Messing about on the … Mon & Brec

Mike Rodd contemplates future CRT funding, BSS examinations and ‘composite’ lock-gates during an extended cruise.

How good it was to have another real meeting at Alvechurch, even if a few folk couldn’t make it – damn nuisance this boating! Good to see the pub flourishing and many boats moving. But strangely on the K&A we are seeing relatively little movement – are folk still holding back or is there a drop in interest? For me, my wife has officially (but not practically) retired as our vicar and is required to take time away from her parish (to give her successor time to settle in?) so we are having a longer than usual few months’ holiday on the beautiful Mon & Brec. It is at its loveliest, but the vegetation is at its very worst – in the almost 20 years we have been based here, I have never ever seen it so overgrown. Approaching most of the nearly 100 bridge holes makes it almost impossible to line the boat up, and the result is, like most of the hire-boats, my newly painted boat is now seriously scratched. Many hire-boats also have clear damage to their sides and tops. The only place where the vegetation seems to have been nicely cut is where the excellent CRT volunteers are doing their very best to help. And I have to say how well the CRT lock volunteers are doing here in South Wales – indeed so well that some hire-boaters don’t even bother to get off their boats to help!

Sadly, I have to say the same about vegetation on the K&A, where I am a boatmaster for the K&A Canal Trust. Again, we have never seen it so bad and dangerously so. Despite being a widebeam canal, when passing each other one boat just has to go aground. We also continually have to dodge the overhanging trees to avoid them damaging our windows – and passengers!

On both of ‘my’ canals, we are also suffering from the ‘only fix a paddle when both fail’ approach – despite the promise from the CRT Director at a public meeting to get it sorted. Each of our public trips requires at least ten minutes extra at the lock we always have to go through – meaning that we have to speed up to get our passengers back in time so that they can avoid possible parking fines.

Of interest to me, especially last week, was a trip on the K&A where, unusually, we had an extra-long charter trip, jointly with the local AONB group (much of the area we are based in falls into an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). This trip took me through one of CRT’s trial ‘composite’ lock gates and I was delighted to hear that they were investigating these, given the problems with cost and the availability of suitable oak. Of course, we at the K&A Canal Trust have been developing these for many years, together with the Mon & Brec Canal Trust, backed by detailed design work by my old university in Swansea. On a non-CRT operated extension of the Mon & Brec, we have had several in operation for up to five years. The real benefits are so obvious: a much longer life (100 years?), being mainly constructed from stainless steel with some wooden sacrificial sections where boats might run up against the steel. We designed them in adjustable sections, so that the final sizing and assembly is done when they are on site. We take the sections to the site on the back of a 4×4 and only need a relatively lightweight crane to help assemble the final gate. But to my horror, the CRT composite gate seems to have ignored all we have learned on our gates; the result looks horrible, nothing like a usual gate, and already very difficult to operate. I am sure it is also required to be built away from the site. What a real shame.

It’s an odd time in the re-funding (or not?) of CRT – we all were on tenterhooks waiting for decisions from Government, which were due in July, only to be told that the process is being delayed by some months. Good or bad news, or simply that the decision is so low on the list of Government priorities? But as I reported elsewhere, the recent meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Waterways (one of hundred or so APPGs), which looked rather boring, being dedicated to heritage etc., turned out to make one of the strongest rationales I have heard for a long time for the Government to fund our amazing waterways – especially given their unique role in underpinning the whole industrial revolution, which put Britain then at the top of the world. I hope the other MPs and Lords will take note! However, I have been depressed by the response from some MPs to the letters we have been sending them regarding CRT’s funding situation – many clearly have no idea at all of the changes made when BWB became CRT and how it affected the funding model. Of interest, we have just been informed that the next APPG meeting will be held on 29th July and will include a presentation by CRT’s boss, Richard Parry, relating to the future funding of CRT. It will be a fascinating session and I am sure it will be well attended. As in the past few years, it will be available via the internet and anyone can attend and submit questions. Details of attendance etc. can be obtained from the APPG’s Secretariat, presently run by the IWA.

Equally depressing and disappointing was the EA’s response to all the Thames-based boater organisations’ comments on its proposed changes to its structures for supporting its waterways. We all totally rejected the proposals and indeed could not see any real reason for most of them. The result of all our joint submissions: no change – they obviously know better. Just sometimes one can get very depressed!

But then I am delighted to report that much progress has been made in the work being led by my ex-employers, the Institution for Engineering Technology, to produce a professional guidelines’ book dedicated to the electrical aspects of small boats (i.e. our boats!) I have been concerned for many years about the move to introduce more electrical power into our boats and the fact that, while there are some relevant standards, these are simply not accessible to most boat builders or boat operators, and especially us as target users. As a result, I have seen many horrific and very dangerous installations. Working with interested parties, an outline of contents has been agreed and about half of the book is now in draft form and under review by the various representatives. Whilst targeted at the professionals involved, the guidance will, like the IET’s internationally recognised wiring regulations, be widely available for us all to read.

The next few years will prove to be of significant importance to the whole BSS scheme, not only as the slightly changed requirements for our private boats settle down and the retraining of all examiners is completed and applied, but several other issues will also need to be addressed. For example, recent assessments of outcomes over the past year show a very worryingly high number of failures – is this because many folk do not prepare their boats before an inspection? Also worrying is the number of non-failure but ‘pass with advisory’ concerns, mainly due to issues of ventilation. Interestingly, the failure rates for hire-boats are very similar to private boats – is this also a worry? One aspect of concern, and most recent changes and training have set out to address this, is lack of inspection consistency. We have seen too many cases where it is reported that one examiner passes a boat but, next time around with a different examiner, it fails. Maybe there are clear reasons (like changes made between inspections) but clarity is needed.

There is also a suggestion being floated by a group of examiners that the scheme should change and be aimed at ensuring that boats are inspected to ensure first-party safety. The present third-party scheme essentially says you can kill yourself but not kill others! Sounds OK? Well, working with a public trip boat which has to be inspected by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, I know what such a first-party inspection involves! And what it costs, including, as it does, a regular out-of-water inspection. Boater representatives must ensure that this does not happen!

Also on the BSS scene, I am very sorry to see that David Fletcher will be stepping down as chair of the key Technical Committee. David has for many years provided inspirational leadership, especially bringing his extensive and practical industrial expertise in handling risk analysis etc. A tricky group to lead, given that there will always be necessary tension between boat users, boating organisations and inspectors. A huge thank you to David for a vital job done so consistently professionally, and always with gentle calm!

I would also like to highlight the amazing work being undertaken by our NABO Council colleague, Ken Hylins, in helping a range of boaters with personal problems who are experiencing difficulties in dealing with CRT and EA officials, for example not being able to move in accordance with local requirements. So often such folk get caught up in internal issues between staff, but Ken seems to know his way around the organisations and has an amazing track record of getting sensible outcomes for all concerned. As a result he seems to be NABO’s best membership recruiter!

And to conclude: what better place to be than on the boat on these hot summer days.