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Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.


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2017 05 07 Newsletter – Playing the Waiting Game

Our exciting lifestyle of the last seven months is now driving me mad. After our thrilling maiden voyage at the beginning of last week, we’re now playing a waiting game. There’s much more work to do on the boat than we expected because, after being told that the boat’s heating service would just need a quick and inexpensive service to get it working again, surprise, surprise, we’ve discovered that it is well and truly kaput.

Previous owner Piet told us that the Eberspacher worked perfectly the last time that he used it very briefly on a particularly chilly summer’s day in 2015. He was confident that a service would be enough to return it to the robust and reliable heating system that it’s always been.He was wrong.The Eberspacher’s innards disintegrated as soon as they were exposed to the light of day. The Eberspacher technician wasn’t at all surprised as he pointed to the printed date stamp on the heater’s casing. Julisa was built in 1975. The Eberspacher heater is actually three years older than the boat. The service centre no longer carries spares for the forty five year old heater, so we need to have a new unit fitted. One of the conditions of sale was that, if the original heater couldn’t be coaxed back into life with a service, Piet would pay half of the cost of a new heater. We’re both quite pleased about that, as a similar model Eberspacher to the one that has fallen apart is going to cost €1,900. Fortunately, the existing fittings can be used, so there isn’t going to be an installation cost to further deplete our rapidly disappearing savings.We’ve now agreed the scope of the work to be done on Julisa. We’re still hoping that everything is going to be completed by mid May, but we’ve allowed for an extra week. Boat fitter Jos works on his own. He’ll have to fit the jobs on Julisa around the three of four other boats he’s also working on at the moment. He’s a charming and apparently very efficient man, but I think we’ll be popping in to see him on a regular basis just to make sure he stays on track.

Here are our boat details, cost and specifications. If you have an inkling to cruise the Dutch waterways one day, I hope you’ll find the following information useful.

Julisa’s Details

Julisa - Our new summer home

Julisa – Our new summer home

Type: Super Favorite AK
Built by: Van Kleef
Year of Construction: 1975
Length: 9.70m (32’)
Width: 3.20m (10’6”)
Depth: 0.95m (3’1”)
Air Draught: 2.45m  (8’0”) (That’s what we were told, but on our maiden voyage we scraped under a bridge we were told was 2.40m)
Building Material: Steel with mahogany superstructure
Engine: Peugeot Indenor Diesel 106 hp
Motor Number: 0562 690055 indenor AS106 OM
Engine hours at purchase: 3,217
Fuel consumption: An alleged two litres per hour
Purchase cost: €32,700 (£27,365)
Repairs and upgrades required for long term summer cruising: €9,600 (£8,135)
Toilet type: Sea toilet discharging waste directly into the waterway
Water tank capacity: 200l
Diesel tank capacity: 200l
Water heating: None
Shower/Bath: None
Central heating: A defunct Eberspacher
Electrical power generation: 60ah alternator & battery charger when connected to shore power
Electrical power storage: Three lead acid leisure batteries of different ages and sizes and one 110ah lead acid starter battery.
Inverter: 300w modified sine
Berths: 7 (Providing that they are all very good friends who are as thin as rakes)
Insulation: None that I am aware of

Our new summer home has a very different specification to James No 104, my home on the English waterways for six and a half years. The narrowboat was far more comfortable and spacious, far warmer in cold weather – of which there was plenty – and far better equipped for long range, long term cruising.

Before I had even contemplated selling James, I considered taking the boat to Europe. The main problem was of course that I wasn’t committed enough to the idea of European cruising to look for ways of overcoming the challenges involved. My marriage to Cynthia and our difficulty importing her into the UK was the catalyst which allowed my European cruising plans to blossom.

Transporting a narrowboat across the channel would have been costly, but that wasn’t the main problem. A narrowboat is very well designed for shuffling along a muddy and often very narrow ditch. The hull has a flat bottom for bouncing over a canal bed which is often just two or three feet beneath the surface, and one which is often littered with man-made debris which regularly wraps itself immovably around the propellor. Because of constant fouling, narrowboats have hatches, weed hatches, set in the rear deck above the propellor. A cruise  along an urban canal will often necessitate regular stops to allow the owner to remove items of clothing, lengths of rope, tyres, wire baskets and shopping trollies, old sofas, bicycles, and the occasional rotting badger carcass. Julisa doesn’t have a weed hatch. The Dutch describe the stuff they cruise through as ‘sweet water’ which means that there isn’t any debris to foul the propeller. Life at the helm of an English narrowboat is not always as problem free as it is on the Dutch waterways, but it’s usually on very placid waterways.

