Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Love Affair Starts Here

Post by: J-Too
Plan: Windsor Racecourse Marina to Addlestone


So the plan changed many times; but at last the family now has a boat. Putting the idea of owning a costal craft to one side and going for a river cruiser has been one of the best decisions we have ever made.

Browsing through a copy of Boat Mart, I saw an image of a Norman Conquest 20’ for sale at Boat Sales 24/7 based at the Windsor Race Course Marina. Mi was attending a holiday club, so only Ja, J1 and I could go and take a gander… Well at least that was the plan…

The three of us took the long drive to Windsor to have a look at the boat in question. J1 got on board and instantly questioned the headroom; while I pointed out, when you’re below, surely you’re sat down, so why do you need too much headroom? When J1 thought about that, she was sold! Next thing you know, we’re dashing down the cash-point and paying the deposit!

The plan was to take ownership of the boat on Wed 6 Aug 08, take her to our newly acquired mooring on the Wey and Godalming Navigations and spend two nights/three days onboard. This was scuppered by a quick phone call from Boat Sales 24/7 informing us the steering didn’t work and a new set was required. Hence we could only take possession on Sat 9 Aug 08.

This posed one problem to us, as it would only give us one night onboard, as I had to return to work on Sun 10 Aug 08… But what the hell! We’d still have the boat and we could still have fun for the time we were with her… Plus there are lots of other opportunities to have a muck about on the water later this year!

Plus there was the fact the boat was devoid of a name! The opportunity to make up names was too fun not to explore. Here are a few names we discarded:

- Dramatis Persona – J1 and I are too fond of theatre, plus her motto would have been ‘Be who you want to be’
- Spindrift – After J1’s grandparent’s boat/home
- Spongebob – Obviously the kid’s idea
- Patrick – See above

Then my Sister-in-law suggested ‘Jami’ using the first two letters of the Kid’s names. I instantly placed a twist on this and wanted to call the boat ‘Jami Bodger’! Eventually, even I got bored of the joke (and those who know me know that’s quite a feat). Then I thought one day as we were driving to view the mooring, if the kids are in the name, why couldn’t we be there as well. Hence, we’ve taken ownership of ‘Jami JJ’.

Logistically, this posed a problem. We were moving a boat, so it wasn’t as simple as driving up there and getting in her and moving her to her new mooring… Because the car would be where we bought her, not where we were. Thankfully, my Father-in-law was a star and drove out to the mooring, met us there so we could leave the car where we were going to end up, then drove us and the gear we had bought out to Jami JJ and collect her!

So far so good. We got to the Marina and J1 paid for the boat as Ja, Mi, Father-in-law and I loaded all our gear on board. We made sure we had everything in place, fired up the engine, let go of our lines and headed off on our great adventure.

Commence ‘The Voyage of the Damned!’

Wouldn’t you just credit it, the second we let go of the lines, the heavens opened! And it kept persisting down for the rest of the day.

Having ensured I had purchased a Nicholson Guide and read up on the rules of the road, I knew a courteous river sailor keeps to the right to ensure other vessels can pass unhindered. To make sure I was competent on my skills, I decided to move to the right-hand side of the channel and see if I could happily make my way there. I guess it’s the Royal Navy in me, as when one of our ships puts to sea, the first thing they do is a ‘standard manoeuvre’ to make sure everything is working as it should.

So I put the wheel over to starboard… and find myself veering to port! Something’s amiss! By pure reaction, I wheel over to port to correct myself and we start moving to starboard!

Anyone who’s tried to helm for the first time will tell you there’s a natural tendency to over steer. While I’m no novice, suddenly finding the helm’s doing the opposite of what you wanted, I was in a positive feedback loop and steering wildly! It would be fair to say I was starting to get concerned I was about to lose control of the boat.

J1 was a tad concerned as she’s a novice and was asking me what she should be doing and I wasn’t answering. Ja and Mi were seeing how close we were getting to other boats and asking me what I was doing – and I wasn’t answering (well… not answering in a polite and respectful manner).

I was massively caught up on trying to keep Jami JJ under control.

The owner of Boat Sales 24/7 then appeared on one of the pontoons and asked if there was anything wrong?

“Too right! The steering’s reversed!” was all I could reply.

