The dark and narrow road

Earlier this year adventure cyclist and all round nice chap, Mark Beaumont cycled 18,000 miles round the globe on his bike and he did it in just over seventy eight days. Just let that sink in for a moment. That’s an average of about 230 miles a day, on a push bike. It might help to create a little perspective when I tell you that I have just checked our logs and we have managed an impressive 115 miles in three weeks with the aid of a thirty eight horse power engine and an occasional tail wind. I think we may have achieved our prime objective of travelling slowly.

Long sunny days

I was hoping by now to be able to give a reasonably rounded assessment of what travelling on a narrow boat is like but I don’t feel qualified. I am very happy to tell you that I am only qualified to tell you what it’s like to travel on a narrow boat in near perfect conditions. We’ve had three weeks of mostly unbroken sunshine and for the last two, very light or no winds. It’s boating heaven and the longer it lasts the more nervous I become about what we might have to deal with later.

We are in Middlewich now and at the start of a new phenomenon in canal terms. We are about to embark on our first experience of narrow canals. It all changed over the last couple of days when the term narrow boat suddenly made sense. You see up to now we have mostly travelled on the Leeds and Liverpool and the Bridgewater canals They were both designed to accommodate barges up to fourteen feet wide. Bridge holes, locks and aqueducts are all built to this specification so travelling on a skinny minny like the Golden Girl is quite straight forward. You just aim her at the middle of everything and she slips through with room for a little wiggle on the way. Or so we thought.

Tight corner

After several days of no locks, swing bridges or obstacles other than the odd bicycle wheel or dead fish we set off last Friday for what promised to be an exciting leg of the trip. After a brief stop for our travelling companions to top up on fuel we would be leaving the Bridgewater Canal and joining the Trent and Mersey. We would be passing through one lock and no less than three tunnels and we hadn’t realised that our Golden Girl had been hitting the wine and cream cakes, or so it seemed. The lock was our first one that would only take one boat at a time and that’s when I first suspected that somebody appeared to have put a little weight on. Gill was handling the boat with confidence now and she elected to navigate the first tunnel after waiting for our time slot to meet the one way regulations. She entered cautiously and it was obvious that this was narrower than other tunnels we had been in. There was still plenty of room either side and no doubt it would all have been fine if Victorian engineers had had access to lasers and tunnel boring machines rather than pencils and pick axes. It was soon obvious that with each change of shift the navvies that dug this beast had changed direction! I won’t go into too much detail as it wouldn’t be fair but let’s just say we had a little bump and Gill took full responsibility for trying to create a branch line using our TV aerial pole mount on the side of the boat. It didn’t work and the boat came off worst. (It’s all fixed now so no serious damage was done.)

Here we go

Gulp!

It’s a bit dark in here

Who put that kink in the tunnel?

By the time we emerged from the third tunnel at the end of the day we had pretty much mastered the technique for staying in the middle and accepted that perhaps it was the canals that were narrowing rather than the Golden Girl’s waist line that was expanding. The challenges got greater over the next two days with narrow and winding sections of water which seemed to be occupied primarily by newly acquired hire boats travelling flat out and plainly not expecting to meet another boat coming the other way. Particularly at blind bridge holes. Words were exchanged on a couple of occasions, especially with the driver of the one that was travelling so fast that he couldn’t take any avoidance measures and ended up, rather satisfactorily, buried in the mud and reeds on the far bank. We left him and his crew, at a sedate pace of course, trying to dig themselves out with barge poles.

Not the place to meet a coal boat towing another one!

We only had another couple of miles to go before mooring up for the night and although I had found these new narrow sections with very tight turns quite tricky, I had actually secretly enjoyed the challenge. We hadn’t had any mishaps other than those caused by other boaters so I was feeling tired but a little smug when we came around the final bends. That didn’t last. As we rounded the corner I was trying to work out the line to take when the canal disappeared. Well at least it appeared to. No doubt perspective played a part but about fifty yards ahead the waters narrowed into what appeared to be a six inch channel over a river. I hastily looked around for an escape route, assuming I was going the wrong way but all I was faced with was impenetrable canal bank. Engaging reverse with more enthusiasm than the engine was keen on I slowed down and approached what looked like an impossibly narrow gap half the width of the boat. As we got closer I finally accepted that perhaps it was wider than us but only by inches and passed gingerly through to the other side. I swear the boat breathed in as we passed over the considerable drop to the river below. Now I really understood that we were on the narrow canals.

