After our making little progress yesterday courtesy of a few necessary chores combined with deciding to have a relaxing lunch, we needed to cover a bit more ground today. At least, we thought we did.
A usual rental cruise on the canals is a there-and-back affair in which you cruise outbound for half the time, then turn your boat around and return for the second half. As long as you plan your “winding” [turning] point – most narrow boats are longer than the canal is wide – all is well.
The trouble is that faced with a circular trip such as this Thames Ring, there’s no easy way of knowing where half way around is. Knowing is necessary so that, if you find you’re not going to make it, you can turn back and retrace your initial steps in time to return the boat.
Half way round in terms of distance means little, what is really needed is half way in terms of time. Each lock (there are 175 of them) typically takes 15 minutes. Since the number of locks on different stretches of the canal varies greatly, half way in terms of time is terribly hard to gauge. It can be estimated given the correct information but the estimate gets torn up if you end up following one or more boats into a section of locks – 15 minutes per lock can become 30 minutes or more. Recently we passed a boat heading north that had been forced to wait 60 minutes to get into one lock on a busy section – bang went an hour of their cruising. You begin to see the difficulty.
Prior to our leaving, Francine had found a published detailed itinerary for the Thames Ring, albeit in the opposite direction, clockwise, i.e south down the Grand Union Canal, up the Thames to Oxford and north up the Oxford Canal. Francine plotted the days on our route map, read it backwards ‘cos we were going anti-clockwise, and figured out that we seemed to be on schedule. We think we need to get through Oxford and onto the Thames on Friday (tomorrow), though. Hopefully our Thames section should be a little quicker than the published route because we’ll be going with the flow of the river rather than against it.
Last night, we’d moored near one of many lift bridges along the Oxford Canal. The bridges being a little more photogenic than locks, Francine had been eyeing it up hoping for some decent morning light, so her first order of business today was to get out and snag it.
Satisfied that we could proceed, Capt. Virginia’s first order of business, after breakfast, of course, was to perform the daily maintenance checks: engine oil, engine cooling water, rear bilges and a grease gland for the propeller. These done, we got under way.
Once again, Francine and I started the day walking ahead of the boat for 5 miles to a fresh water point which proved to be even slower than usual taking almost an hour, darn it. Then Juniper’s engine decided it didn’t want to restart. Juniper’s now unpowered bow drifted casually across the canal ‘cos silly ol’ Franco had cast off prematurely. Tut, tut! This is the third time Capt. Virginia has had difficulty starting so we called Wyvern Shipping to let them know. As it’s an intermittent problem so far, there’s little more to be done but we wanted to log it with them. Eventually the starter motor turned over and Juniper chugged into life. We continued, Franco having learned a valuable lesson – never cast of until the engine is running. Oops!
Locks were sporadic and, as usual, were set against us but the now efficient locking team of Francine and Franco kept our merry band moving. Then Franco gave Capt. Virginia a rest at the tiller – it’s mentally hard work requiring complete concentration – and Capt. Virginia switched roles to lock operator. We did catch another cruise boat for a few locks and had to wait for them to “lock down” before we could follow suit.
At one lock, Francine was spitting feathers because a brilliant blue and orange Kingfisher caught a fish and alighted about 6 feet from her while it stunned and consumed its catch – and there she stood armed with a windlass instead of a camera. Never mind, at least she had the privilege of seeing it, which is more than I did. Bother!
Towards the end of our cruising day, the Oxford Canal is actually a short stretch of the River Cherwell. What a difference that made. Juniper began moving a little more quickly and became noticeably more responsive to the tiller [Ed: mind you, that’s not difficult]. This, I’m told, is because the River Cherwell has a decent depth of water under Juniper’s keel whereas the Oxford Canal is very shallow. We won’t dwell on it but Capt. Virginia had run aground near the edge on a couple of occasions a day or so ago. I was convinced he had been trying to straighten Juniper’s rudder. 😀
We exited the Cherwell and re-entered the Oxford Canal proper, through a curious and heavily gated diamond-shaped lock, at about 6:00 PM and looked for a place to stay overnight. We were in a pleasantly rural and seemingly completely silent location above Kidlington. A lift bridge ahead of us was in the down position so we’d have to pull in anyway. We called a halt for a drink. There’s just one boat near us and I think that’s unoccupied. Blissful silence reigned.
In a reasonably trouble-free day we’d managed almost 18½ miles in a little over 9 hours. Clearly, 2 mph is all that can be achieved. Our Canal Companion suggests we are about 4 hours from the Thames but we’ll need our daily slow water fill up so it’ll probably be a good 5 hours.