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.
Life goes on, at least for some of us. Florence’s passing becomes a little more bearable as the days go by. Cynthia still can’t bear the thought of visiting the island again where Florence died so, on the few occasions we passed that way recently, Cynthia hasn’t been able to even look in that direction.
This difficult time has been eased by the many messages of support sent to us by site subscribers. We both appreciate each and every one of them, so thank you for your thoughts.
Time is a great healer and, as many of you suggested, so is getting another dog. In that respect, we’ve been very, very lucky.
Over the years, Cynthia has kept in touch with the lady responsible for looking for homes for the retired breeding bitches at the Pennsylvania kennel that Tasha, Florence and a number of other bassets Cynthia rescued came from. There’s usually a long waiting list for these dogs, but Cynthia jumped straight to the head of the queue because of her past track record.
She’s been offered two year old Agnes, Florence’s half sister.
Like Florence, Agnes was retired early because of complications when she gave birth to her first and last litter. Also like Florence, she has a very silly name for a dog. I was all for changing her name to something more suitable, like Bruiser, Fang, or Killer. For reasons completely beyond me, Cynthia wants to stick with Agnes.
We now need to tackle the logistics of collecting our new pooch from a breeder on the other side of the Atlantic. You might think that flying a total of 7,400 miles to collect a new pet is an outrageous and expensive extravagance. It would be if Cynthia hadn’t spent most of her life working for American Airlines. She, and now I, can take advantage of the airline’s lifetime of almost free travel for its thousands of retirees.
Providing that there’s a free seat on a flight, we can have it for a token charge. Hopefully, I’ll fly to Philadelphia at the end of the month. I plan to go a few days early to get to know Agnes (and to ask her if she wants to change her name), and to help prepare her for what is probably her first journey away from the kennel where she was raised.
We aren’t sure whether the airline will agree to carry Agnes at the moment. Their temperature limit for safe pet transport at the terminal, in the cargo area, or on the aircraft itself, is eighty five degrees fahrenheit. Temperatures in Philadelphia over the last two weeks have been consistently higher than that.
We’re praying for cooler weather in the weeks to come.
When we haven’t been keeping ourselves entertained with international dog rescue, we’ve spent much of our time carrying our belongings between the Hymer and Julisa.
Our original plan was to put the Hymer to bed for the summer after 15,000 miles of European exploration. Life has conspired against us. We’ve had to use the motorhome on several occasions recently to ferry Cynthia to and from an Eindhoven clinic, to collect Florence’s ashes and, on a more positive note, to enjoy a weekend’s sailing on a proper boat.
Our boatyard host, Jos, and his bubbly wife Brenda, invited Cynthia and I to crew for them in an annual tjalk race on the Markermeer close to Amsterdam.
In order to enjoy a stress free weekend sailing, we had to raise our stress levels considerably to get there. Our TomTom performed faultlessly until we reached Monnickendam town centre.
Friday is market day. The narrow town streets are blocked by stalls on market day. All traffic is diverted down even narrower streets filled with bicycles, nose to tail parked cars, and hundreds of market visitors.
It’s no place for an eight metre motorhome.
Unfortunately, we had no choice. With a solid queue of traffic behind us, we had to follow a stallholder’s directions down a footpath-thin side street. A handful of smiling market traders enthusiastically moved stalls, bicycles and people so that we could squeeze through the narrowest of gaps onto a series of roads on a housing estate more suitable for minis than motorhomes.
After half an hour of inching past double rows of parked cars we made it to our equally congested waterside campsite. A combination of good weather, the weekend, early summer holidays, and a number of different boating activities, meant that the campsite was bursting at the seams.
Sadly, Cynthia wasn’t one of the happy campers. She still felt incredibly weak after an adverse reaction to antibiotics weeks earlier. She was barely strong enough to manage the motorhome steps. A day hauling windlasses, ropes and sails was out of the question.
Two marinas, Hemmeland and Waterland, shared the water next to the campsite. A thousand sailboats bobbed gently on their moorings. Close to the harbour entrance, the relaxed crews of forty tjalks waited for the weekend’s first race.
After an early breakfast with Cynthia, I enjoyed a second hearty breakfast on Jos’s boat – thank you Brenda. The bacon was a much enjoyed and often missed treat – before we untied our lines for the one hour cruise to the race start line.
Watching the Dutch helmsmen at work was a joy.
Many of the boats, including ours, left and entered the harbour breasted up. I don’t think that any of the tjalks had bow thrusters but, with two boats tied side by side and both engine’s running, the helmsmen managed inch perfect reversing through chaotic harbour traffic every time.
Saturday’s race appeared to be mayhem to the uninitiated. Forty tall masted tjalks under full sail jockeyed for position at the start line, then quickly headed in different directions, the different crews trying to make the most of the light breeze, each making judgements about wind speed and direction, and each plotting the best courses to keep their sails filled, which often meant heading directly towards their fellow competitors.
I’m not sure if anyone knew where their boats ranked in the race. I don’t think anyone cared. They were enjoying simply being on the water and having the opportunity to shout friendly insults at other crews when, as often happened, the boats gently bumped against each other.
Sunday was more about floating than racing, but we enjoyed an interesting diversion on the cruise from
the harbour to the start line. The Dutch lady owner of the boat tied to us told me, with a mischievous grin, that we were going to stop at a McDonald’s drive through on our way to the start line.
I don’t speak Dutch and, although she spoke very good English, I thought something had been lost in translation. As we approached a small island, the crews of both boats stared and took photographs.
The island didn’t look quite right: tall palm trees waved in the gentle breeze, a waterfall cascaded down a smooth rock face, and a sandy beach rose from the lake towards a trio of picnic tables and a rock painted with a pair of familiar golden arches.
We had found McDonald’s ‘Good Times Island’.
The island has been constructed by the global fast food chain for use in one of their latest commercials. You can see the advert here. Fortunately for our health, they didn’t have an operational store outlet on the island. There were prominent signs to discourage landing, so we motored on to an underwhelming start to the race.
The water was glass smooth. Half an hour after hearing the starting gun, we still hadn’t managed to cross the start line. Jos’s heavy boat started badly, and then fell away.
After an eternity, we reached the first buoy. We should have turned on our way to a second buoy, and then a third, before repeating the route several more times. At our speed, completing the race would have taken days.
Jos continued in a straight line after a little banter with the stewards’ boat. We sunbathed and chatted and ate endless snacks as we floated slowly back to Monnickendam harbour. The absence of wind was really a blessing, but Jos didn’t realise that until the following week.
On the return cruise to Leiden, Jos noticed a small crack in his lowered mast. Just before we left his yard to continue our cruise, he unstepped his mast to explore the damage. The mast broke in two. He’s had to shelve his plans for a three week sailing holiday in the tjalk in September.
He’ll probably be able to do the repairs himself, once an engineer friend has made some calculations. He may have to replace the mast, which will be a very expensive affair.
A tjalk was just about within our budget when Cynthia and I began looking for a boat in the Netherlands late last year. I am so pleased that we didn’t buy one. We have neither the funds to maintain one, or the knowledge to sail it.
Our little motor cruiser was a very good choice.
After leaving Monnickendam, we stayed overnight in Leiden and then drove down to Eindhoven to book Cynthia in for another two days of treatment. She came away from the clinic feeling better than she has for weeks, so we decided to carry on cruising.
Cynthia may not have any energy for cruising, but she’s very happy sitting at a table fixing things. She’s very good at finding ways to store the things she needs on board. She wanted a sewing machine. I suggested that we didn’t have room for one. She found a solution. Here it is. Perfect for little jobs on a little boat.
Back on the water, we stayed for the night on Oude Kooi, the private island haven we stopped at for free a week earlier. This time, as storm clouds gathered overhead, a gentle knock on the sliding glass panel that serves as our boat’s front door, indicated that our second visit wasn’t going to be quite as cheap.
We couldn’t complain. The €10 fee secured us a mooring on our very own section of island. I think that the same boating organisation owns all of the island, but our section was separated from the bulk of the island by a wide, weed choked channel, bridged by a single thin and rotting log. Moorings on the far side were stem to stern with visiting boats and pampered owners who didn’t want to stop too far from the island’s basic amenities block.
We were happy with our own boat free stretch of canal bank and its comparative peace and quiet. We lay awake for hours listening to rain pounding on our thin canvas roof and constant thunder crashing as lightning flashed overhead.
A week later we returned to the same island mooring. We stopped on the same stretch on the same day of the week, at the same time of the day, and were asked for money by the same retired couple, working their round from a small dingy with a little outboard motor. This time they charged us €13.50 to stay the night.
At the rate the price is increasing, I think it’s time to move on to pastures new.
I mentioned that the island’s stewards knocked on our glass ‘front door’. The boat’s entrance is something to consider if you are thinking about buying a cruiser like ours.
My narrowboat, James, was typical of many liveaboard narrowboats. The gunnel at the bow was usually about mid thigh high when standing on the towpath, but the towpath height and the canal water level could change the distance by as much as twelve inches. To climb onto the boat, I had to simultaneously throw a leg over the gunnel into the boat’s well deck, and duck under a support bar for the front deck cratch cover.
I’m pretty fit and flexible, so I didn’t think twice about climbing on and off my boat. Some of my guests weren’t quite as happy. I hosted hundreds of guests on my discovery days. I guess that up to 50% of them struggled to negotiate the small entrance, especially those with stiff joints. Most of my guests were definitely on the wrong side of twenty one!
Many cruisers don’t have doors at all. Julisa doesn’t. There’s a sliding glass window on both port and starboard sides of the cockpit. To get into the boat, we have to climb in the same way as we did on James, but as there is less headroom on Julisa, simultaneously ducking and stepping initially stretched muscles I didn’t know I had. I’m used to the contortion now but, on the odd occasion we’ve had guests, there’s much huffing and puffing as they haul themselves through the narrow opening.
We’ve had to adapt to other challenges on Julisa. The most difficult to initially come to terms with was the bathroom.
The boat doesn’t have one.
The head, the toilet room in the bow, is just large enough to sit on with the door closed. There simply isn’t enough room for anything else other than a small and difficult to reach sink.
There’s no room for the most basic of showers.
We considered using a portable shower. We have one on the Hymer, bought when our gas boiler failed. The shower cost us €40 from French sports megastore Decathlon. It’s wonderful.
The seven litre collapsible shower packs down into a bag which takes up very little space. The shower
itself is a breeze to use. We’re actually using it on the Hymer at the moment. The gas boiler is on the blink again. We both love it, but we can’t easily use it on Julisa.
The Hymer has a wet room shower cubicle. Water drains through the shower tray into the motorhome’s 100l grey water tank, so cleaning up after a shower is easy.
We have no such luxury on the boat. The head is too small to fit a shower tray. Even if there was space, we couldn’t block the bow thruster access panel in the floor in front of the toilet.
We considered setting up a collapsible shower stall and tray in the cockpit area, or even on the canal bank when we moor. Neither option is really practical.
The simplest solutions are often the best, so we’ve decided not to wash. Not wash on the boat, that is, rather than not washing at all. Anyway, I’ve actually discovered that washing too often isn’t good for you.
Showering every day is a relatively recent innovation. Showering too often removes essential oils from both skin and hair leading to all kinds of skin complaints and split ends. Showering less often helps save water, protects our body’s essential oils, and shields us from too many guests.
Showering off the boat is easy. During the course of a half day cruise just about anywhere on the Dutch network, we’re likely to pass dozens of marinas, many of which offer short term moorings which include use of their on site facilities. We haven’t seen a Dutch shower block yet which is anything other than spotless, so we’re spoiled for choice wherever we go.
We’ll certainly have every opportunity to test new waterside facilities over the coming weeks. I’ll overcome another hurdle tomorrow by tackling our first Dutch lock.
I’ve negotiated thousands of English locks, often on my own, but I’ve usually been the only boat, or had just one other similarly sized narrowboat for company. I may have to share a lock with a commercial barge or two tomorrow, each up to one hundred metres long, and probably carrying a car on its rear deck.
I’ll also have the lock traffic light system to contend with. Jos, explained the sequences to me, “If there are two red lights, you must stop. If there are two red and two green lights, you can approach the lock. Two green lights mean that you can enter the lock. Four red lights tell you that the lock’s not working. One red light and two green lights means that one of the red lights isn’t working. Four green lights is an indication that the lock keeper’s having a party, and one green, one yellow, one red and one blue light means that you need your eyes tested!”
I’m not sure whether all, or indeed, any, of the advice was accurate, but I will proceed with care just in case.
Very few locks in the Netherlands are used to gain or lose height as they are on the UK network. Not that we come across many locks on our travels. Granted, we haven’t done a great deal of cruising yet, but in 167 kilometres cruising on the Dutch waterways, we haven’t encountered one.
The locks primary purpose in the Netherlands is to control water levels rather than to gain or lose height as they do in the UK. Amsterdam is close to a vast body of water, the Markermeer, so there are a number of protective locks between the Markermeer and Amsterdam.
There’s a lot of water to control. At two hundred and seventy square miles, and at an average depth of sixteen feet, there’s more water in the Markermeer than in the entire English waterways network. It’s big, scary, and far too risky for our little boat if there’s anything stronger than a gentle breeze blowing.
If there’s not much in the way of wind tomorrow, we’ll cruise through the Markermeer’s centre, pausing to wave at far distant McDonalds’ Good Times Island, slip through a lock into the Ijsselmeer which dwarfs the vast Markermeer, and then race for shelter onto the comparatively tiny Ketelmeer, which is still twice the size of lake Windermere in England.
Yesterday, we stopped for the night at Kempers Watersports so that we could visit their on site restaurant for a special meal. It was our first anniversary. As we ate, we talked about all we have seen and done in the last twelve months. We’ve covered a lot of ground, figuratively and literally. Neither of us would change a thing.
Much as we’ve enjoyed our time in this particular area, we’ll be very pleased to escape the noise. Schiphol, a handful of miles north of us, is the world’s 12th busiest airport. Each year, sixty three million people pass through there. I’ll be one of them at the end of the month but, until then, I want to be as far away from noisy airport traffic as I possibly can.
I enjoy writing newsletters which, I am often told, are very useful to anyone considering living an alternative lifestyle either afloat on the English or Dutch waterways, or leading a nomadic life on the road in the tiny living space offered by a motorhome. The downside is that adding content to the site, maintaining it, and answering dozens of emails each week takes a considerable amount of time. I invest up to twenty hours every week on the site and, over the course of the year, many hundreds of pounds. I can’t afford the investment in either time or money without a little help. If you are in the fortunate position to be able to afford a small financial subscription or one off donation to help with the site’s running costs, please click on this link to find out more. If you are one of the generous souls who already support the site, thank you!
We live an idyllic lifestyle; the weather is good, we are fit and healthy, and we have all the time in the world, and just about enough money, to tour or cruise wherever we want in Europe, but there’s a dark and dismal cloud hanging over Julisa today.
After two peaceful days on our island mooring, Oude Kooi on the Klein Kerkegat, we, our happy band of four, cruised for an hour north to Kempers Watersports on the Westeinderplassen to resupply.
The boat’s tiny 200l water tank wasn’t the problem, but our 21l capacity toilet cassette was close to overflowing. Initially we resisted buying a second cassette because of the logistics of finding somewhere to store it securely and out of sight. We’ve now discovered that there is more than enough room in the engine bay.
A second cassette will certainly be out of sight, but possibly not out of smell. Twenty litres of liquid poo slowly cooking beneath our feet as it nestles next to a hot engine as we travel is not a particularly happy thought, but I think the advantage of being able to stay another couple of days away from the expense of marina moorings outweighs the disadvantages of standing above a fetid slow cooker. I think we’ll be ordering a second cassette, and a packet of clothes pegs for our noses, in the very near future.
We both continue to marvel at the size of the waterways over here, and realise once more why narrowboats need to be as tough as they are. I was reminiscing earlier in the week, leafing through the vast collection of digital photo’s I took on my watery wanderings. Sections of canal barely wide enough to accommodate a 6’10” wide narrowboat are common, often through rocky cuttings where a wider waterway would have been a laborious and costly affair in the days when picks and shovels were the builders’ only tools. No wonder then that all narrowboats are a mass of scrapes and scratches.
The vast Westeinderplassan couldn’t be more different. Over fifty marinas circle the three and a half mile long, mile and a half wide lake. A jumble of tightly packed islands form narrow navigable channels through the lake’s northern section. Most are privately owned and used for recreation. Some are still used to grow strawberries and herbs. One, Starteiland, is a publically accessible nature reserve.
After a night at Kempers Watersports marina to top up with water, empty our cassette, and charge our battery bank, we ploughed for forty minutes through white topped swells to the much more placid public moorings sheltered by the small island.
We had the island, and the two hundred feet long jetty to ourselves, until another small cruiser arrived at dusk carrying a father and his two teenage sons. The father, a retired jazz musician from Aalsmeer at the lake’s northern tip, left the the boys and the boat to their own devices when his wife arrived in a second boat to collect him.
His plan was to allow the lads to enjoy a night on their own, fishing from the island using the boat as a refuge in case the weather turned. The reality was far different. After setting up a couple of rods close to the boat, the teenagers climbed into their bunks and slept until morning, leaving the island free for Tasha and Florence to explore at leisure.
After a night on the island, we chugged north to Aalsmeer, the largest town on the lake, and tied up on two hour visitor moorings close to the town centre for food shopping and a two hour cafe visit to use their free WiFi to update Cynthia’s MacBook operating system.
We had a choice of moorings for the night. Another island close to Aalsmeer offered free forty eight hour moorings, but with a lively breeze blowing and just one small space free between two expensive cruisers, we decided to return to the tranquility of Starteiland.
I wish we hadn’t.
That night was peaceful enough, apart from the ever present roar of passenger aircraft launching themselves into the sky from Schipol airport a handful of miles to the north, but the following day was anything but quiet.
At 8am a Dutch waterways work boat arrived to replace a section of broken pilings close to our mooring. The boat mounted excavator hammered in new 25’ long pilings all morning, and then six boats from the local sailing club arrived, each crewed by half a dozen excited children and their patient instructor.
By mid afternoon the work and pleasure boats had motored and sailed away, leaving us alone on the tree studded island again, free to relax and read or, for Florence and Tasha, free to explore the picnic tables for any sailing club lunchtime droppings.
Our two bassets are mischievous little gits. They are living vacuum cleaners, sucking up any morsel left on the ground. Their constant hoovering sometimes causes stomach upsets but, rather than subjecting them to the indignity and inconvenience of muzzles, we keep an eye on them to keep them away from from the inedible and unhealthy.
Neither are terribly active, both are wilfully stubborn, more inclined to sleep than exercise, but they both have huge characters, especially Florence.
Although it was Cynthia who rescued Florence from a basset breeder in Pennsylvania where she was considered surplus to requirements after a difficult birth, and transported her from the USA to the Netherlands after a great deal of paperwork and even greater cost, she always considers Florence to be my dog.
Florence has always been a wonderful companion.
I don’t display emotion easily, other than anger – a trait, Cynthia assures me, which is a result of PTSD after enduring a considerable amount of workplace violence following a decade of managing tough pubs, especially in London. In the short period that this wonderful dog has been with us, Florence has helped calm me considerably.
She is an affectionate clown. Her favourite place is on my lap, which is quite a feat considering she weighs 65lb. The pain in my crushed testicles is always outweighed by the pleasure I feel as she leans her football sized head against me and paws me gently with dinner plate feet.
She grows both restless and mischievous if she doesn’t get enough exercise. In that respect she is very similar to me. I often escape with her for an hour or two. We wander around new towns and villages, stopping occasionally for a drink. The cappuccino brought to me is always accompanied by a bowl of water for Florence. After our drinks we doze and dribble, often in unison, as we relax and watch the world go by. Ours is a very happy partnership.
An idyllic day on the island drew to a close, so we wandered back to the boat for what we expected would be an evening of quiet relaxation.
Both Tasha and Florence are very conscientious with their toilet needs. A gentle whine, or a solitary bark is enough to let us know that they need to go outside. Soon after we climbed back on the boat, after an afternoon of happy picnic bench snacking, Florence whined quietly by the cockpit steps. By the time I put my shoes on, she was pacing restlessly and whining insistently. After opening the sliding cockpit window for her, she hauled her considerable bulk onto a portable step we installed to accommodate her stumpy legs, squeezed herself laboriously through the recently constructed dog door, squatted on the pier’s wooden decking, and shat copiously and at length. She walked a few steps, and then squatted again. Within a couple of minutes she had squatted five times to fire bright brown jets of illness through the decking slats into the lake beneath.
The event didn’t worry me. Both dogs occasionally pay the penalty for their gluttonous ways. To be perfectly honest, I was more annoyed than concerned.
I am not proud to admit it, but I am not very tolerant of anything which makes a mess of what I consider to be a necessarily tidy home, especially one as small as our 32’ long boat.
When Florence jumped back on board and promptly vomited on the cockpit’s highly varnished wooden decking, I was a little irritated. When Tasha followed that by quickly squatting and pebbledashing the rest of the cockpit, I was angry.
“This is too much! We spend all of our time cleaning up after these two. If it’s not dog hair on everything, it’s slobber, vomit or shit! I hate living in a mess all of the time. The dogs are a nightmare!”
While I was busy with my childish tantrum, Florence scrambled outside again to squat and strain, shortly followed by Tasha. Cynthia, ever the diplomat, spoke to me quietly. “When something like this happens, I always ask myself how important I will think it is in a month or a year from now. Is life really THAT bad?” Yes, at the time, I really did think life was that bad. I wouldn’t have done if I knew what was coming.
While she spoke, Cynthia used yards of kitchen roll to calmly clear up the mess, trying to keep up with the regular deposits of watery vomit made by Florence. She constantly soothed ‘my’ dog with gentle and reassuring words and touches, trying to comfort her and ease her distress.
I did my bit by going to bed.
For several hours, Cynthia climbed wearily out of bed every time she heard Florence gag, to mop vomit and encourage her to drink. I did nothing other than lay awake and fume.
Eventually, the storm appeared to pass. The retching stopped and was replaced by the slow and steady breathing of trouble free sleep. I slept too, deeply and without regret, until dawn the following day.
A high pitched heart-rending scream startled me awake. “Oh my God, Oh my God!” Cynthia wailed. “She’s dead. Florence is DEAD!”
I rushed into the cockpit to find Cynthia sitting on the wooden decking above the engine bay with Florence’s limp and lifeless form cradled in her arms. “It’s my fault! It’s all my fault. When I walked with them around the island last night I saw them eating scraps beneath the picnic benches, but I didn’t stop them. WHY didn’t I stop them?!”
Cynthia draped a blanket over Florence, which suited me fine. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her, or even look at her. While the dog which had given me so much unconditional love quietly died on her own, I lay in bed cursing the mess that she made. I felt, and still feel, a selfish, bad tempered, childish prick.
I’m not very good at relationships, feelings or emotional stuff, but give me a clinical task to complete, and I’m pretty much unbeatable.
We had to deal with the logistics of disposing of Florence’s rapidly stiffening husk. We didn’t know the rules in the Netherlands. Did we have to notify the authorities? What did we need to do with her body? We were stuck on a boat on an island in the middle of a large lake, without the transport necessary to move the body of a large dog to a veterinary practice or, as the very last resort, to the closest skip.
My first thought was to call the local police station but, tragic as the circumstances were, it clearly wasn’t an emergency and, at 6am, the small town police station was likely to be closed.
We decided to return to Kempers Watersports with its easy access to a main road and ever helpful staff. The cruise was a sombre affair through grey water streaked with bright green algae under a sky filled with ominous grey clouds.
We tied up at 7am, still much too early to call any of the local authorities, so, still unwilling to accept Florence’s death, I stepped over her blanket wrapped body to attend to our practical needs. The cassette needed emptying, our water tank needed filling and our batteries needed charging.
By the time I completed my tasks, the time was respectable enough to start making phone calls. I tried to phone the local police station, but my Netherlands SIM card blocked calls to 09 prefixes. I called 112, the emergency services number, and asked them for an alternative local number. They couldn’t give me one.
I tried phoning a branch of the Netherlands pet ambulance service. The guy who answered didn’t speak English. I tried another branch. The lady who answered spoke English but couldn’t understand me because of my poor phone signal.
By then, the marina office staff had arrived for work. Martine, the ever helpful receptionist, offered to call the ambulance service and translate for me. They would come, she told me, but there would be a charge for coming, and another for disposing of the body.
Back at the boat, while we waited for the ambulance, I took a deep breath and tackled the unpleasant task of carrying Florence’s stiff body off the boat. She was a big and heavy dog who struggled to fit through the narrow door we had made for her and Tasha. Now that rigor mortis had set in, the task was especially difficult.
I gently lifted the blanket off her. Maybe she wasn’t dead after all. She looked like she was sleeping and, when I slipped my hands between her fur and the deck boards, her body felt warm. Cynthia must have made a mistake. She was probably just in a deep and exhausted sleep.
Then I realised that her body heat was because of the hot engine in the bay beneath her. Our big, adorable, affectionate clown had left us good, and I didn’t have the common decency to comfort her as she suffered.
The ambulance driver and receptionist Martine arrived carrying a stretcher between them, offering quietly spoken condolences. The ambulance driver frowned when she heard we were English, checked her phone and told us the bad news. “I am so sorry for your loss, and I’m sorry to tell you that, because you are not Dutch, the disposal charges are very high. You need to pay €25 for me to transport the body, and then €170 for the cremation”.
We didn’t really have a choice. The only other option was to drop Florence’s body in one of the marina’s half dozen wheelie bins. That wasn’t a consideration as far as either of us was concerned. Cynthia was in favour of cremation after remembering a story I told her about the English waterways.
A few years ago, I met a lone boater standing beside a lock, holding a wooden box wrapped in a tattered plastic shopping bag. I discovered that, after twenty years of saving for a boat to spend their retirement on as they cruised the network, his wife died a week before their custom built narrowboat was launched.
The husband cruised on his own, stopping at each lock he passed to sprinkle a few grains of his wife’s ashes on the water. By doing this, he told me, his wife would be with him in spirit.
When we asked about collecting Florence’s ashes, the ambulance driver had another unpleasant surprise for us. The price she quoted was for a group cremation. If we wanted the ashes, we would have to have a solo cremation, which would cost an additional €100.
I helped carry Florence’s inert form along the marina pontoon to the waiting ambulance and then watched sadly as she was driven away forever.
Florence’s Dutch vet, Anneka, learned of her death through an email from Cynthia. In her reply, she told Cynthia that both people and animals come into your lives for a reason. They are there to teach you a valuable lesson. I don’t know whether I believe this, but I know what I have learned from this sad episode.
I stress far too much about the little things in life so much that I lose sight of the bigger picture. I can’t see the wood for the trees. Rather than focussing on trivial dog hair, muddy paw prints and the occasional strand of drool flicked from a joyously shaken head, I should concentrate on the unconditional love that dogs, especially bassets give so freely.
I don’t think that we will wait long before getting another basset. She won’t ever replace beautiful Florence, but she’ll certainly help.
I enjoy writing newsletters which, I am often told, are very useful to anyone considering living an alternative lifestyle either afloat on the English or Dutch waterways, or leading a nomadic life on the road in the tiny living space offered by a motorhome. The downside is that adding content to the site, maintaining it, and answering dozens of emails each week takes a considerable amount of time. I invest up to twenty hours every week on the site and, over the course of the year, many hundreds of pounds. I can’t afford the investment in either time or money without a little help. If you are in the fortunate position to be able to afford a small financial subscription or one off donation to help with the site’s running costs, please click on this link to find out more. If you are one of the generous souls who already support the site, thank you!
We were boating, and then we weren’t, and now we are again, this time, we hope, for the rest of the year.
Last week we began our cruise under difficult circumstances. Cynthia, for the first time in many years, visited a conventional general practitioner in Leiden to try to resolve an ongoing and painful infection.
