We were warned. The canals can be quite shallow and dangerous at times. The chap who ran our Helmsman course spent the weekend scaring us to death. He had more stories of narrow boating disasters than I care to remember. People getting sucked into lock pipes and falling off boats into the prop….enough. Well, not quite. He talked about running aground and what to do if such occurs. “Happens quite a lot in the shallower parts of the canals” he said. I was determined not to.
Let me tell you about the Helmsman course. It’s a 2 day affair, very long days (9-6pm), that gets you ready for The Cut. A number of agencies and qualified people teach these courses. We decided, being novices, that this was the way to go. The internet lists all kinds of prospective teachers, but we chose one because they teach you on your own boat. The first day was all on land….tying knots, learning about the engine and all the intricate workings of our boat. The instructor had me down in the engine room (a complete mystery to me) checking out things that have to be done every day. Apparently, we have a Beta Marine 43d (for diesel) engine, one of the finest engines made. I can now service it adequately. Before the course someone had asked me what kind of engine we had. I said ‘green’.
But I have to twist like a pretzel to get into the small space where the engine, weed hatch, prop and stern tube greaser reside. Not easy for an old geezer let me tell you. And you get dirty too…..greasy even. Right out of my comfort zone, but must be done. The electrics on the boat are complex. No one could explain them to us, just that we had ‘lots of good kit’. Not until we met Amazon Charlie did we know what we had and what we needed to read the dials and use the system properly.
Then on the second day of the course we set off, the instructor coming with us until he was satisfied that we weren’t going to kill ourselves. Our first locks were staircase locks, descending one after the other, 7 in all. Harrowing, but better because of the instruction….along with more scary tales of The Cut as we descended. By the time he left us, we were so afraid to go on we moored up and stayed for a day until my friend Tony and his wife Deb joined us to help us on our way….they being veterans of The Cut.
By the third day we were ready to solo. In much fear and trepidation we said goodbye to our lifeline and cruised off. It all went remarkably well. I negotiated narrows, bridges, tight corners and we even handled the locks with great aplomb. My best friend handled those. By the fourth day she was telling other people how to do it. Lots of people rent boats for holidays on this section of the canals and have an hour instruction if that. Even more scary. By now we were feeling like seasoned vets.
Then we got to a lock which we had to get to through a bridge. Blocking our approach, moored where he should not have been, was one of those dreaded wide beam boats. And it didn’t help that someone had left the paddles open, lowering the water where we sat. Of course we had no idea what the problem was until later, talking to more experienced boaters, but it all felt like trouble at the time. And it was. I could hear the instructor’s voice telling me not to panic and think through the problem….with a 60 foot long narrow boat and 17 tons of steel beneath me.
I was in danger of hitting the wide beam, and actually gave it a glancing blow trying to line up to get into the lock. No one was home thankfully. So, I backed off. Again, not an easy task on these vehicles. But as I did, my rear end (the boat’s stern) got mired in silt from the very shallow bank and we were aground. No amount of forward and reverse could get us free. In fact, we were digging in deeper. We were stuck fast, aground. I swore, but I didn’t panic. Well, not much anyway. Like a brave captain with his ship floundering, I ordered the First Mate (my best friend) up onto the roof to fetch our 12 foot wooden pole (purchased, fortunately, the week before). With the agility of an acrobat, she made her way along the narrow, curved roof to the pole and carried it like a tightrope walker back to me.
I pushed the pole into the silt and gave a mighty push, like Huck Finn might have. I nearly needed all 12 feet. The boat moved slightly. One more push ought to do it. But extracting the pole from the silt was no easy task. I had to use all my strength to get it back. Which I finally did. Another mighty push, pulling the pole back out with a struggle and we were free. Into the lock we went and continued on as if nothing had gone wrong. The instructor would have been proud.
That was enough excitement for one day. We moored up a little while later, had our SADs (check the previous Blog), went to a pub for dinner and talked through the day like two intrepid sailors who had risked life and limb on The Cut (again, refer to the last Blog). The rest of the way was relatively smooth cruising. We even began to enjoy the natural world around us. Fields and hills and trees, all kinds of birds and wildlife and sunshine. It became much easier and even the water got deeper. But I kept to the middle of The Cut. Can never be too careful. Our instructor drilled that into us. I think he just loves the drama of it all.