Kinver - through Hail and Hard water

Crew: Chris & Terry Rigden, Marin Baskerville
Boat: NB Maximus
Route: Gailey to Kinver & return

Our first cruise on our new share boat Maximus and what an adventure.

Sunday, Gailey - Cross Green, 2 hrs (5 miles, no locks)

The trip to Gailey was uneventful - except that the A5 was closed at the exit from the M6 with a diversion sending us in the opposite direction. You can imagine the frustration after all the months of waiting to be stopped mere yards from the boatyard by roadworks. We noticed that 'residents' were permitted, and were allowed through.

On arrival we caught our first sight of Max since seeing it in kit form at the shell builders, and mighty smart he looks too. After shovelling some snow off the decks we started to move in. Jim introduced us to the boat, and then told us that he couldn't supply us with coal as expected. Someone had cleaned him out the night before, but there was a pile of logs that we were welcome to. Most of them were too big for our stove, but we managed to find half a dozen or so that would fit.

We set off at about 3 pm, in the cold afternoon sun. I soon discovered that one has to have the rear doors on the semitrad cockpit fixed open or latched shut, otherwise you graunch your knuckles on them as the tiller only just clears them. The only traffic we saw was a group in canoes - I bet they were cold!

As we passed through the big chemical works just south of Gailey, a loud siren went off. Thinking we might find ourselves in the middle of an incident, I decided to leave the area as fast as possible (without making a breaking wash). The boat accelerated smoothy and the engine note remained civilised.

We got to Cross Green at about 5 and it was getting decidedly chilly so we pulled over. It looks like temperature rather than daylight will limit our cruising time. We decided not to eat out, but had one of Christine's excellent chillies instead. After watching a very pessimistic weather forecast we spent the evening reading and playing with the fire (trying to get the rather damp logs to burn).

Monday, Cross Green - Wombourne, 5 1/2 hrs (11 miles, 10 locks)

Peering out the porthole at about seven am I could see it was going to be a windy day. But there was some hint of sunshine, so we decided to get an early start about 8:00 to make the most of the weather window (and the enthusiasm of the start of a cruise!).

Chris at the tillerThe narrows just south of the M54 were much improved now that the foliage had been cut back. We made our way through Wolverhampton and came to Compton lock. Martin hadn't been on a canal before but he soon picked up the technique and by the end of the trip he and Christine were getting us through locks efficiently.

We caught up a boat crewed by some lads at the Whitwick locks, helped them through and sent them on. They (and later we) were held up by a rusting hulk of a barge that swung right across the cut, which needed to be pushed aside for them to pass. When we reached the second lock, we retrieved their forgotten boat pole for them and at a subsequent lock recovered a windlass. We expected to catch up with them during the afternoon, but never did see them again.

I noticed that the engine tickover seemed a bit high, but we had been told that it was deliberately set high as the engine was new. This made entering locks a bit tricky, as the boat swung badly in the wind as soon as one took it out of gear.

We did the Bratch in the increasing rain, somewhat slowed by the top gate paddle being locked. I could wring the water out of my gloves and I was giving serious thought to making a cockpit cover. By the time we finished, we were cold and wet, and the idea of spending the evening in a warm pub was very enticing.

We got to the Round Oak at bridge 45 around 3pm, but it was surrounded by heavy building work with lots of noise. So we gritted our teeth and pushed on through the sleet to the Waggon and Horses at Bridge 45, and moored up just opposite the big sign advertising Pub Food. After watching yet another depressing weather forecast we set off for the pub (past another sign advertising "Good Food"). Once we got inside and asked for the menu, we were told "Don't do food" in a puzzled tone of voice, as if we had asked for diesel or a pump out.

We asked about other options and they suggested we just turn the boat round and go back to the Round Oak (in the dark!). The other option was a chippy "just up the road by the lights". A 15 minute walk got us there (after a brief detour into another pub where it was made plain that there was no food and people over 18 were not welcome). We headed back to the boat with huge portions of fish and chips. I think they took pity on us when they found out we were on a boat - "Wouldn't get me on one of those in this weather" - and I could see their point.

Tuesday, Wombourne - Kinver 3 3/4 hrs (7 miles, 12 locks)

At Hinksford LockThe weather forecast indicated a dry morning, but forecast for the next day was dire (snow and freezing temperatures), so we set off with the idea of reaching Kinver as it seemed a good place to hole up for a day or so. This is one of our favourite stretches of canal, with really delightful scenery and lots of interest. We paused to take pictures of Max at Hinksford lock.

