It’s all too easy to get complacent
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