Day 15 (21st Sep 2013) – Kilby Bridge to Foxton:

September 23rd, 2013

A slightly overcast and moist morning greeted the intrepid crew of the ‘Merlot’ on this 15th morning of the epic adventure. Will and Stevo swapped roles again with Will joining Justin in the kayaks while Stevo would crew for Stuart on the narrowboat.

The day would include 22 locks including the 10 locks at the Foxton staircase. Luckily for Stuart and Stevo they caught up with their old foes in the plastic boats after a couple of locks and teamed up. With enough manpower to walk ahead to the next lock and set it up, the twelve locks up to the Saddington tunnel were tackled with aplomb. The only mishap was when Stuart inadvertently rammed the larger plastic and left a crack in its stern. Well, they did almost kill Gutless. There was an 880 yard tunnel to negotiate today, which was dark and scary and a little slimy.  After Stuart and Stevo passed through the tunnel Stuart handed over the tiller to Stevo so he could take care of business. Stevo steered the boat through to Foxton and was described by Stu as ‘a natural’…

The crew, plus Victoria, Guy and Justin’s Mum, were reunited at Foxton at the bottom of the staircase lock. Staircase locks are used where a canal needs to climb a steep hill, and consist of a group of locks where each lock opens directly into the next, that is, where the bottom gates of one lock form the top gates of the next. Foxton Locks are the largest flight of staircase locks on the canal system. Justin’s Mum hopped aboard the ‘Merlot’ and Stevo, Victoria and Guy worked the locks and gates to get ‘Merlot’ to the top. Later Justin, Guy and Stevo were talking to Stephanie, owner of the Foxton Lock Inn and were kindly offered a free meal for the crew, an offer that was quickly and gratefully accepted.

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Momentous occasions #1; today saw the logging of 210 miles, halfway to the world record 420 miles from Skipton in North Yorkshire to Bristol. Unfortunately it probably doesn’t mean that they have negotiated half the 280 locks. They have conquered the Rivers Trent and Soar, some very large river locks and gale force headwinds of course. Total swims is currently at 4.5 but the initial ‘every other day’ hoodoo has been broken.

Day 14 (20th Sep 2013) – Leicester to Kilby Bridge

September 20th, 2013

The day was much nicer than the previous one, rain and cold replaced by sun and warmth. Will replaced Stevo as deckhand on the ‘Merlot’ and Stevo joined Justin in the kayaks as they paddled south out of Leicester. Justin informed Stevo that he’d finally decided on a name for his kayak; ‘The Argonaut’, as in Justin and The Argonaut. Stevo seemed underwhelmed.

The lads where headed into bandit country, according to Debs from the ‘Tinkers Leen’. She had entertained the boys with tales of lightning raids on narrowboats as they went through the locks as the canal wended its way through the estates south of town. Stevo and Justin had got ahead of the ‘Merlot’ as they approached the first lock and a classic ambush point. ”It’s quiet” said Stevo, “maybe too quiet”. And then, all of a sudden, nothing happened. At the next lock, just as suddenly, nothing happened again. And then, as suddenly as before, they were clear and posh houses with back gardens fronting the canal began to appear. Phew.

There were twelve locks to be negotiated at fairly regular intervals which meant that day was spent maneuvering narrowboat and kayaks. Stuart slightly miscalculated once and the ‘Merlot’ hit the bank with a thud and the sound of smashing came from within the cabin. Luckily the damage was limited to four plates and one of Justin’s Mum’s apple flans.

At one lock the lads had an interesting conversation with a chap who was planning to walk the complete coast of Britain in a year or so. He would start at the British Open (Golf) in Troon and take 50 weeks to complete the circumnavigation while raising money for mental health charities.

The lads finally reached the 12th lock and were watched intently by a herd of young steers. The Navigation pub in Kilby Bridge was the venue for the usual debrief by Justin, Stevo, Will and Stuart.

Day 13 (19th Sep 2013) – Loughborough to Leicester

September 20th, 2013

A gloomy and wet start to day 13 (bad luck?). With the loss of ‘Tinkers Leen’ and crew Stuart was solo again on ‘Merlot’ so Stevo volunteered to crew and operate the eleven locks on the day’s route. 16 miles on the Soar navigation to Leicester so a long day was ahead.

The remaining kayakers, Justin and Will, set off in the rain and started a long, moist slog. The ‘Merlot’ was able to keep up with the paddlers so they could pass through the locks with the narrowboat. Stevo worked on a lock technique whereby he would open only one gate after opening and closing the paddle valves on the opposite side. This helped the little convoy speed things up a little as the day wore on as the ‘Merlot’ crew enjoyed the occasional cup of tea and a slice of Justin’s Mum’s Ginger and Coconut loaf.

It was a fairly uneventful day until towards the end and the lads arrived at Belgrave lock. A ‘plastic’ boat, this is a derogatory term used by narrow-boaters for any non-traditional craft in the canals, came up behind towing another, smaller ‘plastic’. They joined the convoy in the lock but as the un-manned, towed boat came into the lock it started drifting over towards the kayaks, the guys with them not having bothered to secure it with a line. Unfortunately it hit Justin and tipped him into the lock; well, nobody had ever seen Stuart move so fast. He was on the towed boat in an instant and grabbing Gutless by the back-pack to try and get him out. Eventually Justin climbed out using the ladder on the side of the lock and Stuart and Stevo managed to get his kayak out with a boat-hook. Will managed to gather the flotsam from the lock, paddle, flat Stanley and, most importantly, Justin’s multi-purpose sponge. In the end no serious damage was done but Justin’s swims now total 2.5.

In the end, after over seven hours on the water, the boys reached the Castle Gardens mooring in the centre of Leicester. Ironically, the ‘plastic’ boaters who had dumped Justin into the lock turned up and moored up one of their boats to “Merlot’ as the mooring was full. Stevo decided he needed a pint after a long day’s lock-keeping and managed to find a little Irish pub called O’Neill’s just up the road…

Day 12 (18th Sep 2013) – Trent Lock to Loughborough

September 20th, 2013

Overnight saw the arrival of Will, brother of Patrick who left us in Keadby. Will was a paddler in the original 2010 gutless kayak, starting in Manchester and being replaced by his Dad JP after a week or so. More about JP later. Also the second celebrity guest paddler arrived today in the form of Adam Burgess from the Team GB Slalom Canoe squad. Adam competes in C2, the same as Tim Baillie and hopes to emulate Tim’s London gold medal performance in Rio 2016. Adam bought along his C1 canoe and thrilled the lads with some amazing spins, flips etc. that made the other boys feel a little inadequate. Stevo commented that he looked like an aquatic centaur; part man, part canoe…

Justin, Stevo, Will and Adam set off for a brief 100 metre downstream paddle on the Trent before turning back upstream into the River Soar. They weren’t sad to leave the Trent, “She’s a devil, that river” as Stuart said. Adam had to leave the crew after the first lock to get to classes at Nottingham University so the others pushed on to Kegworth where ‘Merlot’ would fill up with much needed diesel. After filling up, ‘Merlot’ and ‘Tinkers Leen’ continued to the next lock while Justin attempted to mount his kayak after paying the bill and had what we’ll call a half-swim; the boat was two-thirds full of water and Justin was wet from the waist down. The threesome continued down the Soar as the weather improved. The Soar was a much more even tempered waterway than the Trent, the current was gentle and there was even a bit of a tailwind on occasion. The scenery was also very nice as the river wound through the picturesque countryside. The boys had a bit of a challenge at the Bishop Meadows lock with no easy way out of the canal but managed to clamber up a section with some handy bits of planking and railings at the top. They finished at the Albion pub in Loughborough for the usual debrief.

Then came a sad farewell to Debs and Marcus and Morph as they journeyed back towards Nottingham but left the ‘Tinkers Leen’ for Stevo and Will to sleep on for the last time. Tomorrow it’s back to one support boat for a while.

Day 11 (17th Sep 2013) – Stoke Lock to Trent Lock:

September 18th, 2013

Today saw the arrival of the first celebrity guest paddler, Tim Baillie. Tim won gold in the C2 event at the London Olympics last year. He brought his medal along and team mascot Flat Stanley had a photo op with it around his neck. Stevo mumbled something about just missing out on bronze in the 200m backstroke at the Moscow games but nobody paid any attention.

The threesome of Justin, Stevo and Tim set off and soon hit the industrial outskirts of Nottingham. They passed close to the Valley Sea Kayaks factory where Justin’s kayak was born. Valley had donated three new hatch covers to Justin when he and Stevo had dropped by a month or so ago on a recce trip. Justin managed to leave one of them at Whitley Lock a few days back. Tim had been a slalom kayaker before switching to C2 (double canoe) and shared a few tips with the boys while paddling about one stroke to their four. Tim had another engagement so had to leave the lads at the National Watersports Centre at Holme Pierrepont. “Not a bad bloke”, Stevo grudgingly admitted.