I don’t know how we did that.

The white water rapids and waterfalls that I was now expecting around the final turn didn’t emerge and we were able to moor without further trepidation just outside the small town of Middlewich.

We are having a little break now for two days and we are all on strict diets in preparation for up to twenty narrow locks per day and the tunnel from hell. More on that later.

Photos by Gill

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Finding the good

These canals we are travelling are turning out to be like people of wildly different characteristics. Liverpool was like a crazy bunch of excited party goers in part and some down and out toothless old men in others. West Lancashire reminded me of gentle folk who don’t like change and keep themselves largely to themselves except when attending mass on Sunday. Moving west and south through Wigan, Leigh, Salford and Stretford was sad, nostalgic, intimidating but also stimulating. Like meeting a crowd of recalcitrant hooded teenagers but finding amongst them old mine and mill workers with fascinating stories to tell. This menagerie of places and history has finally spat us out through the leafy suburbs of Sale into the most pastoral Cheshire countryside. The gentle cooling breeze brings us a little relief from the unseasonally hot sunshine and the sound of spring birdsong adds to an air of chocolate box English scenery. I feel like I have been at a wild party for the last two weeks, full of the most amazingly diverse people, loud music, exotic food and finally arrived home in the early hours to a calm, quiet and familiar home and a warm cosy bed.

It probably hasn’t been quite what people first imagine when you talk about travelling on a narrow boat. All the marketing material features images like the one below.

Tranquillity, just like in the ads

It’s always sunny, the canal is bordered by weeping willows kissing the calm and quiet waters which gently transport a traditionally painted craft and her passengers back in time to a golden age of unhurried tranquillity.

Early morning idyll

Admittedly, we have had a little bit of that, and we are hoping for a lot more of it over the coming months but the marketeers don’t mention that all this idyllic scenery is joined together by large, dirty and sometimes downright ugly bits of urban sprawl. Our journey so far has consisted of rather more of the sprawl and not so much of the neat and tidy but the irony is wonderful. Towns and cities like Liverpool, Wigan and Manchester may owe their very existence to the canals that connect them. For us, they represent fascinating but often unattractive obstacles that have to be traversed in order to get to the glorious countryside that makes travelling on a narrow boat so relaxing and satisfying. To the great canal engineers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was the exact opposite.

Mining and canals went hand in hand

Travelling through some of the industrial landscapes can be depressing, even daunting, with tales of evil drug users lurking under every bridge, just waiting for an easy, slow moving target to rob or simply vandalise. It’s easy to become blinkered by this image and to only see the negative. The mindless destruction of the graffiti rather than the artistry and skill it demonstrates. The irresponsible discarding of the ever present bobbing beer bottles and not the fun and laughter of the youngsters who consumed the drinks by the canal because they had nowhere else to go. The dark, windowless warehouses and factories that tower dark and menacing above the water linger in the mind like nightmares. But there are bright new waterside developments of apartments, bars and restaurants in equal measure that are bringing new life to these old arteries of the industrial revolution. There is positive everywhere if we look hard enough and history and heritage galore.

Out with the old (To be fair this was being saved)

In with the new

 

Art or vandalism?

We have probably started our journey with a disproportionate share of the dark and dreary but it looks very much from where I am sitting tonight that the balance is going to be redressed over the next few weeks. When the barons of the industrial revolution had made their fortunes from mining and building canals at the expense of near slave labour they built grand houses in places like Cheshire to retire to away from the filth and poverty of the cities. Now it’s our turn to go and have a look at how the other half lived.

Hello Cheshire

All photos by Gill

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Liverpool, what a journey!

Consumerism, culture, catastrophe and carnival. Just a few of the words that spring to mind when I reflect on our experience of Liverpool so far. We have one more day tomorrow to absorb a little more of this amazing complex city which, like our journey here, seems to be divided into so many conflicting elements.

