It’ll never happen to me...
Of course it won’t – but then again can you be sure? It can happens to the best (or newest) of us
Last season we heard about a boater who sadly died when his boat sank in a lock and Canal Boat’s Kevin Blick reported on an incident he and his wife had on the Leeds and Liverpool. Kevin’s incident only resulted in smashed glass and crockery but could so easily have been more serious. Similarly, my family and I witnessed a potentially dangerous incident in a narrow lock on the Middlewich Branch last summer.
What happened there was that the crew hadn’t remembered, or didn’t know, the significance of lifting the fenders when using narrow locks and the boat had become jammed; unusually this was almost at the top of the lock rather than the bottom. According to the person at the helm it had been caught lower down the lock but had floated free so he ignored it.
If he had taken notice of the initial snagging, then he might have avoided the bigger problem near the top of the lock which almost sunk the boat.
Everything was well in the end, but it might not have been and locks can catch out even the most experienced.
Who’s in charge?
The person at the helm is usually in charge – but not always. In commercial operations, the boatmaster, (skipper), is in charge but he/she might or might not actually be steering the boat.
However, the skipper is ultimately responsible for the safety of the boat and the crew so he/she is in charge of everything that happens. If you haven’t got a skipper, nominate one.
He or she should be the one who says when it is time to operate paddles and by how much and the crew should be ready to act promptly. This usually means they should be in visual and verbal contact with the skipper at all times. Politely ask bystanders to stay clear, but if you want them to help then give clear instructions. If you are the bystander, you can offer help but only do what the skipper or crew say.
You don’t need to make it too military but be firm and in control.
Watch boat position at all times
The helmsman will normally be the first to spot that the boat isn’t sitting correctly, but all the crew should be on the alert for it making any odd angles and alert the skipper straight away.
Concentrate on the task and don’t be distracted by others. It’s nice to have a chat with other boaters or passers-by at the lock, but a moment’s distraction could prove to be fatal. If the helmsman needs to leave the helm to go inside then only do it when the boat is safe and stable and only then with the crew’s knowledge. Better still, don’t leave the helm in the lock.
Most boaters know to keep their stern clear of the cill when descending. If you catch the stern or rudder of your boat on the cill then it stays high while the front of the boat continues to descend. The result is that the well deck, (front deck), floods then the cabin and potentially the boat can sink.
The best solution is to stay clear of the cill in the first place but if the stern does get caught then swift action closing the bottom paddles might save the day. Lower the paddles quickly but never ‘drop’ them because this can damage the paddle gear and make the situation irretrievable. Also, some paddles won’t lower when the water is flowing through them without turning the gear.
Lock gates can also stop one end of the boat from rising or falling. Staying clear of the gates is good advice, but having a crew member watch the bow when rising or descending will give you an extra pair of eyes where you most need them.
The need to use mooring lines in narrow locks is usually restricted to single-handed boating and only then with extreme caution. If someone is at the helm when operating the locks there is no real need to use lines in narrow locks. In broad locks lines can be helpful, but again if you have someone at the helm and are sharing a broad lock with another steel boat then lines are usually not necessary. Bigger locks, such as Thames river locks, will usually require lines to be used all the time.
The problem with using lines in any lock is that the boat moves up and down with the water level and you have to ensure the line moves with it. Tying off a line with a hitch and walking away from it isn’t a good idea and even a line with a couple of turns around a bollard can become snagged and pull tight. The line can also get caught between brickwork or under lock ladder base plates. The result of any mistake is that the boat can be held up or held down by the line depending whether you are descending or ascending.
Spending nine hours at the helm or operating in excess of 20 locks in one day can take it out of even the fittest of us and concentration will be lost. There is a temptation, especially for people new to boating, to try to get as far as possible on a holiday. If the hire company says a cruising ring is normally done in two weeks but can be done in one then don’t try to do it in a week’s holiday unless you have a fit crew, are experienced or can guarantee that the weather won’t weaken you even more.
If it’s sunny, the heat will take it out of you. If it is raining and you don’t have the best kit then wet clothing will make you uncomfortable and cause a distraction. The same goes for cold weather too where
even mild hypothermia can make you lose concentration.
Remember that many accidents happen at the end of a long day or on day 13 of a two-week holiday.
Don’t be complacent
When you first start boating it can all seem so easy until you have one or two bumps then you realise a little training would help. After some training and experience you become more confident but still appreciate the dangers. At this stage you are at your safest.
After a few years though you can feel you are invulnerable. This is perhaps the most dangerous stage because boaters can become over-confident and complacent and this can overcome any level of skill or experience. Make sure your skills are up to the task in hand.
If you know you have a flight of demanding locks ahead then walk the crew up to the first lock if possible and talk through locking procedures with them, especially if they are inexperienced. If that isn’t possible then take your time at the first lock and give them a good briefing. Make sure everyone knows the potential dangers such as leaving the windlass on the spindle and it spinning off if the ratchet fails. They should also know what to do in an emergency including going as far as calling the emergency services. If they have to call 999/112 will they be able to tell the emergency services where they are?
Check your kit before you depart for the locks. For example, has the life ring been stolen overnight or are the fenders still dangling from the side of the boat?
If you have had a bit to drink the night before then be even more careful. You wouldn’t drive a car with a hangover in case you were still over the limit in the morning so what makes you think you can steer a boat? Perhaps a lie-in is the best plan or restrict the amount of alcohol consumed. Stick to soft drinks at the lunchtime stop. If your crew have alcohol mid-journey, keep a special eye on them in the afternoon. Best still, don’t drink and cruise.
Forget ‘it will never happen to me’. It happens to the best of us. Every situation is different but being alert at all times should help to minimise the risks. Your head should be on a gimbal looking in all directions. Look at the boat, the lock, your crew and even innocent bystanders.
Motorists face a penalty for ‘driving without due care and attention’ with a few points and a fine. Make sure you don’t fall foul of the same charge for boating which might result in a far more severe penalty...
Take the crew through the drill
Be careful of catching bows on lock gates
The steerer is in charge
Get it wrong and people are at risk
Never tie off mooring lines in locks
It happens too frequently