Curtailed Cruising And The Lunacy Of A Lonely Lad

 

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.


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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.

Braunston's community herb garden

Braunston’s community herb garden

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.

No sun for my solar panels

No sun for my solar panels

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.

AGM Discharge Chart

AGM Discharge Chart

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

 

The Life Of An Occasional Continuous Cruiser

 

I’m not a big fan of Christmas. I see people buying masses of presents they can’t afford to give to extended family members they often don’t like. I’m being cynical of course, and these comments aren’t directed at my distant family.

I always remember Christmas during my early married life as a stressful affair. My lawyer wife and I worked our fingers to the bone before the festive break to make sure that we had a few relaxing days free. And then when we should have been able to relax, we sat for hours on congested motorways making sure that we visited all the members of our far-flung family. We were often exhausted after our ‘relaxing’ Christmas break.

I much prefer the tranquillity I feel at Christmas these days.

I don’t have any work pressure now. I am a lowly groundsman tasked with the intellectually and emotionally undemanding job of keeping forty landscaped marina acres looking pretty. My job is almost as low in stress as it is in pay. But over the years I’ve realised that it’s the quality rather than the quantity of life which counts. I live in a gorgeous floating home moored on a pretty marina in tranquil rural Warwickshire. 

I don’t have a fancy car – I don’t have a car at all – or enjoy (endure) expensive foreign holidays. I don’t need either. All that I want and need is here at the marina. And to make my life even more comfortable, those kindly people at my local Sainsbury store bring me fresh food every week. And the good folk at Amazon provide me with everything else.

My groundsman job pays just enough to cover my boating bills, so I have another income source; this website. I sell a few guides bundled into my Narrowbudget Gold package, and I host frequent experience and helmsman training days. I don’t earn much, but I make enough to live a comfortable, balanced, healthy and serene lifestyle. I’m happy. 

Shouldn’t happiness be everyone’s life goal?

Christmas, as is usual these days, was a low key and inexpensive event. A handful of boaters who live and work at the marina gathered at a canalside mooring on Christmas Day morning for mulled wine and port-injected mince pies. As is often the way with such gatherings, we supplemented the wine with other alcoholic treats; damson vodka, blackberry vodka and sloe gin. Two outdoor hours on an English winter’s day was enough for us. I then joined three workmates for a turkey dinner and a couple of games of dominoes. Oh, how we live life to the full in our little boating community.

We planned an afternoon New Year’s Eve barbecue too. Thanks to Boris and his tier four restrictions we decided to cancel the last gathering of the year. The silver lining to that dark cloud was that I could begin my winter cruise.

I’ve been limited to a fortnight away from work in recent years. I love winters on our waterways, chugging through a crisp landscape with the range beneath my feet enveloping me in welcome heat. Much as I enjoy the experience, I planned to leave my boat behind this year.

My parents and my brother live in Australia. As my last visit was in 2012, I thought, and they agreed, that another trip was long overdue. The Australian government had other ideas. Earlier last year, entry into Australia was permitted provided that travellers quarantined for fourteen days at a location chosen by the authorities. The quarantine accommodation fee was $3,000. I didn’t fancy paying that kind of money for imprisonment in a hotel room for half a month. Not that that’s a consideration now. Australia has closed its borders.

Because I planned an extended trip down under, I arranged to have two months off work. Once I discovered I couldn’t travel overseas, I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. I decided to enjoy a sixty-day break on the waterways network instead.

I had grand cruising plans. They’ve changed now, again thanks to tier four. I don’t know where I can reasonably expect to travel, so I will try to relax instead. 

I’m off to a good start.

I managed four miles on New Year’s Eve before a beguiling mooring on a deserted stretch of canal gently brought me to a stop. I’m still there now.

A smidgeon of ice to deter Orient's progress

A smidgeon of ice to deter Orient’s progress

I thought I knew this part of the canal network well. After all, I’ve cruised the route between Napton and Braunston junctions hundreds of times on my experience days. I now realise that I don’t know the area well at all.

I’ve discovered footpaths near the canal I didn’t know existed. There’s an unlisted road through the abandoned medieval village of Wolfhampcote, and rough paths along the beds of two railways closed down in the 1960s. What a treat. 

Wofhampcote church looking good after 1,000 years

Wofhampcote church looking good after 1,000 years

So I’ve walked, and I’ve written, and I’ve worried – a little – about further restrictions. But, mostly, I’ve relaxed into the lifestyle of an occasional continuous cruiser. That meant switching to continuous cruiser conservation mode from day one.

Muddy towpath walking near Flecknoe

Muddy towpath walking near Flecknoe

Life in a marina is easy. Even if you run out of electricity, heating fuel, gas, water or diesel, a top-up is always close at hand. Resupply is not quite so simple at this time of the year when a sudden cold snap can lock you into a remote mooring in a heartbeat.

Knowing your average consumption of each utility is essential. I have a cassette toilet and three cassettes. Each cassette lasts me four days, so I’m OK for nearly two weeks. A 13kg propane cylinder lasts me two months. I have two onboard so no problem there. My 750-litre water tank will last me two months if I’m careful. That’s not an issue. I have enough fresh food on board to last ten days, plus another fortnight if I dine on rice, pasta and corned beef. I won’t starve, nor will I freeze. A 25kg bag of coal briquettes will last three days if I’m careful, wrap up and don’t mind suffering a cold back end.

Learn How To Handle A Narrowboat On A Craft Fully Equipped For Off-Grid Living

Join me on beautiful Orient for a beguiling cruise through Warwickshire's rolling hills. Learn all you need to know about living afloat on England's inland waterways

I’m beginning to think that I’m a bit of a wimp. I hear or read about so many liveaboard narrowboat owners discussing their efficient heating systems at this time of the year. “It’s so hot on my boat that I have to open my front doors to let some of the heat out,” is a common theme. “My cabin gets so hot I have to strip down to my underpants,” boasted a rotund septuagenarian. Perish the thought.

I watched a video produced by a popular vlogger last night. He recorded his morning routine, demonstrating the comfort of onboard life. He stirred the dying embers of a cooling stove halfheartedly before zooming in on his mercury thermometer. It read twenty-five degrees. I’m not surprised given how close it was to the stove. Still, he seemed very comfortable with his cabin temperature. But was he showing an accurate picture of life on a narrowboat during the cooler months? I don’t know.

In the spirit of providing an honest and accurate account of winter life afloat, let me share some facts and figures with you. I’ll try not to bore you to tears with them.

Everyone’s different. One boater’s comfort is another’s misery. Despite working outdoors nearly every day all year round, I don’t particularly appreciate feeling cold. That’s not a problem when I’m working physically hard. I generate enough heat to keep me toasty warm all day. But when I’m sitting motionless tapping away at my MacBook keyboard for hours on end, 23°C is a comfortable temperature for me. And at this time of the year, I find that quite challenging to achieve.

Orient is a tricky boat to heat, as was my first narrowboat, James. Both are relatively old boats. James was built in 1977 and Orient eighteen years later in 1995. Typical of boats their age, they both have polystyrene insulation. Polystyrene isn’t as good an insulator as modern spray foam. It can crumble and leave cold spots. It also provides a fascinating adventure playground for mice as I discovered to my dismay last year.

My poor little Squirrel tries hard to keep me warm

My poor little Squirrel tries hard to keep me warm

Multiple internal bulkheads also added to my heating difficulty on both boats. Orient is particularly challenging. I have doorways between the galley and the bathroom, the bathroom and the bedroom, the bedroom and the engine room, and the engine room and the boatman’s cabin. The heat from my Morso Squirrel at the front of the boat can’t reach further than halfway down my little home.

If I want a decent temperature throughout the boat, I need stoves burning at both ends. My Squirrel isn’t a problem. I empty the ash pan in the morning and fill the stove with coal briquettes. Before I climb into bed at night, I fill it again and reduce the airflow. 

Easy.

The Premiere range in the rear cabin is another story. It’s a pig to keep going without constant attention. The firebox is the problem. It’s so small that I have to add briquettes throughout the day. Keeping the stove burning all night is beyond me.

Unless I’m cruising and have the range at my feet all day, constantly fiddling with it is a bit of a pain. So, on multi-day moorings, closing off the boat section beyond my bedroom and relying on one stove is the more practical option. That’s what I’m doing at the moment—one bag every three days to heat half a boat.

The weather has been a little chilly recently with sub-zero lows and barely-above-zero highs. The thermometer dropped to -2°C last night. At 11.30 am the temperature’s still below freezing. But there’s no wind, which makes a big difference.

Because I’m more than a little anal, I have four thermometers on Orient; one in the saloon, another in my bedroom, a third at the rear in the boatman’s cabin and another on my front deck protected by a cratch cover. Here are the readings from 9 am today.

Orient's early morning thermometer

Orient’s early morning thermometer

13.4°C – saloon

10.6°C – main bedroom

2.4°C – boatman’s cabin

4.1°C – front deck

I don’t find this saloon temperature comfortable at all. I dash out of bed an hour before I want to get up to add coal to the stove and open it up. By the time climb out of bed the second time, the stove’s glowing but hasn’t made much difference to the cabin temperature. Boiling a kettle for my morning coffee and then leaving the ring burning has more of an impact.

So, there you go. Heating narrowboats is not always an easy affair. I’m sure that with some modern, open plan and well-insulated boats, you can wave a swan vesta about and have the cabin toasty for days. Orient is not one of them.

I may be lacking in the heating department, but I’m up there with the best of them where power generation is concerned.

In anticipation of my current two-month stint off-grid, I had a 645w solar array fitted by Tim Davis of Onboard Solar last November. Despite fully understanding solar power benefits for off-grid liveaboard boaters, I’ve delayed the installation until now.

It’s a case of form over function. I think, and many agree, that Orient is a beautiful boat. I didn’t want to add a trio of boxy panels and ruin her good looks. Tim Davis has fitted solar systems to 2,000+ narrowboats, including many craft similar to mine. He assured me that I would soon forget about the aesthetics when an endless supply of free electricity mollycoddled my battery banks. 

Do you know what? Tim was right.

The three panels lay low on their brackets parallel with Orient’s roof most of the time. I’ve tilted them towards the sun on my static mooring over the last four days. Even though Orient looked better without them, I don’t think they completely ruin my boat’s fine lines.

Solar power is a game-changer for liveaboard narrowboat owners.

Tim fitted a 300w solar array on James for me in 2013. Although I was marina based for much of the time, I spent all of 2015 out on the cut. Three hundred watts provided me with all the power I wanted during the spring, summer and autumn months and helped a little during our dark and dismal winters. Solar technology has improved since then.

I am delighted with my new array’s winter performance. The three Victron panels have generated at least three amps even on cloudy days. Today, that one winter day when the sun shines, I am in awe. My input peaked at twenty glorious amps. Twenty. In the middle of an English winter. That’s amazing.

That’s one reason why I haven’t moved very far on this cruise: that, and the new restrictions. I’ve managed four miles in as many days. My intention was always to adopt a more relaxed approach to cruising on this trip. I clocked up nearly 2,000 miles and negotiated 950 locks in 2015 and missed many tranquil moorings and idyllic villages along the way. I finished the year with badges of honour, an armful of ten-hour cruising days and total exhaustion. 

I vowed to treat myself better on this trip. Still, I was ever mindful of my need to generate electricity. And if my solar array needed supplementing with input from my engine’s alternator, I didn’t want to waste my precious diesel tethered to a static mooring.

I don’t know how the next few weeks will pan out. The weather is always an unknown quantity. A week locked into a remote mooring by ice won’t cause me a problem. Still, I’ll be keeping a close eye on weather forecasts and government restriction bulletins, all from the comfort of my peaceful floating home.

Discovery Day Update

Event manager Martin Webster joined me last Monday for my final Discovery Day cruise of the year. Despite our chilly day out, the experience confirmed Martin’s passion for the inland waterways and his desire to live afloat. He wrote this rather eloquent review for me.

“Icy winds and frosty locks had threatened otherwise, but it was the smell that made my day: the antique coal-burning stove in the boatman’s cabin that transported me (at no more than 4mph) back to my Grandma’s old kitchen range and the safe warmth of childhood. I grabbed on to that feeling as I grabbed on to the cleats atop the cabin roof with my spare hand and drank in the reassuring calmness of someone who had made all the mistakes before me and was determined that I wouldn’t repeat them.

Paul’s walk-through of the boat, from weird weed-killing shower to useless bed-design and the shiny-proud copper-piped glory of a classic Lister engine showed just how much he loves and respects his custodianship of a unique vessel.

So when his voice raises just a decibel or two, and he says ‘I think you should be making the turn about NOW’ you do it and revel in the inch-perfect lines that he has prompted.

When he tells you that it’s called a rubbing strake and he wants you to rub his beloved along the side of the lock, you do it, knowing that his investment in your success is so much greater than yours.

When he illustrates, every time he is preserving your future safety, with a self-deprecating tale of his disasters or the salutary lessons of others, you listen, because you recognise the value of hard-won experience.

I started the day a complete novice but by some miracle felt very confident that I had learnt the right amount of humility as I went slowly into the night, past the rows of slow-smoking boat chimneys lined up in anticipation of adventures to come. I’m glad I made the cut.

If you are seriously considering living afloat, I urge you to join me for a Discovery Day cruise in 2021. Now, more than ever before, our beautiful waterways offer a welcome respite from the mayhem of modern-day life. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here.

 

A Positive View Of Life On A Narrowboat

 

My last post was written from the point of view of an unhappy lady boater. I imagined what this sourpuss – she’s based on a miserable liveaboard boater I met a few years ago – would have said if she lived on Orient. In this post, I’ll tell you what I think about my floating home. Neither opinion is necessarily right but, for me, a positive outlook makes life so much more enjoyable. I hope you agree.

The negative post about life on Orient is here. Comparing the two might be of use to you.

Cost-Effective Living Space

Ah, I love my cosy home. When I lived in a house, I used to waste so much space. The more room you have, the harder you have to work to keep that space in good order. Mainstream society tells you that the bigger, the better. A big house and a fancy car are badges of honour, proof that you are successful. That’s total bollocks. All it means is that you have to work harder and harder just to stay in one place.

I love my little house on the water, and I own it free and clear. I don’t have to work hard to earn bundles of money because I don’t need to pay high bills to maintain my lifestyle. I may not have a fraction of space I coveted in my luxurious house, but I have all that I need and, more importantly, I have peace of mind.

I still can’t understand why I thought I needed such a big house. I had more space in my lounge than I have now in all of my floating home. And that lounge was used for nothing more than a snatched break between onerous home and work obligations. Three hundred square feet for a three-piece suite and television. What was the point in that?

I know where I’m better off – on the water being buffeted at night by wind and soothed by rain dancing on the steel roof an arm’s length above my bed. I enjoy untroubled nights without the energy-sapping worry of my previous work-spend-work lifestyle.

Condensation Conquest

I have to admit that potential condensation problems worried me during my early years afloat. But there’s always a solution to any problem if you focus on a positive outcome. I learned about condensation’s Holy Trinity; heating, ventilation and insulation. I discovered that I could keep damp at bay if I ventilated and heated my home correctly and made sure that everything was adequately insulated.

So, rather than close down the back of my boat to conserve heat, and shut all of the windows there in a futile attempt to prevent heat loss, I focussed on heating the stern properly. As soon as I installed a central heating system and double glazed my windows, I said goodbye to condensation.

That was on my old boat, James. I haven’t really had any condensation problems with Orient. For a start, instead of acres of cold glass, I have a dozen small portholes. My Houdini hatch was my only real problem. It neatly framed my meal preparation workspace. Cooking there with three or four rings burning produced a heavy rain which diluted my sauces and high spirits.

The solution was to fix a Perspex panel the Houdini hatch frame. I now enjoy shower free cooking and a healthier cooking environment.

Bye, bye, condensation. There’s no place for you on Orient.

Free From Transport

Apart from the Hymer motorhome I used to explore Europe I haven’t owned a vehicle since 2013. I’ve been offered two free cars during that time. I’ve politely refused both of them because the vehicles may have been free, but maintaining, taxing and insuring them wasn’t. 

For my, car ownership is an opportunity to drive to places I don’t really want to visit to buy things I don’t really need. Car ownership shackled me to unnecessary debt. I almost lost my senses recently and considered saddling myself with three years of wasteful debt for a car with a dashboard that had more computing power than my iPhone. I reasoned that I worked hard enough to justify the expense. And then I realised that the monthly fees would cost more than my boat license and mooring fees.

I don’t need a car. If I’m on my marina mooring, I can have everything I need delivered to me. Overcoming the logistics of dragging a car around with me when I’m on the move is too much like hard work, as is the stress of wondering what’s happening to it parked in a remote canal-side lay-by while I’m cruising the cut.

