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Monday, February 04, 2019

Final Cruise

"What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness." ~ John Steinbeck, Nobel prize winning American author, 1902-1968.

   The December morning dawned icy cold and bright with the promise of winter sun. After a day of rest and recovery from work, I wanted to cruise to the Nantwich service point, fill up with water and dump my rubbish. I only use half a tank of water in a week but I am loathe to leave the tank half empty in winter with uncertain weather. The Magpies have learned over the years that boats storing black rubbish bags on their roof or decks are in fact sources of food. In years past Les and I would wake up to find the bags had been savaged and plundered, bits of food, pieces of shredded paper towel, and anything else spread all over the bow deck. Once Les even had a fox come aboard the bow and get into the rubbish bag during a bitter cold winter when the boat was frozen in for weeks.
   I have discovered a clever means of foiling the wildlife in winter: I save my empty coal bags and put my kitchen and bathroom rubbish bags inside them, then secure the coal bag shut with a plastic kitchen clippy and store it tucked out of the way under the gunnel of the bow. Job done and the wild folk are none the wiser about what is actually stored in the coal bags!
   I flipped the switch on the inverter, watching it come to life with flashing lights that gave me a reading on the electrics. Back in the galley I turned the washing machine on, and used an empty detergent bottle filled with water to help fill the washing machine. The Eco Egg I use in place of laundry detergent traveled in an arc around with my clothes, and I knew the load would be nearly finished by the time I reached the service point and moored up. 
   As I stepped up out of the stern of NB Valerie, my breath made warm clouds of steam in the air. Slipping off a glove, I  used my nails to break the skin-thin layer of ice on the stern seats Les built for me before he died, wiping them down with a rag as the engine caught and warmed in the icy air. I reached down into the stern hatch and pulled out the brass tiller and slipped it onto the swan neck; dropping the tiller pin in place, I remembered the thousand of times Les' lovely hands did the very same thing. The tiller pin is smooth with the years of his hands on it. I warmed the glow plugs and turned the engine over, letting it warm up while I cast off. 
   I walked down the towpath, stepped onto the bow and lowered the TV antenna, tucking it down between bags of coal on the roof, securing it for the trip; I loosened the bow rope, stepped off and pulled the fender up, tucking it down in the bow under the gunnel. Gathering the bow rope into loose coils, I set it by the T-Stud where I could reach across to nab it when I reached the water point.
   Walking the length of NB Valerie, I gently pushed her bow out towards the center of the canal, pulling the stern fender and tossing it on the roof, loosening the rear mooring rope, coiling it and tucking is out of my way. I climbed on my stool, settled into the stern seat, grabbed the tiller, put the boat in gear and we were off in the early morning light. It was 7:30 am and the sun was just about to clear the horizon, burnishing the sky with a golden morning glow.
   I bundled up warm in my Duluth Trading Company trousers made from fire hose canvas, a long sleeved fleece sweatshirt, thick socks, my LL Bean winter boots, Les' green LL Bean down jacket, my black knitted cruising hat, and a pair of old gloves. The superb boater's scarf my favorite oldest daughter Jesse knitted for Les from green marled Llama yarn so exquisitely soft and warm, was snuggled around my neck and crossed on my chest, a hug from my Best Beloved who wore it with this same jacket. 
   I had a long line of moored boats to pass as I cruised on tick-over, barely making a ripple on the water. Boats were hunkered down in the cold cut, most folks still in their warm beds. A few had smoke billowing from their chimneys as someone inside stirred the coals, dumped the ash and revived the fire.
   As I cruised, I noticed the boat names: Arwen Evenstar, Bessie Surtees, Time Out, Whitsunday Pie, The Thief of Time, Magic Window, Caramia, Magpie's Nest...a boater out walking his dog waved hello and called out, "You're on the move early!" With a wave and a smile I replied, "The early boater gets the water point!" We laughed as we gave each a thumb's up and headed in opposite directions. 
   The sun cleared the horizon behind me, painting the water in ripples of peach and gold. I slowed the boat as I approached the dock of the service point, avoiding the line of pointed bows on boats moored horizontally on Nantwich Marina moorings. NB Val's bow touched the dockside gently. I pulled the tiller all the way to port and gave her a nudge with the engine, bringing the stern in, then reversed again to slow her right down, stepping off with the bow rope, reaching over the side to put the engine in neutral, wrapping the mid-line around the bollard to slow the boat right down and gently pull her into the side of the dock.  
