Beware Narrowboat Buyer’s Freebies

 

Remember my brush with carbon monoxide poisoning a month ago, when I was rudely disturbed in the middle of the night by a shrieking alarm and a boat filled with smoke? I had another slightly less dramatic episode earlier in the week.

The first problem was caused by my Squirrel stove’s incorrect fitting. The airflow restrictor which should have been removed before installation was left on, a restrictor which clogged with burned stove debris until it blocked the flue completely and channelled the smoke, and the carbon monoxide, from the burning coal briquettes into the cabin. The latest issue is also as a result of the recent stove installation.

The early morning wail of my carbon monoxide alarm coincided with the appearance of white crumbs on my stove top and a hardened bird shit like paste running down the flue from the roof collar.

My guardian angel, BSS examiner Russ Fincham, told me that the debris is cement dust from the space between the collar and flue. The little remaining cement needs vigorously scrubbing with a wire brush and then replacing with high-temperature sealant. There’s also a gap between the collar and the roof, a space which also needs filling with some high-temperature sealant.

Despite having a high quality double skinned stainless steel chimney, I also have a brown stain around the collar and along the roof to the nearest gap in the handrail. The marks then head south down the Orient’s grey cabin side onto the black painted hull.

I will repaint the once black collar when I’ve removed the crumbling cement, but not until I’ve removed the brown stain. Traffic film remover is the go-to product for banishing unsightly chimney surround stains. That and a fair degree of elbow grease. I’ve already spent an hour on mark removal. I think I’ll need to invest several more before my grey paint is blemish free.

While sealing the collar leak and silencing my life-saving alarm is a high priority, making the outside of the boat look pretty is not. I have bigger fish to fry. My Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) examination failed on a dozen points earlier in the week. I was furious. Not with the examiner or Orient, but angry with myself for not heeding the advice that I give so often to aspiring boat owners. I always suggest that boat buyers insist on a BSS exam as part of the purchase.

Orient had a current certificate, valid until 2021. However, when my BSS examiner buddy, Russ Fincham, looked through Orient with me last December just before I agreed to buy her, he pointed out several faults which should have resulted in previous BSS exam fails. One of the most severe was the bow thruster motor in an open recess in the gas locker. The installation allowed escaped gas to flow through a bulkhead opening carrying the bow thruster battery wiring and enter the cabin bilge. I had the bow thruster decommissioned and a new steel floor fitted in the gas locker to blank off the bow thruster motor.

Russ pointed out a few other BSS fails. I used the list of faults to persuade the seller to reduce Orient’s price by £2,500. I planned to have the rectification work done and then ask Russ to carry out an official BSS exam. Both the broker and seller agreed to this, but life got in the way. I have some first class excuses, including Cynthia’s deteriorating health, but none of them should have stopped me from organising this simple task. That omission will cost me a pretty penny.

The most worrying and potentially costly fault on the BSS report was my Rangemaster 55’s inability to comply with boat safety regulations. The cooker is a thing of beauty and something of a rarity on narrowboats. It’s a full-size cooker with a large oven and grill and a four-burner hob which actually fits four regular sized pans. I use it often and enjoy the experience. Replacing a perfectly good cooker simply because it wasn’t flame failure compliant would have broken my heart and my bank balance. Fortunately, the stove can stay.

I told the boat safety examiner, Justin Green, that Orient was sold to the first owner, the guy who fitted the boat out, in 2002. What I didn’t mention is that the builder, Steve Hudson, kept Orient, then Yorkshire Tyke, for his own use when the hull was constructed in 1995. The boat was registered at that time, so, luckily for me, it predates the flame failure requirement.

I’ll save the best part of £1,000 by keeping the cooker, which is just as well because I’ll have to find another thousand pounds to have the rest of the work done.

When Justin delved beneath the engine room’s pretty aluminium checker plate to examine Orient’s battery banks, he highlighted another potentially more expensive problem.

“That’s a good idea,” Justin agreed, “Immerse your batteries in icy water. That will stop them overheating!” He was joking, of course. Seven batteries up to their collective plastic waists in water are just a few worrying inches from the battery banks’ terminals and several sets of terminal batteries.

The water was coming from Orient’s seven hundred and fifty-litre water tank thirty feet away under the front deck. The tank worried me when I took Russ with me to view Orient in December. He noticed that the plastic had been patched and suggested to have it checked thoroughly to ensure that it wasn’t leaking. It wasn’t leaking then but bumping and banging through several hundred locks since December seemed to have been too much for it.

I knew that replacing the tank was going to be a disruptive and costly affair. Water tanks are rarely easy to remove from a narrowboat. They’re usually fitted before any internal cladding or furniture building is done. Removing mine would involve taking apart a set of steps and a bespoke floor to ceiling pine corner unit and removing the recently installed Morso Squirrel stove and its tile surround. I didn’t want to do that. The only other option was to go in from above and remove Orient’s steel well deck, and the tea chest sized locker welded to it. I would then have to endure a period without a front deck after the old plastic tank was removed and I waited for the new stainless steel version to be delivered and fitted. It wasn’t going to be a pleasant task but, given that the only other option was to sink the boat, I didn’t really have a choice. Or so I thought.

Orient's water tank access

Orient’s water tank access

I like to think that I’m efficient. I spoke to the marina management to see if they had time to do the work for me. I chatted to the guys who would do the cutting, welding and plumbing jobs. I found a likely tank manufacturer, researched their tank quality and established a reasonable lead time. With that all in place, I arranged to move Orient to a temporary mooring where the work could be carried and where I could quickly get on and off the boat without a front deck for a week or two. I researched, investigated, planned and arranged everything with meticulous attention to detail. I prepared for everything apart from one tiny step which would have saved me a great deal of heartache.

“Before we start the ball rolling, have you actually checked that the tank is leaking?” Russ Fincham offering some sage advice as usual.
“I’ve shone a torch through the inspection hatch,” I told him somewhat defensively.
“And what did you find?” I could tell by the look he gave me that he already knew the answer.
“I couldn’t see a leak in the tank,” I offered brightly.
“No, but from the inspection hatch, you probably couldn’t see ALL of the tank or any of the fittings. How do you know the water isn’t coming from a loose fitting or from the water pump? You’re supposed to change your water pump every three years. How old is yours?” Russ was right, of course. I didn’t know the pump’s age, nor had I carried out a thorough investigation. That would have involved using a screwdriver and some thought. Both of which are beyond me when boating appliances need fixing.

Russ arrived at my mooring the following evening armed with a bulging tool bag. Watching a good tradesman at work is, to me, like stone age man experiencing fire making for the first time. It’s witchcraft, a dark art generally accompanied by much swearing and manly grunting.

Within minutes Russ had my cabin steps in pieces and had removed the pine bulkhead hiding the crawl space beneath my front deck. He shone a torch briefly into the dark recess and then turned to me looking smug.

“I thought so,” he declared triumphantly. He paused briefly to enjoy my increasing despair. “Your tank’s fucked. There’s a hole in it big enough to drive my van through.” My worse fears had been confirmed. I would have to find a couple of thousand pounds I didn’t have if I wanted a new tank. Not that I had a choice. I couldn’t stay on Orient with a water tank steadily filling the bilge. I would have to stretch my meagre finances well past their breaking point. This was a disaster.

Russ saw the look of my dismay. “Just kidding!” he laughed. You’re hopeless, aren’t you? Look there,” He pointed his torch at the dust-covered water pump. Water trickled steadily from its connection with a grey plastic pipe. The tank itself was bone dry. The culprit was a water pump dating back to 2003, thirteen years older than its suggested replacement date.

Within half an hour I had collected a new water pump from Calcutt’s extensive chandlery stock and given it to Russ who quickly fitted it and put the boat back together again. Seventy-nine pounds for parts and the promise of a few beers and a meal at a nearby curry house for Russ. I was far happier with that compared with the cost and disruption of fitting a new tank. I was so pleased that I didn’t mind the subsequent mickey taking reminding me of my DIY failings. Which is just as well because I cocked up again last week.

My early days on board Orient were typical of those experienced by many buyers of second-hand narrowboats, especially those sold by owners who had lost interest in boating. Some boaters walk away from their craft, leaving virtually all the onboard kit you could ever hope to need for cruising and living afloat.

I enjoyed a couple of cold winter days on board keeping warm while I waited for my new stove to be fitted by sorting through the boat’s endless cupboards, drawers and underfloor storage compartments. Much of it was only either useful or of interest to the previous owner. I transferred that to Tattenhall marina’s skip or gave it to local boaters.

But there was wheat among the chaff; a full dinner service and utensils glasses and mugs in the galley, a set of cruising guides in a stove-side cupboard, mooring pins, two lump hammers and enough windlasses in a steel locker on the front deck to open my own lock-side shop. I found a cabinet filled with paint tins and oil bottles in the engine room, and then a little something extra in a bilge recess. Three full five-litre plastic bottles of Elsan Blue.

For those of you unfamiliar with narrowboat toilets, let me explain. There are three different solutions onboard for storing your unmentionables; composting, pump out and cassette toilets. Composting toilets store liquid and solid waste separately. There’s hardly any offensive odour, which is more than you can say for many pump out and cassette toilets. A pump out loo in its most basic form is a toilet perched on a coffin-sized steel tank. To use the toilet, you open a flap between the bowl and several hundred litres of fetid slurry. The smell can sometimes be eye wateringly offensive. Much of the odour is eliminated in pump out toilet systems fitted with a macerator. All you have to worry about then is the macerator blocking and the immediate need to take the device apart to remove the blockage. It’s not something you want to be doing at meal times.

A cassette toilet is like a mini dump through version. The holding tank is rarely larger than twenty litres, which is good news as the cassette has to be removed every two or three days and carried to the nearest Elsan point, an open sewage disposal point. Because you have to open the cassette flap each time you use the toilet, ensuring that the contents mix with an effective odour killer is an essential part of pong free boating life.

Elsan Blue is a thick formaldehyde based liquid with a pleasant smell. It effectively removes toilet smells and much of the cash from your wallet. At fifteen pounds for a five-litre bottle, three full containers in the engine room bilge were very welcome.
In my defence, all I can say is that my bathroom is poorly lit and my sense of smell almost none existent. Earlier in the week, I carried a full cassette a couple of hundred yards to the nearest Elsan point, emptied and rinsed it and then, back on the boat, carefully added a generous dollop of liquid into the cassette from one of my recently liberated bottles.

Boating life continued as usual, apart from in the bathroom. The toilet stank. Passing flies plummeted to the ground when I opened my cassette flap, flowers wilted, strong men cried. I switched to my spare cassette, which I also dosed with my new supply of Elsan Blue. The smell was just as unpleasant. Then the penny finally dropped.

Maybe the three bottle’s location inside the engine room should have warned me, or the liquid’s complete lack of fragrance, or even the darker than usual colour. So you can learn from my own mistake. If you ever consider saving money by substituting Elsan Blue for used engine oil, please don’t. You’ll have to live with smells that have no place on a boat, and you’ll have to endure comments as I have over the last couple of weeks. “Oi, Smithy, when’s your toilet due for its next oil change?” It’s my mission in life to keep my co-workers entertained.

