2017 04 30 The Transition From Wheels to Water
If you’re new to this site and you’ve been following the chronological post listing in the newsletter archive, you may be wondering why the last post before this one was way back in September 2016. There’s Â very good reason. Cynthia and I no longer live on a narrowboat on the English waterways.
At the beginning of OctoberÂ 2016, I sold my narrowboat, packed all my belongings into a Hymer motorhome, and drove to the Netherlands to join my estranged wife. Cynthia and I had been married for three months but separated for most of it. We decided that we didn’t’ want to continue trying to overcome both the bureaucratic nonsense and the ridiculous expense necessary to allow her to live in the UK on the inland waterways network with me. We decided that, if we couldn’t live together in the UK, we would spend our time exploring as much of Europe as we could in our Hymer motorhome.
Seven months later, we’re about to return to life on the water, this time on the wonderful Dutch network. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our European travels. We’ve visited Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Austria and France. We spent most of the winter close to the Mediterranean coast in the south of France.
We left the Narbonne area mid February for what we hoped would be a gentle month of exploration before arriving at a German clinic in time for Cynthia’s five week stay at a homeopathic cancer clinic mid March.Â As usual, our tour didn’t go quite as smoothly as we would have liked, including some scary moments in both the Swiss and the French Alps.
If you would like to read about our motorhome travels, our tour blog is here. I stopped writing those blog posts a couple of months ago to concentrate on writing a book. The book is progressing nicely, and I miss blogging so, from now on, both Cynthia will be adding new posts to this site regularly.
We paid a deposit on a Dutch motor cruiser towards the end of last year and then, last week, arrived back in the Netherlands to have a survey done on the boat and hopefully set off on a five month cruise beginning mid May.
There you are, completely up to date. I hope that you enjoy our first boating blog post of 2017.
Last Tuesday, we to Kempers Watersports on the Westeinderplassen in Leimuiden to see our new summer home for the first time since last October. The six kilometre long lake was a far cry from the narrow English waterways I fell in love with seven years ago. There are many hundreds of boats moored at over a dozen marinas around the lake. There are five hundred berths at Kempers Watersports alone. Many of the boats moored there dwarfed our little ten metre boat, including a handful of twenty five metre sea going monsters costing in excess of half a million euros. Some people have far too much money for their own good.
We quickly established the location of Julisa, the boat that we hoped would be ours the following day, and then walked along a series of wide jetties towards the marina entrance. I wasn’t quite as excited as Cynthia appeared to be. Much as our Hymer home has frustrated me since last October, I have begun to relax into our travelling lifestyle. I particularly enjoyed the time we spent on the Mediterranean coast in France. The warm and sunny days were a far cry from the cold and damp weather I endured in England for over half a century. The Hymer has been too small for me to live in comfortably, but I have found a solution for my mild claustrophobia. Cynthia has found the solution actually. When I become too unbearable, which is more often than I care to admit, she suggests, always diplomatically, that I take a long walk along the coast or into the mountains, through the forests or along the beaches which are usually within walking distance of our overnight stops. The walks, usually on dry, sunny days, help tremendously.
Now we had left the warm weather thirteen hundred kilometres behind us to buy a boat I wasn’t sure we could really afford and which, I was pretty sure, wasn’t going to be anywhere as comfortable as our little motorhome, despite the many costly alterations which we still needed to make. As we walked along a series of wooden pontoons past craft ranging from immaculate wooden motor boats to four deck look-how-rich-I-am plastic gin palaces, I was so nervous I felt physically sick. We saw the boat for the first and only time last October, wedged on a wooden cradle in the corner of a cavernous hanger on the edge of an industrial park four kilometres from the nearest canal. On the strength of our hour long visit we had already paid a non refundable €5,000 deposit. I wasn’t sure that committing to this boat less than a month after selling my last one was a good idea. In fact, I was pretty sure it wasn’t, and I was beginning to regret the hastily made decision to buy it.
