Wednesday, 16 November 2011

How to steer a narrowboat

When I first thought about steering a narrowboat I was truly intimidated. It seemed HUGE! It is 18 meters long and with a weight of 17 tons it has enormous momentum once it is going. At least you are never faster than walking speed, but you can still create quite a crash when hitting a wall or bank. I have seen several severely damaged bridges on canals that must have been hit hard by boats....

My first lessons
The first problem is that the engine and the steering called tiller is at the back of the boat. Therefore you are standing at the back of the boat too, and try to look along your 18 meter monster in order to see where the front is going. To make things even more complicated steering a boat is opposite to steering a car. If you want to turn left you have to turn the tiller right. Although I should have been used to that from paddling I still got very confused in the beginning and ended up with pointing my hand to right hand side in order to make me realise I have to steer in the opposite direction. Unfortunately this very illogical system got me so confused in the end that I stood there with my two arms pointing in different directions and no hand on the tiller..... I freely admit that it took me more than 3 days to even steer the boat in a straight line and John confessed afterwards that he had regarded me as a hopeless case.

But somehow it sort of "clicked" after 3 days and the steering became sort of automatic. I managed to keep a straight line and even got around bends - still screaming "John, help me" every time I was about to crash into a bank or wall. My straight lines sometimes looked very zigzaggy, but I started to feel more confident.

Going into a lock after a bridge
Unfortunately, boating is not only going along in a straight line on a broad canal - there are various obstacles to master. First of all there are other boats around trying to pass and that means you better get out of the way without hitting them or getting stuck on the shallow sides of the canal. And then of course there are tons of bridges. New bridges tend to be very wide and pose no problem but the old original bridges are very narrow. And if bad comes to worst the are located in a bend of the canal. With an 18 meter boat you cannot turn directly under the bridge or the back of the boat will hit the bridge. Therefore you have to "thread in" already in the right angle - not easy for a beginner. And because bridges were difficult and expensive to built, some canal companies preferred lift bridges that are so narrow that a boat can just pass through - a nightmare for me in my first steering lessons.
Perfect lock approach

The most difficult part though is going through locks and it took over a week until John would allow me to try that. But to my big surprise I seem to have a hidden talent for locks as I never crashed into one despite the fact that the locks are so narrow that there is just centimetres of water on either side of the boat when in a lock! When approaching a lock I felt like a pilot trying to land a jet on a airplane carrier on the ocean. Again you have to get the angle 100% correct before you enter the lock as you cannot steer once the front of the boat is inside - and the front is almost 18 metres away from where you are standing and trying to figure out which way to go. Also you have to approach very slowly or you are not able to stop the boat before it hits the front of the lock.

The worst is over once you are inside the lock but you still have to pay attention. When water comes rushing into the lock while going up the boat is bashed around a lot. In a single lock this is not too much of a problem but when alone in a double you have to be very careful not to damage the boat. Boats have fenders in the front and on the back which lessen the impact when hitting a lock gate a bit. When going down you have to watch out not to get stuck on the cill - or you will end up like the boat in the picture. This is one of the worst possible accidents for a boater as you cannot float the boat again without drowning it - you have to get a crane to lift it out.

Opening a lock gate
I still feel a bit frightened and claustrophobic when inside a boat in a lock and the water comes rushing into the lock chamber bashing the boat around. It feels like a big relief when the lock gates open and you can get out. By the way: Opening and closing the locks is hard work, too. You run up and down the locks always trying to prepare the next one while the first one is in the process of filling up or draining with water. Sometimes John even uses a foldable bike to cycle between locks and speed up the process. Opening the panels on the locks can be hard. If the water level inside the lock chamber and outside are not absolutely the same you are not able to open the gate. Luckily most locks have grips on the gate area to help you push the gate open.

Threading into a tunnel
My biggest nightmare are tunnels: Usually narrow as locks they are not only difficult to get in, but even more difficult to steer once inside as there is hardly any room for steering corrections. On busy canals there are 2-way tunnels and they are wide enough for two boats to pass each other - but no matter what you do you will most likely scratch along the tunnel walls or hit the other boat.
Don't take a wrong turn in a canal as turning around in a boat is a difficult operation. You can reverse in a boat, but steering in reverse is almost impossible. Basically you just hope for the best and correct by going forward again. By the way: Braking is also done by reversing.

Disappearing into a lock
All this sounds really complicated and it definitely is very difficult for a beginner - but it is also great fun. After having been classified as a hopeless case and then re-emerged as a natural lock talent I became really addicted. So in the last month John has mostly been twiddling has thumbs (and silently praying) whilst I was doing all the steering and becoming better every day. I might not have been John's fastest student, but definitely his most enthusiastic. I am very sure that this has not been my last time on a narrowboat.


Anonymous said...

Great Narrowboating stories...thanks.

Monte Clifford said...

I am VERY impressed. You always have amazing stories, and entertaining writing, Christine. I am in southern Tuscany farmsitting for a few weeks. I wish you well, and thank you for always entertaining.