2015 11 01 Newsletter – Stealth Cruising

By mid-afternoon on Monday my long anticipated cooling system modification was complete. On Friday ten square feet of the port side swim, the tapered underwater section of the hull close to the propeller, was scraped back to bare steel, a keel tank manufactured and welded in place and the worn cup holding the bottom of the rudder was cut off and replaced with a new tighter fitting shiny steel cup. The old wet exhaust system, including the £140 replacement waterlock I had fitted just two months ago, was removed and the existing exhaust outlet welded shut.

On Saturday morning my heavy steel mud box was removed and replaced with new piping. A hospital silencer was loosely fitted in place before work stopped at midday due to heavy rain and the imminent kick off to one of the two weekend Rugby World Cup semi-finals.

Work resumed on Monday morning with the installation of a header tank to allow the new skin tank to be filled and topped up if required, and a bleed valve was fitted to allow me to remove any air in the system.

The last part of the cooling system modification was lagging the exhaust pipe either side of the silencer, fitting a bracket to hold the silencer in place and then cutting the engine deck boards slightly to accommodate the header tank hose and the silencer bracket.

Then the moment I had been waiting for, turning the engine on.

For the last five years I have been used to obsessively checking to make sure that the sea cock is open before starting the engine and then peering over the boat’s stern for a minute or two to make sure that water is expelled from the exhaust. Peering over the side wasn’t necessary at all. Standing anywhere on the towpath within a hundred metres of the boat was close enough to hear the water’s hissing high pressure expulsion.

On Monday afternoon I turned the engine on but heard nothing other than the gentle rattle of my old Mercedes warming up.

In the afternoon’s fading light I took the boat for a spin around the marina. Three times around the island in Meadow’s marina before pulling onto my dump barge mooring with a very big smile on my face.

I took the boat out for a more rigorous test early on Tuesday morning. There’s a mile long straight on the Grand Union as it heads away from the Calcutt flight towards Birmingham. I have to admit to moving a little too fast on this stretch to check whether the modification has cured the overheating problem. I was a little disappointed to see the needle on my pigeon box mounted thermometer rise past my normal operating temperature of seventy degrees up to eighty five degrees. I ran out of canal before the needle had a chance to move any higher but the initial indications were a little worrying.

I turned the boat in the recently restored arm to Nelson’s Basin half a mile from the head of the Stockton flight. Willow Wren Training opened a base here last year and restored the first hundred feet of the arm. On Tuesday a twenty five tonne excavator and two dumpers were making short work of revealing the rest of the arm’s foundations for the first time since it was filled in some time in the 1960s. You can read about the restoration here.

I spent much of my time on the trip back to Calcutt monitoring my engine temperature gauge. As long as I kept ever so slightly below my normal cruising speed the temperature stayed at eighty five degrees. My engine may still be overheating slightly but at least I will be able to hear the engine coolant if it starts boiling. The difference the new cooling system makes to my cruising enjoyment is astounding.

On my hour and a half return trip I heard sounds which puzzled me at first. Gurgles, splashes, squawks and quacks, wind in canal-side trees and reeds and mechanical clattering and whirring from farm machinery in distant fields. Over the last five years these noises have been masked by the awful hissing and spluttering from my wet exhaust. I can’t begin to tell you how much more pleasant cruising is now that I can hear something other than high pressure water howling out of an inch wide hole in the hull beneath my feet.

Back at the marina I heard through the towpath telegraph that a local boater has been given marching orders by CRT. He’s a well-known and colourful character with a very distinctive boat with a roof invisible under a lifetime’s accumulated junk. Since January he’s managed to travel four miles from Braunston junction to Lower Shuckborough. Not nearly far enough as far as CRT are concerned. They had already written to him to let him know he had to move further and more often but he ignored them. Now they have given him twenty eight days to remove himself from the canal network before they take action to force the issue.

I feel a little sorry for him. He’s a harmless and very pleasant guy who always offers a smile and a friendly wave as I pass, but rules are rules so if you want to stay on the waterways you have to abide by them.

Much as I like my mooring overlooking the canal, I couldn’t settle there for the night. I’ll be spending three winter months there so while the weather is still mild and the towpath firm I want to spend as much time as possible enjoying the peace and quiet denied to boaters on a marina moorings.