I held my breath as we walked towards the end of a pontoon on the edge of the expansive marina. Walking past the gently rocking bow of a forty foot, three deck motor cruiser, we saw Julisa for the first time in her natural environment.
She looked wonderful.
The owner, Piet, had promised to repaint the already immaculate hull and apply a few more coats of varnish to the mahogany superstructure while we were away in France over the winter. He had clearly kept his promise. The forty two year old boat looked brand new.
We spent ten enjoyable minutes admiring her from a distance, but what I really wanted to do was climb on board. Cynthia was horrified. “It’s not our boat. You don’t jump onto someone else’s boat unless you’re invited. The Dutch are very possessive about their boats, cars and homes. Piet would be very annoyed if he found out. We’re just going to have to wait until the survey tomorrow. You can see enough through the cockpit window. You’ll just have to be satisfied with that!” Despite Cynthia’s indignation, I could tell that she was as keen as me to see more of our future home.
“I can’t see much through the window. Why don’t I loosen a few of these fasteners so that I can look inside? I won’t actually be on the boat.” Translating Cynthia’s silence as agreement, I opened a small section of the blue canvas cockpit cover, kneeled on the pontoon, leaned on the gunnel and poked my head inside the boat. Everything was spotless. An ornate mahogany captain’s chair rested on padded feet over the varnished teak deck. Artfully arranged blue cushions lay on the white leather seats on the port and starboard sides. “This really is a beautiful boat…” I began to tell Cynthia as she pushed her head through the gap next to me so that she could see the cockpit herself.
“I wonder if the door to the main cabin is locked?” she interrupted guilelessly.
That was all the invitation I needed. Minutes later, we were both sitting in the cockpit, pretending the boat was already ours, discussing features and functions, and dreaming about the summer ahead. Julisa rocked gently under us. A lively north westerly blew an endless series of white capped waves towards the protected marina entrance. A pair of black cormorants sat on top of adjacent pilings, wings spread to catch the afternoon sun. We sat for an hour on someone else’s boat, thinking about canals, rivers and lakes, and worrying about the following day’s survey. I was doing the worrying actually. Cynthia leaves fretting about the unknown to me.
There was no need to worry. We were both delighted with the surveyor’s report. He confirmed what we thought; the boat is in very good condition for its age. It’s in very good condition for any age actually. In recent years, more time, effort and money has been spent on labour and maintenance than cruising and relaxation. In fact, Julisa was used for just three weekends last year. When the boat wasn’t being used in the summer, it was left covered in a sheltered marina berth. Each year, during the winter months, the Julisa was taken out of the water and kept in a spotless farm warehouse. She has had her hull repainted and her woodwork varnished every year for the last decade.
Aesthetically, the boat takes some beating, but I am always more interested in practicality than appearance. I knew that we were going to make a number of costly alterations before we could live on her for extended periods.
Julisa is a much smaller boat than I am used to. My narrowboat, James No 194, my home for six and a half years, was 18.9 metres (62’) long and 2.1 metres (6’10”) wide, which gave me forty square metres (four hundred and thirty square feet) of living and storage space. Julisa is just 9.7 metres (32’) long. At 3.2 metres (10’ 6”) wide, she is a little beamier, but the total living and storage area is just 31 square metres (three hundred and thirty square feet). There’s not as much living space as I would like, but our new summer home offers 50% more space than we’ve managed with in our Hymer motorhome over the last six months. The boat is small, but I’m sure that we’ll be very comfortable.
The practical difficulties we face have nothing to do with the space available to us. Compared to the tiny space I’ve endured for the last six months, Julisa actually feels very roomy. Small spaces don’t bother Cynthia at all, so she’s delighted. She keeps referring to the boat as ‘commodious’ I don’t know what that means, but I assume it’s a good thing. The onboard equipment and specification are the real problem. The boat was designed forty two years ago as a very pretty toy to be used on weekends and holiday. The onboard systems and facilities are pretty basic and need upgrading.
