When old and new worlds come to­gether

Canal Boat - - France - KEVIN BLICK From car jour­nal­ism to the canals was a change of pace, but liv­ing on board tug Harry is a con­stant eye-opener

Crusty boats, an old boat­ing friend of mine used to call them. I don’t know why; maybe it was his amal­gam of ‘clas­sic’ and ‘rusty’. He was talk­ing about what we more po­litely call his­toric or ex-work­ing boats.

Once upon a time they were more rusty (or rot­ten, given that some are built of wood) than clas­sic, but there has been a quite a re­vival of in­ter­est in his­toric craft.

So much so that there man­aged to be two clas­sic boat ral­lies on the same week­end ear­lier this sum­mer and both Braun­ston and Lymm drew large num­bers of en­tries.

I have to say that I do like a crusty boat show. Last year we went to Lymm (which fea­tures cars and trac­tion en­gines for the full clas­sic trans­port ex­pe­ri­ence) and this year to Braun­ston. It was cer­tainly fun, thanks in large part to the pa­rade.

This is a kind of vaguely or­gan­ised chaos where boats at­tempt a cir­cuit via a three­p­oint turn at Braun­ston Turn, along the canal and through the ma­rina. Any­thing can hap­pen and usu­ally does – most of­ten in the shape of an ‘I know my rights’ pri­vate craft which has turned a blind eye to the mul­ti­plic­ity of boat rally warn­ing no­tices around the area and then dis­cov­ered that a 70ft boat and butty pair are a pretty formidable ob­sta­cle to en­counter on a crowded canal.

Or a bunch of happy (in the al­co­holic sense) hire­boaters who panic at the sight of a on­com­ing Big Wool­wich bow – and who wouldn’t – en­gage hard re­verse and find them­selves broad­side across the cut.

Braun­ston Turn is the place to watch, not just for these an­tics but for the artistry with which the steer­ers of these big boats can turn them around with such pre­ci­sion.

And be­ing some­one who has never mas­tered the art of re­vers­ing a car and trailer, I gazed in sheer slack-jawed ap­pre­ci­a­tion at peo­ple able to re­verse 140ft of boat and butty back around a bend.

But it’s not just the steer­ing, it’s the boats them­selves that I like to see and find out about. To be hon­est, though, I found the travel to the show even more re­veal­ing than the week­end it­self.

On the way down we re­peat­edly met work­ing boats at locks or moored up at night with them – it was a chance to ask a few ques­tions and learn a bit of back­ground. That can be harder at a show when boats are moored three or four deep and most of the own­ers are away three or four deep at the beer tent bar.

When I was a mo­tor­ing hack I made an early ca­reer de­ci­sion to steer well clear of clas­sic cars – there’s no-one so pedan­ti­cally picky as a clas­sic car en­thu­si­ast. They find holes in ev­ery­thing. If not in the writ­ing, then in the cars. ‘They never made them with those wheel nuts... that colour’s not stan­dard’ - you know the sort of thing.

I’m sure there are the same types in his­toric boat­ing but to me it all seems a lot more open and ac­cept­ing. Old boats aren’t like old Fer­raris; more like old spades - three new han­dles and two new blades but it’s still the same spade.

Boats that were once wooden bot­tomed are now steel, en­gines have been changed, some have grown cab­ins, some have had them stripped off and are back to their orig­i­nal car­ry­ing form, some are scruffy, oth­ers gleam like new.

Most en­ter­tain­ingly, to the out­sider like me, is the way some over the years have found them­selves be­com­ing more than one boat. Dur­ing the years af­ter the end of car­ry­ing the boats that weren’t sim­ply sunk were rou­tinely butchered about for all sorts of pur­poses.

At least two own­ers we spoke to had ac­quired a boat which was half a his­toric and which they were restor­ing by build­ing a new match­ing ‘proper’ half while at the same time the owner of the ac­tual other his­toric half was do­ing the same thing to his! Who got to keep the name was a big bone of con­tention.

I en­joy shows like Braun­ston – it’s a chance to get a small in­sight into what the work­ing canals must have been like. I’ve never helmed a 70ft work­ing boat, some­thing I’d def­i­nitely like to do be­fore I hang up my wind­lass but when I do, you can rest as­sured it cer­tainly won’t be in front of a crowd of hun­dreds at Braun­ston Turn.

‘As some­one who has never mas­tered the art of re­vers­ing a car and trailer, I gazed in sheer slack-jawed ap­pre­ci­a­tion’

Ah, the joys of clas­sic boat­ing

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