As yesterday all the locks were set against us, and we didn't see another moving boat. We stopped at Greensforge to take on water and discovered that the BW key was missing, but fortunately the tap was unlocked. Even though the water flowed quickly, it took an hour to fill the tank and the bow dropped noticeably. We had not used much water, so it must have been pretty low when we picked the boat up.

While this was going on I started to split some of the logs (using a mooring spike) in an attempt to improve combustion. The first few which had dried out next to the stove split easily, but when I tried it on a damp one I got the stake stuck in it. "Log on a stick anyone?" This was left next to the stove to dry and hopefully split in time. Christine put a lamb and red wine casserole in the oven so we spent the rest of the day with the aroma wafting through the boat as we made progress southwards.

We got to Kinver about 3 pm, just as the rain started. We moored next to NB Yeltsa owned by Steve and Marie, a charming and friendly couple who have been living aboard for a year. We soon got chatting and spent a very pleasant afternoon in their company. It is people like that that make the canal community special.

We took a trip up town and found the rather good bakery and headed back with supplies, before tucking into that lamb which had been tempting us all the way down the locks. After watching yet another dire weather forecast we went back to our books for the evening and calculated how long we could afford to stay if the weather got impossible.

Wednesday, Kinver - Kinver 1 hr 10 mins (2 miles, 2 locks)

The morning was grey and drizzly, but no sign of ice and snow. However, we decided to stay put for the time being.

I decided to see if I could do anything about the engine idle speed, as it seemed to be getting faster. After some grovelling around in the engine 'ole, I found the throttle cable and followed it to the engine. There I discovered that the lever wasn't returning to the idle stop when the control lever was put in neutral.

Further grovelling behind the control panel revealed that the cable outer was slipping, so that each time the throttle was operated it moved a bit, increasing the idle revs. I pushed it back but had no means of securing it, though I could at least reset it.

The bilge pump was next on my list. We had a couple of inches of water down there, as the pump was sitting at an angle. Steve stopped by and held the pump in position while I held the switch - definitely a two man job. After that I polished some brass and generally pottered about, scavenged some scrap wood from the towpath, while Christine baked a cake and did some cleaning (first chance after all those locks).

Terry at the tillerMy brother Christopher arrived at noon bringing coal - what a hero! We could get that stove going properly now, and we didn't have to worry about running out of fuel. After lunch the weather improved a bit, so we decided to nip down to Cookley to turn and return to the mooring.

Just south of Whittington lock & bridge, we met a BW workboat coming the other way. They told us that they had felled a tree across the canal and we wouldn't be able to get to Cookley. We had noticed a winding hole near Br 28 that wasn't in our 97 Nicholson's guide, so we decide to back the boat into the lock and reverse all the way back to the winding hole.

This isn't something we have attempted before, so we put out bow and stern ropes and motored it back into the lock. To my surprise it all worked remarkably well. The stern tended to pull away from the bank, but I could bring it back with a blast of forward and a pull on the stern rope. The bow headed for shore and was just fended off. Standing on the counter whilst going up the lock was a new experience.

After the lock we continued back to the tuning point without trouble, turned and motored back to our original mooring. Christine put together a brilliant chicken curry which rounded the day off nicely, and Christopher headed home afterwards into the freezing night.

Thursday, Kinver - Houndel Br (45), 4 1/4 hrs (8 miles, 11 locks)

We woke to a sunny but frosty morning, so we decided on a late-ish start to give the frost on the lockside time to melt, and meanwhile going to the bakers. We got away at 9:30 with the lock pre set for us.

Terry fishing for the tiller pinSeeing the tap at the water point was unlocked we stopped for a top up. As I picked up the stern rope to hand it to Martin, I caught the tiller pin - which went into the cut. Despite fishing for it with the sea searcher I couldn't locate it at all, so I lashed a screwdriver in the hole and we went to set off.

I turned on the ignition and the buzzer sounded as normal. I went to Start and - nothing, not even the buzzer. Tried again - nothing. I checked the master switches - both on, and the bilge pump worked. I went and got the manual, had a ponder, and checked all the wiring. I could see nothing that seemed amiss. Tried again and just got the buzzer, but it all died as soon as the starter engaged. Seemed like a loose connection, but where?

I decided to phone the yard for advice, and they said an engineer would reach us in about an hour. Meanwhile I finally got the mooring stake out of the log. It had been sitting next to the stove and had dried out quite a bit. It was frustrating being stationary during the best weather we had had all trip. The engineer arrived and went straight to the problem, a loose connection right at the bottom of the starter motor. He also took a look at the throttle cable and fitted a missing clip to retain the outer.

It was now 11:30 and we had wasted a beautiful morning, so I was determined to crack on and we had lunch on the move (a bit tricky with the cook doubling as lock crew), doing the stretch up to Br 45 in one go. The boat was much more controllable with the idle speed down to 800 rpm - I was no longer embarrassed going past moored craft slipping it in out of gear, and lock approaches were greatly improved.