Somehow, don’t ask me how, I got close enough to the pontoon to let him step aboard and let him take the helm. There was a look on his face as he did so which read ‘oh, we have one off those novice boaters here’… Right up to the second he turned the wheel. His face transformed into one of confusion. You could read “hang on, that’s not what’s supposed to happen” on his face.

Shoving Jami JJ into reverse he took us back to the pontoon we had started from and we tied up so he could have a look at what was causing the problem. Strangely enough, if your steering is reversed, it’s easier to navigate backwards than it is forwards – as I soon discovered.

Once alongside, he checked the new steering gear he had installed and could find nothing wrong with the installation – other than when you turned the wheel left, you would go right! Satisfactorily flummoxed, he informed us he would have to call the engineer he bought the gear off of to gain an insight. However, when he returned the news wasn’t bright.

“The guy I need to talk to isn’t back until Monday.” Remembering this is Saturday. “So as I see it you have two options. [1] Leave her here until I can speak to him and take her away when she’s fixed. [2] Take her to her mooring as she is and I’ll come and fix her when I get back from holiday.’

Both options ran through my head and presented a true dilemma. Both options were as unattractive as the other.

Taking option [1] meant calling my Father-in-law to come back to the marina, take all out gear off the boat again, reload his car, to take us back to our car, to reload our car and drive back to our respective homes. Plus, I was going back to work on the Sunday. Next weekend we’re attending a wedding, so we wouldn’t be able to move her that weekend… That meant paying short term mooring fees; while we were already paying for our mooring on the Wey and Godalming Navigations – and short term fees are extortionate!

Option [2] meant I had to learn to counter steer fast! I have my wife and two young kids on board, who are all novices. Was there any way I could learn fast enough and keep them safe… After all, it’s not only what I’m doing on the waterway, but what other river users are doing. Plus if anything untoward happen on our passage, would I be capable of reacting to it safely and in time, when the helm is doing the opposite of what your hands want it to do?

J1 and I stared at each other for a couple of seconds; we looked at the kids. You could see they were terrified they were going to lose their boat and their bit of fun with Dad before he returned to work. J1 and I looked at each other again and I knew she was thinking about safety. But there was a look in her eye I knew… and it’s a look which made me marry her… it’s the look that says ‘no matter what you’re thinking, I trust your capabilities – probably more than you trust them yourself; and you’re more than capable of this’.

The decision was made. We were going to counter steer the 20 miles to the mooring! The kids were disappointed when we told them they weren’t going to get their opportunity to steer the boat; but as wonderful trainee adults they soon worked out why. We ensured everything was ready to make our way again and prepared our lines. Off we went, with J1 intently studying the Nicholson to give me a running commentary on what the river was going to do, so I could plan my actions in advance.

I have to point out, there was no way we could have made it without J1… If she didn’t do what she did, I would have been lost and there would have been a chance I could have lost full control. As it was, with her skilful navigation (which she learnt in no more than a minute) all I had to do was concentrate on where I was, where I wanted the boat to be pointing and what other river users were doing.

As I mentioned, we were taking Jami JJ to our mooring. That meant we didn’t have a navigation licence to proceed along the Thames. Having consulted the Nicholson Guide, I saw you could get them from the locks on the Thames and we had been advised by Boat Sales 24/7 we could purchase a ‘Section 9’ which would entitle us to be on that stretch of the Thames for 24 hours.

Cautiously making our way to our first lock encounter at Boveney Lock, just over a mile from where we started we tied up at the ‘lay by’ so I could touch base with the lock keeper (all the locks on the Thames are manned – thankfully for us). After explaining we needed a section 9, he told me there was a fair bit of paperwork involved and we could find the time to complete this if he set the lock to a slow decent. But there came another of our bombshells of the day.

“We accept payment by cash and cheque” the lock keeper cheerfully and friendly informed me. Dashing back to Jami JJ I asked J1 If she had any cash on her and there was another of those ‘looking at each other’ moments. J1 had drawn the cash from the bank the day before so we could pay for the boat in folding stuff. But neither of us had considered taking cash for any other reason. I only had cards on the boat and so did J1. In fact the most cash rich person onboard was Mi as she had brought her pennies with here – and somehow she had managed to pilfer 5 pound coins into this collection!