The toilet is the biggest problem.
Forty two years ago, waterways regulations in the Netherlands weren’t as strict as they are now. If you wanted to dispose of your toilet waste, you simply dumped it in the water you cruised through. Great for the fish, not so pleasant for anyone swimming near your boat with their mouth open. You aren’t allowed to dump black waste as you travel these days, which presents a few logistical problems if, like us, if you plan to live on board all the time with nothing to collect your waste other than a sea toilet.
The previous owner’s solution was simple. On the few occasions each year he managed to escape both his office and the onerous taxi driving required as a father of two teenaged daughters, he spent a day or two on Julisa. The sea toilet was used for liquid waste only. Each of the many marinas on the Dutch network has comprehensive facilities, so Julisa’s crew were never more than an hour from the nearest fully functional toilet for depositing a few solids. There was always the rare chance of an inspection from the waterways authorities, so he kept a supply of toilet bags on board. The bags are designed to fit under the sea toilet seat. You sit on the toilet, do your business, and then remove and dispose of the bag with the rest of your household bags. He didn’t ever use them. I can’t say that I blame him. The idea doesn’t appeal to me much either.
Our solution is slightly more user friendly.
We’re going to have the sea toilet removed and replaced with a simple cassette toilet. We considered fitting a pump out toilet and a holding tank, but there isn’t much space on board for a tank much larger than we would have with a standard cassette toilet, so there isn’t much point. We also considered fitting a composting toilet, similar to the one I had fitted on my narrowboat. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough room for that either, so the cassette will have to do.
Next on our to do list is something a little harder to resolve than the toilet. We don’t have a shower on board. I considered having the boat’s tiny toilet cubicle converted into a wet room with a shower and shower tray but, again, there just isn’t enough room, and the shower tray would have to go over the access panel to the bow thruster. Until we can think of a better solution, we’ve bought a portable shower, similar to a weedkiller spray bottle and wand, and a camping shower cubicle. We also bought the shower cubicle with the intention of setting it up inside the boat when we want to shower, and then dumping the shower water, never more then five litres per shower based on our extensive use of a similar shower on the narrowboat, into the galley sink. Unfortunately, neither Cynthia nor I thought to check if the shower cubicle has a shower tray or if the cubicle is just a four sided tent to provide a little privacy. We’ll try to pluck enough courage to look before we move on to the boat. If the collapsable shower cubicle idea doesn’t work, we’ll just have to rely on marina facilities. For the last six months on the road, we’ve made do with a shower every three or four days. I don’t think we smell too bad but, as no-one ever parks particularly close to us, maybe we do.
Another change we’re going to have to make is to the onboard power. It is, quite frankly, a mess. There are four batteries of different sizes and different ages. The oldest and largest battery was fitted three years ago. I’m changing them for a bank of four 140ah AGM batteries, which should last us for the next decade. A means to power the batteries is also on our shopping list.
We’re having a solar array fitted that is slightly smaller than the 3 x 100w directional panels I had on the narrowboat. The solar panels won’t generate as much power as I’m used to but, as we’re only going to be using the boat each year from May to September when the solar panels will be more efficient, they should generate enough.
There’s a good quality, good condition fridge on board, but it’s too small for Cynthia’s culinary needs. There’s enough space to add another similarly sized, eye-waveringly expensive fridge, so that’s on the shopping list too.
There are a few minor maintenance tasks highlighted on the survey report; resealing the join between superstructure and hull, adding a support to the sagging steering gear cable, and replacing a couple of gas hoses. Two or three hundred euros should be enough to cover them, as long as we can get the heating system working.
During the three hour long survey I tested every piece of equipment on board. The only faulty item was the Eberspacher heater. It fired up and produced billowing waves of smoke, but no heat. Piet suspected that it just needed servicing. On the three occasions he used the boat the previous year, the weather was hot and sunny. The year before that, he’d needed to heat the boat on just one occasion. Two years without running the heater, he suspected, had blocked the jets. A quick call to a guy who services Eberspachers confirmed his diagnosis. Piet offered to pay for the service. If that doesn’t work, Piet will pay half the cost for a new Eberspacher to be installed.
Last, but not least, we need to make the boat a little more user friendly for two heavy and short legged basset hounds. They can’t get on and off the boat on their own at the moment. They both have harnesses with carrying handles, but 65lb Florence takes a bit of carrying, especially if I have to stand with one leg on the bank and the other on a narrow gunnel, bent double to try to force her bulk through a small glass window into the cockpit. We need to have a section of cockpit superstructure hinged – a dog door if you like – to allow them easy access and to prevent me from putting my back out every time either Tasha or Florence need a toilet break.
We emailed our list of requirements to a very good boat fitter in Leiden ten miles north east of The Hague who had agreed to do the work. All we needed to do before Jos quoted for the work was to take Julisa along twenty kilometres of scarily wide Dutch canals and expansive lakes to his workshop so that he could see the boat.
We had to wait for five frustrating days before the our payment for Julisa travelled electronically from England to the Netherlands, and the broker, Warner, could take a break from his busy boat showing schedule to deliver the keys to us. The big day was last Tuesday, the coldest, wettest and windiest day for weeks.
We had a few days to prepare for the cruise. I downloaded Waterkaarten, a marvellous iPhone and iPad app which covers all of the Dutch inland waterways network in astounding detail. Everything you need to know is listed on the app’s map, including all bridge width and height restrictions, whether the bridge is fixed or liftable, and if it lifts, how and when it will be raised.
The network is very different from the UK. Locks are few and far between. Bridges are the main navigational issue. They are often many times the size you would expect to see in the UK. Nearly all of them are manned by full time bridge keepers who watch the canals and rivers from waterside offices ready to stop the flow of traffic on roads large and small to let passing boats through.
During our extensive research, we learned that a boat with an air draught of less than 2.5 metres can pass under the majority of main road bridges where there can often be a lengthy wait before the bridge is raised. Our new boat has an air draught of 2.45 metres. We hoped that our route, passing under dozens of bridges, would allow us to pass unscathed. The problem with the Waterkaarten app for an English speaker is that all the navigations notes are in Dutch.
The app takes a bit of getting used to, which is why my knickers were firmly in a twist the day before our maiden voyage. A strange symbol across the waterway had a Dutch annotation next to it, ‘schulpstuw’. Google translate informed me that the word meant “shell weir”. I couldn’t find any reference to a shell weir on t’internet, so the only solution to finding more about what appeared to be a worryingly shallow weir blocking the main navigation, was to take myself off on a four mile round walk to check it out.
As usual, I had nothing to worry about. When I arrived at the spot marked on the app, the only sign of anything unusual was a pair of dormant traffic lights. I looked at the app data again and all became clear. The waterways depths are marked in decimetres. I had translated thirty decimetres as one foot. It isn’t of course, it’s ten feet. Whatever a shell weir is, this one wasn’t going to bother us as there would be seven feet of clear water under our hull at that point.
I always tend to worry needlessly about coming events, so my next focus was on the deteriorating weather. For the previous few weeks, the sun had shone from a mainly cloudless sky and, although much cooler than the winter temperatures we had enjoyed in the south of France, the weather had been quite pleasant.
Tuesday morning, after an overnight low close to freezing combined with a lively north wind, was decidedly chilly. This didn’t particularly please Cynthia as she was going to have to stay on the unheated boat with the dogs for two hours while I drove our Hymer thirty five kilometres to the fitter’s yard, waited for broker Warner to arrive with the keys to our new home, and then drive me back to the boat and chilled-to-the-bone Cynthia.
