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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2016 01 10 Newsletter – Essential Onboard Equipment

As soon as I sent out last week’s newsletter, Cynthia and I endured the wettest cruise I’ve taken since I moved on board nearly six years ago. Cruising on lock free stretches of canal isn’t a problem at all. My Guy Coten trawlermen’s waterproofs are bomb proof. I can stand for endless hours in torrential rain and stay bone dry. The waterproofs are heavy duty plastic which is perfect for hours of rain soaked immobility. Unfortunately they are less than perfect for working through locks.

Neither the jacket nor the trousers are breathable so as soon as I start doing any work in them I overheat very quickly. They are also quite restrictive, which is a bit of a problem when I need to constantly climb down a wet and slippery ladder onto a rain soaked roof and walk thirty feet down a narrow corridor between the cabin side and my solar panel array before vaulting down into the cockpit.

The waterproofs are restrictive but first class for keeping my body dry. My achilles heel at the moment is my footwear. I have a good pair of fur lined rigger boots for the winter months. They are warm enough but a little cumbersome and water resistant rather than waterproof. I would usually have worn them on such a foul day but I can’t wear them at the moment because of the discomfort they cause due to a worn and uneven insole. Instead I wore a cheap pair of steel toed trainers I used to wear for work. They were probably the most inappropriate footwear I could have worn given the state of the lock-side towpath.

The footpath was completely flooded for most of its length. Rather than wade through inches of water covering the towpath  I walked on the mud beside it which used to be grass. Slipping and sliding in restrictive clothing next to an expanse of frigid canal isn’t the most enjoyable way of spending a Sunday lunchtime, especially with Cynthia struggling with the weight of some of the lock gates on the Braunston flight. They are very heavy and are often too much for all but the strongest ladies.

Heavy rain over the preceding day or two had substantially raised the level of the canal. A waterfall cascaded over each pair of downstream gates in the six lock flight increasing the water level in the pound below. Each lock took an age to fill, especially the bottom lock.

Just to make the day more interesting, the boat was hit by a gale force squall as I approached the bottom lock, pinning the boat at a forty five degree angle across the canal. The only way to get the boat in was to power round pivoting on the bow where it rested against the towpath upstream gate. The boat slid in reluctantly but the bow rubbing strake hung the bow on the gate until the boat dipped alarmingly to starboard and then dropped back into the water with a crash.

The last two hours of the trip was wet but otherwise uneventful. We moored for the night above the Calcutt flight before taking the boat down onto our marina mooring on Monday morning for two or three months of national grid hook up and the unfamiliar luxury of unlimited hot water and permanently charged batteries.

One of Cynthia’s priorities as soon as we moored was to order me some appropriate winter footwear. Cynthia has spent many years outdoors in the States dealing with temperatures far lower than anything we see in the UK.

Cynthia, born in sunny California, has spent the last ten years living in Vermont. During that period she spent much of her time looking after horses which involved spending many hours outside on winter days where the temperature dropped as low as -35 degrees celsius.

The footwear that Cynthia and many of her horsey colleagues preferred was the Muckboot brand. Muck Boots  are like Wellington boots but unlike Wellingtons they are both durable and warm.

Cynthia has just ordered a pair of these for me from the UK Amazon site.  The neoprene boots have received hundreds of positive reviews on Amazon from outdoor enthusiasts. I think they will be perfect for boating. I’ll keep you posted.

So that’s my cruising done for another year. During the last nine months of 2015 I ran my engine for 1,031 hours during which I cruised 1,753 miles and negotiated 948 locks. I’ve had the unexpected pleasure of welcoming a one tonne bullock onto the back deck, been stung by a swarm of angry wasps, come close to overturning the boat in a Thames lock and sinking it in a Llangollen lock and I’ve had my raw water system collapse twice. I’ve had the pleasure of negotiating a lock flight with a pair of mole grips after throwing both my windlasses in the canal. I’ve replaced two alternators and an alternator belt, serviced the engine four times,  switched the boat’s cooling from raw water to keel cooling, installed a diesel heating system and a composting toilet and stopped on more beautiful and peaceful moorings than I can count. I’ve had an exciting and thoroughly enjoyable year.

While we’re between cruises at the marina and have the car close at hand we’re making the most of our National Trust membership. Cynthia and I have reached the stage in life where we want to spend as much time as possible surrounded by things older than us.

