See­ing the light (or not)...

Canal Boat - - Me & My Boats -

Noth­ing so em­pha­sises the dif­fer­ences be­tween canal cruis­ing in the past and now than the range of so­phis­ti­cated equip­ment which is avail­able to boaters today.

Our first nar­row­boat was lit by gas man­tle which seems laugh­able in this era of strict safety stan­dards. But ev­ery bit of kit for boats was the same in those days: plumb­ing was rudi­men­tary, sewage dis­posal pos­i­tively prim­i­tive and en­gines dirty, un­re­li­able and noisy. You only have to look at the back pages of this mag­a­zine to see the wide range of up-to-the-minute gear avail­able to today’s boater. Ev­ery­thing, it seems, has im­proved. Ev­ery­thing is bet­ter than it was.

Well, ev­ery­thing, that is, ex­cept torches.

When you look at a torch, it’s such a mod­est item it’s easy to un­der­es­ti­mate its im­por­tance. But con­sider the vi­tal role it plays in cruis­ing. Imag­ine try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a coun­try lane on your way to your boat af­ter a night out. Pic­ture try­ing to get into your cabin on a win­ter’s night in the pitch black. It doesn’t take long to re­alise that the hum­ble torch isn’t so hum­ble af­ter all. In fact, it’s a key bit of kit.

Along with our first gas-lit nar­row­boat we in­her­ited a blue plas­tic torch we found in the back of a drawer. It had a gaudy, go-faster white stripe along the side which gave it a con­tem­po­rary look that

Now, where did I leave the boat...

wouldn’t have been out of place in a modern art gallery. The trou­ble was, it didn’t work. Or worse, it didn’t work con­sis­tently. So you’d take it out with you and nine times out of ten it would do what was ex­pected of it. Then – on the tenth oc­ca­sion – al­ways the very worst oc­ca­sion – it would leave you stum­bling around in the mid­dle of a field, or walk­ing into ditches on some bri­dle­way some­where. Even­tu­ally we put it back in the drawer where we should have left it in the first place.

There fol­lowed a whole se­ries of torches, some of them cheap Wool­worth jobs, some bought from ex­pen­sive depart­ment stores. They all had one thing in com­mon: they would give you a month or two of de­cent ser­vice be­fore fin­ish­ing up as re­li­able as the blue plas­tic torch. That is to say, not re­li­able at all. Or as re­li­able as the Bri­tish weather. Soon the drawer was filled with fickle torches.

When we fi­nally had Jus­tice built we de­cided to cel­e­brate with the pur­chase of one of those flash Amer­i­can Maglite torches which were all the rage in the early 1990s. These huge con­trap­tions felt as if they’d been moulded out of solid steel. They took three or four bat­ter­ies and you needed a sack truck to carry one, but they were for a while the last word in por­ta­ble il­lu­mi­na­tion. Their beams were stronger than car head­lights, so strong, in fact, they could have been used as search­lights in the Blitz. Their prob­lem was that all this power came at a cost; the bat­ter­ies were al­ways run­ning out. And they were ex­pen­sive to re­place. Frankly, it would have been cheaper to keep an av­er­age fam­ily car on the road than feed these vo­ra­cious beasts. Even­tu­ally, the Maglite got set aside too – though not in the drawer: it was far too big for that.

I thought the torch prob­lem was fi­nally solved around the mil­len­nium when shops like Maplins be­gan to sell the dinky keyring torches. Here, fi­nally, was a torch that ticked all the boxes: it was pow­er­ful, cheap to run and it didn’t need a seat to it­self when you took it to the pub. But sadly, they didn’t prove re­silient and af­ter a month or two be­ing thrown around with the keys, they dis­in­te­grated so that for months af­ter­wards you’d find bits of them mixed up with the change in the bot­tom of your pocket.

Today’s torches, sadly, seem no im­prove­ment on those that went be­fore. These con­ve­niently sized sil­ver fin­ish de­signs which power LED bulbs from a car­tridge of three 1.5v bat­ter­ies ad­mit­tedly look bet­ter than our old blue plas­tic torch. But they are as just as un­re­li­able. And just as frag­ile as the old keyring torches too. Per­haps, once they’ve got the bat­tery prob­lem with mo­bile phones worked out, the fu­ture of the torch will lie in flash­light apps which are cheap and eas­ily avail­able. But for the mo­ment, they are more power hun­gry than the Maglite.

I de­spair.

‘Frankly, it would have been cheaper to keep a fam­ily car on the road than feed these vo­ra­cious beasts’

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