Dusty the coal boat

Dusty the boat that delivers coal, diesel and gas to other boats along the Oxford Canal

To catch Jock, Kati and Billy off Dusty the coal boat for an interview is a challenge! They are always on the move. Literally in Dusty the coal boat, but also even when they aren’t moving Dusty they are busy making orders for new stocks of coal, diesel and gas. And catching up with paperwork. They are very popular – often the sound of their laughter can be heard as they arrive before the words that are making them laugh. Their laughter is infectious and a visit from Dusty always leaves you feeling buoyed up and happier.

Dusty delivers whatever the weather

In the winter, most boats slow down almost to a standstill – some with winter moorings, others with tow path moorings and some in marinas. Those who are ‘continuous cruisers’ tend to slow right down over the winter months and can easily spend a whole winter moving extremely slowly between one point and another only a few miles away. Dusty on the other hand has a range of over 30 miles and will do this, no matter what the weather during the winter, every 3 weeks. 

Deliveries are not the whole story…

Jock and Kati might say that they just deliver fuel but their job goes much, much further than this. They can often be the only people to see or speak to some of the more remote boats on the system… who in some cases can be extremely vulnerable. They always have time for a chat. Boaters look forward to seeing them – and the chance to exchange news. They could probably do their rounds in half the time if they didn’t stop for these chats! 

A lot of boats are entirely reliant on their heat for cooking or heating from fuel which is delivered by Dusty. Who is frequently the first boat to pass through ice, or flooded rivers, collapsed locks, fallen trees, and multiple other types of blockage. 

The diesel lorry arrives…

I struck lucky today as they were on the water point at Thrupp waiting for a diesel delivery so I collared Kati in the sunshine while she waited. Alas! The diesel lorry turned up just as we sat down so we had to abandon our chat so she could deal with the delivery … fortuitously, like a well oiled machine, Jock – the other half of this tight team – emerged from the back cabin with coffee for the diesel man. I jumped at the chance again to chat quickly with at least one of them while the diesel filled Dusty’s huge tank.

I asked Jock to describe the basics of Dusty’s route on the Oxford Canal.

“We go from the end of the Oxford canal from the Arm up to the wharf at Fenny Compton. In the winter once every 3 weeks and summer once every 2 weeks. We live on another boat between times. It takes 5 days to go from Lower Heyford (where Dusty moors) to Oxford and back and then Lower Heyford to Fenny takes about 6 days in the winter. Coal run takes 11 days and then a week off and then 11 days, etc.”

Billy on the roof of Dusty

I asked how Billy, their dog, contributed to proceedings?

Jock replied; “Billy alerts us to everything that’s going on. Literally! We got him 3 years ago”. I asked what breed he was and while Jock explained – “technically he’s a cockapoo…” Kati was saying in the background – ‘he’s a twat’! Jock laughs (and clearly agrees with this term of endearment)  … “He’s a very good guard dog. He is a great focal point and talks to lots of our customers”. Kati adds – “He takes the pressure off us – nobody wants to talk to us now we have Billy (we laugh) and it means we can get on with our work! Billy takes up the slack with our customers!”

This rings true, as Billy will meet a dog on nearly every boat they visit so if the human isn’t talking then the dogs will be!

How will the ban on solid fuel sales affect you?

“We used to sell 7 different types of coal. We have got it down to three. We can order stuff in for people if they want it.” I asked about the impact of the government’s recent announcement that they will ban solid fuel sales.

Jock explained “That only relates to bagged house coal for the first two years… so until 2021 we can’t use plastic bags for house coal, but we can still sell loose house coal. Bizarrely we can’t sell bagged house coal. From 2023 it will be banned. We don’t sell much house coal, but now we can’t sell it in bags. I don’t understand it. It’s the same coal whether its in a plastic bag or on a shovel.”

“They are changing the recipes to find a happy medium to try and keep environmental rules.”

Jock continued; “They are trying to reduce the PET coke content because that’s very high in lots of smokeless fuels as it makes them burn better and they are trying to get rid of that. PET coke and anthracite is a by product that they are mixing it with. Sometimes not in the right measures… so then you can get situations where a brand of coal you buy one year can be a completely different product one year to the next. A lot of producers are trying different recipes and experiments and sometimes sell rubbish coal to customers to try and reduce PET and anthracite content. They are messing about with the recipes to find a happy medium to try and keep environmental rules.

I asked Jock if he’d like to recommend any particular brands of fuel. He replied “I can’t recommend one fuel over another – no product placement here!”

Contact Dusty for coal, diesel and gas

“We have been on Dusty for 6 years now. I was a lorry driver before this. I thought its another form of delivering goods but more pleasant and outdoorsy…  people are pleased to see us when we show up!” 

Kati was a primary school teacher for 21 years and fancied a change. She did a year where she did half a week on Dusty and half a week as a teacher. Then decided to make the switch and do, as she says; “the harder job for less money and more hours!”

I asked what they might do if they didn’t do this – and was told unequivocally ‘cut flowers’.

If you enjoyed this story, you may like to read about Roach Coal Boat too.

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  1. Julia Harrison says:

    I loved reading about Stanley: such a moving story

  2. A whole world going about its business while most of us are oblivious. Lovely insight – looking forward to reading more.

    1. Tisburylicious says:

      Thank you ?

  3. KIrsten Nelson says:

    Thank you for this view of the people and dogs along the canals.

    1. Tisburylicious says:

      Thank you Kirsten for your kind comment 🙂

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