Without Remorse




We like quick decisions.  The moment we first saw our house we knew straight away it would be ours, and have never wanted to move in thirty years of marriage.  And when we saw Morse on the Lancaster canal, we said “That’s our boat”.  That was the easy bit.  If ignorance is bliss we must have been ecstatic.  It was thirty years since we’d had a boat on the canal, and we thought we could now manage something a little better.  So we handed over the cash, and the learning process began.


Even when we were looking round Morse for the first time, we’d noticed a powerful smell of diesel and oil.  It didn’t worry us too much, the boat had been closed up and not used for a while, and we thought the smell had just built up.  As we started to explore beneath the cockpit floor, we found a huge pool of oil.  It was something like the scene at the start of the Beverley Hillbillies.  It seemed that the previous owner had found an easy way of changing the oil – just take out the drain plug and let it flow into the bilge.  We’re still cleaning it out nearly a year later.


We do have an electric bilge pump, but we haven’t yet pumped so much as a cupful of water back into the canal.  It’s all gone into a five gallon drum that we take away for proper disposal.  The colour of the contents started out as jet black, and the latest deposit was a very nice light shade of grey.  We’ve got some matting now that says it soaks up oil but not water.  We shall see…


Doubts began to form about just how well the previous owner had looked after Morse.  These weren’t helped by the fact that everybody on the canal expressed dismay at the mention of the name.  “That boat’s had a hard life” was the common response.  We heard tales of woe ranging from being adrift in the night to losing the propeller.   We should have had a clue from the fact that when we took possession, there wasn’t a single cup, mug, spoon or plate aboard.  But there were nineteen glasses in the drinks cabinet.  And then there was the hole.


On one of our early trips, we had to squeeze through a bridge hole, where a narrowboat was moored right under the bridge.  We just touched a fender on the side of the bridge.  It wasn’t any kind of impact, just a little rub.  So we were quite surprised when we got back to the marina, to find a vertical crack in the hull.  A bit of probing and tapping soon revealed the crack went even further than the couple of inches we had seen.  Down in the cabin, we heaved everything out from the cupboard under the sink, and found the reason.  


An earlier very heavy impact had left a large L shaped crack, and, ever looking for the easy way, the owner had screwed a piece of plywood to the sink frame, to hold it against the hull, and then skimmed the outside with a thin layer of fibreglass.  It hadn’t been found at the survey when we bought the boat, so there was no alternative but to have Morse taken out of the water and repaired properly.  Of course, the damage was right on the bulkhead between two cabins, so the sink and the wardrobe both needed to come out.  That cost a lot of money, but we were determined not to leave any problems without dealing with them.


By now it was almost a personal battle with the former owner.  “What else has he done that we’re going to find out about the hard way?” We had serious reservations about whether we’d done the right thing, but we’d fallen for Morse at first sight, and decided to soldier on.


A little later, we were entertaining some business colleagues.  We were only going to be out for an hour each way.  No problem at all.  That was the day we found out about the steering.  The response to the wheel had always been a little vague, which we thought might just be lack of current experience, and at times we would suddenly have to apply another half turn of the wheel to keep going in the same direction.  We never got to the bottom of this, and in the absence of wind, put it down to weed getting on the rudder and then drifting off again.  What a nice theory, but totally wrong of course.


What it actually was, we discovered on the cruise to Old Nell’s with our colleagues.  Attempts by one of them to steer brought us on to the mud, near the bank.  Suddenly, we could only go round in very small circles.  Fortunately, one of the pirouettes brought us close enough to the bank to tie up and end phase one of the disaster.  Looking under the cockpit floor soon revealed that the steering cable wasn’t where it should have been, and the rudder was so far over that it had jammed underneath the hull.


I proved you can get a quart into a pint pot by actually squeezing under there, only to find that the steering arm was immovable.  I decided the deed had to be done, although my head was filled with thoughts about the rudder scraping through the hull and letting water in.  I had also had a lot of trouble getting under there and wasn’t at all sure I could get out if the boat started to sink.  After a great deal of effort, and some very unpleasant noises, I managed to get the rudder moving freely. No water came in.  Then I began to piece together the chain of events.  Two broken bolts added to our store of information. 


The vagueness in the steering had obviously been caused by the after end of the steering cable floating through several inches of travel.  The bolts must have been broken by an earlier incident – and there were plenty of those before our time.  A couple of pieces of wood had limited the travel, until the rudder’s contact with the mud pulled it free. 


Fortunately, we had a battery drill and some screws on board, as well as some odds and ends of wood form ongoing jobs, and I managed to fasten the cable quite securely.  In fact, the boat had never steered as well as it would later that afternoon.  Still, that was another job on the list for when Morse was taken out to fix the crack.  And more expense, but we thought a more permanent solution would be better.


