"Everything is hard before it is easy." - J.W. Goethe, German writer and Stateman, 1749-1842.
Traveling with Tom and Jan Jones was like being shot out of a slingshot! I have done no cruising in nine months and I am woefully out of shape, which became apparent as I watched Jan wind ten locks on our cruise from Marsworth to Leighton Buzzard. I tried winding a gate paddle at one of the locks and while I feebly had to ratchet the windlass around like some crotchety aged wreck, Jan just got on with it, turning her windlass smoothly and lifting the mechanism. I remember when I too could carry on like that. Note to self: Get in shape girlfriend!
Coming out of Grove lock I spied Jules Fuel boats breasted up on the off side with laundry out on the line. I needed coal as the nights are still quite cold and I was down to one bag. Instead of pulling along side them as my inner voice directed, I continued onward and then when Tom and Jan came alongside me I told them I was going to back up to the fuel boats and get some coal. Tom said they would continue on and moor up as soon as they found a spot. Off they went and backwards I proceeded only to end up with something around the prop! The engine cut out as it should and I was left with no propulsion or steering, essentially adrift. Instead of straying off to one side NB Valerie meandered lazily along the middle of the cut.
Sighing, I could hear Les' voice in my ear telling me, "Don't panic Jaq. You will not get washed out to sea!" After rooting around in several places I found the bread knife he used to cut things from the prop, pulled the engine hole cover up and down inside I went to lift the weed hatch cover, open the weed hatch and suss things out. Now at five feet one and a quarter inch tall, with vestigial arms and legs, I am a small built package all the way 'round. I was up to my shoulders in the cold, murky water. I could feel it--whatever it was--something large, tough and made of waxed canvas. I made a half dozen attempts to cut through it only to loosen it slightly but I made no real headway.
|This looks exactly like our engine hole with the square weed hatch at the top, which opens to grant access to the prop and rudder. © Tony Porter, NB Holderness.|
Back up on the deck, I decided the best thing to do would be to pole the boat to the towpath and tie up. I texted Tom on NB Waiouru and asked for help. A text came back from Jan that he was on his way. In the meantime NB Grand Cru came by and offered to tow me to the towpath. They were in the process of doing so when Tom arrived. Tom grabbed the midline and pulled NB Val in to the side, I hopped off and held us in place and Tom took the bread knife and plunged into the weed hatch. After ten minutes he managed to hack through a waxed canvas pram cover! Marvelous!!!
|What a narrow boat pram cover looks like once it has been wrapped around a prop!|
When I moored up behind NB Waiouru for the night I was totally spent. To my credit I did not panic and I kept my head. Tom and his long arms came to the rescue and I thank him most kindly as he still had a walk into Leighton Buzzard to Tesco in front of him.
The next morning Tom and Jan went ahead of me about a quarter of a mile to the Tesco moorings and I finished my laundry and cruised to the service point to fill up with water and dump the rubbish. It took me three trips to the bin to get rid of the Pram cover pieces. Then I went through the bridge hole and moored up near Tom and Jan. Stiff from all the exercise I was getting, I felt as though I was moving in slow motion through a vat of syrup. I closed all the curtains, remembered to grab my phone, keys, wallet, the trolley, and the front and back locks. After locking the boat I set off to top up my groceries. On return about an hour later, I put things away, made a quick sandwich and ate it, then we set off again towards Leighton lock.
As we came out of the lock there was a long pound ahead of us until we reached the Soulberry Three locks. I noticed the engine was making a high pitched humming sound I had not heard before. I checked the engine gauges and the heating gauge was up. In all the years I have spent on this boat--even as we made our way on the tidal part of the Thames--that gauge had never once moved above 50. It usually hovered just above 40. Now it was pointing between 50 and 60. I pulled over and NB Waiouru stopped in front of me. I told Tom what was happening and we shut off the engine and let it cool down for a bit. He opened the radiator cap sightly and it hissed as the seal broke, letting a bit of water out. This is good. If steam had come out then we would know it was low on water. I explained to Tom that the marine engineer at Cowroast had flushed the cooling system while I was in the States. It had never been done on this engine and Les had told me he thought I should have it done before I started cruising on my own. Tom suggested that perhaps some air was trapped in the system, impeding the water from flowing properly. That seemed likely and so I started up the engine again and proceeded slowly. The humming sound was still there and the needle still pointed over 50 but there was no hot smell and no smoke or steam so I continued on slowly. We went through the Soulberry locks with help from a volunteer lock keeper who thought an American on a narrow boat was a funny thing to encounter.
Onward we cruised towards Stoke Hammond lock, with a long, long pound in between. We passed the place where the A4146 motorway comes right next to the cut and a convenient layby appears on the offside. In 2014 we met up with Leslie and Joe Kimantas from NB Yarwood at this spot. They came by car delivering a cook stove we purchased from them. I remember the four of us gathered around our dinette drinking tea and eating carrot cake. Later that afternoon our friends Carol and George Palin showed up, bringing their new wide beam Still Rockin' down to the Thames. Les and I watched in astonishment as bridge 108 of the Grand Union canal appeared to give birth to their fat boat!
