Buying a Narrowboat: Pre Purchase Tips and Recommendations

 

If you are considering buying a narrowboat, don’t part with your hard earned cash before you read this post

There’s a steep learning curve to life on the cut, steepest when you are buying a narrowboat and over your first few days on board. Apart from emptying your bank account and the physical challenge of cramming your life into a tiny home, you have to master a boat filled with unfamiliar systems and equipment. 

And then there are the day-to-day logistics you face living on the water, especially if you plan to adopt and off-grid lifestyle. Moving house is one of life’s most stressful experiences. Learning to live in a completely different way doesn’t help.

I hope that the following suggestions aid your transition. My 10th living afloat anniversary is two months away. I’ve bought four boats, sold three and refurbished one of them. Using the wonderful gift of hindsight, I can help you avoid making expensive mistakes. Please read this post in conjunction with An Essential Checklist Before You Consider Buying A Narrowboat.

Buying a Narrowboat: Boat Safety Scheme Certificates and Surveys

You shouldn’t consider buying a narrowboat without having a survey done. The owner may have a recent survey report to show you. If it’s more than a couple of years old, or if you don’t feel you can trust the seller, have another done. You’ll have to pay £600 – £800 including the boat lift out fee, but the report will confirm that you have a sound boat, or alert you to potentially expensive problems. 

The same applies to your narrowboat’s Boat Safety Scheme certificate.

Get a BSS examination done as part of the purchase deal if you can, and have the seller rectify any problems. Either that or ask the seller to reduce the asking price by the estimated cost of the rectification work.

A BSS examination is the waterways equivalent of your car’s MOT. The emphasis is on safety. YOUR safety. And because your safety is on the line, you shouldn’t necessarily trust an existing BSS certificate. 

Let me give you an example from personal experience.

When I viewed Orient for the first time in October 2018, I thought I had found my perfect boat. After all, this wasn’t my first experience buying a narrowboat.

Orient on brokerage at Tattenhall marina

Orient on brokerage at Tattenhall marina

Apart from minor signs of neglect I couldn’t find fault. It’s just as well that I’m not a BSS examiner because there was plenty wrong. A friend of mine, Russ Fincham, a first-class BSS examiner who has forgotten more than I could ever hope to know about narrowboats, agreed to come with me on my second viewing.

He identified faults which would cost thousands of pounds to rectify. Two of the defects, a poorly sited bow thruster motor and a cracked stove, could have had catastrophic consequences. 

The stove crack probably appeared after Orient’s last BSS exam in 2017. However, the bow thruster looked as though it was part of the original construction. A recess in the gas locker base housed the bow thruster motor. Cabling to its two batteries in a front deck locker allowed escaping gas to fill the cabin bilge rather than drain into the canal. Despite the potential to turn Orient into a 62’ floating bomb, the boat had passed four previous exams.

A current boat safety certificate doesn’t always guarantee that your boat is safe. Schedule another examination when you buy your boat, and make sure the examiner has a good reputation. Ask someone impartial for recommendations. Canalworld Discussion Forum is a useful source.

Russ’s advice allowed me to negotiate an immediate £2,500 price reduction. His insistence that I had another BSS exam done after the remedial work was complete would have saved me more money and a lot of hassle.

I didn’t follow his advice. I was more concerned about Cynthia’s deteriorating health than saving a few quid.

I had a commercial BSS examination seven months later when I upgraded to a Roving Trader license. Even though it’s a slightly stricter exam than the standard certificate requirements, most of the fifteen failures still applied. 

The rectification work cost me £1,200. Finding money was the easy part. Getting someone to do the job took three attempts over five months. 

Getting an expert to assess the boat for me saved me £2,500 and possibly prevented a nasty accident. Even though I had two years remaining on my BSS certificate, negotiating the inclusion of a new examination when I bought the boat would have saved me another £1,200 and a great deal of frustration.

Buying a Narrowboat: Familiarisation

You should try to find out as much as possible about your new boat before your first day on board. Bombard your surveyor, boat safety examiner and broker with questions. They’re usually happy to help.

Unless you’re fortunate, buying a narrowboat and making it your home can be a bewildering experience. Every narrowboat is unique and very few come with manuals. You’ll be pushing and pulling unknown knobs, switches and levers for weeks. If possible, ask the previous owner to show you the ropes but, If the boat’s been on brokerage, that’s probably not possible. The guys selling and examining your new home may be able to answer basic questions, but everything else is up to you.

If your boat has a modern engine, that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about too much. You need to check oil and water before you start the engine and that’s about it. You probably have a keel cooled model, but you need to be a little more careful with raw water cooling systems.

Keel cooled engines circulate water through a skin tank, a tank attached to the boat’s hull. Raw water cooling draws canal water through a heat exchanger and then return water to the canal via a wet exhaust.

How do you know what type you have?

Ask the broker or the owner if you’re buying privately. If you’re buying through a broker and he doesn’t know, you’ll need to slip into your overalls and investigate.

Check your engine exhaust. It’s either close to the waterline at the stern or the side of the boat near the engine. If all you see is a little smoke, your engine is probably keel cooled. Either that, or it’s raw water cooled and has the gate valve closed. Some owners close the water inlet as a sensible precaution when the engine isn’t running. 

The raw water cooling system on my first boat failed twice during cruises. Fortunately, I was able to moor quickly and stop the engine. Even so, the water level in the engine room bilge rose six inches in a few minutes. My raw water system always worried me and made a noise like a steam train. Switching to a keel cooling system saved both my hearing and my heart.

There’s an essential post-cruise habit you need to adopt. You probably have a stern gland greaser on your boat which helps prevent canal water from entering your engine bay via the propeller shaft. If you don’t want to drown your engine and take your battery bank for a swim, tighten your stern gland greaser at the end of every cruise.

You can read more about using and refilling your greaser here.

Buying a Narrowboat: Engine Maintenance and Pre Cruise Checks

You’ll probably need someone to show you the ropes if you take on a boat with a vintage engine like Orient’s green beast. It’s a Lister JP2M, an eighty-three-year-old lass with a mesmerising voice and the ability to turn the heads of a disturbing number of middle-aged men. 

Find out as much as you can about your engine before you move on board

Find out as much as you can about your engine before you move on board

Even though the Lister isn’t difficult to maintain, there are more pre-start checks than with a modern engine. I have to transfer fuel with a hand pump from the main five hundred litre tank to a thirty-litre day tank, make sure that the points are greased and oiled correctly and that there’s enough header tank water: nothing complicated or time-consuming, but all-important. 

Starting your engine can be a challenge. The boat should have a mains supply. If not, the boat’s battery master switches should be off. You’ll need to turn the engine battery master switch on before you can start the engine. Make sure you know the master switch location. They should be labelled but often aren’t.

If you don’t know your way around old engines, get someone to show you the ropes. I use Primrose Engineering. Owner, Richard Powell, has been in the trade for four decades. And he’s a nice guy too. I highly recommend his services if you have a vintage engine.

Another option is a one-to-one service with River Canal Rescue (RCR). They’re the waterways equivalent of the AA, an essential service for boat owners like me who don’t know one end of a spanner from the other.

One of the company’s senior engineers, Kerry, showed me how to service my first narrowboat’s Mercedes engine. He had the patience of a saint and asked questions before he began to establish my proficiency. Kerry realised that he was dealing with a middle-aged man with the mechanical ability of a four-year-old girl. He explained every process slowly and clearly and instilled enough confidence in me to tackle routine services. As the recommended service interval for my engine was 250 hours, and I could accumulate a thousand running hours a year, Kerry’s instruction saved me a fortune.

OK. So you know enough about your engine. The next step is to take the old girl out for a cruise. Make sure you have all the boating equipment you need before you go. You don’t want to be stuck on a three feet deep canal without all the appropriate gear. All right, failing to prepare for a canal cruise isn’t going to kill you, but your maiden voyage will be much more pleasant if you know what you’re doing.

The first step is to get some training and to make sure that the tuition is from someone who knows what he’s doing. I’ve witnessed many new boat owners offering dubious advice to fellow narrowboat buyers. It’s easy to begin your boating career with the wrong information. Get help and practical hands-on tuition from professionals. It’s an essential ingredient to your boating confidence, competence and happiness.

Many companies offer RYA accredited inland waterways training. Willow Wren near Calcutt provides one and two-day courses. They are an excellent source of both information and training. 

If you want to learn how to handle a narrowboat in a relaxed and indescribably lovely classroom and learn all about liveaboard narrowboat equipment, systems and design, you can spend a day with me. I guide guests on a twelve-mile six lock cruise through rural Warwickshire. 

Join me or take an RYA course. Choose whichever suits you best, but get some professional training before you untie your mooring lines for the first time.

Assuming you’ve successfully transformed buying a narrowboat from a whistful dream into exciting reality, you need to overcome the day-to-day logistics of life afloat.

Your first job is lighting a fire. 

Experience Life Afloat

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover life afloat on a 12 mile, six lock cruise through rural Warwickshire

Buying a Narrowboat – Lighting Your First Fire

If you buy your boat in the winter, your priority should be heating your home. A steel boat submerged two or three feet in icy canal water can be brutally cold. Mechanical heating systems are easier to manage but not as reliable as a simple multi-fuel stove.

The above Cruising The Cut video describes the fire lighting process correctly, but a little more information will make your first attempt bombproof.

Before you light your fire for the first time make sure that (A) your ash pan is empty and (B) your flue is clear and (C) you’ve removed your chimney cap if you have one.

Narrowboats are often offered for sale because the owner has lost interest in boating or is no longer able to cope with the physical demands. Consequently, always check your onboard equipment to make sure that it’s working correctly. You should have checked everything when you had your survey done. You did have a survey, didn’t you?

If you purchased or surveyed your boat on a blazing hot day, lighting a fire was probably way down on your list of priorities, but make sure that you check it before you light the stove for the first time.

Before your first lighting, make sure that you have all the following equipment and supplies.

