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Cynthia

I receive emails every week thanking me for my sometimes funny, often useful blog posts which usually entertain and even inform my narrowboat site visitors. This isn’t one of them. I received some tragic news on “Good” Friday.

Cynthia flew to the States a month ago in an ongoing quest to reverse her failing health. She visited friends and family she hadn’t seen since handing over the keys of her Vermont home to the new owner in 2016. Four large suitcases and an even larger basset travelled with her on a flight from Toronto to Amsterdam, everything she needed for her new adventure in Europe with me.

She rented a house for two months in Friesland, the Netherlands’ most northerly province, waiting for me to sell my beloved narrowboat, James No 194, load all my worldly goods into our five and a half tonne twin axle Hymer motorhome and join her in the picturesque Dutch village of Rottevalle for the start of our grand European adventure. Cynthia was always the queen of ambitious plans.

Over the following twenty-six months we drove 28,952 miles through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland, peppering our itinerary with occasional trips back to the UK.

Cynthia's first visit to Market Harborough

Cynthia’s first visit to Market Harborough

Cynthia set our travel style early on. She would invest an hour or two in online research, look up from her battered iPad and say, “I’ve always wanted to visit..” That was it. We’d climb into the Hymer’s high cab with its panoramic windows and take the slowest, most difficult route she could find to our new destination.

Keeping the Hymer on strange country roads was often a challenge. We wedged ourselves immoveably in a French balcony road tunnel, removed our wing mirrors on a Danish steel bridge and bowled over a working film crew on one of Lyon’s impossibly narrow cobbled streets. We brought Marseille’s rush hour traffic to a halt on the city’s underground road network and slipped and slid our way over a variety of icy Swiss mountain passes. While I wrestled with the wheel and cursed, Cynthia smiled serenely and admired the ever-changing scenery around us. Apart from the high mountain passes. On those, she usually held her head between her knees and wailed like a banshee.

Much as we loved travelling far and wide on Europe’s backcountry roads, we both missed living afloat. Before we left Holland on our way to winter sunshine on the French Mediterranean coast, we window shopped for a suitable boat for summer cruising on the vast Dutch network of connected canals, rivers and lakes. Cynthia fell in love with one we viewed, stored for the winter in an immaculate barn on a North Holland farm.

Cynthia was always at her happiest in the gelley

Cynthia was always at her happiest in the gelley

Julisa was a classic Dutch motor cruiser with a steel hull and mahogany superstructure. She was the wrong boat for us; acres of wood to maintain, a canvas cockpit roof, no insulation, no shower, a broken sea toilet and, worst of all, no way to quickly get two heavy bassets on board.

On a moonlit walk on the rocky shore of a French saltwater lagoon, we decided to buy Julisa. Despite an enthusiastic exercise in identifying every reason why we shouldn’t buy the boat, Cynthia countered with reasons why we should. So we paid a deposit from the comfort of our six-wheeled winter home on the Mediterranean coast and then counted the days until we could collect her in the spring.

Boating, done properly, is an expensive hobby. Repairs, alterations, replacements and upgrades cost us €9,000, including €750 to have a bespoke basset friendly dog door fitted. We didn’t mind. After all, it wasn’t as though we were going to make a habit of boat buying and refurbishment. Yeah, right!

We cruised the Netherlands bewildering network of connected waterways during the summer and autumn of 2017. We sailed along placid waterways through rainbow-hued fields of nodding tulips, marvelled at an endless procession of working windmills and regularly stopped at waterside cafes and restaurants filled with smiling Dutch. We both loved our return to a watery lifestyle. Much as I enjoyed the scenery and experiences on Europe’s back roads, driving such a large vehicle along them was a stressful affair.

Winter on board Dik Trom

Winter on board Dik Trom

Cynthia was a sensitive soul. My stress caused her stress which further weakened her health. I was more relaxed cruising the gentle waters of island peppered lakes than negotiating thin ribbons of asphalt clinging precariously to cliffsides. We decided, perhaps unwisely in hindsight, to find a suitable boat and live on the European waterways network full time.
We found what we thought was the perfect boat moored in a small and friendly yacht club on a canal close to Antwerp. You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “Love is blind”. That doesn’t only apply to people. We fell in love with Dik Trom, a thirty-five foot Linssen motor cruiser.

Why I, a seasoned live aboard boater, thought Dik Trom would be right for living on throughout the year is entirely beyond me. Poorly insulated, acres of heat sapping glass and a blown air heating system fit for little more than taking the morning chill off a tiny truck cab, Dik Trom was hardly fit for all seasons.

Anyway, we purchased the boat mid-December, spent another small country’s national debt on repairs and the inevitable battery bank replacement, checked the long-range weather forecast for South Holland, and decided to have just one more winter under the cloudless skies of France’s Mediterranean coast before moving afloat full time. It proved to be a wise decision. We checked the Dutch weather forecast as we sat in the sun on our folding camp chairs on the rocky shores of a selection of saltwater lagoons along France’s south-east coast. Sub-zero days, colder nights and enough snow and ice to frighten a polar bear. While getting to the south of France in our Hymer home was sometimes stressful, living there was a delight. But then two large black clouds filled the blue sky of our hedonistic lifestyle. Health and money.

