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.


Find out more

2016 05 01 Newsletter – Bilge Pumps And Busy Bank Holiday Waterways

We’ve been having a problem with our stove recently. I should have been able to identify the cause of the smoke wafting into the cabin from around the ill fitting stove door. I didn’t, so we regularly suffered the piercing shriek of the smoke alarm shortly after rising for the day and piling fresh coal onto the glowing embers.

On a still and foggy day the stove doesn’t draw very well, so smoke from the smouldering coal briquettes sits in the stove until it forces its way into the cabin around the leaky stove door. Over the last week or two we’ve had a smoke problem on clear and windy days too. Our remedy has been to open the front doors wide and then blow the smoke out with our 12v ceiling mounted fan.

The proactive solution would have been to clean the flue before accumulated crud inhibited the smoke’s escape.

At dawn on Monday I borrowed a length of heavy duty chain from the yard at Calcutt Boats, shuffled carefully on my bottom over an icy roof, removed the chimney, brushed a thick layer of accumulated soot from around the inside of the collar, and then lowered the chain the full length of the flue before vigorously rattling the chain from side to side.

I’m not very good at DIY, but over the last six years, through constant practice, I’ve managed to master the basic maintenance tasks, usually after making a mess of them the first time.

I had a similar problem with smoke pouring into the cabin about a year after I first moved on board. One of the fitters told me that I probably had a blocked flue. He gave me a length of chain and told me what to do with it.

I started off inside the boat. I opened the door of the cold stove and used a poker to clear the shelf above the stove’s main chamber. A couple of pounds of rust-like deposits cascaded into the stove and onto the hearth.

I then climbed onto the roof with the length of chain, lowered it down the flue and shook it as hard as I could. I smiled to myself as I heard the dislodged deposits crash into empty stove. I didn’t smile quite so much when I returned to the cabin to find that I had forgotten to close the stove door. Cleaning the flue took me ten minutes. Removing a thick layer of soot from the inside of the boat took the rest of the day.

On Monday, the door was closed so the dislodged soot was safely contained within the stove. Within minutes the stove was performing perfectly. Cynthia asked me why I hadn’t cleaned the flue before we were forced to endure a week of interior smog. I couldn’t think of a suitable answer.

Tuesday’s discovery day had to be rearranged at short notice. I had some unexpected free time, but you can always find something important to do to fill your free time when you own a boat.

I’ve developed another leak. This time it’s from my recently fitted keel cooling system. At the end of October last year I had my problematic raw water cooling system replaced. Apart from being incredibly noisy, the system caused me almost catastrophic problems on two occasions.

Water was drawn through a fine mesh grill from the canal and then through the engine’s heat exchanger before being pumped back out of the boat. There was a plastic box, a waterlock, which prevented water from running back into the engine when it stopped. In June last year the waterlock broke free from its mounting and vibrated across the engine bay until it nestled against the gear box coupling. The spinning coupling quickly wore a hole through the plastic, allowing canal water drawn into the engine to surge into the bilge.

I managed to limp slowly along the Coventry canal to Streethay Wharf where they kindly resolved the issue at short notice in exchange for most of the money in my bank account.

They fitted a second hand but seemingly robust waterlock, but in August last year a hole blew through a weakness in the plastic. Streethay Wharf came out to me on the visitor moorings at Rugby to fit a new waterlock.

A month later the waterlock fell off – my fault  –  once more flooding the engine bay. Even though I was able to moor within five minutes, I had to remove twenty vacuum loads of water from the bilge. I don’t like to think what would have happened if I had been on a river, or on a canal with no available moorings.

A month later I damaged the waterlock when my impeller failed and the engine overheated. I couldn’t stand the stress any more so I asked Calcutt Boats to remove the raw water cooling system and fit a skin tank.

Engineer Ian worked welding wonders fabricating a large thin rectangular steel tank on the outside of the hull close to the engine. The new cooling system, and the hospital silencer which he fitted at the same time, resolved my engine overheating problems, significantly decreased engine noise, and removed the constant worry I had about the raw water cooling system failing again and sinking the boat.

