Monday, 31 August 2009

Enjoyed the National Festival; not fired up though

The amount of time and effort put in by volunteers is staggering, as is the amount of commerce driven by prospective boat buyers, ale drinkers, consumable seekers, pie and pastie eaters. You get to see owls (essential elements for waterways restoration, Aickman insisted), the fire brigade cutting open a small car and paratroopers. If you slope off to the fringes of the show, you discover a small bit of water - the Soar - and a few boats.

Criticism of the efforts and dedication is not on, and it probably rakes in shedloads of money for the IWA and twenty other societies and campaigns, but it all feels like the circus it has become.

I'm not one of the in crowd, but I suspect that the National is most probably hugely important as a social event for those who are. The waterways community is a tight-knit one and the summer series of rallys and shows strengthens the community.

But in 2009, there looms in the background - like eight gargantuan power station cooling towers - the threat of dramatic cuts in funding for all government departments for many years to come. BW, the EA, county councils and local councils are going to be holding much smaller purses. Canals and waterways - especially of the softer, cuddlier 'partnership' variety - are almost bound to be be very low down the priority list. Look at how DEFRA managed to repay the farmers fiasco from other DEFRA obligations.

I enjoyed myself at the IWA National Festival, but as I sat in the queue to get on the M1 at 5.30, I wondered if those early Nationals were 'enjoyable'. Surely, as well as the enjoyment, I should have been stirred, outraged, fired up and energised?

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Norfolk Wherries - on Flickr

Are The Broads less friendly than the canal network?

Stupid question, of course, because everyone will have different experiences.

We found many stern 'No Mooring' warnings on the banks of The Broads. That may just be a reflection of the more general 'moor anywhere' attitude in Norfolk though.

We found there to be far fewer moorings close to key places - such as Horning - but maybe offset by more non-village staithes. There was a mixture of very pleasant boaters and very arrogant boaters: same everywhere I suppose. The most arrogant were always, always, always in the biggest boats.

At The Swan Inn, after spending maybe 25 quid at this pub we stopped briefly in our little day boat - no more than 4 minutes to pick up something we had left in the car. While we were gone, the man employed by the pub started having a go at my teenage children who were left on board. He wanted them to move the boat immediately because there was a bigger boat that wanted to use the mooring. The fact that it had plenty of space to moor forward of us was immaterial to both the boaters and this idiot - they just wanted 'our space'. He just bullied our children while the 'big boat' family looked on. You bunch of cowards.

He disappeared before my wife and I returned. Shocking behaviour, and fairly disgraceful intimidating attitude from the big boat (know the name, tempted to name them bu won't). We were in the little day hire boat.

We had looked at booking to stay at The Swan Inn for a long weekend in October; decided against it. Would rather patronise somewhere more friendly.

At the public staithe, also in Horning, we asked to raft up alongside a bigger boat. "We'd rather you didn't," came the disdainful response from the flying bridge. We had fenders, they had fenders. We shrugged our shoulders.

"How's about I come down from the Midlands in 15.6 tonnes of steel narrowboat and provide you with the luxury of two can call them Bow and Stern?" I am thinking, but I smile through gritted teeth.

The jury is out on the friendliness issue: it always will be. Bet there are plenty of Norfolk-big-white-plastic-boat-with-blue-cushion-covers who make it onto the GU near Northampton and recoil in horror from the inconsiderate behaviour of narrowboaters. I understand that The Broads sailing community call the GRP boats "stinks": It is, however, supposed to refer to the boat, not the crew.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

The mix of sail and power

It occurred to me that the Norfolk Broads is one of the few inland waterways where sail and power are regularly in the same space at the same time. It can and does happen occasionally elsewhere, such as the vicinity of sailing clubs on various rivers - notably, for me, at Trent Lock. However, you can and do meet substantial yachts - some of them pleasure wherries - under sail in the confines of a river. Fine for both parties under certain states of sail but when running or most states of reaching in a narrow stretch, the yacht has a boom out and that can dramatically increase the space of the 'envelope' needed to operate (whichever side the boom is on). When running close hauled, the sail boat needs to tack constantly and that can be utterly confusing for an oncoming stag-weekend party of boozed up lads. When mooring, it can be more tricky with a strong preference to avoid the lee bank.

