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  • Alex Fear

A Treacherous and Prolonged Journey to London on the Kennet and Avon Canal

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

A few years ago in November I bought a boat off Ebay for £2500 from a couple called Esmeralda and Keith. I've changed their names because last time I published this blog they sent me a threatening series of posts and animated gifs. The pictures of the boat were blurry and taken through an early 1800s pin-hole camera. They were also adamant that no one was going to view it before buying. Of course huge Notre-Dame-sized alarm bells began to ring but for some reason I bid anyway and as the only bidder became the owner of a 23ft Norman cabin cruiser called “Los Bravos”. The next day I received a series of increasingly insane messages from Esmeralda and Keith demanding immediate payment, telling me how lucky I was to have won their boat, and how I’d got myself a real treat and how they didn’t like “messers,” and if I didn’t pay them before seeing the boat they would relist within the hour.

I ended up on a lengthy train and bus journey to the depths of Wiltshire. Around 8pm in the cold and dark I met Keith by a bridge and he showed me the boat they were living on with a dog and a hamster. My main concern was the way the floor appeared to be damp but they showed me it wasn’t by banging their fists on it and saying, “No it isn’t." A month later the handover happened. Me and my boyfriend at the time: Wolverine, began our 150 mile journey from Wiltshire to London. Keith showed us where the ignition was, then disappeared down the tow path. We untied the boat and were unable to start the ignition and drifted into the middle of the canal. To Keith’s credit he did come back and help us through the first lock. To Keith’s discredit he didn’t tell us that we were just about to reach one of the biggest flights of locks in the UK. I figured something strange was up when a sign said no mooring between locks 22 and 50.

It may have been a bad idea to buy a boat during winter. The nights were spent hiding under a piece of fake fur we bought from Sainsburys and throwing kindling into a rusty wood-burner haphazardly crafted out of an old gas canister. At times there was a Renaissance meets Bear Grylls romanticism to it. Then we’d wake up with our faces frozen, bickering about who was going to start the fire. All the locks had frozen over and the temperature had dropped to minus degrees. But I dressed up like Fagin in a fur coat and got out and cranked them open. I have happy memories of Wolverine sailing the boat around in circles breaking through the ice in the small adjoining reservoirs as I cranked open lock after lock after lock. We sailed into a town called Devises as the sun was setting. Two boaters donned head lights and told us they’d help us through the next 3 locks or we’d get frozen in. As we were going through the last lock in the dark, our engine cut out and we had to push ourselves through using paddles. It was like a challenge in a Japanese torture-gameshow.

Then we were stuck in Devizes with a broken engine. We came to know the people and streets of Devizes intimately, Peter the locksmith, the Polish launderette owner. We spent a lot of time hanging about in a hardware store called Rosie’s trying to find replacements for parts of the engine we had tried to fix and then lost. Wolverine became fixated on a theory that when a fellow boater had checked our engine a ball baring had flown out of the fuel pump. We spent two days looking for a replacement ball-baring. I ended up scrabbling about a car park half mad in my fur coat looking for small circular bits of gravel. Then I spotted some earrings made out of circular semi-precious stones in the Red Cross shop. We sped out of Devizes as fast as you can go with a 10 horse power engine that has a bit of earring keeping the fuel line open. We spent that night in the middle of nowhere wandering around the hills collecting snail shells. The next night we moored by a tiny village called All Cannings where in the morning every person we passed said hello to us. The canal was slowly freezing over and by the time we left All Cannings we were going at about half a mile an hour through ice that was about an inch thick. I sat on the bow smashing a piece of rusted farm machinery through the ice as we went. People had warned us again driving our little plastic boat through even thin ice but since heading up the Caern Hill flight of locks we had realised they were all naysayers and “Los Bravos” was indestructible.

Sailing through a place called Honey Street, other boaters seemed to line the canal edge calling out warnings

“Aren’t you worried about your hull?”

“I think you should stop its very icy up ahead.”

Naysayers! We carried on through a brief stretch of clear water and then into more ice. Then the engine cut out. I looked inside the boat and noticed I had spilled some water on the floor. Wolverine frantically began to yank at the start chord on the engine. I looked inside again and noticed the amount of water on the floor had dramatically increased. We were sinking. The engine had cut out and we were in the middle of the canal sinking. To be continued ...

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