Oliver Cross: My grounded cruise drama

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Ah, the joys of boating, of chugging along the canal and seeing life – swans and ducks, joggers and anglers, fields, trees and abandoned factories – passing you at a snail’s pace.

Mind you, this works better in summer than mid-winter. As the new part-owner, with my partner Lynne, of a twelfth of a 52ft long narrow boat, I was joining in a trial run along the Leeds-Liverpool canal from Rodley to Kirkstall – which takes about ten minutes by car, half an hour by bicycle and half a lifetime in a canal boat, particularly when parts of the canal are iced up.

The effects of about half an inch of ice on a heavy metal boat with a pointed end, which you would think could power its way through with no trouble, are most alarming.


For a start, the boat’s gentle chug is replaced by a loud, jarring, scraping, tinkling sound as the ice breaks up around the prow, as we boaters call it.

It’s like a passage through the Barents sea, or the sound of a million gin and tonics being poured simultaneously at a cocktail party in hell.

What’s more, the ice, although it breaks up easily enough, also has the power to drive the boat off course and into the shallows on the other side of the towpath, where the overhanging bushes and trees would have reminded me of The African Queen if I could have ignored the lack of tropical temperature and leeches.

So at one point the boat got grounded; the towpath and civilisation were several feet away on the port side and the nearest land to starboard was an impenetrable mass of trees, bushes and old Coke bottles.

It was, I thought, rather like Sir Ernest Shackleton’s great Antarctic voyage of survival in 1914-16, except in every salient respect.

Still, we did, like Shackleton’s crew, look to our leader, Robin – who does know about driving boats, although he’s not much good at imposing iron discipline or encouraging feats of endurance, being rather left-wing.


We tried poking around with our bargepoles and (although this isn’t generally recommended) rocking the boat to try and free it from the mud, but it refused to budge, and eventually Robin came up with a plan.

He tied two lengths of rope together so that they were long enough to be thrown the footpath, then waited for someone who could come along and pull us free.

It wasn’t a long wait (canal footpaths are very well-used, even in winter, and long may they prosper) and our rescuer was ideal – a strong and amiable-looking walker accompanied by one of those hyperactive little dogs who like nothing better than to join in an adventure.

The two of them took the rope and, with the dog yelping and jumping in encouragement, pulled us off the mud bank.

We were saved, the dog thought he had made himself useful, and its owner had had a more interesting walk than you would expect in mid-January, which is the seldom the time to say ‘Everyone’s a winner.’

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