I’m very happy with my new skin tank, but the tank, or some of the pipework attached to it, is leaking. I have to top up a header tank in the engine room every two or three days and remove the leaked water from the engine room bilge. I need to ask Calcutt Boats to find and fix the leak sometime soon, but until then, engine room water removal is another regular maintenance task.

Removing the water with a small capacity wet and dry vacuum is a painful process, so on Tuesday I decided to fit a second bilge pump. The existing bilge pump is attached to a float switch and is fitted to the bottom of a plastic washing up bowl under the stern gland. Most water entering my bilge comes from water dripping off the stern gland coupling, so the washing up bowl contains the water in a small area and allows the bilge pump to remove most of it.

The washing up bowl idea is great for removing water from a dripping stern gland, but hopeless for removing anything entering the engine room from any other source.

The second bilge pump is now in a corner of the engine bay where the bilge is deepest thanks to the boat’s slight list to port. The problem with bilge pumps is that they do a very good job of sucking out most of the water in the bilge, but they don’t remove it all. They can’t suck out the final inch. I now know that I’m not going to suffer a dangerous buildup of water in the build, but I’ll be much happier once the leak is fixed and the bilge is dry.

My discovery day routine resumed on Wednesday. The weather has been unusually cold for late April. Our stove has been on every night and for most of each day. Early morning frosts have been the rule rather than the exception. Discovery day guests who jokingly complained about the cabin heat when they joined me at 8am sat as close to the stove as possible after several hours standing motionless on the back deck.

A cold and windy start to a spring discovery day

A cold and windy start to a spring discovery day

Until Saturday we had the canal largely to ourselves. There are 2,000 boats moored within ten miles of our route but most of the owners unfortunately have to work, so their boats remain on their marina moorings for most of the time.

Saturday, day one of the three day bank holiday weekend, was very different. A steady stream of boats chugged passed us. We met one at nearly every blind bend and bridge hole, including one Black Prince hire boat completely obstructing a wide bridge as the husband and wife crew tried and failed to maneuver their boat close enough to an offside wall to rescue an overly adventurous lamb which had fallen into the canal. Their noble intentions resulted in disappointment, frustration, and a long scrape on the hire boat roof after the boat drifted against the bridge’s offside arch.

We will see just as many boats on the cut over the warmer months. I’m looking forward to the experience, just as I’m looking forward to basking in the forecast heat towards the end of this coming week. After a mild but very wet winter and then a decidedly chilly start to spring, stripping off to tee shirt and shorts will be a novel and very welcome experience.

Narrowboat sterns – pros and cons

Yesterday was the last of seventeen consecutive discovery days. Each  one has been different; different weather, different adventures on the cut, and different people to share them with. Different people with a common goal. All of them wanted to learn more about life afloat and how to handle a narrowboat with confidence.

I cover an enormous amount of information during the ten hour day including the pros and cons of cruiser, traditional and semi traditional sterns. Most of my guests are familiar with the different layouts, but don’t realise what a difference they can make to life on board.

With the limited space available on a narrowboat, life is all about compromise. Storage space is all important. When you move from your bricks and mortar home, all your worldly possessions have to fit somewhere on your boat or remain in storage somewhere if you want to keep the items you can’t fit on board.

More deck space means less internal living space. Your lifestyle will influence your choice. The information below about the pros and cons of the three different stern types will allow you to make an informed decision when you buy your own boat.

Cruiser Sterns

A cruiser stern narrowboat has a large and open rear deck. The engine is under boards beneath your feet. Nearly all hire boats have cruiser sterns. Hire boats are designed to accommodate as many people as possible for a week or two. Their large rear deck allows half a dozen happy holiday hirers to stand with the helmsman while he steers.

Cruiser sterns are perfect for holiday boats, or for particularly gregarious leisure boaters. Their downfall as a live aboard boat is their lessened internal living and storage space. A large rear deck can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing. A large group standing on the rear deck can often prevent the helmsman from seeing or steering properly.

Semi Traditional Sterns

These boats look like traditional stern boats, but they offer more space on the rear deck. The rear of the boat has cabin sides, but no roof. They often have lockers built in to the open area which double as seats. As with the cruiser stern boats, they offer more standing space at the rear at the expense of internal living and storage space.