We quickly exhausted my savings; the proceeds of my narrowboat sale and a substantial income tax refund. Although Cynthia received a decent pension, the income wasn’t enough to support our lavish lifestyle. The more I worried about money, the more stressed I became. Ever sensitive Cynthia needed a calm and stress-free environment to thrive. Without one her body rebelled. Bug bites caused swellings the size of tennis balls, and summer sniffles became severe episodes requiring bed rest. Even a short walk on level ground would need a short rest and a restorative nap.

Spending on holistic remedies and potions and appointments with specialist practitioners further drained our resources, a drain which increased my money worries, caused more stress for me and deepening emotional turmoil and worsening health for Cynthia.

Cynthia made friends everywhere

Cynthia made friends everywhere

We decided to return to the Netherlands and look for a boatyard job for me. After a month trawling through hundreds of marina listings, I secured a position at a prestigious marina in South Holland a handful of miles from Amsterdam. Sadly, the marina was even closer to Schiphol airport and the endless stream of large aircraft which thundered into the sky from it every minute of the day.

Working for my new Dutch employers couldn’t have been more different from the gentle life I enjoyed at Calcutt Boats. The Dutch boatyard was spotless and operated with military precision. Everyone knew what they were doing and worked as hard as they could every minute of the day. A mid-morning siren announced the start of a fifteen-minute tea break. Not sixteen minutes, or even fifteen and a half. Fifteen minutes exactly. Coffee cup down, tools up and on you go. I hated every minute of it, despite the kindness and consideration both Cynthia and I were shown by the marvellous Kempers family.
Much as I disliked the mind-numbing tedium of applying anti-fouling systems to multi-million-pound motor yachts and speedboats, I was well paid by UK boatyard standards. Once again, we had more than enough money to pay the bills. Sadly, our new regime didn’t allow us to enjoy our newfound financial security. Neither of us was happy, but Cynthia felt the strain more than me.

Cynthia with Tasha who died in December 2018

Cynthia with Tasha who died in December 2018

By then we had moved Dik Trom from its Belgian mooring to Kempers Watersport, our new home and my workplace. We’d transferred our possessions from the motorhome to the boat and live on board at the marina as far away from other craft and their claustrophobic moorings as possible. The marina nestled in the south-east corner of a vast lake. We had a stunning view of the lake from our spot on the marina’s visitor moorings. However, much as Cynthia enjoyed the landscape, she began to feel increasingly isolated.

Cynthia couldn’t walk far without pain. Even using her folding bike to ride a mile to the nearest village became too much of a strain. She was confined to the interior of our thirty-five-foot boat, as were the dogs unless I was around.

Getting the dogs on and off the boat required a degree of strength and physical fitness which proved too much for Cynthia. Three steep steps from the gunwale to the flybridge and then four vertical wooden steps down into the cockpit. Another four to get them into the galley. We bought a telescopic ramp to save having to manhandle dogs weighing as much as a sack of coal. Even the ramp was too much for Cynthia in her worsening condition.

Cynthia had no one to talk to near our mooring, no way of walking or cycling to anywhere she could find a conversation and was frustrated by a growing feeling of helplessness that she had to rely on me so much. Bureaucracy further added to the strain of our day to day life.

Cynthia had been frustrated continuously by governmental red tape for three years by then. The farce began in November 2015 when Cynthia, an employee of American Airlines who had visited the UK on hundreds of occasions, was deported by UK Border Control. They told her she didn’t have the right visa to enter the country to marry me. They planned to deport her immediately. After much tearful pleading, they gave her a week’s stay of execution.

A posh meal out in Muiden, Netherlands

A posh meal out in Muiden, Netherlands

Cynthia’s difficulty entering and staying in the UK long term was the catalyst for our European adventure, but we didn’t have any luck there either. After five different appointments in the Netherlands, Spain and France, we finally managed to get her a new passport in downtown Marseilles. Much as passport renewal was frustrating, it was a piece of cake compared to the application process for an extended stay visa in Holland.

We were moved from pillar to post and back again. There seemed to be little connection or co-operation between local and national government agencies. Cynthia needed an official address in the Netherlands for the application. As we lived on our boat where I worked, we tried to use the marina address. The request was denied. Trying to find a way around the problem took seven different applications over the best part of a year. We finally convinced the local town hall to send employees out to our marina to measure and photograph our mooring so that they could create a bona fide address for the Dutch registration system.

Gazing across the crystal clear water of a Swiss lake

Gazing across the crystal clear water of a Swiss lake

By then both Cynthia and I had had enough of travelling in Europe generally and the Netherlands in particular and the constant bureaucratic difficulties presented by a homeless mixed-race couple living like gipsies throughout mainland Europe.