There have been several occasions over the last half-decade when I’ve needed a car. So I’ve rented one from a company keen to demonstrate excellent customer service by collecting me from my boat. The car hire cost was a small fraction of the outlay for a car of my own.

I don’t miss driving. I have the dubious pleasure every blue moon of pretending that I’m part of mainstream society. I take one of our company vehicles on roads congested with bad-tempered drivers engulfed in clouds of toxic fumes. The best part of my driving experience is returning to my rural haven and thanking my lucky stars that I don’t own a car.

Heating Heaven

Ah, the joy of a solid fuel stove. There’s nothing better than watching my fire’s flickering flames on a stormy night with a glass of wine in my hand. I’m seduced by nature while I listen to the wind and rain. It’s better than television and far less expensive.

Some boaters complain about the physical strain involved in stove maintenance. Poppycock! That’s what I say. Sure, coal bags are heavy, but they provide welcome exercise. Boaters are generally a fitter and healthier bunch than those living in houses with all of their utilities on tap.

And, apart from the aesthetics, there’s a practical benefit to running a solid fuel stove. Moist cabin air is drawn into the fire and expelled from the boat. My cabin humidity is usually under 50%. Condensation doesn’t have a chance!

Some boaters complain that coal is a dirty fuel, but it doesn’t have to be. I have two heavy-duty plastic storage boxes on my front deck. I empty my coal bags into these boxes rather than drag then through my boat. And I clean my boat regularly to remove the dust some people moan about.

For me, there’s no competition between a soulless central heating system and an atmospheric coal-burning stove. The stove wins every time.

Happiness is a quiet drink by a glowing stove

Happiness is a quiet drink by a glowing stove

High Maintenance Costs

I didn’t buy a boat because it offers low-cost accommodation. I decided on this way of life because I want to live close to nature. And I want to enjoy the lifestyle in comfort. I have a beautiful home, and I do all that I can to keep my boat in the very best condition. I live a comfortable life, and I don’t mind spending a few pounds to keep my floating home looking as good as it can. In that regard, I’m similar to many house proud land dwellers.

Is keeping a narrowboat expensive? Sure it is if you’re going to keep one as an extravagant toy. But if you want one as your primary home, then the cost is comparable to that of a small family house. I’m OK with that. The enormous advantage that I have as a narrowboat owner is that I can move my home to any location I choose on the network’s rivers and canals.

I’ve met many first-time narrowboat owners who look like rabbits caught in car headlights when they’re presented with yet another unexpected bill. You’re a very lucky boater if you don’t have to do any maintenance or remedial work or make alterations to your new floating home.

The boat’s battery bank often needs replacing. Tim Davis from Onboard Solar advises anyone who has purchased a second-hand boat to replace the battery bank regardless of its apparent condition. You don’t know how old the batteries are or whether the bank has been added to. The accepted wisdom is to replace ALL of your domestic bank’s batteries at the same time to prevent the oldest battery dragging the rest down when it fails.

Over the last two years, I’ve replaced my batteries, added a new charger and monitor, renewed my cratch cover, replaced my three old chimneys and engine exhaust with shiny and low maintenance stainless steel, added a 645W solar array, had an L shaped bench seating and table area constructed, replaced my front doors and back hatch and repainted my front and rear decks.

My maintenance and modification programme has cost me a small fortune, mainly because I have the DIY skills of a four-year-old girl. It’s a heavy cross I have to bear and a financial burden not suffered by those able to wield manly tools.

For me, living afloat has nothing to do with cheap housing. I live closer to nature and further away than most to the stresses and strains of modern-day life. My life is as comfortable as it is stress-free and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Discover Life Afloat

Fed up with mainstream life? Learn all about a simpler and more relaxing lifestyle on England's inland waterways. Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat

Coal Callisthenics

Our unhappy lady boater in my last post complained about many aspects of living afloat, including the effort required to manage her utilities. I prefer to think of it as welcome exercise. Life on a narrowboat is far more physically taxing than it is in a house. You have to accept and embrace that aspect of the lifestyle. Suppose you fail to manage your modest water supply when you’re out on the cut. In that case, you might have to endure an evening without the wet stuff and then face several hours cruising before you can fill your tank. If your stove or central heating system runs out of fuel, you’re likely to get very cold before you can obtain some more. You need to be organised.

Checking coal, gas, kindling, firelighters, water and sewage levels is second nature these days. And hauling coal bags and gas cylinders weighing half a petite woman on and off my floating house keeps me fit. As does walking to the nearest supermarket when I’m out on the cut to collect my groceries.

Single-handed boating is fantastic exercise too. I stood at the helm for 1,000 hours in 2015 and negotiated 946 locks. I finished the year as fit as a fiddle and as well-conditioned as I would have been working on my demanding daily grounds maintenance tasks back at Calcutt Boats.

Living afloat and cruising regularly is a very satisfying way of keeping fit.

Perfect Privacy

I try to see the positive side of every challenge. Take Orient’s windows, for example.

I have small portholes which are much smaller than conventional boat windows. And I’m delighted with them. I can’t see out of them very well, but people can’t see in either. Portholes are ideal if you value your privacy and want to keep prying eyes away from your valuable trinkets. The other advantage is that a smaller glass surface means less condensation. I had picture windows in my last boat. I was forever mopping up rivers of condensation from the bottom of the window frames. I don’t have nearly so much of a problem with my little circular glass windows.

Having portholes which don’t open frustrates me sometimes. Still, one significant advantage is that I don’t need to suffer the gale which blew through the gaps in my last narrowboat’s top hoppers. I may not be able to ventilate my boat as much as I want, but the flip side of the coin is that I don’t have unwanted and heat sapping ventilation on windy winter days.

Cosy Bedrooms

I didn’t like Orient’s main bedroom when I first moved on board. The room has a cross bed. In case you’re not familiar with the term, a cross bed is at right angles to the length of the boat. Because a narrowboat is, well, narrow, the maximum cross bed length is six feet. To facilitate a passageway through the bedroom during the day, the bottom two feet of the bed base is hinged. As the original mattress was heavily sprung, I needed a team of bodybuilders to help bend the mattress before locking it upright. I was so exhausted by that little exercise each morning I was ready for bed again.

The solution was to invest in a bespoke two-piece mattress. Switching the bedroom to its daytime configuration now takes a few seconds of gentle exercise.

Orient's cross bed stowed for the day

Orient’s cross bed stowed for the day

My boatman’s cabin has an even smaller cross bed. I can just about lie on my back if I wedge my feet and head into opposite corners. Despite the limited space, I love sleeping there during the warmer months.

I can have as much fresh air as I want in my stern bedroom. On a sultry summer’s night, I slide back my hatch, fold my rear doors open and drift off with a view of the stars or the overhanging branches of canal-side trees. It’s a magical experience for me, but some boaters worry about me.

I was moored at a popular spot on a scorching day earlier this year. The location was far from the nearest road, or any housing and the only people around were the boaters moored either side of me. A safe spot, I thought, to slip off to the land of nod and dream sweet dreams of gentle cruising and friendly canal-side banter over glasses of velvety reds. A lady on a boat behind me didn’t sleep quite so well.

She pounced on me as soon as I stepped off Orient. “Thank GOD you’re safe,” she shrieked, wringing her hands in concern. “Fred and I were worried that something had happened to you. Weren’t we Fred? Fred, Fred, are you listening? Tell this man we’re worried about him!” Fred carried on polishing his mushrooms, maintaining his distance and his dignity.

I asked her why she was worried. She pointed cautiously at my open rear hatch as though it was going to bite her. “You left the back of your boat open. Anyone could have walked in when you were asleep. Weren’t you worried about being attacked?” She hopped from one foot to the other like a cat on a hot tin roof and continued her hand ringing. I didn’t know who or what she thought was going to attack me; an inquisitive cygnet, a thieving magpie or maybe a frisky rabbit?

The highly-strung lady quizzed me at length about my sleeping habits and advised me to batten down my hatches every night. She wore me down a lot and frightened me a little. 

I saw stars and trees, she saw assailants and thieves. I can feel the beginning of a poem coming on!

Anyway, I survived to tell the tale and, despite her misgivings, I’ll continue with my dangerous sleeping habits in rural Warwickshire.

a cosy bed with a view of the stars

a cosy bed with a view of the stars

The Joy Of A Midships Engine Room

I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly fond of Orient’s exposed engine when I first viewed my new home. Like many, I worried about the wasted space, exhaust smoke in my cabin and the close proximity to many thrashing parts. What I didn’t understand at the time was the love a man can feel for an inanimate object.

And it is love. I adore my Lister JP2M. If you’ve been out with me for a day or seen one of these vintage gems in action, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Even polishing the Lister’s many brass and copper components brings me joy. But that’s nothing compared to the pleasure I get from cruising the cut listening to the engine’s mesmerising beat. Orient turns the heads of many middle-aged men as I travel. That’s not necessarily what I want, but I’ll take any attention I can get at this stage of my life.

On a practical note, my Lister is exceptionally fuel-efficient. Rather than the 1.0 – 1.5 litres per hour used by most modern engines, my old girl uses 0.7 litres. Easy on the eye, easy on the ear and cheap to maintain. What more can I ask of the lady in my life?

Happiness is a man polishing his pistons

Happiness is a man polishing his pistons

Lulled To Sleep By Natural Sounds

I’m not a city person. The urban clamour of people and traffic distresses me. On the rare occasion when I dip into mainstream society these days, I can’t wait to return to the peace and tranquillity of my floating home and the natural sounds which surround it.

As I snuggle under the duvet on my cosy bed, thin steel sheets are all that separate me from the water and wildlife around me. I am at my happiest when storms rage outside. I listen to waves lapping gently against my hull, wind howling and rain bouncing off my roof. I’m warm and dry inside my steel cave. The feeling is worth more to me than an imposing house, a flashy car or an overflowing bank account. It’s a simple pleasure, and it’s free.

The Advantages Of Careful Water Management

I don’t have hot water on my boat. I don’t want it. Here’s why.

Orient has a 750-litre potable water tank, which is about average for a largish narrowboat. Many boat owners with a similar-sized tank will refill it at least once a week. By not having hot water on board and carefully managing what I use I can make my supply last for two months.

Many narrowboats have three different ways of heating water; as a by-product of running the engine, via a central heating system or by using an immersion heater. I can either use an immersion heater or a Kabola diesel boiler to supply me with hot water. I can’t use my engine because it runs so slowly it doesn’t get hot.

Still, I have two hot water solutions but use neither. I don’t like wasting water by running cold water down my sink to get at the hot stuff. I don’t like paying marina electricity prices to use the immersion heater, and I don’t want to waste diesel using the Kabola boiler to supply a few litres of hot water a day.

I boil a couple of kettles of water for my once a day dishwashing session and I heat a single kettle for my shower. Rather than waste 60+ litres for a conventional hosing down, my Hozelock Porta Shower does an excellent job with just four litres. And I’ll tell you a secret which I don’t want you to share with anyone else. I don’t shower every day.

I use scented body wipes for my dirty days. I’m clean enough to keep the flies at bay, so I’m happy, happier still that my cruising and mooring isn’t dictated by water resupply problems.

There you go, my last negative post balanced by positivity today. And I remain eternally optimistic about my lifestyle. I can’t see myself ever living in a house again. I would have to get a proper job to earn money to maintain it. I like to think that my current life is similar to that of the proverbial Mexican fisherman.

The sun sets on paradise

The sun sets on paradise

Discovery Day Update

Our government isn’t making earning a living particularly easy at the moment, but they have allowed me to see a glimmer of light at the end of this dark and worrying tunnel.

Because my Discovery Day cruises include both training and education I am allowed to trade, despite Warwickshire being in tier 3. And, as people are allowed to stay away from home for the night for training and education, Wigrams B & B will remain open for my Discovery Day guests.

That’s good news if you already have a date booked with me in December. If you haven’t booked yet and want to experience a thoroughly enjoyable, educational and instructional day out on the cut, you’d better get your skates on. There’s just one date remaining in December before I begin my two-month winter cruise. 

Lots of aspiring narrowboat owners have sensibly planned in advance so there are only four dates left in March. Click here to learn more about my Discovery Day service and here if you want to see and book available dates.

Anni Morgan enjoying a day at the helm

Anni Morgan enjoying a day at the helm

 
“Thanks for a great day out yesterday… it was lovely to spend it not crashing your boat, and enjoying a nice stretch of very pretty canal. Your Discovery Days are the perfect opportunity for the likes of me to experience a bit of boat life.  And you are the perfect person to offer advice and direction, due to your years of experience afloat, and you made the day very entertaining with nice chit chat and stories of boating chaos.” Anni Morgan November 2020
2

A negative View Of Life On A Narrowboat

 

I’ve met thousands of current and aspiring boat owners over the last ten years. The people, like the boats they own, come in all shapes and sizes. They have varying outlooks on life in general and living on the inland waterways in particular. Some are content with very little. Others have all the bells and whistles of a home on dry land but are far removed from contentment or happiness… like this lady I met a few years ago.

An unhappy customer phoned Calcutt to complain about the Hurricane heater the company had recently installed in the engine bay of her cruiser stern boat. ‘Your diesel heater is rubbish,’ she lamented. ‘I wish I had chosen something better. Still, I’m stuck with it now, so I want you to come as soon as possible to get it working!’

Our heating engineer was unable to drive, so I offered to chauffeur him for the day. We arrived at Braunston marina on a beautiful November morning. The bright sun chased away the earning morning chill and highlighted the vivid oranges, reds and browns of the tumbling autumn leaves. It was, I thought, a glorious day to be alive.

Not everyone agreed.

I had the dubious pleasure of chatting to the lady owner while our engineer squirmed through the engine bay clutter towards the misbehaving Hurricane heater.

‘What a stunning day,’ I enthused, gesturing at the falling leaves. ‘Stunning?’ she fumed. ‘What’s stunning about that lot landing on my roof? I’ll have to spend the rest of the day on my knees sweeping them all off, and that’s no easy task at my age!’ The unhappy lady was in her late forties and more than capable of ten minutes light brushing, providing someone could help hoist her onto her roof.

I thought I would try a different approach.

‘Did you enjoy your summer?’ I asked, hopefully. ‘No, I didn’t!’, she fumed. ‘How boaters stay cool living inside a sardine tin is beyond me. I couldn’t sleep at night with all the doors closed. I suffered from heat exhaustion for months!’

I knew what she meant, but there was an easy solution. If she left her front and back doors open at night, the through breeze would provide some welcome relief on hot nights. I shared my wisdom with her.

‘Are you mad?’ she raged. ‘Do you want me to be robbed while I sleep, or maybe attacked by a sex-starved dog walker?’ I suspected that the amorous dog walker would need to be a braver man than me, but I sensibly kept that thought to myself.

I tried again. ‘Why don’t you moor under trees then? There’s plenty of oak, ash and willow to shade you from the sun. ‘Don’t be daft!’ she sneered. Do you think I want to spend all day cleaning bird shit off my roof? That’s even more of a pain to clean than the leaves!’ She swatted a falling oak leaf out of her path and waddled to the back of her boat to harangue our poor engineer.

She seemed disappointed when she discovered that he has ‘fixed’ her heater. A mop handle she had jammed into a small space beside the Hurricane had flicked a toggle switch to the off position. The engineer began to helpfully point our the danger of cramming so much rubbish around working machinery. I left before the storm hit.

Some people see a world filled with opportunity while others only consider the problems they face. Much I as I love the lifestyle I have to agree that living afloat on England’s inland waterways isn’t always gin and tonics on shady towpaths without a care in the world. Boaters face challenges like people in all other walks of life. How they deal with them determines whether they enjoy life afloat. The unhappy lady boater I spoke to was very much in the glass-half-empty camp.

I thought about the horrible hurricane hag a few weeks ago when I had an issue with Orient. I considered what she would think about my boat and the way I live. Orient isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but this old girl is the love of my life. Even though she’s sometimes difficult, she responds well to regular tender loving care. I’m infatuated by her and hope that our short relationship lasts for the rest of my days.

On the flip side of the coin, I suspect that our angry and reluctant lady boat owner would have this to say about my pride and joy. I think that she would have said something like this.

Confined Space

I live in a shoebox. There’s not enough room to swing a cat. Not that I have a cat or any other pets for that matter. Actually, I don’t like cats or dogs. They make far too much mess, need too much attention and a ridiculous amount of attention.

