"Pogue Muhone" is skipper of a 36' narrowboat "Pentargon", a Springer afloat on the grey green, muddy waters of England's waterways the cut 365 days a year but treated like a well-used country cottage. The only reason it is not permanently occupied is because of Pogue's family situation. However, in a given year the boat is manned for about 180 days on average.
"The Cut" is an affectionate name for the Canal Network which meshes much of England, parts of Wales and also includes certain rivers which have been 'canalised'. "The cut" has been beautifully and accurately described for me as "England's longest, friendliest village".
NEW YEAR 2014
Our 2014 New Year story really begins in Brentford, on the bridge above the tidal Lock on Monday 30th Dec 2013 but the roots of Pentargon's Seasonal Festivities went back exactly one week to Monday 23rd Dec 2013 when Pogue nursed Pentargon into Brentford after a lunatic solo blast of 100 locks and 94 miles down the Grand Union Canal from Braunston to Brentford in 72hrs, to find on arrival in the semi-tidal that Thames Lock was unmanned with the lockies gone off for Christmas. Next 'official' opening would be in January. 'Twas blowing an unbelievable hooley on 23rdDec2013 in London so even if Pogue and Pentargon had gotten onto the River that day, they would have had to huddle in the tidal Thames just outside Thames Lock 'til the storm passed and hope for a calmer daylit slot, on a future day, to float down to Limehouse. [It was subsequently discovered that Limehouse lockies had also gone home for Christmas].
"Future days" in this case would be Xmas Eve, Xmas Day, Boxing Day and so on. Very sociable I'm sure? Pentargon was by now slotted into a favourite mooring in the semi-tidal, just a hundred metres upstream of the exit onto the tidal. In all the circumstances the right thing would be to leave the boat there and go home. For Once, The Right Thing Was Expeditiously Done. CHRISTMAS and BOXING DAY were spent at home with wife, a son and a granny. They would be all be dispersing after the Noeline festivities, giving an excellent excuse for returning to the boat to check the stern-gland and water in the bilge. You know the sort of things that draw one on board. Pogue travelled back from land house in Furrock to floating country cottage in Brentford. Family situation was that SonWun was away ski-ing in the Alps, SonToo was in Kiwiland's South Island for the interim. Wife was honouring a long-standing and much anticipated New Year invitation at Bude in Cornwall. All this had been planned months ago and as part of the original plan, Pogue was going to rest and sleep and chill through the New Year period with the boat land-side at Stabbits. Build up energy for whatever might be ahead?
But now Pogue would be chilling on board Pentargon.. (literally! as all his heating charcoal was spent). Pentargon had been moored at Thames Lock for a week between 23rd and 30th. Pogue was expecting someone might have noticed; someone might let us through the lock at 1030/1130 on Mon30Dec, so as to be able to use a favourable tide and the very short day that was in it, to loop down to Limehouse before dark and get in before dark and thus onto the Lee Navigation and the River Lea. We could then wander up to Stansted Abbotts to get Pentargon under that crane before the New Year. That is what we called Plan A and Plan A was now heading with remarkable alacrity down Shit Creek without the proverbial paddle. PogueMuHone is an inveterate optimist. He still hoped that if Pentargon were to be on the actual holding bollards by the Thames Lock early on the first 'working' day after Christmas, somebody might possibly come along with a 'key in their pocket' , as it were, open a gate [just to check the hydraulics were working] and he could escape?
Thus the story of New Year 2014 began at Brentfordon the bridge above the tidal lock on Mon30thDec.
THE DAY BEFORE THE DAY BEFORE NEW YEAR 2014
Morning of 30th, Pogue had one of his 'little ideas' and took two small diesel cans down to the Jet station by Kew Bridge and brought back about 12L of 'insurance'. It had been some time since fuel had been purchased for the boat. In fact the last 'refill' had been at Aynho down near Bicester on the Oxford Canal quite some time ago. To get to and from the Jet station, Pogue had to cross the bridge over the lock.