Yesterday we spent three very pleasant hours exploring Upton House and Gardens. National Trust membership is perfect for tranquility loving boaters. There are over 500 properties to explore in the UK, many of them within easy reach of the canal network. I’m very much looking forward to exploring Shugborough Hall at Great Hayward junction later this year.

In between National Trust visits we’re taking things easy while we plan next year’s adventures but there are still plenty of jobs to do on board. I spent an hour last night freeing two sticking knobs on my hob with a pair of mole grips, a needle and a tube of Molykote gas cock grease. Over the next day or two I need to find out why my bilge pump has stopped working and then find some time to move some more ballast to correct the remaining slight list to port and then schedule a week to repaint the cabin roof and touch up the sides. On second thoughts, maybe I’m not resting as much as I should.

While I was sitting in the engine room considering what to do about the bilge pump, I looked around me at the equipment neatly stored on wall clips and hangers and in bags and boxes and I remembered an email I had received a few days earlier  from a previous discovery day guest.. She’s now sold her house and purchased a boat so now she’s considering the logistics of moving her life afloat. She contacted me to ask for a list of what I consider to be essential equipment to carry on board. I don’t think there’s a list anywhere on the site, so here goes…

Ropes – I have four on the boat; a bow and a stern line and two centre lines. I use the bow and stern lines just for mooring, and the two centre lines for controlling the boat when I’m cruising. You will struggle to effectively control your boat on your own without a centre line. I have two, one running down either side of the boat. My three solar panels and the rack with my pole and plank are at the back of the boat so with only one centre line I would be forever trying to flick it over the roof furniture, often at a time when I need to step off the boat quickly.

Pole – Very handy if you miscalculate and end up with your boat in the shallows. You can push your boat back into deeper water. The only times I have used my pole this year is to push the bow out from the side when I’m trying to move away from a lock landing or a mooring when the wind is pinning the boat against the bank.

Plank – If you can’t moor your boat close enough to the bank to step on and off the boat easily you can use your plank to bridge the gap. Please note that planks can become very slippery. If possible, add a non slip coating.

Mooring chains – I carry four on board. They are excellent for securing yourself firmly to Armco rail but aren’t popular with some boaters who struggle to bend or kneel down. The chains have different sized steel rings at either end. You pass the chain behind the Armco rail, pass the smaller ring through the larger ring then pass your mooring lines through the smaller ring.

Piling hooks (also known as nappy pins). These server the same purpose as chains but they aren’t as secure. They may suit you though if you have mobility issues because you don’t have to bend down as far to fix them in place.

Mooring pins or stakes – If you don’t have any Armco to secure your boat against you’ll need to use a stake. They’re not ideal. In the winter they are easy to knock in but just as easy to pull out when a boat passes. In the summer they’re less likely to pull out when the ground is firm but you need to work quite hard to knock them in.

Lump hammer – For knocking your pins in, or for knocking the imbecile in who tries to untie your boat in the middle of the night.

Tiller – If you have a cruiser stern boat your tiller may be fixed in place. A traditional stern boat usually has a removable brass tiller with a wooden handle. It’s a good policy to remove your tiller and secure it inside your boat when you’re not at the helm. The same imbecile who likes to untie boats also collects shiny tillers.

Tiller Pin – These are for securing your tiller in place. The most basic are a brass knob with a protruding pin but there are some very fancy tiller pins on the market. I have one. Until July this year I had an eagle tiller pin I bought at the Crick show in May. A brass rod screwed into the eagle. The rod secured the tiller in place. The screw thread vibrated loose on a discovery day allowing my eagle to go for an unscheduled dip. That was the last I saw of him. Cynthia bought me a replacement for Christmas from Draco Crafts. They offer a bespoke tiller pins. Their service is excellent.

Water Resistant Grease – You will probably have a stern gland greaser somewhere in your engine room. You need to tighten this greaser every day to prevent canal water filling your engine bay. You will need to regularly top up your grease. I carry two tubs on board.

Engine oil – Especially if you have an old engine like mine which needs topping up with oil once a week.

Antifreeze – For your engine’s cooling system and possibly for your boat’s central heating

Three in one oil – Very handy for lubricating hinges and hatches

Paint and brushes – I keep the two major colours on board for touching up the cabin when necessary.

Clothing – You might want to buck the trend and do a little cruising in adverse weather. If you do you’re in for a treat. You’ll have canal mostly to yourself. Remember, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. With warm and waterproof gear you can cruise for as much of the year as you like. My Waterproofs are from Guy Coten. You don’t look stylish wearing them but who cares when you’re dry?