The solution was to put her on a course of antibiotics. Cynthia’s body reacted instantly and violently to the unaccustomed medicine. Within hours, an unsightly rash covered her entire body, every bone ached, and she felt physically sick.
Abandoning our cruising plans, we raced 20km back to Leiden in Julisa, swapped boat for motorhome, and then drove 130km south east to Eindhoven close to the Belgian border. The clinic, Essaidi, was recommended by the cancer clinic in Germany where Cynthia spend a month in April.
On Tuesday, she had an hour’s treatment of aqua tilis. It’s a revolutionary treatment done nowhere else in the world. We booked her on for four more sessions later in the week, returned to Leiden to swap some essential stuff from the boat to the Hymer to allow us to stay away for a few days, then returned to Eindhoven.
With the thermometer hitting thirty four degrees centigrade, we were lucky to find a parking spot on the clinic grounds in a grove of lofty cedar. The downside was that, with the Hymer’s solar panel completely hidden from the sun, we had to conserve our electricity on one of the best electricity generation days of the year.
Cynthia felt a little better after the treatment, but she has been warned that the allergy may take three weeks to disappear. Aching bones combined with the rigours of having to move our belongings back from the Hymer to the boat again yesterday has just about finished her off.
She can’t help being bed ridden, but her absence yesterday caused a few logistical problems.
I still haven’t mastered single handed boating in a cruiser with an immaculately painted white hull. In a
narrowboat, it’s simple. You step off your rear deck, centre line in hand, and pull your steel tube towards the towpath. Even though the centre line is attached to the middle of the boat, either the bow or the stern usually reaches the bank first but, if you’re like most narrowboat owners, you don’t care. Your black painted hull is bomb proof. The thick steel is further strengthened by raised rubbing strakes. You’re not going to do any damage, but even if you do, a scuff doesn’t stand out against the black.
As I’ve now learned, a cruiser with its canopy acting like a sail, pushing the boat ahead of it thanks to a following wind, is an unwieldy beast.
Mooring on my own is further complicated by the door we had fitted for the dogs on the boat’s port side. Because that’s the only side the dogs can get off, we have to moor port side to the bank regardless of what either the current or the wind is doing.
This is a very long winded way of saying that I’m now mourning the loss of my once pristine paintwork. I’m sure that there will be plenty more scrapes and scuffs before the season ends, but the first cut is the deepest.
The saving grace is our location.
We’re moored on the Oude Kooi, the Old Cage, an island on a network of lakes 7km north east of our Leiden base. I think the island belongs to an exclusive Dutch boating club, but as the signs on the island’s manicured moorings are all written in an incomprehensible language, I’m not entirely sure.
We arrived last night. It’s delightfully peaceful after the Leiden city centre location we’ve become accustomed to over the last month or so. A pair of buzzards breed on the island, there are kingfishers galore, but very few mosquitoes thanks to a large colony of bats introduced to keep the bugs away.
That’s just about it for this week because I’ve been working on other narrowboat content. As I mentioned last week, I’m in the process of developing an interactive and very comprehensive course for aspiring narrowboat owners.
There’s now a huge amount of information on this site. Perhaps too much for anyone new to boating. Where do they start? How do they work through content without missing important information? How do they make sure that they remember important information in posts they’ve read?
The new course will be a mix of written articles, audio and video files, and interactive quizzes and surveys. One of the course’s first sections takes a look at the possible downside to living afloat.
I published an article on the site in 2012 by live aboard boater Pauline Roberts. Her rant about the lifestyle produced an avalanche of comments from other live aboard boaters. Pauline raised some excellent points. Life afloat isn’t all about sipping wine from an easy chair on a sun drenched canal bank. There are many issues to consider.
Pauline’s original article is here. If you haven’t seen it already, please read it and the comments made by other boaters at the time. My own comments are below, so don’t forget to come back here when you’ve finished with Pauline.
Pauline may well enjoy her life afloat, but she doesn’t really give that impression, does she? To balance her point of view, I’ve addressed the issues she’s raised below. So that you can easily switch between Pauline’s article and my comments, my comments refer to the numbering on Pauline’s paragraphs (If you’re reading this on the web site rather than in the course itself, there aren’t any number on Pauline’s paragraphs, so you’ll just have to count them yourself).
2. Cold Boats While I agree that a narrowboat’s floor can be cold in the winter, I’ve never had to resort to wearing thick leather boots in the boat. The bottom of a narrowboat is anywhere between 5mm and 15mm thick. Steel bearers sit on top of the base plate. Marine ply is fitted on top of the bearers to form the boat’s floor. The floor is usually no more than 10cm above the icy canal beneath. Because heat rises, the heat from your stove moves away from the cold well close to the floor. Unless your narrowboat floor is insulated (most aren’t) this area will be decidedly chilly in the winter months. My very effective solution is to wear Croc shoes as indoor slippers, and to always sit with my feet raised on our bench seating. No cold feet!
The number of clothing layers you need in the winter will depend on how well insulated your boat is. Mine was an old boat built using polystyrene insulation, which is generally considered the poorest of the insulators used on boats. Most narrowboats these days are insulated using spray foam. It’s not unusual to walk along a towpath on a cold winter’s day to see narrowboats with their front doors open to let the heat out. A friend of mine, Russ, used to sit in his boat in the winter with the front doors open wearing just a pair of boxer shorts. It wasn’t a pretty sight!
3. Cold Spots Again, I agree, but the cold spots can be reduced or even eliminated. When I first moved on board, my bedroom at the back of the boat was freezing, literally. As I mentioned in my introduction, my first winter on board, which I think is when Pauline wrote this article, the weather was the coldest on record. On a number of occasions I woke to frost on the bulkhead behind my head. My freezing bedroom was cause not only by the cold weather outside, but by the boat’s poor insulation, and inadequate heating.
My boat had a wooden top, which had perished in a number of places. I over plated the wooden cabin with steel, added more insulation between the old and the new cabins, and added a secondary heating system, a Webasto Thermotop C, to supplement my solid fuel stove at the front of the boat. My first winter was my last cold winter on board.
Draughts around hatches are due to poor fitting. The hatches can be modified to eliminate any draughts.
4. Toilets It’s true that living afloat you have a much more intimate relationship with the processed remains of last night’s dinner, but it doesn’t have to be a problem. Watching the weather is important when you live afloat, as is making sure that you pick somewhere which can service all your needs if the weather closes in. Cassette toilets, or Porta Pottis, need emptying every two or three days. There are a number of other options open to you, all of which are discussed in detail in the toilets section.
5. Dog Muck You’ll find it everywhere, not just on canal towpaths. The solution is simply to keep your eyes open. I always carry a small coal shovel on board. Regardless of the culprit, when I arrive at a mooring, before I do anything else, I search the area thoroughly for unwanted piles of poo, scoop them up and flick them under the towpath hedge. The whole process takes just a couple of minutes. After that, I can relax on a clean and fragrant mooring without having to worry about unnecessary shoe or boat floor cleaning. It’s common sense really.
6. Water Forward planning Pauline, forward planning! If you need a residential mooring for school or work purposes, choose one which has a water supply. A mooring without a water supply can be a real pain in the backside. I spoke to a live aboard boater Jane Fletcher recently about her ‘idyllic’ farm mooring. The site was wonderful, miles from the nearest busy road, away from airport flight paths or railway lines, and in a very pretty part of rural Leicestershire. The two major problems were that the mooring had neither electricity nor water. Jane had to work for a living. Sometimes after a long day at the office, she had to return to the boat and endure an hour’s cruise to fill her water tank. All well and good on a balmy summer evening, but not so much fun in the dark on a cold winter night.
Pauline claimed that her tank took an hour to fill. She must have had a large tank which she allowed to practically run dry. Little and often is the key, especially if the forecast is for freezing nights and sub zero days. Again, I think that Pauline wrote her article following the awful winter of 2010. While she was melting snow for water, I had a plentiful supply available from a tap close to my boat. Yes, the tap froze solid once or twice, but a kettle or two of boiling water soon sorted that out.
Living afloat isn’t as easy as living in a bricks and mortar home, but it is not as difficult as Pauline would have you believe.
7. Personal Hygiene Poppycock! There’s no need to go without when you live on a boat. My boat’s tank was tiny compared to most. Most narrowboats’ water tanks hold 700-1,000 litres. I had 350 litres to play with. Even so, if I was on my own, I could comfortably make that last a month. That’s an average of just ten litres a day. which was plenty to accommodate all my hygiene needs. I used a seven litre Hozelock portable shower which was wonderful. A very thorough shower would use just five litres. There is absolutely no need to ration yourself to half a kettle for washing yourself. What a ridiculous notion.
Taking of ridiculous, there’s absolutely no need to have discoloured hands. Yes, coal burning stoves produce a little soot. Daily dusting sorts that problem out. Going down the engine ‘ole? (referred by most normal boaters as an engine bay) Wear a pair of disposable gloves and some overalls. Pauline make the operation sound like a full day in a coal mine!
8. Space Living space can be an issue, but surely you don’t move on to a narrowboat if you aren’t comfortable with small spaces? You will have to downsize and dispose of most of your material possessions. So what? You don’t need it.
Making up a folding bed every day simply isn’t necessary unless you have a very small boat. Personally, the last thing I would want to do at the end of the day is mess about making a bed. I had a 4′ wide 6’4″ long small double bed, permanently made up and fixed in place. The more you want on your boat, the longer or, heaven forbid, wider it has to be. Life afloat is all about compromise, but, for me, a fixed bed was a must.
9. Privacy If you moor in busy locations, especially locations popular with tourists, you have to accept a little unwanted attention. If you don’t want it, move or, if you want a really radical solution, close your curtains on the towpath side. That’ll stop them!
10. Postal Address Having your post delivered can be a problem. You can eliminate much of your post by going digital. Opening bank accounts can be a problem, so you can either do as much as you can before you move afloat, or try to persuade friends or family to receive your post for you. Make sure that they are aware that benefits can be affected if someone else appears to be living with them though.
11. Emergency Services Forward planning again. If you’re going to pick a mooring miles from anywhere, for God’s sake, know where you are! Pauline’s talking about boaters on static online moorings, so I assume that the moorers in question have been there for a while. Locations on the canal network are easy to pinpoint by bridge numbers or names. Rather than a vague ‘moored beside a field near a farmhouse close to Fenny Compton’, which isn’t going to help any emergency services operator, something like ‘I’m moored 400m south of bridge 37 on the Grand Union canal in a red boat with a blue roof and the name James No 194 on the side’ is going to be much more helpful. You will of course have checked that you have a phone signal, or an internet signal through which you can make WiFi calls, before you choose your mooring.
12. Signals All true, but not as bad as Pauline would have you believe. I always used a mobile dongle from Three. Using their earlier versions, I had to mount the dongle inside a plastic bag on a four feet long wooden pole fixed to my boat roof. The signal strength was boosted in later models, so all I had to do was use a magnetic clamp fitted with double sided adhesive tape to keep it glued to my ‘office’ window. During thousands of miles of network cruising, the device only failed me twice; one when moored at the Crick Boat Show next to dozens of other boaters who were trying to lock onto the same signal, and once when I moored in a deep cutting on the Shropshire Union canal.
Carrier signal strength varies tremendously on the cut. I had a phone contact with Three. I terminated my contract after two years of constant frustration. EE’s service was much better, especially as I could make calls via WiFi if I had an internet connection but no phone signal. I made many of my calls via Skype.
As far as television is concerned, reception can be hit and miss, but what’s the problem? I see many boat owners who moor at idyllic locations but only leave the safety of their boats long enough to align their satellite dishes. Forget the telly. You’ve escaped society, so don’t keep tuning into depressing news to remind yourself of it. Pull the plug on the evil eye and go for a walk instead.
13. Vandalism and Antisocial Behaviour I’m sure that you know an area near you which isn’t pretty and where you wouldn’t like to walk alone at night. The canal network is the same. There are rough areas, even a few place which could almost be classed as ‘no go’ but they’re easy enough to find out about and stay away from.
There’s no argument, rural canal towpaths, devoid of street lighting, are often pitch black at night. That’s why you always have a torch or two and spare batteries on board. Are you likely to be attacked as soon as you step outside your boat, or have everything you own stolen if you leave it unattended for a moment? No, of course not. However, the same rules apply on the canals as off them. You do what’s sensible. You take precautions. If an area is renowned for anti social behaviour, stay away. If you have to use the canal to move your boat from A to B, start your journey at the crack of dawn before those with single digit IQs have surfaced from drink and drug induced unconsciousness.
14. Shopping For Christ’s sake Pauline, stop moaning! Tesco is actually very good at delivering to boaters. When you place an order with them online, there’s a comments section to allow you to give the driver instructions. He’s not going to deliver to you unless he can park reasonably close to you, but unless your boat has a broken engine, you can always move to somewhere where he can park his van.
Supermarkets aren’t always close to the canal you’re on, but they’re usually close enough. Try to remain positive. Living afloat can be a very healthy lifestyle. I treated shopping as welcome exercise. My supermarket shopping was usually done with my 70l rucksack, which always included an unhealthy treat as a reward for carrying my weekly shopping home.
If you don’t like to walk, get a bike, a car, or a taxi. It’s not a problem as long as you have a ‘glass half full’ attitude.
15. Towpaths Motorbikes roaring down towpaths is back to anti social behaviour again. Yes, it happens in some urban areas, but not as much as some would have you believe. Find out where the problem areas are and stay away from them, especially if you need to stay on a residential mooring long term.
Towpaths can make boating miserable in the winter months. For me, it has always been one of the most unpleasant aspects of living afloat, especially with dogs on board. Wellington boots are my default winter footwear. I don’t have to worry about wiping them down. It’s just a case of swapping them for my indoor footwear. Dog paws need wiping though, which is a bit of a pain if you need to take them for a middle of the night loo break.
Having a boat with a cratch cover, a waterproof cover over the front deck, is an enormous help. You have somewhere protected from the weather to deal with dog cleaning and footwear swapping. Try as I might though, I struggled to keep my front deck mud free during the winter months.
