Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Challenge on The Middle Level

If we thought getting through Denver and Salters locks was The Great Challenge and all would be easy thereafter, we were being over-optimistic. The greatest was yet to come!
While in normal times this section through Upwell, Outwell to March would be a pleasant cruise, we had reckoned without that lethal combination of wind and weed. We wrote before about being blown onto the bank and trapped without power thanks to weed on the prop - and it happened again! Being experienced didn't help much as we battled fierce crosswinds while picking up weed and roots. And not a mooring place in sight!
So - engine off, weed trap up, sleeves up, clear the tangle of roots of Yellow Flag Iris and the skeins of Blanket Weed , like the hair of drowned sailors, reassemble, start up ... and we are immediately entangled again. Aiming to push against the wind to the opposite bank, away from the worst of the weed, we even broke our pole!
At one point we were close to despair. However discarding all the alternatives in turn (drag her by hand, flag down a passing tractor for a tow, scuttle her and walk home ...)with a supreme effort on the remaining pole, a balancing act on the gangplank and an uncommon stream of cursing, we wrenched her free in a rare moment that the wind slackened momentarily.
However I can't continue our journey without a lengthy aside about the cursed weed. Wind and weed together are the perfect storm for narrow boaters. What's to be done?
The obvious thing is to avoid the weed in the first place. How?
  • Take the centre channel unless you have to swerve to avoid a floating raft of weed.
  • switch briefly into neutral if you can't avoid a block of weed
  • If passing another vessel don't let yourself be dragged into the edge where weed and reed collects
  • Take every mooring opportunity to clear the prop (a stitch in time etc, and a little weed does seem to fast accumulate more weed on the prop).
  • Keep aware of the boat losing power, slowing down, overheating, steering awkwardly or trailing vegetation in its wake. These are all possible signs of entanglement.
  • Clear that weed as soon as you can. Losing power through a combination of wind and weed means you need to take urgent action or you'll be stuck!

If you do lose power or steering:
  • Moor up as soon as possible in the lest weedy and most sheltered place you can find, even if it means switching off, poling on or across
  • If the wind blows you on to a bank, consider poling or hauling across to the opposite bank and make a temporary mooring while you clear the prop. Generally the opposite bank to the one you're being blown on to will be more sheltered and less weedy, which will give you the best chance to restart the engine and head for the central channel.
  • Note that while a line from another narrow boat could get you out of trouble, a line from a light cruiser will be ineffective. 
  • Consider a pole with a broad end to avoid getting stuck in the mud.
  • Roping to a firm fixing on the bank might give you the chance to haul the boat in to bank by taking advantage of intermittent slackening of the wind.
  • Remember that revving the engine for more power is OK for a few moments but generally it is likely to over-heat the engine rather than increase power to your weed clogged screw.
And this is what the Middle Level Commissioners are doing about it.

While one little buggy chops up the weed, the other shovels it up and casts it onto the bank (the clip and scoop method). Unfortunately two little buggies can't cover the whole level and, as we found, they left a great floating trail of ragged salad leaves which - guess what - wrapped itself round our prop once more. With less wind this time we manage to stop mid stream and hastily clear the blades just before we nudge the bank.
So, memo to MLC: get into partnership with the EA or the Waterways Trust to start collecting moderate sums for licenses from boaters. Then spend on clearing weeds and providing simple moorings. We note there are few moorings on the recommended route through the Middle Levels except at Upwell, March and Whittlesey town, plus private moorings at Fox's and Flood Ferry Touring Park. So, few reed-free places to pull in for a quick coffee or a weed clearing.
Phew! That's that! Now back to our journey!

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