The Cruise of the Dondevoy


I had decided to resign from the bank where I worked, because I really could not see myself working there for the next forty years. I needed to do something to break out of the depression from which I had been suffering, so I decided that a trip on the canals would be a good idea. It would involve some physical activity, and would be in the open air. The plan would be to cruise around, and stop in various places to obtain work. The trip would thus be self-financing to a certain extent.

Eventually, I saw an advertisement for what might be a suitable boat, a fourteen foot rowing boat was for sale at a boatyard in Thorpe in Norwich. When I got there, and had been rowed across the river to the boatyard, I found that the clinker-built boat was leaning against a tree and was completely dried out. It would almost certainly not float as there were several holes in the hull, and the planks were badly worn where they joined the transom, so there were some gaps round the stern.

I tested the timber with my pocket knife. The knife pushed right through the rotten timber and out the other side! However, the price was only ten pounds and so not much would be lost if it proved impossible to renovate. I decided to buy it, transported it home on a trailer, and placed it upside down on blocks in the garden.

Over the next few months, I worked hard on repairs. I filled the larger holes with patches held on with copper nails, and used fibreglass filler for the smaller ones. I painted both inside and outside of the hull with many, many coats of tar varnish in an effort to seal the wood. The first five coats or so simply soaked into the wood and vanished, but eventually it began to build up on the surface. We had a pond in the garden large enough for a boat, so it was the ideal place for a test. On putting the boat in the water for the first time, it sank in about a minute. I was confident that my repairs had been sufficient, however, so I was not too worried. I left it in a sunken state for a few days to soak up some water, and after that I pumped out the water and the boat floated perfectly, hardly shipping any water at all.

I constructed a lockable compartment in the bow, painted the hull inside and out above the waterline, and made a tent out of a tarpaulin to fit the whole boat. The tent was fixed to the boat by a hemp rope and a series of hooks on the boat, and eyes in the tent. It was held up by a pole that I constructed with a brass pin at each end. One pin poked out of a hole in the tent, and the other sat in a small hole in the thwart. Two guy lines went from the top pin of the pole to the corners of the boat at the stern, and so the tent flaps could be draped over the guy lines and tied together with tapes. The idea was that during cruising, the pole would be lowered, but that the tent would normally not be removed from the main part of the boat. On mooring, the pole and attached guy lines could be very simply put in place, creating an instant tent. This arrangement worked very well in practice, and I had hardly any problems with it. With the tent down, the rear thwart was open and was the position used for cruising, and the main thwart was similarly exposed and could be used for carrying passengers.

Once I had been going for a week or two, I learned a few tricks to make my life easier. I had two loops of rope, both attached both fore and aft, with a wooden tent peg attached at different positions along the length. These were used as mooring ropes when the ground was soft enough to bang the tent pegs in with a mallet. Thus, both bow and stern were attached to two points on the ground, an arrangement that worked very well. When going through locks, it was not a good idea to moor up properly every time I jumped on or off the boat, so I had another rope attached to the bow, and the other end of the rope I tied firmly to one end of a broom handle. When approaching a mooring, I could hold the broom handle in my hand like a fishing rod, and use it to coil the rope a couple or three times round a suitable bollard. There was no need to tie on any better than that, because in order to come loose the broom handle would have to be dragged completely round the bollard.

Preparation for the cruise involved thinking about equipment. I used an old Primus stove for cooking, and to fulfil the legal requirements for a canal boat, bought a simple blowable hooter, and a large flashlight to use as a headlight in tunnels. I put two nine-inch planks across the thwarts to form a simple bed. An old padded quilt served as a simple mattress, on which I slept in a sleeping bag. After the first night I spent on the boat, I was covered in bruises, but I soon got used to it, and was able to sleep there very well.

I planned to put the boat in the water in Cambridge, partly because my sister lived there, and also because I wanted to navigate the Middle Levels across the fens to Peterborough. After that, I planned to "follow my nose" and not to set a fixed route too far in advance.

The outboard motor was an old Evinrude two cylinder motor that had been lying about for a few years unused. It was possibly rather too powerful for such a small boat, but it had the advantage of being available, and could also be locked with a padlock to the boat. The main danger with such a motor was that it would have to be run at a low throttle to keep down to the four miles per hour speed limit on most inland waterways, and so might be subject to oiling up. I made a couple of short test cruises on the Norfolk Broads, to make sure the outboard motor was likely to be reliable, obtained the necessary licences from various waterways authorities, and named the boat Dondevoy, being the Spanish for "Where am I going?"

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