The question of single-handed boat operation on British Canals crops up from time to time, so I thought I would put my own experiences on record. As this is personal experience it can only relate to our 60 foot steel narrowboat, though perhaps this might be fairly typical. There are many single-handed boaters out there. My authority is simply as a boater of 4 years experience and reasonable agility for my 63 years. I would have to defer to those with more experience than myself, but the point of writing this is to show what a relative novice can get up to. I reckon that there are many challenges I have yet to face, since I have not cruised anywhere near the entire system being limited thus far to the south (mostly). I must now take cover and await the barrage of criticism.
Firstly, I would strongly recommend doing a “Helmsman’s Course”. These are typically 1 day courses organised to a syllabus by the Royal Yachting Association and can be taken all over the place. (See adverts) I think that, in the first instance, it would be a good idea to practice single-handed techniques with a crew available to help in case things go wrong. Many boaters we meet are used to multi-crewed trips often for family holidays and they express astonishment that a boat can actually be managed single-handed. In fact single-handed operation is quite easy (with a few exceptions). Having said that, other boats are usually more than willing to lend crew at locks or accept a little extra work on their part in return for the feeling they are not being unduly delayed. More often than not, though, I feel more comfortable working alone because I can determine my own pace. An efficient lone boater can often outpace a multi-crewed boat with dysfunctional crew.
After 2 seasons of hiring, my wife and I purchased a boat in 2002 that we had to pick up near Stockport and return to our intended moorings in Harefield. For the first four days I had a professional to help me before the family joined me. That proved very instructive. Finally for the last two days I was solo for the first time. Apart from leaving the windlass behind on my first lock (occupational hazard anyway with us it seems) I had no problems whatsoever although it was hard work. Subsequently I have done a lot of single handed cruising. How could I summarise my experience?
The first point to understand is that all canals differ in their architecture, and for some like the Kennet & Avon the architecture and obstacles vary enormously almost resembling an army assault course with river sections, locks of all shapes, paddle gear differing, swing bridges, lifting bridges, swing bridges over locks, traffic lights, tunnels, and so on. Each obstacle needs its own approach. I have not cruised the entire canal system, so there are obstacles out there that I have not had to deal with yet. Movable bridges can present a particular problem (see below). Having said that the Grand Union Canal (Grand Junction) has consistent design that is ideal for developing a strategy for tackling locks. There are a few basic rules. You must assume you are really alone and take great care, because should you have an accident there may be no help. So plan all moves and take your time. I would not travel alone in icy and slippery conditions for that reason. Beware of windy conditions. It may surprise you, but you might not be strong enough to hold the boat against the wind when attempting to moor. The centre rope is your friend. By understanding the force vectors in play between your boat, its inertia, the bank or lock side and your centre rope you can achieve good control without much effort. Obviously you have to leave the boat to work the gates and lock gear, so you need to have a system for keeping control of the boat and this means roping the boat in a lock. (I met a single handed boat recently who had not roped his boat in a double lock and had to call out British Waterways staff because he found he couldn’t get back on). Keep the roof clear of clutter, particularly at the rear because you need access from the roof to get to lock ladders and you do not want to get your centre rope snagged up.
Here are a few tips.
As a general point you only need to open one gate and work one half of the lock. It is unhelpful if onlookers (or other boaters) imagine that you have to open both gates for a single boat, especially if they leave it to you to close both. This entails a walk around the lock (with the attendant risk of crossing the opposite gate)
If the gates are closed or the lock is against you, you obviously have to moor up and deal with it. Make sure your boat is secure both to the bank and against intruders particularly in urban areas. Since you may lose sight of the boat behind the almost inevitable bridge it does not take a second or two for a thief to nip in and remove a valuable item lying on the table and be gone, and it would be a shame to emerge to find that the wash from the lock had caused the badly secured boat to break loose. I sometimes use the bow rope additionally for this reason.
As a single boat, and taking the whole process logically from the beginning, assuming you have arrived at the lock and have now opened the bottom gate. You need to get the boat to enter the lock and manoeuvre it into such a position that you can get off safely carrying the centre rope and lock windlass with you. So… you might want to use a working belt with windlass holder to carry one less object. However, if you are a single boat I find that engaging reverse inside the lock pushes water back along the swim and the build up of water pushes the stern out so that you find yourself not where you want to be to climb the lock ladder. If you are paired and the other boat is already in the lock it acts in your favour to prevent this happening. In the single boat case the solution to this is to put your propeller in reverse before the rear of the boat reaches the lock throat but after the bows have passed through the gate opening. Then with the boat still moving slowly forward in neutral under its own momentum step nonchalantly off onto the landing below the lock and carrying the centre rope, climb the steps, flick the rope over the lock gate furniture and bring the boat gently to a stop in exactly the right place using one turn of the rope around a bollard. Chose a bollard towards the rear of the lock (stern end). The force vectors I referred to above will pull the boat into the side of the lock. If you stopped it gently it will stay there. If you have a very elastic rope the recoil will start a backwards motion which will bring the stern up against the rear gate (which you should by now have closed), in which case you will need to keep an eye on it to avoid any risk of the rudder being damaged or snagged on the gate as the water rises.
