Learn about life afloat the easy way

Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.


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2015 08 16 Newsletter – A cruise to Llangollen: Napton to Fazeley Junction

I’m back in my normal newsletter routine, full of energy and firing on all cylinders. Relationship issues aside, life is good. Very good.

Once more. I want to say a huge “THANK YOU” to everyone who emailed me messages of support and several offers of a night out and a place to sleep afterwards. Narrowboat owners and enthusiasts are a kind, generous and generally wonderful bunch of people.

I also want to thank my discovery day guests for their gifts, some intentional, some not. I can’t work out who left a Samsung digital camera in my engine room so, if it’s you, please let me know.

The intentional and very welcome gifts included a packet of four fresh cream egg custards, a lemon drizzle cake, chocolate bars, more than one very tasty shared lunch and several bottles of red wine. My sincere thanks for all of them.

I am also very grateful to Calcutt Boats owner Roger Preen. Towards the end of Sunday’s discovery day we passed through the Calcutt flight where we could see staff preparing for an evening barbecue.

At the end of the day, as usual, I moored just above the Calcutt flight, said goodbye to my guests then sat down to catch up on the day’s emails. I could hear the sound of merriment coming from the barbecue a hundred metres away and felt just a little sad and lonely.

Minutes later Roger walked passed my window in his trademark salmon pink shorts. He invited me to join them for something to eat. I didn’t want to appear too keen so I waited at least thirty seconds before locking up the boat and sprinting along the towpath to join them. Roger Preen, as all the staff at Calcutt Boats will tell you, is a very kind man.

I was also grateful to fitter, fleet manager and boat safety examiner extraordinaire Russ Fincham. After forcing me to eat four burgers and producing what seemed like a limitless supply of beer from a hidden supply, he very kindly showed me his genitals.

I don’t think he meant to. At least, I hope he didn’t mean to, but the combination of a full and very busy day at work followed by an even busier evening cooking all of the food and drinking most of the beer, and a wearing pair of loose fitting shorts pulled up over an expanding waistline, was tempting the inevitable.

I wasn’t aware of his feelings for me, but as the evening moved from beer to red wine, and then to Southern Comfort and spiced rum, he made his innermost emotions increasingly clear. I love you too Russ, but I could have done without you telling me every five minutes and dribbling on me while you did so.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening. I don’t drink much these days, but I love the occasional night with the happily incoherent. I love a night but I don’t much enjoy the usual painful recovery which follows it, but I managed to hide my discomfort from Monday’s guests.

At 6pm on Monday I said goodbye to Jan and Allan, the last of my discovery day guests until the beginning of October and, for the nineteenth time in eighteen days, headed off towards Braunston. I’ve just checked my records. I’ve cruised this stretch of canal ninety eight times since my first discovery day thirteen months ago. Guess what? I still think the cruise is wonderful.

My mind was willing but my weak so after an hour’s tranquil travelling I moored for the night under a weeping willow before an early start the following morning in order to make my 9am appointment with J G Marine at the bottom of the Braunston flight.

I booked a further full day with Justin Greene two months ago when he did some welding work for me. Justin is something of a rarity in my experience on the waterways. He knows what he’s doing, he’s reliable, and he doesn’t charge the Earth. Consequently his diary is usually full for two or three months ahead.

I had half a dozen jobs lined up for him. The first was to find a remedy for a problem I’ve had with my water tank since I moved on board five years ago.

My first boating disaster was when I had been living on board for just a week. I didn’t understand the need to constantly monitor the contents of my water tank so I was only aware of the need to top up my tank when the flow from the galley mixer tap spluttered and died.

Of course I didn’t have a hose on board. An hour later I had a borrowed and much kinked hose attached to the pier tap at one end and stuffed into the tank’s inlet on my well deck at the other. I turned on the hose, made myself a cup of coffee and waited, and waited, and waited.

I couldn’t understand why the tank was taking so long to fill. I had no idea of the tank’s size or how long this tedious task normally took, but I certainly didn’t fancy having to wait so long every time I needed some water.

