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 10 11 Newsletter – Catastrophic Overheating and Bilge Flooding

Another week has flashed by. Another week of tranquil cruising combined with a day of unusual stress for me. My engine is a little smoky but generally very reliable. However, it’s nearly forty years old so needs a little TLC now and again.

Sunday started well enough. Carl, my single discovery day guest, arrived just before 8am. We chatted over a coffee, spent an hour walking through my boat discussing the pros and cons of my floating home’s design, layout and on board equipment, then started the engine and set off on our gentle cruise towards Braunston six miles away.

I have a pigeon box on the roof two feet forward of my rear hatch. It has three gauges set in it, oil pressure, and engine speed and engine temperature. These gauges are positioned perfectly. On many boats the gauges, if there are any, are often tucked away on a panel out of sight. Having the gauges on the roof in front of me means that I can constantly glance at them while I am cruising.

The oil pressure gauge has never worked but, to tell you the truth, I don’t understand what oil pressure is so it’s not much use to me. I refer to the other two gauges all of the time. I’ve used a walking app on my iPhone to work out my boat’s speed through the water at different engine speeds so I use the tachometer as a reasonably accurate speedometer. The most important gauge to me though is the engine temperature.

My engine temperature is usually spot on seventy degrees but over the last three or four weeks I’ve noticed the engine running ten or fifteen degrees warmer at 1,500rpm, my normal cruising speed.

On Sunday as we moved slowly from my mooring near Calcutt Top lock and then crept past a line of boats on long term moorings close to Napton Junction I noticed the temperature steadily rising. I also noticed that there was far less water than normal being expelled from the exhaust.

By the time we reached the junction the temperature had reached eighty degrees. A mile later it was heading north of ninety degrees. We needed to stop, let the engine cool down and allow me to use my almost non-existent mechanical knowledge to look for a solution.

Looking for a solution didn’t take me long because I didn’t really have any idea what to look for. Increased engine temperature can often be an indicator of a fouled propeller. I decided to check the prop but I didn’t really expect it to be the cause. Increased engine temperature is just one of several indicators. Vibration through the tiller, dark exhaust smoke and loss of power often accompany temperature increase. I hadn’t noticed any of these.

Lifting the rear deck hatch to access the weed hatch beneath I unscrewed the locking bar holding the hatch securely in place, removed the heavy steel hatch then lay down on the back deck so I could reach elbow deep into the murky water for the propeller. I removed a fistful of plastic, but not nearly enough to cause me any problems.

Next on my very short list was to check the mud box. My engine is raw water cooled so water is drawn into the engine from the canal. The cold canal water passes through a heat exchanger before being spat very noisily back into the canal several degrees warmer via the wet exhaust.

Before the canal water reaches the heat exchanger it passes through a mud box which allows any mud and, I dare say, bits of decaying badger and rabbit to fall away. When cruising in murky waterways the mud box can fill and impede the water flow to the heat exchanger.

I loosened the three nuts holding the mud box lid in place, tightened them up quickly as canal water jetted into the bilge, did what I should have done in the first place and closed the sea cock so my boat wouldn’t sink when I removed the mud box lid, undid the nuts again and removed the lid.

Up to my elbows in canal water again I checked for any blockages. The steel cylinder was completely free of any silt deposits so I put everything back together again and scratched my head.

Last on my list was to check the water pump belt to ensure that it hadn’t either snapped or loosened. It did appear to be slightly loose so I did what I always so in situations like this and ignored it.

Because I couldn’t think of anything else to check I turned the engine back on to see if it had fixed itself. Much to my surprise the water flow from the exhaust had increased and the temperature decreased to close to normal.

We carried on with our cruise at a leisurely pace running at a slightly higher but safe temperature until we reached our midway point and a three point turn in the entrance to Braunston marina close to the Gongoozer’s Rest café boat. They do wonderful cheese and onion toasted sandwiches if you’re passing.

Gongoozlers Rest cafe Braunston

Gongoozlers Rest cafe Braunston

Turning the boat means a bit of engine revving in both forward in reverse. It was this which appeared to stop canal water running through the heat exchanger completely.

With the engine temperature ever increasing we managed to find a free mooring opposite the Boat House pub. If you don’t fancy a cheese and onion toastie at the Gongoozler’s Rest, the Boat House has an extensive menu with a permanent two for one offer. They’ve just introduced extra large meals to ensure that you can’t fit through your boat’s narrow doorways.

We had lunch while the engine prepared itself for another six miles of slow cruising. After half and hour’s rest the raw water flowed again but, again, as we moved off the temperature steadily increased as did the breeze which made cruising slowly more of a challenge.

An hour later I was on the phone to Calcutt Boats asking if they would have an engineer handy to tighten my water pump belt. With my extensive engineering knowledge I had convinced myself that this was the problem. Ever obliging, they agreed but before I could finish the call events took a turn for the worse.

