Mission Sawley or Bust

“You’ve got all the time in the world – no need to rush, just enjoy cruising the canal.” This is the sentiment espoused by many of my neighbours in praise of the narrowboat lifestyle. This has not generally been my experience – all the trips I have made have come with destination and time pressures, and my first proper solo trip was no different.

Mission Sawley or Bust began at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Because I don’t always think these things through, I was returning from London in the morning, giving myself a two-and-half hour window till sunset. 150 minutes to cover 6 miles and get through 3 locks. And make time for toilet breaks. And cups of tea. But at least it was a gorgeous winter’s day, perfect for messing about on the river.

The first lock was Beeston. A gentle one to get started on – only about three foot up. There were people watching, which gave me a strange impulse to run between boat and lock. I never get the impulse to run (much to the annoyance of my touch rugby team) so I either wanted to get through the lock and out of spectating range as quick as possible, or I wanted to show off. Sail off to admiring murmurs of ‘my goodness did you see the way she leapt gazelle-like across the lock?’ Or something. I’ll leave you to decide what motivated the running.  (Hopefully the spectators were too busy with their admiring murmurs to notice the slight crash as I exited the lock. No crockery broke, so it really was a little one.)

Triumphant at Beeston lock, and with no one else on the river, I decided to do two things. Crank up the Double Fracture Disco for some celebratory dancing, and crank up the revs to try to make my sunset deadline. I think I may have broken the speed limit with the latter – my phone reckons I was doing 5 miles an hour – I would have been a blur to passers by if I hadn’t been going against the current.

The geese must have heard that the disco was heading their way, as they had assumed traditional school dance stances. The boy geese were one side of the bank, awkwardly milling around and all facing the girl geese. The girl geese were in more of a huddle the other side of the bank, with the occasional one glancing over at the boy geese. As I passed, the girl geese had decided to take action, and were swimming purposefully towards the boy geese. I like to think that with the ice broken, they would be partying past sunset.

Speaking of which, the sky was turning an ominous pinkish colour as I approached the 8 foot Cranfleet lock. My solo boating nemesis. This was either going to be feat of the day, or defeat of the day. I am sometimes a person who sees omens in seemingly innocuous things, and the fact the lock needed emptying before I could start appeared to be a bad one.

With no audience to impress, but an increasingly dusky sky, I scurried energetically around the lock as I drained it to the level of my boat. The gates were opened and I drove Double Fracture in. Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was lack of judgement, but I drove her in a little too fast and scrambled a little desperately up the ladder in the lock, managing not to drop the centreline rope as I then tried to heave the boat to a stop. Obviously I was not successful, and it took another bump to bring the craft to a standstill.

Nervously, I opened the sluice to start filling up the lock. I’d been advised to do this slowly to try to avoid the boat being battered around the lock by the force of the incoming water. However, even the smallest opening brought forth a torrent of water, and my feeble tugging on the rope was ineffective in stopping Double Fracture bouncing off the four walls of the lock. Preoccupied with trying to minimise the ricochet, it took me several minutes to realise that the water level wasn’t rising. The water was flowing in through the sluice, playing pinball with my boat, and then continuing out of the sluice I had forgotten to shut the other end. My schoolboy error corrected, the lock finally started to fill. 

At this point the whole episode became a lot easier, and not just because I was doing it right. The kindness of fellow boat owners was once again came to my aid, and one of the moorers nearby offered to close the lock after me when he realised I was on my own. That is an offer I will never turn down and I gratefully hopped on my boat and literally sailed off into the sunset.

Not quite yet home, I decided to call it a boating day. I couldn’t face doing the last lock, or trying to moor up in the dark without crashing into my neighbours. So I tied up a mile down the river outside the Trent Lock. Stopping at the pub seemed like a appropriate reward for my day’s efforts. At least it would have been if I hadn’t had to go to work.

Mission Sawley or Bust: the sequel will be a smoother run. I have learnt valuable lessons about lock operation, checking hours of sunlight and use of a flask for maintaining tea supplies. Next time will definitely be better. Probably.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Uptown Funk‘ by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars.