"Wanted: A 'go-anywhere' boat for a 'go-everywhere' couple."
Such might have read the ad Jo and Michael Morehouse would have placed when, reflecting on their futures in 2016, they decided to ditch their ideas of a cabin in Alaska, or an RV road-trip across the States, and instead settle on the English inland waterways to sate their nomadic appetites.
Although both boating novices, by then they had plenty of experience of peripatetic living. The couple (Michael hails from Oklahoma while Jo is British) met in Vietnam while they were separately completing round-the-world solo trips. In December 2012, Michael had quit his job in Los Angeles and headed west, while Jo's trip, kicking off in May 2014, was east-bound. After what she describes as a "very memorable conversation" in Phong Nah, the pair decided to meet up a few weeks later, spending ten days together in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Michael picks up the story: "Eventually, when Jo finished her trip, we met again in Los Angeles where I was working, and that's when we became a couple. I subsequently had a job offer from New Zealand, so we moved there. But after a year-and-a-half I had another job offer back in LA, so we returned in 2015."
The move was to be short-lived. Having spent so long on the road, city life often felt stifling, compounded by Michael's increasing dissatisfaction at work. There were other complications, not least the realisation in New Zealand that having a passport in common would make life a lot easier. The couple were faced with the options of staying in the US or Canada on Michael's papers, or giving UK life a shot.
It was mid-deliberation that Michael recalled a memory from a trip to London some years earlier. "I was in Camden, standing on a bridge and watching a guy take his boat through a lock. Before that point I'd never heard of a narrowboat and I didn't even know there were canals in England. But the sight made a real impression and I remember thinking at the time: 'Wow, that would be a really cool life.' It was January, it was very cold, all the other moored boats had their fires going. It just all looked quite pleasant."
He recounted the story to Jo and jokingly suggested they get a narrowboat themselves. "And then I headed off to work. But when I came home that evening Jo had already waded through about 150 YouTube videos on the canals – everything from 'Cruising the Cut' and Daniel Brown's 'Sort of Interesting' vlogs, to clips from Timothy West and Prunella Scales' TV series.
"I watched a few and I was sold," says Michael. "We started looking for boats. When the Brexit referendum happened it dropped the price of craft by 30% in 24 hours for us, because of the exchange rate plummeting. All of a sudden my savings were worth a lot more – that was incentivising. And then Donald Trump got elected... We were already getting my UK visa by that stage, but that was the tipping point – the moment we really wanted to get moving fast."
It was another few months before they bought Perseverance, the 57-footer that has taken them around more than half of the canal network in the subsequent two years. "Michael's aim was always to go everywhere," Jo explains. "He'd never be happy going up and down the same stretches. He's quite fanatical when it comes to travel."
"Yeah, I'm weird like that," he concedes. "If you put me on a road, I need to go all the way to the end of it. And then back to the intersection and down the next one. For me it's a philosophical thing, and it now extends to our canal cruising too."
However, the idea of channelling their boating towards a formal 'goal' didn't cross their minds until much later. To begin with, they were simply content with exploring the system exhaustively and documenting their travels on a vlog to keep Michael's mum back in the States up-to-date. But when their videos started gaining traction among the wider boating community, a recurring online comment set the wheels in motion for a slightly different approach. Jo explains: "People kept telling us that the more obscure places we were visiting were Silver Propeller locations, and that we should sign up for the challenge. Neither Michael nor I had any idea, at that stage, what the Silver Propeller was. It was only when we saw this suggestion for something like the fifteenth time that we decided to look it up."
The challenge, which IWA launched at the start of 2018, aims to encourage boaters to visit 20 or more lesser-explored waterways. Participants can find a full list of all the locations (which include many on the unconnected network that are only accessible by local, portable or trailable craft) on the association's website, which is how Michael and Jo discovered they'd ticked off eight or nine already without even realising it. "After that it was an easy decision to commit," says Michael. "We had set out to go everywhere you can on the connected system anyway, so it didn't really affect our future cruising plans. What was frustrating, however, was realising there were about three destinations we'd got tantalisingly close to, but due to lack of effort or obstructions in the channel, hadn't made it all the way. Most of these were while we were on the BCN last winter. If we'd only known about the Silver Propeller at the time, we would have made sure we boated them and would probably have completed the challenge by now."
Jo and Michael were the first to complete the challenge and finally reached the twentieth location at Standedge Tunnel. Not that they're resting on their laurels after receiving the coveted plaque, however, for Michael is determined to visit all the other places on IWA's list too. "The only problem with doing so is that it'll entail going over old ground – and going miles out of our way. We could dot off those few we missed on the BCN with three to four weeks' travelling, but to get back to the Basingstoke (King John's Castle, Odiham) is a bigger commitment. Perhaps a better idea might be to rent a boat for a day just to tick it off. To date, we've reached all the Silver Propeller locations in our own craft, but the Basingstoke might be one where hiring makes sense."
As well as satisfying Michael's compulsive travel quirk, the couple also appreciate the Silver Propeller Challenge's cruise-it-or-lose-it ethos. "IWA is right," says Michael. "If these canals don't get visited they'll get lost. Several of the ones we've been to are already problematic enough to navigate. The Dee Branch off the Shropshire Union, for example – we couldn't progress much further than the first lock. The Slough Arm was another headache. It was difficult to boat and there's no real impetus to as there's no 'destination' at the end. It was mainly garbage." There's no love lost for Walsall Town Basin either – not because the city centre moorings were substandard, but because the journey to reach them was fraught with dodging "bits of cars, washing machines and kids throwing rocks".
Thankfully the pay-off at other destinations has been worth the odd struggle elsewhere. The Ashby and the end of the Montgomery ("especially after the over-boated Llangollen") are Michael's highlights so far, while Jo loved the novelty of cruising with a view over the Irish Sea on the Lancaster Canal at Hest Bank. These unexpected surprises, plus the gratification of knowing their ongoing vlogs are encouraging other people to follow in their wake, is enough to make the couple glad they stumbled upon the Silver Propeller in the first place. Their next challenge? "Wouldn't it be great if IWA introduced a Gold Propeller?" suggests Jo. "Because we definitely plan to keep on cruising these routes."
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