I stopped at Willowbridge marina to buy two bags of coal while Tom and Jan went on ahead to Fenny Stratford to fill up with water and moor up beyond the stop lock. I pulled in on the towpath side across from Willowbridge as there was a boat on the service mooring. I stood and waited for five minutes. There were two men and woman standing around the stern of this boat looking into the engine hole. The woman clocked me and then ignored me and the men were intent on the boat, so I finally called out,
"Hi, I need to buy some coal." The three looked up at me and one of the men shouted,
"So, what do you want me to do about it?"
"You don't work here?"
"Nope. You can shove your boat over here and breast up if you like."
"Okay, thanks," and I climbed aboard NB Valerie and started to move away from the bank when the other bloke shouted out,
"Would you mind hovering for minute? I should be done in a minute and then you can come on in here."
"Okay." And so I hovered, and of course just then a Wyvern Shipping hire boat came charging and weaving its way through the bridge hole up in front of me about 600 yard away. He panicked when he saw me and immediately moved over to the side. I waved him on and he slowly started forward, passing me slowly with a smile and a nod of thanks.
Meanwhile the other boat pulled away from the jetty and proceeded off right behind the hire boat. Some bloke with a blue marina jacket came out, said something to the guy who had shouted he didn't work there, they gave me one look and walked away, inside the marina building. I proceeded to slowly move our boat back and forth until I managed to slot her in the tight fit at the service jetty between the long line of boats permanently moored nut-to-butt in both directions, leaving only one small space for someone to come in for service. Just as I touched the side, the bloke who didn't work there came back out and said, "Here, I'll tie you up," and he grabbed the midline from the roof.
Inside I purchased two bags of coal from the man who did work there, and the man who did not work there went to fetch it for me. We had a brief chat as he loaded it on the bow hatch for me and I realized this fella was one of three guys Les and I watched when we were in Fenny Stratford last July. All three were totally pissed (that means drunk for you Americans), three sheets to the wind (that means completely pissed for you Brits) and they had stripped down to their skivvies and were swimming in the canal! They were so drunk they were swallowing large amounts of water and coughing it up. They were causing a public disturbance so the police were called.
I thanked him for his help, and cruised on to Fenny Stratford stop lock where I pulled in and went to move the pedestrian bridge in the middle of the lock. As I finished Tom came along with a windlass and a young bloke clambered over the lock gate with a smile on his face. It was James Tidy, Amy's beau off of MB Willow! He threw his arms around me for a bear hug and then went to get the other gate. With grateful help from two lovely blokes of fine character, I was soon through the stop lock and moored up behind NB Waiouru.
|The pedestrian footbridge in the middle of Fenny Stratford stop lock. © NB Northern Pride.|
Amy came sauntering down the towpath, Jan popped up from her stern hatch and a boaters convocation ensued! Tom and Jan had read Amy and James' blog when they were living on NB Lucky Duck up on the River Cam, and followed on when they sold NBLD and bought Motor Boat Willow. It turns out Amy and James are on their way down to London to get married!
After tea aboard MB Willow, Tom provided me with a crash course on the parts of my boat engine, where upon I discovered that the newly replaced hose to the bilge pump had split and was spewing water into the hold instead of out. Tom patched it for me with tape and hopefully it will hold until I can get to Napton.
Before I left for the States I had contracted with a local marine engineer to do some £1300 pounds of final work on NB Valerie. He had done a lot of work for Les over the years, and for us both from 2013-2016. He is someone Les trusted implicitly with our boat and who I grew to like and trust as well. This same bloke once praised me for being "...a missus who doesn't quibble about the price of the work done. So often wives want to argue with me about the cost of my work but you simply asked how much it would cost and then paid me when the job was done. I really appreciate that."
The list of work required included things Les and I had discussed but which he simply could no longer do. On that list was checking over the engine and parts to replace any worn hoses and loose wires. Also on the list was moving the navigation, horn, and bilge pump switches from down below my feet on the side of the stern locker to a position just forward of the gear shift--a place I physically pointed out to the engineer on a visit to the boat to go over the jobs on the list.
Les used his feet to turn them off and on. My feet don't reach that far and by the time I hopped off my seat, bent over to find the switches, etc. etc. I would either run aground, hit a bridge or another boat so they had to be moved. Imagine my surprise to return from America to find the switches mounted behind the gearshift and adjacent to the stern seat.
