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Buying a Narrowboat: Pre Purchase Tips and Recommendations

If you are considering buying a narrowboat, don’t part with your hard earned cash before you read this post

There’s a steep learning curve to life on the cut, steepest when you are buying a narrowboat and over your first few days on board. Apart from emptying your bank account and the physical challenge of cramming your life into a tiny home, you have to master a boat filled with unfamiliar systems and equipment. 

And then there are the day-to-day logistics you face living on the water, especially if you plan to adopt and off-grid lifestyle. Moving house is one of life’s most stressful experiences. Learning to live in a completely different way doesn’t help.

I hope that the following suggestions aid your transition. My 10th living afloat anniversary is two months away. I’ve bought four boats, sold three and refurbished one of them. Using the wonderful gift of hindsight, I can help you avoid making expensive mistakes. Please read this post in conjunction with An Essential Checklist Before You Consider Buying A Narrowboat.

Buying a Narrowboat: Boat Safety Scheme Certificates and Surveys

You shouldn’t consider buying a narrowboat without having a survey done. The owner may have a recent survey report to show you. If it’s more than a couple of years old, or if you don’t feel you can trust the seller, have another done. You’ll have to pay £600 – £800 including the boat lift out fee, but the report will confirm that you have a sound boat, or alert you to potentially expensive problems. 

The same applies to your narrowboat’s Boat Safety Scheme certificate.

Get a BSS examination done as part of the purchase deal if you can, and have the seller rectify any problems. Either that or ask the seller to reduce the asking price by the estimated cost of the rectification work.

A BSS examination is the waterways equivalent of your car’s MOT. The emphasis is on safety. YOUR safety. And because your safety is on the line, you shouldn’t necessarily trust an existing BSS certificate. 

Let me give you an example from personal experience.

When I viewed Orient for the first time in October 2018, I thought I had found my perfect boat. After all, this wasn’t my first experience buying a narrowboat.

Orient on brokerage at Tattenhall marina

Orient on brokerage at Tattenhall marina

Apart from minor signs of neglect I couldn’t find fault. It’s just as well that I’m not a BSS examiner because there was plenty wrong. A friend of mine, Russ Fincham, a first-class BSS examiner who has forgotten more than I could ever hope to know about narrowboats, agreed to come with me on my second viewing.

He identified faults which would cost thousands of pounds to rectify. Two of the defects, a poorly sited bow thruster motor and a cracked stove, could have had catastrophic consequences. 

The stove crack probably appeared after Orient’s last BSS exam in 2017. However, the bow thruster looked as though it was part of the original construction. A recess in the gas locker base housed the bow thruster motor. Cabling to its two batteries in a front deck locker allowed escaping gas to fill the cabin bilge rather than drain into the canal. Despite the potential to turn Orient into a 62’ floating bomb, the boat had passed four previous exams.

A current boat safety certificate doesn’t always guarantee that your boat is safe. Schedule another examination when you buy your boat, and make sure the examiner has a good reputation. Ask someone impartial for recommendations. Canalworld Discussion Forum is a useful source.

Russ’s advice allowed me to negotiate an immediate £2,500 price reduction. His insistence that I had another BSS exam done after the remedial work was complete would have saved me more money and a lot of hassle.

I didn’t follow his advice. I was more concerned about Cynthia’s deteriorating health than saving a few quid.

I had a commercial BSS examination seven months later when I upgraded to a Roving Trader license. Even though it’s a slightly stricter exam than the standard certificate requirements, most of the fifteen failures still applied. 

The rectification work cost me £1,200. Finding money was the easy part. Getting someone to do the job took three attempts over five months. 

Getting an expert to assess the boat for me saved me £2,500 and possibly prevented a nasty accident. Even though I had two years remaining on my BSS certificate, negotiating the inclusion of a new examination when I bought the boat would have saved me another £1,200 and a great deal of frustration.

Buying a Narrowboat: Familiarisation

You should try to find out as much as possible about your new boat before your first day on board. Bombard your surveyor, boat safety examiner and broker with questions. They’re usually happy to help.

Unless you’re fortunate, buying a narrowboat and making it your home can be a bewildering experience. Every narrowboat is unique and very few come with manuals. You’ll be pushing and pulling unknown knobs, switches and levers for weeks. If possible, ask the previous owner to show you the ropes but, If the boat’s been on brokerage, that’s probably not possible. The guys selling and examining your new home may be able to answer basic questions, but everything else is up to you.

If your boat has a modern engine, that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about too much. You need to check oil and water before you start the engine and that’s about it. You probably have a keel cooled model, but you need to be a little more careful with raw water cooling systems.

Keel cooled engines circulate water through a skin tank, a tank attached to the boat’s hull. Raw water cooling draws canal water through a heat exchanger and then return water to the canal via a wet exhaust.

How do you know what type you have?

Ask the broker or the owner if you’re buying privately. If you’re buying through a broker and he doesn’t know, you’ll need to slip into your overalls and investigate.

Check your engine exhaust. It’s either close to the waterline at the stern or the side of the boat near the engine. If all you see is a little smoke, your engine is probably keel cooled. Either that, or it’s raw water cooled and has the gate valve closed. Some owners close the water inlet as a sensible precaution when the engine isn’t running. 

The raw water cooling system on my first boat failed twice during cruises. Fortunately, I was able to moor quickly and stop the engine. Even so, the water level in the engine room bilge rose six inches in a few minutes. My raw water system always worried me and made a noise like a steam train. Switching to a keel cooling system saved both my hearing and my heart.

There’s an essential post-cruise habit you need to adopt. You probably have a stern gland greaser on your boat which helps prevent canal water from entering your engine bay via the propeller shaft. If you don’t want to drown your engine and take your battery bank for a swim, tighten your stern gland greaser at the end of every cruise.

You can read more about using and refilling your greaser here.

Buying a Narrowboat: Engine Maintenance and Pre Cruise Checks

You’ll probably need someone to show you the ropes if you take on a boat with a vintage engine like Orient’s green beast. It’s a Lister JP2M, an eighty-three-year-old lass with a mesmerising voice and the ability to turn the heads of a disturbing number of middle-aged men. 

Find out as much as you can about your engine before you move on board

Find out as much as you can about your engine before you move on board

Even though the Lister isn’t difficult to maintain, there are more pre-start checks than with a modern engine. I have to transfer fuel with a hand pump from the main five hundred litre tank to a thirty-litre day tank, make sure that the points are greased and oiled correctly and that there’s enough header tank water: nothing complicated or time-consuming, but all-important. 

Starting your engine can be a challenge. The boat should have a mains supply. If not, the boat’s battery master switches should be off. You’ll need to turn the engine battery master switch on before you can start the engine. Make sure you know the master switch location. They should be labelled but often aren’t.

If you don’t know your way around old engines, get someone to show you the ropes. I use Primrose Engineering. Owner, Richard Powell, has been in the trade for four decades. And he’s a nice guy too. I highly recommend his services if you have a vintage engine.