I spent a very pleasant hour taking my boat up through the three locks in the Calcutt flight. The locks normally take me forty minutes on my own but the baffled crew of a hire boat behind me needed a little guidance. Due to the large number of narrowboat hire companies in the area, puzzled novice boaters at the Calcutt flight are a regular occurrence.

Once through the flight I moored above the top lock to wait for a parcel delivery. My new Vitamix blender arrived mid-morning. Its function and purpose is a bit of a mystery to me. It’s more Cynthia’s domain. She produced many culinary delights when she was with me in September but the blender will allow her to create even more delightful dishes. It’s a very powerful machine but at 1100w will run comfortably off my 1600w inverter. It’s only going to be used for two or three minutes at a time so won’t have much impact on my battery bank.

With the blender safely on board I headed off towards Market Harborough. I’ve been there twice this year so far but on both occasions only managed a flying visit to the market town. I had nine free days before my next discovery day. The loose plan was to spend three days exploring the town. I also wanted to visit their Sainsbury store to buy a jar of Carte Noir decaf coffee. I know a thirty six hour round trip is a little excessive for a £4 jar of coffee but any excuse for a cruise!

During my two hour cruise into Braunston I was able to further assess the effects of my engine cooling modification. As the hospital silencer heated up there was a strong and nauseating smell of burning paint from the engine room. I was warned to expect this until the exhaust paint burned off. I hoped the smell would disappear before I was sick.

The engine was running fifteen degrees hotter than it was with the wet exhaust but, providing I kept slightly below my normal cruising speed, didn’t overheat. The overwhelming difference of course was the very much quieter running. This was particularly noticeable in Braunston tunnel. The noise of my wet exhaust used to be bearable out on the open canal but almost painful to my ears in enclosed spaces.

I don’t think I’m ever going to enjoy cruising through tunnels. I feel out of control in the narrow confines, especially when I can’t see the boat coming towards me, more so when I can hear the hull of the oncoming boat crash into the tunnel wall as it’s helmed by an inexperienced crew. I’m never going to enjoy the claustrophobic experience but it is much, much more pleasant now I can hear myself think.

Proof of the engine’s quiet operation came shortly before I reached Norton junction. As I slowly cruised past a moored boat, the owner looked across at me and exclaimed, “Wow! Is your boat electric? It’s very quiet!” The engine certainly isn’t quiet enough to be mistaken for electric but the comment more than made up for my worry about the warmer running temperature.

A peaceful mooring close to Winwick Manor

A peaceful mooring close to Winwick Manor

As I turned left at Norton junction and noticed the half dozen CRT work boats tied up there ready for the imminent stoppage to replace several lock gates on the Bucky flight, I thought about my thwarted plans to cruise down to London at the end of next week to pick Cynthia up from Heathrow and the now much less appealing hour and a half drive down there. Ah well, you can’t win them all!

I moored for the night near to Weltonfield Hythe marina, too close to the busy A5 for my liking but better there than at the foot of the seven lock Watford flight with the M1 traffic thundering by two hundred metres away.

The following morning I spent a very pleasant hour and a half ascending the seven lock flight, chatting to the two lock keepers on duty and helping an elderly single guy on the boat in front of me. He was a frail looking man in, I suspect, his late seventies, on his own but determined to carry on with his lifestyle despite his difficulty with single handed locking. I hope to be in a similar position in another twenty five years.

After the Watford flight is a tranquil and little visited twenty mile pound before the Foxton flight of ten staircase locks. I cruised for another two very pleasant hours before stopping for the day.

As I was slowing pulling over to moor my phone rang. The call was from an engine remanufacturing specialist in Tunbridge Wells. The cooling system modification I’ve just had done has been a wonderfully effective solution for one of the three problems I’ve been having with my Mercedes OM636. I need to look for other solutions to the other two issues; regular overheating and debilitating smokiness.

I can manage on the canals with the engine ticking over at cruising speed or close to it, but I have nothing in reserve for rivers, especially tidal waters. With the Buckby flight closed there was an opportunity to travel down to London via the south Oxford and the Thames. I think stoppages on the Thames have prevented me using that route but I would have been very nervous going that way. Cruising down the river aided by the current wouldn’t have been a problem but giving the engine a bit of stick on the way back to combat the water flow would have been too much for the cooling system as it is now. The cooling system is a concern but the exhaust fumes are a real worry.

