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There was a James Bond film on TV recently (when is there not?), with a high-speed chase in powerboats. “Couldn’t do that with your barge, John,” said a friend, with just the hint of a nudge in the ribs. “Well,” I explained, “it’s surprising what can happen at three miles an hour …” Or even less, I thought. And, on many a boat, there have been these surprises.
The one I found myself describing, while it started as a surprise, turned gradually into a Situation. It happened on my friend John Sheldon’s narrowboat Swan. Unconverted since the days of trade, falling apart, yet still to some degree loved, Swan led us a merry dance in the final months of John’s ownership.
It was the leaks that started it. Negligible at first, then, after a year or so, rapid, they became increasingly a threat. Built with steel sides, Swan was of ‘composite’ construction, that is to say with a bottom made from elm. Stout though this had been, it gradually succumbed, until, in the end, a bailing-out session was needed before each trip.
The time eventually arrived when, at the mooring on the Grand Union Canal at Cowley, to find a foot of water on board was no great surprise. That the water lapped against the engine seemed of little consequence. But it was, for it got into, and gradually affected, the clutch.
For the steerer of the Swan, there were just two controls, inside the hatch at the point most likely to inflict a head injury to anyone going in or out. It is for such a reason, possibly, that so many boatpeople wore fender-like hats. By spinning the ‘speedwheel’, you could change the exhaust note from a steady tock–tock to a sound like a Gatling gun. To slow down you went back to ‘steady’ then, by turning a bigger wheel, took her out of gear. And that was the problem. She came out of gear by releasing the clutch. But the clutch, affected by the water in it, did not want to be released.
We first discovered this at the next lock up from Cowley, where John, an experienced rowing man, powerful in his upper arms, could be seen doing an Incredible Hulk pastiche at the controls. It was a good job there was no-one else around, for we hit the gates. A post-mortem took place, followed by whacks with a hammer. Swan’s Gardner engine, with its blowlamp starting, was a primitive beast; but it was mighty strong. Thereafter, we found, the trick was not to turn the big wheel more than necessary, and to plan well ahead, running into the bank if necessary. We travelled to the Leicester Rally like that.
Cowroast Lock at the time was managed by a conscientious gentleman who, as if we were still in the 1930s, came to check each vessel and ask for her papers. He did this on our way back, when lulled into a state of false security, we allowed the clutch to bind again and had to stall the engine.
John and I, up to our ankles in bilge water, sweat pouring from us, were bashing at the mechanism with a crowbar when he arrived. “Can I see your licence?” he said. And that was all he was allowed to say for the next few minutes.
There was a repeat of this scenario the following winter. Swan having been sold, we were taking her north for the last time. With uncanny coincidence the clutch stuck again at Cowroast; the licence-gatherer appeared at the moment critique and again the air turned blue. It was blue enough anyway, for this was the coldest snap for many a year and the canal froze over. In the course of an energy-sapping day we travelled just eight miles, aided at one point by another old time company man who came to clear the floes from behind the gates. He had a special tool with him, a weighted kind of thing on a pole like some artefact from Lord of the Rings. “It’s an ice-podger,” he declared, when asked to explain its origins.
“You get them from Head Office.”
We handed over the boat to others further on and, thinking to have got the clutch sorted, only explained this in outline. It was the wait for the ice to clear that undid them; for the water got in again. This time the clutch stuck with the engine going astern, driving those on board inside the boatman’s cabin, pursued by the branches of a very strong tree. Try putting that in a James Bond movie.
The Swan is in good order now, in the caring hands of Mary Gibby. John and I were lucky enough to travel on board two years ago, up the Anderton Lift, where the staff, Health & Safety conscious to a degree, would have been shattered had the boat behaved as in days of yore. I wondered if they kepta stock of ice podgers there, for issue to those in need, but decided that the world had moved on.
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