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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Yearly Archives: 2016
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2016 01 31 Newsletter – Essential Narrowboat Tools

With another work week successfully completed I’m now just four weeks away from the start of this year’s extended cruise. I can’t wait. Much as I enjoy the winter work I have been doing at Calcutt Boats, being stuck in one spot for months on end is driving me mad after nine months of continuous cruising last year. I have very itchy feet which need a darn good scratching.

There hasn’t been much boat related activity on board over the last week. The highlight was probably a torrential downpour on Friday night. It was by far the heaviest and most prolonged rain we’ve had this winter. We woke on Saturday morning to an underwater towpath. As you can appreciate, with a dog on board which needs to use the towpath several times a day for toilet breaks, being moored next to one which is under water is a bit of a problem.

Fortunately the canal bank has a slightly raised concrete edge where we are tied up, so basset Tasha walked precariously along the dry edge in search of a patch of almost dry grass while I waited for my early morning guest.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a problem I thought I had with my Kipor suitcase generator not charging my battery bank. I tried to use the generator after my alternator failed during our Christmas cruise. I ran the Kipor for two hours but turned it off after my Smartgauge battery monitor failed to show any increase in the bank’s capacity. I assumed my charger wasn’t working properly or at all.

Fellow Calcutt Boats moorer Graham Mills offered to help. He arrived equipped with two things I don’t possess; a multi meter and the ability to use it.

Within a few minutes he established what many people who emailed me had suspected. The generator is working fine. So is the charger. Unfortunately the 20amp charger just isn’t up to the job of replenishing depleted batteries on a liveaboard narrowboat. It’s capable of topping up the batteries of a leisure cruiser left for months on end on a marina mooring, but not much good for me. I think another battery charger needs to go on our shopping list and, maybe, a multi meter as well to add to my collection of rarely used tools.

I’m probably not the best person on the inland waterways to wax lyrical about the best tools to keep on board your narrowboat. Historically my on board DIY skills have been on a par with those of Rowan Atkinson in Mr. Bean.

I’m more inept than lazy. I can’t understand it at all. My father was chief engineer on a merchant navy ship for many years before I came along. All through my childhood I remember him building, repairing and refurbishing anything he could get his hands on. He could break an engine down into a thousand pieces, improve it and rebuild it seemingly without effort. This kind of proficiency looked like witchcraft to me. It still does. Why don’t I have the same skills? I look more and more like my father as I grow older, I endure the same spells of forgetfulness and aimless wandering and I enjoy many of life’s pleasures that he does. I just can’t fix anything. It’s not fair.

While I acknowledge that anything more than fixing a bulkhead coat hook is probably too much for me, I realise that I am very organised and tidy. These two attributes are very important when you live in such a small space. Having somewhere secure and out of sight to store all of your on board tools is also very useful, which is why I am such a fan of traditional stern narrowboats for liveaboard boaters.

In case you are unfamiliar with narrowboat sterns, there are three types; traditional stern, semi traditional stern and cruiser stern.

Cruiser sterns are what you see on the majority of hire boats. They have large open decks at the back of the boat, usually protected by a rail. They are perfect for groups of people who want to stand with the helmsman as he weaves nervously along the canal. The downside for a liveaboard boater is that they reduce the amount of secure and weather protected internal storage space.

Semi traditional stern narrowboats look like traditional stern boats from a distance. The boat’s cabin sides extend nearly all the way to the stern, but the roof only extends as far back as the roof on a cruiser stern boat. The semi trad boat therefore has two protective wings, usually with lockers inside the wings which double as seats. The lockers can be used to store tools but they aren’t usually either secure or weather proof.

A traditional stern narrowboat has a fully enclosed cabin which extends almost to the back of the boat. The rear deck is just two or three feet deep so only two people, three at a push, can stand at the helm. Trad stern boats aren’t really suitable for groups of holiday boaters but are arguably the best configuration if you’re going to be living on board full time.

Some traditional stern narrowboats have the engine housed in its own space forward of a rear “boatman’s cabin”. You can often see the engines in these boats through side hatches polished to gleaming perfection.

The other and, to me, more useable configuration is with the engine at the back of the boat. That’s what I have. My engine sits under insulated boards slightly in front and below me as I stand and steer. The deck boards above it hide the engine and deaden its noise, and leave me with quite a large secure and dry space to store my tools.

Here are photo’s of my engine room taken from four different angles. The port cabin side houses all of the boat’s electrics; a Sterling 20amp charger and a separate Sterling 1600w pure sine inverter, an MPPT controller for the 300w solar array and a switch for changing from shore to boat 240v power.

All of the other space in the engine room is used to store tools and equipment. My engine room has plenty of storage space but it’s hopeless as a point of access into the boat from the rear deck. You have to be as flexible as a very slippery eel to be able to use the narrow doorway from the engine room into  the back cabin. It’s fine for Cynthia and me. Both of us are whippet thin but for anyone more generously proportioned it’s quite a challenge.

Even though I’m not entirely sure what to do with them, I have a reasonably comprehensive range of tools. With my traditional stern I can store my tools out of sight, under cover and securely. If I had a cruiser stern boat, the tools would have to be stored in an insecure and often wet engine bay, or take up valuable space inside the boat. I would have a similar problem with a semi trad stern boat.

The door from the engine room to the bedroom

The door from the engine room to the bedroom

Here’s the rather tight entrance from the engine room through to the cabin. A coat rack further obscures the narrow entrance but provides dry storage for our wet weather gear (and a rather fetching pair of my heavy duty work trousers).

Plenty of racking for bulky items

Plenty of racking for bulky items

The starboard cabin side is used for storing bulky stuff. There are hooks for our shore line and a shorter 5m lead which I use with the generator, and for my stern mooring line while the boat is moving. I’m not one of those brave souls who hangs their mooring line off the tiller. After recently catching one of my centre lines around the propeller and spending an hour hacking iron taught rope off the drive shaft, I want to keep my lines away from the back end of the boat. I also keep two spare alternator belts there as well as another for the water pump. I just wish I knew how to change them.

There’s a roll of ratchet spanners neatly screwed to the cabin side easily visible and ready for use. I think I’ve used a 13mm spanner once but at least I know where the rest are.

Shelves for pots and polishes

Shelves for pots and polishes

I use this lot quite often. There’s a box of black nitrile gloves on the top shelf for working on the engine and for painting. On the next shelf down there are two tubs of waterproof grease for the stern gland greaser and a narrow bladed wallpaper scraper to help pack the greaser. There’s also a spare fuel filter and a broken torch I thought I had thrown away months ago. Below are a variety of brass polishes, three in one and WD40 oils, a reel of paracord, my recovery magnet and some cleaning cloths.

out of the way storage for essential tools

out of the way storage for essential tools

This is where all the manly tools are stored. I am actually able to use one or two of them. I have a cordless drill with a wide range of bits, mole grips, screwdrivers, a junior hacksaw and wood saw, claw hammer, awl, chisel and bolt croppers. A head torch allows me to work hands free in the dim depths of the engine bay and a jumbo blue paper roll is close at hand for inevitable oil drips and smears.