I left her in the cold cockpit wrapped in a full length down coat, clutching a hot water bottle, a flask, and two furry basset hounds. By the time I returned with the keys she was looking a little blue and very pleased to see me.
We weren’t in a hurry to begin our maiden voyage. A twenty knot north easterly raced down six kilometres of open lake to the marina, sweeping the tops of waves. Julisa was moored at right angles to a pontoon in an open ended box created by two telegraph poles behind our stern, and rope railings along the port and starboard sides. The wind was gusting from the starboard side, so as soon as we untied our bow and stern lines, we knew that we would be blown into the telegraph pole sized post on the port side. This was going to be a very different experience to steering a narrowboat.
A narrowboat is built like a tank. Contact with stone canal sidings, lock entrances is expected. Raised strips of steel, rubbing strakes, protect the bow and hull sides. A gentle bump or two on a cruise is no cause for concern. In fact, making contact with the boat’s bow and using the bank as a pivot point is a handy way to turn a flat bottomed high sided narrowboat against a wind. Our new summer home is very different.
Julisa’s forty two year old hull was immaculate. There wasn’t a single chip, scratch or scrape marking the snow white paint. We were determined to keep it that way, which is why we didn’t try to move for two hours. We ate our first lunch on board, familiarised ourselves with a pleasingly large number of cupboard and lockers, discussed the improvements we hoped to make, and browsed through guide books and maps. We did anything we could think of to delay the beginning of a cruise onto a waterway I wouldn’t have dreamed of tackling in a narrowboat.
We ran out of excuses eventually, so I started the engine and familiarised myself with the bow thruster. I used to scathingly refer to bow thrusters as ‘girlie buttons’, something which a ‘proper’ boater shouldn’t need to use. With a wind strong enough to blow the whiskers off a walrus, I was very pleased that we had one.
Reversing off our mooring was the scariest part of the cruise, although there were still one or two buttock clenching moments later on. Armed with a bow thruster, a keel and one hundred and six very useful horsepower, after a gentle bump against the mooring and a non too graceful pirouette to keep us off the harbour wall’s solid oak battens, we slid gracefully out of the marina entrance into water choppy enough to make a narrowboat owner’s knees knock.
After spending over half a decade cruising waterways I could almost jump across, edging onto a lake 3km wide was a little unnerving. Once again, I worried unnecessarily. Julisa felt very stable indeed. With the Waterkaarten app showing our route and our precise location as we cruised, we sliced effortlessly through the waves and were able to relax and enjoy our maiden voyage.
The feeling of space on these new waterways was overwhelming. For a start, the Netherlands is Big Sky country. In an area where the elevation is often expressed in negative rather than positive terms – my elevation as I write this is four metres below sea level – there aren’t many hills to get in the way. There’s just so much more water than I was used to in England too. There are over 6,000 kilometres of navigable waterways. That’s twice the length of the English waterways network in a country one third of the size. There are some very large bodies of water too. The Ijsselmeer, at 1,100 square kilometres, is the largest lake in western Europe. The lake we began our maiden voyage from is 20% bigger than lake Windermere, England’s largest lake. The Dutch have a lot of water to cruise on.
Ten minutes after leaving the marina, we cruised through a reed fringed channel onto a wide canal and our first challenge of the day, a low bridge under a four lane highway. My Waterkaarten app tried to assure us that we were safe. The bridge height is 2.5m. Julisa’s air draught was listed at 2.45m. As I edged cautiously towards a mass of low concrete, pushed forward by the strong wind blowing from our stern, I hoped that both bridge and boat measurements were accurate. The solitary operator in the control tower above the bridge didn’t appear bothered by our approach, so we both tried to relax.
We made it by the skin of our collective teeth. Julisa has a varnished hardwood ball topping a length of dowel fitted to a spring on the bow. It’s the same height as the highest point on the cockpit so, if the ball passes under a bridge unscathed, so does the boat. That’s the theory anyway. The problem for a novice and nervous Netherlands boater is that the ball is only ten feet from the front of the cockpit, so there’s precious little time to take evasive action if the ball makes contact. We didn’t have to worry on this occasion. The ball slid under a series of massive steel girders with what appeared to be a cigarette paper’s width to spare.
