Canal boating

‘It’s just like a bath tub with a plug and taps. When you want to fill up the bath, first you put in the plug and then you turn on the taps. If you want to empty the bath, you lift up the plug.’ He’s young and dressed head to toe in dark blue clothes. ‘Locks are as simple as that.’

Four of us are standing in close, so we don’t miss anything. Our fifth is at the back of the narrow boat, the stern, because he’s driving, or is it steering? Even the the term steering is misleading. When it is my turn, it feels like I’m trying to guide a 56ft (17m) bus along a narrow, icy road without any brakes. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s get back to the locks.

Locks are a way of altering the height of a waterway. They comprise of two sets of gates, one at either end, as well as paddles which are lifted or lowered to allow water out or in. Water inside the lock chamber needs to be at the level that the boat currently is. So if you’re going downhill, you make sure the paddles are down on the far set of gates and raise the paddles of the set closer to the boat. Once the water fills the chamber, the pressure has equalised and simply leaning on the gates will open them easily. If you try and force them, you’ll only do yourself an injury.

After bringing the boat inside the chamber, the gates are closed behind the boat. The boat needs to keep far enough forward of the cill which becomes exposed when the water level falls far enough. If the back gets caught, the boat can list forward and fill with water. So now we’re inside, the paddles at the front are lifted and the water drains away, levelling out again so the gates can open and the boat can exit. Don’t get carried away and motor off too fast though, as your crew has to shut the gates and lower the paddles again before you pick them up.

Anyway, do that a dozen or more times a day, motoring at a leisurely pace along a canal that you can probably stand up in. That was our weekend. We only moved 10 km down the canal before we had to turn around (another adventure) and do it all again. And I’m already conniving a plan to do it all again. Why? Because all mucking in together, talking things through, taking turns at the different roles steering, working the locks and steadying the boat with ropes was incredibly bonding. Steve and I, Steve’s sister, Sarah, and her husband, Craig, their 10 year-old son, Byron and my nephew, Marcus, all worked as a team. It was kind of like camping but on a narrow boat.

Our instructor, Will, has been only working for Shire Cruisers for four years but his family always had a canal boat so he grew up around them. Coiling the rope neatly and hanging it on the back hooks is second nature to him. You won’t find him tripping over it and falling in the fetid water. He scales the side ledges with ease, can reverse the boat in a tight spot and has no qualm sticking his hand in cloudy water to check the propeller can turn freely.

He gives us a short, fifteen-minute induction detailing the daily checks we need to perform to keep everything ship-shape, so to speak: grease, oil, propeller, prime the starter motor and so on. We are then sent on our way to practise our steering on the way down to the first lock. It is there that he goes through the process with us, directing us like a patient kindergarten teacher with addressing those with a short attention span. We struggle with the new vocabulary, soon coming up with our own names for the tools.

And like that, we’re on our way. The map and emergency phone number is left on the table so we can find it easily if we need to. I keep looking over my shoulder but Will has turned his back and is walking away from the canal. I miss him already.

Craig is doing an excellent job steering us in a relatively straight line. Out the window, three ducks swim past us. ‘Give it a bit of welly, then,’ I say encouragingly. Back in the day, horses used to provide the power, pulling cargo-laden barges down the canals. Nowadays, the canals are mostly full of tourists and holiday-makers trying to avoid each other and those who live on their boats. It’s toasty warm inside now as it’s early autumn but I don’t envy boat residents getting through the winter months.

‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ Sarah asks for the first of many times over the next few days. We all seem to agree that we’ve earned a cup of tea. The boat has a fully equipped kitchen with gas stove, mini fridge, microwave, crockery, cutlery and a dining cum lounge area that transforms into another bed in the evening. Down the stern end are two single beds with good storage, a bathroom with shower, then two more beds in the middle and another bathroom and shower, a slim wardrobe and then the kitchen/lounge area up front. At 56 foot in total length, it is both long but not very big. If we pair with a shorter boat, two of us can fit in a lock together which saves us all time and energy.

Before long, skipper announces another lock is ahead and teas are abandoned or skulled as we nominate ourselves as lock crew, rope assistant or gate watcher. It is quite literally all hands on deck and I can’t imagine doing this with less than four adults. None of us have ever done this before and it is a mental exercise as well as a physical one. For stretches at a time, we’re just cruising along slowly soaking in the ambience of the canals. Weeping willows over hang the water. Blackberries, ivy and fig trees come right down to the water’s edge. Moss-covered stones line the tow path which follows alongside. Excitable dogs followed by their owners and cyclists cover more ground than we do but it’s about how fast you get there.

So many quaint lock-keeper’s cottages, village pubs and stone bridges than you almost become immune to their charm. Almost. The first afternoon, we don’t go very far at all but we all agree to moor within walking distance of a pub. We go through a lock and moor not far the other side of it. Stakes hammered in, ropes tied front and back, we lock up the boat to head into Elland for dinner at the Colliers Arms.

Typical English pub menu is on offer: pies, fish ‘n’ chips, liver and onions, roast of the day, burgers, gammon, and so on. Tonight we all order pie, mash and peas with a pint of local cask ale. Those drinks have never gone down so quickly. Seconds, and for some people thirds, are ordered and consumed. That night we sleep well even with the narrow, firm beds.