Justin and Stevo carried on to the Nottingham Forrest stadium before transferring into the Nottingham to Beeston canal to rejoin the Trent five miles upstream. Stuart stopped for diesel at Beeston only to find out that although they had plenty of fuel, the pump wasn’t working and “engineer’s gone home for the day”.  The situation was dire so “Merlot” tied up to “Tinkers Leen” and both continued under the Tinkers power. The day had been overcast with a bit of wind and occasional light showers, but for the last couple of miles into Trent lock the wind died off completely and the river was like a millpond with the trees reflected from the surface as if from a mirror.

On reaching Cranfleet lock Stevo had got a little ahead of the rest and seeing a building resembling a pub jumped out anticipating a quick pint. Unfortunately the Nottingham Yacht Club only opens on weekends so Stevo made do with draining and opening the lock for the others when they arrived. Another short canal took them to Trent Lock where the Steamboat Inn pub beckoned for the mandatory Debrief…

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Day 10 (16th Sep 2013) – Fiskerton to Stoke Lock:

September 18th, 2013

Day 10 dawned fine and sunny but unfortunately, although the gale force winds had abated, the wind was still blowing strongly and the current looked fairly strong. The crew was down to four and the paddlers just two, Justin and Stevo. Stuart was alone again on the ‘Merlot’ and Alice was off in the car to do all those off-water chores that keep things running smoothly.

At the first lock the wind caught the narrow boat as Stuart was trying to tie up and blew her diagonally across the lock with Justin and Stevo maneuvering smartly to get out of the way; Stuart thought he’d killed the Gutless Kayaker. The lads had to deal with a tug and barge whose driver obviously wasn’t concerned with slowing down, and then more tug/barges maneuvering across the river and blowing their horns in a series of blasts that probably would have meant something to people who knew about such things. The strong head-wind made the going tough and the boys slogged through to Gunthorpe lock. Here Justin and Stevo were in familiar territory as they’d stayed in Gunthorpe a month or so ago and paddled a training run up to the Ferryboat Inn and back. The wind seemed to increase in intensity and on one stretch when coming from the side, almost blew the kayaks over. The lads were very pleased to see the weir beside Stoke lock and the end of another challenging day’s paddling.

Here the troupe increased as they met up with the Nottingham City Council community narrow-boat ‘Tinkers Leen’ named after a stream in Nottingham, and her crew Debs and Marcus, plus Andy who’d done the organising and Debs’ dog Morph. Morph is a 15 year old Staffordshire Bull Terrier with one of those plastic cones around his head that he keeps banging into things as wanders up and down the boat. The ‘Tinkers Leen’ will be with the merry band for three nights before the convoy returns to a single narrow-boat. The last news received was that it had been raining hard in Derbyshire all night and day which means it should be hitting the Trent some time next morning…

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Day 9 (15th Sep 2013) – Muskham to Fiskerton:

September 16th, 2013

The day started at Muskham Ferry pub with a photo op for Bupa with the lads posing in their bright blue Bupa shirts. Justin’s Nephew Tom had joined Justin and Stevo for the eleven miles to Fiskerton. The forecast wasn’t good but the boys set out under an overcast sky upstream on the Trent.

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The initial going was quite good with three miles being covered in good time before the first lock was encountered on the southern limits of Newark. The kayaks followed ‘Merlot’ into the lock and Stuart tied up his centre line to the lock wall. The lock keeper leaned over and instructed Stu that he’d need to tie up a bow and stern line with the kayaks in the lock, otherwise the smaller boats would have to come through separately. Stuart informed the lock keeper that the lock-lines were designed to be tied to the centre line, the keeper did not concur. There followed some spirited discussion until Stevo pulled up behind the narrow boat and quietly said to Stu, “no Stuart, no. The lock-keepers are our friends…”

The next lock was the Newark Town Lock and the convoy entered with some trepidation. This keeper was way cooler and not only let Stu tie up his center line but gave up five pounds for the cause. A passing narrow boat mentioned that there were gale-force winds forecast for one o’clock so the lads decided to crack on for Fiskerton. The conditions gradually deteriorated as the wind increased. At one stage Stevo was paddling into a near gale force headwind and making very little headway and decided to start looking for a mooring to get the hell off that damn river. The wind then decided to swing around to somewhere more like behind and morale improved. Then things calmed a bit and hearts began to sing. Talk about calm before the storm…

‘Merlot’ was blown sideways by a gust and spare kayak, spare paddles and gutless signs flew off the roof of the boat, just missing Stu. He made an heroic effort to retrieve everything single handed and amazingly fished out all the flotsam with the exception of a spare paddle. Tom decided he’d had enough and joined Stuart on the narrow boat. Up ahead the remaining paddlers turned into the last stretch before the mooring at Fiskerton to be hit by the scariest blast of wind and chop so far. “Only time I actually felt afraid”, said Stevo.