J1 then dashed along the bank to explain to the lock keeper the situation and ask if there was a cash point nearby. Unbeknownst to me, she also told him about the problems with the steering; my guess it was a wonderful female tale of distress and what could we do.

The lock keeper was mortified we were in this situation. He was disgusted we could be sold a boat in this condition from a boat yard. As he put it, it would akin to a car dealer selling you a car with reversed steering. J1 and I weren’t disgusted; but it did make a take a back step… Why on earth didn’t they check the boat after fitting the steering? Just how much should we trust these people… And we still don’t have the answer to those questions… Maybe we’ll feel better when they fit the steering for us.

But bless the lock keeper! He gave J1 a map, showed where the nearest cash point was (right next to Windsor Castle!) where we should moor up to get to the cash point and phoned the next lock on our passage we were on our way, experiencing unforced steering issues and would be purchasing a section 9 from them there.

Having made our way through Boveney Lock, J1 learnt a new navigational skill. When you want a boat to come alongside, you need to have plenty of warning – especially if she’s counter steering! It not like parallel parking, as a boat doesn’t have any brakes and wind and current make the boat do things a car driver doesn’t have to take into account. But soon after realising this, she identified an alternative place we could come alongside and prepared for her first major experience of handling a line.

Again another great learning experience for J1 and J-Too. Just because it went so wrong. J1 was on the head rope (or bow line). The best way to come alongside is to use the head rope as a forespring and use the engine to force the stern in by turning away from the shore. But with J1 pulling hard on the head rope, forcing the stern out and J-Too forgetting which way to turn the wheel for a second, Jami JJ was at right angles to the shore and close to piling in bow first. I had to slam her into reverse and J1 attempted to throw the line back on board and was only partially successful. At this point J1 was focused on the need to pay for our licence to navigate the Thames and started running for the cash point. I however was left on Jami JJ with Ja (aged 3) and Mi (7) with a boat counter-steering and 5 meters of rope dangling of her bow and no other adult to assist me getting alongside.

Mi came into her own here. Having quickly asking her if she would help me, she shinned down to the bow over the cockpit visor, gathered up the head rope and brought it back to me in the cockpit. Bless her, she never flinched, never showed a moments concern and performed with focus and steadiness which would make any adult envious. 5 minutes later, I had Jami JJ alongside and tied up. 3 minutes later, J1 returned with the cash and an emarassed look on her face.

As soon as J1 told me the tale, every ounce of humour in system returned. Windsor is quite an elegant place and J1 is a very sophicated person. So for her to be seen running like a woman possessed wearing bright yellow water shoes soaking wet jeans and an orange Jack-in-a-Pack, she did strike a rather remarkable sight – and one which she is shamed by!

Back underway again we came to Romney Lock. Again the lock keeper was a star. Similarly concerned we had been sold a boat in this condition, he questioned the need for a Section 9, as it forced us to move Jami JJ in one day, as it expires at midnight. So at nearly half the price, he recommended we purchase a visitor’s licence which would last two days, so we could moor up if we didn’t think we would make it all the way in one day.

This stirred something in me. I was on a mission! I had worked out how to counter steer Jami JJ and even worked out how to come alongside on my lonesome! I knew I could make it to our mooring in one day damnit!

J1 however saw this in me; and also saw how tired I was getting as the journey was progressing. Not physically, but mentally – telling my hands to do the opposite of what I wanted them to do at all times. But J1 being J1, she said nothing, just gave me one of her concerned looks.

But our spirits were lifted despite the rain when J1 made a piping hot cup of coffee and the pair of us sat in the cockpit, with Ja and Mi sitting beside us restoring our warmth. Forget the steering issues. Forget the weather. We realised for the entire time we had been aboard Jami JJ, we hadn’t thought about anything other than our boat, the river and other users since we set off. No worrying about work, no worrying about how to entertain the kids, no worrying about what needed to be done to the house or what chores had to be completed. It was just the 4 of us, Jami JJ and the river. We all shared ‘one of those looks’ and realised we were in our version of heaven.