Even if I wanted animals, there just isn’t enough room for them or anything else in this tiny living space. Before I bought this horrible boat, I was told that sixty-two feet would give me more than enough space. Who were they kidding? There’s less living space in this whole boat than I used to have in just one room in my old house. Oh, how I wish I was back there now, with different neighbours, of course. I couldn’t stand any of them.

There’s no room on board to keep any of my possessions either. None of my furniture fitted the boat, so I had to throw it all out. I can’t keep a fraction of the things I used to have. There’s no room for my party dresses, shoes or handbags. In fact, because my electrics won’t allow me to use an iron, I can’t wear anything remotely smart these days.

Because of that, I don’t go to fancy clubs, restaurants or bars any more. I don’t go to weddings or upscale birthday parties either. In fact, I don’t actually go anywhere at all. I stay on my own in my little metal tube and remember when my life was a little more bearable.

Space wasting captain's chairs in Orient's saloon

Space wasting captain’s chairs in Orient’s saloon

Condensation Issues

Life was so much more comfortable in my centrally heated and double glazed house. I didn’t have rivers of condensation running down my windows and rotting my window frames there. Life was so much easier. If I want to cure my condensation problems these days, I have to make sure that my tiny home is heated and ventilated all the time. I pay a fortune for coal for my stove and then need to ventilate the boat to let all the moisture and the heat out.

People tell me that open-plan boats are easier to heat and control condensation. I wish I knew that before I bought Orient. There are four bulkheads in the boat. Four of them! The heat from my Squirrel stove struggles to get past my little galley. That leaves half of my home unheated. OK. I have a Kabola diesel boiler in the middle of the boat and another stove in the cabin at the back, but maintaining one stove is hard enough. I’m certainly not going to spend my days running between three of them.

This lifestyle is madness!

Discover Life Afloat

Fed up with mainstream life? Learn all about a simpler and more relaxing lifestyle on England's inland waterways. Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat

Transport Problems

Live the dream, they said. Make the most of your narrowboat lifestyle by travelling continuously around the inland waterways network. That’s all well and good, but the reality isn’t quite so attractive. Keeping my car nearby as I cruised was a nightmare. Walking back to my vehicle from a new mooring was out of the question and riding a bike along England’s muddy towpath was asking for trouble.

I sold my car, so I don’t have any transport these days. I sometimes have to trudge miles with bags of heavy shopping. My weekly shopping trips can sometimes take most of the day.

How’s that for a relaxing lifestyle?

Heating Issues

Heating my home is exhausting. My fuel is packaged in 25kg bags, that’s 55lb in old money – about twenty-eight bags of sugar. I’m going to put my back out one of these days hauling my cumbersome fuel bags on and off my boat. And the coal makes such a mess. Most of the bags have holes in them. After they’ve released a stream of black slurry onto my hardwood floor, I have to spend valuable time cleaning up the mess.

I should have found a boat with a better heating system. Oh, how I miss the ease of a centrally heated house!

High Maintenace Costs

I can’t count the number of pound notes I’ve thrown at this old crate. Everywhere I look, there are things which need replacing or repairing. Where will it all end?

I’ve had to replace rotting chimneys, pain the roof, paint the front and back decks, renew my failed battery bank, fit new doors, a new hatch and a new bench seat and table to replace my space-wasting captain’s chairs. The list goes on and on. Every time I manage to put a few bob in the bank, I have to take it out again to throw at my old boat. It drives me mad!

I was told that living afloat was a cheap lifestyle. That’s what I wanted. I struggled to maintain my old house on my paltry pension. Now I have to fork out a similar amount for my boat and have to endure the additional hardship which goes with it.

Utility Exhaustion

Don’t get me started on utilities. Everything’s hard work. I have to carry ridiculously heavy bags of coal from the boatyard to my boat, hump it over the side and then find somewhere to store it. Gas is just as unwieldy and cumbersome. And with that, I have to balance on a slippery steel bow trying to lower a ridiculously heavy bottle of gas into a tiny space. The hard work is going to kill me.

And then there’s my shit to deal with. Not my miserable life, but my actual shit. I have to carry it around with me like a pet lap dog (only it weighs much more than a dog. I must watch my diet)

Not only is my waste a risk to my physical wellbeing, but it’s also a risk to my mental health. Can you imagine mentally topping up the number of wees and poos you have and deciding when you have to take their combined mass for a walk? And that the place you have to take them to is somewhere that no one in their right mind would want to go? Do you know how many middle-aged men live on the cut who don’t know the first thing about personal hygiene? Did you know that the average male liveaboard boater only uses his cassette toilet for solids? So, when the cassette is full to overflowing, he as to do the shake of shame and splatter the walls of the filthy Elsan point outhouses with excrement.

I’m surprised that the physical and mental strain of this demanding and unpleasant lifestyle hasn’t finished me off. I don’t think I can take much more.

Changing a gas bottle is exhausting

Changing a gas bottle is exhausting

A Restricted View

I moor close to houses sometimes hoping to feel a connection with life on dry land. I like to look out of my portholes and try to remember when I was warm and comfortable.

Not that I can see out of my windows. Why on Earth the builder fitted twelve-inch portholes instead of standard rectangular windows is beyond me. I’ve been told that all Steve Hudson boats have portholes. Well, if you ask me, if he fitted proper windows in his craft, he would have sold a lot more of them. And why place them so high up on the cabin wall?

OK. I know that the boat draught has something to do with it, but what’s the point in having windows that owners can’t see out of? And why fit windows which don’t open? Fixed glazing just adds to my condensation issues. I don’t understand the design at all.

There's no chance to see the view through my portholes

There’s no chance to see the view through my portholes

Claustrophobic Bedrooms

I have two bedrooms on my boat. Neither of them is fit to call a bedroom at all. The main bed has a minute six feet by four feet mattress jammed across the width of the boat. I’m not a particularly big woman, but I can’t lay straight when I sleep. There’s no chance of any romance in my life when only one person can sleep on the bed diagonally.

Not only is the main bedroom claustrophobic, but it’s stuffy too. Because I’m a curvy girl, I tend to overheat at night. A small bedroom with tiny windows which don’t open is the last thing I want.

And I have to make up my bed every morning too. I need to make a Herculean effort to try to fold the mattress upwards so that I can lock the lower part of the bed base upright. Sometimes I just don’t have the strength, so I leave my bed down. The problem then is that I can’t get from the central part of the boat to my engine room or boatman’s cabin. I have to climb over my bed like a monkey to squeeze through the open stable door into my engine room.

I’ve been told that I could make my life easier by replacing my mattress with a bespoke two-piece version. But the quote I had made me cry. Eleven hundred pounds! If they think I’m paying that much, they’re sadly mistaken. I guess I have to resign myself to a painful life of narrowboat mountaineering.

Cross beds are only suitable for small people

Cross beds are only suitable for small people

Wasted Engineroom Space

I wasn’t keen on buying a boat with a midships engine room. Still, everything else was almost acceptable, so I bit the bullet and purchased Orient anyway.

What a mistake!

There’s little enough living space on a narrowboat without having to sacrifice a good chunk of it to house an ancient engine. Not only is it as old as Noah, but it’s as weak as a kitten and twice the work. Most boats of this length have a 42hp engine in them. What am I lumbered with? Just 21hp. This old tub couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding. I don’t know why all narrowboats aren’t fitted with modern engines.

The old Lister limits my canal network range too. I can’t cruise on rivers with a strong current, or tidal flow and rivers are often links to canals which I would like to visit. Buying a boat with a vintage engine was a real mistake because it’s hopelessly underpowered and smokes like a Victorian mill owner’s chimney.

What possessed me to buy a boat with an exhaust on the roof which throws out a massive amount of smoke at head level? Cruising into a headwind is a nightmare. I am shrouded in thick choking smoke. I feel nauseous after the shortest of journeys.

I really need to get rid of this engine and gets something modern instead one which doesn’t have such impossibly complicated controls.

Did you know that to handle a boat with an antiquated speed wheel and gear selection rod you need three arms? What’s the point in building a craft which can only be steered by people from Norfolk?

Orient is a nightmare to handle. Because of the boat’s deep draught, old controls and woefully inadequate engine, cruising anywhere is an accident waiting to happen. So I don’t go out very often and, when I do, I keep my trips as short as possible.

Seven feet of valuable cabin space taken by the engine room

Seven feet of valuable cabin space taken by the engine room

Unpleasant Noise

I don’t sleep very well these days. It’s all because of this cursed boat. I’ve told you about the problems I have with the main bedroom. In a futile search for a good night’s sleep, I sometimes resort to my boatman’s cabin bed and the smallest sleeping space on Orient. I have to jam myself so hard into the cabin corner. I’m surprised that I don’t have a pointed head. Mind you, there no chance of getting a decent night’s sleep even if I had enough space to stretch out.

Life afloat is a boisterous affair. When the wind blows hard – which seems to be most of the time since I made the mistake of moving afloat – my nights are troubled by the howling wind and the constant and annoying slap of waves against my metal bottom. At least the wind, waves and rain drown out the racket made by the ducks, geese and swans. It’s no wonder that I wake with a headache most of the time!

Click on the file below and you’ll hear the racket I had to endure when storm Dennis hit Orient.

Water Heating Issues

After a cramped night in a hot bedroom, I’m unpleasantly sticky when wake. I would like to be able to freshen up by taking a long shower. But I live afloat so luxurious showers are out of the question. In fact, showering at all is difficult.

That’s another problem with my stinking old engine. Modern engines generate enough heat to provide plenty of hot water, but this old Lister. It produces more smoke than heat. The only way I have of heating water is to light my Kabola diesel boiler. However, the lighting process is a long-winded and dirty affair, so I avoid it at all costs. I could heat my water by plugging into a marina supply, but then I would need to find the money to stay for a night or two. The reality is that I’m forced to boil a kettle if I want a shower. I have to mix the boiling water with cold in a little chemical sprayer, haul it into the shower cubicle and hope that I can wash before I exhaust my five-litre limit.

I have to boil a kettle for dishwashing too. I’m not living the comfortable lifestyle I hoped when I emptied my bank account into this boat.

My life afloat is one of unpleasant extremes. I have to work very hard to achieve everything I took for granted when I lived in my house. Some boaters seem to enjoy this strange lifestyle. They tell me that I should have done some research before moving afloat. I couldn’t be bothered. All I wanted was somewhere cheap to live. It seemed apparent to me that living in a little boat was going to cost less than maintaining a house. How was I expected to know all about licenses, mooring fees and maintenance? Life is so unfair.

I guess I’m stuck with this boat now. I can’t afford to get on the housing ladder. I wish I could turn back time and move back into my house. Maybe not that particular house, and definitely not the same neighbours. A different location would help too. Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps I wasn’t that happy in my old life. But anything is better than this!

Life on board Orient doesn’t sound particularly appealing from this lady’s point of view. Would you want to invest tens of thousands of pounds into a narrowboat after reading her account?

Probably not.

I’ll publish another post next week, this time written from my point of view. I’m halfway through my eleventh year afloat now and still loving the lifestyle, so I can promise you a much more optimistic opinion.

Discovery Day Update

I can’t really complain about my circumstances during Lockdown 2.0. I’m faring better than most. I have a cosy home with a beautiful view and, more importantly, I’m far, far away from mainstream society and any real risk of contracting Covid-19. Still, I had a full Discovery Day diary for November. I’ve refunded those who wanted their money back (I stand by my unconditional guarantee) and rescheduled most of the other aspiring narrowboat owners.

In addition to the rescheduled bookings, a surge of interest from customers interested in living on England’s inland waterways has quickly filled my diary. I have just one date remaining in December before I take a two-month break.

I’ll be cruising the inland waterways throughout January and February rather than working at the marina during the week and hosting Discovery Day cruises each weekend. My diary’s open again from March 2021 but the free dates are going quickly. 

If you are thinking about living afloat and want to join me for a day of helmsman training and a warts-and-all view of life on a narrowboat, please secure your day as soon as you can. I can promise you a fascinating, eventful and thoroughly enjoyable day out. 

You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here and see and book available dates here.

 

Common Narrowboat Newbie Mistakes And How To Avoid Them Part 2

 

The seasons are changing. We’ve swapped comfortable chairs under shady canal-side willows to even more comfortable seats in front of glowing coals. Aspiring narrowboat owners often ask me to name my favourite season. I wish they wouldn’t. I don’t have a clue.

I adore quiet winter canals with their stark landscapes and plentiful moorings. I enjoy the riot of colour from springtime hedgerows and the marinas’ slow awakening after their deep winter sleep. I love a summer waterway bursting with life, the sounds of happy chatter, the quacking of squabbling geese and the screech of steel on steel of narrowboats grinding along metal-clad banks. And I’m in awe of Mother Nature when she shows us her autumn coat. I would like a little less rain, but I guess I have to take the rough with the smooth.

I’ve moved a little further forward with my home’s refurbishment. In addition to stainless steel chimneys and fairleads, I now have stainless steel roof vents too. They’re quite expensive, but they’ll allow me to keep my roof looking its best with minimal effort. 

Orient's roof is looking better

Orient’s roof is looking better

I’ve had the front roof section painted too. The back section looks pretty good in the photo as well, but that’s because it’s been battered by torrential rain for the last twenty-four hours. The next big decision for me to make is whether to add a solar array.

Form over function, pretty or practical. That’s the question. I’ll be out cruising for two months this winter. Do I spoil Orient’s sexy lines to make electricity generation a little easier, or keep the roof as it is and resign myself to prolonged engine running sessions on otherwise tranquil moorings?

Jason adds the last few drops of Craftmaster Raddle Grey

Jason adds the last few drops of Craftmaster Raddle Grey

While I’m deciding what to do, I need to take my engine into consideration. If I moor close to other boaters, I’m likely to get complaints. My Lister JP2 is eighty-four years old and a little smokey. 

I’ve asked Braunston based Tony Redshaw Vintage Diesels to see what they can do. Paul Redshaw plans to visit me in November to change the injectors. If that doesn’t work, I’ll need to take Orient to his Braunston workshop for a decoke.

I’m enjoying a rare day off today. Today’s Discovery Day guest lives in Iraq. The country’s been locked down again, so he had to cancel. So I’ve sat in my cosy cabin throwing an occasional handful of coal briquettes on my fire and composed this post for you.

This is the second and concluding part about common narrowboat newbie mistakes. I’ve gained a little more material over the last fortnight as novice boaters have thrown themselves into the three locks on the Calcutt flight like lemmings over a cliff.

I hope that recounting their tales of woe will help you avoid making the same mistakes. But if you do, please let me know. I’m always looking for new stuff to write about.

Fending off with body parts, boat hooks or poles

Don’t use yourself as a human fender. It’s a painful and dangerous way to protect your paintwork. 

I see novice boaters doing this regularly during the hectic summer months. I’ve seen little old ladies with arms like sticks trying to push tonnes of steel away from slippery lock walls. I’ve watched indestructible teenagers thrusting feet from rain-slicked bows towards low bridge arches and novice boaters holding boat hooks like lances to fend off approaching boats.

Narrowboats are built like tanks, they have reinforced steel stems, protective rubbing strakes along either side and heavy-duty bow and stern fenders. And, if all else fails, there are teams of fitters and welders available at many boatyards with many years of boat repair experience between them. A damaged narrowboat is much easier to repair than a broken boater. Unfortunately, boaters break with alarming regularity. 

Prevention is better than cure. Invest in some kind of training before you set sail. And, if all else fails, don’t use your body as a flesh and bone buffer.

The Folly Of Adhering To A Rigid Timetable

The anxious diner in the section above caused unnecessary stress for herself and other boaters by trying to stick to a deadline. Timetables, deadlines and inland waterways cruising don’t work well together.

We’ve had many holiday hirers hell-bent on achieving goals. A few have asked me for advice. “We’ll leave here at 4 pm, reach there at 6 pm, moor for the night, set off at first light, reach this lock flight by 8 am and finish it in time for a late breakfast. Then we’ll…” I stop them there and suggest that, if they want a relaxing canal break, they set loose objectives and not treat their break like a military expedition.

Unexpected delays are part of the boating experience. You can be delayed by a fouled propeller, fallen trees, lock queues and damage, grounding on shallow canals and a host of other hindrances for which you can’t plan.

 Crew Communication

The helmsman peers into the far distance at the tiny figure of his wife standing on the boat’s bow. She offers him advice in a conversational tone which he is unable to hear above the engine’s roar beneath his feet. She repeats her instruction half a dozen times, but her bewildered husband can’t understand a word she says. The lady has a bright idea. She waves her arms like a broken windmill and shouts a little louder. The novice helmsman, still clueless, shakes his head, pushes his Morse control firmly forward and slams his hire boat into the protruding base of an old stone bridge. 

