Locks, Bridges and Storm Callum

By now you might have an appreciation of the roles and responsibilities of our trip on the Lapland Bunting.  Rob pilots for a sound reason: He has the experience and expertise of many years of boating, knowing how to maneuver and take advantage of things like winds, current and the tiller.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t pilot, I did and yes, the boat is a handfull of near-constant corrections, but on the occasions where I was at the tiller, we didn’t hit anything or anyone, so it is considered a win as far as I am concerned.  The duties that did come my way were more of an Enabler of Passage.

Locks have been around since pre-history on the Nile River as a way to get a boat laden with stuff around rapids or to make changes in elevation from one navigable part to another.  Locks rely on gravity to fill or empty the lock chamber. Gates at either end keep water in or out depending on what direction you’re going. The essential operation be it the Wileymoor Lock, Beveridge’s on the Rideau Canal or the Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal, they all work the same.  The Rideau Canal, has Parks Canada Lock Keepers who do the work of doors and draining or filling the locks. As a boater you listen to what they tell you and ride the boat up and down as need be. Gatun Locks in Panama are merely orders of magnitude larger.

The Shropshire Union Canal has manual locks, which means someone has to open the doors, close the doors and work the windlasses and winding gear to fill or empty the lock, open the appropriate door to let the boat continue, then close the various doors and windlasses to allow whomever is next do their thing.  Since someone has to pilot the boat into the chamber, that would leave someone else to be the Lockie.

It isn’t a particularly difficult thing to do and gravity being reliable on this planet, means the locks work as they should when operated as they should, which we did about two dozen times.  Up and down, gravity and water pressure being our transportation friend.

Lift bridges along the canal are also a feature.  All but one were manually powered, meaning crank the windlass around 30 times or so to raise the bridge and crank it another 30 or so the other way to lower the bridge, the road being generally a dirt track or cow path from one field to another.  Hydraulics are good, reliable things. Again, since someone has to pilot the boat, that means someone else has to operate the lift bridges. The whole process of locking and lift bridges can be done solo and hundreds do, but it is easier with two people.


Where locking, lift bridges and boating become less fun is in the midst of a named storm called Callum.

We knew going into this trip that there was always potential for less than idyllic weather, the UK being the UK.  There was a cold night in Whitchurch, frost on the Lapland Bunting when we opened the hatch in the morning, but we also knew we had packed rain gear and boots to cope with the occasional downpour and soggy ground.  

In the course of two days Calum dropped a month worth of rain on the part of Wales we were in, along with rather bracing winds. Wind and rain, when you’re in the house is not a problem. On a narrowboat, it is simply miserable, especially since a narrowboat is essentially a 230 square foot, under powered steel sail and the wind is always blowing in exactly the wrong direction on an open tiller deck.  

Rain gear or not, we both got soaked to the skin for two days with a cold Welsh gale. After mooring clothing was hung on the interior radiators in a futile attempt to reduce the moisture content from cold terrarium to only modestly sodden. We did forebear with frequent cups of tea for the pilot and lockie to ward off the chill and the damp, but standing next to the heating radiators after mooring up was very welcome.

We were rewarded for our perseverance with a double rainbow toward evening on the second day of rain.  A good omen.

It was a Dark and Stormy Day

It’s a gray day, rainy and wet the wind blowing hard and making navigation difficult as the boat is pushed into the wall. A challenging day to remind me that boating is not always fun and pleasant sunny days but that there are days you’d rather stay tied to shore and watch the day blow past. And that sometimes that is not any option. We have to get the boat back to whence it came and ourselves off to Dublin for a few days to get adapted back to world time from canal time.

We fight the rain and wind moving off the safety of the mooring and into the channel, looking a little like the Michelin man with all the layers – only in blue as that is the colour of my rain gear. Not on the pull today. As we’ve noted narrowboats are, well narrow, but also they are long. The canals are also narrow, the one we are in now is 14 feet or so wide. We are pointing the wrong way and have the choice of backing out of the section we are on or going to the other end where there is a winding hole – a space large enough to turn a narrowboat using the power of the engine or of the wind or in the day, of horses or of the crew.

On my boat back in Canada this would be a simple matter of putting the transmission in reverse and using proportional thrust to steer out, around the corner and if I’d wanted, wherever we needed to go. Narrowboats don’t reverse that well, I can get it going fairly straight but the precise steering of twin engines is not possible.

We push off and slowly move past all the moored boats, at the speed of a 6 month old toddler crawling. As we get to the end I judge the distance, what I have learned of the boat, slowing to a near dead stop.  I use the prop wash in reverse to start turning the boat around the center. When it starts to move backwards I hard over the tiller and change to forward using the prop in forward with the tiller to continue moving the boat around it’s center. I’m now committed to this process switching between forward and reverse to keep the boat still but moving around its center.

