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..

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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.

Confidence is good but overconfidence always sinks the ship

Well not quite always Mr Wilde. But it certainly doesn’t help the general health of the boat or the waterways.

There were certainly causes for confidence – Double Fracture and I had made it to day three of the excursion relatively unscathed.  Wednesday’s crew had previous lock experience (little did he know just how much more he was about to accrue).  And we had relatively little ground (water) to cover.

Richard’s previous boating adventures had come on the Canal du Midi.  As onboard toilets on French narrowboats deposit their contents directly into the canal, contact with the water was not recommended.  Rescue boats were called for any problems which might necessitate body parts being submerged.  So when one of the boat’s ropes got tangled around the propeller there was no messing about with the weed hatch for Richard lest he contract cholera* or some other water borne delight; an engineer in full frogman kit attended to cut the rope loose.  The closest the Erewash Canal could get to a helpful frogman was a shy frog, that seemed to live in one of the lock gates.  It was safe to say this was going to be a different experience to his French cruise.

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I had taken Richard’s story as an interesting tale about how continental canalboating differs to the English variety.  I should have taken it as a cautionary tale, for we were not far into the trip when the centre rope suddenly whipped itself taut, and the end of the line was nowhere to be seen.  Until I wriggled into the engine space to open the weed hatch.

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One extremely cold arm later, the rope was free and I was resolved to curb my newfound laissez-faire boating ways.  Or at the very least pay more attention to trailing ropes.

The day’s drama did not end there.  We reached Stenson lock, and discovered that one of the ratchets to open and close the paddles was stuck partially open.  (I have a sneaking suspicion that Double Fracture was the last boat to pass through this lock, and so I may not be blameless in its current predicament.  But let’s not dwell on that.)  No amount of jiggling seemed to loosen it, so we decided to try the lock anyway.


It all went well until the lock water was about 6 inches above the canal water.  And then it just stopped sinking.  (I believe this is something to do with us reaching the level of water pressure inside the lock that meant as much water was being pushed into the lock as was being pushed out.)  There was nothing for it but to fill the lock back up, reverse out and wait for help.

Two CRT chaps turned up not long after we had made a cup of tea (coincidence?), and with the aid of a large crowbar and a hammer, they released the ratchet from the holding mechanism.  (Which was what Richard had tried to do, but Double Fracture is woefully undersupplied with crowbars or crowbar substitutes.) Before long we were on our way once more.

It was probably then that it started raining.  Or it might have been at that point that I hit one of the low bridges and crushed the box the solar panel sits on.  (Remarkably, the solar panel is still working.)  It was almost certainly at this point that the crew started to wonder when the relaxing, sunny, breakage-free part of the day was going to start.  But at least there were nachos.  Really good nachos.  And really good nachos can go a long way towards saving a boat trip.

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The mooring site for the night was once again near The Gallows Inn.  This time I didn’t need to nod in a steely fashion towards the passing joggers, because there weren’t any.  My reputation must have spread.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Blame it on the boogie‘ by The Jacksons.

*Cholera may not be floating about the French canals.  It’s possible I’m being a bit dramatic.

No such thing as a free cheese toastie

Day Two

Gallows Inn Lock to Langley Mill

4.5 miles, 9 locks

Crew: Ben, Kirsty and Heather


This my first head of navigation plaque.  It signifies that Double Fracture made it all the way to Langley Mill – the end of the Erewash Canal.  As a former continuous cruiser, my boat is probably no stranger to completing routes, but this is our first as a partnership and so I like to think has a special place in her steel heart.
I say it was a partnership, but in reality it was much more than that.  More of a co-operative, team effort.  Day two’s crew may have hoped to spend the trip taking in the scenery whilst sipping on sparkling drinks, but the reality was a little more sweaty than that.  Without the biceps and core strength of Tuesday’s midwives, Double Fracture might still be sitting in a lock just north of Ilkeston.

I dispelled any idealistic dreams they may have had about the day early on, as the Gallows’ Inn lock was our first task of the morning.  No time for idle chitchat or shop talk – my three companions were raising paddles, pushing opening gates and pulling boats to the side of the lock before the hellos were finished.  Just as well they appeared to be natural-born lock operators.

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We did have time pressures, as one of the crew had work to go to in the evening, and another had a hot dinner date (this how rumours start.  Casual comments on low-circulation narrowboat blogs).  This meant that a leisurely lunch was off the cards as Langley Mill trains wait for no person.  So as we approached one lock, I decided that whilst the girls emptied out the lock and opened the gates, I would get on with making lunch and thus save precious time.

Over the course of the last day-and-a-half, my boat confidence had been slowly rising.  There had been the odd bump and scrape, but generally things had been smooth.  As a result, I had become a little cavalier with the knot tying and so with the approach to this lock, I threaded the rope through the mooring ring and wedged the loose end in the door hinge.  (Can you see where this might be headed?)  Toasted sandwiches were the order of the day, and so I got to slicing cheese and buttering bread.  I happened to glance out of the front door and noticed the landscape had changed somewhat.  Instead of green fields and water, it was a pair of wooden gates.  I dashed out to the back of the boat but too late.  Double Fracture crashed into the lock before I could throw her into reverse.

It sounded a bit like the canon fired in Mary Poppins, and I feared certain breakages with no household staff to hold onto the china and the grand piano.  (I had little concern for the lock or front of the boat. They are both probably robust.)  Whilst there was certainly more stuff on the floor than usual, the canalboat gods had remained on my side, and there were no smashes.   If only that luck had lasted.

The sandwiches and crisps had been eaten, and we moved onto squash and cake.  We had safely negotiated one of the several low Erewash canal bridges, and I had relaxed.  And completely ignored the low lying branches ahead.  The sunbathers all took cover and we made it out with a few minor scratches, but my lucky pint glass was not so fortunate (or well named).  A malicious branch swept it off the roof, onto the door and finally the floor.  It had served me well, and did not deserve to end in tiny fragments.

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But there was no time for mourning.  We had a train to catch, locks to bounce through and dead ends to avoid. After a tip from a friendly boater, I didn’t need to reverse 200m to the visitor mooring (which is not a scenario that ends well for Double Fracture or the dozens of boats she would have encountered on the way). Which meant we could get to the pub in time. Or to work.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Superstition‘ by Stevie Wonder.

Going on holiday and staying at home

The big day had arrived.  I was going to take the boat out of the marina for a whole week all by myself.  Well not quite all by myself.  Barely ever actually by myself.  But let’s not diminish the achievement with the details.

The grand plan was to go up the Erewash Canal to Langley Mill, where the canal ends, then to Nottingham and finally back home.  It’s unlikely anyone is ever going to write an epic poem about the trip, but it might be worthy of a haiku.  Or a moderately humorous limerick.  (Stay tuned for poetry developments.)  I had advertised on facebook for crew members, and a combination of willing volunteers and gentle-ish cajoling on my part meant I had company for every day of the trip.

Day One

Sawley Marina to Gallows Inn, Ilkeston

7.5 miles travelled, 8 locks completed

Crew: Sam and Keyleigh

It started off grey.  The cheap diesel pump was closed (and I refused to pay full price for the fuel).  As always, I underestimated how long it would take me to get to the rendezvous point with the crew.   But my creeping sense of ‘maybe-this-wasn’t-the-best idea’ (foreboding seemed like too strong word) was alleviated by the kindness of strangers.

I really don’t like doing Sawley Lock, single-handed or otherwise.  It’s an electric lock, so is not physically challenging to operate (which could not be said of many of the week’s locks).  But there is very little space to moor up once you are river-side and the prospect of trying makes me nervous.  However, as Double Fracture was sinking towards the Trent (in the acceptable lock way, not the unacceptable drowning of my home way) a man and his grandson appeared.  Did I mind if they did the rest of the lock so he could show his grandson the ropes?  I subdued my urge to kiss him with gratitude, and went for a nonchalant ‘Sure, if you want to.”  It was a lovely feeling to rev the engine out of the lock, knowing the clean up was being taken care of.

I met the day’s crew at Trent Lock, and the first of the week’s tutorials was given on lock operation.  (I don’t think content or delivery improved over time).   And then we were there – on a whole new canal.  Unchartered territory.  So I knew nothing about the low bridges that punctuated the canal, and the mapbook I was using did nothing to warn me.  You could argue that hazard perception is equally important in driving a narrowboat as it is in driving a car, and that I should have given the pregnant crew member more than a few metres notice that her head was about to be knocked off if she didn’t jump off the roof pretty quickly.  (The anecdote ends happily, with body and head still attached the other side of the bridge.)

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After a leisurely lunch and a couple more locks, I waved farewell to my crew (who had children or something to look after) and ventured forward for the only substantial single-handed part of my trip.  The canalboat gods were on my side – the sun came out and all four of the locks I took on that afternoon were already empty.  One of them even had the gate open so I could float straight in – it’s one of my favourite sights on the water.  (My absolute favourite sight on the water is the duck which had a feathery Elvis quiff.  My mission for the rest of the week is to spot other aquatic life that resembles popular musicians.)

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By far the prettiest building I passed was the old Springfield Mill – a former producer of Nottingham lace.  A dog-walker volunteered further information about it – it used to be owned by a bloke called Hooley, who once sacked his entire workforce on a whim.  His son Ernest was a financial fraudster.  It’s now expensive flats, and looks particularly lovely in the sunshine.

The dog walker kept pace with Double Fracture for a little while (he had to slow down to do so) and we only parted ways when a lock appeared on the horizon (then he really did have to be getting home).  As a continuous-cruising old hand, he did his best to impart his knowledge to me, an occasional-cruising novice.  I needed to be wary of the folks in Langley Mill – they were a judgemental lot who could get passive-aggressive if you looked at them wrong.  And he wouldn’t moor near Gallows Inn if he were me – very rough round there.  As I sipped my lime-and-strawberry cider, I was going to point out that I grew up in the mean streets of West Bridgford and could probably handle myself.   But I didn’t want to intimidate him with my tough background, so kept it to myself.

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I moored at the Gallows Inn that night as planned.  And nodded in a polite but steely way at the dozens of runners who passed by the boat that evening, just so they knew I was not to be trifled with.  I think they got the message.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Alcohol’ by Brad Paisley.

 

Five star service

There comes a time in every girl’s life when she needs to stop procrastinating and just get on with servicing a diesel engine. (I know there will be some sage nods as you read this, and maybe a few blushes from those of you, who, like me, have been putting it off for far too long.)  Enough was enough, and with a week’s trip out on the horizon, I could not really pretend that the engine was not really being used enough to warrant some attention.

I fished out the manual RCR gave me about engine maintenance.  It’s very wordy.  Quite technical.  Should any of you readers fall into the sweet spot of the Venn diagram below, I really would urge you to continue with physics and/or maths past the minimum age.  On reading the pertinent pages, I very much wish I hadn’t ditched A-level maths for no better reason than to annoy my maths teacher.

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Luckily for me, the operator’s maintenance manual is much easier to interpret, with an easy-to-follow maintenance schedule. (Though hitherto not actually followed.)  After every year or 250 hours of running the engine, there is a pleasing checklist of things to do.  (I love a list.  Not quite as much as a flowchart, but there’s lots of affection for a list nevertheless.)

  1. Change engine lubricating oil

The messiest of all the jobs.  And made harder by my idle fiddling about.  At some point between now and the last service, I had screwed off the top of the oil pump and then dropped it into the bilges.  Given there is no room to swing an emaciated mouse in the engine room, I was unsuccessful in trying to find the top, and as such unable to use the pump.  I spoke to the lovely people at Beta, who told me I couldn’t just buy a pump top, I had to buy a whole new pump.  And then screw it in.  They made it sound simple, but I was sceptical.  The ‘hole in the engine’ saga has made me wary of trying to put new parts on an old engine, and so I went for the suggestion made by the also-lovely people of Midland Chandlers and used a hand pump instead.

The manual said the sump capacity (a technical term I can now throw around casually) was about 7.5 litres, but I could only manage to get about 3.5 litres out of the engine.  I reasoned that even if I hadn’t managed to get it all out, some new oil was better than no new oil, and so I refilled it with new caramelly-looking oil (which promptly turned a dark-treacly colour).  And I promised myself I would get a better pump and change it again at the end of the season.  (I won’t.)  Item one – tick.

  1. Change lubricating oil filter

The oil filter is located in an awkward, un-seeable place in the engine, and so is awkward to unscrew at the best of times.  And it seems I was overzealous two years ago when I last changed it, as I could not get it to budge.  But I knew there was a tool I could get specifically designed for loosening stubborn filters, and was about to set off to get one, when my neighbour asked how the servicing was going.  I explained my problem, and he insisted on having a go – after all he was probably stronger than me. I know the offer came from a kind place, but I couldn’t help but feel smug when he struggled to first locate the filter and then failed to untwist it.   Correct tool acquired, and it was a painless removal with no spillage.  I’d even guessed the right filter to buy.  Item two- tick.

  1. Check air cleaner element

I had no idea if the air filter was dirty or not.  So I took it to the chandlery, and I was not surprised when they told me I may as well buy a new one.  Selling stuff is, after all, their business.  I put it to the side with the other filter purchases and started the checklist.  Prior to changing the oil, the manual recommends you run the engine for 10 minutes to heat the oil to make it less viscous and easier to pump out.  Which I did.  And then a few minutes later realised the new air filter was still in its box, the old air filter was in my bag and so there was nothing stopping dirty air getting into and clogging up the engine.  I swiftly stopped the engine and changed the order in which I approached the check list.  Item three – tick.

  1. Spray the key switch with WD40 to lubricate the barrel

I typed the above sentence and then scuttled to the engine room to do just that.  Item four- tick.

  1. Check that all the external nuts, bolts and fastenings are tight.  See table for torque values.

I don’t know what torque is really, or how you measure whether external nuts have the right amount.  A cursory glance over the engine confirmed that there appeared to be nuts and bolts in appropriate places.   Item five – tick.

  1. Check the ball joint nyloc nuts for tightness on both gearbox and speed control leavers.  Grease both fittings all over.

One of the things I like about the engine manual is that it comes with handy pictures of things.  One of the things I don’t like about the engine manual is that it comes with handy pictures of things I already recognise, but neglects to include pictures of things like ball joint nylocs and their nuts.  Nothing has been greased.  Item six – seems superfluous.

And that, my friends, is how you service an engine.  Or rather, how I service an engine.*

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Radio’ by Darius Rucker.

*I think this post probably needs to come with a massive disclaimer.  You know the sort.  Consider yourselves disclaimed.

 

No gym required

On the last boat trip, I had a battery problem.  Within half an hour of the engine being turned off, the battery light changed from a friendly green to an ominous amber.  Luckily, it was January and so the fridge could be switched off and food put in the cratch to stay cold.  But even with that big energy saver, I still only allowed myself one light on at a time – flat battery paranoia was rife.  On my return to the marina, mains electricity and a battery charger, I did some half-hearted research into how to test if your leisure batteries have had it.  The suggestions sounded confusing and time-consuming, so I decided to throw money at the problem and buy a bank of new batteries.

On opening the hatch to where the batteries are stored, I was greeted by a mass of wires.  At least six, maybe as many as eight.  “I am never going to remember how this all goes together,” I thought to myself.  Happily it is 2017 and the modern person does not need a good memory, but instead a smartphone with a camera.

Next step: actually getting the batteries out.  This meant I had the opportunity to use my excessive amount of spanners and thus continue to convince myself they were good value for money.  After I removed the first bolt, I remembered to turn off the batteries, lest I get a 330 volt reminder about electrical safety.  All was going well until I got to the last bolt.  It would not budge, even with some encouragement from liberal amounts of WD40.  I had been feeling empowered and independent-woman-y until this point.  I decided I might be better served by employing ‘hopeless female’ instead.*

It was a beautiful day outside – surely there would be plenty of strong-looking men around to come to my aid?  Not a soul.  I loitered hopefully around the laundry, but Friday afternoon does not appear to be a popular washing day.  So it was back to plan A – independent woman  who can unscrew stuff all by herself.

And in the end I did.  But my physical labours did not end there.  Batteries are very heavy.  Stupidly, forearm-breakingly heavy.  And I had three of them to lug out of the hatch, along the length of the boat, onto the jetty and into the trolley.  By this point I was back in full independent woman mode, resolved to forget the unnecessary helpless female episode, and pushed the trolley with purpose (and I hope a grimace, though in reality it may have been a lot closer to gurning) towards the marina shop to trade them in.

As if from nowhere, half a dozen people were now milling around outside, and each of them kindly advising me to put the batteries in the car and save myself the effort.  I smiled (grimaced/gurned) each time, more determined to show them that not only can this independent woman unscrew batteries, but she can transport them under her own steam.  I think my point was entirely lost on all of them.

Some time later,the new batteries were loaded on board and I consulted my substitute memory for how to wire them in.  The photos were not as clear as I might have hoped, but still a significant improvement of the blurry image I had in my head.  So I gave it a go.  However, I was not so confident in my battery installing abilities that I went ahead and turned them on straight away.  I went back to Plan B and took up neighbour-to-the-left’s offer to check it over.

Sadly for my independent woman ego, I had not quite done a flawless job.  One of the battery attachments wasn’t on properly and I’d missed a wire.  But when the moment of truth came – the big switch on – I did not get fried and the lights came back on.  Battery success.

Almost.  The friendly-green-sometimes-amber light that tells me how the batteries are getting on is part of the solar panel unit. That light did not come back on.  Maybe in a couple of months my biceps will have sufficiently recovered for me to investigate correctly reconnecting the solar panel.  Right now me and my arms need tea and biscuits.

This blogpost was brought to you by ‘Respect‘ by Aretha Franklin.

*I am a feminist but…..’hopeless female’ is one of my strongest problem-solving tactics when it comes to my boat.  It may turn out to be a less effective tactic for smashing the patriarchy.