I test it out!
Breaking the Ice with a Barge Pole!
How to Winter on a narrowboat?… People always ask, “What’s it like?”
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 and the rush of adrenalin, now disappears far behind us. A distant and equally busy City centre becomes ever quieter and smaller. This is the story of how to Winter on a narrowboat.
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. What’s Winter like living on a boat? If you live on a narrowboat through the freeze, you don’t often let your fire burn out. Inside, the welcoming cabin is as warm as toasted currant teacakes. 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. We shunt past council housing estates and steaming factories far below us. Drifting rubbish carelessly tossed away, bobs over the gentle waves. Navigation takes us through several more bridges that echo with the rhythm of the passing, pulsing engine, and we play with the acoustics of our shouts, as if the bass on the stereo has been turned up.
Suddenly, immense patches of white ice loom before us.
We close towards a fierce bend in the route- the river aqueduct. 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. Familiar with sign language, I rip off the warm mittens, and sign ‘I.C.E’ using my best pointy finger.
Message received loud and clear, he reduces the throttle. The boat coasts for a minute… then slows to a crawl. Crunch goes the ice. 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. However, the frozen expanse has nowhere to go. She loses the battle.
How to winter on a narrowboat? “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 at speed…
and his narrowboat comes to an abrupt halt!
“Can you take the rudder?”, my husband shouts to me. Then with an Olympic 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, they leave us old girls to take the rudders and steer our great steel hulls through the ice. It slides at awkward jutting angles, one sheet on top of another!
The two men beat at the ice up ahead, like cavemen, and 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 and the ice is dangerous. I’m slightly annoyed by his bravado. Then, 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, and girls do it on their own all the time), I’m a nervous type. 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?
How to Winter on a narrowboat? The Titanic didn’t fair well!
The image of Titanic’s tipped up stern, filling with water before sinking down into the North Atlantic’s icy ocean, haunts me momentarily. Even though this canal is barely eight foot deep, ice sheets like this can be sharp and might seriously damage a plastic boat. But a steel hull is tough, and we are not 350 miles off the frozen Newfoundland coast of Canada. Neither are we the biggest liner ever built. 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, I’m the boss of my barge. 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! Rounding the tight corner, I now cross the aqueduct, looking down at the river which runs through the city, far below. The ice reluctantly slides away as the heavy steel hull pushes through. Great sheets of ice creak and crack, then bang into more frozen slippery slabs.
The two boats, now a team, wind their way through the path of least resistance.
What’s Winter like living on a boat? 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 aqueduct; a bank of brambles, trees and overgrown grass. Mounted upon a steep incline, we rest atop the aqueduct that carries the canal high above the river which flows under us far below. 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 wooden barge pole broken in half from smashing ice! It is here on this rough bank that we stay.
Three days we hangout, waiting for the ice to thaw… learning how to Winter on a narrowboat.
We sit 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. How to Winter on a narrowboat? This is what living on a canal in winter, is all about.
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