That’s pretty much all I can say about my own tools. At the front of the boat under the deck next to my water tank I keep my tins of external cabin paint, paint brushes and sandpaper. I used to keep the paint in the engine bay until I discovered that, due to the engine heat, the paint hardened almost overnight.

I may not know much about tools and how to use them, but many boat owners who use this site have been kind enough to complete a survey I created a few months ago. I asked what tools they carry on board with them. Here’s what they wrote…

Mole wrench. Club hammer. Hand drill and drill bits. Centre punch. Lots of torches and spare batteries. Small mirror. Screwdriver set, inc. posidrive. Litter picker, everything you drop will be just out of reach! Pliers. Wire cutters. Carving knife. Secateurs, shears. Multimeter. Funnel. Assorted polythene pipe. Loads of “oily rags”. Magnet.

Too many to list because I still have a house and tools come and go between my 2 tool boxes. I am ready to deal with all electrical and plumbing challenges and of course removing and replacing panelling to gain access. So, wire cutters, wire strippers, crimping tool, long nose pliers, regular pliers, wide jaw pliers, 8″ and 10″ adjustable spanners, a range of screw drivers, bradawl, hacksaw, chisel, Stanley knife, craft knives. If WD40 counts as a tool then that too. I don’t carry a hammer but use my mallet on the occasions when it is needed. I also carry a decent supply of brass screws in various different sizes. The boat fitters used steel screws and they invariably come out slightly corroded so I replace them with brass screws as and when I encounter them. On the odd occasion when a screw doesn’t hold, I can replace it with a longer or wider one.

Winter specific tools: flue brush small splitting axe selection of hammers (very small through rubber mallet to lump hammer) a good knife (much easier for dealing with coal sacks, and will find many other uses) enough coal or wood to last you six weeks (you don’t know if the fuel boat is going to be able to get through — ice and flooding can both interrupt supplies) working smoke and CO alarms enough tea and/or coffee for six weeks Year round tools (essential in winter because if something breaks the weather will make it harder to buy tools if you don’t already own them, and we all know things like to go wrong at the very worst moment): hacksaw and spare blades screwdrivers (at least small and large slot and small and large phillips) strap wrench (for changing the oil filter — you’ll probably want to do this in march and september) enough clean oil for a complete oil change (engine and gearbox) plus excess for top ups “waterproof grease” (isn’t grease waterproof by definition?) set of ring/combination spanners adjustable spanner (or another set of combination spanners) set of hex/allen keys socket set multimeter one spare set of everything (belts, pumps, fuel cut off cables, …) General stuff which really comes into its own in winter: Books (or magazines, or something to read when there’s no internet or other reception Non-electrical hobby stuff (musical instruments, sketch pad and pencil, notebook and pencil, whatever you are into that you can do to keep yourself and loved ones entertained when everything seems to be against you)

Screwdrivers, adjustable spanners, a good pair of end cutters for general use and help with clearing the prop. A set of spanners that match your engine. spare empty plastic milk containers for cutting up to collect drips, as a baler and bleeding radiators etc.

When equipping our new boat I got a handyman tool kit from Screwfix. It was comprehensive (screw drivers/files/tape measure/clamps/pliers/knife/etc etc) and very well priced and included a decent bag. I then added specifics such as: Combination spanner set (good to have both ring and open ended for awkward places) Allen key set (make sure you have one big enough for all the bolts eg Beta alternator belt adjustment (ours fell off at 25 hours from new which is when I discovered it was BIG!)) Hand suction pump to get oil out of the gearbox when you change it (much easier than getting to the drain plug and will pay for itself on first use) Oil filter spanner. Best is Draper mole wrench style (I’ve used others … let me save you the grief) as it doesn’t puncture the canister and make a mess and the grip and range of movement is excellent. Clamp on multi meter that can measure DC as well as AC (really useful for clamping to the alternator output so you can see what’s going on and how engine revs impact output … if at all! Mine paid for itself in first week of non wasted fuel) Good old WD40 Spare set of all fuel and oil filters and all belts. Big roll of garage type blue absorbent towelling. Water proof grease for stern gland and general use. Antifreeze (engine and heating system). Various ‘dip sticks’ for fuel and water levels if you don’t have guages. Gas bottle key (at least two!). Roll of insulation tape. Roll of ‘duct’ tape (aka duck tape). Small roll of electrical wire and connection blocks (temp / emergency electrical fault fixing). Really good rubber gloves (only one thing worse than toilet trouble is realising you have no gloves). Powerful rechargeable LED torch. Assortment of jubilee clips. Assortment of tie wraps. Magnet for retrieving dropped items from canal / engine hole. Ball of twine.

Axe/hatchet and log splitting wedge Chimney brush (I sweep fortnightly!) Chainsaw (mine is battery powered) and chain file to sharpen it cordless drill Full socket and spanner set Lump hammer Normal size claw hammer small hammer Hacksaw Bow saw Adjustable wrench and mole grips Set of files Box of assorted screws, nuts (esp nyloc), washers and bolts Full set of spare filters for air, fuel and oil, and spare belts I also carry (but would not consider essential!) blowtorch angle grinder chain hoist (if I need to do any lifting of engine/gearbox, e.g. to change engine feet, driveplate)

Basic electrical set up, test meter, spare fuses, decent wire strippers, side piars, small screwdrivers. decent socket and spanner set. DO check you have the right sizes for the most used sizes on your boat (AF or Metric). An extra rope and stell bucket. A handy firefighting tool when the neighbouring boats hot ashes burst into flame at 3 in the morning and try to take your boat, their boat and a 100 feet of hedge and trees with them!

Wood and metal saws. Spanners from very small to very big. Multitude of Philips and flat nosed screwdrivers. Electric sander Hand and electric drills Small work bench Electric connectors and crimper’s The new hand held Karcher used for cleaning windows but gets condensation cleaned in a short time, great tool. Hand held vac

I have a long paint roller handle used for painting behind radiators. I have curved the end into a hook shape. This is used when feeding a mooring chain through Armco pilings. Lower the small end of the chain behind the horizontal support for the Armco. Using the hook end grab the small end of the chain and bring it up on the outside of the support. Place small ring through the large one then pass your mooring rope through the small ring. Job done without too much bending or kneeling on wet grass, or worse still, Paul’s favourite muddy towpaths.

Leatherman Wave Multi-Tool, on belt at all times. Zippo Lighter. Large Axe. Folding Wood Saw. Hacksaw with Blades by Bahco Sandflex, very flexible. KNIPEX Heavy Duty Wire Cutters. Flexible Jubilee Clip Driver. Changeable bit Screwdriver and bits. Socket and Spanner Set. Mole Grips. Cordless Drill. OX 10″ Pro Claw Bar/Hammer. Multi-meter Electrical Tester. Manual Bilge Pump. Sea Searcher Magnet. TV Signal Finder….