Carl had been confidently and competently bringing the boat around a tight bend when the strengthening breeze caught us. If we had been moving a little more quickly through the water we would have been fine but the wind pushed us against the concrete towpath edging and as I put the boat into reverse to stop us and prevent us from grinding against the stone, there was a loud bang followed by a from the engine beneath our feet followed shortly by billowing smoke.

Ever the action hero I quickly turned off the engine and thought seriously about climbing into my warm and comfortable bed, pulling the duvet over my head and crying my eyes out. As I had company I decided against that course of action, lifted the boards over the engine and looked for the cause of both noise and smoke and a possible solution.

Much to my surprise I found both cause and remedy almost immediately.

Both the exhaust gasses and the heated water from the heat exchanger pass through an exhaust hose via a waterlock. The plastic box stops water from flowing back into the engine and damaging it when the engine stops. My recently fitted waterlock, a replacement for its holed predecessor bought second hand from Streethay Wharf five months ago, had blown off the jubilee clip securing it to the exhaust and filled my bilge with canal water and my engine room with acrid smoke.

Fortunately I used to be a boy scout – before I was thrown out for disrupting other boy scouts – so always try to have equipment on board for all kinds of emergencies. In this case the emergency equipment was my little Draper wet and dry vacuum. Within fifteen minutes we had sucked twenty loads of water out of the bilge and reattached the misbehaving waterlock, cast off and continued our slow and painful journey towards salvation at Calcutt Boats.

At Napton Junction ten minutes cruising from the Calcutt flight I called Steven Cox in Calcutt Boats’ office to find that the engineer I was hoping to help me out was just leaving for the day. Fortunately for me my boating guardian angel, Russ Fincham, was still on duty.

Russ has helped me out more times than I care to remember. All consuming problems which have almost reduced me to a gibbering wreck have taken him no time at all to resolve. On my first trip out of the marina the boat broke down at Braunston. He came out to me during his Christmas break, correctly diagnosed a blocked fuel filter, cleaned it, bled the system and wished me bon voyage. He’s also rebuilt a rotten weed hatch, made me a mast for my old WiFi dongle, fitted my shower, television aerial, fitted my new calorifier and ensured that it was fed with gallons of hot water from a reluctant engine, fitted another calorifier when the first one sprung a leak (the manufacturers fault) and last but not least, organised a coat of primer to be added to my cabin when the boat was transported back to the marina by road after having the cabin over plated. Oh, and I nearly forgot, he also likes to show me the testicles he keeps hidden beneath loosely elasticated swimming shorts at the end of Southern Comfort fuelled late night Calcutt Boats summer barbecues. His generosity knows no bounds.

Russ was waiting for me at the water point next to Calcutt top lock carrying a roll of spanners and a look of grim determination. He listened to my half-witted diagnostic, instantly checked and dismissed the water pump belt as a possible cause, asked when I had last changed my impeller then quickly whipped it out. The impeller that is. This wasn’t barbecue night!

At the time I didn’t have a clue when the impeller was last changed but I’ve just checked. It was replaced two and a half years and 1,500 hours ago. I think I’ll keep a spare on board in future.

My broken impeller

My broken impeller

Here’s my impeller. See the broken fin next to my thumb? That’s all the damage needed to stop the impeller from working. I fetched a new impeller from Calcutt’s well stocked chandlery, Russ swapped it over and five minutes later the usual volume of water was spurting noisily from my exhaust and the engine temperature dropped almost immediately to its normal seventy degrees, so the rest of Carl’s discovery day continued a little later than planned but without an overheating engine.

After Sunday’s challenge I’m now committed to at least resolving the issues with my raw water cooling and eliminating the infernal racket from the wet exhaust.

Calcutt Boats’owner Roger Preen suggested that the exhaust noise might be due to the recently changed waterlock being fitted the wrong way round. He told me that if I equip myself with a magnifying glass and a powerful torch, I should be able to find arrows etched into the waterlock’s plastic indicating the correct positioning. I have a few days free at the beginning of next week so I’ll check it carefully then reposition it if necessary.

Even if I manage to reduce the exhaust noise, the raw water cooling system has to go. The waterlock has now failed twice and blown off the exhaust once, each time filling the bilge with a disturbingly large volume of water which I’ve been fortunate enough to spot before the rising level found its way into the cabin.

Apart from these three failures I’m constantly worried about blockages. Water is drawn into the boat via a fine meshed grill on the swim. There’s a chance of this mesh blocking and impeding or stopping water reaching the heat exchanger. Once through the grill the sometimes silt laden canal water passes through a mud box where the water flow can be further impeded if the box fills with silt. The mud box is difficult to access and a pain to empty unless you’re as slim and lithe as an eel.

