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.
Phew! That was exciting. Since my last proper narrowboat post, a little over two years ago, Cynthia and I have been very, very busy.
I sold my lovely narrowboat, James No 194 and left England’s historic canal network for a life of happy exploration on mainland Europe. We clocked up twenty-seven thousand miles through eleven countries. You can read about our motorhome travels on this blog. We purchased a Dutch cruiser for waterways exploration in Holland, sold that, bought another, and cruised a thousand miles through a landscape filled with flat fields, spinning windmills and endless rows of multicoloured tulips. We fought bureaucratic nonsense at every turn, trying to secure permission for Cynthia to stay in the country.
We failed again, and again and again.
We travelled and we wined and dined like royalty for eighteen glorious months and then, on a very sad day last April, realised that I needed to do some work to pay the bills. I found a mooring at a prominent boatyard in North Holland and employment painting their customer’s ridiculously expensive boats.
That’s when the rot began to set in.
My job is well-paid work by boatyard standards, but there’s only so much pleasure a man in his late fifties can get from crawling around under a variety of posh steel cruisers splashing himself liberally with toxic antifouling paint. The fact that I can’t speak the language and quickly became apprenticed to an unskilled eighteen-year-old didn’t help either.
Much as I have been frustrated by my working life, Cynthia’s plight has been worse.
She can’t drive our five and a half tonne motorhome on her now expired American driving license so she’s been stuck on our boat moored in an expanse of concrete and steel with no one to talk to.
And believe me, my wife likes to talk.
An old hip injury means that walking anywhere causes her pain. Nor can she cycle to interesting places to spend the day while I am at work. The distances are just too great. Isolation in a cold and damp boat for days on end has begun to affect her health. Her only break from the monotony has been weekend trips to a nearby bio grocery store. It’s a sad life when the highlight of your week is buying groceries.
Cynthia, understandably, has been even unhappier than me.
Fortunately for both of us, Cynthia realised the futility in living as we did. My wife is very good at hunting for solutions. She realised we needed to change. She suggested, hopefully, and maybe a little fearfully, that the best course of action would be for us to move back to good old Blighty. That was the situation two weeks ago. Our plans have moved on apace since then. The good news for us, and possibly for you if you like reading about life on England’s muddy ditches, is that we should be back in the UK very soon.
Here’s the beginning of the next chapter in our nomadic lives…
Everything on board is either wet or very damp. Cynthia and I are damp too, as are our spirits. This fancy Linssen of ours is as much use as a winter live aboard craft as a chocolate fireguard.
It just doesn’t work.
The boat is big enough to live on comfortably. It’s thirty-five-foot length and twelve-foot beam gives us four hundred and twenty square feet of living space. Which is a shame given that we can’t use most of it.
The cabins at either end of the boat are too cold and damp to consider using for sleeping. We have heat in neither room. As the thermometer sinks steadily towards zero – Thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit for Cynthia, she comes from a country which hasn’t embraced decimal anything yet – we’re compressed into a smaller and smaller living space.
We now spend most of our time crammed like sardines into the galley area, a space encompassing just sixty square feet. There’s a dinette which converts into a spacious bed. Spacious unless you share it with your significant other, two large dogs and a kitchen. Ever positive Cynthia tries to look on the bright side of everything. “At least now I can sit on the bed while I’m cooking,” she told me last week as she sat on the duvet stirring a pot of lentil stew. A few days later my wife shared another gem. “We don’t have to spend money on getting another fridge installed,” she enthused, “I can use either of the bedrooms or the bathroom to keep our food cool”. But even Cynthia, the lady who can find a silver lining in any black cloud, can’t think of anything positive to say about the damp.
We have more than our fair share of windows. Our cockpit alone has eleven picture windows, more than many narrowboats twice the length. In addition to the vast expanse of cockpit glass, we have a dozen portholes. All twenty-three windows are single glazed. They suck heat out of the boat faster than we can make it. Not that we can make it very quickly.
The condensation is awful. Any time-served boater knows that this unwanted moisture is an unhappy union between inferior insulation, insufficient heating and poor ventilation. We are cursed with all three.
When we were researching suitable liveaboard Dutch boats, we called Linssen Yacht’s head office to ask if our St Joseph Vlet is insulated. We were assured that it is. I would very much like to meet that man I spoke to on the phone, take him to one of the country’s many working canalside windmills and tie him by his testicles to a spinning sail. The insulation on the few cabin wall sections of our floating fridge not covered by single panes of glass is tissue thin. If we are brave enough to lay on the mortician’s slab which masquerades as a double bed in the boat’s small aft cabin, we can watch clouds of moisture-laden breath drift towards the ceiling. Our exhalations form swelling beads which grow until they pop and then fall as cold rain upon our musty quilt.
That’s why we don’t sleep there any more.
Opening a window or two and heating a room is usually an effective condensation reducer. Unless the space in question is on a 1984 Linssen yacht designed by a man who doesn’t know his arse from his elbow. He thoughtlessly designed the porthole frame with a two-inch wide lip running around the window’s exterior. Any falling rain is channelled through the window into the cabin beyond. With no top hopper, the only way to ventilate a room is by swinging the porthole inwards on its single hinge. We left the windows open for ventilation in a summer storm on one of our first nights onboard. The experience was like standing under a power shower on its highest setting. Rain during this record-breaking summer has been rare. We were able to open the windows regularly to keep the boat thoroughly ventilated. Now the rain has returned. We can only open two of our twenty-three windows without running the risk of sinking.
The final nail in the coffin of our onboard comfort is the shit heating system. It’s a refurbished diesel burner which smokes rather than burns. Most of the smoke is ejected from the boat via the exhaust. Enough of it filters through the boards above the engine to turn the cabin interior into a nineteenth-century London smog. Even if we can get the heater started, a hit and miss affair at best, we stand a real chance of poisoning ourselves. Needless to say, we can’t risk using it.