The next excitement was the Braassememeer, a six kilometre square lake with a series of white horses marching towards our bow. Rough water like this on a narrowboat would have seen me reaching for either tranquillisers or brandy. Julisa handled the water impeccably. A little spray on the windshield was all we had to worry about. Oh, the joy of cruising in a fully protected cockpit on a boat with a keel!
We cruised for two hours past fields filled with spring-time tulips, a never ending procession of water-side windmills, and a steady stream of expensive yachts returning from a jumble of lakes and islands ahead of us. We headed south, away from the yacht playground, towards Leiden, Julisa’s home for the next two weeks. As we approached the town, the canal narrowed to twice the width of an English canal. Moored yachts, motor cruisers, Dutch motor and sailing barges and hundreds of small dinghies and rowing boats lined both banks. We cruised under more bridges, some even lower than our first scary bridge. Two opened as we approached, controlled by smiling men in bridge-side booths.
After two and a half hours of thoroughly enjoyable cruising, when we reached a narrow houseboat lined canal near our destination in central Leiden, we were completely at ease with the Dutch waterways. I think it’s called the calm before the storm. Two hundred metres from our temporary boatyard mooring, we hit our final problem.
A white painted wooden footbridge arched over the canal in front of us. It looked lower than any of the low bridges we had scraped under on our cruise so far. We couldn’t see a man in a booth- the bridge looked too small to have a full time operator – nor could we see any way of opening the bridge ourselves, not that there was anywhere to moor to reach the bridge if we wanted to try. We waited, and waited, and waited, playing with the bow thruster and giving the powerful engine quick bursts to help us hold station on the narrow, windy waterway.
After ten frustrating minutes we decided to moor in front of a waterways maintenance barge before we drifted into its jutting jagged excavation bucket, and look for a solution. Our mooring, the only one available on this crowded stretch of canal, appeared to be close to the cycle path crossing our obstruction. It was, but the mooring was within the private and secure grounds of a large refuse collection company. Leaving Cynthia and the hounds curled up in our unheated cockpit, I walked through a labyrinth of roads and walkways, past dozens of parked refuse collection wagons, gave a cheery wave to the security guard monitoring traffic entering the site as I scurried out of the entrance, found the bridge, established that it couldn’t be raised and then walked to our boat fitter’s home to ask for help.
“You should be able to pass under that bridge,” Jos told me when I asked what to do. “It’s 2.4 metres high.”
“But Julisa is 2.45m high,” I told him, imagining Julisa wedged under tonnes of woodwork, the expensive cockpit canopy slowly tearing from the roof.
“I took a boat like yours under there a few years ago. It should fit. I’ll come and help you try,” he offered with a grin. I wasn’t terribly impressed with his use of ‘should’ and ‘try’. After all, it wasn’t his home he was going to be experimenting with.
The heavens opened as I pushed the bow off the concrete bank towards the narrow bridge centre. Jos took the wheel and then, as the bow edged under the bridge’s solid beams and our dowel height indicator bent slowly backwards, he abandoned the helm to leap onto the bow to stare intently at the cockpit roof. With a worried frown, he waved me forward, gesturing that I should approach very, very slowly.
We made it with just a sliver of daylight between bridge and boat. The bridge was an exciting climax to our first short cruise, the first couple of hours of many hundreds this year.
Julisa is now safely moored behind Jos’s workshop, waiting for him to begin an expected fortnight’s work tomorrow. Much as I have enjoyed our winter’s motorhome adventures over the last seven months, moving back onto the water feels like coming home. The next two weeks are going to pass very slowly. In the meantime we’re both busy compiling our Dutch waterway to do list. We’re really looking forward to ticking them off.