Welcome to Boaters’ Update. It’s an eclectic one with news of new moorings and innovative repairs, great news for canals in the north, the safety advice you’d give to others and, if you ever have to, how to report an incident.
The second half looks at the future of how we plan, and carry out, our maintenance and shares some novel ideas we’re considering. Finally, you’ll be able to read about this year’s maintenance and how a massive team effort reopened the Wigan Flight in time for the holidays.
Welcome to Boaters' Update. It's an eclectic edition that starts with news of new moorings and innovative lock gate repairs. After that, there's great news for canals in the north of the country and you'll also find out what safety advice you'd give to other boaters and then, on the rare occasions you might need to, how to report an incident.
The second half of this edition looks at the future of how we plan, and carry out, our maintenance and shares some novel ideas we're considering. Finally, you'll be able to read about this coming winter's stoppage programme and how a massive team effort got the Wigan Flight reopened in time for the summer holidays.
As spring turned to summer the waterways in London & South East have been increasingly busy. The same can be said for the local teams – below we look at just some of the things that have been done to make your boating experience better in the region.
The six new visitor moorings can be found at:
Wolverton – Between Bridge 70A Stephenson's and 71 Stratford Road
Giffard Park – 50m in to 48-hour section by the facilities
Campbell Park - Between Bridge 82 and 81b
Woolstone - Between bridge 83 and Bridge 82A (H6)
Peartree - Opposite Peartree Bridge Inn
Simpson - Between Bridge 91 and the Aqueduct
As you may have read in the last edition, there'll also be new pre-bookable visitor moorings in London. Click on the link above to read the full article but, in summary, we committed to adding more pre-bookable moorings. There are already two in Rembrandt Gardens (Little Venice) and six in Paddington Basin which have proved to be very popular.
We'll be introducing more berths close to these locations. There will be variable charges for these moorings based on their location and level of demand. We'll also be employing more towpath rangers to improve the monitoring and management of these sites. This will mean more boat sightings are taken which will improve the speed with which we respond to unauthorised mooring or overstaying (including, if necessary, moving boats that have not booked to moor there).
Keeping boaters moving (and safe!)
Two recent bits of work in the region highlight just how varied the work of the maintenance teams can be. The first, at the lower gates on the Hanwell Flight, was when the paddle rods sheared at locks 93 and 94, making the lock unusable and closing it for the weekend. Knowing how busy this West London route can be, the local team promptly mobilised and had the flight reopened by the Monday.
The local team worked with engineering and heritage colleagues to design an acceptable and sympathetic alternative step. They had new step brackets fabricated in line with agreed design and installed with oak treads at a safer height, as pictured right. They have now been fitted at Lock 39 top and bottom gates and at Lock 54 bottom gates.
We're pleased to be able to lift restrictions on canals in the north of England, after engineering works and recent rainfall improved water resources significantly in key reservoirs.
Keeping these canals open for boats has been a major challenge. The water in Bosley and Sutton reservoirs, other sources for the two canals, was used sparingly and succeeded in prolonging the water supply to maintain navigation throughout July.
Alongside this, we prioritised the tricky project to restore the feed from Combs Reservoir. This water supply is now reliable, and the sustained flow into the canals has greatly reduced the risk of closure.
Our hydrologists have been recalculating models to predict future water supply, considering various factors, on a weekly basis. This means that we can act quickly to lift or implement restrictions. The monitoring will continue throughout the summer, with any decisions taken aiming to conserve water for navigation.
As you may remember, from the last edition of June, we featured two recent boating accidents and asked you to send in your advice. Thanks to everyone who got in touch – the responses below summarise the main points you made.
‘Make sure the splice end of your mooring rope, that fits to the strong point on your boat, can't accidentally come loose. Maybe use a whipping to tighten the loop? We had to help rescue an elderly man from the Weaver last summer when he was on a pontoon, pulling his stern rope to bring the boat to the pontoon, and the rope came off the boat and he fell back into the water on the other side.'
