2015 12 20 Newsletter – Near Misses and Christmas Wishes

Monday’s discovery day was memorable for a number of reasons; It was the last of the year, 6’6” Andy was my tallest guest on board to date, and, last but not least, I made a foolish and costly schoolboy error.

The day started off as usual. After Cynthia had made the couple a hot drink, I spent an hour walking them through the boat explaining the layout and the pros and cons of design and equipment options. Then we donned fleeces and waterproofs ready for a winter’s day on the cut, and headed to the back of the boat so I could explain how to operate both the Morse control and the tiller.

We removed the mooring lines, made sure the stern line was stowed in the engine room so it couldn’t slip in the water to foul the propeller, pushed the bow away and prepared for a sedate cruise to Braunston.

Our relaxation lasted less than a minute. There was a deafening bang, the fourteen feet long wooden pole secured on a steel bracket by the cockpit on the starboard side jumped four feet in the air, and the engine cut out.

The boat drifted slowly and out of control across the canal towards a line of moored boats, much to the consternation of both Trish and Andy. They had yet to embrace the concept of gently bumping into other craft without incurring either wrath or insurance claims.

I tried to start the engine again. It ran as effortlessly as normal in neutral but as soon as put it into drive the engine cut out again. “What’s wrong with the engine?” asked Andy, images of an aborted discovery day no doubt flashing through his mind.

I considered his question carefully drawing on half a decade’s boating experienced before telling him in a non too calm tone, “We have a serious problem. I think the engine’s f****d!”

With those reassuring words I quickly opened the weed hatch to check for any major obstructions which may have prevented the propeller from turning, found nothing, cursed fluently and at length and then sprinted down the towpath to Calcutt Boats’ office to ask for some advice.

As usual, Calcutt Boats’ owner, Roger Preen, was a font of useful information based on four decades in the business and his own extensive cruising both in the UK and on the French waterways.

“You have something substantial on your prop,” he confidently assured me. I told him that I had checked and that the prop was clear. “Go and check again,” he suggested, “You haven’t checked properly”. Shaking my head in exasperation, certain of my own thoroughness, I ran back to the boat for a second time wasting grope around the propeller.

Freeing rope from the prop - Half an hour in

Freeing rope from the prop – Half an hour in

A quick feel around the propeller convinced me that I was right… until a length of familiar blue rope rose to the surface. It looked suspiciously like the braid-on-braid line I use on bow and stern and on the roof for my two centre lines.

I quickly jumped to my feet to check both centre lines. The port side line was still where it should have been, running back from the boat’s centre and coiled neatly so that it was in reach of my steering position. The starboard rope wasn’t. It stretched bar straight from the rooftop fixing ring over the cabin side and disappeared into the canal in the general direction of the propeller.

I have always been aware of the potential danger of having a centre line long enough to reach the propeller but in five year’s boating I have always made sure that I checked its position before I started the engine. Obviously I didn’t check it on Monday and I paid the price.

The first financial penalty was the cost of a new centre line. I tried to save the line by starting the engine and slowly engaging reverse hoping to unwind it from the drive shaft where it was tightly bound. The engine cut out every time I tried.

I’ve been moaning about my braid-on-braid lines for months because of their water absorption but I’m sure there are less extreme ways of disposing of them. With the aid of a sharp bread knife I released the pressure on the line by cutting it in two and then spent an hour shoulder deep in frigid and murky canal water hacking away at several dozen turns of tightly bound rope.

The second financial penalty was the cost of replacing the starboard brass mushroom covering the vent from my Airhead composting toilet. The mushroom covers a 12v fan which helps to draw moisture from the toilet’s solids tank. Until I had time to source a replacement I weatherproofed the opening with a rubber band and a plastic bag.

I was very lucky. Roger Preen told me that he has seen massive damage done to engines in similar circumstances.  Sometimes the gearbox ratio can result in the engine being ripped from its mounts by a suddenly jammed propeller, turned over in the engine room by the force and smashed into small and barely recognisable pieces. All I lost was a length of rope I didn’t particularly like anyway, a brass mushroom and a little credibility.

The rest of the day passed as smoothly as normal. I had to make a small adjustment to my temporary vent repair at lunch time when I noticed how smelly our normally odour free toilet had become. Just three hours with a sealed vent had regressed our high tech composting toilet to the level of my old cassette toilet. It stank. I replaced the plastic bag with our saloon mushroom. Within an hour the smell had disappeared.