Surprising then that we were never given any warning about sail boats and protocol before hiring a day boat from a yard in Horning, and the motor-boaters we met had also been given no real advice. These boaters also had absolutely no idea how yachts or dinghies worked, so were oblivious to the potential mishaps. Having said that, you rarely hear of any significant problems so maybe it all works out OK through common-sense.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Too much wind

It is frustrating to turn up at Hunters Yard in Ludham to find that there is just too much wind for us to sail Sundew, the Waveney One Design half-decker. It was like an end-of-summer day out for us all, but it was a wise decision. We have never sailed anything like it and although ae confident, it's simply not worth taking risks with your own safety, the safety of others and potential damage to valuable, classic boats.

We hung around hoping that the wind would drop a bit - it was gusting to about 26 knots - by walking around Ludham Marshes alongside Womack Water to the Thurne but, it was clear that the wind was picking up. We watched one experienced sailor struggle with a cabin yacht. It was an emotion of mixed envy, admiration and relief: it really was blowing and the sail was reefed in, but he was still heeling. It was going to be a day of constant sail trimming, all hands ot halyards and sheets with possibly not a moment's relaxation to enjoy the beautiful landscape.

That landscape is truly magnificent: how on earth does Norfolk get away with it, keeping it all so secret. The Broads has a bit of a reputation for being the place your grandmother would see as slightly dull, but even the first ten minutes revealed that Nelson's county is a fabulous place with just the right mix of classic English landscapes, chocolate-box villages and kiss-me-quick chavs on a weekend bender. All life seems to be here.

It's a bad sign when you start noting down the houses for sale. Time to go home.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Mike Perham - huge star

Fantastic to see Mike Perham complete his single-handed round-the-world voyage when his boat passed the Lizard at 09.55 this morning.

This is a quite staggering achievement for anyone, let alone a 17 year old. At a time when we only hear about the bad things teenagers do, his achievements are a huge boost.

Makes ya proud to be British, eh?

Mike is raising money for Save the Children and the Tall Ships Trust: the fund-rasing for charity hasn't been going as well as the sailing so a little bit of help might be needed.

Has The Waterways Trust lost its way on purpose? Or by accident?

I would dearly love to see more money invested in the conservation, preservation and restoration of boats. I have long felt that too much is spent on adding more restored mileage to the canal system while the architecture, engineering works, boats and equipment fades into dust and mildew.

But will I give money to the new Waterways Trust Supporters Scheme? No.


No. The Waterways Trust lacks focus, lacks imagination, lacks a vision, trys to be the jack of all trades and is, unsurprisingly, master of none. I have no idea what the purpose of the Waterways Trust is. And that's after reading about it again on their website.

Over the last few years I have watched from the touchlines as many have expressed their anger at the inability of the Waterways Trust to adequately look after boats and equipment in its care.

We all appreciate that the Waterways Trust is in an uneviable position, but the reality is that their campaigns have been solely based upon the precept that supporters should just give money and let the Waterways Trust campaign with that money. There is little real attempt at society 'democracy' or transparency, so it is little wonder that so many are reluctant to give much - other than the entry fee at a museum. Currently, the Waterways Trust seems to function primarily as a clearing house for donations. The idea is that I donate and then the Trust decides where that money should go. How's about I give the money directly to the Cotswold restoration project, the Droitwich or the councils alongside the River Soar instead? Meanwhile - wake up guys!! -your museum collection is falling to pieces!!

Part of the problem is that The Waterways Trust probably believes its own press: lots of warm cuddly talk about 'partnership' but what does that mean? The Waterways Trust needs to sit down and decide what it is doing. They need focus, and that should, surely, be on the boats, equipment and engineering. That collection and the associated collected knowledge and skills of staff and volunteers is just too valuable to lose. Bluntly, the skills that they can contribute to the restoration of canals are probably only really valuable to those schemes because they are cheaper than the same skills provided by environmental and engineering consultancies. This means, in effect, that anyone donating to the Waterways Trust is simply subsidising those restoration schemes indirectly. It's not a sustainable business model.

The Trust should stop being a partnership. Period.
  • Start being a society devoted to the management, preservation, conservation and restoration of the boats, equipment and engineering of Britain's waterways.
  • Start fund-raising based on a strategy of educating and interpreting this
  • Leave restoration to the restoration societies.
  • Open up so that people can see, clearly, what the Waterways Trust 'is'
  • Make membership something worth having and doing.
  • If necessary, provide some boats, equipment and artefacts to museums around the country so that members living a long way from one of the museums can join in or contribute more locally.
  • Develop sponsorship packages to encourage and realise corporate financial contributions
  • Stop putting out corporate rubbish press releases - it makes you look even more ridiculous
  • Redevelop interpretation and displays to improve accessibility to all (too much at Stoke Bruerne is aimed, for example, at an 11 year old)
  • Develop commercial plans to exploit the collection (as government money is going to be even more limited in years to come)
  • Actively encourage volunteers to contribute, not just as cash donors but as involved, active participants
Simples, as that irritating little Russian meerkat says.


My biggest fear is the batteries running out and being unable to start the boat.

Well, obviously it's not my biggest fear. A hailstorm of nuclear missiles raining down on eastern Hertfordshire, leaving the world in a smouldering ruin and civilization completely extinct, would also ruin my day. But boat batteries come second.

I'm going to get some of those SmartGauge and SmartBank systems fitted and hopefully PV panels to trickle charge as well. But....oh the cost....

Why do museums waste money on digital interpretation?

They never work for long. They are usually designed by people who know only how to dumb it all down to the level a retarded newt could understand, so missing the level of enquiry of most of us.
Shocking amounts of public money go into digital interpretation and the lengthy conferences in Sao Paolo or Brisbane that the planning of digital heritage manegement requires. Within a matter of months, half the screens will be broken or visitors will see blue error screens.

But what's the point? We visited the Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games in Olympia last month. The museum is great, but I have clearly donated substantial sums of money to allow an EU-funded "Digital Exhibition" compete with an expensive 4-colour glossy brochure all about it.
Aren't they aware of the irony of this. If you can't adequately deliver information about the exhibition digitally and have to print a brochure, then doesn't that sort of prove that people are more comfortbale with 'solid'content?

Nearby, further south, the Messinia district and Kalamata city have equally spent copious amounts of EU cash on the 'Cultural Route of the Olive Tree' which seems to mainly consist of a hugely expensive flashy website and almost nothing.....nothing....of any kind of consequence. Even the 'olive shop' on the website isn't actually an online shop. An eight year old kid in his pyjamas can open an online shop, but not the gurus behind the expensive Route of the Olive.

I would be the very first in line to vote for anyone prepared to increase funding for heritage, but the disgusting waste of spend on short-term fluff - like digital interpretation - is truly appalling. The lack of any kind of accountability in this sector is disgraceful.

If I want a digital experience, I will buy a DVD or watch TV or go on the internet, yet none of this is available for the digital content of either the Museum of the History of the Olympics (which doesn't even have a web site, for goodness' sake!) or the Route of the Olives. Typical, eh?

Monday, 24 August 2009

Sailing a classic dinghy

We have booked a day on a classic dinghy in The Broads. I'm just want to do it. It's my mid-life Swallows and Amazons thing, apparently. We will be taking out a Waveney Class boat, 20' of solid wood and rope and gunter-rigged sail.

I am nervous about it. How do you tack on a narrow river with hoardes of plastic hire boats all over the place? How can you keep the damn speed down when running on said narrow rivers with a huge sail. I'm already checking the weather forecast with unnatural frequency: it's due to be WSW, 15 knots.

Funnily enough, Griff Rhys-Jones was on The Broads last night in the latest edition of his TV series "River"; wonderfully evocative and he managed to get his boat, a bigger cabin yacht, under Potter Heigham Bridge.

It's a dilemma: I'm nervous but looking forward to it all so much. Just wish it was longer.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Finding dinghies

As born again sailors, we are having difficulty finding somewhere to sail regularly. Sailing even dinghies can become an expensive pasttime, so finding the right venue is important. We don't want to buy a dinghy until we know we are comfortable with a certain class of boat, so we are trying out different boats. This is not as easy as it sounds and we have seen that some club boats are decidedly rough and unloved.

We did look for a long weekend sailing break for the coming Bank Holiday weekend but despite the enormity of the web and subscribing to half-a-dozen magazines it took ages to find places that rent dinghies to visitors. Most clubs hire out boats only to their members and most sailing centres are heavily focused on training courses only. If you want to build hours, you do need to join a club and hire a club boat or buy your own. Eventually we gave up on finding a place to sail as visitors (well almost) and have booked just one day for the weekend in The Broads on a classic Waveney. It really does surprise me how poorly the information is presented on the Web.

By using the RYA website, I discovered Finesse Leisure at Welwyn Garden City. The trick with this database was to ignore anything with the word "Club" in the title, checking only places entitled "Centre". Finesse is the name for what used to be the Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City council leisure services, and their facilities at Stanborough seemed to tick all the boxes....sizable lake, range of boats for hire, public usage at any time, long opening hours and seemingly a professional approach.

I drove over this morning and was really taken with Stanborough, although the lake is smaller than I'd like and there are a lot of anglers who glare at you from the banks. Sailors are advised to stay at least two boat lengths clear of the sides, but even five lengths away they are glaring and making it clear you are entering their territory.

I was able to try out the RS Q'Ba, the slightly quicker RS equivalent of the Laser Pico. It does feel much more flighty than the Pico and more comfortable all round. The wind blows every which way at Stanborough with high trees bending the wind substantially, and the variety was endless: it would be completely still then a southwesterly gust of 15 knots for 20 seconds followed by 10 knots briefly from the southeast. I was learning to read the wind off the surface of the lake.

I'll be back: it's good to see how good a sailing centre can be run.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Wetsuits and thermals

It won't be long before 'sailing in T-shirts' becomes 'sailing in wetsuits' and 'narrowboating in T-shirts' becomes 'narrowboating in oilskins'. Fortunately, Ocean Leisure have a great range of kit and they are just outside a tube station.

Trying out wetsuits is a real workout in its own right, and after trying two steamers I was gasping for fresh air and a drink (Done! Ocean Leisure is just round the corner from the Ship & Shovell in Craven Passage). There were others in the changing rooms trying on wetsuits. Either that or they were having fairly good sex as there was a lot of grunting, gasping and stamping going on behind curtains.

I can't imagine buying things like wetsuits over the internet, and Ocean Leisure also have such really helpful and knowledgable staff.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Up Stockton and on to Calcutt

The problems yesterday have resulted in a roster of roles which is made easier by having two extra pairs of hands. I am in the engine room, and T is skipper, with M and Grandad on locks and Helen managing Sadie, our Springer Spaniel.

T bellows Forward, Reverse or Neutral down through the doorway and I lean into the bilges and change the lever, confirming the change. When in the lock, I take over and manage the engine to keep the boat steady, watching the brickwork through the porthole.

We stop at the Blue Lias for lunch; a surprisingly disappointing time was had by all. the roasts were really very mediocre and the range and quality of the beers was poor. This is a pub that figures in all the beer guides and gets cheerful reviews everywhere, but we were unimpressed. Really unimpressed.

Afterwards, we continued on up the flight, watching for the old derelict buildings and chimneys that are all that remains of the old Southam cement works and quarries. At the top, we congratulate each other, then motor on towards Calcutt.

An hour later and we are turning into the marina, but with a strong westerly still, we miss the entrance first time and have to reverse back for a second attempt. It's the end of this journey and we are all a little disappointed: the trip has been quite difficult although memorable.

3.4 miles, 10 locks

Saturday, 15 August 2009

From bad to worse - past Leamington

The morning is beautiful: cool and fresh and a deep blue sky. We cross the Avon and I wonder again at the majesty of England's rivers. they are not particularly big, but they make up for it with a mixture of lush, verdant beauty and our rich heritage.