Our emergency heating is provided by a one-kilowatt electric heater. Because the boat’s wiring was installed by an electrician with the technical competence of a starfish, even if we’re using the marina’s electrical supply, we can only use appliances which the boat’s inverter can handle. A typical narrowboat’s solid fuel stove heat output is seven kilowatts, seven times the heat we have at our disposal.
We are constantly cold and damp. Boating is no fun on the Dutch waterways on craft incapable of dealing with winter weather. Very few over here are built for overnight stays when there’s a nip in the air. Even less are suitable or are used for living on board full time.
Our Dutch marina has mostly empty berths now. Of the five hundred moorings here, only two of them have boats with people living on board. There’s Cynthia and me and a crazy old guy who either heats or drinks meths to keep warm. The only thing keeping us going at the moment is the knowledge that our time living in a meat locker is coming to an end.
We’ve almost bought a narrowboat. We’ve paid a deposit and agreed to buy it subject to survey. The hurdle we need to overcome first is actually getting to England to see the boat.
The reason we’re currently living like Eskimos is that our motorhome is at a Nottingham dealership being repaired. It’s thirty-one months into a thirty-six-month warranty. We had a list of relatively minor repairs to make before the warranty expires. The most important was the odometer. Our Hymer records the distance in kilometres at a rate which is enthusiastic but inaccurate. The problem reared its ugly head when we were foolish enough to ask a rural French garage to change a light bulb on a Friday afternoon following a two-hour liquid lunch break. The clock has been adding one kilometre every second since then when the ignition is turned on, regardless of the vehicle’s movement. The current total is six hundred and thirty-five thousand kilometres, three hundred and ninety-four thousand miles. We have to use the sale proceeds from our motorhome to buy our new boat. We will struggle to attract potential buyers if the vehicle appears to have been driven sixteen times around the Earth.
I’m waiting for a call before I can return to England to collect our Hymer. Then I can drive to Chester to see our new home. Providing there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the boat I’ll sign on the dotted line. We’ll have a boat but, as often seems the case these days, I’ll have a wife in a different country. I will need to return to her, take our stuff off our Dutch boat and then sail it six hours north to our broker in Zaandam. Once the craft is safely on its new berth, cleaned and polished to perfection, I need to prepare myself for a ten-hour drive from Aalsmeer back to Chester. Then I’m going to light my first coal fire in two years and dive head first into a bottle of merlot.
That’s the plan anyway.
Our further hope is that we can move our boat down the Shroppie to the Grand Union at Napton Junction. The route will involve waiting for seven pre-Christmas stoppages to be completed. They need to be finished on time to allow us to complete the rest of our journey before several New Year stoppages begin. Any delay in opening these stretches of the waterway will leave us in the middle of nowhere until the spring. We aren’t terribly keen on that happening.
Oh, I forgot to mention the boat.
It’s a beautiful 61’6” traditional stern Steve Hudson boat, currently moored at Tattenhall Marina. I’ll tell you all about it next week. Here’s a sneaky peak through the front doors. What do you think?
With my marina work all but finished for the season I’ve had plenty of time to focus what I’m going to do back in the UK. And, thanks to Cynthia, that will be what I do best; talking passionately and at length about narrowboats and life on England’s inland waterways.
I had a phenomenal response to last week’s email. I asked you, my newsletter subscribers, if you would be interested in joining me for a relaxed day of helmsmanship instruction and learning everything necessary to live a comfortable, safe and relaxed life on the water.
The answer was a resounding “Yes PLEASE!”
I’ve recreated and rewritten my old Discovery Day booking system and decided on next year’s dates. I will be hosting my experience days during the first two weeks of April, June, August, October and December 2019. I don’t want to jump the gun until Orient has had a successful out of water survey. I’m hoping to arrange that next week sometime. The very minute my unofficial surveyor gives me the green light, I’ll email a link to my calendar to everyone who has already expressed an interest. If you want to know more and haven’t yet logged your interest by clicking on either of the links in the last two emails from me, let me know by clicking here. (You don’t need to bother if you clicked on the Discovery Day link in this post’s introductory email) I’ll add you to the list of people to be notified as soon as the booking system is live.
Our winter-time wanderings on France’s Atlantic coast continue. We’ve slipped seamlessly back into our cold weather motorhome routine. We drive, we explore, we resupply, I throw a cabin-fever-induced tantrum, we travel some more, we find another new place, we top up again, and then I throw another fit. I’m a creature of habit. We enjoy the nomadic lifestyle, apart from when I’m throwing cabin-fever-induced tantrums, but much of our travelling time is spent searching for potable water and somewhere to empty our waste.
One of the many benefits of French winter motorhome touring is virtually unrestricted and fantastic overnight stops, either out in the wild or in official motorhome service and parking areas or, as the French call them, ‘aires’.
We recently spent a week on the Île de Ré parked close to endless empty beaches. Our tranquillity was only broken by the need to resupply. Aires, often with free or low-cost sanitary stations, have been mostly empty at this less popular motorhome touring time of year. The downside to so much unoccupied space is that these essential facility oases are also often closed during the colder months or have their water supply turned off.
Our last day on the Île de Ré was typical. We found a beautiful place to stay for the night with an outstanding view. Our aire parking spot offered a panoramic view of the island’s eastern coast, and access to miles of golden sand from a narrow path close to the Hymer’s habitation door. An unusual and very welcome bonus at this particular aire was an unmetered supply of free electricity, the first aire that we’ve found offering this generous addition. We couldn’t understand why such a perfect overnight stop had so few motorhomes parked there.
We discovered why the following morning.