Tuesday was a bit of a shock to the system. Two hundred and fifty eight days after finishing my full time work for Calcutt Boats I was back again, this time for a more civilized four days a week. I’ll be there until next spring when Cynthia and I set sail on another eight month adventure on the inland waterways.

For five years I worked at the marina helping maintain over 110 on site acres. This time I will be helping with the business’s annual hire fleet refurbishment. Each year each of the fleet’s twelve boats are blacked. Each year three or four of the fleet’s least aesthetically pleasing boats also have their external paintwork refreshed. My first job was to sand one of them ready for painting. But before I could begin work on Tuesday at 8am I had some basic housekeeping to manage.

For five years I lived at the marina where I worked. Utilities are far more difficult to manage on a boat than in a bricks and mortar home but on a marina mooring they aren’t quite so difficult.

Bags of coal are normally on sale close to where you’re moored, National Grid electricity is within easy reach of your shore line and there’s usually a water supply less than a hose length away. Apart from moving your boat to empty a pump out toilet tank you can stay in the same spot as long as you like. You’re living in a floating flat with all mod cons within easy reach.

Living out on the cut is more of a challenge. We still have a mooring at Calcutt Boats but as we’re out cruising for eleven days over the Christmas period we decided to stay moored above the Calcutt flight with a panoramic view of Napton reservoir rather than in the marina hemmed in by other boats.

On Tuesday morning I needed to top up our water supply before going to work. No problem. The water point was on the opposite side of the canal fifty feet behind us. How long do you think the return journey of a hundred feet took us? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? How about an hour and quarter?

A gentle breeze was blowing down the canal towards the Calcutt flight as I set off. Narrowboats have, at best, very little steering in reverse. You simply try and reverse in a straight line backwards then go forwards to correct your line when you notice the bow starting to swing. That’s fine on a calm day or if you have bow thrusters. On a breezy day without any way of correcting a swinging bow you’re pretty much at the mercy of the wind.

I reached the water point with my stern at the same time as my bow reached the lock landing on the opposite side of the canal. Using my centre line, a new, less stretchy and less absorbent rope than my propeller wrapped braid-on-braid rope, I spent an energetic quarter of an hour pulling the twenty tonne boat around against the wind and then another half an hour filling the tank, returning fifty feet to my mooring and tying up.

By the time I reached Calcutt Boats’ reception ready for the start of my day’s work I was ready to go home again. If you still need to work and you’re considering taking on an on line mooring without facilities please consider the logistics of managing your life afloat, especially replenishing your water supply on a dismal winter’s day.

I don’t have to struggle like that very often I’m happy to say, especially with a physically demanding day ahead of me. Preparing a boat for painting is a time consuming but very satisfying process. With a plentiful supply of sanding disks in various grades, a good quality orbital sander for the bulk of the work and a needle gun and compressor for dealing with any rusty patches, protective goggles and ear defenders for use with the needle gun and a robust dust mask for sanding and, last but not least, a loud radio, my three day working week this week flew by.

On my discovery days I always emphasise the need to stay close to the towpath side of the canal when going through bridges. If you insist on scraping your boat against one side of the bridge if you miss your line, the towpath side will treat you gently. Your hull’s rubbing strakes will brush against the stone so, at worst, you will lost a little easily replaced bitumen. On the other hand, if you allow your boat to make contact with the much lower offside bridge arch, your cabin top will make contact first. The hire boat I worked on this week had long stretches of missing paint along the top of the cabin on both sides caused by inexperienced helmsmen.

Much as I enjoyed my working week I was ready for the start of my three day “weekend” at 4pm on Thursday. Both Cynthia and I are still trying to integrate our lives. The process has been difficult enough with me trying to set aside thirty hours a week to maintain the site but now I have almost full time work there’s much more of a hurdle to overcome.

One of the most difficult challenges for me has been to come to terms with having a handicapped dog on board. Cynthia brought two dogs with her, both basset hounds, and both beautiful dogs full of character and love for the world in general.

Tasha, the nine year old bitch, is no trouble at all. She doesn’t demand much in the way of walks, she likes to sleep quietly for twelve hours at a time, she always has a smile on her face and she keeps herself to herself. Five year old Bromley needs much more attention.

Bromley has a neurological problem which affects his walking and control of his bodily functions. When Cynthia rescued him he couldn’t use his hind legs. She’s managed to rehabilitate him now to the point where he can walk after a fashion, but he can’t jump or even step very high. He can’t get on and off the boat on his own.

Bromley weighs thirty seven pounds and is torpedo shaped. The harness he wears makes lifting him on and off the front deck possible but not easy. Dainty Cynthia struggles to handle his weight, especially since she pulled a muscle in her back, so any lifting is safer for me to do.

