Retired couple conquer the Channel in a canal boat My narrow escape

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    Retired couple conquer the Channel in a canal boat

    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.

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    • They’re all at sea on board a narrow boat [8 Jan ’04] – Stoke Sentinel

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    Lunatic Scheme

    I suppose we could die, I said.  I mean we have nearly had our allotted span. 
    There�s not much else to do � I don�t want to spend my declining
    years on holiday � we would be bored stiff.

    Join some committees, said Monica, work with the local
    community.  You must be joking, I
    said.  What we want is a lunatic
    scheme, a mission from which few return � one that people are scornful about,
    like when we started running.  Something
    outside the envelope.  We want some
    action.  We are not too old for some

    I know, said Monica, we�ll take our narrowboat
    May to France and go down to the Mediterranean with Jim our whippet.  We can get the boat shipped over on a lorry. 
    And you could write a book about it all � you used to want to be a
    writer.  Goodness, I said, that�s
    a thought � we could call the book Narrow Dog to Carcassonne.  There you are � the title already � all we need now is the book. 
    I�ll pay to have it printed and we�ll give it to our
    friends and ask them questions about it to make sure they have read it.  We�ll need a new engine on the boat, said Monica. 
    That�s OK, I said, we need a new engine anyway.

    At last we had what we needed � a lunatic scheme, a
    stupid mission.  The planning went
    fine until Monica heard of a famous adventurer who had sailed his
    narrowboat across the Channel.  We�ll
    sail across, she said.  But you
    can�t do that, I said.  The dog
    goes into convulsions if we go more than three feet from the bank.  And
    narrowboats don�t have a keel.  They fill up
    from the bow and turn over and go straight down.  The famous adventurer is a master mariner, and we can�t even get our
    boat through a bridge-hole without crashing it.  And he�s an engineer and his boat was built to go to sea. 
    And I am no good at mending things or anything practical � I operate at
    the conceptual level.  You�re
    scared, said Monica.  Yes, I said,
    I�m very, very scared.  I�m a
    coward, so I can�t do it � it is not in my nature.

    But with an adventure in it, said Monica, someone might
    publish the book for us and that could pay for the adventure.  We don�t need the money, I said, and it�s no good to us anyway if we
    are on the bottom of the Channel with our boat and our whippet.  I�m not doing it, I tell you, and that�s final. 
    For us it�s the lorry, and the crane into Calais. 

    I don�t think I knew what fear was until the day we left
    South Dock, opposite Canary Wharf in London, to go round Kent to Ramsgate, a
    fifteen hour voyage.  I felt faint
    and thought that death had come to spare me the horror of the journey.  But for me there was no release. 
    pilot stood beside me on the back of our narrowboat and the current swept us
    down the Thames, past the Dome, past the great flood barrage, under the Queen
    Elizabeth Bridge, and out to sea into the evening and into the night. 

    Funnily enough I did not feel frightened once we had got
    going, and loved driving the boat on into the darkness, riding the waves,
    trailed by scarves of kingfisher light.  I
    was able to think about the book.  I
    thought to be a success in writing you had to be twenty-four with ten more books
    in you and the face of a film star, not an ugly old pensioner who would be lucky
    to finish one book before he snuffed it.  But
    publishers wanted the book and the Carlton Television people said they are going
    to feature our adventure on nine out of ten Waterworld programmes.  Maybe after all these years I have come into fashion.  
    Jim had been given half a tranquilliser and I
    could hear him howling drunkenly below, and the booze trying to break its way
    out of the cool cupboard.

    Clear off, said the Keeper of Ramsgate Marina over the VHF
    � you can�t come in here at this time of night.  It�s gone three o�clock. 
    are so thoughtless.  Look, I�ve
    had a terrible day, and we definitely, I mean definitely, don�t do dogs. 
    And for a sixty-foot boat we charge forty pounds a night.  Give me the handset, said the pilot, I taught that geezer to sail. 
    We turned in to the black mouth of the marina. 

    Will we have a go at the Channel tomorrow? I asked. 
    Weather looks good, said the pilot � are you tired?  Yes, I said, Monica and I are very tired, but we can sleep when we get to
    Calais.  You�ll need to be awake, said the pilot, it�s the busiest
    shipping lane in the world, and the wakes from the Sea-Cats come in at eight
    feet high.  The television people
    will be on my escort boat, so if you go down your kids will have the footage as
    a souvenir.  That�s alright then,
    I said.


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    Boats and Ships

    Can a boat fit in Englands canals and still be seaworthy enough to cross the channel?

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    2 Answers

    Charles Buchwald

    Charles Buchwald , studied at The College of Wooster

    All design is a balance or compromise between different elements. So if the goal is to merely be seaworthy and "fit in the canals", then yes, there are many, many small boats that will do so. For example, a West Wight Potter 15 has a beam of only 5 ft. 6 inches on a waterline of 12 ft. Taking that on the canals and waterways of Europe would be an adventure worthy of Swallows and Amazons.

    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

    Dave Calhoun

    Dave Calhoun

    If you are thinking of the typical British canal boat, no:

    They lack the freeboard, power, and steering to handle the Channel.

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