Now anyone looking at me knows I am not built like Barbie. I am a short, wide load. With the switches mounted next to the seat I not only couldn't access them when cruising if I were precariously perched on there, I couldn't actually sit on the seat! I had to wait around Cowroast marina five extra days for the engineer to return from Easter holidays to move the switches to the place I had specified previously. This cost me time and money in additional marina fees. Now I discover the newly replaced hoses are made of cheap inflexible plastic instead of heavy duty PVC or rubber. No wonder it had split.
I am extremely disappointed. Les trusted this person to work on NB Valerie over many years. His work was always good and while his fees were not cheap, we paid up as we felt he was honest and could be trusted, but I have to say I have been treated differently since Les died. When Les needed work done, he went over and had a natter with the engineer. They agreed on the work to be done, the date to do it, and when all was said and done we paid the bill in full and on time. Job done.
Now Les is dead and I am on my own. I walked over in February with a written list of jobs to be done, had a natter, we agreed on the work, and I explained that I had the use of the permanent mooring we were on until the 29th of March for no charge after which the new mooring renters on NB Dreckly would be bringing their boat up to moor the following weekend, so NB Valerie was to be taken by the engineer on the 29th of March and when he was finished with the work it was to go into a berth in Cowroast marina. I had spoken to Jason at the marina and made the arrangements with an agreed upon a price.
I explained all of this to the engineer at the time I gave him my list of works to be done on February 16th. After a week or so I became worried about the arrangements--don't ask me why. I needed to be sure my requirements were crystal clear. I am aware that over here I am the one with the accent and often I am misunderstood because of it. I called around to the engineer's workshop and asked him if he could come over to the boat so we could go through the jobs in situ. He agreed and that afternoon he paid me a visit. We went through the boat, discussed each job, I showed him exactly where I wanted the switches mounted and I reiterated once again the dates for moving the boat, etc. etc. I know all this because I keep a daily diary so I can refer back to what happened and when.
So imagine my shock when a local boater contacted me while I was in the States to say NB Valerie had disappeared from the private mooring the week preceding the 29th and suddenly appeared back on the mooring on the 29th! A hasty and expensive call to the engineer immediately took place. It was five fifteen in the evening in Britain. He had no recollection at all of the dates, times, conversations etc. and said I was lucky to get hold of him as he was just leaving for the night but he would go round and move NB Val to his jetty and then move her to a marina berth on Monday.
When I arrived back to the boat I found it had been jammed into the marina berth so hard the back button fender was sideways upright instead of extended over the tiller, a cabinet bolt on one of the kitchen cupboards had its knob sheared off somehow, the newly installed radio had moved three inches off its position in the cupboard and the plastic collar around its face had come away, and several items had fallen off shelves onto the floor which all indicate our boat was hastily driven into the berth backwards and slammed to a stop against the back cement.
I have been treated this way in the past by car mechanics who assume the little lady doesn't know shit from sugar about anything and they can simply nod their head, carry on as they see fit, and then charge me an arm and a leg for inferior work. I just never expected to be treated this way by someone who knew Les and whom Les trusted; someone I trusted too and I am severely disappointed. To be fair the new aluminum checker plate engine hole cover he made is brilliant and spot on. But still....
I have been down in the engine hole every day now several times checking things. I sponged up the water from the bilge pipe crack, and Tom made me some dandy water wicks which I put in place. He rolls up old newspapers, tapes them tightly and stands them up vertically in the engine hole to wick up any water in the bottom. It works brilliantly!
Les used to do all the engine maintenance. He tried showing me how to change the oil but the engine hole is so small and while he was bent over doing the job I couldn't see a bloody thing. I hate mechanical stuff and I have zip patience with fiddly bits like nuts and bolts. I am a chef, a writer, and a healer, not a mechanic but hey guess what? I will be learning all about how to service my engine and I will be on a first name basis with all parts of it eventually.
In the meantime I have stayed behind at Fenny Stratford, taking the space MB Willow vacated as Amy and James continued their journey south. Friends Steve and Anne Folliington on NB Bracken are moored up just in front of me! Tom and Jan need to be in Braunston at a certain time to connect with their son. My journey needs to be at a slower pace. It is still the grief trail and mourning takes time and energy. I don't intend to pass this way again for a long time. There are memories of Les everywhere, and I need to stop and process them. I also want to stop and have a natter and cup of tea with other boaters who know us, as I cruise along.
|Tom and Jan saying goodbye Kiwi style! (The blue cover on the boat in the background is a pram cover similar to the one Tom removed from NBV's prop).|
So I am recovering now in Fenny Stratford. I plan to tour Bletchley Park where Alan Turing and the code breakers worked during WWII. I am also a ten minute walk to Ikea so I am going to nip in and enjoy a cheap lunch of Swedish meatballs, and there is a Dulux paint center up the road where we bought the Dulux Metal Shield outdoor paint for the boat. I need two small cans of the same in contrasting colors to finish up the paint job we left off in 2015. After a suitable amount of time I will move on to Old Lindford Park and Stanton Low where I will scatter more of Les' ashes and plant more Daffodils.