L-plate liveaboards

MIKE BODNAR: As the sea­son changes and hire boats flood the canal, Liz and I feel smug in the knowl­edge that com­par­a­tively, we’re old hands at nav­i­gat­ing locks now. Or so we thought

Motorboat & Yachting - - Contents -

Con­tin­u­ing on the Canal du Midi, one piece of ad­vice we’d pre­vi­ously been given paid off: start cruis­ing early each day and fin­ish around 1pm.

As the hire boat fleets awake from hi­ber­na­tion, the canal gets busier, with in­creased com­pe­ti­tion for space in the mari­nas.

With their ves­sels rented for a lim­ited time, hire boaters want to make the most of ev­ery day, cruis­ing long and hard. But it means that around 4pm daily, a flotilla of hire boats ar­rive at the mari­nas, all jostling for a berth. Rush hour.

We, how­ever, ar­rived early after­noon, did our shop­ping and top­ping-up of water, and – for­give the schaden­freude – sat on deck with a glass of wine watch­ing the 4 o’clock fray. (That said, we did help new ar­rivals tie up; we’re not com­plete killjoys.)

We no­ticed the hire boats rarely seemed to have a skip­per, usu­ally driven by a com­mit­tee with three, four or even five peo­ple (usu­ally men) around the helm, all pro­vid­ing ad­vice, or try­ing to steer. We in­vented a col­lec­tive noun for these: a ‘bun­gle’.

On one oc­ca­sion, ap­proach­ing a blind bend on the Midi, we sounded our horn and kept well right. Good job too, since a bun­gle came round the cor­ner to­wards us at speed. See­ing us, all four of the crew grabbed the wheel to steer them­selves out of trou­ble, suc­ceed­ing only in guid­ing their large boat across the canal and right up the op­po­site bank. Luck­ily there was no dam­age, and the boat slid slowly back off again into the water.

But any smirks on our faces were wiped off when we en­tered the lock at Bram. With two hire boats ahead of us, we let them en­ter first to tie up. By now, we’d learned to do ev­ery­thing slowly and gen­tly, to be easy on the throt­tle and not cause any fuss or com­mo­tion. As I nudged the boat gen­tly to the side of the lock, Liz leaped off ready to wran­gle ropes. All good so far, and the lock keeper – see­ing that we were pretty much in po­si­tion – be­gan clos­ing the gates be­hind us with his remote con­trol.

Which is when it all went hor­ri­bly wrong. I de­cided to move Lib­erty fur­ther for­ward and gen­tly pushed the throt­tle, but the boat seemed to go back­wards. Liz looked con­fused. I pushed for­ward a bit harder and the boat went faster in re­verse, to­wards the clos­ing gates. ‘What are you do­ing?’ shouted Liz. ‘Try­ing to go for­wards!’ I shouted. But the more I pushed for­ward, the faster the boat went back, un­til with a mas­sive bang, it hit the al­most-closed gates.

The hire boaters looked aghast, Liz was ashen, and the lock keeper ran to the gates to check for dam­age. I was in panic mode. The éclusier told me to stop the en­gine, and he and Liz pulled Lib­erty by the ropes to the lock­side. I went to the stern. One of our davits was bent up­wards and the swim plat­form was dented. I felt sick. But mirac­u­lously, the gates seemed okay, and we weren’t sink­ing. The keeper tested the gates and con­tin­ued to close them, then wrote up what was pre­sum­ably an ac­ci­dent report on his clip­board. (‘Com­plete bun­gle on boat called Lib­erty. Hit gates. Im­bé­ciles!’)

When the up­stream gates opened, the hire boaters wasted no time es­cap­ing the crazy pri­vate boaters, leav­ing Liz and the lock keeper to tow Lib­erty to the side of the canal. Liz re­joined me on board, ask­ing why I’d re­versed at speed into the lock gates. I couldn’t ex­plain. The prob­lem turned out to be the joint throt­tle/gear­box mech­a­nism hav­ing come adrift down be­low. The gear­box had stuck in re­verse, along with the throt­tle, re­gard­less of which way I pushed it. A sin­gle ca­ble clamp had dis­in­te­grated, but I could see all we needed was to find a small U-clamp with nut and bolt and we could make a run­ning re­pair.

We eas­ily robbed a clamp from a fuel line, but then spent two hours comb­ing ev­ery nook and cranny on the boat for the right length bolt, even un­screw­ing the knobs from pots and pans in the gal­ley. Noth­ing fit­ted, and we sat dis­con­so­lately on the aft deck, not want­ing to call out a me­chanic.

Then Liz, look­ing up at the ship’s horn, said, ‘What about that?’ She pointed to the small bolt hold­ing it on. Within min­utes we’d dis­as­sem­bled it, I’d nipped down into the en­gine bay and voila! It fit­ted! A glass of cel­e­bra­tory wine later and we were on our way.

Cost of re­pair: zero. Em­bar­rass­ment fac­tor in front of hire boaters: ten.

Liz re­joined me on board, ask­ing why I’d re­versed at speed into the lock gates. I couldn’t ex­plain

Rush hour on the Canal du Midi

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