Our potable water tank holds one hundred litres. It’s a small supply compared to the three hundred and fifty-litre water supply I had on my narrowboat, or the four hundred litre tank on our Linssen yacht. Even so, we can make our water last us three days if we’re careful. We also have a spare ten-litre food grade water carrier stored in our tiny bathroom. If our primary tank runs out, we know that we have an emergency supply that will last us half a day. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card which we have been very grateful for more times than we can count.
At our idyllic Île de Ré aire, we were down to our last ten emergency litres. We weren’t particularly concerned. The luxurious aire offered grey and black water disposal and potable water as well as free electricity. The bonus for me, the chief water filler, was that the aire had a fresh water tap close enough to the Hymer to use our 30m hose and one with a thread to allow me to fit the hose connector.
The alternative to topping up our water supply with the hose is good old fashioned hard labour, trudging ten times between tap and tank with the ten-litre emergency canister. A hoseless fill is a standard feature of cemetery visits where the water supply in an enclosed area inaccessible to most vehicles, especially larger vans like ours. We often use cemeteries when aire water is turned off.
Cemetary water filling can be a pain, so I was delighted that we were parked at a fully serviced aire, close enough to use our hose without moving. After I unrolled our hose, thankful that we could spend another day or two watching the seascape from the comfort of our little lounge while our battery bank filled with free electricity, I pressed a green button above the aire’s potable water tap. Nothing. I checked to see if we needed to pay to activate the water supply. We didn’t. The water supply had been turned off for the winter. That’s why the aire was almost empty despite free electricity.
We had to change our plans. Murphy’s Law kicked in of course. The closest alternative water supply was in a cemetery on the mainland, accessible via a congested car park next to a ruined abbey. C’est la vie. Onwards and upwards!
The further south we drove, the more homeless men and the occasional women we saw. They seem to be tolerated more in France than they are in the UK. There was a regular crew at the Carrefour supermarket we often used last winter in Narbonne. They gathered under an awning close to the store entrance, drinking strong lager and tripping over their mangy dogs. Sometimes they stood near the supermarket’s car park washing machines. Sometimes, we suspected, the temptation to dispose of any drink-related excess bodily fluids in the spin dryer was a little too much for them. Because of this, and because of their fondness for invading my personal space to breathe stinking fumes over me while we were sorting through our underwear, we didn’t use these otherwise useful machines.
We came across our first gentleman of the streets this winter in Arcachon. We had been wild camping in a deserted pine forest car park next to a glorious beach under the towering Dune du Pilat, Europe’s highest dune. With depleted water and full waste tanks, we reluctantly left our blissful solitude to resupply. The Arcachon aire was, beyond question, the most poorly maintained, inadequately equipped and aesthetically unappealing motorhome service point we have visited in two winter tours of France.
The aire, located on a noisy main road opposite a large car dealership and a busy petrol station, wasn’t exactly what you would call an oasis of tranquillity. Having to tiptoe through an inch of mud to reach the grey water drain was an additional unpleasant and frustrating experience, as was trying to attach a hose to a cold water tap poking drunkenly from a rectangular plastic facilities box held together with a roll of grey duct tape.
Much as we disliked it, the aire appeared popular with a trio of entry-level motorhome owners who had claimed the site as their very own.
Their old vehicles surrounded the only service point, which meant me joining their merry band to attach our hose and to empty two full and very smelly toilet cassettes. The three French lads and two girls didn’t seem to mind the smell. As I poured the stinking brown slurry into a chemical toilet disposal point an arm’s length from the nearest van’s open galley window, they crowded round to question me in loud, rapid-fire French.
“How old is your camper? What does it weigh? Are you Eeenglish? What do you think of France? Where are you going? You are very old. Have you stopped working now?”
They were drunk, mischievous, and utterly charming, which is more than I could say for our next guest.
Our Hymer has a large ‘garage’, a cavernous storage compartment under our fixed double bed at the rear of the vehicle, accessible by lifting the mattress on a sprung hinge inside the cabin, or by opening a top-hinged door outside.
We have many essentials stored in the garage, including two folding bikes and an essential and rather expensive Honda suitcase generator. We also keep a thirty-metre hose and reel in there for water tank filling.
I left the garage door open after removing the hose reel. I shouldn’t have done. The temptation to look inside for something worth stealing was too much for a homeless Arcachon resident.
Cynthia stayed inside the Hymer when I climbed out to tend to my ‘blue’ jobs, the tasks which we’ve both agreed are mine. The steady rain put her off joining me outside, as did the filthy aire, the vocal French youngsters, and a shifty looking middle-aged man who lurched past the back of our Hymer before leaning against a nearby concrete wall to urinate copiously over his own feet.
She spotted an even more dishevelled man skulking behind a row of parked cars, peering through their windows, furtively searching for an open door. Cynthia watched him reach the end of the row, and then stagger through a series of puddles as he headed towards our open garage.
She hammered on the lounge window to warn me, trying to make herself heard over the laughter of my new friends as they searched for appropriate English questions or insults using Google Translate.
By the time I reached our garage, the man, dressed in a filthy and ragged quilted coat, was bent at the waist, stretching into the storage space towards a 20kg bag of dog food. I shouted at him. He ignored me. I pulled his elbow gently. He shrugged me off. I yanked him backwards by the scruff of his neck. He fell into a muddy puddle, climbed unsteadily to his feet, glared at me, and held out a filthy hand, palm upwards in the universal request for money. I shook my head. He held two blackened fingers close to his mouth miming smoking. I shook my head again. He stared at me aggressively, grabbed my arm and once more held out his hand for money. The paragon of virtue that I am, I told him to fuck off and pushed him off his feet.
Happy with a job well done, I climbed back into the Hymer to remind Cynthia how lucky she was to have a man about the house, someone to defend her against the scum of French society.