After several days of peaceful rural surroundings we knew things would be very different as we approached the big city but the contrasts of the final few miles was quite staggering. The first part of the journey gets progressively more depressing as you leave the countryside behind to pass through increasingly downtrodden areas. Dead factories line the canals decorated by garish graffiti and long ago broken windows. All manner of garbage floats on the water while determined swans and coots sit unconcerned on their nests, hell bent on bringing new life into a cesspool of filth. We are constantly on the lookout for anything that might get wrapped around our propeller having been warned by so many boaters of the dangers of bikes, mattresses and even tents discarded in the water. It’s a relief to arrive at the top of the Stanley Locks and know that we will soon be out of this depressing section of the journey.

We are joined by another narrow boat, Penny Less for the descent of the locks and Alison from the Canal and River Trust along with a volunteer are waiting to assist us with the passage into Liverpool. I’m a little apprehensive having watched a couple of videos of the trip. It will be our first experience of deep open water and we nervously don our life jackets in readiness. We share the locks with the other boat and Gill gets some more practice handling the boat. With many hands to make light of the work it seems like no time at all before we are deep in the final lock, waiting for the heavy wooden gates to open and give us passage into our first open dock. Our new friends on Penny Less agree to go first as they are more experienced and we emerge into a whole new world. The expanse of water looks huge and is surrounded by high, cliff like warehouse walls which we pass beneath in our tiny craft. Turning left between massive stonework we enter Sid’s ditch, a long narrow passage between a dock wall and raised embankment which separates us from the river Mersey. I’m struggling to keep up with the other boat as our engine complains at these new demands.

Boating chums waiting at the top of the locks

Emerging nervously from the bottom lock

Scary open water

Huge reminder of the past

As we cross more open docks we get our first glimpse of famous landmarks. The Liver Building with it’s famous Liver birds appears in the distance and I struggle to concentrate on following the guiding buoys and the rapidly receding stern of Penny Less whilst wanting to drink in every aspect of the iconic dockland landscape. We enter Princes dock and after passing through another lock the first, and longest, of three tunnels.

Light at the end of……

Entering the tunnel everything looks black despite our headlight but my eyes quickly adjust and it’s easy to follow the twists and turns to emerge into blinding sunlight once more. More bridges, famous buildings, a cruise ship on our right and then suddenly the huge angular facade of the Museum of Liverpool is directly above us.

Hello Liverpool!

O look, a cruise ship

Not a view of the Museum of Liverpool I have seen before

Into the Albert Dock

The final bridge

Tourists on bridges wave and call to us. It’s hard to hear what they say over the sound of the engine but I do hear “Welcome to Liverpool” which makes the impossibly wide grin on my face even wider. One more lock and we are making the tight turns now through Canning dock under yet another bridge into the famous Albert dock. Finally we enter our allocated place in the Salthouse dock without embarrassing ourselves too much and tie up on jetty S3.

We made it.

All of a sudden the sun comes out and it’s hot. Friends appear from another boat to greet us, the kettle is on and we are sitting on the deck talking excitedly about the adventure. Just trying to take in how surreal it is to be right in the heart of the Liverpool docks and to have arrived here on a narrow boat is difficult. Tea is followed by beer and finally it begins to sink in that we have arrived. There is only one word for the experience and our situation and it’s another ‘C’ word. It’s just plain crazy.

On our first full day the hot sunny weather brought the crowds out and as we walked through the bus station with visiting friends I witnessed a perfect example of the diversity of this famous port. Several buses were delivering their passengers for a day out; about seventy percent turned right into the Liverpool One retail extravaganza while the remainder turned left for the docks, museums and art galleries. A young couple strolled arm in arm in the bright sunlight looking as if they were heading for a glamorous photo shoot. He was handsome and tanned. Many hours of hard sweat in the gym had earned him an enviable muscle bound physique which threatened to burst out of his fashionable designer shirt. His partner was slim and beautiful with perfect hair and make-up and his strong arm supported her as she teetered on her needle like heels over the rough cobbled paving. Expensive perfume and after shave followed them in the breeze. They changed direction to avoid what appeared to be a pile of rags and rubbish. A couple of grubby looking sleeping bags, old newspapers and assorted debris piled against some railings. They didn’t notice the movement, as the homeless man, about the same age as them, raised his unshaven, ragged haired head from within the smelly heap. They showed no recognition as he lit his roll-up, took a deep satisfying drag, coughed, spat and reached for the half empty bottle of Lambrini to ease the pain of his miserable situation. This place, I thought, is definitely a place with many faces. Somewhere that is crying out to be scratched well beneath the surface.

