A Fierce New Guard Dog For Narrowboat Orient

 

We woke to a tranquil world. Mallards slipped and slid over the solid ice sheet covering the canal and surrounding Orient. The rest day I craved had become an unavoidable necessity. Despite a forecast temperature spike over the next few days, melting ice up to two inches thick would take a while. So we relaxed into the day, sat in front of a Squirrel filled with glowing coals and talked about a new dog.

Bassets aren’t happy solo boaters. Since twelve-year-old Tasha failed to wake on a dreary morning at Tattenhall marina three weeks earlier, our remaining basset, Abbie, has been far more depressed than usual.

Cynthia has rescued a string of bassets. They’re amiable comedians, non-confrontational, affectionate and loyal. They also shed so much fur that owners need to follow behind them with a small truck. The breed is also prone to simultaneous drooling and head shaking which sometimes result in walls which wouldn’t look out of place on an alien film set. They’re big dogs, far too big and heavy for Cynthia to lift easily, or even at all, over a narrowboat gunnel on and off the boat. Great dogs, but not particularly narrowboat friendly.

Cynthia had a few suggestions, but I had ideas of my own. I haven’t owned a pet since I managed a Chef & Brewer pub on a rough Milton Keynes estate in the mid-eighties. I had two then. A ten stone rottweiler, Conan – named after Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian, and an eight-foot-long Burmese python inexplicably named Arthur. I liked impressive and memorable pets.

As we sat in front of our glowing stove, I tried to imagine the perfect dog for me. “I want something to reflect my character,” I told Cynthia. “A manly kind of dog, strong in both body and mind and reasonably intelligent. I want an animal which suits the life I lead and the work I am returning to at Calcutt Boats. What’s more, I want the dog to have a strong name. Thunder, Thor, Conan or Fang maybe.”

Cynthia is a dutiful and perceptive wife. After many hours of careful thought and online research, she found what she thought was the perfect dog, one which would suit both my character and my needs. The breed wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but the idea grew on me as we discovered more about them.

Exhausted by a morning doing very little, we swapped a glowing boat stove for the blazing logs of a country pub fireplace. The Boat in Catherine-de-Barnes offered the perfect remedy for an insatiable appetite generated by two weeks of dawn till dusk cruising. I snuffled my way through a mixed grill the size of an English village, found room for a sugar-laden dessert and staggered back to Orient for an afternoon of inactivity.

The Grand Union canal looked promising on Monday morning. Water rather than ice surrounded the boat. Water that hid a nasty surprise.

A shallow layer of meltwater covered the ice beneath. After my pre-cruise checks and with the engine straining at the mooring lines eager to tackle a new day’s cruising, I thawed the cabin roof ice with a couple of kettles of boiling water. The first time I climbed down the frozen rungs of a lock escape ladder and stepped onto a roof more slippery than a used car salesman was also the last. These days I always make sure that the cabin top is safe to walk on before the day’s cruise begins.
Once the roof was safe for rubber-clad feet, I walked its length smashing the ice which still held Orient firmly on its mooring. I hoped that any frozen patches along our route would quickly disappear as the thermometer raced towards the forecast high of ten degrees. They didn’t.

Forcing a path through ice is hard. Hard on the boat, harder on the paint covering it and hardest of all on the boat owner and his bank balance. Losing expensively applied hull paint is inevitable. Shards of ice flay the waterline steel. Even thin ice can reveal bright steel after an hour or two. Scraping blacking off canalside boats can be lead to even more heartache. Moored boaters hear a distant hiss and crackle. They know a boat is coming. They open side hatches and windows, pop heads out of engine bays while they pretend to carry out routine maintenance. They’re really waiting and watching, noting the cracks which radiate from the bow of the oncoming boat. They look for broken sheets with ragged edges, forced at speed into their own waterline. God help any ice breaker who moves past a line of moored boats at anything faster than the slowest crawl.

That presents the helmsman of the moving boat with a dilemma. He needs to power through patches of thick ice. Thick ice often thins, so the crawling boat surges forward, forcing jagged chunks at all and sundry. Too little power and the moving boat shudders to a halt, close enough to the boats they pass to be offered candid opinions on the wisdom of cruising on frozen canals at all.

My problem wasn’t so much with the boats I passed, there were precious few, but with the direction in which the cracking ice forced us to move. As the ice thickens the boat slows and the more likely the bow is to follow the path of the ice cracks. On several occasions that direction was towards the offside shallows.

No matter how quickly I reacted, Orient was slow to respond. By the time I noticed the bow veering off the centre channel, dialled down my engine speed with the speed wheel, slipped the boat into reverse and wound my throttle up again, the bow had usually strayed too far into dangerous territory. The cabin would tip further and further askew until my walkie talkie would crackle with the inevitable response from Cynthia in the galley below. “Is this a narrowboat or a sailing ship? All the cupboard doors have flown open, we’ve lost a glass and a china plate!”

Reversing our course was usually an exhausting and frustrating affair. The bow would be firmly glued to a mud flat by then and the stern resting in loose silt. Without the aid of passing boats or towpath users, the only way to escape the canal’s offside embrace was to pole the stern into the centre channel. Once there, the propeller would hopefully have enough water to provide some meaningful reverse thrust and help drag the boat free.

ur first grounding took twenty minutes to escape. The second lasted three-quarters of an hour. Sweat trickled down my back despite the shaded cuttings’ icy chill and shedding most of my insulating layers. I saw stars and an end to our cruising day. I knew the next grounding would be our last. I didn’t have the energy to press. After four hours of back-breaking work I had to admit defeat.

Our short cruising day ended at Knowle’s flight of five locks. I needed water. There was a tap at both the top and the bottom of the flight. A friendly volunteer lock keeper offered to help me through the flight so i ignored the first tap. The five locks took half an hour. Forcing my way through thick ice to the water point below the flight took just as long. Discovering that it had been turned off was a bitter disappointment, especially when the lock keeper told me the tap above the flight was running freely.

Moored for a day on the water point below the Knowle flight

Moored for a day on the water point below the Knowle flight

The canal ahead of us was frozen and the water point unusable. We tempted fate and the possible wrath of other water seeking boaters by staying the rest of the day and night on the water point. No one bothered us. We enjoyed a peaceful and trouble-free night before the next day’s assault on the twenty-one lock Hatton flight.

We reached Hatton lock 26 on the twelfth day of our cruise south from Tattenhall marina. Over the twelve days, we passed just ten moving boats. I dropped down the first lock and then moored on the lock landing before the second, outside the excellent Canal and River Trust managed Hatton Locks Cafe. After seeing an average of less than one cruising boat a day, what were the chances of one wanting to use the lock landing while Cynthia and I stopped long enough for a bite to eat? Sod’s Law and all that. Just as I finished tying my stern line, a CRT volunteer appeared out of nowhere to ask me to move. He was behind us in a maintenance tug.

Two tunnels at Shrewley, one for boats, one for pedestrians

Two tunnels at Shrewley, one for boats, one for pedestrians

After a little negotiation, I set the lock ahead of me for the tug, they sailed past and Orient stayed where she was. We walked into the cafe to see if the sign behind the counter lived up to its promise. “We don’t serve fast food. We serve home cooked food as fast as we can.” It’s good news for passing boaters. Their food is wonderful.

Hatton locks cafe - An oasis for the weary boater.

Hatton locks cafe – An oasis for the weary boater.

Despite the energy boost from a delicious slab of homemade cottage pie, I could only manage a dozen locks before darkness defeated me. It wasn’t a problem. There are plenty of mooring opportunities on the Hatton flight, and no one is fighting for them on cold February days.

I grounded again the following day. We flew down the remains of the Hatton flight, dropped down through the two Cape locks and the spotted a possible mooring in central Leamington Spa close to a retail park offering food cupboard salvation.
A seductive row of sturdy bollards lured me onto a shallow mud flat. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t reverse off or move the boat an inch with a pole. After sweating for half an hour, I tied my two centre lines together, fixed the long rope to a stern deck dolly and tossed it to a pair of passing runners. The army types, all brawn and can-do attitude, huffed and puffed and did their level best to slip right out of their teeny tiny shorts. Their manly grunting worked wonders, especially for Cynthia who watched slack-jawed from the galley porthole. Orient’s stern slid into the centre channel and then onto a mooring next to Liddl where I should have stopped in the first place.

We shopped and then cruised some more, mooring at dusk on another landing, this time on a remote lock on the Fosse flight. It was our last scheduled night out on the cut. A gentle cruise and nineteen undemanding locks the following day brought us home. How to Calcutt Boats, the beautiful location where I have moored and lived for most of the last decade.

 

Orient has done us proud. The Eighty-three-year-old Lister engine has performed tirelessly for one hundred and twenty-five hours since our first attempt to cruise south on Sunday 29th December. The freshly blacked hull has bashed and scraped its way through one hundred and eighty-eight locks and many miles of frozen canal. The engine and hull have passed the test with flying colours, although much of the lower part of the boat looks like it’s been on the wrong side of an argument with Mike Tyson.

Orient has done us proud, but she still needs a lot of tender loving care. The Kabola boiler often fails to stay alight, nor does it provide heat to the bathroom, bedroom or engine room radiators. We hope a replacement pot will cure the problem. Time will tell.

The washing machine has sprung a leak. We hope it’s a simple fix. Determining the cause will involve extracting the packing which has been jammed in place to stop the appliance from shaking when it spins. Until that issue is resolved, we will have to use the marina facilities.

The generator had what may have been a terminal fit on our cruise south. We need a diagnosis from an engine doctor sometime soon. Fortunately, we still have our trusty Honda suitcase generator for emergency situations, like the one we have now.

Our new mooring is in the little-used north-west corner of Calcutt Boats’ Locks marina. I laid a one hundred metre power cable to the mooring three years ago. The cable was buried under tonnes of clay to protect it. The protection didn’t work. Someone, possibly equipped with a very sharp gardening tool, appears to have nicked the cable. It will need replacing before Orient can have shore power.

Apart from these teething problems, our new home is pretty much perfect. All we have to do now is finish paying for her. A task which will be made much less painful if we sell our Dutch cruiser which is currently moored in South Holland. At least I will have a delightful distraction after a hard day’s work.

We hired a car and drove to Whitby yesterday. Enterprise Car Hire is exceptionally boater friendly. They picked us up at the marina and drove us ten miles to their Daventry branch to collect a Hyundai i10. The comfortable little car cost us £37 for the weekend, roughly half the cost of the fuel for the seven-hour drive.

Our trip north was to collect the new dog Cynthia has spent weeks looking for. Remember the criteria? Rough, tough, muscles like a bodybuilder on steroids and with a name to make an Italian hit man proud? Here’s our new mutt.

Meet Orients guard dog - Intruders beware!

Meet Orients guard dog – Intruders beware!

She’s a Coton de Tulear, a pocket pup popular with Madagascan royalty. She’s neither rough nor tough but has many redeeming features. She doesn’t shed so there’s no wading knee deep through discarded fur. She’s also surprisingly quiet for a little dog. We’ve had her on the boat for twenty-four hours now. Apart from a low growl when I walked into the boat this morning, she hasn’t uttered a sound. Although she’s in a completely alien environment, she’s already made herself at home. She walks to heel and responds to her new name. She came to us with the name Lady. We prefer Sadie. She doesn’t seem to mind what she’s called, as long as calling her involves a little affection.

Sadie is the perfect boat dog as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I’ll look as though I’m more comfortable with a handbag than a hand grenade, but looks aren’t as important as having a gentle companion, one who is reputedly an expert at rat catching. Visitors, you have been warned.

1

A Race On An Icy Canal To Beat A Birmingham Blockage

 

Seven days to go. Seven days to cover a mere forty-three miles. How difficult could that be?

That was our goal when we left Market Drayton last Monday morning. The sky was clear and the canal untroubled by the fierce gusts which had buffeted us all the previous day.

We needed to reach central Birmingham and the bottom of the thirteen lock Farmer’s Bridge flight by last light on Sunday 3rd February. The flight was scheduled to close at 8 am the following morning and, I thought at the time, close any route to Napton Junction.

The weather forecast concerned me. Circumstances conspired against us. We would be travelling at the very worst time of the year thanks to the delay with Orient’s remedial work. The forecast was for heavy snow the following Thursday and, more worryingly, a string of sub-zero nights and only marginally warmer days. Snow would be an inconvenience, mildly uncomfortable and slightly challenging when negotiating locks. Thick ice could stop us dead in our tracks. Sure, we could batter our way through ice up to an inch thick providing I didn’t mind losing all the paint I had carefully applied to the waterline just five weeks earlier. We prayed for balmy days and mild nights. No one listened.

We met the day’s first challenge at Tyreley’s five lock flight where the canal runs through a dismal sandstone cutting. The channel is narrow, very narrow, and difficult to negotiate in a deep boat. I grounded too far away from the first lock landing to jump ashore so had to painfully and slowly reverse for a hundred yards to a spot where I could reach the bank. There was nowhere to tie a rope to on the rocky canalside ledge, so I had to leave a trailing centre line on the towpath and hope the boat behaved itself.

Entering the first lock on the Tyreley flight

Entering the first lock on the Tyreley flight

Evidence of the previous day’s high winds lay beside and sometimes across the locks throughout the flight. Fortunately, our only moving boat sighting of the day, a CRT workboat, ascended the flight ahead of us clearing the way. We ground our way through the flight and then entered the deep and dismal world of Woodseaves mile long cutting. The CRT workboat saved the day again. A wind-felled tree leaned across the canal, its lower branches blocking the channel altogether. Two contractors worked tirelessly for an hour using cutting edge technology to clear the way. One guy held the workboat in place while the other slipped and slid over his cabin’s ice-slicked roof. He used a pruning saw tied to a boat hook with a length of old rope to carve out a tunnel wide and high enough for Orient to pass.

CRT contractors clearing a Woodseaves Cutting blockage

CRT contractors clearing a Woodseaves Cutting blockage

The first water point we stopped at had been turned off. Fortunately the second worked after being given the kiss of life by a kettle of boiling water. We had enough water for another week. Now, all we needed was coal.

After eight and a half hours of high embankments, deep cuttings and painfully slow bumping-along-the-bottom progress, we moored on a muddy towpath in the gloom of a tree-shaded cutting at Gnosall Heath.

I checked the weather forecast the following morning. The prediction remained unsettling. Plummeting temperatures, ice and blankets of snow. I steered clear of anything written by the tabloids online. They suggested that Britain’s Big Freeze was going to decimate the population and bring the country to its knees.

The day’s cruising routine remained the same. Up at 6am to clean the ash out of both fires and coax them back to life. Then the engine checks; dip the fuel pump, gearbox and engine oil, fill the header tank and fill and tighten the grease points. By 7.30am I was waiting for enough light before setting off.

Our exit from Gnossal Heath was delayed by a shopping trip. I scoured both Gnossal Heath and Gnossal for anything worth eating. I don’t know why I bothered. Neither village has much to offer passing boaters.

Fortunately, the cruising day was short. We travelled ten miles and negotiated a single lock in five hours. Our mooring for the night was an hour north of Atherley Junction and the start of our three-day urban cruise.

Five days to go. The thermometer crept ever south. Weather forecasters still predicted heavy snow and nights cold enough to worry the elderly. And concern me too. We were down to three bags of coal and a single string net of kindling. I prayed again for nights without ice. No one listened this time either.

I paused briefly at the stop lock at Autherley Junction. Good news and bad news at Napton Narrowboats. They usually sold coal, but they were out of stock. I turned right at the junction and pulled onto the lock landing at the bottom of the Wolverhampton Twenty One.

I wasn’t looking forward to our passage through Wolverhampton and Birmingham. My one and only narrowboat visit to England’s second largest city hadn’t been particularly pleasant. On a long April day, I skirted Birmingham’s south-east on a Warwick Ring circuit. The route included Camp Hill and Garrison locks. I stopped four times on the Camp Hill flight to clear my propeller. The locks and the pounds between were a sea of plastic bottles and bags and discarded clothing. I saw more canalside than waterborne rubbish on the Garrison flight. Three emaciated men in tattered clothing slumped next to a burned out building by one of the locks. Drunk by mid-morning on special strength lager and bumper bottles of mind-rotting cider, they mumbled obscenities to me as I passed. They were harmless but unpleasant, very similar to the bobbing contents of the lock they sat beside.

I expected more of the same on this trip. I knew we would have to moor overnight somewhere within the urban sprawl for at least two nights, more if the forecast ice and snow caused delays.

I worried about utilities. Would the taps at water points be turned on and would they be ice free? Tracking our water supply is difficult. There’s an empty hole within a small metal frame to the side of the pine steps in front of the water tank. It’s labelled “Water Gauge”. That’s another entry on our lengthening to do list. We think we have a 700-800 litre tank. It should last us two weeks with careful management and a reluctance to bathe. We don’t know when we’ll run out, so we have to fill the tank as often as possible.

Heating fuel was another concern. Orient is not an efficient space to heat. There are three different areas; the forward cabin which includes the saloon, galley, bathroom and bedroom, the engine room and the boatman’s cabin. Our Squirrel does a passable job of heating the forward cabin back as far as the galley. It provides little meaningful heat to the bedroom.

Orient’s boatman’s cabin has a Premiere range. It doesn’t heat the cabin so much as melt everything that’s in it. The thermometer showed minus four when I wrote this section, but I sat typing on the cabin’s small fold-down table with the back doors wide open. It’s overkill for heating such a small space but brilliant for baking potatoes.

The boat’s centre section can, in theory, be heated by the Kabola boiler. There’s a towel rack in the bathroom, a radiator in the bedroom and another in the engine room. “The Kabola heating system is super simple to turn on,” previous owner Stuart told me. “All you need to do is turn the thermostat up until it clicks and, voila, you have hot radiators!” No matter what I’ve tried so far, no click and no central heating. At least we’re saving on money for heating diesel.

So we have three different heat sources, but only two of them work. We have two coal-burning stoves to feed. A twenty-five-kilo bag of coal briquettes lasts about three days. I used about the same just for one stove on my last boat. Orient’s multifuel stoves burn more efficiently than the stove on James and Orient’s spray foam insulation retains heat much more effectively than the James’ polystyrene. More efficient coal burning maybe, but we still needed to ensure that we had enough.

Multiple sub-zero days and a string of lock closures meant that we could be stuck for several days in one spot at the coldest time of the year. I had seen little activity on the waterways we cruised. Many of the boatyards appeared to be closed for the season, nor had I passed any roving fuel boats. Finding a canalside fuel supply was proving to be more of a challenge than I expected. I don’t mind walking a mile or two to do grocery shopping, but the thought of walking a similar distance carrying coal didn’t appeal to me at all.

So I tied up on the lock landing beneath the Wolverhampton Twenty One somewhat preoccupied. I didn’t notice the solid sheet of ice which filled the bottom lock. Ice in locks is a right royal pain in the backside. My expected five-hour lock passage became eight.

The ice was still thin enough to push through with the boat, but too thick to open the gates completely. Orient’s pole joined me on the lock ascent. On the many occasions when a gate became obstructed by ice, I swept it out of harm’s way with the pole.

My pace slowed even more halfway up the flight when I ran out of water. That’s when I fell in love with Wolverhampton dog walkers and cyclists. As I crept through a low pound painfully slowly a dog walker gave a cheery wave and told me that contractors had drained a lock at the head of the flight.

The bottom lock in the Wolverhampton 21 flight

The bottom lock in the Wolverhampton 21 flight

The Farmer’s Bridge flight was my main concern, but the Wolverhampton Twenty One was also scheduled to close for maintenance the following Monday. Had they decided to close the flight early? I was about to phone CRT when another dog walker shouted over to me. “I’m going home in a minute. I’ll jump in my car and go to the head of the flight for you to see what’s happening.” How kind. A cyclist also stopped, spoke to the dog walker and decided that he could take half an hour out of his day to make the return trip to the problem lock on his bike. Another unexpected act of kindness.

He returned half an hour later with good news. The contractors were measuring up for the following week. They would be finished long before I reached them and taking most of the flight’s water with them judging by the increasingly shallow pounds.

No sooner had the cyclist left than a CRT employee arrived with a big smile and a windless. “Don’t worry about the low pounds,” he reassured me. “Give me half an hour, and I’ll run some water down the flight for you.” God bless all CRT employees.

As darkness fell, I cruised out of the final lock and on to a superb mooring in Wolverhampton city centre next to a small park. We were away from the towpath and felt very safe. It was the perfect urban mooring, which was just as well. Leaving the following day wasn’t easy.

Pleasant mooring in central Wolverhampton

Pleasant mooring in central Wolverhampton

I woke to a thermometer showing minus seven and a half an inch of ice surrounding the boat. We had four days to reach the other side of Birmingham before the route closed. It wouldn’t have been a problem under normal conditions, but the ice was a big problem. Added to the cruising difficulties we needed both water and coal. We really needed to move, but would we able to fight our way through the frozen stuff? What would happen if we couldn’t couldn’t break our way through? If we missed our Farmer’s Bridge deadline, we would have to find another route south. The only one I could think of was back up the Shroppie to the Middlewich branch and then down the Trent and Mersey. That would add another couple of weeks to the journey. The alternative was to have Orient lifted out and shipped by road. I phoned a few local boatyards. None of them had lifts on site. The cost at one for bringing in a crane was £550, plus the cost of road transport and putting Orient back in the water at the other end. The price was too high. We needed to try ice breaking. I decided to walk along our route for half an hour trying to judge the ice thickness and the chance of forging a path through it.

I spotted a CRT workboat fifteen minutes later idling on an offside mooring, a trail of broken ice behind it. If I could reach the furrow it had ploughed I could follow that at least part of the way. I hurried back to Orient.

We fought our way off our mooring and onto the service point at Broad Street basin for water. While I defrosted the tap with two kettles of boiling water, coaxed the ice plugs out of our own hose and filled our tank the broken expanse of water behind us began to freeze again. By the time we reached the path opened by the CRT tug, it was a jumbled mess of refrozen ice. We crashed into the first of it and said goodbye to our month old hull paint.

The semi-broken track continued as far as Factory Locks where I had to turn to avoid a stoppage further along the main line. To prevent damaging moored boats through Tipton, and angering their owners, I reduced our speed to a crawl. Slowing down meant reducing our icebreaking capability. Orient was dead in the water by the time we reached Tipton Junction.

I ate the hot meal Cynthia brought up to me on the back deck as the bow butted ineffectively against inch thick ice. I had a choice. I could either reverse a few hundred yards onto a line of iced in moorings or try to break my way through and hope that the ice thinned again further down the canal. The worry of missing Farmer’s Bridge made the decision for me. I reversed fifty feet, twisted the speed wheel, said a prayer and charged forward.

Cynthia likened the rest of the day to be like living inside a tumble dryer. The afternoon wasn’t the most peaceful she’s ever enjoyed on board. The day wasn’t much more pleasant on the back deck. I carried on until dusk. The canal ice varied from quarter of an inch to a particularly unpleasant spot one and a half inches thick, with the odd patch of clear water between. We bypassed Oldbury and then through the scaffolding forest beneath the M5 motorway at West Bromwich. Finally, aided by Orient’s tunnel light, we found Smethwick locks and forced our way onto the frozen lock landing. Then I spent the rest of the evening trying to warm up.

Winter cruising is quite pleasant on Orient providing I remember or have time to keep the stove burning. I focussed so much on keeping the boat ploughing along a central channel the fire had died down hours earlier. I was very, very cold.

We woke to slightly better conditions, but a rather depressing view. We were moored opposite a burned out toll house on a strip of green through a sea of ugly housing. This is not a place I would want to stay when warmer weather encourages the local single digit IQ males of dubious parentage to venture outdoors.

The burned out toll house at Smethwick

The burned out toll house at Smethwick

Three locks and an hour on an icy canal brought us to neat and tidy central Birmingham and Sherbourne Wharf. We’d made it. The first of the Farmer’s Bridge flight was two minutes away, and we had found a trading coal supplier. Hooray!

Farmer’s Bridge was a delight. Thirteen easy to negotiate locks and then a short cruise to a super mooring in a clean area close to Aston University. And yet another cold night.

A view up the Farmer's bridge flight

A view up the Farmer’s bridge flight

The following morning I walked the length of both the Ashted and the Camp Hill flights. Many of the locks were obstructed by ice, but we decided to push on towards a much-anticipated rest day at Catherine-de-Barnes the following day.

The icy lock flight routine continued. Over half the locks needed jagged pieces of ice cleared from behind the gates. The first flight was smooth enough apart from a short but nerve-wracking passage through Ashted tunnel. I had been warned (thank you Pete Earley) that the tunnel was low enough to remove the expensively applied paint on the cabin’s handrail. Setting the next lock downstream would remove an inch or two of water in the tunnel pound and possibly save the handrails. I set the next lock and lowered the water but, despite having a boat with a low air draught, we still touched the uneven offside tunnel roof. I didn’t examine the damage at the time. I don’t like crying in public.

Camp Hill bottom lock was a mess. It didn’t look as though it had been used for many days. Bottles, plastic bags, both empty and full, and shreds of clothing obscured a lock mouth blocked by ice. Breaking through the mess with Orient’s bow was easy. Stopping the refuse from swirling across the stern and down onto the propeller was impossible.

I developed a new routine for the Camp Hill flight. I used my pole to break and clear the ice from behind the lock gates and a boat hook to remove the shit from my propeller. The flight passage was hard work, especially when I tried to negotiate the hairpin bend before lock four. The ice caked pound was low, very low. I should have spotted the tide mark on the canalside concrete. However, trying to make a U-turn on an ice-caked lock pound is a demanding affair. I didn’t notice so grinding to a halt halfway into the lock came as a surprise. Neither reverse nor forward worked. The water was too low. I had to climb onto the cabin roof, walk to the front of the boat where the cabin was highest and vault onto the lock wall carrying my centre line. The only solution was to run some water through the lock from the upstream pound to float Orient out of the mud. Doing that would require so much water that I would drain the upstream pound too. To ensure that all the remaining locks held enough water I had to walk to the head of the flight opening every paddle I passed. Half an hour later Orient was afloat and the rest of the flight passable.

We stopped briefly at the service point at the top of the flight. Thanks to an eight-foot-high needle sharp metal fence protecting it, the facilities block is in first class condition. It’s worth negotiating the Camp Hill flight just to pay a visit. I emptied one of our cassettes and cursed the owner of the rusty wreck of a boat moored on the water point. Then we continued ice breaking.

This was the most challenging icebreaking of the trip so far. Thick ice and a shallow canal made life very difficult. If I cruised slowly to prevent the stern digging into the loose leaves, twigs, cloth and plastic obscuring the canal bed I didn’t have enough power to force myself through. So I had to wind up the throttle to break the ice and lower my precious propeller into endless snagging opportunities. For half an hour I had a small tree stuck to the rudder. It’s lower branches, aided by the thrashing propeller, swept the canal bed clean. The debris which avoided my spinning bronze blades clung to the sapling’s trailing branches until I had my own tree decorated with multicolour plastic leaves.

I stopped every few hundred yards to give the propeller a blast in reverse in an attempt at throwing the rubbish off. Either that or remove the weed hatch to give the propeller a thrashing with a boat hook I kept within reach.

As the afternoon wore on the ice thickened as much as the water thinned. I ground to a halt as I tried to creep past a moored boat on the tree-lined cutting north of Catherine-de-Barnes. Tired, cold, hungry and frustrated, I didn’t have enough patience for any finesse. Try as I might, brute force didn’t work. I gently switched between reverse and forward gears, moving ever so slowly backwards and forwards before finding a route through.

Five minutes later, just two hundred yards from our intended village mooring the same thing happened again. This time Orient wouldn’t move at all. All that reversing achieved was to swing the bow into the bank. At least I could jump onto the towpath and try pushing and pulling the boat. It wouldn’t move. Two male dog walkers offered to help. They helped me push Orient sideways into the channel centre where I hoped there was a little more water.

The owner of the GRP cruiser I had slowed to avoid turned up while we were huffing and puffing. I asked if many boats grounded on this stretch of canal. I know Orient is relatively deep, but there are plenty of narrowboats with a similar draft. Her reply? “You’re the first boat to get stuck this year.”

“How many boats have you seen pass this year so far?” I asked.

She smiled. “You’re the first boat this year!”

Thanks for that.

Back in marginally deeper water, I managed to creep past Mrs Comedian and smash enough ice a little further on to moor for the night, and for the following day. A freezing night was forecast. I suspected that cruising the next morning would be out of the question, not that I had the energy. I was looking forward to a rest day and a mixed grill on a dustbin-sized plate at the village pub. Boating is an exceptionally effective form of exercise. Because of that I’m eating like a horse and still losing weight.

Much as the journey south has been challenging so far, I’m enjoying every minute of it. Each day has been an adventure, a set of hurdles to overcome. The cruising is physically demanding, mentally taxing but very rewarding. Much as I’m looking forward to reaching Napton Junction towards the end of next week, a part of me wishes the journey could continue. But I don’t live in a world where money grows on trees. I need to return to work for a while, long enough to plan and save for the next adventure.

Discovery Day Update

I should be back at Calcutt Boats within the next week. That means that I am now in a position to take bookings for winter experience days. I have taken a few already but I still have space for one or two later this month. You will only see dates on my calendar for April onwards. I have to make special arrangements for winter dates because of possible disruption from ice or snow. If you want to arrange a winter date you can either email me or call me on 07868 981943. Click here to find out more about my Discovery Day service or click here to check my available dates between April and December.

Cynthia Says…

“Where one door closes another opens”

Back in 1996 when I lived in rural Pennsylvania, I met and “adopted” my first Basset Hound that I plucked off the street.  Since then I have had so many of this breed I have lost count.  Over the years I have had many other breeds that I loved, but for some reason the Basset has really resonated with me.  All of this has now changed after the untimely loss of our beloved Tasha.  Abbie is such a dear, but is rather lost since her good buddy passed away.
 
So I started doing some research to find a smaller breed that is non shedding and will tick the boxes for us in what we want in a dog.  I came up with the rare Coton de Tulear from Madagascar.  These dogs were the companions of ladies on cruise ships and also belonged to royalty there.  And they are excellent ratters–not that this will matter to us, but certainly an admirable trait along with being  great companion dogs, easy to train and smart.   They are part of the Bichon family.  Abbie will be thrilled!
 
I know this loss of Tasha has been harder on me than Paul–she was my last Basset from when I was living in Vermont.  I owned her mother as well.  She was a simple dog who did everything I asked without complaint.  She was extremely adaptable to all our various living situations.
 
I think that when an event like this occurs, it is important to reassess where you are and what you want.  Having at least one dog that is easy maintenance will make a big difference.  That means I only have to clean up after one shedding dog instead of two!  And for traveling around she will be small enough that she can be carried in a backpack–easy-peezy.
 
I am looking forward to this new chapter in our life. And Abbie will get special care being the final Basset.
 
Have a good week and stay warm.  Hopefully by this time next week we will be ensconced back at Calcutt when another chapter begins.
 
 
 
 

A Winter Cruise On The Shropshire Union Canal

 

“I want to be able to relax more. I’m fed up working so hard. I’m going to sell my house and use the equity to live a life of leisure on England’s inland waterways. My lifestyle will be so much easier than the hectic pace I endure at the moment.”

I’ve received dozens of emails like this over the years. Looking at canal life through rose-tinted glasses is easy when you walk along a summer towpath admiring brightly coloured narrowboats chugging slowly past, crewed by sun-bronzed boaters enjoying a leisurely cruise. You might see the same boat further along the canal moored against a grassy bank, the owners relaxing in comfortable chairs, sipping from wine filled glasses. You can’t wait to return home, turn on your computer and spend a happy evening daydreaming as you browse through endless adverts selling the promise of an idyllic life afloat.

It’s true. Living afloat can be a real joy, providing you don’t mind far more physical work than you’re used to in your spacious bricks and mortar home. I love the lifestyle. I treat the occasional hard labour as much needed exercise, but not everyone feels the same way.

This was my morning earlier this week. What do you think; pain or pleasure?

I woke at 7.30am following a restless night. We have two “double” beds on Orient. Both of them are designed for dwarfs. At 5’10” I’m not the tallest of people, but lying on either bed makes me feel like a giant. I can rest on my back on the main cabin’s cross bed if I don’t mind head and feet rammed against the hull under the gunnel. There’s a couple of inches less space in the boatman’s cabin cross bed. The only way I can lay on my back there is by sleeping diagonally with my ankles crossed and my head jammed against a pine beam. There isn’t really enough room for two people to sleep on either bed. Cynthia has the more spacious bed up front. I have the cramped but cosy den at the back of the boat.

Sleeping isn’t always comfortable, but waking to the sound of water rippling against the hull is a joy. I can’t relax and listen to the soothing natural sounds for too long though. There’s too much to do.

Orient has a Morso Squirrel stove in the main cabin and a Premiere range in the boatman’s cabin. We use coal briquettes on both. I load the Squirrel with briquettes and reduce the stove’s airflow before we retire for the night. There’s not much unburned coal left the following morning, but what remains is still alight. My first morning job is to empty the stove’s ash pan. I make sure that I remove the ash before I riddle the grate. If I don’t, I’ll have a steel tray full of red hot embers producing deadly carbon monoxide. Emptying the burning embers into the marina’s waste bin would cause a fire, and leaving the ash anywhere inside the boat could poison us. I tip the cold ash into the site wheelie bin, riddle the grate, load the stove with fresh briquettes and open the vents to get the fire blazing and warm the cabin. Then I scurry to the stern to tend to the boatman’s cabin range.

Orient's Morso Squirrel Stove

Orient’s Morso Squirrel Stove

This one takes longer.

I can’t leave the Premiere range burning overnight. I would be boiled alive, so I wake to a cold stove. Once I’ve emptied the ash pan and riddled the grate I throw in a firelighter, light it, add a handful of kindling, wait for that to reduce to a glowing bed of embers, and then add a few coal briquettes. I add some more once they’re burning well, providing I have some more to add. I didn’t on the morning in question.

Restocking our coal supply involved a three hundred yard walk to the marina office towing a two-wheeled steel trolley and then hauling the cart back to the boat loaded with two hundred pounds of coal. Coal which needed putting away. There isn’t much space on a narrowboat so storing large fuel bags is always an exercise in ingenuity. The contents of one went in a coal box on top of the well deck locker, and then I tucked another two bags into the well deck corners. The final two went in the bow locker, which involved taking everything crushable out first so the forty-four-pound bags could lie in the locker bottom without crushing everything else. This exercise was more exciting than usual thanks to the thick layer of ice on the bow which made trying to stand on it holding a cumbersome bag of coal a little tricky.

Having worked up a healthy appetite for breakfast, I walked into the cabin and another job.

“The red light’s just lit up on the toilet,” Cynthia revealed, pulling up the hood of her fleece jacket. The Squirrel takes a while to heat the front of the cabin and struggles to provide any meaningful heat to either the bathroom or the bedroom. Our new Kabola pot should solve that problem if it ever arrives. In the meantime, the boat is a little chilly when we wake.

The Thetford toilet red light is a warning that the cassette is filled to the brim with forty pints of a toxic slurry. To ignore it is to risk a flood of the very worst kind. I ignored it once as a narrowboat novice. Never again.

So I made my second trip of the day to the marina facilities block and endured five minutes in the enclosed Elsan cubicle thanking my lucky stars that I have a terrible sense of smell. I made both journeys to and from the marina office with my head down to avoid stinging windblown sleet.

After a quick breakfast, brunch really thanks to my long list of morning jobs, I battled with our Kabola boiler again. We think it’s the original boat boiler, seventeen years old and a bit of a pain to light. The instructions are simple enough. Open the fuel cock to allow a fifty pence piece pool of diesel to form in the bottom of the boiler pot, drop in a sliver of burning firelighter, wait until the diesel has ignited and is burning well and then open the fuel cock again.

The first problem was monitoring the fuel flow into the pot. There’s a tiny door on the boiler’s front face. Despite my very best contortions and a faceful of soot from trying to get my head through the little opening, I couldn’t see the pot bottom. The only solution was to confiscate one of Cynthia’s makeup mirrors without her noticing. Then I went through the kind of double-jointed bending that made Harry Houdini famous trying to angle the mirror towards the pot base and simultaneously attempting to illuminate it with a torch.

That was the easy part. Checking that the correct amount of primer diesel flowed into the pot base wasn’t easy, but slipping a blazing sliver of firelighter through a narrow opening in a cylindrical wire cage in the pot centre would have tested the patience of a saint. Getting the diesel to stay alight has defeated me on each of my four attempts so far. The pot’s condition doesn’t help. It’s been attacked with a variety of industrial-strength liquids, wire brushes and even a small hammer. Many of the pot’s air vents are still caked with calcified deposits. The boiler can’t suck in enough air to stay alight. There’s a new pot winging its way to us from Germany. We hoped it would arrive before we left for Calcutt Boats. It didn’t.

My morning jobs took until lunchtime to complete. Then I made four more trips to the marina facilities block to take, wash and dry two large bags of dirty laundry. We had a working washing machine on board at the time. It washed but didn’t dry. Drying wet laundry in the tight confines of a narrowboat isn’t the easiest or quickest of jobs. Using the marina’s facilities costs more money but saves on time and effort.

The washing machine sprung a leak towards the end of the week. It’s packed so tightly into a wooden frame to stop it leaping about when it spins that I can’t remove it. Yet another piece of Orient’s machinery to bite the dust. Yet another entry on our we’ll-fix-it-when-we-have-money to do list.

There you go. Not all of these things need doing every day. Some of them are seasonal. Some can be eliminated by using better systems or technology. None of the daily chores are a problem if you have the right attitude. Do YOU have what it takes? Of course you do. The point is, does this way of life appeal to you?

All of these tedious tasks paled into insignificance midweek. Wednesday was a sad day for the Orient Smiths. hur family of four became three.

Twelve-year-old Tasha had been off-colour for a few days. Her health appeared to improve on Tuesday when she showed an interest in food and smelling anything foul on her short walks. She curled up on a fleece lined bed next to Cynthia that night. We woke to a cold boat and an even colder dog in the morning and then worked through the logistics of moving her to her final resting place without a car.

Sleepy Meadow Pet Cemetery in Sandbach saved the day. Owner Sue and her husband Terry collected Tasha within a couple of hours of calling them. They charged us a reasonable fee for cremation and then returned the ashes to us twenty-four hours later. Sue read a poem over Tasha’s covered body before they took her away. The reading pleased Cynthia as much as it embarrassed me. Given the difficult circumstances, we couldn’t have been treated better. Tasha will be resting in that luxurious boned filled kennel in the sky now. I hope she remembers us.

Tasha on a Dutch Waterways Cruise

Tasha on a Dutch Waterways Cruise

With all of our planned remedial work done by Thursday, and Tasha’s loose ends tied up, we set sail for our Calcutt Boats base at first light on Friday. I looked forward to the cruise. I couldn’t wait to tackle the four locks which thwarted my single handed boating attempts a month earlier.I had come to the conclusion that patience was the key. I failed at these four locks on my first attempt because I tried to open the lock gates far too quickly. I had to resort to nudging the upstream gates with Orient in gear. Even then, I needed the help of dog walkers and hikers to get them open.

Patience. It doesn’t come readily to me. I needed focus on the journey rather than the destination, stop and smell the roses, and all that good stuff.

So I exercised a great deal of patience. I opened both upstream paddles of the first lock, climbed into the cabin to make myself a coffee, brought the coffee outside, sat on a balance beam and enjoyed the landscape of rolling hills around me. I finished my coffee, polished some brass, read a few pages of Pearson’s excellent guide to the Shroppie and cleaned some more brass. After waiting for half an hour for the water level to rise the last difficult inch, I gave up. I managed that lock and the three which followed thanks to our Lister’s underwhelming twenty-one horses.

Apart from the initial challenging locks and the frustration of trying to hold a steady line going through the strong cross-current from the weir at each lock mouth, the cruise was a delight. I passed just four moving boats on the first day, none until early afternoon. I had the waterway to myself on day two. Not a single cruising boat on my twenty locks, nine-mile route. Maybe the weather had something to do with it.

Yesterday was as mild as it was wet. Standing on Orient’s back deck in the rain, even torrential downpours isn’t a problem. I wear warm clothes under a set of bombproof Guy Coten deep-sea fisherman’s waterproofs. I stay as dry as a bone all day, providing I don’t work up a sweat. If there are locks along the route, Saturday’s journey included twenty of them, the inside of my plastic waterproofs quickly turns into a sauna.

There’s been a lot of rain recently. The towpath along much of the route was liquid mud. Unpleasant to walk through but not as much of a problem as rain-slicked, moss-covered steps and narrow lock walkways. I slipped half a dozen times on Saturday’s cruise.

There’s snow forecast for three out of the next ten days. I will average fourteen locks a day. Snow covered lock gates will need to be tackled with care.

The weather worsened on the last hour to Market Drayton. Black clouds scudded overhead, blown by an increasingly fierce northwesterly. Heavy rain bounced inches off Orient’s roof and ran in rivulets down my glasses. Still, I was a very happy bunny, especially when Cynthia brought me lunch.

There’s not enough light at this time of the year to afford the luxury of a leisurely meal on a convenient towpath mooring. I’ve been starting at first light and cruising all day. I eat meals as I travel or while I wait for a lock to fill.

I ate Saturday’s meal in driving rain. I had the tiller tucked under my left arm, an insulated pot filled with stir fry Thai beef in my left hand and a spoon in my right. Food never tasted so good. I had the canal to myself. I was at the helm of a beautiful boat listening to the heartbeat of its Lister engine cruising through some of England’s most beautiful canal scenery. Heavy rain couldn’t spoil the day, but a gale force wind could make cruising very difficult.

Today’s forecast wasn’t encouraging. Thirty mile an hour winds blowing rain, sleet and snow. Winds above 20mph are challenging in a narrowboat. Couple thirty mile an hour winds with the strengthening cross current from the Shroppie’s rain saturated canal, and you have the recipe for an extremely unpleasant day. We decided to wait it out.

With my continued inability to light the Kabola boiler, the only way we could have hot water was by running the generator to power the calorifier’s immersion heater. After running for an hour last night, the generator suffered a heart attack. It squealed and groaned, flickered and died.
Fortunately, we still have our Honda suitcase generator to help us heat water. Orient’s generator is the latest entry on our to-do list. We’re not letting that get us down. Cynthia and I are still in love with the boat. We’ll get all these teething problems fixed sooner or later. A lottery win would help. Maybe we had better buy a ticket. In the meantime we have the adventure of another sixty hours winter cruising ahead of us, a diary steadily filling with Discovery Day bookings and the joy of returning to work on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds as the first spring flowers appear. Life is good.

Do You Want More Videos On This Site?

I’m playing around with videos at the moment. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t have the equipment to do it with. It’s probably not the best combination, but it’s a start. The video below took me a few seconds using a free iPhone app. It’s far from perfect. I know the first clip is out of focus, I know the first few clips are far from smooth, I realise that the colour needs correcting and, yes, I know that there’s a bit of muck on the lens in one of the clips. Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Do you want to see more along these lines?

I want to hear from you if you have any experience making professional quality videos for YouTube with low cost equipment. Is that even possible? Using an iPhone 7 Plus is handy for me because I always have the phone with me and it fits easily into my pocket. Can I use this to produce decent videos? What other equipment do I need? Please remember that, given our recent boat purchase and repair, money is very tight at the moment. Maybe I’m being too optimistic. I want you to share your words of wisdom.

From a consumer point of view, what video content would you like to see on the site; gentle cruises through beautiful countryside, instructional videos on different boating techniques, or videos of me droning on ad nauseam? Again, I would like to hear from you. Please click on this link to send me an email, or simply reply to this week’s post’s introductory email. Thank you. 

Discovery Day Update

The winter’s longest day is behind us. Days have been lengthening for the last three weeks. Easter and the unofficial start of the cruising season is three short months away. Easter is a wonderful time of year to be on the cut. Canalside fields are alive with wildflowers, hares box, rabbits bob and buzzards circle overhead. On my Discovery Day route from Napton Junction to Braunston Junction there’s even a chance you’ll see escaped deer from the Shuckburgh estate. If you don’t fall in love with the lifestyle at this time of the year, there’s a chance that the lifestyle isn’t right for you.

Spring weather can be cold cruising weather… unless you have a boatman’s cabin equipped with a blazing coal burning range. You can stand on Orient’s back deck in complete comfort while passing boaters shiver under mountains of clothes.

If you want to learn about the live aboard lifestyle (and spend eight hours listening to the engine below) while you learn how to handle a 62? narrowboat, click on the link below to find out more or to book a date.

Click here to find out what a Discovery Day can do for you.

A few potential guests have emailed me to ask if they can see my available dates without committing to one. Of course you can. Just click on this link and choose the type of day which suits you. You can browse through the available dates. You can reserve one for twenty for hours before you have to confirm the booking with payment. 

I hope to meet you soon.

 

Paul

4

Electrical Problem Solving And Pre Cruise Preparation

 

There was no great rush to return to Tattenhall marina. We had five days before the workshop guys could begin our electrical work. I stood at the tiller for two eight hour days on the twenty-three mile, twenty-eight lock cruise from Tattenhall to Market Drayton. It was exhausting. We allowed four four-hour cruising days for the return journey, and what a pleasure it was.

The cruise to Market Drayton was hard. A journey in a new boat with unfamiliar controls and a deep draught along an unknown stretch of the Shropshire Union canal, a waterway peppered with demanding locks. And all of the while trying to keep to an almost impossible schedule. The return journey was so much easier.

I felt much more confident with the boat. Each lock landing offered a new opportunity to experiment with different methods of slowing and stopping close enough to shallow banks to jump ashore. My attempts became less awkward, more accomplished, even graceful on occasion. Steering the heavy boat became less of a challenge too.

During our first two days, I was determined to cover as much distance as possible while I had enough light to see. I cruised slightly faster than I would normally. The journey was all about making miles rather than leisurely sightseeing. I gave the engine too much throttle. Consequently the already deep draughted stern bit another inch or two into the canal or, on the shallow Shroppie, into the canal bed. Easing off on the throttle on the return leg raised the stern a little and made steering much more manageable. I was able to enjoy regular heron sightings and the occasional blue flash of a waterside kingfisher. My mind was occupied more with scenic canal banks than useless battery banks.

Our terminally ill domestic batteries continued to work after a fashion. They could hold the charge generated by a four-hour cruise for no more than half a day. Our twelve-volt system worked until we retired for the night, but then we woke the following mornings to dim cabin lights, a water pump gasping like a dying man and a lifeless inverter.

Orient has a built-in generator. It’s supposed to be a get out of jail free card for charging a dead domestic bank. But this failsafe will only work if the generator’s own battery is kept fully charged. It hasn’t been. The generator is responsible for charging its own battery. It apparently hasn’t taken its obligations seriously in the past.