The tools I have used is a strong LED head light that allows you to keep your hands free. A good set of screwdrivers. Spare lock key. A box full of various screws. Thread tape Electrical meter Various spanners

socket set, screwdrivers of every type, Stillson wrench, adjustable spanner, soldering iron, hacksaw, WD40 gaffer type, Allen keys, G clamp. Will probably take the electric chain saw too. Tools I wish I had – electric multi meter, strap wrench for changing filters.

Wire cutters, knife etc for clearing weed hatch Spanners, Allen keys, adjustable, screw drivers, pliers, filter wrench for engine maintenance. Paint, brushes, wet and dry, wire brush, Temporary pipe repair tape / putty. Stilton, tap spanner Multimeter, electrical connectors and crimp told, insulating tape.

battery drill. hammer .various size spanners. adjustable wrench. socket set. speed clamps’ sharp knives sorted screwdrivers. mole grips. pliers multi meter.hacksaws. axe. magnet on a rope. flexi mirror. drill bits.tape. glues. sealers .

lump hammer, claw hammer, adjustable open ended & ring spanners, screw drivers large & small flat & philips, pliers,mole grips, tape measure, pencil, socket set, spare hoses & clips, gear & throttle cables, oil & filter, spare diesel & filter, plumbers tape, insulation tape, hack saw, hand saw, log saw,spare fenders & rope, various size nails & screws.

Stanley knife. Cordless drill, bits and assorted screwdriver bits. Bikers combination tool. Set of spanners. Plastic tubing. Duct tape. Insulation tape. Assorted screwdrivers. Test lamp or multimeter. Saws-hacksaw, junior hacksaw, joiners saw. Mole grips. Quick clamp. Combination square. Crowbar. Blowlamp. Extra rope. Electric wire. Stacking boxes with tools labelled on each box. Paint brushes. Thinners. Paint. Sealant and sealant gun. Head torch. Ordinary torch.

Magnet on a chain. Two open ended spanners to adjust the stern gland. Cable ties. Circuit tester. Toolbox with mixture of screwdrivers, stanley knife, hammer, Spare fan belt, spare bulbs, spare windlass, spare mooring rope

I have a good Black and Decker tool box with a general selection of tools – pliers, hammer, drill etc with a good range of screws. I have a jigsaw for general wood repairs and making. Other ‘tools’ include spare mooring lines, black heat resistant paint, varnish, paint etc.

Spare windlasses, torches, candles, firelighters, beer, wine, bottle opener, toilet roll, solar charger for a mobile phone, curry paste and toilet blue

I’ve got a boxed section under the dinette with a hinged front flap – it’s only about 5 cm high but very long – I have 4 large tupperware boxes full of tools – electrical in one, heavy in another etc – they are in a train tied by bungee cord so I pull one out and the others follow . . . it just makes use of the space and obviates the need for a huge trad-sized toolbox.

Test meter. Pliers. Spanners. Duct tape. Wire cutters. Electric and manual drills. Drill bits.

Does a head torch count…. it does not go far from me when I am on board. Otherwise is it decent too, box so tools can be found easily. As to tools depends on what you are prepared to have a go at – I’ll go at most things, but the tap and die set I brough from screwfix has seen a lot of use.

A two-tube metal epoxy kit – this is sometimes two separate tubes and other times two tubes in a sort of builtin hypodermic type injector. When you squeeze out matching amounts of the paste [two different colors] you mix until they become one solid color. Now you have about 15 minutes to apply. Notice I said METAL epoxy… you might wish to consider two kits – one for copper/brass and one for iron/steel. When dry this epoxy can actually be machined! These kits can provide temporary crucial repairs while you are off your mooring – enough that the engine will run safely, the loo will flush without flooding the engine room, or seal a leaking hull seam after a “lock bump” and so on. US cost about $6.00 per set.

Mole grips – especially small ones.

Various screwdrivers , mid sized hammer , adjustable spanner , pliers , side cutters , hacksaw , small socket set , always have a roll of insulation tape , mole grips . being a mechanic I carry a lot more than this , but this should get you by without too much space wasted

spanners, adjustable wrenches, club hammer, bow saw, sea magnet, battery powered drill/driver, hand axe, battery terminal puller

Small socket set, small and large adjustable wrench,monkey wrench, pliers, assorted screwdrivers, telescopic magnet(for picking up screws etc dropped in awkward places) junior hacksaw, sharp knife, multi-meter

All the usual hand tools, hammer, pliers, etc. Bolt croppers, hacksaw, wood saw. Stanley knife and blades. Cordless drill. Spanner and socket set. Plumbing tools and some spare pipe and fittings, PTFE tape etc. Electrical kit, fuses, wire, crimper, insulation tape and fittings.

I have a replica dutch barge not a narrow boat. Not a comprehensive list but some tools which, for the most part, get reasonable use: A stubby adjustable spanner A set of box spanners A crimping tool and spare connectors A simple multi-meter A grease gun Plenty of rags A sturdy emergency knife (I have a riggers/seaman’s knife in a sheath – never been used, fingers crossed)

Electrical. Set of spanners set of screwdrivers hammer mallet adjustables mole grips

There you go. If you’re thinking of moving onto your own boat you now know all the tools to take with you. If you’re already a boat owner you may well have spotted one or two items to add to your shopping list.

Cynthia says—

Getting in gear….

This past week brought several good changes and both of us have benefitted.  We shall carry forward and see if this is sustainable.  We shifted into a more disciplined gear/mode and decided that we would turn off the lights earlier at night and get up earlier in the morning, which is the most productive time of the day for both of us on many levels.

We start the day with Paul working on his site and on the newsletter while I am preparing our breakfast.  Whilst partaking of this healthy repast, we jot down the days goals….I have my goals to accomplish while Paul is at work, and he has his goals for after returning from work which may or may not involve me.  We were able to accomplish a number of things, especially around James—putting up our new bespoke brass latches on the engine door and on the toilet door, replacing the inappropriate but worked-in-a-pinch bungee cord.  They look so nice and are very functional.

photo (3)photo (1)

Paul took the opportunity to see if the brass drawer pulls would polish up, and low and behold they did beautifully!  Please see photos…and tell us what you think!  He is now on a mission to polish every last piece of brass in the place, and I have done the research to find the appropriate non VOC lacquer so that we will no longer need to polish them.  We both agree this small detail makes a big impact.

Bespoke brass latch

Bespoke brass latch

We are gearing up for the future and putting our thoughtful positive energy into getting my house sold this coming spring/summer.  Unfortunately, the market in Vermont has been rather depressed now for a number of years and is coming back slowly.  I have a well-priced and charming house that by American standards is very old…built in the 1760’s.  “Hawley” is the oldest house in town, has a rich history and has water views of the famous fly fishing creek, the Battenkill.  Anyone out there looking for a lovely second home New England?