After four days we are exhausted and I am reeling from the onslaught of contrasting emotions, information and images. Cultured or crude, rich or poor, modern or ancient; Liverpool has got it all in buckets and I love it.

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We are coming for you Liverpool

I am sitting in the boat listening to rain rattling on the roof and watching the branches of a large oak waving in the strong breeze on the opposite bank. Spring, it would appear, is back on hold and it seems like a good excuse for a lazy day off.

We left the marina on a glorious sunny morning four days ago and other than it being a little chilly, and occasionally breezy, it really has been a wonderful start to our journey to Liverpool. The passage into the historic docks is controlled by the Canal and River Trust and we are booked to go in on the 4th of May. In contrast to the whole ethos of life on a narrow boat we have a schedule to stick to but rather than it creating any sense of urgency it simply means that we have a surplus of time on our hands and can afford to sit out today’s unseasonal weather.

Bye everybody, see you in six months

Pulling out of our home berth last Saturday was a strange mixture of the kind of excitement that comes with the start of any new adventure tinged with a modicum of sadness. We were leaving behind a wonderful bunch of new friends and a community that has enveloped us with warmth and support during our brief time on the marina. One of our neighbours gave us a farewell blast on his horn to send us on our way but we mistook it for a warning, thinking another boat was approaching as we emerged from the marina entrance. I suspect they are still chuckling now at my hasty engagement of reverse to avoid being sunk before we had even begun our journey.

Typical of the type of people we have found ourselves surrounded by in our new home, Paul and Dave were waiting for us just around the first corner to help us out at the lock. This meant that I could stay on the boat with Gill while she had a go at steering it in and controlling it as the lock filled up. The process is more daunting than difficult and she passed her first test with flying colours and I am pleased to report, without any threat of divorce. It makes lots of sense for both of us to master all the different skills in handling the boat and it also meant that with Gill driving the boat I would be able to work the lock mechanisms to control the water flow and to open and close the gates for her.

Here comes Gill into her first lock solo

and this is me putting my back into it.

Two locks later as I heaved with all my might at another monstrously heavy balance beam and contemplated what felt like the beginnings of a blister on my hand I became aware of a terrible flaw in my strategy. As Gill proved to be more than competent in her new role I tried to put a positive slant on the situation and told myself how much fitter and stronger I would be after six months of hard physical labour.

We have been very slowly making our way west towards the big city, enjoying a sociable time with Mick and Sara who are also on their way there and from our home marina.

Tow path friends

Golden Girl has been showered with compliments and photographed so often it’s like being in the company of a minor celebrity. I’m worried she will be wanting her own dressing room soon.

Golden Girl admiring herself in the reflections

So four days, seven locks and eleven swing bridges later we find ourselves a staggering seventeen miles from where we started. We were determined to take this new adventure at a leisurely pace and so far I think we are doing quite well. A couple of people we have chatted to on the tow path have suggested that we are like a snail carrying our home with us. The main difference though is that a snail would probably be in Liverpool before us.

Passing through a swing bridge with new found boating friends

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Brides don’t have their bottom’s blacked

We are in a frenzy of activity here as we prepare for our first major trip on the waterways.

Isn’t she looking lovely?

The Golden Girl is like a bride-to-be being primped and preened for the big occasion though the analogy breaks down a little in that most brides don’t have their bottom’s blacked. Allow me to explain.

Most narrow boats are taken out of the water every two or three years to check for corrosion and mechanical problems and to clean them off and re-paint the bits that are normally inaccessible. The term ‘bottom blacking’ is slightly misleading as the actual base plate underneath the boat doesn’t get done but I’m not going to miss the opportunity to play with such potential for a little cheeky anthropomorphising.

