If you’ve ever considered living on a narrowboat, you’ve probably imagined lazy days cruising gently down a tranquil waterway under a cloudless blue sky, evenings on the tow path with chilled wine and barbecued food and tranquil nights lulled to sleep by the gentle sound of the countryside through open windows. Of course narrowboat life can be like this in the summer, but as we all know too well from painful experience, a British summer can be far too short and very unpredictable.
So what is it really like to live on a narrowboat when the weather’s not so good? What’s it like in the winter when there’s ice and snow and Arctic winds to contend with?
Last year (2010) ended with one of the coldest spells on record. From the last week in November until the first week of January, the canal system was at a standstill. With up to six inches of ice on many waterways, many boaters were stuck for more than a month. I was one of the lucky ones but life wasn’t particularly comfortable.
Water and intense cold don’t get on well. Water freezes and, on a boat, when it does there are all kinds of problems. Unfortunately because the waterways that narrowboats use don’t have flowing water they freeze quite easily. If you are on your boat when a canal freezes you can…
Coping With Winter Weather At Calcutt Boats Marina
In many respects I am very fortunate. My marina is beautiful in the summer and can be stunning in the winter. The photograph on the left was taken on a morning after an overnight freezing fog. The daytime high was well below zero so the frost covered grass, reeds and trees transformed the site into a winter wonderland.
I am also lucky because, no matter how low the temperature drops, I still have access to running water. Even though the taps on the pontoons are turned off to prevent the pipes under the walkways from freezing, all moorers have access to any one of half dozen or so protected below ground taps. This year I read reports by many residents of other marinas who had to carry heavy containers of water to their boats when all nearby taps froze. The reports stated that they “managed OK”.
Personally, I don’t want to “manage OK”. I’ve enough to do without having to find and fill numerous (clean) containers, lug them back to the boat and pour them carefully into the water tank. I live on my own. I don’t consider that I use an excessive amount of water. I shower every day but each shower takes less than two minutes and I cook and wash up daily. Even so, I go through a full tank of water every ten days. My tank takes 20-25 minutes to fill using a hose with the tap on full blast. For me, the tap and hose option wins every time.
Because I live on a marina I have access to the main road and a car parking space 20m from my boat. We didn’t have a huge amount of snow here in Warwickshire but 5-6 inches was enough to immobilise boaters on moorings with poor road access. There are many narrowboats on the nearby canals moored close to canal bridges. These bridges are often on minor back roads which are very difficult to use in bad weather. Boaters on these moorings struggled to resupply.
Winter Narrowboat Fuel Supplies
Many boaters tell me that their boat is as warm as toast inside regardless of the weather. That’s not the case with me. I was cold in December. James is an old boat. Built in 1975 with a composite top she’s seen better days. When I moved on board last April, she had been empty and unloved for a number of years. She was very damp and leaked through the roof in heavy rain, the side doors were a poor fit and the insulation was practically none existent. Little has changed. I have to work hard to stay warm.
I have two Coldwatcher 500w heaters and a 700w oil filled radiator. These are on all the time at this time of the year and are just enough to keep the boat from freezing but don’t provide much in the way of heat. I also run a dehumidifier in the back cabin (my bedroom) to keep the damp at bay.
Real heat is provided by my solid fuel stove. It’s situated about four feet from the double doors to the front deck and feeds radiators at the rear of the boat in the second bedroom/study area, bathroom and rear bedroom. Because the stove’s back boiler has to provide hot water for the radiators, the stove doesn’t throw out an enormous amount of heat. However, at the moment it’s minus three outside but very cosy near the stove. It’s not quite as warm at the rear of the boat where I work. so I have to wear an extra fleece and a hat while I’m sat still working. No problem.
There are numerous solid fuels available. They all have slightly different characteristics. I use Pureheat. It’s a manufactured smokeless fuel and is the best I’ve tried. It stays alight for longer than other fuels (handy when I’m away from the boat for the night), burns hotter and creates less mess. The cost for a 25kg bag from my marina chandlery is ?13.50. It’s just ?9.50 from my local coal boat.
The coal boat passes by the marina roughly every four weeks. It couldn’t when the canal froze so the owners hired a van to keep their customers supplied. Bless them!
