The group spends two days in Oxford. J. explains that many people who go boating on the Thames start at Oxford and head downstream towards London. This is the opposite of the three men’s route, and technically much easier as the current is heading that way anyway.
The three men prefer to head away from London as it helps them to feel more at leisure (the river generally gets less urban towards its source). This also helps the men feel that they are different from other people—that they are superior and more authentic because they choose to literally go against the tide.
J. says that anyone planning on starting in Oxford should take their own boat, because the ones for hire are never in good condition and are less fashionable. Often they have names that make them sound in better condition than they are, like “The Pride of the Thames.” This was the name of the boat that J. once hired. On first seeing it, he’d thought it was some kind of Roman relic or fossilized whale. He ended up paying more in rent for the boat than if he’d wanted to buy it outright.
Boat keepers want to convince gullible customers that their boats are better than they are. The boats have the veneer of being special and well kept, a bit like some of the people on the water, but it’s only a surface impression, affected to help bring in money.
On their third day in Oxford, the weather takes a turn for the worse—there’s a steady drizzle of rain falling. J. compares the river on a sunny day to a rainy one: he thinks the sound of the rain is like a woman crying, and that the woods, “dark and silent, shrouded in their mists of vapor, stand like ghosts upon the margin.” When there’s no sun, says J., “Mother Earth looks at us with such dull, soulless eyes … She is a widow who has lost the husband she loved.”
The weather proves predictably unpredictable. Though the men were convinced that the sun would shine on their trip, the rain begins to ruin things for them. J. tries to poeticize it away, but this only distracts him from damp reality for so long.
The three men persevere through the rain, pretending to enjoy it though they are in fact all feeling rather melancholic. They say at least it’s a change from the sunny weather they’ve been having, and that nature is beautiful even when it’s raining. J. and Harris try especially hard to put on a brave face, singing songs about “gipsy life.” George stays under the umbrella.
The three men don’t really want to admit to one another that they’re now having a bad time. They try different tactics to make themselves feel better, but deep down they long for a comfortable environment.
With the canvas cover up, they paddle for nine miles and settle for the night. The rain keeps pouring down, making everything in the boat damp and clammy and ruining supper. They men start hankering for more luxurious food. J. wants “whitebait and a cutlet; Harris babbled of soles and white-sauce.” Even Montmorency refuses to eat the sodden leftover pie. George gets more and more downtrodden.
The melancholy deepens, and the men start fantasizing about returning to home. Again, food represents luxury, comfort, and enjoyment— imagined food, at least. The damp pie that they have with them in the boat is too depressing to eat, even for the dog.
The three men try and pass the time by playing cards and drinking some toddies. George tells the group about a man he knew, who, having slept one night on a damp boat, contracted rheumatic fever and before too long died in agony. This reminds Harris of a friend of his, who had similarly gone to sleep somewhere damp and woke up crippled. This gets the men chatting about all sorts of diseases and medical complaints: “pleasant chat about sciatica, fevers, chills, lug diseases, and bronchitis.” Harris says it would be “awkward” if one of them were to be taken ill.
The book closes with a conversation similar to the one it begins with, as the three men trade stories of damp-related illnesses. They do so in order to make it seem like returning home is a necessity based on preserving their health rather than restoring their comfort. The stories are probably not even true, but they serve their purpose as evidence that it’s time to cut their trip short.
The men are so desperate to lighten the mood that J. even suggests that George gets his banjo out and plays them a comic song. He starts playing Two Lovely Black Eyes, which suddenly seems to the men like an incredibly sad song. J. and Harris hold back tears as they listen, before joining in with the choruses. They decide it best that they go to bed.
Even music seems to be dampened with melancholy now—or perhaps it’s just George’s playing. The three men go to bed to try and forget their reality—now that they’re not escaping to (their preferred) nature, or going past historical landmarks, the best escape is sleep.
In the morning, one of the men—J. forgets which—tries to drum up enthusiasm by once again talking of gypsies and nature. It’s clear, however, that none of the men really want to spend any more time in the rain. They insist that they will stick to the full two weeks on the river even if it means they have to die. They plan to get to Pangbourne by five, and then to find some “dimly lit bar-parlor” where they can do some reading.
J. tries one last time to put on a brave face, but it doesn’t work. They hyperbolically claim that the river trip is going to kill them, but that they aren’t going to quit. They make—or pretend to make—plans for the evening.
Harris imagines what it would be like back in London, at their favorite theatre, the Alhambra. J. adds that, if they were there, they could follow it up with dinner and wine at their favorite French restaurant. Harris thinks it’s a pity they’ve already decided to stay on their trip for the last two days, but George thinks they should get the train back to London.
Before the evening comes, their fantasies of home comforts get the better of them. They start to justify cutting their trip short, and George apparently already knows the train that they need to get back in time for the theatre and dinner. This shows an element of preparation on his part—a plan of escape. Now that the river no longer offers them any semblance of leisure, they need to go somewhere that does.
Though they all feel guilty, they silently agree to cut their trip short and go back. They take their boat to Pangbourne, leaving it with the boatman who wrongly assumes that they’ll be back for it later. Within a couple of hours, they are back in their hometown. They are almost not let in to the Alhambra because of their disheveled appearance, but bribe the doorman to let them in. After watching some ballet, they head to the restaurant.
Embarrassment rears its ugly head again, as the men can’t stomach the idea of telling the boatman the truth. Instead, they’d rather abandon their boat—they’d prefer it to be out of sight and out of mind. They don’t have time do groom themselves appropriately for the theatre but are willing to pay extra just to be there.
J. confesses to enjoying that supper immensely. The French sauces, the smell of the wine, the attentive waiter—all of these make the men feel at home. Harris gazes out at the window at the rain falling in the street. He proposes a toast: “we have had a pleasant trip, and my hearty thanks for it to old Father Thames—but I think we did well to chuck it when we did. Here’s to Three Men well out of a Boat!” Montmorency, in approval of the toast, gives a short bark.
Back in the comforts of London, the reader gets the sense that the trip hasn’t really taught the men very much. In fact, the true restoration has come not through their river experiences, but by being returned to the warmth and luxury of their favorite restaurant. Even Montmonrency, still mimicking the mood of the group, agrees.