Whilst visiting the gorgeous National Trust property, Stowe, yesterday, we finished up our lovely walk around the property by paying a visit to their charming gift shop.  While I was perusing the postcards, Paul found the most beautiful book entitled “The National Trust book of the Coast,” and we parted with the necessary £20 so we could take it home.  Just remember, an intense want becomes a justifiable need!

When we returned home last evening and were eating our light dinner, Paul had a great idea inspired by the above mentioned book.  Why don’t we take a couple of months and tour the entire coast of the U.K.?  I became quickly enchanted with the idea, and now we are chattering about the possibilities and logistics of making this happen.   Anyone out there know where we could rent/buy a good motor home?  Selling my Vermont house will give us the necessary funds to make this dream a reality.  Life is an adventure and at the end of this piece I will provide my favourite quote that speaks to this…..

As Paul is taking the opportunity to provide you with needed gear aboard a narrowboat, we thought it might be a good idea for me to suggest a few items for the kitchen, so here we go—-

My most useful appliance is my beloved Vitamix which helps me to whip up our smoothies, soups, nut milks and many other things.  They are pricey but a necessity if one is serious about eating healthfully.  A simple food processor is also handy for many jobs.  And for storing our spices and everything from quinoa to dog treats, the Kilner jars are just so nice—and beautiful to look at.  See the photo of our spice collection and please take note of the gorgeous bespoke rack in which to store them!

We are also gearing up to have some extensive joinery work done on James and perhaps some new non-leaky windows will be in the offing.

It’s always fun to plan and dream and as we approach Spring it’s a perfect time to turn our thoughts in these directions…..and dream of a land yacht in our future:-))

See you in February!

And for the promised quote:

Taken from the book “Loki and Loon” by Gifford Pinchot

Advice from the writer’s father:

“He convinced me that taking on adventure was one of man’s most important obligations, as well as being a source of great satisfaction.  You can always find plenty of reasons for following the conventional safe and easy path, but if you do, you will miss some of the very best of life, and never even know it.”  Amen!!

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.  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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Summary

2016 01 24 Newsletter – Stuck In Ice

DUE TO INTERNET CONNECTIVITY ISSUES ALL PHOTO’S WILL BE ADDED TOMORROW…

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!

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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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16

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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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.  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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Summary
2

2016 01 10 Newsletter – Essential Onboard Equipment

As soon as I sent out last week’s newsletter, Cynthia and I endured the wettest cruise I’ve taken since I moved on board nearly six years ago. Cruising on lock free stretches of canal isn’t a problem at all. My Guy Coten trawlermen’s waterproofs are bomb proof. I can stand for endless hours in torrential rain and stay bone dry. The waterproofs are heavy duty plastic which is perfect for hours of rain soaked immobility. Unfortunately they are less than perfect for working through locks.

Neither the jacket nor the trousers are breathable so as soon as I start doing any work in them I overheat very quickly. They are also quite restrictive, which is a bit of a problem when I need to constantly climb down a wet and slippery ladder onto a rain soaked roof and walk thirty feet down a narrow corridor between the cabin side and my solar panel array before vaulting down into the cockpit.

The waterproofs are restrictive but first class for keeping my body dry. My achilles heel at the moment is my footwear. I have a good pair of fur lined rigger boots for the winter months. They are warm enough but a little cumbersome and water resistant rather than waterproof. I would usually have worn them on such a foul day but I can’t wear them at the moment because of the discomfort they cause due to a worn and uneven insole. Instead I wore a cheap pair of steel toed trainers I used to wear for work. They were probably the most inappropriate footwear I could have worn given the state of the lock-side towpath.

The footpath was completely flooded for most of its length. Rather than wade through inches of water covering the towpath  I walked on the mud beside it which used to be grass. Slipping and sliding in restrictive clothing next to an expanse of frigid canal isn’t the most enjoyable way of spending a Sunday lunchtime, especially with Cynthia struggling with the weight of some of the lock gates on the Braunston flight. They are very heavy and are often too much for all but the strongest ladies.

Heavy rain over the preceding day or two had substantially raised the level of the canal. A waterfall cascaded over each pair of downstream gates in the six lock flight increasing the water level in the pound below. Each lock took an age to fill, especially the bottom lock.

Just to make the day more interesting, the boat was hit by a gale force squall as I approached the bottom lock, pinning the boat at a forty five degree angle across the canal. The only way to get the boat in was to power round pivoting on the bow where it rested against the towpath upstream gate. The boat slid in reluctantly but the bow rubbing strake hung the bow on the gate until the boat dipped alarmingly to starboard and then dropped back into the water with a crash.

The last two hours of the trip was wet but otherwise uneventful. We moored for the night above the Calcutt flight before taking the boat down onto our marina mooring on Monday morning for two or three months of national grid hook up and the unfamiliar luxury of unlimited hot water and permanently charged batteries.

One of Cynthia’s priorities as soon as we moored was to order me some appropriate winter footwear. Cynthia has spent many years outdoors in the States dealing with temperatures far lower than anything we see in the UK.

Cynthia, born in sunny California, has spent the last ten years living in Vermont. During that period she spent much of her time looking after horses which involved spending many hours outside on winter days where the temperature dropped as low as -35 degrees celsius.

The footwear that Cynthia and many of her horsey colleagues preferred was the Muckboot brand. Muck Boots  are like Wellington boots but unlike Wellingtons they are both durable and warm.

Cynthia has just ordered a pair of these for me from the UK Amazon site.  The neoprene boots have received hundreds of positive reviews on Amazon from outdoor enthusiasts. I think they will be perfect for boating. I’ll keep you posted.

So that’s my cruising done for another year. During the last nine months of 2015 I ran my engine for 1,031 hours during which I cruised 1,753 miles and negotiated 948 locks. I’ve had the unexpected pleasure of welcoming a one tonne bullock onto the back deck, been stung by a swarm of angry wasps, come close to overturning the boat in a Thames lock and sinking it in a Llangollen lock and I’ve had my raw water system collapse twice. I’ve had the pleasure of negotiating a lock flight with a pair of mole grips after throwing both my windlasses in the canal. I’ve replaced two alternators and an alternator belt, serviced the engine four times,  switched the boat’s cooling from raw water to keel cooling, installed a diesel heating system and a composting toilet and stopped on more beautiful and peaceful moorings than I can count. I’ve had an exciting and thoroughly enjoyable year.

While we’re between cruises at the marina and have the car close at hand we’re making the most of our National Trust membership. Cynthia and I have reached the stage in life where we want to spend as much time as possible surrounded by things older than us.

Yesterday we spent three very pleasant hours exploring Upton House and Gardens. National Trust membership is perfect for tranquility loving boaters. There are over 500 properties to explore in the UK, many of them within easy reach of the canal network. I’m very much looking forward to exploring Shugborough Hall at Great Hayward junction later this year.