   After securing her fore and aft, I unloaded the rubbish bags, pulled the hose out of the large bow locker, used my Yale key to unlock the water point, connected the hose, turned on the tap and watched as the cobalt blue, wrinkled water pipe filled and expanded, snaking across the paving stones towards the boat. Quickly I stepped down inside the bow, reached into one of the interior bow closets for the plastic key to unscrew the brass water cap, and dropped an Aqua Tab down the neck of the tank to purify the water. I turned the hose on and let the water spray over the bow, making sure there was no debris or spiders in it, before I turned it off again, dropped the nozzle down the hole in the bow deck, turned it on again and listened with satisfaction as the stainless steel water tank echoed with the sound of filling water. 
   I gathered the rubbish bags and strolled to the bins to toss them inside, pausing to share a few words with another boater out walking her dog. Her boat was in Nantwich Marina for work. She had just returned from visiting her children in Texas. An American who lived and worked in both the U.S. and the U.K. for years, she was excited to collect the British State Pension and U.S. Social Security, allowing her to afford to live aboard her boat. "Oh your the Alaskan lady they mentioned in the chandlers. They said there was another American on a boat nearby."
   Back aboard NB Valerie I grabbed the bottle of dish washing liquid and stepped out to dribble some along the top of the gunnel, the entire length of the boat, and a dot here and there on the roof.  I pulled the telescoping brush from the closet by the bow doors, and in the brisk and frosty cold, I scrubbed the dirt and debris from the roof and side of our boat. Once the water tank was full I hosed away the suds, shut off the water, put the hose away, and prepared to take our boat into Nantwich marina to moor up for replacement of the glow plugs.
     At the end of the week, I am facing my last full day aboard the boat that has been my home for eight years. Ive lived aboard NB Valerie longer than I have lived anywhere else since I left my parent's house at age sixteen. I moved twenty-seven times in forty years. I thought I would live the rest of my life aboard our boat, cruising the cut with Les. When he died I resolved to do everything I could to make life without him work out so I could continue to live the life we both loved dearly; a life of small simplicity which suited us both to a T and which was manageable for me. Sadly life has not worked out as I wished, wanted, and worked towards. Here I am moving yet again, back across the world, leaving a huge part of my heart and soul behind on Britain's canals.
   After a frenzied week of sorting and packing, I am living among a tower of boxes and black rubbish bags. Before I started packing I looked around the boat, thinking to myself, " 58 feet by seven feet wide; remove the outside bow and stern bits and that leaves approximately 240 square feet of living space. There really can't be more than ten or eleven boxes of stuff here for me to pack." Ha, ha, ha, Pffft...I finished up with thirty one boxes of belongings although I left all the bedroom and bathroom linens, rugs, towels, blankets, down comforters, all of the galley equipment (pots, pans, dishes, glass and silverware), and all of Les' tools with the boat.
   It was time for one final cruise before loading all my worldly goods into a van and handing the boat over to her new owner in the morning. First I wanted to fill up with water and dump six huge, black bags of rubbish after a week of emptying drawers and cupboards, and packing up our belongings. I chose to do all this at the Nantwich service point which required a very tricky three point turn where the marina entrance met the Shroppie canal. The confluence forms a Y, with a bridge hole at the intersection of the two arms and to make things even more complicated, a stop lock just at the bridge.
   I turned over the boat engine with her new glow plugs and she started bright and true on a dime--no more smoke and coughing. I un-moored and cruised slowly out to the Y where I stopped, made the very tight three point turn, and cruised through the stop lock and bridge to moor up on the service point, my heart swelling with joy. Job done and Les would have been so proud of me! Of course there were no gongoozlers on this occasion to witness my prowess.
The bridge at the Y with the stop lock gate.
Nantwich marina water is just the other side of
that umbrella over the picnic table. 
Looking through the same bridge hole to a
boat moored on the service point.
  Ruth and Richard Chamberlain came along to the service point and tied up in front of me. We chatted and I explained NB Valerie had been sold and I was leaving the cut. After saying goodbye to them and several other local boaters coming along for water, I screwed the cap tight on our water tank one last time and slowly pulled NB Val away from the bollards. Through Nantwich, over the aqueduct, past the permanent moorings, past the children's playground with their voices ringing in the cold morning air, through bridge 90 to turn at the winding hole and head back through Nantwich one final time, waving goodbye to old Bob on NB Leopard who was concerned about the state of my chimney a year ago when I first turned up to moor in Nantwich. Bob gifted me with an extra chimney he had stowed away. Goodbyes were called out along my route: from townie Jim who walked his border collie every morning along the towpath and stopped to chat with me. Over the past year we had become friends who looked forward to seeing one another whenever I cruised into town and moored up; from local dog walkers who frequented Nantwich Book Shop and Cafe where I had worked and who knew to look for me along the cut; from other locally moored boaters who had grown used to spotting NB Valerie as I plied the cut from the top of the Bunbury staircase locks to the bottom of the Audlem locks. Just before the aqueduct, Chamberlain Carrying Company had returned from filling with water and their working boats Mountbatten and Jellicoe were moored up. Ruth stepped out on the stern and waved goodbye to me and tears began to roll down my face. I would miss her and Richard, and the others who plied the cut on fuel boats: Jason on NB Bargus, and Lee and Roberta on NB Halsall--all of whom have delivered fuel, coal and kindling to me over the past year, checking in with me to make sure I was still alive and kicking.
