Single-Handed Boating


a) Uphill, Narrow Locks

One can generally tell from quite a distance whether an uphill lock is empty or contains a head of water. A chink of light between mitred bottom gates shows the road is good whereas any stream of water issuing from the sides of a gate, the mitre or even from the gate planks themselves or splashs on the surface of the canal just below the gate caused by falling water shows that there is at least some water in the lock holding the gates firmly closed.

In either case bring the fore end into the lock tail to gently nudge the bottom gate(s). If empty the gate(s) will begin to open and can then be nudged fully open by the boat with no difficulty. Resistance by the gate(s) means that a paddle will have to be lifted and so a modicum of power can be "wound on" to hold the boat steadily against the gate(s) whilst you leave the boat in gear and walk down the gunnel or roof to step onto the bank at a convenient point on the nearside to lift a paddle.

The amount of power wound on is a matter of familiarity with your boat and experience. It must be sufficient to hold the boat steady against the gate as the last thing you want is for the rush of water from the paddle to flush the boat off the gate as it will come to a stop and then gain momentum forwards prior to crashing into the gate unnecessarily and hard. Be especially careful if you are going to pull the other paddle (I rarely bother) and lift it more slowly and with an eye on the boat at all times.

If the lock has a long tail [e.g. Cropredy bottom] you might wait by the gate until it begins to open and then close the paddle, walk down the steps/bank and reboard the boat to bring it to a gentle stop touching the top gate or cill. Then wind on an appropriate amount of power, leaving the boat in gear and climbing the lockside ladder or, particularly if the ladder is on the offside, springing from roof to lockside on the hinged side of the bottom gate. Walk back, close the paddle if you've not already done so, and push the gate at least partly closed. With paired bottom gates, I close the first gate right up to its cill and then usually walk out on the gate plank and jump to the other gate unless conditions are icy or 'wet and slimy'. This saves you walking 70 feet up the lock, 7 feet across and then 70 feet back again just to close the other mitre!

Once I leave the bottom gate(s) I have no intention of returning; it is wasting my time and energy and, by thinking ahead, I will usually have no need to return unless I've encountered one of those occasional 'trick' gates which is overbalanced and self-opens! Walk to the top gate and wind 1/3rd or 1/2 a paddle. Check that the bottom gates close properly and then lift the paddle fully, cross the gate to lift the other one and stay there. Examine the rubbing board on the inside face of the top gate to check for protruding bolt heads which might catch on the fore end fender and also check that there is no gap between the board and the balance beam which could trap the fender and hold the fore end firmly down with the lock still filling! I always hacksaw through one half of one chain link (top and bottom, same side if there are two chains) which allows the split link(s) to fail if the fender becomes trapped under a beam. Weakening a link or links on one side only ensures that the fender will then swing to one side but stay attached to the boat when the safety link(s) fail. A stem post fender is, after all, £70 or more unless you make your own. You can probably guess whether I purchase or manufacture mine!

When the lock fills the top gate will start to open as the boat is still nudging it and in gear. Close the offside paddle, step onto the opening gate beam and cross. I then usually lean on the gate beam to speed the gate opening and return to the remaining paddle to close it and either wait by the top of the open gate or walk back to the end of the balance beam and wait there whilst the boat brings itself towards me. I then step on, adjust the power if necessary (when you do this all the time you benefit from experience), pull the gear shift into reverse at the appropriate point as the boat moves past the top gate (experience again), step off onto the lock shoulder and, as the boat clears the top gate, start to close it behind the boat.

Despite being in reverse gear the inertia of the boat will meanwhile have carried it out into the pound where it will then stop and start to reverse back towards the now-closed top gate. Step on as the counter comes close enough, push the gear rod into forwards and resume getting ahead.

Once mastered, this technique is almost guaranteed to impress any gongoozler watching you as you go through!

If there is already a boat locking down as you initially approach the lock then you have a choice, depending on how far he has got, of coming to a stop in the channel and waiting or, if he has not yet even got the top gate closed behind him, come to a stop against the gate in the lock tail where the boat can be held steady against the inevitable breeze and you can get off to lend a hand to your fellow boater, ensure the bottom paddle is not pulled too quickly, and exchange the time of day.

b) Uphill, Wide Locks

Bring the boat up to nudge the mitre, steer the stern over to the towpath side, adjust the power, leave in gear and tie the tiller bar over towards the nearside with the appropriate tiller string. The boat will then sit against both the gate and the bank simultaneously. Depending on the geometry of the situation, you may have to step off the side of the boat rather than the counter. Whichever is the case, walk on up to the paddle gear and lift the nearside paddle. A fairly deep lock, fairly full, contains about 50,000 gallons of water. In much the same way as when inside and ascending a wide lock, opening a paddle on the same side as the boat results in the water being discharged under the boat, crossing the width of (in this case) the lock tail, striking the other wall, being deflected upwards and then rushing across the surface pushing the boat firmly against the side on which the paddle was opened. This can joggle the boat around quite a bit in the lock tail although it should still remain in contact with the gate and once the initial rush has eased the off-centred tiller will bring the boat back to the nearside again. The more slowly the lock empties the less disturbance there is to the boat sitting against the mitre.

With the lock not yet empty it is time to reboard and prepare to nudge open a gate. Provided that the prevailing wind is not going to be a major problem, I usually try to open the nearside gate by powering the counter over towards the offside. Unless too much water has been discharged the fore end will pivot on the gate mitre. The boat is then in a position to nudge open the nearside gate (the offside one will open a bit, but not fully,) and steer the fore end towards the top cill on the nearside. With the counter just inside the bottom gate steer the stern towards the lockside and bring the boat to a halt without hitting the top cill and conveniently close to the lock ladder. Taking only a windlass, ascend the ladder, pull the front edge of the bottom gate out of its recess, drop the paddle and walk up to the top gate.

On a Grand Union lock, and depending on practice and previous experience, winding up 5-8 turns and then pausing allows the resulting water flow to gently but positively close the bottom gates one at a time. Once they have 'kissed' the remainder of the 24-odd turns can be wound up, the resulting water flows positioning the boat positively against the nearside lock wall. When within reach, this is the time to take off a (centre or stern) line in case the boat tends to drift away when the lock is full and whilst the top gate is opened.

Should the airflow be a quite strong cross wind there will be a tendency for the boat to be blown towards one side of the empty lock chamber and this will, perversely, be the side from which the wind is blowing (see diagram). Where possible I try to use the prevailing weather conditions to my advantage so in windy conditions I will gently nudge squarely on the mitre to allow the boat to slip between the gates but to leave both gates still angled into the waterflow. Assisted by the wind the boat can be steered or allowed to drift sideways and I will then use the lock ladder on the side towards which the boat is being pushed so that I can climb it, with windlass tucked in belt, with both hands free and still find the boat on my side of the lock when I get up top. Using the top paddle on the side nearest the boat will hold the boat steady against the wall initially and, as the boat ascends, I can reach for a line (centre or stern) to stop the boat changing sides as the paddle flow lessens and the boat's superstructure climbs directly into the wind.

Comments, please.

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