Then the boiler shut down - I spent the time in locks re-lighting it. It would run for a while, then shut down again. It turned out we were out of gas, both bottles were empty. We couldn't have got through 2 bottles in 4 days, surely? We had only used it in the evening, and even then not much as the stove kicked out a lot heat. We had a third reserve bottle in the locker so I changed over to that. We later found out that we had left Gailey with one bottle almost empty. I suspect the low temperatures also affected their capacity.

When we got to Br 45 we found the best mooring was just north of the bridge as the factory on the south side gives off strange smells and there is a dryer that hums all the time. The Round Oak did us an excellent meal at a pretty good price. Not only that, the beer was on special offer before 7 pm. We had an early night as the crew had worked hard and were pretty bushed.

Friday, Houndel Br - Cross Green, 4 1/2 hrs (10 miles, 10 locks)

Morning sun on Frost at Roundoak pubIt was seriously cold in the night, and the condensation was frozen when we woke. The canal had a light covering of ice and snow. The building site was getting noisy and someone had started a pneumatic drill. I went ahead and set the next lock and we waited to set off about 9:30 to give time for the frost to melt.

Coming up the Bratch in the snowWe made good progress, but the weather closed in periodically. By the time we got to the Bratch we were in a thick snow shower, and I was getting concerned about the crew's footing if it started to settle. We pressed on, Chris and Martin doing sterling work on the locks - some taking as little as 6 minutes. We spent parts of the day punching through thin ice, with it pinging and cracking as we passed.

We stopped for a break just north of Dimmigsdale lock, where there are rings on the offside - a very pretty and secluded spot. The ice vanished through Wolverhampton, so progress was smooth and it was a good opportunity for Martin to see how a narrowboat handled compared to his yacht.

The shop at Autherly was closed, but they did sell me a replacement tiller pin, which cost more than I expected. I will be machining up some spares for myself, with no twiddly bits to catch on the rope and a quick release retainer. I can only presume the current designs are intended to provide a revenue stream for chandleries.

After a briefer than expected stop (though of course there was time for a cuppa) we headed north into the Narrows. The ice reappreared all of a sudden after bridge 69 - one side clear and the other full of ice. This was a bit thicker than further south, and it was becoming difficult to steer round corners. We stopped right outside the Anchor pub by bridge 71 and decided we would eat there. The weather forecasters were expecting another very cold night and we wondered whether we would get through the ice.

Saturday, Cross Green - Gailey, 4 hrs (5 miles, no locks)

Icebreaking in the sunshineYes, it was a cold night - fresh ice had formed round the boat, but the sun was shining. We were planning to get to Gailey by lunchtime so we could clean the boat and get away in the early afternoon, and so home at around dusk. The boat moored in front of us was putting out an awful lot of smoke which was blowing into our boat. So we set off at 9am - a bit earlier than we had intended but the ice didn't look that thick where we were moored.

We very soon hit thicker ice, and the noise was deafening inside the cabin. Steering was very difficult, and we barely got three-quarters of a mile before we packed it in and fought our way to the bank. We spent the next couple of hours cleaning and packing, but there is only so much you can do without getting stuff off the boat.

Close up of the ice breakingWe tried again at about 11, after smashing all the ice we could reach and dragging it behind the boat with the boat hook. This enable us to get underway before we had to tackle the ice. Now the ice was up to an inch thick, and the engine was pretty near full power as we pounded our way through it.

(Broken ice)

I was beginning to think we would have to call it a day when we saw an oncoming boat. He too was about to give up and he was attempting to turn, but he had no chance. After swapping news about conditions we proceeded down each others wakes and made much better progress through the previously broken ice.

A ways further, a woman in a moored boat shouted at us "You shouldn't be moving. You'll be prosecuted". At first I thought she was talking about our icebreaking exploits. But then I wondered whether the canals were being shut because of foot and mouth. But as we saw no sign of any official information, we decided that we should push on and get Max home the last 2 miles to Gailey.

The ice was much worse then, as now we were out of the other guys wake. This was getting serious, but we were committed. We crunched our way north, and I needed all my strength to haul on the tiller at times. By the time we reached Gailey I was pretty well shattered by the effort of steering and the noise plus worrying about damaging the boat.

After all that, turning in an ice filled basin and cleaning the boat was an anticlimax. This was one trip I was glad to get over. It was the most stressful day's boating I've ever had. Later we learnt that although movement on the canals was being stopped, BW had agreed that boats near home should proceed home and they were opening locks to enable them to do so.