What did you think of the idea of using boats instead of cars for this special?
Part of me has always fancied a little boat but I haven’t got any experience in boats worth talking about. So I thought it would be fun to learn about them and I knew the scenery would be very beautiful. I thought it would be very tranquil and like a lovely boating holiday but it didn’t work out like that at all. It was utter misery.
Talk us through the boat choices…
Jeremy spent a huge amount of money rebuilding a replica for the PBR from the Vietnam War, which is partly because he’s a bit obsessed with wars, and he thinks he was in the Vietnam War. Hammond likes a bit of flash, being from Birmingham, and he doesn’t know much about boats, so he bought a speedboat with some sparkly writing on the side. Which, of course, Jeremy and I went and changed in the middle of the night because that’s the tradition. And I thought it would be a river trip so I thought I’d get something elegant, and a low-cost option. My boat was the cheapest by a long way, and there was a reason for that: it was shit. It was very slow. When the water was calm it would do about 11 knots. Once it got choppy I was doing a slow jog at best. There was one day it took me ten hours just to get across one stretch of water. I was wrecked by the end of it.
What was it like when the three of you met up again, having had a bit of a break from filming for a few weeks?
When we met up at the start, we had half a day or so free and we were just sitting around and going, ‘Well this is odd, it’s exactly as it’s always been but it’s been four months’. I hadn’t even seen Jeremy – I was off filming in Japan and he was off on holiday somewhere. But the memory of him came flooding back with horror as soon as I saw him again.
How do you think the viewers will react to the use of boats in this special?
We’ve taken leaps of faith before in terms of location but apart from one special on mopeds, we’ve never really strayed away from cars. We’ve certainly never strayed away from roads. But it’s still a slightly implausible challenge with a twist and the odds are still against us. It’s just a different form of transport. And in fact, it’s not often that we get three cars that are as different from each other as those boats were. All The Grand Tour elements are in place, it’s just boats rather than cars. For quite a long time we’ve strayed away from being strictly a car show anyway. We’re sort of a sitcom / circus / observation about modern life, using cars as medium.
Why was the journey so difficult?
Well, our boats were absolutely unsuited to the water, and on top of that there wasn’t enough water. Tonlé Sap Lake was a fraction of the size it should have been. The water hadn’t come. It really was shallow. My boat had a draught of two and a half feet, which isn’t a lot, and I thought that would be good in case we had to go into a little shallow bay. But in fact it wasn’t enough to get across one of the biggest lakes in Cambodia. We kept getting stuck, and getting stuff trapped in the props. The programme would run for days if we showed every single occasion we had to get out and untangle the prop. You get these bits of stray fishing net and as soon as they go in the propellor you’ve got this appalling bird’s nest of tangled net and you have to pull it out by feel alone because the water is completely opaque. I did have a snorkel mask but it was completely pointless because you couldn’t see a thing. The bottom of the lake is about two feet of really soft silty mud which means when you get out of the boat, the water comes up to what I will politely call the pelvis. I lost several pairs of shoes getting out of the water. Then there was the sea crossing…
What was that like?
I never think I’m going to die or anything like that but I did think, ‘I’m in a boat made to go up and down the River Thames, built in the 1930s, which has the wrong keel, it might snap in half, the engine is too slow to do the trip and you can’t strap yourself in’. It was all a bit alarming. I just had to concentrate on not falling off my boat. Rather alarmingly, we learned that the ferry that crosses the sea we were on was canceled because the water was too rough. And that was a big cross-channel ferry. And there we were in our pleasure craft. I’m sure we could have been rescued in theory but the problem was, everyone was having a bad time. The camera crews were being chucked around so much that they were in a bit of trouble too and even if I tried to get off my boat and into theirs, I don’t know how I would have done it.
Richard looked like he was having a very bad time of it.
It takes quite a bit to faze Hammond because he’s the rufty-tufty one.
How did you feel?
I was very wobbly when I got off. I was knackered and slightly shocked at what an idiotic thing I’d done. It was only right at the end that I knew for sure that the others were actually okay.
What was your favourite thing about Cambodia and Vietnam?
It’s a very hospitable, upbeat part of the world. In that kind of country they end up helping each other out. Especially on the water which is so important to them for their lives and their livelihoods. If you’re a foreigner and you’re being an idiot in a 1939 boat, they’ll think, ‘Yes but he’s in trouble so we’ll still get stuck in and help him’. I got a bit of net caught in the prop quite badly and a local fisherman had the same problem so I went to help him and then he came to help me. I went around one side and he went around the other and we reached underneath and found each other’s hands and it was all very sweet. After an hour or two we eventually got both our boats free. The language barrier was complete and utter, but I had this moment of fantastic camaraderie with another man in peril on the sea. I loved it. He is my brother forever now.
They were very patient with you when you all crashed your boats into their floating market, too.
Well, maybe they’ve seen The Grand Tour before. The floating market is quite a tricky thing to negotiate. It’s constantly moving. I assume in Cambodia that what you have for supper is what was on the boat when you managed to stop alongside it, so it might be a pineapple or it might be a goat’s head. You can’t browse; it’s too difficult. I was just pretending I wanted the things I was buying but let’s be honest, I bought the things that were within reach.
Are you looking forward to going to Madagascar next?
I always look forward to these things. I’ve never been to Madagascar but it sounds interesting. I’m wise enough now to know that whatever it is they’ve set up for us to do, it’s not going to be ‘nice’. Hundreds of years ago on Top Gear, the first special we ever did was to Botswana, and in some ways it’s still our favourite thing we’ve ever done because it was basically a holiday. We accidentally filmed ourselves on holiday. Nothing was particularly difficult: it was just interesting and scenic. But the producers obviously thought, ‘We’re not letting them get away with that again’ so ever since then it’s been fairly unpleasant in some way. So that’s what I’m braced for.
The Grand Tour presents: Seamen will be available on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 13th December 2019.