It’s all too easy to get com­pla­cent

Canal Boat - - Me & My Boats -

This time last year I was writ­ing a col­umn about hav­ing an ac­ci­dent. And now I’m writ­ing an­other one. You’ll be start­ing to think I’m ac­ci­dent-prone.

Un­like last year’s (and most of my pre­vi­ous mis­ad­ven­tures) this one didn’t en­tail a trip to A& E. In fact, nei­ther I nor any­one else in­volved was hurt. But some­one quite eas­ily could have been.

The east­ern end of the Leeds & Liver­pool Canal is fa­mous – or should that be in­fa­mous – for its stair­case locks. There are dou­bles, triples and, of course, the renowned Bin­g­ley Five Rise. Most have lock-keep­ers to help you but a few don’t and one that doesn’t is the three cham­ber Field Locks stair­case. And that was where our mis­ad­ven­ture hap­pened.

We were in the top lock and go­ing down with an­other boat. As is our usual way, I was lock-wheel­ing while Mrs B was at the helm and Seadog Brian was sit­ting on the roof, su­per­vis­ing pro­ceed­ings.

We had opened the bot­tom pad­dles and the two boats were drop­ping slowly and smoothly down into the cham­ber. My fel­low lock­wheeler went down to check that the bot­tom lock was emp­tied and ready for our even­tual ar­rival while I stood ad­mir­ing the scenery and en­joy­ing the warm sun.

Sud­denly I was awo­ken from my reverie by a hoot on Harry the horn from Mrs B. I rushed to the lock­side: “the boat is start­ing to tip,” she shouted. And it was; not a lot but it was clearly caught on some­thing.

Leeds and Liver­pool gate pad­dles are not the quick­est to drop in an emer­gency: they have to be wound down and are low geared (be­cause you couldn’t work them other­wise) so wind­ing takes a while. Even when you’re hur­ry­ing.

By the time I’d got them both shut to halt the out­flow of wa­ter, poor old Harry was list­ing side­ways at about 25° and Mrs B was about to aban­don ship with Brian. Then I had to get some wa­ter into the lock from the top to float it off what­ever was hold­ing it – which for­tu­nately hap­pened quite eas­ily.

With the two boats float­ing free, we had an­other try and went down through the re­main­ing two locks with­out any trou­ble. At which point Mrs B went in­side the boat to in­ves­ti­gate the var­i­ous sounds of crash­ing and smash­ing she’d heard and dis­cov­ered that the con­tents of our gal­ley cup­boards were now mostly on the floor, and mostly smashed.

It was a gen­uinely alarm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Per­haps if we’d been on our own we wouldn’t have snagged but if we had, we could have rolled right over. The sec­ond boat was all that was keep­ing us up. For­tu­nately, too, I knew what to do: a novice hire boat crew might have pan­icked for long enough to have their boat sink.

Wor­ry­ingly, we have no idea why it hap­pened. We ap­peared to be snagged on the side of the lock it­self – the two boats weren’t caught to­gether at all.

I reported it to the Canal & River Trust and they are in­ves­ti­gat­ing but per­haps they’ll never find a rea­son ei­ther. Per­haps it was just a freak snag on a rogue joint in the stonework. These things do hap­pen: when I men­tioned our mishap on Face­book I was sur­prised at the num­ber of peo­ple who’d got briefly caught up on a lock.

What the whole thing has re­in­forced in me is the im­por­tance of vig­i­lance. As the lock­wheeler, you al­ways need to keep a watch on your boat. These dou­ble locks are wide and deep – step a few feet back from the edge and you can’t see what’s hap­pen­ing in the cham­ber. And many’s the flight I’ve walked on ahead to set the next lock while ours is fill­ing or drain­ing – I’ll be a bit more cir­cum­spect from now on.

It’s easy to get dis­tracted ban­ter­ing with a fel­low boat crew too. One of the lo­cal lock-keep­ers told me they had a rule never to get in­volved in ca­sual con­ver­sa­tions; only to talk about what was go­ing on with the lock­ing. He also said: “you’ve al­ways got to be care­ful, ev­ery lock pas­sage is a bit dif­fer­ent.”

We do so many locks, it’s easy to re­lax and for­get the po­ten­tial hazards of the whole op­er­a­tion. A mishap like this one might have cost us a few glasses and plates but it’s given us a valu­able re­minder of that fact.

‘For­tu­nately, I knew what to do: a novice hire boat crew might have pan­icked for long enough to have their boat sink’

Mrs B helms into the locks

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