Single-Handed Boating

Tying Up

If there are bollards on the towpath then I usually strap to a halt on the side shackle, walk forward to secure the fore end, then back again to tie off the stern. A shorter line on the side shackle can usefully be used as a 'spring' either to a bollard or perhaps a piling hook. Much the same technique can be applied if there are mooring rings. If piling hooks are to be used I will usually tie the side shackle line first. If the wind has caught the fore end then just shift the gearbox into forward and push the tiller over and the fore end will obediently come back (even from a position on the far bank!) until the boat lies neatly alongside the pilings at which point the fore end line can be secured, the boat taken out of gear and a 'spring' applied if necessary. Pins driven into the towpath are a last resort to be avoided if at all possible. When used, tie white plastic bags to the tops of the pins to make them more visible especially at night.

Do not secure the boat with a mast or roof line as the boat will be pulled into a significant list by passing boats whose "slowing down past moored boats" involves a mere 5% power reduction if they bother at all! Likewise if the pound is off-weir when you tie up and then fills overnight.

Lift (and Swing) Bridges

These are perhaps the biggest problem of all for single-handed boaters because they are usually hinged on the offside of the cut so that if you tie up and walk across in order to lift them then you find yourself cut off from your boat!

Tackling these bridges calls for very precise manoeuvering as you need to bring your craft to a dead halt sufficiently close to the bridge hinge so that you can run up the gunnel (or through the boat to the front doors), around the top bend if necessary and step off onto whatever firm ground is present. Being on the offside this is liable to be quite overgrown and if you leave any momentum in the boat it may strike the bridge before you have transferred yourself to the front of the boat. If the stem post is the first point of contact then no harm will be done but if your fore end passes unhindered under the deck of the bridge then it may be your deckboard (cratch, but see my page "cratch confusion") that strikes first and 20 tons of boat moving only at a snail's pace will probably give rise to severe damage.

Take the fore end line when you step off to wind the bridge open. Once open, return to the boat and drive it through, bringing the stern to a stop directly by whatever firm ground is present on the other side of the bridge. Take a stern line as, without doubt, the boat will drift away if you don't! Lower the bridge whilst checking that it will not come down on the swan's neck/tiller.

Additional Notes

(1) Near the top of the Lapworth flight there are two swing bridges. Thirty years ago these were raised by employing a narrow canal windlass on a winch mechanism which pulled on a chain attached to the top of the counterbalance beams. Certainly at bridge 26 near Hockley Heath the winch, albeit disconnected, is still there. Nowadays these bridges are unfortunately opened by detestable hydraulic gearing.

The other lift bridge, 28, was actually replaced during the winter stoppage of 2004/5 or 2005/6. How easy it would have been to run a hydraulic pipe beneath the bed of the canal so that the bridge could then be opened from the towpath side or even from both sides. Needless to say this was not done!

(2) On the Caldon canal there is an electrically operated lift bridge close to the industrial edge of Stoke-on-Trent which carries a roadway over the canal. It is hinged on the offside as usual. On one occasion I had to negotiate this bridge at about 5 p.m. on a Sunday evening travelling towards Etruria. Getting off from the fore end was accomplished satisfactorily although the road level was quite high so I had to scramble indecorously on hands and knees whilst getting off. Since it was an industrial area the deck of the bridge was quite deep to withstand loaded trucks crossing it.

Once the BW key is inserted in the mechanism and turned, the pressure is on to get the bridge open, the boat through, and the bridge closed again to get the ever-impatient traffic moving again. The slow pace of canal life is not recognized by the average motorist even on a Sunday afternoon!

Well, I got the bridge raised, reboarded the boat and drove through to stop by the bridge buttress on the far side. There was another scramble to get off on the high bank with a stern line which I tied to the steel fencing. Back to the controls to lower the bridge, visually checking the boat's tiller, only to find that the boat had begun to drift back under the bridge! All stop. I returned to the boat, scrambled down onto the counter and saw that there was a very definite movement of water under the bridge which had caused the problem.

My solution was to drop it in forward gear at low revs so that the boat would counter the current whilst being held steady by the stern line around the fence. Back to the control box and the bridge was finally lowered. Stoke-on-Trent got moving again (I jest) and I returned to the buttress. Being in forward gear the boat had pulled the stern line taut and had moved slightly further from the buttress. Too far! I untied the line and tried to haul the boat back but those 'low revs' were not quite low enough! What to do now?

I decided to drag the stern as near to the offside bank as possible so that the fore end pointed to the towpath on the opposite side. I released the line, throwing it back onboard so that it did not foul the blade, and ran over the bridge and down the towpath. Well the boat got quite near the towpath but not near enough to board before its natural tendency to turn right caused the gap to start increasing. The boat eventually came to a stop stemmed up on the mud on the offside right next to a Wedgewood factory.

You'll not believe this but I returned over the lift bridge and up the road and walked right into the factory, which could not be described as small! I wandered in and out of various factory buildings whose doors were all wide open but found not a soul. I was walking past all sorts of whiteware and past cabinets of exquisitely decorated porcelain doubtless of considerable financial value. Eventually I found a window overlooking the canal where I could look down onto my boat. In this wall there were several fire escape doors down onto the offside canal bank but I noticed that all of them had proximity switches so I could not just quietly slip through one, down to the bank and onto my boat to resume my journey.

I returned to the roadway which meandered through this complex of Wedgewood factory buildings and once again stepped into and peered around inside buildings. Not a soul in evidence. Finally a stoke of luck, a car drove in through the main gates and disappeared between the buildings. I ran like hell and caught up with the driver, now on foot, entering an office. I explained my predicament and we walked back to the building overlooking the canal where he explained to me that the security firm (probably housed in Manchester) turned off the alarms remotely because they expected him to come in at about this time on a Sunday afternoon. He opened the fire escape door and all hell did not break loose as I had first expected!

Oxford Canal Lift Bridges

Years ago there were quite a lot of lift bridges on the Southern Oxford, mostly farmers' accommodation bridges with simply a chain hanging from the end of one of the balance beams. You pulled down on the chain and the bridge lifted up. You let go and it closed. To hold it steady you usually sat on the balance beam until your multi-crewed boat was driven through. Many of these have now been removed or are permanently fastened open but a few still remain in the City of Oxford itself. That at Banbury, which used to sit across the tail of the lock, has been relocated above the lock within the unsightly shopping mall development and near to what little remains of Tooley's yard housed in a glasshouse. Needless to say it now has a hydraulic mechanism.

I carry a specific shaft, cut to length, to deal single-handed with the Oxford bridges. The technique is to come to a stop by the towpath just short of the bridge, walk up to it and by strength and cunning to lift the opening end of the bridge until the shaft can be stuck under it to push it all, or at least most of, the way up. The bridge is then propped open on the 'leaving' side with the shaft which has a line securely attached to it which can be left hanging within easy reach of the boat when it passes under the bridge.

Return to the boat, drive on through picking up the end of the shaft's line as you pass, and when fully clear of the bridge tug the line (or use a T-stud) to yank the shaft from under the bridge deck. Enough said.

Comments, please.

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