As we pass the quarter turn, the wind comes in to the port side of the boat, I try to hold it but the 47 feet by about 5 feet above the water makes a very good 230 plus square foot steel sail. There is nothing for it, get the horses, oh wait you don’t get horses anymore, and the wind is causing the issue. Muster the crew, Dave. Bravely Dave whose physic is not that of an Olympian but more of a older techie with a mix of writer that smokes too much, tries to use the pole to push the boat against the wind. Wind 1, Dave 0.

So Dave jumps off the bow and tugs the rope much like the small ponies of yesterday would have. He pulls and pulls, I help we the engine a little. At last like the Little Engine That Could he has freed the boat, the engine now able to push us out of the Ellesmere branch of the Llangollen canal. There will be more pushing today a then a little scotch and some food when we find a find a place to moor that is fairly sheltered.


The Pace of Peacefull

When we are questioned about the pace of a narrowboat there are a few things that we can compare it to: Walking slowly.  Walking at a medium pace. Walking with a minor irritation and a dash of determination. The speed limit of the Shropshire Union Canal, for that matter all the narrowboat canals, is 4 miles per hour.  And that is about all a narrowboat can do, the little four-hole Isuzu diesel can muster pushing 4 to 5 tons of steel narrowboat and the passengers along with their suitcases, food and drink provisions.

For those of you familiar with boats, or imagining the idea of a high winding speedboat slashing through the water, a rooster-tail of spray soaking the air, and a wake flooding the shore, you are wrong. The Shropshire Union Canal was laid out by getting a dairy cow piss-drunk, then following it across the fields.  Sir Thomas Telford then said, ‘Dig the fucking canal there then!’

Actually is was more complicated than that, more of an actual feat of Victorian engineering before the railways.  The canal does meander a great deal, the longest semi-straight section we’ve encountered has been about a half-mile.  Towards Llangollen the canal is actually half the way up the side of a mountain, overlooking a valley that near as dammit looks like Mont Tremblant in the summer, the village of Llangollen falling down the hill from the canal along the river.  

Dairy and sheep farms butt right up against the canal, one side the former horse-drawn towpath, the other side unimproved scrub bush, bits of swamp and the occasional minuscule watering hole for cows and sheep.  Ducks abound, along with herons and the occasional grey squirrel grabbing up the last of his horde for winter.

There are rules of velocity of course, slow to a dead crawl passing other boats, under bridges or approaching lift bridges and locks.  Dead crawl in a

narrowboat is the pace of a leisurely stroll with no particular place to go while dragging a bale of hay on a rope. Invariably, when passing other boats there is a friendly hello, or good afternoon exchanged with the other boaters, an insider code that tells the others we know exactly how much fun we’re having and the rest of the humans have no idea exactly how satisfied we are with our lot right now.

The canal system is set up under the assumption that as a boater you have at least the sense to not look into your gas tank with a lighter and wonder if the tank is full.  This system would not work in North America, as we must be protected from all potential possibilities of using anything more than the simple brain-stem functions of respiration, elimination and an occasional heartbeat that seems to be the lowest common denominator that lawyers and lawmakers have decided we must have to be a society.  

There are tradeoffs of course.  Our boat, the Lapland Bunting, is 47 feet long, has a galley, a head, shower and a dinette that converts to a twin bed, as well as a twin bed forward.  The passageways between sections are not much more than 18 inches wide. You pass along sideways, trying not to hit your head on things like the ceiling, or a light fixture.  A certain piece of interior trim has tried, almost successfully twice now, to rip my right nipple from my body, as I scuttle along. If you have any time in a small recreational vehicle, you have the drill and the scale is readily apparent.  

Technically the boat sleeps five, but it would have to be two grownups and three children under the age of 6. For two strapping Canadian lads it is enough space but only just. Four grown up couples? Space is at such a premium that you would essentially be committing adultery every few minutes performing such mundane things as getting a cup of tea.  Had we brought out significant others along, there would have been a real and apprehended insurrection, possibly by the first lock on hour 2 of Day 1. It is not roomy. Roomy was never the objective.

Peaceful?  Oh yes. We’re not entirely certain as to what day of the week it is and we don’t particularly care and that is the true objective of the holiday.

Life on a Narrowboat

There are many people that live on narrowboats on the English canals year round and year after year. I cannot pretend to have the experience of these and folks and having watched many of them I’d say the long term effects affect both the happiness and sanity of people. In other words the experience tends to leave you slightly crazed but in a good way, one that makes you happy and allows one to generally ignore most of the rest of the world.