She was sorting through one of our food cupboards, looking for a few pieces of spare fruit. “Did you see the state of that poor man?” she asked. “Did you see that soaking sleeping bag he carried? Can you imagine what life must be like in weather like this with no home? We should give him something to eat. I feel so sorry for him!” Not half as sorry as she would have felt if she had seen the way I treated him. I decided not to brag about my manliness after all.
We drove south to continue our life of exploration. Another day. Another set of chores ahead of us. Check the water gauge. How much longer can we last without water? Find a water supply, check if it’s working, check if we can get close enough to use it. Check the toilet cassettes. How much longer can we last before emptying them? Check the grey water tank. Where can we drain it? Check the Hymer spreadsheet. How long since we last filled the gas tanks? What’s our average daily consumption at the moment? How much gas do we have left? Where’s the nearest supply if we need it? Check our food supply. More importantly, check Cynthia’s stock of the organic products she needs to stay healthy. Do we need to resupply? Where is the nearest organic store? Check the battery gauge. Do the batteries need topping up? Can we run the generator where we are without upsetting neighbouring motorhome owners/campers/nature lovers/residents or, on occasion, passing motorists? And then the big one; where do we want to move our home for the coming night? The list of things to do is as exhausting as it is tedious.
Trying to find somewhere new, peaceful and scenic is a game. It’s a game I enjoy playing, but one that we play too often. Only five of the last nineteen days have been static. We need to increase the number of zero mileage days and decrease expensive and sometimes stressful travel days. Until we learn to slow down, we’ll continue with our usual new-home finding routine.
A decent internet connection makes research much more straightforward than driving blindly along streets looking for somewhere suitable. Google Maps is our saviour, apart from in Germany where Google Street View doesn’t cover most of the countryside outside the major cities. That’s not a problem at the moment. We’re in France and, unless Cynthia has plans she hasn’t mentioned to me, we’re staying here for the winter.
We search the nearby area on Google Maps, looking for somewhere free to park. The location needs to be away from main roads. Dead end roads terminating at beach car parks are the locations we like most. Google’s satellite view is perfect for discovering a promising location. We can sometimes see car parks with motorhomes already parked in them. It’s an indication that they’re worth checking out. A car park at the end of a quiet road is perfect, providing that the surface is suitable for our heavy vehicle and our big-pawed, low bodied dogs. A provincial car park covered in muddy potholes is not ideal. Nor is a car park with a height barrier. We check car park surface and barrier obstructions with Google Street view.
Our last Atlantic overnight stop was to the south of the 4,000-year-old twenty-one square mile north Biscarrosse lake. Despite heavy rain over the previous week, the fifty-space motorhome parking area was pretty dry. At least, the aire was as dry as we could hope for given the conditions. We were getting more than a little fed up with the weather.
Much as we enjoyed the Atlantic coast with its wide open spaces, coastal pine forests and quiet beaches, constant grey skies, heavy rain and muddy paths began to depress us. The straw which broke the camel’s back was a particularly unpleasant day parked in Navarrosse next to a beautiful lake mostly obscured by squalls.
The heavy rain eased off, then stopped. We quickly climbed into waterproof coats, hats, scarves and gloves. Tasha and Abbie wagged excitedly. We reached for their leads. The heavens opened again. We reluctantly removed our wet weather gear and tried to calm two over-excited dogs. Then we waited for the rain to stop again. And we waited. Then we waited some more. After thirty-six hours listening to the steady patter of constant rain, our tiny Hymer home felt like a prison.
Our original plan was to take our time driving south along the Atlantic shore, thoroughly exploring the west coast before turning south-east through the Pyrenees to reach the Mediterranean. They were OUR plans, so we didn’t need to stick to them. Rather than adhere to the route, and endure another unpleasant month of miserable weather, we plotted the quickest course to Peyriac-de-Mer on the Mediterranean.
We stayed in our around Peyriac for six weeks last year. The sun frequently shone from a cloudless sky, the air was warm, the landscape divine and, because of the weather, I was able to escape our little box for daily rambles in the sun-drenched hills.
The problem with reaching a destination quickly in France is that the journey is usually expensive. We always try to travel on National ‘N’ or Departmental ‘D’ roads. They’re free to use, are quiet, and usually, pass through beguiling towns and villages.
According to Google Maps, reaching Peyriac-de-Mer on Departmental roads would take six and a half hours to cover two hundred and sixty-one miles. An estimated six and a half hours of driving in heavy rain and strong wind on often single-track mountain roads with unprotected muddy verges bordering steep drops. We decided to invest a few euros in our mental health and use autoroute ‘A’ roads instead.
The three hundred mile drive took us most of the day, cost £80 in diesel and £45 in toll charges, but it was worth every minute, every mile, and every last penny.
We arrived here two days ago. The journey’s climax was an adrenalin-fueled dash along a short section of exposed coast road battered by gale force winds. After all, this part of the Mediterranean coast is the windiest part of France. We don’t mind. It’s also one of the sunniest.
We’re delighted with our new aire home. Sleeping last night was an exciting experience. Wind gusts reached 70mph. We learned from experience and parked bow into the wind. The owner of the motorhome next to us made a schoolboy error and parked broadside to the gale. He lasted until 1:00 am before driving to a more sheltered spot behind a nearby building. He looked quite tired during this morning’s dog walk.
We’re delighted that we decided to leave the Atlantic coast. I often find motorhome driving stressful, but the ability to quickly move our home away from lousy weather makes occasional unpleasant driving worthwhile. Our new plan is to stay on the Mediterranean in the sun until spring. That’s the plan for now anyway.
Cynthia Says–“The Executive Decision”
As a lot of you know, we departed the cold and dreary Netherlands a month ago today and headed back to France with a Christmas stopover in beautiful Vendome to spend the holiday with a friend.
We then headed further west to the beautiful Ile de Re (island) near La Rochelle. We loved it there–gorgeous beaches with thundering waves and breathtaking seascapes. I was in awe over the windsurfers and other such water worshippers risking their well being in the unforgiving surf.
After a few days there, we headed further south and found verdant forests that stopped where the dunes took over. It was a beautiful combination of wood and beach. We were captivated. We were lucky enough to find several areas where we could wild camp with the beach right at our doorstep.
At Andernos Les Bains, we found the perfect spot at the beach where it was quiet and allowed us to step out right onto the beach and take the dogs for a walk. The location also provided us with beautiful sunrises and sunsets and views of the lights of Arcachon in the distant foreground across the bay. And the fact that the Bio shop was just a stone’s throw away didn’t hurt!
Being the wanderers that we are, we decided to head the Hymer into the wind and go further south close to the Spanish border. Again we were greeted by breathtaking sea and landscapes and the famous Dune du Pilat at Le Petit Nice. We happened upon a campsite that, except for the beach day-trippers and a small assortment of motorhomes, we had to ourselves. The ocean views there were some of the most spectacular we have encountered. We ended up spending several days and nights here.
Heading further south we encountered the delightful village of Biscarrosse. Paul found a pleasant aire there that was nestled close to a forest and beside a small yacht basin and a lovely beach on the second largest lake in France. On the 19th we were blessed with a day of partial sunshine, and we took advantage of it. However, as all good things must come to an end, the next day we awakened to unrelenting rain, rain and more rain. We took a glance at the weather app and just after finishing breakfast, Paul made his executive decision–to head back to Peyriac de Mer and the Narbonne region, and SUN.
So nearly 300 miles later and a LOT of rain and wind (especially as we got close to Peyriac) we made it!
Those of you who were reading the newsletters last winter might remember how much we loved this spot. A take-your-breath-away gorgeous medieval village flanked by the salt basins–the etangs that are full of flamingoes and other birds–a real sanctuary for them.
Yesterday we awoke to the rays of the sun beating down upon the Hymer, and we were overjoyed. The wind was still kicking up, but it was calm enough to sit outside for awhile and enjoy the warming rays of sunshine. Pure heaven for me!
When we looked at the weather map for France yesterday, the area we were in was the only place in France that wasn’t drenched with rain–are we lucky or what??!!
The day was a bit of a bittersweet one, as it would have been the 6th birthday of our beloved Basset Florence.
After lunch, braving the fierce wind, we headed off to take the same path around the lake that we had exactly a year ago on her 5th birthday.
As we had her cremated back in the Netherlands, we had the ashes with us, and I decided this would be the perfect place to scatter some of them as she loved her walks here so much. I shed a few tears as I thought about her and how much she meant to us, and at the same time, I felt profoundly grateful that we had the great fortune to have her half-sister, dear sweet Abbie in our lives, and of course the indomitable Tasha who is just about to turn twelve.
We will head back to this region this autumn to get our dose of milder weather and warming sun. It IS a better balance for us, so I believe we will continue this pattern until or unless something better shows up for us.
Thank you SO much, Paul, for making this executive decision–one of the best you have made so far this year!
When I wrote my last blog post I was worried about Dik Trom’s suitability for living aboard during the northern Europe’s chilly winter months.
I still am.
The onboard heating was a concern. The aged Eberspacher D4 4KW blown air heater failed shortly after we handed over a wad of hard earned cash in exchange for our beautiful thirty four year old Linssen yacht. Previous owner Walter agreed to replace the heater’s faulty pump. The Eberspacher worked for a while, then failed again. Walter then very kindly replaced the complete heater with a reconditioned unit. The new heater worked, but filled the boat with toxic fumes. The fumes disappeared after the exhaust fittings were renewed and that, we hoped, was the end of our heating problems.
Either the Eberspacher isn’t powerful enough to heat the boat, or the Linssen’s insulation is failing to retain the diesel burner’s output. The bottom line is that our new boat is too cold to live on comfortably this winter.
I’m sure that we’ll find a solution. Much as I would like to, installing a solid fuel stove isn’t going to work. Supplies of coal or coal briquettes aren’t as readily available in either the Netherlands or France as they are in the UK. Logs are a little easier to find, especially in France, but wood isn’t really practical unless there’s a reasonable amount of covered storage space near the boat’s mooring. Decent winter moorings with adequate storage space are few and far between so that isn’t a realistic option at the moment, which is a shame.
I’ve always appreciated the simplicity, reliability and the aesthetic appeal of a multifuel stove. I had a diesel heating system as a backup on my narrowboat, but the stove did all the real work. From mid October to mid April, the stove burned coal briquettes pretty much twenty four hours a day. It never let me down. My Webasto Thermotop C diesel burner didn’t let me down either, but I didn’t have it installed for long enough, or run it for long enough periods, to give it a chance.
Even with a brand new Eberspacher heater on Dik Trom, using it as the boat’s only heat source would have made me very nervous, especially after receiving the following email shortly after publishing my last blog post.
“Not often I put pen to paper, or in this case finger to keyboard, but I have offered advice about heaters in the past. Forty years a marine engineer and the last ten making a crust from Webasto and Eberspacher heaters. Do you remember the comedy program “Hello – Hello” ?? Well I will say this only ONCE. They are made as night heaters for lorries. They will not last when used for long periods. You are wasting your time and money trying to live aboard a boat with them as a sole source of heating. Despite all the claims of marine application, believe me that is total bollocks. Great for a few hours every winter when the rich pop round to have a G&T aboard and watch the ducks ice skating.
