03 August 2008

Middlewich memories

One of the things I loved most about the Weltonfield hire boats we used to take out was the sound they made. They all had indestructible 3-cylinder Listers and they made a wonderful thump under your feet as you chugged along the cut. You had to shout at one another to make yourself heard but it was a small price to pay. So when the first seed of boat ownership was sown all those years later, I had a hankering for a good old engine note. But then I also wanted all those gorgeous things that were incompatible with pragmatism and a micro bank balance – a seventy footer, a long tug deck, recessed panels, and an engine room with something that had once possibly powered a bus.

Money talks, of course, and as mine was permanently dumb, we ended up with a 57 footer plus Beta 43. But I can have no complaints. It sounds pretty good, it’s remarkably reliable and it takes up very little room. The single lever control also keeps life refreshingly uncomplicated. In fact, I’m not too sure that if I’d gone down the vintage route whether I would ever have mastered the speed wheel and rods set up. I have a horrible feeling that I would have been spinning one way when I should have been going the other and pushing when I should have been pulling...or the other way around. I had actually witnessed that very nightmare while hiring with A and I think I made a subconscious decision then and there to keep things simple.

We were just coming up to Wardle Lock and as someone was ahead of us, we tied up and went to lend a hand. Maureen was already outside imparting some advice to the helmsman and we quickly clocked that this was a just departed Middlewich hireboat with a Liverpudlian hen party on board. They were already in excellent spirits – Bacardi Breezers I think – but were slightly hesitant as this was everyone’s first time on a narrowboat. Now anyone who’s done Wardle Lock will know that it is a bit of a minx in that if you are anywhere other than right on the top gate it will draw you forward pretty sharpish, however slowly you raise the paddles. Right on cue the boat started to move forward, at which point Maureen advised a bit of reverse. The girl at the tiller got very confused, understandably given that she’d only been at the controls two minutes, and span the wheel the wrong way.

Isn’t it amazing how much momentum you can build up in a lock? Being made of tough stuff, the lock gate groaned but held and the boat bounced off it. Trouble was, by now the girl had found reverse and the boat, already ricocheting back the other way, started to really steam down the lock. Maureen was shouting, the girls were screaming, I just shut my eyes and waited. I had visions of this boat flying out through ruptured bottom gates and was glad we’d tied round the corner. Somehow forward gear was engaged just in time to soften the blow a tad but an almighty thud still had me opening one eye cautiously to see if the gates and boat were intact. You could hear the collective deep breaths of relief as they escaped from their first lock, all alcohol still in tact. I didn’t have the heart to tell them there was another lock just up ahead.

When we eventually came through the lock ourselves ten minutes later, Maureen asked us to keep an eye on them as she thought it a bit unkind to send complete novices out on a boat with a speed wheel and they were still obviously struggling with the basics. She was worried for them and so were we, so we were somewhat relieved to see that they’d had enough for the day and were attempting to tie up before the next lock. Except they weren’t going anywhere as they had become completely wedged on the mud. We came up alongside and told them to chuck it in reverse and see what happened. Nothing. We tried to tow them off, but couldn’t shift them. It started to rain, but this was just the cue for more Bacardi Breezers to be opened. I can remember very clearly that absolutely nothing was going to spoil this party.

In the end, I sent A across to supervise a bit of gunwhale rocking. We selected those girls that were only half paralytic and with A showing them the way, they started rocking the boat. Much encouragement from the others was heard through the gathering gloom and then it happened. A, the person who was supposed to know what he was doing, lost his footing and fell in. Of course, that was the catalyst for much hysteria and Scouse squawking and I thought A was about to have a sense of humour failure. But good on him, he merely gathered himself together, commented on how it was warmer in the canal than out and proceeded, with great perspicuity, to wade round to the other side of the boat. Once there, he braced himself against the bank and pushed the boat off the mud with his feet, to the accompaniment of loud cheers from his newly acquired groupies.

We both got moored up soon after with no more crises and A set about drying himself off. The one problem he faced was that he’d only brought one pair of boots, his favoured Caterpillar ones, and they were soaked through. They weren’t going to dry either outside or inside without some help so he hit upon the idea of putting them in the oven. Well, folks, should you ever have a moment of insanity and fancy creating that special 'rendering plant atmosphere' on your boat, then I suggest you stick in some leather size tens at Gas Mark 6.

No comments: