I guess I have been relatively lucky in not collecting weed, wire, fishing line, bits of tree, or other things around the prop shaft or screw. Well, the moment arrived on the Caldon Canal. The boat moved sluggishly and the wash from the screw spewed out on the starboard quarter. Steering was nigh on impossible. I limped on to a mooring place, just upstream of Hazelhurst Junction, where the Leek Branch diverts from the Caldon Canal in northern Staffordshire.
The weed hatch is a complex and challenging affair. It lurks below the stern deck, beneath a heavy steel panel. On my traditional stern it cannot be lifted from above (unless you have the skills of Captain Pat Reid and his fellow would-be escapers from Colditz). It is accessed via a flap beneath the after cabin doors and pushed upwards.
Underneath is another cover, held down by a locking “handle” that is to be released and resealed using a hammer, or similar, to ensure a seal against the wash from high revolutions on the screw. An incomplete seal could result in a serious “Oh shit!” moment.
Then there is a heavy cover to lift out, revealing a well of nearly opaque cut water. I could see some foreign blue thing in there. I could also discern the top of the screw (not apparent in the image), which was a reassuring bright brass colour. Having no real idea of what I was up against, I had assembled an arsenal of sharp implements, including: hacksaw, coping saw, carving knife, wire cutters, sewing scissors and Stanley knife. These last two would prove the only useful weapons in this case. (One person I spoke with said they had needed bolt cutters!)
The blue stuff turned out to be some kind of fabric. The main difficulties are that cut water is not as clear as it is in the Bahamas, or St Ives Bay, it is murky, so you can’t see what you are doing; and the depth – if my arms were about two inches longer things would be so much easier, but you work with what you have. First I just tried pulling at the blue stuff, hoping against hope that it would just break free, but it just stretched: it turned out to be an elasticated waistband, and that stuff is tough! At least 8 out of 10 boaters agree.
It took going on for an hour of submarine groping, pulling, slashing and snipping (it was as though the screw had put whatever it was on just as you or I might have donned a pair of shorts), I managed to remove the offending garment.
So I put back the cover and locking mechanism. I thought I would apply some waterproof grease, but the heavens opened and I beat a hasty retreat.
When the rain had stopped I wrung out the debris and put it in a bag for when I reach a waste disposal point.
This is my first time on the Caldon Canal (on a boat – the towpath so far has been excellent for walking and cycling – National Cycle Route 550), which branches off the Trent & Mersey at Etruria in Stoke-on-Trent. From there it leads to Froghall, via Cheddleton, with a branch going almost to Leek. Once again the kindness of the stranger played its role.
“Don’t go down t’ clough.” the policeman said, “It’s mucky road for thee to tread, Canal’s at bottom… deep and wide.” “That’s not my road.” the lad replied, It’s… ‘Uppards‘
Extract from the poem Uppards by Marriott Edgar, a response Excelsior!, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in which the “hero” dies of cold in the mountain snow.
The twisting, turning, winding cuts of northern Staffordshire
Just a short cruise today. I keep forgetting to have a camera handy, but today I had my old compact camera to hand. At least if it goes overboard it won’t be the disaster that losing my other camera would.
I needed to run the engine for a bit longer to charge the batteries, and I might as well be going along, so I decided to get past Trentham Lock, a relatively forbidding 11 feet 11 inches. In practice, apart from the shower that began just as I had climbed the ladder and ended just as I had closed the top gate, it was not too bad. A passer-by, brolly aloft, told me that he had reached the next bridge in sunshine and passed through into rain.
There was some leakage from the top gate, but, even so, the lock was empty and I could open the bottom gates. Despite the metal beams these were not overly heavy. Some of the locks though Stone and Meaford are really testing.
Unusually, the ladder and bollards are on the on-side (left); the same side as the paddle mechanisms, so less walking about. Even with just the ground paddle open keeping the boat at one end of the lock seemed impossible. Some boaters leave the engine in gear, but the danger is that if tick over is not powerful enough to hold the boat against the top gate, when the boat does move forward the impact will be much harder, with the likelihood of bouncing. No good for either boat or lock! So far, I have managed to avoid breaking anything, though a clock did fall onto the bed once, while navigating locks.
