George, Harris, and J. argue about who will tow the boat, the most physically demanding job by far. They eventually decide to row to Reading, at which point J. will tow for a while. We learn that J. learned to row by joining a club, but that George had some trouble learning. The first time he went out, with a group of friends on a trip to Kew, the coxswain did not know how to call out directions and they had great trouble navigating.
J. lists the different types of rowing, as well as the pitfalls that novices face when they attempt to row for the first time. He discusses punting, a type of rowing where the passenger stands up in the boat and propels it along using a long pole that is pushed against the riverbed. Punting is hazardous for beginners; J. describes a friend who was not paying attention and stepped off the boat, leaving himself clinging to the pole in the middle of the river as the boat drifted away.
On another occasion, J. and his friends noticed an amateur punter who could not keep control of his boat. Thinking it was someone they knew, they mercilessly mocked him until realizing that the man was actually a stranger. Harris once had a similar experience, when a stranger thought he was a friend and began roughhousing with him, holding his head under water.
J. concludes the chapter with a final anecdote about sailing on the river with his friend Hector. The men had trouble raising the sail, which was very tangled. They eventually ran the boat aground and decided to row back. However, they broke the oars in the process, and had to be towed.
As the men approach Reading, J. describes several important historical events that happened there. Starting in the 17th century, it became a popular destination for Londoners fleeing the plague. However, it is now crowded and polluted, so the men pass through it quickly.
As they leave Reading, J. spots an acquaintance who owns a steam-launch; the steamboat tows them for several miles, giving the men a much-needed break from rowing.
As they approach Goring, they spot a dead woman floating in the water. Some other travelers take her to the coroner, but J. later learns that she killed herself after having a child out of wedlock and being abandoned by her family.
Chapter 15 features another ‘callback’ to earlier in the text. The men’s argument about who will tow the boat is similar to earlier arguments they have about who will perform the most difficult jobs. (For example, consider the way Harris and J. force George to tow the boat out of Shepperton.) Both moments also reflect a similar sense of irony, since J. speaks proudly about his work ethic in both places while being clearly unwilling to work. These moments also conform to the novel's recurring theme of the illusions people have about themselves.
Most of Three Men in a Boat is written to be accessible to readers who are unfamiliar with boating. Although rowing and sailing were popular past-times in England at this time, they were not universal among the book’s intended audience. Three Men in a Boat was written as a comic travel novel rather than as a technical description of rowing. Chapter 15 is unusual, then, in that it features a number of anecdotes about punting and sailing that can only be fully appreciated by readers familiar with the activity. Despite these occasional technical interludes, Three Men was popular with boating and non-boating audiences alike, and is credited with popularizing the sport among travelers.
Readers familiar with English geography will note that Jerome uses a very antiquated location name: Wessex. Between 519 and 927 AD, Wessex was a kingdom in England. However, Victorian readers would have recognized the term from the work of Thomas Hardy. Thomas Hardy’s novels are set in Wessex, a fictional region in southern England where pastoral beauty and human drama collide. Jerome refers to Hardy’s works elsewhere in the novel, too. For instance, in Chapter 1, he uses the phrase “far from the madding crowd,” which was also the title of a Hardy novel (12). These literary allusions are just one more approach Jerome uses in this multi-faceted novel.
The dead woman in Chapter 16 heralds a marked departure from Jerome's usually comedic tone. Although it only unfolds over a few pages, the woman’s story provides an example of the gritty, earnest social realism that was popular during the Victorian period. In the nineteenth century, many English writers felt an obligation to portray society's injustices. Jerome’s short vignette about the unfortunate young mother is inspired by these ‘social realist’ stories, which often portrayed the difficult situations faced by members of the lower classes.
However, the short scene can also be connected to the novel's larger themes. His ire in the anecdote is directed particularly towards the family, which abandons the woman because of her trouble. Considering how often Jerome finds humor in the way humans lie to themselves, this scene provides an interesting counterpoint. The woman's family, clearly believing themselves above such behavior, made themselves implicitly responsible for her death. It is arguable that Jerome wishes us to realize how certain pretensions can be inexorably harmful, even if others are merely sources of simple irony.