When I lived aboard, I had what I think is the best heater ever produced ( Webasto air top 5000 ) no longer in production, I actually had 2 – not a problem for me, when the heater failed halfway through winter I fitted the other unit I had overhauled, then overhauled the failed unit. As I did this all myself I could keep the cost down but the cost of service parts is totally bonkers even with my trade discount. I tell folk year after year after year they are not designed for long term use, fortunately for me they still carry on spending a small fortune polishing a turd!! I am now at the stage that I no longer have to remove and refit the offending item, all the engineers for miles around just bring them to my door and I sit in my cosy workshop. I no longer have to listen to boat owners ranting and raving about the expense, reliability and inconvenience, not to mention freezing for a week or more.
Get yourself a diesel drip heater and install some radiators, it will outlast you. Okay it will cut out if you are bouncing about in a force 7 at sea but it will soon fire up again in calmer waters and if you are honest you will not be going anywhere far through the winter anyway. I know you won’t take any notice of a word I’ve said – – – – ( written ) no one ever does, I have arrived at the conclusion that all boat owners are masochists and the more money they can waste on total crap the better they feel.
That’s why I just work for a few months a year – – – – POLISHING TURDS ! ! !”
Hardly reassuring news is it? I think we need to start saving for a diesel drip heater.
The onboard heating hasn’t been our only worry.
Getting into the boat’s living space isn’t easy. We have to step from the shore onto a narrow walkway, climb three vertical steps to the rear deck and exterior helm, open the waist high cockpit door and hatch, and then climb down five vertical steps into the cabin.
The steps up onto the rear deck and down into the cabin are too steep for our ridiculously short legged dogs. They both wear harnesses so that they can be lifted up the steps to the rear deck – a strenuous workout with fifty five pound Abbie – and then guided down a two metre long dog ramp into the cabin.
Getting people and dogs on board is enough of a challenge in the best of conditions. I discovered that it’s almost impossible in snow.
Three inches fell, partially thawed, froze, and was then joined by another three inches of wet and very slippery flakes. I soon realised that a rear deck protected by a layer of mirror smooth paint and covered shin deep in wet snow is a very interesting surface to walk on. Because the blindingly obvious sometimes takes a while to sink in, I pirouetted gracelessly across the deck several times on my own before realising that the only safe way onto the boat was on my hands and knees. I didn’t want to consider the likely outcome of trying the same route with a young and powerful dog straining at the leash across a slippery deck surrounded by widely spaced rails offering an unprotected two metre drop into the icy canal beneath. Cynthia following one or more dogs into the freezing water was even more of a worry. I realised that we would need to install anti slip matting before even considering moving on board.
To add to our woes, our shower tray needs replacing. Our surveyor identified a split in the waste surround. Using the shower would result in most of the dirty water flowing into the bilge rather than the plastic box which holds the shower pump.
I asked a plumber who lived opposite the yacht club to repair the split for me. When he saw the shower tray he shook his head a few times, sucked his teeth, shook his head again, and told me that the shower tray would need replacing and, because it was a bespoke shower tray curved to fit the Linssen’s hull, the repair was beyond him.
The yacht club harbour master had other ideas. He told me the repair was easy to do, disappeared into his cavernous store room for a few minutes, handed me a tube of clear silicone sealant, and told me to get squeezing.
I squeezed for all I was worth. The shower tray now isn’t quite as deep as it used to be. Unfortunately, I managed to miss most of the crack. The shower still leaks.
We have a cold boat which is impossible to get on in icy weather and a shower which, should we be brave enough to try to use it in the unheated bathroom, is likely to turn the Linssen into a giant bath.
We came to the conclusion that, realistically, we wouldn’t have time or, more importantly, the money, to make the necessary changes this year. Especially as our Hymer home needed another sizeable chunk of our rapidly disappearing savings.
Our leisure bank of two 100ah lead acid batteries failed three weeks ago. They lasted just twenty months, but they had a pretty hard life. They were asked to cater for all our electrical needs last winter living off grid with very little sun for the solar panel to be of any use. We used our suitcase generator when we could, but the fear of upsetting nearby motorhome owners meant that we didn’t use it as often as we needed to. Consequently, the two batteries were often drained more than was good for them.
Replacing them with two 90ah AGM batteries cost £500. On top of that we had to replace the galley tap… again.
The galley tap was replaced last December in Narbonne by national chain Narbonne Accessories. The guys there couldn’t have been more pleasant or accommodating. We would have liked them to have been competent too.
We asked them to fit a water pump with a non return valve. They didn’t. We had to take the Hymer back to them to get the correct pump fitted a few days later. They managed to install the correct pump, but wired it incorrectly. After enduring low water pressure for six months, a Dutch motorhome fitter spent ten minutes correcting the wiring.
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We had other equally unsuccessful repair work done in France last winter. We took the Hymer to a French garage for a simple headlight replacement. When we left the garage, we noticed that the headlight blinked when the indicator was turned on. We returned to the garage to have it fixed. My schoolboy error was to take the Hymer back on an afternoon following what I suspected was the garage’s Christmas party. Correcting the problem took six mechanics an hour and a half. Several days driving later, we realised that the post party fix coincided with both our fuel gauge and odometer failure. By then, we were too far away to return for remedial work.
The fuel gauge no longer works and, as soon as the ignition is turned on, regardless of whether the engine is running or not, the odometer adds one kilometre every two seconds to the running total. According to the dashboard display, we have driven 439,579 kilometres (273,141 miles) in the last year. That’s the equivalent of nearly eleven times around the Earth. No wonder I feel constantly exhausted.
Selling the Hymer with the current mileage display could be a bit of a problem.
The galley tap was much more of an inconvenience than incorrectly displayed dashboard numbers. It looked cheap and nasty and performed as poorly as it looked. The water flow was abysmal, the tap base leaked and, over the last two months, the tap has regularly fallen off its counter-top mounting.
Three weeks ago we had a new mixer tap installed, had a number of minor modifications and repairs made, tried and failed to get our defective fuel gauge working and, while the Hymer was in for repair, discovered that by next spring at the latest, we need to find nearly three thousand pounds for more essential repairs.