On the rare days when I haven’t been tending the marina grounds, hosting weekend Discovery Days or making a fool of myself, I’ve been trying to keep on top of Orient’s never-ending list of jobs. Removing the spilt contents of my water tank had the highest priority. I think I took about four hundred litres out in total. Four hundred litres is two-fifths of a tonne or the same weight as five people like me. I can’t say that the boat feels any different now that the weight has gone, but I certainly feel better now that I know its no longer there.

With the excess water removed, my to-do list is still as long as it was before. When one task disappears from the top, another shows up at the bottom. I still need to reseal the chimney flue, there are a dozen small patches of roof rust to deal with and my side and rear door canal art needs re-varnishing and refixing to the doors. Then the hull could do with another blacking after three days chugging through thick ice in February and, should I ever reach the end of that lot, there’s Sisyphean brass and copper polishing to keep me occupied.

Not that I mind really. At the end of most days, I get to relax on my front deck for an hour, drinking good coffee, listening to quacks and coos, screeches and honks. I sit quietly watching the water swirl as giant carp suck waterborne morsels from the surface and marvel at the ever-changing sunsets and skyscapes. I’ve posted a few of my evening iPhone photos below. Not bad, eh?

A stormy sky over Calcutt Boats

A stormy sky over Calcutt Boats

Rain clouds sweep over Meadows marina

Rain clouds sweep over Meadows marina

Reflections on a still marina at Calcutt Boats

Reflections on a still marina

A beautiful sunset over Calcutt Boats Meadows marina

A beautiful sunset over Calcutt Boats Meadows marina

A tranquil mooring for Orient

A tranquil mooring for Orient

1

Celebrating Shared Experiences And Moving Forward

 

All is quiet on board. The silence is broken only by the ticking of the galley clock and muted quacks from two squabbling mallards. Gone are reassuring sounds of domestic bliss; Cynthia’s tuneless humming and occasional curse as she juggled pans in the galley, creating another of her many gourmet delights. And there’s no more click-clack of iron hard basset nails on the hardwood floor, no more gentle while from Sadie at my feet, begging for the comfort of a warm lap. My three girls have gone, one to her maker, the others to better homes.

I am alone.

I am alone, but not as lonely as I feared because YOU, dear reader, have generously lent me a virtual crutch. I’ve received hundreds of supportive messages since my last post, emails offering condolences, advice and hope. They’ve all been much appreciated, even if the contents were sometimes a little sad.

We waterways enthusiasts are a peculiar bunch. By the time we reach the age that most of us can afford the cost of a narrowboat or the time to appreciate one, our health often prevents us from enjoying the lifestyle comprehensively, or even at all. Bits of us begin to fail or need repairing or replacing. Sadly, sometimes the solution is beyond the marvels of modern medicine. We die and leave those around to deal with the emotional trauma of our loss.

There was a recurring theme to many of the email I received. “I feel your pain. I’ve just lost my wife/husband/father/mother/brother/sister…” They told tales of traumatic bereavements months or even years ago. “Time will heal, but the pain will endure,” appeared to be the theme. For many, each new day has been an opportunity to mourn the loss of a loved one. While I fully understand the sentiment, I’m trying to avoid following that unhealthy route.

Cynthia taught me many useful lessons. One of the best was to always view a glass as half full, to see the positive in any situation, to search for the silver lining of the darkest of clouds.

So I’m not going to mourn Cynthia’s loss. I’m going to celebrate our time together, the adventures we had, the fun places we explored. I have hundreds of photos of Cynthia in exotic locations; in endless forests, on high mountain tops, on deserted beaches, by lakes, rivers and canals. In each and every one she’s smiling, imploring me to embrace all that life has to offer. So embrace it I will as I slowly but surely adapt to my new lifestyle.

Orient's tranquil mooring on Locks marina

Orient’s tranquil mooring on Locks marina

Cynthia’s possessions have, like the dogs, gone to a better home. My wife liked to dress well and, some would say, oddly. One of her favourite ensembles was a red cashmere cape and yellow Wellington boots, with appropriate clothing in between of course. Stylish in a strange kind of way. Cynthia made her mark wherever she went.

I crammed all her shoes and clothing into two dozen black plastic bin bags for the four-mile journey to a Myton Hospice shop in Southam. The charity offers superb end of life care to people suffering terminal illnesses. I know Cynthia would have approved.

Abbie and Sadie, basset and Coton du Tulier, left me last Saturday. They have gone to separate but equally loving homes. Basset Abbie has joined a similarly lugubrious pal at a beachfront property in rural Devon, a house surrounded by miles of car-free walking. Her new owners manage their own holiday property during the summer and explore Europe by motorhome in the colder months. Abbie will have the time of her life.

Sadie will be similarly happy. She’s been adopted by Sam, the founder of the basset charity who collected both dogs. Sadie jumped on Sam’s lap the moment they met and then stayed there throughout Sam’s brief stay on Orient and the two-hour car journey to her new home. I will miss both dogs, but they have gone to homes with owners who have the time to look after them properly. I made the right decision.

Orient on her spacious berth

Orient on her spacious berth

I am alone now but not particularly lonely. I don’t have time to focus on unhealthy thoughts, and Cynthia’s ever-present voice warns me against self-indulgent misery. I have the joy of working on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds during the week and hosting Discovery Days at the weekend. And, if I don’t have weekend bookings, there are five acres of rural Warwickshire at my boss’s country pile to maintain.

My evenings are a potential incubator for dark thoughts. To ensure that misery can’t make its mark there, I fill my time with blog post writing and web site development. If all else fails, I have a television. I just need to work out how to turn it on.
All things considered, I feel better now than I did a month ago. Cynthia had left me four weeks earlier to return to the States on her perpetual quest for better health. Her condition, quite rightly in hindsight, worried me. As did a perceived lack of interest in this website. I wrote in my last post about my inclination to stop blogging and indulge in a more rewarding pastime, maybe stamp collecting, train spotting or dogging.

Your thoughtfulness overwhelmed me. Over two hundred emails offering support and feedback landed in my inbox since that post. I appreciated and replied to every one of them.

Because of them, I will continue with the blog, doing what I can to give aspiring narrowboat owners an insight into the often challenging and always rewarding life I lead afloat on England’s inland waterways. I know that many of you live aboard like me. We face and usually overcome similar challenges in our day to day lives. Some of you have been forced by unhappy circumstances to move back into a brick and mortar home and away from an idyllic life afloat.

How sad.

There’s no denying that living on a boat can be hard work. One of life’s ironies for many boaters is that when they are most able to afford the lifestyle, they are least able to deal with the physical demands. There are heavy lock gates, stiff paddles, steep climbs up and down lock ladders, straddles over high sided decks, stoops under low covers, bends through low doorways and squeezes into engine room crawl spaces designed for midgets. It’s not an easy life with stiff backs, hips and knees.

And then there are the daily weightlifting workouts.

Narrowboats with multi-fuel stoves are more common than those without. Wood is an aesthetically pleasing and aromatic fuel. It’s also impractical for boating purposes. Unless a boat owner wants a creosote-soaked roof and tar lined flue, the wood must be both seasoned and burned at temperatures high enough to make the inside of the boat melt. It burns too hot, needs topping up too frequently and uses storage space the average boater simply doesn’t have. The sensible and widely available alternative is coal briquettes.

These bags weigh fifty-five pounds, four stone in traditional English measurements, half a woman or a whole basset hound like our girl Abbie. Each bag is as heavy as it’s unwieldy. Each one needs lifting and tipping, manoeuvring onto decks, through narrow and low doorways and, finally, decanting into a coal scuttle close to the stove.

Propane cylinders are just as heavy, just as unwieldy and often far more of a challenge than coal bags. Most narrowboats use propane gas for cooking, some for water heating and occasionally, if the boat owner is strong of heart and deep of pocket, for central heating. On traditional stern narrowboats like mine, the gas is stored in a small locker only accessible to boaters prepared to leap gazelle-like onto the boat’s tiny bow, a steel surface often coated with dew, rain, ice or algae and slipperier than an Olympic ice rink. Changing a gas bottle is always a test of both nerves and strength.

And then there are the ever-present dangers associated with using the boat for its intended purpose.

If you see a narrowboat gliding towards you through the murky water of a reed-fringed canal and spot a person or two walking casually across the steel cabin roof, you can bet your bottom dollar that the brave boaters are novices. Any seasoned cruiser on the cut knows better. A boat roof is slippery, liberally adorned with trip hazards and far too close to the uneven brickwork of low bridge arches.

Locks marina from Calcutt Bottom lock

Locks marina from Calcutt Bottom lock

Moving from bow to stern along a boat’s narrow gunnel is asking for trouble too. If you’re a narrowboat newbie, the gunnel is the thin horizontal steel strip between the boat’s hull top and its cabin bottom. The gunnel is rarely more than four inches wide, sometimes is painted with a non-slip coating and occasionally, much to the dismay of careless crew, slopes away from the boat towards the canal’s muddy bed.

Gunnel walking is an irresistible challenge for young and invincible hire boat crew, as is the temptation to jump on and off a lock enclosed boat roof. Locks are accidents waiting to happen. Fast flowing water, moss and algae coated edging stones and ladders, slippery steel boats and inexperienced crew, newbie boaters often more careless still after a holiday drink or two.

Lock accidents are common; slips, trips and falls, tumbles between moving boats and solid walls, graceless plummets into the frothing water of a turbulent lock and the rare but far too frequent collision between soft flesh and spinning steel.

Gongoozlers sometimes risk life and limb too. Falls into locks while waiting for pretty boats to chug through are common. I stood at a lock on the Foxton flight with Cynthia a few years ago. We watched in horror as a pretty young mother wearing a set of inappropriately high heels tottered along a lock lip to amuse a toddler in a pushchair. She stepped on wet moss and with a frantic windmilling of arms disappeared into the murky water of the lock beneath her feet. “There’s no point in crying over a spilled MILF,” is what Cynthia didn’t say when she saw my look of consternation.

These are the dangers we can see and avoid. More worrying is the silent and invisible threat, the killer which nearly caused my early demise last month; carbon monoxide.

The risk to boaters is discussed occasionally. Boaters understand both the problem and the solution. The solution is to fit both smoke and carbon monoxide detectors at some stage of their boat ownership and then, all too often, ignore both the detector’s warning and its maintenance. Here’s an email I received after last week’s scare.

“As an LPG/NG engineer, I cannot stress enough the importance of a working and in date carbon monoxide alarm or three!
Caravan owners of a certain age, because “they’ve always done it” don’t think it’s important. I’m sure boat owners are the same.

This season alone, in fact, yesterday, I found six carbon monoxide units with no batteries in. Most of these were older than the “replace by” dates printed on the units!

Even with good batteries, they would be useless. You don’t have to be told how lucky you were. Very glad that you are safe though!
In your next blog, please reiterate the fact that a “working “ carbon monoxide alarm may actually not actually be working. Each unit has a replace by date. This MUST be adhered to!

Personally, I stamp out of date units underfoot in front of the owners. Most I know will put them back up if I don’t once I’ve left! Silly I know, but they know best. “

Are you guilty as charged? When did you last check your alarm batteries or dates? Do it now. While you’re at it, check your smoke detectors too. A ten-minute break from an enthralling blog post could save your life.

I’ll tell you a secret. My cooking doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes there are clouds of smoke which I’m pretty sure aren’t part of the recipe I’m trying to follow. Naturally, the smoke sets off the smoke detectors. They carry on shrieking as long as there’s smoke in the boat. The air can take an eternity to clear at a time when I’m trying to concentrate on a variety of bubbling pans. The easy solution is to remove the offending alarm’s batteries. And then forget to replace them. I’m sure that you are more responsible than me. Your life is more important than the temporary inconvenience of a shrieking siren.

Or is it?

You can read more about carbon monoxide monitoring requirements on the Boat Safety Scheme website

I sincerely hope that this post, and the one detailing my rude awakening in the middle of the night by a shrieking alarm, triggers the replacement of a few out of date or faulty carbon monoxide monitors across England’s waterways network.
Despite the occasional risk to life and limb, and my recent unhappy transition from family to a single life, I love living afloat. I don’t particularly like living tethered to a marina, but if I need to work and if I have to work, there’s nowhere I would rather work than on the beautiful grounds at Calcutt Boats. The aspect of my working day which appeals to me most is the constant and ever-changing variety.

There are the usual grounds maintenance tasks; tree felling and trimming, ditch clearance, fence repairs, painting and replacement, marina pier and reed management and, as the thermometer rises and the sky fills with rain-filled clouds, endless grass cutting. We have a ride on mower for cutting most of the site’s forty landscaped acres. It’s a magical task at this time of the year to sail through a sea of green peppered with cowslips, buttercups and dandelions, enveloped by the heady aroma of cut grass and freshly minced dog shit.

Acres of grass cutting to keep me busy

Acres of grass cutting to keep me busy

We also have a delicate machine for cutting the wharf’s lawn, a three-wheeled monster for Meadows marina’s sloping banks and a new Flymo for my least liked weekly task. There are three high and steep banks adjacent to Locks marina which are too steep to cut with conventional machines. Each cut involves six hours hauling the wheeled Flymo up and down the banks on a length of rope. It’s hard work, so I’m always grateful when my radio crackles and a distorted voice asks me to pause my brutal task and start another, more urgent job.

I might be asked to move a boat or offload a palleted delivery with the site’s Merlot forklift truck. The call might be to repair a pier hit by a poorly steered boat, provide visiting boaters with coal, gas or a pump out or two or, the one I really don’t like, wade shin deep in raw sewage to clear a blockage in the pipe to our reed bed filtration system.

Each day is filled with variety and rural tranquillity. I love it.

I’m keeping myself busy with two goals in mind, one financial, one emotional. I don’t regret the recent adventures I had with Cynthia for a moment. We really had a blast. Cynthia went out in style. She managed to indulge her lifelong passion for exploration despite her failing health. I am happy to have done what I could to help her live her dream. However, two and a half hedonistic years and a frenzy of boat buying had an inevitable effect on our bank balances. Six or seven-day working weeks for the rest of the year will help to clear the debts, and they’ll help me focus on more positive thoughts than of life as a widower. Onward and upward. That’s my motto. Onward and upward towards financial and emotional stability and another adventure on the far distant horizon.

A spring storm sweeps over Calcutt Boats

A spring storm sweeps over Calcutt Boats

New life on Calcutt Boats’ Meadows Marina

Cynthia

 

I receive emails every week thanking me for my sometimes funny, often useful blog posts which usually entertain and even inform my narrowboat site visitors. This isn’t one of them. I received some tragic news on “Good” Friday.

Cynthia flew to the States a month ago in an ongoing quest to reverse her failing health. She visited friends and family she hadn’t seen since handing over the keys of her Vermont home to the new owner in 2016. Four large suitcases and an even larger basset travelled with her on a flight from Toronto to Amsterdam, everything she needed for her new adventure in Europe with me.

She rented a house for two months in Friesland, the Netherlands’ most northerly province, waiting for me to sell my beloved narrowboat, James No 194, load all my worldly goods into our five and a half tonne twin axle Hymer motorhome and join her in the picturesque Dutch village of Rottevalle for the start of our grand European adventure. Cynthia was always the queen of ambitious plans.

Over the following twenty-six months we drove 28,952 miles through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland, peppering our itinerary with occasional trips back to the UK.

Cynthia's first visit to Market Harborough

Cynthia’s first visit to Market Harborough

Cynthia set our travel style early on. She would invest an hour or two in online research, look up from her battered iPad and say, “I’ve always wanted to visit..” That was it. We’d climb into the Hymer’s high cab with its panoramic windows and take the slowest, most difficult route she could find to our new destination.

Keeping the Hymer on strange country roads was often a challenge. We wedged ourselves immoveably in a French balcony road tunnel, removed our wing mirrors on a Danish steel bridge and bowled over a working film crew on one of Lyon’s impossibly narrow cobbled streets. We brought Marseille’s rush hour traffic to a halt on the city’s underground road network and slipped and slid our way over a variety of icy Swiss mountain passes. While I wrestled with the wheel and cursed, Cynthia smiled serenely and admired the ever-changing scenery around us. Apart from the high mountain passes. On those, she usually held her head between her knees and wailed like a banshee.

Much as we loved travelling far and wide on Europe’s backcountry roads, we both missed living afloat. Before we left Holland on our way to winter sunshine on the French Mediterranean coast, we window shopped for a suitable boat for summer cruising on the vast Dutch network of connected canals, rivers and lakes. Cynthia fell in love with one we viewed, stored for the winter in an immaculate barn on a North Holland farm.

Cynthia was always at her happiest in the gelley

Cynthia was always at her happiest in the gelley

Julisa was a classic Dutch motor cruiser with a steel hull and mahogany superstructure. She was the wrong boat for us; acres of wood to maintain, a canvas cockpit roof, no insulation, no shower, a broken sea toilet and, worst of all, no way to quickly get two heavy bassets on board.

On a moonlit walk on the rocky shore of a French saltwater lagoon, we decided to buy Julisa. Despite an enthusiastic exercise in identifying every reason why we shouldn’t buy the boat, Cynthia countered with reasons why we should. So we paid a deposit from the comfort of our six-wheeled winter home on the Mediterranean coast and then counted the days until we could collect her in the spring.

Boating, done properly, is an expensive hobby. Repairs, alterations, replacements and upgrades cost us €9,000, including €750 to have a bespoke basset friendly dog door fitted. We didn’t mind. After all, it wasn’t as though we were going to make a habit of boat buying and refurbishment. Yeah, right!

We cruised the Netherlands bewildering network of connected waterways during the summer and autumn of 2017. We sailed along placid waterways through rainbow-hued fields of nodding tulips, marvelled at an endless procession of working windmills and regularly stopped at waterside cafes and restaurants filled with smiling Dutch. We both loved our return to a watery lifestyle. Much as I enjoyed the scenery and experiences on Europe’s back roads, driving such a large vehicle along them was a stressful affair.

Winter on board Dik Trom

Winter on board Dik Trom

Cynthia was a sensitive soul. My stress caused her stress which further weakened her health. I was more relaxed cruising the gentle waters of island peppered lakes than negotiating thin ribbons of asphalt clinging precariously to cliffsides. We decided, perhaps unwisely in hindsight, to find a suitable boat and live on the European waterways network full time.
We found what we thought was the perfect boat moored in a small and friendly yacht club on a canal close to Antwerp. You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “Love is blind”. That doesn’t only apply to people. We fell in love with Dik Trom, a thirty-five foot Linssen motor cruiser.

Why I, a seasoned live aboard boater, thought Dik Trom would be right for living on throughout the year is entirely beyond me. Poorly insulated, acres of heat sapping glass and a blown air heating system fit for little more than taking the morning chill off a tiny truck cab, Dik Trom was hardly fit for all seasons.

Anyway, we purchased the boat mid-December, spent another small country’s national debt on repairs and the inevitable battery bank replacement, checked the long-range weather forecast for South Holland, and decided to have just one more winter under the cloudless skies of France’s Mediterranean coast before moving afloat full time. It proved to be a wise decision. We checked the Dutch weather forecast as we sat in the sun on our folding camp chairs on the rocky shores of a selection of saltwater lagoons along France’s south-east coast. Sub-zero days, colder nights and enough snow and ice to frighten a polar bear. While getting to the south of France in our Hymer home was sometimes stressful, living there was a delight. But then two large black clouds filled the blue sky of our hedonistic lifestyle. Health and money.

We quickly exhausted my savings; the proceeds of my narrowboat sale and a substantial income tax refund. Although Cynthia received a decent pension, the income wasn’t enough to support our lavish lifestyle. The more I worried about money, the more stressed I became. Ever sensitive Cynthia needed a calm and stress-free environment to thrive. Without one her body rebelled. Bug bites caused swellings the size of tennis balls, and summer sniffles became severe episodes requiring bed rest. Even a short walk on level ground would need a short rest and a restorative nap.

Spending on holistic remedies and potions and appointments with specialist practitioners further drained our resources, a drain which increased my money worries, caused more stress for me and deepening emotional turmoil and worsening health for Cynthia.

Cynthia made friends everywhere

Cynthia made friends everywhere

We decided to return to the Netherlands and look for a boatyard job for me. After a month trawling through hundreds of marina listings, I secured a position at a prestigious marina in South Holland a handful of miles from Amsterdam. Sadly, the marina was even closer to Schiphol airport and the endless stream of large aircraft which thundered into the sky from it every minute of the day.

Working for my new Dutch employers couldn’t have been more different from the gentle life I enjoyed at Calcutt Boats. The Dutch boatyard was spotless and operated with military precision. Everyone knew what they were doing and worked as hard as they could every minute of the day. A mid-morning siren announced the start of a fifteen-minute tea break. Not sixteen minutes, or even fifteen and a half. Fifteen minutes exactly. Coffee cup down, tools up and on you go. I hated every minute of it, despite the kindness and consideration both Cynthia and I were shown by the marvellous Kempers family.
Much as I disliked the mind-numbing tedium of applying anti-fouling systems to multi-million-pound motor yachts and speedboats, I was well paid by UK boatyard standards. Once again, we had more than enough money to pay the bills. Sadly, our new regime didn’t allow us to enjoy our newfound financial security. Neither of us was happy, but Cynthia felt the strain more than me.

Cynthia with Tasha who died in December 2018

Cynthia with Tasha who died in December 2018

By then we had moved Dik Trom from its Belgian mooring to Kempers Watersport, our new home and my workplace. We’d transferred our possessions from the motorhome to the boat and live on board at the marina as far away from other craft and their claustrophobic moorings as possible. The marina nestled in the south-east corner of a vast lake. We had a stunning view of the lake from our spot on the marina’s visitor moorings. However, much as Cynthia enjoyed the landscape, she began to feel increasingly isolated.

Cynthia couldn’t walk far without pain. Even using her folding bike to ride a mile to the nearest village became too much of a strain. She was confined to the interior of our thirty-five-foot boat, as were the dogs unless I was around.

Getting the dogs on and off the boat required a degree of strength and physical fitness which proved too much for Cynthia. Three steep steps from the gunwale to the flybridge and then four vertical wooden steps down into the cockpit. Another four to get them into the galley. We bought a telescopic ramp to save having to manhandle dogs weighing as much as a sack of coal. Even the ramp was too much for Cynthia in her worsening condition.

Cynthia had no one to talk to near our mooring, no way of walking or cycling to anywhere she could find a conversation and was frustrated by a growing feeling of helplessness that she had to rely on me so much. Bureaucracy further added to the strain of our day to day life.

