Two weeks in the wild

I felt like I needed a break from the marina.  There are many pros to living in a small community, but over recent weeks I had found I was becoming increasingly antisocial (not in the ASBO way, in the pretending-to-talk-on-my-phone-to-avoid-small-talk-with-real-people way.  I am approaching expert level at faking phone conversations.)  So me and the good boat took a trip down the river to my favourite mooring spot outside Sainsbury’s.

It was only meant to be for a couple of days, but I was enjoying myself so much (relative anonymity, 5-minute cycle to work, easy access to baked goods), I decided to stay the full two weeks.  Bliss.  However, it was not without drawbacks.

Hot water as the first.  In the marina I use the shower block (have I mentioned just how great the showers are?) and boil the kettle for the washing up, so a lack of hot water in the summer doesn’t really matter much.  (I only have hot running water when I have run the engine or the radiators.)  However, it matters a little more when that means the only local showering option is decidedly cold.  There’s only so long I can convince myself that is character building.

Second is washing.  I have no convenient onboard laundry facilities.  (The sink seems arduous and messy, the river seems counterproductive.)  I have just enough underwear to last two weeks (if I didn’t I wouldn’t be admitting it here), and I ended up wearing scrubs a fair bit at work when I ran out of uniforms.

During the two weeks, I had planned to go away for the weekend.  Not a problem in the marina – it is the most secure place I have ever lived.  But I was nervous about leaving DF unattended just moored up by the canalside in a public place.  Luckily, two friends volunteered to check in on her while I was away.  Emily (of Stuart the Swan fame) said she would swing by on her way home to check everything was in order.  Richard (of broken lock fame) offered to stop in and make a cup of tea to make the place look lived in.  I was much reassured and skipped off to Wales.

I didn’t tell one about the other.  I got a text from Emily saying there appeared to be someone on my boat.  (I didn’t get this until a day later when burglars could be long gone.)  And Richard reported hearing an odd conversation between two passersby, who were surprised that someone seemed to be on board.  The boat was still there when I got back, so I think Em’s public announcement of the non-emptiness of my home worked a treat. As did the actual non-emptiness of my home.

The last issue was that of the fridge.  Without mains electricity, all my appliances were being powered on the solar panel alone.  Which could just about handle three hours of fridge time.  Milk turned to yoghurt in no time at all.  At least I was only 20 metres from a supermarket.

The two weeks in the wild were lovely.  But I don’t think I’m quite ready to move out of canalboat suburbia yet.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Just Can’t Get Enough‘ by Depeche Mode.

The pupil becomes the master

Most of my boating career, I could accurately be described as clueless.  But over the course of the last couple of years I have been slowly accrueing clues and other titbits of knowledge.   So it was a proud moment a few weeks ago when I got to show off my burgeoning expertise. (Too much?)

I had enjoyed a charmed day so far – I was single-handed heading down the Trent but both Sawley and Cranfleet locks had been manned, much to my great relief.  There was only Beeston lock left to negotiate, and that one is easy to moor up at and not that deep.  My favourite kind.  I was just heading into the lock, when a small group of people asked if I would like any help.

Definitely.

“Umm, what do we need to do?” they asked.  My heart sank a little.

“We’ve just bought a boat, and need to learn about locks,” they continued (they spoke as one, clearly).  My spirits rose a little.  This was my chance to shine, to become a narrowboat font of knowledge.

So I talked them through closing the gates and closing the sluices.  I remembered this time to tell them not to let go of the windlasses (last time I told a crewmember what to do the windlass nearly went flying).  And then, with childlike excitement, they worked out all by themselves what needed to happen next.  I considered getting out of the boat to help, but I decided it would have ruined their fun.  So I carried on drinking my tea as they dashed about the lock for me.

