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Cruising England's canals

By David WillisStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 1982

Rugby, England

It had been a busy day: up early for a three-hour drive to Rugby, located in the middle of England. A quick look around the famous school there. A half hour trying to find the boatyard. Unloading the car. Receiving detailed instructions on how to manage and steer 57 feet of steel along narrow inland canals.

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''Don't forget,'' said the man, ''to check engine oil, gear box oil, and reduction box oil every morning. Switch on the bilge pump. Turn the screw that greases the propeller blade. Top up your water tank each day. Run the engine to boost the battery if you don't cruise much. Keep to the center. Move to the right when passing another boat. Slow down when passing boats, moored craft, and fishermen. Don't go faster than four miles an hour. . . .''

Would I ever get the hang of it? Would the children ever sort out who was sleeping where? Would I ever become accustomed to the length of the boat stretching away fearsomely in front of the rear tiller at which I was so nervously standing?

Which of the oncoming boats would I strike first, bringing down a lawsuit which would make my family paupers and my name as muddy as the bottom of the canal?

The friendly boatyard man stepped off the boat as we moved under a bridge. Help: I was alone, just me and the tiller and 57 feet of steel. . . .

But, wonder of wonders, all was well. All was, in fact, quite splendid.

The afternoon sun shone. The sky was dappled with merino-wool clouds. On both sides of the canal, almost close enough to touch, were brilliantly green fields, gently rising to trees, farmhouses, hedges. Cattle and sheep grazed. Moorhens splashed busily from one side of the canal to the other. Voles, tiny brown water rats with brown fur, clung to the canal edge, putting me suddenly in mind of ''Wind in the Willows.''

Gone were cars, highways, telephones. The 20th century had dropped from view. We were back in the England of 200 years before, when man-made canals and their narrowboats, pulled by horses, carried freight far more easily than the appalling roads and uncertain coastal shipping. Railroads were to come later.

My spirits rose. We were to spend a week cruising canals in the heart of England. What a change of pace it would be, civilization over the hill and far away.

Indeed, it was a fascinating break from normal routine. We fended for ourselves. We fed ducks and swans and geese. We spotted birds. We operated locks with increasing skill. We moored where we chose at night, usually in the quiet of the countryside. We watched the moon rise. We became, to a degree, a part of Britain's 2,000-mile canal world - a ''linear national park,'' someone once remarked.

The British government has launched a campaign to persuade more Americans to cruise the canals. Earlier this year the Britsh Waterways Board, which runs the canal system, joined forces with boat operators to form a consortium (UK Waterway Holidays Ltd.) to sell canal holidays to tourists from abroad.

The scheme is still new. When I asked Barry Smith, manager of the boat company we used, what the scheme actually meant, he replied that he had put towels, a first-aid kit, and a set of yellow waterproof rain gear for whoever might have to stand at the tiller on a rainy day into boats to be used by the Americans.

Our eight-berth craft, named ''Taurus,'' might seem somewhat old and worn to an American family fresh from the US, but there are new boats that will be better equipped. Not only will they have the dining area, the gas stove, refrigerator, cutlery, pump-out toilets and shower that our boat had, but they will also offer modern television sets, paneled sitting rooms, and wider bunks.