Then Cynthia surprised me one day. Her body may have been failing, but her mind was still as hyperactive and inventive as ever. “I’ve been thinking long and hard about our situation. We’re both unhappy here. We’re hardly living the dream any more, are we? You hate your job here, we’re close enough to Schiphol to wave at the passengers in passing jets, we’re spending far too long each day dealing with government paperwork and I’m struggling with life on board this boat, in this marina so far away from companionship of any kind. Why don’t we go back to England and live on a narrowboat?”

I had been considering a return to the UK too. But I couldn’t see past the problems we would face trying to make the move possible. “We can’t do it,” I told her. “We don’t have any money left to buy another boat, and you would still have to apply for a visa to stay in the UK.”

Cynthia was all about solutions, not problems. “We’ll sell this thing,” Cynthia waved a dismissive at Dik Trom’s beautiful mahogany cabin,” and we’ll sell the Hymer too. There’s more than enough equity in both to buy a decent narrowboat.”

My mind was still filled with seemingly insurmountable problems. Selling both the motorhome and the boat would probably be a lengthy process, and we couldn’t seriously consider buying a narrowboat until we had money in the bank from both sales. I voiced my concerns.

Cynthia couldn't resist posing with statues

Cynthia couldn’t resist posing with statues

“Look, if we focus on what we can do rather than the challenges we need to overcome, we’ll get there. You’re good at getting things done. You’re inventive too. Apply yourself to making this happen. I know how passionate you are about the English waterways. Keep that in mind and let’s go for it!”

So go for it we did. I had to return to the UK the following week to pick up our motorhome from the Nottingham dealer where it had been for three weeks having some warranty work done. Cynthia had found what she thought was the perfect narrowboat for us on Apolloduck. The boat was moored at Tattenhall marina. A detour to Cheshire on my way back to Holland would only add an extra two hours for my journey. I phoned the broker and arranged to view and test drive the Steve Hudson built boat.

Imaginary birds flock over a French hillside village

Imaginary birds flock over a French hillside village

Once again, Cynthia was right. She was right about returning to the UK, and she was right about the boat being perfect. It’s now our home. Sorry, it’s now my home.

The buying process was far from easy. We needed to take out a bridging loan, take out two further loans from private lenders and part exchange our motorhome. Even then, we were still short of money. I managed to overcome the problem by persuading the owner to wait for the balance until Dik Trom sold.

We returned to the UK mid-December. Orient’s owners arrived on Boxing Day to collect our motorhome and bid a tearful goodbye to their beautiful boat. After an abortive cruise south back to Calcutt Boats we returned to Tattenhall for battery replacement and then endured the coldest two weeks of the winter on an eventful journey to our current mooring. Cynthia sat inside for all of it, keeping warm and trying and failing to stay healthy.

Another opportunity for a new friend

Another opportunity for a new friend

Unable to sleep, she spent most nights fretting about her deteriorating health and worsening mobility. Because she couldn’t sleep at night, she was exhausted during the day. She slept during the day so couldn’t sleep at night. The vicious cycle continued, and her feeling of isolation and depression deepened.

I didn’t help much. Cynthia was a touchy-feely heart-on-her-sleeve kind of gal, and I’m from the stiff-upper-lip emotionally bankrupt old English school of carry on regardless. She didn’t get any of the compassion from me that she both needed and richly deserved.

She decided to return to the States for an appointment with a world-renowned holistic practitioner who planned to do an exhaustive health study to get to the root of her problem. Cynthia was too weak to manage the flight on her own so her friend, Alec, flew from the States to escort her back.

She visited the friends and family she hadn’t seen for three years. She spent a week with her brother, Jeff and then moved into her best friend Tom’s house in Rockport MA.

Cynthia was always a diligent and effective communicator. She sent me WhatsApp messages regularly on her return flight and throughout her stay with brother Jeff and then Tom. Two weeks ago today those communications stopped.

I was worried after twenty-four silent hours. Followup messages failed to provoke a response either. I phoned, texted, WhatsApp’ed and emailed over the next three days and then, on Thursday, emailed her friend Tom. But, even though I hadn’t heard from Cynthia for four days, I was somewhat reassured by her proximity to so many friends and family. What I didn’t know then was that her sister, brother and Tom were also trying and failing to get any response from her.

In the days when Cynthia could walk without pain

In the days when Cynthia could walk without pain

My phone rang on Good Friday at 12.32pm. A WhatsApp call from Cynthia. What a relief. I prepared to give her a bollocking for worrying me so much.

A stranger spoke in a quavering voice. “Hi, Paul. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but Cynthia died on Wednesday.”
I don’t remember feeling shocked. I suppose that Cynthia’s worsening health coupled with an uncharacteristic lack of communication steeled me for bad news on some level.

Jeff’s wife, Melanie, went on to tell me what had happened. Jeff had also been worried by Cynthia’s silence. He contacted Tom on Wednesday. Tom hadn’t heard from Cynthia either. Jeff was much closer to the house than Tom, so he agreed to drive three hours to the house to investigate.