UK canals usually have very slow flowing water. The negligible current is often determined by nothing more than the number of times locks are used  at either end of any given stretch of water. Consequently, a powerful engine isn’t needed. I have seen some very large craft on English canals powered by very small engines. The most extreme case I saw was a monstrosity, looking like a half finished paddle boat, which often moored around the Braunston area. It was seventy feet long, ten or twelve feet wide and had a hull which towered about passing narrowboats. At the stern, a two metre scaffolding pole tiller was lashed to a 15hp outboard engine. The engine had to work flat out to move in excess of thirty tonnes, but it just about provided enough power to allow the owners to move the boat a few miles up and down the canal in order to pay lip service to the continuous cruising guidelines. This boat was exceptional, but small outboard motors on poorly maintained narrowboats dotted around the network weren’t unusual.

Taking a flat bottomed narrowboat with a low power engine onto the European waterways would be asking for trouble. Even a well built narrowboat with a decent engine would struggle. My own boat had a 42hp engine, which was typical in a boat of its size. It wouldn’t have been powerful enough. The European network includes some very large and often fast flowing waterways used by craft of all sizes, including ocean going ships. An underpowered flat-bottomed boat would usually be at a disadvantage and occasionally be in danger.

Once we began boat hunting over here, we quickly discounted the idea of bringing a narrowboat over. It just wasn’t a sensible or practical choice. Yes, there are narrowboats on European waterways, so cruising on them is possible, but neither easy nor practical. We haven’t seen any since last June when Cynthia and I first visited the Netherlands. In addition to cruising difficulties, mooring wouldn’t be as easy as it is in a shorter, fatter boat.

Mooring opportunities here in the Netherlands are plentiful, providing you aren’t narrowboat shaped. There are a reasonable number of canal-side moorings in or close to towns and villages, but the available spots are far easier to slip into in a short fat boat. There are also an almost unlimited number of marina moorings. However, these are often box moorings which a narrowboat would would not be able to get on or off.

So we discounted narrowboats almost immediately, which still left us with a bewildering choice of potential summer cruising homes. We really liked the look of the Dutch tjalks. These beautiful boats, often over a hundred years old, are usually beautifully maintained. They have large and striking rudders, massive flipper like leeboards, and telegraph pole sized wooden masts reaching high into the sky.

One of the Dutch tjalks on our shopping list

One of the Dutch tjalks on our shopping list

We found a few lower end tjalks within our budget, but common sense prevailed. These are sailing boats. Their place is on one of the Netherlands many large meres, scudding gracefully over the waves. They aren’t particularly suitable for cruising and living on board full time. Most of the tjalks we looked at, particularly the boats within our budget, had beautiful but very basic accommodation. We would have needed to spend a small fortune to upgrade the electrics and onboard facilities to meet our requirements. We would have had to pay another fortune to cruise anywhere in one. Tjalks are large and very heavy wooden boats with a bow like a Croc rubber shoe. They offer a great deal of resistance to any engine trying to push the boat through the waterways. Consequently, fuel consumption can be as high as five litres an hour.

Another consideration was the boats’ high mast. There are so many bridges on the Dutch waterways that we would have to either consider having the mast unstepped, lowered, when cruising, or only cruise on one of the relatively few ‘mast up’ routes. The final nail in the tjalk coffin was the craft’s large open deck. The more external deck space, the less internal living space. Even though our plans were to only use the boat during the summer months, the weather in the Netherlands is too similar to English summers to realistically expect to spend most of our time out on deck.

We also considered buying a Dutch barge. We were given the details of two very good condition Dutch barges by Calcutt Boats’ owner Roger Preen. Thank you Roger, but in order to buy either of these boats, we would have needed to sell our motorhome and then live all year on the waterways. We decided that we wanted the flexibility to explore areas of Europe far removed from the nearest canal or river. A decent Dutch barge was definitely out of our price bracket.

Our final consideration was Dutch motor cruisers. Cynthia was very keen to look at them. I wasn’t so sure. Each time she mentioned them, images sprung to mind of the dilapidated ‘plastic pigs’ which I had often seen on the English canals on untidy moorings, covered in algae and piles of junk.

The more we viewed the online listings, the more I agreed with Cynthia. A motor cruiser would probably do the job. Although not as long as the narrowboats I was used to, they were considerably wider, and offered much more living space than we had in the motorhome. We viewed hundreds of cruisers online, viewed two, and then bought the second boat we saw.