Almost immediately we also pass over the railway, and at that instant, a train comes into sight below the aqueduct. I wave and the driver hoots back; T beams from ear to ear.

We pass alpacas in a small field and then attractive apartments and on into a wooded cutting, where a rather disturbed chap shouts wildly at himself, cursing and swearing. We don't seem to care much about looking after those with mental challenges any more: one of the great tragedies of our age - we are happy to pay a few quid to have problems swept under the carpet and out of sight.

T and I are off to the football, so leave the boat with the crew. Within hours, the gearbox connection fails requiring an engineer in the bilges to manually change gear. More frighteningly, just an hour later, the engine stop cable fails as North Star enters a lock and comes to a halt with an almighty crunch. It may technically be enough to move us down into the next licence bracket lower. It is fortuitous that we are on our way to Calcutt Boats, who are the specialists in this engine. Thank Goodness we are not on the Trent or the Severn....or even the Avon, for that matter.

The crew struggle on to Long Itchington where the somewhat deflated football-goers return. It's a sombre night as we realise how much extra work will be required tomorrow to get up the Stockton flight.

7.9 miles, 10 locks

Friday, 14 August 2009

Hatton and beyond

We have a long morning wait for the in-laws to join us, and then our crew is complete.

We had started earlier, descending through the first seven locks with a nice couple, but I could just sense the slight distaste of our somewhat rough and ready approach. Their boat was spotless and shiny and glistening and also could manoeuvre on a sixpence - they had a bow-thruster.

A bow-thruster makes it easier to move around, and at Hatton the overflow weir and the fresh westerly contrives to make it an interesting experience. However, maybe this is unfair of me: they charitably agreed to swap sides to allow us to be on the towpath side. It's complex! I won't go into details, but it's to do with the dog!

But we had to wait longer half way down and they motored on ahead. I think - unspoken - both parties were happy at the parting of ways.

Ninety minutes later we are looking to continue and almost immediately, NB Silver Lady, of Fenny Compton appears out of the lock above and we join forces. They turn out to be kindred spirits. Both parties are the proud owners of two 'not grumpy but not exactly ecstatic' teenagers, aged 16 and 14. We exchange tips about communicating by grunts. The only tension comes when bacon butties appear out of our side hatches. They have neither bacon nor rolls.

The rest of the flight slips by quickly as we lockwheel and chat, leaning on heavy beams, turning windlasses, get brown in the sun and exchange family histories with complete strangers. The canals do that. You either seem to love or hate your fellow boaters.

Hatton leads down into Warwick's Saltisford Arm, but we are thirsty for a pint so continued to the Cape, intent on a decent pint after lunch. In the evening, we moor up at the Tescos on Emscote Road along with two other boats. It isn't my choice and I would have kept going another mile, but the crew all want fish and chips, which are available nearby as well.

During the night, we hear plenty of local youth enjoying themselves loudly and raucously, and I even got up for a while as the voices seemed to be quite close at one point. But nothing happens.

4.2 miles, 23 locks

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Into Warwickshire - and one disaster after another

Yesterday's rain has disappeared completely and we are eager to press on. But the presence of the local BW man's boat at the liftbridge suggests that all is not well there. It seems that the mechanism has failed during the night and the bridge won't lift.

The extremely pleasant Warwickshire countryside appears very quickly and it is a very relaxing journey. Until disaster strikes when Helen falls inti the canal while trying to avoid one of the truly appalling stretches of swampy towpath: there really is no excuse for this state of affairs.
She is pulled out by a passing BW employee who jumps off a tractor and rushes to the bank, while we moor up. It's difficult to moor up quickly on a boat. I had never realised how long it takes.

Twenty minutes later we smell an unhealthy 'hot' smell. Sure enough the water temperature gauge, usually at 140 is now pointing at 220. Not good. We moor up again, but I notice that speeding up reduces the temperature quickly.