Cynthia had been frustrated continuously by governmental red tape for three years by then. The farce began in November 2015 when Cynthia, an employee of American Airlines who had visited the UK on hundreds of occasions, was deported by UK Border Control. They told her she didn’t have the right visa to enter the country to marry me. They planned to deport her immediately. After much tearful pleading, they gave her a week’s stay of execution.

A posh meal out in Muiden, Netherlands

A posh meal out in Muiden, Netherlands

Cynthia’s difficulty entering and staying in the UK long term was the catalyst for our European adventure, but we didn’t have any luck there either. After five different appointments in the Netherlands, Spain and France, we finally managed to get her a new passport in downtown Marseilles. Much as passport renewal was frustrating, it was a piece of cake compared to the application process for an extended stay visa in Holland.

We were moved from pillar to post and back again. There seemed to be little connection or co-operation between local and national government agencies. Cynthia needed an official address in the Netherlands for the application. As we lived on our boat where I worked, we tried to use the marina address. The request was denied. Trying to find a way around the problem took seven different applications over the best part of a year. We finally convinced the local town hall to send employees out to our marina to measure and photograph our mooring so that they could create a bona fide address for the Dutch registration system.

Gazing across the crystal clear water of a Swiss lake

Gazing across the crystal clear water of a Swiss lake

By then both Cynthia and I had had enough of travelling in Europe generally and the Netherlands in particular and the constant bureaucratic difficulties presented by a homeless mixed-race couple living like gipsies throughout mainland Europe.

Then Cynthia surprised me one day. Her body may have been failing, but her mind was still as hyperactive and inventive as ever. “I’ve been thinking long and hard about our situation. We’re both unhappy here. We’re hardly living the dream any more, are we? You hate your job here, we’re close enough to Schiphol to wave at the passengers in passing jets, we’re spending far too long each day dealing with government paperwork and I’m struggling with life on board this boat, in this marina so far away from companionship of any kind. Why don’t we go back to England and live on a narrowboat?”

I had been considering a return to the UK too. But I couldn’t see past the problems we would face trying to make the move possible. “We can’t do it,” I told her. “We don’t have any money left to buy another boat, and you would still have to apply for a visa to stay in the UK.”

Cynthia was all about solutions, not problems. “We’ll sell this thing,” Cynthia waved a dismissive at Dik Trom’s beautiful mahogany cabin,” and we’ll sell the Hymer too. There’s more than enough equity in both to buy a decent narrowboat.”

My mind was still filled with seemingly insurmountable problems. Selling both the motorhome and the boat would probably be a lengthy process, and we couldn’t seriously consider buying a narrowboat until we had money in the bank from both sales. I voiced my concerns.

Cynthia couldn't resist posing with statues

Cynthia couldn’t resist posing with statues

“Look, if we focus on what we can do rather than the challenges we need to overcome, we’ll get there. You’re good at getting things done. You’re inventive too. Apply yourself to making this happen. I know how passionate you are about the English waterways. Keep that in mind and let’s go for it!”

So go for it we did. I had to return to the UK the following week to pick up our motorhome from the Nottingham dealer where it had been for three weeks having some warranty work done. Cynthia had found what she thought was the perfect narrowboat for us on Apolloduck. The boat was moored at Tattenhall marina. A detour to Cheshire on my way back to Holland would only add an extra two hours for my journey. I phoned the broker and arranged to view and test drive the Steve Hudson built boat.

Imaginary birds flock over a French hillside village

Imaginary birds flock over a French hillside village

Once again, Cynthia was right. She was right about returning to the UK, and she was right about the boat being perfect. It’s now our home. Sorry, it’s now my home.

The buying process was far from easy. We needed to take out a bridging loan, take out two further loans from private lenders and part exchange our motorhome. Even then, we were still short of money. I managed to overcome the problem by persuading the owner to wait for the balance until Dik Trom sold.

We returned to the UK mid-December. Orient’s owners arrived on Boxing Day to collect our motorhome and bid a tearful goodbye to their beautiful boat. After an abortive cruise south back to Calcutt Boats we returned to Tattenhall for battery replacement and then endured the coldest two weeks of the winter on an eventful journey to our current mooring. Cynthia sat inside for all of it, keeping warm and trying and failing to stay healthy.

Another opportunity for a new friend

Another opportunity for a new friend

Unable to sleep, she spent most nights fretting about her deteriorating health and worsening mobility. Because she couldn’t sleep at night, she was exhausted during the day. She slept during the day so couldn’t sleep at night. The vicious cycle continued, and her feeling of isolation and depression deepened.

I didn’t help much. Cynthia was a touchy-feely heart-on-her-sleeve kind of gal, and I’m from the stiff-upper-lip emotionally bankrupt old English school of carry on regardless. She didn’t get any of the compassion from me that she both needed and richly deserved.

She decided to return to the States for an appointment with a world-renowned holistic practitioner who planned to do an exhaustive health study to get to the root of her problem. Cynthia was too weak to manage the flight on her own so her friend, Alec, flew from the States to escort her back.

She visited the friends and family she hadn’t seen for three years. She spent a week with her brother, Jeff and then moved into her best friend Tom’s house in Rockport MA.

Cynthia was always a diligent and effective communicator. She sent me WhatsApp messages regularly on her return flight and throughout her stay with brother Jeff and then Tom. Two weeks ago today those communications stopped.

I was worried after twenty-four silent hours. Followup messages failed to provoke a response either. I phoned, texted, WhatsApp’ed and emailed over the next three days and then, on Thursday, emailed her friend Tom. But, even though I hadn’t heard from Cynthia for four days, I was somewhat reassured by her proximity to so many friends and family. What I didn’t know then was that her sister, brother and Tom were also trying and failing to get any response from her.

In the days when Cynthia could walk without pain

In the days when Cynthia could walk without pain

My phone rang on Good Friday at 12.32pm. A WhatsApp call from Cynthia. What a relief. I prepared to give her a bollocking for worrying me so much.

A stranger spoke in a quavering voice. “Hi, Paul. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but Cynthia died on Wednesday.”
I don’t remember feeling shocked. I suppose that Cynthia’s worsening health coupled with an uncharacteristic lack of communication steeled me for bad news on some level.

Jeff’s wife, Melanie, went on to tell me what had happened. Jeff had also been worried by Cynthia’s silence. He contacted Tom on Wednesday. Tom hadn’t heard from Cynthia either. Jeff was much closer to the house than Tom, so he agreed to drive three hours to the house to investigate.

Cynthia on our wedding day

Cynthia on our wedding day

The house was locked and dark when they arrived. Jeff called the police. They confirmed that a 911 call had been placed by a lady at that address the previous day. The lady was rushed by ambulance to the nearest ER department and died within fifteen minutes of arriving. Hospital tests showed a tumour and cancer in her blood. Cynthia, who had more friends than anyone I’ve ever met, spent the last three days of her life alone. Life just isn’t fair.

Jeff, still grieving after the loss of his beloved dog a few days earlier, has been a star. There was an annual celebration of Cynthia’s mother’s life scheduled for last Tuesday in Big Bear, California. Jeff asked permission to arrange for Cynthia’s cremation on Bank Holiday Monday so that Cynthia could join her family for the memorial. I think Cynthia would have liked that.

So, for some of us, life goes on.

The last week has been stressful. I haven’t been firing on all cylinders, and our two sensitive dogs picked up on that. My melancholy and Cynthia’s absence has particularly affected three-year-old basset, Abbie. Any attention is better than none at all so, barring the good, she’s gone for the bad.

Bassets aren’t considered intelligent dogs, but they are, this one is, smart enough to get the tops off sealed jars. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Abbie’s first trick was to make things disappear, namely a whole 1kg bag of muesli, a sealed 500g bag of mixed nuts and two Green and Black’s chocolate bars. She managed to hold it all down, but I had to take her out every two hours throughout the night and the following day for copious grass fertilisation.

It was my fault. I didn’t close a cupboard properly, so Abbie easily nosed it open. Nothing like this had ever happened before. It’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

She upped her game the following day. She successfully removed the sealed tops from two jars of nut butter and one of honey. She still managed to hold down the contents, but disposing of them proved an explosive affair.

I tried to Abbie proof the boat after that. I put all temptation out of reach. At least I thought I had. On day three she removed a full 500ml bottle of extra virgin olive oil from the wine rack, chewed the top off and drank the lot. I suspect that it came back up much quicker than it went down. Clearing up after the mischievous dog took two hours, but now the hardwood floor has a lovely sheen. Thanks, Abbie.

I thought I was safe yesterday. All that I left within reach was my stock of red wine. Why I thought the wine would be less of a temptation than the olive oil is beyond me.

Fortunately, I returned to the boat just as she was chewing through the last thread on the metal cap. I didn’t fancy dealing with the bowel movements of a boozy basset at all.

I’m not surprised Abbie’s started acting up. The unfortunate dogs have been without loving Cynthia for a month and without any company at all for nine hours a day during the week while I am at work, and just as long at the weekend if I have Discovery Day guests.

Their life hasn’t been much better on my return from work. The combination of hard physical labour and my advancing years has meant that I’ve been too tired to walk them regularly or even pay them much attention.

I decided that these two lovely dogs deserve a better life. I need to work long hours for at least the next year or two to recover financially from our travels and our boat buying spree. The last two of my three girls will leave me next Saturday. It’s been a hard decision, but the right one. Cynthia, my guardian angel, is still with me. I asked myself what she would do in a similar situation. I know that she would focus on finding the best solution. The best solution for Abbie and Sadie is to secure both of these adorable dogs a loving home with someone who has time to care for them is the way forward.

Heartbreaking as it’s been, I have arranged for The Basset Rescue Network of Great Britain to rehome both dogs. Someone will come next Saturday to remove the last two of my three beautiful girls. Then I’ll be a solo boater again. The difference this time is that I will have the memories, journals and photos of the three most challenging, exciting and ultimately rewarding years of my life. It has been a complete privilege to share that time with Cynthia. She was a remarkable woman and I count myself fortunate to have shared part of her life.

The weeks and months will be difficult, but I will have the English waterways and you, my virtual friends,  to help keep me sane. I don’t believe that Cynthia has gone on to a better place, but I know that she made this place better while she was here. Goodbye darling Cynthia.

Cynthia and Abbie say goodbye

Cynthia and Abbie say goodbye

10

A Brush With The English Waterway’s Silent Killer

 

My alarm roused me from a deep and dreamless sleep. I rolled over and reached towards the bedroom’s tiny bedside drawer chest for my iPhone and the alarm’s snooze button. “That’s odd,” I thought, “my alarm rarely sounds like that.” Then I realised that the morning light streaming through the bedroom’s two portholes was missing and the piercing alarm was coming from somewhere at the front of the boat.

I turned on the bedroom light and checked my phone. Three o’clock. Far too early for my alarm. The two wall-mounted railway lights illuminated a thick smog hugging the bathroom and galley ceiling and obscuring the front of the cabin and the source of the smoke. It wasn’t the most reassuring sight to wake to in the wee dark hours.

Like most boaters, I leave my multi fuel stove burning overnight. In fact, like most boaters, I leave my stove burning twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week throughout the winter and far into England’s chilly spring. living semi-submerged in icy water has its drawbacks.