16. Car Ownership Once again, if you have to have a car for work purposes, make sure you have somewhere safe to park it before you take on a mooring. If you are lucky enough to be able to cruise continuously, you can do without. If you plan ahead, you can usually moor your boat close enough to the places you want to visit, or close enough to public transport. And if you really must have a car for a special occasion, Enterprise is a great company to use. Their rates are reasonable, and they’ll often come to your boat to collect you.
17. Boat Maintenance and the Weed Hatch UK Canals are shallow, very shallow. Cruising in water just thirty inches deep isn’t unusual. The boat’s flat bottom drags along the canal bottom, then flicks whatever it’s disturbed into the propeller. Debris in urban canals is common. Cruise along an inner city canal, and you can usually expect a few stops to remove the offending articles. You’ll find an in depth explanation of weed hatch procedure later on.
Getting a mooring line wrapped around the propeller is a schoolboy error, an error which I’ve made just once. I was lucky. My punishment was an hour with my right arm up to my shoulder in ice cold water trying to remove several yards of iron bar taut rope from the propeller. I was lucky because a mooring line around the prop can sometimes cause extensive damage to the engine.
Reasonably new batteries not holding a charge are often the result of a poor charging regime, a regime made difficult if the boat doesn’t have a battery monitor. With care, lead acid batteries will still only last about three years. Batteries are a consumable and must be included on your budget.
Weeks of scrounging water because of a broken water pump Pauline? Nearly all boatyards and marinas stock water pumps. You could have had it replaced on the day it broke.
You only run your fridge in warm weather when you are travelling? You clearly don’t have an adequate electrical system (as is indicated by the exhausted battery bank). There is no need to make life so difficult for yourself. A little research is all it takes.
As for the friend who thought that he could do without a weed hatch, I think that’s called natural selection. Cruising without a weed hatch in place is pure stupidity. The weed hatch sits directly above the boat’s propeller. If the weed hatch is removed while the boat is moving, canal water from the spinning propeller is pushed through the weed hatch into the engine bay which, as you’ve just read, sinks the boat.
Damp can be an issue, but you can do an awful lot to reduce and eliminate it by both heating and ventilating the cabin correctly. Even then, storing books in the bilge is just asking for trouble.
18. Wildlife on Board The wildest life I’ve ever had on board was a one tonne bullock trying to climb into my engine room to snack on a basket of flowers I had removed from my front deck. Apart from that, no snakes, rats or mice. Interesting to note that Pauline said she wouldn’t be able to find the snake in all the clutter on board her boat. Keeping a boat clean and in a good state of repair helps keep vermin away. It’s a shame the same tactic doesn’t work with cows.
19. Boating Costs As far as I’m concerned, if you want to live to a reasonable standard, living on a narrowboat costs no less than living in a modest three bedroom semi detached house. The cost of diesel isn’t as big an issue as Pauline suggests. Most narrowboats use between 1.0 and 1.5 litres and hour. In 2015, five years after Pauline wrote her article, I cruised the network extensively. I covered nearly 2,000 miles, including 950 locks. I really cruised too fast and too far. I should have slowed down to appreciate the many wonderful places I flashed by each day. Even so, I only spent £1,138 on diesel, an average of £21.90 a week, which worked out at £1.13 for each hour I stood at the tiller moving my floating home around the system. That’s not a bad price to pay, is it?
20. Falling In Going for an unscheduled dip isn’t the problem, it’s what you hit on the way, and how you manage to get out which counts. I like to think that I’m pretty fit and healthy, but that wouldn’t help me if I injured myself as I fell or, worse, knocked myself unconscious on the way in. I’ve seen both happen.
Even if you don’t damage yourself entering the canal or river you fall in, you have to consider how you would get out. A narrowboat is very difficult to climb back onto without the aid of a crew member and a ladder.
Most slips and falls are caused by carelessness. I’ve fallen in four times in the last six years, but three of them were when I was working at the marina. The only time I fell in out of work was when I foolishly walked along a pier while I read my emails on my phone. It was a silly thing to do, and it cost me the price of a new smartphone.
Steel boats, water, ice and moss and lichen covered locks are a potentially lethal combination. Take care though, and your boating career should be a happy one.
That’s my response to the valid points which Pauline raised. You can subscribe to her point of view, shelve your boating plans and remain in the dubious safety of your bricks and mortar home, or you can use Pauline’s text, my response, and the comments of time served live aboard boaters to educate yourself and ensure that you avoid making many fundamental mistakes.
I enjoy writing newsletters which, I am often told, are very useful to anyone considering living an alternative lifestyle either afloat on the English or Dutch waterways, or leading a nomadic life on the road in the tiny living space offered by a motorhome. The downside is that adding content to the site, maintaining it, and answering dozens of emails each week takes a considerable amount of time. I invest up to twenty hours every week on the site and, over the course of the year, many hundreds of pounds. I can’t afford the investment in either time or money without a little help. If you are in the fortunate position to be able to afford a small financial subscription or one off donation to help with the site’s running costs, please click on this link to find out more. If you are one of the generous souls who already support the site, thank you!
The solar system comedy of errors continued this week, although most of the errors turned out to be mine, and I didn’t find the comedy very funny at all.
On James, my narrowboat, I had a 3 x 100w solar array fitted by Tim David of Onboard Solar. Tim’s work, and the system he fitted, was first class. The three bracket mounted solar panels produced enough electricity to allow me to stay for days, weeks even, on a mooring during the summer months without ever having to run my engine to charge my bank of four 160ah AGM batteries.
The system was perfect for my live aboard lifestyle.
I didn’t do a power audit before putting my narrowboat electrical system together, so I was lucky that everything worked so well. I had my MacBook plugged in and charging all day and night, watched television for a couple of hours in the evening, used a vacuum cleaner for fifteen minutes a day, a low power twin tub washing machine twice a week, and used a variety of chargers for Kindles, phones and a few other electronic devices. I also had my 12v fridge on all day, every day.
The solar array generated more power than I could reasonably use during the summer months. During the winter months, I had to run my engine for an hour most days, sometimes for two, to keep my battery bank at 100%.
When we considering buying Julisa, we knew that we would want to make alterations and improvements. Julisa’s previous owner, Piet, used Jos van Galen in Leiden for servicing and repairs, so we asked Jos to quote for a number of improvements, including the installation of a solar array.
Jos emailed a quote with a very detailed breakdown. Unfortunately, the quote was in Dutch. I used Google translate to convert it to English, and was delighted to discover that he had quoted for a 400w solar array. Four hundred watts, more powerful than my narrowboat setup), coupled with our new bank of four 130ah AGM batteries, would give us all the power we needed.
Due to Google translate, and my own skewed interpretation of the quote, I cocked up.
The installed array is not more powerful than the one I had on James. In fact, it has a fraction of the capacity I was expecting. There’s a huge difference between the 400W I thought I was being quoted for, and the actual 400WHD on the paperwork.
From the research that I’ve done in the last week after being at a loss to understand why my installed solar panels weren’t working, I now understand a little more about the electrical wizardry.
In a perfect world, a 400W system would produce four hundred useable watts all day long. The world in general, and England’s weather in particular, is far from perfect. The sun doesn’t shine all of the time. Let’s face it, in many parts of England, it rarely shines at all.
Because of the cooler, cloudier climate, which is quite similar to the climate here in the Netherlands, solar panel manufacturers and distributors use a simple formula to calculate a solar system’s realistic output. For summer output, the number of watts is multiplied by six, the average hours of sunshine in an English day. During the winter, formula is based on a very dismal one hour’s sunshine.
Using this formula, a four hundred watt system would be expected to produce 400 x 6 = 2,400 watts. The output is sometimes be referred to as 2,400WHD (Watt Hour Day). My system, I can see now, was clearly quoted by Jos as 400WHD, and not 400W as I thought.
The reality is that I have a dismal 67W system compared with the 300W system on James. I have 400WHD compared to my narrowboat’s 1,800WHD.
The system still wasn’t working correctly until the beginning of this week. Jos discovered that the wiring wasn’t quite right. After swapping a couple of wires, the system limped rather than burst into life.
The solar panels aren’t a dead loss. At midday, when the summer sun is blazing from a clear sky, baking the earth and our solar panels beneath, the system can just about keep up with our two fridges. I think the panels could provide adequate power for the boat if we just had a single fridge, but we need two, so there’s no point complaining.
If I knew what I was doing in the first place, could I have done better? I don’t think I could. Julisa is a small and beautiful boat. The solar panels we’ve fitted suit the boat. Larger capacity freestanding panels simply wouldn’t fit. Even if they did, they would look completely out of place.
This is one of the very few occasions I favor form over function.
Fortunately, we’ll only be using the boat during the late spring and summer when the solar panels are most efficient. And we have the engine too.
Thanks to our new Victron battery monitor, I can assess the alternator’s input at different engine speeds. At 1,800rpm, our normal cruising speed, the alternator produces 500W. We think we’ll be cruising an average of two hours a day, so that’s another 1,000 WHD to add to our input. That should keep us fully topped up.
The only other outstanding job after the solar array wiring was tweaked, was to fit Cynthia’s new Piraat dinghy to Julisa’s new extended davits. The dinghy matches Julisa very well indeed. The Piraat was all Cynthia’s idea. The only contribution I made to the proceedings was to mutter the occasional “What a waste of money!”, “It’ll never fit on Julisa!”, and “I don’t expect that we’ll ever use it!”. As you can tell, I probably wasn’t as supportive as I should have been.
I think I’m wrong on the first count and, as the photo shows, I was definitely wrong on the second count. I’ll probably be wrong on all three counts if, as I suspect, I use the dinghy regularly and enthusiastically.
I dipped my toe in the deep and murky waters of dinghy rowing on a balmy midweek evening after most of the canal’s powerful dayboat owners had returned to suburbia. I’m not very good at rowing. I rowed on small English boating ponds briefly and more years ago than I care to remember. I don’t know how much I learned at the time, but after a couple of minutes quaking in the bottom of the violently rocking and frighteningly unstable Piraat, I realised that I had forgotten everything.
The first painful lesson was not to stand in the tiny boat at all if possible, unless I want to embrace the steel swim ladder again with my teeth. For the rest of the evening I looked like a downmarket version of Mick Jagger, all big lips and wrinkled skin. At least the big lips will subside in time.
Have you rowed before in a tiny boat with oversized oars? A lazy flick of my wrist with an oar anywhere near the water was enough to set the boat spinning like a top, much to the chagrin of the first houseboat I careered into. I couldn’t understand his Dutch, but his sign language indicated that he wasn’t too keen on me rowing through his garden.
I spent half an hour on the canal, most of it dodging moored boats and trying to replace our cheap pine oars in the loose fitting and even cheaper rowlocks. I might possibly have looked a little more professional if I had remembered to take the price tags off the oars before I set off.
Despite my inability to row the boat in anything like a straight line – whoever decided that rowing a boat should be done while facing away from the direction of travel had a real sense of adventure – I enjoyed myself tremendously. I hope to hone my rowing skills considerably over the coming months.
To complete the Piraat installation, we needed a cover to protect the woodwork and prevent the boat from filling with gallons of water in the event of rain. Cynthia, first with the bright ideas as usual, suggested using the now redundant external bike rack cover from the Hymer.
“Don’t be daft,” I told her “the cover is made for 1.5m bikes, not 2.4m boats. It will never fit!”
“But what if it does?” she calmly suggested. How could I argue with that?
Fully expecting to waste half an hour, I rummaged deep in the Hymer’s cavernous garage for the cover, dragged it unceremoniously down to Julisa’s wharfside mooring, and slung it over the dinghy. It appeared to be far too short, until I remembered that the cover had a stretchy elasticated rim.
The cover, much to Cynthia’s delight and my chagrin, fitted perfectly, especially after I used eight plastic clamps from a nearby DIY store to fix the cover securely to the boat.. The clamp purchase was a success, which is more than I could say for the drive to get them.
Jos’s yard is quite congested. The Hymer is parked close to the wharf, half under the crane’s half tonne steel lifting frame. In order to leave the yard, I have to reverse along a narrow alley between rows of boats on winter frames and trailers, past a building site entrance usually blocked by lorries carrying cement and steel framing, and then reverse onto a street before beginning my journey. The first leg, past towering yachts and cruisers, is tightest.
Three of the Hymer’s double skinned plastic windows are hinged at the top and can be locked in place parallel with the ground to allow maximum ventilation on hot days. The day I collected the clamps, the day was very hot.
Cynthia had left a window open on the driver’s side to try to cool the Hymer’s furnace like interior. I shut the window, and then very carefully reversed through the narrow gap between parked boats and cars, congratulating myself on precision maneuvering… Until I heard a sickening crunch followed by the clatter of something hitting the concrete roadway.
That’s how easy it is to rip an expensive bedroom window from a motorhome. Hindsight is a wonderful gift. I now realise that checking both sides of the Hymer for open windows would have been a good idea. The window had been above the wing mirror’s field of view. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
I shudder to think how expensive the window replacement is going to be. I don’t know whether we’ll actually be able to find one for a fourteen year old Hymer. Because sometimes it’s nice not to know about things, I’ve used a roll of duct tape to fix what’s left of the window back in place. I’ll think about organizing the replacement another day.
After eight weeks moored at Jos’s yard, Julisa finally set sail this week, but not until we were able to tend to Cynthia’s medical needs. Cynthia tries very hard to have nothing at all to do with western medicine and drugs with often harmful side effects. This week, she had no choice. Over the last ten days, a simple toe infection steadily worsened to the point where the lymph glands in her groin swelled so much she could hardly walk. The accompanying fever confined her to bed.
We had to find a general practitioner able to prescribe her antibiotics, and then work out how to pay for medical services in a foreign country. The process was as simple as it was inexpensive.
A Google search revealed a number of general practitioners in Leiden. Unfortunately the closest one open for business was also one of the most inaccessible in the Hymer. The building was in the centre of a maze of narrow streets made even more difficult to reach by extensive road works.