Some locks have convenient bollards at the exits, so that the stern line can be deployed while closing gates. Here I used the ground paddle mechanism.
North of the lock suburban Trentham straddles the cut, which is partly in cutting, with a variety of trees.
Tomorrow, I will go into Stoke, with four more locks, making up the remainder of the 50 foot flight. My aim is to turn onto the Caldon Canal, which means at least 3 more locks. Hopefully, there will be more boat crews to help out.
Every four years boats must be examined under the Boat Safety Scheme (BSS). This is the equivalent of an MOT for a car, but more complex. Mine was due by 9 June.
It took me a while to find an examiner who could carry out the examination in the timescale and who is “gas safe”. After many emails and phone calls, and enquiries at boat yards and marinas, I found Phil Jones, resident of Acton Trussell, a small village in Staffordshire. He said that if I could get my boat there for Saturday afternoon, 8 June, he would do it then. That Wednesday I was by the Tame Aqueduct on the other side of Fazeley; achievable, but challenging. In truth, it was the break I was hoping for.
That morning I had set off from the eastern half of Tamworth (between bridges 68 and 69) at 08:30. Whilst unmooring I was passed by coal boat Callisto and another live-aboard. The water was very low, so Callisto, carrying 17 tons of coal, plus gas and diesel, was on tickover all the way and, so he told us at Glascote Locks, hitting things under the water, especially at bridges. Funereal is probably an overestimation of our pace to the locks, where I stopped for water, but below the bottom lock better progress could be made.
After a break near Fazeley, and having a target, I moved on with as much speed as I could muster. One frustration is the frequency of moored boats – one is supposed to go slowly past them, and with good reason – especially long linear online moorings and sporadic single boats. I had hoped to stop at Fradley Junction, partly to dispose of rubbish, but could not moor on the Coventry Canal. That meant navigating the swing bridge, junction, and two more locks (landing at the first is awkward), but I still could not get in above the top lock, so eventually moored above Wood End Lock about 19:45. The engine had been on for 8 hours. A long day, indeed my longest cruise, but it seems churlish to complain given the anniversary of D-Day. Still, I was exhausted, and this was not helped by what I suppose were pre-exam nerves – would the boat fail, necessitating expensive work?! At least the weather was fair. For now …
Thursday was another marathon, for me, at least. Where the Trent & Mersey Canal passes Handsacre and Armitage, and approaches Rugeley, there are some very tight, blind bends and a narrow “tunnel”, so it is a bit challenging. I stopped in Rugeley to stock up on groceries (the shops, including Morrisons, Aldi and Wilko, are close to the cut), then continued towards Haywood Junction, hoping to dispose of rubbish and top up with diesel. I was helped to some extent with Colwich Lock and Haywood Lock, which saved some time. Nonetheless, there were no spaces before the junction, and I was too late for diesel. I continued to Tixall Wide, on the Staffs & Worcester, a favourite spot. I could have continued to Acton Trussell, but that would mean two more locks, and I had already been going for six hours; enough was enough. (On Sunday, it would take three hours’ cruising to get back from Action Trussell to Tixall Wide in much better conditions.)
Next morning I fitted the CO detectors purchased the day before and, while putting tools away, managed to cut the back of my hand – one of those irritating injuries that don’t hurt, but you have to put a plaster on to avoid getting blood everywhere. Next, I walked to the junction to dispose of rubbish, and as soon as I had returned, cast off hoping that the forecast rain would be late. I met another boat at Tixall Lock (only 4’3” rise), so didn’t have to stop to close the top gate. There the rain began. Gently at first, but gradually heavier and more persistent.
