2016 01 24 Newsletter – Stuck In Ice


There’s SO much to do. A hire boat takes a considerable amount of punishment during the cruising season. The handover to new holiday hirers at Calcutt Boats is considered very thorough for the inland waterways. The novice crews, often tired after spending half the day fighting their way through heavy traffic, then have to endure information overload for an hour while they are shown how to operate the inverter, television, radio, central heating, toilet and shower. Then they’re shown how to fill up with water, turn off the gas supply if there’s a leak, how and when to pump out the toilet and top up with fuel, how to perform the daily engine checks and then, for the last quarter of an hour before they’re released onto the inland waterways, how to actually steer an articulated lorry sized boat.

Consequently and understandably, at the end of the season many hire boats have an impressive collection of battle scars. The hull takes most of the punishment but narrowboat hulls take punishment very well indeed because of their design. The thick steel is protected by “rubbing strakes”. They’re half rounded strips of steel welded to the hull, more pronounced at the bow, running down either side of the hull. The rubbing strakes constantly make contact with concrete, brick, wood and steel as the often inexperienced helmsmen negotiate bridges, locks and towpath moorings.

Hull scuffs and scrapes are easy to repair once the boat is lifted out of the water. Two or three roller applied coats of bitumen and the hull looks as good as new again. The more troublesome scuffs and scrapes are on the cabin.

Many new boaters underestimate the destructive capability of offside vegetation. Contractors working for CRT do a very good job of maintaining thousands of miles of towpath bank. Whippet thin staff wielding industrial mowers and strimmers march tirelessly along the towpath during the growing season to ensure that the canalside vegetation is kept in check. Tree surgeons remove unhealthy or unsafe trees from the towpath and, where wind blown, diseased or aged trees are hazardous or obstruct the canal, also on the offside bank. Unfortunately CRT simply doesn’t have the resources to to keep the offside bank clear of vegetation so it grows unchecked.

The easiest and safest part of the canal to navigate is usually close to the towpath where the water is deeper and there is less bankside vegetation. All too often though, novice boaters stray far too close to the offside. Bramble, hawthorn and blackthorn scour the cabin sides. Overhanging willow, oak and ash scratch the roof and sweep unsecured items into the canal. Poles, planks, boat hooks, and life rings are all at risk, as are coffee mugs, cameras, phones, maps, binoculars and boaters’ hats. Twice last year I had to quickly stop my boat mid stream and then reverse a hundred metres along the canal to retrieve a snagged fleece hat hanging from brambles eight feet above the canal.

By the year’s end many hire boats are in a sorry state. The boats here at Calcutt are no exception. With the help of Calcutt’s premier boat painter, Rob, I’ve just repainted the most deserving boat in the fleet. We stripped off the sign writing, sanded the boat back to bare metal in many places, sanded the paint thoroughly everywhere else, removed and treated some rust patches, removed, cleaned and replaced all of the windows and then carefully repainted the whole boat. The process took a month, thanks in part, to my own inexperience and Rob’s frequent absence when called away to do other work.

We passed our completed boat over to the engineers on Wednesday then pulled another boat into our wet dock to begin the whole process again. This one doesn’t require quite so much work so we should finish that one and then a third before I finish my work for the company at the end of next month.

The canal froze again on Tuesday. After a mild and very wet winter so far, firm and frosty mud underfoot was a pleasure after months of wading through brown sludge. The front of the boat looks more like a mud bath than a well deck. The short cold spell made for easier walking and far quicker post walk and toilet break doggy paw cleaning.

Being on a boat stuck in the ice is very peaceful. There were no boats surging past us for three days, not that there are many of those at all this time of the year. Half a dozen boats during the day is busy but, as soon as ice forms over the water, boaters, conscious of the damage ice can do to tar based bitumen paint, resign themselves to a few unscheduled rest days and stay where they are.

The only difficulty we have on our current mooring in a cold snap is topping up our water tank. Our tiny 350 litre tank had just about enough in it on Wednesday to wet the bottom of a flea’s flip flops, so one way or another, we had to top it up.

We had a choice. We could either break the ice behind us for a hundred and fifty feet so that we could reverse along the towpath until we were opposite the water point by Calcutt Top lock, or we could leave the boat firmly stuck in the ice and try and somehow haul our hose across a slightly wider stretch of canal between us and a water point on the opposite bank inside Calcutt Boats’ grounds.

The problem with moving the boat back along the towpath was breaking the ice behind us. I didn’t want to use my rudder as an ice breaker so the technique would have been a quick burst of throttle with the engine in forward gear to create a surge of underwater propellor wash to break the ice, move back into clear water, rinse and repeat. The problem was that the technique is time consuming and, as the canal side back towards the water point curved considerably, the boat was likely to become wedged between the bank and sections of unbroken ice. The easier option was to find a way of carrying our hose across the frozen canal to the water point on the opposite bank.

Because I used to be a boy scout – before being thrown out of the scouts for introducing the rest of the troop to the local pub – I’m always prepared. Along with a wide array of other useful equipment, I keep a 100m long reel of paracord in the engine room. It’s a useful bit of kit for manufacturing temporary washing lines, belts, shoelaces, as a sturdy line for my recovery magnet and, in this case, as a lightweight leader to throw across the canal.

I unravelled the paracord reel, tied the magnet to one end and then bounced the magnet over the ice until it stuck to the hull beneath where Cynthia stood on the front deck, congratulated myself on a job well done, and then asked Cynthia to heave on the paracord line to pull the hose over. Then, remembering that I hadn’t actually tied paracord to hose, hastily told Cynthia to stop pulling on the line just as the last of it slipped off the bank onto the ice.

As I lay face down on the frozen bank I was attacked by a pack of savage dogs. A lady boater on a boat opposite us collects dogs for a living. She has, I think, six on board at the moment. They are a nightmare. Individually, most of them are harmless, but collectively they are a bit of a pain, especially when they are lead by a vindictive little shit of a pug with a very bad case of little dog syndrome.

He bounced up to me barking and snarling as I stood up and cautiously offered him a friendly hand. He bit it and then went for my ankles. While he attacked from the front, two of his collie pals tried to sneak behind me to nip at my heels. I gave the pug a none too gentle prod with my wellie to fend him off. His owner reinforced my prod with a hefty kick and then, without a word of apology, ineffectively screamed at the pack to draw them away from me.

An aggressive pug - The one I met this week wasn't quite so cute.

An aggressive pug – The one I met this week wasn’t quite so cute.

No harm was done other than me skinning my knuckles, denting my pride and wetting my pants, but being set upon by a pack of out of control dogs presided over by a screaming and largely uncaring owner isn’t a particularly pleasant experience.

The rest of the tank filling exercise was uneventful if time consuming. Everything is time consuming when you live afloat. It’s not a problem when you have all day to complete your tasks, but at the end of a hard day at work, I sometimes wish that I could enjoy the convenience of plumbed in utilities.

Where we are moored is generally very quiet, apart from the occasional irritating barking from the demented dog pack opposite, and especially quiet during the icy spell. When you live on a boat you become very sensitive to sounds. When you’re cruising, you become familiar with the exact sound of your engine and how it chances when you pass through bridges, deep cuttings and tunnels. You start to panic whenever you hear an unfamiliar rattle. More than once I’ve momentarily considered pulling over and turning the engine off before realising that the unexpected din was coming from a tractor hidden behind a high hedge.

You become obsessed with the sound of dripping water. Outside is always better than in. Internal drips may be a plumbing leak but more often than not on James, in the early morning quiet, it’s a slow drip I hear from the stern gland or the calorifier pressure relief valve into the engine room bilge just feet behind our heads as we sleep.

The wind blows and I hear soft scratching on my roof from overhanging branches, rain pattering against the windows and reeds brushing against the cabin sides. The sound of the wind differs depending on direction. The wind blows from the stern and I hear the slap, slap, slap of waves driving under the counter. If the wind blows from either side I hear a more muted slap against the hull as I drift off to sleep… unless ice on the canal is thawing.

On Wednesday night I thought the ever present ducks and swans were causing the noise which was slowly driving me mad. Water birds often eat the organic growth which forms on the hull at the waterline. The sound of frantic beaks scraping on steel is a common sound on board. On this occasion though I realised that the noise was the result of a combination of the rising temperature and an impatient boater.

Earlier in the day the first boat in nearly three days announced its approach from several hundred metres along the cut. The canal looked deceptively clear of ice but, as is usually the case, the surface ice had melted leaving an inch thick sheet under half an inch of water.

The new boat owner smiled happily as he crunched through the ice, probably unaware of the paint stripping being done on his waterline. As he passed, shards of broken ice crashed against my hull. Fortunately my hull is steel. GRP cruisers can suffer considerable damage from ice forced into them from passing boats.

The nighttime noise which I first mistook for foraging ducks was in fact small chunks of ice being blown by the wind into my starboard side. It wasn’t the most relaxing sound to listen to while trying to count my mental sheep.

After a busy working week we relaxed in style with a little non boating activity. We drove an hour to Rothschild family owned Waddesdon Manor on the A41 between Bicester and Aylesbury. Sadly the house doesn’t open until March but we spent a thoroughly enjoyable four hours wandering around 165 acres of grounds left to the National Trust by the Rothschilds. I’m afraid I’m not very sophisticated but I appreciate good food and wine. We had a first class lunch in The Stables restaurant before exploring the wine cellars where over 10,000 bottles of unfortunately inaccessible wine are stored. We had a wonderful day out but, as usual, I would have been happier out on the inland waterways.

All that lovely wine!

