Sailing a small yacht on inland canals and canalized rivers in the traditional manner one would sail unhindered on an open sea isn't really possible due to their inherently restrictive nature; the numerous low bridges and lock gates one encounters and, as is the case in many areas, the huge proliferation of overhanging trees there are to negotiate.
However, despite the obstacles, these often overlooked waterways can present an interesting challenge to the normal cruising environment of the seafarer who’s boat has a relatively shallow draft and a mast that can be easily raised and lowered, and by simply adding a few additional pieces of kit, and obtaining any relevant licenses to navigate there is a worthy amount of cruising under sail to be had.
Most of the miles covered by boat inland are shorter distances of the stop start kind and therefore the sea-sailor contemplating a journey along a canal never having done so, and whose main objective while cruising until now has been his yachts performance in swallowing those oft choppy sea miles beating away at a leg of coastal passage, perhaps, like marmite spread over a favourite piece of toasted bread, he or she will either love or hate it... I would rather the yachtsman did the former so with this article my aim is to help him or her be better prepared for what this type of cruising entails by sharing some of my experiences of canal sailing undertaken in my own small yacht named Shoal Waters in and around my own cruising area on England’s East Coast.
|Sailing on the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation|
Cruising sailors can often carry more kit on their boats than they need so may already have the necessary equipment for inland work. Now, I no longer use an engine but by all means if you do take yours along in the knowledge it sits comfortingly in reserve. I promise you by covering the shortest passage from A to B without it in what can be a challenging environment will be gratifying.
I should mention that as canals are a part of Shoal Waters’ cruising ground so the kit listed below is part of her general cruising inventory used in the day to day sailing I do and is carried all year round.
List of useful kit carried on board Shoal Waters for a canal trip:
Bridgesail, paddle, Norfolk Broads style quant pole, lock key, 60 foot length of rope with a monkey’s fist knot tide in one end, mud weight, mooring hook, sounding cane, and bucket with lid.
Oar/Paddle: Although we carry an oar as well I choose a canoe-type paddle because it has a wider blade than a normal oar and its length is about 4.5 foot, just right for the seated paddling position on the cockpit coaming of my boat. The paddle comes into its own when maneuvering in and out of a deep lock and has been the main form of propulsion on many a length of cut.
Quant pole: Used from the cockpit or foredeck to punt around in shallow areas and Shoal Waters has side decks specially built to enable quanting, which I find is a most pleasant way to travel on any peaceful stretch of still or slow moving water.
Lock key: Fits two sizes of paddle gates however there are canals that require special lock keys which can be hired, or on leaving a deposit can be borrowed.
60’ bow-hauling rope: For when all other options are closed and you still want to make progress, or simply want to take to the towpath and physically tow the boat. This is done with a slight lean forward in one's gait and the rope over one shoulder and with the monkey’s fist comfortably held in hand. I use 8mm braided rope as it is strong enough for the job and considering its length coils down to next to nothing for stowing away in a locker. Bow-hauling is surprisingly easy to do and I’ve hauled Shoal Waters for miles along a towpath.
For a session of bow-hauling to run smoothly when single-handed I've found the secret is to lash the tiller enough so the boat will steer away from the towpath while at the same time remain in balance with the force of your pull. Additionally, I find with the hauling rope attached further aft (straight to the foot of the mast) she holds a superior parallel course than when run through the bow fairlead. If you have the help of crew then it’s even easier and taking turns on the helm every half hour or so is quite enjoyable way to stretch the legs.
The only snags with bow-hauling are coming across unmaintained stretches of towpath where trees or large sections of overgrown thorn bushes and the like come between you and the water having taken route on the very edge of a path. Now, I’m all for more green the merrier today but for good reason the towpath would have been meticulously kept clear of any obstructions in the days of commercial trading. And there has been an occasion when I politely had to inform a float fisherman who begrudged moving his rod out of the way to allow me to pass that the towpath he was sat on was put in place for exactly what I was doing, towing a boat!
Mud weight: Used on a canal in the same way they are on the Norfolk Broads, and is rarely needed being so close to banks on either side. I use a 17lb fisherman type anchor at sea but have found is to be excessive for the application on still water and once we hooked into a shopping trolley.
Mooring hook: For wild mooring alongside a clear towpath and has a sharp point one end so it can be driven into the ground and a ring to tie up to on the other end.
Length of garden cane for soundings: The sounding cane needs no introduction other than to say without one I feel I have a limb missing…
Bridgesail: perhaps my most important piece of kit for inland canal sailing. A bridgesail is what its name implies, a sail that is set to transport a vessel short distances between bridges. Ideally, and worth one’s prudent consideration is how easy this sail will be to set up as it will be put to use often in this environment. Any spare sail carried on board could be adapted for this purpose, and however complicated the science of sailmaking may be, on one occasion a friend and I had great fun taking turns standing on the bow of Shoal Waters with our arms spread out holding our rain jackets open catching a following wind. We covered some useful ground in this way and had a lot of fun doing it.
