Minority Report on the Canal Boat

This blog already contains posts about our Welsh Canal Boat holiday, one from Lydia, one from Jesse, and one from Mary Ella.  So why do we need another one?  Because the dad experience was a bit different from the others’ experience.

Day 1

As we got underway from Beacon Park Boats, one of their employees boarded the boat with us and drove it for us, explaining to me what he was doing, and how to drive the boat.  Now, when you hear that the maximum speed of the boat is 4mph and that one rarely reaches that speed, you might think the same thing that we thought before we took the helm—who needs a lesson?  Four miles per hour—ha!  Gimme the tiller.  We’re good.

Not so fast.

First, the boat is 57 feet long, so it’s not exactly nimble.  Second, it weighs a great deal, and thus its momentum is nothing to ignore.  For example, we were warned that you should never stick any limb out over the edge of the boat, because if the boat bumps another boat or the side of the canal, that limb would be lost.  Third, unlike a car or truck, the boat does not have brakes.  You can put it in full throttle reverse if you’ve gotten yourself aimed at something you don’t want to smash into, but this makes a lot of noise and smoke and signals to anyone else on the canal that you don’t know what you’re doing.  Finally, you’re driving from the back, not the front, so unlike a car, you can’t just point where you want to go.  Rather, you point the back end of the boat in the opposite direction of where you want to go, and the boat pivots about its center point, but keeps going in the same direction it was going for awhile, because of its momentum.  To make a turn, you have to plan in advance.

The nice guy from the boat place explains all this to us, together with some other details I’m leaving out for brevity, and he (literally) jumps off the boat onto the shore and waves goodbye.  I then began driving, feeling like I had no idea what I was doing.

Immediately, a child (who will not be named) dangled his or her legs off the side of the boat to put their toes in the water.  I may or may not have shouted something about loss of limbs.  I definitely did not feel calm while driving the boat for the whole first day.  I always felt like I was about to hit someone else’s boat or the side of the canal or a bridge or something, or that while concentrating on avoiding those things, my lack of parenting would lead to the boat’s tearing off a child’s leg.

I hear that other family members spent the days reading books in bed.  I hear that it was relaxing.  I was glad we had coffee.

Boat's kitchen, coffee brewing
Boat’s kitchen, coffee brewing

At some point, my son came up to me and asked if he could drive the boat.  I explained how challenging it was to avoid disaster, and he replied, “But you’re making it look so fun.”

Day 2

Although we threaded our way through several narrow bridges on day 1, we did not have to navigate any locks that day, so we began day 2 by preparing for this new challenge.  Yes, preparing.  The boat company had sent us a training DVD in the postal mail a few weeks in advance, for us to study (not kidding).  We re-watched it several times on the boat’s DVD player, taking notes.  Navigating a lock is a multi-person endeavor, and each person on the team needs to know what they’re doing and when.  Here are our notes.

Page 1: How to pass through a lock from below
Page 1: How to pass through a lock from below
Page 2: How to put the lock back the way you found it
Page 2: How to put the lock back the way you found it

Well, everything gets easier with practice.  By the end of Day 2, we’d navigated a bunch of bridges, a tunnel, and some locks, and had gained some skill and confidence.  But navigating those things definitely took some thinking and attention.  For instance, the Ashford Tunnel is 375m long, and not much bigger than the boat itself!  (And dark, naturally.)  You can see some of these obstacles in the video below, but as you will also see in the video, these obstacles eventually become fun as you get better at them.

Also, it’s hard to be stressed while you’re looking at fabulous scenery.  And the weather we had was perfect.  It almost never rained, it was never too hot, and the sun shone almost all the time.  The countryside looked like this:

Sheep in the countryside by the canal
Sheep in the countryside by the canal
A little farm by the canal
A little farm by the canal
The Welsh countryside
The Welsh countryside
Some locals take walks on the tow path that parallels the canal
Some locals take walks on the tow path that parallels the canal
Perfect weather
Perfect weather

Day 3 and beyond

And so indeed, the holiday was lovely.  And I did eventually let Jesse drive the boat.

He's making it look so fun
He’s making it look so fun

But I never felt comfortable letting a 13-year-old at the helm of a multi-ton vessel alone.  So I didn’t exactly go off and take a nap.  I either stood right where he’s standing now or I sat next to where he’s standing, overseeing.  Lydia also piloted for awhile, but found it to be more stressful than I did, and didn’t want to be left at the helm alone; I was not allowed to go take a nap.  I think there was about an hour at one point where she and Jesse teamed up to pilot the boat and I got to read a book on the front deck with some snacks, which was nice.  Other than that hour, I was the pilot, and stood at that tiller for about five hours a day.

Okay, okay, I stared at gorgeous scenery for about five hours a day.  Who’s complaining?

Not complaining...they sometimes gave me snacks
Not complaining…they sometimes gave me snacks

And while five hours may sound like a lot of time at the helm, there are a lot of other hours in the day!  Other posts have covered how we visited lovely little villages, walked Meg on the tow path, swam in the River Usk, shopped a little, and ate at some great restaurants.  We also brought some vacation goodies back to the boat, like wine and cheese.

The grown-up snacks
The grown-up snacks

Most of the other boats we passed looked more like that last photograph than any of the others—boaters seemed to be couples in smaller boats, no kids along, with years of experience piloting the boat, driving smoothly, sipping their wine, and seeming quite at ease.  Sometimes there were two retirement-age couples in one boat, presumably vacationing together.

Perhaps we will go back for another canal boat holiday in our empty-nester years.  We might need another couple to go with us, so that someone will share the driving with me and I can get that long-awaited nap.  Any takers?  See how it looks so fun!

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  1. Granddaddy | | Reply

    I knew this reminded me of something, the old Erie Canal song I learned in Second grade. The refrain was,

    Low bridge, everybody down
    Low bridge, yeah we’re coming to a town
    And you’ll always know your neighbor
    And you’ll always know your pal
    If ya ever navigated on the Erie Canal

  2. Mary Pat Dixon | | Reply

    Captain Nathan, What an experience you had. And it looked so fun! But it must have been stressful. You had to be vigilant continually. You’re a quick learner!! Beautiful scenery, wine and cheese, walks along the canal, you all really had a phenomenal time. Reading in bed all day, good food, shopping… I can’t imagine a better way to spend a vacation. Great photographs to accompany the narrative and even a video to help with the explanation. A really sterling story in every way.

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