The helm was coming fairly naturally now; and given we’d been onboard for 4 hours, that wasn’t a surprise. What was, was the fact Mi and J1 kept complimenting me on how well I was doing. Being somewhat of a cynic, I first thought this was false praise; but then I saw what they were looking at. They kept looking ahead of us and were clearly working out where they would take the boat. Then they would look at my hands and see they were doing the exact opposite of what they would do! Then, slightly startled, they stare at where they would want to be heading and slowly realise we were heading that way. If you’re not at the helm counter steering, the vision has to be damned confusing. The trick…? Never look at your hands, purely at where you want to go and the bow. The second you look at your hands, you’re lost. They only way I can describe it is by playing an analogy with breathing. You’re pretty damned good at it right? But how fast are your breathing right now. Just check for a second…

And now, all you can think about is your breathing rate, and because you’re thinking about it, you’re affecting it… not much, but by concentrating on it, you’re changing it.

The remainder of the day was a joy, despite the weather. We were together and having a great time. The world passes by at a far more sedate pace when you’re on the water. You watch cars chase by, shoppers bundling along with far too many purchases, desperate to be anywhere but where they are now. Yet there you are, making your way as steady as you desire and it strikes you… The real joy on this voyage is the getting there, not the arriving. We spend too much time in our cars getting from A to B to accomplish something at B. But on a boat it’s that bit in between which matters. Then you find your hand move to the throttle and you slow up a tad, just so you can make that feeling linger.

A couple of locks later, we arrive at Penton Hook Lock. Before setting off, we were informed our fuel tank had just been filled, but we should top up at some point to ensure we had enough fuel to make it all the way. And considering I wasn’t the most gentle person with the throttle, given the steering situation, I was a little concerned about our fuel level. Having consulted the Nicholson Guide at Old Windsor Lock I saw Penton Hook Marina was the place to top up. I realised this was the one downside to owning this boat as it’s easier to get diesel than petrol – and at the moment diesel is far cheaper for boats than petrol. But what the hell! We’re in love with Jami JJ, so she can drink what she wants.

Pulling out of Penton Hook Lock you have to make a sharp starboard turn to get to the marina (if you’re heading downstream). The second I entered the channel to get there, I felt the current dramatically change and the wind was playing merry hell with my sense of direction. It was then I felt weary. Physically I was fine, but my brain wanted to stop for a moment.

My Jiminy Cricket whispered “Time to Stop” to me and the cold reality of consciousness hit me. This was they very time when I could start making mistakes. And here I was in a boat requiring counter steering with the most precious cargo of them all – my family. It was time to bin the bravado and intentions, and time to tie up, relax and keep the family safe.

Here’s the only flaw I’ve found with the Nicholson Guide: It may well tell you where the marinas and boatyards are, it may tell you what services they provide, it may even give you a number to call for more information… But it doesn’t give you the opening hours, or what times they sell fuels. J1 tried calling from our mobile to see if we could get an overnight mooring, but all she got was an answer phone – not useful given our situation and the fact it was only 5:15 pm.

Sighting the visitor’s pontoon, we thought we’d take the risk of coming alongside and then asking for details. J1 and I had the routine down pat now, so this wasn’t going to be a problem was it…? Wrong! I was mentally tired and J1 was physically exhausted; not only was she navigator, linesman and chef, but she also had to contend with overexcited Ja and Mi. We repeated all the errors we made at Windsor! But worse, there was a lot less room to play here.

Then you realise boaters are a different breed; and in a very good way. On the other half(ish) of the visitor’s mooring was a glorious Princess V48. Two chaps onboard saw we were having difficulty and instantly leapt to our assistance. J1 was stranded on the pontoon and these guys calmly took over on the shore and pulled Jami JJ alongside.

This was clearly the Voyage of the Damned, as the second we placed our feet on the pontoon, the rain stopped and beautiful sunlight washed over the river.

Once alongside, they asked our story and complimented out handling of the boat even though we had mucked up our last manoeuvre. We chatted about our boating experiences and compared vessels. To own, let alone charter something like this Princess would require an annual salary which would rival your bank account number. Here were some very wealthy, and one would guess fairly influential, people – but it didn’t matter. We were equals. We’re all on the water! We were warned boaters are like a family and we discovered how true it was from the lock keepers and these good folks on the visitor’s pontoon.

