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 12 06 Newsletter – Cruising in High Winds

Trying to reach locations for specific times is always a challenge when you’re moving at an average of two miles an hour. When you’re moving so slowly and battling a stiff breeze, getting anywhere on time is quite difficult.

Our destination was Rugby town centre, just twenty minutes away by car, but five hours by boat. With 40mph winds forecast we decided to abandon our plans for the day and head back to our discovery day mooring about the Calcutt flight on the Grand Union canal close to Napton junction.

High winds and ice are the only conditions which stop me. Cruising through even a thin layer of ice quickly removes any protective hull coating, especially along the water line. I was iced in on a towpath mooring on the Leicester Line close to Yelvertoft between Christmas and New Year last year. I waited three days until a rare winter hire boat charged past me smashing through the ice with little regard to the effect the jagged broken pieces were having on the hull. I followed in the hire boat’s wake gently nudging past the half inch thick slabs. Even though I didn’t need to break any ice myself I still lost most of the bitumen protecting the water line before I reached clear water at Norton junction.

High winds, although not nearly so damaging, make cruising equally difficult. My 62’ boat has a four feet high, fifty feet long cabin so I have two hundred square feet of “sail”. Even though my boat has a reasonably deep draught at 2’6”, the amount of sail combined with a flat bottom means that in anything more than a gentle breeze I spend much of my time crabbing along the canal.

Steering becomes very difficult in 40mph winds. You need to be acutely aware of the wind speed and direction at all times, especially when negotiating bridge holes and locks. You have to allow for lateral drift to avoid painful contact with inanimate objects, something which Cynthia is now acutely aware of after trying to cut a chicken with a very sharp knife when we broadsided none too gently into a lock wall.

We had no locks to negotiate on Sunday but plenty of bridges and then a very interesting turn in the entrance to Barby Moorings marina.

Barby Moorings is one of the many marinas with a sign close to the entrance warning boaters not to turn there. I don’t understand why the marina owners object. Boaters aren’t doing any harm. I’ve never paid any attention to these signs, and never had anyone complain when I turn in a marina entrance.

With the wind howling along the mile straight leading to the marina I had to turn aggressively into the entrance to bring the bow around against the wind, and then wait for the stern to be pushed around by the breeze. Unfortunately I couldn’t do anything about a thick section of steel rail running along the offside bank two feet into the marina entrance.

The boat drifted into the rough rail end. I had the pleasure of listening to the sound of steel scraping steel as I watched a ten feet long two inch wide strip of bitumen curl away from the hull. Fortunately after sixteen hundred miles along the inland waterways over the last seven months the scrape was one of many so the loss of a little paint didn’t cause me too much anxiety.

After two and a half very pleasant but windy and often wet hours later we moored for the night on an unusually boat free stretch close to Flecknoe. We settled down for a relaxing evening on a warm and cosy boat out of the weather. Sadly, the evening wasn’t quite as relaxing as Cynthia would have liked.

Basset hounds are intelligent dogs. Tasha and Bromley have adapted very well to boat life after just three weeks on board. Tasha the nine year old bitch is particularly good. After she’s jumped off the boat for a toilet break she comes when called and jumps nimbly through the cratch cover onto the front deck before standing patiently for her paws to be cleaned.

On Sunday night, in the middle of a particularly blustery squall, she bounded up the steps from the cabin onto the deck and then energetically leaped over the gunnel out of the boat. I think she would have preferred to jump onto the towpath rather than into the dark and murky water of the canal but she didn’t tell me what was on her mind so I don’t know.

What I do know is that Cynthia, to put it mildly, wasn’t very happy. To me it was just another silly dog going for a surprise but harmless swim. To Cynthia the event was terrifying. She was sure that Tasha wouldn’t be able to swim, wouldn’t be able to find her way back to the boat if she could swim, wouldn’t be able to climb out of the water, would be too heavy to lift out of the water and would have caught Weil’s disease or, at the very least, pneumonia.

Thanks to the sturdy Roughwear harnesses both dogs wear day and night, by the time Cynthia drew breath for her first mortified scream I had a wet and sneezing Tasha back on the front deck. Both Tasha and Cynthia have recovered now. My little girl is very careful now before she leaps off the boat onto the towpath for a poo. Tasha is more cautious now too.

We arrived back at the water point about the Calcutt flight at midday where we spent an hour cleaning the outside of the boat for the first time in a month. The cream cabin roof and sides look wonderful when they’re clean but they are very difficult to keep that way, especially with a pet hate of mine, my utterly useless but very expensive braid on braid centre lines.

The ropes look good, are wonderfully soft and pliable, but soak up more water than a bath sponge. At this time of the year they are permanently full of water so they leave muddy marks wherever they touch. I hope they wear out soon so I can go back to the less aesthetically pleasing but much more user friendly nylon ropes.

