- First time single-handed
My first single-handed excursion took place on 1st September 2016, a couple of weeks after the epic move to Welford. Although I was grateful to Willy Nilly for his help, I knew I needed to get to grips with handling the boat alone. The only way was to bite the bullet and get the boat out on the canal. Of course, more sensible would have been to take the RYA helming course, but with money tight this was way down my list of priorities. My boat log for that first solo excursion notes how happy I was afterwards. This was probably because I had narrowly missed hitting another boat, dodged falling into the canal and managed to shift the boat after it (or rather I) had grounded it.
An inauspicious date?
Perhaps the 1st September was not the best date for my first solo trip. The anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, might be seen by some as a portent of doom. (Alternatively, my history driven world might just be a sign that I spent too many years engaged in Holocaust education.) As it was a Thursday I was also hopeful that families and others would either be safely at work or preparing to return to school, leaving me alone to cause havoc on the Grand Union.
When Willy Nilly and I had dumped moored the boat, we had given little thought to getting her back out again. As a result, she was moored bow first and required reversing off the mooring. I started the old Sabb engine. This process requires oil squirted into the engine, a compression lever and key turning, plus a contortionist’s ability to tie arms in knots to achieve all of this. I threaded on the centre rope and all that was left was to untie and go. It was a relief when my liveaboard neighbour appeared and gave me a hand. He was probably rightly nervous of me and my capacity to hit things with my boat. (My potential collision course would mean hitting his lovely, shiny boat first.)
My neighbour guided me backwards into the corner of the marina, and then pulled my bow round with ropes. This was so much easier than trying to reverse, which was beyond my skills set and left me feeling out of control. I have very little steering when in reverse on my little boat and it has taken me until this winter (2017/18) to learn how to reverse in a straight line. I am hopeful this newfound skill will come in useful at some point in the future and I look forward to job applications where an essential skill is narrowboat reversing.
A non-plused cat
Having pulled the boat round the right way, my neighbour waved me off, continuing to shout guidance as I edged towards the marina exit. (His actions should be contrasted with their cat who appeared to be shaking her head in disgust at my total boating incompetence.) The ridiculously narrow marina exit then required a hard turn right. (I swear the exit is less than the width of a boat and only expands as you edge your way through.) Once out, it was another hard-right onto the canal. I could hear my neighbour shouting to go full revs in reverse and at that my boat began turning. The boat swung round and finally I was out on the cut, facing the right direction. It was then I realised I had been holding my breath for at least 10 minutes and was now thoroughly exhausted. At this rate I would need a lie down before going the 100m to the Welford lock.
For the life of me I can’t remember going through the lock on that first solo outing. This I find a strange quirk of memory, as going through a lock alone takes time and is a process. Clearly my avid reading of the Ladybird ‘The Story of Our Canals’ with its fabulous endpaper of how a lock works had served its purpose and provided enough guidance for my boating antics.
I do, though, remember helming the boat up the Welford Arm, which was very lovely. Full of lots of overhanging late summer greenery, the sound of birds chirping and warm September sunshine. I was lulled into a false sense of security. The joyous idyll quickly melted away as I spotted another boat coming towards me at a particularly weedy, narrow stretch. I tried not to exude panic, and attempted to slow down and ‘hover’. Instead I did a great job of reversing my stern into the weeds as my bow swung out into the canal. The couple on the other boat could see I was struggling and kindly pulled over to let me pass, probably realising this was a protectionist move for them and their very nice boat. I passed by and in a high pitched voice, trying to cover my fear, squeaked it was my first time out single-handed. (I did wonder for how many years I could make this claim if my steering did not improve.)
Measuring by bridges
My plan was to turn left onto the Grand Union Leicester Line when I reached the end of the junction with Welford Arm. From there I would head to the winding hole just beyond Bridge 36. At that point in time I had not entered into the canal-world way of measuring distance and time by bridges. It had taken me a while to work out what my boaty neighbour was talking about when she spoke of ‘going to 25’ or ‘it’s nice at 40’. Similarly, I wasn’t really sure whether it was winding – as in a wind blowing , or winding – as in reeling in, and would repeat both pronunciations one after the other whenever needed. (For those who are unaware it seems that the winding holes are to do with the blowing wind and identified pre-canal spots where a ship with sails could catch the wind and turn around.) To be honest at 32ft my boat can be turned in other places, but I am still nervous of getting stuck.