The first boat, coincidentally owned by same broker who sold us the second, was in excellent condition, apart from one small detail which Cynthia noticed. I missed it completely. There were signs of mould on a white flannel covered panel in the small aft cabin. That, and the fact that the boat cost €5,000 more than the second boat on our list, was enough to put us off.

Six months after paying a deposit to hold Julisa, we are now the proud owners of a beautiful old boat and the not so proud owners of two nearly empty bank accounts. They’ll be completely empty by the time we start cruising because we need to make many alterations and improvements before we can live on her in comfort for half of each year. Here’s what we need to do.

Julisa's sea toilet

Julisas sea toilet

This sea toilet needs to come out. It will be replaced with a simple cassette toilet. Julisa will need to be taken out of the water (using the old rust bucket of a crane you can see in this post’s final photo) so that the sea toilet vent can be welded over and then painted. We had hoped to convert the tiny toilet space, the head, into a wet room. We can’t. There isn’t enough headroom, or foot room, or any meaningful room at all actually. There’s nowhere else we can fit a shower on board, so we’re either going to have to use the facilities at one of the many marinas dotting the Dutch waterways. I suspect that the reality will be a combination of both so, if you’re thinking about coming to visit us, bring a peg for your nose.

The main cabin is pictured below. It feels surprisingly spacious after seven months in the Hymer. The biggest job in here is to fit a second fridge. The current and almost new fridge is sixty five litres. It’s half the capacity of the one Cynthia is used to and needs. We can’t fit a fridge with twice the capacity anywhere in the cabin, so we’re going to fit a second identical fridge.

Julisa's main cabin. It feels spacious after the Hymer

Julisa’s main cabin. It feels spacious after the Hymer

The boat’s electrical setup is extremely basic. There are very few 220v sockets throughout the boat, and just two ridiculously positioned sockets in the main cabin. They’re mounted on the outside of a cupboard above the freestanding four ring gas hob. Any appliance plugged into these sockets will drape its cables across the burners. The sockets will have to be moved elsewhere.

There’s only one other socket in the cabin, ingeniously fitted by the previous owner. He attached a multi socket extension lead to the shore line plug in a cupboard in the cockpit, and then ran one extension lead to a point under the dinette in the main cabin. A second extension lead runs to two sockets under the mattress in the aft cabin. New sockets are going to be fitted properly in both cabins.

Our cockpit, which we hope to use for al fresco dining for most of the summer

Our cockpit, which we hope to use for al fresco dining for most of the summer

The cockpit, and just in front of the cockpit on the cabin roof, is where most of our hard earned cash is going. The boat’s mismatched bank of batteries are going to be replaced with a bank of four 135ah AGM batteries for the domestic supply, plus a 110ah battery for the engine. We’re also having a battery charger fitted to keep the batteries topped up when we’re on a shore supply. When we’re not, two small but powerful 240w solar panels should give us all the power we need, and then a 2,000w Victron inverter should provide us with all the A/C power we need when we’re on the move.

The Eberspacher heater in the engine bay will also be replaced. After over four decades of intermittent use, I’m not surprised that the old one died. I think the new unit should provide enough heat to keep us warm, but I’m not terribly confident that the boat will be able to retain the heat the Eberspacher produces. Julisa doesn’t appear to have any insulation at all so, if we do experience any particularly cold summer weather, I expect to have a problem with condensation. The cockpit roof is a concern too. It’s a single layer of waterproof canvas, which isn’t going to provide any meaningful insulation at all.

The cosy aft cabin is being left alone, apart from the installation of one double 220v socket. There’s a tiny amount of rust showing under the floor which is coming through the concrete ballast. A patch of ballast will be hacked out so that the rust can be treated. The steering gear runs from the cockpit under the port side bunk. It’s sagging, so it’s going to be replaced.

Last but not least, Cynthia wants a little sailing dingy to give our two empty davits something to do. She

A place for a boat on our boat

A place for a boat on our boat

has her heart set on a wooden dingy, varnished to shiny perfection. Given the cost of these things, and the amount of maintenance required to keep them in good condition, I think we would spend more time crying over our depleted bank account, sanding and painting, than we would using it on the water. I’m not going to stand between a woman and her dream boat though, so I’m sure it will make an appearance before too long. Maybe I could sell my body to medical science if we run out of money in the bank to pay for it.

Now we’re playing the waiting game. We spent two days at Jos’s boatyard, wedged into a small space under the half tonne lifting frame suspended from the rusty boom of an ancient crane. On the second night, I was woken by Cynthia screaming. “The crane’s falling on our roof. We’ll be crushed!” I think a cat might have jumped onto our bedroom skylight by a nearby tree. Other than that, and the sound of Cynthia quietly weeping, the night was tranquil.