At 1030 on Mon30thDec, he was standing on the bridge, with a can of diesel in each mitt, watching the rising of the tide and dreaming of lock gates magically opening within the hour, when the local C&RT manager, who is an 'acquaintance' passed by.
He bid Pogue the sentiments of the Season and confirmed that earlier he had checked the lock-keeping arrangements (which are not in his brief even though Pogue KNOWS he has a key in his pocket but suffers from advanced jobs-worth-iness).
"The lock" (sez yer man) "has been booked 'especially' for you, 1330 Thurs 02 Jan 2014".
Sunset on Thu 2 Jan 2014 would be at 1603z, two and a half hours after the time I'd be let go. Takes three hours or more on a good day to get to Limehouse from the Brent; more like three and a half. AND you arrive in the pool of London with an edd tide running at five knots. Getting out of Thames Lock at 1330 was pointless. It would be just getting dark at Westminster with at least thirty minutes to go to Limehouse, including that infamous section under Blackfriars and London Bridges in wild winds.
As well as which, gales were forecast to parade across the British Isles one after another for the foreseeable future. Last thing you need in a Narrow Boat in fading light on the River is a gale and torrential rain. Even if it is supposed to be in your back.
Do you wonder why we use the word "suppose"
It may not be immediately obvious, even to a seasoned sailor/navigator, that the tidal Thames is a Law Unto Itself as regards wind direction. Lay a course from Brentford to Limehouse and you get about 080 degrees true . But check the Imray chart and find that, at any given moment, you may be tracking 358 (at Chiswick RNLI station) or 185 (at Barn Elms reach). Not a lot of sailors realise that as you steam by the venerable Houses of Parliament at Westminster you are actually tracking due North South.
Pentargon is not [yet] FITTED with working navigation lights so she can't be used 'at night' on the tidal Thames. (She does have the parts etc on board and Pogue is a competent and confident sparkie but it would take some time to wire them all up, being as how they were never on a priority list.)
Some mental arithmetic, and a hunch, establishes in short order that this is NOT going to work.
What to do?
Well! The ONLY reason Pentargon is at Brentford is to use the tide to make a four-hour passage devoid of locks, instead of a three or four-day passage via Camden and Duckett's Cut and almost twenty locks. There are ten between where Pentargon lay on the Brent and Bull's Bridge about three miles up t'cut.The Gauging Lock first up, Clitheroe's next, by the A40 and Osterley upstream. Then the Hanwell flight of five by Ealing hospital, followed by Hanwell Top, followed by Norwood Top.
1130/Dec30, ship's log notes "engine started".
Strategies are now being jettisoned and the tactics bag is being pulled out and dusted.
It is going to be a long haul across London. No Lock from Norwood Top to the three at Camden, one at St.Pancras, then City Road, Sturt, Acton before the haul by Borough market and Victoria Park to Old Ford, finishing with the infamous trio in Duckett's Cut. Upper, Middle and Lower.
Tony Buckland is contacted, is free and will meet the boat somewhere about the middle of the Ealing Five. Which he does and is a very welcome addition. Tony owns NB "Black Jack" hard by Alperton and this is his manor. He is also excellent crew and company. We have sailed together on deeper waters and are old friends.
Suffice to say we moor up at Tesco Bulls Bridge about 1600 having done 3.5mls and ten locks in four and a half hours. Pentargon's trusty ole Lister has had enough at that stage and it would be foolish to proceed due to the Black Smoke Syndrome. The SR2 would simply overheat and cut out. Tony leaves the boat at that point; he lives only a few miles away near Alperton.
Pogue sets about some 'house-keeping' and degrades his self to visit Tesco and in general just wastes time as the engine cools down a bit. By 1800, having done some mental arithmetic and sqez a hunch or two, he realises it could take three hours to get to Alperton, possibly a bit more, as Pentargon's engine does not like being driven hard later in the day due to The Black Smoke Syndrome.
