Cruis­ing the canals of Eng­land

Nar­row boating is a pop­u­lar pas­time — if you get the hang of it


YORK­SHIRE, ENG­LAND—“How im­por­tant is the rud­der to steer­ing the boat?”

My hus­band is lean­ing over the side of the nar­row boat we rented and ask­ing the ques­tion of a fel­low cap­tain in a neigh­bour­ing ves­sel.

I’m peer­ing up from be­low deck and though the man’s an­swer isn’t clearly au­di­ble, the look on his face — a mix­ture of. “Is he se­ri­ous?” and, “Are they crazy?” says it all.

As it turns out the rud­der is very im­por­tant; you can’t steer the boat with­out it. That’s bad news since our rud­der is gone, we are in the mid­dle of a wind­ing English canal and the sun is set­ting. Things didn’t al­ways look this grim. We started out ner­vously op­ti­mistic. Nei­ther my hus­band, Ish, or I had ever been in com­mand of a boat of any kind, but how hard could it be? We packed up our sons, Ethan,12 and Cameron,10, carted them across the ocean and jammed them into the nar­row boat as­sum­ing our will would be enough to carry us through.

At the pier of Sils­den Boats, the com­pany we rented from, the rep­re­sen­ta­tive showed us video in­struc­tions, pointed us to the owner’s man­ual, rode along for a few min­utes and then hopped off with a wave. We should have begged him to stay. Nar­row boating in north­ern Eng­land is a pop­u­lar pas­time for good rea­son. The scenery is im­pres­sive. Bright green, rolling hills are dot­ted with fluffy white balls of sheep and lan­guish­ing cows that lazily slurp at the wa­ter’s edge as you pass. Stone cot­tages boast gar­dens in full bloom. From your slow-mov­ing boat on the still wa­ter, it is as ro­man­tic a pic­ture as you’d imag­ine.

I’d packed sev­eral books for this trip. I’d en­vi­sioned days of sit­ting on the bow, tak­ing it all in as we me­an­dered through. A quiet week on the wa­ter is what I’d told the boys; a cot­tage on the river. In­stead we were chaos in­car­nate. “Lock ahead!”

The bel­low from Ish, our elected cap­tain, would send the rest of us scram­bling. Some­one would grab the wind­lass, the wrench-like tool you need to work the lock’s levers and gears. The rest would pre­pare to jump onto the grassy shore, ropes in hand to se­cure the boat while the wind­lass wran­gler sprinted up the hill to start the pro­ce­dure. En­ter­ing a lock is a dra­matic thing. It can take all of your strength, feet firmly planted, lower back push­ing, to open the gates that seem six me­tres high. Then you’ve got to re­mem­ber which gears to crank and which way to crank them. Are you lift­ing or drop­ping the ground pad­dles that pre­vent wa­ter from seep­ing out through the bot­tom? And who will hold the boat steady with the ropes on the shore?

You need to do all of these things while also re­peat­edly telling two boys to stop run­ning so close to the edge.

Pair­ing up with another boat in the locks makes it eas­ier. The space is just big enough for two nar­row boats side by side and if you pick a part­ner boat filled with burly guys (pats self on the back) you’ll spare your­self some sore shoul­ders later.

The locks are so im­pos­ing that I think we would have turned the boat around and moored mood­ily next to the launch pier for a week if not for the other boaters on the canal.

A quiet week on the wa­ter is what I’d told the boys; a cot­tage on the river. In­stead we were chaos in­car­nate

A mix of lif­ers, re­tirees and help­less renters, nar­row boaters are gen­er­ous and kind. The mere fact that we too had em­braced the ad­ven­ture of nav­i­gat­ing the low seas was enough to make us fast friends. We were all in this to­gether. Lit­er­ally.

There’s nowhere to run: The boats only go 6 km/hour at their fastest. If you were on the canal we saw you sev­eral times. Ditto for the dog walk­ers and cy­clists on the shore.

Though books didn’t get read, we did slow down. Sit­ting on the bow, the boys and I would chat a bit as we looked out. And we worked to­gether. The bridges, moor­ing the boat, prep­ping for din­ner, turn­ing down the bed for sleep, all took a com­bined ef­fort. Fall­ing asleep to the boat’s soft rock­ing was al­ways easy.

We made it up the 12 locks ahead of the Foul­ridge tun­nel with part­ners at our side. By the end our con­fi­dence was high; we would do the re­turn trip on our own.

There are 91locks on the Leeds and Liver­pool Canal. We only had to get through the 15 in the mid­dle. We broke the boat’s rud­der on lock num­ber 42.

We should have put a pad­dle down when we had it up and sud­denly the wa­ter was rush­ing out faster than it was rush­ing in, forc­ing the boat to­ward the front gates. Ish tried to move the boat back to­ward the rear of the lock. There was a loud crack. The rud­der had hit the cill (a ledge in the lock about half­way up the in­te­rior wall) and now the back of the boat was hooked and the front was tip- ping for­ward pre­car­i­ously. My 12year-old showed up next to his dad wear­ing a life jacket.

Ish man­aged to ease the boat off the cill, while I opened the gates but it was clear that the steer­ing was shot.

The rental com­pany was chip­per when we called; we weren’t the first to have this hap­pen. They’d be out in the morn­ing, they promised, adding that we shouldn’t worry.

A gloom set­tled on our lit­tle boat. We passed the time with Mo­nop­oly on the iPad, cha­rades in the cabin, snacks for din­ner in­stead of the pub visit we’d planned and dra­matic reen­act­ments of our al­most cap­siz­ing in about 1.5 me­tres of wa­ter by the kids. To add in­sult to in­jury it started to rain.

At first light Steve Wors­en­croft from Sils­den Boats ar­rived to fix us up. Within an hour he had set us on our way again. The skip­pers on boats that had of­fered help and hope as they passed us yesterday waved cheer­ily as we cruised by.

The scenery is no less pretty when you’re em­bar­rassed and the night’s drama was soon far enough away to laugh at. I made my way to the stern, sat down next to Ish as he steered and was fi­nally able to ex­hale. The fam­ily was safe, the cri­sis had been averted, the lo­ca­tion was gor­geous and the boys were happy.

I turned and smiled at Ish, want­ing to share the mo­ment. He looked back at me and said, “Lock ahead!”

Heather Greenwood Davis is a free­lance travel writer and the founder of glo­be­trot­ting­ Her trip aboard the nar­row boats was sub­si­dized in part by Visit Bri­tain (visitbri­


Trav­el­ling by nar­row boat is a unique way to ex­pe­ri­ence the pic­turesque English coun­try­side. Nav­i­gat­ing the lock sys­tem can be tricky, but is made eas­ier by com­bin­ing ef­fort with other boaters.


The ship’s crew: Heather Green­wood Davis, right, with her fam­ily, from left, Ethan, Ish and Cameron.


The pas­tures around York­shire are filled with sheep. The colour of the land is even more in­tense when viewed from a slow-mov­ing boat on the canal.

Cameron Davis peers out the win­dow of the nar­row boat. The rental boats can sleep two to nine peo­ple on ships of var­i­ous sizes.

There are dozens of boats on the nar­row canals and nav­i­gat­ing past them can be tricky. Slow­ing down is the best way to make friends.

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