I looked forward to my two-month break for so long. I worked long hours last year, often working seven days a week. I felt exhausted by the end of December, dizzy with fatigue, devoid of either energy or enthusiasm. The thought of recuperating while cruising gently along winter canals made my heart skip a beat.
My cruise started as planned, slowly and gently. I moored on a deserted towpath with a vast plain on one side and rolling hills on the other. This, I thought, is the perfect spot to relax and write for a few days before beginning my cruise to the Trent & Mersey’s northern terminus.
I was as happy as a pig in shit far away from people and the noise they make. The serene landscape calmed me, as did the squabbling mallards’ soft quacks and the gentle sigh of winter wind caressing waterside willows. I watched buzzards circling lazily overhead and sparrow hawks hovering over mice-filled fields. Life was good as I rested before a long cruise.
And then I discovered that our government wanted me to rest some more.
Lockdown 3.0 didn’t really surprise me. Christmas gatherings caused an expected infection spike and the inevitable restrictions which followed. I considered carrying on regardless. After all, I reasoned, I had a Roving Trader license and earned an income from waterway writing. And I would still be self-isolating more effectively than most of the population. I lived alone on my boat, far from other people.
What’s more, the only shops I used were grocery stores, and those visits were rare. I asked Sainsbury to deliver food to me as I travelled. What risk did I pose?
‘You don’t understand,’ complained rabid boaters on Facebook groups and forum threads. ‘You touch gates every time you pass through a lock. Think of the potential for infection!’ Yes, I thought about the risk. Back at Calcutt, I watched a handful of narrowboats pass through the lock flight each day, a tiny number compared with the dozens of walkers, joggers and cyclists using the lock gates as a footpath. The risk from me or to me was minimal, especially as I wore gloves when locking.
But after justifying my continued travel, I decided to stay where I was. One fly in my cruising ointment was my need for clean clothes. I don’t have a washing machine on Orient these days. The cubicle it once occupied is now filled with dried and canned food. The broken machine with its cracked drum left me two years ago. Since then, I’ve used our site facilities or washing machines at other marinas if I’ve been out cruising.
I phoned a few marinas on my route. Mooring owners usually only allow their own boat owners to use their facilities, including those on short term moorings. Although the businesses remained open for essential services for passing boaters – coal, diesel, gas and sewage disposal – the people I spoke to told me that they didn’t want overnight visitors.
Common sense prevailed, as did the need for trousers which wouldn’t remain standing when I removed them. I would join the little band of brave boaters rooted to an idyllic mooring, waiting patiently for CRT’s cruising green light.
So I walked, wrote, waited, withered and wailed. I discovered to my dismay that the sedentary life of a retired boater doesn’t work for me. I cleaned and polished until my arms ached, waded through difficult miles of towpath mud until my boots begged forgiveness and wrote for hours on end.
I realised that I was on a downward spiral after investing an hour in organising my galley bin cupboard. I walked up and down my narrow passageway examining the bin from different angles while I muttered like a meths-soaked tramp. I considered the best positions for the cupboard’s bin bags, Method kitchen cleaner and a long-handled bottle brush. Then, to add variety to my surreal day, I opened my galley side hatch and howled at a pair of passing pigeons.
There were a few highlights in an otherwise uneventful fortnight. I cruised two miles into Braunston to escape a forecast four-day freeze. I needed to collect a Sainsbury grocery delivery, too heavy to carry miles along a muddy towpath. I moored a stone’s throw from The Boathouse pub and wait for the canal to morph into a winter wonderland. While the canal’s rural stretches disappeared beneath an icy crust, Braunston’s busy boaters kept the village canal clear.
Discover life afloat
If you're seriously considering buying a narrowboat to live on, I urge you to join me for a memorable day afloat. You'll discover all you need to know about life afloat, learn how to handle a narrowboat and cruise all day on one of the inland waterways most beguiling canals.
Braunston’s village butcher helped me retain a degree of sanity. The business’s delicious fare fattens many local boaters. I bought smoked bacon for breakfast, steak pies for lunch and beef for an evening roast. One time I asked the lady owner if she sold herbs. “No, my love,’ she smiled, ‘but I can tell you where you can pick some for free!’ She directed me to Braunston’s community herb garden, a small cultivated plot next to their village hall. I picked a handful of rosemary and thyme and a pinch of sage, all fresh and free.
My phone rang late on my fourth afternoon in Braunston, a call from my Sainsbury delivery. I added a note to my order to let the driver know that I was on a boat near the pub and asked him to call me when he arrived. He sounded confused. ‘Where are you?’ he asked. I told him that I was on my boat nearby. ‘Sorry mate, I can’t get my van down to the canal,’ he apologised. ‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured him, ‘I’ll come to you.’ He sounded incredulous. ‘How are you going to get your boat up here?’ The conversation had become more difficult than I expected.
