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Retired couple conquer the Channel in a canal boat
By Nick Britten
12:01AM GMT 10 Jan 2004
When Terry and Monica Darlington retired last year, they decided on two things – they wanted to visit Paris and also to have a bit of excitement in their lives.
In the end they went for both, and plumped for risking their lives by sailing their canal boat for seven and a half hours across the English Channel to France.
Sitting just two feet off the water and with a top speed of seven miles per hour, Mr Darlington, 68, admitted that the 60ft, flat-bottomed narrow boat was hardly equipped to face the rigours of two of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
He said: “When we told people we were thinking of heading to France most people told us we were bonkers. One seafaring man said I was going across in a steel tomb and would not live to make it.
“Taking a canal boat with a top speed of seven miles an hour across such an exposed stretch of water is usually only ever done by lifetime seafarers or explorers looking for a thrill.
“But we’d owned the boat for seven years and decided that we wanted to do something exciting with it. And when we retired we decided we had three options. We could bore ourselves to death, drink ourselves to death or have a bit of an adventure. Thankfully we decided on the latter.”
The couple and their whippet, Jim, set off on their seven-month, 1,000-mile journey last April from their home in Stone, Staffs, sailing the Phyllis May down through the country’s canal network to Ramsgate, Kent, from where they crossed to Calais in an “epic” journey, weaving in and out of cross-Channel ferries and other traffic.
Mr Darlington, an Oxford graduate, said: “Even making the trip down the Thames to get to Ramsgate was daunting enough. It was the first time I’d ever been to sea and it was jolly exciting.
“When we were just off Whitstable the coastguard rushed out and they probably thought ‘what are these idiots doing?’ But even knowing they were there, when we set out to sea it was truly terrifying. Being out of sight of land in such a tiny vessel was quite unnerving.
“The ships and ferries that use the Channel are very big and very fast and it is pretty terrifying when they bear down on you.
“I can honestly say I thought I was going to die when we set off into the Channel, but once we got going it was great fun. We had to go round the bottom of the Goodwin Sands. I had never heard of the Goodwin Sands. Apparently it is a very bad thing.
“We were lucky that it was a lovely sunny day and the winds never got above force three, which meant that we at least didn’t have to worry about the boat breaking up.”
Their most daunting moment came when they reached Calais, only to find themselves in the path of a 40ft-tall Sea Cat ferry leaving for Dover.
Mr Darlington said: “It came within a few feet of us, but the most dangerous thing was that it threw up a six-foot wall of solid water in its wake. I had to turn into it, accelerate and go straight through it or we would definitely have capsized. The boat reared right up and plunged down to the other side. The dog, who was on tranquillisers, howled like a drunk.
“When we eventually made it in to Calais we were so relieved and delighted it was amazing. The feeling of relief when we stood on firm ground was just unbelievable. It took us about three weeks to calm down.”
They next sailed down the canals to Paris, where the boat is moored at the Bastille marina. The couple will return in April when France’s waterways re-open, and continue their journey down the Rhone and into the Mediterranean on the way to their final destination of Carcassonne.
Having taken the plunge two years ago, he and Mrs Darlington, 67, planned every aspect of their trip meticulously.
They sought the advice of maritime professionals and, despite hearing from one expert that they must be “suicidal”, they decided that the crossing might just be possible.
Mr Darlington, who owned his own research company, modified the boat to protect it from waves, filling the well in the bow and covering the bow door and windows with steel, and to navigate the crossing they were joined by an experienced pilot.
Mr Darlington has already been approached by four publishers seeking to buy the rights to his book about his adventures. He hopes that the book, which he has provisionally entitled Narrow Dog To Carcassonne, will be published next year.
They’re all at sea on board a narrow boat [8 Jan ’04] – Stoke Sentinel
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I suppose we could die, I said. I mean we have nearly had our allotted span.
Join some committees, said Monica, work with the local
I know, said Monica, we�ll take our narrowboat
At last we had what we needed � a lunatic scheme, a
But with an adventure in it, said Monica, someone might
I don�t think I knew what fear was until the day we left
Funnily enough I did not feel frightened once we had got
Clear off, said the Keeper of Ramsgate Marina over the VHF
Will we have a go at the Channel tomorrow? I asked.
Boats and Ships
Can a boat fit in Englands canals and still be seaworthy enough to cross the channel?
, studied at The College of Wooster
Do you mean extended voyaging on the narrow canals with 7 ft. wide locks? Then check out Phil Bolgers "Weston Martyr" design. It was designed to sail from Australia, then tour the narrow canals, so it would certainly handle the Channel and the Med. Phil Bolger and Friends boat designs.
Do you mean the wider canals, that will fit up to 12 ft. 6 in. beam? Then you have many choices. I did not realize until recently that a significant portion of the canal system is not limited to the 7 ft. wide locks.
England-Wales waterways map
They lack the freeboard, power, and steering to handle the Channel.
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