In between National Trust visits we’re taking things easy while we plan next year’s adventures but there are still plenty of jobs to do on board. I spent an hour last night freeing two sticking knobs on my hob with a pair of mole grips, a needle and a tube of Molykote gas cock grease. Over the next day or two I need to find out why my bilge pump has stopped working and then find some time to move some more ballast to correct the remaining slight list to port and then schedule a week to repaint the cabin roof and touch up the sides. On second thoughts, maybe I’m not resting as much as I should.

While I was sitting in the engine room considering what to do about the bilge pump, I looked around me at the equipment neatly stored on wall clips and hangers and in bags and boxes and I remembered an email I had received a few days earlier  from a previous discovery day guest.. She’s now sold her house and purchased a boat so now she’s considering the logistics of moving her life afloat. She contacted me to ask for a list of what I consider to be essential equipment to carry on board. I don’t think there’s a list anywhere on the site, so here goes…

Ropes – I have four on the boat; a bow and a stern line and two centre lines. I use the bow and stern lines just for mooring, and the two centre lines for controlling the boat when I’m cruising. You will struggle to effectively control your boat on your own without a centre line. I have two, one running down either side of the boat. My three solar panels and the rack with my pole and plank are at the back of the boat so with only one centre line I would be forever trying to flick it over the roof furniture, often at a time when I need to step off the boat quickly.

Pole – Very handy if you miscalculate and end up with your boat in the shallows. You can push your boat back into deeper water. The only times I have used my pole this year is to push the bow out from the side when I’m trying to move away from a lock landing or a mooring when the wind is pinning the boat against the bank.

Plank – If you can’t moor your boat close enough to the bank to step on and off the boat easily you can use your plank to bridge the gap. Please note that planks can become very slippery. If possible, add a non slip coating.

Mooring chains – I carry four on board. They are excellent for securing yourself firmly to Armco rail but aren’t popular with some boaters who struggle to bend or kneel down. The chains have different sized steel rings at either end. You pass the chain behind the Armco rail, pass the smaller ring through the larger ring then pass your mooring lines through the smaller ring.

Piling hooks (also known as nappy pins). These server the same purpose as chains but they aren’t as secure. They may suit you though if you have mobility issues because you don’t have to bend down as far to fix them in place.

Mooring pins or stakes – If you don’t have any Armco to secure your boat against you’ll need to use a stake. They’re not ideal. In the winter they are easy to knock in but just as easy to pull out when a boat passes. In the summer they’re less likely to pull out when the ground is firm but you need to work quite hard to knock them in.

Lump hammer – For knocking your pins in, or for knocking the imbecile in who tries to untie your boat in the middle of the night.

Tiller – If you have a cruiser stern boat your tiller may be fixed in place. A traditional stern boat usually has a removable brass tiller with a wooden handle. It’s a good policy to remove your tiller and secure it inside your boat when you’re not at the helm. The same imbecile who likes to untie boats also collects shiny tillers.

Tiller Pin – These are for securing your tiller in place. The most basic are a brass knob with a protruding pin but there are some very fancy tiller pins on the market. I have one. Until July this year I had an eagle tiller pin I bought at the Crick show in May. A brass rod screwed into the eagle. The rod secured the tiller in place. The screw thread vibrated loose on a discovery day allowing my eagle to go for an unscheduled dip. That was the last I saw of him. Cynthia bought me a replacement for Christmas from Draco Crafts. They offer a bespoke tiller pins. Their service is excellent.

Water Resistant Grease – You will probably have a stern gland greaser somewhere in your engine room. You need to tighten this greaser every day to prevent canal water filling your engine bay. You will need to regularly top up your grease. I carry two tubs on board.

Engine oil – Especially if you have an old engine like mine which needs topping up with oil once a week.

Antifreeze – For your engine’s cooling system and possibly for your boat’s central heating

Three in one oil – Very handy for lubricating hinges and hatches

Paint and brushes – I keep the two major colours on board for touching up the cabin when necessary.

Clothing – You might want to buck the trend and do a little cruising in adverse weather. If you do you’re in for a treat. You’ll have canal mostly to yourself. Remember, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. With warm and waterproof gear you can cruise for as much of the year as you like. My Waterproofs are from Guy Coten. You don’t look stylish wearing them but who cares when you’re dry?

I was going to write more here about handy equipment to keep on board, but my computer woes continue. A couple of weeks ago my Samsung laptop’s hard drive failed. I have been using Cynthia’s aging MacBook Pro since then but yesterday that too died a painful death.

I had a break while I made myself a mug of coffee. I was carrying the steaming brew back from the galley when the mug’s handle fell off, decanting half a pint of sticky sugar sweetened coffee into my lap and over the MacBook’s keyboard.

My groin has recovered but the keyboard hasn’t. I borrowed a laptop from work today to get me out of immediate trouble (Thank you Russ) but I don’t have the energy to write much more tonight. I’ll finish the equipment list off next week and also include a detailed list of all the tools you should keep on board.

Cynthia Says…

Finding the Silver Lining…

Well, this past week presented several challenges that we have been successfully dealing with so far!

The first one of course was our stormy encounter with the approach to the final lock at Braunston….out of seemingly nowhere along came a small gale and Paul had quite the challenge lining up James to navigate the lock.  Finally with the combination of his superior skill and the help of a nice man (who happened to be at the right place at the right time on the towpath) and myself, we were finally able to negotiate the boat into the lock.  The silver lining here was actually twofold.  First, the kind gentleman who helped us.  We would have had a tough go without his assistance to be sure!  I continue to be amazed that when I need someone or something to show up in my life it (or they) do so.  Second, after experiencing a morning’s worth of rain and soggy wet feet, I thought that having an appropriate pair of weather proof boots was essential for Paul, and the Muck Boots immediately came to mind.  As Paul has stated, they are superior footwear and I can attest to that firsthand in all my horse dealings of the past.  For those of you diehards, you could also take the Amish route to keeping your feet warm—toss a couple of bricks in the oven for a spell, then wrap them in a few layers of brown paper and stand on the lot—ummm warm feet indeed!

On a sad note, I made the decision to re-home our Basset, Bromley.  I don’t think he is so happy with the boat life as he doesn’t have much freedom to move around.  And getting him on and off can often be a nightmare depending on weather conditions and location.  Back in Vermont he had 24/7 outside access with a large kitchen to run around in.  I contacted the Basset Rescue that is recognized by the British Kennel Club and I believe we have found him a great home with a single retired lady in Nottingham who has owned Bassets in the past.  Giving this lovely boy up has been a true hardship for me as we have been so close for most of his life since I rescued him at 9 months.  The silver lining in this situation?  After much thought, I feel at peace and happy thinking that I am able to provide someone else with the opportunity to have a wonderful companion in her life and that makes me feel good.  I wish miss him terribly.  Thank goodness for dear affable Tasha.  She is the perfect answer for a boat dog at this time, and I think she will do well as a solo dog….time will tell!