   I cruised over the Nantwich aqueduct one last time, looking down on Chester Road, then made the gentle curve to port, passed the long line of moored boats once more. Folks were up and out, checking their mooring lines, walking dogs, and emptying ash pans with a grin, a nod, and a wave hello. How I mill miss these folks--my people. While I haven't made direct acquaintance of any of these particular boaters, I am hailed, thanked for passing on tick over, and given the nod of recognition that says, "Hiya fellow boater..." and my heart constricts with a pain so sharp it takes my breath away. I know in my bones that any one of the boaters I am passing would come to my aid if I needed them, if I asked. I felt safe and protected among them, despite not actually knowing any of them beyond a friendly nod and wave. I know of no other community of its like anywhere else in the world.
   Past the water point, through the bridge hole and the stop lock and onward slowly, NB Valerie's bow cutting through the winter dark water as Swans, ducks and a pair of Moor hens glide out of the way. I pass through a hump backed bridge near Acton and slow down to tick over as the overgrowth on the offside is reaching to the  middle of the canal at a curve and I cannot see beyond it.
   My breath curls out of my mouth in white puffs of steaming warmth. I move through the curve and spot the derelict narrow boat tilting slightly toward the towpath, loosely moored with her bow pulling slowly away from the side as I pass. The boat's pea green paint is scuffed and peeling, providing no inkling of its name. Plastic carrier bags stuffed with junk protrude from the stern deck which is completely filled with flotsam and jetsam. Large black rubbish bags are piled on the roof with other bit and bobs, some hanging over the side. The bow too is filled with similar items. The small jalousie windows are filthy and the curtains are ragged and water stained. This boat has been moored here between two curves with over-arching growth needing trimming, for the past year.
   Scuttlebutt from other local boaters says the woman on board has lived on the cut for forty years. She has aged now and reached a point where she is no longer able to move her boat and so CRT allows her to stay put where she is happiest, with a short walk over the hump backed bridge, across the farmer's fallow fields and on to the roadside bus stop across from Acton church. I cannot say much for her choice of mooring spots from the point of view of a continuous cruiser.  Between the overhanging tree limbs on the offside and her loosely moored craft it is nigh impossible to see other boats coming in either direction and I've seen near collisions several times over the last year as marina boaters in a bleeding  hurry churn around the curve, failing to grant her the courtesy of slowing down, only to find themselves quickly back peddling in reverse as an oncoming boat's bow slices perilously close. A plastic cruiser moored near here for eight months, leaving just enough room for a 58 foot boat to slot itself in between them and I had to slow to a stop and move over on one occasion last summer when some stupid toff on a shiny, new boat came hurtling round the curve, failing to give a warning toot of his horn or slow down at all. He missed slamming in to NBV by mere inches and I missed hitting her boat by a tight eight inches. 
   I've actually seen this woman get on the bus on three different occasions. She doesn't appear to be any older than me. Her hair is dyed bright orange with dark gray roots. Her face is corrugated with years of cigarette smoking. She dresses in men's clothes: black cargo pants, pockets bulging with stuff; a man's brown coat, and fingerless gloves which show yellowed, hard working hands sporting a thick black crust underneath all ten fingernails. Hobnailed leather boots covered in mud complete her ensemble, as she boards the bus with a trolley overflowing with fat, black rubbish bags and other assorted items. She casts a gimlet eye upon us, making the other occupants of the bus uncomfortable. The bus driver waits impatiently for Madam to find a seat. Her eyes meet mine and skitter away, coming back to my smile and nod. No matter what she looks like, we are both boaters and I will welcome her to sit beside me. I realize that she is likely dealing with a learning disability or some other issue that makes reading social cues difficult. Other bus passengers tsk-tsk at her sideways leaning, overflowing trolley and lack of refined cleanliness. She refuses to look at anyone, and the bus driver continues on towards Nantwich.