After two very enjoyable discovery days on Tuesday and Wednesday we had two unexpected days free due to postponements. As often the case, frantic work schedules won over a far more relaxing alternative on board James.

Yesterday we were back on track with a very interesting day on the cut. With the 25mph wind gusting to 40mph again we spent much of the cruise to and from Braunston traveling sideways. Fortunately, because of the wind, there were very few other boats moving. In fact, on the outward leg, there weren’t any at all. We had the wind whipped foot high waves to ourselves.

On the way back we met the kindly crews on three Kate Boats craft who tried to stop dead in the water to allow us to pass a line of moored craft. They obviously didn’t realise that stopping on a windy day, or even reducing speed too much, means being blown somewhere you don’t want to go. In their case it was the shallow water close to the offside bank. We left them thrashing ineffectively through mud and white topped waves.

Cruising on open water on windy days isn’t particularly difficult but negotiating locks is a different kettle of fish. We had a few hairy moments trying to line up a very reluctant boat with unforgiving lock gates but finished the day with only a little less bitumen on the hull than when we started.

Today promises to be another challenging cruise on the cut dressed like the Michelin Man. Roll on the summer tee shirt and shorts and lazy days on the towpath reading while the world passes slowly by.

Cynthia Says…

Making adjustments—

This past week has been an interesting one with many twists and turns and has made me see how making such a big move can be a big adjustment on many levels—perhaps more so for me, as I have changed everything about my life to be here and embrace this beautiful tranquil life afloat.  I am happy to have done so, though I do struggle at times.  Tending to a new relationship as well as feeling like I fit into the scheme of things has been easy in some ways, not so easy in others.

Last Sunday was a case in point, as our female Basset, Tasha, took an unexpected dive into the canal.  We had been moored on one side of the canal and she had learned the routine well—when we found ourselves moored on the opposite side, and I wasn’t positioned on the proper side, she found herself taking a surprise swim!  I must admit, I was a bit upset first off and was sort of afraid that she might drown as I don’t believe she had ever experienced deep water before.  Paul was lightening quick plucking her out of the water, and she didn’t seem the least bit fazed.  Thanks to Paul’s experience with these things along with his ability to calm me and reassure me, I am finally able to look back at the incident and chuckle over it.

For those of you about to move to a narrowboat, you too will be facing many adjustments as you downsize your life and possessions.  I was able to get rid of a ton of stuff back in Vermont and I can honestly say I haven’t missed anything I gave away or left behind.

We spent a great deal of time discussing how we want to make small changes here and there to make our life easier and more streamlined on James.  We both love the process of discussing the various changes/enhancements we want to do over time, and I must admit, we made a lot of small but good changes over this past week.  This is an ongoing process which we both embrace.  One of the big projects I would like to do is be able to put in a teak and holly floor.  This would be such a lovely enhancement!  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this rich hued and beautiful floor, take a minute and Google images for it and you will see what I mean. One often sees this kind of floor on traditional sailboats.  Now if I can just sell that house in Vermont……

This has been my first week dealing with Discovery Days and it has been another adjustment, as we don’t have much personal time together except in the evenings.  We are usually exhausted (especially Paul, as he does so much to make these days so successful with no stone left unturned), at the end of the day, and can’t sleep in the next day because we need to do it all over again.  I think I am fitting into the scheme of things pretty well.  I especially enjoy when we only have one guest and I can help out at the locks, which is always a pleasure and a learning experience—Paul teaches me something new all the time, and I love learning.

In summary, for those of you contemplating or actually partaking in living this lifestyle, you will need to make a number of adjustments on many levels.  It is most important to have a sense of humor, look at the big picture and break things down into small daily goals if possible.  And in the personal realm of it all, remember to be respectful and kind to one another, and expect to make mistakes–it’s all part of the deal.  And last but not least, enjoy the process of getting to know one another on a deeper level as you make this wondrous transition to an idyllic life on the waterways.

Useful Information

Colin Ashby Portraits

My apologies to Colin Ashby who kindly sent me a framed drawing of my boat, James No 194. I promised to mention his service two or three weeks ago but, as ever, I ran out of time.

Colin’s usual focus is pet portraits but he now includes hand drawn sketches of narrowboats. The one he did for me is pictured below. I haven’t done his work any justice with this photo but both Cynthia and I are very pleased with his work. If you would like to contact Colin regarding his service, you can email him here.

James No 194 - A portrait by Colin Ashby

James No 194 – A portrait by Colin Ashby

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.  If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day before the end of the year, you can book the single remaining date by viewing the diary here. 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.

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
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.