Breathing in large quantities of exhaust smoke is making me feel ill. If you spend a day with me you’ll be hard pressed to notice much at all, but I’ve stood on the back of my boat with the engine running for eight hundred and fifty hours since the beginning of April. Exhaust fumes are a common cause of heavy metal poisoning and the effects of heavy metal poisoning are accumulative. I’ve reached the stage in my life now where I don’t take my continued good for granted so I have to be proactive and reduce or eliminate as many harmful toxins from my life as possible.

Jay from the remanufacturing specialist company, Modus Engineering, quoted me £3,500 – £4,000 + VAT to bring the engine back to “as new” condition which he guaranteed would cure the smoking issue. He was reasonably confident but not positive that the engine remanufacture would solve the overheating problem.

In addition to a fee of almost £5,000 including VAT I would have to also pay to have the engine removed, shipped down to them, shipped back and then fitted back into the boat. I would be lucky to get any change out of £6,000 for reconditioning a forty year old engine.

An option which I’m still considering is replacing my current Mercedes with a Beta 43 from Beta Marina. The new engine including fitting would probably cost about £3,000 more than the refurbished Mercedes but the result would be an even quieter engine and one which was guaranteed to be smoke and overheating free.

Whichever way I go I’m going to have to start saving my pennies.

On Friday I stayed on my tranquil mooring close to Winwick Manor a mile east of Yelvertoft. Only half a dozen boats and just one hiker passed all day. Apart from the boat engines and the argumentative tone of a constant one sided conversation from the walker, the only unnatural sound I heard all day was the buzz of a chainsaw in nearby woodland for half an hour.

My first aborted mooring close to Kicklewell Spiney

My first aborted mooring close to Kicklewell Spiney

I pressed on towards Foxton yesterday. The day was perfect. Soft sunlight filtered through the reds and yellows of the few remaining leaves of canal-side trees, squirrels scampered from branch to branch and a magnificent pair of buzzards wheeled overhead. All these wonderful sights accompanied by no more than a gentle engine murmur beneath my feet. Seven hours of narrowboat cruising at its very best.

I left Winwick Manor at 9am so I had seven hours to cover fourteen miles to Foxton for the Rugby World Cup final’s 4pm kick off. Normally covering fourteen miles in seven hours wouldn’t be a problem at all but the shallow canal slowed me down considerably. Many passing boats appeared to have the same problem. The solution for most of the hire boat helmsmen who passed was to push the throttle down as far as it would go. Consequently the barely moving boats crawled past trailing a violently boiling wake.

I also stopped for half an hour at Kilworth Wharf for coal, gas and a bag of coal. Then, inevitably, after passing no moving boats for the previous hour, I met three in quick succession inside Market Bosworth tunnel.

At 3pm I pulled over at a lovely spot overlooking Kicklewood Spinney, moored securely, shut the engine down, put my tiller away, locked the engine room doors, made myself a long overdue hot drink, collapsed in front of the telly and then turned it on looking forward to forty five minutes of pre match discussion. Then I cursed, opened the engine room doors, put my tiller back on, started the engine and moved on in search of a mooring where I could get a television reception.

Over the next hour I stopped four more times in the middle of the canal, dived down into the cabin and checked for a reception. Nothing. Eventually I admitted defeat so carried on to the visitor moorings just above the Foxton flight. Expecting the worst I turned the television on one final time and was rewarded with a perfect picture and a 3-3 score twenty minutes into the game. It was a fantastic end to a wonderful day’s cruising.

I’m still there now. I’m going to send the newsletter out then join what I expect to be a very short queue to descend the flight. I had a break from writing this morning to wander around the flight and the remains of the inclined plane. Some of the photos I took are below. I hope you like them.

Stop gates above the Foxton inclined plane to prevent the twenty mile pound from draining in the event of the inclined plane breaching

Stop gates above the Foxton inclined plane to prevent the twenty mile pound from draining in the event of the inclined plane breaching

Dangerous narrowboat mooring - Who parked that boat there?

Dangerous narrowboat mooring – Who parked that boat there?

The Foxton Boiler Room museum

The Foxton Boiler Room museum

The Bridge 61 pub at the bottom of the flight

The Bridge 61 pub at the bottom of the flight

Useful Information


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.

Useful Information

Please Help Keep This Site Online

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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 wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.