... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Sunday 1 February 2015

Not the NarrowBoat column

As you might know, one of the things I did in my capacity of HNBC Press Officer was to write a quarterly column for the shiny wipe-clean NarrowBoat magazine. It looks likely that I'll continue this, at least for a while, after relinquishing the Press Officer role, from which I am standing down at the AGM in March.

The column is meant to be largely about the Historic Narrow Boat Club, its activities and its campaigns, so my first attempt for this quarter was, it was rightly pointed out by our illustrious Chair, too much like a personal statement. However, waste not, want not, and what better place for a personal statement than a personal blog. So you can read it instead.

Steering my Large Woolwich motor boat around the canal system, I am often tempted to get a pot of white paint and write in massive letters on its (admittedly imposing) fore end: ‘DON’T PANIC’. It can be very disconcerting when someone sees me coming and elects to steer their shiny new boat into the bank or the trees rather than pass cleanly and professionally. To pass properly (and it is such a rare pleasure when people do that it usually cheers me up for the entire day), looks as if you are heading for a head on collision, only to steer slightly to the side in the last few seconds. Both boats remain parallel, but are now at an angle to the bank. Once they are half way past each other, they both steer, just as subtly, the other way, and then straighten up to tuck in behing one another, neither having left the centre of the canal, or even slowed down much. It helps to think not so much of passing another boat, as if on parallel tracks, but of steering around one another. It isn’t necessary to leave space for another boat to come down through the middle; a foot between the boats, even six inches, is plenty, and thay way both boats get to stay in the deep water.

It is true that most old boats tend to be deeper drafted than most newer ones, but there are plenty of new boats that draw three feet, as well as some old ones which aren’t immediately recognisable as such; it’s wrong to expect any boat to leave the channel and risk going aground. No owner of an old boat would expect another boater to do this, and in ninety nine percent of cases it is completely unnecessary.

My boat might be big, but it’s held together with rivets: I want a collision even less than they do! Having said that, if a collision is inevitable, then a glancing clash of fore ends, with fenders taking the impact, is preferable to hitting another boat sideways on – which is what is far more likely happen if an oncoming boat decides to try to stop. In all but a very few boats, you can only steer if you are moving forwards; boats that try to stop are far more likely to end up slewed across the canal leaving the oncoming boat with nowhere to go and no option but to try to do likewise. In most potential collision situations, it is better to steer your way out of trouble than to try to stop – the obvious exception being bridgeholes and narrows, where there’s nowhere to steer to.

Here, clearly, one boat has to stop and wait for the other to come through the obstruction. Sometimes it can be very hard to judge ‘whose’ bridgehole it is – i.e. who has the right of way to pass through while the other boat must wait. Technically it belongs to the boat that gets there first, but when both boats slow right down just in case when still five minutes away it can lead to five minutes of uncertainty and still no more idea when they arrive there. If someone waits to let me through, I will speed up. I know how hard it can be to hold a boat stationary and out of the way. One of the greatest frustrations (after people who steer into hedges) is stopping to let a boat through only for them to slow down. That is very inconsiderate – if someone is waiting for you, speed up and get out of their was as quickly as possible.
It was too long as well, and I knew it wasn't quite the thing, hence the rather sudden ending.


  1. Very useful stuff here, Sarah. It's good to get the perspective of the steerer of the monster heading straight for you.

  2. I hadn't realised it was only the owners of shiny new boats who panicked.

    1. I didn't say it was (although it does tend to be)... but they are the most disconcerting when they do.