Thoughts, quirky insights and experiences in my meandering life.

In the Skin of a Narrowboat

Have you noticed that after you have been driving a car for a while you start to get a sense of the size of the car. I feel it is almost as though our senses are extended to the shell of the car, that we can “feel” it. It allows me to feel confident maneuvering around parked cars, or between other obstacles. I have only had one vehicle that I did not develop this sense with, and I never felt completely comfortable making a lane change on the highway as a consequence. I have talked to Sally about this and she says she has felt the same, and also once has had the experience of not feeling the car. Well, I am happy to say that I am beginning to feel the skin of the boat. I can now sense when to slightly correct course when entering or exiting a lock, and when pulling up to a mooring. Now if only I could get the back end of the boat to stay in place when I reverse to stop. I know that boaters are reading this and saying “well, you just put the tiller in this position” but most of the time it does not work for me. It did today though in Bradford on Avon, and it felt very good.

Mary has been with me for most of the month of March, and apart from a few days in London we have been making steady progress, down the Oxford Canal, then the Thames and now the Kennet and Avon Canal. She will be leaving on April 3rd after which I will be single handing for a while. In preparation I have been practicing going through locks on my own. Allow me to explain the process.

We were going uphill at the time. Firstly, approach the mooring for the lock, and tie up. Check out the lock. Is the water with you or not. What the heck does that mean. If the water is with you then it is at the level you need it to be to enter the lock. If it is not, you have to empty the lock, in this case, because we were going uphill. When the lock is empty, and the exit water is smooth you can open the lock gates. You can’t open the gates until the water is level. Someone mentioned that an inch of water represents 5 tons of pressure. I am sure an engineer reading this will explain more fully. It is an amazing feeling to move those lock gates. They themselves can be up to 2000 kg each. It also feels a bit like a miracle that we can move water around in this way to make our way forward. Never ceases to fill me with awe for some reason.

Not the Kennet and Avon Canal, just an illustration.

After the gates are open you return to the boat, untie her, and bring her into the lock. Now the fun and tricky bit. You bring the boat to a standstill, grab your windlass if you forgot to leave it at the lock gates and the centre line, and climb the ladder out of the lock. This will involve walking along the gunwhales and stepping onto the ladder before the boat moves too far away. Climb the said ladder to the top.

What I called a skeleton lock is actually a turf lock. There are only two left. One is a listed building, yes, building, the other a historic monument.

Loosely secure the centre line and then close the paddles on the downstream lock gates and open the paddles on the upstream end of the lock. Go back and hold the centre line to stop the boat bashing about as the lock fills. When full, open the top lock gates. Step onto the boat with the centre line. Remember, the boat has risen with the filling of the lock. Take her out of the lock, moor and tie up, close the lock gates and lower the paddles. Get back on the boat after casting off and pushing the bow of the boat out into the canal. Feel a sense of accomplishment, and hope you are not in a hurry.

Leaving a lock, again, not on the Kennet and Avon Canal

Two people on the boat speeds things up considerably, but the poor land lubber who opens the locks and closes them does the lions share of the work and it is hard to help them. You may be able to close the lock gate that you have just entered while they go to the paddles for the top of the lock but that is about it. So when you are on a flight you switch off after two or three locks. With a bit of luck you can go to the next lock while yours is filling and get it ready so that when you come out of one lock you can go straight into the next. We did that on the Caen Hill flight yesterday, but we had help, two, and sometimes three volunteers. From lock 50 down to 29 on the main flight, but I missed a picture of lock 50. There were 6 or 7 locks before and the same after which we shared with another boat, so a much easier day than it could have been. We then went to the Caen Hill Marina, had showers, did laundry and had a lovely dinner of smoked cod, which we can’t get in Canada. Here are the pictures. Lots of them!

Second lock of the flight.

Done and duster.

Thanks to a lot of volunteer help. We travelled 2.5 miles that day. They give their time three days a week to open and close locks and were full of lots of good tips on boat handling, protecting locks from damage etc. And they pass it all along in conversation and asides so you don’t feel like a complete idiot for not knowing. Well done. The weather was stunning. Had to change into a skort, tee shirt and sandals for the afternoon, and sunscreen. Felt lovely.

Now we are in Bradford on Avon and it is lovely, all soft yellow stone buildings and a great mingling of architecture which I will explore shortly. I now have a list of blog ideas so expect more in the near future. And did you notice that the third vote on May’s Brexit deal failed and she still didn’t resign. Cameron deserted ship, but she seems adamant that she will not go. Even threatens to bring it back for a fourth vote! Do the Brits realize how ludicrous they look to the rest of the world. With apologies to those reading in the U.K. Or should I say, disunited Kingdom. The Queen is giving up driving, but maybe she has to drive Brexit to a finale

Bradford on Avon


Parallel worlds


Attics and Basements


  1. Daniel

    Still so manual!

  2. Mary

    I think you forgot to include ‘close the lock gates’ once in the lock…. you went straight to ‘closing the paddles’… but I hasten to add that even though I’ve done it with you at least 50 times over the last month I forgot steps (like closing the downstream paddles – which as you know meant we were emptying as fast as we were filling on occasion) and had to go back and do it. Hope it is not proving too exhausting doing it on your own Maggie… best of British as we weirdly say!

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