We tried to run the gennie on our way back to Tattenhall to discover that I had inadvertently flattened its starter battery when running the beast for the first time. It’s easy to do. The generator is stopped by pulling a wire rather than using a key to turn it off. Unless the user pulls the six-inch length of steel and then also turns off the ignition key, the battery slowly drains until it’s a useless lump of lead. It’s a poorly designed system, one which relies on the operator remembering the two-step shutdown procedure. That counts me out. Pulling the wire was all I could manage. I’ll have to change the charging regime when funds allow.

The generator failure could have caused us some discomfort. The boat’s two-cylinder Lister, beautiful as it both looks and sounds, doesn’t heat Orient’s calorifier like most modern narrowboat engines. That’s because, so I’m told, the Lister doesn’t run hot enough to provide any meaningful heat. Orient’s water is heated in two different ways. The generator provides a 240v supply for the calorifier’s 2kw heater. Powering the coil from the domestic battery bank through the inverter would murder the five 130ah batteries. The only off-grid alternative is to use the generator. No generator, no hot water, because off-grid option number two wasn’t working correctly either.

We can still get water from the boat’s Kabola boiler… if we don’t mind a steady trickle of sticky brown creasote running from the Kabola chimney collar down the cabin side to the gunnel, or clouds of nauseating smoke drifting back to my steering position as I cruise. We do mind, so we’re not using the boiler for either water heating or for the radiators to the bathroom, bedroom or engine room until we can replace the boiler pot and burn diesel efficiently. The new part should arrive next week, hopefully before we have to begin our cruise south. Without the built-in generator or the Kabola boiler, our only option would have been the kettle to cater for our hot water needs. However, we had a secret weapon, a belt and braces approach to off-grid cruising.

Because I am suspicious by nature and didn’t trust the new boat’s onboard systems until they had proven themselves beyond question, I kept the Honda 2KW suitcase generator which travelled across Europe with us in our motorhome. It was a godsend on the return journey. We used it to power the calorifier heater and for all the appliances which make Cynthia’s marathon galley sessions such a joy.

The final hurdle for me to overcome before we reached electrical salvation at Tattenhall Marina was the Fearsome Four, the locks which defeated me on our southbound cruise.

The anticipation was much worse than the reality. After fifty-eight years on the planet, I should have realised by now that tackling something like a bull at a gate isn’t always the most effective solution.

My upstream passage through one lock required Orient’s engine, Big Barry from Barnsley, his tiny wife and me straining at the gate to coax it open. Travelling downstream with a little more time on my hands and a smidgeon of common sense, I was able to negotiate Beeston Stone Lock on my own. All I needed was time, lots and lots of time. Courtesy of a pair of badly leaking upstream gates, the lock emptied at what felt like a teaspoon a minute. I leaned on a lock balance beam for nearly half an hour admiring distant Beeston castle before the gate swung slowly open. The following locks were similarly easy but painfully slow to operate. Cruising in a narrowboat isn’t a hobby for the impatient. I should know that by now.

We arrived back at Tattenhall two weeks ago, determined to resolve the most pressing issues before we set sail again. The job list was both long and expensive.

Our original seven battery domestic bank has been removed. There were two domestic banks actually; four 110ah lead acid batteries in one and three 120ah in another. They’ve now been replaced by five 130ah AGM batteries. The batteries were delivered to us in the blink of an eye by the good folk at Calcutt Boats. I’ve lost count of the number of times the marina owners, the Preen family, have bent over backwards to help me out, usually with little or no benefit to their own business. I will be forever grateful, and forever working on the grounds for them judging by Orient’s insatiable appetite for bank balance busting repairs.

A happy battery bank - I can see at a glance that the domestic bank is fully charged.

A happy battery bank – I can see at a glance that the domestic bank is fully charged.

I’ve had a Sterling Power Management Panel (PMP1) fitted in addition to the batteries. I want to be able to check the voltage for the domestic bank and both the engine and the generator starter batteries. The panel will also give me an idea of the domestic bank’s state of charge by constantly monitoring amp hours in and out of the battery bank. The five batteries total six hundred and fifty amp hours, so I have three hundred and twenty-five usable amp hours. That should be plenty for our modest liveaboard needs.

Putting more power into the bank than we take out is a challenge at the moment. The boat has no LED lights yet. Each of the boat’s twenty-five cabin ceiling lights has a twenty-one-watt bulb drawing 1.75 amps. I can replace them with 2.6 watt LEDs which will be as bright as a 35-watt tungsten bulb but only draw 0.22 amps. More light at a fraction of the running cost of the original bulbs. It’s free money for narrowboat owners. OK, replacing the bulbs will cost £150 – £200 but we won’t have to run the engine or the generator to charge the batteries quite so often. Nor will we need to fork out quite so much for prohibitively expensive marina electricity.

We had a few teething problems with the battery monitor. It showed an incorrect voltage for each of the battery banks if any of the boat’s 12v lights or pumps were used. The culprit was a partially severed earth lead. The readings are all correct now and have highlighted two more problems; the engine starter battery is supposed to be charged when we’re connected to a shore supply. It isn’t. The generator is also supposed to charge its own battery. It doesn’t and, unlike the engine battery which is pumped full of electrical goodness by the Lister’s steady beat, there’s no other way of charging it at the moment.
These two issues will have to remain on our to-do list for a little while longer. We’ve run out of money. The engine room rewiring, battery replacement and PMP1 purchase and installation have cost us a fortune. We’ve had to make a few other changes too while we’ve been waiting at Tattenhall Marina. The locks on the well deck stable doors, the doors to the boatman’s cabin and one of the engine room hatches were either broken or defective. We couldn’t secure the boat if we left it. Now we can.

A robust new bow fender - A little more protection for our new floating home.

A robust new bow fender – A little more protection for our new floating home.

I’ve also invested in a new bow fender to replace the ragged old man’s beard which provided absolutely no lock protection at all. Thanks to Karl hanging off the bow like a welder wielding monkey, Orient is sporting two anchor points for the fender’s lower chains. Now, if Cynthia’s busy in the galley while I’m working my way through a lock, she shouldn’t be thrown off her feet quite so often when Orient gently bumps into a lock gate.

One final change, one which probably won’t be popular with narrowboat traditionalists, was the removal of a dozen pretty but pointless wall mounted plates from behind the boatman’s cabin range. They have made room for some much more practical boating equipment. There’s now a brace of windlasses, mooring chains and pins and a lump hammer within easy reach of the back deck. There’s also a handy charging point in the boatman’s cabin for our pair of Motorola walkie-talkies.

One of our Motorola walkie-talkies

One of our Motorola walkie-talkies

Cynthia is usually inside the cabin while we are cruising. The radios allow us to communicate easily and quickly. They’re very handy for warning her if we’re about to bump a lock gate while she’s holding a pan of boiling water or, more importantly, if I’ve run out of either food or coffee at the helm. Single-handed boating is all about preparations and organisation. I’m now a little closer to my perfect cruising setup.

Decorative plate replacement - Now there's room for more practical narrowboat gear

Decorative plate replacement – Now there’s room for more practical narrowboat gear

Now we’re playing the waiting game. The new boiler pot is due next Thursday. Even if it doesn’t arrive then, we will have to leave Tattenhall at the crack of dawn on Friday. There’s currently only one route open to Warwickshire and our Calcutt Boats base. Fradley junction is closed, and I don’t want to chance the Staffs and Worcester on to the river Severn at this time of the year. Our only option is through Wolverhampton and Birmingham. The one hundred and four miles, one hundred and thirty-four lock cruise should take sixty hours according to Canalplan. I know from experience that, on my own, the trip will actually take eighty hours. I have to get through the Farmers Bridge flight by 4th February when the locks close for repair.

Orient's paintwork is now polished to perfection

Orient’s paintwork is now polished to perfection

The route should be clear after that, apart from the ocean of shit I expect at Camp Hill locks. Last time I passed by that way I had to stop on the flight three times to clear my propeller. Unless the situation has changed, I’ll be dredging up even more rubbish in a boat six inches deeper than the last. I’m not looking forward to that section at all.

I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the cruise. The weather forecast at the moment seems promising. The current cold snap is due to end on Thursday. The thermometer on day one of our journey could reach a positively tropical seven degrees. Relatively mild weather and a glowing range close to my feet should make for a delightful winter cruise. And then we’ll be back at Calcutt Boats, working hard to help pay off our boat bridging loans. I will be tending to Calcutt Boats’ glorious one hundred and ten acres during the week and hosting my Discovery Days at the weekend. The flower beds around the Calcutt greenhouse will be alive with snowdrops now. Banks of daffodils will follow them, and then the site’s three SSI wildflower meadows will be a riot of colour. What a great time of the year to return to work.

Orient's boatman's cabin - A very cosy place to work on a cold winter's day.

Orient’s boatman’s cabin – A very cosy place to work on a cold winter’s day.

Cynthia Says…

Cynthia says:  “Make haste slowly”
 
Hi there everyone—sorry I haven’t been contributing for awhile–life has been busy and each day slides away before I have a chance to complete all the things on my punch list.  There is so much I need to do over the next few weeks and I oftentimes wonder how it will all get done.  I am still sending e-card Happy New Year cards to my many friends.  Sometimes I only get 2-3 done in a day because there are other matters pulling me this way and that.
 
Ear aches and fatigue from too little sleep have taken their toll and I know I need to “make haste slowly” and not be too hard on myself when I fall behind with what I expect of myself.
 
Paul has been a whirling dervish getting everything in order and keeping the boat clean.  I often feel I am not pulling my weight enough here…. This past week was a challenging one with all the electric issues and I know it was frustrating for him.  Seems that things are sorted now and we can hopefully go ahead with our plans to “cast off and set sail” (remember, my background is mostly sailing oriented), and make our way slowly but surely south to Calcutt–without haste!
 
The people here at Tattenhall Marina have been great and it has been a nice experience getting to know some of them.  They have a cafe that serves good food, and a nice warm shower facility, and a laundry room.  I shall miss our RIverford people who deliver our organic food each week.  And Waitrose and Pets at Home.  They have all been a godsend, and I am lucky we will be able to have the same options once we get back to Calcutt.  Not having a car has its pluses and minuses, but it is quite pleasant having things delivered right to our doorstep and not have to fight the crowds in the parking lots or the lines.  Don’t miss that!
 
The winter so far has not been much of a hardship and for that I am most grateful.  I love this warm and cozy boat and I think it certainly suits us.  the only thing I would love is a nice bathtub to soak in! Oh, well nothing’s perfect.
 
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon.  And please keep those Discovery Day bookings coming!

Discovery Day Update

The winter’s longest day is behind us. Days have been lengthening for the last three weeks. Easter and the unofficial start of the cruising season is three short months away. Easter is a wonderful time of year to be on the cut. Canalside fields are alive with wildflowers, hares box, rabbits bob and buzzards circle overhead. On my Discovery Day route from Napton Junction to Braunston Junction there’s even a chance you’ll see escaped deer from the Shuckburgh estate. If you don’t fall in love with the lifestyle at this time of the year, there’s a chance that the lifestyle isn’t right for you.

Spring weather can be cold cruising weather… unless you have a boatman’s cabin equipped with a blazing coal burning range. You can stand on Orient’s back deck in complete comfort while passing boaters shiver under mountains of clothes.

If you want to learn about the live aboard lifestyle (and spend eight hours listening to the engine below) while you learn how to handle a 62′ narrowboat, click on the link below to find out more or to book a date.

Click here to find out what a Discovery Day can do for you.

A few potential guests have emailed me to ask if they can see my available dates without committing to one. Of course you can. Just click on this link and choose the type of day which suits you. You can browse through the available dates. You can reserve one for twenty for hours before you have to confirm the booking with payment. 

I hope to meet you soon.

 

Paul

Battery Problems On An Aborted Shropshire Union Canal Cruise

 

Orient rested in Tattenhall Marina’s waterside workshop to have some long overdue TLC. A shiny new Morso Squirrel stove replaced the old cracked model, and I emptied my bank account to buy a ruinously expensive Ecofan to distribute the stove’s hot air.

The Kabola boiler leaked more diesel than it burned. The system is now leak free and works after a fashion. If the Kabola were human, it would be lying on a hospital bed sprouting life supporting tubes, surrounded by a small crowd of concerned relatives.

The boiler’s pot is fighting for its life. The air intake is mostly blocked by calcified deposits. The boiler can breathe, but it isn’t happy. The fuel burns but the chimney smokes. Running the central heating system on the boat inside a closed workshop produced a nauseating smog late into the night.

The pot was removed and attacked with every acid, scourer, cleaner and tool known to narrowboat repair personnel. It’s still full of shit. Replacing the pot would cure the problem if we could find four hundred pounds and wait for a month. We decided we couldn’t, so for the next few months, we expected to leave a smoke trail from the engine exhaust, two coal-burning stoves and the boiler flue.

The generator leaked more than the boiler. That too is now leak free. It starts first time, every time now that the starter battery has also been replaced. Unfortunately, when it runs, it sounds like a hundred soldiers in hobnailed boots crossing a wooden bridge.

Karl, the guy working on the boat for us, discovered that Orient had yet another battery, bringing the onboard total to thirteen. The generator can be used to charge the rest of the boat batteries if they are flat. It has its own battery to ensure that it will work if the domestic bank fails. Karl found a spare generator starter too. Which was just as well given that the connected generator starter battery failed, as did the two batteries mounted in a well deck locker.

The boat had a poorly fitted bow thruster. It was installed in a recess beneath two 13kg cylinders in the gas locker. There was a risk of leaking gas flowing into the recess and then on to the cabin bilge. The bow thruster has been decommissioned and a new steel floor fitted in the gas locker to ensure that the only place leaking gas can flow is through the drains into the canal. That’s two fewer batteries to care for and some much needed additional space in the well deck locker.

Orient had only been in the water for a day when previous owner Stuart Palmer arrived to deprive us of our transport. He had agreed to take our Hymer in part exchange for the boat.

Before he left with our motorhome, Stuart gave me a crash course in Lister engine maintenance. Orient is very different from my old narrowboat, James. A 1977 Mercedes OM636 pushed James along the canals in a cloud of diesel smoke. Orient has a 1936 two cylinder Lister. There are a few more daily engine chores than I’m used to; I have to fill the engine’s day tank, check the grease points, check the pump and gearbox oil and, whatever I do, try to resist the temptation to start the big old lump by hand. The owner before Stuart had to be rushed to hospital with a suspected broken leg when he tried for the first time.

Another important task, because half the fun in owning a Lister in its own engine room is to show it off, is daily brass fitting and copper pipe buffing. It’s a labour of love and very therapeutic. Cynthia often finds me bent double in the engine room furiously polishing my pistons.

Stuart also showed me how to read the main tank “fuel gauge”. It’s an awkward process. The tank is under the boatman’s cabin floor. To check the tank level we had to remove the mats covering the hardwood floor. Then, with a great deal of huffing and puffing, Stuart lifted a coffin-size, coffin weight section of floor, removed an inspection hatch bolt in the tank top and threaded a length of dowel through the bolt hole.
“The tank’s a third full,” he told me.
“How much does it hold?”
“I haven’t a clue!” He laughed. “Don’t worry about running out. I usually put some in once or twice a year.”

That didn’t help me at all. I’m obsessive about detail. I needed to know the tank size and the engine’s hourly consumption. I couldn’t relax until I found out. I thought of a solution. If the tank was a third full, all I needed to do to calculate the tank capacity roughly was to fill it.

