Go­ing all the way

More peo­ple climb the sum­mit of Ever­est in a sin­gle day than at­tempt the Bris­tol Chan­nel and the River Sev­ern in a nar­row­boat in a year. But once you’ve started telling folk that’s what you are go­ing to do, it be­comes very dif­fi­cult to back down


Twenty years ago while hol­i­day­ing with my fam­ily in Wilt­shire we stum­bled upon the Caen Hill flight on the Ken­net & Avon. I didn’t know much about them but learned that the 29 locks have a rise of 237ft in two miles or a 1 in 44 gra­di­ent.

The locks come in three groups. The lower seven, Fox­hang­ers Wharf Lock to Fox­hang­ers Bridge Lock, are spread over 1.2km. The next 16 locks form a steep flight in a straight line up the hill­side. Be­cause of the steep­ness of the ter­rain, the lock pounds are very short.

As a re­sult, 15 locks have un­usu­ally large side­ways-ex­tended pounds, to store the wa­ter needed to op­er­ate them. A fi­nal six locks take the canal into De­vizes.

For the whole of that Sun­day morn­ing, as we helped a boat crew lock up the flight, I was fas­ci­nated by the fact that a boat weigh­ing more than 15 tons could be trans­ported a great dis­tance up­hill by wa­ter alone. Archimedes him­self would have been amazed (be­fore, of course, the well pub­li­cised in­ci­dent with the bath tub).

Slow for­ward 15 years and af­ter one or two nar­row­boat hol­i­days I started draw­ing plans for the pos­si­ble in­te­rior lay­outs of a nar­row­boat. Ikea might be the kings of space util­i­sa­tion but I don’t think even they have cracked how to fit a full-size bath­room, full-size beds for four adults and a gal­ley kitchen plus a din­ing area in a cabin that mea­sures 33ft by 6ft 10in.

Of course it is pos­si­ble to have a much larger cabin, for ex­am­ple, in a wide­beam or a 70ft nar­row­boat, but such lux­u­ries come ad­di­tional features called ini­tial cost, in­creased li­cense fees and on-go­ing main­te­nance costs.

Dur­ing the next five years I seemed to spend a lot of time pour­ing over on­line ad­verts for nar­row­boats and barges. At one stage I reckon I had an en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of all the barges on sale in Europe.

All this re­search paid off be­cause one day, com­pletely out of the blue, my wife Pippa said: ‘Why don’t you buy one?’ I was even more amazed than Archimedes.

Shortly af­ter­wards we were visit­ing rel­a­tives in Stafford­shire, just a short hop from a cou­ple of boat­builders. The near­est was Nick Thorpe. I’d read in Canal Boat that one of Nick’s boats Snail’s Pace had been voted the peo­ple’s choice of best boat at the Crick Boat Show. It was there­fore im­per­a­tive that I called in to see Nick on the way home.

As I en­tered his work­shop Nick came over to greet me. Don’t be mis­led by re­ports that me­tal-bash­ing is dead in the Mid­lands. It ain’t so. Boat­build­ing work­shops are dirty, noisy, smelly, filthy places. It’s won­der­ful.

In­side his work­shop were the hulls of two nar­row­boats at dif­fer­ent stages of com­ple­tion. I was, and still am, in awe of

the way Nick and his small team can ca­jole and bend steel to cre­ate the gra­cious curves in a hull, given that the base­plate is 10mm thick, the hull sides 6mm thick and the cabin and roof 5mm and 4mm.

What’s even more re­mark­able is that the team works to a tol­er­ance of just 1/8th of an inch over a 70ft boat which they tack weld within a week. From then on the re­ally hard work starts of weld­ing all the joints and then an­gle-grind­ing the welds.

A few weeks later I drove back to Stafford­shire and handed Nick a set of draw­ings based on what I thought my ideal nar­row­boat should in­cor­po­rate.

Years of re­search had con­vinced me that I wanted a 45ft Trad sail­away with some ad­di­tions. These in­cluded bat­ten­ing, spray foam in­su­la­tion, dou­ble-glaz­ing, a 200-gal­lon stain­less steel wa­ter tank and an in­te­gral waste hold­ing tank for a pump-out toi­let.

I had set my heart on a colour for the boat – that of some mugs that I had pur­chased 20 years ear­lier from Wool­worths. Match­ing the colour was a prob­lem un­til I was ad­vised to pay a visit to a car paint sup­plier in Stoke-on-Trent. I pre­sented one of the mugs to the staff. It took just three quick at­tempts to achieve the per­fect colour match. When I asked how he man­aged it so quickly he replied that he’d spent 25 years colour match­ing in the pot­tery in­dus­try – talk about luck.

Given that I would be cruis­ing the Thames every time I left the Wey, I de­cided on a Bar­rus Shire 45hp en­gine with twin al­ter­na­tors one of which is rated at 250 amps.

I was plan­ning to do the fit-out my­self and as I def­i­nitely did not want to be re­spon­si­ble for the elec­tri­cal in­stal­la­tions, Nick rec­om­mended Marc, who is a qual­i­fied MIEE. He set about in­stalling the five 135Ah do­mes­tic bat­tery bank linked to a 3kW com­bined in­verter/charger.

Not nec­es­sar­ily a cheap op­tion but as it pro­vides 240 volts it meant I could buy a mains fridge for half the price of a 12 volt ver­sion. It also meant that I could in­stall a full-size washer/drier and an in­duc­tion hob, which plugs into a 13 amp socket.

While Nick and his team were busy con­struct­ing an­other boat, I was able to in­stall bulk­heads, which in ef­fect cre­ated a walk through bath­room and the rear and main cabin. It also meant that I could in­stall a full-size bath (with shower over) and a Jabasco pump-out toi­let.

