed for six weeks. My home base was the Paris Arsenal Marina, just south of the Bastille. It costs about €45 a night, but considering my location, that seemed relatively inexpensive. While I was there, I shot a music video for one of my neighbours. And that ended up paying for my entire stay and a full tank of diesel.

Before embarking on this adventure, I tuned up my filmmaking skills and created a YouTube channel. I did this because I like making little films. And I like to encourage people to do stuff out of their comfort zone. No one ever died thinking they should have been less adventurous. Well, maybe a couple of people, but they’re probably not with us anymore, and at least they died happy(ish).

Photo taken from boat cruising down French river on Stephen's trip.

Just north of Paris

The high point of Paris was a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I’ve been to Paris many times before, but never made it up there. It’s mind-blowingly beautiful.

You’ve probably heard that the French are not as friendly as they could be. Let me dispel that myth right away. The French people were amazingly friendly and helpful. I never came across one bad attitude the whole time I was there. However, the thing about journeys is you have to keep moving. By the end of September, it was time to leave my new favourite city and continue the voyage south.

Time to leave Paris…

I paused in Chartrettes in the Île-de-France region, waiting for my friend Beanie to join me, then we headed south again. You do not need two people on board to negotiate French waterways, but a second pair of hands is useful when transiting through locks. Useful, but not essential.

I became quite adept at manoeuvring through locks solo. I’d probably only negotiated four or five locks before I hit France. I scooted my way through 216 of them before I got to the Mediterranean.

Boat heads through the river in central France.

Central France

Another pause was taken in Montargis in the Centre-Val de Loire Région because of bridge maintenance. We nabbed a great mooring spot in the middle of town. Someone from the VNF, France’s navigation authority, popped by to let me know I could stay as long as I needed and they would provide free power and water. To use French waterways, you need a vignette that costs €126 per month. Total bargain.

Stephen's boat stopped in the canal in Montargis, France.


Many people have asked me how much I spent on diesel and the answer is that I really don’t know. I never kept track of it because what would be the point? It’s not like I could do it cheaper, so I saved time by not bothering to work it out. If I had to guess, I probably used less than one litre per kilometre. If there was some distance between locks, I turned off one motor. It really didn’t need much throttle to stick to the four-knot speed limit.

Finally hitting the sea down South…

Other notable stops along the way were Briare, Nevers, Chalon-sur-Saone, Lyon and Viviers. France is a wonderful country and I highly recommend it, especially by boat. Don’t worry if, like me, your initial boating skills could be written on a postcard. It’s quite easy to rent a boat and spend a week on the water learning a new skill.

It took me a year to reach salty water again. It could’ve taken less time to reach the Mediterranean, but I didn’t buy a boat to get places fast. I might be a little old, but I’m not dead yet and have more skills to learn. Maybe I’ll try BASE jumping. Maybe not.

Landscape zoomed out shot of the boat cruising down a long river.

Despite my earlier remarks, I might not actually have unlimited willpower. It might be safer to stick to boating, filmmaking, and photography…


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About Stephen Payne
Stephen J Payne was born in Torquay Devon, quite a long time ago. He got out of there fast and moved to London, becoming a photographer for the music papers and the London Evening Standard. Retaining his love of music, he directed many music videos and live concert films, eventually moving to Los Angeles in 1991. He returned to Blighty in 2018, and after drinking too much coffee, or cocktails, he bought a boat.

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