I was going to write more here about handy equipment to keep on board, but my computer woes continue. A couple of weeks ago my Samsung laptop’s hard drive failed. I have been using Cynthia’s aging MacBook Pro since then but yesterday that too died a painful death.

I had a break while I made myself a mug of coffee. I was carrying the steaming brew back from the galley when the mug’s handle fell off, decanting half a pint of sticky sugar sweetened coffee into my lap and over the MacBook’s keyboard.

My groin has recovered but the keyboard hasn’t. I borrowed a laptop from work today to get me out of immediate trouble (Thank you Russ) but I don’t have the energy to write much more tonight. I’ll finish the equipment list off next week and also include a detailed list of all the tools you should keep on board.

Cynthia Says…

Finding the Silver Lining…

Well, this past week presented several challenges that we have been successfully dealing with so far!

The first one of course was our stormy encounter with the approach to the final lock at Braunston….out of seemingly nowhere along came a small gale and Paul had quite the challenge lining up James to navigate the lock.  Finally with the combination of his superior skill and the help of a nice man (who happened to be at the right place at the right time on the towpath) and myself, we were finally able to negotiate the boat into the lock.  The silver lining here was actually twofold.  First, the kind gentleman who helped us.  We would have had a tough go without his assistance to be sure!  I continue to be amazed that when I need someone or something to show up in my life it (or they) do so.  Second, after experiencing a morning’s worth of rain and soggy wet feet, I thought that having an appropriate pair of weather proof boots was essential for Paul, and the Muck Boots immediately came to mind.  As Paul has stated, they are superior footwear and I can attest to that firsthand in all my horse dealings of the past.  For those of you diehards, you could also take the Amish route to keeping your feet warm—toss a couple of bricks in the oven for a spell, then wrap them in a few layers of brown paper and stand on the lot—ummm warm feet indeed!

On a sad note, I made the decision to re-home our Basset, Bromley.  I don’t think he is so happy with the boat life as he doesn’t have much freedom to move around.  And getting him on and off can often be a nightmare depending on weather conditions and location.  Back in Vermont he had 24/7 outside access with a large kitchen to run around in.  I contacted the Basset Rescue that is recognized by the British Kennel Club and I believe we have found him a great home with a single retired lady in Nottingham who has owned Bassets in the past.  Giving this lovely boy up has been a true hardship for me as we have been so close for most of his life since I rescued him at 9 months.  The silver lining in this situation?  After much thought, I feel at peace and happy thinking that I am able to provide someone else with the opportunity to have a wonderful companion in her life and that makes me feel good.  I wish miss him terribly.  Thank goodness for dear affable Tasha.  She is the perfect answer for a boat dog at this time, and I think she will do well as a solo dog….time will tell!

Friday was Paul’s first of three days off, and we had made plans to drive to an organic food shop in Leicester.  Most of the drive in the countryside was wonderful, but negotiating the downtown streets of mostly cheerless Leicester was less than inspiring.  We both wondered aloud why we had made this decision and were saying that we most likely would not return.  But, alas, once again, you are never safe from surprise until you are dead.  We drove up to what looked like a dilapidated warehouse our hearts kind of sank.  When we walked through the doors, we were the only ones there.  We started to make our way down the aisles and low and behold the organic treasures nearly jumped off the shelves into our cart!  And the fresh organic produce was the best we’ve found so far.  Paul, one of the founding members of this food cooperative, was most kind and helpful and we departed with lighter wallets, but with big smiles on our faces and a boot full of good and healthy food….we shall return.

And last but not least, our first National Trust outing yesterday since becoming members.  Upton House and Gardens.  The house is beautifully located on a piece of land that has much scope for the imagination, but in all honesty, the house is quite somber and dark.  The only semi-inviting room was the cozy downstairs reading room with the big fireplace.  After a quick bite at the lovely eatery with the beautiful Palladian window, we decided to take a stroll towards the pool and gardens.  What a truly delightful surprise!!  The woods were enchanting and ever so inviting and the gardens extensive.  We had fun imagining how gorgeous and colourful they will be come spring and summer!  A beautiful silver lining on the final day of this week.  We plan to enjoy visiting one trust property each week on one of Paul’s coveted days off.

I shall wrap this up with a favorite quote which speaks to our simply life aboard—

“The greatest step towards a life of simplicity is to learn to let go.”

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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.  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.

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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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