The fuel gauge was the first bad news. The garage suspected that a mechanical problem in the fuel tank was the likely culprit. After the fuel tank pump was removed and replaced and found to be fully working, an electronic problem was on the next to-be-investigated list. The fuel gauge is part of an integral dashboard display. To replace the fuel gauge, the complete display has to be changed. The cost for a replacement display is £400.
There is no guarantee that the replacement display will cure the fault with the fuel gauge or the odometer. Cynthia and I suspect that last winter’s post party headlight repair and wiring alteration is more likely to be the cause. Extensive electrical investigation and/or rewiring is the likely solution, but we can’t afford that at the moment.
We also asked the Dutch garage to fix a ‘minor coolant leak’. The leak, we were told, was the reason for a noisy fan running most of the time the engine was running. Following a quick glance on a previous visit, the garage owner suggested that the repair would involve a replacement hose and half an hour’s labour. After looking at it properly on our last visit, he told us that the radiator and part of the air conditioning system needs replacing. The work will take a full day and cost us the best part of a thousand pounds.
Tyre replacement is also nearing the top of our motorhome to do list. We’ve driven twenty thousand miles on the current set. The front tyres will need changing next spring. The cost will be £400 for a decent pair of Michelins. Before the end of 2018, we’ll have to budget £800 to replace the rear four tyres.
Last, but far from least, is a tiny leak from a drive shaft seal. The good news is that a new seal will cost just £10. Unfortunately for our bank account, replacing the seal is a multi day job which is likely to cost another £1,000. We’ve been aware of the leak for several months now. It doesn’t appear to be getting any worse. Although we’re burying our collective head deep in the sand and hoping the seal won’t fail completely over the winter, we know we’ll need to attend to it before we begin cruising next year. If we can’t find the money I’ll have to work the sordid streets of Amsterdam’s red light district. I just hope I can find my little red dress.
The Hymer was working well enough to allow us to leave the Netherlands ten days ago. We broke our five hour drive into France with a two hour stop at our Belgian mooring. Dik Trom will be protected from frost damage by two shore powered greenhouse heaters while we are away, and checked regularly by former owner Walter. Much as we disliked leaving our new boat for three months, staying on a cold boat for twelve weeks wasn’t very appealing.
Today, the final day of 2017, is a good day for reflection. We’ve enjoyed such an exciting and varied year. Cynthia is to blame for all of it.
Cynthia has an insatiable thirst for adventure. Without her drive and enthusiasm, we wouldn’t have seen as many sights, met as many people, or visited as many countries as we have in the last twelve months.
We spent last winter on France’s balmy Mediterranean coast close to Narbonne. As the first spring buds appeared in mid February, we set off on a very slow drive north to Germany and a month’s scheduled stay for Cynthia at an alternative cancer clinic close to Stuttgart.
Leaving France took a little longer than expected. Our alternator, and consequently our lights, failed on a narrow French mountain road at dusk. We were transported by a too small recovery lorry to Montpellier and endured a terrifying twenty mile drive with the wagon threatening to tip over at every bend in the road. We spent four days locked into a scrap yard before having a new alternator fitted. Even a simple breakdown added excitement and adventure to our lives.
We drove on to Switzerland for two weeks mountain hiking, and then through Liechtenstein and Austria to Germany. While Cynthia enjoyed a month’s pleasant and successful treatment, I was free to hike for many miles each day in endless tranquil forests. We left the spring behind and drove north to the Netherlands via Luxembourg and Belgium.
We bought a boat at a marina close to Aalsmeer in April and then enjoyed a six month, 1,000km season on the fascinating Dutch waterways. Our wonderful time on the water was marred by the tragic death of Florence, one of our bassets who, we think, ate poison left for rats on the island we moored on overnight.
Thanks to Cynthia’s travel privileges as a retired American Airlines employee, I was able to fly to Philadelphia free of charge to collect our beautiful and mischievous new two year old basset Abbie. She will never replace her sorely missed cousin Florence, but she is a very welcome addition to our nomadic family.
As the thermometer dropped and we reluctantly ended our cruising year, we decided that we wanted to return to living full time on the water. Our gorgeous steel and mahogany classic Dutch cruiser was only suitable for three season cruising, so we swapped water for wheels and visited marinas and yacht brokers throughout the Netherlands and Belgium searching for a new floating home.
While we looked, we returned to England to MOT the Hymer and visit friends. After ten days, we returned to mainland Europe and drove to Belgium to view our new boat for the first time. We bought the boat, planned to move on board full time, realised we couldn’t, put the new boat and the old boat to bed, and then drove south towards warmer weather (and hopefully a rest).
When we started looking for a new boat, the plan was to simplify our lives by reducing our ‘homes’ from two to one. We’ve actually gone the other way, and increased the total from two to three.
C’est la vie.
Our new boat isn’t really fit for purpose. We allowed our hearts to rule our minds. I lived six years on my narrowboat, including during the coldest English winter since 1910 (and the second coldest since records began in 1659). My solid fuel stove kept me warm and the cabin was easy to access regardless of the weather. Solid fuel stoves are something of a rarity over here, so fuel is hard to find or prohibitively expensive.
Dik Trom is a substantial and beautiful cruiser suitable, like Julisa, our Super Favourite cruiser, for three season cruising. Dik Trom is more spacious than Julisa, slightly more weather resistant, and she has plenty of space for al fresco dining. She’s perfect for extended summer cruising but, to be brutally honest, she’s not a wise choice as a full time home, especially in northern Europe.
We made a mistake. I think that Cynthia likes to call them ‘learning opportunities’ rather than mistakes. If that’s the case, we learned a great deal from the purchase of our new boat.