I passed the time swatting cobwebs and polishing wood – there was no shortage of either – starting at the front of the boat then slowly working my way past the closed doors either side of my centre hatches, past the closed door into the bathroom and then past he closed door to my bedroom and a sphincter loosening shock.

A ripple of dirty brown water was advancing towards the front of the boat over the bedroom’s threadbare carpet. I suspected that filling the tank at the opposite end of the boat might have something to do with the slowly sinking boat but I didn’t have a clue what had happened.

A nearby Calcutt Boats fitter identified the problem immediately. He removed the steps that descended from my front deck down into the cabin, revealing the space under the deck and my stainless steel tank. He shone his torch on the short length of hose between the tank and the deck above and pointed out the water cascading over the side of the tank from the bottom of the loose fitting hose.

The tank should have taken no more than twenty minutes to fill so, for three quarters of an hour, excess water flowed steadily down the outside of the tank and into the cabin bilge where it sneakily slid under my feet as I polished and dusted until it finally reached the engine room bilge. Once the engine room bilge filled thanks to a failed bilge pump, it overflowed into the cabin.

What particularly upset me, apart from seeing my bedroom under water after just seven days on board, was that I had been using an industrial dehumidifier from the moment I moved on board, costing £5 a day in marina electricity charges, to try to remove the damp from the long neglected boat. I had to start the process all over again.

I learned a very valuable lesson from the disastrous event. I didn’t ever make the same mistake again. Sally did though, so we had the pleasure of drying the back cabin out again about a year and a half later. Fortunately the second flooding was just before we ripped out all the boat’s carpet and replace it with laminate flooring.

Neither of us allowed the tank to overfill after that, but we had to monitor it constantly. There is a tank level indicator just inside the cabin near the tank. It worked for a year but then stopped. We weren’t particularly bothered. The water tank level indicator we used most of the time was outside the boat. We were both pretty good at looking at the bow’s waterline, noting the amount of organic growth above water and judging the tank’s current capacity. The tank’s stop cock was also immovable so I had no way of isolating the tank if any of the boat’s plumbing developed a leak.

By lunch time Justin had replace the rubber filler hose with a threaded steel tube and replaced an inoperable gate valve to both the main tank and to the water gauge. The tank is now sealed at the top and can be isolated from the bottom and the water gauge is working. Instead of watching depressing television on Monday evening while I eat my dinner, I watched the water gauge instead. It was much more interesting.

After lunch Justin serviced my engine and sorted out my alternator problem. The alternator and water pump pulleys were different sizes. Both should have been 17mm. The water pump pulley was the correct size but the alternator pulley just 13mm. I thought Justin would have to try and source the correct pulley ready for fitting at a later date. He didn’t need to. He simply adjusted the width.

The alternator bracket was also worn so it couldn’t be tightened properly. After half an hour’s mechanical magic, a modified bracket was holding the alternator immovably in place.

Justin also serviced the engine then, while I had his attention at the back of the boat, investigated my overheating engine problem.

Last month when I was on the Thames I gave my engine a little stick to see how fast it would go. In the coming years I will cruise on all the connected English and Welsh canals and rivers so I need to be confident that I have a little power in reserve for dealing with more turbulent waters.

I had an idea what could possibly be causing the problem. The more throttle you apply, the more the stern digs down into the water. Counter intuitively, if you’re cruising a shallow canal and find your boat’s dragging the bottom, you can often increase the boat’s speed by easing off on the throttle to lift the stern out of the mud.

I thought that because I added more than a tonne of steel to the cabin when it was over plated and therefore increased the boat’s draught slightly, increasing throttle on the Thames was lowering my wet exhaust too close to the water line and reducing the cooling system’s effectiveness.

I told Justin my theory and waited for him to acknowledge both my intelligence and perception. Instead, he looked at me as if I had just told him that the Moon was made of green cheese, shook his head and turned away to finish adjusting the alternator. I guess mechanical problem solving just isn’t my thing.

I scheduled a date for Justin to investigate the overheating issue when I return from Llangollen at the end of September. Justin told me that my engine will probably outlast me, but he also said that he has replaced several old Mercedes engines similar to mine where the overheating problem couldn’t be resolved.

