Sunday, October 12, 2008

Such things as dreams are made of

For most boat bloggers, the dream come true is when they finally get the boat of their own. To be honest, that wasn't something I ever got much time to dream about; it just sort of crept up on me. Certainly, I've whiled away many happy hours thinking about how I would alter a boat, or wondering what it would be like to own this one, or that one. Certainly I dream of living on a boat again (for real this time), but that - at least for now - really is more of an idle dream than a realisable ambition type one.

But one desire that has long burned within me was, suddenly and unexpectedly, fulfilled yesterday. I GOT TO STEER A TOWN CLASS BOAT! OK, it wasn't a Big Woolwich (yes, totally irrational preference, I know), but it was the very next best thing. (Oh, it wasn't unconverted either, but at least I still have something to look forward to.)

This is how it happened.

Last Monday, less than a week ago, my friend and colleague Clementina was telling me about going to the opening of Kings Place, the (actually rather nice) new development at Kings Cross, which backs onto the canal and Battlebridge Basin; in particular about the trips they were running on, and the possibility of hiring, the Camden Community Narrowboat. Oh yes, I said; Tarporley, and reeled off a few of its vital statistics. I later sent her the photos of Warrior and Tarporley in the lock together last August. But I didn't know you could hire it privately, so I had a quick Google to check their website.

Before I knew it, I was clicking on the 'volunteers' link, and five minutes later, emailing them. Usually, when you email a voluntary organisation to offer your services, you hear nothing for weeks, if at all. I initially offered to help with admin and paperwork; and maybe a bit of cleaning so that I could actually get to touch the boat. I'd kind of thought that steering would be reserved for a time-served elite. Well, I got a reply within the hour, saying firstly, that they were looking for someone to help with marketing, and would I be interested in that - now that was a stroke of luck for a start, because that's something I reckoned I could probably make quite a good fist of. He went on to say that they had been planning a 'hands-on' day for Saturday, but that it had been cancelled owing to gearbox problems.

But then on Friday, an email arrived saying that the gearbox was fixed and the 'training day' was now back on. Such was my excitement I could hardly sleep that night. I turned up at the appointed hour, and made my way through the very swish cafe/box office area of Kings Place (I suppose it's no wonder I feel kindly disposed towards it) and out through another set of doors onto the canalside, where Tarporley has returned to its permanent mooring after an absence of three years. If you look at the aerial photo on their website, this would be on the right hand side. And there it was, large as life and with Dave sitting in the well deck. It turned out that because of the earlier cancellation, only one of the other new volunteers was able to come, and as the second crew member called in sick at the last minute, there was only Dave, Kerryn and me. How enourously fortunate was that, from our point of view? To cap it all, the sun shone all day.

Our training trip took us from Battlebridge to Little Venice, taking in four locks and the Maida Hill tunnel. As Kerryn had very little previous boating experience and none of manual locks, I did the locks on the way out. When we got to Little Venice and were about to tie up in the Pool (in the privileged spot where it says 'No unauthorised mooring'), there was a brief crisis when Dave put it in reverse and the throttle stuck. This was eventually remedied with a sharp kick, but not before I'd seen my chance of steering flash before my eyes.

I got there in the end though, and I was in heaven. I had warned Dave that my steering was generally reckoned to be fairly abysmal, but the practice has obviously done me some good as at least I knew what to do. In fact, it was no more difficult, technically, and possibly even easier, than steering Warrior. Where it was harder was in simple terms of the physical force and strength required. At first Dave was handling the controls and I just the tiller, but I asked if I could have a go of the controls, and once he let me do that, and I could actually stand comfortably on the step instead of behind him, it was a bit easier. I liked the gear wheel a lot once I got the hang of hauling it round; the speedwheel was sort of familiar, but turns the opposite way to Warrior's, and there's a lot more play before it starts to take effect, and rather less after. But I was very pleased by how quickly I made the transition, and it didn't feel at all odd handling this great beast of a boat once I got myself comfortable.

Does life really get much better than steering a Big Northwich through Camden Lock on a sunny Saturday afternoon?

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