A Lock and Bull story: a pub wasn’t a pub in olden times unless it offered a grandstand view of gladiatorial combat with lock gates

I never really understood narrowboaters until I overheard a coven meeting in my local sailing club and discovered that, like us ‘normal’ cruising sailors, they are never so enthusiastic and gleeful as when regaling each other with anecdotes of the mortal dangers of their pastime.

Indeed, it’s clear that narrowboating is an extremely hazardous pursuit, not least for the damage it does to your dress sense; basically a composite breathable threelayer permutation of celebrity steam-fiend Fred Dibnah, a poacher from a DH Lawrence novel and a morris dancer.

Actually, that apart, we’re frighteningly alike, ‘cos cruising sailors also aspire to look as ridiculous as possible. It’s just that sailors do it with ‘pinks’, blazers and little admiral caps, while narrowboaters favour pigeonfancier flat caps, bowler hats and soggy woollen jerkins.

Both are period contemporary looks; it’s just that ours is from the 1980s TV nauti-soap Howards’ Way, while narrowboaters go for 1830s Black Country Hovis advert chimney-sweep chic, often accessorised with a ferret as a neckerchief.

Other than that, there’s not much to separate us, apart from the narrowboaters’ uncontrollable urge to plant potatoes, tomatoes and marigolds on their roofs and rusticate everything in sight by stove-enamelling twee floral designs on everything from watering cans and buckets to satellite dishes, mobile phones and Jack Russells.

Yet we are, at heart, kindred spirits, and it’s never better expressed than when spirits are involved – or, in the case of narrowboaters, a warm foaming fermenting pint of putrid gangrenous botulism, also known as ‘real ale’. That’s when the bravura barstool stories of terror begin to flow.

For us, entertainment is provided by humourous tales of such things as broaching off Portland Bill: for narrowboaters, it’s locks that provide comical Cape Hornstyle calamities. And that’s where I agree, ‘cos other than every other aspect of sailing, it’s locks that traumatise me most.

And recently after too much strong mead I fell in with a bunch of narrowboaters who recited an endless litany of light-hearted locking disasters involving boats sinking in seconds when they’d caught on the sill or had been overwhelmed by the gushing water from the sluice.

Everyone’s favourite is the one where a narrowboat got caught on a protruding brick, then swivelled and sank in seconds as the water drained. Hilarious.

Now, it’s well known that in olden times all pubs were built beside locks because of the fantastic free entertainment they provide. If you see a pub without a lock, that’s because it’s been filled in on the grounds of health of safety; one such is Ye Olde Lock and Bull, but not so the Old Ship
at Heybridge Basin on the Blackwater, where there’s a spectator lawn to provide a prime view of the gladiatorial combat and chaos in the lock.

Basically, having an audience just adds tension. Another thing that adds stress is the fact that my outboard doesn’t have reverse. It’s usual practice for the Heybridge lock-keeper to call me in last so I can nudge between the butt-cheeks of the bigger boats in front.

Not only are all eyes on me, but there’s also pressure to get a hurry on, either for the next lock-in or to get in before the tide drops too much (Heybridge only operates an hour or so either side of high water).

So as everyone’s waving me in, I’m doing my best to go as slowly as possible so that I don’t ram the other boats whose crew are preparing to ward me off with fenders, boat hooks, harpoons and maces.

It’s a question of fine judgement as to when to knock my engine into neutral to keep enough steerage on, and not so much that I crash into the other boats. And all the time they’re still urging me on.

When I mentioned this dilemma to shipwright Adi, he suggested throwing a bucket overboard to act as a brake. So, on my next run of the gauntlet into Heybridge I approached a little more purposefully, tossed my bucket over the stern and careered up the chuff of two boats.

In the routine inquest that occurs after every time I go sailing, Adi asked: ‘You did attach a rope, didn’t you?’ Do I look that dumb!

That’s rhetorical, by the way; no need to write in. Of course I attached a rope to the bucket, I just forgot to attach the rope to the boat. Doh!