The driver looked a little sheepish when I arrived with a rucksack rather than a boat. ‘I haven’t delivered to a boat before,’ he confessed. I could tell.
I left the relative noise of a sleepy village and returned to my peaceful mooring, and I wrote and walked some more. Tasks expand to fill the available time. With few jobs on my to-do list, I dealt with each carefully, slowly and obsessively. I rearranged more cupboards, charged device batteries I didn’t need to use and sat for hours watching my solar display.
I wrote a little about my new solar array in my last post. The weather since then has been bleak. Thanks to constant rain, sleet and endless low cloud, my three panels have struggled to produce much at all. Mooring in Braunston didn’t help.
Braunston is popular with cruising boaters during the summer months and with local liveaboard narrowboat owners throughout the winter. Boats often stay on the same moorings for many weeks in regular times. Still, some narrowboats have become permanent fixtures during the pandemic.
I took the only free mooring available, a shaded spot next to Braunston marina entrance. My location frustrated me on two cloudless days. The trees above me bathed in unaccustomed light while my shaded solar panels sulked in the shadows below.
Tim Davis, the guy from Onboard Solar who fitted my array, wrote a solar power post for me in 2013. He kindly shared the knowledge he’d accumulated, first as a boat builder and then fitting solar arrays to narrowboats throughout our inland waterways network. He’s now written another comprehensive post, 2,000 array fittings later, detailing the latest developments in solar technology, the solar arrays offered by Onboard Solar and why Tim thinks that they’re the best you can buy and, in part one which you can read here, how you should prepare for off-grid living.
At the risk of repeating myself, managing your electrical supply is arguably THE most challenging aspect of an off-grid lifestyle. Many boaters don’t embrace or understand the constant need to monitor and conserve their battery bank charge.
I have spoken to dozens of off-grid boaters and seen many hundreds more who use the ‘finger in the air’ power monitoring technique. Without the benefit of a battery monitor, they simply run their engines for a while each day for battery charging. They don’t know the battery bank’s state of charge when they start or stop their engines, so these boat owners don’t have a clue how deep they’re discharging their batteries each day.
I spoke to one novice boater who told me he had a simple and effective battery charging system. He ran his engine to top up his bank when the lights began to dim in his cabin. That’s battery charging suicide. Here’s a chart which demonstrates why.
Allowing your batteries to drain to the point where your 12v lights dim is a 100% discharge. As you can see on the chart, you could only do this 350 times (roughly) before your battery bank failed. I try to limit my AGM battery bank discharge to 70%, which means that my bank should stand 1,600 cycles. Given that my battery bank cost £900, I want them to last as long as possible.
Getting your electrical head in the right place is another essential part of the equation. Any mains electrical appliance which produces heat is your battery bank’s worst nightmare. If you’re going to live off-grid, throw away your electric kettles, toasters, irons, heaters, hairdryers, and straighteners. Toast your water and boil your bread with gas. Throw everything else out. You don’t need them.
I still don’t have the perfect off-grid electrical setup, but it’s better now than it was at the beginning of the week.
My MacBook and its internet connectivity needed some refining. I have a 240V power lead for my MacBook and a 240V router linked to a rooftop signal booster. I need to use my elderly Sterling 3KW inverter to run them. The inverter is too big, too old and uses an unacceptable amount of power. Thanks to a midweek purchase from Amazon’s online store, I can now leave my inverter switched off for most of the day.
My new Morphie car charger will power my MacBook from a 12V socket near my saloon table. My internet connectivity solution isn’t quite so elegant. I place my iPhone next to the cratch board on my covered front deck and then share the phone’s hotspot with my MacBook. The iPhone’s signal isn’t as powerful as my rooftop booster, but it’s good enough for email and web browsing.
Apart from swapping five rarely-used fluorescent strips with LED bulbs, there’s not much more I can do to improve my off-grid efficiency. I’ll carry on running my engine to supplement my solar array’s meagre input until the weather improves and the sun shows its welcome face. And I’ll wonder whether I’ll be a gibbering idiot before Boris allows me to cruise again.
Discovery Day Update
I’m expecting a busy year. Thanks to the global pandemic, international travel restrictions and the surge in working from home, narrowboats are selling like hotcakes. Consequently, I’m taking more bookings than ever this month. I’m fully booked throughout March and most of April. If you are one of the many aspiring narrowboat owners who have emailed expressing an interest in my experience days, I urge you to secure a date while you can.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please let me explain. I offer combined helmsman training and experiencing cruises on all-day cruises through Warwickshire’s rolling hills. I show my guests a narrowboat fully equipped for comfortable off-grid living. The cruises are both fun and educational. You’ll learn all you need to know about life afloat in a relaxed and beautiful classroom. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here and see and book available dates here.