Another option is a one-to-one service with River Canal Rescue (RCR). They’re the waterways equivalent of the AA, an essential service for boat owners like me who don’t know one end of a spanner from the other.

One of the company’s senior engineers, Kerry, showed me how to service my first narrowboat’s Mercedes engine. He had the patience of a saint and asked questions before he began to establish my proficiency. Kerry realised that he was dealing with a middle-aged man with the mechanical ability of a four-year-old girl. He explained every process slowly and clearly and instilled enough confidence in me to tackle routine services. As the recommended service interval for my engine was 250 hours, and I could accumulate a thousand running hours a year, Kerry’s instruction saved me a fortune.

OK. So you know enough about your engine. The next step is to take the old girl out for a cruise. Make sure you have all the boating equipment you need before you go. You don’t want to be stuck on a three feet deep canal without all the appropriate gear. All right, failing to prepare for a canal cruise isn’t going to kill you, but your maiden voyage will be much more pleasant if you know what you’re doing.

The first step is to get some training and to make sure that the tuition is from someone who knows what he’s doing. I’ve witnessed many new boat owners offering dubious advice to fellow narrowboat buyers. It’s easy to begin your boating career with the wrong information. Get help and practical hands-on tuition from professionals. It’s an essential ingredient to your boating confidence, competence and happiness.

Many companies offer RYA accredited inland waterways training. Willow Wren near Calcutt provides one and two-day courses. They are an excellent source of both information and training. 

If you want to learn how to handle a narrowboat in a relaxed and indescribably lovely classroom and learn all about liveaboard narrowboat equipment, systems and design, you can spend a day with me. I guide guests on a twelve-mile six lock cruise through rural Warwickshire. 

Join me or take an RYA course. Choose whichever suits you best, but get some professional training before you untie your mooring lines for the first time.

Assuming you’ve successfully transformed buying a narrowboat from a whistful dream into exciting reality, you need to overcome the day-to-day logistics of life afloat.

Your first job is lighting a fire. 

Experience Life Afloat

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover life afloat on a 12 mile, six lock cruise through rural Warwickshire

Buying a Narrowboat – Lighting Your First Fire

If you buy your boat in the winter, your priority should be heating your home. A steel boat submerged two or three feet in icy canal water can be brutally cold. Mechanical heating systems are easier to manage but not as reliable as a simple multi-fuel stove.

The above Cruising The Cut video describes the fire lighting process correctly, but a little more information will make your first attempt bombproof.

Before you light your fire for the first time make sure that (A) your ash pan is empty and (B) your flue is clear and (C) you’ve removed your chimney cap if you have one.

Narrowboats are often offered for sale because the owner has lost interest in boating or is no longer able to cope with the physical demands. Consequently, always check your onboard equipment to make sure that it’s working correctly. You should have checked everything when you had your survey done. You did have a survey, didn’t you?

If you purchased or surveyed your boat on a blazing hot day, lighting a fire was probably way down on your list of priorities, but make sure that you check it before you light the stove for the first time.

Before your first lighting, make sure that you have all the following equipment and supplies.

  • Matches or a lighter (and spares)
  • Firelighters – The Zip firelighter used int he video work very well. Beware eco-friendly firelighters. I’ve tried a few different types over the years. Most are great for the environment because if they’re hard to light, they can’t cause any pollution. Give me paraffin-based firelighters any day.
  • Kindling – During the winter months, your stove will probably be alight 24/7. But during the spring and autumn months when you don’t want your fire blazing all day, you’ll need plenty of kindling for daily fire lighting. If you don’t want to buy kindling, you can use twigs. During wet periods the stuff laying on the ground will be damp and a pain to light. The lower dead branches of woodland trees work very well.
  • Coal briquettes – They’re available from many boatyards and chandlers or your local coal boat. Buy briquettes rather than solid coal-like anthracite. It’s a pig to light, but once it’s going, it will provide more heat than the centre of the sun and melt you and your boat. Please note that wood will not burn well unless you season it.
  • A companion set – You’ll want a small shovel or tongues for briquette handling, a poker for prodding your burning fire or scraping out ash, and a brush of some kind for cleaning up the mess you make.
  • A stovetop fan – I have an original Ecofan. They’re expensive compared to many other models, but they’re well-engineered and stand the test of time.
  • Coal storage – I like my boat neat and tidy. I have a copper coal scuttle beside the fire and a large plastic storage box under the cratch cover on the front deck. Coal sacks usually have a hole or two in them. If you bring the bag into your boat, you’re probably going to have to mop up a trail of liquid coal dust. I decant my coal into the deck coal box and fill my scuttle from there.
  • A clean flue – The flue is the pipe running from your stove to your cabin roof. The collar is the fitting on your roof holding the pipe in place. Your chimney should fit snuggly onto the collar. Your flue needs sweeping a couple of times a year to allow your stove to draw enough air to burn properly. A restricted airflow, at best, means a poor burn and little heat. At worst, a blocked flue can fill your boat with suffocating smoke in the middle of the night. If you don’t have a working smoke alarm, it’s curtains for you and your life afloat.
  • A working smoke alarm – Need I say more? Just make sure that you have one by your stove(s) and in your bedroom. A working smoke alarm probably saved my life earlier this year.

Here’s a short clip of my stove this morning, burning the last of my stock of seasoned elm. I keep the glass spotlessly clean by rubbing it daily with a damp kitchen towel dipped in cold stove ash.

Pretty, isn’t it?

I’ll give you a few more tips next week to help make buying a narrowboat a less stressful experience.

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Which Are The Best Narrowboat Stern Types For Living Afloat?

Life on a narrowboat is all about compromise. Different narrowboat stern types offer pros and cons depending on your preferred cruising and living style, so here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision.

Your floating home’s stern design, its back end, can have a considerable impact on your day to day life. One design offers you more secure living and storage space, another gives you plenty of space for cruising companions and the third is a hybrid of both. Here’s what you need to know about narrowboat sterns.

Traditional “Trad” Narrowboat Stern Types

That’s what I have on Orient. The cabin sides and roof extend almost to the back of the hull, leaving a small platform for the helmsman to stand with one or two close friends. Without risking life and limb by standing on narrow and often slippery gunnels, there isn’t much room to stand without each other’s way.

Narrowboat stern types - Traditional

Narrowboat stern types – Traditional

Cruiser Narrowboat Stern Types

You see these sterns on most hire boats. The boat’s cabin sides and roof are six to ten feet shorter than the hull, leaving an open deck for groups to stand and obscure the steerer’s view. Sorry, for groups to gather and socialise.

Narrowboat stern types - Cruiser stern

Narrowboat stern types – Cruiser stern

Narrowboat stern types - Cruiser stern with pram cover

Narrowboat stern types – Cruiser stern with pram cover

Semi-Trad Narrowboat Stern Types

This is a cross between cruiser and traditional stern boats. The boat’s cabin sides extend as far back as a traditional stern, but the cabin roof ends in the same place as a cruiser stern craft.