Preventing Frost Damage
Water can be very destructive. When it freezes it damages pumps and pipes and tanks. When water melts it floods. There are more than a handful of boat owners this winter in our marinas alone who are currently facing costly repair bills because they didn’t “winterise” their boats. If you live on board all the time, you don’t need to do this. If you leave your boat for extended periods and have on board heating attached to a reliable power supply you don’t need to bother either. But if you are going to leave your boat in very cold weather without any heating, you really are asking for trouble.
Winterising a boat is quick and easy (and common sense). The purpose of the exercise is to prevent water from freezing and rupturing whatever it’s in. So that means emptying some of the water from the main tank, turning the main stop cock off, then opening taps and shower attachments to allow water in the pipes to run out. If you have an “on demand” water heater you will need to drain that too. You will also need to drain your engine water too (Can’t help you with that one. I’m a bit of a dummy when it comes to engines).
Taking Care On Slippery Surfaces
Boats can be dangerous places at the best of times. There are ropes to trip you up, narrow steps up and narrow steps down, gunwales to slip off and water to fall into. Add a touch of ice and you’ve a recipe for disaster. Be careful.
I returned a boat to its marina mooring yesterday. I took Stuart, one of our younger members of staff, along for the ride. As we approached the pontoon, he nimbly hopped from the boat’s front deck onto the pontoon… did a spectacular backward somersault and landed on his head. Fortunately for Stuart he has quite a thick head so there was no damage done (only joking Stuart). But his slip on the ice could have had a very different outcome.
Stuart was uninjured (apart from his pride). We had a very different outcome two years ago on a sunny summer’s day. A hirer slipped off the back of one of our boats. The boat surfaces were dry and ice free – unusual for an English summer – but she still slipped. She slipped and fell into the canal as the boat was reversing. The propeller caught her leg, severing a major artery. Thanks to immediate first aid from one of our staff and an air ambulance she made a full recovery. But it was a full year before she could walk properly again. Boats can be dangerous at any time of the year. In the winter with ice, snow and rain, you need to be extra careful.
Cold Weather Toilet Problems
Unfortunately, when you live on a narrowboat, you have to pay a little more attention to human waste management than you would perhaps like. It’s not so much of a problem most of the year if you have a pump out toilette but you can get caught short in very cold weather. Your toilet or the contents of your holding tank aren’t likely to freeze, but the water around your boat is.
If your boat is iced in, you can’t get to a pump out station to empty your holding tank. If you don’t have an alternative, you’re stuck without an on board toilet until the ice melts. If you live at a marina, inconvenient as it might be, you can use their facilities. If you’re moored on the cut, you have a problem. Many full time narrowboaters also have a cassette toilet on board as well as the main pump out toilet.
Cruising During The Winter Months
Many narrowboat owners cruise through the winter. In fact, some prefer to cruise off-season. There are fewer boats about (no queues at the locks) and the scenery can be stunning. There are two problems with winter cruising though. One is ice and the other is stoppages. Stoppages are the closure of sections of the canal for essential winter maintenance. You can find a full list here.
A single heavy overnight frost has little impact on the water in the canal. Continuous sharp frosts and sub-zero days though can cause a build up of inches thick ice. Towards the end of December 2010 we had over four inch thick ice on the canal above Calcutt Top lock. Anything over half an inch and you’re engine will be working overtime. An inch or more and there’s a risk of tearing a hole in your boat. (One of the Grand Union canal coal boats is currently out of service due to over vigorous ice breaking). More than two inches on the canal and you’re stuck until mother nature decides to let you go.
The Key To Problem Free Winters
In my previous life as a stressed out business owner, I attended may training days. On one them I was introduced to the concept of the six P’s… Proper Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance. This applies to every area of your life including narrowboating. Although the six-week period from the end of November 2010 to the beginning of January 2011 was particularly chilly, you can expect every winter to be cold enough to freeze water.
Make sure you are prepared. If you are cruising, ensure that you know where the stoppages are and pay attention to short and medium term weather forecasts. Stock up on your winter supplies. Carry a little extra coal, top up your diesel tanks, develop a tinned food reserve and invest in a cassette toilet and, when all else fails, buy a case of mulled wine and a few good books for those cosy nights in by your roaring fire.