Monday, 16 October 2017

Stepping up a gear

Another new gearbox
October 2017

Yes, that's right - another new gearbox has been fitted into Wand'ring Bark.

Regular readers will remember the saga of our gearbox which had to be replaced by RCR back in May as we set of on our summer jaunt. Well, from the off I was never entirely convinced that all was well with the new PRM 125 lurking at the back of the engine. When I engaged reverse it always dropped in with a solid thunk but forward was always a silky smooth affair, so silky that from time to time it didn't engage and the gearbox slipped for a few seconds before biting, and then all was well for the day.



Initially I put this down to a slightly overfilled gearbox and so after a week or so, I drained the ATF down to the level of the drain plug. This seemed to fix the slipping problem but it still didn't engage very positively. All was well till we got back to the Midlands and then, after the Black Country Boating Festival it started to slip most mornings. 

At that stage I could have called RCR who did the original replacement, but as the gearbox worked when warm and we were just a few days from home I decided to get the boat back to base and then consider my options. An inspection of the ATF revealed a dark red liquid rather then the cherry red I was expecting, and something was clearly amiss. A call went out to RCR asking for a review under their warranty, but there is no hurry said I, as I only live 10 mins from the boat.



This morning I received a call from RCR to say an engineer was on his way and could I get to our boat in 10 mins? Well, I was just finishing my breakfast so I stretched it to 15 mins and sure enough there was an RCR van waiting for me as I arrived. At this stage I was expecting a quick 10 minute inspection to assess the situation and decide what to do next, but then the apprentice bent into the van and out came a brand new PRM gearbox. Clearly this was not going to be a quick job.....

I set to cleaning the boat ready for a council hygiene inspection tomorrow whilst the engineers set about the task of removing and installing the gearbox. It appears that this is quite a common problem with mechanical gearboxes where the cone clutches fail to engage fully and slip till the metal warms up and expands. The diagnosis I offered on the phone was so typical that a replacement was immediately ordered from PRM who ended up paying RCR to fit a replacement unit.



All this activity was played out under the strangest of red skies drought on by a mix of Saharan dust and ask from Spanish forest fires, all carried to us on the periphery of a hurricane tracking north up the west coast of Ireland.



I have to say that situations like this confirm the wisdom of having big jobs done by RCR's contracting arm. Had the gearbox been replaced by a boatyard somewhere outside the Midlands how would I have had it repaired and would it have been done promptly and with good grace? At least with RCR I am more than a one off transaction and they place a value on their reputation. Their communications leave a bit to be desired, but when the chips are down they are always there and if things go wrong they will come back and sort things out without quibble. That sort of peace of mind has got to be worth something.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

CRT meeting jottings

Elected Boater Meeting 
4th October 2017

Once every three months or so the elected boater representatives to the CRT National Council meet up with CRT staff to review topical issues which we need to understand in order to offer a meaningful insight into the National Council, which last met in September.

The meetings take place at Aqua House in Birmingham, which occupies a site next to the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal just below the BT tower. If you ever need to visit just aim for the tower and you cant go wrong.

Having arrived by bus I decided to approach via the towpath, walking up from the Walsall Road. I have to admit that it wasnt long before I removed my headphones on account of all the rather dodgy looking characters loitering in the undergrowth. This is clearly a favoured area for rough sleepers and even as a big chap I was more than a little intimidated, not that I had any trouble. With the weather on the turn I felt very sorry for individuals who find themselves in cardboard boxes in this dark, dank and seedy area.

Anyway, I arrived and was  joined by three of the three private boater representatives, plus Nigel Hamilton who is the other Boating Business Representative for a 2.5 hour meeting which included discussions on the following topics:

Organisational Structure
As with so many largish organisations, we struggle to understand how CRT is organised and which departments do what. In an ideal world there would be a full organisational structure with up to date job descriptions, but this just doesn't exist and would consume a lot of resource to compile and maintain. We decided to have a dynamic walk through session in 2018 when the structure will be explored and the areas we are interested will be looked at in closer detail.

Clean Air issues
Even before the mayor of London announced his intention to press for tighter smoke emissions we were aware of a government initiative covering similar ground. The mayors intervention serves to highlight the issue and will probably advance action to address a known issue.
The CRT view is that any change will require new primary legislation, which isn't likely to occur in the short term, but the issue is on the horizon and approaching. The impact of any changes will include boaters, particularly those that run engines and burn coal / wood. The  Trust is therefore starting to consider what they can do alongside what boaters can do.

Boat Safety
The increasing number of boats subject to significant alteration (overplating, extensions / stretch, rooftop storage etc) has an impact on the RCD approval which was issued when the post 1995 boats were originally registered. There is no credible infrastructure to re assess modified boats to ensure they remain safe. 
This issue impacts BSS and will be covered in a future session when all impacted parties will be present, including insurers.

Licensing Review
Stages 1 and 2 are complete. The outcomes have delivered "rich" feedback which have taken longer to collate than was originally anticipated. The outcomes are being presented to the NAG (National Advisory Group) next week and the mainly e-mail based questionnaire is being sent to all private license holders next week.
The aim of the final stage of the consultation is to seek feedback highlighting preferred options and identifying unanticipated consequences. This is a one off opportunity to amend the approach to licensing  and mainly provides free format text boxes for comments.
Business License holders (particularly hire boat fleets) are not included in this process and will be reviewed when the approach to private boats is agreed. 
There is a concern that only the vocal 10% will respond and the mass will not offer feedback, distorting the perception of general opinion. Please take 10 mins to review the survey and respond during the 10 weeks available.

Water Management
There seems to be an increasing number of pinch points around the system where wider narrowboats are getting stuck. The question was asked if there is a common cause (maybe forced grouting?) and this will be taken away and considered as part of the repair programme.

Equality Act Customer Services Policy
We were offered a short presentation on the above which is in response to the Equaltities Act and replaces the disability Discrimination Act, Special Provisions Act and Race relations Act which we are familiar with.
This policy is a work in progress to ensure CRT's Policy and Practices comply.

London Mooring Strategy

  • Some scope to increase mooring space has been identified (room for about 100 boats) but much of this is outside the central area and is not all owned or controlled by CRT.
  • Provision of moorings by non CRT providers will be encouraged
  • Improved short stay moorings in 11 locations which will be subject to daily inspection to prevent abuse.
  • Four new pre bookable moorings will be made available, building on the success of Rembrant Gardens in 2017. Olympic Park, Kings Cross, Limehouse Cut and Regents Park. Pre bookable trader moorings will be created in Kings Cross.
  • Winter Moorings to be improved outside the central area.
  • Improved facilities are palanned over a number of years including water, rubbish, pump outs, elsans, low impact living encouragements. 
  • Improved communication between boaters and the Trust.
  • Increased Business Boating activity.
  • Encourage accessible and affordable access to water for all - eg canoe launch sites.

Online Mooring Reduction Policy
Results from 2009 to 2017 (587 on line moorings removed in response to new off line  moorings) were shared and the programme will be the subject of a review in 2018 including consultation and feedback.



Wednesday, 4 October 2017

2017 Big Southern Cruise - Final tally

2017 Southern Cruise - the final tally
October 2017

I have long since given up logging my daily progress but having completed this years big cruise which lasted five months, I thought it would be a good idea to plug the destinations into the Canal Planner and see just how far we travelled.

Over the period we travelled 752 miles and passed through 710 Locks.

I could cut and dice this in all sorts of ways but one of the key metrics is the general speed of travel with the butty in tow. My gps tells me that on the narrow canals my maximum average speed is 2.3 mph, rising to about 3.5 running downstream on the Thames. If I turn and head upstream this speed drops to less then 2mph as I encountered on the Wey, Lee and Stort. As you can appreciate, I prefer to make my river passages downstream!

The boats are now laid up for the winter with a long list of repairs to be completed. 

But as one chapter closes another one starts, and the world of Wild Side never rests. We have lots of apples in the shed and about 2000 jars of preserve of preserve to be made in the next six months.

The plan is to start the 2018 season at Droitwich, as usual, and then head north for Liverpool and then over the Pennines to Leeds before heading south via the Huddersfield Narrow to join the festival season at Cosgrove in July. I think I need to log into Canal Plan again.....

OK - have had a look at next years plan and although it seems longer on the map it is actually a very achievable 696 miles and 566 locks, not including any diversions along the way.


Sunday, 1 October 2017

Firing on all cylinders

Firing in all cylinders
September  2017

In my last post we left the boat as an inert lump of steel and an engine which seemed to have completely expired. Well, I am glad to say that the breath of life has been cast over it and it now starts with that classic puff of blue smoke all Beta owners know and love.

When I left the boat on its mooring the starter battery seemed to have suffered a cataclysmic failure, which was rather odd as it was working fine just 10 minutes previously. No only was the starter motor not turning, there was absolutely no power reaching the control panel. Odd.

I have never replaced the started battery in the 10 years I have owned the boat so I have always been expecting its demise, but whilst it keeps bringing the engine to life on demand, why  change it? I assumed the aged battery was the culprit so used a jump lead from the main battery bank to see if power reached the control panel - but no joy.

I therefore retired to the club house where a MacMillan fundraiser was underway and bemoaned my problem with a fellow boater. He suggested I check the next item in the electrical circuit being the isolator switch, so i ventured back out into the rain and by passed this unit as well. Sadly this had the same negative result so it was back to the club house for more tea, cakes and head scratching.

Finally a fellow boater joined our circle and suddenly said "lets go and fix your boat" and ran off to get his multi meter. His opening comment was, "I bet this will be a simple problem" and so we began the process of working forward from the batteries where we knew we had power and back from the control panel where we knew we didnt. After maybe 15 mins the problem seemed to me in the wiring loom and then suddenly. there is was. One of those multi plugs shrouded in a plastic cover. 

Immediately it all became clear. When I had stopped the boat I had a look at the ATF level and quality, as I have some doubts about the new PRM125 gearbox. In accessing the dipstick I had lifted a coolant pipe and in so doing has lifted the wiring loom it was attached to. It was probably loosened during the installation of the new gearbox and my lift was the straw which broke the proverbial camel's back.