‘Ropes must always be coiled neatly away from everyone's feet except the parts that are in use. Cutting down on trip hazards on any deck or roof is an absolute necessity. Humans alone cannot stop a moving narrowboat. A bollard or similar is the tool to use; and a full turn around it, let out slowly, will be able to stop most things within reason. Knots must be learnt before navigating, and the knot to use is anything which is effective and secure, and easy to untie. Don't use too many knots or loops round things: they're narrowboats, not the QE2!'
‘Steerer should approach a mooring very slowly and carefully, so that crew can step off safely with a centre line. Shore crew should use the centre line around a bollard. Don't attempt to thread a rope through any ring until the boat is stationary. Boats should be tied up with the lines fore and aft and not the centre line because the pull from a passing boat can tip a boat moored from the high point of a centre line very uncomfortably. Finally, mooring and stopping lines should be kept tidily coiled on the cabin top and front deck until needed, never on the counter, where they can be inadvertently kicked in, thus fouling the propeller.'
‘I'm one of the few boaters who now always wears a lifejacket. I had a near miss whilst in a marina. I slipped off the bow and just caught the back of my head on the bow but luckily remained conscious. Despite shouting for help no one came - it was 15 minutes before I could pull myself out the freezing water! Working on many boats I always carry a throw bag - but I hope I never have to use it. Everyone should wear a life jacket, especially in tunnels and around locks - some manufacturers do some really 'cool' designs!'
‘When my daughter fell in, the first thing I did was to put the gears/engine in neutral. This stopped her being sucked into the prop.'
‘Immediately stop the prop and stop the engine to avoid immediate danger from the prop. If there's a danger of crushing between the boat and the bank, quickly read the situation and yell for help to keep the boat away. Throw a life-ring towards, not at, the casualty, if they can't stand. Throw the nearest mooring line to the casualty and be there to pull them towards you. If the casualty is unreachable, tell them to turn on their back with their head nearest the boat and kick their legs. Get ready with the rope again when they're in range. Deploy the collapsible ladder that sensible boaters keep by the steering position.'
‘If crew (or pets) have fallen off anywhere near the back of the boat, the steerer must immediately put the boat out of gear, whatever the circumstances.'
Even if you've only spent a short amount of time on the water, you'll probably appreciate that the waterway environment is overwhelmingly safe, peaceful and a pleasure to be in. From time to time though something may happen which you feel we should know about.
Collision or near miss in navigation or on towpath
Unauthorised vehicles on towpath
Theft or other criminal activity
To help with this there is a form on our website to collate all the relevant information. Regardless of whether you have internet access at the time, it's a good idea to jot things down the old-fashioned way as soon as you're able so that you can capture as much information as possible about the incident. Then, when you get the opportunity, you can follow the link above and submit your report to us.
Please note that the incident report form is not an alternative to contacting the Police in an emergency. You should call 999 immediately if lives are at risk (including serious injury, illness, fatality, rescue help, fire or explosion on a boat), properties are at risk, or to report a crime.
Maintenance, repair and restoration work this weekend
As someone who's out on, or by, the water more often than most, you'll know that there are times when we need to fix things that unexpectedly break. So, below, you'll find a list of navigations that have ongoing restrictions that may affect you if you're planning to get out on the water this weekend:
When restrictions to navigation happen, we get them up on to our website as soon as we can – always best to have a scan before you set off. As set out in the article above, you can set up your smartphone to automatically alert you if a notice is issued for a canal or river that you're interested in. Check out this guide to setting it up.
If you have any questions about a specific closure, or spot an error in our system, please get in touch.
Locking ahead – the future of maintenance planning
As a boater we hope you'll agree that the canal network is one of the nation's greatest regeneration stories. From losing many hundreds of miles of waterways in the last century as canals stopped being used to transport freight, in recent decades they have experienced an extraordinary renaissance.
Today there are more boats on the canal network than at the height of the Industrial Revolution and the network provides vital green space by water and access to nature to more than ten million people each year.