This is a less than perfect start to a week’s gentle cruising on England’s tranquil canals.

I’ve witnessed many accidents and potential tragedies caused by ineffective communication and poor teamwork. England’s muddy ditches are wolves in sheep’s clothing and danger lurks around every blind bend, narrow bridge hole and pretty lock. 

And inside narrowboats’ cosy cabin too.

One of the joys of inland waterways cruising is to stand in your galley watching the world float serenely by as you make a hot drink, snack or evening meal. Unfortunately, many novice hirers are blissfully unaware of the risk they face carrying scalding liquid and sharp knives inside a twenty-tonne steel tube being guided around hairpin bends by inexperienced helmsmen.

Do you know how often I see hire boats crash into other craft or concrete banks? At least once on every single Discovery Day cruise throughout a typical summer. And with the pandemic raging and more people holidaying in England, this year has been crazy busy on the waterways.

You must agree on an effective system of communication with your crew at all times. Back in the happy days when I shared my living space, I used a pair of Motorola two way radios. Despite their relatively high cost, the radios were worth every penny.

Helmsman Training & Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat on a 12-mile, 6-lock cruise through stunning Warwickshire countryside and learn all you need to know about the live aboard lifestyle

Hard knocks are inevitable for even the most seasoned crews. Cynthia spent much of her time inside during her final months, often in the galley preparing lunch or our evening meal. She kept a radio within reach at all times. I was able to give her enough warning of an impending bump. I am convinced that these warnings prevented many accidents.

Crew communication is equally essential when stopping and starting a cruise and, most importantly, when negotiating locks.

Waiting at Calcutt Top lock

Waiting at Calcutt Top lock

In the last two weeks alone three people have fallen from their boats in the Calcutt flight, two of them in two different locks at the same time. Better communication would have saved two of them from an impromptu dip and one from a concussion and a hospital visit.

The first, a fortnight ago, fell into the lock ahead of me on one of my Discovery Day cruises. I heard a scream, made sure that my boat was safe as it dropped down Calcutt Middle lock and sprinted as fast as my wobbly old legs would carry me along the towpath to the bottom lock.

Boats jockey for position on the Calcutt flight

Boats jockey for position on the Calcutt flight

A half-submerged man hung on a slippery chain in the empty lock. A dog walker – I don’t think he had any boating experience – had already climbed down the lock ladder onto the man’s deserted cruiser stern and was about to thrust the Morse control forward to try to move the stern closer to the drowning man. 

Madness! 

You DO NOT want a thrashing propeller anywhere near anyone in the water. Anyway, I shut the engine down, threw a life ring close enough for the frightened man to reach and dragged the man and his ring to the boat.

I checked to make sure that the elderly boater had injured nothing more than his pride and then ran back to my boat and straight into an argument. The crews of two narrowboats which had come out of the Calcutt Top lock stood by my stern. One, a bad-tempered lady who reminded me of an elderly bulldog chewing wasps, scolded me for hogging the lock she wanted to use. I explained the situation. Do you know what she said? “Why didn’t you take your boat out of the lock before you ran off?” Jesus Christ, woman. I could only assume that she’d recently finished a light lunch of ground glass and hemlock.

Then, last weekend, we had the Calcutt synchronised lock diving team out in force. One guy, out for a test drive with the owner of a boat he hoped to buy, fell off the lock escape ladder into the water. As our wharf staff fished him out, they heard a scream from the top lock.

“Don’t sit or stand within the tiller arc,” narrowboat hirers are told before they begin their cruise. Cruiser stern hire boats often have gas lockers with arse sized lids either side of the tiller, seats are often too much of a temptation. A lady in the top lock on one of two hire boats descending the flight succumbed. The boat in the lock with them surged out of the empty lock. The wash pushed the boat backwards. The rudder was forced against the exposed cill and folded to one side. So did the tiller. The lady was forced back off her seat, over the rail, off the boat and onto the concrete cill.

The poor woman hit the concrete head first. Her husband jumped overboard to save his wife and left his elderly and stone deaf father in charge of the boat. Our wharf staff reached the lock just as the father was trying to reverse the hire boat towards the stranded couple. Shouting instructions at him didn’t work, so one of them climbed down into the lock, over the hire boat roof and onto its back deck. The father, oblivious to all of the attempted communication with him, nearly had a heart attack when thirteen stones of Calcutt employee and his steel capped boots bounced onto the back deck and took control of the boat.

All of these stories have happy endings. The non-swimming solo boater purchased a life vest, the test driver bought his boat and the hard-headed hirer survived her painful introduction to a lock cill. 

Not all narrowboat accidents end so well.

Locks offer the greatest navigational challenge and more chance of an accident than cruising placid canals. Clear communication and attention to detail are critical to a successful lock flight passage.

Ascend Locks Carefully

When your boat is in an ascending lock, fill the chamber carefully. If you open the lock paddles too quickly, the resulting surge will smash your boat into the lock walls. At best, you’ll rattle your craft enough to knock things over in the cabin. However, an unexpected current in a lock can prove fatal.

Through a combination of inexperience, poor communication and lost concentration, a novice lady hirer lost her life in a South Oxford lock a few years ago. The sudden surge of water from a quickly raised paddle initially pushed her boat towards the downstream gate. It then hurtled towards the upstream gate like an arrow from a bow. She panicked, reacted too slowly and as her craft bounced off the upstream gate she slammed the boat into reverse. The hire boat shot backwards at full speed into the downstream gate again. As the stern bounced off the gate, the lady was catapulted over the back of the boat into the water. The craft, still hard in reverse shot backwards again and pinned her under the boat and its thrashing propeller. 

This tale is as rare as it is tragic. But please learn from it. Do not let water into the lock quickly and don’t let others control your lock.

Young male holiday hirers like to compete. They make me nervous. If I ever see a pair of strapping young lads marching along the towpath towards me, I watch them like a hawk. If YOUR boat is in a lock, YOU control the water flow. It’s your lock to manage. Many boaters will offer to help at busy locks. Accept their assistance by all means, but only on your terms.

Safe lock negotiation is all about communication, with your crew, the crew of the boat in the lock with you, and the crews of other boats waiting nearby. You’re in control so watch everyone like a hawk. The etiquette is that boaters who want to help you should look to you for advice. If they’re experienced, they will know the importance of a carefully managed water flow. If they are inexperienced or in a hurry, their ‘help’ may not be in your best interest. Don’t be bullied into doing things their way.

A domineering lady boater built like a brick outhouse tried to intimidate my novice crew last weekend. Following my suggestion, one had half-raised an upstream paddle as we ascended Calcutt Top lock. “You don’t need to do that,” she assured him as she swung her windlass in circles impatiently. “Raise it all the way. You’ll be fine.”

I stopped him before he followed her instruction. She glared at me and complained that I was wasting her time. She was late for her dinner appointment at a nearby pub. I was going to make her late.

That wasn’t my concern. My boat is my home. It’s a beautiful home which doesn’t deserve to be abused in a lock so that an impatient boater can shave a couple of minutes off her journey. Anyway, the chamber was full by the time she stumbled off her soapbox. Cruising the inland waterways is not a race. Don’t let others force you into going faster than you want.

One End Up, One End Down

A common mistake made by novice boaters is to try to negotiate a lock with the paddles raised at both ends. The lock then becomes a fast-flowing link for canal water from one pound to another—much to the dismay of Calcutt’s band of excitable engineers in days gone by.

Calcutt Boats’ wharf, office and engineering workshops are close to the offside between Calcutt Top sand Middle lock. Our first indication of paddle positioning problems used to be screams of anguish from our engineering workshop. The water gushing through the top lock would spill over the banks of the small pound and race tsunami style down a steep slope towards our diesel dowsed engineers.

The pound floods just as much these days but since the company installed a raised concrete lip along our wharf edge, the towpath floods now instead of our workshops.

Paddles behind a boat should always be closed. Always. Check to make sure before you open the paddles in front of your craft. And always use the correct paddle and gate opening process.

There’s usually a leak or two in a lock gate, sometimes enough of a leak to seal a gate again after you think it’s ready to open. Always open a paddle and leave it open until you’ve opened the gate. Once a gate is open, you can drop the paddle. Remember; paddle, gate, paddle. Always in that order.

Man Overboard

Do not, under any circumstances, reverse a boat close to anyone in the water. Flesh and bone is no match for a rapidly spinning bronze propeller. Don’t throw a life ring at your wet crew mate either. If you hit them with the hard and heavy ring you’re likely to do more harm than good. Throw a ring or a rope near and not at them. If they’ve fallen into a canal rather than a lock, they can probably stand up. Ask them to try.

Carrying an escape ladder on board is a good idea. However, you need someone on board to deploy the ladder for you. Roof-mounted escape ladders are pointless for solo boaters. Narrowboats are notoriously difficult to climb onto from the water. Consider a rope ladder which can be deployed from the water or steps cut into your rudder if you cruise on your own.

Summary

England’s inland waterways network offers a fascinating choice for increasingly popular staycations or an idyllic ‘back garden’ for nature lovers who want and can commit to living afloat. However, thorough preparation is essential for both your safety and your happiness. Treat the waterways and the boats which use them with respect and you can join our happy band of waterways wanderers. Social distancing is easier to do than not, but there’s plenty of company for those who want it.

Despite being half way through my eleventh year afloat I still sometimes make silly mistakes. First time hirers and buyers are really up against it. If you’re considering booking a holiday narrowboat or buying one for recreational cruising or as a full time home make sure that you get some professional tuition first. Ask a seasoned boater to take you out, take an RYA hemslan course or, better still, join me for a Discovery Day cruise.

Discovery Day Update

The madness is almost over for another year. After the busiest couple of months I’ve experienced on the inland waterways over the last decade, more and more narrowboats have returned to their leisure moorings.

The seasons have changed. The summer’s relentless heat has been replaced by wind, rain and a dazzling display of autumn foliage. Every season has its own beauty. This time of the year is more about appreciating a cosy cabin than lazing under a hot sun. My Squirrel coals are glowing as I write this and plan my winter break.

My generous marina employers have agreed that their business will survive without me for a couple of months. With an extended stay with my parents in Australia increasingly unlikely this winter, I expect that I’ll be cruising the waterways. I’ll be away from Christmas until the beginning of March so, if you want a taste of life on a narrowboat during the cooler months, make sure that you book a date soon. You can find out more about my Discovery Day cruises here and prices and availability here.

Discovery Day Guest Nina Harries Takes A Break From International Gigging To Experience Life In The Slow Lane

I’m planning to buy my first liveaboard boat, but I was simply overwhelmed by how much there is to learn about, not to mention navigating the cut and locks by myself! I was already a big fan of Paul’s blog, as it’s so beginner-friendly and covers so many aspects of life afloat, that when i saw he was offering discovery days in person, I jumped at the chance!

“Paul sent me all the info I needed, with clear directions and instructions as to how to find him and his lovely boat! He even asked for a specific overview of what I wanted to discuss and where I had got to in my narrowboat plans so he could tailor the day to best fit my level of experience/ignorance!”

“I had an awesome day, we were lucky with the weather and I got to see some beautiful canal ways that I hadn’t explored yet. Paul was so helpful, clear and provided me with so much useful information about the interior and exterior workings of a boat, the factors to consider when living afloat, and also proper cruising and mooring etiquette, which is SO important. He was also really calm and encouraging with the more scary parts of steering, especially going under low bridges and pulling into tight moorings & narrow locks.

“I would 100% recommend a discovery day with Paul on the Orient, to anyone considering living afloat. He shares with you the genuine experience, with all the pros and cons, the problem solving, navigating and all-important canal way etiquette. Also if you’re looking to purchase a boat, he is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to SO many things, including potential hazards to look out for (both inside the boat and out), certain design aspects to be cautious of and why, and the important day to day life factors to consider such as pets, transport, cruising, engine maintenance, safety on board, awareness of your surroundings and potential hazards, licensing, heating and power systems. He’s a great guy, super helpful and funny, and will even translate that long, boring and confusing hull survey for you if you ask nicely.”

Nina Harries enjoying a Discovery Day cruise

Nina Harries enjoying a Discovery Day cruise

Common Narrowboat Newbie Mistakes And How To Avoid Them

 

I wanted to send you an email weeks ago. My mind was willing, but my body weak. Life and the insidious ravages of time on my old bones thwarted my plans. I’ve been too busy, tired and obsessed with earning a crust to add any new posts to my website.

I’m sorry.

I consider myself lucky. I’ve watched this wretched pandemic destroy livelihoods and lives from the safety and comfort of my idyllic mooring in rural Warwickshire. I’m grateful that I’ve still been able to earn a crust at the marina. I’m blessed that the social distancing restrictions haven’t had much of an impact on my day-to-day life. Not much of an effect, but enough to stop me from writing to you.

My employers, the Preen family, here at Calcutt Boats have bent over backwards to support their staff during the lockdown. They kept me on, allowed me to earn a crust, keep the wolf from the door and my bank manager’s fetid breath from my neck. But mine is a lifestyle job, perfect for living a simple, stress-free and undemanding lifestyle. But not so good for creating enough of a disposable income for me to lavish on my floating home.

So, for the three months I couldn’t trade on a closed canal network I lived frugally, investing wisely in good food and not so sensibly on too much drink. Then, when the waterways opened for business again, I committed to five working days for the marina and two for my boating business at the weekend.

Although the surge in Discovery Day bookings recently has helped my bank balance, I haven’t had any time to invest in Orient’s maintenance regime. Fortunately, a very capable marina workmate has stepped into the breach. He’s spending a day a week on Orient, tackling the jobs which I can’t or don’t have time to do.

The first was, I thought, some simple rust treatment around my Squirrel flue collar. Jason wanted to remove the collar so that he could do a thorough job. I felt that removing the collar would be a waste of time. One of my few virtues is that I’m prepared to defer to people who are clearly more talented than me.

Removing the collar revealed a six-inch length of rotten steel flue pipe. And closer examination identified a small flue hole inside my cabin. Jason’s thoroughness saved me from possible carbon monoxide poisoning and a collapsed flue.

Orient's damaged flue surround

Orient’s damaged flue surround

A narrowboat stove without a flue isn't much use

A narrowboat stove without a flue isn’t much use

Jason also discovered that the ‘professionals’ who installed the flue collar had done an abysmal job. They positioned one of the collar bolts too close to a bearer and then screwed it finger tight. Consequently, the fitting has been loose on one side for the last eighteen months. It has allowed flue gases to condense into tar which as trickled along the starboard side of my roof and down the cabin side. With the collar now appropriately fitted I’ve been able to clean off the tar and return my paintwork to its former glory – which isn’t terribly glorious.

I need to repaint just about everything. I suspect that the current cabin paintwork is at least ten years old. The rails, bow and rear deck are showing a lot of wear and tear. Getting on top of the paintwork is going to take a few months at only one day a week. Especially if I carry on ruining all of Jason’s hard work.

Orient's freshly painted bow

Orient’s freshly painted bow

I was delighted with the bow repainting he did last week. Four days later – far too little time to allow the paint to harden – I took Orient out for two weekend Discovery Day cruises. Half hour moored on the cut and half a dozen inconsiderate boaters racing past was too much for the soft paint. The area will need painting again. This time I’ll keep the area rope free for a couple of weeks.

I’ve changed my fairleads too. The old ones were dull brass sitting on bubbling rust patches. The areas are now rust-free and home to new stainless steel fairleads – with stainless steel screws – to match my forest of stainless steel chimneys. Orient is my home, my pride and my joy, so she’s worth all the hard work. Especially when someone else is doing it.

My Discovery Day cruises have kept me out of trouble every weekend, and given me something to write about today. I live and work on one of the busiest sections of the inland waterways. The Hillmorton flight of three tandem locks is said to be one of the most used on the network. That’s no surprise given that there are 2,500 boats moored within a ten-mile radius, a couple of hundred hire boats plying the waterways in this area and an unrivalled choice of routes.

Narrowboat hire companies are doing very well at the moment. Most of them have most of their boats out most of the time. That means that I meet many novice crews on my cruises every day I’m out. And on EVERY cruise we witness mistakes, incidents and accidents. I pulled a boater out of Calcutt Bottom lock last week. He hadn’t quite reached the drowning stage, but he was close to panic and clutched a lock chain as though his life depended on it. His life did depend on holding the chain because he couldn’t swim.

Most of the incidents I witness result from insufficient knowledge. The holiday hirers are not at fault. They’re often given the keys to a twenty-tonne boat with very little or zero training. Imagine yourself in the same situation as fictitious holiday hirer Harold.

