Whys and Wherefores
You may want to go boating but your regular crew isn't available and no one else is available to stand in for them. Perhaps your usual partner, whilst more than willing to go boating, is temporarily incapacitated as regards winding paddles and opening lock gates or even, perhaps, steering. Perhaps your companion is permanently disabled and single-handed working needs to be routine for you as the only way you can both enjoy cruising the canals and rivers together. Worse yet, perhaps your crew have been taken ill or suffered accidental injury. If you are in the middle of the Oxford summit then continued boating, single handed, may be the only way to get them the aid they need, or if they have been whipped off to hospital then perhaps the boat needs to be taken back to base before you can retrieve your car.
Alternatively, perhaps like me you are a 'loner' and find single-handed boating fulfilling. Provided that you are content in your own company, you can derive an enormous amount of pleasure from successfully navigating your boat around the system and overcoming what other boaters might well regard as significant or "impossible" obstacles to single-handed progress! You have time, whilst steering long pounds, to plan how to cope with what you know lies ahead of you on your journey, to enjoy nature in all its glory, and to reflect on the state of the world in general or some aspect of it in particular.
"For some the attraction of the countryside is centred on an unending search for the truth through a meticulous study of sciences such as botany and ornithology. For others the irresistible magnet is amenity and sport - shooting, fishing, hunting, rambling, birdwatching, orienteering, canoeing and much, much more. But there is an equally important group who seek no more than good, old-fashioned peace, a place in which to avoid an often humdrum destiny and the chance to let the poet loose."
"No subject has been more important to the English bard than nature in its teeming variety, and none so vital in the civilization of man as the poetry of countryside".
"Fortuitously, our romance with nature is instinctive and largely irrepressible, for if ever we should lose our love of the land and give way totally to the advance of sterility and uniformity then England would cease to be a green and pleasant land and life on earth would perish out of time."
Brian P Martin, Rusticus, 1988
Some of the techniques I use are based on those used by the working boatmen who spent all their lives on the canal, learned from their fathers or other steerers, and developed their technique to achieve the goal of "getting ahead" without wasting time. I started my boating in the mid-seventies when the towpath below the bottom lock at Braunston was lined with pairs of Grand Union boats with smoke curling from their back cabin chimneys. When I walked down from Dark Lane onto the cut I would be transformed into a different person. My late wife was quick to spot this and point it out. I had found my element! Chatting with the steerers of what were by then Union Canal Carriers' camping boats I was offered rides on the gunnels, was sometimes asked if I would like to steer and I continually asked questions. By 1980 I had spent short spells steering a pair, taking a breasted pair up the Braunston flight and through the tunnel, and had read every book which described the working boatman's life carrying on the canal.
Had I sufficient funds at the time I would have purchased an ex-working boat (I really coveted the Josher "Jaguar" steered by Andy Farquarson at that time!) but like many others I started my private boating with a 36' Springer. Working boats were still frequently encountered moving around the system and you treated their steerers with respect. Being based on the Southern Oxford I often ran into Tony Maggs with his motor "Corona" and butty, IIRC*, "Actis". I was lucky enough to part-own "Ascot" for a short time and experienced the difficulties faced with lack of depth in those days by ex-working boat owners, on a run from Penkridge to via Fradley to Braunston.
Now that I have a 60' very-traditional narrowboat, which was built at Braunston by people I knew in the '70s, I have been able to experiment with the techniques I have picked up along the way and with those described in Chris Deuchar's book "A Boater's Guide to Boating" to establish what works for me and for my kind of boat. I hope that some of the methods and 'tricks' described here will work for you.
* IIRC = If I recall correctly
If you feel that I have omitted any important aspect of solo boating or have erred in the descriptions or emphasis of any aspect then please do not hesitate to email me with your comments at:- email@example.com