They thanked me as I drove out the lock and I tried to look gracious and wise.  (It’s not a well-practised look for me, so who knows how it turned out.)  I then realised I had forgotten to tell them to close the gates behind me, and felt slightly annoyed they had only done half a job.  Had they asked for feedback and not just disappeared, I would have given them a C.  Passed, but only just.

I think I’m going to make a mediocre boat teacher.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Doctor Doctor’ by the Thompson Twins.

 

Canal rage

‘Twas a summer’s day and all was well.  The Fab Funky Ladies had had a lovely morning floating down the canal to Shardlow and feasted on delicious, gluten-free chips.  There was just the tricky business of getting home.

Turning around has become my new narrowboating nemesis.  It was troublesome on the Soar, and was to prove precarious once more on the Trent and Mersey. There was ample room swing around outside the Clock Warehouse (where we had enjoyed our gluten-free chips) – I had done it before on the helmsman course a boat-lifetime ago.  I have since got worse at turning DF around (who would have thought having an expert trainer by your side would make such a difference) and the willow tree must surely have grown. (Spoiler – I end up with a face full of leaves.)

Just before we were about to get completely camouflaged by the willowy greenery, a passer-by enquired as to whether we needed any help.  We looked like we were stuck you see.  I immediately leapt to the assumption that he was taking pity on us three helpless ladies as we couldn’t possibly be hoping to navigate that big old boat all by ourselves.  A polite but curt ‘no, were fine’ was called across the waterways before we completely disappeared into the tree.

(As a feminist aside – and I know those are the kind of asides my audience enjoys – I genuinely do not think he would have offered help to three men in the same position.  We are not a particularly progressive community, and I do suspect that many of its members do not think that a woman’s place is near the engine.  Reading this blog might not necessarily dissuade them of that view.  End of feminist aside.)

We made it out of the foliage and onto the home stretch. The FFL were commenting on how relaxing the whole day had been, when we were viciously attacked by another of my foes – the low bridge.  There we were, ensconced in witty banter, and then there we were, flinging ourselves across the roof so no one got knocked out.  And then just when you thought you were in the clear, there was a low pipe just after the bridge.  I’m sure many a crown has been bruised by such trickery.

But we emerged unscathed.  There was just one lock left to negotiate, and in the near distance we saw a boat heading into said lock.  “Hurrah,” I probably exclaimed. “A boat to share with.”  (Someone else to do the work is what I definitely thought.)  But as we got near the gate began to close.  But maybe that was to save time – it was after all the gate behind the other boat – there was still room on one side for us to sail into.  And then he started to close the second gate.  “Maybe he hasn’t seen us?” I possibly said.  (I definitely didn’t say this.  My musings were far less polite.)  Surely he would open up the gate when he saw us.

He opened the sluice at the far end.

That’s right, he actually started letting the water out of the lock with us just spitting distance away.

I put Double Fracture into an aggressive reverse, chuntering away as I did.  What the flippin’ heck was he playing at?  Had he no boating etiquette?  May the canal gods strike him down.  And so on.  The aggressive reverse, however, seemed to spur the object of my wrath into action.   He closed the sluice and came back to open the gate to let us in.  I was once more charm herself.  Until we actually spoke to him.

He said something about it being busy on the canal that day as there was a queue of boats waiting to use the lock the other side.  To which Sarah replied “yes, the traffic’s been a nightmare.”  Best joke of the day.  He didn’t crack so much as a smile.

He is off my Christmas card list.  Which would be far more of a damning action if I actually sent Christmas cards.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Proud Mary’ by Tina Turner.

 

Soaring to new places

It was a beautiful Monday morning.  I could either go do some lengths in the local swimming pool as originally planned, or take the boat for a spin.  (Just in case the decision isn’t obvious, I am not writing a blogpost about splashing around in a leisure centre.)

I was going to play it safe, head down the Trent and turn round before Beeston lock. A tried and tested route, no surprises.  So I turned left out of the marina and headed into Sawley Lock.  This is one of my least favourite locks – going downstream is not so bad on the approach, but mooring up afterwards to pick up crew (or even worse to close the gates if I’m by myself) is a problem that doesn’t seem to get any easier.  So it is always a sight for slightly worried eyes when I catch a glimpse of the blue t-shirt and red life-jacket of a CRT volunteer on the lock.  Happily the lock was manned that day, and there was a boat to share the lock with.

The three chaps on the other boat were taking the day to travel to a particularly nice pub in Kegworth.  Very picturesque route, they said.  Lovely way to spend the day, they assured me.  I was convinced.   No more playing it safe for me.  I was off to river pastures new.  Instead of taking a sharp left down the Trent, I took a leisurely right down the River Soar.

(Now seems like the appropriate time to  draw attention to my very clever pun in the title.  I’m sure you are now gasping in delight at the lovely phrasing.  Or rolling your eyes that I thought it wasn’t obvious from the start.)

The first thing of note down the new river was a new marina.  I had seen a sign for Redhill every day I travelled to work, and had had vague ideas of looking further into it (can’t hurt to keep options open).  Like Beeston marina, it appears to be entirely by the side of the river.  It’s a pretty enough setting even with the power station in the background, but I have grown used to the luxury of having a shower block five metres away.  (I think it is going to take a lot to tempt me away from the shower.)

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I approached the next lock and realised my leisurely morning was fast turning into afternoon and I had a night shift sleep for.  I bade the other boat farewell and set about turning around to go home.  The basin in front of the lock was large, and I thought I would have few problems changing direction.  (Something that has long astonished me is the amount of times I am wrong when it comes to boat stuff.  A bit of knowledge and experience does not seem to be turning the odds in my favour.)

I went easy on the turn until I realised DB was just going straight.  So I took the next logical step and panicked a little.  I put the boat into hard reverse and pushed the tiller as far as it would go (forgetting you cant really steer in reverse).  This was repeated a couple of times (and got a similar result each time) until I realised a different approach would be needed.  I didn’t seem to be able to think my way around the problem, so brute force would be called on instead.  I (gently) rammed the bow of my lovely boat into the bank, then skipped along the side as fast as I could to jump onto the grass.    With the bow rope in hand, I started to drag Double Fracture around to point the right way.  It was at this moment a spectator boat arrived.  I got pitying looks and an offer of help that I was obviously too stubborn to accept.  Lucky for my pride, the brute-strength plan worked and I floated past them, a smile of relief on my face.

It was only a dipping of the toe in the new river.  I didn’t even get too try lunch at the local riverside pub.  But at least I have started my cautious explorations.   Give me a year or two and I might make it to Leicester.  But let’s not be too rash.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Take me out‘ by Franz Ferdinand.

Safe and sound?

“Do you feel safe on your boat?” is a question I get asked a lot.  Most people are referring to the probably-easy-to-smash, single-glazed windows, or the less-than-savoury reputation some canalside areas have.  No one, so far, has really considered the possibility that the boat might be a carbon monoxide haven, or that the fire extinguishers might have lost their pizzazz when called into action.  Happily, it is a requirement that all boats have a safety check every four years to make sure they are fit to be called home.

I have never seen Double Fracture through a Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) before, and was not sure what to expect.  The very long lost of checks was daunting, filled with technical language and some things I was pretty sure, but not 100% certain, that I didn’t have.  Neighbours to the right had recommended a local boat examiner, and said that he was very thorough.  I was nervous.

The one thing I did know I had to do in advance was secure the gas bottles in the front locker.  The locker had come equipped with a long bar to keep the canisters from sliding all over the place when on the move, and had never been attached since I bought DF.  (In my defence, everyone else is doing the same thing.  I’m just following the crowd on this one.)  However, having recently fallen off my bike and battering my knee to the point of needing stitches, kneeling on the side of the boat to fix the bar in place was no easy task.  And it was also bucketing down with rain.