I’ve been living afloat for most of the last nine years. I’ve never had a problem leaving a stove alight at night. Until now.

I fill the lit stove with coal briquettes before I go to bed and then reduce the airflow to slow the burn to ensure that I wake to a warm and cosy boat, a boat usually free of choking smog.

It was the smoke alarm which woke me. The carbon monoxide alarm did not. That didn’t surprise me really as the dismantled device lay on the kitchen worktop waiting for me to fit a new battery.

The bitter smoke thickened as I watched, swirling ever closer to the floor and two blissfully unaware sleeping dogs. I couldn’t breathe. I struggled to think. A pounding headache probably had something to do with my confusion.

I dropped to the floor, crawled back to my bedroom, threw on some clothes and then did what I could to ventilate the boat. I opened both sides of the front deck cratch cover, opened the cabin front’s double wooden doors, flung open the galley side hatch and used a boat hook to jam the Houdini hatch as wide as possible.

The acrid smoke eventually cleared, the process slowed by a steady stream of smog still billowing from the Squirrel’s top vent.

I didn’t want to risk sleeping again until the stove was safe. That meant either extinguishing the Squirrel’s burning coals or removing the source of the smoke from the boat. Taking the smoldering fuel off the boat would create less mess and less smoke. Opening the stove’s front door to get at the coal rapidly filled the cabin with a bitter smog again. I couldn’t either see or breathe unless I lay on the floor. I used a coal shovel to transfer dozens of glowing briquettes from the stove’s firebox to the ash pan and threw them on the sloping mud bank next to the boat. I was alive, and the boat was in one piece. I was thankful for those two small mercies.

An hour after being rudely awakened by the smoke alarm, the boat was cold and smoke free. I could breathe without coughing and think past the throbbing behind my eyes. Carbon  monoxide kills. I could live with a headache, and I was alive thanks to the smoke alarm.

I slept with the doors and windows open for the rest of the night. Better cold than dead. I fell out of bed at dawn the following day, worrying about a boat with no heating and the length of time I would take to resolve the problem.

How hard could it be? The boat was filling with smoke rather than channelling it though the flue and out of the cabin. The stove had been drawing badly for a few days. An obstruction was obviously the culprit, one which could only be in either the flue or the stove. Surely, even my preschool DIY skills would be enough for the task at hand.

Orient's dismantled stove before the blockage clearance

Orient’s dismantled stove before the blockage clearance

Both potential blockages were easy to check. I climbed onto the cabin roof armed with a powerful head torch and a long boat hook. I removed the chimney and shined the torch down the flue. It didn’t look blocked. I lowered the blunt end of the boathook down the flue’s full length. I couldn’t feel a blockage. The problem must have been in the stove.

There’s a baffle plate above the firebox in a Morso Squirrel stove. It curves from the back plate over the top of the firebox. Smoke rises over the baffle plate and into the flue.  An accumulation of soot on top of the baffle plate sometimes causes blockages. I swept the baffle plate clear using my head torch and a poker. I found a little soot, but not enough to block the flue completely.

Hoping that a little poking and prodding with my improvised tools had cleared the blockage, I threw a firelighter into the firebox, added a handful of kindling and a match and stood back. Then I panicked when the stove filled the boat with more smoke than the previous night. After a repeat smoke and flue clearing performance I left Orient to look for inspiration. I found it in the bow locker of a neighbouring boat.

Boat Safety Scheme examiner, Russ Fincham, offered to look at the Squirrel for me. He found the cause of the problem immediately. He shone a torch into the narrow gap between the baffle plate and the flue. “There’s your culprit,” he told me as he handed me the torch and pointed to the baffle plate. “Can you see above the baffle plate? Look towards the centre of the stove where the flue comes in. See that fitting that looks like a black dome? That’s an air restrictor. It’s used in stoves fitted in house fireplaces with a good draw. The fires burn too hot if installers don’t fit the restrictor. Narrowboat stove flues don’t produce enough of a draw to warrant using this extras bit. Fitters should ALWAYS remove the restrictor before fitting a stove on a narrowboat.” 

“It’s a simple fix. Take out the fire brick at the back. That will allow the baffle plate to swing down so you can remove the restrictor. I think it’s a 10mm spanner you need. Do you want me to show you how to use a spanner?” Russ has worked with me at Calcutt Boats for many years. He knows me well.

He was right. Removing the restrictor was a simple if filthy process. The stove’s been in the boat for just three months. You can see from the photo below how blocked it was. 

The Squirrels air restrictor performed better than intended

The Squirrels air restrictor performed better than intended

The stove’s now back together and working better than ever. The incident has prompted me to throw the old carbon monoxide alarm out and replace it with a new model which complies with the latest BSS requirements. I’ll also try to remember to check the batteries regularly.

Apart from nearly killing myself, life afloat during the month since my last blog post has been uneventful. That’s why I like this lifestyle, far from the stresses and strains of modern day life. Far away from most stressful situations, anyway. I’ve had a couple noteworthy exceptions over the last four weeks.

The first was on the marina slipway on a midweek day a few weeks ago. 

Calcutt Boats is a busy marina. We have boats which need pulling out of the water for surveys or for blacking every day. And sometimes we have boats brought here by road transport from other parts of the network or from builders yards. On this occasion the builders ballasted a recently refurbished boat in a most peculiar fashion.

I work on the grounds most of the time, often far away from other marina activities and, because I work with noisy machinery, I can’t hear any background chatter. I didn’t know that this boat had already been into the marina once, pushed into the marina on the slipway’s wheeled steel cradle. It floated free for a minute or two and was then quickly dragged out again. All I heard was a call for anyone nearby who could steer a slipway boat. I heard snatches about the owner not wanting to steer the boat himself but i didn’t dwell on it.

The owners of brand new narrowboats, often costing over £100,000, sometimes have little boating experience. I’ve met one or two who had never set foot on a narrowboat until they stepped on the back deck of a boat they had used most of their life savings to buy. I thought this was another of those cases.

Anyway, the owner climbed the steel slipway steps onto the back deck with me. He appeared nervous and didn’t say much. Putting a boat back in the water is an easy job for the helmsman. All he has to do is to establish what type of cooling the boat engine has. If it’s an internal cooling system, he starts the engine before the boat hits the water. He waits until the hull sinks below the surface if it’s a raw water system. That’s pretty much it. The slipway tractor pushes the boat laden cradle down the slipway until the boat floats free. The helmsman reverses, as does the tractor driver, and the boat is back where it belongs and ready to cruise. It’s a simple process as long as the boat is in a fit condition to use. 

This one wasn’t.

All I had to do was bring the boat onto a mooring alongside the slipway. Easy. A burst of forward throttle to counteract the reverse motion from the slipway tractor, a sharp turn to port to steer us in the right direction and a laugh and a joke with the guy standing next to me. It’s an easy and stress free job unless the boat looks and feels like it will turn over.

Even on the windless day, a moderate turn tipped the boat until the gunnel touched the water and the cabin side formed a forty-five degree angle with the marina surface. Another guy stood on the bow. He probably weighed eight stone soaking wet, so his sudden switch from one side of the boat to the other shouldn’t have caused it to swing quickly in an arc until the opposite gunnel also touched the water. His movement shouldn’t have caused the sudden swing, but it did. I could see why the owner looked so nervous.

The cruise to the slipway mooring point took less than a minute but took years off my life. I was confident that, if two or more people had moved from one side of the boat to the other like the guy in front, we would have turned turtle. We would have been trapped in three feet of water under a fifteen tonne boat. 

The popular theory among marina staff was that the boat cabin had been over plated, a process which added a considerable amount of weight. The additional weight would have increased the boat draught and brought the through-hull outlets too close to the waterline. To remedy this, they had removed some under floor ballast. The result was a pretty but dangerously top heavy boat, one which is exceptionally unstable. Calcutt Boats’ owner, Roger Preen, felt duty bound to warn the owner not to use the boat until they had it professionally surveyed and made safe. They didn’t. The owner and his crew subsequently took the boat for a short cruise up through the Calcutt flight to Napton junction and back again. We saw the boat, bobbing and swaying like a rubber duck in a bath, as they braved a cruise on a calm day. Heaven help them if they go out again when there’s a strong wind blowing.

I’ve now used my day’s allocation of writing energy and enthusiasm, so I’ll save my second anecdote for next week. It’s a good ‘un so I know you’ll like it. Here are a few photo’s to whet your waterways appetite in the meantime.

spring hailstones as big as marbles

spring hailstones as big as marbles

Misty dawn on an overnight mooring at Napton Junction

Misty dawn on an overnight mooring at Napton Junction

Pretty clouds over our dump barge mooring

Pretty clouds over our dump barge mooring

Sunset over Calcutt Boats Locks marina

Sunset over Calcutt Boats Locks marina

A little artistic magic for Orient

A little artistic magic for Orient

You may have noticed that my last post was four weeks ago. That’s the problem with living an idyllic life here at the marina. A wise man once said if you have nothing to say, say nothing. Much as I’ve enjoyed the last month, I’ve had little of interest to relay to you.

To be frank, I’m considering hanging up my blogging hat. I get disheartened when I send out a blog post notification email and receive very few replies or comments. Maybe I’ve passed my sell by date. Maybe the written word in considered too old-fashioned now that there are so many boaters making vlogs, video logs. Maybe I should just concentrate on the commercial side of the site and give up on the fun stuff.

I registered this site in 2010 when I first moved afloat. It’s always been semi commercial. Access to the vast amount of information on the site is free, but I also offer paid products and services. My most popular product has always been my Narrowbudget Gold package. It includes a bespoke online budget calculator and several digital guides for anyone thinking about living afloat.

I created the package five years ago. Potential buyers have often asked me if the data is recent. It concerned me that, as the years passed, the initial data could become less and less relevant. I’ve now changed that.

I’ve lived afloat now for long enough to provide different data sets spanning a reasonable period. In January this year I decided to publish one post each month just to detail the costs of living afloat. Each post covers a detailed breakdown of boating costs for the previous month, the same month three years earlier and another for the same month six years earlier. Aspiring boaters now have access to detailed narrowboat living costs that are always less than a month old, and they can compare the costs over half a decade. You can read the first of this post series here. You need to log into your Narrowbudget Gold account to read the complete article.

If you want a practical boating experience, you can join me on a Narrowboat Discovery Day. Nearly three hundred guests have joined me on my boat so far for a pleasant twelve mile, six lock cruise between Braunston and Calcutt Boats marinas. The days have been hugely successful. I think I’ve enjoyed them as the people who have cruised with me. 

My first boat, James No 194, was, by the time I finished refurbishing it, a superb live aboard narrowboat. James was fully equipped to live in off grid full time. Orient is as good if not better. There are a few bells and whistles to add before I’m happy, but I know what I need and how much those additions of modifications will cost. 

The day is as much about knowledge sharing as it is practical boating. Guests leave me with a much clearer understanding of the practicalities involved in living afloat. The day’s emphasis is on fun but, I’ve often told by my guests, the knowledge they’ve gained is worth every penny of the modest investment they’ve made in the day. Here’s what my last guest said…

I have been receiving your newsletter for some time now, and in the last 12 months I have been thinking more and more about the possibility of living on a narrowboat myself. Your Discovery Day was a perfect opportunity to see what narrowboat live aboard life was like, and to also experience what it was like to maneuver one and take it through some locks. Plus, I had the opportunity to ask plenty of questions. My plans now are to work on funding and then I will start to look at boats when I am ready to make a purchase.