Much to my dismay and marina manager Jason’s delight, filling Orient’s tank was an expensive exercise. The diesel pump filler gauge spun past a hundred litres, raced through the two hundred litre barrier, surged past three hundred and finally slowed to a stop at three hundred and twenty-eight litres. Given that the tank was a third full before we started, Orient’s diesel capacity must be between four hundred and fifty and five hundred litres. I suspect that the Lister will run at one litre an hour or less. Four hundred and fifty litres will take me from Lancaster down to Bristol and back again. I could add the Warwickshire Ring too and still have thirty litres in reserve. Our new boat has a huge diesel tank.

Stuart demonstrated how to light the Kabola drip fed diesel stove. It’s a laborious process involving carefully timed tap turning, slivers of firelighter and a pair of industrial tweezers. I’m sure I’ll master it eventually, but I’m not going to try until we can afford a new pot. Fuel burns so poorly in the boiler’s current state that, even after testing the boiler for a few short hours, a pool of creosote formed on the Kabola chimney collar and then flowed in a sticky black line down the cabin side, over the gunnel and onto the workshop floor.

We had a well-earned rest day after we waved goodbye to Stuart, his wife Sue and our six-wheeled home. No more country hopping searching for mild winters. No more transport at all actually. All of our shopping will have to be delivered to us, or we’ll have to take the boat to the shops. If we want to get there faster, we can always walk.

We had been working all day, every day for the previous fortnight, worrying about transatlantic bank transfers, home and lifestyle transfers and the possibility that CRT winter stoppages will prevent us from reaching Calcutt Boats and my return to work.

Our intended route was south on the Shroppie, north west on the Staffs and Worcester, onto the Trent & Mersey, then the Coventry, the North Oxford and then half a mile of Grand Union to return to the marina which was my home for six and a half years. The route appeared to be clear apart from a possible problem getting onto the Coventry Canal at Fradley. I phoned CRT’s helpline for clarification. Or not as the case may be. Their only advice was to ring closer to the stoppage date to make sure the route was open.

Our planned post-Hymer handover rest day wasn’t very relaxing. Our twenty-five feet long Hymer had more onboard storage than Orient, even though our new boat, for a narrowboat, has plenty of built-in cupboard and drawer space. The first thing we did to free up some much-needed space was to remove a pair of hopelessly bulky leather swivel chairs and footstools. It was a decision that we regretted a little in the weeks which followed. The dogs enjoyed more space for their beds while we were demoted to a pair of uncomfortable folding chairs.

The rest day passed in a blur of organisation, reorganisation, compromise, and occasional disposal as we tried to find homes for everything we owned. We stopped cupboard cramming briefly to try to work out how to operate a variety of appliances and onboard systems and, for a little light relief, threw away the oily contents shoehorned into the engine room’s underfloor storage compartments.

Then we settled down for a mostly sleepless night of pre-maiden-voyage anticipation.

I think that “Baptism of Fire” would be a fair description of the first day’s intensive cruise in our new boat. We started with high hopes. With just five days to reach Fradley Junction before a planned stoppage closed the lock flight for five weeks, I calculated that nine-hour days would just about get us there. Providing there were no hiccoughs. Right! This is the English canal network we’re talking about. Structured plans and inland waterways boating are rarely on speaking terms.

I’ve passed through a lock or two since I stepped on board my Norton Canes narrowboat on 2nd April 2010. Several thousand probably, most of them single handed. I’ve rarely failed to get through one on my own. Before our maiden voyage from Tattenhall, I could justify claiming to be a confident single handed boater. I knew I would have to single hand on this cruise too. Cynthia’s mind is willing, but the physical exertion of raising reluctant paddles and forcing massive lock gates open was asking too much of her. I thought she might be able to relieve me for a spell at the helm. I changed my mind after ten minutes at the tiller.

Oh boy, this boat is a pig on the waterways around here!

The problem is thirty-six inches of underwater hull, and about the same depth of water on the Shropshire Union canal. The rudder spent much of the first day ploughing the canal bed, mostly through clay but occasionally grating over unforgiving rock. I can’t wait to get back to the slightly deeper water around my home base.

Leaking lock gates on the Shropshire Union canal

Leaking lock gates on the Shropshire Union canal

At least I could move the boat forward and steer around bends providing I body slammed the tiller to get it to pivot. Moving forward was possible. Moving backwards quite often was not. Water must be able to pass under the hull to persuade a narrowboat to travel in reverse. If the hull is sliding along the canal bottom, there’s no room for a propeller-driven current and no chance of going backwards, or even slowing down for that matter. I had a few anxious moments trying to stop. I had even more of them trying to negotiate my first four locks.

CRT kindly taped a notice to the first. “The bottom gates leak badly. If you fail to close the upstream gates or lower the paddles, you will empty the canal!” Great advice, providing the boater using Wharton’s lock is able to open the top gates in the first place. And the first lock wasn’t the most difficult by any means.

The initial step was actually getting Orient to stop in the lock. My old boat had a standard Morse gear control. It was easy to use. There was a stainless steel lever topped with a white plastic ball, and a small button to press to move the boat in and out of gear. While cruising, the boat stayed in gear. The twelve o’clock position was neutral. Pushing the lever forward made the boat go forward. The further forward I pushed the lever the faster the boat went. I pulled the lever back to reverse the boat or slow it down. Easy.

Not so easy on Orient.

Our new boat has two separate controls; a gear selection rod and a speed wheel. The gear selector is a complete mystery to me at the moment. I can move it forwards or backwards about two feet. Most of the range is for putting the boat in forward gear, a little bit of it is to try to make the boat go backwards and somewhere, God knows where, is a cigarette paper width position to put the boat in neutral.

I have to dial the throttle down before I can change gear. Three or four frantic turns of the wheel are enough. Then I have to wait for a moment before the engine receives its instructions and slows down and then haul the rod back to what I hope is the neutral position. A few seconds later I tug on it again to engage reverse and hope that there’s enough water under us to make any kind of backward motion possible.

Abandoning Orient mid canal. This was the closet place to stop to close the lock gates behind me.

Abandoning Orient mid canal. This was the closet place to stop to close the lock gates behind me.

So actually taking the boat into lock number one took far longer than usual while I practised with the unfamiliar controls on a boat much more substantial and deeper draughted than I was used to.

Getting into the lock took a while but not as long as trying to open the top gates. I huffed, and I puffed, strained and struggled but, thanks to water gushing through the worn bottom gates, I couldn’t move the upstream gate an inch. I tried using the boat to open the gate while I pushed. That didn’t work either. A lady dog walker added her weight to the argument, and one and a half tonnes of old oak slowly swung open.

Lock number two was even more of a challenge. Beeston Iron Lock is not easy for single-handed boaters, especially those in deep draughted boats and those unlucky enough to experience its dubious charm for the first time.

The initial problem was actually getting close enough to the lock to set it. The lock landing has a sloping stone base far too close to the surface for boats like Orient. Five feet was as close as I could get before the base plate grated over rock and Orient ground to a halt. Leaping off the boat onto an expanse of rain-softened mud was easy enough. The jump back onto Orient’s four-inch wide gunnel wearing clay caked Wellington boots took a little more concentration.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I brought the boat gently to a stop against one of the iron lock’s moss-coated walls. I collected my centre line’s trailing end and swung myself up onto Orient’s roof ready to climb the lock’s escape ladder. Maybe I should have checked first. I’ve only come across a handful of locks on my travels which don’t have ladders and no way for single-handed boaters to climb out. Beeston Iron Lock is one of them.

The only solution was to reverse Orient out of the lock, beach the boat again close to the stone lock landing and jump ashore. Then I had to drag twenty-two tonnes of reluctant steel laboriously into the empty lock.

As with the last lock, this chamber’s bottom gates allowed more water to escape than the paddles allowed in. Another lady dog walker helped me open the upstream gate allowing me to chug towards what I hoped would be an easier lock.

Beeston Stone Lock was number three on the list, and the third in succession I couldn’t manage on my own. With no dog walkers in sight, I tried to use the boat’s engine again, this time with the throttle wide open to help me move the upstream gates. They didn’t move an inch. I might well still be there now if Big Barry from Barnsley hadn’t helped out.

The hiker strolled past me with his dot of a wife. They stopped to enjoy the spectacle. Orient with its ragged bow fender wedged between the two upstream gates, white water boiling behind the boat from a thrashing propeller and me, red-faced and sweating, straining against the solid oak.

“Barry, go and give that bloke a hand!” she ordered. Her husband lowered a shoulder the size of a barn door and tackled the gate like a rugby player joining a scrum. With a grunt and a curse he bounced off the beam and joined my wellies in a muddy puddle beneath the gate.

He tried again. He braced his locked arms against the beam. He strained, I heaved, Orient thrashed and, when Barry’s diminutive spouse laid a manicured hand gently on the beam handle, the gate slowly swung open. Sometimes all that’s needed is a woman’s touch.

Lock number four, Tilstone, passed with the help of another dog walker and then on to the Bunbury flight of two staircase locks and another challenge. The flight was easy. Getting to them was not.

Anglo Welsh, bless their little cotton socks, had moored their entire hire fleet, often two abreast, on every available inch of space either side of the flight, including on the downstream lock landing. The only way to stop beneath the lock flight was by tying up to the two hire boats tied side by side leaving a boat’s width between them and a stone bridge.

Just enough room to squeeze by. A fallen tree on the Shropshire Union canal

Just enough room to squeeze by. A fallen tree on the Shropshire Union canal

To make matters more interesting, the water beneath us was too shallow to reverse. A stiff breeze coming from the stern pushed Orient quickly towards the bridge arch. A desperate leap onto the nearest hire boat allowed me to secure Orient at a forty-five-degree angle across the canal long enough to set the lock.

As a reward for a difficult start I enjoyed a three-hour lock free cruise to finish the day. We cruised serenely by the junctions to the Shroppie’s Middlewich branch, passed the Hurleston flight and access to the Llangollen canal and threaded our way through densely packed live aboard boats in Nantwich. As the miles passed, my confidence with the new boat grew. The tiller loosened up, the canal felt deeper and reverse more responsive.

As daylight faded, we moored for the night in a peaceful spot close to Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker. The tourist attraction, no longer either secret or nuclear, is famed for its world-beating collection of decommissioned nuclear weapons and, for boaters, being in the middle of nowhere. I had the best night’s sleep since I sold my narrowboat and drove to Europe two and a half years ago.

Day two was lock day. Lots of locks but each of them benign and a pleasure to operate. We started with the fifteen lock Audlem flight, ninety-three feet closer to a low bank of grey clouds in a little over a mile. The five lock Adderley flight soon followed and then a relaxing two-hour chug into Market Drayton. We moored on a deserted stretch within earshot of the A53, bracketed by a pair of middle-aged guys fishing for perch.

Orient had passed through twenty-eight locks by the end of day two. Our lock count totalled just thirty-three in two years of summer cruising on the Dutch waterways. The English canal network is much harder work than in Holland, but infinitely more enjoyable. Dutch locks are done for you by a faceless waterways employees locked away in canalside cabins. There’s little opportunity to meet and chat with fellow boat owners during a cruise. Manual lock setting is usually hard work, often a challenge, but always a chance to talk to like-minded folk.

We planned to press on with our exhausting first-to-last-light cruising regime the following morning. Orient’s electrical system had other ideas. We woke to the strange beeping of a high pitched alarm. Orient has four smoke detectors; one close to each of the multi-fuel stoves, another in the Kabola boiler cupboard and a fourth in the bedroom. All are sensitive and are often triggered by enthusiastic galley activity. All were as quiet as church mice in the calm before the breakfast storm.

The culprit was in the engine room. A flashing red inverter light warned us of an imminent big bill. After sixteen hours cruising over two days, there was barely enough charge in the seven battery domestic bank to illuminate the warning light.
We purchased Orient with eleven batteries connected to the electrical system. The two bow thruster batteries were flat but unnecessary after we decommissioned the unit. The generator, handy for recharging flat battery banks, couldn’t be used because its starter battery was also flat. Now all seven domestic bank batteries were destined for that great big lead smelting plant in the sky. With ten out of the original eleven batteries dead, we daren’t continue our journey. If the engine starter failed too, we would be up Shit Creek without a paddle. We needed a working domestic bank. I phoned many nearby boatyards. The only person who picked up the phone was Karl back at Tattenhall Marina.

Returning to Tattenhall would mean missing our opportunity to get onto the Coventry canal before the Fradley flight closed for maintenance. I suspected that we wouldn’t make Fradley in time anyway. The alternative route to Warwickshire was either through Wolverhampton and Birmingham on New Year’s Eve or down the Staffs and Worcester onto a short stretch of the river Severn. High water had closed the river. The more pleasant and sensible of the two options open to us was twenty-eight locks back to Tattenhall, including the four I couldn’t manage single handed. I turned the boat around and, with heavy hearts, we headed towards our third battery bank replacement bill in two years.

Orient's boatman's cabin is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by

Orient’s boatman’s cabin is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by

Discovery Day Update

The winter’s longest day is behind us. Days have been lengthening for the last three weeks. Easter and the unofficial start of the cruising season is three short months away. Easter is a wonderful time of year to be on the cut. Canalside fields are alive with wildflowers, hares box, rabbits bob and buzzards circle overhead. On my Discovery Day route from Napton Junction to Braunston Junction there’s even a chance you’ll see escaped deer from the Shuckburgh estate. If you don’t fall in love with the lifestyle at this time of the year, there’s a chance that the lifestyle isn’t right for you.

Spring weather can be cold cruising weather… unless you have a boatman’s cabin equipped with a blazing coal burning range. You can stand on Orient’s back deck in complete comfort while passing boaters shiver under mountains of clothes.

If you want to learn about the live aboard lifestyle (and spend eight hours listening to the engine below) while you learn how to handle a 62′ narrowboat, click on the link below to find out more or to book a date.

Click here to find out what a Discovery Day can do for you.

A few potential guests have emailed me to ask if they can see my available dates without committing to one. Of course you can. Just click on this link and choose the type of day which suits you. You can browse through the available dates. You can reserve one for twenty for hours before you have to confirm the booking with payment. 

I hope to meet you soon.

 

Paul

A Successful Move Back To The English Inland Waterways Network

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a harrowing experience.

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

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

We phoned a helpline for advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to good old English cooking

Back to good old English cooking

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

While we waited, I painted.

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

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

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

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

Orient backs into Tattenhall Marina

Orient backs into Tattenhall Marina

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

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

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

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

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

2

Looking Forward To Christmas On The Cut

 

What an unloved and unlovely place a Dutch marina is in the winter. Less than a hundred boats remain in the mostly empty berths. Most moorers here have taken their boats out of the water, and either moved them onto the once spacious marina car park or into covered docks or large sheds on farms surrounded by endless flat fields. The few still in the water, including ours, can only be reached by skating across slippery wooden piers. Over the last week, I’ve had the place to myself. The only sign of life has been two guys cutting and burning the bank of head high reeds which enclose the marina on three sides. Their hard work cut short several times a day by bands of heavy rain sweeping south from Aalsmeer across Westeinderplassen lake.

I’ve been boat cleaning; vacuuming, washing and polishing, trying my hardest to remove all traces of two fur shedding bassets before taking our Linssen yacht on one last cruise. I’m not looking forward to the eight-hour solo journey. Even though the Dutch network is still open for business, there’s very little traffic on it. On our return journey from a shopping trip last weekend we drove several miles alongside the Ringvaart canal. We pass hundreds of boats on this four-mile stretch during the summer months. We didn’t see a single moving boat last week. There’s a good reason for that. The weather is awful.

There’s wind, wind and more wind. The canals often tower above the surrounding flat fields and drainage ditches. There is nothing to stop the howling wind apart from the few boats whose owners are daft enough to venture onto the waterways.
I will need to wait for up to fifteen minutes for each of the nineteen bridges on my route to open, trying to maintain the channel centre without a working bow thruster and, more importantly, without a working heating system to keep the boat warm. Getting there in a day would involve nighttime cruising on a boat without a headlight. Splitting the trip into two days would require the purchase of thermal underwear.

