You may have read our recent adventures on the inland waterways, and thought that the crew of the Ross’s Gull has had a very exciting time so far. In fact, you may even reason with yourself that it has been a little too exciting? If so then prepare yourself for more thrills, more spills, more outrageous events as the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) day has been saved to last.
Dear Reader, enjoy this sorry tale, and learn the lessons that we could not…
As bosun for the Ross’s Gull, I get a limited amount of free time so when the Captain told me I had time to fly my drone first thing this morning, I was glad of the opportunity. Any practice time I can get with this amazing little gizmo, is worthwhile.
The Captain and the SSO headed back to the boat having completed their morning constitutional, and I set the drone upon the ground next to the nearest lock. After a few moments of pressing buttons, checking calibrations, and ensuring the camera was working, the drone took to the skies.
I flew forwards, backwards, up, down, and every which way. Very enjoyable, but also an easy way to soak up time. Fortunately the boat hadn’t departed by the time I got back, but it was a close run thing.
To expedite our progress, we ate breakfast on the move – it was our second set of Eggs Washington à la Harry – so we always had someone driving whilst the others ate, and the Ship’s Boy took care of the Chef duties. The system worked well.
We passed through Monkey Marsh lock, which is worthy of note because unlike just about every other lock, it is turf-sided. English Heritage lists this particular lock as an ancient monument. There are only two examples of this style of lock on the whole of the Kennet & Avon. The other is Garston Lock (which we would also pass through later on in the day).
So far, so ordinary… but this is where the day really took a turn (and it just kept turning!):
As we came through the other side of Colthrop lock (just on from Monkey Marsh), the Ross’s Gull started to cough and splutter. She wasn’t happy about something. We did a few quick checks, but nothing immediately obvious sprang to mind. Perhaps it was just one of those things? We carried on for a bit, then it happened again. Something was clearly wrong. Perhaps something connected to the fuel?
Whilst we were mulling this over and thinking about what to do about it, someone on a bike cycled over to us and told the crew that there was a tree down in the canal, not far ahead. Not knowing whether this was some kind of odd prank nor not, we proceeded with caution.
It was definitely not a prank. In fact the tree in question had crossed the entire width of the canal, preventing any further forward travel. We pulled up close to the tree, to inspect the situation. There was definitely no way to get through the tangle of branches and leaves.
In this situation, where the canal is impeded or completely blocked, the sensible and correct thing to do is to contact the CRT (Canal & River Trust). The Captain duly did so, receiving a rather short, terse message that the CRT wouldn’t respond without photographic evidence. Fortunately we were in an area with decent enough phone signal, so we were able to oblige.
The automatic response to the email I sent containing a set of clear photos told me that the CRT would be in touch within 5 working days. So what were we to do now?
Trevor spied a lock side house in the distance and decided to check if the owners had a saw that we could borrow. We could cut our way through, and CRT could finish up the rest. That was the plan.
Fortunately the people where home when Trevor called, and they were happy to loan us a saw. They came along to enjoy the show as we began trimming branches off this huge tree.
The Captain was at the helm, Elaine was providing guidance on when to push the boat forward, or pull the boat back. Trevor and Harry were in amongst the branches of the tree, sawing and snapping to their hearts content. I was on the bank, dragging branches out of the way and lining them up on the bank.
This went on for some time, until a small man from the CRT (complete with mandatory life jacket) turned up took a few photos, confirmed that he would call someone out (which was odd, given that he was the person who had been called out) and it would be dealt with. Then he disappeared.
No help arrived.
Remember the boat coughing and spluttering? That started up again at this point. But once again we managed to get her back up and running.
As if a sickly boat and a stubborn tree weren’t enough, we also spotted a struggling moorhen on the far side of the canal, that needed to be rescued. It was flapping and struggling, and clearly in distress.
Through a complicated set of manoeuvres, the Captain got the back of the boat by the far side of the canal, giving Elaine and Trevor a chance to cut off the mass of fishing wire wrapped around its beak and feet. Once freed Elaine released the bird back onto the water, where it sank like a stone.
Fortunately it reappeared happy as ever on the far side of the canal, a few minutes later. Diving suddenly and staying submerged for a surprising length of time is a moorhen self defence mechanism.
So, that was one problem resolved. Back to chopping up the tree that was blocking the entire canal…
When we all felt enough had been chopped up, the Captain took a run up and charged the boat forward. She made it half way over the remnants of the tree before getting stuck. There was a thick branch hiding beneath the water.
Another boat appeared behind us, and we coerced them into trying to tow us backwards and off the tree branch. It was a valiant effort, but sadly it was not enough. The boat was stuck fast.
