Good Friday and after the skin-penetrating dampness of yesterday, this morning’s weather is as perfect as is possible to be. Down on the wharf, men and machines have made an early start in a bid to restore the pump to working order. It seems they’ve retrieved a section of boat decking that was jamming the impeller. However, a passing stranger informs me that the pump at Crofton is also out and more men are on their way to try and remedy the water levels. So that will teach me for being inquisitive – I’m none the wiser and have yet more words to look up.
This is the day that I become a trainee crew member aboard the Barbara McLellan as it transports Easter holidaymakers on a five hour trip down to the Dundas Aqueduct and back. I’m more than a little anxious and far too early so I sit on a bench with Tom and Gwen who’ve just walked along the canal from Staverton. Gwen tells me about their walk and Tom says nothing. Gwen tells me about their daughter who’s at Portsmouth University and has to spend an extra day there to clean up her room. Tom says nothing. I tell Gwen what I’m doing today and Gwen says she thinks it would be a jolly good idea if Tom undertook some volunteering. Tom looks in the other direction. I see some people in red sweatshirts gathered by the Barbara McLellan. They are the crew members and I bid my farewells to Gwen. And Tom.
My job is in the galley. I have little idea what’s involved but someone’s just delivered a pan of pea and mint soup and another containing sweet potato and carrot. Well, I think that’s what they are but, subsequently, matters will be simplified when then the options are referred to as green and orange. There’s also bread and butter, both of which require cutting, and chunks of cheese. Oh yes, and croissants and pastries so no-one’s going hungry but things have to be done in a certain order. Eamon is, apparently, in charge of the galley and by default, in charge of me. However, Elspeth says that Eamon’s too busy cleaning the outside of the boat. Skipper pokes his head round the corner to say there may be trouble ahead. It’s ok though: Eamon arrives tout de suite and all is well.
The passengers are eager to come aboard. In all the excitement/confusion/panic of learning what’s expected, I’d totally forgotten there would be paying guests. Fortunately, there are only ten of them and, like canal dogs, they’re an enthusiastic and friendly bunch. Elspeth plays the health and safety tape which makes me a little nervous: the calming voice tells the passengers not to worry if someone falls overboard or there’s a fire as the crew have had in-depth training. Actually, ‘in-depth’ might not be appropriate here. The voice also informs the passengers that members of the crew can be identified by their red sweatshirts or their name badge. I have neither and there’s still no sign of the whistles. I take the orders for teas and coffees and introduce myself just so they know I’m not one of them. And we’re off into my first ever lock.
It’s wonderful. It’s the first trip of the season and once we’ve worked out what’s supposed to happen, it all falls into place. Crew-wise, we have a dream team. My new friends advise me that the experience of volunteering on a canal boat is tempered by the Skipper. Having come into contact with one or two canal ‘types’, I can understand this. We are lucky enough to have Graeme who is funny and kind and lets everyone have a go at everything, but is also super-responsible and reliable. Mike is ‘mate’. He’s a bit posh and ‘old school’ but, once the pastries and coffees have been dealt with, I’m (tentatively) up at the helm with him as we navigate the Avoncliff aqueduct.
A couple of hours later, the green and orange having been disposed of, we reach Dundas and the passengers disembark to stretch their boat legs. We have a book in which our skills are signed off and Eamon only has to secure a turn of the boat in order to achieve skipper status; which is accomplished in time to retrieve our holidaymakers. And whilst he’s doing this, Mike broadens my canal trivia by telling me about the 200 hundred years old crane that used to lift coal, wheat and other goods that had been transported from elsewhere.
On the return journey, I sit at the front with the lady passengers and we discuss the sexism practised in bowling clubs and the lack of helmswomen on the canal. Skipper arrives without warning to point out that, as I’ve chosen to be in this position, I should be looking out for oncoming boats and making the appropriate signals to the man at the helm. Skipper says there are ample opportunities for women to be at the helm if they’d only stop chatting and laughing. He is booed soundly by the paying persons who threaten to throw him overboard.
Skipper requests my presence at the helm and I learn a lot about steering a large boat down a canal past other boats. It’s so much more difficult than it looks when Tim and Pru do it. Skipper says I can have so many things ticked off in my book. Forlornly, I picture the forgotten book laying on my bedroom floor in Poole. I know – I’ll write my own book!