I have always been single – both in boating and in life terms. I have a confession to make – in this age of compulsory relationships, I am actually very happy with my own company and could not imagine what it would be like to share my space with another person 24/7!
I often get comments from people who see me operating my boat alone. They range from ‘Oooh, aren’t you brave’ (to which I reply ‘No, just no choice if I want to cruise’) to ‘Oh I couldn’t do that’ (to which I reply – ‘it’s amazing what you find you can do if you just give it a go’.)
By the way, while I am vaguely near the subject, do you know how incredibly old fashioned canal culture is when it comes to roles for men and women? Living at the bottom of a lock flight means that I see lots and lots of boats come through. I would estimate that 95% of boats that have a couple on board have the woman doing all the hard work of operating the locks while their men lean on the tiller watching them and waiting to steer the boat into the lock. When I comment on it, the vast majority of women say ‘Oh I always do the gates, I couldn’t possibly steer the boat.’
Could I just say this once – steering the boat is the easy bit. It is a conspiracy on the part of the male to tell their women that steering is hard and you might damage the boat if you get it wrong. You won’t damage a narrow boat – they are made of steel and IT ISN’T DIFFICULT TO STEER! It just takes practice. The hard part is winding stiff paddles, struggling with heavy gates and trying to persuade other crews not to whip your paddles up so fast that your boat bounces about like a sexual athlete!
Quite often the male will stand beside their boat on the towpath and pretend to have to hold it there by its centre rope, so they couldn’t possible go and help set the lock – even when it is obvious their partner is struggling. A word to them – those round white things near the lock are called lock bollards and they exist so you can tie your boat to them while you go and exercise your muscles and your chivalry!
There, that feels better.
Back to single handed or ‘lone’ boating. I do have to think ahead a little more than boaters with crew do. I also have to take it a little slower through locks, swing bridges etc. Although having said that, in narrow locks I have a system which allows me to lock through just as quick as boats with crew. Also I get lots of offers of help both from ‘gongoozlers’ (the term for those who visit the canals and watch the boats going through) and from other boat crews. I love it when they offer to close the gates for me after I have passed through as it means I don’t have to balance my boat in the mouth of the lock whilst climbing back up to close the gates. I don’t love the aforementioned crews who, without even looking at me, wind both lock paddles up as fast as they can. The effect of this is that the water rushing in will push my boat back towards the rear gates. Then when the tidal wave hits the back gates and rushes forward again, it picks my boat up and slams it into the front gates!
People often ask me how safe I feel, particularly mooring up in the middle of nowhere all on my own. I feel very safe on the canals. I have never once been threatened by anybody. I remember once feeling threatened as I approached a lock in a town and noticed a group of hooded young men sitting on the balance beam drinking out of paper bags. I was going to have to move them in order to operate the lock and I really wasn’t looking forward to it. But it was a lesson for me not to judge by appearances. They all leapt up (or staggered depending on their level of drunkeness) and asked if they could help me. With some trepidation I handed over my windlass (makes a useful weapon) and instructed them on the dark art of lock operation. They did exactly as I asked and were so chuffed with themselves when the boat emerged safely.
You do meet a lot of characters on the water and some of them will be very different in every way from you and that can sometimes feel scary. But I find meeting people like that fascinating and if I refuse to give in to feelings of fear when meeting strangers then generally it is a good experience. I do believe that fear keeps us apart from each other and since my chances of meeting an axe murderer / rapist / litter dropper are fairly small, I refuse to let my fear dictate my actions and separate me from my neighbour.
A favourite advert of mine had as its tag line ‘Don’t let your fear stand in the way of your dreams’. Amen to that!