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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 04 24 Newsletter – Electrical Problems And A Plea For Help

Did you miss me last week? Maybe you didn’t notice, but there wasn’t a newsletter last Sunday. I was full of good intentions, but with every day for the last week and a half filled with ten hour discovery days, and with no 240v power for five of them due to a failed inverter, good intentions didn’t get me very far.

We’ve been back on the boat now for ten days after spending three weeks exploring Somerset, Devon and Cornwall in our Hymer motorhome. We had some mechanical problems while we were away so we didn’t really appreciate electrical problems on our return.

On the Sunday following my last newsletter two weeks ago we spent a third day at Trewitson Farm eight miles away from Port Isaac on Cornwall’s north coast.

That evening I had the pleasure of trying to park the motorhome in a pub car park when Cynthia took me out for a meal in nearby Pityme village. Sadly, the half mile drive to the pub was more interesting than the meal we were served, but the upside was that I discovered that the Hymer has a good set of headlights.

The following day was our last full day in Cornwall. I needed to return to the marina for a run of discovery days starting at the end of the week. We didn’t want to rush the drive back so we decided to cover the 240 miles over two leisurely days. Before we left, Cynthia wanted to pay one last visit to Port Isaac. Still exhausted by the flu, she didn’t feel strong enough to tackle the steep hills down into the village, but the far reaching view over blue water from the car park above the village was a fair compromise.

We found a quiet section of the car park where we could straddle four bays. We’ve tried parking parallel with the white lines but the back of the Hymer sticks out about eight feet and blocks the road so we have to either park across the bays or not at all.

After a leisurely lunch we packed everything away ready for a long drive. I turned the ignition key to start the engine and stared in dismay at an unlit dashboard. We had no power at all.

I stuck my head under the bonnet for a few unproductive minutes to fiddle with the battery leads, but nothing good came of it. Fortunately when I emptied my bank account in exchange for a SAGA motorhome insurance policy I included AA cover.

I called them then settled down for a two hour read. I haven’t used the AA for a number or years. I was used to uniformed guys arriving in their bright yellow vans but now, in the south west at least, they seem to rely on local garages rather than their own staff.

The garage mechanic, I won’t mention the company name for reasons which will become clear shortly, opened the bonnet, had a quick look, then started prodding the engine with his multi meter.

After five minutes cursing the tightly packed Fiat engine he told me that I had a flat battery caused by a dead alternator. He told me that his garage could fit a new alternator for me, but that the job would probably take all day because the alternator was difficult to reach. He estimated £500 for the work.

Just as he closed the bonnet before booking me into his garage the following day, he gave the battery leads a quick tweak. The piercing wail of the motorhome alarm in his left ear made him jump high enough to bang his head on the bonnet. That was his penalty for the misdiagnosis. The fault was simply a loose battery terminal.

After tightening the terminal the mechanic left us to look for someone else’s day to spoil. As evening was fast approaching, the tranquil blue waters of the north Cornwall coast were captivating, and as there was no sight of a car park attendant, we decided to risk staying for the night.

Cynthia wasn’t feeling well enough to climb the hill down into the village, so in the evening I strolled into Port Isaac and the on to neighbouring Port Gaverne. I walked for the exercise, but also to check the steep and very narrow road between the two villages. Cynthia wanted to follow the route the next day, but after my recent antics on steep and narrow roads in the south west, I wasn’t so keen.

We were woken at 7.30am the next morning by a gentle tapping on the Hymer’s side. I dressed quickly and opened the door to find a well muscled and heavily tattooed uniformed car park enforcer waiting rather nervously for me. He politely told me that I wasn’t allowed to park overnight. Actually, he told me that I was allowed to park overnight, but I wasn’t allowed to stay in the vehicle. He gave us half an hour to dress and leave. We were about to dress and leave anyway after a night’s very peaceful slumber overlooking the sea, so we moved off as quickly as possible. We followed the route I had walked the previous evening. We negotiated the hill without a problem thanks mainly to the lack of oncoming traffic at that time of the day.

We found an empty lay-by on the main road close to Delabole, then enjoyed a leisurely cooked breakfast watching the sun rise over Bodmin moor before setting off for our overnight stop close to Weston-super-Mare.