Just as I was skirting the north of Stafford the low battery alarm sounded and its red light pierced the gloom. I checked the indicators and there seemed to be nothing wrong; voltage was good for both starter and domestic batteries, and both were charging. When I could I moored just after Saint Thomas Bridge (101). Again, I could not see why the alarm was on. I wondered if some rainwater had affected it, but could not see any damp patches, drip points or leaks that could cause any problem (there is a leak in the engine room roof, but that is away from the electrics and drips collect in a jug). The indicator panel was bone dry. So, I switched off that panel and relied (as I still do) on the other, less sophisticated, indicator, which was still telling that the batteries were fine. The alternator belts seemed tight enough. But why now? Why the day before the BSS exam?
To recreate the situation, I have been running the engine to charge the batteries. The only difference is that the low battery warning is behaving itself – perhaps it has rectified itself, though 14.2V is a bit higher than normal charging, which usually goes up to about 13.8V. See images below.
L to R: oil pressure 2 bar (about normal); rev counter (not working) (Tach shows nearly 7,500 hours; water temperature about 60 deg C (normal for my engine). No warning lights.
Battery indicator panel. On Friday the low voltage light came on and would not go off, unless switched off (knob on left currently on volts, yet shows 14.2 volts for domestic batteries (knob on right at 4 (1 is starter battery. also 14.2V). (2 and 3 have no circuit attached.)
The dials below indicate(d) both starter (one) and domestic (two) batteries were charging and above 12V. This is why I thought the alarm was an error. Phil, the examiner, agreed and suggested that the panel had developed a fault. He doubted that a replacement could be found. For now I will leave it switched on and keep and eye on it. If it is reliable it is a useful monitor of how usage, especially television, affects the batteries.
Battery one in the green …
Battery two in the green.
I had no real choice other than to continue. Somehow I managed to rip my jacket and had white, fluffy filling like thistledown sticking to everything. Soon I was following another boat, which was sometimes obscured by the rain. I caught up with her at Deptmore Lock, more formidable at 10 foot 3 inches. And it was bucketing down. The other pilot, also a single-hander, said that as he wasn’t going far, I should set the lock, and stay on board while he worked the lock, for which I was most grateful; this one is notoriously vicious to ascend, though a pussy cat going the other way. He followed me for a little way, but then disappeared from view. Eventually, I stopped at the north end of Acton Trussell, and got into some dry clothes.
When Saturday came
So, BSS day had arrived. I wasn’t sure if the CO alarms were right, so texted Phil (examiner) to see if he could bring one, which he offered to do (he happened to be at Midland Chandlers). In very light rain I moved down to Acton Moat Bridge, just beyond the winding hole, where we had agreed to meet.
Phil arrived about 2:20 and set about his work. It was immediately clear that he was a friendly, helpful type, and this was borne out during his visit.
The object of the Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) examination is to ensure that the operational aspects of the boat are not hazardous to occupants or to other boats. The main elements are related to electrics and fuel – diesel and gas systems, and solid fuel stove. Carbon Monoxide (CO) detectors have been included for the first time recently, though they have been advisory for some years. Two were installed when I bought the boat, but one had failed and the other was probably installed at the same time, so I replaced them. They are not ideal, but are acceptable for BSS. I will replace them with ones that meet BS EN 50291-2. (BS EN 50291-1 is acceptable for BSS, but is not boat-specific.)
As he went round Phil explained some things and made recommendations for things I should improve, but these are relatively minor and low cost. I was sure that he would find something unacceptable, but to my considerable relief he said the boat had passed! At least I don’t have to worry about that for another four years – unless the rules change – though, of course, I have to keep her up to standard. (Total cost £175.20 + Paypal fee 3.5% + a few quid for fuse holders, vents and a couple of other odds and ends.)
This is quite long, and I did think of splitting it, but as an annual review it seems to hang together. Apologies if you disagree. There is some technical detail and some stats about costs.
At the end of May I completed one year of continuous cruising, having left Venetian Marina on 31 May 2018. Since then Whiskey Mac has travelled to Nantwich, Chester, back to Venetian, then on to Stourport-on-Severn, back to Wolverhampton, onward to Great Haywood, Fazeley, Hawkesbury, and Nell Bridge (just south of Banbury), then a slow return along the Oxford Canal, where I spent the colder months, and the Coventry Canal to just north of Nuneaton on day 365.