Anyway, the great big shining light at the end of our ever-shortening Dutch tunnel is our imminent return to the UK. We’ve moved several steps closer over the last week.

Seven days ago, we still didn’t know the cost of numerous essential repairs which need to be made on our new boat before we could move on board, or how we were going to find the money to pay for them.

The new workshop crew at Tattenhall marina quoted for the jobs early last week. They agreed to do all the necessary work for £2,500. Their price included buying and fitting a new Squirrel stove. The quote seemed fair, but who was going to pay for it? Stretched to financial breaking point, we would struggle to find the money for a new tea bag at the moment. Unearthing an extra two and a half grand was out of the question.

The seller’s broker, Steve Harrel, phoned midweek with some good news. Owners Stuart and Sue agreed to lower their asking price by £2,500. While we were thrilled with the price reduction, that still didn’t help our cash flow. Sue and Stuart had already kindly agreed to a substantial initial deposit, the possibility of taking our motorhome in part exchange for the boat, and the balance once we sold our Dutch yacht. We still didn’t know whether they were serious about our Hymer, especially as they hadn’t seen it. Nor did we know whether they would accept our valuation for the motorhome.

Kind and generous people that they are, the couple came to our aid again. They agreed to lower the initial deposit by £2,500 so that we had enough money to pay for the repairs. That was another worry out of the way, but we still didn’t know if they wanted the Hymer,

The following day broker Steve phoned again. More good news. Despite initially resisting the idea of using our left-hand drive motorhome for predominantly UK travel, and despite still not having driven or even seen the vehicle, they agreed in principle to take it on. All we have to do now is make sure that the Hymer is in first class condition when they see it for the first time.

We used the motorhome’s pre-sale preparation as an excuse to escape our marina base. The aircraft noise has become an auditory version of the Chinese water torture. We’re six miles from Schiphol airport and the one thousand seven hundred planes which thunder into the air from its four runways every day. When the wind is blowing from our marina towards the airport, ascending planes pass low enough overhead for us to check the tyre tread on their landing gear. The noise is obscene, worse now that we know we only have a week left to endure.

We drove north to a little-used beach car park at Camperduin. The sound of crashing surf and howling wind replaced the unpleasant thunder of ascending planes. We enjoyed the peace there for three days, leaving briefly to have the Hymer serviced and a few small repairs done at a small motorhome service centre in nearby Winkel.

Returning to the marina this morning felt like coming back home and work after an exciting sunshine holiday. We felt quite depressed. There’s so much to do over the next seven days. Continued high winds could prevent me from taking our Linssen to its new winter mooring. I might have to find something closer. The thought of navigating our boat through Amsterdam in high winds while trying to avoid cruise ships and commercial barges is causing me some concern. Actually, the thought terrifies me. The last and only time we crossed manic Amsterdam harbour we narrowly avoided being run down by a ferry. This time I would also have to brave a lock also used by towering commercial barges. I’m not sure that my heart is equal to the task.

This is why the Dutch waterways are not suitable for narrowboats

This is why the Dutch waterways are not suitable for narrowboats

 

Two Amsterdam ferries

Two Amsterdam ferries

Passing a towering Amsterdam Harbour cruise ship

Passing a towering Amsterdam Harbour cruise ship

That aside, we have medical appointments for Cynthia and the dogs. Not at the same time or for the same reason. Cynthia assures me that her rabies jabs are up to date and that she’s wormed herself recently. Travelling from Calais to Dover shouldn’t present my wife too much of a problem, but the two dogs may prove tricky. On previous passages, minor errors in their paperwork delayed me once and stopped Tasha travelling at all on another occasion. We don’t want any delays this time.

Then there’s Kempers Watersport Christmas bash. Our marina owners, the ever generous Kempers family, have kindly invited Cynthia and me to an extravagant dinner and show on Saturday night. I’ll have to be on my best behaviour. We’ll leave for Calais at dawn on Sunday, stopping briefly in Belgium to say goodbye to Walter, the guy we purchased the Linssen yacht from just a year ago.

Once back in England we have to divert to Portsmouth to have an annoying problem fixed. When I left the Hymer with Oaktree motorhomes last month to have some warranty work done, they removed the odometer and sent it to a specialist company for resetting. The display showed a total distance covered of 650,000 kilometres instead of the correct 110,000. The fault reared its ugly head after we were daft enough to allow a bunch of fuzzy-headed French mechanics to change a lightbulb on a Friday afternoon following a two-hour liquid lunch. We were delighted to find that the returned unit displayed the correct figure. We weren’t quite so pleased when we discovered that the total showed miles rather than kilometres. We hope that the one hundred mile diversion will allow us to correct the problem.

We should be back at Tattenhall marina next Tuesday. It will be a big day for Cynthia. Despite finding Orient on an Apolloduck listing six weeks ago, she hasn’t physically seen the inside of the boat which will be her home for what I hope will be many happy years to come. “I trust you!” she told me when I asked if we should commit to the purchase. I hope she loves the reality of the boat as much as the advert’s pretty pictures or I’m in real trouble.

Cynthia says:

“Saying goodbye to the green light”
 
For those of you who read “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, you may remember the green light at the end of the dock where his beloved Daisy lived across the sound.   The light represents Gatsby’s hopes and dreams and is a guiding light for his future.
 
We just spent the last
 three nights at our beloved Camperduin by the beach with our usual planes-overhead noise replaced by the sound of the crashing waves.  
 
It was a productive few days in a setting of scope, beauty and tranquillity.  We enjoyed every precious minute.  
 
I particularly loved the evenings and the darkness with the intermittent lights twinkling afar and the various windmills, some of which were working.  But the light that caught my eye the most was the green canal entrance light about a mile away.  Every night I would see it in the distance and realised that like in The Great Gatsby” it was a metaphor for our future–the “go” light to making the leap forward to returning to the UK and resuming our life on the cut.
 
There are many details to attend to, especially the spousal visa that will allow me to stay longer, and of course the logistics of getting a car, having necessary work done on Orient, and re-establishing Paul’s successful Discovery Days schedule.
 
It has been heartwarming to see that there is a lot of interest out there for these training days that have already resulted in numerous early bookings.
 
We hope to meet many new people who love the English canal network as us and look forward to making new friends as well.
 
Please keep reading about our journeys through life on the canals, and may you all find your “green light” metaphor for your future hopes and dreams!

A Creative Solution To Narrowboat Finance

 

I sat with my head in my hands opposite broker, Steve Harral. He listened to me as I reeled off a list of faults unearthed during a two-hour survey.

“There’s too much to do Steve,” I told him unhappily. “There are three different heat sources on the boat. All of them have problems which need addressing before we can move on board. The Squirrel is cracked and needs replacing, and the range in the boatman’s cabin has a loose flue. That needs fixing before we can light it. We can’t use either multi-fuel stove, and we can’t turn the central heating system on because the Kabola boiler is leaking diesel!”

Orient's boatman's cabin range - The flue needs to be sealed before we can use it

Orient’s boatman’s cabin range – The flue needs to be sealed before we can use it

Steve made a note. “Anything else?” he asked. He didn’t look at all concerned. It was all right for him. He didn’t have to find the extra few thousand pounds needed to fix the problems.

“The water tank has a hole near the top. It’s holding water but if we aren’t careful every time we top up our tank we’re going to flood the boat. The tank either needs fixing or replacing.” The water tank worried me. It was probably the original tank, which meant it was sixteen-year-old plastic. Already weakened by an open crack, I didn’t know how many jolts it could stand before bursting like a ripe melon dropped from a high wall. English locks, often staffed by well-meaning but inexperienced bystanders, are no place for a delicate craft.

I carried on working my way through my mental list. “The generator’s in a bit of a state too. It’s leaking in three or four places. An effort’s been made to seal the leaks with epoxy, but it hasn’t worked. That needs servicing too before we can use it.”
Steve scribbled on his reporter’s notepad again. “Is that it?”

“No, I’ve saved the best till last. We opened the gas locker hatch to reveal a real can of worms. There are four reasons why the boat shouldn’t have passed its BSS exam eighteen months ago. Two are quick fixes. I’m not bothered about them, but the other two need some work. Concrete has been poured into the front half of the gas locker to raise the floor. Because the steel base is now inaccessible, it’s an automatic fail until the concrete is removed so the steel can be examined. But the bigger problem is the bow thruster housing.” I explained what my mate and Boat Safety examiner, Russ, had told me about the potential for leaking gas to flow from the locker into the bilge and back to the engine. “There’s a lot of work which needs doing before we can consider moving on board. We can’t afford to have it done at the moment. Do you have any bright ideas?”

Steve looked up from his notes and saw my worried look. “Look, I don’t think any of this is going to be a problem. As far as I’m concerned, these jobs are the seller’s responsibility. I’ve been in this kind of situation many times before. Most sellers look at their boats through rose tinted glasses. They think their pride and joy is perfect. It’s often far from it. If I make these issues go away, are you still interested in buying the boat?” Of course, I was still interested. I had always admired Steve Hudson boats for their elegant design and quality build. I was also acutely aware how few narrowboats for sale have what I consider to be adequate storage space. Although Orient didn’t quite have as many built-in cupboards and drawers as my old Norton Canes boat, it came pretty close. I felt reasonably confident that even after Cynthia’s recent attempt to buy one of everything Amazon had for sale, we would be able to store all our worldly goods and still have a tidy boat.

Plenty of storage space in Orient's galley

Plenty of storage space in Orient’s galley

Steve correctly interpreted my nodding dog impression as agreement. “Right then, I need to try to have a chat with Stuart.” Stuart Palmer was Orient’s owner. Although I hadn’t met him or his wife Sue I liked them immensely. They were clearly exceptionally kind and trusting people.

Our proposed purchase was far from straightforward. All of our money was invested in our two homes; a 2003 Hymer motorhome and a 1983 Dutch Linssen yacht. We could raise up to half of Orient’s asking price via a bridging loan through Cynthia’s American bank. We hoped to pay most of the balance when we sold our Hymer. The remainder would come from the proceeds of our boat sale sometime the following year. We hoped.

Stuart and Sue had bent over backwards to accommodate us. Now we would be testing their generosity to breaking point by asking them to swallow the cost of the boat’s essential repairs, replacements and modifications. The first step, actually talking to them, was far from easy.

Their son was tying the matrimonial knot thousands of miles away. While the Palmer family cavorted somewhere on a Mexico beach, far, far away from working smartphones, tablets or laptop computers, we waited and worried. Stuart and Sue wouldn’t be back in dark and damp England for a further four days. I hoped and prayed that their enthusiasm to sell to us wouldn’t be dampened by an unhappy return to a wet English autumn or a tequila-induced hangover. Time would tell. In the meantime, I had a long drive ahead of me.

I didn’t enjoy the journey back to Holland. Ten hours of tedious motorway driving, broken by a lengthy wait at Eurotunnel’s Folkestone terminal.

I booked a return Channel Tunnel crossing a month earlier when I took our Hymer to England to have some warranty work done. I didn’t know exactly when I would be able to return. The repairs took longer than expected, so I had already altered my return date once. The fee for changing a ticket date depends on train availability. The charge to switch to an early morning train was a very reasonable £1. I arrived at the terminal at 10pm feeling reasonably wide awake after my six-hour drive from Tattenhall marina. I knew the cost of switching again to the 10pm train was an eye-watering £95, so I decided to try the sympathy card.

The uniformed guy at the ticket barrier appeared happy enough. I adopted a miserable expression. I told him about my poorly wife suffering unpleasantly on a damp and partially heated boat moored on a windswept Dutch marina. I explained how an earlier train would improve both her physical and mental health immeasurably. He nodded sympathetically and called his supervisor.

“Good news!” he told me with a smile as he finished his call. You can change to the 10pm train and get back to your wife early.” He fiddled with the display in front of him. “That’s £95. How do you want to pay?”

I put away my wallet and steeled myself for a night trying to sleep in a floodlit carpark, and hoped that Cynthia would understand.

I didn’t enjoy my return to work at a high-end Dutch marina at all. I always felt that I didn’t quite fit in. There was the language issue for a start. Nearly all young Dutch people can speak English when they have to but, of course, they don’t need to very often when most of their coworkers are Dutch. Coffee breaks in the canteen have always been a painful affair, both emotionally and physically. The Dutch are not a quiet race, especially in a workshop canteen. Imagine ten men all trying to talk at once in a language you don’t understand, usually with mouths filled to overflowing with chocolate spread covered bread, at the volume of a four-engined jet struggling to leave Mother Earth. It’s enough to make your ears bleed.

The one saving grace, for me, is the Dutch obsession with cream cakes.

If you have a birthday, if you get a promotion, if you start or leave a job, or if you just fancy enhancing your artery-clogging diet, you stagger into work bow legged under a towering pile of cardboard boxes filled with fresh cream cakes. That’s a typical canteen coffee break in Holland; rounds of dry bread spread thickly with sweetened chocolate spread, a doorstep wedge of sponge filled with fresh cream and a mug of caffeine thickened with heaps of sugar. It’s no wonder my co-workers sounded like guests at a children’s birthday party. I sat quietly on my own reading my Kindle and marvelling at the empty calories being devoured with such enthusiasm while I ploughed my way through my own knee-high mound of cream.

Kempers Watersport Showroom - I endured a monotonous week polishing this lot when I would rather be polishing the one below...

Kempers Watersport Showroom – I endured a monotonous week polishing this lot when I would rather be polishing the one below…

Orient is waiting to welcome us home

Orient is waiting to welcome us home

Steve phoned me on a wet Wednesday as I half-heartedly polished the hull of a £300,000 second-hand speedboat. “I have some news which I think you’ll like,” he offered enigmatically. What news did Steve think I would like? That the sun was shining on Tattenhall marina, that Orient was still leak free despite not being heated during the recent cold snap, or could it be that he had finally spoken to the elusive Palmers?

“I spoke to Stuart yesterday. I told him about the problems. I didn’t phone you then because he needed to talk to his wife before making a decision. I have good news for you. They have agreed to lower the sale price by the total of the quotes for all the different repairs!” This WAS good news, but not great news. In my experience, a quoted price is often far removed from the final bill. It’s an indication, a starting point and, on occasion, complete guesswork. I suggested, for us, a better solution.
“I want the price we pay to include the total cost for all of the work done,” I told him. “What if we pay you a substantial deposit. Rather than Stuart having to pay for any repairs, you can use the deposit to pay for them. You can reduce the boat price by the final repair bill total. How about that?”

“I see your point,” agreed Steve. “I’ll need to run your idea by Stuart. I’ll get back to you as soon as I’ve heard from him. In the meantime, I have some more news for you. Stuart and Sue may want to take your motorhome in part exchange.” That was marvellous news. Orient’s annual mooring at Tattenhall marina expired at the end of December. We didn’t want to renew it but, until CRT’s contractors had completed on the various locks and bridges on our route back to Warwickshire, we wouldn’t have anywhere to store the Hymer when we advertised it for sale. We could hardly adopt a continuous cruising lifestyle on Cheshire’s canals with a five-tonne motorhome to think about. Stuart and Sue taking our motorhome would solve that problem instantly.

Then Steve stuck a pin in my growing bubble of happiness. “Oh, I just want to confirm one detail with you. The Hymer is right-hand drive, isn’t it?” Shit. No, it wasn’t. The vehicle was UK registered but designed for continental travel. The speedometer was calibrated in kilometres, the odometer the same and, more importantly, the steering wheel was definitely on the wrong side for driving on English roads.

