Learn about life afloat the easy way

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


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A Successful Move Back To The English Inland Waterways Network

I imagine that a narrowboat broker’s perfect sale would involve a potential buyer viewing a boat, saying he liked it and then returning the following day with a briefcase bulging with enough cash to pay the asking price. On a scale of one to ten with one being the simplest and most straightforward transaction, the briefcase carrier would barely climb onto the lower end of the scale.

Cynthia and I began our negotiations a little higher up the scale, maybe at eight or nine. We loved the boat Steve Harral of Ash Boats had for sale, which was good. We didn’t have enough, or indeed any, money to buy it with. That was terrible news for him. Luckily for us, Steve had a glass-half-full attitude towards the potential deal.

We persuaded him and, more importantly, Orient’s owner, Stuart, that sometimes finding caring buyers who will look after the seller’s pride and joy is a more attractive proposition than finding buyers with wads of cash. We told Stuart we were both experienced boaters, people who loved the English waterways and who would take great pride in keeping a solidly built and beautiful boat in tip-top condition. Then we told him that all our wealth was tied up in a Dutch Linssen yacht and a German motorhome, both of which would need to be sold before he received all or even much of his money.

His agreement surprised us. His subsequent decision to also take our motorhome in part exchange had us dancing around our empty Dutch marina. Then all that stood between us and a beautiful and thoughtfully fitted out narrowboat fully equipped for living on board was the need to find half of the boat’s asking price to use as a deposit.

Cynthia and I aren’t wealthy people. Cynthia is long retired from gainful employment, and my recent earning capacity has been dictated by my willingness to endure long days lying on cold concrete beneath an endless procession of overpriced yachts while covering their bare bottoms with ridiculously priced antifouling paint.

Our savings amounted to little more than a leather purse bulging with small denomination coins, supplemented by a modest bank balance which we needed for our move back to England.

Thanks to Cynthia’s credit rating and an American credit union keen to see its poor customers sink further into debt, we managed to secure a bridging loan to cover two-thirds of the deposit needed before we could move on board. Applying and being approved for the loan was the easy part. Getting the money off American soil proved almost impossible. 

Maybe I’m just being unreasonable. Spousal country bashing is a regular part of our married life. Cynthia would tell you that, more often than not, it’s me that does the bashing. Not wanting to prove her wrong I’ll have another go. Calling an American banking helpline is right up there with anaesthetic free teeth pulling.

It’s a harrowing experience.

We needed to transfer a substantial sum from Cynthia’s US account to the UK. It’s an easy enough process providing the account holder still lives in the USA and has an American mobile phone. Cynthia doesn’t. She’s been living the life of Riley wandering through Europe with me for the last two years. She has a UK postal address for receiving bank statements. Her post is forwarded every fortnight to a destination she nominates. Her phone uses a UK SIM which gives her the best text, calls and data deal we could find before we left the UK.

Our problems began when we tried to transfer the money online. The bank’s website instructed us to complete a form which included a field for Cynthia’s mobile phone number so they could text her to verify the request was really from her. It’s only possible to enter a phone number on the form in US format. International phone numbers aren’t allowed.

We phoned a helpline for advice.

Without a USA phone number, we were told, the only way to verify Cynthia was to send a letter to the address she had in her account profile. That wasn’t going to work. The address is in the UK. We needed to transfer the money before we could move onto our new boat. I think the US postal service still uses a combination of the Pony Express and steamships to make international deliveries. We’ve had to wait a long, long time in the past for letters from America to arrive in England.

Cynthia also has an account with another US bank. Both accounts are linked so making transfers between the two is quick and relatively painless. There’s a daily limit which meant that we would have to make six transfers, and only on regular business days. The delay would take us dangerously close to our deadline for moving onto the boat, but we didn’t have another option.

We phoned the new bank helpline to ask if we could transfer the money directly from Cynthia’s bank to the UK broker’s account. “Of course you can darlin’,” the charming lady from the bank’s call centre somewhere in America’s deep south drawled. We asked the cost. “There’s a forty-five dollar fee,” she warned us. Not bad, we thought considering the sum involved. “Let’s do it,” Cynthia ordered enthusiastically.

Suspecting that the bank would want to make more than forty-five dollars on such a substantial transfer, I asked what exchange rate they would use. “It’s the usual bank exchange rate,” the bank employee unhelpfully told us. After a further five calls to four different departments, we discovered that the bank wanted four hundred dollars more on the exchange than one of the more prominent and trustworthy online international money transfer companies.

Rather than throw four hundred dollars away, we set up an account with TransferWise to move the money across the Atlantic and initiated the transaction. The domestic wire to TransferWise’s New York account went through without a hitch, and then we hit another brick wall.

After twenty-four hours of inactivity, we phoned the TransferWise support team and discovered that we needed to endure yet another account verification process. This latest delay was a real worry. Broker Steve Harral broke the bad news. “I’m afraid I can’t let you put Orient back in the water until the money has hit our account. Karl, the guy doing the work on your boat, finishes for Christmas on Friday 21st December. If the transfer hasn’t reached us by then, Orient will have to stay in the workshop until he comes back.”

