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 18 Newsletter – Engine Running and Electricity Generation Costs

What is it with Sundays? I suffered a little more damage to my beloved boat on my Sunday discovery day last weekend. I wasn’t steering but I was in charge so the loss was entirely my fault.

On the route to Braunston on the combined Oxford and Grand Union canals, the waterway twists and turns through bridges, around tight bends and along a mile long stretch where the offside willows hang far over the canal.

My guest for the day was taking his helmsmanship very seriously so handled my floating home with great care. At this time of the year the number of boats using the waterway reduces significantly so we had only passed one or two boats since leaving the head of the Calcutt flight.

He moved close to the low hanging willows to allow a rare oncoming boat to pass. Because I was daydreaming I didn’t notice a particularly low and heavy branch reaching menacingly for my precious stainless steel chimney.

The chimney leaped from its normally secure perch on the rooftop collar, rolled erratically across the cabin roof and then came to a sudden stop when it reached the roof’s box section rail. I breathed a sigh of relief, but too soon. The bayonet fitting holding cap to chimney came adrift and thirty pounds worth of beautifully engineered stainless steel cap tumbled over the side and into the murky depths.

Every cloud has a silver lining. I lost just the cap. I could have easily lost the lot. I’ve ordered another which should be at the beginning of next week. Fortunately there’s no rain forecast before then to cascade down my capless flue onto the stove’s glowing coals.

On Monday I donned my smart blue and far too clean overalls to look the part while I messed about in the engine room.

As you probably know, I’ve had a few problems with my engine’s raw water cooling system. My original water lock, a moulded plastic box fitted into the exhaust to prevent water expelled from the engine from running back into the engine when it stops, vibrated free from its mounting and lodged next to the gearbox coupling. The rapidly revolving coupling quickly wore a hole through the plastic allowing much of the water drawn in from the canal to cool the engine to fill my bilge rather than return, slightly warmer than when it arrived, back into the canal.

I managed to limp to Streethay Wharf where they found and fitted a second hand water lock and manufactured a steel basket to sit it in so I wouldn’t have the same problem again.

Three months later a hole blew through a weakness in the second hand water lock so I was back to square one. Streethay Wharf brought me a new Vetus water lock – £140 – to me at my temporary mooring in the middle of Rugby.

All was well for a couple of weeks until a worn impeller resulted in a very much reduced water flow through my heat exchanger and much increased pressure which blew the water lock off my exhaust again resulting in an engine bay filled with canal water.

I managed to get back from Braunston to Calcutt Boats where the impeller was replaced and normal service was resumed, or so I thought.

The exhaust is making quite a racket. Calcutt Boats owner Roger Preen suggested that the new water lock may have been fitted the wrong way around so I decided to check it out on Monday.

Once I removed the box from the bowels of the engine bay I could see markings clearly stamped in the plastic indicating the right direction. It was positioned correctly so that wasn’t the cause of the noise.

While I had the box off, I noticed something which certainly isn’t going to help supress the noise. The reduced water flow because of the damaged impeller resulted in much increased exhaust heat which partially melted the water lock where the exhaust hose is attached. The water lock is still holding water but I don’t know how much has melted inside it and what effect that might have had on the water lock’s efficiency.

I just need it to do its job for another couple of weeks. I’m hoping to have the conversion from raw water to keel cooling done before I head down to Uxbridge on 7th November in time to meet Cynthia’s flight into Heathrow on Friday 13th. Fortunately I’m not superstitious so I’ll be breaking mirrors with black cats on my way to meet her.

As part of the conversion I’m going to have a hospital silencer fitted to reduce the engine noise to the faintest whisper, or as faint a whisper as it’s possible to achieve with a thirty eight year old Mercedes. I’ve been told that a hospital silencer is so named because it is wrapped in a blanket just like a hospital patient. I’m not sure that I believe it, but I hope it’s true.

Unfortunately a hospital silencer isn’t much smaller than a blanket wrapped patient. The one I want to fit needs a space three feet long to fit the 12” diameter cylinder. I borrowed one from Calcutt Boats’ chandlery to see if it would fit, but after carrying the heavy silencer over the lock gates and along to my boat, I realised it was too heavy and bulky to lower into the engine bay on my own to check for the required amount of space.

As ever, I’ll leave it to the experts to work out. If that won’t fit, I’ll go for the slightly smaller and less quiet version.

One other small but important job to do while the boat is out of the water having the new skin tank fitted is to replace my rather worn rudder cup.

The heavy rudder, very heavy in my case, rests in the tight fitting cup at the end of the skeg, the horizontal steel bar running under the propeller from the base of the rudder to the boat’s base plate. Thirty eight years of a weighty rudder pivoting in this cup has produced inevitable wear and tear. So much so that there is now a quarter inch gap between post and cup. If I turn the rudder sharply I can feel the rudder move slightly and hear it scrape noisily across the cup.

The cup will need cutting off and then a new cup made and welded in place to fit the rudder post snuggly. One more item ticked off my now very short refurbishment list.

From Monday to Thursday I enjoyed my first proper rest since I began my manic must-go-everywhere-and-see-and-do-everything cruising regime in April this year.

I moored above Calcutt top lock and stayed there for four days until my next scheduled discovery day on Friday. I didn’t even run my engine for three days which gave me ample opportunity to test my recently purchased Hozelock Porta Shower. I LOVE it!

The 7l Hozelock shower is a joy to use. I was convinced that seven litres would be far too little water for an effective shower so the first time I used it I filled my kettle to the brim, boiled the contents then tipped them into the shower bottle and then boiled my kettle a second time to ensure I had plenty of hot water. I didn’t need the second kettle full.