Distance-wise that is just shy of 400 miles, but boaters measure consumption in hours and litres; in this case 1002 hours (average 2.75 hours per day) and approximately 838 litres, an economical rate of 0.84 litres per hour. Total cost of (red) diesel was £760 (average 91p/litre inc. tax for propulsion).
Fuel for the stove cost just £375. This was mainly for coal (generally around £2.20 per kilogram), as I scavenged for most of my firewood.
Gas, for cooking only, costs very little as 3 cylinders will last all year, about £75.
Not all plain sailing
By late June all was well. It was sunny, plenty of help with locks, England put 6 past Panama, which I watched in The Shroppie Fly, Audlem, a pub well-known among boaters. At Audlem Locks I managed to get through 11 of the 14 in 4 hours 45 minutes – it took just 20 minutes to walk back to where I had started from! Soon I was at Market Drayton, where the very nice “Session Beer” produced by the owner of the Salopian Star was just £2 per pint, and the landlord for a time had played hockey for Drayton: we may even have played against each other.
And then my first crisis struck. The batteries were not charging. There are two belt-driven alternators on the engine, which charge the batteries, but the belt on one was loose. Okay, I thought, it just needs tightening, but there seemed to be no way of adjusting it. So I went to Talbot Wharf to see if they could recommend a local engineer, and they gave me the business card of Ian R Skoyles, who turned out to be first class. Ian found that there was no adjuster for one belt, and that the thread on the other was stripped. He would come back the following day.
I decided to have some other work done. Ian showed me how much to tighten the nuts on the stern gland (where the shaft goes through the hull), fitted adjusters for the belts, supplied a spare, fitted new domestic batteries and a new 2,000 Watt inverter (which converts 12V DC to 230V AC – mains power – £1,250). This replaced the old Heart Interface inverter, for which spares were no longer available. Talbot Wharf helped by supplying batteries and accepting delivery of the inverter, ordered from Midland Chandlers. So, if you are out on the Shropshire Union and need engineering support you could hardly do better.
From diary 1 June – this is not Pepys!
Moved to Gladstone Wharf. Woodseaves cutting is Tolkienesque: tall trees dark and narrow, with hazards in the water. I rode one rock whilst passing another boat. The 2 mph limit is well-advised.
Diary 7 July 2018
Stayed Breakfast at tea room Washed towels Sainsbury delivery to pub car park 3 pm SWE v ENG Junction Inn
I was moored on the aqueduct just south of Norbury Junction. There is quite a community of boaters who reside there, as well as people passing through, like me. And they are very friendly. I had ordered a delivery from Sainsbury’s – you find a place with a post code and arrange to meet; they text or call (say) 10-20 mins ahead, but on this day the driver called early and asked if the pub would be showing the football. Yes. So, would you mind if I deliver just before the kick off? No problem. It turned out he had booked some time off and we watched our boys progress to the next round of the World Cup.
I continued south to Stourport on Severn, which is the only town to have developed purely because of the canals. The main hazard was Limekiln Bridge, Kidderminster, where the water was high and my engine ventilator stack was somewhat mangled. But wire wool, pliers, Brumagem screwdriver, and Hammerite, combines to restore some semblance of dignity (below).
After that I returned north again.
The CRT, and especially their volunteers, do a great job, but one thing that bugs me is the folks that mow and strim the towpaths seem to follow me around.
Diary 22 August 2018
Water at Gailey. Back of queue. Helped through one lock. but mainly single-handed. Grass cutting followed me all the way! Busy today, up and down. Exhausted. Humid.
I sometimes wonder if grass cutting teams seem to single me out for special attention. At Gailey they arrived just as I had finished taking on water; don’t want grass clippings in the tank. Usually, when they come along the grass is wet, and the cuttings stick to everything, but that day it was dry so there was grass everywhere. In places the towpath gets scalped, exposing mud, which is ground by passing boots and bicycle tyres. Then puddles develop. Then quagmires.