The actual procedure simply involves taking the boat across the canal from our home marina to the one opposite where they provide the service and floating the boat over a trailer which is then hauled out of the water by tractor. Four days later, once the cleaning and blacking are done, the process is reversed and we can bring our shiny new girl home. Simple eh? Well apart from the fact that our home will be stuck in a shed on a trailer and we will have to find somewhere else to live for a few days. Being homeless for four days simply meant that we could visit family and friends and on the whole I was quite looking forward to the experience. Then I made the mistake of speaking to another boater that had recently had his boat blacked.

Alarm bells started to ring when he asked me if I owned any Wellington boots. I hesitated but couldn’t stop myself asking why and that was the point that ‘getting the boat blacked’ became a completely different prospect. He went on to explain, with a mischievous grin on his face, that because of the steep angle that the boat would come out of the water the rear end, the end I would be standing on, would probably go under water! Apart from the prospect of trench foot, there was also a possibility of the engine bay getting flooded if the bilge pump couldn’t cope. It sounded like the equivalent of sending the bride for extensive plastic surgery a week before the wedding.

I don’t know what it is about my mind but armed with this new knowledge of possible catastrophe it decided to explore all the other things that might go wrong with ‘getting the boat blacked’. I lay awake in the small hours envisaging the boat tipped up at some alarming angle and wondering what would happen to our furniture and belongings under such circumstances. Would they all end up in a broken heap at the back of the boat? Would the sudden shift of weight send the stern even deeper under water? Would I be able to hold on? Should I wear a life jacket? Then, for no logical reason whatsoever I decided that it might be blowing a gale on the morning of our appointment and I would be faced with smashing recklessly into our neighbours homes as I thrashed around trying to manoeuvre out of our marina and into the next one. By the time I finally got to sleep I had managed to conjure up a tragedy that made the Titanic disaster look like a paddling pool accident.

Of course it all went smoothly on the day. I didn’t fall overboard, our belongings never moved, no neighbours boats were destroyed and I didn’t even have to change my socks. In fact, I quite enjoyed the experience and our Golden Girl is positively blushing.

Here are a few pictures in case you are wondering what on earth I am wittering on about.

Waiting patiently to be hauled out

Here we go, onto the trailer

Testing the pressure washer. Oops! Sorry madam.

This is great fun!

Out we come

Our Golden Girl’s bottom.

Going back into the water and this is as bad as it got.

Are you sure she’ll fit through there?

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We have a plan! It involves Liverpool and a black bottom.

The two most frequently asked questions to anybody going off on a trip or adventure are: “What’s your plan?” and “Have you planned your route?”

Sometimes people genuinely want an answer, sometimes they do not. Some of them really do want all the details but I suspect the majority are just being polite. Either way the answer, in our case, is usually “we don’t have a plan” and, or, “No, we don’t have a route”. In the case of the our cycle trip around the coast of Britain we didn’t need much of a plan other than; get up, eat, pack, cycle, camp, eat, sleep and repeat. As for a route, that was largely dictated by the boundary between the land and the sea. That’s just the way it is if you are cycling around an island. We have, up to now, adopted a similar attitude to the six month canal trip.

For ages now I have been giving the same, slightly facetious answers to the same questions about it. I have even refused to put a definite start date on the trip, answering somewhat glibly that we will simply wake up one morning and decide to leave because it’s a sunny day or we don’t have any reason not to, or we have run out of cornflakes or something. Well for all those people that I have irritated with my non-committal answers I have some news: WE HAVE A PLAN!!

To everybody that has asked about our route the closest I have got to any kind of answer has been, “we will be going vaguely south”. I can now reveal that we will be going west, and not vaguely, but purposefully. You see based on a whim, and what better premise is there for formulating a plan, we decided the other day to look into the possibility of going to Liverpool on the boat. I don’t mean that we began researching whether or not there were canals that went to Liverpool, there are. The Leeds and Liverpool Canal kind of gives the game away in it’s name. What I mean is that I had read that it is now possible to float your way right into the heart of Liverpool docks courtesy of an assisted passage provided by the Canal and River Trust. All you have to do is book a return journey on specific dates and once there you can stay in the shadow of the Liver birds for up to a week free of charge. So that’s what we plan to do. After that we will head east and then vaguely south.

