Sunday, 14 September 2008

Day Forty-Four - Snap

Whiston Lock - Woodford Lock

River Nene

18 miles, 12 locks

I really, really feel like the name of the boat is the complete opposite of what's happenned to us on our journey so far.

Today we had a further dose of bad luck.

The tiller has been snapped off.

Yes, the great big strong metal thing. It's extremely hard to believe that something so seemingly solid could break; but break it did, and now the Duck is unable to move under its own control.

The day started well enough; we got moving at the sensible hour of eight thirty, and the sun obligingly came out. It was extremely pleasant, motoring along through nice countryside to the sound of birdsong.

And then disaster struck. Just past White Mills lock, the river narrows and the speed of the flow increases to about 4 or 5 mph at the moment. Travelling breasted up, the Duck ploughed into a tree branch; nothing wrong with that, they normally bend and move out of the way.

Except this one didn't; it was far, far more solid than we anticipated and, because of the stream, there was nothing we could do. It dented the chimney for the Morco heater, knocked off the fender we acquired in Reading, and swept a windlass into the river.

But, worst of all, a branch got stuck under the bend at the top of the tiller, and there was a sharp "crack".

We were all dumbstruck; carried away by the stream, we could only gaze back in amazement at the sight of our tiller, hooked over a treebranch some eight or nine feet from the bank.

It was astounding; a solid lump of metal. None of us had ever heard of a tiller breaking in that fashion before. We couldn't reverse against the flow, so pulled in as soon as possible alongside a fishing platform. I took our cabin shaft, which usefully had a sickle gaffertaped to the end which made it into a useful hook, and walked back towards the tree.

The stump- at the bottom of the picture. The rope is to stop the rudder swinging about.

At first it seemed impossible; the entire way was barred by nettles and brambles. I reached the tree itself; a collection of branches sticking some nine or ten feet out over the water, with brambles and small branches everywhere- and covered in mud and slime from where the river had previously been flooded. A very daunting prospect, but I determined not to give up, and foolhardily inched my way, slowly and carefully, anong the tree branches, sometimes balancing, sometimes holding onto the cabin shaft, all the while over the water; I certainly didn't want to go in. I could see the tiller hooked over the branch, and finally managed to reach it; I didn't tell Amy at the time, but the branch I was standing on was bending and I got wet feet. I managed to reach the tiller though, and inch by inch dragged it back along the precarious branches, through the brambles, and back to the boat, covered in burrs, scratches, and mud; a proud moment. I'm very glad to have got it back; it means we can fix it up again.

In the meantime, we were on the move again. There's no way to fix the tiller right now, so we just decided to enjoy the sunshine and press on.

It should be easy enough to fix. Having inspected the metal where it snapped, Jim showed us how the 1-inch diameter metal bar that connected down to the rudder had snapped in the past, and been shoddily welded up as a repair; there was only one weld of three holding the tiller on. In many ways, it's a blessing that it happenned when it did- it means that- like so many of the systems on the boat- we can fix it properly and know it's reliable. At least it broke when we didn't really need it. To fix it, it's just a simple matter of disassembling the parts, angle grinding off the old welds and dressing the two bits ready to be welded together again.

The miles were covered quickly, and many locks; some of which have a big, three foot diameter metal wheel which must be turned 150 times to lower the guillotine gate, and another 150 to raise it... as Sarah had promised, it was hard work!

Winding the lock

The challenge, later in the day, was Irthlingborough bridge.

This medieval packhorse bridge has the navigation arch at only 12' wide; and, breasted up, the boats are 14'. Clearly, we were going to have to tow the Duck through, but with no steering it would be very, very tricky.

I rigged up a system with a rope through the eye on the top of the rudder; by hauling on one side, the rudder could be turned and the boat steered. We put the Duck on tight cross straps behind Warrior, and took the cratch down; if it went wrong, we didn't want to break it at all.The Duck looks extremely strange without it!

We approached the bridge at a worryingly high speed, but couldn't slow down because of the flow; if you slow down, you can't steer and lose control! You just have to go for it! I was at the reins at the stern of the Duck, and Jim steered Warrior; we just HAD to get it right first time.

We approached at high speed, 35 tons travelling at about ; Jim turned Warrior into the corner, I hauled on ropes for all I was worth, and we shot through the bridge without even touching the sides. Fantastic! It really was a great moment, with some brilliant steering from Jim. This is, perhaps, the closest Narrowboating comes to an extreme sport!

The VERY high speed run through the bridgehole

The lessercratched Duck

We carried on after a well-deserved cup of tea into the evening, heading for Woodford visitor moorings. Strangely, although marked on the map they don't exist, so we have been forced to tie up to a floating pontoon next to Woodford Lock. We'll have to be off first thing tomorrow; it looks like we'll be in Peterborough the day after tomorrow, hopefully.


  1. How fortunate that you are with someone with experience of narrowboats! Glad that you personally came through that unscathed even if the poor Duck has suffered.

    I hope that you are going to take these mechanical issues up with your surveyor, or else what exactly did you pay him for? surely he should have spotted failed welds and what was it - missing screws for the prop shaft?


  2. Your baptism of fire continues. Good luck for Fotheringhay and Ferry Meadows bridges. I'll have the angle-grinder and arc-welding set standing by in Ramsey.


  3. Now, you are checking the stern tube and the bilges regularly aren't you? Because it seems that ALMOST everything that could go wrong has....

  4. We've been reading your blog ever since you started - you have had some really bad luck - I agree with 'anonymous's' comment about taking things up with your surveyor. It seems that the old saying about not changing the name of a boat has held true for you! We also changed the name of our first boat, and had nothing but bad luck with her - in the end we cut our losses and sold her for a loss - at least we weren't spending out any more on her. It didn't put us off boating though! Good luck.

    Pip - nb Windsong

  5. We were discussing your misfortune last night and our thoughts were, like other commentators, shouldn't the surveyor have spotted the botched up prop-shaft connection and poorly welded tiller. The point of having a professional survey is to protect the purchaser, who usually isn't an expert in these matters. Hope the rest of the journey goes well. Hope to see you when the Duck gets lifted out.

  6. I'm not convinced that you can put the tiller down as a pre-existing fault. One photo isn't much to go on, but to my inexperienced eye the weld doesn't look too bad. After all it has to be strong enough to steer the boat with (which it was) not strong enough to stop 35 tons dead from 5 mph. You could argue that the weld failing saved you from having the swan's neck artistically re-arranged or, worse, the top bearing ripped out of the counter.

    The prop-shaft, on the other hand (again, from second hand information) would appear to have been demonstrably dodgy from day one.


  7. We realy enjoyed our summer on the Ouse. It seems that the Nene has been a trial for many boaters after all that rain in August.