Traditional Sterns

A traditional stern narrowboat has a cabin which extends nearly all the way to the back of the boat, leaving a very small rear deck to stand on. I have a traditional stern boat. There isn’t much room for guests, but I often have two people on the back of the boat with me on my discovery days; one steering, one standing to either the left or the right of the helmsman, and one standing in the cockpit. Space is tight but workable. I have to use a shorter than normal tiller to prevent guests from sweeping each other into the cut when they turn.

The benefits of a traditional stern narrowboat to live aboard boaters are significant. As a live aboard boater you will usually be on your own or you will share your floating home with just one other person. You will spend most or all of your time cruising without guests, so dry, warm and secure internal living and storage space is far more important than a large open deck.

My engine room is packed with tools, equipment and clothing. I don’t want any of it in my living accommodation, but I need to make sure that it’s out of sight, dry and secure. I photographed and explained my engine room contents in this post from May last year.

If I had a cruiser or semi traditional stern boat, I would need to find somewhere inside the cabin for all of these things. I have a huge amount of storage built in to my boat, but I wouldn’t know what to do with this lot.

Semi traditional stern boats have lockers for storage. They aren’t usually very large or secure and, because they are in an unheated part of the boat, can often be very damp.

Cruiser stern boats have even less storage space. Some boaters store their possessions under the deck boards in every space they can find around the engine. I drove one of Calcutt Boats’ fitters to a “breakdown” at Braunston marina. The owner complained that the diesel heater fitted by Calcutt Boats had stopped working. The couple weren’t very happy. The cause of their problems was a hose stored close to the heater. It had caught on a switch and turned the heater off. A cruiser stern engine bay is not effective storage space.

Traditional stern boats are better for cruising in England’s often changeable wet and cold climate, especially traditional stern boats with a boatman’s cabin equipped with a stove. We passed the local coal boat yesterday. We were wrapped in hats, coats and gloves but the young guy at the helm of the coal boat only wore a padded work shirt. The heat rising from the stove close to his legs kept him very warm.

I haven’t spent  a huge amount of time on a cruiser stern boat, but I took one of Calcutt Boats’ clippers from the marina down to Beale Park on the Thames five years ago in the middle of June. I did forty hours cruising over three very long days. I had to stop the boat for a couple of hours to defrost myself in front of the stove on the first day. You are completely exposed on a cruiser stern boat. The cabin offers you neither protection nor warmth.

A trad stern boat also provides you with some very useful table top space. There’s always stuff on my hatch as I travel; camera, voice recorder, binoculars, travel mug and, in the warmer months, a very welcome plate of cheese and biscuits.

On cruiser stern boats you can’t reach your boat roof without leaving the helm, something which isn’t advisable on busy and often winding waterways.

The final advantage for me is that I can use my cabin roof as a seat. I have a padded cushion which nestles in the space between the engine room hatch and the cabin’s starboard side. I sit sideways with my right foot resting on the Morse control. I spend hours sitting there in comfort as I cruise. The raised seat gives with a wonderful view of the countryside passing at a very sedate three or four miles and hour.

I hope this information will prove useful to you.

Cynthia says—–

A Fresh Start..

The first day of May—a new month all fresh with no mistakes.  How lovely is that??

I must admit I was happy to turn the page in my make-believe calendar this morning and be greeted by not only a new month, but a somewhat warm and sunny day.  Here’s hoping May will bring an end to the cold and freezing nights.  I’ve had just about enough of scraping  the ice off of Freedom’s (our estate car’s) window for those early morning runs to Napton on the Hill Post Office/cafe for our croissants!

Today marks the end of 16 Discovery Days.  A long but rewarding run.  We have had some great guests and I think they’ve all came away happy with the knowledge that they are now ready to tackle the world of exploring the wondrous waterways in their own narrowboat.