After much swearing and grinding of teeth that seemingly simple job was hopefully completed to examination standards, and I was so exhausted that I decided to wing it through the rest of the list and have a cup  of tea.  I mean, I’d made it this far in one piece – the boat must be reasonably safe (and idiot-proof), right?

Marc, the friendly neighbourhood BSS examiner, got straight to it when he arrived.  No time for tea or chitchat, there were fuel lines to check.  I found this reassuring.  Even more reassuring was that all the diesel was in the right place and not in puddles under leaky pipes.  Likewise, I breathed a sigh of relief when Marc confirmed all the fire extinguishers should still have their va-va-voom if faced with a small inferno.  The electrics seemed to be in order, and the fireplace was up to scratch, so it was just the gas to go.

Whilst I had adequately fixed the gas bottles in place, I had not connected both of them to the pipes – only the one that was open and in use was hooked up.  Turns out this is a safety no-no, and so there was more swearing and grinding of teeth as I made a meal of a very simple job.  Gas bottles connected, Marc went about checking the lines and the hob.  All present and correct and burning gas as efficiently as they should.  Double Fracture was nearly at the finish line.

“Your ventilation appears to be blocked,” Marc announced.  Hmm.  We unscrewed the ventilation panels on the front door and found that there were two very carefully cut out pieces of cardboard that perfectly fit the ventilation spaces.  “That could kill you,” said Marc as he threw them in the bin (lest they be replaced for insulation purposes on his departure).  I made exclamations of shock and innocence – I had absolutely not put them there and had no idea it was so serious.  (Helpless female to the fore once again.)

I did not tell him that I had known they were there.  When I locked myself out of the boat a few months ago, the ventilation panels were removed in the breaking-in process.  I had assumed that if the cardboard was there, it must be an essential piece of kit (long-standing boaters had put them there after all).  They were carefully replaced and screwed into place, and I didn’t give a second thought as to why the panels in question were called ventilation panels.  But Marc doesn’t need to know any of this.

Now Double Fracture was fully ventilated, Marc was happy to sign her off as safety compliant.  And I am now far less likely to have an emergency admission to A&E with carbon monoxide poisoning.   That’s one productive afternoon.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Stand By Me‘ by Ben E King.

Shit it’s been a lovely day*

*Copyright Sophie, appropriated by me and much overused since.

Day five of The Big Trip, and the Fab Funky Ladies (FFL) were on board.  We had modest travel plans – the starting point was Castle Marina, and the end point was a mere mile or so away at Trent Bridge – but the route was fraught with hazards.

Not least of those hazards was food provision – a meat-free, dairy-free and gluten-free menu was needed.  How were we supposed to sustain ourselves through a hard-day’s boating without a cheese-and-ham toastie? It’s the kind of gastronomical challenge that could have easily lost me my crew, but luckily there were free-from-everything-but-mysteriously-still-delicious bakewell tarts.  Lunch was saved, and a potential mutiny averted.

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Celebrations for an epic coeliac-friendly lunch were cut short by a brutal attack.  The assailant was swift and calculating.  It’s possible he had been observing his victim all morning, learning her habits and weaknesses, planning his assault.  Like the mafia, he picked the post-lunch slump when Bryony was feeling full and content and had let her guard down.  As she clambered through the engine room he leapt onto her chest and all hell broke loose.  As his eight limbs pummelled Bryony’s collarbone, the three of us were paralysed with fear. Now I don’t like to portray myself as some kind of hero (it’s what anyone in my position would have done) but at this point my instincts took over.  I flicked that spider mercilessly into the water.  Once you have senselessly massacred dozens of arachnids, the killing reflex is always lurking in the background.

One crisis may have been averted, but danger was still around every bend in the river, behind every lock.  On top of every lock.  The first boating challenge of the day was Meadow Lane lock with its vertiginous 8’8″ drop to the River Trent.  One slip on the gates, and the FFL could have been sleeping with the fish.  Or at least splashing around with them.  But my crew were not content with just looking danger in the face – they wanted a selfie with it.  Because that is how the Double Fractureers roll.