Cynthia on our wedding day

Cynthia on our wedding day

The house was locked and dark when they arrived. Jeff called the police. They confirmed that a 911 call had been placed by a lady at that address the previous day. The lady was rushed by ambulance to the nearest ER department and died within fifteen minutes of arriving. Hospital tests showed a tumour and cancer in her blood. Cynthia, who had more friends than anyone I’ve ever met, spent the last three days of her life alone. Life just isn’t fair.

Jeff, still grieving after the loss of his beloved dog a few days earlier, has been a star. There was an annual celebration of Cynthia’s mother’s life scheduled for last Tuesday in Big Bear, California. Jeff asked permission to arrange for Cynthia’s cremation on Bank Holiday Monday so that Cynthia could join her family for the memorial. I think Cynthia would have liked that.

So, for some of us, life goes on.

The last week has been stressful. I haven’t been firing on all cylinders, and our two sensitive dogs picked up on that. My melancholy and Cynthia’s absence has particularly affected three-year-old basset, Abbie. Any attention is better than none at all so, barring the good, she’s gone for the bad.

Bassets aren’t considered intelligent dogs, but they are, this one is, smart enough to get the tops off sealed jars. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Abbie’s first trick was to make things disappear, namely a whole 1kg bag of muesli, a sealed 500g bag of mixed nuts and two Green and Black’s chocolate bars. She managed to hold it all down, but I had to take her out every two hours throughout the night and the following day for copious grass fertilisation.

It was my fault. I didn’t close a cupboard properly, so Abbie easily nosed it open. Nothing like this had ever happened before. It’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

She upped her game the following day. She successfully removed the sealed tops from two jars of nut butter and one of honey. She still managed to hold down the contents, but disposing of them proved an explosive affair.

I tried to Abbie proof the boat after that. I put all temptation out of reach. At least I thought I had. On day three she removed a full 500ml bottle of extra virgin olive oil from the wine rack, chewed the top off and drank the lot. I suspect that it came back up much quicker than it went down. Clearing up after the mischievous dog took two hours, but now the hardwood floor has a lovely sheen. Thanks, Abbie.

I thought I was safe yesterday. All that I left within reach was my stock of red wine. Why I thought the wine would be less of a temptation than the olive oil is beyond me.

Fortunately, I returned to the boat just as she was chewing through the last thread on the metal cap. I didn’t fancy dealing with the bowel movements of a boozy basset at all.

I’m not surprised Abbie’s started acting up. The unfortunate dogs have been without loving Cynthia for a month and without any company at all for nine hours a day during the week while I am at work, and just as long at the weekend if I have Discovery Day guests.

Their life hasn’t been much better on my return from work. The combination of hard physical labour and my advancing years has meant that I’ve been too tired to walk them regularly or even pay them much attention.

I decided that these two lovely dogs deserve a better life. I need to work long hours for at least the next year or two to recover financially from our travels and our boat buying spree. The last two of my three girls will leave me next Saturday. It’s been a hard decision, but the right one. Cynthia, my guardian angel, is still with me. I asked myself what she would do in a similar situation. I know that she would focus on finding the best solution. The best solution for Abbie and Sadie is to secure both of these adorable dogs a loving home with someone who has time to care for them is the way forward.

Heartbreaking as it’s been, I have arranged for The Basset Rescue Network of Great Britain to rehome both dogs. Someone will come next Saturday to remove the last two of my three beautiful girls. Then I’ll be a solo boater again. The difference this time is that I will have the memories, journals and photos of the three most challenging, exciting and ultimately rewarding years of my life. It has been a complete privilege to share that time with Cynthia. She was a remarkable woman and I count myself fortunate to have shared part of her life.

The weeks and months will be difficult, but I will have the English waterways and you, my virtual friends,  to help keep me sane. I don’t believe that Cynthia has gone on to a better place, but I know that she made this place better while she was here. Goodbye darling Cynthia.

Cynthia and Abbie say goodbye

Cynthia and Abbie say goodbye

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10

A Brush With The English Waterway’s Silent Killer

My alarm roused me from a deep and dreamless sleep. I rolled over and reached towards the bedroom’s tiny bedside drawer chest for my iPhone and the alarm’s snooze button. “That’s odd,” I thought, “my alarm rarely sounds like that.” Then I realised that the morning light streaming through the bedroom’s two portholes was missing and the piercing alarm was coming from somewhere at the front of the boat.

I turned on the bedroom light and checked my phone. Three o’clock. Far too early for my alarm. The two wall-mounted railway lights illuminated a thick smog hugging the bathroom and galley ceiling and obscuring the front of the cabin and the source of the smoke. It wasn’t the most reassuring sight to wake to in the wee dark hours.

Like most boaters, I leave my multi fuel stove burning overnight. In fact, like most boaters, I leave my stove burning twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week throughout the winter and far into England’s chilly spring. living semi-submerged in icy water has its drawbacks.