Bromley’s control of his bodily functions was a little difficult for me to deal with when he first moved on board. He is very sensitive to stress. His occasional accident caused me stress which caused Bromley stress which in turn caused more accidents.

He’s fine now, partly because he’s settled into his new routine on board but more so because I am more relaxed with him. He’s learned to bark to let us know when he needs to go to the toilet but, because his maximum duration is five or six hours compared with Tasha’s ten, his bark alerts are often in the middle of the night. I wasn’t very happy having my much needed beauty sleep disturbed initially but now that I’ve accepted that as far as beauty sleep is concerned I’m a lost cause, his five minute off boat excursions are done on autopilot with very little stress or loss of sleep.

After my three day working week this week we decided to treat ourselves yesterday with a day out at Blenheim Palace. It’s a forty minute drive from our Napton-on-the-Hill mooring, no problem now that we have an old but super reliable car.

Our old but reliable Mercedes aptly named Freedom by Cynthia

Our old but reliable Mercedes aptly named Freedom by Cynthia

Tasha and Bromley came with us. After many years of driving coast to coast in the states they were more than happy with such a short drive. What they weren’t quite so happy with was the journey to the car.

Neither dog had had the dubious pleasure of negotiating lock gates. Agile but elderly Tasha had no problem in the light on the way out but she needed carrying on the way back. Bromley is too unsteady on his feet to take the risk so he needed to be carried both ways. Thanks to their Ruffwear harnesses even Tasha at forty five pounds was over the potentially dangerous gate in seconds.

I’ve seen a number of accidents involving dogs and lock gates. One happened when an owner lost his footing as he carried his dog over the narrow gate walkway. A good harness is indispensable if you have an unsteady or nervous dog.

I have work again tomorrow, and for the two following days but on Thursday we’ll be heading off to Market Harborough. It will be the fourth cruise there for me this year and the second for Cynthia. I hope your Christmas is as pleasant and relaxing as I know ours is going to be.

Cynthia Says…


As per the past two weeks, this week was also one of transitions on several levels.  It is difficult to believe I have actually been here only three weeks and two days and that so much water has flowed through the locks and under James during that time.

Transitioning from discovery days to Calcutt Marina work days has actually been a nice one for me.  I like the discovery days and meeting new people and all, but become a bit frustrated when I can’t spend time at the tiller, which is what happens when we have more than one person come at a time.  I always love to be back there and to learn from Paul even though I am not actually controlling the tiller.  Now that he is working at the marina, I like that I can take coffee and a treat to Paul mid morning and then have him all to myself at lunch time.  And most afternoons I can return to bring him his afternoon hot drink and a quick snack.  And the fact that he finishes work at 4pm is great so that we can enjoy a leisurely dinner together followed by relaxing evening in front of the telly with the dogs beside us.  We are quite the sight the four of us on the settee!  Everyone knows their stations and it seems to work out well.

Blenheim Palace on a rare day away from the inland waterways

Blenheim Palace on a rare day away from the inland waterways

One of the best transitions of the past week was getting our 1984 240 TD Mercedes estate car.  I have owned a number of these autos in the past and love their reliability, the sound of the economically diesel engine (we are now a two Mercedes engine family!) purring away, and the safety of the car.  I am still a bit timid about driving in this unfamiliar land on the right side of the car, but Paul has been the ever-patient teacher and mentor for which I am most grateful.  I named her “Freedom” as she represents just that for us—we can take off far and wide at our discretion and the kids can join us as well.  Our first official trip out yesterday to Blenheim Palace was an absolutely perfect day together, and the kids were angels in the car.  For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of discovering this delightful place, please put it on your list of must-sees.  The grounds are spectacular to hike, and the food at the Palace in the cafe is of great variety and delicious.  And a walk around the town of Woodstock is definitely worth your time—picture perfect in every way.

It was unfortunate Paul had to begin the last of our discovery days this year with the rope and prop issue.  As he so aptly stated, it could have been much worse and we were fortunate that so little damage was caused.  As I have spent quite a few years on sailboats, I gently suggested we might think about tying off the end of the centre line rope on a cleat close to stern so that such errant ropes will remain under control until needed.  

All in all, it was a very good week and I feel I have learned a lot with Paul’s ever-patient guidance.  He is a godsend in my life and I remain grateful every day that I am able to make this transition from a life on the dirt to a glorious life afloat with this loving and thoughtful man.

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.  If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day next year you can do so 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

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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.