With limited financial resources and with the cost of looking after ageing canals increasing, our rigorous planning process takes in all aspects of risk, targeting the work where it's needed most, while retaining the flexibility to carry out emergency repairs when necessary.
That said, earlier this month the Government has announced a new funding settlement, spanning from 2027 to 2037, to follow on from our current grant agreement. Whilst we welcome this further long-term commitment to the nation's historic waterways, the amount awarded represents a steep reduction in funding of over £300 million in real terms over a ten-year period. A reduction that will have devastating consequences on the amount of maintenance we can do.
The 250-year-old network, which includes the third largest estate of listed structures in the country, is vulnerable to the increasing impact of climate change and increasingly frequent extreme weather events. And all the restoration that took place at the turn of the millennium means many of our lock gates, which have a working life of around 25 years, are coming up to retirement and will need to be replaced or have their lives extended. It is more pressing than ever that sufficient ongoing investment is required to keep the canals open and safe for boats, people and wildlife.
Another possibility would be to close longer stretches in quieter locations to carry out all the necessary works in the area, leaving it free of disruption for years after. We'd be able to save money by bringing all our equipment and materials and working along the cut rather than returning multiple times to nearby sites. This wholesale approach could transform these stretches, without boaters having the frustration of seeing one lock repaired only to run into trouble at the next one.
We are also looking to take advantage of other works and carry out repairs when canals have already been drained. This is already taking place in some areas, with repairs carried out across the north last summer when some canals were closed due to the severe drought. Active, joined up planning will help us identify where these synergies exist.
It's important to hear the views of boaters. Our Navigation Advisory Group, which is made up of independent boaters, has a subgroup that focuses on locks. They have been integral in coming up with new ideas for how we can be more efficient, without losing the special character of the canals. They have worked with us to establish how we can refurbish locks to make the gates last longer instead of carrying out full replacements. This could be by replacing the collars, or adding bespoke metal supports to weakened heels, which can add years to the life of a lock gate.
It's important to keep heritage considerations in mind when we're thinking of how we could make changes to the design of lock gates. The classic lock, with its timber beams painted black and white, is an iconic feature of the nation's landscape. Any new ideas have to respect the important heritage of the canals, while balancing the needs we have, as a charity, to safeguard the future of the ageing network.
We know there are some huge challenges ahead. For example, 20 years after it was restored, Anderton Boat Lift, the Cathedral of the Canals, needs to have an overhaul: we've recently been adding additional safety systems on the gates and doing major maintenance on the hydraulic cylinders.
In the longer term the control system needs updating and a full repainting of the cast iron structure is required. We've been planning for this through extensive investigations while the lift was closed last winter, building up a logical approach to the repairs that are required. We've been successful in the first round of pursuing funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund as the work will cost many millions to complete – and the bid includes improving the overall customer experience at the site.
And Anderton is just one of the thousands of structures, many listed, and many forming an essential part of national infrastructure, that we care for, day in, day out, year on year. We have to adapt if we want to ensure the future of the canals, and the future of boating on the inland waterways.
£89m programme of engineering work announced for 2023/24
We've announced an £89m programme of engineering work illustrating the scale of the resource required to protect and preserve the nation's 250-year-old canal network.
Against a backdrop of the government announcing sweeping cuts to the future funding of canals, in the current financial year we will complete more than 450 separate engineering projects across its network, including manufacturing and installing 123 lock gates. We will also carry out over 1,000 reactive repairs and will continue the vital programme of works to our canal-feeding reservoirs.
All this work requires investment, and we are planning to spend £89m on this year's programme of repairs and maintenance. The cost of maintaining the network year on year is increasing due to its age, the effects of inflation and the additional expense of responding to more frequent and extreme weather events. This is why we have expressed concern over the scale of funding made available to ensure an adequate works programme in the years ahead.
Central to the 2023/24 programme is the ongoing work to help ensure the resilience of the water needed to keep canals topped up, with continued investment to safeguard the water supply from our reservoirs – the oldest in the country.