I try to release any air from the keel tank but the bolt is just jammed on. No chance of moving it, so I just put 3 litres of water into the tank. Problem solved, but it's not a good sign. Good thing we are on the way to Calcutt Boats who will be having a good look at the engine.

Soon enough, we are at Lapworth Top Lock. Most bizarrely, not one but two houses on the towpath side have "Private - No Mooring" signs prominently displayed. How does that work then? If we weren't running to a schedule, I'd moor up on purpose. It's not private. What's more, you pay absolutely nothing for that position and I do pay to moor up by the towpath.

Despite the number of locks, we just enjoy the descent and in no time we are among the anglers, moored boats, locks and the barrel cottage at the bottom. A man in a blazer and a boater sells us Cornettos and we turn out for the Grand Union. The light is golden and warm: like a field of wheat. It's the light on which childhood memories are filmed on.

We potter on in this glorious evening warmth, and the light goes as we disappear into Shrewley Tunnel. We stop for the night at the top of the Hatton flight.

13.4 miles, 19 locks

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Onto the North Stratford

We leave Bournville and the rather mundane surroundings confirm my thoughts that the Worcester & Birmingham becomes less rural with distance from the city centre. It all becomes very mundane, and at one point we watch as a suspicious and nervous youth hides a bag in the bushes then waits by a footpath? Waits for what? Or whom?

We approach the beautiful Kings Norton Junction where the toll cottage belies the rather dangerous nature of the green surroundings, according to the guidebooks. We turn the sharp angle, noting the profusion of scars on the inner edge of the bridge.

A family sit in the sunshine to watch us turn; fortunately we put on a splendid display, leisurely and effortlessly spinning the boat through 160 degrees. We quickly pass the site of the infamous Factory Lane liftbridge, which Tom Rolt successfully used as a campaign tool to effectively re-open the North Stratford. A grim-faced angler rather spoils the moment for me though. An inglorious angler.

The North Stratford has an utterly different character from the Worcester & Birmingham. It is very narrow, for a start, but more significantly, the North Stratford is never knowingly straight for more than a few metres at a time. Willows, ash and alder push in on boats and heavy shrubbery and reed beds hide small flocks of yet more anglers. Most cheerfully smile, nod or say Hello; a few don't, studiously ignoring you and actively trying not to catch your eye.

Other than two boats belonging to Birmingham University, we have seen no resident boats since leaving Gas Street and even along the Stratford, we don't see many until we reach Lyons Boatyard.

We are aiming for The Drawbridge at Shirley, which we reach just as the heavens open again with a brief but fierce storm. We negotiate the famous lift-bridge and moor up just beyond, where three other boats have also tied up for the night.

10.4 miles, no locks

Bournville - an early experiment in corporate responsibility

In 1879, George Cadbury, a Birmingham industrialist, started to build a chocolate factory in the fields of Edgbaston some miles outside Birmingham. With it, he constructed a model village alongside the Bourn Brook, a trout stream that feeds the Rea nearby.

Cadbury had novel ideas on how his workforce should live, and this was a substantial change from the cramped hovels and tenements where workers generally lived. He built all the facilities, including a wonderful Friends' Hall (he was a Quaker), churches, schools and recreational facilities.

Quite remarkably, most of these buildings survive to this day (including the Bournville Baths, left) and clearly the current owners share the same belief in preserving a neat, tidy and orderly neighbourhood. However, notices on lamp-posts suggest that 21st Century local youths are not as teetotal as their Bournville forefathers.

We wander, under a scorching sun, along the Recreation Ground, across the park and back to the village green. We continue to Cadbury's World. We had expected a factory visitor centre but it is a very grand affair with large numbers of visitors queuing noisily for a timed entry. It will cost more than 40 pounds, and we only wanted a quick visit - 30 minutes maybe. We decide to leave it for another day when we can devote more time to Cadbury's chocolate empire.

South by southwest: to Bournville

Leaving the centre of Birmingham by most canal routes requires a great deal of imagination to envisage the people and history who made this area. But one route has its history and culture remarkably preserved, and it forms one of the most elegant entrances - or exit - for any city in Britain.

