So, on Friday I bought a boat.
I’ll add some details in another post about why, how, and where, but this post is about my first full day cruising, the things that went right and wrong, and lessons learned along the way.
I’d been moored in Kings Langley, at Lock 69, and I’d decided to move to the next major town south, which was Watford, about 5 miles to the south. This was expected to take about 3.5 hours, according to Canalplan.
I woke up early and it was peaceful, chilly, and sunny outside.
Full of optimism, and with a vague plan, I started untying my boat and setting the nearby lock in my favour by opening the paddles, ready to open the gates and steer the boat in. Of course, as a new owner on his first cruise, this wasn’t going to be as easy as expected.
One of the first things you’ll learn about working locks is that you need to be careful to make sure your windlass is secure on the spindle, and that the safety catch is engaged on the paddle. I opened three of four paddles without issue, but on the fourth paddle I neglected to engage the safety catch, and while winding the paddle open, it slipped. This caused my only windlass to spin backwards at speed, fly off into the air and gently splash into the lock.
After some pacing back and forth and wondering how I was going to safely close the paddles without a windless, I was saved by a passing work boat. I managed to borrow a windlass from the owner, letting him go ahead and getting underway shortly afterwards. Later that day, I bought some spares.
The first landmark on this route is the M25, which rumbled along far above the canal, with plenty of pigeons nesting underneath, all fluttering off as I passed under.
This was followed by a long, straight section with few boats moored along the towpath, giving me time to get used to the steering (which you may be surprised to learn is a little sluggish), the relationship between throttle and speed, etc.
The sun was out, the leaves were falling and golden, and it was generally a lovely day for boating.
Some of the nicest places along the route were by The Grove golf course and Cassiobury Park, where the canal slowly meanders under beautiful bridges, through quiet parks with lots of walkers and cyclists enjoying the towpath.
I had a slight moment of panic trying to take a 90 degree turn at the very beautiful Grove Ornamental Bridge (#164) while someone was moored on the bend, but thankfully had no other problems navigating and found myself enjoying the sunshine and scenery, in my own boat no less!
Overall, the main feature and lessons of the day were about the locks, 9 in total on this journey.
Locks on the UK canals all work similarly, and there’s many guides to how they work, I quite like the guide in the RYA Inland Waterways handbook but there’s also a good description on canaljunction. It takes a while to each one solo, especially in a widebeam.
At each lock I descend, I must: tie up the boat, open the paddles, wait for the lock to fill, open both gates, untie the boat, steer into the lock, tie up again, close both top gates, close the paddles, open the bottom paddles, check the boat isn’t about to hit the cill, wait for the lock to empty, open the bottom gates, close the paddles, untie the boat, climb down the ladder, steer the boat out, tie the boat up again, close the bottom gates, untie the boat and start moving again.
If lucky, you’ll encounter people coming the opposite way who can leave the locks set in your favour when they leave (i.e. so you can steer the boat straight in without having to tie up and open the paddles, etc) – The work boat I borrowed the windlass from left one in my favour, and I did meet a narrowboat a bit later coming the other way, but the other 7 locks I was working solo.
I didn’t think I was going to get a break, but just as I approached Lock 75 at Cassiobury Park, I spotted Cake On The Cut and stopped for a coffee and cake. There’s many trading boats on the UK’s canals and this was my first experience seeing one in person.
I tied up next to the lock, took a few moments to make sure nobody else was approaching, and sat down for a coffee and a slice of plum crumble cake. Delicious!
Back on the water after this break, I was almost to my destination for the evening, and a few locks and some unexpected Reindeer sightings (at Cassiobury Farm, near Lock 78), I reached Croxley Green and tied up for the night, almost 7 hours after starting, and with a newfound understanding of Canal Time.
Next time will be slower, calmer, and with more breaks, for sure!