Friday was Paul’s first of three days off, and we had made plans to drive to an organic food shop in Leicester.  Most of the drive in the countryside was wonderful, but negotiating the downtown streets of mostly cheerless Leicester was less than inspiring.  We both wondered aloud why we had made this decision and were saying that we most likely would not return.  But, alas, once again, you are never safe from surprise until you are dead.  We drove up to what looked like a dilapidated warehouse our hearts kind of sank.  When we walked through the doors, we were the only ones there.  We started to make our way down the aisles and low and behold the organic treasures nearly jumped off the shelves into our cart!  And the fresh organic produce was the best we’ve found so far.  Paul, one of the founding members of this food cooperative, was most kind and helpful and we departed with lighter wallets, but with big smiles on our faces and a boot full of good and healthy food….we shall return.

And last but not least, our first National Trust outing yesterday since becoming members.  Upton House and Gardens.  The house is beautifully located on a piece of land that has much scope for the imagination, but in all honesty, the house is quite somber and dark.  The only semi-inviting room was the cozy downstairs reading room with the big fireplace.  After a quick bite at the lovely eatery with the beautiful Palladian window, we decided to take a stroll towards the pool and gardens.  What a truly delightful surprise!!  The woods were enchanting and ever so inviting and the gardens extensive.  We had fun imagining how gorgeous and colourful they will be come spring and summer!  A beautiful silver lining on the final day of this week.  We plan to enjoy visiting one trust property each week on one of Paul’s coveted days off.

I shall wrap this up with a favorite quote which speaks to our simply life aboard—

“The greatest step towards a life of simplicity is to learn to let go.”

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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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Entertainment
Summary

2016 01 03 Newsletter – Trials and Tribulations

I’m back! I missed another week’s newsletter but I think I have a good enough reason. I’ll explain a little later.

I spent my last three days at Calcutt Boats sanding one of their hire boats ready for painting early in January. I thoroughly enjoy the unfamiliar exercise but I’m always delighted when I can down tools at 4pm and collect towel and soap from the boat to use the marina showers to wash off the day’s grime. Our shower on board is more powerful but the marina hot water supply is unlimited so a long and cleansing soak makes the short walk worthwhile.

On Christmas Eve we needed to stock up on food and drink for our week away. Our first stop was in Rugby and the busiest butcher’s shop I’ve ever seen. Joseph Morris had thirty butchers serving a queue of at least sixty people during our mid morning visit to collect the order Cynthia placed a few days earlier. Fillet steak for New Year’s day and three veal shanks for Cynthia’s Christmas Day treat, osso buco.

After fighting our way through the Christmas crowds we returned to the welcoming tranquility of an empty canal for a twilight hour and a half cruise to our evening’s mooring at Flecknoe.

The following morning, while many people sat wearing pyjamas among piles of discarded wrapping paper eating crunchy nut corn flakes soaked in Baileys Irish Cream, Cynthia and I tackled the Braunston flight’s six locks followed by Braunston tunnel and a peaceful and deserted canal up to Norton Junction before turning left up the Grand Union Leicester Line and the approach to the seven lock Watford flight. And there we stayed.

If I was given an unlimited number of guesses for our mooring location on Christmas Day this year I don’t think I would have come even close to pinpointing it.

Celebrating Christmas on the Watford flight

Celebrating Christmas on the Watford flight

I love cruising for many reasons. One of the most important to me is to be able to choose a spot away from artificial noise and away from other people. On Christmas Day we managed neither. We had the M1’s roaring traffic on one side and both the A5 and the West Coast Main Line on the other. We were surrounded by noise and hurtling vehicles but we had a wonderful time. We drew the curtains, threw some coal on the fire, turned the music up and opened a bottle of Wolf Blass (for me, Cynthia doesn’t drink often). What more can you ask for?

We had the Watford flight to ourselves the following morning. We reached the top in under an hour then moored for a few minutes to let the dogs off to attend to business and to allow me to tighten a squealing alternator belt.

I’m not the world’s most competent mechanic so after tightening the belt and starting the engine I was delighted that the squealing had stopped. I wasn’t quite so pleased to see that the quieter alternator now wasn’t charging my five batteries at all.

After whimpering for a few minutes, I carried out all the diagnostics within my repertoire which involved making sure that no wires had come loose, then starting the engine again to see if the alternator charge light had gone out. It hadn’t.

During normal use we consume roughly 10% of the domestic battery bank each day. I have four 160ah batteries for our domestic supply and one dedicated 110ah starter battery. I knew we could last a few days without charging the domestic bank but I didn’t know how long the starter battery would last. If I ran the starter battery down too low I knew that I could use the jump leads I carry on board to draw from the domestic bank but, even with careful power management I knew the batteries wouldn’t last nine days until we returned to our mooring at Calcutt Boats and access to an engineer or two. We needed to resolve the issue fairly quickly but I didn’t expect many or even any of the local marinas would be open for business over the Christmas period.

In order to conserve our dwindling battery charge we needed to avoid using the inverter and any 240v appliances on board. My laptop is normally on and charging for at least twelve hours each day. My old Samsung laptop died a month ago so I have been using Cynthia’s old MacBook Pro instead. Unfortunately its battery is dead so the laptop will only run when attached to the mains. We decided to run the inverter for just an hour a day for phone charging which meant that I couldn’t write a newsletter last week. I apologise for another missed week but I suspect that you were too busy eating and drinking to excess so didn’t miss it anyway.

We cruised for an hour to Crick marina.I tied up on their diesel filling point and then sat in the engine room looking blankly at the alternator while Cynthia scoured the marina for signs of working staff or boat owners who could offer advice.

Within minutes she persuaded a mechanically minded boater to lend a hand. He wasn’t able to do much other than confirm my own suspicions. No wires were loose, the belt was tight enough and the charge light stayed on when the engine started so the indications were that the alternator wasn’t working.

I couldn’t understand why. The alternator which came with the boat when I moved on board in April 2010 died in August last year. It’s replacement was just four months old so there shouldn’t have been a problem with it.

Cynthia found another couple who didn’t have any mechanical knowledge but they suggested joining River Canal Rescue. I have mixed feelings about RCR. I have used them twice before for engine servicing. I’ve had the same engineer, Kerry, each time. He’s been excellent but the office administration has been awful.

I considered joining them in April last year when my aging alternator belt snapped. I decided not to at the time because of their terms and conditions. You have to wait 72 hours after you join before they will come out to you. Last time I asked Calcutt Boats to supply and fit a new belt. On this occasion I thought we could limp along for three days so before we left Crick marina I paid £200 online for their Gold membership.

We cruised for another couple of hours before mooring mid afternoon. I was still concerned about our ever depleting batteries so I phoned North Kilworth Wharf to see if they had a mooring for the night where I could plug my shore line in to charge the battery bank. I didn’t really expect to reach anyone late afternoon on Boxing Day but shortly after trying the landline and mobile number listed on their web site my phone rang. It was the very helpful lady manager. She couldn’t help me with a mooring, and couldn’t offer me any advice about me troublesome alternator, but she offered to try and find her husband who knew a thing or two about them. I thanked her for her kindness but there probably wasn’t any advice he could offer me which hadn’t already been offered.

