The Long Road – Part II Day 1

hydraulic wind-up
each foot raised so purposefully
a watery leg-up
one bloke with a windlass and
twelve tons of boat climb a hill


The Eileen is on the move, Part II of the Long Road begins…

The engine’s sounding different, but well. I think it’s going to be OK.

A tight reverse haul, out of Kaye’s Arm, and onto the Grand Union, then right, in front of The Blue Lias pub garden, under Blue Lias Road Bridge, and there rising ahead of me the Stockton flight of eight wide locks.

Solo boating and wide locks (ie. twice the width of the boat so that two narrow boats can be accommodated at any one time) isn’t easy. It requires concentration and a little preparatory thinking about how and when and where to get on and off the boat to manage the locks.

If you’re lucky you coincide with another boat and the lock-work reduces by half (sometimes!). But that wasn’t the case today, and I solo-ed from bottom to top.

The lock procedure goes something like this:

  1. Temporarily tie the boat by just the centre rope  to one of the concrete mooring bollards on the bank below the lock. The Eileen has three main ropes bow, stern & centre. Most of my lock-working relies heavily on use of the centre rope.
  2. Once secure, climb off, ensuring you take a metal lock key or windlass.
  3. Walk up to lockside and assess the situation. How much water’s in the lock chamber? Are there any other boat’s around that might affect decision-making eg. could a descending boat make use of the water in the lock as you empty it? If there are no other boats close, and once you’ve checked that the ‘head’ gates and sluices are closed, lower the water level in the lock chamber using the windlass to turn the ‘tail’ sluice mechanism. In the case of Stockton Locks there are large hydraulic mechanisms, it take 20+ rotations to open the sluice.
  4. Once the level of the water inside the lock chamber is exactly equal to the water level outside the gates, the gates will be able to be pushed open. When solo-boating I only work one side of the lock and so only open one gate. This all takes time and patience and really can’t be rushed, there’s little point in trying to force a gate open given there’s often umpteen tons of water holding it in situ until the water levels are exactly equal.
  5. With one gate fully open, return to the boat.
  6. Gently push the bow of the boat out and away from the temporary mooring.
  7. Untie the centre rope.
  8. Climb aboard leaving the centre rope and windlass in an accessible position on the cabin top.It’s increasingly my aim to try and achieve a leisurely even nonchalant gait throughout, no rushing about in a lather, there’s often an audience (the gongozzlers) and inevitably they’ll be there in force if you should cock things up by rushing!
  9. Manoeuver the boat gently towards the open gate. No rush. Slow forward.
  10. Midway through the gated in the ‘throat’ of the lock I tend to engage reverse gear to reduce the forward momentum the boat.
  11. As the boat slows I remove the large timber elum from the rudder stock and lie it on the back deck (its vulnerable, even dangerous in a lock and can easily become caught on the lock wall and damaged or be swung around by the force of in-rushing water).
  12. As the boat slows still further put into neutral and climb onto the cabin roof.
  13. Throw one end of the centre rope and windlass onto the lockside.
  14. Either climb out, or use the lock ladder, to get off the cabin roof and onto the lockside.
  15. Tie off the centre rope on an available bollard. On this flight, usefully, there are concrete ‘mushroom’ bollards at the mid-point.
  16. Once the boat is secure and fully under control, walk back to the open ‘tail’ gate and pull shut.
  17. Wind down the hydraulic mechanism to close the sluice.
  18. Walk forward along the length of the lock chamber to the upper or ‘head’ gates.
  19. Glance back to the boat to check its secure. Only once you’re absolutely happy that all’s well, begin to slowly turn the hydraulic mechanism on the ‘head’ gate using the windlass. A rod rises out of the top of the paddle mechanism to show you how far the lock sluice has opened.
  20. Keep a close eye on the boat at all times. How’s it being affected by the inrush of water? Stop winding if necessary and review. If all’s well fully open the sluice.
  21. When solo boating I tend to reduce the amount of racing about criss-crossing the lock ‘head’ and ‘tail’ by only working one side. With large sluices the locks fill rapidly anyway.Once the initial violent rush of incoming water abates it’s possible to evaluate the situation regarding the next lock. Often in a flight with only a short pound between one lock and the next it’s possible, if no other boats are around, to walk up and ‘set’ (Actions 3-7) the next lock ready to receive the boat once the ‘locking-through’ is completed.

    To complete ‘locking through’:

  22. Once the level of the water in the lock chamber has risen sufficiently to equal the level of water in the pound the gates will be able to be pushed open. Again I use only one of the two ‘head’ gates to exit the lock.
  23. Untie the centre rope. Coil it back neatly on the cabin roof in readiness for the next lock.
  24. Place the windlass beside the rope.
  25. Return to the back deck and lift the wooden alum back into the rudder stock.
  26. Push into forward gear and leave the lock.Oh, and then there’s the whole procedure for closing the gate behind you, but as I’m up to 26+ actions already perhaps that’s enough for now!

And that’s all there is to it!?!

Today those 26 actions were repeated, with minor variations, eight times. Happily, you soon get into a routine. The time passes quickly. Heck, it’s enjoyable focusing on staying unhurried – ‘slow’ locking you might say!

It can be a temptation to rush, to force gates open, to race this way and that and tie yourself in knots. But that’s missing the point of boating. Be efficient, certainly, but also savour the time, stay slow, stay relaxed, this is a world at walking pace and there’s no harm in that. Listen for birdsong. Spot the butterflies. Put the kettle on. Remember life’s grand!

It took me about two hours to achieve the eight locks. It was blistering hot work. I moored up after Birdingbury Wharf tempted by the tantalising prospect of an ice cold lager shady at The Boat Inn. Happy Summer!


NB. Health Warning: the description above is not meant – in any way at all – to be a complete set of instructions for a first-timer. Locks are not to be messed with, and inexperienced boaters should take their time and find out what works for them. All boaters, over time, find their own routines, their own ways of working locks that are successful and safe for them. Much of it will depend on knowing your boat and crew and what they can and can’t do. I’m simply sharing the way I do it when working solo, and I can almost hear the sharp intakes of breath, the tut-tutting and the shaking of disbelieving heads from experienced boaters – what the hell does he do it like that for?!? 

    1. Nick Holt

      Cheers Graham, always good to hear from you. I hope your Summer’s going better than ours so far! Still, I’m trying to remain ever optimistic, and with the kids now on holiday, it really is time to get to that boat!

      best wishes

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