All of your communications reading the logistics of the Discovery Day were perfect. Suggesting that I stay at Wigrams was a huge help. In my case they had the family crisis which prevented me from staying there, but that couldn’t be helped. Wigrams looked like a perfect location for lodging.


I would definitely recommend to anyone who has any kind of interest in narrowboats to join you for a Discovery Day. It is an excellent way to learn what it is like to live on one full time. It is also the perfect way to learn about boat systems and the logistics of living on the canals in a narrowboat. You have years of experience living on narrowboats. You are based in a marina and work in a marina, so you see all aspects of daily narrowboat/marina life. You also have a very professional and relaxed way of interacting with your visitor. You encourage questions and don’t have any judgement about how little experience a visitor may have when they join you. You put everything you have into the day to make it an enjoyable, memorable experience for the visitor.


Thank you so much again Paul.

?Chris Amson, March 2019

Anyway, I’ve waffled on too long. If you want to discover the actual cost of living afloat, you can find out more about my Narrowbudget Gold package here. If you want a hand’s on chance to experience the reality of living afloat, my Discovery Day page is here. And if my blog posts interest you or are useful to you, reply to the introductory email to let me know. Either that, or email me through the site’s contact form. I want to carry on blogging. I enjoy writing. Some site visitors even say I’m quite good at it. However, there’s no point in me investing my time and money in a website that no one is really interested in.

Until next week… Maybe!

2

Broken Boilers and Costly Cratch Covers

 

We are now without a washing machine. After sliding, lifting and squeezing the cumbersome appliance through the boat’s narrow passageways, we examined the useless pile of junk thoroughly. I hoped for a simple solution, a cheap to fix split hose or loose connection. Life is rarely that easy.

The cause of a soapy cascade from the cupboard mounted machine into the cabin bilge was a split drum. Replacing the broken part would involve reducing the Zanussi to its component parts by someone who knew what he was doing. That certainly wasn’t going to be me. Qualified plumbers aren’t best known for low-cost servicing, so I suspected that there would be a hefty call out charge, much grimacing and teeth sucking and a promise to try to fix the machine at an hourly rate close to my weekly wage. We’ve taken the path of least resistance and consigned our washing machine to the site scrap metal bin.
Removing the washing machine has provided more storage space in the bathroom, a little extra exercise for me, and it’s made our calf muscles ache.

The Zanussi weighed close to 50kg, about the same as a couple of bags of coal, or Cynthia in her winter coats and boots. Losing the weight from a cupboard two feet above the floor on the port side has caused a noticeable list to starboard. To rebalance the boat, I will either have to find £400 for a new machine or ask Cynthia to spend most of her onboard time sitting in the empty pine cupboard.

The Cynthia option would need to be a short term solution. She’s flying back to America in two weeks, not, she assures me, because I’ve asked her to act as temporary ballast.

Orient now has a slight list to starboard

Orient now has a slight list to starboard

Our bureaucratic nightmare continues. After three tedious years, we still haven’t secured Cynthia permission to stay with me long term. During our recent two year tour of Europe, we spent much of our time in Holland. Sadly for us, the Dutch are enthusiastic rule followers. The authorities wouldn’t consider an application for Cynthia to stay long term unless we could provide them with an official Dutch address. We couldn’t provide one because of our lifestyle. We lived a nomadic life during the summer months as we explored the Netherlands’ vast network of canals, rivers and lakes in our Linssen yacht. During the rest of the year, we were just as mobile in our Hymer motorhome.

We secured an official address after eighteen months and seven different applications. Two guys from the local town hall visited our mooring in North Holland at the marina where I worked temporarily. They questioned us at length about the nature of the mooring. Did we live on the boat at that particular mooring permanently? Who owned the mooring? How long had we lived there? Where, exactly, on the hundred-metre long pier did our mooring begin and end?

The guys took photographs, measurements and several years off my life before returning to their Aalsmeer office to decide our fate. After several months, countless follow-up phone calls and a few more grey hairs Aalsmeer town hall issued us with an official houseboat address. Then, and only then, could Cynthia submit an application to stay that had the remotest chance of success. By that time our love affair with all things Dutch was over.

We had seen enough tulips and windmills to last us several lifetimes. The country felt too small, claustrophobic and overrun by kamikaze cyclists. The vast and perfectly maintained waterways network lost its appeal as well. I missed England’s muddy ditches, the long thin boats which bumped, scraped and scratched their way through the system and, most of all, the colourful characters who steered them.

Cynthia returned to England with me on Monday 17th December. She had to endure the usual Gestapo interrogation at border control. Once my wife satisfied the officials that she wasn’t a threat to national security or, more importantly, government resources, she was allowed to enter for six months. Cynthia is entitled to stay until mid-June but, in this Brexit obsessed climate, she doesn’t want to wait that long.

So, two weeks today, she will leave springtime England. Her mission is to secure a spousal visa to allow her a worry free return. Her success isn’t assured by any means. She will have to complete enough forms to gladden the hearts of every red tape loving government worker in her way, and then part with a substantial chunk of hard earned cash.

The process can take months rather than weeks. Success is not assured, even with the help of ruinously expensive visa agents. She can fast track the application and reduce the wait to something almost bearable, providing she parts with enough money to buy a decent used car. In the meantime, life will go on in my wonderful watery world. Heartwarming tasks like finding out why on Earth we still don’t have any hot water on board.

Living with cold water isn’t the end of the world. Heating a kettle for dish washing is no big deal, nor is organising a tank full of the hot stuff for showering. With Orient’s onboard generator still out of commission, I can fire up our ever trusty Honda suitcase generator to power the calorifier’s immersion heater. Or, if I really want to spend some money, I can power the immersion heater via my shoreline from the marina’s electricity supply.

Neither of these inconveniences is a real problem, nor is the cold towel rail in an even colder bathroom. What I want, what I really, really want, is to be able to step out of a steaming shower and wrap myself in a soft and fluffy hot towel. A towel warmed by a working towel rail.

A working towel rail and radiators to the bedroom and engine room requires a working Kabola boiler. We don’t yet have one of those.

The problem, we thought, was a hopelessly solidified burner pot. A new pot arrived two weeks ago. Swapping old for new was so simple even I could do it. The Kabola worked so well that, within a couple of hours, we had a constant stream of scalding water flowing from our taps and Cynthia reduced to a small and sweaty puddle in the main bedroom. My success was short-lived. The comforting orange glow visible through the Kabola’s front panel glass disappeared by the end of the day. I haven’t been able to relight it since then. It’s back to the drawing board now and endless praying for a simple solution.

Orients old Kabola pot

Orients old Kabola pot

Orient's new Kabola pot

Orient’s new Kabola pot

High on our long list of Orient remedial work is a new cratch cover. The current cover is driving me mad. The port side has six broken press studs failing to secure the bottom horizontal edge to the hull. The starboard side has none at all. In anything more than a light breeze, which is most of the time at Calcutt Boats, the cratch cover blows inside the well deck, forming a funnel for any rain. Recently, there’s been more rain pooled on our front deck than in the water tank beneath it.

Fitting new studs should provide temporary well deck waterproofing, but the cover is past its best. It’s coated with algae the same spring green as the new buds on the willow overhanging our dump barge mooring, and it’s frayed and tattered around the edges. It’s so old and unsightly it could be my twin.

AJ Canopies in Braunston have an excellent reputation. Consequently, they aren’t cheap. They have such a positive flow of new business that they weed out time wasters over the phone. Sadly, on this occasion, I was one of them. The base price is determined by the distance from the cratch board to the cabin top. Then there’s £75 to add for each zip. Our current cover has six of them, four hundred and fifty extra pounds to bring our telephone quote to £1,500. We can’t afford it at the moment, nor can we find the money for the joinery work we also need completing.

We were shocked by the price. We have a compact saloon, ten feet from the well deck steps to the galley bulkhead. We want a pine bookcase removing, and an L shaped bench seat building, plus a removable table to use for dining during the day and as a bed base at night. Like the rest of the boat, we wanted it built in pine. Nothing fancy so, we wrongly thought, not terribly expensive.

The guy who visited us was charismatic, affable and clearly a craftsman. And a Ferrari owner as well judging by his price. Two thousand eight hundred pounds, without upholstery, is far more than we can afford. We’ll have to make do with a pair of folding canvas chairs and no overnight guests for the foreseeable future.

The table we want to replace in Orient's saloon

The table we want to replace in Orient’s saloon

We welcomed a daytime guest on board yesterday for a fun-filled day on the cut. Chris Ansome incorporated a Discovery into his hectic three-week schedule before he flies back to the States next week. Chris is exploring the possibility of returning to the UK after spending much of his working life in the good old US of A. He wanted to experience a typical day’s cruising in winter weather. Zeus was happy to oblige. Zeus is the god of weather in case you’re wondering who this mysterious guy is.
We began our cruise on a calm day under a cloudless sky. The sky filled with clouds, the air with wind and rain. We were buffeted, wetted and would have been chilled to the bone if not for the blazing Premiere range beneath our feet. We had a high old time, culminating with an exciting passage up and down the Calcutt flight. Orient handled the difficult weather magnificently, as did novice helmsman, Chris.

I gather from his frequent comments throughout the day that he enjoyed himself. “Isn’t this fantastic!” he exclaimed more than once. “Thank you for this glimpse into your wonderful life,” he told me several times. The comment which really revealed his feeling though was, “This is the most exciting day I’ve had in many, many years!” Coming from a long term sound engineer with Jethro Tull, that’s really saying something.

Chris enjoyed a memorable day and gained some valuable information about the liveaboard lifestyle into the bargain. As have all of the hundreds of guests who have joined me on board James No 194 and now Orient.

I don’t like to blow my own trumpet, but I’m going to. There’s no one else to do it for me. Learning how to steer twenty tonnes of unwieldy steel can be a stressful experience. Some of my guests have been on other helmsmanship courses. They complained that their instructors treated novice boaters like parade ground rookies. That’s not my style at all.

I want YOU to have a good time. Living the lifestyle is fun. So should learning about it. If you are at all interested in buying a narrowboat to live or cruise on England’s inland waterways, do yourself a favour and join me on a fun and information filled day aboard one of the cosiest and comfortable narrowboats you’ll ever see. You can find all about my Discovery Day service here, or book a date directly here.

I’ll write to you again in a couple of weeks. Maybe I’ll welcome you on board Orient one day soon too. Tea or coffee?

 

Narrowboat Expenses For January 2019

 

This is the first of an ongoing series of posts detailing my narrowboat expenses. Each post will break down my monthly costs for the previous month, the same month three years earlier and a third set of figures for three years before that. I will publish each post in the middle of the month. You will always have access to the narrowboat running expenditure no more than a month old and you’ll be able to compare it with data which spans six years. You’ll be able to use this information to estimate the likely cost of buying and maintaining your own floating home.

Calculating accurate costs for the boat you intend to purchase is difficult. There are so many variables that the best you can hope for is a good idea of the expenses involved and the nature of the variables you need to consider. With that in mind, I have explained the difference in the two boats’ systems, style and design below.