   After passing by her craft and the S turns, I come out to a pleasant spot overlooking a field sloping down to the cut on the offside. Horses and their year old foals are grazing and the sky clears suddenly as the winter sun pierces my gaze, lighting everything with a lovely warmth that still astounds me. How can a star 92.96 million miles away from earth manage to warm my cheek and cause steam to rise from the cold ground? I can hear Les' voice asking me this very question, wonder in his lovely brown eyes.
   Onward I cruise, through a small bridge hole where the bridge itself is long gone. A blue tent is pitched on a rise above the towpath, rippling in the light winter breeze. A man and woman in the latest winter gear stand watching me as I slow through the gap, turn the bow towards the towpath to avoid the overhanging branches on the offside, and bring the stern around after passing by them. I smile and nod as they wave. My heart is filled with defiant joy at our forward movement, me and NB Valerie--the only things moving on this cold December morning. Les should be here with me; Les is here with me, and my hand clutches the tiller tighter.
   Onward I travel through the large concrete bridge of the A51 motorway, slowing as I come through the other side to Henhull. The Shroppie widens out here, with reed beds to the left, continuous cruisers NB Magic Window moored up on 14 day moorings on the towpath side and a line of boats moored on the permanent offside moorings. I cruise slowly past, noting the chimney smoke on various boats, spotting the lovely bloke on NB Galadriel. I have no idea how old he is; roughly late forties to early fifties I guess. He sports long black and silver dreads that snake to his waist; dark, intelligent eyes, dimpled cheeks and a gorgeous smile showing bright, white teeth. Our boats have passed dozens of times as he has cruised into Nantwich for services from his permanent mooring, passing me on his way to the winding hole to turn, cruise back through Nantwich and out to Henhull to moor up again. Several times we've spoken to one another as our boats have passed each other, and once he slowed to allow me to pull in and moor up, complimenting me on my manners (I had signaled him my intentions in plenty of time), and the smooth, easy way I brought NBV into the side and stepped off her. It was quiet praise from an experienced boater who expected a woman of my stature might have had trouble pulling in an 18 ton boat on her own.
   On past the large winding hole and on to the open countryside where Les would surely have moored up had he been cruising together in the flesh, following the wide, meandering cut. Through the next bridge hole and onto the last section of the Shroppie approaching Hurleston Junction--the confluence of the Shropshire Union with the beginning of the LLangollen canal.
   I slowed to pass four boats moored before the bridge as Valerie sliced along the cut gently, gently, the bow clearing the bridge hole; still no other boats on the move, breaking the quiet morning. On the towpath side of this wide intersection of water is a bench where a bearded bloke sits quietly with ear buds in, listening to an audio book. He is another local whose acquaintance I've made on the bus into Nantwich. Riffed from his position over eight months previously after suffering a health crisis, he spends most days on the bench watching narrow boats coming and going in and out of Hurleston locks, through the bridge hole and on to either Nantwich or Chester, or up the fight towards LLangollen, Wales. We never exchanged names, only life stories. He sat in quiet reverence months previously while I squatted next to his seat on the bench and dug a hole with a hand trowel. I scattered a handful of Les' ashes in the hole and planted a Daffodil bulb on top, covering over both with dark, wet earth, patted down firmly to await spring.
   I waved to him as I started to turn the bow of NB Valerie to the port side, beginning to turn her around for the cruise back to Nantwich marina. I hailed him over the sound of the engine revs:
   "I have had to sell the boat. I am returning to the States in a few weeks. This is my final cruise. Will you look after my husband's ashes and his Daffodil for me?"
   He waves his mittened right hand and nods his bearded head in the affirmative, watching me as I turn our boat one final time and begin to glide towards the bridge hole.
   "Goodbye. Take care of yourself." His voice rings across the water.
   "I will; you too." And I am gone with a final wave, remembering me and Les mooring up nearby, waiting for good weather to make our cruise up Hurleston lock flight back in April 2012, stopping in Burland for the best fresh, homemade chicken and mushroom pies I've ever had before heading onward toward Wrenbury, Marbury, and the Grindley Staircase locks, meeting dear friends Elsie and Eric fletcher on NB Bendigedig  and writing a blog to answer a multitude of questions by Canadian blog follower (and now a very dear, dear friend), Bryce Lee, concerning my settling into Britain as an ex-pat and how Les and I managed life on the cut.
   Clouds pass over the sun as I head back; they pass over my aching heart acknowledging this is my last cruise aboard our lovely home. Tears spring from my eyes, and my sobbing chest clutches as I cruise past so many well loved places, memories flooding through me. Too soon and I am making my approach to the Y at the bridge hole, turning right into Nantwich Basin instead of cruising straight on to moor up somewhere along the towpath as I've done for eight fast flying years; my cruising life comes to a gentle, quiet end.      

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs