Before we get started, here’s some rules about canal boat conduct:
- Always pass other boats on the right.
- Always pass other boats at walking pace.
- Do not intentionally ram other boats at top speed.
And while we’re at it, here are a few facts about the boats themselves:
- They are long and narrow. Kind of ram-shaped.
- They are bastard impossible to steer. Impossible!
- They have absolutely NO BRAKES. NONE.
- They hate you.
- They want you to die screaming.
Putting all that together, you might gain an insight into the first few minutes and hours of our boat stewardship.
A more accurate accounting might go something like this:
*See a boat approaching in the opposite direction*
Tony: They’re on the right! How can we pass them?
Roo: Tony, that’s the left. They’re on the left.
Tony: Then why are we steering towards them?
Roo: I dunno? Your Dad’s driving…
Tony: Dad! DAD! We need to go RIGHT!
Ian: *Smiles and waves*
Tony: SHIT! He can’t hear me!
Roo: He’s 19 metres away, and standing on top of a massive diesel engine. Of course he can’t hear you!
Tony: I’ve got to warn him! *Edges his way along tiny wooden ledge fastened to outside of boat* Dad! Go RIGHT!
Ian: I’m trying! Look! *Gestures at rudder, which he’s pushed so far over he’s almost hanging off the boat*
Tony: Shit! But we’re still going to—
Basically, what you need to know (should you be planning a canal-boating holiday) is this: you need to decide what direction to steer the boat in, in advance. Like, WAY in advance. Before you leave home, ideally.
The slowness of the boat, the pull of the current, and the fact that you’re fighting an entire canal full of water with a rudder the size of a tennis racquet, all combine to make the boat rather slow to respond. I tell you what though – it doesn’t seem slow when you’re heading straight for another boat, and the blissfully unaware holidaymakers sipping champagne on the back of it. Poor bastards never knew what hit ‘em…
Well, they did. Because they could still see us for the next fifteen minutes, as we made our agonisingly slow escape around the next bend.
And while we’re on the subject of bends… What in the holy hell is the need to have so many of the buggers? It was like navigating a children’s’ drawing of a wiggly wiggly worm. The corners were so steep, it seemed impossible to get around them without getting stuck. It was like… trying to pilot a nineteen-metre-long turd around a series of increasingly-tighter u-bends.
I’m sorry. That was a shit analogy.
The first hour of our ‘relaxing’ boat journey was spent with Roo standing at the front of the Henley trying to holler directions back to Ian at the tiller, while Tony crabbed his way along the 10 centimetre-deep side ledges to convey the messages.
Typically, by the time an obstacle had been spotted, it was already too late to try and avoid it, as the boat took an ice age to respond to the helm. The words, “Shit!’ and ‘Oops!’ and ‘Sorry!’ got rather a lot of usage.
And then came the bridges.
Lots, and lots of bridges.
They were barely wider than the boat – by which I mean, it could get through without lubricant. But only just. And every one of them was on a tight bend, meaning any attempt at lining us up correctly resulted in us getting wedged in the curve. Threading the needle, we called it – only, the guy doing the threading couldn’t actually see the needle. And he was trying to thread it with ten tonnes of wood and steel that only obeyed his directions if they felt like it.
By the time Ian surrendered the helm, he was exhausted – and Tony, taking over, looked terrified!
The hire company had told us we’d be able to make it to the nearest pub on the first evening. And we did! Thank God, because we were all in need of a drink. We’d bounced off boats, banks and bridges, but we seemed to be getting better at steering.
Now all we had to figure out was how to stop.
Because we’d arrived at the pub! Other boats lined the bank, making the canal even narrower. Bashing into these boats would be even worse than hitting ones sailing – because we’d be spending the night tied up next to them…
So, here’s how we accomplished it:
Step 1 – Ian experiments with turning the tiller to bring the bow (front) close enough to the towpath so Tony can jump out.
Step 2 – Roo throws the bow rope to Tony who then hauls on it with all his might. Possibly because the boat weighs ten tonnes, this achieves precisely nothing.
Step 3 – Ian experiments with reverse to try and slow the boat down and pulling on the tiller to bring the stern (back) close to the towpath instead. This succeeds in stopping the boat, but causes the stern to drift all the way across the canal.
Step 4 – Roo waits until the bow is close enough so she can jump onto the towpath and then runs along it, as Carmel throws her the stern rope.
Step 5 – Other boaters on the towpath witness our complete cluelessness, and form teams to haul the boat into the bank, hand over hand.
Step 6 – The help evaporates back to the pub, leaving us staring blankly at the hooks and stakes which are to be used for securing the boat to the bank…
But it was all good. After a bit of work with a sledgehammer and some truly creative knot-work, it was time to relax. Tony collapsed into a chair with a sigh of relief. “Mother of God, that’s hard work!” he exclaimed. There was a chorus of agreement all round. “I’m too old for this shit!” he added. Ian and Carmel exchanged long-suffering looks and went to make the tea.
STILL TO COME… Abandon Ship???