After a painful hobble several hundred metres to the practice, a quick examination and a prescription for the despised but necessary drugs, Cynthia held her breath, crossed her fingers and asked how much she owed. The answer delighted her. Twenty seven euros was all she had to pay. She claimed that a similar service in the USA would have cost at least ten times as much.
With a drawer full of drugs, and a boat in full working order, we were ready to begin our summer adventure.
I was nervous. Because of Cynthia’s debilitated condition, I had to handle the boat on my own. I was worried about negotiating the same tight bridges we faced on our voyage a month earlier, and correctly judging the boat’s width without Cynthia’s occasional “Move over to the left. You’re going to crash into that concrete piling!’
The problem is that I’m not used to driving a boat like a car. I found steering a narrowboat much easier, despite standing at the rear with 62’ of boat in front of me. On the narrowboat I was standing outside with the same amount of boat either side of me. I could see over the boat’s roof in front of me, and I could see obstacles either side of the boat.
On Julisa, I sit in an enclosed cockpit behind a steering wheel on the boat’s port side. There’s three metres of boat to my right where Cynthia normally sits on her white leather high chair. With Cynthia out of action, I had to rely on my own judgement of the boat’s width which, at the moment, is far from perfect.
Despite one or two close encounters with several concrete bridge supports and, on one occasion, the concrete base of a bright green channel marker as I sped across a lake at very impressive ten kilometres per hour, the first day of our summer cruise was a joy.
The Dutch love their boating and, on a sunny summer Saturday in June, they were out in force. We passed day boats by the score, a steady stream of immaculate motor cruisers, sailing barges and dinghies, rowing boats, and boat which I couldn’t begin to categorise, all of them filled with half naked Dutch crews of all ages. The two and a half hour cruise back to the marina on the Westeinderplassen where we collected Julisa two months ago was a joy, right up to my embarrassing mooring attempt.
I like to think I’m pretty good at boat handling. After all, I taught it on the inland waterways for three years. So why on Earth did all my hard earned knowledge desert me the minute I crossed the English Channel?
Cynthia was still feeling a weak as a kitten, so she wasn’t able to play any part in the proceedings. Still, mooring a 32’ boat on my own should have been simple enough. All I needed to do was cruise slowly and carefully up to the pontoon, step off holding a centre line attached to the middle of the boat, pull Julisa as close to the pontoon as I could, secure the centre line, and then secure both bow and stern moorings.
Common sense deserted me. An elderly Dutch boater walked from his mooring in front of us to help. He waved and smiled engagingly. “Throw me your line!” he commanded, comfortable with all aspects of boating after seventy five years boating experience. He told us this, and a great deal more, half an hour later after he had recovered from the shock of nearly being dragged into the marina by a wild eyed Englishman using his bow thruster far too often in an over enthusiastic attempt to keep his white painted hull away from the pontoon’s rough wooden siding.
The tactic worked, but, apart from rapidly pulling an elderly Dutchman ever close to an early evening bath, the offshore breeze ensured that the stern swung away from the pontoon even more rapidly than the bow.
After a great deal of sign language and the occasional muttered Dutch curse, we had Julisa and her mooring lines in the correct place. Then I had to endure a lengthy but softly spoken reprimand. “You must always secure your centre line before your bow line, especially if you have an offshore breeze” was the gist of it, repeated often and in as many different ways as possible to ensure that a novice boater understood a basic boating lesson. The real problem I had wasn’t being told how to do something new, but being told how to do something which I had done a thousand times before in slightly different circumstances on the English waterways. I felt a complete fool.
That aside, both Cynthia and I are thrilled to be cruising on the waterways again. We’ll be even happier once Cynthia is fighting fit again. The antibiotics appear to be working, but progress is slow, and she appears to be suffering some side effects from the drugs. Those, coupled with the boat’s oven like interior under the midday sun, are getting Cynthia down. I’m praying for both rain and good health. A boat with more living space, air conditioning, and a solar array capable of charging more than a torch battery would be good too.
By the way, Cynthia sends her apologies for not writing to you this week. She doesn’t have the energy to do much more than breathe. She hopes that you understand.
We’re still in Leiden, moored on a narrow canal arm, hemmed in by residential properties and endless lines of boats of all shapes and sizes. We will definitely be setting off on our summer cruise in the next few days but, for now, we’re quite happy moored where we are, relaxing on the water in a thriving waterways community of happy boaters.
We haven’t actually done much this week other than move from one mobile home to another, but we both feel like we’ve put in as much effort as we did when we were working.
When you’re a modern day hobo, minor day to day tasks can feel like major obstacles. Take Cynthia’s tax returns for example. Her accountant couldn’t file her tax returns in the normal manner because she’s living abroad. He uploaded her paperwork to a secure portal for us to download, sign and return by snail mail to both the federal and state authorities in the USA.
Internet connectivity was the first issue we had to contend with. Several months ago, my UK phone provider, EE, cut off my mobile data service for exceeding their sixty-days-out-of-the-country limit. I also had a mobile broadband dongle with another UK provider, Three. They cut me off for the same reason a month earlier. Since then, I had to endure the financial heartache of paying £3 a day for EE’s European 500mb daily allowance.
I unlocked my iPhone and, two weeks ago, switched to a SIM with Vectone, the most cost effective provider for Pay As You Go mobile phone services in the Netherlands. I now pay €15 for a 30 day bundle which gives me a 10GB data allowance, and unlimited national calls and texts.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a warning when the data allowance runs low. Renewing my monthly bundle online costs half the price of renewing through one of the thousands of retail outlets in the Netherlands selling Vectone vouchers so, when I inevitably ran out of data, I couldn’t get online to top up without finding the nearest McDonalds with free WiFi.
Back online, all I needed to do was log into Cynthia’s accountant’s secure portal and download and print the tax statements for Cynthia to sign and post. Printing and posting was our next hurdle. The problem with always being on the move is that we have to constantly relearn all the thousands of details which become subconscious when you live somewhere long term; the location and directions to supermarkets, pharmacies, post offices, restaurants, car parks – always difficult in the Netherlands for motorhome owners – and, in this case a business prepared to print documents for us and another where we could send Cynthia’s important documents via DHL.
We found the businesses we need at about the same time that we discovered that Cynthia’s accountant needed to add another document to our growing pile of things to be printed and posted. It’s a good job we haven’t started cruising yet.
We’ve had a little more work done over the last week; we’ve had a new brass lamp fitted above our cosy dinnette, and the Piraat tender has been fitted with lifting points and rowlocks, and has had the davits extended and painted. The davits will be reattached to Julisa tomorrow, and the dinghy will be fixed in place, ready for sailing on one of the many lakes we’ll pass through on our travels, or to row along canals to narrow or with bridges too low for Julisa.
All we need to do now is have the new solar panel regulator fitted, cross our fingers and hope the solar panels burst into life, and then spring one or two little jobs on Jos, and hope that he can fit them in before we leave, hopefully, on Tuesday.
Julisa’s water tank is tiny compared with most UK narrowboats. My tank on James was considered small at three hundred and fifty litres. Most narrowboat water tanks can hold 700-1,000 litres. Julisa’s tiny tank holds just two hundred litres, which is why we aren’t particularly happy that our head sink tap is leaking.
Cynthia, ever resourceful, has come up with an interim solution. One of a series of saucepans now constantly nestles in the sink beneath the offending cap, collecting ten litres of precious water each day to use for topping up the dogs’ drinking bowl or for dish washing. It’s not an elegant solution but it works until, we hope, Jos has time to fix the leak.
I know that virtually every red blooded male reading this post will be shaking his head in disgust, thinking to himself, “What a wally. All he needs to do is replace the washer!” I know, I know, but I also know myself too well. I would start off with the best of intentions but, within minutes, I would be fending off a torrent gushing from the rapidly emptying water tank, wondering why I hadn’t called in the professionals in the first place. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s one I’ve come to terms with. I’m better off focussing on the things I’m good at. I just need to work out what they are.
Much as we’ve been frustrated by our lengthy delays, we’ve really enjoyed our time in Leiden on and around the city’s canal network.
The Dutch people are boating mad. There appear to be as many boats on the waterways as there are bicycles on the streets, and there are a staggering number of bikes.
The photo above is a typical boat lined Leiden canal. Leiden, voted one of the prettiest of the one hundred and forty six Netherlands cities, has an extensive network of canals running through it. Because of the immovable low bridges on many of the city’s canals, they can only be negotiated using low profile day boats, which are as popular as they are expensive. A price in excess of €100,000 is not unusual for these beautiful craft which, in reality, are little more than glorified rowing boats with powerful inboard engines. Jos told me that the engine alone, unfitted, in one of the premium models costs an eye watering €50,000. Appearance is everything though, as is keeping up with your neighbours. The household with the most expensive boat wins.
There’s no denying that the day boats are as beautiful as they are fun to cruise in. After heavy rain earlier in the week – that reminds me – we have a leak in the aft skylight as well Jos – the weather over the last few days has been wonderful.
Wonderful weather means a huge surge of boats on the Leiden network. Over the last hour I’ve counted forty five passing Julisa. I know that indicates that I have far too much time on my hands, but I have to do something to keep my mind busy.
Today, the waterways crowd are a gentle bunch; “ladies who lunch” are out in their best clothes, wicker baskets open, crystal glasses filled with white wine; family groups of a dozen or more picnic and chat in perfectly maintained boats helmed by proud patriarchs, young couples enjoy romantic cruises, and the occasional group of teenaged boys misbehave in the typical well behaved Dutch fashion.
Last night’s crowds were very different. Saturday night, especially on a sweltering early summer evening, was party night. Larger groups of youngsters plied the waterways. Groups of twenty or more men laughed and sang and toasted each other with bottles of beer, cheering when they passed boats similarly laden with women.
Although drinking on boats is common in the Netherlands, drunkenness, and the antisocial behavior so commonly associated with drinking alcohol in the UK, is not. The Saturday night revellers were out for fun.
Maybe the Leiden crowds are more sophisticated than most. Leiden’s 35,000 students attend one of the top universities in Europe, a university which has produced thirteen Nobel and Rembrandt who, I believe, did a bit of painting in his time. The university population may have something to do with well mannered revellers, but I doubt it. Everywhere we go in the Netherlands, the Dutch people are a pleasure to mix with.
Navigating the Dutch waterways, especially narrow and busy canals such as the ones which thread their ways through and around Leiden, is something which still intimidates me. One of the more difficult aspects of Dutch boating to come to terms with is not touching other boats or inanimate objects.
Cruising in a narrowboat is often referred to as a contact sport. Narrowboats are built for contact. The bows are fitted with heavy duty rope or rubber fenders and raised rubbing strakes line both bow and sides to protect the boat during inevitable contact with inanimate objects, and the occasional glancing blow off an oncoming boat on a blind bend, at a bridge hole, or a section of canal narrowed by overhanging shrubbery or moored boats. All narrowboats which have cruised more than a handful of miles or negotiated more than a few locks carry battle scars, scrapes and scratches, usually on the hull but, especially on hire boats, also on the cabin sides.
Dutch boats are usually immaculate. Scrapes and scratches are a rarity. Most of the day boats have continuous rope fenders fitted to the top of the hull, but ‘fending off’ is an important part of boating, a job often enthusiastically done by the youngsters on board.
Julisa has three fenders on both the port and the starboard sides which offer some protection, but fending off in a six tonne boat is far more difficult and unwieldy than in a much lighter and smaller day boat. Cruising on these smaller city canals is also made much more difficult by both the boat’s width and its air draught, the height from the waterline to the highest point on the boat.
Negotiating bridges still confuses me. The image on the left shows a screenshot of a small section of the canal network in Leiden. The arrow indicates our current location. You can see dozens of bridge to the left of the arrow. Below the arrow in red, you can see one bridge marked ‘Wilhelminabrug BB H25 W100’ That tells me that the bridge is twenty five decimetres high, or 2.5 metres. That’s fine. Julisa has an air draught of 2.4 metres so, providing that the bridge measurement is correct, the water level isn’t higher than normal, or we haven’t significantly increased our air draught by removing a heavy load (like when basset Florence steps off) we should be able to pass under the bridge without trouble. However, many of the other bridges confuse me.
There are nearly three dozen bridges marked to the left of the arrow. If I zoom in on them, the heights are displayed. Some are as low as 1.4 metres, so are clearly off limits to Julisa, unless they open for passing craft.
Some bridges have permanent bridge keepers, others have cameras so that they can be opened remotely from keepers on other bridges. A few will only open by appointment for local residents, and yet more necessitate phoning or radioing ahead.
Once the bridge keeper knows you’re waiting, the bridge is not necessarily going to open as quickly as you would like it to. The man in charge has to balance the waterways traffic with the road traffic. Some opening bridges are on motorways. A ten minute bridge opening often results in traffic tailing back for several miles. In this case, the bridge keeper will wait for a lengthy period until he feels that he can justify stopping the road traffic. In the meantime, the unlucky boat owner has to hold station against the wind and the current, ever mindful of the growing number of expensive and immaculate boats building up around him.
Can you understand why I’m a little nervous?
Anyway, that’s enough for now. It’s time for my lunch. After that, I have to go to work. After eight
months of doing nothing more strenuous than enjoying the occasional leisurely walk, I spent a few hours strimming yesterday. It’s Cynthia’s fault.
On a day when the Tarmac was melting under the heat of a white hot sun, Jos, our boatyard host, decided to tackle the unsightly bank of three feet high weeds growing through the paving on his wharf. When he stopped for a minute to mop up the rivers of sweat cascading from his brow, Cynthia shouted over to him, ‘Why don’t you let Paul do that? He’s too shy to ask you himself, but he would love to do it, and he needs the exercise!”
So I spent yesterday afternoon in heavy overalls wielding a strimmer, brush and spade. Cynthia was right. I loved it. I miss my work at Calcutt Boats. This was a pleasant reminder. I’ll finish the job after lunch, and then I’ll sit and read and watch a steady stream of happy Dutch boaters cruise slowly by, and hope that I can join them in a day or two.
We finally managed to move on board Julisa on Wednesday, at least for the night. But before we could enjoy our first night afloat in an awfully long time – eight months for me, thirteen months for Cynthia – we slogged through a long day of testing, fault finding, organising and disposing.
Most of Julisa’s scheduled work was complete, but not everything appeared to be working correctly, especially in the electrical department. Jos fitted a Victron BMV 702 battery monitor for me. I wanted something as simple as the Smartgauge battery monitor I had on my narrowboat. The monitor displayed the battery banks’ voltage and the charge percentage remaining in the domestic bank. Jos wasn’t familiar with Smartgauge, so he installed an all-singing-all-dancing model from Victron. I wasn’t terribly sure that Jos was familiar with Victron battery monitors either. You can get away with just entering the battery bank capacity to begin using the monitor, but, if you really want to fry your brain, there are an additional sixty eight settings available to fine tune the readings, set alarms and monitor the FTSE100 stock market. I may be wrong about stock market monitoring. All I know is that the setup looks horribly complicated.
The monitor keeps track of two battery banks; the starter and the leisure bank. It displays in depth information for the main bank, and a voltage reading for the auxiliary bank. The display showed a reassuring 100% for the main bank when I first looked at it. To assess whether the monitor was working correctly, I turned the fridge up high, turned the inverter on, kept a couple of MacBooks on charge for twenty four hours, ran a vacuum cleaner, a hair dryer, and anything else I could think of to partially drain the batteries. The following morning, the display still read 100% capacity and 12.62v for the main bank. Surprisingly, the auxiliary bank display had dropped to 12.32v. After questioning Jos, I discovered that he had set the monitor to register the single starter battery as the main bank, rather than the domestic battery information that really interested me.
The display also showed a constant 3w input from the solar array day and night. Rather surprising given that the two solar panels total 480w and the daytime temperature peaked at thirty degrees. Something was clearly amiss.
Jos rewired the Victoron monitor to display in depth information for the leisure bank of four 130ah AGM batteries. I could now watch the steadily decreasing charge in the main battery bank, despite a furnace-like sun scorching our two very expensive solar panels all day long. We paid the better part of €2,000 for a powerful and low profile solar array which clearly wasn’t working.
I also tested our new Porta Potti Excellence cassette toilet. The cheap and cheerful plastic loo has replaced the environmentally unfriendly sea toilet in place when we bought Julisa. Our options were limited when we considered a replacement because of the size of Julisa’s head, or ‘bathroom’ as most normal people call it, and the platform it needs to sit on . The oval Excellence Porta Potti was the only toilet we could find to fit the footprint.
Unfortunately it’s quite high, and it has to sit on the raised platform. The end result is a loo which requires extensive mountaineering experience for those brave enough to tackle it. Cynthia and I will have to make do with a painter’s step ladder, which one of us will have to hold while the other climbs towards the rarified atmosphere surrounding the toilet seat.
Once in situ, the desperate toilet user will then have to sit with the head door open and their feet jutting out into the galley. Our new arrangement will make conversation easier, but perhaps make food preparation or consumption just that little bit more challenging. Anyone for a sausage?
As the evening of our first day back at the boatyard approached, our long awaited fridge arrived at the same time as Cynthia’s new toy, sorry, the last of our essential boat purchases, our new tender.
The Piraat zeilboot sailing dinghy is 2.4m long, and 1.2m wide. The length isn’t a problem, but the dinghy is too wide for Julisa’s davits. We’ve inadvertently delayed our departure by adding another job to Jos’s list. He’s going to have to extend the steel davits for us, install tackle to lift and hold the dinghy in place, and install lifting points on the dinghy. He’s also going to add a pair of rowlocks, or oarlocks as Cynthia and her transatlantic buddies insist on calling them.
I suspect that we’ll use the dinghy for rowing far more often than we will for sailing, so the rowlocks and the oars to go with them are essential additional kit. So is a cover for the dinghy.
Of course, buying a cover isn’t as simple as it should be. We can find an off the peg cover to fit the dinghy, but it fits flush with the gunnels, so we can’t have anything above the gunnels, such as rowlocks, or the four lifting points essential for removing the dinghy from the water and securing it to Julisa’s davits. We can have a cover custom made, providing we don’t mind paying more for the cover than we did for the boat, and providing we don’t mind waiting for up to two months for an overworked Dutch sail maker to fit us in. We’re rather hoping that Jos can come up with a solution, but we’ll spring that one on him after he’s solved the solar problem.
After the end of an exhausting day, or what passes for one these days anyway, we needed to relax. We had a choice. We could sit inside the Hymer, wedged into a corner of the boatyard under a crane’s half tonne steel lifting frame, or we could lounge on the white painted steel front deck of a boat bobbing on the surprisingly clear water of a Leiden city centre canal watching the world go by. No contest then. We sat for a couple of hours watching a steady stream of day boats cruise gently past us, mostly helmed by respectable couples and families taking advantage of the glorious weather to enjoy an al fresco evening meal on the water.
There are always exceptions of course. Inland waterways boat ownership and cruising in England is usually the domain of the middle aged. No such restrictions apply in the Netherlands. We see as wide a cross section of society helming boats on the waterways as we do walking and bicycling down the high street, including an occasional maladjusted youth or two.
As I immersed myself in a book and a bottle of Belgian beer, I heard a single phrase being repeated at great volume in a voice only recently broken. The noise increased as four scruffy young teenagers in a small and tatty boat with a smoking outboard motor chugged slowly past. “Allahu Akbar!” one screamed as he stood on the bow, confusingly, throwing a Nazi salute, staring manically about him for someone to annoy. He picked the wrong country. This is the Netherlands. Everyone ignored him, apart from me. I dropped our weighty anchor through the bottom of his boat as he passed.
With all the beer and discontented youth gone for the night, the time came to shoehorn ourselves into our tiny new bedroom. It really is very small, so small in fact that the bottom part of the bed is in a coffin like box which forms part of the adjacent cockpit, and a third of the bed’s width is just two feet below the starboard gunnel. The smallest space, the one most difficult side to get out of is, of course, where anyone suffering claustrophobia shouldn’t sleep. I do, and I did, but only because I always insist on sleeping on the right. Self imposed rules are there for the foolish to stick to, so I stuck to this one and enjoyed a night in a coffin-like windowless room with my nose pressed against the steel hull.
Oh happy days!
Despite the space restrictions, we both enjoyed a wonderful night’s sleep. There’s something very comforting about the boat’s soothing rocking and the rhythmic slap of gentle waves against a thin steel hull.
The following morning, I needed to test our new Eberspacher blown air heating system. I didn’t want to take it for a spin the previous day because of the temperature. The heater’s thermostat in the forward cabin showed a sweltering twenty eight degrees. The following morning was slightly cooler, so I turned the Eberspacher on until a candle on the dinette began to melt and the thermostat cried for help. After I turned it off and rehydrated myself, I decided to leave it off until we really need it… probably some time in January if we decide to take the boat up into the Arctic Circle.
Another jigsaw piece fell into place this week; storing either the boat or the Hymer when we aren’t using them. We need somewhere we consider comfortable, secure, affordable, and which has a reasonable range of shops within walking or biking distance. We originally intended to take Julisa from the boatyard here in Leiden to a small marina in Eastermar, close to Drachten where Cynthia stayed in a rented house for two months last year. We were quoted €1,100 for internal winter storage for the boat, and €350 to store the Hymer inside in the summer.
Both prices were far more competitive than others we had been quoted at larger marinas. The only problem was overcoming the logistics of me taking the Hymer from Leiden to Eastermar and then travelling 200km back again on public transport from a remote rural marina. The trip would have involved a 15km bike ride, and then a two hour bus ride followed by half an hour on a train, carrying my 20kg folding bike. It wasn’t a journey I was really looking forward to.
We realised that Eastermar didn’t offer an ideal cruising base either. Eastermar is in Friesland, at the far north of the Netherland’s extensive waterways network. Any cruise from there would involve travelling south on increasingly familiar waterways until we reached virgin territory. Much as we enjoy Friesland’s tranquility, there’s much to be said for a more central base.
We like Jos and his boatyard here in Leiden. He’s a one man band working from a workshop below his house. There are currently fifty four boats crammed into his yard during the winter months, all smaller than Julisa. All waterway visitors to his yard have to pass under a 2.4m high fixed bridge. We scraped through with just a few millimetres of daylight between our delicate canvas cockpit roof cover and the bridge’s steel supports. Nothing larger can reach his wharf unless the owner is a local resident, in which case they have to book a slot to have the bridge raised.
Jos only has enough internal storage space for three boats Julisa’s size, and very little apparent free space outside. Not that we were particularly interested in storing Julisa out on the open and exposing the superstructure’s varnished mahogany to winter rain, snow and ice.
Pretty much as an academic exercise, I asked Jos if he could accommodate us. “I’m sorry, but I need the internal space for the boats I work on over the winter,” he told me.
“Do you have space outside?” I don’t know why I asked. External storage wouldn’t do Julisa’s woodwork any good at all.
Jos laughed “I have a list of local people as long as my arm waiting for a free space here!” Then he looked at me and scratched his head. He’s smart, and, by now, he now knows all about my practical incapability. Storing our boat there would undoubtedly result in a steady stream of work for him for years to come.
“OK, you can have a place in the yard for your boat in the winter and your motorhome in the summer. I can build a protective frame and cover for your boat to protect the woodwork.” It’s a win win situation. He increases his passive income and taps into a steady stream of remedial work, and we reduce our storage cost and switch to a more sensible cruising base.
We were delighted with our new location, and even more pleased with the price. Julisa’s hardstanding will cost us €550 for the winter. The Hymer’s summer storage will cost just €105.
We’ll need to buy a large sail for Jos to drape over the frame he’s going to build. Sail prices, as you might expect, vary widely according to quality. We can buy a cheap and cheerful sail for €200 to last us a single season, or we can invest in a €400 sail which should last us a decade or more.
We’ll probably invest in a quality sail, but not for a few months yet. We still have to pay for part of Julisa’s remedial work, and we dug deeper into our bank accounts at the end of this week to buy more boating paraphernalia; a pair of oars and rowlocks for the Piraat, two new polyester ropes for Julisa to replace the old bits of hemp currently disgracing the stern and, to complete the appearance of two already ridiculous looking bassets, a pair of boating neckerchiefs. I’ll turn a blind eye to the neckerchiefs, but I’ll have to put my foot down if Cynthia suggests buying them captain’s hats.
Jos had another bash at getting the solar array working yesterday. He discovered that, buried deep somewhere within the incomprehensible circuitry, is a switch that is turned off at the factory but which needs turning on when the system is fitted. He hoped that finding and setting the switch would cure the problem.
His latest plan is to replace the regulator. Now, I don’t know much about electrics, but I know that our 480w solar array can produce up to 40 amps on a good day. Jos told me that the regulator can only handle a maximum of 8 amps which, to me, is like expecting a camel to climb through the eye of a needle. Surely he should have fitted a regulator able to handle the solar array’s maximum output in the first place?
So, we’re still at the boatyard, six weeks after arriving to have work done which Jos estimated would take a fortnight. We’ve waited long enough. We’ll spend the rest of today transferring our life from the Hymer to the boat, and then we’ll be off tomorrow for a week.
We’ll return in eight days to have the new regulator installed, and to have the new extended davits fitted and have our little sailboat hung in place. That’s the plan anyway, but, regardless of the country we’re in, boating time appears to be much slower than real time, so we’ll just have to go with the flow and enjoy bobbing about on the waterways around Leiden taking advantage of what the Dutch keep telling us is unseasonably warm weather. I don’t know how the next week will unfold, but I’m pretty sure that we will enjoy it.
After graduating from university, I got married to my college sweetheart and he joined the Navy. We moved around a lot and there weren’t any good places to ride, plus we lived on a sailboat and had no place to store a bicycle.
Back in the ’90’s after my amicable divorce, I moved to rural Pennsylvania and started riding again on the beautiful country roads lined with Amish farms—it was glorious, with little traffic save the occasional clip-clop of an Amish horse attached to a buggy full of Amish children barely old enough to walk, let alone drive a horse and buggy!
While living there, I happened to meet a neighbour who was an expert tandem rider. I became hooked on tandems and we rode everywhere. Alas, when I moved to Vermont I had no one to tandem ride with, so I bought a hybrid (mountain/road bike) and started riding there. However, Vermont provided biking challenges because a) the roads are narrow with little room for bikes and cars together and, b) lots of challenging hills were around nearly every corner.
Luckily, my little house-on-the-hill was just across from one of the prettiest, most scenic dirt roads in Vermont—with little traffic and it followed the Battenkill—a premiere fly fishing river—for 5 1/2 breathtaking miles and just a few easily mastered hills. And best of all, very few people outside the area knew about it.
No matter how many times I peddled down this road I never tired of it. And most pleasing of all—the last ride I took on it was in July 2016 with Paul when he flew to the states for our wedding. My last, best ride down River Road. I will Never forget it…..
Sequeway to September 2016 when I made my temporary home in Friesland, Netherlands. I bought the lovely used bike that was ultimately stolen off the back of the Hymer in Malaga last December. I loved doing my daily chores on this bike and discovering the myriad bike paths that criss-cross the whole of the Netherlands. I cherished every minute of it!
After we returned to the south of France last December, I didn’t find many bike paths until we came upon Gruisson on the Mediterranean. Being a summer holiday area, it turned out to have quite a few nice places to bike—just frustrating because I didn’t have one to take advantage of them…..
So, shortly after our recent return to the Netherlands, we discussed the best of biking options and came up with our current fold-up numbers which we love. When we first got them, it took Paul about 45 minutes per bike to fold up and stow in the garage. That timing has now been reduced to 3 minutes tops!
At first, Paul wasn’t too keen on biking, but we have discovered so many wonderful places that are just beckoning to take advantage of, and the bikes can be easily stowed on the boat out of sight and the grasp of crime.
