We spent a total of four nights on board the Henley.
In hindsight we probably set ourselves way too big a journey, because we wanted to go all the way from the hire place in Trevor to the picturesque Black Mere, and then return back past Trevor and go all the way to Llangollen in the other direction. It didn’t seem that far on Google Maps… But we hadn’t reckoned with the boat’s average speed of around 2km per hour. At one point we were overtaken by a mother and daughter, out for a casual stroll along the towpath. They moseyed past us, and disappeared into the distance, leaving us in the dust. Over an hour later we finally caught them up – but only because they’d turned around and were coming back again! I think on our biggest day, we managed a staggering 12 miles…
One important point about a narrow boat is that there’s no electricity to plug into when you stop. So once the engine is off, you’re relying on the battery to power everything inside, from lights to fridge to the pumps that keep the water out.
This being our first time, we may have overestimated the amount of electrical items we had bought with us… The kitchen had a gas cooker, but as we all know the British like to drink a LOT of tea. The Slaters, ever keen to go one step further, had bought their own mini electric kettle. And a microwave, because there wasn’t one on board. And a heater, because we didn’t know if the boat was heated or not… and a lamp in case it was really dark. And two laptops, in case the TV didn’t get any channels (it didn’t). And a back-up portable DVD player in case the laptops didn’t work.
We attempted to watch a DVD that first night – all waking up with a start halfway through the movie, when something bumped into the boat. Our first afternoon on board had been bloody knackering!
By next morning, the batteries were so flat we couldn’t flush the toilet. Not great news in such a confined space, the morning after a hearty pub dinner… We also couldn’t use the lights or the heating, so getting the monstrous diesel engine running was priority one. It was only after I’d started it up that I realised, I’d completely forgotten to conduct our essential daily maintenance chore – pumping a measured amount of grease into the engine. So I spent the rest of the day nervously muttering things like, “I’m sure it wasn’t this noisy yesterday…” and “can anyone else smell burning?”
I piloted through our first lock that morning – almost without stopping, as I was busy trying to interpret a frantic dance Roo was doing on the bow. There was an awkward moment as I overshot the queue of boats waiting, and had to do some hard reversing to get in line.
“What were you waving about?” I asked Roo, afterwards.
She rolled her eyes. “I was trying to say, STOP! THIS IS THE QUEUE FOR THE LOCK.”
For anyone who doesn’t know, a lock is a clever mechanism for raising or lowering the boat into a section of the canal that runs at a different level. Mum, Dad and Roo took instruction from the seasoned boaters in front of us and carefully wound up the gates to let me in. Some injury was inevitable; this time it was Dad, cutting his hand on a runaway winding handle.
It was surreal to stand on the deck of the boat as it sank, ending up with my family’s feet a good metre above my head.
A short distance after the second lock, we had the chance to see a ‘flight’ – basically a series of five locks, allowing boats to drop over 70 feet into the Montgomery Canal.
Most of the banks around here were privately owned. People here had the nicest gardens – I guess you’d have to, with hundreds of tourists boating past every day. But it didn’t leave us many options for mooring up. Dad headed for the only clear stretch we could see, swinging the bow in so Roo could jump off with a rope to pull us in… and that’s when everything went a bit tits up.
The boat was moving too fast, causing the stern to swing out towards the opposite bank. We shouted at Dad to throw it in reverse, which he did – only, by the time the boat reacted, it was sitting diagonally across the whole canal. It leapt backwards, nearly pulling Roo into the water, so Mum and I jumped out to help her drag it back in.
It was an Austin Powers moment – the boat now horizontal across the canal, firmly wedged at both ends, while traffic piled up either side of us and ‘helpful’ locals emerged from their back gardens to bellow advice. “Go back!” one yelled, whilst on the far side I heard a bloke advising Dad to “Go forward!” The answer, of course, to both those suggestions, was, “WE CAN’T!”
I’d fetched the barge pole and was trying to free our front end, to a chorus of, “Don’t push it that way, push it this way…”
I had to grit my teeth to keep from shouting, “See this barge pole? It’s ten feet long. I will shove the ENTIRE THING up your arse if you don’t shut up!”
Unbeknownst to us, the propeller had got stuck in the shallow mud on the far side of the canal. Dad was struggling to free it, but as we had the big pole, he was left using the boathook. This is a sharp steel hook on a short pole, presumably provided in case we got attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia.
He couldn’t push off with it, as the end just sank into the mud, so he got out onto the bank and pushed at the boat instead. Which meant that, when it popped free and drifted into the middle of the canal, on the bank is exactly where he stayed.
Suddenly, the boat came free at the front. We looked up to see what had happened – to spot Dad waving cheerfully at us from the opposite bank.
“What the—? How did—? Why did—? Oh SHIT!”
It was at this point we realised that the Henley was ready to resume its trip downriver… only, without any of us aboard. I grabbed the mooring rope and managed to haul the bow close enough for Mum and Roo to scramble back on. Then I left them pushing off again, and crabbed along the side to reach the tiller. If we’d left it a few seconds later, we’d have created our own miniature Mary Celeste.
I don’t want to think what the hire company would have said about that.
Although to be honest, it’s hard to imagine the boat doing worse on its own that it was doing with our help…
…TO BE CONCLUDED!