About The Boats

The data spans my two different periods living afloat on England’s inland waterways. I lived on board my first boat, James No 194, from April 2010 until October 2016. I moved off the cut then until December 2018. My wife, Cynthia, and I explored Europe for twenty six months in a 2003 Hymer motorhome. We enjoyed two winters languishing on France’s Mediterranean coast and much of the summer months cruising the vast Dutch waterways network. Much as we enjoyed our European adventures we missed England and the English canal network too much.

We returned to the UK mid December 2018 and purchased our second narrowboat from Ash Boats at Tattenhall marina. Our new floating home is Orient, a 62′ Steve Hudson traditional stern narrowboat.

What you pay to maintain and run your narrowboat will be determined  by many factors including the boat length, layout, heating system(s), insulation, complexity, your ability and desire to maintain and repair your home, and by your boat use and lifestyle.

The boats we have lived on are similar. Here they are in detail.

James No 194

Type: Our first boat was a 62′ Norton Canes traditional stern narrowboat. She was constructed in 1977 with a steel hull and a oil treated ply cabin. I over plated the wooden cabin with steel in November 2011. The boat had polystyrene insulation, typical in a boat built in the seventies and not very efficient. I sandwiched another layer of polystyrene between the original cabin and the new steel. In hindsight, and what a wonderful gift that is, I should have used spray foam instead.

Year of Construction: 1977

Length: 62′

Width: 6’ 10”

Draught: 2’6” 

Building Material: Steel hull with an oil treated ply cabin. The cabin was eventually over plated with 4mm steel. While the new cabin weatherproofed the boat and didn’t neccesitate disturbing the boat’s beautiful internal pine cladding, the extra weight increased the boat draught and raised its centre of gravity. The result was a rather wobbly boat.

Insulation: Polystyrene

Heating: Initially, a Torgem (or was it Torglow?) multi fuel stove at the front of the cabin which gravity fed three radiators along the starboard side. I eventually removed the stove’s back boiler and had a Webasto Thermotop C diesel central heating system installed to heat the back end of the boat. Solid fuel stoves can’t adequately heat a boat divided into two or more rooms.

Engine: Mercedes OM636. This was an extremely reliable if slightly smokey engine. It clocked up 6,173 hours over forty years. People who knew what they were talking about told me that the engine should run for ten times as long without any problems.

Engine Power: 42 horsepower 

Fuel consumption: 1.97 litres per hour – Most narrowboat engines use between one and one and a half litres of diesel per hour. James was a thirsty girl

Diesel tank size: 300 litres – A large tank by narrowboat standards, but a baby compared with Orient’s whopper.

Batteries: 1 engine starter, 4 x 160ah AGM batteries in the domestic bank. I began my boat life with just one 110ah leisure battery. I quickly doubled the capacity and then doubled it again a year or two later. Soon after that I realised the mistake I made. If you need to add to a battery bank, replace the whole bank. If you don’t, the oldest battery in the bank will fail and drag the rest with it. 

Inverter:1600 watt Sterling pure sine. More than enough for onboard use.

Generator: A 2KW Kipor suitcase generator. It cost half as much as a similar specification Honda. That’s because it weighed much more, made more noise and wasn’t as reliable. I rarely used it.

Battery monitor: Smartgauge. 

Solar power: 3 x 100w panels mounted on a tilting bracket, and an MPPT controller. Supplied and fitted by Tim Davis of Onboard Solar. These three panels allowed me to stay as long as I wanted on a summer mooring without having to run the engine for battery charging. I ran my engine for an hour a day in the winter months to supplement the panels’ reduced output.

Water heating: Three options; via the engine when cruising, through the calorifier’s immersion heater when attached to a mains supply and, initially, using a wall mounted on demand gas heater. The gas heater failed catastrophically when I was in the shower, resulting in a cloud of super heated steam rather than hot water from the shower head. I removed the gas heater immediately. 

Cooking: A four ring gas hob, grill and oven.

Orient

Type: Steve Hudson traditional with an engine room and boatman’s cabin. The boat has bulkheads between the galley and the bathroom, the bathroom and the bedroom, the bedroom and the engine room and the engine room and the boatman’s cabin. More bulkheads means greater difficulty pushing heat through the boat from a single multi fuel stove. 

Year of Construction: 1996 hull construction, 2002 sale and owner fit out. 

Length: 61’ 6”

Width: 6’ 10”

Draught: 3’ 0” 

Building Material: Steel

Insulation: Spray foam

Heating: Morso Squirrel in the main cabin, Premiere range in the boatman’s cabin and a Kabola boiler for hot water and for heating a towel rain in the bathroom and radiators in the engine room and main bedroom.

Engine: Lister JP2M – It’s a thing of beauty, housed in its own engine room and visible to all through port and starboard side doors. The downside is that it takes up a huge amount of space, weighs as much as a small car and is the reason towpath users often find me bent double in a darkened room furiously polishing my pistons.

Engine Power: 21 horsepower – It’s about half the power of engines you find in many modern narrowboats of a similar length. However, working boats carrying forty tonne loads and towing a similarly laden butty used engines similar to this. If they were good enough for working boatmen, they’re good enough for me.

Fuel consumption: 0.97 litres per hour – Most narrowboat engines use between one and one and a half litres of diesel per hour. Orient’s fuel consumption came as a pleasant surprise.

Diesel tank size: 500l – This is an enormous tank for a narrowboat, twice the size of many boats, four times the size of some. It feeds the engine, the generator and the Kabola boiler

Batteries: 1 engine starter, 1 generator 1 starter, 5 x 130AGM batteries in the domestic bank – There were thirteen batteries on board when we bought the boat; one engine starter, one generator starter, two for the bow thruster, seven in the domestic bank and two connected to nothing at all under the engine room floor. Twelve of the thirteen wouldn’t hold a charge.

Inverter: 3,000W Sterling – Overkill as far as I’m concerned. A more powerful inverter increases the temptation to use power hungry devices which quickly drain the battery bank. The key to a happy off grid life is using less power, not equipping your boat with expensive kit so that you can use more.

Generator: Lombardini 15LD 315 5KW  – What a useful tool this would be if it worked. It doesn’t. It didn’t work when we viewed the boat. We had it serviced. The Lombardini worked perfectly for a while MORE HERE

Battery monitor: Sterling PMP1

Solar power: None

Water heating: If we’re connected to a shore line, or during the brief period we could use the onboard generator, we could turn on the calorifier’s immersion heater. The immersion heater would quickly drain the battery bank so we can’t use it if we’re powering the boat through the inverter. The most cost effective method is via the Kabola diesel boiler. That’s when it’s working. A clogged burner pot was initially to blame. After I replaced that with a ruinously expensive new part the boiler worked perfectly for a day. The latest problem is likely to be a blocked fuel filter or line. Orient’s slow revving Lister doesn’t get hot enough to heat water.

Cooking: A gas hob and oven in the galley plus limited cooking on the Premiere range in the boatman’s cabin.

Boat Use And Lifestyle

I didn’t know anything about narrowboats when I stepped aboard my first floating home nearly nine years ago. I didn’t know how to handle my long, thin boat either, which was just as well really. James No 194 wasn’t in any condition to take out on the cut. The once beautiful boat had been languishing on a marina mooring for ten years. Everything on board needed servicing, refurbishing, repairing or replacing. I didn’t earn much so the boats beautification took five long years.

Apart from the occasional nerve wracking cruise around the marina, my boat was nothing more than a floating flat for the first three years. The forty year old Mercedes engine remained cold for most of that time. A clogged fuel filter brought the engine to an embarrassing stop six miles from home on my first cruise. One of the marina fitters used a hire boat to tow me back to base. A split gearbox hose put a stop to my second cruising attempt. I pretty much gave up after that until I could afford to have the engine’s perishables replaced and attend to some dangerous faults in the engine room.

I ran the engine for less than fifty hours in my first thirty three months on board. The boat’s condition and my confidence and competence improved dramatically in 2014. I recorded a slightly more respectable three hundred and seventy four engine hours in 2014. In 2015, I swapped my job at the marina for the life of a continuous cruiser. I clocked up 1,134 hours at the tiller that year and lived off grid for all of it. I kept a mooring at Calcutt Boats but didn’t use it. I stayed on the cut all winter, living completely off grid. In fact, I used my shore line to connect the the national grid for just one day in the whole year.

My life changed completely in 2016. I met my wife Cynthia in the autumn of 2015. We both adored the live aboard lifestyle but we agreed that a few months away from the mud and damp of English canal winters would do us both the world of good. We bought a second hand Hymer motorhome to take us to France’s Mediterranean coast then, after battling bureaucracy for a few months and failing to secure the visa Cynthia needed to stay long term in the UK, we decided to sell my narrowboat and tour Europe full time.

The following twenty six months were filled with excitement, adventure and non stop travel. We drove thirty thousand miles through eleven countries, stopping each summer in Holland to explore the Netherland’s vast waterways network in our Dutch Linssen yacht. Much as we enjoyed immersing ourselves in new cultures and experiences we missed the English canals. I missed them most.

We returned to England in December 2018, driving north from Dover to Tattenhall marina near Chester and onto Orient, or new home. 

After six weeks and one abandoned attempt to cruise south to Calcutt Boats we waved a fond farewell to the good folk of Tattenhall and endured an eventful two week trip during to coldest two weeks of the year. Orient kept us warm and dry and performed magnificently during three days of inadvisable ice breaking. The hull I blacked three weeks before our journey south needed blacking again by the time we reached Napton Junction.

I spent far, far too much during our time away and then invested even more in Orient’s purchase. I had an opportunity to return to work at Calcutt Boats, helping to maintain the business’s one hundred and ten acres of glorious Warwickshire countryside. I’ve been working full time at the marina since February 2019, escaping on high days and holidays for a few days cruising.

Marina life doesn’t suit everyone. I don’t think it would suit me if I moored anywhere else. I don’t like the idea of looking through any of Orient’s dozen portholes and seeing another boat moored an arm’s length away. Fortunately, I don’t have to. Orient has a unique mooring, tied to to rusty thirty five foot long dump barge in a little use corner of Lock’s marina, the elder of Calcutt’s two marinas. 

I have the best of both worlds. I have a marina mooring with expansive views, including the antics of novice boaters arriving at Calcutt Bottom lock for the first time.

Read on to discover the actual and detailed expenses for January 2013, January 2016 and January 2019. I’m often asked by aspiring boaters how much the cost of boating increases over the years. If you’re one of them, here’s the information you’ve been looking for.

If you can see this message you aren’t logged in and/or you haven’t purchased Narrowbudget Gold. You can log in by using the form at the top of the right hand column or by clicking on the Narrowbudget Gold/Course Login link on the menu bar. You can find out more about my low cost information packed Narrowbudget Gold package here.

Summer Weather In February On The Grand Union Canal

 

Orient’s Zanussi washing machine isn’t performing quite as well as we would like. Its primary function at the moment seems to be to transfer the contents of our seven hundred litre water tank into the cabin bilge without washing any clothes.

Removing the excess bilge water has proven a little challenging.

My previous narrowboat, James, was sensibly designed. Bilgewater could flow the full cabin length back to the engine room and then be sucked out of the boat with an electric bilge pump.

Easy.