The solution is to switch to keel cooling which will simplify and possibly improve engine cooling and remove the exhaust noise, especially if I have a hospital silencer fitted. To convert to keel cooling I need have a slim water tank, a skin tank, fitted on my swim, the tapering section of the hull on the stern close to the propeller.

I understand the conversion itself is pretty straightforward. The skin tank’s manufacture and fitting, taking the boat out of the water for it to be fitted and the other necessary modifications will cost me just over £1,000 but worth every penny if it reduces both noise and worry, and the frequent offers of a tea bag from passing boaters when they hear my exhaust hissing like a boiling kettle.

The rest of the week was problem free. The days are cooler now but still very pleasant despite an occasional drenching from heavy showers. The usual autumn winds have yet to put in an appearance and plague the owners of flat bottomed narrowboats but I’m sure they’ll be along shortly.

On Friday I spent half an hour chatting to the owner of the boat which has been moored in front of me for the last week. The retired Grand Union Leicester Line lock keeper was talking about his solar panels and how they allow him to moor for a week at a time without having to run his engine for battery charging. “But what do you do about hot water?” I asked. There are several options available to off grid boaters including gas powered water heaters and diesel heating systems plumbed in to the boat’s calorifier, but this guy had a simple, low cost and very effective solution.

His face lit up as he dashed into his boat and returned minutes later with one of his favourite boating toys. Here it is…

Hozelock Porta Shower

Hozelock Porta Shower

It’s a Hozelock 4 in 1 Porta Shower. The bottle holds five litres. He assured me that five litres is more than enough for a shower. In fact he claimed that two to three litres does the job.

A large kettle sits permanently on top of his solid fuel stove so he half fills the bottle with near boiling water, adds the required amount of cold water, pumps the handle twenty times to pressurise the vessel – taking care to pump the handle outside his shower cubicle’s frosted glass in case his wife jumps to the wrong conclusion – and then steps into his shower cubicle to clean his dirty body.

The hand held spray head allows you to reach parts not normally accessible to wall mounted showers, saves valuable water when you want to stay of extended periods on idyllic moorings, and saves considerable diesel expense and engine wear and tear.

I ordered one from Amazon immediately. Unfortunately I can’t keep a kettle of hot water on my stove because of its rubbish design but putting the kettle on my gas hob for five minutes will be much quicker and cheaper than running my engine for an hour.

The Porta Shower arrived yesterday. I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet but I’ll tell you how I fared in next week’s newsletter.

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Cruising Guides

Did you know that the forum has a Cruising guide section? There’s an ever growing volume of very useful information here. Information which you won’t find in the popular Pearson and Nicholson guides. Recent additions are parts one and two of Peter Early’s guide to the Great Ouse and some essential advice from Richardhula if you’re considering taking a longer boat on the short locked Calder & Hebble navigation.

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 11th October 2015

My Next batch of discovery days are at the beginning of December. The experience days offer you a unique opportunity to experience life on the cut at a cooler but far more peaceful time of the year than in the summer. You may want to stay locally the night before, the night after or both, in which case I highly recommend this B & B. It’s a five minute stroll from the mooring where I begin my discovery days.  If you want to  see the available dates for October onward click here.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendee Ken Sharratt.

“I’ve thought about living on a narrowboat on and off for the last twenty years but through commitments, events and various other things I have never done anything about it until now. Over the last seven or eight months I have started  researching the subject and it has gradually gained momentum, from reading magazines and e-books, the internet and looking round boats to figure out what I wanted.

The first e-book I came across was written by Paul, called “Living on a Narrowboat” (part of the Narrowbudget Gold package of three guides and a bespoke narrowboat budget calculator). I found this invaluable in giving me a realistic view of the life I am aiming for and has definitely added to my growing knowledge. To my surprise I started receiving a newsletter in my inbox which covers all things related to narrowboats from life to composting toilets which I was quite impressed with. I noticed the information about the Discovery day after reading one of these.

I thought, if I’m going to change the direction of my life and spend quite a bit of money doing it, the discovery day sounded like a good way of starting to find out if my expectations matched the reality of everything involved with it.

I wasn’t disappointed. Paul is very easy to get along with. He made us welcome from the start and provided a steady supply of tea throughout the day. It was a very enjoyable and productive day for me. He made me re-evaluate a few things and was remarkably relaxed about sailing off downstream  with his home in Fairly inexperienced hands. He was there at hand though to provide advice, instruction and direction and the odd hands on correction when absolutely necessary.

I would recommend that anyone considering taking to the water should read the book and go on one of these discovery days. They will definitely shorten the time spent on their learner curve and possibly avert a costly or disastrous decision from being made.

I am currently in the process of getting my house ready for sale. The builder should be here in a few weeks, then the decorator and after that the estate agent, so hopefully it’s going to be early next year when it’s sold and I can buy the boat that’s waiting for me out there with my name it.”

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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