We stopped briefly in Launceston to refill our two almost empty gas bottles and to buy some grain free dog food from Pets At Home for Tasha. Our route was much easier on the nerves, but less easy on the eye than it had been over the previous two weeks. Thanks to the A30 and M5 we reached Cypress Farm in Wick St Lawrence by mid afternoon.

Many campsites are struggling with their grass pitches at the moment thanks to a very wet and miserable winter. Cypress Farm was no exception. We were directed to a hardstanding pitch close to the coldest shower block on the world. Then I called the AA again.

The battery terminal tightened the previous day by the misdiagnosing mechanic had come off. The new mechanic, another subcontractor for the Automobile Association, tried his best but suggested that the connection was probably cracked.

I phoned Oaktree Motorhomes to ask them to replace the terminal and hoped that it would stay in place long enough to get us home.

After a noisy night’s sleep under Bristol or Exeter airport’s flightpath we headed for Weston-super-Mare to do some shopping and to enjoy a little seaside therapy. I shoehorned the Hymer into the Tesco town centre car park, walked to the nearby Holland and Barrett store to pick up some more post flu medication for Cynthia, walked to another Holland and Barrett store in the town centre after discovering that the product the first store claimed to stock when I phoned them half an hour earlier wasn’t in stock, popped into Tesco for a hot cooked chicken, a baguette and a selection of olives, then trundled along the sea front in the Hymer and onto their beach car park.

Four hours on the beach in the Hymer cost us £5, but it was worth every penny. Driving the motorhome is far more stressful than pottering along a canal or river in a narrowboat, but once we stop we have all our home comforts with the bonus of often stunning views.

We reached Calcutt Boats mid evening. Our lovely floating home was still floating. Returning to the boat to find it gone, sinking, on fire, vandalised or broken into is an irrational fear of mine. Discovering that all is well is a huge relief.

The following morning, after three weeks of living in a long thin steel box with wheels, we returned to living in a long thin steel box sitting two and a half feet deep in the murky waters of the Grand Union canal.

My first job before poorly Cynthia set foot on board was to wake the boat from its three week slumber. I turned the gas and water on, lit the stove and, in anticipation of moving from our marina mooring to our canal-side discovery days starting point above Calcutt Top lock, I turned on our Sterling 1600w inverter.

Turning on the inverter is easy. I make sure that the changeover switch is in position two for the inverter rather than in position one for the landline, turn the master switch to on, then press a button on top of the inverter. A green light glows to let me know that it’s working properly and another light glows orange to tell me that the boat has mains power.

Turning on the inverter is easy unless I’m trying to do it on a Thursday morning after we’ve been away for nearly a month. The inverter light glowed red and the orange light didn’t glow at all. I knew we had a problem so I did what I always do in situations like this. I turned the inverter on and off half a dozen times, gave it a final thump in case something was loose, and then called in the professionals.

Calcutt Boats’ resident electrical wizard Dave Reynolds was working on a boat close to my mooring. He climbed into my engine room with his bag of magical devices and confirmed what I suspected. The inverter was dead.

I had my Sterling inverter fitted in March 2013. Neither Dave nor anyone else at the marina I spoke to seemed surprised that it had only lasted three years. I paid £360 for it, so onboard conversion from 12v to 240v has cost me £120 a year. For two of those three years I was moored for most of the year at the marina plugged into the national grid, so it was only used for three or four weeks a year when we were out cruising. I hope the new inverter lasts a little longer.

Dave bent over backwards to schedule a day to fit a new inverter early the following week. He’s usually fully booked for at least a month in advance, so I was very lucky to have to only manage five days without an inverter, but not having 240v power for even a short period created more work for me.

Two weeks of consecutive discovery days means two weeks of staying on the canal away from our marina mooring and a handy connection to the National Grid. Staying off grid for extended periods isn’t a problem with a working inverter. It’s not a problem being off grid without an inverter if you don’t need to run or charge mains appliances, but I need my MacBook and an internet connection for work, and Cynthia needs her iPad and iPhone for keeping in touch with dozens of friends and relations across the globe. She also needs power for her mixers and blenders which she uses to produce mouth watering delicacies for me throughout the day. That’s a good enough reason on its own for replacing the dead Sterling.

I bought a Kipor IG2600 in September 2014 in anticipation of last year’s continuous cruising. I thought that we would need it regularly for hair drying and straightening and the occasional ironing session. Common sense prevailed and all of these heavy duty electrical appliances stayed in their cupboards and drawers. In the last nineteen months the generator has been used so rarely that it’s only been refilled twice. I thought it was a waste of money and an unnecessary purchase… until Friday.

Friday was a wet and miserable start to my discovery days. We endured heavy rain throughout the day. The cloud’s silver lining was that we had the waterways pretty much to ourselves. When wearing my bomb proof Guy Cotten waterproofs I am completely protected from the weather, but I always feel a little sorry for those who have booked a day with me to experience life afloat. Rainy days are part and parcel of inland waterways cruising. They are enjoyable if you are prepared for them. They are not so pleasant if you spend eight hours standing on a narrowboat stern in a light showerproof jacket.

After my guests left at 6pm I hauled the heavy generator from engine room to towpath, started it and then connected boat to generator with my shore line. I adopted the same routine for four nights, each evening making sure that the generator was covered to protect it from the rain.

Having the generator on board allowed us to charge our devices, but I was frustrated having to burn petrol to generate electricity when I had four full batteries after a day’s cruising.

My discovery day guests often ask me if cruising the same route day after day becomes somewhat tedious. It doesn’t. The route we take from Napton to Braunston junctions is beautiful. It changes with the seasons.

On winter days I can often cruise the complete twelve mile route without seeing another moving boat. I see snow blanketed fields, frost covered trees and towpaths completely devoid of any of the 2,000 boats on marina moorings within a ten mile radius of my route.

The canal is completely different in the summer. Dozens of happy boaters line the towpath next to their boats, relaxing in camp chairs, drinking wine, tending barbecues or simply relaxing in tranquil surroundings. I pass a steady procession of sun burned helmsmen on both private and hired boats enjoying the peace and far reaching views.

Each day now I see more and more boats on our route. More boats mean more variety. On Saturday we side stepped a misguided boater who was convinced that boats on the inland waterways passed on the left. He shook a fist at us as he passed our starboard side. An hour later an unlicensed and shabby narrowboat blocked the canal after breaking free from its mooring. Two hours after that two middle aged guys wearing waist length dreadlocks chatted quietly next to a pair of live board boats dressed in decade old red primer as they waited patiently for their turn in a lock. Both offered a smile and a hand with the lock gates.

Each day is different. Each day is a joy.

My daily discovery day schedule was interrupted on Tuesday by a cancellation and an opportunity to replace my broken inverter. By 10am Dave Reynolds and his lovely wife Alex had fitted a more powerful model, a Sunshine 2,000w pure sine inverter similar to those now used on all the Calcutt Boats hire fleet. I don’t know how durable it’s going to be, but a big advantage is that it’s whisper quiet compared with the old model. In fact, the inverter’s silent running has caused us a bit of a problem.

We always knew that our Sterling inverter was running because of its irritating drone. Once we finished our night time reading, the annoying sound always prompted us to turn the inverter off before sleeping. Without any sound to prompt us now we forget to switch it off at all. The device doesn’t like running twenty four hours a day so it’s tripped on three occasions so far. I hope this isn’t an indication of future problems.

Nature put on a spectacular show for us on Wednesday. Two giant hares careered erratically around a canal-side fields before coming together to fight just feet away from us as we passed. Minutes later, two majestic buzzards circled lazily overhead and a mallard mother frantically paddled in circles as she tried to control her fourteen day old chicks.

I have yet another discovery day scheduled today, and every day until 1st May. They’re tiring and I’m looking forward to a break at the end of them, but when each eight hour cruise allows me to witness nature at its best, I can’t complain too much.

A Plea For Help

I created this site six years ago just after I moved out of a large family house onto my elderly and very down at heel floating home. Over the last six years I’ve invested over 7,000 hours writing and adding content to the site, bolting on bits of code to make it more user friendly for narrowboat enthusiasts across the world, adding a forum and answering as many questions as possible personally and then creating an almost weekly newsletter to send out to 6,500 subscribers.

