Living on a Narrowboat in Winter…
Biting blue cold nips at my finger ends as we glide North, upstream, in a diluted orange winter’s sun. The busy morning of chores, the rush of adrenalin, disappears now far behind us, a distant and equally busy City centre, becoming ever quieter and smaller. My breath leaves a dense cloud of fog with each word, like a heavy smoker puffing on a fag, as I clap the woolly mittens on my hands together to keep warm. Living on a narrowboat through winter, you don’t often let your fire burn out. Inside, the welcoming cabin is toast warm. Outside, attentive to what is ahead, standing on tiptoes to see, we approach the first tunnel. It’s a chilly start!
On we go, past city pubs, the odd rat scuttling for cover between the dark grey stones which fringe the canal. On past council housing estates and steaming factories far below us, drifting rubbish carelessly tossed away, bobbing over a gentle wave. On through several more bridges that echo with the passing engine and our shouts, until we close towards a curved and fierce bend in the route- the river aqueduct.
Suddenly, immense patches of white ice loom before us, a narrower pathway of fluid water runs through the heart of the frozen expanse. Perched at the bow, I turn and shout back to the stern, “Stop the boat!” The clamour of the engine drowns out my voice. “I can’t hear you”, my oblivious dearest mouths back. Used to sign language because his mum is deaf, I rip off the warm mittens and sign ‘I.C.E’ using my best pointy finger.
Received loud and clear, he reduces the throttle and the boat coasts for a minute, then slows to a crawl. Crunch goes the ice as the heavy steel hull ploughs forwards with momentum until several short reverse thrusts of the engine’s gears thwart its progress. Inch thick sheets of ice extend before us, blocking navigation, both distance and girth. Never having sailed through icy waters before, it’s a crude awakening from the usual peace and serenity of living on a narrowboat. I’m pinched into a state of alert.
The boat tentative, advances forward, carving through the frozen sheets with a creaking and cracking sound. The hull mounts the ice, a little unbalanced, rocking slightly to one side. She is no powerboat! The old girl pushes hard at the ice, but the frozen expanse has nowhere to go and she loses the battle. “We’re stuck. Now what?”
Behind us, another narrowboater, on the same route, turns the bend. Powering up to us, the helmsman hollers, “Not going through?” Confident he can do better and making haste at a pace, he passes us, and comes to an abrupt halt. “Can you take the rudder?” my husband shouts to me, then with a flying leap that even a monkey might be proud of, he takes leave of the boat and lands with a thud on the towpath. Armed with a wooden barge pole, he beats at the ice, joined by his new companion. The two men, having dismounted their driver positions- a mutiny, leave us old girls to take the rudders and steer our great steel hulls through the ice which slides at awkward jutting angles, one sheet on top of another.
The two men beat at the ice ahead for twenty minutes, before exhausting from their manly efforts. Then they both take a second great leap of faith from the towpath to the gunnel of the front most boat. I bite my lip and hold my breath as my husband jumps, teeters on the edge of the narrow foothold, and grabs the boat roof. He believes he is younger than he is and the risk is ridiculous! He knows he is lucky he made it because the water is freezing, the ice dangerous, and I’m slightly annoyed by his bravado. To my dismay, their vessel moves off, cutting the frozen landscape up as it goes, leaving me to navigate my small pathway through the ice, with a fast beating heart, all alone.
Never having helmed the boat single-handed, even though I’ve been living on a narrowboat long enough, I’m a little nervous. Now I have no choice- I’ve lost my captain! I drive her forward, slow and gentle. I follow a carved out pathway of floating, ever moving icebergs, and wonder if these great slippery hazards can damage a steel bulldozing hull? The Titanic didn’t fair well. The image of her tipped up stern, filling with water before sinking down into the North Atlantic’s icy ocean, haunts me momentarily. Ice sheets like this can be sharp and might seriously damage a plastic boat, but a steel hull is tough and the icebergs here are not 350 miles from the Newfoundland coast of Canada. Neither are we the biggest liner ever built, but the barge ahead takes at most, a spoiling of its paintwork, as it surges ahead. I’m just glad it’s not my boat.
As the odd passer-by stares with interest I feel good, the boss of my boat, I look like I know what I’m doing and for a moment it feels satisfying. Confidence restored, I remember to breathe again, I can do this, in-fact I’m quite good at it! Around a tight corner I now cross the aqueduct, looking down at the River which runs through the city, far below. The ice reluctantly slides away and bangs one sheet into another as the two boats, now a team, wind their way through the path of least resistance.
My audience can now see I’m an experienced boat-woman, in complete control. I use reverse to slow my boat’s momentum, to keep me from catching up with the front narrow-boat too quickly and crashing into them. I follow them into the off- side of the bridge, a bank of brambles, trees and overgrown grass, next to a steep incline. Parked with perfect precision, my husband takes our ropes and moors us for the night, and I let out a long, relieved breath. I did a good job!
The skipper is back, the boss, with a barge pole broken in half from smashing ice! It is here on this rough bank that we stay. Three days… waiting for the ice to thaw, chatting, sharing hot mugs of steaming coffee and telling canal stories- both funny and scary. Winter on a canal with new friends from afar, resting upon sawn logs and chopping dead wood for our cheerful warm fires. This is what living on a narrowboat in winter, is all about.