Wednesday, 31 July 2013


I wrote this for the canal press last year. It was edited down to about 300/400 words. This is the full 1500 words article.

On being alone

People come to the canal for a variety of reasons. Some, like me, come on their own whilst others come to enjoy life on the water with a husband, wife or partner. A wonderful life is to be had together enjoying all that the waterways have to offer.

Husband/wife/partner teams tend to have their own particular jobs on the boat, which are normally based on gender stereotypes. The men tend do the mechanical stuff like steering and fixing the ‘complex’ machinery that is a narrowboat. The women do the hard work like lock wheeling, bridge lifting and cooking although I have observed a few notable exceptions.

The ‘dominant’ partner usually, but not always, male, spends his life steering the boat and complaining that his female partner is not doing it right, whatever it is she is doing. He also doubles up as stern end ballast. For some this works wonderfully well and life on the canal is idyllic.

Life on the canal putters along. The trials and tribulations of every day life on dry land are exchanged for a different set of trials and tribulations on the water but overall life seems to have more meaning.

Then one day the idyll is upset and a set of trials and tribulations, very common on dry land, rears its ugly head. Neither people nor relationships last forever as much as we would want it to be otherwise love can grow cold, as do the deceased.

What happens next depends almost entirely on who is left. If it is the chap that survives, if he chooses to stay on the boat, he will probably muddle through; albeit with a rather drastic change in his diet, but little else. There won’t be anybody to shout orders at any more and eventually he becomes less ballast-like and a little more svelte; exercise does that to people. The boat will be run in much the same way as before (single handing can be as quick as with crewed boating apart from only one does all the work) and life goes on! Greater periods of time may be devoted to sport.

But what happens when the ‘boating’ partner, the steersman/mechanic leaves or shuffles off this mortal coil? The sudden impact of the aloneness of the single boater hits home and the realisation that plans for this eventuality were never ‘planned’ and this weighs heavy on the day to day running of a narrowboat.

Last year two members of the boating community here at Thrupp prematurely became solo boaters. Mel, of nbMerlin, was abandoned by her partner Debs after four years of sharing her 57 ft Liverpool boat. Gilly and Ian had been together for fifteen years, the last five of which were on the water, aboard nbStrumpet. Their boat was yet another Liverpool creation. Ian, 493/4, had been ill on and off for some time, but nothing can prepare a girl for the moment when the doctor says, “I’m very sorry, there is nothing else I can do.”

Fortunately for Mel she owned the boat outright so when her partner left she left with only her belongings, but Debs being ex-military had always dealt with the boating. Mel is a professional gardener. Mechanical things such as chainsaws, mowers were within her comfort zone; driving a 15-ton boat was not. Whilst recovering from the effects of a broken relationship Mel had to come to terms with the fact that the ‘captain’ of the ship was now herself and she need to learn quickly in order to maintain water supplies and discharge waste; etc jobs that her partner Deb has always done, as well as steer the boat.

Like Mel, Gilly owned the boat outright, but not being married could have made things difficult had they both not got their affairs in order. Wills are very important. What you want to happen takes second place to what the law says should happen if you don’t get it written down.

Gilly had the added disadvantage that Ian was a superb cook and the kitchen was also his domain. As good fortune would have it both Ian and Gilly had worked for Oxfordshire Narrowboats for three seasons. If you work for a boat yard basic boating skills are a necessity, so moving a boat reversing and turning were accomplishments that Gilly already possessed. Not so for Mel who had always been a lock wheeler.

It was the engine that scared Gilly, “The engine was a big bluey blocky thingy in a black hole at the back of the boat under the deck plates.” It went chugga chugga chug and the boat moved, apart from one time it just went pfffffttt and ……. nothing, soon after Ian’s demise. Panic!

Mel knew where the engine was. In fact she did the oil changes, but she didn’t have the advantage of any time at the boatyard and was completely lacking in all skills related to moving the boat and single-handing. I think the best thing would have been to take the boat to the top end of the Oxford Canal and then return. By the time she got back there would have been few things basic Mel didn’t know and her confidence would have soared, but Mel isn’t that kind of girl and with a job and commitments to hold down not everyone has the time for that. Many members of the local boating community were able to help by explaining things and taking her out on the canal, helping with advice on locking single handed, turning and general boat handling (or generally being there for moral support). Whilst this is a good thing it takes longer than a round trip.

Mel’s partner Debs packed her things and left so life aboard was automatically tidy. All Mel had to do was tidy up her emotions. Not so with Gilly. Soon after Ian’s demise Gilly set to de-cluttering the boat. Ian was a collector of ‘stuff’. Odd bits of wood that‘might come in handy’; the odd pole, broom handle odd shelves and such like. His tool kit was legend, six toolboxes (although whether any of it was useful was a mystery). He also collected hats. He had dozens of hats and it all had to go! His ukulele was re-homed aboard the Good Ship Bones. And even Mel helped distributing his clothes amongst the local charity shops. By this time Mel was gaining in confidence and occasionally ventured out in convoy with others along the canal.

Previously Mel was always expected to put her things away to keep the boat tidy. Her art materials were stored out of sight and into disuse. Now finally she was allowed to leave her stuff out instead of having to put it away every night. If she chose she could make a mess and no one would complain. She began enjoying a different life.

So there are two people who have dealt with the problem of personal loss. Mel has just set of on her longest journey yet for a week’s holiday with her new partner Jan. She is now tutoring Jan. Neither Gilly nor Mel has ever thought about giving up their boats. The draw of the water is compelling; they both have good memories here on the cut.

But what would you do? What plans have you and your partner made should one or the other of you be left alone? It happens to us all and it is our responsibility to make sure our loved ones know how the whole boat works from the kitchen and a good diet, all the way back to the engine!. Mel and Gilly never expected it to happen to them so soon. Ian was not quite 50 when he died. Mel was 40 when Debs suddenly left.

Unfortunately sexism on the canal means that it is often the male, or dominant partner, that does the steering and maintenance work on a narrowboat. I wonder how many of you ladies are proficient at steering the boat? If you partner has to be airlifted off the canal could you move you boat to a more accessible location on your own? While you were visiting the hospital everyday would you know when to run the engine? How often? How long for? Do you have a log of what work needs to be carried on the engine? When will the oil need changing? What about replacing oil and fuel filters, fan belts etc? Is there any outstanding work required that would need attention soon? These are all questions you as a survivor need to ask. Boating isn’t just about enjoying the countryside; sharing all of the duties of boating is not only fundamental but it should be great fun too.


Jaqueline Biggs said...

Excellent article Maffi. Succint and thorough. Well said and thank you for posting this.

Jo (Boatwoman) said...

As Jaqueline say and excellent posting and I completely agree. You have to think ahead. Yes I do the locks, but I have also learnt everything about the boat, steering included. I can sort the engine out, know how to check the gearbox, plumbing etc etc, so if the worst should ever happen, Keith knows I will be able to cope, as will he if I go first. Sadly we see it all to often that the partner of the skipper knows nothing about steering or how the boat works. I know I would be able to muddle through. From a woman's point of view all women all women should at least learn the basics.
Great posting xx

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