There was no point in us staying any longer at the boatyard and Hymer was in the way. To help pass the time before the boat is ready for cruising, we drove 100km north to one of the Netherlands mountainous areas. At least the Dutch think the area of sand dunes close to the picturesque upmarket town of Bergen are high.

Life under a crane. We glanced through our skylight quite often while we were parked there.

Life under a crane. We glanced through our skylight quite often while we were parked there.

For the last two days, we’ve been parked on the edge of a busy car park next to an expansive area of forests and dunes. There aren’t as many wild camping opportunities in the Netherlands as there were in France but, if we can find somewhere to park, we’re usually left alone. As I sit on our double bed tapping away at my keyboard, I can see a steady procession of dog walkers, joggers, mountain bike and horse riders heading from the car park to the forest trails. All of them are quiet and well behaved. The Dutch are a civilised bunch. Duinvermaak, an upmarket pizza and pancake house, is on the opposite side of the car park to us. Yesterday, as we ambled into town for shopping and coffee, we watched hordes of happy diners sitting on the restaurant terrace, basking in the afternoon sun. Today, we think we will join them. We’re still living the dream, but time can’t pass quickly enough until we can start cruising.

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I created this site in 2010 shortly after I moved aboard a dilapidated forty year old wooden topped narrowboat on England’s inland waterways. Since then, I’ve invested over seven thousand hours in the site’s maintenance, content creation, and answering thousands of emails from aspiring boat owners wanting to know more about living afloat and, more recently, living and touring full time in motorhome with less living space than an average garage. I’m often told that my site is an incredibly useful resource for anyone considering an alternative lifestyle. I want to ensure that the vast amount of knowledge provided by me and other generous site contributors is always available for those who can benefit from it. That’s where I need your help.
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Cynthia Says…

“The hills are alive….and On Hold”
Paul and I both miss the mountains and hills we are so familiar with in our respective countries, so as much as we love the Netherlands, it is, well, Very Flat!  But just over a week ago we were driving north in North Holland (about 1 hour from Amsterdam) and came upon the most gorgeous village that had….HILLS!!  And beautiful sand dunes to boot.  What more could we want??
As you may remember from last weeks blog, we had returned to Friesland to check out that area as it contains numerous lakes which are of great interest to us, because they are someplace where we can moor up the boat for free.  There is an ensign  (which we display on the boat) that one can obtain from any tourist office that allows one to stay for free on these lakes and the islands therein.  We will definitely be getting one of these and will make good use of it.
Last Tuesday we decided we needed to head back to Leiden to see Jos about the work we are having done on the boat. Before we drove there, we decided once again to return to Bergen and found a great spot to park right next to the woods, and the parking there is free!  We didn’t have much time to explore the woods, but vowed to return after our trip to Leiden.
We had gone over the things we wanted to have done on Julisa the previous week and had been waiting for the final quote from Jos.  Paul is great working out anything having to do with figures and such and he had a pretty good idea what we needed to come up with in the $$ department.  But, low and behold, the figure was less than expected, so we were elated.
We spent the next couple of days doing errands, dreaming about finally being on Julisa and also exploring Leiden on foot, doing some necessary shopping and just checking out the boats on the canals.
After all was said and done with Jos, we were told that Julisa would be ready 20 May, so unfortunately we will have to delay the start of our canal cruising until then.
As we had had enough of the city we couldn’t help but find ourselves wanting to make the trip back to Bergen and further explore the town and the hills and dunes trails.  Even though it was Friday afternoon rush hour, we were lucky enough to be heading north and had no issues with traffic.  And best of all, our parking lot in Bergen had a spot for us!
Yesterday, Saturday, we couldn’t resist the fine sunny warm weather as it beckoned us to come outside and make the most of the day which we did.  Bergen is charming and full of vitality and a lovely energy.  We did a bit of shopping and enjoyed watching the world pass by as we sat at an outdoor cafe and sipped our beverages.
Florence has really taking to going to town with us and she is very good–no barking like so many of the dogs we meet.  She doesn’t mind the crowds, and is well behaved, so it is a pleasure to have her with us.
We are not sure what the coming week will bring, but I am pretty certain we will be staying close to our little haven here in Bergen.  It offers everything that brings us joy and happiness.
We hope you enjoy a good week ahead, and many thanks for all the kind words about last weeks blog post–it’s nice to be back!  And a special thanks to those of you who were interested in the 3e Centre I attended to rid myself of the leukemia cells.  I am always happy to share the fact that there are many ways to heal cancer that give much better results than western protocol.
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Paul Smith
 

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.

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