Narrowboat stern types - Semi traditional

Narrowboat stern types – Semi traditional

So what’s the big deal? Does the rear deck design make much of a difference if you’re living afloat?

Yes, it can. An enormous difference, pleasure or pain, secure or not, hot or cold, convenient or pain in the arse. I think that a traditional stern narrowboat offers you far more liveaboard practicality than either a cruiser or semi-traditional design.

Here’s why.

Practical Living Space

Stem to stern, Orient is 61’6”. Only 47’ 2” is enclosed cabin space. The rest of the boat length is taken up by the bow locker and the front and rear deck. Given that my interior cabin width is 5’10” and that a cruiser stern rear deck can be 8’ longer than those on a trad stern boat, I would lose up to forty square feet of living space. This wouldn’t be a large enough area to worry about in a house. Still, on a narrowboat, you’re looking at an extra bedroom, office, hobby room or living area. It’s a big deal if you live afloat.

Note: Narrowboats, like Orient, with midships rooms housing vintage engines cost you more living space. My boatman’s cabin and engine room use fifteen feet of cabin space. My effective living space is therefore reduced to thirty-two feet.

Secure Storage Space

A traditional stern narrowboat usually has an engine room with the engine hidden behind soundproofed boards, which gives you plenty of secure storage space. I don’t have as much room for storing tools on Orient. My boat has a vintage engine displayed for all to see in its own midships room. There are double doors on both the port and the starboard side which are usually open during the summer months. The boat’s two-cylinder Lister JP2 is so slow running that it doesn’t produce much heat. The only reason for these doors is so that a proud boat owner can show off his pride and joy, buffed to gleaming perfection. 

I am one such owner, ridiculously proud and emotionally attached to an inanimate object. I think I need to get out more.

I had the more popular traditional stern engine room on my first narrowboat, James No 194. With the boat’s Mercedes engine boxed in, I had ample storage space for a large amount of gear. You can see it all in this post’s photograph.

https://livingonanarrowboat.co.uk/2015-05-03-newsletter-engine-room-storage-space-explained/

You lose all of that safe storage space with a cruiser stern and, to a slightly lesser degree, with a semi-traditional stern.

The engine is in a bay beneath your feet, protected by deck boards constructed from marine ply. The engine bay is rarely secured. Some cruiser stern owners use the engine bay space for storage. It’s a decision born of necessity, but stacking things around the engine is asking for trouble. I know from personal experience.

I accompanied one of our engineers on a call out a few years ago on a call out for a Hurricane heating system. We had a phone call from the owners of a boat with one installed. They weren’t at all happy. A month after having the heater fitted, it stopped working.

Given that you usually turn your heater on when you’re cold, the caller suggested that he and his wife were close to death’s door. The heating system was rubbish, he said. Not fit for purpose, he claimed. He threatened legal action, jumped up and down a bit and demanded an immediate visit to get this rubbish bit of kit working.

Calcutt’s fitter took longer introducing himself than he did “fixing” the problem. Here’s a tip for you if you buy a cruiser stern boat. Don’t store your deck mop in the engine bay with the wooden handle resting on your heater’s on/off switch. The decision can have embarrassing repercussions, especially if you’ve done a bit of macho chest-beating before the cause of your unhappiness is discovered.

Find out all you need to know about stern types (and everything else about living afloat) on a bespoke Discovery Day cruise

You need to thoroughly research life afloat before investing in a narrowboat home. A Discovery Day cruise offers you a unique taste of life on England's inland waterways, and an opportunity to learn narrowboat helmsmanship. 

Dry Engine Bay

Another benefit of having an enclosed engine bay in a traditional stern boat is being able to keep the weather out.

Cruiser and semi-traditional stern engine bays are covered by marine ply deck boards. These wooden sheets are supported by C shaped steel channel. The channel usually has several drain holes to collect any rainwater which finds its way through the boards. During a typical English season, any season, there’s enough rain to keep the drain holes fully employed.

The problem with these narrow diameter drainage holes is that they block easily. Falling leaves and mud carried on board by boater boots slips between the board joins into the channel. Once the drains are blocked or restricted, rainwater cascades over the channel sides into the engine bay.

Time passes, the wooden deck boards decay, the gap between them widens, allowing more debris into the channel and more water into the engine bay. There are several cruiser stern narrowboat owners here at the marina who phone our office regularly during the winter months to ask staff to check for water ingress.

Engine bay water ingress isn’t a problem if your bilge pump is working. If your battery bank dies, your shore supply trips or fails, or your bilge pump gives up the ghost, you have a potential problem if you don’t check your engine bay regularly.

We rescued an almost sunken cruiser stern narrowboat a few years back. One of our fitters noticed that the stern was low in the water. We discovered an engine bay half-filled with rainwater and a craft just a day or two from taking a shallow dive four feet to the marina bottom.

The brave fitter started the engine, sidestepped the water plume from an underwater spinning flywheel and aimed for our slipway. Despite rocking alarmingly, the water-logged boat made our slipway narrowboat trolley without sinking. The owner received a bill for our rescue work and a recommendation to replace his badly worn deck boards.

You can reduce or eliminate engine bay water ingress by regularly checking and clearing drain hoes and replacing boards. But that won’t help if you need to work on your engine. And it certainly won’t help you if you’re paying someone else to do the work for you.

There’s much gnashing of teeth and toys thrown out of prams here at Calcutt if the engineers are forced to service the engine of a cruiser stern boat on a wet day. I spoke to one self-employed vintage engine expert recently who point blank refuses to work on engines open to the elements. Crouching in a cold engine bay on a wet day trying to grip the tools with numb fingers is no fun at all.

Cruising Warmth

Cold weather boating on a cruiser stern narrowboat is an unpleasant experience. I’ve been closer to hyperthermia on summer trips aboard cruiser stern narrowboats than I have on nine-hour winter cruises on my traditional stern narrowboat.

Nine years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a Calcutt Boats built Clipper south on the Oxford canal to a trade show on the mighty Thames. Clippers are fifty-foot cruiser stern boats and, like all other cruiser stern narrowboats, standing motionless at the helm for hours on end can be a painful experience, even during summer months.

On one bitterly cold summer’s day, the second of four long cruising days, I suffered mild hyperthermia. I didn’t own a decent set of waterproofs at the time. Soaked by half an hour’s heavy rain, chilled to the bone and shivering violently, I had to stop for a while to recover. I lit the stove, filled it with coal briquettes and sat as close as I could until my wet jacket steamed. Early afternoon in mid-July and I was forced to sit in front of a blazing fire until I regained feeling in my hands.

That was not a fun boating experience.

A cruiser stern offers zero weather protection. You stand in an open space far removed from your heated cabin. The wind swirls around your legs and slowly freezes you from the feet up. I have passed hundreds of cruiser stern narrowboats moving during the winter months. The poor souls at the helm look like modern-day mummies, wrapped from head to foot in all that they own. With faces covered in scarves, hoods and hats, they twitch a frigid head in icy greeting as they pass. Winter cruising doesn’t have to be that unpleasant.

