Days 4 and 5 – the weeds of woe

May 28th, 2010

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!

Day 3 – interesting work, boring cruise

May 26th, 2010

This morning was very productive. I reviewed some work I’d done in my first year, noted that it looked a bit shabby and poorly researched with the benefit of two years’ hindsight, and began to re-write and improve it, adding extra references to remove the Aunt Jobisca-ish nature of some of the assertions.

Incidentally, my search for Aunt Jobisca turns up that the biologist JBS Haldane first took the character of Aunt Jobisca away from the Pobble losing his toes and applied her more generally to people who make statements unsupported by facts…

Having written 700 words or so and dug up at least half a dozen new references (how I love the combination of mobile broadband and online journal archives!) I stopped for lunch. After a sandwich or two and a cup of tea, my attention was turned to the shower head. For the last week or so – since I changed the water pump, in fact – it’s been difficult to get the shower to the right temperature. I was blaming the water pump, but knew that in theory it was a similar capacity to the old one. Anyway, I realised during this morning’s alternately too hot and too cold shower that there wasn’t a sufficient flow of water coming through the shower head for the water heater to work properly. A proper look at the shower head with my glasses on revealed it to be somewhat bunged up, and after breakfast I’d dumped it in a mug of clear vinegar to remove the limescale. After lunch, rinsed and with a few holes unblocked with a pin, it worked much better!

Buoyed by my success, I decided to embark on the ten mile journey to Denver Sluice. My start-up ritual involves checking the engine oil and coolant levels, as Innocenti usually leaks both these vital fluids a little bit. I was somewhat surprised to find that the oil level had dropped substantially (all the more surprising given that it had been fine at lunchtime on Day 2), but I decided to top up and press on, watching the oil pressure gauge like a hawk. An hour in, and it had dropped about 0.5 bar. I stopped on a convenient and empty public mooring and checked the dipstick – seemed okay. Checking the oil when the engine is warm gives a different level anyway as the oil expands.
I continued to Denver. This section of the river is known as the Ten Mile Bank – the river is higher than the land here, and so is hemmed in by a high flood bank that runs the full ten miles to Denver. You see nothing! I passed two boats coming the other way – all in all, a very boring afternoon on the river. This being the Fens, it was windy, and it seemed to be getting increasingly cold, too.

I arrived at Denver just before 5, relieved to have arrived without engine drama and rather looking forward to a hot cup of tea. The increasingly useless Imray guidebook to the Great Ouse led me to believe that there’s a water point adjacent to the Jenyn’s Arms pub right by the main sluice. There isn’t – and nor is there a 48hr mooring at present, as the bank has subsided so it’s fenced off! I turned around and moored a few hundred metres upstream on another 48hr spot and got my cup of tea.
Afterwards, I went for a wander round the site and looked for the other water point in the guidebook – which was shown as adjacent to another sluice, behind the sailing club. I did find the water point, and it turned out also to have a free pump-out that the guidebook didn’t mention.

Denver is a strange sort of place. Seven different watercourses come together here, all of them wholly or partially artificial, and the complex has been evolving continuously for 350 years. The main sluice still stands where Cornelius Vermuyden built it to keep the tides out of the Fens in the 1651, although it’s been subsequently rebuilt several times and the present incarnation is Victorian with 1950s additions.
In 1964 the second part of the Denver complex opened – the AG Wright sluice – which together with two new river channels (imaginatively called the Relief Channel and the Cut-off Channel) seem to have finally resolved the many issues with flooding and silting which plagued Denver and the south Fens since the drainage began 400 years ago! The whole aspect of the place is very strange – the grassy banks and trees seem very pleasant, but the strange green machinery of the sluices outlined against the grey sky give the place a forbidding air.

After dinner, I motored Innocenti round to the water point and filled the fresh tank while emptying the sewage. While waiting for the freshwater tank to fill, I had a poke about in the engine bay and found what I hope was the source of the oil leak. Like many boats, Innocenti has a little hand-pump connected to the oil sump so that you can change the oil by pumping it out – unlike a car, where you can get a drainer can underneath it and let it out by gravity. This pump connects to where the drain plug would have been if the engine had been in a car via a length of flexible hose. I’ve had trouble with it leaking before at the engine block end, but this time I found that it was leaking from where it joins the bottom of the brass pump – a turn or two with the Big Spanner and it should be good.

