After much searching, I found the boat that I wished to call home. Dawn, for it was she, was moored in Staffordshire. My father and I both booked precious time off work and, after testing the suspension and kicking the tyres, we set off for the week-long journey. Destination: Oxford.
We planned a journey that took us along the Shropshire Union Canal, Grand Union and Oxford canals. There were probably others (it gets a bit complicated round Birmingham). On our journey we passed through tunnels, diversions, and lots of locks.
No so fast
But this was no canal holiday. We had work to do. I had to learn the ropes, and fast (not too fast, 4 mph max and dead slow when passing moored boats). We also had one or two maintenance tasks to do underway. Anywhere you might want to stand on a narrowboat is usually covered with non-slip paint. Opinions are divided about the best way to do this, but Dawn’s previous owner had decided to mix a bag of builder’s sand in with the paint when doing the roof. Of course, it had started rusting and, as we had a week with nothing better to do, we thought we’d scrape it off and repaint. Simple. Painting is one of those quiet, meditative activities. Perfect for a canal journey between locks.
Do you want cows? Because that’s how you get cows.
If you’ve stripped and repainted surfaces before, you might think you have an idea of what this involves. You might be wrong. Though the paint job was rusting, the sand held fast and resisted any attempt to scrape it off. Hand-held paint scrapers were useless. Thinking ahead, my father had brought a grinder with a tungsten carbide disc and a petrol generator. As I piloted the boat through tranquil fields, he attached himself to the boat with a length of rope and got to work on the roof. Amusingly, the sound of a disc grinder is tremendously appealing to cows. Whenever we passed a livestock field they would come running over and stand and listen. I hear bagpipes have the same effect on cows. The jury is out about their effect on paintwork.
Oil change, oil change
Eventually, after days under way, we caught sight of Oxford. With just a few miles to go, on a bright morning, we stopped at to refill the water tank. It would be a push, but we were probably only one day away from my home mooring. Duly watered, we turned the key in the ignition. Usually, when you turn the ignition, the strain of the starter motor quickly gives way to the familiar thud-thud-thud of the engine and its heavy flywheel. But this time there was no such thud. No panic, we tried flipping the decompressors. Again, no luck. We asked the opinion of an engineer at the wharf where we’d stopped, and he reckoned an oil change would help. One expensive oil change later, no luck.
We popped over the road to the local pub to see if anyone had any ideas. The canal network is full of armchair experts, and some of them know their stuff. We chatted to a few people and said that our 1969 vintage Lister LR2 engine wouldn’t start. “Don’t be ridiculous,” said one. “Listers never break”.
But it was indeed broken, and after a day’s tinkering, we left the boat where it was and returned home. Far from the triumphant end that we had planned for our journey.
I was out of spare days and had to return to work. I sat at my desk wondering what could be done. My father, on the other hand, had a plan. A life spend tinkering on engines had been building to this point.
When he left, he took the cylinder blocks and pistons with him. When he got them home he discovered that the piston rings on one of the two cylinders had completely gummed up with coke, meaning half the engine had no seal and therefore no compression. This was probably caused by the engine being left to tick-over and charge the batteries for prolonged periods of time. He reckoned we’d done the entire journey with only one cylinder firing. He scraped and cleaned and replaced piston rings.
And then, a few days later, sitting at my desk at work, my phone rang. I picked it up. “Hello?” I asked. “Thud thud thud” came the reply.
Work for idle hands
That engine did a great job, and no doubt would have continued to do so for years to come. But about a year after that fateful morning, my father called me out of the blue. “There’s a Lister SR2 for sale. Do you want it?”
Dawn, as you may recall, had a Lister LR2. To the casual observer, it was basically the same engine. The only difference was that the cylinder bore is a little larger, giving a modest boost in horsepower. But my faithful LR2 was doing a good job. Swapping piston rings is one thing. But a whole engine?
A whole engine
The opportunity to swap a vintage diesel engine for an almost identical vintage diesel engine was too much to pass up. And so, in stages, I took my bedroom apart, we extracted the LR2 and replaced it with the SR2.
At the time I wrote about the hoisting of the engine and its replacement. Looking back at that video I’m still amazed that it all worked out.
This is the first of the eight boat stories. There will be more to come, including more engine excitement.