Justin suggested that one of the most reliable and quietest range of engines is those offered by Beta Marine. A similarly powered engine to my own Mercedes OM636 would cost £9,000 to fit, including the manufacture and installation of a skin tank to replace my current raw water cooling system. I think I’m going to have to start buying lottery tickets.

With just about everything on the boat now working perfectly – or so I thought – I cruised the short distance to my mooring for the night close to Willoughby Wharf.

The following morning, with a joyous heart and a spring in my step, I was up at dawn ready for a 6am start to the cruising day. Now, as you’ve probably gathered, I am to boat electrics what Simon Cowell is to modesty. However, when I turn on my ignition and the light doesn’t come on, I know I have a bit of a problem.

I suspected that the alternator wasn’t working. I put all my alternator knowledge to immediate use and checked to see if an obvious wire had fallen off, gave a mental shrug, and set off towards Hillmorton.

After an hour’s cruising, just to confirm my suspicions, I stopped the boat mid-stream on an empty canal and popped inside to check my battery monitor. An hour’s cruise is usually enough to bring the battery bank back up to 100% but the reading was still on the night time low of 95%. The three year old alternator was clearly playing up.

I phoned Justin Greene. He adjusted his halo, fastened his cape, leaped into his bat mobile, and was knocking on my cabin in the blink of an eye.

After five minutes examination he explained the situation in a way he knew I would understand. “Your alternator’s f****d! You need a new one. It’s going to cost you £140 for a replacement. What do you want to do?

I didn’t have a choice really. I suppose I could have had the broken alternator examined to see if it could be repaired, but the nearest supplier was five miles away so, without a car, time or the inclination to try and fit the repaired alternator myself, if it could be repaired, I asked Justin to source and fit a new one.

By midday I was on my way again, light in both heart and wallet, but with a steady and gratifying rise in my battery bank charge.

I had originally planned to stop in the middle of Rugby at a Tesco superstore close to the canal but I didn’t really have the time, and the thought of spending more money made me weep uncontrollably.

I stopped for the night at a spot close to Brinklow marina, peaceful other than the occasional rumble of trains on the West Coast Main Line.

I was on my way again by 6am, accompanied for the first half mile by a grey heron, floating crane fly like in front of the boat as I disturbed its tranquil breakfast. At Rose Narrowboats, the railway passes almost close enough to touch. As the trains flashed by I caught glimpses of stressed commuters packed like sardines heading for another day on the hamster wheel.

Ten minutes later I passed Coombe Fields and thirty online moorings sitting in the shadow of both railway and motorway, tranquil views but stressful sounds, the sound increasing to a mind numbing roar as rail and motorway converged at bridge 25. The rush of traffic reminded me of the year I spent driving for three hours each day to north London and then back again to my rural Warwickshire home. I thank my lucky stars every day that commuting is no longer part of my life.

An hour and a half into the day’s cruise I passed the first moving boat of the day, met, of course, at a narrow gap with masses of hawthorn and bramble scouring my cabin sides and snatching the fleece hat from my head. As I reversed to retrieve my hat from its bramble coat hook seven feet above the canal’s centre, I was reminded of the possible stress a professional paint job would cause me.

I was quoted £8,500 by Debdale Wharf painter John Barnard at this year’s Crick Show. I know that the boat would look stunning when he finished. I also know that, like many an owner of freshly painted boats I’ve seen in the past, I would suffer buttock clenching stress at every bridge, narrow gap, tunnel and lock. I would be wiser to invest the money, if I could find that much, in a new engine instead.

As and aside, if you are interested in the development of narrowboat engines over the years, there’s a brief but fascinating potted history here.

Once through the narrow gap, with my fleece hat now pulled firmly down over my ears, I cruised to Ansty where, at 7.45am, I met the day’s first pedestrian. The swarthy thirty year old, wearing track suit bottoms and a much practiced frown, walked slowly along the towpath with a child’s fishing rod in one hand and a can of super strength lager clutched tightly in the other. I wished him good morning but he turned away and examined the fishless water instead.