Nick’s team com­mis­sioned the Eberspacher 5kW diesel heater con­nected to a ver­ti­cal twin-coil calori­fier and a sin­gle radiator in the rear cabin and at this point with a fridge on board, the in­duc­tion hob and a hot and cold wa­ter sup­ply, the day soon ar­rived for the launch.

It was mem­o­rable for a num­ber of fac­tors. The first be­ing the Hiab I’d booked to lift and trans­port the boat to the canal. Even though it had a 40-ton lift ca­pa­bil­ity, it strug­gled to lift the boat.

Re­mov­ing a fair amount of weight from in­side such as three ra­di­a­tors (not yet in­stalled), the an­chor and half a ton of bal­last did the trick. Then, af­ter a short drive to the canal, came the ex­cit­ing bit. I knew this was go­ing to be dodgy for two rea­sons: Mark, one of Nick’s team, had set his video cam­era run­ning, telling me: ‘If this launch goes wrong the video would be worth at least £250.’

Se­condly, when the Hiab op­er­a­tor had ma­noeu­vred the boat so that it was 90 de­grees to the lorry and half over the quay­side and half over the canal, he turned to Daryl, an­other team mem­ber and said: ‘Go and put you hand on the nose of the lorry and give me a shout if it be­gins to lift….’. Gulp.

The next five min­utes were ex­tremely stress­ful as the boat was low­ered gin­gerly into the wa­ter. A few mo­ments later there was bang. An hy­draulic hose on the Hiab had ruptured chris­ten­ing the boat with hy­draulic fluid – still it saved on the cham­pagne and Mark didn’t get his £ 250.

Any­one who takes de­liv­ery of a boat knows that sen­sa­tional feel­ing of cruis­ing her for the first time. I had the plea­sure of look­ing for­ward to a two-week trip south­wards to the River Wey where I’d man­aged to find a moor­ing. What I hadn’t

‘The launch day was mem­o­rable for a num­ber of fac­tors. The first be­ing the Hiab I’d booked to lift and trans­port the boat to the canal.’

taken into ac­count were the red boards that ap­pear fairly fre­quently af­ter a spot of rain in the Thames basin.

I was held for 60 hours at Shiplake Lock on the Thames be­cause of the con­di­tions. When the red boards were even­tu­ally taken down I was mighty glad I had an over-sized en­gine in­stalled, given the vol­ume of wa­ter flow­ing down the weirs.

Dur­ing my first year I in­stalled the central heat­ing and fit­ted out the gal­ley. I also man­aged a trip along the length of the Ken­net & Avon and back. With friends we also did the Lon­don Ring motoring up river from Lime­house to Ted­ding­ton.

The boat per­formed bril­liantly and that made me more de­ter­mined than ever to have a crack at the Bris­tol Chan­nel, River Sev­ern tran­sit from Bris­tol to Sharp­ness via Por­tishead Ma­rina.

Any­one con­tem­plat­ing tak­ing a nar­row­boat from Por­tishead to Sharp­ness should en­gage the ser­vices of a Glouces­ter pi­lot. In fact, I also en­gaged a Bris­tol pi­lot to nav­i­gate us safely from Bris­tol to Por­tishead Ma­rina, which proved a very pleas­ant tran­sit in calm weather.

At 8am on June 8 we picked up our pi­lot Tim at Por­tishead Ma­rina. He had been check­ing the weather. Although it promised to be a fine day, the wind was forecast to be from the north-east at a steady Force 3, which meant we would be head­ing di­rectly into it and more im­por­tantly, we were on the cusp of be­ing able to make the tran­sit.

The boat was well pre­pared, bow doors sealed with Duck tape and the bow low level vents also sealed. Shortly af­ter­wards the mighty ma­rina lock gates opened and we were off. As soon as you en­ter the chan­nel the in­com­ing tide re­minds you that nar­row­boats are de­signed for canals not tidal es­tu­ar­ies. The boat bucked and kicked.

Keep­ing her on a steady course over the shal­low tidal waters with per­ilous sand­banks just be­low the sur­face made steer­ing to­wards the pi­lot’s marks on the dis­tant hori­zon ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. At one stage, Tim ex­plained that although we were be­ing driven for­ward by an in­com­ing tide at some points the ac­tual cur­rent was flow­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

As I was find­ing it dif­fi­cult in the con­di­tions to keep the boat on course for the marks which Tim used to fol­low the deep-wa­ter chan­nel, I asked him to take the tiller, which he kindly did. About an hour into the tran­sit the wind­speed in­creased and was gust­ing to Force 4.

Tim said that had he known it was go­ing to be this ‘lumpy’ we prob­a­bly wouldn’t have set out. How­ever, turn­ing back was def­i­nitely not an op­tion. We pressed on un­der the Sec­ond Sev­ern Crossing fol­lowed by the first bridge, where there were gi­ant ed­dies and whirlpools of drink­ing cho­co­late-coloured wa­ter.

Af­ter nearly three hours, Sharp­ness hove into view. I had read how the turn into the lock is made well in ad­vance of the en­trance be­ing vis­i­ble, as the tide is mov­ing so fast that if you leave it too late your boat will be swept way past the en­trance.

A cou­ple of hun­dred yards be­fore the en­trance, Tim be­gan the turn and asked for full power. Judged to per­fec­tion the boat rock­eted into the pocket just like a per­fect shot with a bil­liard ball.

Af­ter all the ad­ven­tures we have had thus far, I’m so glad I stum­bled across the Caen Hill flight all those years ago.

Tim – Glouces­ter pi­lot (the most es­sen­tial bit of kit!)

What it was like in­side the cabin

Head­ing for the sec­ond Sev­ern crossing

Por­tishead Ma­rina lock gates open­ing

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