So he sets off. Details of the section shall, for the moment, remain vague. Suffice to say that he tied up eventually outside Sainsbury's in Alperton at 2330, some five and a half hours after leaving Bulls Bridge for a 'two-hour' drive over seven miles of cut with no lock. Time to get the head down, get some sleep, before new Year's Eve, while Pentargon spends the night cooling her engine down to ambient.
Pogue pulls live human body, suffering from hypothermia, from canal, organises NHS to take victim away and is told the subject is showing 30degC. but will live.
We may as well get out of this dark place into a bit of sunlight somewhere down the cut. Start engines. Unleash boat and pull in fenders. Check throttle settings. Check tiller. Engage gear. Start moving. Check wash and heading. Just a small curve in the towpath and we will be under the Green Road. Something in the water. Against the wall.
Looks humanoid. Is it a black mannekin someone tipped in the canal? Oh Fcuk. It's human, half hanging onto the wall. Alive. Braying. No safety chains on curve. No ladder. Oh Fcuk.
Enter save-a-fellow-man-mode. Details sketchy. He's fully conscious. That water is cold. You could die of hypothermia in minutes. Forget all the shit they taught you about saving an "overboard". None of it applies or will work here. I'm a lone ranger. I don't have one crew to call 999. I don't have a second crewman to throw a lifebelt. I don't have a third crewman to establish our exact location for the emergency services. I don't have a fourth crewman to watch the victim and whisper confident sweet nothings in his ear.
The boat is reversed slowly until it's as close as possible to the rescue and prop disconnected. He seems compos mentis which is good because shortly before death he would get dopey, drowsy, uncooperative . He's told to grab anything he can grab at the back of the boat, find the rudder with his feet, so I can manhandle him on board. He does not want to be helpful. He's frightened and dis-orientated. . I take a mooring pin and tell him if he does not grab some part of the boat NOW, I'll belt him one with the pin and then tie him to the boat with a mooring line. He gets the message and within seconds he's on deck saturated and holding onto his little bag of courage.
He is out of his head. Stoned. Well! The Lord be thanked for small mercies. That'll help keep him alive a bit longer than usual. 999 is called for an ambulance. Boat is tied up as well as circumstances allow. Emergency cannot locate our position and ask what street we're on. Fcukkit! We're not on a street. We're in a boat. In a canal. Near a lock. Called Old Ford Lock.
They still can't place me. Can I find a street name. I ask a jogger. He turns out to be "non-English" but offers E20. Jazes."E20" is an alternative title for a TV soap called East Enders and is used by a canalside charity for disabled ex-servicemen. (Great bunch of guys by the way, providing a great service to themselves, the canal community and the general area.
Where are we?
Gotta cover this guy up somehow and get help. But not from an East European jogger. Pogue orders the victim to sit on the deck, covered with a fleece dressing gown, told to not even THINK of moving. Pogue runs back up the cut, across the bridge, looking for a street name. Dace Road is offered by a passer by. Pogue is on the mobile. They cannot locate Dace Road.
Pogue looks back to the boat, from the bridge. The rescued one is off the boat and hoofing it down the towpath. Race back, grab the mooring pin, grab him and show him the mooring pin. Offer to club him unless he returns at once to the place where-at he was left. He gets the drift.
Pogue explains that with one swipe of the pin, he will if necessary make him totally immovable for some considerable time. He seems to understand the reasoning and becomes quite cooperative. The nee-naw finds us, after what seems to be an age and control is handed to them. They're good! Job done; they tell me there is no paperwork. The last fukki thing I want is paperwork. I just want to get into a sunny spot.
NEW YEAR'S EVE 2013
Tony had promised to rejoin the boat 'in the morning' which he did at 1130 by Sainsbury's Kensal Green, a two hour boat drive for Pentargon from her overnight mooring at Sainsbury's Alperton. The team then proceeded through Little Venice, Lissom Grove and Regent's Park where an enforced stop was entertained to allow Pentargon to cool down before negotiating the Islington tunnel.