Trevor and Harry continued to hack and slash. They also went splash, as both of them ended up in the canal!
But, they were making progress. The pile of wood on the bank was getting higher and higher, yet the boat refused to move. Until there was a crack and that pesky underwater branch fell away enough to free up the boat and we could carry on our journey (Trevor returned the saw to its owner).
And carry on we did. Having made such good progress throughout the week, and despite the weather, rescuing animals, chopping up fallen trees, and even Trevor forgetting to close his lock paddles several times, we were far enough ahead that we could get to Reading. It would take a consistent pace and no further problems, but we’d just about get in and still have time to wind the boat and moor up in the countryside.
Cough, cough, splutter… silence… beep-beep-beep!
The boat was really quite poorly. It would just give up every so often, so that we had to switch off the engine, float for a bit, then get it all fired up again, just to keep going.
There was a slight difference of opinion at this stage, some of the crew (I’ll let you work out who) really, really wanted to reach Reading – to make sure we’d actually travelled the complete length of the Kennet & Avon – whilst others (ok, just me) thought it was a ridiculous idea, and not worth the hassle. Let’s just moor up somewhere here and relax. Everyone else was somewhere in between.
I was clearly out voted, so we pressed on to Reading. For quite some time we were doing well, it actually looked like we might achieve our goal-
Cough, cough, splutter…silence… beep-beep-beep!
The Ross’s Gull was definitely sick now. We were too far along the canal now, and had been through too much (such as some very strong currents from the river pushing the boat this way and that) to give up. We floated our way along and into Reading, it was getting late but there was still hours of light left in the day.
We passed through the very interesting traffic light system on the water. You push a button just like a normal land-based pedestrian crossing, and when the light goes green you travel on through the heart of Reading.
The Friday night, after work brigade were in full swing as we bobbed past, the Beach Party bar was doing a roaring trade.
Cough, cough, splutter…silence… oh dear.
We couldn’t do any more, so it was time to call the boat hire company. We turned the boat, tied up against the railings in downtown Reading, and waiting to be rescued.
We’ve never had a mechanical problem with the boats before, and it was disappointing that it happened at all, but at least it was on the last full day of travelling rather than the first.
It did, however, present us with a slight logistical problem on how to get back to the boat hire base on time – it was 5 hours travel away, and whilst we definitely had 3 hours of light left, we couldn’t go anywhere until the boat was fixed.
We decided to perform some engine checks before the boat hire on-call person arrived, and were very thankful we did as there was a thick, very dirty duvet (with cover) wrapped around the prop. It took Trevor and I several minutes and a lot of strained hacking with a knife and heaving to release it. We got it out though, wrapped it all up in a black plastic bin bag and the Ship’s Boy disposed of it for us in a nearby bin.
Before you jump to the wrong conclusions, no this was not the source of our boat problems. We’d picked up the duvet in Reading, it had only been stuck there for a few minutes.
We also checked the fuel levels, as our suspicion was that the boat was low on fuel (which it shouldn’t have been, as they’re usually filled up with at least 2 weeks worth of fuel at the start of every hire). Using the mop we dipped the tank, and whilst it was low it certainly wasn’t empty. More diesel would definitely help though.
Time ticked on, and all we could do was wait, strapped to the railings and feeling rather exposed to some of the more unsavoury elements of the Reading population. Eventually, two boat hire company on-call people arrived, and after a few basic mechanical checks (Trevor helped them), and some pretty intense negotiations (it took the whole crew to win them over) we managed to convince them to bring us some more fuel tonight.
It would take them more than an hour to get fuel and get back to us, so one of the on-call team chugged us along to the lock landing at Blake’s Lock, the final lock in Reading. If you go through it you end up on the River Thames.
Another round of negotiations took place when the lock keeper appeared, as if from nowhere. He wasn’t going to let us stay, as it’s against the rules. No, nope. Not happening. Until I threw in the magic phrase “we’ll be gone by first light”, and he perked up completely as it meant we weren’t going to be a problem for him.
“You’ll be off by 04:20, then?” He joked, knowing that hire boaters aren’t the sort of people to get up and going before 09:00 at the earliest.
“You’re damned right we will.” Elaine replied.
The deal was done.
We were to be tied up in the lock landing, a much nicer (and safer) part of Reading, all night and would need to get the boat back as soon as possible the following day.
The fuel arrived, the engine was checked again, and that was it. We played a couple of hands of Uno to pass the time, and then went to bed.
You need to have an early night, if you’re going to start barging before the sun is over the horizon…