Of course, I was still trapped in the bilges, and wasn’t at all sure I could get out.  Too many pies and chips over too many years had taken their toll.  I eventually decided to try to go straight up through the half locker under the middle of the cockpit seat.  My colleague said it was the first time he’d ever witnessed the miracle of birth.  To say it was a squeeze would have been a serious understatement.  We all made it home in one piece, but my good shirt never really recovered. 


When the boat did come out, we found the rudder shaft was bent, so we had that straightened and fitted the rudder with an extension.  This improved the steering enormously, and we found we weren’t as much out of practice as we had thought.


About this time, we decided to do something about the control cables.  The throttle had to be hit to move it, and the gears didn’t always engage.  Taking the throttle cable out just proved there was only one solution – a new cable.  It couldn’t be moved at all.  When we installed the new cable, we were very careful about routing, and making sure everything was free-running.  Unfortunately it is now so free it vibrates off as we are running.  That’s still on the list.


The gear cable was a different matter. The cable itself was free, but needed a lot of setting up.  It’s quite fiddly, as any adjustments at one end affect things at the other end, sometimes in ways you wouldn’t expect.  Still, we got it right in the end.  A few enquiries told us the gearbox ran on automatic transmission fluid, so we decided to treat it to a refill.  The proper fluid is red, but sometimes turns brown if it gets too hot.  When we drained the gearbox, we got some vile brown fluid out.  It had the smell of something you might wash paint brushes in, and it was very very thin.  The gearbox works much better now.  Amazing what a little maintenance can do.


Then there was the electricity.  Ever conscious of cost, the owner had decided to buy wire in bulk.  Any double wires were white, and any singles were red.  In addition, the fuse box was under the dashboard and halfway down the steering box.  It contained, on a good day, six torpedo fuses.  Sadly, the merest brush against them, or even a sneeze, would catapult one or more fuses down into the bilge.  The last we heard was always a small ping as they bounced off the old calorifier.  That had been replaced, but left in situ, because the engine would have had to come out to remove it.  At first we couldn’t understand why things would work one day, and not the next.  The disappearing fuses were the answer.  Obviously the whole area of electrics had to be tackled.


This would have to be combined with a new dashboard, preferably in beautifully varnished wood.  The old one was made of stainless steel with a couple of switches and gauges in it.  At the right hand side, there was a big hole that had been roughly hacked away.  Imagine one of the old tin openers that you sawed away by hand, and you’ll get the picture.  This hole was necessary because the dashboard was about an inch too low to accommodate the top of the steering rack.  The solution had been to add a very stylish triangular bit of wood with an oil gauge mounted in it.  I liked the oil gauge, because it was the only one that worked.  And when you turned the wheel, it pushed the gauge, and its wood mounting, gently up and down. Quite entertaining.


Time to bite the bullet again.  I cut through every wire under there.  A clean start was what we would have.  The first priority was to stop losing things down the hole.  A brand new ignition switch, just waiting to be fitted, was the victim of a careless elbow.  Ping!!!  We know where it is, but we’ll never see it again.  A trip to B & Q with some measurements produced a plastic tub that just fits in the hole under the dashboard.  An evening’s work in front of the television saw the tub fitted with three new fuse boxes, and all the appropriate wiring.


Back on the boat next weekend, we started to sort out the wires – all the same colour of course.  Still, that’s something we can do fairly easily, and one by one the lights all came to life.  It doesn’t hurt as much when you’re winning.  And we were winning.  The endless lists of jobs were getting shorter, and much more trivial.  The only big thing still remaining was a diesel leak or two.


The engine, a Perkins 4108, was running all right and starting fairly well, but a good hunt round the engine compartment found the source of the leaks to be two cracked injector pipes.  A full set of pipes was bought, together with oil, fuel and air filters.  We decided that while we were doing this, it would be a good opportunity to get the injectors reconditioned, so we got them out and sent them away.


We had earlier obtained a vacuum pump, a big plastic ball with a pump handle on top.  This was just as well, because there was no way we could get the oil drain plug out.  So we pumped the entire contents of the sump out through the dipstick hole.  Very laborious, but satisfying in the end.  The rest was routine.  Change the filters, fit the injectors and pipes, and stand well back.  It started even better than before and runs beautifully, without leaks of course.


That little lot has taken nearly a year, and has cost quite a lot of money on top of the purchase price – which wasn’t particularly cheap to start with.  But we now have a boat we can be proud of, and we know that all the things that have gone wrong are unlikely to do so again.  And we’ve saved a boat that’s had a hard life, and turned things around.  So was it the right thing to do, was it worthwhile?  You bet it was!  Morse is fantastic!


Jim and Margaret Tate