not on my life…

dawncraft chronicles

not on my life

OK we are getting the idea that although I have an unswerving passion (that some would consider obsession) with all things boats, it is not one necessarily shared by family members – or at least to the same extent.

So, I find myself often than not single handed. Suits me. However, a couple of instances have happened over the last few years to make me realise that am not getting any younger and the canals were perhaps not designed for such solo adventures.

Who thought of putting bridges by locks - meaning I can’t pull my boat in to an empty one with out risking a 15 foot climb up a vertical slimy ladder? As for the swing bridge above Seend where one landing stage is on one side and the other the opposite side of the bank, it sends me into torrents every time I have to a figure a way of half opening it, pulling the boat through, clambering over everything and then tugging it shut with a lump of rope.

The most sobering realisation was a winter visit to drained lock 18 – that’s deep, properly deep. Ok not as deep as Bath but when you are standing in the bottom looking through the sluices one realises that a simple slip and 'wifey' is off cruising the south of France on the insurance money.

The first real wake up call was New Year’s Eve 2015. I had been working all day and popped across to the boat. Unbeknown to me the neighbouring boat had thoughtfully tied his centre line to the cleat my side – being black I didn’t see it – all I remember was falling head first through thin ice into freezing water and the sensation that my head was being crushed by cold.

I have done enough dinghy sailing to know how quickly one loses strength, my one and only attempt to haul my carcass up onto the jetty failed. Dawn Treader (DT) sat there bobbing about but no way could I get up her vertical sides. My only option was to swim 50 yards to where I knew I could get out. It was only the air trapped in my jacket that possibly kept me afloat.

Straight into the shower fully clothed and 10 minutes standing by the heater drinking hot coffee, but it got me thinking.

There are four life jackets on board, why don’t I keep one in the car? Am I worried I will look silly? It’s a canal but a man can drown in 2 inches of water. These are proper life jackets which make sure I float face up wards even if I was unconscious which was possibly only inches away.

Secondly, I have a perfectly good boarding ladder at the stern which I don’t leave on all the time as I was worried that someone might steal it – one padlock later it is now a permanent feature. This would have saved breast stroking through the ice, but then on the plus side I was proud of my old ticker which could quite easily have said enough is enough and given up with the shock!

I was always taught that the best solution to a man overboard situation was to stop the person going over in the first place. I grew up in a regime where a deck harness was worn the moment the ensign was lowered (those bright red flags you see on the back of some cruisers come with more rules of etiquette than the average garden party).

Indeed, most sail training vessels had wire stretched down each side that we clipped ourselves to whilst going about our numerous and varied duties on a wet slippery deck. How often have I nimbly slid along my deck sides completely unattached relying on a hand rail that was screwed in with Number 8 wood screws in 1972 – apart from its not any more its bolted through with M8 stainless bolts and washers because it did almost come adrift with me attached. Remembering that what may seem secure with a gentle pull may not hold out with the snatch weight of an 11 ½ stone man.

Life jackets were also de rigueur in my youth and had whistles attached and I am pretty sure that most people on the canal would come and see what the heck the noise was about should I decide to blow one in an emergency. My desire to escape modern life has lead me to the conclusion that on some stretches of the canal I am really on my own.

Actually, Dawn Treader is a death trap. It has a wonderful aluminium framed wheel house and rear canopy but narrow roll up flaps and a high cockpit combing to clamber out – you then must negotiate the outside of the wheel house on a 3½ in deck before reaching the safety of the handrails. In the summer time great - with the canopy down you can easily step aboard. In the winter lethal!

So where is this all leading? Well I have taken the decision that despite the risk of strange looks DT is being rigged for Atlantic crossing.

  • Two old rigging lines are being attached securely allowing me to remain clipped on via a deck harness right up to the bow.
  • Extra hand holds all round the cockpit, (these don’t have to be fancy, loops of rope are ideal cheap and easy to move about) and a life jacket's worn the moment I leave the wheel house.
  • All mooring lines are long enough to reach from the bow back to the wheel house on both sides, so I no longer have to clamber about on deck.
  • In the advent of an emergency a folding grappling anchor kept by the helm that can be lobbed at anything secured or growing to the bank when I need to stop in a hurry- such as meeting a wide beam coming through the bridge at Martin Slade.

Which leads onto how to negotiate an empty lock with a bridge meaning I can’t pull the boat in safely via ropes and must use the lock ladder. Usually I clamber up holding the bow and stern line in one hand and windless in my belt -which when you see it written down is an accident waiting to happen. What usually occurs is the boat floats off by itself pulling hard on one or the other rope leaving me gripping the ladder for dear life whilst risking having my shoulder dislocated. What we need to do is attach the mooring lines to a lighter heaving line with a monkey’s fist knot which is very nautical looking, whereas half a house brick would also do if you could risk the damage it did if it came back down. It just needs to be something that will carry the lighter line when thrown.

Here’s a tip: don’t bother looking at the knot book to tie a monkeys fist, I am sure some of these books are written by people who enjoy the thought of us getting into a tangle and not achieving our aim. You tube is very instructive, and you can pause it.

One wet Sunday afternoon and we have 3 monkey fists, I used golf balls from a charity shop as the centre that I can throw twice as far as my heavy mooring lines. The same deck harness can be attached to the ladder high up reducing the risk of me disappearing between the lock side and the boat.

So, does it all work! Well yes, apart from almost taking out a bystander with my new heaving line standing by the lock – though they did pull up the mooring line and secure it for me, the rope handles were inspirational and a few more have appeared. The deck harness is great for also attaching the windless to and my life jacket makes a better body warmer than anything from a sailing boutique.

But more importantly I am sitting here writing this and you never know what can happen next. Lastly and I don’t want to sound a kill joy boating is supposed to be fun but don’t ever try any of this with a few wets in you. I like a Beer or two as much as any man- once the boat is secure and I have finished the day. I have seen a few deaths on the river Avon all attributed to drink.

rubber matting on pontoon     

1. Not the easiest exit to negotiate in a hurry with the canopy up 

2. Rope loops - cheap, simple and highly effective and can be moved about

safety wire rail on dawncraft cruiser     Simon Woollen making monkey fists for Dawn Treader

3. critical missing 3-foot gap between hand rails, now with wire safety rope 

4. Monkey fist made on a simple jig – washing line is great. It's hard wearing and cheap as chips – you can also cheat and run a lighter over it making sure it never slips!! I found the long nose pliers invaluable for tightening up. Play – people don’t play enough life is all taken too seriously. My first attempt was awful these are 3rd or fourth ones 

folding anchor, chain & rope    harness and life jacket

5. Emergency stop mechanism – just a simple folding grapnel anchor doesn’t really need the chain but effective. Keep it in the cockpit ready.

6. Harness and life jacket- it just adds a little extra support and stops me from over balancing .If I have to leave the cockpit single handed its usually in a hurry and for the wrong reasons.