On Sunday we cruised thirteen miles to the Foxton flight without seeing another moving boat. We had the flight to ourselves. Two of the three lock keepers on duty were busy roping off a floating towpath caused by flood water from the fields undermining the towpath. The third and elderly lock keeper was on duty but asked if we could manage on our own as he wasn’t feeling too well.

Cynthia enjoyed her first attempt at taking a narrowboat through locks in front of an attentive audience. Despite the constant rain dozens of visitors lined the locks watching her progress.

The original plan had been to try and book a mooring with power at Union Wharf in Market Harborough but their office wasn’t returning my calls. We decided to turn left at the bottom of the Foxton flight to try Debdale Wharf for moorings instead.

Debdale’s marina office was closed but lights were on in one of their sheds so I knocked on the door. I thought I was in luck. Ex Calcutt Boats engineer Jim Garrett popped out of the shed where he was refitting his own boat. There were no staff on site to authorise a temporary mooring so I suggested to Jim that I could moor on an empty space inside the marina entrance until manager Steve came into work the following day. Jim didn’t think he would allow me to moor there so he tracked Steve down somewhere inside the marina to ask permission.

Steve wouldn’t allow us to stay in the marina for the night, which I thought was odd. I was more than happy to pay for a space and I certainly wasn’t in anyone’s way as the marina was closed for business. I know the staff at Calcutt Boats would have been happy to help a boater in distress but the spirit of goodwill didn’t appear to extend as far as Debdale.

We left the marina in the fading light to look for somewhere to stay for the night. Fifteen minutes later we were back at Foxton. As we negotiated the swing bridge next to the Foxton Locks Inn we decided to treat ourselves to a meal there at the end of a long and troublesome day.

We moored the boat on the towpath a few hundred feet away and hurried back to the pub to eat. Unfortunately for us the pub had stopped serving food twenty minutes earlier. We had a quick drink and, more in desperation than anticipation, decided to try Bridge 61 opposite.

Bridge 61 is a quarter of the size of the Foxton Locks Inn. It’s not as smart looking, it has a tiny little bar and was full of scruffy boaters. We loved everything about it. The atmosphere was warm and inviting and the food cheap and delicious. We both ordered beef stew in a plate sized Yorkshire pudding for just £5 each. The icing on the cake as far as I was concerned was a pint of mysterious draught ale. The staff didn’t know its name or strength or much about it at all other than it was selling very well. It was wonderful.

The following morning we dodged showers on the two hour cruise to Market Harborough before mooring in the only free space on the canalside moorings just outside Union Wharf. As soon as I moored I phoned RCR to ask for an engineer. As I had only joined two days earlier I expected to be told to wait another day. The Christmas spirit which had bypassed Debdale Wharf had clearly reached the RCR offices in Stafford. They agreed to send an engineer later that day once they found my membership details. The half hour delay was a small price to pay for a same-day engineer.

We spent the morning exploring Market Harborough’s fascinating town centre. All of the town’s hundreds of independent stores were filled with happy festive shoppers. We did a grocery shop at Sainsbury’s, and I purchased a pair of overalls and a set of pry bars for an important job I had scheduled for later in the day.

James was listing to port, so much so that water was overflowing the draining board, then pooling between the kitchen worktop and the cabin side. Water was also accumulating on the port side of the shower tray, and on the port side of the engine bilge. Condiments slid across the polished surface of the table in our Pullman dinette and the flower vase on the forward bulkhead cupboard top spent most of its time crushing plants against the cabin side.

The list is my fault. The boat was balanced perfectly when I moved on board, but in November 2011 I over-plated the original perished wooden cabin with steel. The new cabin top made the boat water tight but added a tonne to the boat’s weight. I raised the boat’s centre of gravity while meant that it wasn’t quite so stable. The additional weight also increased the boat’s draught by two inches.

I managed to decrease the draught slightly by removing half of the steel ballast bars from the engine room. All was well until November last year when I added another quarter of a tonne to the boat, all on the port side. I had the engine cooling system modified from raw water to keel cooling, and I had a large double radiator installed in my office under my desk.

I talked to the staff at Calcutt Boats about the problem. They suggested either moving the boat’s ballast from port to starboard or, if I didn’t have access to the ballast, welding a heavy steel plate to the starboard side to balance the boat.

I still had several dozen steel ingots in the engine bilge, some of which were on the port side. The idea was to move them to the starboard side to decrease the weight on one side of the boat and add it to the other. That was the plan for later in the day after the RCR engineer hopefully resolved our alternator problem.

Senior RCR engineer Kerry arrived at 3pm. A quick visual check told him that there was nothing obviously wrong, then a couple of minutes with his multi meter revealed the problem. The alternator, new just four months ago, had stopped working.

Kerry wasn’t surprised when he discovered that I was asking the alternator to replace 10% of my domestic bank’s 640ah each day. He suggested that even in such a short period of time I had worn it out. I’m hoping the alternator is still under warranty. Next week I’ll check with Justin Green who fitted the alternator in August.

Within an hour Kerry had the old alternator replaced with a new 70 amp alternator from his van stock then phoned their office so that they could relieve me of £70.

As soon as Kerry left I moved all of the ballast bars I could reach in the engine bilge. Cynthia tested the new trip scientifically. She fried two eggs. Success! They stayed in the middle of the pan rather than huddle together on the hob’s port side.

The boat’s not quite level yet. I think I can solve the slight list by moving the remaining dozen ballast bars which are jammed under the engine. They are quite difficult to get to though, so I will save that joy for a day when I am feeling particularly energetic.

We spent our remaining two days in Market Harborough wandering around the town eating as much as possible.  I can recommend Veneto for inexpensive and delicious Italian food, Simple Simon for their goat’s cheese and beetroot panini, and The Cook Shop on Church Street for its ridiculously comprehensive range of high end cookware.

On our last day, Tuesday, we collected a full load of washing from the dry cleaners on Coventry Road. They did a large “twice the size of a domestic load” service wash for £15. Fifteen pounds was a little more than I wanted to pay, but we had some items to clean which were too big for our little cheap and cheerful on board twin tub so we decided to splash out.

The laundry was spotlessly clean and beautifully folded when we picked it up. The only fly in the ointment was that they charged us £30 rather than the suggested £15. They said that they didn’t want to mix two different colours in our wash even though they told us everything we brought them would go in the same wash when we first visited. We didn’t have a leg to stand on though. The ticket they gave us when we took the washing in, which neither of us had looked at, clearly indicated the increased price. You live and learn!

We battled a lively breeze on the way back to Union Wharf and then spent the evening listening to small branches break off the trees above us and crash onto the roof. The wind gusted to 45mph making cruising very difficult indeed. Fortunately we didn’t have to until the following day.

Our cruise back to Foxton the following morning was interesting. In several places wind-blown trees hung precariously low over the canal. Two had crashed into the water but we squeezed past them with a little cabin scraping and then wound our way around numerous large waterborne branches.