The time-starved instructor hands a set of keys to Harold, the happy hirer and races through his clipboard checklist. “Turn that key to start the engine, pull that knob to stop it, turn this dial to run your central heating and press that button if you want to run mains appliances. How do you steer the boat? That’s easy. If you want to steer one way, push the tiller – yes, the brass bar you’re holding – in the opposite direction. Oh, and don’t forget to drive like a foreigner and stay on the right.”

With the comprehensive handover out of the way, the smiling instructor gives Harold a reassuring virtual pat on the back and wishes him a happy holiday.

And so begins Harold’s baptism of fire, his first day at the helm of a flat bottomed boat as long and unwieldy as an articulated lorry. And if Harold’s hired from one of the dozen companies based within a handful of miles of my base near Napton junction, he’ll bump into many of the hundred-plus other hirers negotiating the blind bends and bridge holes holidaying on Warwickshire’s contour canals.

You can recognise many first time hirers by their startled looks, similar to that of rabbits caught in car headlights. The learning curve to inland waterways boating is steep. These holidaymakers, many of them future boat owners, don’t have a clue what to do. They learn from their mistakes and, as there are so many of them on short breaks, they’re still making mistakes on their last day.

Cruising on England’s inland waterways is an enjoyable and relaxing pastime once you’ve mastered the basics. Even the most professional narrowboat hire companies can’t tell you a fraction of what you need to know during their necessarily brief handovers. You have to learn from your own mistakes.

At least narrowboat hirers are given some tuition. Most first time buyers are entirely clueless when they attempt their maiden voyages. They learn through trial and error, often building on bad techniques and well-meaning but inappropriate advice. “Wrap your centre line around your waist,” is the most dangerous advice I’ve heard offered to novice boaters. Are they mad? Imagine a flat bottomed and high sided twenty-tonne boat being pushed away from the bank by a lively breeze. The most likely result is a rope wrapped boater plucked from the towpath for an unexpected dip.

You’ll be offered plenty of tips and tricks when you begin your waterways journey. Your job is to sort the wheat from the chaff. All I’ve written below is a distillation of my experiences over the last decade. I’ve cruised thousands of mile, handled hundreds of narrowboats and made enough cock-ups to keep my fellow boaters laughing for weeks. I hope that the following advice helps to keep you safe and mostly free from ridicule. If you plan to hire a boat for a short break, don’t let the inevitable newbie cock-ups put you off. Persevere and you’ll soon reach a point where handling a narrowboat is as intuitive as driving a car, but with much more enjoyment and fewer insurance claims.

HELMSMAN TRAINING AND EXPERIENCE DAYS

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about life on England's inland waterways

Casting Off

Let’s start at the beginning. You CANNOT steer a narrowboat from its bankside mooring into the canal centre. A narrowboat pivots on its midpoint, usually where the centre line is attached. If the bow is to go to the right, the stern must come to the left. Clearly, the stern can’t do that if it’s already against a bank. The solution is simple. The helmsman or one of his crew must push the boat’s bow off the side. This simple technique allows the helmsman to steer in a straight line to the canal centre.

The alternative method, and it’s a strategy often chosen by newbie boaters, is to grind their craft along concrete banks until a curve launches the boats into open water. Unsurprisingly, this second technique removes many layers of protective hull paint quite quickly.

Mooring Lines Are Not For Cruising

Remember the bit about a narrowboat pivoting on its centre? This is often a novice boater’s first frustration.

Calcutt Boats’ wharf is between Calcutt Top and Middle locks. My mooring is close to Calcutt Bottom lock. I watch boats arriving at the flight often while I work and play. Kate Boats are a half-hour cruise from the bottom lock, Napton Narrowboats and Black Prince at Wigram’s Turn ten minutes from the top lock and the three businesses have 80 – 100 hire boats between them. The Calcutt flight is where many new hirers stop their craft for the first time. Or fail to control their boat for the first time.

On a smaller boat, often crewed by a couple, the stopping routines are often similar. The man – it’s nearly always the man at the helm – throws his lump of steel at the towpath, sometimes but not always stopping before he hits it, and jettisons his poor wife and her bow line. She tumbles onto the towpath pulling the bow line as though her life depends on it. Drawing in the bow pushes the stern away from the bank. So the husband rams the Morse control against its stop to bring the stern back to the bank. This manoeuvre pulls the bow and his wife away from the bank. The tug of war and the ensuing argument continues until the couple divorces, and the boat runs out of fuel. It’s not a happy start to their holiday.

Larger hire boats have up to ten people on board, ten people who don’t understand the need to work as a team. Their boats slam to a halt in a mess of exhaust smoke and boiling water. Three or four people leap from the front deck with the bow line. A similar number tumble onto the towpath from the stern. The helmsman largely ignores everything his crew is doing and tries to alter the boat’s position with the engine. This crew of ten finally subdues the lively narrowboat, but the process hasn’t been easy.

River techniques are slightly different but, on canals and in their locks, stern and bow lines are only used for mooring.

The correct technique is for the helmsman to glide serenely in tickover at a shallow angle towards the bank. And then, as he touches, he applies the gentlest of bursts in reverse before stepping calmly onto the towpath holding his centre line. Then he holds his boat gently against the side while his poor wife tries to unravel the mysterious workings of a canal lock.

How To Hold A Line Attached To Your Boat

Do not EVER wrap a bow, stern or centre line around any part of your body. In a battle between you, a lively breeze and a twenty-tonne boat, you’re going to lose—every time.

If a rope’s chaffing your hands, don’t wrap it around your arm or waist. Don’t wrap it around your fingers to get a better grip. You’re risking rope burns at best. And if your boat is blown by the wind away from the bank and you’re doing your impression of a human cotton reel you’ll be whisked off your feet into the canal’s murky depths. OK. The channel’s likely to be less than four feet deep, but that’s more than enough water to drown you.

If you want to rest your hands when you’re pulling your boat in, run the line behind your back, hold the rope with both hands and sit or lean on it. If the boat pulls away from you and there’s no one available to lend a hand, let it go. The narrowboat will live. You may not.

This a worst-case scenario, of course. You’re unlikely to begin your boating career alone or on a day so windy that you need to abandon ship. And there are techniques you can use to eliminate any serious problems.

That’s all I’ve had the time and the energy to write this week. I’ll finish this article in next week’s post.

Discovery Day Update

A LOT of people are interested in living afloat now. The ability for many to work from home, wherever that home may be, has encouraged more aspiring boaters than ever to consider living on England’s inland waterways network. 

If you are considering following suit, I urge you to book a day with me. I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, but I’m constantly told how much knowledge I share during the course of a Discovery Day and how calm I am with total strangers at the helm of my floating home. You can find out more about my Discovery service here.

Ray Appleton and her partner Darren on a Discovery Day

Ray Appleton and her partner Darren on a Discovery Day

“We’re now ready to sell our home to start living aboard a narrowboat. We booked our discovery day with Paul to learn how to travel the canal, how to work locks and, most importantly, to confirm that it is the life we want. The day spent on Orient was fabulous! Paul was friendly, relaxed, and knew his subject.  He answered all our queries regarding living aboard. 

We would definitely recommend a discovery day for anyone who is contemplating living full-time on a narrowboat.  At the end of the day, having faced some tricky situations, we were steered in the right direction and feel confident that we can now go it alone.”

Ray Appleton

You can read further details and check available dates here.

Form Over Function: The Pros and Cons Of Pretty Narrowboat Ownership

 

Everyone tells me that I own a beautiful floating home. Orient is sixty-two feet and twenty-two tonnes of gorgeously crafted steel. If that isn’t enough, there’s a beguiling vintage Lister two-stroke engine to turn the head of every middle-aged man on the cut. Because of the deep draught, Orient sits pleasingly low in the water, and her four tall stainless steel chimneys give her a unique and rather sexy appearance.

As you can tell, I’m deeply in love with the old girl.

But a beautiful boat isn’t necessarily a practical boat. Mine isn’t. I struggle to keep up with narrowboats equipped with more powerful engines. I ground regularly on all but the deepest canals, and I have less living space than a similar length modern boat. The simple process of stopping a craft equipped with a vintage engine and antiquated controls requires so much concentration on Orient that my ears bleed. Despite being a pretty boat, my home is impractical in many ways.

If you’re considering buying a boat like Orient you need to know what’s in store for you. I hope that the following helps you make the right decision.

Draught

A narrowboat’s draught is the distance from the waterline to the deepest part of the boat. That’s the skeg, a horizontal steel bar which is welded between the boat’s base plate and the bottom of the rudder post. Most narrowboats draught is between eighteen and twenty-four inches. Orient sits three feet in the water.

Most narrowboats have about 6’ 4” of headroom. So a shallow draught boat will be higher out of the water than a narrowboat with a deep draught. There are pros and cons to different depths. A shallow draught boat can cruise many canals inaccessible to those sitting deep in the water. The disadvantage is that with more ‘sail’ above the water and less stability beneath it, shallow narrowboats are more challenging to control on windy days.

Controlling Orient in blustery conditions isn’t a problem. On the other hand, running aground is a constant worry. I get stuck regularly. The most recent grounding was last Tuesday.

I was pootling along at my average granny-with-Zimmer-frame walking pace when a boat raced up behind me. Any boat achieving 4 mph is racing in my book. Anyway, the guy at the helm looked like he was late for a meeting with a funeral director. He grimaced at me like a bulldog chewing a wasp and hopped impatiently from one sandaled foot to the other.

I cruised for another mile before I came to a long enough stretch for him to overtake. Etiquette demanded that I find somewhere safe for him to pass. Then I was obliged to move over to the right and reduce my speed to tickover so that he could overtake without pushing waves of muddy water over towpath dog walkers.

I was annoyed when the boat sailed by without the owner acknowledging me at all. I was even more frustrated when I immediately grounded immovably on an offside mudflat.

I reversed gently, then aggressively when being kind to my engine didn’t work. I didn’t move an inch, so I thrust my pole into the stony canal bed and heaved with all my might—still nothing. The only thing which accelerated over the next fifteen minutes was my heart rate. And then the cavalry arrived.

Many boat owners are scathing about the use of bow thrusters. The ‘girly-buttons’ as bow thrusters are sometimes known are just something else to go wrong and another set of batteries to maintain and replace. But they’re handy on windy days.

The lady at the helm of my rescuing boat used her bow thruster to good effect, nosing gently towards my stern so that her husband could take Orient’s stern rope. Their engine, aided by my pole and Orient’s twenty-one gee-gees, gently pulled Orient into the central channel’s deeper water. I was free to slide through the canal’s muddy bottom until I grounded again. Happy days!

Traditional Controls

The vast majority of narrowboats use something called a Morse control for both throttle control and gear selection. It’s a steel or plastic leaver about six inches long. If you want to move your boat forward, you push the Morse control forward. The further you push it, the faster you go. If you need to do what passes for an emergency stop on a narrowboat, you bring the lever back to the idle position – usually at 12 o’clock – pause briefly and then pull towards you.

Simple.

Then there are the ridiculously unwieldy traditional controls like I have on Orient. There are a brass wheel and a handled rod attached to the rear hatch frame. Spinning the wheel determines the engine speed and pushing or pulling the rod switches between forward and reverse gears.

Traditional narrowboat controls

Traditional narrowboat controls

Helming a boat with these controls requires three hands; one for the tiller, one for the speed wheel and a third for the gear selector. As most boaters only have two, unless they’re from Norfolk, the tiller has to be ignored during critical manoeuvres.

Stopping on England’s canals on a boat equipped with these controls and with a deep draught is an exercise in frustration. Emergency stops are out of the question, so I have to anticipate and prepare for problems around and through every blind bend and bridge hole.

Despite my best efforts, I sometimes have to try to stop suddenly. I turn my speed wheel half a dozen times to decrease the engine speed to idle and pull the gear selector rod backwards 37cm. Not 36cm or 38cm because the engine would still be in gear. The location is exact and unmarked. Then I pause again briefly before pulling the lever back another 2cm to engage reverse. The final step is to spin the speed wheel clockwise half a dozen times and pray that there’s enough water under Orient’s big bottom to allow the boat to stop. Many supertankers stop more quickly than Orient. My traditional controls are a right royal pain in the arse. Especially when I try to go backwards.

Engine Power

Most narrowboats the size of Orient are equipped with 40-45 hp engines. My boat’s beautiful Lister JP2M dwarfs most modern engines but, despite its impressive bulk the vintage two-stroke only has 21 hp at its disposal. Incidentally, a horse trying very hard can produce 15 hp, and a human can manage 5 hp. So Orient’s engine can produce as much power as a five-legged horse pulling out all the stops.

That’s more than enough power to push my home’s twenty-two tonnes along a series of narrow muddy ditches. But the engine is woefully inadequate for river currents or tidal flow.

I would like to cruise the tranquil waters of the Lancaster canal. I can’t get there on Orient. Boats have to use the Ribble link to get onto the Lancaster canal which necessitates sustaining 6 mph for an hour. I can’t manage that. Orient’s deep draught also prevents me from cruising the Lancaster canal.

Orient is built for plodding rather than racing. I often struggle to keep up with friends who claim they are cruising at a moderate speed. Many owners of modern boats tailgate me as I travel, unhappy with my sedate pace. I move over for them whenever I can to let them pass. I try to be pleasant, but helping other boaters sometimes bites me in the arse, like Tuesday’s grounding.

Rooftop Exhaust

A modern engined narrowboat has an exhaust low down on the hull behind or to one side of the rear deck. Exhaust fumes are whisked far, far away from the helmsman and his crew. They sail serenely through the landscape enveloped in the heady aroma of cowpats and rotting wildlife. Cruising is such a joy.

And then there are the poor buggers with midships engine rooms and rooftop exhaust stacks.

I am a smart fellow. When I emptied my bank account to buy three stainless steel chimneys and an engine exhaust, I debated long and hard about their length. And then I chose an exhaust which terminated at nose height.

The exhaust stack sits on the port side twelve feet in front of me. When I’m cruising into the wind, I travel through a world filled with post-apocalyptic smog. And no matter what direction I go, I always appear to be sailing into a headwind. I hear oncoming boaters greet me, but I’m never sure who or where they are.

You probably realise that I’m exaggerating a little. However, if you can’t stand an occasional exhaust fume cloud, don’t buy a narrowboat with a vintage engine and rooftop exhaust.

Narrowboat

Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat

Stove Dust and Dirt And A Forest Of Steel

I favour the traditional narrowboat heat source, a solid fuel stove. I have two stoves actually. I have a Morso Squirrel multi-fuel stove at the front of the boat and a Premiere range in my boatman’s cabin. There are no moving parts to fail, so coal and wood-burning stoves offer boaters the reliability they need during the winter months. But solid fuel stoves aren’t perfect.

Coal briquettes are available everywhere on the inland waterways. Finding a regular fuel supply isn’t an issue but getting it back to your boat is hard work. Briquettes are usually sold in 25 kg (55lb) bags. That’s twenty-six bags of sugar, two corgis or half a small wife, which is a great deal of extra weight to throw about. That’s the coal, not the tiny wife.

I have used between sixty and eighty bags of coal each year since April 2010. That’s one and a half to two tonnes of the stuff. All of it had to be ferried from supplier to boat, lifted on board and transferred from leaking bags into a coal scuttle or water-tight storage box. Despite welcoming physical exercise, bending double under the low cratch board on my little front deck holding a heavy weight soon became a painful chore.

And then there’s the dust. A solid fuel stove produces acres of gritty film. Daily dusting is a necessity on a coal-burning boat. So if you see me wearing an apron and a pair of marigold rubber gloves, I’m cleaning. I don’t have any secret fetishes.

A boat equipped with a solid fuel stove needs a decent chimney to help the fuel burn correctly. I replaced my single chimney every eighteen months on my first narrowboat, James No 194. Constant use throughout the year rotted them until they fell apart.

I discovered a long term solution in 2014.

I invested in a bomb-proof chimney from the Stainless Steel Chimney Company and never looked back. The company’s products are works of art and expensive, but they are eternally durable. A quick scrub with soapy water and a kitchen scourer has them looking brand new in minutes.

A striking stainless steel chimney on Orient

A striking stainless steel chimney on Orient

The slight problem, and it’s a problem entirely of my own making, is that they substantially increase my air draught. And because I’m a poser through and through I want to keep my chimneys upright as I cruise. That’s no problem on a route I know, but I’m quite nervous going through bridge holes I don’t know. And through tunnels.

I have to be sensible in enclosed spaces. The two starboard chimneys are too close to tunnel walls to take any chances. I need to stop somewhere before tackling a tunnel to remove those two and store them on my front deck. And then put them back as soon as I leave a tunnel so that I can carry on posing. I am a victim of pride.