Top this off with J1’s experience at the Marina Office. She got there and the place was locked up. She stood there dazed, confused and concerned – what would happen if we tried to stay on the pontoon without permission; what would happen if someone came along later and said they had already booked the pontoon ahead of us and wanted us out of there way; what if that happened an it was dark! (Think dark, counter steering and two young and tired kids.)

Another boat owner saw J1 and asked what the matter was. As soon as she explained, he called out the duty manager from his mobile so we would be looked after. When do you see that when you’re walking along the high street?

So that was us done for the day. We tied up, wandered down to the local pub, eat heartily came back and put the kids to bed. Naturally J1 and I attacked the ‘medicine cabinet’ (alternatively known as our supply of Gin and Tonic) and discussed how were going to modify Jami JJ. It was an exciting and humorous conversation which went on for a few hours and a few refills. A true joy.

But after a joy, you have to expect some form a down don’t you. And it came in the shape of Ja and Mi. More to the point, Ja and Mi came to us… at 6:15 am! The curtains on Jami JJ aren’t thick enough to keep back any sunlight!

After the initial shock of being woken so early on something we’re meant to use to relax, we pottered… A lazy cuppa, I wandered to the laundrette to dry off the clothes which had been soaked the day previously and partook of a relaxed breakfast. No one, including the kids who were still overexcited, was in any rush to move too fast. Having determined the previous day you can only buy fuel from 9 am to 5 pm (thank goodness we managed to secure that mooring) we gently took Jami JJ to the fuel pontoon. There we were met by another family and their boat (again, considerably more expensive than Jami JJ). Again, great people to meet. We swapped stories (again the reaction to the counter steering situation), they passed on tips and J1’s jaw hit the ground. Petrol prices may be expensive at the moment, but buy petrol at a marina. Think of filling up at a Motorway Service Station and add some more. The price per litre was 31p more than my local petrol station. But it wasn’t the price per litre which had J1 baulking, it was amount this other family were going to be paying to fill their tank. She asked if she was reading the amount right – and she was! The father of the family decided to call it day at 300 litres and parted with over £400!

When I pulled up my measly little tank, our refill only set us back just under 20 notes… (See there are some plus sides to owning a boat of this size).

It was interesting filling up the tank, as it was a very cautious procedure. Before the chap manning would fire up the petrol pump, he insisted everyone get off the boat, off the pontoon and on to the permanent shore. This is because of the petrol fumes; allegedly a boat exploded while fuelling thanks to a stray spark and the family were on board. While I don’t know if this is standard practice at other boat fuelling points, it is at Penton Hook Marina – and will be standard part of Jami JJ’s procedures.

And off we set again. We all knew this was going to be a fairly short day on the water, as only two locks stood between us and the Wey and Godalming Navigations and three Wey locks to our mooring. On the way we passed a number of rowing crews, so we had to ensure we minimised our wake – not that we made a large one anyway; but it was purely guilt which made me do so – as I am known to scull myself. But we all decided it was really fortunate we split the journey in two; as the weather today was glorious. The sun was out, all perked up and all four of us put on our sunglasses! Sure there was one heck of a breeze which pushed Jami JJ about a fair bit, but after the previous day’s rain we were just delighted to see the sun.

On arriving at Shepperton Lock we encountered a lock keeper who was overjoyed to meet us… The reason: his first boat was a Norman Conquest which he owned for 16 years. As we descended in the lock, he passed on tips regarding how to brighten the deck, how to patch minor leaks and dribbles and what to do with our carpeting. If we weren’t holding on to the lines, J1 or I would have been below decks in seconds, grabbed our note pad and would have been making furious notes. It is so true about boaters – they are a family, and one which we have just joined.

Taking a sharp starboard turn on exiting Shepperton Lock, we headed to the entrance to the Wey and Godalming Navigations. The world of the waterways changed dramatically. The channel was far narrower here, trees overhung the water and you felt as though you had stepped back in time. Plus the boats you encountered were different. Gone were the gin palaces which require one hell of a pay packet and look as though they were designed for speed, and more boats like Jami JJ appeared along with far more narrowboats.