I’ve been living afloat for most of the last nine years. I’ve never had a problem leaving a stove alight at night. Until now.

I fill the lit stove with coal briquettes before I go to bed and then reduce the airflow to slow the burn to ensure that I wake to a warm and cosy boat, a boat usually free of choking smog.

It was the smoke alarm which woke me. The carbon monoxide alarm did not. That didn’t surprise me really as the dismantled device lay on the kitchen worktop waiting for me to fit a new battery.

The bitter smoke thickened as I watched, swirling ever closer to the floor and two blissfully unaware sleeping dogs. I couldn’t breathe. I struggled to think. A pounding headache probably had something to do with my confusion.

I dropped to the floor, crawled back to my bedroom, threw on some clothes and then did what I could to ventilate the boat. I opened both sides of the front deck cratch cover, opened the cabin front’s double wooden doors, flung open the galley side hatch and used a boat hook to jam the Houdini hatch as wide as possible.

The acrid smoke eventually cleared, the process slowed by a steady stream of smog still billowing from the Squirrel’s top vent.

I didn’t want to risk sleeping again until the stove was safe. That meant either extinguishing the Squirrel’s burning coals or removing the source of the smoke from the boat. Taking the smoldering fuel off the boat would create less mess and less smoke. Opening the stove’s front door to get at the coal rapidly filled the cabin with a bitter smog again. I couldn’t either see or breathe unless I lay on the floor. I used a coal shovel to transfer dozens of glowing briquettes from the stove’s firebox to the ash pan and threw them on the sloping mud bank next to the boat. I was alive, and the boat was in one piece. I was thankful for those two small mercies.

An hour after being rudely awakened by the smoke alarm, the boat was cold and smoke free. I could breathe without coughing and think past the throbbing behind my eyes. Carbon  monoxide kills. I could live with a headache, and I was alive thanks to the smoke alarm.

I slept with the doors and windows open for the rest of the night. Better cold than dead. I fell out of bed at dawn the following day, worrying about a boat with no heating and the length of time I would take to resolve the problem.

How hard could it be? The boat was filling with smoke rather than channelling it though the flue and out of the cabin. The stove had been drawing badly for a few days. An obstruction was obviously the culprit, one which could only be in either the flue or the stove. Surely, even my preschool DIY skills would be enough for the task at hand.

Orient's dismantled stove before the blockage clearance

Orient’s dismantled stove before the blockage clearance

Both potential blockages were easy to check. I climbed onto the cabin roof armed with a powerful head torch and a long boat hook. I removed the chimney and shined the torch down the flue. It didn’t look blocked. I lowered the blunt end of the boathook down the flue’s full length. I couldn’t feel a blockage. The problem must have been in the stove.

There’s a baffle plate above the firebox in a Morso Squirrel stove. It curves from the back plate over the top of the firebox. Smoke rises over the baffle plate and into the flue.  An accumulation of soot on top of the baffle plate sometimes causes blockages. I swept the baffle plate clear using my head torch and a poker. I found a little soot, but not enough to block the flue completely.

Hoping that a little poking and prodding with my improvised tools had cleared the blockage, I threw a firelighter into the firebox, added a handful of kindling and a match and stood back. Then I panicked when the stove filled the boat with more smoke than the previous night. After a repeat smoke and flue clearing performance I left Orient to look for inspiration. I found it in the bow locker of a neighbouring boat.

Boat Safety Scheme examiner, Russ Fincham, offered to look at the Squirrel for me. He found the cause of the problem immediately. He shone a torch into the narrow gap between the baffle plate and the flue. “There’s your culprit,” he told me as he handed me the torch and pointed to the baffle plate. “Can you see above the baffle plate? Look towards the centre of the stove where the flue comes in. See that fitting that looks like a black dome? That’s an air restrictor. It’s used in stoves fitted in house fireplaces with a good draw. The fires burn too hot if installers don’t fit the restrictor. Narrowboat stove flues don’t produce enough of a draw to warrant using this extras bit. Fitters should ALWAYS remove the restrictor before fitting a stove on a narrowboat.” 

“It’s a simple fix. Take out the fire brick at the back. That will allow the baffle plate to swing down so you can remove the restrictor. I think it’s a 10mm spanner you need. Do you want me to show you how to use a spanner?” Russ has worked with me at Calcutt Boats for many years. He knows me well.

He was right. Removing the restrictor was a simple if filthy process. The stove’s been in the boat for just three months. You can see from the photo below how blocked it was. 

The Squirrels air restrictor performed better than intended

The Squirrels air restrictor performed better than intended

The stove’s now back together and working better than ever. The incident has prompted me to throw the old carbon monoxide alarm out and replace it with a new model which complies with the latest BSS requirements. I’ll also try to remember to check the batteries regularly.

Apart from nearly killing myself, life afloat during the month since my last blog post has been uneventful. That’s why I like this lifestyle, far from the stresses and strains of modern day life. Far away from most stressful situations, anyway. I’ve had a couple noteworthy exceptions over the last four weeks.