In hindsight, and what a wonderful gift that is, we could have left our life exactly as it was; kept the slightly smaller but adequate Super Favorite cruiser and not incurred a substantial, and, to me, worrying bridging loan. Our idyllic life would have continued without having to make so many scary changes… the sort of changes which terrify me and which Cynthia embraces with twinkling eyes and a happy smile.
What’s done is done. We’re not going to spend time crying over spilt milk. Our purchase is going to result in some (hopefully) short term financial hardship, but Dik Trom should provide a comfortable summer base for the rest of our cruising days.
The whole move-back-to-the-water-full-time project has been very useful in one respect. It’s made us appreciate our Hymer motorhome and the ability it gives us to escape the perpetually cloudy winter skies of northern Europe.
Returning to France last week came as a bit of a shock after so long in the Netherlands. The Dutch are as friendly as they are clean and tidy. Their country is small but very well organised. Streets are clean, litter bins plentiful and well used, public toilets spotlessly clean and fully equipped, and the roads are safe and easy to use for both car and bicycle users.
France is very, very different. You need a strong stomach to use a public toilet in France, and your own toilet seat and a plentiful supply of toilet paper. You also need a plentiful supply of toilet paper if you’re brave enough, or foolish enough, to cycle on French roads. Roads are often steep or narrow, or steep and narrow, and almost always without cycle lanes. Cycling in France is not for those with nervous dispositions.
The sanitary standards might be questionable, and the roads difficult for bike riders, but the scenery is so much more pleasant than the flat and largely featureless Dutch countryside.
We found a wonderful spot to park last night on the Île de Ré close to La Rochelle two hundred and fifty miles south west of Paris. North Atlantic surf is crashing onto the deserted Bay of Biscay beach a stone’s throw from our haven on a sandy car park surrounded by pine trees.
We’re looking forward to a New Year’s day stroll on the beach this afternoon… if there’s a break in the weather. A force eight gale is driving torrential rain horizontally against the Hymer’s rear. Thunder is crashing overhead, not that we can hear it too well over the wind whistling through the pine trees surrounding us.
Regardless of the weather, the scenery and our location are perfect. Regardless of the teething problems we’ve had with our new boat, we’re going to enjoy our winter. Regardless of the financial uncertainty our recent boat purchase has caused, we are both confident that Dik Trom is going to bring us pleasure for many years to come.
I hope that YOUR plans for the coming year are just as exciting as ours.
“On Being Honest”
In a previous newsletter of the not too distant past I wrote about our decision to remain in the Netherlands for the winter. I also stated how our travels in the motorhome were out of balance due to the fact that Paul had to do all the driving and that was very stressful for him.
What I wasn’t doing was truly being honest with myself about gutting out the winter in the dreariness of the Dutch winters with little sun.
Let me back up a bit here—back in the late ‘70’s my former husband and I moved from Southern California—sunny perfect-weather San Diego to be exact—to the New England area to pursue our careers with the airlines. Each winter became a teeth-gritting experience. Dealing with all the snow shoveling, slipping on the ice, white knuckle driving—you get the picture!!
So after nearly 38 years of dealing with frigidity, I made a choice back in 2013. I would no longer spend the winters in the east. I rented a house for the winter in lovely Santa Fe enjoying much sunshine. It was chilly there (we even had a bout of snow in February!) as it is nearly 8,000 feet elevation, but is suited my lifestyle on many levels.
The following winter I returned to the mountains of Southern California near Palm Springs and enjoyed a lot of sun and time outdoors. It’s a little piece of heaven there, and I was lucky enough to rent a cozy bungalow from some dear friends.
And then the BIG move to the UK in November of 2015. The ensuing winter there was one of the most challenging ones of my life. I loved our life on James, but hated the cold, the constant rain and mud. And the days seemed extra short. And on top of that I made one of the toughest decisions of my life—to re-home my beloved Basset, Bromley. By the end March I came down with the worst case of the flu and was flat on my back for several weeks.
Most of you know what followed—we decided to head south to France on the Mediterranean for the winter, and that was such a good decision for both of us! The sun and warmer climes were a joy and so welcome. We thrived.
And then we made the decision earlier this past summer to live on the water full time—with winters in the Netherlands no less!! We were so lucky to find our new boat in Belgium as well as a great marina in Maastricht and thought we had it made. We figured we’d be well ensconced in our new berth by the middle of November or so, but one issue lead to another and we realized that wouldn’t be possible.
About 3 weeks ago we were taking a break from Belgium and were spending a lovely but cold weekend at one of our favorite spots in Zeeland, Netherlands. It snowed and was cold and miserable the entire time. I then got real with myself and realized the last thing I wanted to do was spend the winter in the Netherlands on a boat that would most likely not ever get warm enough. I wanted to head back south to France. By the end of the weekend Paul reached the same conclusion, and on 22 December after all our appointments and loose ends were tied up we gunned the engine of the Hymer and headed south.
We are currently on the Île de Re near La Rochelle France. It is so gorgeous here—and peaceful. There are lovely bike paths crisscrossing the island and beaches galore. What a find!
We shall continue to head south to Cap Ferret and the Bordeaux area before making our way back to Belgium to get the boat then on the the Netherlands.
We look forward to many adventures and discoveries.
Having the courage (speaking for myself) to be honest and make a better decision was definitely the right thing to do! Listening to that little voice deep inside that we all have was, and is, one of THE most important things anyone can do—no matter what the situation is!
Wishing you all a great New Year 2018—may it bring peace, love, happiness and good health— and the courage to speak your truth!
PS. Oh—how we settled the matter of the stress on Paul doing all the driving. As we have no deadlines, we decided to do as little driving as possible, with stays of several days in one area. I think this will help balance things out so that we can continue with a better overall balance in our lives….time will tell!
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