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 17 Newsletter – Essential Onboard Equipment Part 2

My computer woes are almost over. We purchased a refurbished 13” MacBook Pro to replace Cynthia’s aged 15” MacBook with its coffee-washed keyboard. It’s a joy to use but we still only have the one device between us.

I’m trying to get my two year old Samsung laptop working as well. The hard drive failed, so I’ve bought a new one which has been fitted by my boating guardian angel Russ Fincham, Calcutt Boats fitter, Boat Safety Scheme examiner, Hire Fleet Manager, and all round good guy. The hard drive’s been replaced but unfortunately the laptop appears to have some other more serious problems which may prove too troublesome or costly to repair.

Back in the boating world, I’ve had a productive week. The Muck Boots Cynthia bought for me last week are wonderful. Over the colder winter months when I was maintaining the grounds at Calcutt Boats I always wore Wellington boots. They usually did a pretty good job of keeping my feet dry, apart from the two pairs of Dunlop boots which split at the ankle within six months, but they always failed to keep my feet warm no matter how many pairs of socks I wore. My new Muck Boots are very warm indeed. They’ve kept my feet toasty warm all week, without making them sweat.

I thought they were going to get a very thorough workout today. I had a rare winter discovery day booked. I don’t often take bookings for January or February because of the weather. Any ice on the water means that cruising is possible but inadvisable. Even as little as a quarter of an inch is enough to strip the protective bitumen coating off the steel hull. I was stuck in the ice at Yelvertoft for three days last winter. I waited until a rare hire boat came through to break the ice before I moved, but even gently pushing my way through broken shards on my way back to Norton junction was enough to remove most of the paint from the waterline.

I wasn’t terribly bothered at the time because the boat was due for blacking. The cost of blacking a 62’ boat is about £600 but because of my connection with Calcutt Boats I was able to borrow the equipment from them in March and do the work myself over three physically demanding days and pay just the slipping fees and the cost of the paint.

I don’t want to have to paint the hull again this year so I have been very nervous about the weather leading up to today’s planned trip out. This scheduled discovery day unfortunately followed the two coldest days of the winter so far. By Saturday there was a thin layer of ice over the canal and sub zero temperatures forecast for last night. I had to postpone the day.

This morning we woke to more ice and a dusting of snow. Julia and her partner are going to reschedule for later in the year and I’m going to do some work on the site. Cynthia has threatened to take Tasha out to help her build a snowman but she isn’t very hopeful. She’s used to the kind of snow you can hide cars under. The quarter of an inch which fell last night hasn’t impressed her at all.

We’re probably going to stay on our canal-side mooring for the next week rather than return to the marina. As marinas go, Calcutt Boats has two of the best in the country. In addition to the on-site facilities including engineering, carpentry, boat blacking, coal, fuel, gas, a very well stocked chandlery, and a shower and toilet block with two washing machines and a dryer, there are 110 acres of beautiful Warwickshire countryside to walk around. And the site is very secure. There’s a half mile private drive up to electric gates which are closed at night. The only other way onto the site is by crossing the gates over the top lock. To my knowledge none of the boats moored there have suffered any breakins or thefts.

The marinas are just about perfect but they are marinas and as such they feel a little restrictive after nearly nine months freedom on the cut. At this time of the year we share our dump barge mooring with four narrowboats owned by the Royal Navy. We’re sandwiched between them and the rusting steel dump barge so we have no view at all. The mooring is both secure and convenient but it’s quite depressing.

We’ll stay on the canal above the Calcutt flight for a while, enjoying views across open fields through the port side windows and the on the other side of the canal, Napton reservoir’s forty acres of open water. The beautiful view will help compensate for the sadness we both feel at the moment.

We’re now down to just one dog. Loveable five year old Bromley has gone. Keeping him with us on the boat wasn’t fair to him, and wasn’t easy for us. Because of his neurological problems he wasn’t able to climb on and off the boat on his own, which meant that he needed to constantly wear a sturdy harness with a handle so he could be lifted like a bag onto the boat and over lock gates where his unsteadiness frightened us both to death. He was subject to the occasional spasms which would have been catastrophic if he was on the gate over an empty lock.

Yesterday morning we loaded Bromley and Tasha into our old Mercedes and drove an hour and a half to a Basset rehoming charity in Rugeley. The lady we took him to is a stone’s throw away from Great Haywood junction, one of my favourite places on the canal network. Cannock Chase’s twenty six square miles of forest and heath is within walking distance of the canal there. It’s a wonderful place to moor for a week or two but that’s a pleasure for later in the year. Yesterday we stayed just a few minutes before climbing back into the car for the journey back to the boat.

