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 globetrottingmama.com. Her trip aboard the narrow boats was subsidized in part by Visit Britain (visitbritain.com).
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.