I got up early on Thursday – day 4 of the cruise – in order to be ready to make the transit acoss the tidal Great Ouse to Salter’s Lode. I’ve only done this once before, in 2007, and then it was quite a hairy experience as the heavy rain that summer produced very strong currents (I seem to recall Paul the lock-keeper saying “use maximum power and turn into the current as soon as you can”). By comparison, the river today seemed positively benign. There was quite a queue of boats and so despite my showing up at 8am when the first passage was due, I didn’t get to Salter’s Lode until 10. For those that keep scores on making the tricky turn into Salter’s Lode lock, I can say that Paul awarded me a 7 as I just touched some of the tyres on the entrance to the lock… better try harder next time.
Well Creek, which is the river that leads from Salter’s Lode towards March, is undeniably a very lovely stretch. I’d go so far as to say it was the most enjoyable bit of waterway in the East Anglian system that I’ve seen – you get a view over the landscape, and there are interesting and pretty villages that face onto the creek as if it’s the main street. Unfortunately for me, the creek is also full of waterweed, nasty fibrous stuff that seems to be all stalk and no leaves. At Nordelph, 3 miles from Salter’s Lode, I stopped on a public mooring and removed great chunks of it from the weedhatch. As I plodded on towards to Outwell, the clumps of weed got thicker and the boat got slower. At Outwell itself, I stopped on a mooring, cleared the weedhatch, and then immediately had to stop again as the prop was already fouled just from getting off the mooring. It got slower and slower, and I was stopping in midstream to clear the prop. Eventually, somewhere at the edge of Upwell, I couldn’t get the boat to move any more. Even after clearing the prop, engaging forward gear would cause the engine to labour, and if you applied more power the gearbox would slip. Not good. I manoeuvred with some difficulty into the bank, and discovered that the boat was fine going astern, which suggested a significant fault in the gearbox. I moored up and called the nearest boatyard, Fox’s in March, and the helpful receptionist said she’d get an engineer to call me back.
About ten minutes later, a Fox’s hireboat came down the creek, seemingly with no difficulty. I flagged them down and asked for a tow – but just as we were hooking up the tow line, the phone rang. It was Fox’s. I explained to the guy that I was getting a tow, whereupon he said “No, they can’t tow you – they’re not insured.” I let them go. He suggested I try and limp on to the lock. I tried, but found myself getting into worse difficulties, and moored up again just where I’d started. I called Fox’s again to ask for a tow. The same guy called back and said “well, it’ll take us 2-and-a-half hours to reach you, and we won’t come ‘til the morning now”. Anyway, I settled down for the night and called various people, including some I was expecting to meet up with over the next few days. Then there was a voicemail from a different engineer at Fox’s, saying he’d come and tow me in the morning – he’d set off early and be with me by 9.30.
I went off in search of fish and chips (having seen a chippy on the bank earlier) – and very good they were too. As I ate them on a bench sitting by the river, a rather portly Jack Russell terrier approached me and gave me the old “look smart and underfed” treatment. I resisted, much to his surprise, and ate all the chips myself.
On my way back to the boat I got a call from Nigel, a physics teacher at a school in March that I worked with under the Researcher in Residence scheme. I’d planned to meet up with him in March that evening. He said he’d come out and meet me, so he duly arrived shortly before 7. After a chat, we headed off into March to compete in a pub quiz that he’s a regular at, which was lots of fun. I got back just before midnight.
I woke up early on Friday – Day 5 – and started to tidy the boat up while waiting for Gary to arrive. Shortly before 8 I got a text from him asking about turning space – and I went up onto the bank to have a look. As I got to the end of the straight stretch of creek I was moored on, I saw a Fox’s boat approaching. It was him. We got the two boats hitched up line astern (the creek is too narrow to go side by side) and made our way slowly to Marmont Priory Lock, about ¾ mile away. I’d learned from a local resident that the weedcutter boat had been through on Wednesday, explaining the high volume of weed in the river, and since the lock drains water away from the creek, the current had drawn the cut weed towards the lock. We stopped to clear the propeller on the towing boat after less than a ¼ mile! At the lock, we had to take the two boats through separately, as the lock is only 12’ wide and thus not big enough for two narrowboats side-by-side. After Marmont Priory the river becomes deeper and wider (it’s the Old River Nene at this point) and we went side-by-side for greater speed.
We got to Fox’s boatyard just after 12. Gary’s now extracting my gearbox as I write this, and it’ll go off to a specialist repairer in Nottingham. I expect to be in March for a little while until it comes back!