With the multi plug pressed back into place the lights cane on, the warning siren sounded and the engine burst into life. Wonderful - life is good!

But then there is the new gearbox. It has a tendency to not engage in forward when I start it,
particularly after a few days idle. It whines and then kicks in, a delay which is disconcerting and underpinned by ATF fluid which looks more smoky than cherry red. RCR (who did the installation) have been contacted and I will let you know the outcome.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

All stop and finished with engines

Back to Longwood 
September 2017

This really is the end of the line. Martin joined me on Monday morning and together we moved the boats through Whittington and Hopwas to Fazeley where we used the water and elsan at the ex CRT premises at Peels Wharf. A notice informed us that the property had been bought, but it all looked shut up and empty. I did wonder if the water and elsan points would continue because having slops emptied on your premises wouldn't be everyone idea of a good neighbour.

 Redevelopment at Castle Vale

Then it was up the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal to The Dog and Doublet, mooring up with time to pick some sloes before tucking into some steak and ale pie to keep us going. On reflection its better to moor below the lock to so have the benefit of a noise shield because the nearby motorway is a bit loud above the pub.

My crew for the trip home

We consulted the map and decided that even with the butty in tow, it was possible to get back to Longwood in one long day. That meant the alarms were set for 6.00am and we were on the move before 7.00am, passing through the first of about 35 locks leading to the Wolverhampton Level at Aldridge.

Whilst we started out in thick fog, with the Curdworth Tunnel emerging from the mist, it had all burned off by 10.00am and then continued in glorious autumnal sunshine. Locks and miles passed and we soon found the fields of Bodymoor Heath giving way to the urban sprawl of Minworth and the ongoing redevelopment of the Cincinatti Milacron site.

Tame Valley Canal

At Spaghetti Junction we veered off the bustling mainline (we had seen 3 boats) and started into the remote "northern reaches" via the Tame Valley Canal. This canal was one of the last to be built and shares many design features with the Shropshire Union, including some spectacular cuttings and  embankments. The big obstacle is the Perry Barr Locks which are generally well maintained but are used so little that many have sides covered in hanging foliage.


By rights the area at the top of the locks should be an ideal place to pause for the night. There are several houses nearby and CRT offers rubbish bins, toilets and even showers. I popped into the block and was staggered by the cleanliness, I doubt that they are used very often. I think that there is an elsan point but the door has been painted recently and I couldn't get it open without resorting to a screwdriver from the boat. The big downside is the unfortunate tendency for criminal activity. Only last month a new boat arrived at Longwood with its  windows smashed having been left unattended in the area for a couple of hours.


Perry Barr Locks

Then you are into the spectacular cuttings and embankments in the Hamstead area, one minute enveloped in a tunnel of trees with bridges soaring overhead, and then you are flying above the rooftops with views over Sandwell to the hills of Dudley. This is unmistakably a BCN waterway, with its distinctive narrows built for the collection of tolls. It's impossible not to feel a touch of the pioneering spirit when towpath walkers observe that they havn't seen another boat for months. We passed at the end of the school day and were more than a little relieved to leave the footbridges behind us.


Hamstead Cutting

The cool of the evening was upon us as we turned into the Rushall Canal and the last three miles of our journey. The canal became narrower, shallower, and more weedy with the navigation channel just a little wider that the boat. You have to keep the the centre line or you are in all sorts of trouble.



The Ganzies started well enough with all the locks set in our favour, as had the Perry Barr flight. In truth I think most of the locks leak empty. 

Rushall Bottom Lock

But then we reached lock four and it all went to pot. This lock in a cutting is tricky at the best of times, with its lopsided subsidence meaning that the gates always close by themselves - more a problem if you are descending single handed. We entered the lock and found that in spite of their habit of self closing, the offside bottom gate wouldn't close. It would swing to within 4 inches of the bottom liner but there is jammed. We opened and closed, closed and opened and after an hour of prodding around we called CRT for assistance with a keb. We had a cup of tea and with darkness approaching we were about to pull the boats out of the lock and wait for the light tomorrow. But then I rattled the gate in frustration and it juddered into place, more or less.

A gap too far

We didn't mess with the gate again so filled the lock as fast as possible and got out at the top before calling CRT with the good news. Only today I met another boater who had come up the flight and had problems in three locks one of which necessitated CRT support.

The light had completely gone as we set out on the mile pound, a straight and shallow waterway which is so full of lily pads that you have to creep along the centre, no easy task in the pitch black. The two top locks aka The Moshes were ascended in the dark and we abandoned the boats at the boat club two hours behind schedule.


The butty relieved of its load

The following day was spent shuttling between boat and home, moving the huge amount of stuff back to our house for the winter. Removing all that weight from the butty over the past few weeks has revealed a line of Thames weed, and by the end of the process this was nearly 4 inches wide at the front. No wonder it was hard to tow at the start of the season.

And there is one final twist to this tale. As I moored the boats up for the winter I checked over the engine and when I tried to start it again - nothing. No lights, no alarms, no starter motor. Its as though there is no starter battery at all. All the connections seem ok so maybe the old starter battery suffered a complete collapse, odd but at least I have 6 months to sort it out.