Windy Winter Boating Nights

dog-by-fire-on-boat
When heating fails, the hound is truly a man’s best friend

Richard Stabbins begins an occasional series on the joys and heartbreaks of living on a boat in the middle of a big city.

It’s early evening on the canal towpath and I’m almost home. My hands are frozen and even getting my bike lock open had me yelping expletives. I cut a dishevelled figure on the dark stretch between Broadway Market and Victoria Park, dimly lit by LED lights of neighbouring boats. Hopping onto the bow of my floating home, crouching my way through the front door, my first thought is: “I’m so glad I’ve got a dog!”. Bruno is an excitable 30kg hound, a blessing in himself. I had stocked the stove that morning with a generous heap of coal to keep him warm. It made me love him even more. It’s been 1 degree all day and, boaters returning to a frozen tin box usually despair for an hour or more at the lack of heating that we can monitor from an app on our phone. Praise be, though – I have a hound! 

That contentment does not last long. Backpack stowed away in its spot between front steps and cupboard (every boater knows, space is at the key), I set to washing last night’s dishes. I turn on the taps, hear the boiler kick in, and then that splattering sound that every boat-dweller hates to hear: the water tank is empty! I slump down on to my couch made of old pallets and recycled cushions. The serenity of a warm night with dinner and a book is replaced by the knowledge that I must cruise to the nearest waterpoint. Bruno looks on from his bed with eyes that know what’s coming. At least the batteries are full and I’ve got diesel – a (hopefully) short trip like this will use very little fuel.

First things first, I check the weather forecast on my phone. I know it’s cold, but that’s not the biggest factor – it’s the wind. Google says I’ve got two hours before wind speeds really pick up, so that’s my window to get fuel and safely find a mooring spot elsewhere. It wasn’t long ago that I had been awoken at 05:00 by a fellow boater shouting for help. Wind speeds had suddenly hit eighty-plus mph and several boats had come free from their makeshift moorings (their pegs had been dislodged as there are no mooring rings available in that part of Haggerston). One boat had swung around and was resting horizontally across the canal, blocking anything coming through. Four of usin our pyjamas fought the wind and just about managed to heave in the barge Other boats were tied up to the balcony railings of canalised flats. Ropes stretched across the towpath at neck height like deadly rubber bands – a measure taken temporarily to regain some calm and order.

That feeling of anxiety that comes with moving on a dark, windy night in winter never ceases. Questions and fears play with your head: “will the wind catch me off guard and blow me into moored boats?”; “I can’t see the water ahead – will I cruise over something that will get stuck in my propeller?”; “will there be an available mooring spot relatively close by, with the canal so full these days?”. I hover between Broadway Market and Victoria Park, and the preceding picture is the reality of life for a “continuous cruiser” – the term for an off-grid boater who doesn’t have their own mooring. The same problems arise for van-dwellers and squatters, but boats are just damper, colder – and more danged expensive than land-based off-gridding. When it comes to boating in London though, it’s the autonomy of having my own space, living in areas that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford and exploring the city one mooring spot at a time.

Luckily, I am on the outside of a double mooring. I had to walk across another boat to get to my own (single moorings are almost impossible to come by in central London these days) so I am able to untie from my neighbour, flip the engine and front light into gear, and head towards the water point at the far end of the park. This stretch is a favourite of mine along the Regents Canal. There’s a real calm to the area – next to the hustle and bustle of Bethnal Green. I arrive at the water point in just under thirty minutes. My luck holds as no one else is using the service mooring. This is a benefit of cruising in the dark during the working week, as weekends can see up to five or six boats waiting to replenish their water tanks, with each boat taking up to an hour fill. Hose in place, I scurry around, taking care of my rubbish and recycling – an ongoing issue along the canals that I will address in a later blog. I stick the kettle on as I wait, and pop back out to open the lock in front of me (a lock is a device for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water at different levels). These can be tricky to navigate when cruising solo as there are heavy gates that need opening and closing so preparing beforehand is a real time saver. Tank filled, I’m all done and now faced with two tricky tasks to navigate, even in daytime never, mind at night: turning my 70ft narrowboat into a low, short tunnel going under a footbridge with heavy footfall to the park and finding a mooring spot along the Hertford Cut.

Random gusts of wind and a sudden, heavy downpour mean I have to line up my approach to the tunnel a few times but it’s only another 45 minutes until I’ve safely double-moored on the outside of another narrowboat. I’ve had some decent luck this evening as sometimes it can take an hour or more to find a spot and would have meant passing through several more locks. All-in-all, it’s been a smooth cruise and taken just under two and a half hours. 

Many people speak of that satisfied feeling when they open a full fridge or clamber into an already warmed bed. I can tell you, though, there aren’t many better feelings for a boater than placing your wet shoes in front of the fire, falling on the couch, and knowing that you’ve got a water tank filled to the brim and you’re safely tied to a mooring spot. Those dishes can wait another day.

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