However, if you plan on cruising for any real distance on a regular basis, it may be worth sourcing something dedicated to this purpose like a small dinghy mast with a sail, or a surfboard mast and sail, and keep it rolled up on board ready to be put in use. For canal work I have two dual purpose bridgesails. Shoal Waters’ canvas cockpit cover doubles as one and so does the topsail which I use most often and when in use has to be tweaked like finely tuning a violin to get the best out of it, and is kept permanently furled on its bamboo yard and stored in the cabin.
|Evolution of a bridgesail... Stort Navigation|
On one waterway called the Stort Navigation, which is 14 miles of canalized River Stort straddling the Essex and Hertfordshire borders, an old photograph shows bridgesails were used by horse drawn barges and appear to be a simple spritsail, marginally bigger to something like an optimist dinghy sail, set to ease the burden on a tired horse. Whether being propelled by bridgesail, or towed by a horse, the pace of movement along the canals before engines came along was like life back then in general - slow, and that is just how the canals are enjoyed by leisure boaters today.
Understanding this concept of a heavy, floating load being moved by the power of such a meagre sail on still or hardly moving water helps to settle one’s own expectations, if there are any which can, if need be, be adjusted to enjoy fully this type of cruising environment and after first launching your own boat into still water you will discover soon enough how little effort is in fact needed to maintain movement, and that there are only two speeds needed for enjoyable canal cruising: one being slow and the other full stop!
For me the relatively shorter start stop distances encountered on these enamoured waters are the basis of what this type of inland cruising is all about. As are being at ease in one’s own comfy vessel absorbing new surroundings as they are slowly revealed on either bank. Memories of oyster catchers calling ‘phweep-phweep’ as a salt wind thrashes into one’s eyes soon become distant in urban canal areas and as we move on through rural levels beyond every hill and every new twist now are chirping robins, sparrows and tits. Dividers and dead reckoning become redundant as the sea-skipper manually works a way up or down through a succession of lock gates, with all it entails: crisscrossing from bankside to bankside, opening paddles and slackening mooring lines as a lock empties, or holding-fast as water rushes in and one fills; catching a rare glimpses of kingfishers - that colourful little bird the keen eye can take pleasure in watching dive low to banquet, or coming alongside to clove hitch around a bollard before unclipping the forestay by its quick release pelican hook and lowering down the mast until secure in its crutch. Once again it’s time to cast off and, with a light shove and a hop on deck, have gentle way and a soft ripple in one’s wake. A brown backed carp breaks the surface near the overhanging branches on the opposite bank and suddenly there’s an almighty splash immediately followed by a swoosh of water as it swims powerfully out of sight, and the little green yacht glides with ease under another delightful, brick built, low-arched and charmingly ornate Victorian bridge…
|About to negotiate another delightful, brick-built, low-arched Victorian bridge|
There are also lengths of canal where quiet water has become home to the occasional shoal of gudgeon after falling into disuse, and a sunny day in the margins shows up the cover of one or two serious looking pike...
Let’s take a look at two of them in this corner of England that can offer spirited sailing:
The 8.5 mile North Walsham and Dillham Canal in Norfolk which had six working locks and watermills sited along its length, two of these were bone mills once served by the iconic Norfolk wherry with cargoes of offal. Two of its locks have been restored and a longer term plan of work drawn up. Nevertheless with silted water, lush, green woodland banks overgrown on the lower reaches where it falls into the River Ant, a hot summer’s day cruising in such surroundings can resemble something more akin to an Amazon jungle waterway and be an absolute joy to practice ones boating in… In one trip on this canal in 2014 and using my garden cane for soundings I was presented with an average of four feet depth here and being so choked with overhanging branches found any breeze tended to funnel from either end of the waterway and thus when a favourable aft wind came in could set Shoal Waters’ bridgesail, which I set from the tabernacle, to drive the boat and effortlessly penetrate deep into north Norfolk farmland.
|North Walsham and Dilham Canal|
Another disused canal being brought back to life I’ve had the pleasure of sailing my punt Winkler on is The Thames and Medway Canal, a very small cut which quite recently built its own slipway to give access to boats once more, in northwest Kent, which originally went from Gravesend Basin to Strood Lock but now terminates at Higham and is slowly being cleared for use as a leisure waterway. The initial intention of the canal was to offer safer passage to barges carrying ordnance round the Ilse of Grain to Chatham, and later, by the time building began in 1800, to save journey time sailing from the River Thames round to the River Medway.
|Winkler: not quite a yacht, enjoying the great linear sailing to be had on this small canal|
The idea was full of good intention but with boats having to wait for the tide to use the lock gates there was hardly any saving. Add to this the coming of the railway in the 1840s and we can see how transport of goods on the canal would soon fall out of favour. Even so, the service of towing Thames sailing barges from Gravesend up to Dung wharf at Lower Higham to offload a hold full of fetid London mixture continued until the 1930s.
