Seeing the light (or not)...
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.
‘Frankly, it would have been cheaper to keep a family car on the road than feed these voracious beasts’