THE most recent boaters’ survey by the Canal and River Trust shows boat owners are using their boats more often, even if they are not travelling as far, and it seems most boaters are aiming to get the best value out of their investment.
That would seem to indicate that we may see more boats than ever using the waterways this winter – providing an alternative winter break and extending the boating season.
With that in mind, and to assist their ever-increasing number of winter hire boaters, as well as the many share boats owners who cruise most of the year, Norbury Wharf’s manager, David Ray, has come up with some winter cruising advice.
He said: “Once people get over the idea that boating is a sunshine sport, and they’ve had to do that this summer, many of them realise there is no need to abandon their boat in October and not use it again until March, especially when it can provide a whole series of winter breaks at little or no extra cost.
“We hire many of our boats throughout the winter and people love getting cosy with a multi-fuel stove glowing on the boat while the wind blows outside. Most share boat owners like to cruise in the late autumn and early spring and boats are often a favourite place to spend Christmas or New Year.
“It is perfectly practical to boat throughout the year if you are sensible and plan ahead. The only problem can be people not understanding how to deal with the conditions.
“ We have an amazing number of people coming in complaining that their boat, or hire boat, won’t handle correctly; and when we explain it’s because of leaves around the propeller they don’t believe us! The Shroppie seems to suffer far more than any other canal which is probably because of the deep cuttings along its length with the overgrown trees dumping their leaves in the canal.”
So here is the Norbury checklist for winter cruising:
1. Make sure you have the right clothes to defeat the weather. Standing on the back of a boat for several hours allows the cold winds to penetrate, so layers are the answer, as many as you need and never mind making a fashion statement. Ensure you have good waterproofs because they will keep out the wind as well as the inevitable rain. Oh, and hats, gloves and scarves. The reason so many boaters wear hats is that they keep the heat in.
2. Autumn brings fallen leaves and many accumulate into the canal forming a leaf soup. The action of the boat’s propeller sucks them in and they gather in great numbers around it – you can hear the engine note dropping when it happens and eventually you will slow down and be unable to steer properly. When the propeller stops turning they just drop away again and the best way of clearing them when you are moving is to throw the engine into reverse briefly, put it in neutral till they propeller stops turning before giving it a blast in forward gear. You will see the leaves shoot out at the stern. In the very worse conditions you will be doing this several times a day, but the colours along the cut will be a spectacular compensation.
3. Frost, especially in the morning is inevitable in the winter months and it can look lovely on the bare arms of canalside trees but it is also potentially hazardous underfoot. Make sure you have sturdy boots with a good grip, especially if working around frosty locks and take extra care when crossing beams or getting on and off the boat.
4. Don’t plan to journey for many hours a day, you have less light and cold weather means spending more than three or four hours on the tiller will leave you chilled and uncomfortable. Work on the basis of short journeys and short days. Focus on visiting nearby villages and small towns in their run-up to Christmas or enjoy the canal banks and spring bulbs start to push through the winter soil.
5. Winter is a surprisingly good time to enjoy canalside wildlife, so take the binoculars. When the leaves are gone from the trees you can see further into woodlands and sometimes whole flocks of small birds will be seen taking over a particular tree or hedgerow. You can also spot foxes, stoats and badgers, certainly in the afternoon twilight on a rural canal bank and sometimes even in the daytime as they cross a snowy field.
6. If you do find ice forming it usually takes a few days before it becomes too thick to travel so you can usually either get back to your mooring or find somewhere you are happy to moor the boat, with local facilities like water and pump-out available. If you are on a hire boat, don’t worry, the hire company will get you back to base at the right time.
7. Torches are essential for winter boating so make sure you have a good one as you will need it to negotiate the towpath between the boat and the nearest canalside inn – and of course to find your boat again in the dark once you have enjoyed a meal and a pint or two. It is essential when you need to get the key in the lock and get back into that cosy boat.
8. Your comfort on any boat depends on ensuring you have stocks of essentials. Make sure you have enough diesel, gas and coal or wood so that you can travel, cook and stay warm no matter what happens. A pack of cards is another useful staple, providing winter entertainment, especially if accompanied by a bottle of something nice!
9. The working boat families used to keep a kettle on the back cabin stove so hot drinks were available at all times and many liveaboard boaters still use their solid fuel stoves for this and to cook their meals as they travel. A constant supply of hot drinks and a meal ready to eat once you have made your journey for that day makes winter boating even more of a pleasure.
10. Look ahead. Check the weather for the next week or two and if it says there are days and days or sub-zero temperatures in prospect you have to face the possibility that the canal may freeze thickly enough to make movement impossible – so you might want to treat the boat as a holiday cottage in a winter wonderland (if you can get to your mooring). Realistically this sort of weather is usually short-lived and some winters never arrives so don’t get too neurotic about being frozen in.
David Ray concludes: “There is something special about winter boating, the canals are much less busy and you can often travel all day without seeing another moving boat. The views are often sharper and clearer, especially on a canal like the Shroppie where the embankments allow you to see for miles, right across to the Welsh hills.
“Sometimes it feels that you and your boat are the only things moving in the landscape, but when you moor you can suddenly join the world again in a cosy canalside pub, sitting by the fire with the locals. It can be almost magical.”