While the trailer-sailor owner can take advantage of various launch slips that exist on inland canals there are navigations on the East Coast that not only offer exploratory sailing but are directly accessible from the sea. I keep my boat on the tidal River Blackwater and cruise locally and further afield rivers and creeks that indent this corner of North Sea, and only a couple of nautical miles sail away, at Heybridge, near the head of my local river is a sea lock which gives entrance to the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation’s 14 miles of fresh inland water. This delightful waterway meanders through some of Essex’s most enchanting rural landscapes to the county town of Chelmsford and has a safe boating idyll feeling typical of many canals. And there are one or two longer lengths between bridges and locks where the yachtsman can raise his yacht's mainmast and sail gloriously through some truly picturesque countryside. The canal has an added bonus for skippers moored in tidal water who can take to their avenues of discovery and adventure for a late season cruise. Fresh water can save on elbow grease later on as it kills off barnacles… Building on the Chelmer began in 1793 and it was fully open by 1797 and would save the slow struggle of horses carting goods over Danbury Hill that had been unloaded from ships in the Blackwater, and transporting of commercial cargo carried on until 1972.
|It's easy for friends to join you on canals. Here the bridgesail is set and ready to go|
Further south of the estuary more options for inland cruising exist:
On the mighty London River, in Limehouse Reach, yachts can enter into Limehouse Basin and venture onward into Limehouse Cut and beyond, or immediately opposite the O2 Arena, in Bugsby’s Reach, take that muddy and twisting tidal section of the old River Lea, known as Bow Creek, from where Vikings once sailed 17 miles inland to the small Hertfordshire malting town of Ware, and where the tidal Bow Locks are gateways to the smooth, steel waters of the Lea Navigation (also known as Lee) and on pre-arrangement with the lock keeper open up to give the sea boat access to sojourn deep into the heart of England’s canal network.
|Near Bow flyover, on the Lea Navigation in East London|
There is one special Thames sailing barge still to be seen sailing at annual Thames barge meetings. She’s Lady of the Lea, a slightly smaller version of a spritsail barge that was built in 1931 to fit under the bridges on this navigation and to carry explosives from gun powder mills at Waltham Abbey, out through Bow locks and Bow Creek, and down the Thames to Woolwich Arsenal. Her initial methods of propulsion were her stumpy sailing rig and, when in the canal, she could be horse-drawn until she was fitted with an engine in the 1940s.
It goes without saying there is mile after mile of inland river cruising opportunity the further one ventures west on the River Thames, past Teddington Lock. However, with our focus further east there are other navigations worthy of note. In the Lower Thames there is access to the River Medway Navigation in Kent, that which begins at the head of the tidal River Medway at Allington Lock and is the doorway to this somewhat slower pace of cruising through eleven locks, 22 bridges and 17.5 miles of England’s rural garden county up to Tonbridge. And further north is the freshwater navigation of the River Stour. Bordering Suffolk and Essex, it passes through Constable Country and the world renowned Flatford Mill. The Stour was cut off to boats from the sea by the building of a dam in Cattawade Creek however, skippered by her former owner; the late Charles Stock, Shoal Waters was the last known yacht to venture up to Flatford in 1969.
Other notes and pointers for consideration when on inland waterways:
Check with the IWA before navigating as licences are required for all vessels on most inland waterways and can be purchased on a day, week, month or yearly basis.
Overhead electric cables are a real danger to tall masts and one must maintain a watch for any that may be encountered.
Weils Disease is a type of bacterial infection caused by contact with some farm animals and rats urine in water, and can have very serious implications. It can be contracted through the eyes, mouth and nose, and open cuts and abrasions where it is advisable to minimise contact with stagnant water and avoid completely on open cuts and abrasions.
Carry an Ordnance Survey map of the area and, if possible, a guide book or map which shows where cables are sited and the average depth to the waterway you intend navigating on.
Nature’s course is not something you often read about or hear talked openly about and isn’t really a problem at sea, however inland is a different matter and a plan of action should be in place for when nature calls as public toilets are few. If there’s room on board a portable cassette toilet would be luxury. On the other hand, a bucket with a lid on and a bottle of chemical is a simple solution. Failing that, cross one’s fingers as boatyards with facilities do exist on inland waterways, and those giant supermarkets in or near towns are not just good for restocking supplies as they also have customer toilets…
And, as is the case with any type of inland waterway, after rainfall there will be an increased flow of water and on the Medway Navigation they offer a Strong Stream Advice service warning mariners when it is not safe to attempt to navigate.
All in all there is ready access to some interesting and varied canalised waters with rewards enough that await the intrepid sailor prepared to tackle them.
Enjoy your cruising, Tony Smith, gaff cutter Shoal Waters