I stopped at Hawkesbury Junction for a breakfast of porridge and blueberries, a mug of coffee and an hour’s email writing before negotiating my only lock of the day, operated by a pair of kindly hire boaters who were good naturedly moaning about the logistics of “forcing the QE2 around a toilet U bend and then fitting it into a parking space barely long enough for a mini” If you’ve ever taken a seventy footer around Hawkesbury junction, you’ll feel their pain.

I stopped at Star Line Cruisers in the middle of Nuneaton for fuel. With my diesel tank 189kg heavier, and my wallet correspondingly lighter, I continued through the rubbish strewn Nuneaton waterway. The canal was relatively clean when I passed here in May but this time the murky water was studded with cans, plastic bottles and take away cartons.

Once through Nuneaton, and the much cleaner village of Hartshill, I stopped for the day with a wide view of open fields fringed by purple loosestrife. Two Shetland ponies browsed at the water’s edge opposite bright yellow stands of equine poisonous ragwort.

As I stopped the engine I heard ringing in my ears, not, as I first suspected, the onset of middle age tinnitus, but the ringing of tubular bells floating through the open window of a nearby farmhouse, reminding me of Mike Oldfield, the early seventies, flares, confusion and acne. It wasn’t a great period in my life.

The weather forecast for the following day, entirely accurate for a change, predicted constant and heavy rain. I decided to stay put.

I woke to the sound of rain hammering on my roof. I woke, lit my fire for the third time this month, ate a leisurely breakfast, and then sat down to a day’s work. The first task was to accept a very kind offer from the people at Microsoft to download Windows 10. Many frustrating hours later the latest operating system was installed, my laptop had slowed to a crawl, and Three gleefully displayed a notice on my screen to tell me that I had run out of data so couldn’t connect to the internet until my next month’s allowance started in eight days’ time.

Sometimes I hate computers.

There are very few times when not owning a car is a problem to me but this was one of them. What passes for work these days for me is managing my site, dealing with enquiries about my discovery days and responding to dozens of requests for information about varying aspects of living afloat. I needed a replacement internet connection and I needed to travel to wherever it was for sale as soon as possible.

Fortunately I could still use my iPhone to connect to the internet – EE offers pretty good coverage on the waterways – so I was able to establish that there was a Three store in Tamworth. All I had to do was get there while the shop was still open the following day. I checked my Pearson’s guide. Tamworth was seven hours cruising away so reaching the town and leaving a few hours margin for delays required a fairly early start.

I pushed the boat away from a very soggy towpath at 5.30am, cruised through mist covered water for an hour to reach the Atherstone flight of eleven locks, and then spent three and a half energetic hours descending a flight with every lock against me. Still, the exercise was very welcome on a chilly morning.

I stopped on Polesworth’s visitor moorings for brunch before continuing past Alvecote marina and then south for an hour and a half through suburban Tamworth, the two Glascote locks next to Steve Hudson’s now deserted boat building basin ,and finally my goal for the day, Fazeley Junction.

After a brief stop for water I moored opposite Peel’s Wharf, grabbed a rucksack and then walked into town. Two miles and half an hour later I was joining throngs of not so happy looking Saturday shoppers in the Ankerside Centre. I was guided there by two or three roadside signs modified by a wag with a brain the size of a pea. Each of the Ankerside directional signs had a spray painted “W” preceding it. His parents must be very proud.

I found the store within five minutes then spent half an hour waiting for a free assistant. Two minutes and twenty two pounds later, I was the proud owner of a mobile broadband pay as you go SIM with 3GB of data. I now have an essential backup for the next time I run out of data.

On the way back to the boat I picked up the ingredients for my evening meal; a three cheese ploughman’s with chilli garlic pickle and carrot and pumpkin seed bread, and a decent bottle of shiraz from the genuine-half-price-reduction shelf.

This morning I was up early in a decidedly chilly boat. Seven degrees outside according to my thermometer, so I made the mistake of lighting the fire to take the chill off. It’s now considerable warmer than the surface of the sun inside the boat. All the windows and doors are open and I’ve had to resort to sitting in my underwear to type.