All that lovely wine!

Cruising Guides

Two of the most popular and comprehensive guides to the inland waterways are by Pearson and Nicholson. Each has its own merits. Both contain a huge amount of essential information about the canals and the facilities along the way. My personal favourites are the Pearson guides, purely because they’re what I’m used to. Both sets of guides are very comprehensive, but they don’t tell you the little things which make cruising so much easier; the best places to moor and which areas to stay away from, lock lengths, restrictions and peculiarities, which boating clubs to join on navigations where mooring is a problem, the quality of pubs and restaurants along the way and which rivers are prone to flooding and what to do if you get stuck.

Thanks to the ever helpful boaters using the site forum, there’s a wealth of additional information in the Cruising Guide section of the forum. One of the latest posts in this section is A Rough Guide to the River Nene written by Peter Earley. If you’re thinking of heading east onto the Fens it’s a very useful read.

Join Me On A Virtual Cruise Through Summertime Rural Warwickshire

Mike Shacklock flew from Canada to the UK last June. While he was here he joined me on a beautiful summer’s day cruise to Braunston. He brought his GoPro Hero 3+ video camera with him. Mike claims that he didn’t really know what he was doing with the camera but he still managed to capture some stunning footage. The video is twenty six minutes long. It begins with a gentle cruise along a sinuous canal, passing happy, waving boaters on oncoming boats, and then finishes with a view from the cockpit as the boat drops down the three locks in the Calcutt flight and then ascends the flight again. There’s an option to watch the video in high definition. If you would like to watch it, set the definition as high as your internet connection will allow. The video quality and the accompanying soundtrack are a delight. If you enjoy it as much as I did, maybe you would like to join me later in the year for the real thing.

The video is here. You can find out more about my discovery days here.

Cynthia Says…

Discoveries–Moving forward—

A week ago Sunday we awoke to yet another morning with a fully iced over canal around us….beautiful in its own right to be sure.  It brought to mind the stories of skaters in the Netherlands and in Quebec, Canada skating for miles at a time, gliding quietly down the rivers.  What a joy that would be to do on our waterways!  But, alas, unless one weighed 250 grams or less, one would quickly find themselves in the teeth-chattering frigid water—not an enviable place to be.

I am still adjusting to the loss of my beloved Bromley, and one of the ways I like to grieve is by taking long walks and taking in all the sights and sounds.  This week brought some mild weather and some lovely sunshine so the outdoors were particularly inviting.  I found that being surrounded by such beauty along with the birdsong and the sunshine helped to heal my grieving heart.  Wednesday was so warm I was even able to sit on the bow and enjoy the sunset as I eagerly awaited Paul’s arrival back from work.  It was heaven and a peek at things to come as we move ever closer to spring and more welcome daylight.

I made some lovely discoveries during these walks, and will share a few photos at the end of my text.  It was fun to see the frost on the various bushes and trees around the towpath and on the ropes and pigeon box of James.  Everything looked as though someone had painstakingly sugar frosted everything with great skill and attention to detail.

I have noticed in many places that certain bulbs and buds on trees are beginning their push to the light.  I am so excited for all that there will be to discover in spring!

I made myself a promise last Monday that I would make the shopping trip to Rugby in the car by myself (albeit with Tasha in tow for moral support!), and it was a breeze.  I am discovering that each time I go out I learn a little more and become (somewhat) more comfortable.  My next moving-forward step will be to ease my way onto a motorway and see how that feels.  I actually think it will be OK–it’s just the roundabouts that ruffle my spirit.

I love discovering new ways of attacking challenges having to do with living on James and this week gave me a great opportunity.  We needed to fill the water tank, and as we were iced in, an alternate solution needed to be found.  Wednesday night I envisioned strings attached to hoses bridging the gap from spigot to boat.  As I was looking out the window to our neighbors boat across the canal I noticed their hose.  I had never seen them get their water from the water point on the canal so figured they had another source, and low and behold they did!  I went to the dump barge to get one of our long hose reels, and when Paul returned home from work he found a reel of nylon cord and tied a heavy metal magnet on one end with the hose attached to the other end of the line.  He then skidded the line and hose across the ice and the tank was quickly filled.  It sure beat the option of forging ahead through the ice and shaving the hull paint off James!

Our big discovery yesterday was Waddeston Manor near Aylesbury.  What a breathtaking place!  The grounds are to die for and we so enjoyed our walk, as well as discovering their magnificent wine cellar and the stable restaurant where we enjoyed a relaxing and delicious lunch.  This is a definite must-return spot for the spring/summer season!

Each day there is something new to discover, even if it is just something within ourselves, as well as in the out-of-doors.  For me this week it was both.  A week of internal grieving balanced by the beautiful outdoors and all it has to offer.  Each day is a special gift and I am just so happy I have someone who loves to discover and explore as much as I do!

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

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.