I had heard that these assisted passages into and out of the great metropolis were very popular so we didn’t think we stood much chance of finding one at such short notice. However, to our considerable excitement, we discovered that there was one slot left available on the 4th May. We snapped it up pronto and then started to read a bit more about the journey. It seems we will be navigating several open dock basins (life jackets have been purchased), a couple of tunnels and possibly some rather big obstacles in the form of ships.

Room for a little un?

If it all goes to plan we will end up sailing majestically into Salthouse dock right in the heart of the city where we can stay for six days. Tourists can look forward to some hilarious entertainment as I try to manoeuvre onto to our allocated pontoon without bashing into any visiting cruise liners. Pretty cool eh?

Look out Liverpool, we are coming for you.

So that’s the glamorous start to our journey sorted. Before that can happen our Golden Girl will have to endure the rather undignified procedure of being hauled out of the water by her prow to have her bottom blacked. That’s happening on Thursday so we are de-camping to stay with family and friends for a few days. Apart from not being allowed to stay on the boat while she is out of the water I don’t think she would want us watching such a process anyway.

So there it is. A real life plan with dates and everything. The next person that asks; “have you got a plan?” had better have an hour or two to spare to listen to the answer.

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It’s only a scratch

I have been repairing the damage I did to the boat during our short trip last autumn. There is a surprising amount of it when you get up close and start to examine it but it’s not all bad news. It turns out that rusty scratches and scrapes are a bit like music and perfume in that they bring back detailed memories to savour and roll around the mind. Admittedly, most of the memories that I am talking about here were tainted by fear, embarrassment and a strong sense of my own incompetence as I bashed the boat into wharfs, trees, fences and the occasional other boat. (Don’t tell anybody about that last bit.) However, it’s the painful memories, the ones that recall what didn’t go so smoothly that stay with us for longer and they mellow with time.

The scars on the boat remind me that the bad times rarely prevail anyway and mostly we find ourselves looking back on them with a positive slant. Relief that they are over, laughter at our own stupidity, an understanding of how easy it is to get things out of proportion at the time. Bad memories will often trigger good ones too. When we were being blown against that horrible rusty old Armco barrier and the expensive paint was being stripped away with a horrible screeching sound, that was when the lovely hire boat couple came and rescued us. We enjoyed some really great times with Chris and Steph over the next forty eight hours, proof that losing a bit of paint isn’t necessarily the disaster it feels like at the time.

Patchwork

I was a bit apprehensive about tackling the paint repairs as it was probably forty years since I had last done anything like it. Attacking our beautiful girl with power tools and wire brushes seemed counter intuitive but like so many things, the anticipation was far worse than the reality. I tentatively applied the screaming sanding tool to the first rusty patch and almost immediately felt much better. What had felt like an aggressive invasive process very quickly turned into a healing one. It dawned on me that having done the damage in the fist place it would be cathartic to repair it and make good my early blunders. As I progressed along the side of the hull I relived each damaging impact. I heard the sickening scrunching sound of concrete on steel and regretted not having tackled the repairs more quickly.

Re-living the damage

The rust was like a screeching voice, berating me for my lack of urgency and my timidity in not getting to grips with the job sooner. “A stitch in time” became my irritating mantra running around my head as I worked. But as I applied the first coat of primer paint my whole mood changed to one of achievement. The memories of those awful moments as I closed my eyes, not wanting to see what damage I had done were replaced with ones of beautiful bright afternoons gliding along on sun dappled water. I found I could only remember the good times. The vibrant flash of blue as a kingfisher zipped along in front of us or the expectant heron reluctantly giving up his hungry vigil, rising on lazy gigantic wings to find a quieter fishing spot. The sense of satisfaction and achievement at the end of the hard day and the glorious first sip of a well earned pint in a canalside pub.

Oops! I remember that one.

