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 02 14 Newsletter – Keeping Romance Afloat

In the words of John Paul Young in his 1978 hit, “Love is in the air, everywhere I look around. Love is in the air, in every sight and every sound”.

He’s certainly right today.

This morning was completely still and clear. A light frost melted in the early morning sun, the birds sang in hedgerows showing more than a hint of springtime green. Last week’s submerged towpath is now more solid than soggy allowing groups of happy hikers to stride slip free beside the canal’s still waters. A steady stream of happy boaters chugged happily past on romantic weekend cruises.

It’s Valentine’s day and all is well in our tiny section of the inland waterways.

All is well but, to tell you the truth, we’ve been a little bored. Once more Cynthia and I have endured rather than enjoyed a largely event free week afloat as we edge ever closer to Thursday 25th February and my last working day at Calcutt Boats. My working week included sanding, painting, scraping, needle gunning, wire brushing, more sanding and more painting, all inside and all done while wearing a claustrophobic mask, goggles or ear defenders. I’ve been close to boats but far away from the open air and tranquility I crave.

We had a little boating excitement on Friday to break the monotony. Narrowboat Magpies pulled over onto the lock landing above Calcutt’s three lock flight as we passed, so we stopped for a chat. Fred – not his real name but the one he wanted to be known as to save his embarrassment – told us about his travel plans as he confidently steadied his 67’ boat against the towpath with his centre line while his wife crossed the lock to close the offside upstream gate.

She returned, so we chatted some more for a few minutes before she hopped on board shortly followed by Fred who leaped gazelle-like onto his gunnel. Fred carried on talking as he tidied his centre line, and that was his mistake. Any man with a few decades under his belt should know that any attempt at multi tasking is going to end in tears.

As Fred pivoted on his five inch wide gunnel to bid us farewell, his heels slipped off the thin steel ribbon and he disappeared under the canal’s murky surface like a jet propelled missile.

Fred is never going to make a living as a tightrope walker, but he’s very good at holding his breath under water. He stayed down long enough for me to seriously consider fetching my camera, then floated close enough to the surface for me to grab a handful of coat to pull his head above the surface.

Completely disorientated, he splashed away from the concrete bank towards his boat before we managed to spin him round and unceremoniously haul him out of the canal. His immediate concern was the rather wet phone in his pocket and for his wife. He wasn’t worried about any anxiety she might be feeling, but rather the ribbing he was likely to receive from her. She fell into the canal from a pontoon on the Llangollen last year. He demonstrated the usual level of sympathy offered when a fellow boater falls in – none at all – so he knew that he was in for a couple of rough months.

Fortunately there was no damage done other than to his phone, so while Fred the Fish disappeared for a much needed hot shower, Cynthia and I moored the boat for them before carrying on with our day.

We don’t have the time to do any cruising at the moment but at least we managed to combine some research with a waterways fix yesterday.

Our motorhome homework is progressing well. We followed the accepted wisdom of determining a budget and sticking to it… for about five minutes. Yesterday we spent a couple of hours looking at vehicles we’ll only be able to afford if we win the lottery, rob a bank, receive an inheritance, or when Cynthia sells her Vermont house. Still, it’s good to dream of trips to warmer climates housed in a comfortable and commodious modern vehicle.

There’s so much crossover between motorhomes and narrowboats. As we walked through countless used vehicles we searched for signs of care and maintenance. In one particularly shabby van the signs of neglect were crowned by a gaping shower tray split which has no doubt been allowing water to flow into areas where it shouldn’t for months or years. We’re not in a position to buy yet but visiting as many dealers as possible to view a wide variety of vehicles is a very useful exercise.

As with narrowboats, there is a bewildering choice of manufacturers, designs, layouts, and on board equipment. As with narrowboats, most are designed for reasonably light leisure use rather than full time living.

As standard, a motor home has one 90-110ah leisure battery compared to our boat’s 4 x 160ah leisure bank. On a boat, if the craft doesn’t have a large enough battery bank, the solution is to just add more batteries. However, in a motorhome, according to the salesman we spoke to yesterday, two leisure batteries is the maximum you can safely install without running the risk of frying the on-board electrics.

Another consideration is payload. Within reason, we can pretty much carry what we want on the boat. In the motorhome we favour at the moment, the Autotrail Apache 700, the most we can have is 700kg. Although there is more than enough storage space to store everything to make our touring both comfortable and convenient, we don’t have the payload to carry it. Cynthia’s expensive range of cast iron cookware will definitely have to remain on the boat, as will our extensive selection of heavy crockery and possibly even the generator we want to use to top up our two batteries during extended wild camping trips. We’ll also have to make do with a tiny 100 litre water tank. At 350 lites our boat’s tank is considered very small. Most narrowboat water tanks 700-1,000 litres.. Out tank currently lasts us about six days, so the motorhome tank will need topping up every other day.

We co-ordinated our Huntingdon motorhome research with some waterside relaxation. Although rain scuppered our plans for a pleasant two hour meadows walk, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the National Trust run cafe next to Houghton Mill on the River Great Ouse.

The seventy five mile journey took us an hour and a half by car, mostly along the dreary A14 with its litter strewn hard shoulders. By boat the trip is much more interesting. According to CanalPlan, cruising for seven hours a day, the trip takes eight and a half days to negotiate one hundred and fifty nine miles of rivers and canals and seventy seven locks.

We haven’t decided yet, but this route is certainly a possibility for later on in the year. Comprehensive guides for cruising the Fens appear to be few and far between, so I’ll certainly be reading Peter Earley’s comprehensive “rough” guides on the forum. He’s done three for this area; the River Nene, the Middle Level Navigations and the River Great Ouse. They contain a wealth of information. Peter spent several months cruising this area last year. I’m sure that his experience will prove very useful to anyone considering cruising the network’s eastern reaches.

And that, my friends, is all you’re getting this week. My apologies for such a short newsletter but it’s either a short newsletter or the very real chance of me being hung, drawn and quartered for working all day on Valentine’s day. I have more important work to do.

Cynthia cooked a superb breakfast this morning. We started with her exotic One Hundred Foot Journey inspired omelette, then finished with fresh organic fruit topped with chantilly cream. After such a hearty breakfast we need some exercise so we’re just about to set off on a surprise walk. Of course, it’s not a surprise walk for both of us or we’d struggle with the directions. I’ve told Cynthia the length of the walk and that she’ll need her wellies. What I conveniently forgot to mention was that, at this time of the year, the mud’s likely to be about three feet deep. I’m sure she won’t mind. She needs to work up an appetite for the meal I’ll be cooking this evening.

Normal romance free service will be resumed next week.

Cynthia says……

THE BEST Valentines Day EVER!!

Happiest Valentines Day to all of you reading this—I hope it has been a special one that brought you happiness and love, and other good things.

Like Paul’s message today, mine will also be brief.  I wanted to share a recipe that I use quite a bit for our breakfast.  It is easy to do, tasty, and filling, so I will share it with you now.  Please give it a try if it interests you and let me know what you think—I love feedback like Paul does…..

Sautéed fruit

I cut up whatever fruit we have on hand, and this time of year I use various apples, pears, oranges, apricots (when I can find them!) and whatever else I fancy.  I am somewhat limited, as I do my best to only use organic fruit.  I also add various nuts and dried fruit.  I often use frozen berries as well, adding them at the end.  I cut everything in bite size pieces and add them all to a tablespoon or so of melted coconut oil (this is stored as energy, not fat) in a frying pan over medium heat.  I sauté them until they are just a bit tender 5-8 minutes or so.  I often add a little vanilla extract and some muesli towards the end.  It is done in less than ten minutes.

Today being Valentines Day, I wanted to make something special for Paul and since we just watched one of our favourite movies, “The Hundred Foot Journey,” I became obsessed with omelettes and decided to forge ahead and cook the one like was done in the movie.  I haven’t had much luck with the spray oils that keep food from sticking, and I refuse to use nonstick pans because the toxicity they give off.  I read that it was possible to use a good stainless steel pan, if you heated it first for a couple of minutes over medium heat, then added clarified butter and swirled it around the pan until it stated to smoke a bit, then poured the eggs in and make the omelet.  I did this procedure starting out with much trepidation, but low and behold it worked perfectly and we were rewarded with two perfect omelettes!  We complimented this dish with a fresh croissant, marmalade and organic berries and apricots topped with chantilly (whipped cream) and a touch of ground cinnamon.  We were both pleased with the results, so next time I won’t feel so intimidated when wanting to cook an omelette.  My next endeavour will be a reduction sauce.  I guess my French blood is showing itself, as I am loving cooking and learning more challenging dishes is exciting and fun.

And now as I am putting the finishing touches on this, Paul is gearing up to cook Valentines dinner for me.  I am thrilled beyond words.  This afternoon he took me on a surprise hike amidst gorgeous trees with breathtaking views across the fields.  As it was a stunning sunny day, we were able to enjoy our small lunch sitting on a fallen tree surrounded by the beauty of nature and stupendous views.

This has been the BEST Valentines Day I have ever had, and I have my dear Paul to thank.  I hope all of you have felt as well loved today as I have.

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.  I realised this morning that I hadn’t added all of my dates for the first half of the year. All the dates for April and June are there now. 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
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.