The lads found refuge in the Bromley Arms pub with bar staff Nora, Kath and Joe and wrapped themselves around a few pints while the hurricane developed outside…

Day 8 (14th Sep 2013) – Torksey Lock to Muskham:

September 16th, 2013

After a fairly miserable rainy night at Torksey, Terry’s back hadn’t improved and he decided to see how it went for a couple of hours on the narrow-boat before joining the others on the water. Stuart thought that he would take advantage of Chris and Rachel helming ‘Merlot’ and join Justin and Stevo in the kayaks before taking back the skippering duties on Sunday. So, after the traditional Bundaberg rum toast to welcome a new paddler the threesome set off under grey skies.

The tide doesn’t have as much effect on the river upstream of Torksey so the lads didn’t wait for the incoming tide and were therefore paddling against the current on the receding tide. The weather improved as they slogged it out for a couple of hours. Stevo had moved a little ahead and stopped to wait for the other two, he saw Justin and ‘Merlot’, but no Stu. Then he spotted him waving from the foredeck. Apparently he’d let a couple of blisters on his hands deter him from the glory of completing a full days paddling. Justin and Stevo pushed on another hour or so before a phone call from Terry let them know he was keen to join them so they slowed down and he got into his kayak off the side of ‘Merlot’ and they were a threesome once more. A generally northerly wind picked up and gave a bit of assistance and at about the five hour mark the weir and lock at Cromwell hove into view. The main obstacle in the last mile or two before the weir were hoards of fishermen on both sides of the river forcing the lads away from the slower moving sides and into the faster moving middle. The Cromwell lock was by far the biggest they had encountered but a pleasant lock keeper allowed ‘Merlot’ and the kayaks through together. Justin’s Sister Victoria and Nephew Tom had driven up from London to meet the guys and the cast and crew, including Alice, were reunited at the Muskham Ferry pub in Muskham.

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After Chris and Rachel and Terry were fondly fare-welled Alice cooked up a delicious stew with Chorizo and new potatoes followed by a selection from the new supply of homemade cakes and puddings sent by Justin’s Mum. Stevo, moved by the conquering of the tidal Trent raised his pint and mangled some Shakespeare:

                  ‘There are gentlemen in England, now abed, who will feel themselves accursed

                  and hold their manhood cheap, who were not here with us on the Trent…’

Day 7 (13th Sep 2013) – Keadby to Torksey Lock

September 13th, 2013

Today saw Team Gutless parting company with ‘Michael Hayes’, their trusty support boat. After getting them to Keadby it was returning to Thwaite Mills and Canal Connections. Also leaving were Patrick and Curtis, but not before a farewell pasta dinner cooked by Curtis. Curtis’s Mum Lesley and partner George joined Justin, Alice, Stuart, Stevo, Terry and Curtis for a slap up meal on ‘Michael Hayes’, Patrick having already left for the London train. A good night was had by all.

In the morning Justin and Terry went through Keadby lock at 9:30 sharp to catch the start of the incoming tide. Stevo had decided that discretion was the better part of valour and that the 27 miles to Torksey lock was more than his old body could handle in the five hour tide window and so was taking a rest day on Merlot. Arriving to assist with the tidal Trent were Chris and Rachel from the Yorkshire Waterways Museum, their local knowledge of the river proving extremely helpful. The ‘Merlot’ followed the lads through the lock at 10:15 with the flood tide and the crew waved farewell to the moored ‘Michael Hayes’. Somebody would be picking her in a couple of days. Stuart decided to take a day off and let Chris and Rachel take the helm which left him and Stevo to busy themselves with our dwindling alcohol supplies, making cups of tea and sausage, bacon and egg butties. Later they set themselves up on the foredeck with deckchairs and drank beer in the sunshine while listening to a few tunes. An exhausting day.

Meanwhile, back with the kayaks, the lads seemed to be staying a little ahead of the tide and weren’t initially getting the boost they’d hoped for. They kept soldiering on and eventually got some tidal help as they got further upstream. The crew on ‘Merlot’ eventually sighted them in the distance but couldn’t reel them in. When Torksey lock finally appeared Justin and Terry had broken all previous Gutless records for a day’s run, 27 miles in six hours with the final half hour against the turning tide. Well done.

At Torksey lock the gang moored up their remaining support boat, pitched a couple of tents and retired to the White Swan pub for debriefing, and possibly food and drink.

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