For myself I’ve enjoyed being on a boat, the specific type of boat matters less to me, I simply like being on the water. It calms me. Always moving from place to place like a vagabond of yesteryear meeting new people and moving on. People on the water are mostly friendly unless they are heading to divorce court like the one couple we passed the other day; another holiday boat, probably picked the wrong captain. Certainly on this boat I am happy Juudy isn’t here – she could take it for a few hours after that she would be as frustrated as the two dimensional beings in Flat Land on finding out there is a third dimension (or 3 or 4 dimensions if you want to worry about time). Our friend David was a much more suitable choice a he can be a bloke and blokes can make small spaces work. And is it a small space, I’m six foot and if there was a cross bed on this one I’d just be able to sleep crosswise.

Head space is fine but hips and shoulders are tight. Moving from the aft area which first houses the galley, small but workable, and then the L space dinette / bed. There is a flip up chair opposite the fixed seat. This has become a source of amusement and frustration for us. I am amused as David tries to get the thing open and he is frustrated with the warped and sickened mind that created such a horrible apparatus. The walls in this section are light fake wood, the type not out of place in the North American basements in the 70’s. From there the corridor is on the left and the head on the right with the door to the head about halfway along the corridor, I don’t fit. At least I don’t fit if I’m walking normally, I shuffle along the corridor crab style until I reach the door and then I can step in. Not as tight as an MRI machine, but still could be engineered better. Finally up front is the cabin where we were suppose to have two single beds. Just as well they didn’t as there would be no room for sleeping as 4-5 inches of the 24” mattresses are not usable due to the shape of the hull.

The rental boat we have has leisure batteries, in our part of the world these are called house batteries. There is just about but not quite enough charge in the batteries to keep my CPAP going all night. Other than that we charge batteries during the day and have two laptops. For me this is using just about no power. And yet I wake up in the wee small hours of the morning gasping for air that is no longer being feed by the CPAP machine. Note to self, buy the backup battery next time. Given the small number of amp hours the battery holds we leave the engine running most of the time. This is good as the engine provides power to our electronics as well as hot water. The diesel is also used to heat water in a boiler system for the radiators on board. So at 8:00 PM the power goes off and we start draining the batteries. If we need hot water – wait till morning or boil the kettle, leave the heater on and you’ll drain the starter battery and with all batteries drain, well, you could try push starting the motor but boats don’t really work like that.

In the world of narrowboats this is like the small cabin in the woods, the rustic option. But for two blokes to get away from the hectic world for a while, rustic is working just fine. The galley holds the Scotch bottles fine, there are places to make both tea and coffee and making of sandwiches. The rest of course is handled by any number of pubs with real ales and good food. And since at 8:00 PM it’s getting dark, we go to bed, waking up early with the sun and starting the engine and the heat. Pushing off down the river to meander through tremendous vistas and to find the next pub that will for a while be the best pub in the world.

As I write this the rain has stopped, we’ve seen a double rainbow and the villagers are coming out and about with their many dogs. Through the window I see some shrubs wet from the rain sparkling in the sun and past that a large green field dappled in sunlight. I think I’ll pour another Scotch and sit outside for the pipe.

Understanding English Lit

England has created some really great literature, from wonderful stories about bears named Winnie to the Hounds of the Baskervilles and to dragons such as Smaug. What has inspired these writers to create such wonderful works and build such grand worlds in which their stories take place? Stories filled with life not just people but with fairies, elves, ents and all manner of folk and beast.

I think it has to do the land. We crossed a wildlife preserve a few days ago and seeing a fairy or a even a dragon in those woods would not have been surprising. We have now have reached Llangollen and to do so have flown over a vast valley in a boat in an aqueduct. Most people looking at such a task, moving boats across a valley, would have taken the boats down in a series of locks and then backup on the other side. Thomas Telford not so much, he built a whacking great aqueduct so the boats “fly” 126 feet above the valley. Then build the canal on the side of the mountain so as people travel down the canal they can look down from the canal into the villages in the valley. Not something you would normally expect from a canal.

The woods here are somehow both wild and tame at least here outside of the major cities. Unlike bush in Canada where there is growth and undergrowth and then rot under all that, the forests we’ve seen in England and Wales along the canals are neat. They lack the same level of undergrowth and rot and seem somehow cleaner.

I know that sounds crazy but that’s how things are from what I’ve seen. Whether it is some sort of trick of nature, or perhaps there are fairies that keep the forests tidy, however it happens, it leads to places where imaginations can run and play and dream up worlds that are disk shaped  on the back of a turtle support by five large elephants. Perhaps just have things like an aqueduct in the sky lets you see big boxy boats floating overhead in exactly the way bricks don’t.

As I sit here though and peer through the window into the woods that take up the other side of the canal I’d like to think there are little folks in there, ready to inspire another great writer to wonderful flights of fancy and imagination.

Something folks on these isles are very good at.