It doesn’t have to be unpleasant at all.

A traditional stern narrowboat protects you from the elements. You can stand inside your cabin with your upper body in your open hatch space like a tank commander (but with much less chance of being blown to bits). Your cabin will shield your lower body from icy winds and heat from your running engine will warm your feet and legs.

Orient’s engine sits in its own room, too far away and too slow running to offer me any heat. Other than the warm and fluffy feeling I get inside when I listen to its mesmerising beat. But I don’t mind, I have something much better to keep me warm.

Boats like mine don’t suit everyone. Having an engine in its own room mean that you have lest usable living space. But you also get a boatman’s cabin, usually with a second solid fuel stove, a range, to heat your boat’s stern.

I cruised south from Tattenhall marina to Calcutt Boats in February last year. The journey took eleven days, three of them through increasingly thick ice. My 21hp Lister struggled to push me along the frozen canals. I encountered the thickest ice as I forged my way towards Birmingham from Wolverhampton. I ground to a halt beneath the Factory flight in Tipton.

Even with my trusty two-cylinder engine using most of its horses, I failed to break through. Stuck in a glistening white field and with heat rising from the range beneath me, I stopped for lunch. Cynthia handed me an insulated mug of stew. I enjoyed an alfresco meal in a frozen landscape, warm as toast and very, very happy.

Cruising Convenience

There’s more to pleasant cruising than keeping warm. Once you become proficient at the helm, a narrowboat journey is all about watching the world slip ever so slowly by. Canal guides help you pinpoint your location and provide you with information about the landmarks around you. Binoculars give you a better view of passing wildlife, a camera helps capture enduring memories and food and drink sustain you as you cruise. Having somewhere convenient to put your cruising accessories adds to your cruising pleasure.

With a traditional stern narrowboat, your cabin roof and hatch provide you with an accessible table for your gear. You can reach it all without fuss and without taking your eye off the watery road. Narrowboat tillers don’t like to be left on their own, much like your car’s steering wheel. The few seconds to reach a cruiser stern’s distant roof is all that’s needed for your wilful boat to abandon its route and head for bramble banks and low hanging willows.

Narrowboat Stern Types Summary

Horses for courses, each to their own. Plenty of liveaboard narrowboat owners live full and happy lives on cruiser stern craft. They enjoy the additional back of boat space, and they can accommodate half a dozen of their best friends on summer season adventures. And welcome the challenge of trying to see over their bobbing heads as guests obstruct the helmsman’s view.

My point of view is subjective. I like what I’ve got and consider trad stern narrowboats the most practical for life on the cut. You may decide otherwise, but now at least you fully understand the pros and cons of different sterns.

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A Christmas cruise from Market Harborough to Calcutt Boats

Filthy, stinking cold. I was a snot fountain, a drool reservoir, an old geezer with a red hooter and a hacking cough. On a cruising rest day moored at Union Wharf, Market Harborough, I had nothing to do but transfer bodily fluid to endless tissues and feel sorry for myself.

Oh, woe is me.

I didn’t have the energy to do anything constructive. I woke with a fever and a leaking nose and went downhill from there. The problem with boating on your own is that if you can’t do something, it doesn’t get done. There’s no “I” in team, no helping hand, no one to bail you out. You’re on your own through thick and thin. Most of the time I like it that way.

Thanking God that I didn’t have to cruise, I pulled a rucksack from a dusty cupboard and stumbled a mile to Market Harborough’s Sainsbury store. I needed enough fresh food to last me a week and to treat myself at my one-person New Year’s Eve party. Chilli with dark chocolate washed down with a good bottle of red. Simple food but tasty and cheap.

After two days rest, feeling slightly better but still leaving a slug-like snot trail wherever I walked, I started my return cruise. I stopped at Union Wharf’s service point to empty two cassettes and get rid of my rubbish, then cruised back through reeds and floating logs back to Foxton, dragging silt all the way.

The only real problem was an impossibly shallow reed bed restricting the navigation next to the swing bridge at the bottom of the Foxton flight. CRT has removed the visible reeds but left an underwater bed of impenetrable stumps. I tried to give them a wide berth but still grounded slightly. I noticed that the boat behind me, helmed by a guy with apparent local knowledge, pulled over to the CRT workboats opposite the reed beds and dragged his boat along them. Surely it’s time for a little dredging. Come on, CRT!

I negotiated both swing bridges without incident. A feisty mob of eight retired lady ramblers kept approaching cars at bay with brandished hiking poles and opened the swing road bridge for me. Then a dog-walking boater with his own key saw me through the footbridge. “Keep away from the reed bed,” he ordered as I crept past. “The canal’s really shallow there,” shouted an elderly lady, out for a walk with her Zimmer frame. “Ha, ha. Look at that boat leaning over,” screamed a shrill and spotty-faced teen. CRT, don’t make the reed bed an entertaining diversion for Foxton residents. Get rid of it, please!

Preparing for a Foxton flight ascent on a cold winter's day

Preparing for a Foxton flight ascent on a cold winter’s day

The Foxton flight was as easy going up as it was coming down. A little too easy actually. I managed to do the first three on my own, enjoying chatting with bystanders, relishing the company and having a laugh, when a lock keeper insisted that I stay at the helm. “You wouldn’t believe the paperwork we have to fill in if you have an accident!” That’s the third time I’ve heard a lock keeper say that on this trip. I think that they’ve been ordered to keep solo boaters on their boats.

I moored within walking distance of the flight summit’s bacon bap supply. I sat for an hour hiding from an icy wind behind the cafe wall, boat watching, drinking coffee and eating pig.

I moved an hour away from people and distractions the following morning. New Year’s Eve and a time for me to sit quietly and think about an eventful 2019.

The year began well enough. Cynthia and I had owned Orient for a week. With our possessions on board and a boat we thought was fully operational, we started a cold winter cruise south from Chester to Napton Junction and Calcutt Boats.

We didn’t get far.

Orient’s battery bank died at Market Drayton, so we limped sixteen hours back to Tattenhall marina to have a new set fitted. We began our second attempt twenty-two days later, and what an adventure we had. We raced to beat Birmingham stoppages on increasingly icy canals. Five weeks after blacking our new boat, I stripped the waterline back to bare metal. And I frequently grounded, often for half an hour, straining with a wooden pole to push our flat bottomed girl off raised mudflats.

I reached Calcutt Boats after eighty-eight hours at the helm. After twenty-six months of driving and cruising across Europe, I returned my spiritual home, ready for a gruelling work slog. Two years of hedonism cost us a fortune. We purchased a motorhome and two Dutch boats. We’d sold one of them, and part exchanged the motorhome for Orient. Cynthia and I still owned one of the Dutch craft, Dik Trom. Its maintenance costs and mooring fees were bleeding us dry. Returning to work, even in such a beautiful setting, was a necessary evil.

