Late in 2023, the re-opening of Stroud’s lost canal will be no simple return to times past, writes Simon Hacker.
Sixty-nine years on from its tragic closure, the planned reopening of the Stroudwater Navigation might easily be seen as a pleasure trip back to 1954. But life down at the lock, once water-born traffic returns, may not be quite as retro as we’d assume.
Given a 4mph speed limit, nothing happens fast in the canal world, but the final connection of the ‘missing mile’ of the Stroudwater Canal will see Stroud rejoin a national network that’s witnessing a quiet yet steady revolution.
To find out more, I piloted my Vauxhall Mokka-e north, for the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. At Kidderminster, a British boatbuilding company has been busy making history. But first, some context.
2050 might seem a long way off when we look at legislation, but the Clean Maritime Plan, as a component of the government’s Clean Air Plan, dictates all new vessels being ordered must, by then, be driven only by battery. And more pressingly, in just three years’ time, boat orders must be at least hybrid, as in driven by a mix of battery and diesel.
What, you cry, you were so looking forward to ambling along from Chalford to the Daneway, listening to the gentle putter of a passing engine? As things are, there are around 38,000 (almost entirely) diesel narrowboats on the waterways of Britain, but just as we are witnessing a gradual replacement of fossil-fuel cars with hybrid and full electric tech, narrowboat owners face the same change.
Ask around in the floating community and you’ll probably garner a sense of injustice. Indeed, the Canal and River Trust (CRT), which works as a guardian for our 2,000 miles of inland waterways, says there is a sense that the humble narrowboat has been caught in the crossfire of planned legislation. After all, the Clean Maritime Plan cites “zero-emission shipping” as its goal. But despite the fact that a typical narrowboat can cruise for eight hours while modestly sipping just ten litres of diesel, all inland craft, including future boats that cruise up to Stroud, won’t go under its radar.
Nevertheless, in Kidderminster, Caroline Badger tells me the law change is being enthusiastically met by many, with any used boat offering electric propulsion enjoying buoyant value: “Narrowboats with some form of electric propulsion are now highly sought after; there are very few on the secondhand market and not many traditional boat builders have the electrical knowledge capability to produce such boats.”
Alongside Rob Howdle, Caroline runs Ortomarine and it’s the kind of business any savvy politician would be keen to embrace for a photo opp. Ortomarine has just announced that it is now no longer building traditional diesel-only craft and the British brand pioneered a world first last May when it staged an ‘Electric Propulsion Performance Trials Event’ for narrowboats.
From its boat yard near Kidderminster, Ortomarine builds a pure electric option as well as a parallel hybrid (which allows the pilot to switch between modes) and a serial design, where diesel power acts as a back-up to feed extra muscle, when needed, to the electric motor.
Lead carbon batteries, says the maker, tend to be favoured over lithium. Albeit heavier, for a narrowboat, that’s no issue. They might be spent after 3,000 charges (while pricier lithiums can last 4,000) but they cost, on average, little over half of what lithium may set you back. Solar panels, explains Caroline, are also an important aspect for any (re)construction project.
For Paul and Kay Sumpner, such green gains are vital. “We firmly believe everyone considering a new-build should think very carefully about going electric,” explains Paul, who works in digital technology for the yacht industry. “The technology is available and building with less reliance on diesel and other fossil fuels needs to happen now.”
To underline their confidence, Paul and Kay have become pilot customers for Ortomarine, who created Old Nick for them: a serial hybrid Vetus-design sporting 12 solar panels, 24 LC2-800 Leoch lead-carbon battery cells and the latest Vetus E-Line 10kW electric motor. The Sumpners had already decided on a gas-free domestic system with no wood burner and a composting toilet, but realised that the practical difficulties of being pure electric were, as yet, a step too far.
“We hope to live pretty much free and green for at least six months of the year, relying on solar power to top up the batteries for propulsion and to run electric white goods,” explains Paul. “Old Nick can generate up to 2KW from the solar panels and we’re incredibly pleased with the figures from an inaugural cruise. On an overcast winter’s day, we were out for about four hours’ solid cruising, with eight locks, and returned to base with the batteries on 85 percent – despite also boiling the 3kW kettle several times and using the microwave for lunch.” In all, trial data pointed to a 70% reduction in diesel usage.
Through updates in their blog thesumpnersafloat.com, the Sumpners hope Old Nick might inspire would-be narrowboaters in the Five Valleys. But as Caroline Badger warns, demand for the pure electric narrowboat remains constrained by a factor that will be familiar to EV drivers: charging infrastructure.
“At the moment, an all-electric narrowboat is really only suitable for use as a day boat, or for summer use,” says Caroline. “The reason for this is that there generally isn’t sufficient roof space on a 58-foot narrowboat to provide enough solar energy to completely run the boat, as in to keep the batteries charged sufficiently for living aboard and cruising. In the summer months, when the sun is higher and there are more daylight hours, it is possible to live and cruise just on solar, but this is dependent on your hours spent cruising, and cruising speed.”
Fran Read, back at the CRT, applauds the Sumpners but warns 2050 is not so far ahead – and infrastructure change is the big challenge.
“Currently, charge points for pure electric boats are not easy to find in our 2,000-mile network. In most places, they are tied to marinas and perhaps in two locations there are open-access charge points, one on the Islington Regents Canal, the other, a far reach away on the Monmouthshire and Brecon.”
Once re-opened, Stroud’s potential to draw leisure craft may well hinge upon being seen as a green trailblazer. The CRT says it would be a wise move to invest in charging infrastructure from the get-go. Traditionally, narrowboaters love their mechanics, the CRT says, but the potential contribution of Britain’s canals and waterways for the declared green industrial revolution is immense, not least in the area of low-carbon tourism and transport.
And with leisure boating providing a lower-carbon alternative to foreign trips, the CRT told the government earlier this month, there are now more boats licensed on Britain’s canals than during the Industrial Revolution, while boating businesses hosted on UK waters are worth nearly £1bn a year, representing more than 2,000 businesses and 30,000 jobs.
So is the way forward for Stroud’s canal electric? Kay Sumpner warns there are ‘Luddites out there’ who will always want to resist change. “I was brought up on a diesel boat. It had an engine room, an exhaust on the roof, and it was lovely. But to cruise along in near silence, creeping up on wildlife with no engine to scare things away – and no smuts on your clothes? I’ll miss the sound of a diesel engine, but electric? It’s pure joy.”
More information: For narrowboat design and sales, contact Ortomarine (ortomarine.co.uk) 01299 489424. Nearby, Droitwich-based Cafwin Cruises (cafwincruises.com) offer first-hand experience of an electric narrowboat. For holiday hire details, call 07900 421388.
For full details of Vauxhall’s sensational new Mokka range, including the all-electric e, call Baylis Stroud direct on 01453 765522 or visit the dealer online here.