The first was on the marina slipway on a midweek day a few weeks ago. 

Calcutt Boats is a busy marina. We have boats which need pulling out of the water for surveys or for blacking every day. And sometimes we have boats brought here by road transport from other parts of the network or from builders yards. On this occasion the builders ballasted a recently refurbished boat in a most peculiar fashion.

I work on the grounds most of the time, often far away from other marina activities and, because I work with noisy machinery, I can’t hear any background chatter. I didn’t know that this boat had already been into the marina once, pushed into the marina on the slipway’s wheeled steel cradle. It floated free for a minute or two and was then quickly dragged out again. All I heard was a call for anyone nearby who could steer a slipway boat. I heard snatches about the owner not wanting to steer the boat himself but i didn’t dwell on it.

The owners of brand new narrowboats, often costing over £100,000, sometimes have little boating experience. I’ve met one or two who had never set foot on a narrowboat until they stepped on the back deck of a boat they had used most of their life savings to buy. I thought this was another of those cases.

Anyway, the owner climbed the steel slipway steps onto the back deck with me. He appeared nervous and didn’t say much. Putting a boat back in the water is an easy job for the helmsman. All he has to do is to establish what type of cooling the boat engine has. If it’s an internal cooling system, he starts the engine before the boat hits the water. He waits until the hull sinks below the surface if it’s a raw water system. That’s pretty much it. The slipway tractor pushes the boat laden cradle down the slipway until the boat floats free. The helmsman reverses, as does the tractor driver, and the boat is back where it belongs and ready to cruise. It’s a simple process as long as the boat is in a fit condition to use. 

This one wasn’t.

All I had to do was bring the boat onto a mooring alongside the slipway. Easy. A burst of forward throttle to counteract the reverse motion from the slipway tractor, a sharp turn to port to steer us in the right direction and a laugh and a joke with the guy standing next to me. It’s an easy and stress free job unless the boat looks and feels like it will turn over.

Even on the windless day, a moderate turn tipped the boat until the gunnel touched the water and the cabin side formed a forty-five degree angle with the marina surface. Another guy stood on the bow. He probably weighed eight stone soaking wet, so his sudden switch from one side of the boat to the other shouldn’t have caused it to swing quickly in an arc until the opposite gunnel also touched the water. His movement shouldn’t have caused the sudden swing, but it did. I could see why the owner looked so nervous.

The cruise to the slipway mooring point took less than a minute but took years off my life. I was confident that, if two or more people had moved from one side of the boat to the other like the guy in front, we would have turned turtle. We would have been trapped in three feet of water under a fifteen tonne boat. 

The popular theory among marina staff was that the boat cabin had been over plated, a process which added a considerable amount of weight. The additional weight would have increased the boat draught and brought the through-hull outlets too close to the waterline. To remedy this, they had removed some under floor ballast. The result was a pretty but dangerously top heavy boat, one which is exceptionally unstable. Calcutt Boats’ owner, Roger Preen, felt duty bound to warn the owner not to use the boat until they had it professionally surveyed and made safe. They didn’t. The owner and his crew subsequently took the boat for a short cruise up through the Calcutt flight to Napton junction and back again. We saw the boat, bobbing and swaying like a rubber duck in a bath, as they braved a cruise on a calm day. Heaven help them if they go out again when there’s a strong wind blowing.

I’ve now used my day’s allocation of writing energy and enthusiasm, so I’ll save my second anecdote for next week. It’s a good ‘un so I know you’ll like it. Here are a few photo’s to whet your waterways appetite in the meantime.

spring hailstones as big as marbles

spring hailstones as big as marbles

Misty dawn on an overnight mooring at Napton Junction

Misty dawn on an overnight mooring at Napton Junction

Pretty clouds over our dump barge mooring

Pretty clouds over our dump barge mooring

Sunset over Calcutt Boats Locks marina

Sunset over Calcutt Boats Locks marina

A little artistic magic for Orient

A little artistic magic for Orient

You may have noticed that my last post was four weeks ago. That’s the problem with living an idyllic life here at the marina. A wise man once said if you have nothing to say, say nothing. Much as I’ve enjoyed the last month, I’ve had little of interest to relay to you.

To be frank, I’m considering hanging up my blogging hat. I get disheartened when I send out a blog post notification email and receive very few replies or comments. Maybe I’ve passed my sell by date. Maybe the written word in considered too old-fashioned now that there are so many boaters making vlogs, video logs. Maybe I should just concentrate on the commercial side of the site and give up on the fun stuff.

I registered this site in 2010 when I first moved afloat. It’s always been semi commercial. Access to the vast amount of information on the site is free, but I also offer paid products and services. My most popular product has always been my Narrowbudget Gold package. It includes a bespoke online budget calculator and several digital guides for anyone thinking about living afloat.

I created the package five years ago. Potential buyers have often asked me if the data is recent. It concerned me that, as the years passed, the initial data could become less and less relevant. I’ve now changed that.

I’ve lived afloat now for long enough to provide different data sets spanning a reasonable period. In January this year I decided to publish one post each month just to detail the costs of living afloat. Each post covers a detailed breakdown of boating costs for the previous month, the same month three years earlier and another for the same month six years earlier. Aspiring boaters now have access to detailed narrowboat living costs that are always less than a month old, and they can compare the costs over half a decade. You can read the first of this post series here. You need to log into your Narrowbudget Gold account to read the complete article.

If you want a practical boating experience, you can join me on a Narrowboat Discovery Day. Nearly three hundred guests have joined me on my boat so far for a pleasant twelve mile, six lock cruise between Braunston and Calcutt Boats marinas. The days have been hugely successful. I think I’ve enjoyed them as the people who have cruised with me. 

My first boat, James No 194, was, by the time I finished refurbishing it, a superb live aboard narrowboat. James was fully equipped to live in off grid full time. Orient is as good if not better. There are a few bells and whistles to add before I’m happy, but I know what I need and how much those additions of modifications will cost. 

The day is as much about knowledge sharing as it is practical boating. Guests leave me with a much clearer understanding of the practicalities involved in living afloat. The day’s emphasis is on fun but, I’ve often told by my guests, the knowledge they’ve gained is worth every penny of the modest investment they’ve made in the day. Here’s what my last guest said…

I have been receiving your newsletter for some time now, and in the last 12 months I have been thinking more and more about the possibility of living on a narrowboat myself. Your Discovery Day was a perfect opportunity to see what narrowboat live aboard life was like, and to also experience what it was like to maneuver one and take it through some locks. Plus, I had the opportunity to ask plenty of questions. My plans now are to work on funding and then I will start to look at boats when I am ready to make a purchase.


All of your communications reading the logistics of the Discovery Day were perfect. Suggesting that I stay at Wigrams was a huge help. In my case they had the family crisis which prevented me from staying there, but that couldn’t be helped. Wigrams looked like a perfect location for lodging.


I would definitely recommend to anyone who has any kind of interest in narrowboats to join you for a Discovery Day. It is an excellent way to learn what it is like to live on one full time. It is also the perfect way to learn about boat systems and the logistics of living on the canals in a narrowboat. You have years of experience living on narrowboats. You are based in a marina and work in a marina, so you see all aspects of daily narrowboat/marina life. You also have a very professional and relaxed way of interacting with your visitor. You encourage questions and don’t have any judgement about how little experience a visitor may have when they join you. You put everything you have into the day to make it an enjoyable, memorable experience for the visitor.


Thank you so much again Paul.

?Chris Amson, March 2019

Anyway, I’ve waffled on too long. If you want to discover the actual cost of living afloat, you can find out more about my Narrowbudget Gold package here. If you want a hand’s on chance to experience the reality of living afloat, my Discovery Day page is here. And if my blog posts interest you or are useful to you, reply to the introductory email to let me know. Either that, or email me through the site’s contact form. I want to carry on blogging. I enjoy writing. Some site visitors even say I’m quite good at it. However, there’s no point in me investing my time and money in a website that no one is really interested in.

Until next week… Maybe!

Useful Information
Entertainment

Narrowboat Expenses For March 2019

This is one of an ongoing series of posts detailing my narrowboat expenses. Each post breaks down my monthly costs for the previous month, the same month three years earlier and a third set of figures for three years before that. As a Narrowbudget Gold user, you will always have access to the narrowboat running expenditure no more than a month old and you’ll be able to compare it with data which spans six years. You’ll be able to use this information to estimate the likely cost of buying and maintaining your own floating home.

Calculating accurate costs for the boat you intend to purchase is difficult. There are so many variables that the best you can hope for is a good idea of the expenses involved and the nature of the variables you need to consider. Even on the two similar length boats I have owned over the last decade, the running costs have varied signifficantly. With that in mind, I have explained the difference in the two boats’ systems, style and design in the series’ first post here.

 

March 2013

Boat: James No 194

Engine Hours This Month: None

Blog Posts This Month

Narrowboat Stove Fuel Test

Fitting Solar Panels

Getting Rid of Unwelcome Visitors

Essential Boating Equipment

A Case Study of Liveaboard Narrowboat Antioch

Narrowboat Running Costs for March 2013

Maintenance and Repairs

Phew! This was an expensive month. I ploughed every spare penny into the refurbishment of my beloved boat, transforming her slowly from an abandoned eyesore to a fully specified live aboard narrowboat.

Tools and fenders: I added a couple of tools to my onboard kit; a pair of mole grips and some bolt cutters. The mole grips saved the day a couple of months later when I lost a windlass, a recovery magnet and my spare windlass in the canal’s murky depths. The last windlass disappeared when I tried to juggle my essential lock key and a mug of hot coffee while negotiating a lock’s narrow balance beam. I was in the middle of an eight lock flight at the time. I used my mole grips as a windlass on the remaining four locks. It’s not a method of paddle raising I recommend.