The months passed, Cynthia’s health declined, and her feeling of isolation grew. She flew back to the USA in April to visit friends and relatives. And to search for a cure for her worsening condition. She died there two weeks later, alone in a friend’s house, far away from the company she craved.

Life for me continued. Despite loneliness, devastation and a hopeless sense of loss tinged with more than a little guilt, I couldn’t have been in a better place to grieve. The boating community looks after its own. I had company if I needed it, tranquillity if I didn’t. Months passed as I came to terms with my loss.

Money has little regard for personal feelings. I still needed to earn enough to service the three loans I needed to buy Orient. And I had a surplus boat to maintain in Holland in addition to Orient’s essential maintenance, repairs and modifications.

Reducing my overseas boat maintenance obligations was a costly but straightforward affair. Cynthia’s estate executor insisted on a considerable lump sum for Cynthia’s share in both boats. He hinted that a no-win, no-fee probate lawyer waited in the wings ready to obliterate the estate with an endless stream of legal demands and bills.

The simplest solution for me, both financially and emotionally, was to give Dik Trom to Cynthia’s estate and walk away from endless debate and heartache. 

Resolving Cynthia’s estate issues and disposing of Dik Trom lifted an unbearable weight from my shoulders. Life settled down into a familiar and welcome stress-free routine. I worked at the marina during the week, wrote blog posts before and after work, and hosted Discovery Day cruises most weekends. Although the work was physically taxing, the distraction helped me through the following months without too much quiet time navel-gazing.

A seven-day working week income allowed me to meet my financial obligations and transform Orient from a cold and neglected boat into a warm and welcoming home. My winter cruise was a fitting reward for reaching the end of a challenging year. By late December, I was £500 short of debt freedom and reconciled to life as a solo boater. Despite being wifeless, dogless and occasionally legless, I could see a welcoming light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

2019 was all about simple survival and overcoming adversity. This year’s looking much more promising. A friend recently reminded me that 2020 is auspicious. “20/20 vision allows you to see clearly,” he told me. I don’t know about that, but I intend to plan clearly. I don’t make New Year resolutions. However,  I’m a big fan of setting balanced goals and working relentlessly towards them.

My number one priority for 2020 is to save enough money for an essential foreign holiday.

My parents and my brother live in Australia in one of the few areas not burning at the moment. I haven’t seen them for nine years. Nine years is nine years too long. Getting to and from Australia is painful. Endless hours sitting in a cramped seat watching awful television. It’s too far away to travel to for a short period. I plan to go for at least a month and then take a break in Bali on the way back. A boating mate, Ian, who spends his winters in Indonesia, has invited me to do some volcano hiking. It’ll be a far cry from the gentle life I live on England’s muddy ditches and a welcome break from ankle-deep towpath mud.

Another friend, Alan, has suggested that I should join him for a week cruising in Ireland on the mighty River Shannon. It’s boating on a grander scale than on the English waterways; lakes with islands studded with ancient relics – besides Guinness-soaked village elders – lively pubs and friendly faces. All reached from the comfort of a “yoghurt pot”, a plastic motor cruiser, or a wide-beam canal boat. Another boating experience to enjoy.

DISCOVER ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE ON ENGLAND'S INLAND WATERWAYS

Join me on a gentle cruise through rural Warwickshire. Experience life in the slow lane, learn how to handle a 62' narrowboat, either on your own or as part of a crew. Find out all you need to know about live aboard narrowboat designs, features and equipment. Understand the logistics and the costs involved. Treat yourself to a canal experience you'll never forget. 

Much as I’m excited by the thought of foreign travel and cruising new waterways, paying for the trip will mean another gruelling work year. But life is for living. I don’t know how many active years I have left in me, so I intend to make the most of every one of them.

In the meantime, I have continued to adapt to life on my own again. It hasn’t been much of a stretch. I’m generally an anti-social git, so life as a solo boater suits me well enough. I have enough friends to keep me entertained when I need company, and wind, water and tranquillity when I don’t.

I have just two expensive items remaining on Orient’s original to-do list; replacing my worn cratch cover and fitting a solar array. I don’t need solar power until I begin cruising continuously, and I can’t do that and afford to visit my parents. I’ll put the solar array on the back burner for now and concentrate on the cratch cover.

My black canvas front deck cover is on its knees. There are half a dozen ever-widening splits in its two plastic windows. Added to the rips and frays along the bottom edge, and an unappealing green sheen which I can’t remove, my cratch cover is a bit of a mess. And I get water seeping through each of the six zips in heavy rain. It has to go.

A fellow boater recommended a reasonably priced cratch cover supplier last year. I phoned him to offer him the work, he agreed to take it on and promised to visit me to take measurements. That was five months ago. I have to assume that he’s not interested.

I contacted our local top-end cratch cover supplier, AJ Canopies. They quoted me £1,500 over the phone. When I regained consciousness, I asked Kinver Canopies to quote. Their price is much more reasonable. For £1,000 I get a heavyweight canvas cover with six zips. I don’t want windows this time. Canopy windows offer wannabe thieves a sneak peek at all the goodies I store on my front deck. I want to save these low life predators the discomfort of coming onto my boat and having an anchor chain wrapped around their scrawny necks.

Anyway, that was New Year’s Eve planning out of the way. I ate my chilli, drank my wine, finished with a sneaky Remmy Martin and hit the sack at 10 pm. The last night of my first full year aboard Orient.

I woke to a new year, a momentous year, ninety days away from the start of my seventh decade on planet Earth. How did I get this old? My mind’s as agile as it was forty years ago. My body isn’t. It regularly complains, bitching if I take a long walk, grinding to a halt if I swing a chainsaw about all day. I’m shorter, fatter and hairier than I’ve ever been. If I carry on in the same vein, I’ll be a knee-high fur ball by the time I’m seventy.

I stopped for another day on my quiet mooring near Husbands Bosworth, enjoyed a couple of short circular walks, obsessively polished my brass and smiled a great deal. I lead a simple life.

An quiet New Year's Even mooring - Perfect for planning the year ahead

An quiet New Year’s Even mooring – Perfect for planning the year ahead

I covered thirteen miles in 5.7 hours on my first cruising day of 2020. My underwhelming 2.3 mph average is usual for me. Orient is often forging through canal bed silt. The more I open her up, the lower the stern sinks, and the slower I go. Easing off the throttle gets me to my destination faster and saves eroding passing canal banks. And gives the impatient boaters behind me something to bitch about.

I’m always a little nervous when I stray from the channel centre, usually when I have to make room for oncoming boats. The highlight of the day’s gentle cruise was an unexpected slide on a slippery slope. I moved over to avoid a rare hire boat, helmed by a man convinced he was piloting a jet fighter. He pushed a tidal wave before him, creating wash which forced canal-side waterfowl to run for cover.

I didn’t respond to his cheery wave as he flashed by. Orient’s starboard side reached for the sky. I heard the thud and clink of falling bottles inside, but the wind was blowing too hard to stop and investigate. I hoped that I wouldn’t finish my day drinking whiskey through broken glass on my hardwood floor.

