Zen and the art of canal boating

Learnings come in the strangest places. For me this summer, it was while standing at the helm of a 72 foot canal boat on the Kennet & Avon Canal in the Cotswolds, while executing a 180° turn in a stretch of water barely wider than the boat. How did I come to be there? Some months earlier, I had spun a few anecdotes at a family dinner party about my annual barge trip with old college mates. “Why don’t we do that?  It would be such fun!” was the unexpected reaction from my wife. And before I knew it, I’d agreed to ‘skipper’ a canal boating weekend for two families, including 7 children aged 6-16.

As the family trip approached, I felt the pressure rising. Although I claim seven years experience of canal boating, in truth it has been one experience repeated seven times. Instead of descending the learning curve and becoming experts, my old college crew has become ever less ambitious as the best way to avoid calamity. Sometimes we simply moor up a mile from the boathouse and devote the weekend to playing fiendishly competitive games of Monopoly and Risk. We defer all important decisions to the only competent member of our party, who is an ex Army officer. ‘Prior preparation and planning prevents piss poor performance’ is the British Army mantra (The 7 ‘P’s) that we love to quote at him, usually ironically after yet another disaster has befallen us. Over the years, there have been many: running out of water, electricity, a crewmember overboard, losing valuables and worst of all, a rope caught in the propeller that we had to cut away, fibre by fibre, with toe nail scissors.

Steering the boat is not the problem – I can generally manage that ok, provided there are not too many sharp bends or fallen trees. It’s more about the many obstacles along the way – the locks and swing bridges that must be opened and closed as we cruise along at an average speed of 3m.p.h. Although they have strong commonalities, e.g. the overall design concept and the need to use a ‘windlass’, no two locks are identical. They have been built and lovingly restored over several hundred years, since the dawn of the industrial revolution. There is no technical manual; you have to work it out as you go.

Negotiating a canal lock requires quick decision making: where you moor the vessel, who will jump off to open the lock, whether there are boats coming in the opposite direction who will want to go through the lock before you, or boats coming from behind you who will want to share the lock with you, deciding where to pick up the members of your party who have disembarked and remembering to do so. There is a lot to get right, and by the same token, a lot to get wrong.

As we set off on our journey, there were two things that worried me. Firstly, the kids were everywhere except in the boat. If they weren’t standing or sunbathing on the roof, they were perched on the edge with legs dangling over the side. Countless warnings had zero effect. As a communication and engagement professional, I naturally felt that I could and should do better. Finally I hit on the solution. I invited each child to have a turn at driving the boat under my supervision. The effect was immediate and dramatic. When the kids realised how difficult it was to steer when you can’t see and you are worried that people will get injured, they changed their behaviour. But they had to experience it for themselves to understand why what they were doing was so dangerous.

The second cause of anxiety was the challenge of performing a U-turn. This is no easy task when your boat is longer than the canal is wide. I had never done it before and to be honest, I was dreading it. Places where you can turn your boat around are called ‘winding holes’, because in the days when barges were towed by shire horses, you had to rely upon the wind to turn you around. You have to be sure where they are. If you miss your chance to turn, there may not be another opportunity for miles – which could add a whole extra day to your journey.

I picked a location where there were two winding holes on either side of a bridge. To save time, and as a fail-safe, I decided to attempt the first of them. I have spent enough time around project managers to know that when you need to get something right, you have to plan and rehearse. Rather than attempt the difficult manoeuvre at the end of the day when we were all tired, we moored up short of the winding hole and before dinner, I went ahead on foot to reconnoitre a plan for the morning.

I found the spot easily and spent some time studying the layout, visualising how I would steer the boat, the point where I would need to start turning and a spot on the opposite side of the canal that I would head towards.

That night I slept uneasily and woke with the birds. My first thought was about turning the boat. I decided to take another look to check my orientation points and make sure that no other boats had moored up where I planned to turn. It was fortunate that I did so. As I surveyed the scene once more, I struck up a conversation with an old bargee, a twinkly eyed wise man of the river enjoying his first brew of the day. “You’ll never turn a boat that size here,” he told me, chewing on his pipe stem and blowing a perfect smoke ring, “You’ll end up going over the weir.”  Now that he mentioned it, there were some rather obvious ‘beware of currents’ signs here and there. But I had ignored them because the map said that this was the right place to turn. “You need to go past yonder bridge to the far winding hole. Point your nose into the bulrushes and swing the tiller hard right, she’ll soon come round, mark my words!” (OK, maybe he didn’t speak quite like that, but you get the idea.)

As I stood at the stern, my hand on the tiller, executing a perfect 180° turn, I reflected on how wonderful it feels to take on a new challenge and perform it successfully.  And when conducting ‘prior preparation and planning’, I learned why you cannot always trust in the map and why it helps to talk to someone who has actually done it before! As the kids had already proven, there is no substitute for personal experience when it comes to learning.

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As many of you will know we usually hold an annual in-person PurpleBeach Experience, but as that’s not possible this year, we have decided to create our very own Boxset around the theme of “new”.

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