The Worcester & Birmingham mixes it up for all types: for the environmnetalists and ecologists there are the leafy glades and sylvan walks for much of the first five miles; for botanists, the Botanical Gardens and unusual trees poking over walls and fences; for railway enthusiasts, the ever-present trains, just feet away; for industrial archaeologists, there is the juxtaposed railway and canal architecture, squeezing through a green artery to the very centre of the city; for architects, the variety of buildings from The Mailbox to Uncle Joe; and for social historians, the world of the Cadburys at Bournville.

Heavy rain delays our departure: it's one thing to crusie in the rain but when we are on a new stretch, we want to be able to see it all. By the time we turn onto the W&B the rain has eased and we plough a lonely furrow through the still black waters. Trees and bushes continue to shed their rainfall. It does all feel so lush and even the moss on grimy walls is glistening brightly.

There are both cyclists and runners constantly. Not joggers. These are runners. You can just tell.

Just an hour or so later, we arrive at Bournville and decide to have a look at Cadbury's World.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Doldrums on the Sea of Chingford

Went along to King George Sailing Club, Saturday afternoon, on King George Reservoir (aka the Sea of Chingford) for their Open Day. Nice selection of club Wayfarers (big, old, heavy, solid, stable), Picos (small, heavy, solid, stable) and a very basic Laser (mediumish, lightish, solidish, stablish...never know where you are with a Laser).

Big reservoir, nice big space of water, panoramic view of Edmonton. No wind. Not a breath.
"We haven't seen this little wind in ten years," the bloke with the beard said and he then gazed into space - well roughly towards Waltham Cross - as if to summons up some mysterious hidden gusts. But no. Nothing.

T wisely chose the Laser which can move if you sneeze into the sail while I got the Pico which is such an unsubtle and lumpy boat, it's probably safer and heavier than an Indonesian car ferry. I moved slowly towards the next jetty, propelled largely by plate tectonics. T had a bit of a sail, but it really was not a sailing day. It was an oohhhh-Norwich-were-bragging-about-bouncing-straight-back-up-day-yet-they-let-7-in-from-those-monsters-of-football-Colchester kind of day.

Anyway..KGSC: nice club, very friendly folk; very tempting. But it's not Cowes, is it? You don't get Chingford Week, do you? But the friendliness and club Lasers probably trumps everything.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Not Stratford, but Warwick

The need to get North Star's engine sorted out means we are having to change our plans and head for Calcutt Boats next week. It really is frustrating to be let down so badly by someone that you have to change holiday plans for the family.

However, Warwick should be as interesting as Stratford-upon-Avon. Fortunately the Grand Union also has railway stations close by for getting to the first match of the season on the 15th.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Different takes on educating the public

Ever since sharing a stage with them at a workshop, I have been very impressed with the professionalism of the US National Park Service. It was not surprising the local authority in a remote corner of China - who were running the heritage management workshop to train their staff - were prepared to fly in three of the NPS' finest. Their presentations were excellent, their manner inspiring and the three of them were charming.

I am not, therefore, surprised to see the quality of their recently re-published Historic Resource Study book for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (by Harlan D. Unrau). It consists of no less than 851 pages of detailed information.

In Britain, authorities and entities have dumbed down interpretation to the extent that the best we can expect for canals now are those panels telling us, cartoon-style, how many baths of water it takes to fill a lock. They usually show a picture of a bath in case you have managed to get this far in life without being able to recognise a bath-tub.

The NPS study is just superb: they recognise that their role is to educate and promote learning. It's not just about scrounging every last penny off everyone for everything.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Halldór Laxness

Reading Halldór Laxness' World Light. As good as modern literature gets. I've always had a soft spot for Iceland and Icelandic people, ever since I spent a few weeks camping near Skógafoss many years ago.

The anticipation. And Walsall.

I do love the planning bit! Next week I think we'll be heading down the Stratford for a week. Not sure which way we'll go. Ho hum. And the football season's about to start again. Life is good.