While we tried to find a way to move the boat money from the USA to the UK, we drove through the Netherlands, Belgium and France back to England. We arrived at Dover on a P & O car ferry and pulled to the side of the road to programme our route to Portsmouth. We needed to make a quick stop there to have our odometer reset to read kilometres rather than the miles display it had been incorrectly set to when I took the Hymer back to England a month earlier for some warranty repairs.

Crossing the English Channel - Cynthia gazes longingly at the white cliffs of Dover

Crossing the English Channel – Cynthia gazes longingly at the white cliffs of Dover

The fastest route would take us three hours of boring but easy driving on a series of undemanding motorways. However, my wife, the ever curious American tourist, wanted to see the sights along England’s south coast.

Driving a satnav route set to avoid motorways is always an adventure in a large motorhome. We bumped along an endless series of single track farm roads and twisting country lanes for an hour before we reached the coastal village of Rye.

We were both hungry. Cynthia suggested stopping at a quaint English cafe for a healthy midday snack. She’s not familiar with English roadside cafes. We parked outside one which caught Cynthia’s eye. “See what vegetarian or organic options they have,” asked Cynthia. I didn’t want to disappoint her, but two signs either side of the door indicated the type of food we were likely to find. The adverts,  Chip Butties One Pound and Gut Buster Breakfasts, didn’t conjure images of produce fresh from organic farms.

I looked at the menu quickly and then reported back. “I don’t think this one’s going to suit you,” I warned my wife. Cynthia has been spoiled by the variety of food available in Dutch and French restaurants for the last couple of years. If she failed to find something suitable on the menu, the owner’s rarely failed to provide her with an elaborate salad.

“Don’t be so negative,” she scolded. “I’m sure they’ll look after me.”

We walked into a room filled with the heady aroma of frying eggs and bacon and squeezed past well-fleshed diners hunched over dustbin sized plates filled to overflowing with all day breakfasts.

Cynthia examined the menu for anything without chips, frowned, and asked if the chef could make her a salad. “Oi, Beryl!” the guy behind the counter shouted into the kitchen. “You got anything green in the fridge?”

“Nothing,” the owner screamed back, “I gave the last of the lettuce to the rabbit!”

Cynthia, desperate for anything remotely healthy asked about the soup.

“Lady wants to know if the soup is homemade,” the foghorn server bellowed.

“Hold on,” ordered Beryl, “I’ll just check the back of the tin!”

Cynthia settled for a steaming bowl of vegetable soup served with a doorstep-sized chunk of white bread. I chose the mega all day breakfast. I love being back in England.

Back to good old English cooking

Back to good old English cooking

We drove from Portsmouth to Tattenhall marina via Calcutt Boats for a welcome overnight break. With two days to go before our Christmas deadline we still hadn’t heard from TransferWise’s verification department. I managed to transfer funds from two other loans I had taken out to the broker’s account, but it wasn’t enough. What’s more, we needed to hand over our Hymer as part of the deal. We couldn’t empty the Hymer until we could move onto the boat and we couldn’t step onto Orient until we could make our transatlantic transfer. We were very frustrated, stressed by the situation and exhausted by several hectic weeks and many hours on the road.

While we waited, I painted.

Orient’s hull needed blacking. I used bitumen on my old narrowboat. This time I used Keelblack. It has the consistency of water, so it is much easier to apply than bitumen. I put on three coats over as many days, moved as much as I could from the Hymer to Orient and then fretted and worried about our finances some more.

Below deck clutter - I removed this lot from the small space beneath the back deck.

Below deck clutter – I removed this lot from the small space beneath the back deck.

I needed to take Cynthia to a medical appointment in Solihull on deadline day. She received an email from TransferWise’s verification department on our drive south towards Birmingham. The verification process was complete, but we still couldn’t find out when the money would be transferred. I suspected that it would take days to reach the destination bank in England. Cynthia was her usual optimistic self. While she daydreamed about Christmas Day afloat, I worried about what we would do if our new home stayed locked in the workshop when our motorhome’s new owners arrived to collect it.

Orient backs into Tattenhall Marina

Orient backs into Tattenhall Marina

We were an hour away from Tattenhall and our 5 pm deadline when Cynthia’s phone pinged to notify her of an incoming email. “See, I told you everything would work out. This is an email from TransferWise. It says that the money has hit the English account!”

We received confirmation fifteen minutes later from Steve Harral that the money had indeed reached his account. Now, all we needed to do was to get Orient in the water, swap a lifetime’s possessions from the motorhome to the boat and then remove all traces that two people and two fur shedding dogs had been living in the vehicle for the previous two years. And all of that needed to be done before the Hymer was collected the following day. The task was so daunting I didn’t know where to start. Fortunately, on a day of overwhelmingly good news, we received some more.

An overloaded live aboard narrowboat - We feared that Orient would look like this after we tried to move everything on board.

An overloaded live aboard narrowboat – We feared that Orient would look like this after we tried to move everything on board.

Stuart and his wife Sue phoned to say they would be delayed. They couldn’t collect the Hymer until 27th December. We had enough time to try and shoehorn all of our possessions into our new boat and clean the motorhome ready for collection. Providing we postponed our Christmas celebrations and packed, unpacked, washed and wiped throughout the festive period. We didn’t mind. The new boat and a new life back on England’s inland waterways had finally become a reality. We were both very happy bunnies.

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Paul Smith
 

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.