I have absolutely no doubt that there will be plenty of incidents this summer that will result in more paint being lost. I am hoping that as we get more skilled at manoeuvring they will become less frequent but even so I won’t be quite so precious from now on. The scars I have covered up will remain visible due to my lack of professional skills but they will serve as reminders of good times not bad. I will try to see them as minor negative incidents that form tiny parts of a much greater positive experience. Of course we could avoid any further damage to the boat by simply not going anywhere. We could spend the summer painting and polishing her lovingly and then sitting back and admiring her. But that isn’t living is it?

The more I worked on repairing the boat and the more I realised how like life she is. Life is all about those knocks and scrapes. Without scars to remind us of life’s challenges and how we survived them what is the point. That’s why we will be off in a few weeks to time to scrape some more paint off the boat and make some more memories in the process. I might take a pot of paint and a brush with me this time though.

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It’s my list to port

I do like a list. Shopping list, jobs list, wish list, etc. I love to set things down in a clear, easily understood format and then obliterate them when they are done, achieved or acquired. Lists are a visible measure of organisation and whilst they may be daunting at times they should always result in satisfaction eventually once they are complete, or even diminished. There is one list however that isn’t giving me any pleasure at all. In fact, it’s giving me nothing but angst. I lie awake at night pondering it and trying to work out the answer to it. I have spent several months now working out how to address it and although it isn’t as daunting as it once was it still causes me consternation.

It’s my list to port.

We didn’t notice it when we bought the Golden Girl. In all the excitement of finally finding our ‘perfect’ boat we never noticed that she was a little wayward. If we had noticed we might have been able to negotiate a reduction in the price. The money saved could even have been converted to one pound coins and stashed as ballast on the starboard side to solve the problem. Now that would have been a neat solution don’t you think? It was only after we had been living on the boat for a while that we became aware that we were never quite upright. I started to investigate, and I started with a list.

Heavy items on a narrow boat

Fresh water tank

Fuel tank

Calorifier (think of it as a fancy immersion heater) (or if you are under fifty, a giant kettle)

Solid fuel stove

Batteries

Engine

Washing machine

Freezer/Fridge

These items need to be carefully distributed on either side of the boat in order to maintain a nice even balance but in our case they are not. The heaviest items are all on the port side and to make matters worse we gave away the really heavy sofa that used to sit on the starboard side with us on top of it. Now we sit on two lightweight IKEA chairs leaning gently towards the fire and the telly.

It’s not all bad news; if you drop anything round or cylindrical then you immediately know which side of the boat it is to be found on and spillages on the sink side of the galley all run to the back of the worktops rather than on to the floor. We also corner marginally better on left hand bends.

As I have explored the dark recesses of the boat I have discovered that the previous owners had made various attempts to redress the balance as you might say. There are bags of garden stone in the engine bay on the opposite side of the battery bank. Handy if we ever moor long enough to establish a patio garden or put in an entry to the Chelsea Flower Show I suppose. We have continued this theme, storing a 40 foot length of redundant anchor chain under our bed on the starboard side but nothing quite seems to solve the problem.

I did come up with the brilliant idea of buying lots of beer and wine and storing it all on the lighter side of the boat. It definitely helped but it turns out not to be a permanent solution. I obviously didn’t think that one through properly.

If anybody can come up with a list of ways we can solve the problem I would be truly grateful.

Does that look straight to you?

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Curse of the mad axeman

Arrrrgh!! What’s that noise?

There seems to have been nothing to talk about for the past week but snow and ice. Well, that and stupidly low temperatures rendered even lower by wicked easterly winds. The TV, radio and every nook and corner of social media have been obsessed with it but nobody has been talking about the noises. We have kept our lovely stove well stoked and coped quite easily with the cold and the wintry weather but the noises have been a whole different ball game.

It’s been a bit chilly

Amongst all the research that I did about life on a narrow boat I never came across any warnings about all the weird and wonderful sounds that boats make. Particularly in winter. I’m not talking about the gentle throb of the engine or the jaunty toot of the horn but the strange vocabulary of the boat itself. These noises are amplified and multiplied when combined with ice and wind and, let’s face it, we’ve had a fair bit of both just recently.