Refusal to start
The next victim was my starter battery. At Acton Trussell the engine would not start. When the starter motor turns over the engine usually gives some indication that it will start, but nothing. Not enough juice. The domestic batteries were a shade low, so I was reluctant to bridge and risk losing all power. River Canal Rescue (part of my insurance) sent a man with a jump lead. He had several attempts, during which the starter motor sounded weaker and weaker. Then, just as he was saying: “Looks like I will have to fetch a battery”, the engine fired and normal charging began. The following day, the starter battery was flat, and I concluded that it had reached end of life. I connected up the starter positive to the domestic positive (they have a common “earth”, so no need to connect neutrals) and was able to start that way until I could get a new starter battery. This I did at Springwood Haven on the Oxford Canal (£95), where I also bought a new stack (£40.50) and “coolie” (rainhat £10.95) for the stove flue, and some stove paint (£14). They were very helpful, and other boaters agree.
Engine ventilator stack during renovation
At that time the stern fender was disintegrating even more rapidly that it had been, and I had to prune yet more to stop strands falling into the screw. By the time I reached Haywood Junction it was close to non-existent, so I purchased a new one (£70), which a man from Anglo-Welsh fitted free of charge, including use of bolt cutters to remove the rusty D-rings. There I bought 80 litres of diesel (@80p, which is a bargain) and had a pump out (£16, which is typical, and is required about every 3 or 4 weeks).
After that things went pretty well. Fair weather continued into October, my stocks of coal and foraged firewood grew, walks in the countryside, wild apples, blackberries, sloes and damsons abounded, and I had settled into a nice rhythm. (The first diary entry that indicated inclement weather was 7 November: “Wet and windy”.)
Diary 8 November
Moved to Wormleighton Grange. 2 locks and water. Stopped after bridge 124 and then 126 to collect wood. Water pump would not stop & some pump pushing water into cut.
I discovered that the water pump was leaking. This meant that it could not pressurise the accumulators (hot and cold tanks), so would not switch off. Consequently, one or other accumulator overflowed, with the effect that my boat was attempting to fill up the cut! So, until I could get somewhere to attend to it, I just had to switch the pump on and off to manage the water supply. The pump was replaced at Tooley’s Boatyard in Banbury (£150. parts and labour). I could have saved the labour, but the man from Tooley’s took half an hour, and fitted the right model, but it would have taken me ages and probably at the expense of some muscle or joint injury, or even bloodshed.
Steps to cabin doors
Getting at the water pump. Clockwise from top left: steps to cabin doors, move steps to access panel, remove panel to reveal dark space (pump not in view, but off to right), water pump (bottom centre with blue strip). Red carpet is insulation for bow thruster tube. Dark grey box is water tank. Black tube is inlet from deck filler cap to tank. Tank holds 150 gallons (approx. 680 litres), which weighs about two thirds of a ton or tonne. Pump delivers 11 litres per minute.
After that came the winter, but I had little trouble keeping warm. I spent most of the time between Nell Bridge (south of Banbury) and Napton-on-the-Hill, which is a pleasant and convenient place for a two week stay. The village stores (thankfully in the lower part of the village) has friendly staff, some useful groceries and fire wood, and main grocery shopping can be delivered to the car park of The Folly pub. There is a water point below the bottom lock.
Whiskey Mac just above Napton bottom lock, astern of NB Netty. 28 Jan 2019.
Napton Post Office and Village Stores.
The Folly public house.
Foraged apples – good for cooking.
And now it’s “flaming June” again …
Well, I guess (if you’ve got this far, and especially if you have read some of my other posts) you will gather that I have mainly enjoyed life on the cut, despite the pitfalls. To some degree it can be a solitary existence, which I don’t mind, but there are always boaters, and sometimes others, around to help with, for example, locks, technical issues, and even fetching some coal. Sometimes I just take a windlass to a nearby lock an help people through.