A new home has been found for Bromley with a retired couple on Burton-on-Trent. He spent his first night with them last night. He appears to have settled in well. Both Cynthia and I realise that this is the best option for him long term but, after having him close at hand to offer emotional support through some tough times over the last six years, Cynthia is missing him terribly.

Dogs are wonderful companions on board but they are far more difficult to deal with on a boat than in a more spacious house, especially at this time of the year. Cynthia and I have boots which are easy to slip on and off so the sodden towpath isn’t really a problem. The dogs don’t have the rubber boot luxury. I think if some were available Cynthia would like to try them but you have to draw a line somewhere. Footwear on dogs is a bridge too far.

Bromley’s inability to get on and off the boat on his own created a few problems. He had to wear his harness at all times ready for his frequent requests for an immediate toilet trip outside. We weren’t always able to react quickly enough. When he was living with Cynthia in her house in Vermont he had unlimited access to her garden through a dog flap. Given that he could only contain himself for four or five hours, one of us, usually Cynthia, had to wake to his insistent barking, dress and hoist him out onto the wet and muddy towpath for him to relieve himself, hoist him back in again and then clean his paws before bringing him inside again, undressing and returning to bed.

Bromley’s in a better place now for both him and for us, but the boat is a quieter and more lonely place without him.

Apart from our all too brief cruise from the marina up through the Calcutt flight, and our brief visit yesterday to canals further afield, I’ve spent most of the week painting.

After three weeks laboriously sanding, grinding and wire brushing one of Calcutt Boats twelve hire boats, I’ve finally been able to put some paint on. I painted my own boat in April 2012. Newsletter readers who have joined me for a discovery day have told me that I’ve done a good job. Thank you for that. I don’t agree that it’s particularly good, but it’s not bad for a first attempt.

I wasn’t too concerned about the end result when painting my own boat, but painting a boat for someone else is a completely different kettle of fish. My technique is slowly improving but I’m still painfully aware of every drip, sag and run.

My current commitment to Calcutt Boats ends on Thursday 25th February. After that I’ll have time to repaint my own roof and touch up some of the accumulated scrapes and chips from last year’s cruising. I’m looking forward to seeing the end result.

Last week I wrote about essential equipment to carry on board with you. I didn’t quite finish the list because of my computer problems, so here’s the rest of the list.

Anchor – You’ll need one if you venture onto rivers, and you’ll need to have it ready to deploy in an emergency.

Draper wet & dry vacuum – I use this very often to suck up any water in the bilge and to vacuum the back deck and engine bay. At just £46 for compact vacuum with a phenomenal suck you just can’t go wrong.

Recovery magnet – This is a very handy piece of equipment. I have used mine to recover my boat keys twice, mooring pins and chains several times, several lengths of chain and half a dozen shackles.

Binoculars  – There’s always a pair hanging up in the engine room within reach of where I stand to steer on the back deck. I find that these days I use them more for reading canalside signs than passing wildlife.

Paracord – I use it as a line for my recovery magnet, emergency boot laces and a washing line.

Brasso – It’s the best of the brass cleaners as far as I’m concerned. I use it for my tiller and eagle tiller pin and for my four brass mushroom vents.

My fancy eagle tiller pin

My fancy eagle tiller pin

Suitcase generator – I’m not terribly sure whether I want to keep this expensive piece of equipment. When I’m away from my mooring and an available connection to the National Grid I have to generate my own electricity. Electricity generated by the engine’s alternator is stored in my leisure bank of four 160ah AGM batteries and my single 110ah lead acid battery which is used exclusively for starting the engine. If I want to run any mains appliances on board I have to convert the electrical charge from DC to AC using my boat’s 1,600w inverter. I can run devices up to about 1,500 watts before my inverter begs for mercy. If I need to run devices bigger than 1,500 watts I need to use my portable suitcase generator.

The generator I have is made by Kipor. It’s an IG2600 which means that it will run appliances up to 2.6KW. I thought I was going to need it to run a hair dryer, hair straighteners and an iron but it’s been used on just two occasions since April last year.

It’s rarely used because it’s a bit of a pain. At over 30kg it’s a bit of a lump to get on and off the boat. It needs to be off the boat to prevent exhaust gases filling the boat so it has to go on the towpath when it’s running. Suitcase generators are much sought after by towpath thieves so leaving it on the towpath is a little risky, even if it’s chained to something immovable. Bolt croppers make short work of all but the thickest chains.

A thought at the back of my mind was that I could use it in an emergency to charge my battery bank if my alternator failed. I had an opportunity to test the theory over Christmas when my four month old alternator died. I ran the generator for an hour but there was no change shown for the leisure bank capacity on my Smatgauge battery monitor. I now know why.

My traditional stern engine room - Plenty of storage space for equipment.

My traditional stern engine room – Plenty of storage space for equipment.

The IG2600 is advertised as having an 8amp output for battery charging. I had my engine alternator assessed a year ago. At 1,500rpm the alternator produces 57 amps, which is seven and a half times as much as the suitcase generator. My engine will replenish my battery bank at a rate of 4% per hour at this time of the year when the solar panels aren’t helping at all, so the suitcase generator would take nearly two hours to increase my battery bank capacity by just 1%. It’s as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

I don’t pretend to know anything about electrical systems on boats, but I think I have these simple calculations right. If I want to use my suitcase generator to charge my battery bank, and if I need to run my engine for about two hours on a normal day to recharge my batteries, and if the suitcase generator takes seven and a half times as long to do the job as the alternator, then I will need to run the generator for fifteen hours a day. Clearly I can’t do that. However, I see boaters regularly using suitcase generators to charge their batteries so I must have something wrong.

Shore line – Rather than fry my woefully inadequate brain trying to work out how long to run my suitcase generator, I can simply find a mooring with shore power and plug in my 25m shore line.

A plentiful supply of alcohol – After a hard day’s cruising on a hot summer’s day, being able to relax in a camp chair on a sunlit towpath with a glass of Australian red in hand is a real pleasure. This twelve bottle wine rack from Amazon is perfect for the job, but taking a photo at this stage of the day was a mistake. I’m going to leave you now so that I can find out why Cynthia has replaced one of my bottles of red with a half full bottle of white. I assume she’s been using it to clean her boots. I can’t think of any other use for it.

Cynthia Says…

Making adjustments……

It has been nearly two months since winging my way across the pond to my new life, and it is hard to believe the time has passed so fast!  I knew before setting out that my life would require adjustments in a number of directions and I am doing my best to make the necessary ones as they show up in my new life.

Cynthia's cupboard desk

Cynthia’s cupboard desk

Of course the biggest adjustment I currently have is getting used to the idea that Bromley is no longer here and part of our family…….I miss that sweet boy very much.  I am happy to report that it sounds like he is adjusting well to his new home with a retired couple in Burton-on-Trent.  I shall update as I learn more….And of course, Tasha is adjusting to life as a solo dog.  She is doing fine so far.  Her overall adjustment to boat life was quite smooth—once she started paying attention and no longer exited the wrong side of the boat into the canal instead of onto the towpath!

Adjusting to Paul’s work schedule has added its own twists and turns.  I used to bring him a hot drink and a treat mid morning and mid afternoon until about a week ago, when I spent too much time in the area where he was painting, and became overwhelmed with the toxic fumes from the paint.  Took me several days to detox from that.  I now pack his hot drinks and treats after breakfast and lunch.  I can now adjust my time constraints between breakfast and him coming home for lunch as well as after work, and get more done.  But I have to admit, I do miss seeing him!

I am still adjusting to the driving and need to have less trepidation and venture a bit farther afield. Each time I go out with Paul and observe how things work on the roadways I gain a bit more understanding.  I also obtained a copy of the driving rules and regulations and will study those to help me become more proficient.

The easiest adjustment has been just being on the boat and working in the tiny environment.  I know this is easier for some than others.  For those of you considering this as a full time lifestyle I suggest you give it a try with your partner for a couple of weeks to see if it suits you both.  Paul and I get on very well, so we never feel as though we are infringing on one another’s space.  I have my little niche near the front companionway with the stove to my right and Tasha behind me on the settee.  A nice place that suits me perfectly!  And if the heat becomes too intense I just open the doors and let the fresh air keep me awake and alert!

It is nice adjusting to the longer days with more light—spring is just two months away and I am excited about all that it promises to have in store for us—especially our wedding that is scheduled  for 1 April which will be followed by continuous cruising until the end of the year.   An adjustment I relish!

I was married for 23 years and have been on my own for about the same length of time.  So once again I find myself adjusting to incorporating another person into my life.  I didn’t know how well it would suit me as I have learned to be quite independent over the years.  I must admit in all honestly, it has been quite easy.  I promised myself I wouldn’t settle, that I would only consider marriage again if and when the right person came along. And low and behold, my dreams came true!  I feel most happy I have found my sunshine….I know where I am lucky!!

And on a final note of adjustment…..I am finding it a wee bit difficult adjusting to the fact that Paul refuses to allow Tasha to wear Wellingtons.  Oh well, guess you have to draw the line somewhere!

See you all next week—-and keep in mind that the more flexible you are about making adjustments in your life, the more opportunities for fulfilment, happiness and joy will show up.  I promise!

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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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Please Help Keep This Site Online

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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