Of course if you’ve never lived on a boat before as we haven’t then it’s easy to work out what is going on. The loud bangs of what sounds like metal on metal are obviously the work of the mad axeman on the roof as he tries to break in and murder us in our sleep. Then there is the ear splitting screech of tearing metal as ice pierces the side of the boat just below the water line. The ropes strain to breaking point with agonising creaks which must surely be an indicator that they are about to snap and cast us adrift into the wild dark night. The sudden pounding of the wind moves the boat so violently that there couldn’t possibly be any explanation other than we have been rammed by something like an aircraft carrier or the QE2. All of this is magnified both in volume and by vivid imagination as darkness falls and especially once we are lying in bed in what ought to be blissful silence. Then the groaning starts. It sounds as if some wretched former owner is trapped in the hull, probably as a result of the curse put upon him for renaming the boat. Well it was called ‘Smith’ so you couldn’t really blame him. It’s tricky getting to sleep when all you can hear is the desperate last gasps of some poor soul dying an agonising death somewhere below the bed.

After several days of this we manage to rationalise most of the sounds. The reality is that we haven’t been gruesomely murdered in our beds, there isn’t a stench of a rotting corpse coming from the hull and when we look out of the window we are still snugly tied up to the jetty. All the strange noises, well most of them, can be attributed to the boat moving against the ice and the ropes and a bit of good old expansion and contraction of steel. I’m still a bit worried by the axe I found on the roof though.

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Getting intimate with my Golden Girl

Well I would love to be able to tell you that I have serviced the engine on the boat and everything went smoothly and to plan but I’m sure that isn’t what you want to hear is it? Well lucky you because that is exactly what didn’t happen. I can take the credit for researching the parts required for the job and ordering them, but that is where the bulk of my involvement ended. I would love to show you pictures of me deep in the engine bay wrestling with filter straps and bleeding the fuel supply but there aren’t any. The reason there aren’t any of course is because I didn’t actually do the service. What I did was service my friend Paul’s computer and he, in turn, serviced our boat engine. Know your strengths, that’s what I say.

A great place for doing yoga

What should have been a two or three hour job ended up taking a bit longer and spanning two days. This was mostly down to me ordering the correct fuel filter but the correct fuel filter not fitting. Don’t ask me to explain this, I’m still in correspondence with the supplier and for now I am pleading not guilty. Their blurb plainly stated that the filter in question would fit a Betamarine 38 engine and my friend Paul, who knows about these things, found that it did not. I will let you know the outcome of the dispute at a later date if it proves to be interesting in any way, which I doubt.

So here is a brief summary of what I have learned about servicing an engine on a narrowboat.

Firstly, it’s best to get somebody else to do it if at all possible. This is mostly because the engine in question is very big and the space that it lives in (we boaters call it an engine bay), is very small. Not only is it very small but it also filled with many cables, wires and additional bits of inconvenient apparatus in addition to the engine which makes working in it almost impossible. Watching my friend contorting his body into ever more complex and painful looking shapes it occurred to me that a great second profession for a yoga instructor would be marine engineer.

The second thing that struck me was the way in which all the parts of the engine that you need to access in order to service it are hidden in the most inaccessible places imaginable. If I had done the job myself I would have considered it a major achievement simply to find the oil filter never mind replace it. The situation did at least provide me with a small but vital role to play. Once Paul had squeezed himself into a cavity smaller than his head he was totally dependent on me to pass him the correct tool at the vital point in the oil filter removal procedure. I never thought I would feel so comfortable in my almost spotless overalls, or as proud when I noticed a small patch of grease on them.

With the service itself complete and the engine purring like a contented cat on steroids I thought we were finished. Apparently not. Deep in the bottom of the engine bay there lurked an evil looking cocktail of water, diesel fuel, oil and general filth. Paul pointed out that in such conditions it would be difficult to detect any residual leaks from the new filters and it might be a good idea to clean it out. He even offered to lend me his wet vac to help with the job. So, there I was, me and my new found status of ‘marine engineer’, hoovering foul smelling waste matter from the bowels of my Golden Girl. By the time I had finished I was quite adept at wriggling around the engine though and I am very pleased to say that my overalls ended up satisfyingly filthy. You never know, I might even get to wield a spanner next time.

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