I enjoy winter cruising more often than not. I didn’t enjoy this particular experience. Not because of the hire boat incident. I was cold, despite having the range burning beneath my feet. A frigid and gusty wind didn’t help, nor did standing motionless on the back of the boat all day. Without the welcome distraction of a lock flight or two, winter cruising can become a chilly and monotonous affair.

I looked forward to reaching my goal; an overnight stop at Yelvertoft to get some margarine from the village post office and a tasty treat from delicatessen Squisito. Alas, Yelvertoft was closed for business. The post office had shut for good, Squisito for Christmas and the Knightley Arms because they felt like it. The pub has been closed more often than open on previous visits. I don’t know how they manage to stay afloat.

I woke late the next morning with a headache, thankful that two weeks of celebrating Christmas on my own had come to an end. I like a drink but have to control my indulgence. My drinks cabinet will remain locked now, opened only for high-days and holiday. There are too many hard-drinking single middle-aged men on the cut. I don’t want to join their self-destructive ranks.

The highlight of my day was an easy Watford flight descent. I had company for forty minutes. A particularly friendly lock keeper helped me down the flight to keep me ahead of three following boats. No matter how quickly I work, I can’t negotiate locks as fast as an experienced couple. It’s rarely a problem, but in a navigation bottleneck like the Watford flight, even in the quieter winter months, CRT staff have to keep the traffic moving.

This guy was an ex narrowboat owner. He sold his boat because he was spending up to four weeks at a time away from his wife. She didn’t like it and told him that he was getting too old for solo boating. He capitulated and sold his boat. But he’s regretting that now. He has to spend all of his time with his wife. Four weeks of solo boating has become an unattainable dream.

I hope that I don’t ever bow down to peer pressure to sell Orient. I don’t know what I would do without a boat in my life. I don’t think that situation is likely. I need to earn a living for the rest of my life. What better way to do that than by hosting my Discovery Day service?

A sunken narrowboat near Braunston tunnel's eastern portal

A sunken narrowboat near Braunston tunnel’s eastern portal

Nearing the start of my sixth and final tunnel passage, I passed the boat above. The sad end to someone’s floating home. Death by fire and water. I can only hope that the owner wasn’t on board at the time. Sights like this make me feel physically sick, and eternally grateful for Orient, my health and my lifestyle.

Yin and Yang, bad and good, The Boathouse and the Admiral Nelson. My meal at The Boathouse on my outward cruise was dismal. And then I enjoyed a fabulous meal at the Admiral Nelson on my return trip; whitebait starter and ham, egg and chips for the main course. The Wiltshire ham was as plentiful as it was tasty. Lovely, as was the bottle of merlot I had with the meal. I enjoyed listening to snippets of parental advice coming from the table next to me too.

A dreadlocked lady boater counselled her teenage daughter. “No, darlin’”, she confided in a low voice, “you want to roll your spliff like this.” And then a little later, “Not too often mind. You don’t want to end up with paranoia like your Dad.” Boat life at its best.

Braunston's Admiral Nelson at night

Braunston’s Admiral Nelson at night

I set off on my final morning without breakfast at 8 am. I planned to drop down two locks from my mooring opposite the pub and stop briefly near the Gongoozler’s Rest cafe boat. I hoped to eat there before heading back to base. The business was closed on my outward journey. I suspected a Christmas break. Sadly, it was still shut, maybe for good. There was a hand-drawn for sale sign taped to a window of the owner’s boat moored next to the cafe. What a shame. I loved their full English breakfasts, toasted cheese and onion sandwiches and potato scallops. Bad for both my pocket and waistline but good for my soul.

I reached the top of the Calcutt flight two hours later, pausing for an hour at the water point to rid Orient of a two-week mud accumulation. I had a Discovery Day booked for the following day, and the old girl needed to look her best.

Mud removed, Orient is ready for a Discovery Day cruise

Mud removed, Orient is ready for a Discovery Day cruise

I always enjoy my Discovery Day cruises. Despite having covered the route more than three hundred times now, each outing is a joy. I have ever-changing company, different people with a similar desire. A quest for a simple existence free of the stresses and strains of modern-day life. They’re enchanted by rural Warwickshire’s rolling hills and green fields. They’re mesmerised by the slow beat of my vintage engine and, at this time of the year, pleasantly surprised by a warm and cosy cabin. Less is more. Boat life is a good life.

Calcutt Boat's Meadows marina on a cloudy day

Calcutt Boat’s Meadows marina on a cloudy day

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A Christmas Cruise to Market Harborough

Day one of my Christmas cruise, a day which felt like prison release. This year has been long and hard, filled with endless work and tragedy. Cynthia’s been gone now for eight months, two-thirds of a year which I’ve filled with seven-day working weeks. Everyone copes in different ways. My method, right or wrong, has been to work hard, sleep, rinse and repeat. I think I’ve reached the year-end without too much mental damage, so maybe mine is an acceptable coping mechanism.

 I woke late on my first morning and smiled as I remembered that I had nothing to do for the following fifteen days. All I had on my to-do list was cruising and writing a few blog posts. Just two items and I still struggled with one of them.

But my number one goal was to cruise, relax and recharge my depleted body battery. That part of my plan has gone very well. And, after daily rain for far too long, regular dry cruising days have been welcome.

I could get used to this. My boating task list was long. I had brass and copper to shine, cupboards to sort through, paintwork to clean… pottering at its best. I loved it.

What a wonderful cruise from Calcutt. An hour and a half of tranquillity. Nothing but birdsong and the mesmerising thump of my JP2 engine. I watched robins, magpies, a sparrow hawk and the canal’s usual complement of coots, mallards and swans. The perfect end to my first festive day of freedom.

I sometimes wonder if I’m normal. I lost Cynthia just eight months ago and then had to say goodbye to two adorable dogs four weeks later. I switched from a boisterous family of four to a reclusive life alone. And there I was looking forward to an enjoyable fortnight on my own, stopping each night out of sight and sound of people and mainstream life. Even though I’m lonely now and then, I enjoy my freedom too much to want to change my life. I know I’m in the minority, but I’m happy more often than I’m sad, and that can’t be a bad thing.

I moored by bridge 100 at Flecknoe for my first night, gently getting pissed on sloe gin. The gin was quite fast, actually. After half a glass, I struggled to see well enough to type my daily journal entry. A relatively new moorer on Calcutt Boats’ Meadows marina gave me the potent brew. Shaun is a welcome addition to our legion of kindly boaters.

I managed to motivate myself enough the following day to cruise for forty-five minutes to Braunston. Life in the slow lane. What a pleasure. I looked forward to a midday meal in the Gongoozler’s Rest cafe boat, tackling a full English breakfast as I watched the world go by. I settled for a cold sausage roll on a canalised bench. The cafe owner had better things to do than cater for the Christmas wishes of a solo boater.