Onwards to Camden Locks and finally, just as we had cleared them, the engine unexpectedly and very suddenly cut out at 1600. Nothing for it but to rope Pentargon to safety and go to a nearby Turkish take-away for Lamachun and Turkish Tea. Neither will we mention the smashing of the ship's lamp against a bridge abuttment in windy conditions under rope control before Pentargon reached a safe place to tie up at about 1640.
Tony took his leave just as darkness descended and left Pogue to his own devices. About 1800, Pogue decided to check the systems as there was something about this cut-out which was different from previous ones.
You may recall a couple of cans of Jet diesel early yesterday morning at Kew Bridge?
Bought as 'insurance' against unforeseen circumstances?
The port tank was dry and the port tank is where the diesel which drives the engine lives.
Pogue cashed in his 'insurance' by emptying the two cans into the port tank and decided, since the Black Smoke Syndrome was not the issue, that he would press on. Engine overheating was not the problem. Fuel starvation was. We know for the future what happens when she runs out of diesel. We know she self-primes and starts in no time just by using the decompressers.
Pogue knows London waterways very well and the series of locks that eventually lead to Victoria Park. Advance was achieved lock by lock, pound by pound, always keeping the engine as unstressed as possible. And so by 2230 we were descending Vicky Park Old Ford Lock. For purposes of orientation we are close to the famous East End market at Roman Road and on home ground. An hour and a half to go before New Year and all's well.
Ahead of us now the most trying and contrary bit of cut in all of London and possibly the South East Region. Correctly named the Hertfordshire Union Canal but known to all and sundry as Duckett's Cut, it is a mile long stretch with three locks, hilariously known as Upper, Middle and Lower. It takes every bit of skill and training and an awful lot of luck to cross this stretch at night in good weather with crew. At 2245 on New Year's Eve, Pogue Muhone was doing it alone with a gale brewing. This is where fifty years of sailing experience begins to come in handy.
The last time I'd gone across Duckett's there was thin sheet ice on it and I was shepherding Sarah Grimstone who could make no headway against the ice in her Tupperware Yoghurt Pot. So I acted as a sort of ice-breaker and minder. Sarah had only recently come onto the cut and was learning as she went. Fair dues she has become not just a great buddy, with a wicked sense of humour, but a skilled skipper whom I am delighted to have as a friend.
Luck was on the side of the brave (foolhardy?) and Pentargon emerged at Fish Island at 2345, onto the Lea, into a howling southerly gale with torrential rain, seeking a mooring. It was surprisingly quiet on the towpath, but the weather being absolutely foul that might be expected? However the parking was wall-to-wall. It would be necessary not just to find a secure mooring but find a place to park in any event!
Because it is New Year's Eve, any sort of lunacy with intent is not only POSSIBLE in East London but PROBABLE. Last year at Bow Interchange, Pentargon was left overnight just for ONE night and a window was smashed. Decision was taken to turn South into the teeth of the gale and make up to E20 Old Ford Lock. We are going to HAVE to upload diesel at Bow before heading up the Lea anyway. Luckily the [electric] gates were open. A text book entrance and tie up was effected without mishap at 2357, howling winds, rain bucketing down and fireworks beginning to go off in the murk.
Pogue got onto the landing stage and, this being an automated lock, used his key to switch it on just as cheers began to ring out from the high-rise flats all around, where everyone in balconies in the lee of the wind was commencing to usher in 2014. Nobody saw the sodden yellow-suited sailor pressing the button to close the gates. As the fireworks started to bang, the electric sluice paddles began to open, the festive crowd was counting down ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one and with a huge cheer from the invisible but noisy revellers, the boat lowered itself down and out of the wind.
Down in the sheltered pound below Old Ford, one sleeps like a baby. One did. The head was down before 0030 and next thing Pogue vaguely remembers is daylight and the hands of the clock showing 8.30am. It has become a mission nowadays to produce a bowl of porridge on board as an antidote to winter mornings. This was done. Then washing up. Then dressing up. Then having a look in the bilges. Checking the batteries. Checking the clock. 1100 GMT