Failing to stop


Yachting journalist Jake Kavanagh onbudgies and brakes.

Failing to stop! Don't you just hate it when your propeller falls off? 

And don't you just hate it when the gear linkage fails? Both these 'character building' events will always occur during a critical manoeuvre, because you only tend to reverse at the last minute. 

So spare a thought for the skipper of a large tripping boat on the Thames many years ago who lost reverse gear in a most spectacular fashion. 

A highly experienced skipper

'Budgie' Smith was helming the 103ft Hampton Court downstream near Windsor with a party of 100 OAPs aboard when it happened. 

A highly experienced skipper, Budgie had his manoeuvre down to a fine art. There was nowhere to tie up, but that wasn't unusual for high summer. The off-lying piles were all taken with cruisers waiting for the lock, so he decided to stop in midstream and wait for the blue-grey gates to open. 

He clicked the combined gear and throttle lever back into reverse and gave a burst of power to reduce speed... and the steamer promptly accelerated. 

Bemused, he tried again, and then the colour drained from his face as he suddenly realised he'd lost reverse. Worse still, locked in forward gear and carrying plenty of way, the sleek hull of the steamer was sweeping towards the wooden gates like a fire-and-forget torpedo. 

No reverse!

Options rushed through his head - none of them good. Rapidly running out of room, he couldn't shut the engine down, because he still needed reverse. Nothing else could safely stop the 70-ton steamer... except perhaps the small craft ramp that by-passed the lock, some way off to starboard. 

Frantically, Budgie waved to the first mate, who was nonchalantly preparing the midship warp nearby. "No reverse!" he hissed. "Get below and fix it!"

Hurling back the engine room hatch, the mate dropped below like the commander of a crash-diving U boat, and seconds later there was the sound of a large adjustable spanner being whacked against the gearbox. 


In the meantime, Budgie desperately swung the bows behind the stern of the nearest cruiser and then lined the steamer up with the small craft ramp. This narrow incline was never meant to take a full sized steamer, and several faces began to look quizzically towards the wheelhouse. 

"Everyone, sit down!" Budgie roared, and at that exact moment, there was a strangled cry from the engine room. "Yougoddit! Yougoddit!"

Budgie flattened the throttle, and the elderly engine gamely answered 'all-back-full-emergency' with a throaty roar and a cloud of black smoke. The big propeller pounded the muddy bottom into a brown explosion under the transom, but it was far too late. Seconds later, and at a slightly reduced speed, the bows of the steamer smacked into the ramp - and half a dozen pensioners went down like skittles. 

And the moral of the story is...

Shutting down the engine, Budgie shakily went forward to inspect the damage, pausing to help an elderly gentleman back to his feet. "Are you ok?" Budgie asked. "Absolutely fine!" grinned the pensioner, brushing some spilt tea off his sleeve. "Best fun I've had in years."

Thankfully, no-one was hurt, and the moral of this story is to regularly check your brakes. If your boat is ashore, then why not wedge a block of wood between the prop and the hull, and just tweak up the retaining nut? Also, carefully check the throttle and gear cables for fraying, corrosion, loose clamps or sticky operation. They may not have been used for a while, and it's been a hard winter, so lube or rectify as necessary. 

Once afloat, if you've got a difficult manoeuvre to do, it may pay to try a burst of reverse long before you actually need it. That way, if things do go pear-shaped as they did for Budgie (it turned out a cable stop had worked loose) then you'll have a bit more time to do something about it... Or at least find something soft to hit instead. Good cruising!