I waxed lyrical about the joy of continental touring compared to motorhoming in the UK. I talked about the weather, the food, free campsites, magnificent scenery, the French people’s love affair with motorhome owners and their disposable income. I spoke passionately and perhaps a little desperately. Steve didn’t appear impressed at all.

“Look, here’s Stuart’s email address and telephone number. He insisted that they wanted a right-hand drive vehicle. Maybe you can convince them left-hand drive will work for them.” Steve’s tone suggested otherwise, but I had nothing to lose by speaking with the Palmers.

I phoned Stuart briefly. I tried to switch his allegiance to foreign roads. He listened without enthusiasm and then ended the call with what I suspected was a ploy I had used all too often before. “That’s all very interesting Paul, but I have to go. My wife is waving at me. We’re late for an appointment.”

I was bitterly disappointed. Over the last half hour, I had gone from worrying about the logistics of selling our six-wheeled home to virtual euphoria at the thought of a quick sale, to a deep depression when I suspected we were back to square one. All I could do was wait and hope that the Palmers contacted us again when they had more time.

So I waited and waited, and then I waited some more.

I received an unexpected and very welcome email three days later. “We haven’t completely discounted the possibility of buying a left-hand drive motorhome…” Sue began. It wasn’t the positive reply I hoped for, but it wasn’t a flat-out refusal. She wanted details about the vehicle’s condition, service history and running costs. All of her questions indicated interest and ignited a tiny flame of hope. I emailed the details, complete with a link to an online photo album of the Hymer dominating a variety of exotic landscapes. And then I waited some more.

Sue replied two days later. More positive news. They wanted to do a deal. She suggested taking the motorhome in part exchange and then named the balance they wanted us to pay. The proposal was good in principle, but the email didn’t address who was going to be responsible for the necessary repairs to the boat before we could move on board. I pointed that out to her. The Palmers need to think some more.

In the meantime, I still don’t know how much the repairs are likely to cost, who’s going to be doing them, and when they can be done. We hoped to be on board by Christmas. That deadline is feeling more and more unrealistic.

Tattenhall marina has sublet their marina workshop. The new guy will be open for business tomorrow. He’s going to quote for the work. If his price is acceptable, he should be able to start work immediately. In a perfect world, he would work on our boat to the exclusion of all else, all the parts he needed would be readily available, and he would be finished within a week. Oh, and pigs would fly, and money would grow on trees.

Discovery Day Update

Thank you to those who have booked a day with me in 2019 already. And a big thank you to two of my future guests who asked if I could package a Discovery Day as a Christmas gift. What a great idea. On a feedback form, I received two or three years ago one happy lady told me, “This has been the best anniversary gift I’ve received in twenty-four years of marriage!” I know how much people enjoy their eight-hour cruise with me, so what a wonderful gift to give at a time of the year when balmy summer days are a distant memory.

If you are wondering what on Earth you can buy your significant other for Christmas, here’s an opportunity to arrange something they will really enjoy. They’ll receive an animated Jackie Lawson boating card on Christmas Day with a message including a link to a special Christmas gift. The lucky recipient will land on a Christmas Discovery page on my site describing the treat in store for them in detail. It’s a gift they will always remember fondly.

If you want to see the Discovery Day route, here’s a virtual cruise along the combined Oxford and Grand Union canals between Napton and Braunston junctions.

Click here to watch the video

The video was put together by Discovery Day guest Mike Shacklock on a gorgeous summer’s day in June 2015. The relaxing video shows a rooftop view of my boat on a calm canal and the waving helmsman of narrowboats cruising along a winding canal fringed by rolling hills. The footage ends with an ascent of the three lock Calcutt flight. Set to relaxing music, the video is a great way to rest for twenty minutes while you dream about the summer ahead and the possibility of joining this happy band of boaters.

You can find out more about my Discovery Days here.

Five Thousand Reasons To Use A Narrowboat Surveyor

 

I don’t know why I make plans. Things rarely work out the way I want them to. Everything seemed so straightforward on my survey day To Do list.

• Ask permission to black Orient while it’s out of the water
• Make sure there’s a pressure washer available
• Buy bitumen, rollers, weed hatch tape and rolls of paper towels for drying a damp hull on a dull autumn day
• Employ a surveyor for the day
• Jump for joy when the surveyor tells me that the boat is in as good a condition as I suspect

Orient on her mooring when I first saw her

Orient on her mooring when I first saw her

I missed an important item from my list. “Add an extra twelve hours to the day”. I don’t know how I thought I was going to go through the boat with the surveyor and then find time to black Orient too. Not that painting a hull with bitumen was even a consideration after the phone call I received on Friday afternoon.

Cynthia called. She was still on our damp and unheated boat back in Holland. I could barely recognise her voice. She sounded awful, but not as bad as she felt. She told me she had a fever, her mouth had swelled so much that speaking was difficult and that she was so weak that she didn’t have enough strength to climb the companionway steps to the boat’s rear deck. She had two weighty dogs needing a toilet break and no way of getting them outside. Cynthia was understandably upset. The marina was practically deserted. She had no one to turn to. Cynthia felt scared and isolated. I felt helpless.

We discussed our options. We could phone for an ambulance, but they would take Cynthia to a hospital and pump her full of the western medicine she tried so hard to avoid. We scrubbed that idea.

I could abandon my Sunday survey plans and drive back to Holland immediately. We scrubbed that one too. The drive would take ten hours plus whatever delay I would face crossing the channel. Neither Cynthia nor the dogs could wait that long. Cynthia needed someone she could turn to nearby. She has a small number of Dutch friends who she thought might be able to help. One of them, Mariella, the marina owner’s wife, responded to Cynthia’s texted cry for help immediately.

Mariella said that she was working but that she could collect the various herbal medications Cynthia needed when she finished for the day. The following day was Saturday. She would be happy to walk our two bassets three our four times and check on Cynthia at the same time.

That news alone helped Cynthia’s recovery tremendously. She was finding the isolation hard to bear. Most of her vast network of friends lived on the far side of the Atlantic ocean. The North Sea kept her away from her husband and a cultural divide from the Dutch people around her. Despite her many years of international travel, life on a foreign shore had never felt so challenging.

Cynthia’s condition had improved enough by Saturday to allow me to return my focus to boat buying, surveying and blacking.

I had neither the time nor the inclination to black the boat on Sunday. Even if I wanted to, the practicalities overwhelmed me. I had permission to black Orient from the marina management, but didn’t have a pressure washer to clean the hull with first. The marina’s workshop services were in transition, about to be outsourced to a subcontractor who wouldn’t open for business until the beginning of December. The company’s own pressure washer had been moved to another site. I managed to borrow one from every helpful broker Steven Harral. The machine was a Karcher, better suited for car bodywork grime removal than mud, weed and the rock hard secretions of aquatic creatures. As the pressure washer wasn’t up to the job and I didn’t have the time to clean the boat in preparation for blacking or to do the hull painting itself,  I reluctantly removed blacking from my list.

I didn’t have a surveyor either. I asked boat safety examiner and old friend from Calcutt Boats, Russ Fincham, to help me on the day.

Even though Russ has worked with narrowboats for twenty years, I wasn’t really sure I needed him at first. I’ve been around narrowboats since 2010. Over the last eight years, the experiences I’ve had living afloat at one of the country’s most prominent marinas has taught me a thing or two. I’ve learned a great deal from the fitters and engineers I’ve worked with and from my own mistakes and the experiences of the many hundreds of narrowboat owners I’ve had the pleasure to meet. I know a good boat when I see one, and I knew as soon as I saw Orient that I’d found a gem. That’s what I thought.

I arrived at Tattenhall marina two days before survey day. I had plenty of time to mooch around the boat examining it from every angle, inside and out. I was confident that this lovely boat was in first class condition.

Overconfident as it happens. Misguided even. Deluded and clueless, some would say.

The rudder was my only real concern. When I viewed the boat for the first time three weeks earlier I had the chance to take her out for a spin. Even though the boat handled beautifully the steering was very heavy. I hoped that the skeg, the horizontal steel bar which supports the rudder cup, hadn’t come into contact with a lock cill and bent upwards, pinching the rudder bearing and causing the stiff handling.

A comfortable cabin for Discovery Day guests in chilly weather. The range will be on full blast.

A comfortable cabin for Discovery Day guests in chilly weather. The range will be on full blast.

After a coffee and a chat about our mutual oddball boating acquaintances, I left Russ to his own devices for an hour. I didn’t think he needed me there to confirm my opinion. I looked forward to him telling me that Cynthia had found a delightful problem free waterway home for us. The survey was, I assured myself, a formality, nothing more.

“What do you think?” I asked Russ’s jean-clad arse as he bent double to unhook his trapped belt from the brass speed wheel. Why are so many tradesmen working in small narrowboat spaces such big men? “It’s a cracking boat, isn’t it?” I waited for his enthusiastic confirmation.

Red-faced and puffing, he backed out of the boatman’s cabin. He looked at me and wrinkled his nose. “I’ve seen worse,” he conceded resting an arm on the tiller’s swan’s neck.

I pointed at the steel deck beneath his feet. “What about the tiller then? Was I right? Is it going to be a problem?” Orient had to be back in the water the following day. There wasn’t enough time to do any work on it before then. I suspected that the boat would need to be lifted out again and the sturdy steel skeg somehow straightened to relieve some of the tiller tension.
Russ sucked his teeth. Tradesman teeth sucking is always advanced warning of lengthy and costly repairs. “I’ve got to hand it to you,” he admitted, giving the tiller an experimental tweak, “You spotted a big problem there.” I knew it. We’d have to pay hundreds of pounds, maybe a thousand or more, to put the problem right.

I hesitated before asking the burning question. “How much is the repair going to cost me?” He grinned. “About fifteen minutes labour and a couple of quid for parts. There’s just a bit of muck in the rudder cup. Fitting a grease nipple should free it up a bit.”

So much for my expert opinion. Still, I was happy on this occasion to be proven wrong. My only worry turned out to be nothing at all. I breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s great news. I take it everything inside was OK too?” I was pretty sure it was, but having Russ there to confirm it was handy.

“Let’s take a walk through the boat. I want to show you a few things.” He wedged himself back into the boatman’s cabin companionway and reached over the range to its flue. “See this here?” he looked up to where the flue passed through the cabin roof and firmly rocked it from side to side. “This needs properly sealing to prevent rainwater ingress.”

“Is that it?” Resealing the flue wasn’t going to break the bank. I could live with that. “Keep walking,” Russ insisted and lead me past the back cabin’s upholstered bench seats, brass lamps and decorative wall mounted plates. We ducked through the low doorway into the engine room.

Most modern narrowboats are designed to make the most of the limited cabin space. The engine is at the back of the boat either under boards beneath the helmsman’s feet on cruiser stern boats or inside an engine room in front of the steerer on a trad stern boat.  Orient’s design is along the lines of the old working narrowboats. The helmsman, and often his wife and children, would live in a small room, the boatman’s cabin, at the rear of the boat. The engine was in its own room forward of the living accommodation.

Orient's Lister JP2M

Orient’s Lister JP2M

Orient’s engine room is dominated by a bright green 1936 Lister JP2M. There are two pairs of side doors which can be folded open to allow passing boaters and towpath users to see the engine buffed to shiny perfection. Russ hadn’t brought me to see the Lister. He agreed that it was a beautiful piece of machinery. “It’s simple to maintain,” he reassured me. “Even YOU should be able to do it!” He knows me so well.

“The engine’s not a problem. The generator is a different kettle of fish.” He removed the generator housing’s green painted lid. “Nice generator,” I offered. “No, it’s not. It’s leaking like a sieve.” He wiped a grimy finger around a joint. It came away smeared with diesel. “And see there, and there, and there. Oh, and there too?” He pointed at other joints. “They’ve all been leaking at some stage. They’ve been plastered in epoxy. The whole thing needs a good service before you consider running it up.” More bad news, but the worst was yet to come.

We walked from the engine room into the spacious bathroom. An elegant shower cubicle filled one corner. A cassette toilet squatted beside it. That was on our list of things to change if we got the boat. It was fine for now, but I had an unhappy relationship with cassettes for five years on my last narrowboat. I lost count of the number of times I arrived at an Elsan point with my two cartridges filled to bursting to find the sewage disposal point out of order. My time on an idyllic mooring was always limited by my waste carrying capacity. Boating life improved immeasurably as soon as I threw my cassette toilet in Calcutt Boats’ skip and installed a composting toilet in its place. I gave the cassette a sly kick as we walked through the bathroom into the galley and then into the saloon.

Orients cassette toilet - Yours, if you want it for the price of a pint

Orients cassette toilet – Yours, if you want it for the price of a pint

“What do you think of the stove?” Russ asked. “I’ve always wanted a Squirrel,” I told him, imagining it filled with glowing coal and topped by a spinning Ecofan. I tried to guess why Russ was questioning me. I could see that the stove needed a coat of paint, but that wouldn’t take me long to sort out.

He ran a stubby finger along the back edge of the stove’s top plate. “You’re happy with this crack here then?” He lowered his finger to another point beneath the front door’s sooty glass, “And look at this one here. It’s nearly wide enough to put my finger in.” Why hadn’t I noticed the faults? I know my sight’s not what it used to be, but I shouldn’t have missed clear indications that the stove was falling apart.

The condemned Squirrel. I'm sure the boat will be very warm, once there's heat on it.

The condemned Squirrel. I’m sure the boat will be very warm, once there’s heat on it.

“Can I use it until we can afford to have a new stove fitted?” I asked hopefully. “Of course you can,” he assured me, “as long as you wear gas masks to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.” I guessed he meant that we needed a new stove. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. We couldn’t move onto the boat without reliable heating. Then I remembered that the Squirrel stove wasn’t the boat’s only heat source.

“We should be able to keep warm though. The Kabola’s a good boiler, isn’t it?” I asked hopefully. We walked back to the bathroom where the sturdy central heating boiler sat at the bottom of a large pine cupboard. Russ opened the double doors, turned on an overhead light and pointed at the glistening steel sheet the boiler sat on. “The boiler’s been leaking. The light’s reflecting off spilt diesel. I wouldn’t turn it on until it’s been serviced if I were you.” That was terrible news. We had a boat with three heat sources. The stove had cracks in it, a range had a leaking flue, and the central heating boiler was leaking diesel. We had just endured a couple of miserable months on one unheated boat. We didn’t want to move onto another one.

“I’ve saved the best till last,” Russ warned me as we returned to the front of the boat. He opened a small inspection hatch at the top of two steps leading to the front deck and illuminated the dark space with a torch. “That’s your water tank.” He indicated a large plastic cube filling most of the space beneath the well deck. “You can see where it’s been repaired.” He shone his torch on a rough patch at the top of the side facing us and then traced the filler pipe upwards to the deck fitting. “There’s a hole in the filler pipe. If you don’t watch the water going in very carefully every time you top your tank up you’ll flood your boat. In its weakened state, if the boat stops suddenly like if you surge forward and hit the gates in a lock, there’s a chance the tank will rupture. The whole thing really needs replacing with good quality food grade stainless steel. You should expect to pay about £700 for a new tank.”

“Would that include the fitting?” I asked, imagining our bank balance’s cry of despair. Buying the boat had stretched our finances beyond breaking point as it was. The financing was creative,  to say the least. I didn’t know how we could also afford these additional repair costs.

Russ didn’t try to soften the blow. “Fitting the tank is likely to cost you at least as much as buying it. There are two ways to do it. Your first option is to slide it out from the deck into the cabin.” He gestured to the beautifully fitted pine cupboards on the front doors’ port side. “Most of that will have to be removed to get the tank out.” He pointed to the starboard side. “And the stove will have to be removed too. If you’re replacing the stove, you can do it at the same time as the tank.” I didn’t like the sound of that. I’ve seen fitted furniture removed from other boats. It’s never quite the same when it’s put back in again. I hoped the alternative would involve less damage. That hope was short lived.