£26.5m of the programme is earmarked for 37 of the 71 reservoirs in our care, with works including spillway replacements, upgrading the capacity to ‘draw down' water levels, improving access and reducing leaks. 19 reservoir projects will be on site during the year including ongoing activity at Toddbrook (Peak Forest & Macclesfield canals), Harthill (Chesterfield Canal), Barrowford (Leeds & Liverpool Canal), March Haigh (Huddersfield Narrow Canal) and Swellands (Huddersfield Narrow Canal).
We are continuing to invest in further works to improve navigation, carrying out a £6.5m dredging programme including 11 routine maintenance projects, three national programmes, spot dredging and dredging to canal feeders. £1.8m is allocated to dredging at Gloucester and Sharpness docks to tackle high levels of silt.
Richard Parry, chief executive, said: “With canals so popular and serving society in so many ways, it is more important than ever that we are relentless in our efforts to keep them safe and available.
“Whilst our campaign to Keep Canals Alive asks all those who use and enjoy the canals, to write to their local MP to secure their long-term future, in the immediate term the vital maintenance to keep canals safe must continue.
“Over the next year that programme of work ranges from the largest-scale repairs, such as at our reservoirs, to the more modest maintenance that makes such a big difference to boaters' experiences, like fixing a leaking lock gate or our rolling dredging programme. Our expert teams of colleagues, contractors and volunteers will be working hard all year round to fight for the future of our waterways.”
If you're a regular reader you may have read, on more than one occasion, that when we work on any structure we always look to combine it with other works in the vicinity so that we don't have to restrict navigation multiple times to work at the same site.
While that's a fairly straightforward principle to convey, it doesn't really explain just what that means in real terms. Well, a recent project at the Wigan Flight on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal couldn't do it better.
Back in the middle of June (remember those long, hot, early summer days?) we investigated issues with Lock 68 and discovered a blown cill. Around the same time we'd been investigating fluctuating water levels between locks 65 and 66 and had planned in some works to resolve it.
But, as the work at Lock 68 would require a navigation closure to fix, we decided to bring forward the work to remedy the water levels issue (at Lock 69).
Not everything goes to plan
Unfortunately, a large sink hole had appeared in Lock 69, which stopped the planned repairs to the head and tail gates to fix the water level issue. So, once work was all finished at Lock 68, the fabric dam was deconstructed and then reconstructed across the canal at Lock 69. This also meant the installation of pumps to create a safe working environment for the repairs to the lock.
One of our engineers visited Lock 69 as soon as it was safe and assessed the sink hole. It was found to be three metres deep and the width of the lock entrance. This, rather obviously, resulted in further works, including resetting three walling stones from the towpath side lock wall entrance which had moved and dropped to the bottom.
Within a week, the repairs to the sink hole, and planned repairs to the head gate and cill were complete. Whilst the teams were onsite, they also carried out repairs to the by-wash.
Whilst completing these repairs, we identified another void, this time under the concrete apron that protects the cill. Engineers revisited site and set out further necessary repairs.
Reinforcements arrived in the form of our Wigan Flight volunteers who painted the safety fence installed the previous week and cleaned up the general site, which freed up the rest of the team to carry on with the repair works to Lock 69 and removal of the silt.
We removed 70 tonnes of silt from within the lock chamber and the head and tail gates were cleaned to check for any possible obstructions. Final clay works to the sink hole were finished as well as final works to the apron that protects the cill.
Null and void
Despite the unforeseen hurdles associated with finding massive holes under a lock chamber, the team (which includes volunteers) battled on undeterred and manged to get the flight open in time for the busy school holidays. A big thanks to all involved.
We continue to work with the Middle Level Commissioners and the Environment Agency to review the viability of including their navigation within the GOLD Licence arrangements. To enable us to gain an understanding of the numbers of craft with a home mooring on Middle Levels we have now included in the selection ‘Other Navigation – Middle Levels' for Home Mooring status. If your home mooring is on the Middle Levels we would appreciate you updating this via your customer account.