Poor Sleeping Arrangements Courtesy Of The Engine Room

Narrowboat ownership is all about compromise. A shorter boat costs less to maintain and moor and allows access to more of the inland waterways network. However, the shorter the cabin, the less living space you have at your disposal. Especially if you generously give your engine a room of its own. My Lister’s bedroom is seven feet long, so that’s seven fewer feet for me to use as living space. My sleeping spaces have suffered because of the lost area.

I can’t remember how many berths Orient’s broker advertised in the original listing. I’m pretty sure that he forgot to mention that the main bedroom cross bed was only suitable for pygmy children. And that those children would feel claustrophobic if they tried to sleep on the boatman’s cabin cross bed.

Orient's tiny main bedroom sleeps just one bear

Orient’s tiny main bedroom sleeps just one bear

Both beds are unsuitable for a single adult and impossible for a couple. At 5’10” tall and with a wiry build, I’m much smaller than many narrowboat owners. Even so, I can’t lay straight on the bed in the main bedroom without risking breaking my toes under the gunnels. There’s slightly less room on the cross bed in my boatman’s cabin. But I sleep there because the cabin has better ventilation than the main bedroom.

I have eleven 11” sealed portholes. The only fresh air available in the bedroom is via one tiny mushroom vent. So, in addition to the problems I face sleeping on a small bed, I find the space extremely claustrophobic.

I leave my boatman’s cabin rear doors and hatch open at night, often in the winter but always on dry summer nights. I may have to sleep like an embryo, but at least I have a beautiful view of the stars.

Sleeping with wide-open doors is something that many boat owners are uncomfortable doing. My rear cabin thermometer peaked at 35°C on Friday. The temperature hadn’t dropped much by the time I climbed into my tiny bed. I left my engine room side doors, and my rear hatch and doors wide open all night.

‘My husband thinks you’re mad,’ a lady on the boat moored behind me confided. She said he insisted on keeping their boat locked up tight even on the warmest nights. He worried about nighttime attacks and being keelhauled by Warwickshire’s feral youth. I told her that I wasn’t at all concerned and pointed through my galley side hatch.’ The gadgets in there will keep any intruder at bay,’ I told her, puffing up my chest a little. She looked puzzled.’ So, you’re going to whisk an intruder to death?’ It was then that I realised I was pointing towards a drawer filled with baking equipment and not my rack of razor-sharp Global kitchen knives.

I’m not as brave as she thinks. Over the last ten years, I’ve moored out in the countryside for hundreds of nights. There’s rarely a soul on the towpath after dark. Sometimes a befuddled boater will stumble past, returning home after a hard night’s entertainment. He’s more interested in keeping out of the canal than breaking into my boat.

Piston Polishing Purgatory

I’m not an engineer or an enthusiast who likes engine tinkering. The appeal of an exposed engine in its own room with double doors on both sides is, for me, the opportunity to show off.

Posing is a problem if your pistons aren’t polished to perfection. If I’m cruising, I like to fling my engine room doors open and show the world what I’ve got. If I want to maximise the impact I have to make sure that every copper pipe and each brass housing, knob and switch is shining brightly.

There’s enough buffing to keep me entertained in the engine room for hours, but I need to spread my love throughout my home. I have brass rails above and below each of my eleven postholes, converted Great Western Railway wall lights, brass rails on cupboard tops and shelf edging and then an Aladin’s cave of shiny trinkets in my boatman’s cabin. There’s a copper kettle, a brass tiller and tiller pins, horse brasses, more rails and a brass bugle instead of an electric horn.

Polishing can become an obsession. I’m relieved to admit that the craze hasn’t overcome me yet. So please forgive a little dull brass if you see me on the cut. You’ll recognise me quickly enough. I’m the one cruising in a cloud of smoke, moving slower than drying paint, bent double from endless nights sleeping curled like an unborn baby. And smiling idiotically at everyone I pass. Because, despite my peculiar boat’s many failings, I am thrilled to call Orient my home.

Discovery Day Update

Even the dark cloud of our current pandemic has had a silver lining for some. It has for me. The recent worldwide turmoil has forced many people to consider whether their current lifestyle is right for them. And with the recent surge in remote working, more and more homeowners are considering living and possibly working afloat.

I’ve experienced a surge in Discovery Day interest and a full calendar for August. If you’re thinking about living a more tranquil lifestyle and want to know what it entails, you can find out more about my Discovery Day service here. I think that my training and experience day cruises offer excellent value for money. But don’t take my word for it. Bret Alexander joined me for a day last month. Here’s what he had to say…

“I’m still at the mostly theoretical stage – where the imagination is well ahead of the realities. The discovery day is part of my effort to focus more on the realities and get answers to the 100 questions I have swirling around in my head – from someone who’s clearly got an extensive amount of experience.

The day itself was pretty much ideal for me – and ticked all the boxes. So just being on the boat for a day and being about to ask all those questions I’ve been wondering – made the experience well worthwhile. The result is – that I feel that my rough plans are realistic – and I’m not missing anything major. Obviously the two holidays I have lined up will also help – but they will answer a different set of questions.

My biggest worry was damaging your boat – something I think I managed to avoid. I think if it was my boat I’d have been more relaxed about that!

I can’t think of anything that I’d add – or change. I didn’t have any questions that I thought I’d missed – as I think we covered all the main topics.

Your Discovery Day is a great opportunity to have a reality check, on a beautiful boat – with someone that has extensive experience. I can’t think of any other way you can have that. Renting a boat will tell you a lot about what it’s like being on a narrowboat – but it won’t put it into any context and answer all the questions you’ll have – and will be a lot more expensive.

I think doing a day like this first – is an excellent way to clarify if this something that you might want to take further. It certainly has for me.”

Click here to find out more about my Discovery Day service.

 

 

Life After Lockdown And Why Social Distancing Can Be Fun

 

I wrote my last blog post at the beginning of March, shortly before the world closed down to slow the spread of Covid-19. The last three months have been a traumatic time for many as they lost freedom, livelihoods and lives. Please accept my sympathy and condolences if you have suffered financial hardship or the loss of a loved one. We live in a time of uncertainty, frustration and unrest, hoping that the ‘new normal’ will be normal enough to allow the global economy and the world’s population to flourish. But not everyone has found the last three months taxing.

I haven’t written anything for the site recently for two reasons. Firstly, with the canal network locked down and the majority of boats confined to marina moorings, I haven’t had anything exciting or constructive to document. Secondly and, more importantly, I haven’t felt comfortable writing about my circumstances.

My blog post notification email goes out to 5,000 inland waterways enthusiasts. Some are statistically likely to have lost a family member to coronavirus or know someone who has. My intention is not to make light of this devastating pandemic or the damage done to the economy by worldwide restrictions on trade and personal movement. Recovery from the virus and the attempts to control it will take many years. But life for some hasn’t been bad at all.

The pandemic has inconvenienced me rather than caused me hardship. Like most waterways services, my Discovery Day familiarisation and training cruises had to stop in March. I missed but didn’t need the income from these days. I missed the company of people like you more than money. I managed during the lockdown’s dark days because I had another financial string to my bow. Thanks to the ever generous and considerate Preen family who own and control Calcutt Boats, I continued to work maintaining the company’s beautiful forty acres.

Rather than struggle during these last few months, I have thrived. Forgive me for saying this if you are struggling with financial or physical loss or a feeling of isolation or depression, but England’s national lockdown has bracketed one of the happiest periods of my life.

Boaters are a peculiar bunch. They are both gregarious and insular, as happy to party with new friends as they are to spend extended periods alone. Alone but not lonely. I am one of those fortunate people.

Calcutt Boats furloughed most employees but retained a skeleton staff to maintain the sprawling site. My job has been to keep forty acres of spring growth in check. Several of those acres are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Three meadows filled with more varieties of wildflowers than half a dozen naked boaters can count on their exposed extremities. We have a lot of different wildflowers here and most of them are at their colourful best at this time of the year.

More wildflowers than you can shake a stick at

More wildflowers than you can shake a stick at

My days have involved gentle mowing and trimming on a private estate in a beautiful corner of rural Warwickshire, often under a cloudless and quiet blue sky. Another lockdown bonus, for me, has been the absence of noisy aircraft roaring to and from Birmingham and East Midlands airports. The planes have been replaced by circling buzzards, honking geese and the occasional hawk. A red kite with its distinctive forked tail graced us with its presence one afternoon. I feel blessed to live here.

Keeping the shower block frontage tidy

Keeping the shower block frontage tidy

With the site closed to boat owners in the lockdown’s early weeks, our abundant wildlife became increasingly bold. A fox pack regularly sprinkled our lawn with half-chewed bones, timid muntjac deer flitted through the shadows of our seven-acre wood, and berry-filled badger droppings littered the marina banks. Our rabbits did what rabbits do, untroubled by meddlesome people. Bobbing white tails filled the woodland fringes at dusk prompting excited yapping from lead-restrained pooches.

Food for the soul on a working day at Calcutt Boats

Food for the soul on a working day at Calcutt Boats

Life has changed for me recently. But, unlike the restricted lives of much of our country’s population, my life has changed for the better. 

Those of us still working at the marina also live here. We’ve worked together and rarely left the site. I’ve made just three brief visits to our local village store in the last three months. Being anti-social most of the time has its advantages. Self-isolation is a natural state. 

We’ve worked together, so we’ve socialised together too. I’m sure that some would argue that we’ve been breaking the lockdown guidelines. However, when I see media coverage of protesters standing shoulder to shoulder or thousands of half-naked sun worshipers wedged together on crowded beaches, quite frankly I don’t give a shit.

So we’ve barbecued, drunk to excess, argued, debated and bonded in equal measures. We’ve read and watched reports about society unravelling across the world, and we’ve thanked our collective lucky stars that we live and work on England’s inland waterways network. And we’ve concluded that we’ll be welcoming many more to our happy little band in the coming months.

One of our barbecue night's posh revellers

One of our barbecue night’s more sophisticated revellers

Cheese and wine (followed by port and whisky)

Cheese and wine (followed by port and whisky)

An approaching storm puts an end to our after work drinking

An approaching storm puts an end to our after work drinking

One of the few positive developments to come out of this global mess has been the realisation that there are millions of people worldwide who don’t need to return to full-time work in a distant office. 

Working from home, wherever that home may be, will be the new normal for an increasing number of people. In my immediate circle, two fortunate boaters have told me how their lives have changed for the better. One is a project manager for a new factory somewhere in troubled Trump land. The other is a mental health nurse. Both can now perform most of their duties remotely, all but eliminating tedious travel, and work while they cruise. They are both very happy bunnies.

A day out on the cut during lockdown

A day out on the cut during lockdown

Living on a narrowboat offers a unique opportunity to explore much of England and parts of Wales at a relaxed pace far away from the stresses and strains of modern-day life. And a well-appointed narrowboat costs much less than the smallest brick and mortar homes. 

I read an article in The Telegraph recently which reported that the cheapest property in London in 2015 was a studio flat in Clapham. You didn’t get much of a home for your hard-earned cash—a claustrophobic space without a view, garden or any sense of tranquillity. However, the seventy-five thousand pounds needed to buy the Clapham float will buy you a stunning narrowboat. Orient, my pride and joy, cost less than that and is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and comfortable floating living spaces you could wish to call your home.

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Living afloat isn’t for everyone. I’ve written extensively about the downsides of living on a narrowboat. The most recent post is here. However, in light of the worldwide pandemic, living on England’s inland waterways is an increasingly attractive and viable proposition for many.

Social distancing is easy for liveaboard boat owners. Most narrowboat owners moor at least a boat length apart. Towpaths are rarely crowded so avoiding strangers is easy. I’ve read some angry posts on Facebook written by outraged boaters driven to distraction by towpath users. They’re apoplectic at the sight of walkers, joggers and cyclists passing less than two metres from their steel-clad cabins. Why? The virus can’t penetrate metal. The canals and their towpaths offer a safe and aesthetically pleasing playground far away from crowded pubs, streets, parks and beaches.

The playground was filled with the sound of merriment yesterday when the government lifted holiday accommodation restrictions. Hire boat owners through the network have been working flat out to prepare for the late start to this year’s season.

Here at Calcutt Boats, that meant making quite a few changes. There’s a one-way system for both the wharf and the chandlery, more cleaners on hand for changeover days, PPE for wharf staff and video tuition for new hirers. But the hard work has been worthwhile. The office phones are continually ringing as holiday-deprived families book a boat for a few days in paradise. The wharf feels alive once more and echoes with the sounds of happy boater banter.

I’ve been busy with my little boating operation too. If you’re new to this site you may not know about my Discovery Day service for aspiring narrowboat owners. You can discover more about my experience days here and check availability here.

I haven’t hosted training days on Orient since early March, but I’ve joined several new narrowboat owners for training days on boats they’ve recently purchased but haven’t had the confidence to use.

Discovery Day guest Jane Doran on the Bucky flight

Discovery Day guest Jane Doran on the Bucky flight

The last of these away day training trips was yesterday. I joined Graham and Maureen on their cosy floating home, September Star, for a cruise on the first day of the coronavirus boating season.

We enjoyed an enchanting cruise on a thin and twisting ribbon of sparkling water between Napton and Braunston junctions. Maureen and Graham grinned like Cheshire cats throughout, supremely happy to have achieved their narrowboat ownership goal.

We passed two dozen hire boat on our travels, crewed by mainly happy holidaymakers. Some looked as though they would have been happier moored immoveably to a grassy bank. Threading twenty tonnes of steel through boat width gaps using a brass bar anchored to a platform sixty feet behind the boat’s bow takes a little practice. 

Taking a hire boat down the Calcutt flight

Taking a hire boat down the Calcutt flight

Thanks to Covid-19 precautions, practice for novice narrowboat hirers is now in short supply. “If you want the front of the boat to turn to the right, push the tiller to the left”. That’s all the advice many hire boat company instructors offer before unleashing their quaking charges. This unavoidable response to social distancing requirements means that many novice hire boat crews will be even more unprepared for narrowboat handling than ever before.

The wind buffeted 65′ September Star throughout the day. As we dropped through the Calcutt flight, the breeze strengthened. Calcutt Boats’ marina entrance is a challenge in windy conditions. The weeping willows either side of the narrow opening give boaters a reliable indication of wind speed and direction. The trees looked like Bobby Charlton caught in a wind tunnel as we left the bottom lock. My heart sank, and I was thankful that I stood at the helm of a boat with a powerful engine.

I live on a beautiful boat. The soothing thump of my vintage two-cylinder Lister JP2 turns heads wherever I cruise. But my engine is better equipped for posing than practical boating. Orient’s modest 21hp isn’t enough to get me out of trouble when I need a burst of power. And because of the boat’s deep draught, reversing on shallow canals and marinas is an exercise in frustration. I would have struggled to push Orient through the marina entrance’s howling wind yesterday.

Function over form won the day. September Star’s classic 1.8l BMC pushed us through the narrow gap without a moment’s hesitation. Power without posing. There’s more to life on the cut than owning a pretty boat.

I’ve had a day off today. It hasn’t been a very productive one. I can hear passing boats from my mooring close to both the marina entrance and Calcutt Bottom lock. The wind is blowing even harder than yesterday, so I’ve heard an endless surge of narrowboat engines as helmsmen and women fought a losing battle against the buffeting breeze. The stretch of canal beneath Calcutt Bottom lock was called ‘Windy Corner’ by the old working boatmen for good reason. 

My day followed a predictable pattern. I heard the roar of a narrowboat engine and a windblown curse, so I closed my laptop, climbed out of my boat and watched the action. A frustrated boater pushed his bow from the towpath towards the canal centre. The wind blew it back again. He repeated the exercise half a dozen times before climbing wearily onto his stern, ramming his throttle forward and grinding along the concrete canal siding until he reached a stand of trees and respite from the wind. As soon as the hapless boater careened around the first bend, I returned to my work until the next helmsman announced himself. Ah, the simple joys of living afloat!

I gave up gongoozling for a spell to help a couple of friends through the flight. Here’s a friendly warning for you. Boating is an addiction. Many boat owners moored near a flight of locks set out on a canalside walk equipped with a windlass. They can’t help themselves. Boating is fun, and lock passages offer an opportunity to talk to people who share a passion for the great outdoors. Buy a boat, and you’ll probably join this happy band.

The evening view from my front deck

The evening view from my front deck

I’m making the most of my lazy windlass-waving Sunday. It’s the last I’ll have for a while. I’ve received a steady stream of enquiries and bookings for my Discovery Day service over the last couple of weeks. My diary is filling for the remainder of the boating season.