I’ve just returned from my morning shopping spree. I changed my stove glass during Thursday’s day long downpour and I’m now down to just four out of six screws to hold it in place. There’s a Homebase store next to Asda a mile from where I’m moored so I popped in there to see if I could buy some replacement screws and a replacement waste for the one in my galley sink which has cracked into two completely useless pieces.

The store had nothing remotely suitable for either purpose. I bought a tiny tube of UniBond Extreme costing a similar amount to a replacement sink. I’m going to try and glue the two parts together but, based on previous DIY experience, I’ll either end up with two pieces which instantly fall apart or with my hand permanently glued to the sink. If you don’t receive a newsletter next Sunday you’ll know why.

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Discovery Day And Narrowboat Helmsmanship Training

If you’re new to this site you might not know about the service I launched in June 2014. I host narrowboat experience days on board my own 62′ long narrowboat James No 194. The ten hour days are a combination of discussion about the pros and cons of living on board, narrowboat designs and the best equipment for live aboard boaters, and a six to eight hour helmsmanship training cruise along the Oxford and/or Grand Union Canals.

I’m running the discovery days approximately on the first ten days of August, October and December this year. As summer approaches more and more site users are booking the relatively few discovery days still available. August onwards is still relatively free. If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day please check the diary before it’s too late.

Update 16th August 2015

The earliest dates are now at the beginning of October. If you want to  see the available dates for October onward click here.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendee Kevin Burt.

“After a difficult separation from my wife, I decided that it was time for me to do something that I wanted to do, and that was to give living on a boat a try. I wanted to make sure that this life would suit, and I needed someone with more knowledge than I to help advise on the best living arrangements before I going splashing out money. The day gave me enough to fuel the fire of my interest more, and I’m now waiting for my house to sell so I can start looking for THE BOAT.

I have to say that most of this pre-day course information was perfect, but Paul does mislead you slightly with the items you should bring. Don’t bother with a pen and paper, you’ll never have time to use them, and Paul just takes the mickey (good humoured banter) out of you for having it. Everything else was spot on. Take a sense of humour, you’ll need it, or was it just me?

I spend some of my working life training and I know that it is a difficult skill to be able to hold a single persons attention for 10 hours. Paul is very engaging and attentive. He gives you confidence, and when the going does get tough he is there to help and assist. The instruction is given to you calmly, confidently, and always as an equal which is nice, being as the reason I was there was to learn. Paul’s knowledge was second to none, and it was a straight talking no nonsense way that you are taught that really appealed to me and my style.

There has to be a negative. If there wasn’t then the day would be perfect and Paul would have no where to go afterwards. Well I’ve really struggled here and the only thing I could think of was to offer a lunch, but well, he does enough already.

I have already recommended this to a couple of people. I have even said to someone that this could be a good present for someone who is considering a holiday on a boat. It was a great time.

Finally, I would like to thank Paul for a fantastic day that I’ll be talking about for a while to come. I also believe that it a brave move to trust a complete novice and stranger to steer your home up and down the canal. Thanks for all the advice and I hope to keep in touch and let you know how I get on buying and living on a boat.”

You can find out more about my discovery days and availability here.

I Need Some Help!

Each time I write a newsletter, I tick another subject off the list of things which those new to boating have told me that they want to read about. The hardest part of the process isn’t the writing itself, it’s constantly thinking of new content for each issue. The trouble is, I don’t know what you want to read. I think I keep the newsletters reasonably interesting but I don’t know for sure. That’s where I need your help.

Can you let me know what you would like to read in the future? Are there any areas of narrowboat life you don’t think I’ve covered enough or areas which I’ve missed completely? Please let me know what you want to read about. Thanks for your help.

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Please Help Keep This Site Online

If you enjoy reading these posts, if you find the masses of information on this site and my new motorhome site, rvblog.co.uk both useful and entertaining, please help keep it available for those who both want and need it. There are eight years of painstakingly written and researched information on hundreds of posts and pages on the two sites. They may be lost forever if I can't find a way to maintain them. Click on the button below to find out more.


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Paul Smith
 

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.

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