Tomorrow involves an early start to the cruise – the next 1/2 mile from Denver Sluice to Salter’s Lode Lock is along the tidal Great Ouse, and so I must wait for tomorrow’s high tide. At 8am we shall be off into the Middle Levels to the town of March.

Day 3: Littleport to Denver – 10 miles and no locks.
Total so far: 32 miles and 2 locks. Thesis 717 words, 4 pages.

Days 1 and 2 – a gentle farewell to the familiar

May 25th, 2010

I left Cambridge on Monday afternoon at around half-past two. In the morning I’d run a few last-minute errands and then sat down to skim over a thesis from another researcher in the group to help give me ideas as to how to organise my own.

The first leg was over very familiar territory – from my customary mooring on Midsummer Common to the public mooring at Clayhithe, on the outskirts of Waterbeach village. I’ve done this route many times before when I used to moor at Waterbeach and had to bring Innocenti into Cambridge periodically to pump out. Having arrived at Clayhithe, I fairly soon headed back to Cambridge by train – in order to meet friends at the Cambridge Beer Festival! This slightly cock-eyed arrangement – after all, the beer festival is held a stone’s throw from where I had been moored – was so that I didn’t have to spend a full day cruising singlehandedly later in the week.

Day 1: Cambridge to Waterbeach – 5 miles and 1 lock.

Tuesday morning saw me awake with no discernible beer festival after-effects and then sit down to draft a thesis outline to send to my supervisor. The idea is to organise quite a lot of disparate material into a coherent narrative, so I’ve laid out chapter and subsection headings showing how I’ll try and achieve this. Just as I was coming to the end, I found myself invited for coffee with Jackie of WB Pippin on my former mooring site by Bottisham Lock. She was headed out later, so I motored down there for a coffee and caught up with her and another former neighbour, Gabriel. Back to the boat for some more work – a few emails and a re-read of some other literature.

I also rang the lock-keeper at Denver Sluice to find out the time of the passages across the tidal section of the Great Ouse and into the Middle Level at Salter’s Lode. I was offered a choice of 6pm today, 7:30am tomorrow or 8am Thursday. Having looked at the distances involved, I reckoned 8am Thursday was the best bet. That would allow me to go to Ely or Littleport today, on to Denver on Wednesday, and then go through with the tide first thing on Thursday before heading on to March in the afternoon.

So, after lunch, I went to Ely. This always takes longer than I think – and I wasn’t moored up in the city centre until after 4pm. I paused here and undertook a provision expedition to Tesco’s! Suitably re-stocked, I decided on an early dinner and then motored on with the intention of stopping about half-way to Littleport. The mooring there looked busy – although as I passed I realised that the gap between boats wasn’t as small as it looked and I’d have got in easily – and I pressed on to Littleport. The first two public moorings were full, but fortunately there was a space on the final one and I eased into it just after 8pm. Tomorrow there should be more work and less cruising, as it’s only 3 hours down to Denver and I won’t have anyone to distract me!

Day 2: Waterbeach to Littleport, 17 miles and 1 lock.
Total so far: 22 miles and 2 locks. Thesis 160 words, 3 pages.

The cruise begins here!

May 24th, 2010

So, after a year of faffing about and talking about it, I’m about to embark on the first leg of the Writing Up cruise, heading out from Cambridge to Waterbeach (Clayhithe) this afternoon. I’ve had a productive morning sorting out the outline of my thesis, reviewing some literature and dealing with emails.

Lots of people have expressed an interest in this cruise, either volunteering to help me crew the boat, or just generally. So, for all those who’d like to follow the cruise from their desks, I’ve fitted Innocenti with a webcam and GPS. If you click through to my Flickr map you should see spots on the map indicating the boat’s position. Each spot is a photo taken with the webcam every 3 minutes, so you can follow my progress and enjoy the scenery!