“The alternative is to go in from above. A section, or sections, of the deck will need to be cut away to allow the old tank to be lifted out and the new one to be dropped in.  If you go in through the deck, you can use a special plastic bag insert. It will cost half as much as a steel tank but the boat’s existing pipework will have to be altered to fit the bag. Even though a stainless steel tank will cost more, it can be made to fit the existing connections so there will be less labour. Both jobs will be a similar price. Which way it’s done is up to you.” Neither way sounded particularly appealing to me. Not that we could afford to do that work or any of the other jobs on Russ’s growing list. He had one more to add.

Our cosy floating home. Maybe you'll have one just like this soon.

Our cosy floating home. Maybe you’ll have one just like this soon.

The boat specifications on the sales listing hadn’t included a bow thruster. Now that Orient was out of the water we could see that there was one fitted and even though the batteries appeared to be dead there were working controls at the helm. I didn’t have a bow thruster on my last boat. One would have been handy on occasion, but I managed pretty well without. A bow thruster was just something else to go wrong and another expensive set of batteries to maintain. And on Orient, the reason for an immediate boat safety examination failure.

“I need to be able to get into the gas locker,” Russ insisted. I can feel concrete through the drain hole. Hudsons sometimes have water ingress issues in the bow locker because of the hull design. One possible but inadvisable solution is to pour concrete into the gas locker base to raise the floor and prevent whatever is in there from getting wet. Concrete in the gas locker means that the locker floor can’t be examined, so it’s an automatic fail.” That puzzled me. Orient’s BSS certificate expires in 2020. Unless the concrete was a recent addition, the boat should have failed its last inspection. “There’s something else too,” he pointed to the electrical wiring leading from the bow thruster batteries in the well deck locker towards the gas locker. “I need to find out where the bow thruster motor is. If it’s in the gas locker, we have a problem!” Not another one. I had problems coming out of my ears.

We spoke briefly to Steve Harral. The bow locker lid was secured with a combination padlock. He didn’t have the code but offered us a simple solution. “The gas locker shouldn’t be locked anyway. Emergency services need to be able to get in the gas locker if there’s an emergency. Cut it off!!”

A couple of minutes later we were staring at the gas locker floor. Half of it, as Russ suspected, was hidden under an inches deep concrete base. The two 13kg gas bottles rested on a raised steel platform held in place by bolts above a recess housing the bow thruster. “Fail, fail, fail and fail!” Russ pointed to the unsecured bottles and their attached hoses, the concrete base and, most dangerous of all, the bow thruster recess. He pointed to the gap between the gas locker and the bow thruster. “That is very dangerous. Imagine gas leaking from almost empty cylinders, which they often do.”

“The gas locker drain holes are supposed to be no more than an inch above the locker base. They’ve been raised to about five inches here when the concrete was added. So, where’s the leaking gas going to flow instead of through those holes and into the canal?” He looked at me and shook his head when he saw my slack-jawed expression. “The leaking gas will find the lowest point which, in this case, is the bow thruster housing. It won’t stop there though. The gas will find the gaps around the wiring, flow into the bilge and then work its way back to the engine. You know what can happen then? No, of course you don’t. A stray spark and…” He threw his arms into the air and made a sound like a bomb going off. I got the picture.

“What can we do to get around this?” I could see our narrowboat plans being buried beneath a growing pile of insurmountable problems. The quick boat walkthrough was turning into a nightmare.

“If you can live without the bow thruster, the solution is relatively straightforward. You can seal both ends of the bow thruster tube and weld a plate over the recess in the locker so the gas can’t get into it. What do you think?” I was thinking that remaining in Holland on a freezing boat might be our only option if we couldn’t find a way of getting this work done without resorting to bank robbery. Russ estimated that the total bill for repairs and alterations would be between five and eight thousand pounds. I knew we couldn’t stretch that far.

All I could think of doing was reporting the issues Russ unearthed to broker Steve and see what he had to say. I trudged over to Ash Boats’ waterside office and slumped into a seat opposite him. “How did the survey go?” he asked brightly. “Not well Steve,” I warned him. I think we have a problem.”

Our bedroom – Perfect for a good night’s sleep… providing you’re not too tall.

Moisture Misery and Tedious Train Travel

 

We’re still at war with the damp on our cold boat. And losing every skirmish.

Dealing with unwanted moisture has become an exhausting daily ritual. Each morning while Cynthia slaves over two or three lit burners on our moisture making gas hob I invest half an hour scraping, mopping and wiping condensation from single glazed windows, aluminium frames and poorly insulated cabin walls and ceilings. I hang the wrung cloths in the wheelhouse to dry. I know they’ll be just as wet when I return to them the following morning.

Our single kilowatt of electric heat is barely enough to remove the chill from mild autumn evenings. Its miserable effort at drying our wet bedding would be laughable under happier circumstances. We don’t find it funny at all. We have towels, tea towels, clothes and sheets hanging from every available cockpit hook and knob. The wheelhouse controls are buried under bedding. There’s little point in hanging anything up. Nothing dries under the weak sun struggling to penetrate our wet windows.

A dark day on the windswept

A dark day on the windswept marina

Just when we thought we’d reached an all-time low, two new problems reared their ugly heads. Mould has begun to creep across every fabric surface touching our uninsulated walls and windows. An unwelcome blue mottle is rising from the curtain hems. Similar marks spread slowly over cushions, mattresses and sheets. Our fabric is as unsightly as it’s damp. We tried to bury our collective head in the sands of denial by hiding our wet aft cabin behind a closed wooden door. We can’t even do that now. As our bedding rots our woodwork swells.

I laughed at first. I was able to use the problem as an excuse. “When are you going to put another screw in the galley light cover you took down three weeks ago?” Cynthia asked politely. I knew I should have secured it earlier. DIY isn’t one of my strengths. My desire to buy shiny tools is in inverse proportion to my ability to use them. I have a LOT of tools.

I reluctantly climbed through the bedding walls of our galley cave. The only way we can keep our tiny living area warm is by draping fleece sheets over the companionway to keep the heat in. I slid open a wooden door covering three rows of drawers cleverly built into space beneath our wide gunnels. Clever providing no one wants to use the drawers during prolonged periods of wet weather. Which is most of the time in northern Europe. All of my tools are now locked securely out of reach by pine runners swollen immoveably together.

I don’t mind that so much. Not being able to close the ply door to our mould filled cabin is more of a frustration. The swollen door regularly swings open, welcoming warm air which sticks like glue to every cold surface and enthusiastically contributes to the mould making process.

The small wooden door from our bedding festooned wheelhouse has swelled past practical use too. If I force it closed Cynthia can’t get in and out of the boat. I can’t have that. Without Cynthia, I would starve to death. The door has to be left slightly ajar which, as you can imagine, allows damp air as well as Cynthia to tumble from the exposed rear deck into the pool of misery beneath.

At least I have been able to escape for a while.

A phone call from Oaktree Motorhomes to tell us that our Hymer was ready for collection kickstarted a day of frustrating online travel booking last week. We began in a buoyant mood. “I am always grateful for my lifetime travel privileges at times like this,” Cynthia enthused. Thanks to American Airlines employee travel scheme she can travel virtually anywhere in the world for next to nothing. Now, because we are married, so can I. That’s the theory anyway.

So we logged into AA’s retiree website and browsed through a long list of scheduled flights between Schiphol and Heathrow. Flying to East Midlands would have made much more sense than to Heathrow, but the only carrier we could find which allowed American Airlines staff was British Airways. Their closest destination was Heathrow. We saw a suitable flight, paid the laughably low administration fee, high fived each other for a job well done, and then read the confirmation email small print.

We needed to complete one further small step. One which sounded easy enough in theory but one which improved impossible in practice. We had to list our standby booking with British Airways.

“How do I do that?” I asked Cynthia hopefully. She’s been on hundreds of standby flights. I knew she would have the answer. “I don’t have a clue. I haven’t listed for a standby flight with British Airways in years. The process is bound to be different now. I’m sure with your internet skills you’ll sort it out easily!”

So I began searching, phoning and, eventually, pleading which took longer than the expected flight. I called British Airways four times. No one had a clue what I was talking about. That, in itself, isn’t unusual. Cynthia phoned American Airlines three times. They suggested we call BA. She phoned a fourth time, demanding to talk to a department supervisor.

At last, we found someone with a little useful knowledge. “No problem,” drawled a helpful lady sweltering at a desk somewhere in America’s deep south. “You can make the listing online. All you have to do is complete a simple form. I’ll walk you through it”, and she did, right up to the point when the booking form threw up a message telling us that the ticket wasn’t valid for British Airways travel.

We endured another round of telephone calls and escalated helpline assistance before we resolved the ticket invalidity mystery. British Airways doesn’t allow the spouses of American Airline staff to travel on their own. If Cynthia couldn’t come with me, I couldn’t go. She couldn’t, so after three hours of wasted effort, we were back to square one. THAT kind of thing is one of the many reasons I want to return to the peace and quiet of the English waterways and stay there. If I want to travel anywhere, all I have to do is untie a couple of ropes, start my engine and chug at a snail’s pace to my new destination. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

We endured another half hour trawling through listings on a handful of comparison websites trying to find a one-way ticket for less than the cost of a plane. Then Cynthia had another of her many bright ideas. “Why don’t you take an overnight ferry from the Hook of Holland? You can get a cabin and sleep during the crossing. It has to be better than flying!” Cynthia was right. I hate the stress and rush involved in checking in for flights. I looked forward to a much more pleasant experience on board a boat. I wouldn’t have been quite as relaxed if I knew how long the journey was going to take me.

The first leg of my bus, train, train, train, bus, ferry, train, train, train, train and bus marathon started well enough. I reached the vast train terminal at Schiphol airport and booked tickets to get me to the Hook of Holland. I climbed on board the first train and settled down for the usual efficient Dutch service. The train broke down five miles away from Schiphol. Regular tannoy updates kept us informed. The driver was on the phone to a help desk. The train would only travel backwards unless they could fix the problem. They couldn’t. It lurched back the way it came and then carried on for another half hour, still going backwards, to central Amsterdam to connect us with an alternative train. After an hour’s travel, I was twenty miles further away from my destination than when I started.

So different to checking in at an airport

So different to checking in at an airport

I arrived at Oaktree Motorhomes twenty-five hours later. The boating part of it was relaxing. The small unheated cabin still felt like a sauna after our icebox boat, but at least I could sleep for a few hours.

Back on English soil, not wanting to be outdone by Dutch railway delays, my fifth train of the English leg was cancelled. Rather than waiting for two hours, I decided to find a bus to take me from Nottingham city centre ten miles north-west to the motorhome dealership. One bus and a five-mile walk later I stepped into our Hymer home.

All the repairs had been completed, the service manager told me. He was right, after a fashion, but I didn’t find the right royal cock up one of their suppliers made for two days.

Because I’m obsessive about details I record all of our boating and motorhome journeys in spreadsheets. I note the starting and stopping mileage and the distance we’ve covered. I didn’t notice a discrepancy on our motorhome spreadsheet until I reached Tattenhall marina the following day.

Our Hymer is left-hand drive. We purchased it in the UK. The motorhome is UK registered but designed for continental travel. In addition to the steering wheel, the dashboard display is also designed for mainland Europe. One of the more essential repairs was to the Hymer’s distance counter. A fault resulted in the kilometre total increasing by one a second when the ignition was turned on even if the motorhome wasn’t moving. The total had reached more than six hundred thousand. I wanted the fault fixed, and the counter reset to the correct figure. Because of my spreadsheet, I could show the actual distance the vehicle had travelled. I submitted a copy of that with garage repair receipts from our European travels. The receipts showed the dashboard reading on the date the repair was carried out.

The odometer repairers aren’t always either willing or able to reset the clock. I was delighted when Oaktree’s service manager confirmed that ours had been reset to the correct figure.

What neither of us knew at the time was that it had been reset to 115,739 as I asked but in miles rather than kilometres. The vehicle has done 71,916 MILES, 43,823 less than the gauge now indicates. So we have a left-hand drive vehicle with a speedometer marked in kilometres counting distance in miles and showing a wildly inaccurate total distance. And we’re trying to sell the motorhome to buy the boat. Correcting the cockup will probably mean another ten days without the motorhome at a time when we are trying to move from one country to another, in the motorhome, and preparing the vehicle for a hoped-for quick sale. The situation is really frustrating.

At least being back at an English marina has helped calm me down, as has the help I’ve received from the marina staff. They have an official you-will-be-shot-if-you’re-found-sleeping-in-your-motorhome policy. No exceptions or excuses, unless you’re on friendly terms with the marina manager. Orient’s broker, Steve Harral, stepped up to the plate on my behalf. “This chap,” he pointed at me, “is having a survey done on Orient on Sunday. Can he stay in his motorhome until then?” The manager looked at Steve and then across the marina to where the Hymer dominated a small car park. “You know the rules, Steve. He can’t sleep in his motorhome on site. If I let him, I’ll have to let other moorers do it too.” He turned away to deal with another customer. “Mind you, if he wedged it into the small gap between Orient and the workshop I wouldn’t be able to see it from my office window.”

Orient was high and dry on a cradle beside a brick building on the far side of the marina. There was a muddy gap ten feet wide between their tractor-trailer rig and polythene covered boat blacking and painting tent. The Hymer fitted with inches to spare. The gap was so narrow I had to crack open the driver’s door and squeeze through a small gap straight onto the trailer’s towbar. I kept a low profile for two days. I covered all our windows with the Hymer’s blackout screens, used as few lights as possible and waited anxiously for today’s survey.

Our Hymer wedged into a gap between Orient and a paint tent

Our Hymer wedged into a gap between Orient and a paint tent

I’ve had a few challenges to keep the old grey matter active while I waited. Even though the boat looks in good condition out of the water, it doesn’t appear to have been blacked for a few years. I wanted to throw a couple of coats of bitumen on while it was out. The marina used to allow moorers to black their own boats. There was a decent pressure washer for hire and staff at hand to drive the tractor and trailer rig. Lakeland Leisure then decided to subcontract all onsite repairs and services. The new regime doesn’t begin until December. In the meantime, the pressure washer has been moved to another site and the only person now capable of driving the tractor has to come down from the Lake District.

I’ve managed to borrow a domestic pressure washer from ever-helpful broker Steve. The boat has been out of the water for six days. The boat’s organic growth is as hard as cement. Removing it with a Karcher designed for removing dust from shiny cars is going to be like colouring a sheet of paper as large as a football field with a child’s crayon. I’m not looking forward to it.
Added to that is the pressure to get back to Cynthia as soon as possible. She continues to suffer in a horribly cold and damp environment. She developed a fever yesterday, possibly as a result of a gum abscess. I came close to abandoning our plans to drive back to her. She considered calling an ambulance at one stage when she realised she was too weak to climb out of the boat to take the dogs out. One of her many guardian angels came to the rescue. Mariella, the marina owner’s wife, responded to her text plea for help. She brought medicinal supplies and offered to walk the dogs. We went from red to amber alert. Now, I think, we’re back in the green.

Tattenhall marina on a frosty November morning

Tattenhall marina on a frosty November morning

Today is surveying day. I hope it goes as well as I expect. This traditional boat with a traditional boatman’s cabin, and an engine room with beautiful old Lister, also has a very untraditional bow thruster. The bow thruster batteries appear to be dead. Maybe I’ll leave them that way. I’ve often described bow thruster controls very dismissively as “girlie buttons” Now, having experienced a very good bow thruster on our first Dutch boat, I know how useful they can be in difficult conditions. Maybe I’ll replace the batteries after all.

Right, where’s that piddly little pressure washer? It’s time to go to work!

1 2 3 59