We are descending in the second of three locks here at Calcutt as I write this.  For some reason or other, Tasha has taken to not enjoying bumping and grinding in the locks, and she is glued to my side as I write this at my minuscule desk.  Yesterday she had a reprieve as I gathered her up along with my shower bits and pieces and off we went to do a bit of shopping and taking a shower (me that is!!).  She was more than happy to wait in the car for me as I popped in and out of the shop and pavilion.  We arrived back at the boat just minutes after Paul and our guests had moored up.

It was another good week of recuperation and I have been able to catch up with emails and other tasks, along with spending a morning shopping for our food and having my hair cut.  It was nice to return home and not feel totally exhausted.  I also found myself in my spring cleaning mode and washed the windows inside and out.  How nice it is to have a clear view once again!

It has been a momentous week for us as well on another level–Paul introduced the newsletter/site subscription option last week and we have been very happy with the results so far.  These subscriptions will go a long way to help offset the ever-escalating costs of managing the website.  So we thank you all wholeheartedly for your support and hope to see more subscribers in the coming weeks.

Turning my attention in another direction—these past couple of weeks have been a joy to behold with the changes that Spring is bringing—all the greening up of the trees and the appearance of the wild flowers is awesome.  I have been able to see cowslips up close and personal for the first time in my life.  The fields here at the marina are full of them along with dandelions and other lovely colourful flowers.  Each day unveils something new and exciting!

Sunset over Napton reservoir

Sunset over Napton reservoir

And the longer days—wow, this is So Awesome.  It is light until long after dinner and the sun  arises eagerly a little earlier each day to greet us.  The sunsets seem to last for hours—I  never tire of this ever changing miracle of nature.  Hope you enjoy the photo I took a few days ago from the boat at our mooring by the reservoir.

The coming month finds Paul back at Calcutt working a Monday through Friday schedule.  I will be making plans for my two week stay at my friends house in Zurich the beginning of June while Paul does his next set of Discovery Days.  You might recall my visa expires 30th May and I must sadly depart.  One of the tasks we have to accomplish is getting a passport for Tasha so she can cross the channel.  We are very much anticipating a great time on the continent with our upcoming wedding at the end of June, hopefully followed by exploring Europe for the month of July.

There is much to look forward to and enjoy each and every day.   I am SO happy I took the leap and embraced this new and wonderful life with my challenging and loving partner.  Life IS good…..

Voluntary Subscriptions To Support This Site

I wrote about the ongoing and often crippling costs of maintaining this site in last week’s newsletter. My total annual outgoings just to maintain the site and pay for the software to send out my weekly newsletters is over £5,000. It’s a cost I simply can’t afford any more.

I just about cover my day to day running costs through my Narrowbudget Gold package and my discovery day service, but there’s very little left to put towards the site. I’ll be returning to work at Calcutt Boats for all of May to help top up my dwindling bank balance. I’ll enjoy the working around the two beautiful marinas, but finding time to run the site and work a forty five hour week will be a struggle.

The only way I will be able to keep the site’s 9,000 posts and pages online in the future will be through voluntary subscriptions. These subscriptions will be just that; voluntary. If you can’t afford to pay, or you simply don’t want to pay, the wealth of information that’s taken me, and a host of experienced boaters on the forum, six years to write will still be there for you completely free of charge.

I added a section asking for voluntary subscriptions last week. I am very grateful indeed to the twenty one kind hearted site visitors who have subscribed already, but I need more if I am to keep the site running. I can’t maintain it any other way.

If you have been following this blog for any length of time, I’m sure that you realise the time and effort which goes into it. I receive dozens of emails every week from aspiring boaters asking for advice. I answer every one of them as quickly and comprehensively as possible. You may have sent an email or two to me yourself.

I enjoy helping others move closer to the life I enjoy so much every day. I don’t ask or expect payment for this service. It’s a labour of love. Paying bills each month is not such a pleasant experience. Please help me continue to help others by subscribing to the site. The subscription form is here.

Your financial details are completely safe. Payment is made through the world’s largest payment portal. Only you can change your subscription details. You can cancel your subscription at any time.

For the price of a cup of coffee or a pint each month you can help keep a very useful inland waterways resource online. You can subscribe here.

[adrotate banner=”14″]
Useful Information
Entertainment
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.

Useful Information
Entertainment
Summary
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.


Click Here to Find Out More
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.