The sun sets on another fabulous day

The sun sets on another fabulous day

I’m looking forward to welcoming the first of those guests into my home next Saturday. Despite having cruised between Napton and Braunston junctions at least three hundred times, I’m looking forward to two more enchanting experiences next weekend. I’ll listen to the dreams and plans of four more narrowboat enthusiasts and hope that I’ll help them in some small way to move towards a more tranquil lifestyle. If you’re an aspiring narrowboat owner maybe, one day, I’ll have the pleasure of your company too.

Fifteen Reasons Why Living On A Narrowboat Is A Bad Idea: Part 2

 

Warning! Living on a narrowboat may be harder than you think. Here are more reasons for NOT living afloat

This is the concluding part of the post I recently published highlighting the many aspects of living afloat which aspiring narrowboat owners may not fully appreciate. In part one I discussed the real cost of living on a narrowboat, mooring availability, living and storage space considerations and personal fitness.

Providing part one hasn’t sunk your boating plans, today’s post addresses exposure to the elements, a steep learning curve, the dangers you face as a boat owner, the challenge of keeping your home warm and condensation free, organisational issues and the dreaded narrowboat toilet. If you think you can deal with that lot, you’ll want to know how to deal with post and parcels. And then, if you’re still keen, you may want to join me on a Discovery Day. You’ll be able to ask all the many questions your research has reaised so far. And you have the pleasure of taking my home for a spin on Warwickshire’s wonderful waterways.

Anyway, on with the post. I hope that you find the information useful.

Exposure To The Elements

Do you enjoy being outdoors in all weather? If not, you possibly won’t enjoy living afloat. 

For a start, you’re out in the open when you’re at the helm. A few narrowboats have a wheelhouse. Many more have pram covers, rear deck covers. Neither is practical or enjoyable to use when cruising. The easiest and arguably safest way to helm your boat is from a back deck open to the elements. 

I’ve been asked a few times if I postpone my cruise if there’s rain forecast. They’re raindrops, not bullets. Cruising in the rain, even heavy rain, isn’t necessarily unpleasant. In fact, once I’m wearing my bomb-proof Guy Cotten trawler man’s waterproofs I’m quite happy to cruise in torrential rain all day. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.

The wind is a different matter. Relatively shallow draughted, flat-bottomed boats with high sides are difficult to control in anything more than a moderate breeze. Wheelhouses and pram covers add even more wind resistance and challenge.

Even boats equipped with powerful bow thrusters struggle on windy days. The solution is to postpone your cruise until the wind subsides, or take advantage of the prevailing breeze. That’s where a helm open to the elements is beneficial. If you can feel the wind, you know what it’s going to do to your boat. If you hide from the weather behind canvas or wood, judging wind speed and direction can be much more difficult.

Your utilities force you outside too. You need to replenish your coal or log supply, change gas cylinders, refill your water tank and empty your toilet cassette or pump out holding tank. If you’re a continuous cruiser, especially in one of CRT’s mooring hotspots, you’re obliged to move your boat every fourteen days to comply with regulations. Unless the weather is considered dangerous, you’ve got to cruise. Unless you enjoy the elements, these forced cruises can quickly become an unpleasant chore.

A continuous cruiser once told me that he used to dread “moving day”, especially in heavy rain. He treated his bimonthly cruises as unpleasant work for many years. Then his view changed. He realised that hire boaters pay vast sums for the privilege of doing what he detested. He decided to treat his moving day as a holiday. He dressed for the weather and transformed an unpleasant chore into a mini vacation.

How’s your sense of smell? There are many treats and torments for your nose on the inland waterways; fresh-cut hay, blossom in the spring and cut grass from CRT contractors once in a blue moon towpath trimming. Those are the pleasant experiences providing pollen doesn’t knock you for six. How about the reek of rotting vegetation as you pole your home off a shallow mudbank? Or, joy of joys, the heady aroma of a drowned critter’s carcass, a half-submerged mine filled with nauseating gas, waiting to explode at the touch of a narrowboat bow?

One of my few disenchanted Discovery Day guests gagged when we nudged the bloated corpse of an unlucky sheep. He told me that, in the unlikely event that he moved afloat, he would insist on steering from an enclosed wheelhouse. 

Some narrowboat owners insist on even more extreme measures.

A boatbuilder told me that he had one hoity-toity lady customer who insisted that he install air conditioning on her narrowboat. He informed her that the installation wouldn’t be a problem, but the unit would cause power management issues. “I don’t care,” she told him. “I can’t stand the canal smells, so I need air conditioning.”

If you don’t enjoy the great outdoors, its weather and its odours, don’t buy a narrowboat.

Living On A Narrowboat Can Be A Dangerous Lifestyle For Careless Boaters

Rain slicked steel, moss-covered stone, drink driving and ignorance of the risks involved increase your chances of serious injury. I’ve lost count of the number of accidents I’ve seen on our little three lock flight here at Calcutt Boats. 

I’ve witnessed many more on my travels.

Carelessness, ignorance and alcohol are the main culprits. Party loving novice hirers in locks frighten me. I’ve seen foolishness bordering on insanity. This example takes some beating though.

On a hot summer’s day several years ago, I passed a scruffy hire boat crewed by drunken men. They entered Calcutt Top lock as I left. All waved beer bottles at passing boaters, swapping good-natured banter and insults.

I watched as a guy standing on the hire boat’s bow handed his bottle of Bud to a mate, stripped off to his boxers and dived into the canal in front of his moving boat. He surfaced laughing and thrashing, grabbed either side of the bow fender and swung his feet onto the deck. The guy at the helm, for a laugh, thrust the Morse control forward and charged into the empty lock towards the unyielding downstream gate. The water baby was still doing his best impression of a hundred and eighty-pound skin and bone fender.

Twenty feet away from killing his cruising buddy, the novice helmsman threw his ten-tonne boat into reverse. He stopped his craft TWO FEET away from the gate. A few seconds delay putting the boat into reverse, a slightly less powerful engine or a shallower lock could have resulted in a fatality. None the wiser, the crew opened another half dozen beer bottles and carried on cruising. 

Isn’t that scary?

But you don’t have to be drunk to hurt yourself on the inland waterways. A Calcutt Boats moorer cruising solo slipped off his boat into the frigid water of a February lock. Too weak and cold to climb out of danger, he clung to his rudder, screaming for help for fifteen minutes before someone heard him. He was so cold that neither the Calcutt first aiders nor the ambulance crew could raise his body temperature. He needed hospital treatment for that.

Another experienced but careless lady boater broke her collar bone. She stepped off her boat on a lock landing, as she had done a thousand times before, tripped over a raised paving stone and fell onto a lock landing bollard. That was the end of her summer cruise.

Young men competing with each other create risk too. Who can jump the furthest from a moving narrowboat gunnel onto a mud-slicked towpath, long jump a narrow lock or raise the quickest paddle? It’s a game many males like to play.

One careless hire boater raised a paddle in a blur of spinning windlass. The young man lost his grip on the windlass handle when the paddle reached its high point. With his face inches from the paddle gear, the windlass, still attached to the rapidly descending paddle and spinning like a propeller, caught him in the mouth. He arrived back at base with a stitched lip and a few fewer teeth than he would have liked.

Most boaters have fallen into the canal network’s murky waters more than once. Happily, most damage nothing more than their pride. I’ve been in four times in ten years. Each dip was down to carelessness. My first was a spectacular backward summersault into the frozen marina when the centre line knot unravelled on the boat I was pulling in. 

Canal bathing in January is not pleasant.

I’ve been for a dip in the summer too. I was working on our wharf one sunny summer’s day selling coal, gas and diesel to passing boaters. One narrowboat approached onto our wharf bow first and far too fast. A handful of feet away from an unpleasant collision with unyielding concrete, I signalled the owner to reverse. He did that quickly as well. As I leaned over the water to grab his bow line, the boat shot backwards. I dived headfirst into three feet of muddy water, much to the amusement of everyone watching. 

Fellow boaters are more likely to reach for a camera than a life ring. 

Make sure that you know what you’re facing before you move afloat. Join a boat owning friend for a cruise or two, take an RYA helmsman course or join me for a Discovery Day. Act like a boy scout and be prepared.

Warning: Familiarity breeds contempt. You’re going to end up in the cut at some stage of your boating career. Embrace the experience. Just make sure that you have a change of clothes handy.

There’s A Steep Learning Curve For New Narrowboat Owners

I was incredibly naive when I moved afloat. My old floating home’s sole purpose was accommodation. I had little interest in narrowboats as such and no plans to use mine for cruising. I expected my transition to be no more complicated than moving from one house to another. 

The reality was mind-numbingly confusing.

I had electricity, water and gas on tap throughout my fifty years living in houses. I warmed my living space by flicking a switch. I didn’t have to think about anything running out. As long as someone continued to pay the bills, life was effortless.

All of that changed on the first day of my life afloat. 

I didn’t move my new home off its mooring at all during my first year afloat. The thought of threading twenty tonnes of steel through narrow lock entrances filled me with dread. The Oxford Canal is nearby. It offers a scenic cruise between Napton and Braunston junctions and challenges at each blind bend and narrow bridge hole. With no formal training to help me, I found the experience quite stressful. Especially when my classic Mercedes engine failed to start six miles from the marina.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons that day. 

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Lesson No 1 – Engines don’t like sitting unused on a static mooring for months or years on end. My Mercedes OM636 ran for just half an hour in three years before my maiden voyage to Braunston. Most of the hoses had perished, and the fuel filter was blocked solid.

After weathering the embarrassment of being towed back to base, I had all the engine hoses replaced. It’s a shame I didn’t do the same with the gearbox. I lost all of my gearbox oil through a cracked hose on my second cruise. I managed to limp home without assistance on that occasion. As soon as I returned, I scheduled a complete engine overhaul. Engines need as much TLC as people.

Lesson No 2 – Narrowboats travel very slowly. My maiden cruise six miles from Calcutt Boats to Braunston took two and a half hours. Walking back to the marina to collect my car took an hour less. Don’t expect to get very far on your narrowboat cruises.

My trial by fire continued. My boat electricity worked at the marina. I expected it to work when I cruised as well. That was when I was introduced to the mysterious relationships between chargers, inverters and split battery banks. It was all very confusing.

I had to carefully manage my water supply. My first boat had a tiny 350-litre water tank, enough for thirty-five minutes in the shower or five baths at house dwelling consumption levels. Not that I had a bath. There’s no room for one on a narrowboat. 

I regularly ran out of water, twice at the terribly soapy stage of taking a shower. Braving an icy north-easterly wearing little more than bubble bath wasn’t the most pleasant way to fill an empty water tank, but it had to be done.

I have a much bigger tank these days, and I’m far more careful with my water. My 750-litre tank lasts me for two months. And, no, I don’t smell like a tramp.

There’s so much to learn when you move afloat that pre-purchase familiarisation is essential. You can’t research what you don’t know, so try to spend some time with a liveaboard boat owner before you commit to a narrowboat lifestyle. What? Don’t you have any narrowboat-owning friends? No problem. You can join me on a Discovery Day cruise.

Keeping All Of Your Floating Home Warm Is A Challenge

Yes, you CAN have a warm and cosy cabin during the cold winter months, but you’ll need to work hard to get there.

I love my boat. I don’t want to live anywhere else. The lifestyle is perfect for me, but keeping my boat warm is hard work. It’s five degrees outside at the moment and blowing a gale. It’s 20°C at the front of the cabin by my fire. It’s a comfortable temperature to sit and work. Twenty feet away in the main bedroom, the temperature drops to 16°C. I sleep in the boatman’s cabin at the back of the boat. It’s 12°C there now, which is relatively warm. The prevailing wind usually blows from the stern and often lowers my bedroom temperature to 7°C. That’s coat, hat and scarf temperature for most people. 

Boaters who tell you that their cabin is warm throughout are being economical with the truth, or they have a tiny and open cabin or a central heating system. Many narrowboat central heating systems aren’t designed for running twenty-four hours a day. Multi-fuel stoves are, but they aren’t suitable for regulating the cabin temperature throughout.

A multi-fuel stove is a narrowboat owner’s most reliable heat source. Once they’ve mastered the skill of keeping them alight, using the right fuel and keeping the flue debris free. There’s SO much to learn.

Organisation Is Your New Best Friend

Living on a narrowboat can be a nightmare if you don’t plan ahead. Water tanks often don’t have gauges. You need to devise a system for establishing how much liquid is in the large steel tank under your front deck and how quickly you’re using your remaining supply. It’s not so much of a problem if you’re on a marina mooring, but life out on the cut is more challenging. You need to know the location of your nearest water point and, in the winter, whether an icy canal is going to prevent you from reaching it.

The same applies to your diesel tank. Not many narrowboats have fuel gauges. If there’s a straight drop from the filler cap into your tank, you can use a dipstick. Ladies, the dipstick I’m talking about is not your husband. It’s a slender length of wood marked at intervals.

Some narrowboats have diesel heating systems so, if you don’t want to dress like an Eskimo inside your cabin, you need to make sure that you have plenty of fuel. The good news is that, if your diesel central heating system has been fitted correctly, you’ll run out of heating fuel before propulsion diesel. 

Managing your electricity supply is one of the more challenging aspects of living afloat. Off-grid electricity is costly and time-consuming to generate. Life is less stressful if you learn to manage with less rather than installing large battery banks which are a challenge to charge. Poorly organised battery charging regimes kill battery banks quickly. You need to be disciplined enough to manage your power supply efficiently, or dig deep and replace your battery bank regularly.

Every aspect of your life needs careful consideration when you’re off-grid. Where can you buy food? Where’s the next sewage disposal point, the nearest rubbish disposal bins and where on Earth do you get critical medical supplies when you’re out on the cut? Let’s face it, if you’re a typical narrowboat owner, you’ve reached the stage where bits of you are beginning to drop off or stop working. Easy access to doctors and dentists can be crucial. 

Life for car-owning continuous cruisers can be a nightmare. You can’t park your car outside your house, so you need to find somewhere convenient near your temporary mooring. Then you move your boat and leave your car behind. You cruise for a few miles, moor for the night and walk or cycle back for your car, hoping that it’s still in one piece. Cars parked on bridge lay-bys are easy targets for thieves.

If you like to fly by the seat of your pants, living on a narrowboat is probably not for you.

The Dreaded Narrowboat Toilet

Flush and forget. That’s what you do in a house. Your poor little poo doesn’t get any attention at all. It’s deposited in a bowl and washed far, far away with an unlimited supply of mains water.

You can forget all that on a narrowboat. You need to get up close and personal with the processed remains of previous meals. A pump-out toilet is best for you if the sight of a little faecal matter turns your stomach. But even then your tank has to be pumped out every few weeks. And that is an unusual first-time experience. It’s a challenging half-hour for those with a keen sense of smell. However, you won’t suffer as much as those poor boaters with cassette toilets.

Let’s face it, a cassette toilet is nothing more than a fancy bucket topped with a toilet seat. Most cassette designs, mine included, require the user to bend down perilously close to the toilet bowl to open the flap to the cassette. So, while you have your nose in your toilet bowl, you flip aside a thin plastic plate separating you from twenty litres of decaying waste. It’s enough to make a strong man weep.

That’s the easy part. Once you’ve made your deposits you have to transfer them to the national sewage system. Carrying a 20kg poo pot through your homes narrow walkways is a challenge. Especially once you realise that lifting it by the built-in handle is likely to result in a stream of waste decorating your lovely clean floor.

The really unpleasant part is next. You have to take your precious parcel to an Elsan point for disposal. This is often a bowl around a pipe to the sewer topped by a stainless steel grid. The grid is a highly effective toilet tissue collector, a fetid collection which responsible boaters will wash away with the Elsan hose. But not all boaters are capable and considerate human beings. You may experience the joy of using an Elsan point after a boat owner who shouldn’t be allowed out in public without a carer.

How are you feeling? If this section makes you want to lie on a soft bed in a darkened room until nausea passes, narrowboat life probably isn’t for you.

Condensation: The Bane Of A Boater’s Life

Mouldy fabric, damp paper, stained woodwork, ceiling drips and window runs. Condensation can cause misery, expense and ill health. 

Heating, ventilation and insulation are the Holy Trinity of condensation free boats. Get the balance right, and you can say goodbye to damp dresses, mouldy mattresses and unpleasant undies.

I suffered terribly from condensation during my first year afloat. My bedroom at the stern was so damp it was almost wet. It was an environment more suitable for pike and perch than people. However, I virtually eliminated damp from my back bedroom by making a few simple changes. 

