New Internationalist

Praying for rain

It all seemed to be going so well. We were chugging gently past water meadows, gravel pits and wildlife reserves, on a perfect summer's day, making our stately way with my home, which is a Dutch barge named Wiphala, from the River Thames back to Bristol. We had just celebrated passing successfully beneath a railway bridge where there were ominous warnings about underwater 'obstructions' - the remains of an earlier bridge that was blown up. I did point out that fate tends to save its cruellest strokes for the sequel to triumphs, but pointing them out does nothing to avert the strokes.

I'm now in a jam, unable to advance into a lock or retreat under the railway bridge. Low levels of water in the Kennet and Avon Canal mean that Dutch barges like mine can't get through a lock near Newbury, and are at particular risk of striking the obstruction under the bridge. Two Dutch barges were recently jammed here for four days, blocking the entire canal. Because of the way these barges are constructed, which makes us sit deeper in the water at the back, we alone seem to be affected.

So, trying to get into this lock, and unawares, we stuck fast. Worse, while revving up our huge engine in the vain hope of getting over the obstruction, the raw-water exhaust cooling system sucked in debris from the shallow water, the exhaust overheated, and suddenly there was smoke billowing from the hold at the back.

Despite being surrounded by water, fire is a peculiarly alarming hazard on boats, loaded as we are with volatile substances, like diesel, gas cylinders and batteries, in a small space confined by steel. Fires may go out only when you sink. The sensible thing to do is to get away from the boat as fast and as far as possible. However, common sense is notoriously uncommon in volatile situations, so I unloaded the contents of three fire extinguishers into the hold (fortunately, it is isolated from the rest of the boat) and called the fire brigade.

Within minutes they arrived - a veritable platoon of firefighters, gentle and commanding, used to taking charge. Were we absolutely sure there was no-one else on the boat? Under stress, it seems, people tend to forget about each other. By now it had become clear that the smoke had not been fire, but exhaust fumes blasting their way directly into the hold through a molten duct. The fumes had already died away.

Then came the paramedics. My crew, both doctors in Bristol, remarked that with some 50 years' experience of doctoring between them they had never come across unlikeable paramedics, and these were no exception. The paramedics were followed by police, fearing arson. On the bank, a small crowd had gathered, distracted from their Sunday afternoon stroll along the towpath of the canal. Finally, two officials from British Waterways, the navigation authority, arrived to complete the party.

With the help of the firefighters we managed to pull Wiphala back out of the lock, thereby clearing the canal for everything except Dutch barges. Not for the first time (though a little to my surprise), I felt deeply indebted to skillful and committed public servants.

But we are now moored at a spot reserved for boats using the lock, which may cause inconvenience and indignation among other boaters, particularly part-time 'recreational' ones, who are less well informed by bitter experience, more voracious in their demands for unhindered pleasure. The British Waterways officials warned me that the crew of the two barges that were stuck here before had been reduced to tears by unforgiving holidaymakers.

Still connected to the internet but to little else, I simply have to await torrential rain - the only way of lifting the water level. I suppose my thoughts on the matter might be called prayer, since no other obvious options are available. Until now my prayers have been entirely for sun - and miraculously answered. Whoever or whatever, if anyone or anything, is listening, I fear they may not respond very favourably to such a sharp about-turn.

So here I sit, just by the celebrated Newbury race course. An engineer suggested pouring diesel on fire in order to achieve an insurance write-off, rather than a semi-wrecked boat. The damage isn't as bad as that - and fire does kill boaters quite regularly.

A young man from British Waterways in Gloucester came a long way to deliver official notices to pin on my barge, saying I have permission to moor here and, with any luck, helping to avert potential verbal or physical assaults. We chatted rather wistfully about the terrifying floods that hit Gloucester in the summer of 2007.

Clearly, the onset of climate change in Britain, with its alternating droughts and floods, will not be good news for everyone, including Dutch barges on the Kennet and Avon Canal.

 Believe it or not, a deluge has just begun.

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