I’ve enjoyed the work tremendously, even the 4am starts three years ago when I was writing content for my Narrowbudget Gold package. What I haven’t enjoyed is finding the money to maintain the site. It’s horribly expensive.

The more I add to the site, the more expensive it becomes. I use a very reliable web host in the USA. They were expensive but affordable in the early days. Since then the site has grown in size and complexity, as have my host’s monthly charges. I try other hosts regularly. Initially they seem to offer a similar quality service for much less, but the charges soon mount after a little digging.

In addition to the hosting fees, I have to pay for additional software for my newsletter subscribers, for daily data backups, software to prevent viruses and enhance security, an annual site security certificate and a handful of other services which keep the site both secure and user friendly.

I paid over £5,000 to maintain the site last year. The charges are just as much this year. I’m struggling to find the money to keep the site going. I sell a few books and run my discovery days. The profit from those just about meets my living costs, but there isn’t much left in the pot to spend on the site.

I may have to close it down. I hope not. I’ve invested a considerable amount of time, energy and money to create what site users often tell me is a really useful resource. I want to keep it going, but I can’t do it on my own. Do you think you could help?

A few years ago, I considered “locking down” the site so that only paying subscribers could access it. I realised that that idea wouldn’t work. Many site visitors are considering moving afloat because they need to save money. They simply can’t afford to spend more money to find out if the lifestyle will work for them.

Not all users of this site are in financial dire straights though. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you can help.

I don’t want to make the site subscription only, but if you have found the site useful, if the information you’ve read here has helped you save money or helped you make an informed decision about living afloat or buying a narrowboat for recreational purposes, or even if you just find my weekly newsletters an entertaining read, then maybe you would consider a voluntary subscription.

Just click on this link to go to the subscription page. Please help me help others by subscribing. I only need one hundred subscribers to cover my monthly maintenance costs. Please don’t leave this for others to do if you are in a position to help. If just a hundred people subscribe I can maintain the site indefinitely. I can’t do it without assistance so please help. The subscription page is here.

Cynthia Says—-

Coming Around……

Well. The past few weeks (three to be exact) have been challenging on many levels.  I am so used to having plenty of energy, so it was a real comedown discovering that just a short walk from the boat to reception was a major deal this week.

The biggest disappointment is that I am missing my family reunion in the mountains of Southern California this week.  I don’t think my family is too happy about this, but I believe they do understand on some level.  We will try to do a FaceTime or Skype session and then I will feel more connected.

At times I feel a bit isolated here from family and friends, and I am very glad for WhatsApp that allows me to connect with them across the pond—and it’s free, how great is that??!!

I have been able to enjoy the company of some wonderful Discovery Day guests this past week.  Most have been quite interesting and it’s gratifying to know that they have come away from their experience with a sense of accomplishment and happiness.  Paul is so thorough and does such a wonderful job tailoring the day to suit each guest.

My recuperation has been fairly relaxed as I am able to enjoy resting and reading between our various stops for drinks and sharing lunch.   A couple of the days were sunny and warm enough to allow Tasha to relax on the towpath and enjoy a bone as she watched and greeted the passers by.  I feel badly that I haven’t been able to walk her due to my weak and tired state.  I am hoping the coming week will find me more suited to resuming our daily walks.

As I know Paul is addressing electrical problems as related to the boat, I guess I can say I have been experiencing electrical/energy issues of my own.  I am MORE than ready to recharge and get back to a normal (whatever that is!) everyday life.

I am very much looking forward to winging my way to Switzerland for the first two weeks of June where I will be living with a long time friend. My six months visa expires on 30 May, and Paul has two scheduled weeks of Discovery Days the first two weeks of June.

Once he is done with these DD he will pack the  Hymer with our necessities, and Tasha of course, then head across the channel where we will rendezvous and head to Denmark for our much anticipated wedding.

Good things and wonderful rosy days to come, all of which I am looking forward to greatly.

Keeping my fingers crossed that this week will mark my return to normalcy.  Wishing you all a happy and healthy Spring week ahead!

Useful Information
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Summary

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.

Summary
Useful Information
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Summary

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 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.