Originally I had planned to take next week off so that we could join the BCNS Explorer Cruise as I heard rumours that this might be the last one for a while. But no matter how much I wax lyrical about the Daw End, the Rushall and the Curley Wyrley, the family still can't reconcile the prospects of spending their summer holiday in Walsall. Even when I remind them that we have just spent two weeks sailing in the Med and that Walsall is just, well...the icing on the cake. I'm getting gobsmacked looks from the kids when I describe Walsall as the icing on the cake.

If Michael Palin can do East of Ipswich, then surely I can do West of Walsall.

Why "No TimeWasters" is counter-productive

I do love Apollo Duck, and it must now be the leading website for those buying and selling narrowboats. But why is it that most advertisements there are so poor?

Sellers generally do so by uploading one blurry photograph, writing one sentence and expecting a buyer to fork out - on average - twice the annual yearly income on that basis. Oh, and then they have the temerity to boldly proclaim No Timewasters!
Eh? Where did that come from? No timewasters? So what's a timewaster then?
If sellers put up a decent description and decent photos, then buyers could make a decision about whether they should travel 400 miles to look at a boat. You think I'm going to think about 40,000 quid buying decision based on a holiday snap and a sentence? Me the timewaster? ffs, as they say in chat rooms. Any real salesperson knows that seeling anything is mainly a numbers game: the more that see what you are selling, the higher likelihood of selling quicker/more/for a higher price.

During the last 18 months, we looked actively for a boat and were astonished how poorly they were sold by private buyers. On once occasion I was told that it was OK to travel up to Cheshire from London. When I was five miles from the destination, I was phoned to be told it had been sold. "Sorry," they said. Exactly how are you defining the word 'Sorry' in this context?

On another occasion, when faced with a vague internal layout description, I was told that a cross-boat rear bathroom was reversible with "a little mechanical dexterity". Within seconds of arriving at the end of a long journey I discovered that "a little mechanical dexterity" would require heavy-duty steel cutting, welding and suitcase loads of banknotes.

At the other end of the scale, I discovered Virginia Currer, Nottingham Boat Sales and other professional brokers to be excellent, although even they were often hampered by their witless clients wanting far too much money or other such faux pas. In the end, we bought North Star through Nottingham Boat Sales, who provided excellent advice, friendly service and did what they said they would do.

I always bristle now when I see the term "No timewasters" because it is an exceptionally aggressive and subjective position. While searching for a boat during the last year, I was really put off going to see boats where "No timewasters" was stamped on the advert. On reflection, I can't quite put my finger on why - I'm generally a relatively assertive chap - but maybe it's because I am psychologically unwilling to be labelled a timewaster, even by people I do not know. Buying a boat is not like buying a car, and for most buyers there are many emotions involved; it's more like buying a house. It has to be "just so" and there are many inexplicable things that contribute to that feel-good factor.

I suggest that if you are selling a boat and you stick 'No Timewasters" in the advert, you will be putting off good potential buyers; it's counter-productive. This is why stores don't have 'No Timewasters' signs in their windows.

Be friendly, be helpful, be informative and recognise that the purchase price - for the buyer - is probably the single biggest cheque they will write in their life. There may be some timewasters along the line, but they will certainly be out-numbered by genuine buyers.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Sunny Greece, rainy London - messing about in boats

Two weeks sailing Lasers and Picos at Kalamata in Greece comes with a simple antidote: a return to London, where drizzle greets us at Gatwick. Drizzle and the usual feral queue at the Dartford Crossing: I understand the Romans had to queue for three miles when they came, too.

There really is something about messing about in boats, though. It is just as much fun pitch-poling a Laser in a Force 5 as there is mucking up the approach to Sawley Lock.

I am happy on any boat, big or small, and even reading the harrowing accounts of the 1979 Fastnet race in magazines - which is coming up to the 30th anniversary this month - aren't deterring me from tentative planning to take part in 2011.

The next big adventure - after a week on North Star - is a day on one of the beautiful Thames sailing barges. I really want to go through Tower Bridge on one of them under sail - never going to happen, but it gives me goosebumps.

Was it Boswell or Napoleon who said that Britain is a nation of shopkeepers? I think we are, much more, a nation of boaters and sailors.