Most locks have ground paddles at the top and you need to open the paddle on the same side as the boat. Water will shoot across, rebound on the opposite wall and keep the boat against the side. Furthermore a swirling motion in the water will, as often as not cause the boat to move forwards with increasing speed which if unchecked will ram the bows into the top gate (potential damage to the gate) where again the boat may get stuck. This is the main purpose of your centre rope now, to check that surge and as before, the force vectors will act to keep the boat securely on the side.
If the lock has only gate paddles I would advise a bow rope in addition to the centre rope. This doesn’t take long to sort out if you are prepared in advance. I keep the bow rope coiled on the roof when going uphill for this purpose. If you need this, watch out for “helpers” who invariably are crewing a boat waiting to come down and want to speed things up and so try to open both top paddles before you are ready. This can be disconcerting if you have rejoined the boat to retrieve the bow rope to find the stream from the opposite paddle pushing the bows across to the wrong side of the lock. If I see that help is available I leave shutting the bottom gate until the boat is secure fore and aft. This slows things down long enough. These days I tend to use a bow rope willy-nilly, particularly if the lock has both ground paddles and gate paddles – then open everything up, opposite gate paddle first after same side ground paddle.
As the lock fills and the turbulence decreases the wind can take a hold and the boat start to wander about. This is time to change the centre rope to a different, nearer bollard (if there is one).
Working a boat single handed in association with another well crewed boat can be more difficult than working alone unless you can establish a good working relationship. You should agree on who is responsible for what. My usual ploy is to send the other boat on ahead to prepare the next lock and offer to remain behind to close the gates. Then when they are gone, just push the bows across to the other side, exit slowly and stop just beyond the gate, toss a rope ashore, shut the gate and rejoin the boat. Only one gate to manage! The skill here is to make sure your boat has really stopped because however slowly it is moving it can travel more than a jump away in the time it takes to shut a full-size lock gate. Even with the security rope it still takes time and wasted effort to haul the boat back in again. Wind can also be your enemy here. When you arrive at the next lock, your new friends will have everything ready for you. It can work just as well the other way round, so if going first, when you reach the next lock, still open only one gate, but go in and tuck in on the opposite side so that your paired boat uses the same gate to enter directly. You will need to use the lock ladder in this case.
I have hinted at some potential problems with wind etc. What else could go wrong?
· Firstly you step off the boat below the lock but there are no steps and you have to run round, the rope gets tangled and you lose it. Moral: Always keep your rope neatly coiled and look out for unusual lock architecture. For example on the Basingstoke Canal, there are no convenient lock landings or steps.
· You get to the top and there are no bollards to tie the boat off to. Moral: The boat shouldn’t be going so fast that you cannot stop it yourself. Then use the gate as a secure tie off.
· You forgot, or missed putting the boat in neutral gear before stepping off. Usually it is in reverse. This one has caught me several times. Just as I am congratulating myself on a neat arrival, the boat wants to leave the lock after all, and some quick thinking is required.
· You find a lock bridge across the downhill end of the lock. The boat will go through but having left the boat to climb up to the top, the rope won’t. Moral: You should have spotted this “gotcha”. You will need to stay on the boat until past the bridge, then leap up onto the roof, walk forwards to the lock ladder, climb up, nip back to a suitable bollard and stop the boat. With some locks you will not need the ladder, but if the boat is going too fast at this stage you probably won’t make it unless you are very nimble. There is a much higher risk of slipping with this trick and falling between the boat and the lock side. Having said that people throw themselves off cliffs for fun but then again they have friends around to clear up the mess when things go wrong. You are alone, remember? Much safer in this situation to slow the boat right down even if it means using the engine in the lock, so take your time. No rush. I recall a single-handed working of Monkey Marsh lock on the Kennet & Avon. This is a turf sided lock so there is nothing to climb onto except a metal frame with one ladder. It has gate paddles at the top and the gates were leaking badly at the time producing a fountain and pushing the bows off. To get off to secure the boat adequately before I dared open a paddle took me the best part of 30 minutes. All part of the fun.
The above applies to individual locks. In a lock flight I find it easiest if alone to leave the boat in the lock (making sure it is safe) and walk (or using the unfolded bike, ride) up to the next lock and open the gate ready. This saves time in the long run. If I have crew I will send one of the crew to prepare the next lock as a priority even if it means working my lock single-handed. It’s not about being in a rush, just that I get pleasure in being as efficient as possible and sharing the work out. Having been used to single handed cruising it seems wrong for me to lord it on the back of the boat while the only other crew member is rushing around.