I speak for both of us when I say that it will be a wonderful balance and a huge plus for our summer cruising days on the canals—we can get our exercise and do the shopping on the bikes, and they can take us to places where the boat cannot.
Back to biking has been a boon in many ways too numerous to mention, but I will also add here before wrapping this up, that I can ride a lot longer and further distances without putting excess strain on the torn hip muscle/tendon issue that is my Achilles Heel when walking.
And best of all??? Biking is Freedom and requires no fuel other than “pedal power”—since we no longer have a car to drive to take us places, I can now get out and go on my bike. I couldn’t be happier….
Our week began quietly enough. We enjoyed four delightful days parked in a peaceful car park overlooking a tranquil lake, wondering why no other motorhomes shared such an idyllic space with us. We decided that the one tonne maximum weight limit at the beginning of a narrow lane leading to the car park via a wooden canal bridge may have had something to do with it.
The first of a dozen crossings over the wooden bridge petrified me. Our Hymer weighs five and a half tonnes. Were we being irresponsible and foolish foreign motorhome owners? Was there a real risk of us crashing through the bridge into the clear water of the canal beneath us to die a horrible death surrounded by Dutch carp? More to the point, would our insurance company cough up if they discovered we crossed a bridge designed to carry less than twenty per cent of our weight?
Each of the next three or four crossings were buttock clenchingly exciting. We’d drive slowly to within a hundred metres of the narrow bridge, check to make sure that there were no oncoming vehicles blocking our route, and then accelerate as quickly as possible towards the canal crossing. A racing start in an underpowered motorhome is not terribly impressive, but we still managed to negotiate the bridge at a respectable 30kph, hopefully spreading our weight across the bridge and avoiding an early start to our summer cruising plans.
We were a little more relaxed after seeing two Chelsea tractors – large urban four wheel drive prestige cars to non English readers – on the bridge at the same time towing fully laden horse boxes.
We relaxed completely when we realised that a comedian had carefully removed a number from the sign. Like most of the other bridges in this area, the correct weight limit was a far more respectable twelve tonnes.
Without a care in the world we continued to cross the bridge without worry until, on our fourth day at the car park, Cynthia noticed a sign prohibiting overnight stays in motorhomes. She spotted the sign shortly before a rare Dutch police car drove slowly into the car park, paused briefly next to us, and then drove sedately away. We decided that, if the police weren’t going to bother about the rules, nor would we. Not that we could stay much longer anyway.
Our water pump failed and was replaced at a motorhome service centre in Narbonne in January. Since then, the water pressure hadn’t been very good, but over the last ten days it fluctuated between poor and abysmal. I could spit faster. And then, on Tuesday morning, the water supply failed completely.
I no longer had my tool box with me. We transferred it to the boat along with a handful of other non essential items the previous week. Not that the absence of a tool kit would ever make much difference to me. I lifted the inspection hatch above our one hundred litre water tank, eliminated the only possible remedy I could think of by establishing that the tank was still almost full, prodded the corroded wiring running from the tank, and then gifted Cynthia with the wisdom of my diagnosis. “I think the pump has gone again. We need to have it replaced.”
“Why would the pump fail again so quickly?” asked Cynthia. She pointed at the corroded wiring. “Couldn’t that have something to do with the problem?”
I once successfully changed a plug on my kettle, so I considered myself a bit of an expert with electrical wiring. “No, that’s not it. The pump has failed again. Replacing it is going to cost us another €100 we can’t afford!” As usual, I was stressed about money.
My good friend Google showed me the location of Hymer dealers with service centres in the Netherlands. I phoned the closest. A guy told me that he would love to help, but the earliest appointment was in a week’s time. However, he had a suggestion. He told me that anyone with half an ounce of common sense could fit a new water pump. He obviously didn’t know me. I would love to have half an ounce of common sense. I decided to look elsewhere.
The next guy I called was similarly busy. In fact, he told me that everyone in the motorhome industry is booked solid at the beginning of the touring season. He warned me that I would be lucky to find anyone prepared to replace the pump within a week.
Fortunately, there are service providers who offer an efficient and structured service and do everything in an orderly manner, and there are those who are chaotically flexible and determined to help those in need. My third phone call was much more positive “We’re sixty kilometres from you but, if you can’t find anyone closer, we’ll fit you in.” I think we pulled onto his forecourt before he put the phone down.
The claustrophobic service centre was bedlam. Dozens of motorhomes in varying states of disrepair were wedged into a handful of workshops barely large enough to house them. There was just enough for the uniformed fitters, so there certainly wasn’t enough space for an eight metre motorhome.
We were asked by the owner to park on the industrial park access road in front of the workshops with the promise to “send a fitter to look at your pump as soon as one’s free.” I could see how busy the guys were, so we settled down for a lengthy wait.
Within an hour we were on our way again. The service was first class. Within seconds of lifting the water tank inspection hatch, the fitter diagnosed the problem. “These wires have corroded, so they’re not making contact.” Maybe I’ll think twice before giving Cynthia my expert opinion in future. After a blur of snipping, stripping and crimping, the fitter had new fittings attached to a new block, and had also resolved the issue with the poor water pressure we’ve endured for the last four months.
We now have galley and bathroom taps and a shower head issuing jets of water powerful enough to strip paint, and a cassette toilet flush strong enough to lift either Cynthia or me off the seat if we are foolish enough to press the flush button while sitting down. And the magical cure for our water pressure woes? The French fitter had installed the pump with the positive and negative terminals the wrong way round. That’s what you get for having work done in the afternoon in a country where two hour lunch breaks with wine are normal.
We stopped for the night at a small and empty car park on quiet coast road next to a deserted beach close to Schoorl, and enjoyed a long walk along the water’s edge. We missed the boat which dumped an industrial quantity of bubble bath into the sea, but the dogs enjoyed rolling in the windblown foam.
Although we’re not back on the water yet, we’re very close. Fitter Jos has completed all of the repairs and alterations, apart from fitting our second fridge. We hoped to have a duplicate of the original sixty five litre fridge fitted, but that particular model is no longer available. A similar alternative model will be installed this weekend, and then we’ll be free to roam the Dutch network for the next four months.
We’ve taken advantage of the delay to shop for a few essential accessories, although ‘essential’ has been the subject of some debate.
High on Cynthia’s list were a pair of life jackets for Tasha and Florence. Bassets aren’t the most active dogs, which I suppose isn’t surprising given their stumpy little legs and elongated bodies. Unsurprisingly perhaps, they aren’t very good swimmers.
Tasha has already had several surprise encounters with England’s murky brown canal water. She struggled to come to terms with a towpath which would switch sides depending on where we were moored, so she always tried to jump off the boat on the same side. Sometimes we caught her in time if she was heading for the water. Sometimes we didn’t.
She didn’t wear a life jacket during the eleven months she was on the English waterways, so an unscheduled dip was something of an ordeal, especially if she jumped in at night. A brown dog in brown water on a dark night is tricky to find, especially if the dog in question ‘swims’ vertically with just the tip of her nose above the surface.
Tasha always wore a Ruffwear harness. It didn’t help her swim, but at least the sturdy handle enabled me to drag her forty four pound bulk onto the boat before she sank like a stone.
The English waterways, especially the canals I usually cruised on, were placid and shallow, so I knew that she wasn’t going to be swept away by a strong current. The Dutch waterways are in a different league, so we need to take more precautions. We also need to consider the logistics of getting Florence back on board if she falls in.
Florence is a shadow of her former self. When Cynthia collected her from the Pennsylvania kennel where she was used for breeding, she was a very unhealthy 105lb. Thanks to a strict diet and regular exercise, she’s now 65lb. Sixty five pounds is still too much to lift three of four feet from the water to the gunnel and then either under or over the lifeline.If she falls in she will need to be directed to the back of the boat to the swim platform.
This process, coupled with the time needed to bring a boat moving at five or six knots to a stop, takes time, time which a poor swimmer simply doesn’t have. A life jacket is essential for the dogs’ safety.
We drove to Gouda to the Netherlands’ largest Ruffwear dealer, had them fitted with a Float Coat each, and then began a very frustrating twenty four hour period of our motorhome adventure.
We have been very lucky with our overnight stops so far, partly because we always aim for rural locations, and partly because of the time of year. We began our tour last October, the end of summer and the beginning of unsettled and cooler weather. The weather at that time of the year discourages many people from spending time in the great outdoors, which means that we often have parking areas all to ourselves. Now that we’re blessed with warmer weather, we’re also cursed by other people trying to enjoy it with us. Especially during public holidays. Last Thursday was Ascension Day in the Netherlands, and it was HOT!
We stopped for the evening on a vast and mostly empty car park close to a dozen connected lakes north east of Gouda, and then settled down to a peaceful early evening sitting on a lawned area to read quietly and watch the water fowl… until a pair of morons with single digit IQs turned up in hot hatches with speakers the size of telephone boxes.
We endured half an hour of bleeding eardrums, and so much bass that we were vibrated off our seats, before admitting defeat and driving to the opposite end of the car park. All we had to contend with then was the continuous roar of Schipohl air traffic thundering into the sky.
Thursday, Ascension Day, was top up day. We’re pretty good at avoiding paying for camp sites these days. Our previous paid top up, six days earlier, had been at a marina fairly close to Leiden where Julisa is moored. Moorers at the marina pay a €20 deposit for a facilities card which can then be preloaded to pay for metered potable water and showers. We paid to stay in the marina car park for a night, paid a deposit for our facilities card, loaded it with enough money for several weeks’ worth of water, and then left the marina the following day without returning the card. Now, if we’re in the area, we pop in to top up our drinking water and to dispose of our grey and black water. Each visit costs us €1.
Three days later, we topped up our potable water tank from the public toilets in a lakeside car park. I also very carefully emptied our cassette into one of the toilets. As the process requires a great deal of care, and a degree of unpleasant cleaning up afterwards, it’s not an exercise for the faint-hearted. But it’s free, and that’s what counts.
Water is always our highest priority. We can manage six days away from facilities with our two toilet cassettes, but four days at a stretch with our water. Our Gouda car park didn’t have public toilets, so I searched the area thoroughly for businesses with outside taps. The Dutch are more than happy to let us top up if we pay them a few euros, especially if charming Cynthia does the asking. I’ve discovered in the past that, if I ask, they’re more likely to retire quickly and think about calling the police.
After drawing a blank, we decided to drive to the coast to (a) find a campsite which would allow us to use their facilities and (b) find a more peaceful place to stay for the night than a favourite haunt of Gouda’s brain dead young men.
We drove to a likely looking campsite on the outskirts of Den Hag, which was probably a mistake on a public holiday, especially as the weather was good. The coastal area was similar to England on a bank holiday weekend; nose to tail with frustrated car drivers, searching in vain for somewhere to park close to one of many overcrowded beaches.
After a painfully slow drive through Den Hag to the campsite, we endured another painfully slow drive through Den Hag again after the staff at the overcrowded campsite refused to allow us to top up. They kindly gave us the address of another campsite, on the opposite side of Den Hag, which they suggested would be able to accommodate us.
Something was obviously lost in translation. After half an hour of frustratingly slow driving we arrived at the address to find that we were out of luck again. Rather than a rural campsite, the address was an urban multi story car park.
Half an hour later, we found another campsite. I sent Cynthia on the charm offensive hoping that she would be more successful than me. I watched through the windscreen as she chatted to a large and severe looking Dutchman. From his stern look and shaking head, I guessed that we were out of luck again. Fortunately I was wrong. Cynthia just had a problem communicating our needs. The Dutchman thought we wanted to stay for the night. We couldn’t. The campsite was full. As soon as he realised that we only wanted water, he was all smiles. Ten minutes and four euros later, we were fully stocked for another four days off grid. All we needed was somewhere pleasant to park.
If you are ever thinking of visiting the Hook of Holland, especially on a Dutch public holiday, here’s a word of advice. Don’t.
We have never seen so many people, and so many police. We saw more police vans, cars, bikes, dogs and men on that one day than we have ever seen in the Netherlands. Pavements packed with thousands of holidaying teenagers probably had something to do with it. We left, quickly.
Three hours after setting off from Gouda to look for water, we were still driving. We caught a ten minute, eleven euro ferry at Rozenburg, this time keeping a careful eye on our bumper, unlike the momentary lack of concentration on the lake Constance ferry which cost us €1,000 in repairs, and then drove along what we hoped would be quiet coastal roads looking for a pleasant place to park by the sea.
Any space larger than a bicycle had a vehicle parked on it. Our day wasn’t proving to be much fun at all. The seaside loving Dutch were out in force. Much as we like the Dutch, we didn’t want to be anywhere near them.
Our luck changed when we crossed the border from South Holland to Zeeland on the N57 on one of a series of concrete causeways connecting the Netherlands southernmost province’s coastal islands.
From the main road Cynthia spotted a peninsula surrounded by sparkling blue water and white sailed pleasure craft. A rough track lead to a deserted lawn like area opposite a busy marina filled with tall masted sailboats and coastal cruisers.
We enjoyed an idyllic afternoon relaxing in the hot spring sun, watching dozens of weekend sailors tack across the vast freshwater bay beneath us. The icing on the cake was our solitude. Several hundred metres away, families picnicked and frolicked on a narrow sandy beach, but we had the peninsula all to ourselves. Apart from the occasional quiet plop as a lone angler cast his lure, all we could hear were the waves which gently swirled around the peninsula rocks… until we climbed into bed at 10pm.
By then the area was deserted. Acres of empty space surrounded us, enough space for hundreds of people to share without interfering with those around them. Why, then, did two Dutch guys in their early twenties race along the dusty track at a speed not normally seen outside Brands Hatch, skid to a halt fifty feet from us, and then set up a football pitch between their car and our rear bumper. For the next hour they stood far enough apart to necessitate shouting at great volume while they kicked the ball between them. I was so angry I nearly sent Cynthia out to give them a piece of my mind.
We moved further south the following day, edging closer to the second of Cynthia’s essential purchases. It’s a 2.4 metre long sailing dinghy, which she wants to use as a tender for Julisa. She argued that it’s an essential item of safety equipment if we ever break down far from land. I kept quiet, but I think that if we’re ever out of sight of land in our little cruiser, it will be me breaking down, not the boat.