We had to moor a mile before Foxton. A large fallen tree completely blocked the canal. It had toppled from the offside over the stern of a moored boat and even blocked the towpath. The tree had fallen the previous morning. CRT contractors had cleared the obstructed towpath but not the canal itself.

The danger of mooring under canalside trees on windy days

The danger of mooring under canalside trees on windy days

Within half an hour three contractors arrived from London, one English, two eastern European. Within minutes they cleared branches from the moored boat then tried to winch the tree out of the canal from the offside. They stopped very quickly when they realised that an underwater branch was trapped beneath the boat and was lifting it out of the water.

One of the Polish guys simultaneously demonstrated his balance and his disregard for health and safety rules. He climbed from the listing boat onto the fallen tree in the middle of the canal carrying an enormous chainsaw with four feet long bar. As he tried to maintain his balance on the slippery trunk, he poked his chainsaw bar under the water to locate the hidden branch. Once he found it he jumped back onto the boat, started his chainsaw and then, helmetless, gripping the boat’s cruiser stern rail, leaned out over the water, poked the saw four feet under water and began cutting. He was frightening to watch, but very effective. Within two hours the tree had been cleared and logged and we were on our way again.

We pulled onto the landing beneath the Foxton flight next to Bridge 61. While I walked to the head of the flight to book us in with the lock keeper, Cynthia attended to lunch. Normally this involves an hour preparing fresh locally bought produce. On this occasion all she had to do was walk into the pub with two of our bowls and ask the staff to fill them with jacket potato and beef stew.

Halfway up the flight Cynthia handed me a steaming bowl. I suppose her Californian accent was to blame but the beef stew turned out to be chilli but I wasn’t complaining on a cold winter’s day.

The wind and rain returned as we left the flight. We moored at Kicklewood Spinney in a squall which bent the trees above us and soaked us with heavy horizontal liquid sheets.

New Year’s Day was cold. We had our first winter frost and a wind which cut like a knife. After three hours wrapped in fleeces, gloves, waterproofs and my very fetching trapper’s hat, I was chilled to the bone. We moored next to Winwick Manor and called it a day.

Yesterday we cruised a little further before stopping briefly to allow Cynthia to walk into Yelvertoft to Squisito for a little culinary retail therapy. She returned an hour later with a loaded box and an unloaded wallet.

While she was away I received a call from RCR. They wanted some money from me even though I had given my debit card details over the phone when Kerry replaced the alternator.

They also wanted an additional £75 from me for their ‘on the spot joining fee’. I was told that because an engineer had visited me within the initial 72 hour exclusion period I had to pay extra. I refused. I pointed out that I wasn’t advised of this fee when joining or during any of the conversations I had with their staff prior to the engineer arriving. To their credit, RCR backed down immediately but, once again, they’ve demonstrated their appalling office admin.

A giant felled oak in a field next to the Watford flight

A giant felled oak in a field next to the Watford flight

With Cynthia back on board, we carried on for another three hours before mooring as we lost the light beneath the Watford flight, close to the noisy M1 which was thankfully invisible and inaudible with the curtains drawn and our music on.

Our winter break has been a thoroughly enjoyable and eventful ten day break from my winter work, but today I need to cruise for five hours to reach the Calcutt flight. We’ll moor above the locks tonight ready for the hour’s descent tomorrow and my return to sanding and painting until our cruising season begins again in April. We’re both very much looking forward to our adventures this year.

Cynthia Says…

As most of us know, life often requires one to hold one’s hand to the fire and face one’s fears.  This is how my holiday began on 24 December.  Paul and I had to go to Rugby to do some last minute food shopping prior to setting off on the waterways.  I was determined to make Osso Buco for our Christmas dinner, and had put in an order for veal shanks at a butcher on the outskirts of town.

As you can well imagine, driving in any market town the day before a big holiday brings one face to face with sharing the roads and roundabouts with lots of others in the same boat.  As the English roundabouts are still my Achilles heel, I was more than just a little anxious!  Thanks be to my ever-patient Paul I made the journey without mishap.  The need for practice overshadowed the fear….

All went smoothly until the morning of Boxing Day when the alternator decided to take a holiday.  We thought the suitcase generator would give the batteries a boast, but, alas, that was also not to be!  We were grateful to be able to continue on our way to our beloved Market Harborough, with a quick stop at the Foxton Locks.  We made our way to the Inn and had a drink expecting to be able to sit down to a nice meal and relax.  Well, that was not to be either—-the gods had other plans for us once again!

I love the twists and turns that life always throws your way, and we were rewarded once again for our persistence.  I was thinking the pub across the canal might still be open, so we made our way over the bridge and found ourselves enveloped in the lovely atmosphere of this special place.  We were taken not only by the ambience, but the colourful characters, and then there was the food—-a gift from heaven—some of the best beef stew I have ever consumed, surrounded by a tasty shell of Yorkshire pudding.  My what a lovely evening that was!  It was sort of a celebration of my first go at negotiating the locks of the Foxton Flight.  Paul asked me just as we arrived at the top if I wanted to handle James and I immediately agreed.  Another great opportunity to face my fears, and to do so in front of the many Gone-guzzlers who eagerly lined the locks.  I had a few minor mishaps, but nothing bad, and boy did I ever learn a lot!  This was to be one of my New Years’ resolutions and how nice it felt to be able to actually do this during the last days of 2015!

Market Harborough did not disappoint us—we indulged ourselves gastronomically and enjoyed every morsel.  A little shopping was also part of the experience and finding our perfect kettle was the icing on the cake.  As soon as we return to Calcutt we will once again rejoin our healthy eating patterns.

All started out well for our first days’ journey back to the real world of Calcutt Boats, until we began to hear stories from those along the footpath that there was a fallen tree ahead blocking the passage, and soon enough we came upon it.   We were quick lucky in the fact that the CRT people were there fairly soon and managed to clear the canal in order for us and those behind us to continue our journey.  As we made way to the bottom of the Foxton Locks, we decided another go at the Bridge 61 pub was in order.  Unfortunately when I went to order I was told they don’t do take-away, so I gave some quick thought to how to remedy this situation and asked if I could bring our own bowls.  Happily the answer was yes, so I ran back to the boat and grabbed them.  Shortly after Paul started into the locks our order was ready and I collected it then placed the bowls in a warming oven so our lunch would be ready for us once we moored at the top of the locks.

This time around I was the lock lassie.  I wanted to take James up the flight, but after the last episode, I felt rather ill due to the breathing in of all the toxic diesel fumes.  As I want to continue to operate the boat through the locks, I made a decision to buy and wear an appropriate respirator when doing so in order not to feel ill.

Life hands us many opportunities to learn and grown and do something that scares us every day.  This is always a goal of mine every year.  The past week plus was filled with such opportunities and I welcomed each one.

Hope you all enjoyed the holidays—we both feel very fortunate we have one another and our lifestyle—everyday is new and fresh!

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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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