As we didn’t hold our licence for the Wey and Godalming Navigations, we had to tie up at the lay by before the Stop Lock. The Stop Lock and the Thames Lock which immediately follows it are the only locks on the Navigations which are manned. The lock keeper and his assistant we amazing, we quickly sorted out the licence, purchased our windlass (to operate the locks). We were even treated to a quick master class in how to operate the locks and where to position our boat when in one.

The locks themselves are a world apart from the locks we had encountered on the Thames. While on the Thames, the locks are hydraulically operated and made of steel, on the Wey and Godalming Navigations they are hand operated and wooden. Again, this makes you feel as though you are stepping back in time. J1 and I were a tad nervous, as we were yet to operate a lock on our own and were a tad nervous we’d get something wrong; seeing as we had made mistakes on two of our ‘coming alongsides’. Hence we paid huge attention when going through the Thames Lock – which was fascinating for the kids: Every lock we had passed through so far had made us go down, now we were rising, and rising quite a distance. The largest drop we had encountered on the Thames we 6 feet 8 inches… This was nearly (as memory serves) a 12 feet rise.

Enamoured with Navigation, we slowed down and headed toward out first lock we would be operating. This was quite a challenge as the lock is immediately after tunnel like bridge, which to get to, you have to make a blind starboard turn. When we made this turn we saw the lock had two boats descending and there was no where for us to tie up just before the lock. Now knowing my way with the counter steering, I managed to pull a large loop and bring us alongside around the corner we had just passed.

Here J1 and Mi took the foot path over the bridge and watched the boats descending in the lock. Enthralled, they managed to drag themselves away just in time to enable Ja and myself to watch their last stages.

Then we entered with Jami JJ. J1 and I had discussed our lock procedure for this one at length, as to get the lines ashore, someone (and that was me) had to climb a ladder built into the lock. Then I’d have to pass the lines back to J1 to control as I closed the lock gates and operated the windlass.

And thank goodness we did talk at length, as the entire procedure was a huge success. Walkers stopped to watch us make our way through, taking pictures of us and the adults were ushering their children away from the lines and me at the lock gates with expressions and body language which said ‘keep away from the experts’. The pride J1 and I felt could have been scraped off us and placed in a sandwich.

We then pootled along for a wee while and spotted our mooring. This was going to be entertaining to come alongside as our mooring is effectively a railway sleeper raised above the water about 2 feet away from the towpath. Yet J1 and I prove we had picked up the skills and put Jami JJ alongside with ease and flare. Securing our lines, we all felt our stomachs rumble, locked up the boat and wandered down to The Pelican, the nearest pub to the mooring.

We had eaten here once before and were delighted by the place. Indeed, the kids were over the moon they were going back, as the beer garden is on the canal and as they eat, they could watch the boats go by. Unfortunately, even though it was very bright, the wind meant it would have been uncomfortable to dine outside. But the kids didn’t mind, as the food (they have sausages embedded in mini Yorkshire Puddings) held their attention, imagination and taste buds.

After dining, it was time to go home to enable me to pack and return to work. Looking back at it now, we could have done this far faster. But we were now in love with Jami JJ and didn’t want to leave. We kept finding jobs for us to do before we could leave. Ja and Mi rearranged everything they could lay their hands on in the aft cabin so it was to their liking and J1 and I spent all our time taking measurements for bits and pieces we wanted to do to the boat.

But eventually, we loaded our gear in the car (driven by J1, rather than risk me counter steering the car) and started travelling home.

“When can we come back to Jami JJ?” asked Mi.

“Well, we have the wedding to go to next weekend” I replied.

There was a quiet and sad moment which spread throughout the car, chipping away the joy we had experienced over the last 2 days.

“Well…” interjected J1 “we’re only going to the evening reception… and we don’t have to be there until 6:30 in the evening…”

“So…” I chipped in “we could come up on Saturday…”

“Yes!” bellowed the children in unison. They bounced up and down on their seats until they fell asleep on the back seat some 3 or 4 minutes later.

So, come Saturday, we’ll be back on her… What we’re going to do, I have no idea. But that’s the fun of owning Jami JJ. She’s our little adventure.

2 comments:

Caz said...

it sounds like the journey from hell... but well worth it!... I like the name too!!!!

JaysPlays said...

You would... You have a dog named nearly the same!