I arrived at Whilton Marina early and picked up the keys to Bristol Fashion. Like many boat keys they are attached to a ball of cork – if you drop your keys in the canal you want them to float!
The marina had put Bristol Fashion on the canal, pointed in the direction of London, 90 miles away. I checked the diesel, checked I had windlasses, mooring pins and ropes in place, tested the electrics then turned the key and the engine started first time. That’s got to be a good sign. I looked at the steering wheel and thought: I’ve only used a tiller before but how difficult can this be?
I tried to remember what I’d learnt on the Inland Helmsman’s course back in May. The advice that had stuck in my mind was “It’s a 17 ton lump of steel, you won’t damage it”. I cast off for the first time, put her in forward gear and slowly moved off.
Hit the moored boat in front and bounced off a boat on the other side of the canal. I had been taught to stay in the centre of the canal and to only move to the right to pass other vessels. Crazy zigzagging wasn’t even covered on the course. Bristol fashion ended up stuck on the bank after ten minutes of chaotic slaloming.
I called the marina and one of their engineers was good enough to help me out. He opened the weed hatch and pulled out a log. I continued on my way… and hit the bank again, then another boat. This time the boat owner was aboard and stuck his head out in some alarm.
At this point I felt like giving up and selling the damn boat. What the hell had I done selling my flat to buy a boat I couldn’t drive? Until someone came along and showed me how to steer properly. I hadn’t realised that, unlike a tiller which moves the rudder exactly in proportion to its own movement, the steering wheel has to shift a whole quarter turn before moving the rudder. With that single realisation I was able to drive on to Weedon and I felt so damn happy as I successfully drove under bridges, passed by other boats and moored the boat for the night, without so much as scratching the paintwork.