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However, Meadow Lane was a mere warm up.  The big test was Holme Lock – a 12′ drop and large enough to irrigate a small drought-ridden country.  I don’t want to start a panic, but I suspect rumours of the Holme Lock Monster may image-02-largehave some substance to them. Sure, it could just have been general river debris moving around the boat trying to wrap itself around the propeller, but I’m pretty sure I saw scales.  And a fin.  Possibly a tentacle.  (Sadly my camera ran out of battery at this very moment, so no photographic evidence is available.  However, I think it would be pretty easy to organise a 24/7 surveillance of the lock with a few like-minded believers to get the necessary snaps for the Daily Mail to jump on the bandwagon.)

Holme Lock behind us and Sophie took up the helm.  We had survived monsters, heights and the threat of wheat-based pastry.  Would we survive her driving?  Happily Sophie was a self-certified excellent sailor, with minimal zigzagging down the river.  The moment with the river bank is barely worth mentioning.  We are ready to take on the next waterway.  It’ll either be the River Soar or the South China Sea.

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This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Little Bitty Pretty One‘ by Thurston Harris..

The demise of Stuart the Swan

“Push.”

I am pushing.

“Keep going, you’re nearly there.”

I can’t do this anymore.

“Try to push for a little bit longer next time to really keep it moving.”

I give up, it’s not coming, it’s never coming.

It is not often that conversations in my professional life and boating life are at all similar, but day four and a couple of heavy locks provided some moments reminiscent of labour suite.  It’s probably to be expected when a boat crewed by midwives comes up against a lock gate that needs a good shove.

Day 4

Gallows Inn Lock to Castle Meadow, Nottingham

7 locks, 14 miles

Crew: Emily and Stuart the Swan

Emily is the most ambitious person to crew Double Fracture so far.  She was not content with just navigating my beautiful boat through the stormy waters and low bridges of the Erewash canal.  She did not find outrunning the potential pirates of the Trent challenge enough.  She wanted to to add white-knuckle thrills to the adventure, and had enlisted the help of Stuart the Swan for the escapade.

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The idea was to tether Stuart to the back of the boat and go full speed ahead.  Maybe reaching four, possibly four-and-a-half miles an hour.  The danger was probably not going to be whiplash, the danger was more likely going to be hypothermia or sepsis.  But before Em could run any of those risks, we needed to get out of the Erewash and leave the bridges behind.

The bridges were not going to let us go easily though.  It didn’t help that I hadn’t learnt my lesson from the day before, and still tried to exit a lock with just one gate open, making it nigh on impossible to get to the centre of the canal (and the highest point of the bridge) in time.  What was left of the solar panel box was soon demolished  – a parting gift from the Erewash.  (The solar panel is still alive and well and charging the batteries.  It is not to be intimidated by industrial revolution bridges.)

By the time we took to the open river, the weather wasn’t looking too friendly.  Grey skies ahead, and things were getting breezy.  Em and Stuart decided to hold off on their dip and await more clement conditions, and instead opted to relax on the roof. It’s what boat trips should be all about.

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It was only later we realised the consequences of the sunbathing.  In clambering over the splintered solar panel box, Stuart had sustained a mortal wound.  He kept his head held high as his body failed him.  There was nothing any of us could do at the end – no amount of gaffer tape could hold him together, and so we just tried to make him comfortable as the air slowly left his body.

Reaching our destination was bittersweet.  On the one hand, reaching Sainsbury’s is always a joyful moment for me and a chance to leisurely stock up on baking supplies.  On the other hand, it marked the end of Stuart’s first, and last journey.  He was a good swan. And I think that is how any inflatable waterfowl would like to be remembered.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘One way or another‘ by Blondie.