From the photo’s we’ve seen, the dinghy appears to be in very condition. She also appears to be solid wood and therefore quite heavy, which is a bit of a problem.
The dinghy is at a marina near Ossendrecht close to the Belgian border, 120km south of Julisa’s mooring at Leiden. We’re going to view it tonight in the vain hope that we can fit the dinghy on the Hymer’s bike rack. I think that one of two things are likely to happen if we try. The most likely is that the weight of the dinghy will rip the lightweight bike rack from its insubstantial fittings. The best outcome there would be that the bike rack parted company with the Hymer as soon as we tied it on. A rather more serious result would be losing it doing 90kph along a motorway packed with holiday weekend traffic.
If the bike rack and its fittings are strong enough, which I seriously doubt, the excessive weight on the Hymer’s 2.4m overhang could lift our front wheels off the ground. Either way, our journey home would range from extremely unpleasant to catastrophic.
The alternative solutions are to either take Julisa south to the dinghy on coastal waters which she isn’t designed for, or ask the owner to deliver the dinghy to Leiden, and hope that, if he agrees, compensation for fuel and a two and a half hour round trip isn’t going to cost more than the dinghy.
While we contemplate our logistical problems, we’re parked at Berghsluis, overlooking another quiet coastal marina. As we sit quietly in the sun, one of us ocassionally glances at the water, points and says, “Look, that boat’s about the same size as Julisa. We’ll be doing that next week!”
We’re both very excited now.
If you are one of the many, many hundreds of subscribers who completed last week’s survey, THANK YOU! Your comments were as useful as they were inspiring, apart from the solitary individual whose sole comment was ‘how do I unsubscribe from this smug and inane drivel?’ After I spent a few minutes weeping into my Belgian beer, I took that comment on board too. I forgot to add an unsubscribe link to the introductory email. If you are one of the few who actively object to the emails I send, you can click on the link at the bottom of the introductory email to banish me from your lives forever.
The comments were many and varied, but the overall theme was ‘carry on doing what you’re doing but, if you have time, a few more photo’s would be much appreciated’
Only 48% of respondents expressed an interest in motorhomes, compared to 71% interested in the Dutch network, and 91% who want information about living on the UK network.
That leaves Cynthia and me with a bit of a quandary. Do we move afloat for twelve months of the year, and spend our winters breaking ice with our nicely painted bow when we’re not huddled around a flickering candle flame for warmth? Alternatively, do we repeat what we did last winter, drive south the France’s Mediterranean coast, and spend the cooler months of the year in tee shirts and shorts soaking up the Mediterranean’s welcome winter sun? It’s a difficult decision to make. We’ll have to think long and hard about it.
The survey results were very useful for a number of reasons. One comment repeated several times was that it’s a shame that some of my older posts aren’t still available. I didn’t really understand what this meant until someone pointed out that clicking on some of the links in my introductory emails results in a 404-page-not-found error.
The error has been caused by me ditching the ridiculously expensive newsletter and CRM software I used for several years. It had more features and functions than I could ever hope to use, so I switched to a much simpler online application. The switch reduced my site maintenance costs, but created a bit of a problem for anyone who had saved the introductory emails, hoping to read the associated newsletters when work commitments allowed.
The good news is that the newsletters linked from the emails haven’t been deleted. They are still neatly filed away in the site’s newsletter archive. The ten most recent newsletters are in chronological order at the top of the column to your right. If you want to read any older posts, you will find every newsletter I’ve written since Christmas 2012 in the Newsletter Archive. There’s a link to the Newsletter Archive in the menu at the top of this page.
If you can’t remember the date of the newsletter you want to read, try the Google Custom Search box at the top of the right hand column. Just enter any phrase or word to produce a list of relevant posts or pages within the site.
A number of survey respondents also pointed out that the newsletter link from my email on 7th May didn’t work, which probably accounted for what I thought was an unusually poor response. If you haven’t read the newsletter yet, which includes details and photo’s of our new boat, you can read Playing the Waiting Game here.
OK. That’s the admin out of the way, so upwards and onwards!
We visited Jos at his boatyard on Tuesday to check progress. We were delighted to see a little progress. Julisa was out of her element again, this time on the hardstanding close to Jos’s workshop. The sea toilet and its attached hand pump had been removed, as had most of the electrics in and close to the engine bay. The boat looked a mess. The old adage, ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ sprung to mind. The eggs in this case were well and truly broken.
Jos was still waiting for the new fridge, four AGM batteries and our replacement Eberspacher heater. The heater and batteries were due to arrive later in the week, but he had no idea when the fridge was due. The work is not going to be completed by 20th May as Jos first suggested. They delay is very frustrating, but at least we’re now reasonably confident that when we set off on our cruise we’ll have a boat which will stay afloat. If we hadn’t asked Jos to replace the sea toilet with a cassette, that might not have been the case.
Once we’d spent a few bewildering minutes tiptoeing around what looked like most of julisa’s component parts, dismantled and scattered in haphazard heaps about the boat, Jos lead us to a storage area to the rear of his workshop. “You’re lucky I took the sea toilet out when I did,” he told us as he bent to pick up a short section of cylindrical steel. “Look at this piece” He pointed at a patch of rust bordering a jagged hole. “I needed to loosen this pipe with two or three light taps with a hammer. The hammer went straight through the pipe” He pointed to a discoloured area circling the pipe slightly above the hole. “That’s the waterline. This hole is below it. You’re lucky the boat didn’t sink!”
Jost also showed us a mess of cracked filler between the sea toilet and the vertical soil pipe it rested on. The toilet fell off the pipe when I lifted it. We couldn’t have used the sea toilet even if we wanted to keep it The first time either Cynthia or I sat down to attend to business, the weak filler would have given way along with the toilet bowl and whoever was sitting on it. The end result wouldn’t have been pretty.
We considered ourselves very lucky. Two weeks earlier we cruised for two and a half hours along twenty kilometres of wide and deep waterways, with the hull regularly bouncing across choppy waves. The shock and vibration could easily have holed the rust weakened toilet outlet and given us a novel submarine view of the Dutch waterways.
We considered ourselves lucky with the heater too.
The Eberspacher heating system wasn’t working when we took the boat for a test run with our surveyor. The agreement we reached with the owner, Piet, was that he would pay for a service which, he thought, would be enough to resolve the issue. However, if the service failed, he agreed to pay half the cost of a new heater.
A service couldn’t be done. The heater’s internal components disintegrated when the casing was opened. We needed a new heater. A direct replacement for the defunct Eberspacher costs €1,900. Piet refused to pay. He told us that he had found a brand new Eberspacher on the internet for €900. He offered to pay €450 for his half share.
After a little investigation and discussion with Jos, we discovered that Piet’s heater was designed for use in trucks. It wouldn’t fit in Julisa without extensive adjustments and labour. The additional parts would cost €550, plus another €350 for labour. The ‘cheap’ heater, after much adjustment, would cost just as much as the direct replacement.
I’m delighted to report that Piet is an honest man. When he finally agreed to pay his half of the €1,900 Eberspacher, Cynthia and I breathed a sigh of relief. We realised that we would be able to buy food this week after all.
Apart from an hour or two at the boatyard, we’ve continued to explore the Netherlands. The scope of the Dutch waterways continues to astound us, as does the way that they are integrated with Dutch society. If you cruise along an urban canal in England, you often have to endure shallow and dirty waterways filled with old bicycles, shopping trolleys, the occasional joy ridden car, and a sea of plastic. The canals regularly skulk through dirty, graffiti covered industrial areas dotted with abandoned factories and with towpaths frequented by furtive, hoodie wearing youths. Of course, not all English city canals are unpleasant, but there are relatively few areas where city waterways are embraced.
The Netherlands is very different.
The Netherlands canals still have their fair share of bicycles thrown in them. The Dutch have one of the most bicycle friendly countries in the world. There are 16,500,000 bikes in a country with a similar population total. Nearly everyone in the country has a bike. Unfortunately, as many as one in five bikes are stolen each year. Many of them are dumped in the canals.
The difference in the Netherlands is that the waterways are generally much deeper than the shallow canals in the UK, and the city authorities are far more proactive in keeping the waterways clear, which are used extensively by commercial boats as well as a high number of leisure craft.
Everywhere we visit we cross or skirt a wide variety of rivers, canals and lakes. We spent much of this week overnighting in a car park at Den Ilp overlooking a lake at the edge of six square kilometres of lakes, canals and parkland, devoid of traffic apart from a multitude of horse riders, bicyclists, skaters, dog walkers and hikers on an extensive network of superb bicycle paths, bridleways and footpaths, all of which often crossed or ran close to the endless waterways.
The astounding amount of bicycle theft aside, the Netherlands feels incredibly safe. Cynthia and I regularly stay overnight in remote car parks which, in the UK, would often be the haunt of noisy and sometimes drunk and aggressive teenagers driving hot hatches. That’s if we managed to get into the car parks at all. Far too often, the English car parks would have height barriers preventing motorhome access, signs prohibiting overnight stays, or traffic wardens or car parking officials knocking on our door, usually while we were eating, asking us to leave. Wild camping, even when it was possible, often didn’t feel very safe.
Sometimes I find adjusting to the far more peaceful countries we’ve visited in Europe quite difficult. After living for fifty five years in the UK, I often judge strangers by the same standards I experienced there. After a lifetime in the USA, Cynthia has a similar problem, but to a far lesser degree.
Two incidents earlier in the week proved us both wrong. The first was at 10pm one night. We were laying on our bed, watching a DVD when Cynthia stiffened and stared intently at a shadowy figure outside she struggled to make out in the fading light. The figure approached. A shaven headed, heavily muscled and tatooed man in his mid twenties beckoned to us through the open window.
“Don’t go out there!” warned Cynthia. “You don’t know what he wants.”
I glanced at the kitchen drawer where we keep a selection of razor sharp knives, and decided against weapon carrying at this stage in the proceedings, but put on my shoes before I answered the door. I didn’t want to have to deal with an unwelcome guest with my bare feet. I find that I can run away much faster if I’m properly shod.
I opened the door and glared at the guy suspiciously, which was a shame, because he couldn’t have been more pleasant. He was Dutch, but, as usual, he spoke perfect English. “I’m really sorry I’ve interrupted you at this time of the night, but could I ask you a favour?” I hesitantly nodded my head. What could he want this time of the night? Money? Drink? Drugs? Somewhere warm to sleep for the night? Cynthia?
“I’m night fishing with my friend,” he gestured to a mountain of camouflaged bags and boxes piled neatly beside a car on the edge of the car park. “We have everything we need for the night, apart from a toilet roll. Could you spare one?”
After expecting to be robbed or beaten, being asked for a solitary toilet roll came as a very pleasant surprise. I almost invited him inside to loosen his bowels, but I suspected that he might reach the wrong conclusion.
Our second surprise was the following night, a humid evening after a hot and sunny day. We had all of our windows and both of our skylights open to stop us from melting inside the poorly ventilated Hymer, so we could hear every sound from the car park outside.
A three vehicle convoy pulled into the car park and skidded to halt on the gravel close to us. Six stockily built eastern Europeans exploded from the two cars and a van, collected several cases of beer and barbecue paraphernalia from the back of the van, and then set up camp on a lawn-like area next to a lake fifty feet away from us.
For the next three hours we listened to the group’s conversation and laughter at an ever increasing volume, interspersed with grunts, thuds and splashes as they wrestled by the water’s edge. I dreaded their return sometime in the early hours of the morning. I remembered all the many occasions during my pub management days when similar heavy drinking usually resulted in flying fists and feet, usually aimed at innocent bystanders. Given that we were in the only other vehicle in the secluded car park, I imagined that they would consider us an easy target.
Once again, I was wrong. They diligently collected their post party debris at 10pm, returned to their vehicles as quietly as church mice, waved a cheery farewell at the backlit figure staring intently at them from a motorhome window, and drove away slowly and carefully.
The Netherlands is a very peaceful country.
We stayed in our Den Ilp car park for several days so that we could buy two more bikes. At the beginning of the week, I still had my big sit-up-and-beg Dutch bike. I bought it last August when I visited Cynthia at the house she rented near Drachten in Friesland, while she waited for me to finish my season’s work at Calcutt Boats. Cynthia bought a similar bike in Drachten, but the bike was stolen during our brief visit to Malaga at the end of November last year.
I hadn’t used my bike once since then. Preparing it for a ride was just too laborious. The Hymer’s bike rack is fitted higher than on most motorhomes, so I needed to use a set of steps to lift bikes off the rack. The steps were buried deep in the motorhomes cavernous garage, so even unearthing the steps was a painful process. Then I had to removed a tightly strapped bike cover, and then find three keys to three separate locks. I could spend as long preparing the bike as actually riding it.
I part exchanged the bike for a Takashi folding bike at Cool Biking in Landsmeer, a hop, skip and a jump from our Den Ilp car park. Both bikes will fit in the fit in the Hymer’s garage, after some ruthless pruning of the ‘essentials’ which we crammed in there at the end of last year, including my well stocked tool box.
I don’t know what possessed my to bring a comprehensive range of tools with me. I didn’t use them on my narrowboat. I don’t actually know what some of them are for. I brushed the dust off the bag once four months ago when I needed a 13mm spanner to tighten a loose windscreen wiper. I’ve kept the spanner and a single flat-headed screwdriver and transferred everything else to the boat, where it will no doubt gather dust until we move everything back to the motorhome in September.
When we transferred some stuff from the garage to the boat yesterday to make room for the bikes, we checked progress on the boat. It’s still a mess, but we can see a dim light at the end of a very long tunnel. Jos has missed his 20th May deadline, but he’s confident he can complete everything now by next Thursday. We live in hope.
Five weeks after having the survey done, we should be able to begin our summer cruise. All we have to do is shoehorn everything which is so carefully organised in the Hymer into a boat with much less storage space. Then we have to decide where to go. We don’t have a clue. Do you have any suggestions?
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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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.