I treated myself to an evening Christmas meal in the boathouse. Another disappointment. Half a dozen limp whitebait to start and then the meal highlight, a steak and ale pie which tasted like an old boot. However, the bottle of merlot which accompanied the meal was excellent. I slid through liquid slurry on a pitch-black towpath back to my floating home. Wearing wellies and mud-stained trousers, I wasn’t the best-dressed diner in the pub, but I was well equipped for winter moorings on soggy towpaths.

The sun rises over winter Braunston

The sun rises over winter Braunston

The following morning began with a glorious sunrise. I had been on the go for three hours by dawn, preparing for a full day at the helm.

Life is so much more comfortable in a house. Roll out of bed to a house already warmed by an automated central heating system, climb into a car, turn a key and then roar away. No effort or thought involved. Life on autopilot.

Day to day life afloat requires much more work, especially on Orient. 

My morning regime begins with the saloon’s Morso Squirrel stove. If the overnight temperature dips to zero, my thermometer usually registers sixteen degrees in the saloon area and thirteen in the bathroom and in the boatman’s cabin where I sleep. The first job of the day is to generate a bit of heat.

I empty the ash pan, riddle the grate, add more coal from the stove-side scuttle, refill the scuttle from a plastic storage box on the covered front deck and then clean the stove glass with a damp kitchen towel dipped in cold ash.

That’s the front of the boat sorted. Then I have to do battle with my fiddly Premiere range. 

The boatman’s cabin stove has a firebox no bigger than a margarine tub and a tiny ash pan. The Squirrel stays alight for months at a time. The back cabin range goes out every night. Not that I want it burning during the hours of darkness. Sleeping next to a glowing stove is an uncomfortable affair.

I empty the range firebox and ash pan and add a Zip firelighter. Then I top that with some kindling and a handful of coal briquettes, throw the back doors wide open to dispel the initial smoke and light her up. Then I tackle my vintage engine.

My Lister JP2M is a thing of beauty. Eighty-four years old, as strong as an ox, as fit a fiddle. I recently asked a vintage engine expert how many more years use I could expect from the old girl. “The world will run out of fossil fuel before she dies,” he assured me. That’s what you call a reliable engine.

My JP2 is a little more time consuming to maintain than a modern engine, but the maintenance regime is a pleasant chore. I use a hand pump to draw fuel from my main tank into the engine room day tank. Then I add a little engine grease, check three different oil levels, stroke the old girl lovingly and tell her how much I appreciate the effort she puts in. I may be single now, but I know that a little appreciation goes a long way with the remaining lady in my life.

With both stoves ticking over nicely, the engine mollycoddled and a substantial breakfast inside me, dawn broke, and I was ready to rock and roll.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the cruise. I’ll share a secret with you. Despite living afloat for ten years, cruising thousands of miles and handling hundreds of different narrowboats, tunnel passages have always filled me with apprehension. 

I like to feel in control. I am supremely confident that I can avoid possible incidents and accidents if I can see. Put me in a tunnel and remove a clear view of everything ahead of me, and I am scared witless. I am out of control, at the mercy of the confining tunnel walls and any novice boater zig-zagging towards me. I don’t like the feeling at all.

My route for the day included two tunnels, Braunston and Crick, 2,049 yards and 1,528 yards respectively. Two miles, an hour, heading towards a distant light speck, saturated by icy water pouring through a leaking tunnel roof. 

But the first of those unpleasant passages was a couple of hours away. A glorious sunrise lifted my spirit, as did a lady boat owner, dog walking through the Braunston flight. She stopped, chatted and then strolled ahead opening gates for me. Small kindnesses like that make solo boating so much more pleasant. As does having the right equipment for tunnel passages.

Braunston top lock is a stone’s throw away from Braunston tunnel’s western portal. I paused briefly to prepare Orient for the possibility of meeting oncoming boats. Orient has three tall chimneys and an equally long exhaust stack. I have to think carefully about their safety wherever I travel. In tunnels, with the possibility of my starboard side being forced next to low arches, this means removing my Squirrel and Kabola chimneys.

I turned on my tunnel light too, although it provides as little illumination as a flickering candle. But on this boat, I also have two things which have transformed my tunnel cruising; a powerful 12V hand-held lamp at the stern and my two-cylinder engine.

My good luck streak continued when I reached Watford’s seven lock flight. I left Orient tied beneath the locks and walked to the top to meet two volunteer lock keepers. “Bad timing,” warned one. “We’re about to start our lunch break, and we won’t finish until half-past three. And then we close for the day.” He relented when he saw my look of confusion. “Just kidding. Are you on your own? No problem. You stay on your boat, and we’ll see you up. You wouldn’t believe the amount of paperwork we have to do if you fall off and hurt yourself. You’ll do us a favour if you allow us to do all the work.” Who am I to argue? Lockkeepers deserve medals, and an ice cream or two in the summer.

I finished the day at Cracks Hill near Crick, where I proposed to Cynthia in September 2015. Four years have passed, and so much has happened. I owned James then and until I met Cynthia, expected to spend the rest of my days on England’s waterways. Three boats, a motorhome and a European adventure later I’m back on the canal network. I’m alone again but enriched by the many experiences I shared with my American wife.

DISCOVER LIFE AFLOAT

Leave the stresses and strains of modern day life far behind on an idyllic cruise through rural Warwickshire. Find out all you need to know about living afloat and learn how to handle a narrowboat.

On Christmas Day morning, I waded through ankle-deep towpath mud to a wooden bridge spanning the canal. A treacherous trudge through livestock churned muddy fields lead me to Cracks Hill summit. I sat for an hour under the old oak where Cynthia and I discussed our future plans, then returned to Orient alone to prepare for a chilly Christmas Day cruise.

A muddy mooring at Cracks Hill

A muddy mooring at Cracks Hill

Winter cruising is usually a quiet affair. Christmas Day was particularly so. I passed just one moving boat all day, helmed by a middle-aged man who appeared to have spent his Christmas morning sucking lemons. I smiled, he glared, I offered a cheery “Happy Christmas!’, he turned away. Maybe his piles were playing up. I left him to his own devices.

The Cracks Hill oak tree where I proposed

The Cracks Hill oak tree where I proposed

As the light faded from a predominantly dull day, I pulled onto a mooring marked on my Nicholson’s guide. The curse of the deep draughted boat struck again. Orient’s stern slid over shallow mud closer to the bank and then, as soon as I stepped onto the towpath, slipped away towards the canal centre. I moved a few feet, tried again, grounded, sweated for ten minutes pushing myself off the shallows and then gave up two feet from the bank on my third attempt. And there I stayed for two days.

There’s not much point cooking fancy Christmas Day meals for one. My festive fayre consisted of the reheated leftovers from the previous day’s Thai beef stir fry, a can of Stella and a glass of brandy. Fine dining at its best.

At the time of the year usually associated with family gatherings, conspicuous consumption and credit card debt, I saw no one and spent nothing. Alone? Yes. Lonely? No, not particularly. 

Loneliness is a state of mind. I have good friends to turn to if I need some company or a helping hand. But I value the sense of peace and tranquillity I enjoy when I’m boating on my own. Solo boating doesn’t suit everyone, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

I didn’t see a soul for thirty-six hours. No boaters, runners, dog walkers or ramblers, just the gentle buzz of my stovetop fan, the tick of the brass clock on my galley wall and the occasional distant pop of a festive farmer blasting wildlife to bits. Merry Christmas little bunnies. 

I looked forward to Boxing Day, a period I planned to fill with unashamed self-indulgence.

I began by languishing in bed until 10 am. And then felt guilty for wasting so much of the day. Then I pottered. I sorted through the storage space beneath the back deck, emptied cupboards I haven’t been in since Cynthia’s passing, put my laundry away and cleaned and lit both stoves. Then I polished. The engine has never looked so good. I rubbed and buffed until my arms ached and the copper shone so brightly it gave me a headache.

Brass and copper polishing on Boxing Day

Brass and copper polishing on Boxing Day. I need to get out more.

Then I realised that the headache was from coal fumes from the Premiere range. I flung open my back doors to let in some air and polished the boatman’s cabin brass. I was bored senseless by 4 pm. I’m no good at this relaxing lark. I did my pre-cruise checks for the following day, watched a film on Amazon Prime and slipped into bed early, ready for a few hours cruising to reach the network’s famous Foxton flight of ten staircase locks.

I hoped to find some company there too. By day five of my fourteen-day cruise, I hadn’t exchanged more than a word or two with anyone since leaving Calcutt. I needed more than a predictable conversation with my bathroom cabinet mirror.

I was on fire the following morning, rising at 5 am and ready to rock and roll by 8 am. Three and a half hours cruising on a bone-chillingly cold day. Dank, misty and thoroughly unappealing. So cold, in fact, that I nearly had to resort to wearing gloves.

I pulled onto a mooring above the Foxton flight. Foxton is the perfect place for vain boat owners to show off. I’m one of them, so I made sure that everything outside looked clean and tidy before I left the boat. And I noted my battery monitor reading too.

I had been monitoring my battery bank charge carefully every day. My bank of five 130ah AGM batteries failed towards the end of last year, just ten months after fitting them. Calcutt Boats supplied them, and they replaced the batteries without quibble. I was pretty sure that my charging regime wasn’t at fault. However, a little extra diligence wasn’t going to hurt.

Managing off-grid electricity is the most challenging aspect of living afloat as far as I’m concerned. The popular misconception is that running your boat’s engine for an hour or two a day is all you need to do. That, according to the experts, is not an efficient battery charging regime.

I have five 130ah batteries so you could be forgiven for thinking that I have 650ah at my disposal. According to Calcutt Boats highly skilled resident marina electrician, Dave Reynolds, the average liveaboard boater uses roughly 60ah a day. So, do I have a ten-day supply of electricity if I begin with a full battery bank? 

Not a chance.

For a start, depleting the battery bank past 50% shortens their life. My battery datasheet tells me that if I regularly run my battery bank down to zero, they’re likely to fail after just 250 cycles. If I run them down regularly to 20% capacity, my expected battery life increases to 500 cycles. The less I extract from the battery bank, the longer they’ll last. A happy balance for me is 50% discharge which should give me 1,000 cycles.

So, if I can safely take my battery bank down to 50%, do I have half of 650ah at my disposal?

No, sadly, I don’t.

I don’t fully understand this, but I have been assured that, despite being labelled 135ah batteries, their capacity is actually 105ah, so I have a total of 525 amp hours, 262.5 of which I can use.

Not so bad, you might think. If I’m an average boater using 60ah a day, I still have four days supply before I need to recharge my battery bank. Wrong again.

I would have a four day supply if I started with 100% capacity. However, if I’m using my engine alternator for charging, I can’t get anywhere close to fully charged. That’s regardless of the length of time I have the engine running.

At seventy amps, my alternator is man enough. The problem is with the batteries. The more depleted the battery bank, the easier they are to charge. I can recharge my batteries to roughly 80% capacity quite quickly. The remaining 20% takes much longer, far longer than I can justify running the engine. The only way to condition batteries properly is to hook them up to a mains supply. I believe that a decent solar array will help maintain my batteries reasonably well, but I need to do more research there.

I’ll be on a mains hookup when I return to Calcutt, so my off-grid charging regime isn’t an issue for the two weeks I’m cruising. I’ll be travelling full time within the next year or two. Before then, I need to fit some solar.

I popped into the cafe at the flight summit for a coffee and a bacon sandwich at lunchtime. And then, late afternoon, walked to the bottom of the flight to Bridge 61 for one of their excellent beef stews served in a giant Yorkshire pudding. Delicious.

love the Foxton flight. With its pleasant walks, an imposing flight of ten staircase locks, the remains of the inclined plane boat lift, a cafe and two pubs, it’s a popular tourist destination. There can be hundreds of Gongoozlers on a sunny summer’s day. On the day I dropped down the flight a couple of dozen watched the boats go by. With the on-duty lock keepers doing much of the work, especially for solo boaters, a boat owner’s main job is answering questions.

“How fast does your boat go?” My average speed of two miles an hour doesn’t impress anyone.

“Does your boat has a toilet?” I told one guy that I keep my poo in a box. I thought he was going to vomit.

“Do you get a good television reception?” When I told the enquirer that I don’t own a television, the young mother gave me such a pitying look that I almost felt deprived. Modern-day life without access to dozens of channels of unadulterated crap? Unthinkable.

Did I mention that I love the Foxton flight?

The descent down through the Foxton flight was a dream. More lock keepers deserving medals. They insisted that I stay at the helm as they worked me through all ten locks. All I had to do was stand proudly on my back deck fielding questions and prepare myself for a painful cruise along the Market Harborough arm.

The problems began when I reached the bottom of the flight, starting with two swing bridges. I managed the first without help. “Grandad, look at that old man climbing on his boat like a monkey!” Don’t you just love children?

The second, a swing road bridge, would have delayed impatient motorists too long. I persuaded a couple on the towpath to do the hard work for me.

The real challenge was a shallow canal filled with reeds and leaves. A cruise which should have taken two hours from the bottom of the Foxton flight to Market Harborough took three. I knew I was in for an exciting time as I entered the arm when an approaching boat moved a few feet off the main channel to let me pass. “F*****g canal,” he muttered as his cabin tipped at an alarming angle and he ground to a halt.

“It’s good to see a boat owner taking his time on our canals,” commented one dog walker. I daren’t go any faster for fear of grounding immovably in the reedy shallows.

I grounded twice and listed as I slid over shallow mud flats several times. I crept into Market Harborough at dusk, carefully navigating around half-submerged logs and sunken branches, glad to reach the end of a tedious journey. And happy to get into a warm cabin.

The nasty cold knocking everyone for six back at the marina finally caught up with me. Luckily I had a couple of days to rest and recuperate at Market Harborough before the return cruise. Time to do nothing but eat, drink and obsessively watch my battery monitor.

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