Many years ago, I went on a barge holiday around Stratford way. It was a pleasant, slow-moving holiday and oddly enough, we always seemed to moor up near a pub. What a lucky coincidence.
The main point of such a holiday is that it is taken at a slow pace. It's not a suitable holiday for anyone in a hurry or for anyone who wants to rush things. Your boat cannot break a wash (the ripples from behind the boat must not 'foam') because that puts a lot of wear on the canal banks - so your speed is very limited. It carries some risk, surprisingly, in fact it carries some big risks. Especially at locks, where you move up or down levels on the canal. You do need a little bit of boat knowledge before you start.
The locks involve some very big gates but these are well balanced and easy to move. If you're going up a level, you sail into the lock, close the gates behind you then go to the gates in front of you. The gates have sluices which you open and close with a winding handle. Someone needs to be at the helm to control the boat or it can have a tendency to wander and batter against the sides and gates of the lock.
The dangerous parts are on the gate (whoever is up there is on a 4-inch beam and if they fall into the lock while the boat's moving, there's not a lot of room to get back out). Those on the boat are safe as long as those on the gate know what they're doing and as long as they don't do anything stupid.
So it was with some surprise that I read of the fatal boat accident where the helmswoman fell under the boat and into the propellers. The helm shouldn't involve any risk of falling at all. What went wrong?
As we had experienced before, as the first water fell into the lock, it bounced off the back lock gate and pushed the boat forwards,' he said.
That happens but it shouldn't happen too fast unless you do something like - fully opening the sluices immediately, rather than gradually.
'We had to put quite a lot of revs on because there was quite a lot of water flowing into the lock.'
You really shouldn't need 'quite a lot of revs' unless you've cranked those sluices in a hurry.
But he said moments later he turned back and noticed the boat moving backwards.
By this point his wife had moved forwards from her position, possibly to pull in one of the narrowboat's fenders, he said.
At the same time, she also realised the craft was moving backwards and began to make her way to the helm to put the boat in neutral or reverse and steady the craft.
She left the helm with the engine running. That's equivalent to putting a brick on your car's accelerator and climbing into the back for a snooze. With one exception. Boats don't have brakes. To stop it moving you need to reverse the engine and even then, there is no such thing as an emergency stop. Someone has to be in control at all times.
It was a terrible accident, but preventable with remedies that were available decades ago when I went on such a holiday. The boat we hired had a 'dead man's handle' system on the controller. If you let go, it sprung back to a neutral idle. I wonder why they don't have those on all hire boats by now? It's a simple enough device. Then again, an experienced boater would regard it as an insult.
Back then, as (it appears) now, the boat hirers tended to assume anyone hiring a boat had some idea what they were doing. In our case we had a few who had been on these barge holidays before, so we had some experienced ones among us.
The hirers didn't make us sit through a training course. Is that wrong of them? When you hire a car, are you expected to take a test, or simply show your licence? Would a plane hire company expect their customers to know how to fly a plane? I've hired tools in the past including a four-inch coring drill for putting in a tumble drier vent. The tool hire company assumed I knew how to use it. I did, but would they be at fault if I didn't and hired it anyway?
In the comments to the article -
I have been thinking about hiring a boat for a very long time. This has put me off completely. As someone who has never had any experience whatsoever, it could prove very dangerous. I think they give you a 10 minute instruction on how to manouver/negotiate locks and general functions and that's about it.
I am relieved that Nina of Birmingham has been put off. Rather like I would be relieved if those who have taken no driving lessons decided to make no attempt to drive.
Boats, especially these canal boats, are big, heavy vehicles with no brakes. The best way to learn about driving them is to take your first few trips with someone who already knows. Just like when you learn to drive a car. They are not for those in a hurry. Traversing a lock takes time and care and if you just haul open the sluices you'll get exactly the effect described here. If you open them slowly you'll have no problems unless your helmsman decides to take a walk.
It is not the responsibility of the car hire companies to teach you to drive. Nor is it the responsibility of the boat hire companies to teach you to operate a barge. If you're going to rent a big and dangerous machine, it's your responsibility to know how to use it.
I don't want to see a campaign for 'boat licences' because that will soon get ridiculous - you'd need to take lessons before taking a rowboat to go fishing on a pond, or to take out any kind of mini-boat on those pleasure-ponds that are only a few feet deep.
What I want to see is people taking the time to learn how to use the things they hire. People taking responsibility for their own education.
Not likely, unfortunately, so there'll be more cases like this. And then, regulations, which will do nothing but generate revenue.