Having made it up the Welford Arm and onto the main line I felt it was time to eat. This of course required mooring up. It was then the ‘Kay on a boat’ Channel 5 type farce began. I struggled to slow down and get close enough to the bank to get off the boat. As I was going too fast, and the wind was blowing I ended up with my bow in a patch of reeds, not ideal but I decided it would do. As I stepped off the boat and tried to pull her in, I realised the stern didn’t seem to be moving. Still tugging on the rope my brain finally engaged and I realised I was grounded.
Instead of tying up and having a break, I decided grounding was an imminent mortal hazard (which it clearly wasn’t) and that I needed to move the boat. I tried to reverse off, but it was well and truly stuck. Back then my raggedy boat didn’t have a boat pole. The only similar thing was the boat hook on a long wooden pole. I jammed the hook into the towpath and shoved, there was a loud crack as the rotten hook-pole snapped and the boat stayed put.
Back off the boat again, I fished the hook out of the canal, then I began trying to push her out. Despite my best efforts this didn’t seem to be working. As my panic rose, I wedged myself almost horizontally across the canal between towpath and boat. This panic evoked some sort of Incredible Hulk type adrenaline and with my feet on the canal edge and my hands pushing the boat I gave it a huge shove. In hindsight this particular move was not the best, and quite how I didn’t end up in the water is one of those canal miracles. Somehow as the stern shifted I wobbled back onto land, now the next puzzle was how to get back onto the boat with a 6 ft gap between it and me.
At this point I did ponder whether I might have been better off staying in the marina. The conundrum was now how to pull the boat in enough to get on but not to ground her again. Plus, with the bow deep in the reed-bed I was wondering how I would get her out into the canal without tangling weed around the propeller. The only thing for it seemed to be to pull in the bow, but not too close and clamber through the cratch into the boat. Having pulled the boat in a little I took a mammoth leap, (I am quite short) and did an epic superhero roll onto the boat. As I sat on the floor of the cratch hysteria set in as I considered the farcical events of the previous half an hour, and I still hadn’t managed to have lunch…
With a bit of careful reversing I got the boat back onto the canal and safely passed the reeds. A bit further on I attempted to moor up again. This time, low blood sugar, or stupidity took hold, as I turned the engine off before mooring up. Quite what possessed me to do this is beyond me, however luckily I wasn’t grounded and was close enough to jump off the boat and use chains on the Armco. Having now managed to moor up I was finally able to breath, and maybe relax. Well, perhaps ‘relax’ is over stating the situation, but I did at least sit down for a bit. I was also finally able to go to the loo.
Toilets and food
I must admit I find one of the most annoying issues of single-handed boating is going to the loo. It is, quite honestly, a pain in the bum, as I have to moor the boat before I can use the facilities. This is perhaps one of the joys of being in a lock – using it as a loo break
After the loo and then eating, and watching the canal for a bit, the final challenge of the day was turning around and getting back to the marina. Turning in the winding hole was a breeze (sorry for the cheesy pun) and all was going well until I reached the lock back at Welford.
Wafting across the pound
By now the wind had picked up and was blowing across the exposed lock pound. This side-on wind left me floundering as I tried to moor up ready to set the lock. Of course it is sods law that another boat was coming up behind me and watched my failure to pull in. Each time I got close to the side and was about to step ashore the wind caught the boat and pushed me into the centre of the pound. Yet again this was one of those extended-through-time moments. It was an immense relief when the people on the boat behind came running alongside, asked if I was single-handed, told me to stay put as they set the lock for me. (I am sure they anticipated a 3 day wait of watching my antics and decided the only way to speed up the process was to get me into the lock!) I was extremely grateful, whatever their motivation – I am not proud!
All that was left was to get back into the marina and moor up. Again the memory of how I managed to turn the boat through the narrow entrance has been lost. I do remember my neighbour handily appearing, just like the shopkeeper in Mr Ben, to help me reverse into my mooring. With the boat moored, engine off, stern-gland greaser turned, and the tiller inside the boat I felt a ridiculous sense of achievement and realised as with much else in life I could do it alone.