When using the porta shower you have to adopt the “submarine” technique. You wet yourself, turn off the shower, soap yourself thoroughly and then turn on the shower again to rinse off the soap. The porta shower helps you to shower this way because the spring loaded trigger turns the water spray off as soon as you let go.

Seven litres was actually too much. The boater who told me about the Hozelock shower insisted that he only needed three litres to shower. I didn’t think an effective shower was possible using so little water but he was right. I actually used five litres but only because I didn’t want to waste any of my painstakingly boiled hot water.

I also learned not to pressurise the vessel while standing in the galley unless I want to wash my floor at the same time. There’s a leak at the trigger.

All in all, the Hozelock Porta Shower is a great find. If I manage my power very carefully during bright summer months I can stay for extended periods without having to run my engine for battery charging courtesy of my 300w solar array. Unfortunately I can’t heat water in the same way. Now I don’t need to bother. Ten minute’s gas supply to boil a full kettle does the job very nicely.

During my four day stay on the same mooring I was able to assess my power usage more accurately.

From April this year I’ve been cruising continuously. The longest I’ve stayed in one spot has been two days before cruising for two or more hours the following day. I haven’t needed to conserve my power because the engine’s been running and therefore charging my batteries while I’ve been on the move.

I have four 160ah AGM batteries in my domestic bank. I replaced my old 135ah lead acid batteries in January this year with the larger capacity AGMs because the new batteries should last three times as long as lead acid batteries but only cost twice as much, and because they are maintenance free.

Boat battery banks aren’t always fitted in the easiest of places to reach in an often cramped engine room. Unscrewing the tops and then peering in aided by a torch to check if they need topping up is often difficult to do so the likelihood is that this task will not be done regularly or even at all thereby drastically reducing the battery bank’s life. My fit and forget batteries remove yet another tedious maintenance task.

One of the most useful improvements I’ve made to my boat is to have a Smartgauge battery monitor installed. It’s been fitted in the bulkhead between my bedroom and the engine room facing into the bedroom. At the touch of a button I can see the battery bank’s capacity whenever I want. I usually check two or three times a day.

I have to admit to being a little wasteful with my on board power at the moment. I haven’t really needed to conserve it with the amount of cruising and therefore engine running and battery charging I’ve done this year. I also have a 300w solar array helping to keep my battery bank charged.

My 1600w inverter is turned usually turned on from the time I’m out of bed at 5am until I turn in at 10pm. My laptop is on all day, I watch a couple of hours each night on my 240v television and I blitz the boat for ten minutes each morning with my 1100w Draper vacuum cleaner. My 12v fridge is on all day, every day.

Each day I use roughly 10% of my battery bank’s capacity. I need to run my engine for two hours to top the bank up to 100% again. Over my four days without moving I ran the engine on one day for two hours.

Before I set off on Friday’s discovery day cruise, my battery bank capacity was down to 69%. After seven hours cruising I just reached 100% before I stopped for the day.

My engine uses 1.35 litres of diesel per hour. If I buy my fuel at Calcutt Boats where the current diesel cost is 113p for propulsion and 65p for heating and if I buy it at the default split of 60/40 (sixty per cent propulsion/forty per cent heating) a litre of diesel will cost me 93.8p or £1.27 per engine running hour. My batteries therefore cost roughly £2.50 per day to charge.

I don’t know the difference between my fuel consumption when at rest for battery charging or when I’m actually cruising, but I don’t think it’s much at all. I’ve come to the conclusion that if I have to run my engine on average for two hours each day anyway I might as well use it to cruise and enjoy the variety the inland waterways network has to offer.

I have four more discovery days to do followed by my engine cooling system conversion before I can begin cruising again in earnest. Then I’m heading south towards London on my 174 mile, 180 lock return trip to Heathrow to pick up Cynthia and her two basset hounds Tasha and Bromley. Just for once on my boating cruises my focus will be on my destination rather than my journey.

My apologies for not adding any photo’s this week. Time, or lack of it, defeated me. Here’s one which Cynthia took which I thought you might like. It was taken on 28th September on our mooring at the base of Crack’s Hill near Crick. How’s that for a view out of your kitchen window?

Sunset over Crick

Sunset over Crick

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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 run my discovery days roughly on the first ten days or so of April, June August, October and December. As winter approaches more and more site users are booking the relatively few discovery days still available. There are just six dates remaining this year. If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day please check the diary before it’s too late. ou 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.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendee Peter Martin who kindly produced a short video of his discovery day experience for me to use on my site. The video is below followed by his comments.

“With two and half years before I can pick up my work pension, a break up of my marriage, kids now independent and need for downsizing, now seems like the time to plan what I’ve often dreamed about over the years.

Living on the cut seems to fit in very well with my lifestyle. I like the outdoors, love boating, independence and getting back to nature.

Having not spent any length of time with live aboard boaters, the Discovery Day was was really just an opportunity to pick up the vibes that go with life on the inland waterways. I needed to do this before committing myself further in the discovery process. Easier to nip things in the bud now if it didn’t appeal before my imagination runs away with itself!

It was a very enjoyable day. I particularly enjoyed the warm welcome of coming in out of the cold to sit in the heat of a toasty, warm cabin. That sold me the lifestyle straight away. It also confirmed that I definitely need a solid fuel stove as primary heat. I know it means hard work lugging coal etc., but what better way to get some outdoor exercise.  I’m also now sold on composting toilets! I never imagined I’d spend the following  week viewing endless YouTube videos of people’s loos!

The helming and boat handling were great experience. By the end of the day I had got over the intimidation of  controlling  60 feet and 20 tons of metal.  A very worthwhile 10 hours and it has confirmed that I’ll continue along this pathway.

The hard work now begins in downsizing, straightening out the finances and then the enjoyable part of finding the right 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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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.