Again, you only need to open one gate, however the hydraulics of a piston (the boat) forcing itself into a cylinder (the lock) works against you and the displaced water leaving the lock will usually open the other gate. You might have intended that to happen if you are in the company of another following boat when it looks really cool, but otherwise if you have crew to prepare the lock for you, you would have directed them, having opened the gate on the side you intend to enter, to be on the opposite side of the lock ready to counter this effect. As with working uphill, I slow the boat down on entry to the lock and then step off with the centre rope bringing the boat finally to a stop using a bollard as far back on the lock side as possible. The rope leading forwards to the boat centre anchor point acts to pull it up against the side of the lock, but with such a length as to have plenty of play to allow for the fall of the boat in the average lock. Very deep locks may need to be handled differently by loosening the line at some stage. It is vital not to use a bollard close to the centre, because as the boat descends there will be insufficient play in the rope and the boat will get hung up as the water level falls. Close the gate on the side you came through and then if the other gate has opened, mutter some four letter incantations before pushing the stern of the boat across to the other side of the lock stepping on at the last minute to ride over. Shut the other gate and push the stern back. By now the front of the boat (because it pivots) will be somewhere in the centre of the lock, but that doesn’t matter. Opening the paddles will draw the boat forwards and the effect of the centreline will pull it back to the side. As the lock nears empty I have noticed that it tends to drift backwards and there is the ever-present worry about the stern getting caught on the lock cill. The backward drift probably occurs because the centre rope anchor point on the boat is following an arc about the lock side mooring point as the boat descends, pulling it back. Sometimes I lay a line from the stern dolly once around a bollard and lay it out so that it doesn’t tangle as the boat descends. The friction serves to stop the backwards drift, but I would advise caution in case it snags. As a safety feature, the eyes on my lock lines are large enough to slip off the dolly if an excessive vertical force is applied.
From an operational point of view I am strongly of the opinion that the gate(s)s on exit should be left open (as is the expected norm on Wey and Lee Navigations, and as was working practice in the old days), however BW have other considerations and the general requirement is to leave them closed. To do this I stay on the lock side and haul the boat out on the centre rope to develop some momentum, then immediately the stern has passed the gate close it behind the boat. If the timing is right and there is not an unfavourable wind I can then walk down the steps and board the boat as it goes by, still retaining control with the centre rope. As always I will have checked out the topography to make sure this procedure is feasible as well as assessing wind conditions. There might be no alternative but to drive the boat out and moor up to close the gates. In this case a similar phenomenon to that of entering the lock applies, the opposite gate tends to open, so go very slowly – almost drift out in neutral. Closing the gates for you on exit is one of the most useful things an enthusiastic bystander or following boat crew can do for you, and all boaters enjoy the sight of oncoming traffic when leaving a lock. Working with a paired boat changes things a little, but basically it’s easiest to work your own side as above. I worked from Tring summit to Harefield in the company of another boat like this (40 locks) in 1½ days in spite of the fact that a novice first time single-handed boater in front of us had left many of the bottom gates open before we caught up with him.
Much easier in many ways. You can steer the boat right into the lock and stop. It cannot go anywhere sideways, and there will not be another boat in the lock to consider. As with wide locks, the boat will often tend to surge forwards as the paddles are opened and there is generally a rubbing strip on the top gate so you can allow the bows right up to the gate. However, you must watch as the boat rises that the bows do no get caught under the top beam. In narrow locks the general arrangement is a single top gate worked from the towpath side and double mitre gates at the bottom. To work the double gates you must either close one and step across to the other (potentially dangerous in slippery conditions), use a strong boathook to close the opposite gate (I have found that telescopic ones are not up to the job) or walk around.
No real problem here. Just watch the back of the boat. Always have control of the boat with a rope, even if you don’t need to use it. Narrow locks empty very fast in comparison the double ones and getting stuck on the cill would require a quick reaction to save your rudder or the bows going under. Closing the gates on exit is easier. The boat waits in the lock throat and you can step off either side to deal with the gates.
The helmsman course should have taught you how to bring the boat neatly to a stop at the bank. There should be no problem except perhaps in windy conditions when the boat can get pushed off before you have had a chance to nail it down. Again, the centre rope is very helpful and can be tied to something immovable while fore and aft mooring pins are driven in. Piling hooks are even more useful in this regard if you have a short rope already attached to just drop the hook in and secure the stern. Take care though not to try and stop a boat like this. The force will tend to separate the piling and the hook can get firmly jammed.
You have to be able to moor up before and after the swing bridge on the same side as the bridge is operated from. The Kennet & Avon has lots, some electrically operated, some manual. All with one possible exception are suitable for single-handed operation. I have not had a lot of experience with other canals, but if in doubt one can always wait for assistance.
Much the same as above, though in my limited experience seem to always operate from the “wrong” side. These can be a real problem for the single-handed boater and help is practically the only way round the problem. There’s one on the Oxford Canal at Heyford, as I recall. The main difficulty is keeping the bridge up whilst the boat is pulled or driven through, tricky if you are on the wrong side and having lifted the bridge cannot get back to the boat. . Some have chains and securing points, others don’t. There are various anecdotes about working boatmen jamming a pole under the bridge with a rope attached to retrieve the pole once the boat has passed through leaving the bridge to descend under its own weight. I have never tried this. I am sure I would break my pole, and it probably wouldn’t do the bridge much good either.