There are lots of things I would like to do, or have done by someone competent, to the boat, when money becomes available. Priority is blacking the hull, and, perhaps, new anodes. At the same time, I might need to have work done to the gas locker because the drains are quite near the waterline. The weed hatch cover in the stern deck needs some attention. Next would be painting the cabin, including some smart artwork for the boat name. The radiators don’t work, but I think that is just some air in or affecting the calorifier, an easy enough job for an engineer to fix, though I want to remove the radiator from the saloon. Anyway, the stove has kept me warm, even when the cut has been frozen. The space will allow for some more shelves. Then there are some minor niggles, like getting the rev counter working again, and doing something about battery indicators, and cleaning out the diesel tank, which has about three inches of water in the bottom. And a new sink/drainer would be nice. And a better mast and antenna for TV. And I might go for a more modern fridge and freezer.
The biggest change for the good would be renewable energy, and I want to explore possibilities for solar and wind energy. This would save a lot of diesel, and could repay installation cost in just 3 to 5 years.
I would also like some nice new cushions for the deck lockers that could double up in the dinette, where the seats are a bit too far below the table. Storage is always an issue, so anything that doubles up is a bonus. If the ladies on NB Netty are passing, please get in touch.
Boat Safety Scheme Examination
The most trying thing to do with the boat has been the Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) Examination, which is the boating equivalent of the MOT test for a road vehicle: I was dreading some very expensive work to be demanded before I could pass. But that is for another post.
I have had a break from the hurly burly of the online world, so here is a short piece to introduce what I have been up to in the last year that I have been a continuous cruiser. There will be some images of places, boats, technical stuff, some stats and costs, mishaps, replacements and the anxiety of my first go at the Boat Safety Scheme.
For now, though, this is just about a short cruise from Acton Trussell to Tixall Wide, on the Staffs & Worcester Canal in Staffordshire. I decided to have my compact camera, Canon PowerShot A700, with all of its 6.0 mega pixels, to hand, though I don’t like using it when going along. At least if it meets a watery end it won’t be a complete disaster. One day I will get a web cam.
The date was Sunday 10 June 2019, for which the forecast was a fair start, with rain arriving around 14:00 and continuing, so I wanted to get going reasonably early, but not too soon for Aldi opening at 10:00, about an hour away. The previous evening a hire boat crew had moored astern, opposite the winding hole (naughty!), but they were away before me.
Winding, turning the boat through 180 degrees, can be tricky, but it was calm and a nice big space in which to manoeuvre, so, once I had managed to reverse into position (reversing is probably the most difficult thing to do in a narrowboat), I got round quite smoothly. I am not sure the occupants of the Boat House Hotel were the sort to jeer and goad, but they would have had no cause. Spectators at canalside hostelries are often vocal, liquorously loquacious, especially those who wouldn’t know a tiller from a boathook if it hit them you know where. (That such folk would be deficient in anatomical knowledge is taken for granted.)
On Friday, I had reached Deptmore Lock from the down-side in dreadful weather (more another time), but today the 10 foot 3 inch drop seemed much less forbidding. Nonetheless, this lock can be quite vicious and I was quite glad there were no novice “helpers” around. This also gave me time to take a few pictures as I progressed through the lock.
It is a real help when boats come the other way, so that I don’t have to stop to open or close gates. In some ways single-handed operation is more relaxed as I can just go at my own pace, but locks are good places to meet other boaters, some from distant lands.
On my way again I overtook a man walking the towpath with two dogs. A younger one was off leash and well-behaved, the other, on a long leash, but scrabbling along in the water, which he made no attempt to pull out.. I put the engine on idle, down from about 1500 revs, and told the man: “Not very clever with a boat going by. I don’t want a mangled dog in my weed hatch.” The mumbled response was rather sheepish. Once I had drifted past I throttled up again.
I stopped just past Radford Bridge (98, A34) to visit the nearby Aldi. This is busy spot with boats arriving and departing all the time. Sadly, I didn’t take any pictures. Some other images from this stretch of canal can be found on Geograph.
Tixall Lock, only 4 ft 3 in
Old Mill Bridge 107
Only one paddle opened for smoother ride
Approaching the sharp turn towards Tixall Wide
“The quickest way to get through locks is slowly.” [Trad.]