Remember what I said earlier about heating the back of your boat? That was one of the primary reasons I had condensation in my bedroom. In an attempt at conserving the heat at the front of my floating home, I kept my bedroom door closed. Because the bedroom was then unheated, I closed my bedroom windows to try to keep my sleeping space a little warmer. All I did was create the perfect climate for condensation.

I put an electric heater in my bedroom in the early days and opened the windows. The condensation disappeared. I installed a diesel central heating system a few years later so I could heat the back of the boat when I cruised.

You can always cure your condensation problem if you have the time, energy and money. Or you could live in a properly insulated house with central heating and save yourself the inconvenience.

I had condensation problems again two boats and eight years later. Cynthia and I purchased a high-end Linssen motor yacht for four-season Dutch waterways cruising.

I didn’t take into consideration the piss-poor insulation fitted on boats in Holland. The Dutch are fair-weather sailors. Equipping craft for winter living is not high on their list of priorities.

The Linssen’s blown air heating system didn’t provide enough heat to keep us warm. Even then, the slight temperature difference between our cabin and the frigid Dutch winter air produced rivers of condensation on our cabin walls and ceiling.

Towards the end of our stay in Holland, we had to live in our galley area. We draped a blanket draped over the companionway to conserve heat, and dreamed of a life in a narrowboat.

Orient, my fourth boat and second narrowboat, is condensation free. However, the boatman’s cabin is a little damp. I have a Premiere range in there, but keeping two stoves on the go is a pain in the arse, especially when one of them has a tiny fire box. 

I have temperature and humidity sensors throughout Orient’s cabin. The humidity in my saloon near my Squirrel stove is 32%. Ideally, it should be close to 50% for optimal health. In the unheated boatman’s cabin the humidity is currently 63%. It’s a shame I can’t push some of the moisture towards the bow. 

Living afloat is all about finding the balance. And, if you can’t find a happy medium, making do with what you’ve got.

Receiving Post, Parcels and Deliveries

“How does the postman find you?”, one gongoozler asked. “Does your boat have a letterbox?” enquired another. He doesn’t, and no, I don’t.

I don’t need an address for letters these days. In our digital age, you can manage most of your life online. I have digital banking, insurance, licensing and taxation. I don’t need anything else sending by letter. I am a regular Amazon customer, but the retailer doesn’t need my address. They just need a delivery address. A pub, shop or post office will do. Sometimes a postcode is all I need. 

I can get supermarket shopping delivered to me while I cruise. Sainsbury’s delivery service works very well for me. If I’m on the cut, I add driver delivery instructions to my order. I find the postcode of a house or a pub close to the nearest canal bridge and ask the driver to ring me as soon as he arrives. On the rare occasion that I haven’t had a phone signal, I’ve had to wait for an hour near the delivery address. I prayed that the homeowner didn’t report a suspicious character loitering at the end of his drive.

If the address I’ve given is a pub, I force myself to sit at the bar and have a couple of pints while I’m waiting.

This is another occasion when a liveaboard boater has to be both organised and flexible. 

Do You Still Fancy Living On A Narrowboat?

There you go, the downside of living afloat. How do you feel about the lifestyle now?

I have one final treat for you, a rant from liveaboard boater Pauline Roberts. Pauline claimed that she enjoyed living afloat. You wouldn’t think so from her description of life on England’s inland waterways. You can read her post here. To achieve a balanced view, please read the two posts linked at the bottom of Pauline’s account.

Did you find these two posts useful? If you did, please take a second or two to add a star rating below.

Discovery Day Update

The recent high winds have been a challenge, but I decided to take the bull by its horns and take two aspiring narrowboat owners on a Discovery Day cruise last Sunday.

The Met Office issued a yellow wind warning from midday Saturday for twenty four hours. I decided, sensibly as it turns out, to climb Calcutt’s three lock flight on Saturday morning to escape the worst of the wind. I’m glad I did.

I pair of novice hirers shared the locks with me on my ascent. One of them, a golfing enthusiast, carried one of the sturdiest umbrellas I’ve ever seen. “You need to be careful with that,” I warned him as their boat nosed out of the top lock. “The forecast is for gusts approaching 40mph.”

He looked at me smugly and boasted that his expensive brolly was bomb proof. “I’ve had this umbrella for years and it’s still as good as new!”

The gods of you-shouldn’t-have-said-that were listening. A squall hit us seconds later. Orient listed twenty degrees to port and raced sideways across the empty lock. My home remained pinned immoveably to the lock wall until the sqaull passed. My golf mad lockmate wasn’t quite so lucky. He was right. His brolly was very strong, so strong that it lifted him off his feet. Rather than carry on with his impression of a balding Mary Poppins he let go. His brolly shot into the air like a bright blue rocket and was last seen flying high over Warwickshire’s rolling farmland.

The wind had died down a little by the following morning. My guest, Ady and Tim, enjoyed the challenge of negoriating a wind blown canal on our cruise to Braunston and a tranquil canal on our return. I had yet another pleasant and stimulating day on the cut. Ady and Tim left full of enthusiasm and plans for a boating future. 

Here’s what they said about their day with me.

Discovery Day guests Tim & Ady Henderson

Discovery Day guests Tim & Ady Henderson

“We do not have any boating experience at all.  Both of us wanted to see if we could live onboard a boat for two to three years before we retired.  Our plan once retired to travel the canal throughout the UK.

A great way to spend a day, very relaxing, informative and very hands-on.  The day covered everything we needed to know to get us started on our canal adventure. Brilliant experience if you are considering living on board.

I have already recommended you to friends and family. Regardless of future plans, I would do this discovery day again in a heartbeat.  A wonderful introduction to boating, very hands-on, safe and clear instruction, easy to find, and a beautiful boat.  Highly recommend this experience.”

Tim & Ady Henderson, Devon

If you’re ready to take your narrowboat research to the next level, join me on a Discovery Day cruise. I’m Coronavirus free, as are the waterways around me. Save yourself, live on England’s inland waterways network!

Fifteen Reasons Why Living On A Narrowboat Is A Bad Idea

 

Warning! Living on a narrowboat may be harder than you think. Here’s what you need to know before taking the plunge

Summer is a dangerous time of the year for aspiring boat owners. Gaily painted narrowboat sirens lure novice liveaboard boaters onto the rocks of poorly researched decisions. Towpaths up and down the network are littered with shattered dreams. Unhappy boat owners scowl at passing traffic like bulldogs chewing wasps. These recent liveaboard narrowboat owners are not a happy bunch. The reality of life afloat is a far cry from the gin-swilling snapshot glimpsed on a sunny summer’s day.

They could have saved a great deal of heartache before plundering their pension pot. These new boat owners sell all that they own. They empty their bank account into narrowboats floating close to the silty bed on one of England’s inland waterways and leap aboard for a life of relaxed hedonism. 

And then reality sets in.

I’m sure that you, as a prudent chap or chapess, have researched the lifestyle thoroughly. I’m sure that you know all about the physical, logistical and emotional challenges you’ll face living in a muddy ditch with no fixed address. I bet you’ve invested long hours trawling the internet to make sure that this odd lifestyle will suit you and your spouse/partner/companion/dog/cat/goldfish. But just in case you haven’t researched living on a narrowboat yet, here are a few reasons you might not want to turn your rose-tinted dream into cold and muddy reality.

  1. The lifestyle costs far more than you think
  2. Limited residential mooring availability
  3. Limited living space
  4. Little storage space
  5. You need to be fitter and more flexible than you do living in a house
  6. Living afloat requires some hard physical work
  7. More exposure to potential accidents
  8. Exposure to the elements
  9. It’s easy to feel lonely on the inland waterways
  10. There’s a steep learning curve to living afloat
  11. Keeping all of your floating home warm is a challenge
  12. You to be organised
  13. You have to get far closer to bodily waste than you do in a house
  14. Condensation can sap your will to live if you don’t understand how to prevent it
  15. If you adopt a nomadic continuous cruising lifestyle, receiving post and renewing documents can be a challenge
  16. If you overcome all of the above, you’ll run the risk of enjoying life far too much. And driving your landlubber friends, family and work colleagues mad as you regale them with tales from the cut.

Perceived Low-Cost Accommodation

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard or read about people wanting to live afloat to save money. If that’s your plan, forget it. You won’t be happy. Life on a narrowboat is for those who want to get away from modern-day society and live closer to nature than they would in their bricks and mortar fortress.

The destination for many is London, where house purchase costs and rent are eye-wateringly expensive. Yes, you can buy a narrowboat for a fraction of the purchase price of the smallest London flat. And, yes, your living costs could be less too. That’s IF you ignore your licensing and boat maintenance obligations and CRT’s continuous cruising guidelines if you don’t want to pay for a residential mooring.

Living on a narrowboat can be a low-cost lifestyle, but so can living in a cardboard box in the doorway of a high street shop. Neither would be a happy or healthy way to live. If you want to live comfortably and ensure that your floating home lasts you for many years, you need to budget as much as you would for a small family home.

You’ll find the most detailed breakdown of narrowboat running costs on or off the internet in my Narrowbudget Gold package here.

Residential Mooring Availability

When you license your boat, you have to declare your home mooring, the place where you pay to park your boat. If you don’t, you are in the ‘boat without a home mooring’ category. You are a continuous cruiser and, as such, you are obliged to observe CRT’s constant cruising guidelines.

CRT will email, text or phone you to remind you of your obligations. Continuous cruisers are obliged to move their boats on a progressive journey along the waterways throughout the year. The guidelines are suitable for those who don’t want or need to stay in one place for work, schooling or medical needs. Many owners of boats without a home mooring are watched closely by CRT’s enforcement team. Boat owners move their craft from A to B and back to A again. They are supposed to move from A to B to C to D.

One of the many problems with the system is the lack of clear rules. The distance an owner must move his boat each year is vague. Liveaboard boaters are often at loggerheads with the authorities. In extreme cases, CRT will refuse to relicense boats which haven’t moved enough. Then, if the craft is unlicensed, CRT can begin proceedings to have it removed from the waterways network.

Because of house purchase and rental costs, London’s waterways are overcrowded. So much that touring boaters often struggle to find a place to moor. Having to breast up to another liveaboard boater isn’t unusual. Finding somewhere to empty your cassette toilet is a challenge and living a stress-free life is nigh on impossible.

The simple logistics of complying with CRT’s continuous cruising guidelines is an immense challenge. Many London boaters have mooring “buddies”, fellow boaters moored elsewhere on London’s waterways. In an attempt at compliance, they swap moorings every couple of weeks, sometimes leaving a boating pal to guard “their” mooring until their buddy arrives. Touring narrowboat owners are in for a bit of a shock if they try to moor in one of these guarded spots.

Comply with CRT’s continuous guidelines or secure a residential mooring before you move afloat. You’ll have problems if you don’t, and more of the stress that you tried to leave behind.

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Limited Living And Storage Space

At sixty two feet, Orient gives me more living space than many narrowboats. Still, “more living space” is relative. My cabin is roughly fifty feet long and six feet wide. Three hundred square feet to contain all that I own and provide me with barely enough room to swing a tiny cat.

If you’re thinking about living on a narrowboat, don’t be seduced by a broker’s terminology. He might write something like, “this is a spacious boat which is perfect for full-time living.” 

Rubbish!

What he should tell you is that the boat in question appears to be spacious because it has little or no fitted furniture. If you think you can use your house furniture, forget it. Nothing will fit. To maximise a narrowboat’s limited storage space, you need a cabin filled with fitted furniture.

One of my daily tasks at the marina is boat moving. I have to walk through the boat’s living space looking for keys and switches. It’s a welcome opportunity to compare other narrowboats with Orient. 

Not many of these boats have adequate storage space for liveaboard boat owners.

If you’ve reached the boat viewing stage of your grand narrowboat plan, make sure that you check storage space carefully. Mentally move your possessions onto the boat. Where are you going to store the years of accumulated tat which fits easily into your house? Where will you put the contents of your loft, cellar, garage and garden shed? Where will you store your best set of bone china crockery, your food processor and all the other rarely used kitchen gadgets? What about your tool filled garage complete with a couple of motorbikes? Where will that lot go?

The painful truth is that, even in the most accommodating narrowboat, you won’t have space for much at all. You have to learn to live with less than you did in your spacious house. Much less.

Hanging space is at a premium. You’ll have one tiny wardrobe at best, space for no more than a couple of dozen items. And, ladies, your extensive shoe collection will have to go. You’ll be reduced to wellies, walking boots, summer trainers or Crocs and a pair of heels for those rare occasions when the towpath is dry enough to support them.

Personal Fitness

You need to be much more robust to live afloat than you do in a house. The simplest of tasks take more effort, more time and require more strength than many people are either used to or enjoy.

I offer a Discovery Day service for aspiring narrowboat owners. Most want to live afloat. The day is structured to give as much of an insight into liveaboard life as possible. Their day begins in a small car park at Napton reservoir, following a grassy footpath around the western edge of the twenty-acre lake. They walk along a canalside path to Calcutt Top lock and cross the upstream gate. And then negotiate a hundred metres of muddy towpath to reach Orient’s Discovery Day mooring.

This ten minute start to a boating day has caused a few problems. One generously proportioned lady suggested that the distance she had to walk was unreasonable, all five hundred and fifty metres of it. If you think that a quarter of a mile walk on a level path is too taxing, living afloat is not for you.

The next challenge for many is using a narrowboat walkway topping an oak gate to cross a lock. If the lock is empty, there’s a ten feet drop to a concrete platform drenched by a frothing torrent gushing from the leaky gates. The crossing is a little disconcerting for anyone who fears heights.

The final pre-cruise challenge is getting onto my boat. 

Like many narrowboats, especially liveaboard boats, I have a canvas cover, a cratch cover, over my front deck. It provides me with some useful additional storage space and a wet-weather changing area which prevents too much cabin heat escaping on a windy day. This arrangement requires a degree of flexibility when getting on and off the boat. I have to simultaneously duck under the cratch cover roof and step two feet over the hull side. It’s second nature to seasoned boaters. However, many aspiring narrowboat owners don’t have the flexibility forced upon them by life on the cut.

More than a few of my guests have struggled to negotiate this initial hurdle. Some have needed to use their hands to lift reluctant legs over the hull. My front deck is the least difficult of my two cabin entry points. The back cabin access requires eel-like flexibility.

The hatch is twenty-one inches (54cm) wide with an eighteen inch (45cm) step down into my boatman’s cabin. Getting in from the rear is further complicated by old fashioned controls. My speed wheel throttle control and gear selector handle are fixed to the cabin roof in the hatch space. The best technique is to back in, bend double and step down eighteen inches onto a wooden step/storage box.

Many of my guests grunt, groan and curse as they tackle this manoeuvre. The good news is that constant repetition increases flexibility. Stick with it, and before long you’ll be jumping onto a boat as enthusiastically as a seasoned sailer offered a double rum ration.

Everything about liveaboard life requires more effort. Even the simplest of tasks like walking the length of your floating home requires flexibility, especially on a boat like Orient. The cabin is filled with fitted furniture which narrows the walkways. My engine room is a challenge for many. The doorway from my main bedroom to the engine room is 5’ 0” (152cm) high and 1’5” (44cm) wide. A typical house doorway is roughly 6’6” tall and 2’6” wide. 

I’ve had a few big blokes join me on my training cruises. One, a broad-shouldered giant of a man standing 6’6” tall, wedged himself immovably in the engine room doorway, much to the amusement of his dainty wife.

At 5’10” tall, I’m not the largest person in the world. Even so, I have to walk like an Egyptian to get from the saloon to my boatman’s cabin. And, because I’ve reached a certain age, my forehead bears the scars of many forgotten doorway ducks.

Managing your utilities is hard work, especially if you have a multi-fuel stove. Bags of coal weigh 55lb (25kg) and need manhandling (person handling these days?) inside the boat two or three times a week during the winter months. Gas cylinders are a similar weight. You have the additional challenge with your propane of dragging the heavy bottle onto a rain-slicked bow and then lowering it through an impossibly narrow hatch into its tiny gas locker. Changing the connection requires a degree of flexibility usually only seen on stage.

Even shopping requires a gym-like workout. If you adopt the life of a continuous cruiser, you might not own a car. Taking one with you on your travels requires so much effort that many boaters don’t bother. So you have to walk to the shops, armed with a cavernous rucksack and grim determination. A successful shopping trip is an event worth celebrating. 

Living afloat, especially if you’re a continuous cruiser, forces you to exercise and achieve a degree of flexibility. If you treat all of your daily physical chores as welcome exercise, you’ll enjoy your liveaboard experience. Couch potatoes, you have been warned!

I’ll finish this list next week in part two, and treat you to the unhappy scribblings of a disenchanted boater. (Spoiler alert: Some of us actually enjoy this lifestyle.)

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