Bolt croppers are handy for removing any metal which snags the propeller. I invested in them after spending an hour removing a submerged mattress from my boat. £34.82

Traffic Film Remover: TFR is very effective for removing stubborn stains and stove tar from your cabin paint. Twice as clean for half the effort so it’s worth the investment. £15.95

Inverter: An inverter is part of your boat’s power management system. The device converts the DC electrical charge stored in the battery bank to AC so that you can use mains appliances. Pure sine inverters are better for sensitive electronic equipment. This model was a Sterling 1.6kw pure sine inverter. I couldn’t run power guzzling devices like irons or electrical kettles on it, but it was powerful enough for all my day to day needs. £360.69

New flooring: I’d had enough of James’ threadbare and filthy beige carpet. I replaced it with easy care oak effect laminate flooring. It looked great and sounded awful. One of the dogs, springer spaniel Charlie, paced up and down the boat constantly. His claw clicking drove me mad. £640

Solar Power: An essential addition for an off-grid lifestyle. This 300 watt array with its MPPT controller catered for all my electrical needs for most of the year. Input fell to about 10% of the summer high during short and cloudy winter days. Then, I had to run my engine for 60-90 minutes a day to keep my battery bank fully charged. £1,000

Recovery Magnet: This is a marvellous device. It’s compact and powerful. The magnet can lift 50lb, more than enough for anything you might drop in the cut. Apart from the magnet itself. This is the one I lost between windlass drops which resulted in me using a pair of mole grips to work through a lock flight. A word to the wise; if you have novice crew on board, check their knots. £25.99

Fire Protection: All narrowboats now need a Boat Safety Scheme Certificate. James had been tied to its marina mooring since the scheme was introduced. I needed to make many changes to get the boat through its first exam. One of the more basic requirements was to ensure that the correct fire fighting and detection equipment was on board. I purchased a smoke alarm, a fire blanket and three fire extinguishers. £82.90

Additional leisure batteries: James had just one 110ah lead acid battery installed for the domestic supply when I moved on board. And that one didn’t hold a charge. I didn’t know my arse from my elbow when I moved on board. I didn’t know how much power I would use, how many batteries I would need to cater for that demand or the best way of upgrading my battery bank. Adding batteries to an existing bank isn’t a good idea. If you have a bank of different aged batteries, when the oldest fail they take the newer one down with them. The accepted wisdom is to change all batteries in a bank at the same time. In my ignorance, I added two 135ah lead acid batteries to my existing bank. £233.70

Maintenance and repairs total: £2,394.05

Coal: James wasn’t an easy boat to heat. Polystyrene sheets were sandwiched between the pine cladding and the treated plywood cabin sides and top. Spray foam insulation is much more effective method of heat retention. The cabin’s exterior ply had deteriorated badly. I had the complete cabin over plated with steel. I had more polystyrene sandwiched between the original cabin and the new steel. In hindsight, and what a wonderful gift that is, I should have used sprayfoam instead. Polystyrene can crumble and leave cold spots, bare patches which showed clearly on cold winter’s days when the cabin heat quickly melted the roof frost on unprotected areas.

The stove struggled to heat all of the boat too. There were bulkheads between the galley and the utility area, the utility area and the space I used as an office, between the office and the bathroom and between the bathroom and the bedroom at the back of the boat. Consequently, heating anywhere other than the saloon area was difficult.

I used roughly ten 25kg bags of coal briquettes each month. I purchased ten at the beginning and ten at the end of the month. £215.60

Mooring fee: The charge to keep your boat on a static mooring is likely to be your biggest ongoing boating expense. Most marinas do not accept live aboard boaters. Calcutt Boats doesn’t, but they make an exception for members of staff. I had a discounted mooring, but the price I’ve quoted here reflects the price you would have paid, if you had been allowed to stay at Calcutt full time, in March 2013. As with most marinas, there was a discount available for a single annual payment. I couldn’t afford to pay a year’s mooring in advance so I paid a slightly inflated monthly rate. £258.00

Electricity: Because James was so difficult to heat I needed a second heat source. I used two 500w greenhouse heaters, one in the bedroom to remove the evening chill and another in my office space. Consequently my electricity bill was much higher then than it is now. £60.00

Gas: I use less propane gas these days too. I had an on demand gas water heater on board James for the first few years. I had it removed after it tried to cook me. The unit failed while I was showering. It failed to push the cold water supply through the burner fast enough. The end result was a shower cubicle filled with scalding water. I escaped with most of my skin and a morbid fear of these types of water heater. I was using one 13kg cylinder every three weeks when the water heater worked. That dropped to one every six to eight weeks when I only used gas for cooking. £22.90

Total narrowboat expenses for March 2013: £2,950.55

Please remember that this is not a typical month’s expenditure. James was an old and poorly maintained boat which needed extensive repairs and upgrades. Even so, March 2013 was an expensive month. Please read all the posts in this series to gain a clear picture of the costs involved in living on board full time.

Now we’ll move on to the running costs for the same boat three years later.

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