Orient’s underfloor area appears to be split into several self-contained sections. All of them are inaccessible. Builder Steve Hudson fitted out the engine room and boatman’s cabin. Everything else was done by the first owner. He was a craftsman. The beautifully designed fitted furniture is as substantial as it is aesthetically appealing. He did a great job, but not one which makes remedial work at all easy.

Before he constructed the boat’s many cupboards, shelves and heavy-duty doors, he hauled two tonnes of hardwood flooring into the Orient’s cabin. He secured the long planks with enough over engineered brass screws to open his own hardware shop. Orient’s cabin floor is a thing of beauty, unmarred by unsightly but often necessary inspection hatches. There’s no chance of lifting any of the hardwood planks without dismantling the carefully crafted furniture above it.

Removing leaked water is a problem I haven’t yet been able to overcome, as is removing the appliance which is responsible for the unwanted liquid.

The Zanussi washing machine installation was done early in the boat’s fitout programme. I suspect it was lifted onto a sturdy pine shelf on the cabin’s port side and then surrounded with batons, doors and shelves until it was buried at the bottom of an expansive airing cupboard. The equally substantial Kabola boiler cupboard was built opposite the washing machine. A weighty pine door to the galley opens between the two.
The washing machine cupboard door and the galley door will need to come off before there’s any chance of sliding the washing machine out. And then the appliance will need hauling, sliding and lifting around, between and over a host of cupboards, drawer chests and partitions towards the cabin’s forward doors. Getting the machine out of the boat is going to be a monumental pain in the arse.

In the meantime, life goes on.

Cupboards filled with dirty clothes until a long trek to the marina washing and drying machines became a necessary evil. The pleasant one thousand yard return trip (I’ve just measured it on Google Maps) from Orient to the facilities block morphed into a tedious trudge after the fifth load. Ah, the joys of living afloat!

Banging into the boiler cupboard door as I wrestled with the uncooperative washing machine reminded me that the long-awaited replacement Kabola boiler pot still hasn’t arrived. It was ordered directly from the German supplier at the beginning of January. They estimated three weeks before it would reach our Tattenhall base. We postponed our cruise south to Calcutt, hoping that we could get it fitted before we left. We began our journey potless and without hot water. The third revised delivery date has now passed, so we have to rely on a stable shoreline connection for water heating.

A constant shore supply is a hit and miss affair. One hundred yards of a blue plastic coated cable is buried at the bottom of a shallow ditch between our rusty dump barge mooring and the nearest electricity metre. Somewhere, I don’t yet know where, there is a weakness or a partial break in the cable. Running mains appliances, heating water and charging our domestic battery bank is an exercise requiring patience and a stout pair of walking boots. A saloon table top lamp is our usual indicator. Like a Pavlovian dog, if the cabin suddenly dims, I climb out of the boat reset the trip switch. I’m frustrated but exceptionally fit.

All of these issues are nothing more than minor and temporary inconveniences. They are not third world problems. We have a comfortable and warm floating home, moored at one of the best locations at, for my money, one of the prettiest marinas in the country.

Returning to work here has been a joy. I was employed by Calcutt Boats on and off from September 2009 until October 2016. I enjoyed the work and appreciated the beauty of the hundred plus acres of rural Warwickshire I maintained. However, two years driving 30,000 miles through the varied landscapes of eleven European countries reinforced my love for England’s often spectacular countryside. Especially after spending much of last year in Holland.

There’s more varied scenery in this remote corner of rural Warwickshire than there is in most of the Netherlands (My apologies to Dutch friends Gilia and Edwin who will read this). We stayed in Holland because of the vast network of rivers, canals and lakes. The Dutch are masters of waterway management. They have to be. Much of the country’s reclaimed land is below sea level. Waterways fill many of the low lying areas which, in this exceptionally flat corner of Europe, is most of the country.

The waterways are meticulously maintained. Everything works. On the rare occasion that a bridge or lock fails, technicians are on site in the blink of an eye to fix the fault. The Dutch waterways network operates like a well-oiled machine, a reliable machine with minimal character.

Very few boaters live afloat on Holland’s four thousand miles of connected waterways. If you want to live on Dutch waterways, you usually buy one of the country’s thousands of houseboats, floating homes so elaborate that they often have brick walls and slate or thatched roofs. It’s living on the water, but it’s not boating. There are exceptions of course. The Dutch build beautiful boats. They’re often not insulated, but if you find one that is you have a spacious, comfortable and pretty home. Like Edwin and Gilia’s boat below.

A superbly equipped Dutch live aboard boat

A superbly equipped Dutch live aboard boat


The Dutch are enthusiastic and proud fair weather boaters. A poorly maintained craft on the Dutch network is a rare sight. Boating in Holland is all about aesthetics. Open day boats costing six figures are common, as are forty-foot motor cruisers costing a million or more. Despite these boats’ extraordinary cost, very few of them are suitable for four season cruising or for living on board full time.

Consequently, the Dutch network is lifeless for half of the year. September is a hectic time for boatyards when many crafts are removed from their moorings. They’re lifted from the water, moved to hard standing, sometimes in huge heated hangers, and left until the spring.

Many minor canals shut down for the winter. Not because of essential repairs or freezing weather, but because the bridge and lock keepers aren’t at their posts. There’s no point. There are no boaters to provide a service for.

Major waterways routes remain open from dawn till dusk for commercial traffic. On the waterways near our Aalsmeer base, we could count the daily commercial boats on the fingers of one hand. The work of a Dutch winter bridge keeper must be a tedious affair.

Even though winter cruising is not overly popular on English and Welsh canals, the UK inland waterways network has a very different feel from its continental cousin during the colder months of the year.

Thanks to my work, and our mooring overlooking the bottom lock of the Grand Union canal’s Calcutt flight, I can watch daily events on the waterways as they unfold. I saw more boats moving through the flight on one lazy Sunday morning in February than I did in a week on the Dutch canals before we left the Netherlands last December.

I could hear the sounds from my boatman’s cabin office; the rush of water from raised paddles, the roar of an engine to combat the surge from paddles raised too quickly and shouted banter between lock and helm crew. They’re such comforting sounds.

There are still signs of life on England’s canal and river network on the coldest winter days. Thousands of moored boats line the cut, many occupied by liveaboard boaters. Cruising past a row of moored boats usually creates a burst of canalside activity. Heads appear through hatches, out of engine bays, above towering bags of coal. Some boat owners offer a cheery wave, a friendly greeting or, if the cruising boater passes too fast, a shaken fist and a little heartfelt advice. English canals are alive, even in the depth of winter.

Not that we’ve had much of a winter this year.

Toys for boys. I'm very happy at work.

Toys for boys. I’m very happy at work.

I was able to work in a tee shirt for much of last week as I burned hawthorn stripped from the fence line between Calcutt Boats and neighbouring Napton reservoir. A Colditz style fence complete with stainless steel gates was recently installed to exclude otters from the carp-filled lake. Now the foreign fish eating mink have the reservoir to themselves. Aren’t they lucky?

Calcutt Boats duck house in a pond without water

Calcutt Boats duck house in a pond without water

I hosted my first Discovery Day of the season yesterday. My guest, Paul, booked his day back in December. He told me he wanted to experience a day on a liveaboard narrowboat at the coldest time of the year. He didn’t want to be seduced by a warm day cruising under an azure sky. Although he didn’t show any outward signs, he must have been bitterly disappointed.

The day dawned with a light mist and a seasonal nip in the air. After checking the day’s weather report, Paul arrived carrying nothing more substantial than a light jacket. Standing still on the back of a narrowboat for hours on end twitching an arm occasionally to guide the craft around gentle turns can be a cold affair. I considered offering him a coat, but I didn’t need to worry. A warm sun burned the mist off by mid-morning. Paul stood comfortably at the helm for the afternoon session in a tee shirt and shorts. In February. In England. The weather has gone mad.

Well stocked with coal for a winter we haven't had

Well stocked with coal for a winter we haven’t had

I’m back on our dump barge mooring today, sitting in Orient’s back cabin with the doors wide open. The marina has been an unusual hive of activity for this time of the year. Calcutt Bottom lock behind me has been busy for most of the day as local boaters seized the chance to do a little fair weather boating. They need to make the most of this early season opportunity. If the current warm weather and clear skies continue, the network will struggle to remain fully operational. We need rain and plenty of it if we want to avoid summer lock closures and restrictions. Brits begging for rain in England? It’s not a common request.

The forecast for the week ahead is for lots more sun. Narrowboat owners and daffodils will be out in force. I’ll be working beside the Grand Union canal watching happy boaters chug along wishing that I was one of them.

Discovery Day Update

I welcomed Orient’s first Discovery Day guest on Saturday. Aspiring liveaboard boater, Paul, joined me for a twelve mile, six lock cruise on the combined Oxford and Grand Union canals. The waterway weaves a fascinating route through some of Warwickshire’s finest scenery. 

We began the day at 8am with a hot drink in front of the glowing coals of Orient’s multi fuel stove. We enjoyed an hour discussing essential bits of onboard kit, rules and etiquette on the network’s watery roads, the true cost of living a life afloat, and any other questions about this wonderful lifestyle Paul wants to throw at me.

Fully refreshed and raring to go, we fired up Orient’s vintage engine. Saturday’s weather was unbelievable; a cloudless blue sky and a sun warm enough to encourage Paul to strip off to tee shirt and shorts for the afternoon cruise back to Calcutt.  Even though I’ve cruised the Discovery Day route hundreds of times I never tire of it. Buzzards circling overheard during the day, owls swooping low over the canal at dusk, the occasional trembling muntjac kneeling to drink in the offside shallows and, in March, mad hares cavorting in waterside meadows. The route is as fascinating as it is beautiful. The day with Paul passed in a blur. I tied up at the end of the day eager to greet my next guest and the many more to follow through the changing seasons.

If you want a break from all this Brexit nonsense and escape the stresses and strains of modern day life for a while, come and join me for an idyllic day on the cut. I promise you a truly relaxing day out filled with answers to all your narrowboat questions. You’ll learn how to handle a narrowboat with confidence too. Click on the link above to book your day.

Paul Glover enjoying and unseasonably warm February Discovery Day

Paul Glover enjoying and unseasonably warm February Discovery Day

Graham Davies

Kingswinford, West Midlands

Searching the internet I came across Paul's Discovery Day web site for all aspects of living on a canal boat. I thought, "Wow, that would be ideal for me even though I've been living on a canal boat for 18 months but no experience in cruising the cut"..so i booked a Discovery Day with Paul to gain some experience in cruising. With Paul's experience my confidence grew during the day. Now I'm ready to to cruise the canals.

My son and me had a brilliant Discovery Day. Paul answered all questions regarding living aboard and full instruction cruising the canals. We came away at the end of the day with a lot more experience and confidence.

My Discovery Day showed me a different way of life living aboard. Paul was there to answer any questions regarding all aspects of living aboard and instruction with cruising the cut. I would recommend Paul's Discovery Day who is thinking about buying a canal boat."

Graham was an experienced live aboard boater, but like many people living afloat he used his home as a floating flat. He didn’t have the confidence to explore England’s beautiful and ever changing waterways. A day’s tuition opened up a whole new world to him.

If you’re thinking about buying a narrowboat, regardless of whether it’s for recreational cruising or as a primary home, do yourself a huge favour and begin your boat buying process with enough knowledge and experience to help you make the right choices and decisions. Book a Discovery Day today.

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.

2

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

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