  • Matches or a lighter (and spares)
  • Firelighters – The Zip firelighter used int he video work very well. Beware eco-friendly firelighters. I’ve tried a few different types over the years. Most are great for the environment because if they’re hard to light, they can’t cause any pollution. Give me paraffin-based firelighters any day.
  • Kindling – During the winter months, your stove will probably be alight 24/7. But during the spring and autumn months when you don’t want your fire blazing all day, you’ll need plenty of kindling for daily fire lighting. If you don’t want to buy kindling, you can use twigs. During wet periods the stuff laying on the ground will be damp and a pain to light. The lower dead branches of woodland trees work very well.
  • Coal briquettes – They’re available from many boatyards and chandlers or your local coal boat. Buy briquettes rather than solid coal-like anthracite. It’s a pig to light, but once it’s going, it will provide more heat than the centre of the sun and melt you and your boat. Please note that wood will not burn well unless you season it.
  • A companion set – You’ll want a small shovel or tongues for briquette handling, a poker for prodding your burning fire or scraping out ash, and a brush of some kind for cleaning up the mess you make.
  • A stovetop fan – I have an original Ecofan. They’re expensive compared to many other models, but they’re well-engineered and stand the test of time.
  • Coal storage – I like my boat neat and tidy. I have a copper coal scuttle beside the fire and a large plastic storage box under the cratch cover on the front deck. Coal sacks usually have a hole or two in them. If you bring the bag into your boat, you’re probably going to have to mop up a trail of liquid coal dust. I decant my coal into the deck coal box and fill my scuttle from there.
  • A clean flue – The flue is the pipe running from your stove to your cabin roof. The collar is the fitting on your roof holding the pipe in place. Your chimney should fit snuggly onto the collar. Your flue needs sweeping a couple of times a year to allow your stove to draw enough air to burn properly. A restricted airflow, at best, means a poor burn and little heat. At worst, a blocked flue can fill your boat with suffocating smoke in the middle of the night. If you don’t have a working smoke alarm, it’s curtains for you and your life afloat.
  • A working smoke alarm – Need I say more? Just make sure that you have one by your stove(s) and in your bedroom. A working smoke alarm probably saved my life earlier this year.

Here’s a short clip of my stove this morning, burning the last of my stock of seasoned elm. I keep the glass spotlessly clean by rubbing it daily with a damp kitchen towel dipped in cold stove ash.

Pretty, isn’t it?

I’ll give you a few more tips next week to help make buying a narrowboat a less stressful experience.

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Which Are The Best Narrowboat Stern Types For Living Afloat?

 

Life on a narrowboat is all about compromise. Different narrowboat stern types offer pros and cons depending on your preferred cruising and living style, so here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision.

Your floating home’s stern design, its back end, can have a considerable impact on your day to day life. One design offers you more secure living and storage space, another gives you plenty of space for cruising companions and the third is a hybrid of both. Here’s what you need to know about narrowboat sterns.

Traditional “Trad” Narrowboat Stern Types

That’s what I have on Orient. The cabin sides and roof extend almost to the back of the hull, leaving a small platform for the helmsman to stand with one or two close friends. Without risking life and limb by standing on narrow and often slippery gunnels, there isn’t much room to stand without each other’s way.

Narrowboat stern types - Traditional

Narrowboat stern types – Traditional

Cruiser Narrowboat Stern Types

You see these sterns on most hire boats. The boat’s cabin sides and roof are six to ten feet shorter than the hull, leaving an open deck for groups to stand and obscure the steerer’s view. Sorry, for groups to gather and socialise.

Narrowboat stern types - Cruiser stern

Narrowboat stern types – Cruiser stern

Narrowboat stern types - Cruiser stern with pram cover

Narrowboat stern types – Cruiser stern with pram cover

Semi-Trad Narrowboat Stern Types

This is a cross between cruiser and traditional stern boats. The boat’s cabin sides extend as far back as a traditional stern, but the cabin roof ends in the same place as a cruiser stern craft.

Narrowboat stern types - Semi traditional

Narrowboat stern types – Semi traditional

So what’s the big deal? Does the rear deck design make much of a difference if you’re living afloat?

Yes, it can. An enormous difference, pleasure or pain, secure or not, hot or cold, convenient or pain in the arse. I think that a traditional stern narrowboat offers you far more liveaboard practicality than either a cruiser or semi-traditional design.

Here’s why.

Practical Living Space

Stem to stern, Orient is 61’6”. Only 47’ 2” is enclosed cabin space. The rest of the boat length is taken up by the bow locker and the front and rear deck. Given that my interior cabin width is 5’10” and that a cruiser stern rear deck can be 8’ longer than those on a trad stern boat, I would lose up to forty square feet of living space. This wouldn’t be a large enough area to worry about in a house. Still, on a narrowboat, you’re looking at an extra bedroom, office, hobby room or living area. It’s a big deal if you live afloat.

Note: Narrowboats, like Orient, with midships rooms housing vintage engines cost you more living space. My boatman’s cabin and engine room use fifteen feet of cabin space. My effective living space is therefore reduced to thirty-two feet.

Secure Storage Space

A traditional stern narrowboat usually has an engine room with the engine hidden behind soundproofed boards, which gives you plenty of secure storage space. I don’t have as much room for storing tools on Orient. My boat has a vintage engine displayed for all to see in its own midships room. There are double doors on both the port and the starboard side which are usually open during the summer months. The boat’s two-cylinder Lister JP2 is so slow running that it doesn’t produce much heat. The only reason for these doors is so that a proud boat owner can show off his pride and joy, buffed to gleaming perfection. 

I am one such owner, ridiculously proud and emotionally attached to an inanimate object. I think I need to get out more.

I had the more popular traditional stern engine room on my first narrowboat, James No 194. With the boat’s Mercedes engine boxed in, I had ample storage space for a large amount of gear. You can see it all in this post’s photograph.

https://livingonanarrowboat.co.uk/2015-05-03-newsletter-engine-room-storage-space-explained/

You lose all of that safe storage space with a cruiser stern and, to a slightly lesser degree, with a semi-traditional stern.

The engine is in a bay beneath your feet, protected by deck boards constructed from marine ply. The engine bay is rarely secured. Some cruiser stern owners use the engine bay space for storage. It’s a decision born of necessity, but stacking things around the engine is asking for trouble. I know from personal experience.

I accompanied one of our engineers on a call out a few years ago on a call out for a Hurricane heating system. We had a phone call from the owners of a boat with one installed. They weren’t at all happy. A month after having the heater fitted, it stopped working.

Given that you usually turn your heater on when you’re cold, the caller suggested that he and his wife were close to death’s door. The heating system was rubbish, he said. Not fit for purpose, he claimed. He threatened legal action, jumped up and down a bit and demanded an immediate visit to get this rubbish bit of kit working.

Calcutt’s fitter took longer introducing himself than he did “fixing” the problem. Here’s a tip for you if you buy a cruiser stern boat. Don’t store your deck mop in the engine bay with the wooden handle resting on your heater’s on/off switch. The decision can have embarrassing repercussions, especially if you’ve done a bit of macho chest-beating before the cause of your unhappiness is discovered.

Find out all you need to know about stern types (and everything else about living afloat) on a bespoke Discovery Day cruise

You need to thoroughly research life afloat before investing in a narrowboat home. A Discovery Day cruise offers you a unique taste of life on England's inland waterways, and an opportunity to learn narrowboat helmsmanship. 

Dry Engine Bay

Another benefit of having an enclosed engine bay in a traditional stern boat is being able to keep the weather out.

Cruiser and semi-traditional stern engine bays are covered by marine ply deck boards. These wooden sheets are supported by C shaped steel channel. The channel usually has several drain holes to collect any rainwater which finds its way through the boards. During a typical English season, any season, there’s enough rain to keep the drain holes fully employed.

The problem with these narrow diameter drainage holes is that they block easily. Falling leaves and mud carried on board by boater boots slips between the board joins into the channel. Once the drains are blocked or restricted, rainwater cascades over the channel sides into the engine bay.

Time passes, the wooden deck boards decay, the gap between them widens, allowing more debris into the channel and more water into the engine bay. There are several cruiser stern narrowboat owners here at the marina who phone our office regularly during the winter months to ask staff to check for water ingress.

Engine bay water ingress isn’t a problem if your bilge pump is working. If your battery bank dies, your shore supply trips or fails, or your bilge pump gives up the ghost, you have a potential problem if you don’t check your engine bay regularly.

We rescued an almost sunken cruiser stern narrowboat a few years back. One of our fitters noticed that the stern was low in the water. We discovered an engine bay half-filled with rainwater and a craft just a day or two from taking a shallow dive four feet to the marina bottom.

The brave fitter started the engine, sidestepped the water plume from an underwater spinning flywheel and aimed for our slipway. Despite rocking alarmingly, the water-logged boat made our slipway narrowboat trolley without sinking. The owner received a bill for our rescue work and a recommendation to replace his badly worn deck boards.

You can reduce or eliminate engine bay water ingress by regularly checking and clearing drain hoes and replacing boards. But that won’t help if you need to work on your engine. And it certainly won’t help you if you’re paying someone else to do the work for you.

There’s much gnashing of teeth and toys thrown out of prams here at Calcutt if the engineers are forced to service the engine of a cruiser stern boat on a wet day. I spoke to one self-employed vintage engine expert recently who point blank refuses to work on engines open to the elements. Crouching in a cold engine bay on a wet day trying to grip the tools with numb fingers is no fun at all.

Cruising Warmth

Cold weather boating on a cruiser stern narrowboat is an unpleasant experience. I’ve been closer to hyperthermia on summer trips aboard cruiser stern narrowboats than I have on nine-hour winter cruises on my traditional stern narrowboat.

Nine years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a Calcutt Boats built Clipper south on the Oxford canal to a trade show on the mighty Thames. Clippers are fifty-foot cruiser stern boats and, like all other cruiser stern narrowboats, standing motionless at the helm for hours on end can be a painful experience, even during summer months.

On one bitterly cold summer’s day, the second of four long cruising days, I suffered mild hyperthermia. I didn’t own a decent set of waterproofs at the time. Soaked by half an hour’s heavy rain, chilled to the bone and shivering violently, I had to stop for a while to recover. I lit the stove, filled it with coal briquettes and sat as close as I could until my wet jacket steamed. Early afternoon in mid-July and I was forced to sit in front of a blazing fire until I regained feeling in my hands.

That was not a fun boating experience.

A cruiser stern offers zero weather protection. You stand in an open space far removed from your heated cabin. The wind swirls around your legs and slowly freezes you from the feet up. I have passed hundreds of cruiser stern narrowboats moving during the winter months. The poor souls at the helm look like modern-day mummies, wrapped from head to foot in all that they own. With faces covered in scarves, hoods and hats, they twitch a frigid head in icy greeting as they pass. Winter cruising doesn’t have to be that unpleasant.

It doesn’t have to be unpleasant at all.

A traditional stern narrowboat protects you from the elements. You can stand inside your cabin with your upper body in your open hatch space like a tank commander (but with much less chance of being blown to bits). Your cabin will shield your lower body from icy winds and heat from your running engine will warm your feet and legs.

Orient’s engine sits in its own room, too far away and too slow running to offer me any heat. Other than the warm and fluffy feeling I get inside when I listen to its mesmerising beat. But I don’t mind, I have something much better to keep me warm.

Boats like mine don’t suit everyone. Having an engine in its own room mean that you have lest usable living space. But you also get a boatman’s cabin, usually with a second solid fuel stove, a range, to heat your boat’s stern.

I cruised south from Tattenhall marina to Calcutt Boats in February last year. The journey took eleven days, three of them through increasingly thick ice. My 21hp Lister struggled to push me along the frozen canals. I encountered the thickest ice as I forged my way towards Birmingham from Wolverhampton. I ground to a halt beneath the Factory flight in Tipton.

Even with my trusty two-cylinder engine using most of its horses, I failed to break through. Stuck in a glistening white field and with heat rising from the range beneath me, I stopped for lunch. Cynthia handed me an insulated mug of stew. I enjoyed an alfresco meal in a frozen landscape, warm as toast and very, very happy.

Cruising Convenience

There’s more to pleasant cruising than keeping warm. Once you become proficient at the helm, a narrowboat journey is all about watching the world slip ever so slowly by. Canal guides help you pinpoint your location and provide you with information about the landmarks around you. Binoculars give you a better view of passing wildlife, a camera helps capture enduring memories and food and drink sustain you as you cruise. Having somewhere convenient to put your cruising accessories adds to your cruising pleasure.

With a traditional stern narrowboat, your cabin roof and hatch provide you with an accessible table for your gear. You can reach it all without fuss and without taking your eye off the watery road. Narrowboat tillers don’t like to be left on their own, much like your car’s steering wheel. The few seconds to reach a cruiser stern’s distant roof is all that’s needed for your wilful boat to abandon its route and head for bramble banks and low hanging willows.

Narrowboat Stern Types Summary

Horses for courses, each to their own. Plenty of liveaboard narrowboat owners live full and happy lives on cruiser stern craft. They enjoy the additional back of boat space, and they can accommodate half a dozen of their best friends on summer season adventures. And welcome the challenge of trying to see over their bobbing heads as guests obstruct the helmsman’s view.

My point of view is subjective. I like what I’ve got and consider trad stern narrowboats the most practical for life on the cut. You may decide otherwise, but now at least you fully understand the pros and cons of different sterns.

A Christmas cruise from Market Harborough to Calcutt Boats

 

Filthy, stinking cold. I was a snot fountain, a drool reservoir, an old geezer with a red hooter and a hacking cough. On a cruising rest day moored at Union Wharf, Market Harborough, I had nothing to do but transfer bodily fluid to endless tissues and feel sorry for myself.

Oh, woe is me.

I didn’t have the energy to do anything constructive. I woke with a fever and a leaking nose and went downhill from there. The problem with boating on your own is that if you can’t do something, it doesn’t get done. There’s no “I” in team, no helping hand, no one to bail you out. You’re on your own through thick and thin. Most of the time I like it that way.

Thanking God that I didn’t have to cruise, I pulled a rucksack from a dusty cupboard and stumbled a mile to Market Harborough’s Sainsbury store. I needed enough fresh food to last me a week and to treat myself at my one-person New Year’s Eve party. Chilli with dark chocolate washed down with a good bottle of red. Simple food but tasty and cheap.

After two days rest, feeling slightly better but still leaving a slug-like snot trail wherever I walked, I started my return cruise. I stopped at Union Wharf’s service point to empty two cassettes and get rid of my rubbish, then cruised back through reeds and floating logs back to Foxton, dragging silt all the way.

The only real problem was an impossibly shallow reed bed restricting the navigation next to the swing bridge at the bottom of the Foxton flight. CRT has removed the visible reeds but left an underwater bed of impenetrable stumps. I tried to give them a wide berth but still grounded slightly. I noticed that the boat behind me, helmed by a guy with apparent local knowledge, pulled over to the CRT workboats opposite the reed beds and dragged his boat along them. Surely it’s time for a little dredging. Come on, CRT!

I negotiated both swing bridges without incident. A feisty mob of eight retired lady ramblers kept approaching cars at bay with brandished hiking poles and opened the swing road bridge for me. Then a dog-walking boater with his own key saw me through the footbridge. “Keep away from the reed bed,” he ordered as I crept past. “The canal’s really shallow there,” shouted an elderly lady, out for a walk with her Zimmer frame. “Ha, ha. Look at that boat leaning over,” screamed a shrill and spotty-faced teen. CRT, don’t make the reed bed an entertaining diversion for Foxton residents. Get rid of it, please!

Preparing for a Foxton flight ascent on a cold winter's day

Preparing for a Foxton flight ascent on a cold winter’s day

The Foxton flight was as easy going up as it was coming down. A little too easy actually. I managed to do the first three on my own, enjoying chatting with bystanders, relishing the company and having a laugh, when a lock keeper insisted that I stay at the helm. “You wouldn’t believe the paperwork we have to fill in if you have an accident!” That’s the third time I’ve heard a lock keeper say that on this trip. I think that they’ve been ordered to keep solo boaters on their boats.

I moored within walking distance of the flight summit’s bacon bap supply. I sat for an hour hiding from an icy wind behind the cafe wall, boat watching, drinking coffee and eating pig.

I moved an hour away from people and distractions the following morning. New Year’s Eve and a time for me to sit quietly and think about an eventful 2019.

The year began well enough. Cynthia and I had owned Orient for a week. With our possessions on board and a boat we thought was fully operational, we started a cold winter cruise south from Chester to Napton Junction and Calcutt Boats.

We didn’t get far.

Orient’s battery bank died at Market Drayton, so we limped sixteen hours back to Tattenhall marina to have a new set fitted. We began our second attempt twenty-two days later, and what an adventure we had. We raced to beat Birmingham stoppages on increasingly icy canals. Five weeks after blacking our new boat, I stripped the waterline back to bare metal. And I frequently grounded, often for half an hour, straining with a wooden pole to push our flat bottomed girl off raised mudflats.

I reached Calcutt Boats after eighty-eight hours at the helm. After twenty-six months of driving and cruising across Europe, I returned my spiritual home, ready for a gruelling work slog. Two years of hedonism cost us a fortune. We purchased a motorhome and two Dutch boats. We’d sold one of them, and part exchanged the motorhome for Orient. Cynthia and I still owned one of the Dutch craft, Dik Trom. Its maintenance costs and mooring fees were bleeding us dry. Returning to work, even in such a beautiful setting, was a necessary evil.

The months passed, Cynthia’s health declined, and her feeling of isolation grew. She flew back to the USA in April to visit friends and relatives. And to search for a cure for her worsening condition. She died there two weeks later, alone in a friend’s house, far away from the company she craved.

Life for me continued. Despite loneliness, devastation and a hopeless sense of loss tinged with more than a little guilt, I couldn’t have been in a better place to grieve. The boating community looks after its own. I had company if I needed it, tranquillity if I didn’t. Months passed as I came to terms with my loss.

Money has little regard for personal feelings. I still needed to earn enough to service the three loans I needed to buy Orient. And I had a surplus boat to maintain in Holland in addition to Orient’s essential maintenance, repairs and modifications.

Reducing my overseas boat maintenance obligations was a costly but straightforward affair. Cynthia’s estate executor insisted on a considerable lump sum for Cynthia’s share in both boats. He hinted that a no-win, no-fee probate lawyer waited in the wings ready to obliterate the estate with an endless stream of legal demands and bills.

The simplest solution for me, both financially and emotionally, was to give Dik Trom to Cynthia’s estate and walk away from endless debate and heartache. 

Resolving Cynthia’s estate issues and disposing of Dik Trom lifted an unbearable weight from my shoulders. Life settled down into a familiar and welcome stress-free routine. I worked at the marina during the week, wrote blog posts before and after work, and hosted Discovery Day cruises most weekends. Although the work was physically taxing, the distraction helped me through the following months without too much quiet time navel-gazing.

A seven-day working week income allowed me to meet my financial obligations and transform Orient from a cold and neglected boat into a warm and welcoming home. My winter cruise was a fitting reward for reaching the end of a challenging year. By late December, I was £500 short of debt freedom and reconciled to life as a solo boater. Despite being wifeless, dogless and occasionally legless, I could see a welcoming light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

2019 was all about simple survival and overcoming adversity. This year’s looking much more promising. A friend recently reminded me that 2020 is auspicious. “20/20 vision allows you to see clearly,” he told me. I don’t know about that, but I intend to plan clearly. I don’t make New Year resolutions. However,  I’m a big fan of setting balanced goals and working relentlessly towards them.

My number one priority for 2020 is to save enough money for an essential foreign holiday.

My parents and my brother live in Australia in one of the few areas not burning at the moment. I haven’t seen them for nine years. Nine years is nine years too long. Getting to and from Australia is painful. Endless hours sitting in a cramped seat watching awful television. It’s too far away to travel to for a short period. I plan to go for at least a month and then take a break in Bali on the way back. A boating mate, Ian, who spends his winters in Indonesia, has invited me to do some volcano hiking. It’ll be a far cry from the gentle life I live on England’s muddy ditches and a welcome break from ankle-deep towpath mud.

Another friend, Alan, has suggested that I should join him for a week cruising in Ireland on the mighty River Shannon. It’s boating on a grander scale than on the English waterways; lakes with islands studded with ancient relics – besides Guinness-soaked village elders – lively pubs and friendly faces. All reached from the comfort of a “yoghurt pot”, a plastic motor cruiser, or a wide-beam canal boat. Another boating experience to enjoy.

DISCOVER ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE ON ENGLAND'S INLAND WATERWAYS

Join me on a gentle cruise through rural Warwickshire. Experience life in the slow lane, learn how to handle a 62' narrowboat, either on your own or as part of a crew. Find out all you need to know about live aboard narrowboat designs, features and equipment. Understand the logistics and the costs involved. Treat yourself to a canal experience you'll never forget. 

Much as I’m excited by the thought of foreign travel and cruising new waterways, paying for the trip will mean another gruelling work year. But life is for living. I don’t know how many active years I have left in me, so I intend to make the most of every one of them.

In the meantime, I have continued to adapt to life on my own again. It hasn’t been much of a stretch. I’m generally an anti-social git, so life as a solo boater suits me well enough. I have enough friends to keep me entertained when I need company, and wind, water and tranquillity when I don’t.

I have just two expensive items remaining on Orient’s original to-do list; replacing my worn cratch cover and fitting a solar array. I don’t need solar power until I begin cruising continuously, and I can’t do that and afford to visit my parents. I’ll put the solar array on the back burner for now and concentrate on the cratch cover.

My black canvas front deck cover is on its knees. There are half a dozen ever-widening splits in its two plastic windows. Added to the rips and frays along the bottom edge, and an unappealing green sheen which I can’t remove, my cratch cover is a bit of a mess. And I get water seeping through each of the six zips in heavy rain. It has to go.

A fellow boater recommended a reasonably priced cratch cover supplier last year. I phoned him to offer him the work, he agreed to take it on and promised to visit me to take measurements. That was five months ago. I have to assume that he’s not interested.

I contacted our local top-end cratch cover supplier, AJ Canopies. They quoted me £1,500 over the phone. When I regained consciousness, I asked Kinver Canopies to quote. Their price is much more reasonable. For £1,000 I get a heavyweight canvas cover with six zips. I don’t want windows this time. Canopy windows offer wannabe thieves a sneak peek at all the goodies I store on my front deck. I want to save these low life predators the discomfort of coming onto my boat and having an anchor chain wrapped around their scrawny necks.

Anyway, that was New Year’s Eve planning out of the way. I ate my chilli, drank my wine, finished with a sneaky Remmy Martin and hit the sack at 10 pm. The last night of my first full year aboard Orient.

I woke to a new year, a momentous year, ninety days away from the start of my seventh decade on planet Earth. How did I get this old? My mind’s as agile as it was forty years ago. My body isn’t. It regularly complains, bitching if I take a long walk, grinding to a halt if I swing a chainsaw about all day. I’m shorter, fatter and hairier than I’ve ever been. If I carry on in the same vein, I’ll be a knee-high fur ball by the time I’m seventy.

I stopped for another day on my quiet mooring near Husbands Bosworth, enjoyed a couple of short circular walks, obsessively polished my brass and smiled a great deal. I lead a simple life.

An quiet New Year's Even mooring - Perfect for planning the year ahead

An quiet New Year’s Even mooring – Perfect for planning the year ahead

I covered thirteen miles in 5.7 hours on my first cruising day of 2020. My underwhelming 2.3 mph average is usual for me. Orient is often forging through canal bed silt. The more I open her up, the lower the stern sinks, and the slower I go. Easing off the throttle gets me to my destination faster and saves eroding passing canal banks. And gives the impatient boaters behind me something to bitch about.

I’m always a little nervous when I stray from the channel centre, usually when I have to make room for oncoming boats. The highlight of the day’s gentle cruise was an unexpected slide on a slippery slope. I moved over to avoid a rare hire boat, helmed by a man convinced he was piloting a jet fighter. He pushed a tidal wave before him, creating wash which forced canal-side waterfowl to run for cover.

I didn’t respond to his cheery wave as he flashed by. Orient’s starboard side reached for the sky. I heard the thud and clink of falling bottles inside, but the wind was blowing too hard to stop and investigate. I hoped that I wouldn’t finish my day drinking whiskey through broken glass on my hardwood floor.

I enjoy winter cruising more often than not. I didn’t enjoy this particular experience. Not because of the hire boat incident. I was cold, despite having the range burning beneath my feet. A frigid and gusty wind didn’t help, nor did standing motionless on the back of the boat all day. Without the welcome distraction of a lock flight or two, winter cruising can become a chilly and monotonous affair.

I looked forward to reaching my goal; an overnight stop at Yelvertoft to get some margarine from the village post office and a tasty treat from delicatessen Squisito. Alas, Yelvertoft was closed for business. The post office had shut for good, Squisito for Christmas and the Knightley Arms because they felt like it. The pub has been closed more often than open on previous visits. I don’t know how they manage to stay afloat.

I woke late the next morning with a headache, thankful that two weeks of celebrating Christmas on my own had come to an end. I like a drink but have to control my indulgence. My drinks cabinet will remain locked now, opened only for high-days and holiday. There are too many hard-drinking single middle-aged men on the cut. I don’t want to join their self-destructive ranks.

The highlight of my day was an easy Watford flight descent. I had company for forty minutes. A particularly friendly lock keeper helped me down the flight to keep me ahead of three following boats. No matter how quickly I work, I can’t negotiate locks as fast as an experienced couple. It’s rarely a problem, but in a navigation bottleneck like the Watford flight, even in the quieter winter months, CRT staff have to keep the traffic moving.

This guy was an ex narrowboat owner. He sold his boat because he was spending up to four weeks at a time away from his wife. She didn’t like it and told him that he was getting too old for solo boating. He capitulated and sold his boat. But he’s regretting that now. He has to spend all of his time with his wife. Four weeks of solo boating has become an unattainable dream.

I hope that I don’t ever bow down to peer pressure to sell Orient. I don’t know what I would do without a boat in my life. I don’t think that situation is likely. I need to earn a living for the rest of my life. What better way to do that than by hosting my Discovery Day service?

A sunken narrowboat near Braunston tunnel's eastern portal

A sunken narrowboat near Braunston tunnel’s eastern portal

Nearing the start of my sixth and final tunnel passage, I passed the boat above. The sad end to someone’s floating home. Death by fire and water. I can only hope that the owner wasn’t on board at the time. Sights like this make me feel physically sick, and eternally grateful for Orient, my health and my lifestyle.

Yin and Yang, bad and good, The Boathouse and the Admiral Nelson. My meal at The Boathouse on my outward cruise was dismal. And then I enjoyed a fabulous meal at the Admiral Nelson on my return trip; whitebait starter and ham, egg and chips for the main course. The Wiltshire ham was as plentiful as it was tasty. Lovely, as was the bottle of merlot I had with the meal. I enjoyed listening to snippets of parental advice coming from the table next to me too.

A dreadlocked lady boater counselled her teenage daughter. “No, darlin’”, she confided in a low voice, “you want to roll your spliff like this.” And then a little later, “Not too often mind. You don’t want to end up with paranoia like your Dad.” Boat life at its best.

Braunston's Admiral Nelson at night

Braunston’s Admiral Nelson at night

I set off on my final morning without breakfast at 8 am. I planned to drop down two locks from my mooring opposite the pub and stop briefly near the Gongoozler’s Rest cafe boat. I hoped to eat there before heading back to base. The business was closed on my outward journey. I suspected a Christmas break. Sadly, it was still shut, maybe for good. There was a hand-drawn for sale sign taped to a window of the owner’s boat moored next to the cafe. What a shame. I loved their full English breakfasts, toasted cheese and onion sandwiches and potato scallops. Bad for both my pocket and waistline but good for my soul.

I reached the top of the Calcutt flight two hours later, pausing for an hour at the water point to rid Orient of a two-week mud accumulation. I had a Discovery Day booked for the following day, and the old girl needed to look her best.

Mud removed, Orient is ready for a Discovery Day cruise

Mud removed, Orient is ready for a Discovery Day cruise

I always enjoy my Discovery Day cruises. Despite having covered the route more than three hundred times now, each outing is a joy. I have ever-changing company, different people with a similar desire. A quest for a simple existence free of the stresses and strains of modern-day life. They’re enchanted by rural Warwickshire’s rolling hills and green fields. They’re mesmerised by the slow beat of my vintage engine and, at this time of the year, pleasantly surprised by a warm and cosy cabin. Less is more. Boat life is a good life.

Calcutt Boat's Meadows marina on a cloudy day

Calcutt Boat’s Meadows marina on a cloudy day

A Christmas Cruise to Market Harborough

 

Day one of my Christmas cruise, a day which felt like prison release. This year has been long and hard, filled with endless work and tragedy. Cynthia’s been gone now for eight months, two-thirds of a year which I’ve filled with seven-day working weeks. Everyone copes in different ways. My method, right or wrong, has been to work hard, sleep, rinse and repeat. I think I’ve reached the year-end without too much mental damage, so maybe mine is an acceptable coping mechanism.

 I woke late on my first morning and smiled as I remembered that I had nothing to do for the following fifteen days. All I had on my to-do list was cruising and writing a few blog posts. Just two items and I still struggled with one of them.

But my number one goal was to cruise, relax and recharge my depleted body battery. That part of my plan has gone very well. And, after daily rain for far too long, regular dry cruising days have been welcome.

I could get used to this. My boating task list was long. I had brass and copper to shine, cupboards to sort through, paintwork to clean… pottering at its best. I loved it.

What a wonderful cruise from Calcutt. An hour and a half of tranquillity. Nothing but birdsong and the mesmerising thump of my JP2 engine. I watched robins, magpies, a sparrow hawk and the canal’s usual complement of coots, mallards and swans. The perfect end to my first festive day of freedom.

I sometimes wonder if I’m normal. I lost Cynthia just eight months ago and then had to say goodbye to two adorable dogs four weeks later. I switched from a boisterous family of four to a reclusive life alone. And there I was looking forward to an enjoyable fortnight on my own, stopping each night out of sight and sound of people and mainstream life. Even though I’m lonely now and then, I enjoy my freedom too much to want to change my life. I know I’m in the minority, but I’m happy more often than I’m sad, and that can’t be a bad thing.

I moored by bridge 100 at Flecknoe for my first night, gently getting pissed on sloe gin. The gin was quite fast, actually. After half a glass, I struggled to see well enough to type my daily journal entry. A relatively new moorer on Calcutt Boats’ Meadows marina gave me the potent brew. Shaun is a welcome addition to our legion of kindly boaters.

I managed to motivate myself enough the following day to cruise for forty-five minutes to Braunston. Life in the slow lane. What a pleasure. I looked forward to a midday meal in the Gongoozler’s Rest cafe boat, tackling a full English breakfast as I watched the world go by. I settled for a cold sausage roll on a canalised bench. The cafe owner had better things to do than cater for the Christmas wishes of a solo boater.

I treated myself to an evening Christmas meal in the boathouse. Another disappointment. Half a dozen limp whitebait to start and then the meal highlight, a steak and ale pie which tasted like an old boot. However, the bottle of merlot which accompanied the meal was excellent. I slid through liquid slurry on a pitch-black towpath back to my floating home. Wearing wellies and mud-stained trousers, I wasn’t the best-dressed diner in the pub, but I was well equipped for winter moorings on soggy towpaths.

The sun rises over winter Braunston

The sun rises over winter Braunston

The following morning began with a glorious sunrise. I had been on the go for three hours by dawn, preparing for a full day at the helm.

Life is so much more comfortable in a house. Roll out of bed to a house already warmed by an automated central heating system, climb into a car, turn a key and then roar away. No effort or thought involved. Life on autopilot.

Day to day life afloat requires much more work, especially on Orient. 

My morning regime begins with the saloon’s Morso Squirrel stove. If the overnight temperature dips to zero, my thermometer usually registers sixteen degrees in the saloon area and thirteen in the bathroom and in the boatman’s cabin where I sleep. The first job of the day is to generate a bit of heat.

I empty the ash pan, riddle the grate, add more coal from the stove-side scuttle, refill the scuttle from a plastic storage box on the covered front deck and then clean the stove glass with a damp kitchen towel dipped in cold ash.

That’s the front of the boat sorted. Then I have to do battle with my fiddly Premiere range. 

The boatman’s cabin stove has a firebox no bigger than a margarine tub and a tiny ash pan. The Squirrel stays alight for months at a time. The back cabin range goes out every night. Not that I want it burning during the hours of darkness. Sleeping next to a glowing stove is an uncomfortable affair.

I empty the range firebox and ash pan and add a Zip firelighter. Then I top that with some kindling and a handful of coal briquettes, throw the back doors wide open to dispel the initial smoke and light her up. Then I tackle my vintage engine.

My Lister JP2M is a thing of beauty. Eighty-four years old, as strong as an ox, as fit a fiddle. I recently asked a vintage engine expert how many more years use I could expect from the old girl. “The world will run out of fossil fuel before she dies,” he assured me. That’s what you call a reliable engine.

My JP2 is a little more time consuming to maintain than a modern engine, but the maintenance regime is a pleasant chore. I use a hand pump to draw fuel from my main tank into the engine room day tank. Then I add a little engine grease, check three different oil levels, stroke the old girl lovingly and tell her how much I appreciate the effort she puts in. I may be single now, but I know that a little appreciation goes a long way with the remaining lady in my life.

With both stoves ticking over nicely, the engine mollycoddled and a substantial breakfast inside me, dawn broke, and I was ready to rock and roll.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the cruise. I’ll share a secret with you. Despite living afloat for ten years, cruising thousands of miles and handling hundreds of different narrowboats, tunnel passages have always filled me with apprehension. 

I like to feel in control. I am supremely confident that I can avoid possible incidents and accidents if I can see. Put me in a tunnel and remove a clear view of everything ahead of me, and I am scared witless. I am out of control, at the mercy of the confining tunnel walls and any novice boater zig-zagging towards me. I don’t like the feeling at all.

My route for the day included two tunnels, Braunston and Crick, 2,049 yards and 1,528 yards respectively. Two miles, an hour, heading towards a distant light speck, saturated by icy water pouring through a leaking tunnel roof. 

But the first of those unpleasant passages was a couple of hours away. A glorious sunrise lifted my spirit, as did a lady boat owner, dog walking through the Braunston flight. She stopped, chatted and then strolled ahead opening gates for me. Small kindnesses like that make solo boating so much more pleasant. As does having the right equipment for tunnel passages.

Braunston top lock is a stone’s throw away from Braunston tunnel’s western portal. I paused briefly to prepare Orient for the possibility of meeting oncoming boats. Orient has three tall chimneys and an equally long exhaust stack. I have to think carefully about their safety wherever I travel. In tunnels, with the possibility of my starboard side being forced next to low arches, this means removing my Squirrel and Kabola chimneys.

I turned on my tunnel light too, although it provides as little illumination as a flickering candle. But on this boat, I also have two things which have transformed my tunnel cruising; a powerful 12V hand-held lamp at the stern and my two-cylinder engine.

My good luck streak continued when I reached Watford’s seven lock flight. I left Orient tied beneath the locks and walked to the top to meet two volunteer lock keepers. “Bad timing,” warned one. “We’re about to start our lunch break, and we won’t finish until half-past three. And then we close for the day.” He relented when he saw my look of confusion. “Just kidding. Are you on your own? No problem. You stay on your boat, and we’ll see you up. You wouldn’t believe the amount of paperwork we have to do if you fall off and hurt yourself. You’ll do us a favour if you allow us to do all the work.” Who am I to argue? Lockkeepers deserve medals, and an ice cream or two in the summer.

I finished the day at Cracks Hill near Crick, where I proposed to Cynthia in September 2015. Four years have passed, and so much has happened. I owned James then and until I met Cynthia, expected to spend the rest of my days on England’s waterways. Three boats, a motorhome and a European adventure later I’m back on the canal network. I’m alone again but enriched by the many experiences I shared with my American wife.

DISCOVER LIFE AFLOAT

Leave the stresses and strains of modern day life far behind on an idyllic cruise through rural Warwickshire. Find out all you need to know about living afloat and learn how to handle a narrowboat.

On Christmas Day morning, I waded through ankle-deep towpath mud to a wooden bridge spanning the canal. A treacherous trudge through livestock churned muddy fields lead me to Cracks Hill summit. I sat for an hour under the old oak where Cynthia and I discussed our future plans, then returned to Orient alone to prepare for a chilly Christmas Day cruise.

A muddy mooring at Cracks Hill

A muddy mooring at Cracks Hill

Winter cruising is usually a quiet affair. Christmas Day was particularly so. I passed just one moving boat all day, helmed by a middle-aged man who appeared to have spent his Christmas morning sucking lemons. I smiled, he glared, I offered a cheery “Happy Christmas!’, he turned away. Maybe his piles were playing up. I left him to his own devices.

The Cracks Hill oak tree where I proposed

The Cracks Hill oak tree where I proposed

As the light faded from a predominantly dull day, I pulled onto a mooring marked on my Nicholson’s guide. The curse of the deep draughted boat struck again. Orient’s stern slid over shallow mud closer to the bank and then, as soon as I stepped onto the towpath, slipped away towards the canal centre. I moved a few feet, tried again, grounded, sweated for ten minutes pushing myself off the shallows and then gave up two feet from the bank on my third attempt. And there I stayed for two days.

There’s not much point cooking fancy Christmas Day meals for one. My festive fayre consisted of the reheated leftovers from the previous day’s Thai beef stir fry, a can of Stella and a glass of brandy. Fine dining at its best.

At the time of the year usually associated with family gatherings, conspicuous consumption and credit card debt, I saw no one and spent nothing. Alone? Yes. Lonely? No, not particularly. 

Loneliness is a state of mind. I have good friends to turn to if I need some company or a helping hand. But I value the sense of peace and tranquillity I enjoy when I’m boating on my own. Solo boating doesn’t suit everyone, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

I didn’t see a soul for thirty-six hours. No boaters, runners, dog walkers or ramblers, just the gentle buzz of my stovetop fan, the tick of the brass clock on my galley wall and the occasional distant pop of a festive farmer blasting wildlife to bits. Merry Christmas little bunnies. 

I looked forward to Boxing Day, a period I planned to fill with unashamed self-indulgence.

I began by languishing in bed until 10 am. And then felt guilty for wasting so much of the day. Then I pottered. I sorted through the storage space beneath the back deck, emptied cupboards I haven’t been in since Cynthia’s passing, put my laundry away and cleaned and lit both stoves. Then I polished. The engine has never looked so good. I rubbed and buffed until my arms ached and the copper shone so brightly it gave me a headache.

Brass and copper polishing on Boxing Day

Brass and copper polishing on Boxing Day. I need to get out more.

Then I realised that the headache was from coal fumes from the Premiere range. I flung open my back doors to let in some air and polished the boatman’s cabin brass. I was bored senseless by 4 pm. I’m no good at this relaxing lark. I did my pre-cruise checks for the following day, watched a film on Amazon Prime and slipped into bed early, ready for a few hours cruising to reach the network’s famous Foxton flight of ten staircase locks.

I hoped to find some company there too. By day five of my fourteen-day cruise, I hadn’t exchanged more than a word or two with anyone since leaving Calcutt. I needed more than a predictable conversation with my bathroom cabinet mirror.

I was on fire the following morning, rising at 5 am and ready to rock and roll by 8 am. Three and a half hours cruising on a bone-chillingly cold day. Dank, misty and thoroughly unappealing. So cold, in fact, that I nearly had to resort to wearing gloves.

I pulled onto a mooring above the Foxton flight. Foxton is the perfect place for vain boat owners to show off. I’m one of them, so I made sure that everything outside looked clean and tidy before I left the boat. And I noted my battery monitor reading too.

I had been monitoring my battery bank charge carefully every day. My bank of five 130ah AGM batteries failed towards the end of last year, just ten months after fitting them. Calcutt Boats supplied them, and they replaced the batteries without quibble. I was pretty sure that my charging regime wasn’t at fault. However, a little extra diligence wasn’t going to hurt.

Managing off-grid electricity is the most challenging aspect of living afloat as far as I’m concerned. The popular misconception is that running your boat’s engine for an hour or two a day is all you need to do. That, according to the experts, is not an efficient battery charging regime.

I have five 130ah batteries so you could be forgiven for thinking that I have 650ah at my disposal. According to Calcutt Boats highly skilled resident marina electrician, Dave Reynolds, the average liveaboard boater uses roughly 60ah a day. So, do I have a ten-day supply of electricity if I begin with a full battery bank? 

Not a chance.

For a start, depleting the battery bank past 50% shortens their life. My battery datasheet tells me that if I regularly run my battery bank down to zero, they’re likely to fail after just 250 cycles. If I run them down regularly to 20% capacity, my expected battery life increases to 500 cycles. The less I extract from the battery bank, the longer they’ll last. A happy balance for me is 50% discharge which should give me 1,000 cycles.

So, if I can safely take my battery bank down to 50%, do I have half of 650ah at my disposal?

No, sadly, I don’t.

I don’t fully understand this, but I have been assured that, despite being labelled 135ah batteries, their capacity is actually 105ah, so I have a total of 525 amp hours, 262.5 of which I can use.

Not so bad, you might think. If I’m an average boater using 60ah a day, I still have four days supply before I need to recharge my battery bank. Wrong again.

I would have a four day supply if I started with 100% capacity. However, if I’m using my engine alternator for charging, I can’t get anywhere close to fully charged. That’s regardless of the length of time I have the engine running.

At seventy amps, my alternator is man enough. The problem is with the batteries. The more depleted the battery bank, the easier they are to charge. I can recharge my batteries to roughly 80% capacity quite quickly. The remaining 20% takes much longer, far longer than I can justify running the engine. The only way to condition batteries properly is to hook them up to a mains supply. I believe that a decent solar array will help maintain my batteries reasonably well, but I need to do more research there.

I’ll be on a mains hookup when I return to Calcutt, so my off-grid charging regime isn’t an issue for the two weeks I’m cruising. I’ll be travelling full time within the next year or two. Before then, I need to fit some solar.

I popped into the cafe at the flight summit for a coffee and a bacon sandwich at lunchtime. And then, late afternoon, walked to the bottom of the flight to Bridge 61 for one of their excellent beef stews served in a giant Yorkshire pudding. Delicious.

love the Foxton flight. With its pleasant walks, an imposing flight of ten staircase locks, the remains of the inclined plane boat lift, a cafe and two pubs, it’s a popular tourist destination. There can be hundreds of Gongoozlers on a sunny summer’s day. On the day I dropped down the flight a couple of dozen watched the boats go by. With the on-duty lock keepers doing much of the work, especially for solo boaters, a boat owner’s main job is answering questions.

“How fast does your boat go?” My average speed of two miles an hour doesn’t impress anyone.

“Does your boat has a toilet?” I told one guy that I keep my poo in a box. I thought he was going to vomit.

“Do you get a good television reception?” When I told the enquirer that I don’t own a television, the young mother gave me such a pitying look that I almost felt deprived. Modern-day life without access to dozens of channels of unadulterated crap? Unthinkable.

Did I mention that I love the Foxton flight?

The descent down through the Foxton flight was a dream. More lock keepers deserving medals. They insisted that I stay at the helm as they worked me through all ten locks. All I had to do was stand proudly on my back deck fielding questions and prepare myself for a painful cruise along the Market Harborough arm.

The problems began when I reached the bottom of the flight, starting with two swing bridges. I managed the first without help. “Grandad, look at that old man climbing on his boat like a monkey!” Don’t you just love children?

The second, a swing road bridge, would have delayed impatient motorists too long. I persuaded a couple on the towpath to do the hard work for me.

The real challenge was a shallow canal filled with reeds and leaves. A cruise which should have taken two hours from the bottom of the Foxton flight to Market Harborough took three. I knew I was in for an exciting time as I entered the arm when an approaching boat moved a few feet off the main channel to let me pass. “F*****g canal,” he muttered as his cabin tipped at an alarming angle and he ground to a halt.

“It’s good to see a boat owner taking his time on our canals,” commented one dog walker. I daren’t go any faster for fear of grounding immovably in the reedy shallows.

I grounded twice and listed as I slid over shallow mud flats several times. I crept into Market Harborough at dusk, carefully navigating around half-submerged logs and sunken branches, glad to reach the end of a tedious journey. And happy to get into a warm cabin.

The nasty cold knocking everyone for six back at the marina finally caught up with me. Luckily I had a couple of days to rest and recuperate at Market Harborough before the return cruise. Time to do nothing but eat, drink and obsessively watch my battery monitor.

All You Need to Know About Narrowboat Toilet Systems

 

And a few things you don’t want to read about narrowboat toilet systems if you have a delicate stomach

If you own a narrowboat, sooner or later you will have a conversation with another boater about the relative merits of different types of toilets. You’ll discuss the logistics of emptying the end results of your gourmet dinners and how much it smells.

The Holy Grail of onboard narrowboat toilet systems is one which doesn’t smell and is easy to empty in all weather conditions.

There are four different toilet types for use on your narrowboat. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each system.

Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Pump-Out Toilets

In its most basic form, the pump-out toilet is a conventional toilet which sits on top of a stainless steel tank. If you want to transfer your waste to the steel box, you need to open a flap between the toilet and the reservoir. This can be a very smelly affair. Imagine several hundred litres of liquid slurry and the smell it produces. That’s what you’ll have wafting through your legs as you ponder the meaning of life.

Narrowboat pump out toilet

Narrowboat pump out dump through toilet – The toilet is sitting on a raised platform hiding the tank.

A slightly better option is a pump-out toilet fitted with a macerator. This device chews the solids into manageable chunks so that it can be sucked through a relatively narrow bore pipe into the tank.

Incidentally, the tank is usually built into space beneath a fixed double bed. When you lay under your warm duvet on a cold winter night listening to the gentle slap of canal water against your hull, the waves might be coming from beneath your bed.

The benefit of a pump-out toilet is that it is the closest in style and functionality to the one you’ll find in a domestic bathroom. The downside is that you need to move your boat to a sanitary station every few weeks to have the contents sucked out with a powerful pump. That dubious pleasure will cost you £15- £20 each time you have it done.

Pump out toilet owners have to watch the weather. If there is a prolonged cold snap which freezes the canal, you can’t move your boat, and you can’t empty your toilet. For that reason, many pump-out toilet owners also carry a cassette toilet on board for emergencies.

There is one final problem with pump out toilet tanks. They can leak. The first you’ll know if it is when you notice a brown and fetid stream flowing down the boat towards you.

Replacing a leaking tank can be a nightmare. Imagine a stainless steel tank with the same footprint as a double bed. Then imagine a solids buildup in the tank corners increasing its already considerable weight. Not only is the tank heavy, but because of its size, it’s challenging to manoeuvre through the narrow confines of a boat. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of helping fitters remove leaking tanks on many occasions. The task requires four or five strong men and a great deal of cursing.

The more straightforward and easy to manage toilet solution is a cassette.

Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Cassette toilets

A narrowboat cassette toilet is like a scaled-down version of a drop-through pump out toilet. There’s a flap between the toilet bowl and the waste tank which you open when you want to make a deposit. The cassette capacity is much less than a pump-out toilet holding tank though, typically no more than twenty litres.

Porta Potti cassette toilet

Porta Potti cassette toilet – It’s one of the cheapest narrowboat toilets you can buy. We had this one fitted in our little Dutch motor cruiser

Twenty litres provides enough capacity for two people for two days, a little more if both people are seasoned boaters. You learn the art of using other people’s facilities as often as possible soon after you move on board. Narrowboat toilet systems don’t usually provide you with the same cleansing torrent as you enjoy when you flush a regular household toilet. And then there’s the weight.

Each time you fill your toilet, you need to carry your cassette through your boat carefully. You need to keep it horizontal to avoid a foul-smelling spillage as you wriggle through your home’s narrow corridor. The good news is that you’ll develop shoulder muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Thetford Cassette Toilet

This is the Thetford cassette toilet on Orient. The cassette is removed through the cupboard behind the toilet

Getting your brimming cassette is only half the battle. First, you have to find a working Elsan point and one in a condition which doesn’t make you gag.

Let’s say that you began a cruise leaving from Calcutt Boats heading towards Market Harborough. Any route will do, but I know this one well, and it’s a cruise I plan to do over my Christmas break.

There are two Elsan points at Calcutt Boats. Elsan points are open sewage points in varying designs. There’s one in the older of the company’s two marinas and one on the wharf between the Calcutt flight’s middle and top locks. Imagine that I’ve sailed past both without using them. Maybe it’s the excitement of the adventure ahead of me, or perhaps it’s because I’ve reached the age when simple tasks like remembering my own name are noteworthy victories. Anything more demanding is beyond me.

Unlike driving a car or cruising on spacious European waterways, turning around to go back is not an easy option. The canal is forty feet wide, my boat sixty. The next winding hole, turning point, is an hour ahead, so you decide to press on to the next Elsan point two hours away in Braunston.

After navigating Braunston junction’s tricky concrete triangle, squeezing past boats moored either side of the canal as it passes the Boathouse, I crawl cautiously through the A45 bridge hole.  And breathe a relieved sigh as I squeeze into a gap between moored boats either side of the Elsan point. And then spot the yellow and black plastic ribbons announcing the sewage point’s inaccessibility. It’s blocked again. I’m two hours into my cruise, three if I count the three lock ascent from Calcutt Boats two marinas, and my three toxic toilet tanks are still full.

I have a choice. One option is to press on to the next Elsan point on my route. But that’s six miles, thirteen locks and a tunnel away at the top of the Watford flight. Single-handed, the journey will take me five hours. The second option is to retrace my steps and try the second Braunston Elsan point next to Midland Chandlers. The half-mile diversion involves turning my boat twice, once to cruise back to the junction and a second time to point in the right direction for the rest of my journey. And it’s all a waste of time.

The second disposal point is working, but I wish it wasn’t. A local farmer appears to have taken his muck spreader into the tiny room. There’s shit everywhere, and I know the culprit. There’s a tendency among some single male boaters to use their cassettes for solids only. They urinate in a bottle and throw the contents overboard or in a hedge. Consequently, when their cartridge is filled to the brim with solids, it’s really solid.

There’s no quick fix, no holding of breath for a minute to empty a conventionally filled cassette. The poo packing person has to shake and shake and shake some more. Then rinse and shake again. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Boaters without a cast-iron constitution aren’t keen to follow in their foul footsteps. I draw the line at wading through another boater’s slurry.

I resign myself to an onward journey to the point at Watford. I visit Midland Chandlers before I go. I buy a mooring chain I don’t really need so that I can use their toilet, which I need very much. Light in both wallet and bowel I relax a little. I won’t need to use my cassette toilet for serious business until the following day when I reach the Watford flight. I pray that this one will be both working and clean enough to use.

Of course, this is a worst-case scenario, but cassette emptying concerns are always at the back of my mind when I’m cruising. A much more practical option is a composting toilet.

DISCOVER ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE AFLOAT ON A BESPOKE EXPERIENCE DAY

 Join me on a day filled with fun and adventure on Warwickshire’s beautiful rural canals. Enjoy a twelve mile, six lock contour canal cruise. Learn how to handle a 62′ narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat on England’s inland waterways (including narrowboat toilet systems). Experience the joy of living in a fully equipped, off-grid floating home.

Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Composting Toilets

I had a composting toilet for my final eighteen months on my last boat. I paid £872.94 for my Airhead Compact and another £150 to have it fitted,  which is pretty easy for all but the most inept DIY dunces. Sadly, I’m one of this gormless group.

Like many people, before I researched composting toilets, I thought that they were smelly things, suitable for little more than drunkards at festivals. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Early composting toilets weren’t particularly useful. Users dumped both liquids and solids in the same holding tank. They offered little more than pump out or cassette holding tanks and smelled just as much. Today’s designs are far more effective and virtually odour free.

Both sexes have to sit to do their business so that they’re firing in the right direction. Liquids to the front and solids to the rear. The toilet has a manual flap in the toilet bowl bottom, which you can open when seated. Fluids are collected in a large and robust container attached to the front of the toilet base. This container has to be emptied every day. The solids container lasts much longer, especially if you dispose of your toilet tissue in a bin rather than the solids container.

The Airhead Compact Composting toilet

The Airhead Compact Composting toilet – An easy to use and odour free narrowboat toilet option

Becoming comfortable with a composting toilet took me a while. I had to become more familiar with the remains of my previous day’s food than I liked. However, I soon developed a routine and really appreciated the toilet’s practicality for an off-grid lifestyle.

My cruising regime was no longer controlled by my toilet tank capacity and the availability of working disposal points. By removing the liquids each day, I only had to worry about emptying the solids container once a month. And what a worry that was initially.

I dreaded lifting the toilet seat off the solids container for the first time. I dreamed unpleasant dreams, visions of uncovering a bubbling and reeking mass of stinking waste, home to scuttling insects, slugs and snails.

As the dreaded day approached, I grew increasingly apprehensive. It’s a natural state for me. I worry about forthcoming events, using my vivid imagination to ill effect. The reality of whatever iI worry about is always more pleasant than its anticipation.

I remember the day clearly, a scorcher in late June. A dry day towards the end of a long spell without rain. Not ideal conditions for toilet content disposal. You see, at the time, I thought that the best and most responsible way of getting rid of my poo was to bury it in a shallow hole. I had a brand new Spear and Jackson spade, purchased expressly for waste burial.

There were two problems with my plan. The first was its legality. I didn’t own the land wherever I moored so I didn’t have the right to bury anything in it. I reasoned that done sensibly, no one would notice and I would prevent a large plastic bag filled with human waste from rotting in a landfill site for a hundred years. The second problem was my plan’s practicality.

I fortified myself with a bottle of red wine first. The world’s a better place after a glass or two of merlot, even if the world in question is the contents of a septic bucket.

What an anti-climax. A small 12V fan had been drawing moisture from the solids container for a month, drying any wet bits I unearthed with the solids stirring handle. The container contents were as inoffensive and smell free as clay. What a relief after all those sleepless nights.

Maintaining my composting toilet was a breeze after that, and my bathroom was smell free. Far more pleasing to my delicate nose than my previous cassette toilet or the majority of pump-out toilets I had experienced in the past.

One of the composting toilet’s many benefits was how easy it was to clean. I emptied the solids container once a month. I had to remove the liquids bottle and the toilet to get at it. I took the three parts out onto the towpath at the crack of dawn, emptied the solids bucket and then used canal water and an eco spray to clean each bit thoroughly. I had a spotless and germ-free toilet every four weeks. What’s more, with the bathroom toilet space obstruction-free, I could sanitise the area with ease. You can’t do that with other toilet types.

Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Combustible Toilets

I haven’t come across incinerating narrowboat toilets before. Not many boaters have. There’s an article in the December 2019 issue of Waterways World describing the installation and use of one of the first incinerating toilets fitted in a narrowboat.

Cinderella Motion combustible toilet

A Cinderella Motion combustible toilet – You’ll need deep pockets to buy and then maintain this toilet

The toilet described is a Cinderella Motion combustible toilet. The first thing to put me off was the eye-watering price. You can purchase a basic Porta Potti cassette toilet for under £100 or a more sophisticated model for a few hundred more. Buy a composting toilet like my Airhead, and you’ll have to part with just under a thousand pounds. However, if you want the pleasure of incinerating your waste, you need to save long and hard. You could take a family of four on an exotic foreign holiday, buy a 16” and a 13” MacBook Pro or get yourself a decent family car. Or you could invest in a Cinderella Motion incinerating toilet. In each case, you would expect to pay £3,500, and extra to have the toilet fitted.

Your expenditure doesn’t end with the Cinderella’s purchase and fitting. The toilet burner uses propane gas for each incineration, so the burner roars into life after four deposits. The couple who reviewed the toilet had the luxury of a second toilet on board. That wouldn’t be an option for most narrowboat owners.

I don’t know about you, but my toilet visits have become more frequent as I’ve aged. I’ve reached the stage now where I have to debate the wisdom of leaving the bathroom at all. I’m sure that I get more exercise each night shuffling between the bedroom and the bathroom than most people get taking their dogs for a walk.

With two people on board and one incinerating toilet, you could expect maybe four burns each day. The burner runs for forty minutes during each cycle, so you would be pouring propane into it for two and a half hours each day.

Each of my two thirteen kilogram cylinders lasts me for two months. I only use gas for cooking these days, but I had an on-demand gas water heater on my last boat. My gas consumption then was one cylinder every three weeks. I suspect that the Cinderella burner would use more gas than my old Paloma. If I had enough money to invest in an incinerating toilet, I could expect my propane expenditure to quadruple.

No, thank you.

The initial capital investment is enough to put me off. But then there’s the additional cost of gas, electricity and a plentiful supply of greaseproof paper for poo parcel wrapping. And the need to stick my down the toilet bowl after use to wrap each disgusting deposit.

Oh, and if that isn’t enough, there’s the noise to consider. We boaters are a geriatric bunch. Our bowels and bladders don’t hold as much as they once did. A nighttime trip or two to the loo is more likely than not. Having your partner crawl over you on her way to the bathroom doesn’t help you relax into a deep and restful sleep. Having to endure the jet aircraft roar of the Cinderella burner in the wee small hours is likely to be the straw which breaks the camel’s back.

Narrowboat Toilet Systems Conclusion

There you go. Four options for collecting your bodily waste. The one, for me, which stands head and shoulders above the rest is the composting loo. After the modest capital outlay, the only running cost is a few pounds each month for a composting medium. I used hamster bedding, a compressed block of wood chippings the size of a toilet cassette. Five pounds and a trip to a pet store every six months. And no smell. And freedom from rancid Elsan points. And I’m helping save the planet.

I’ll be a happy boating eco-warrior again once I’ve saved enough money to replace my cassette toilet.

 

How much does a pump out toilet cost to empty?

The cost is usually £15 - £20 for each tank you want pumped out.

Which is the least smelly narrowboat toilet

The composting toilet is the most pleasant smelling of the three main toilet options. The combustible toilet is too, but many boat owners find this type prohibitively expensive.

How heavy is a narrowboat toilet cassette

If you wait until your toilet is full, you'll be carrying as much as 20kg (44lb) through the narrow confines of your boat.

Where do I empty my narrowboat toilet?

You'll need to find a pump-out station if you have a pump-out toilet and an Elsan point for your cassette toilet. Both are marked in popular waterways guides such as Pearsons and Nicholsons.

Discover the Answer to the Often Asked Question, “Is A Narrowboat Cold In Winter?”

 

One of the most frequently asked questions during the colder months is, “Is a narrowboat cold in winter?” The standard response from boat owners is a laugh, a smile and the assurance that the craft is toasty warm. That’s not always the case, though. Here’s what you need to know to keep you warm in winter.

Several factors dictate whether you shiver your way through a winter’s evening or strip off to your boxer shorts and throw all the doors open to let the heat out.

Cabin Insulation

I have been living onboard James, pictured on its mooring at Calcutt Boats Meadows marina in early February 2012, for two years. My first winter was a baptism of fire. It was the coldest winter for 100 years. The canal and the marina were immobilised by four inches of ice from the last week of November 2010 to the first week of January 2011. One night I recorded a rather chilly minus eighteen outside. It was so cold that I woke up the following morning to discover a quarter an inch of frost covering the engine room pine cladding next to my bedroom. The temperature in the bedroom was just above freezing. There was a spell when the daytime maximum was minus six. It was a cold, cold winter, so severe that I was forced to dress like an Eskimo inside my home.

The following winter, the winter of 2011/2012, has been much more pleasant.

Why?

Two reasons. The winter has been relatively mild compared with last year and, more importantly, I have made some improvements to my home. James, at thirty-five, is quite an old girl. The original cabin sides and roof were Masonite, an oil-treated ply with four seams between the cabin’s five ply roof sheets. The seams, at some point in the boat’s history, had begun to leak, so they had been sealed with duct tape. The remedy didn’t work, so the gaps allowed water into the cabin during heavy showers. The water would find its way through the roof and then trickle along the inside of the internal cladding. Then it would find a weak point to drip through into the cabin. When I heard the sound of rain drumming on the roof, I would gather together a collection of pots and pans to place carefully under the drips.

Not all of the water found its way into the cabin. Much of it lay on the underside of my beautiful pirana pine, slowly discolouring and staining the grain. To a lesser extent, the cabin sides let in water too. The prevailing south-westerly meant that wind and the rain scoured the port (left) side of the boat. Where the neglected paintwork peeled along the ply joins, the water found its way in.

In November last year, I had the opportunity to ship James off to a local boat builder to have the cabin sides and roof and the front and back doors overplated. While they were doing the work, I asked them to sandwich insulation between the old Masonite and the new steel. I used one-inch polystyrene for most of the surface area and Rockwool for the sections where the guys were welding. Rather than saving a few pounds by using the cheaper polystyrene, I should have used spray foam on all surfaces as it is a more effective insulator.

The additional insulation has made a significant difference, as has the fact that the roof and cabin sides are no longer holding water for much of the time. The boat, with the same heating inside, is both warmer and less damp.

Heating Systems

James has a solid fuel stove with a back boiler installed right at the front of the boat. The back boiler feeds three radiators along the starboard side. The furthest radiator is forty feet away in the main bedroom. The system struggles to push heat down to the far end. I can’t find out the make of the stove, but I understand that it’s as old as the hills – as old as James anyway – and it isn’t very efficient.

I know several liveaboards who swear by Morso Squirrel stoves. I’ve heard stories of coal that will carry on burning for up to two days if the fire is “damped down” (has the airflow reduced, so the fuel smoulders). The longest I can achieve with the stove on James is about twelve hours.

Rather than a solid fuel stove, I could install a diesel heating system. I could then have the convenience of waking to a warm boat, but I (a) can’t afford to at the moment and (b) don’t like a lot of them because of the noise. Some (particularly the Hurricane diesel heating system we sell so successfully at Calcutt Boats) are very noisy. The Hurricane sounds like a hurricane. There is a boat moored on the opposite side of the marina from me that has one fitted. I can hear it from James.

The diesel Bubble stove is very quiet. A friend has one. His boat was very cosy when I visited with hardly a sound from the stove.

Draughts

There’s no point filling a bucket with water if it’s full of holes. The same applies to pumping heat into your boat. Draughts can very quickly make the cabin feel cold. The new steel front, rear and side doors on James weren’t a perfect fit. I’ve added ply panels to the doors’ inside faces to insulate them a little, but there’s still a bit of a draught. I’ve fitted draught excluder around the front and rear doors and the centre doors and hatches. There’s still a draught from the centre door hatch on the weather side so it can be a bit chilly there when there’s a stiff breeze.

Mooring

I moor James at the western end of the marina. The prevailing wind is south-westerly. Calcutt Boats lays in a wind “corridor” – the old working boatmen used to refer to the pound below Calcutt Bottom Lock as “windy corner” – so there’s usually a stiff breeze. The boat then is buffeted by the wind daily. On the few occasions when there is little or no wind, James feels very much warmer. Of course, the breeze always finds the draughts.

When people ask me if a narrowboat is cold in winter, I should say… “Well, it depends on the heating system you use, how well insulated your boat is, whether you have any draughts, and what the weather is like”. But I won’t. I’ll smile and assure them that I’m toasty warm. And this morning, as I write this, with an outside temperature of minus five but no wind, and the coal fire roaring, I am toasty warm.

DISCOVER WINTER AFLOAT ON A BESPOKE EXPERIENCE DAY

Try before you buy. Join me on a day filled with fun and adventure on Warwickshire’s beautiful rural canals. Enjoy a twelve mile, six lock contour canal cruise. Learn how to handle a 62′ narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat on England’s inland waterways. Experience the joy of living in a fully equipped, off-grid floating home.

Fast forward seven and a half years to November 2019…

I wrote the above post in February 2012 after living afloat for nearly two years. I sold James No 194 in October 2016 following six and a half happy years afloat. I didn’t sell because I was disenchanted with the lifestyle. I loved living afloat, and all that living afloat entailed. But I had an ill wife. Cynthia suspected that she didn’t have many years left in her.  I enthusiastically agreed to her suggestion that we tour Europe by motorhome in the winter and by boat in the summer. We sold our respective homes to fund our travels.

We owned two boats during our stay in Holland; a classic steel-hulled motor cruiser with a mahogany cabin and an all-steel Linssen motor yacht. We stayed on both during cold autumn and spring periods. Then we moved back to England and my current narrowboat, Orient, in December 2018. Let me tell you this: English narrowboats are superbly insulated compared with any Dutch motor cruisers. Narrowboat insulation is in a different league, and most narrowboats have heating systems designed for constant use. My abiding memory of our last Dutch boat is the bone-chilling cold and unhealthy, soul-destroying damp.

Rereading my old post, I think that I can improve on the information I gave you then.

Life on James was usually warm enough at the front of the boat. The problem I had was pushing warm air towards the stern. Because of my stove’s double-skinned top plate, a stovetop fan wouldn’t work. These fans are perfect for off-grid living. They use the temperature difference between their bottom and top plate to generate free electricity to power the fan. My solution wasn’t as off-grid friendly. I had a 12V fan fitted on the ceiling close to the stove. With it running, I could push enough heat to the back of the boat, to my bedroom, to raise the temperature by a couple of degrees. Useful, but not great.

Orient is better insulated than James and a saloon stove suitable for powering an Ecofan. Still, the new boat has a similar design to my Norton Canes boat. An open plan boat is relatively easy to heat. Orient, like James, has bulkheads separating the galley, bathroom, main bedroom, engine room and the boatman’s cabin. Each partition restricts airflow.

Orient’s saloon is heated by a Morso Squirrel stove. There’s another solid fuel stove, a Premiere range, in the boatman’s cabin at the back of the boat and a Kubola diesel boiler in the bathroom. The Kabola heats water for my calorifier, my hot water tank, and also powers radiators in the main bedroom and the engine room, and a bathroom towel rail. I have three heat sources, but, most of the time, I use one.

I don’t use the Kabola boiler because I don’t like to waste fuel, water or money. I need hot water twice a day for dishwashing and showering, so I use a kettle for dishwashing and a kettle and a Hozelock Porta Shower for the keeping myself clean. I don’t need working radiators either. The main bedroom is only used for storage, there’s no need to heat the engine room. And I can’t be bothered to light the boiler for towel rail heating when I’m in the shower.

The boatman’s cabin range doesn’t see much use either. It’s a pain to manage during the day. Because the firebox is small, keeping the stove going throughout the day requires dropping half a dozen coal briquettes in every couple of hours. It’s a nuisance to top up when I’m away from the boat during the day, and my sleeping space is uncomfortably warm if I let stove coal burn too far into the evening. Keeping things simple is the cheapest and most efficient solution. The range stays cold unless I’m cruising on chilly days.

Winter cruising can be a bone-chillingly cold affair if you’re not careful. Cruiser stern boats are the coldest. You stand still for hours on end, open to the elements, slowly freezing and waiting for the ordeal to end. Traditional stern narrowboats offer more protection than cruiser sterns. And, if they are equipped with a back cabin range like Orient, they can turn an unpleasant winter cruise into a truly tranquil experience.

I brought Orient south from Tattenhall marina in February. I cruised for two weeks through a frozen landscape. I needed to reach the Farmer’s Bridge flight of locks in Birmingham city centre before they closed for essential repairs. I had to use Orient as an icebreaker to crash through increasingly thick ice for three days. I ground to a halt on an urban Birmingham backwater. The ice was too thick. I was stuck on a frozen waterway with swans marching over the ice in front of me.

Cynthia’s hand appeared in the hatchway, holding an insulated pot filled with stew. I slowed my engine to idle, opened the steaming container and enjoyed ten minutes of pure bliss. The heat from my Premiere range swirled around my legs as I wolfed down a pint of hot meat and potatoes. I was comfortably warm and sublimely happy to be standing at the helm of my new home. The same journey on a cruiser stern boat would be a far less pleasant experience.

Because my sole heat source most of the time is the saloon stove, the temperature drops significantly as I move further away from the bow. I have temperature sensors throughout Orient.  As last night was chilly, I noted the readings this morning at 8 am.

Saloon: 13°C

Bedroom: 10°C

Boatman’s cabin (where I sleep): 7°C

Front deck (it’s protected by a canvas cratch cover and is heated slightly by the heat lost through my cabin front doors’ two single glazed windows): 1°C

Outside -2°C

Now, I don’t know about you, but thirteen degrees is far too chilly for me to sit still typing for hours on end. My first job of the day at this time of the year is to increase the cabin temperature. I throw a log or coal onto the fire, riddle the grate, empty the ash pan, open both stove vents and make a coffee.

The stove takes an hour to bring the cabin to a bearable temperature. Now, at 11.30 am, the temperatures are…

Saloon: 23°C

Bedroom: 15°C

Boatman’s cabin: 13°C

Front deck: 8°C

Outside: 3°C

Although the saloon area is warm enough for me to sit and work comfortably for hours on end, the back of the boat is distinctly chilly. If I wanted to, I could double my workload, increase my daily fuel expense and turn the boatman’s cabin into a furnace. But there’s no point with only me on board.

Orient’s stern remains cold unless I’m cruising. I have neither the time nor the energy to keep it warm.

I could, possibly, modify the diesel Kabola heating system to heat all of my home. The big challenge would be finding somewhere in the boatman’s cabin for a radiator. There’s no empty wall space to fit one. The room is filled with fitted furniture, so there’s no free wall space larger than a dinner plate.

I’m not going to waste any time worrying about that little problem. Solid fuel stoves are dirty and time-consuming to maintain. They need a regular supply of heavy fuel and daily ash pan emptying and glass polishing. However, sitting in front of a silent stove watching flickering flames dance across burning coals is very comforting on a cold winter’s night.

Is a Narrowboat Cold in Winter?

There you go. If you’re asked is a narrowboat is cold in winter, you could give a detailed reply. You could wax lyrical about insulation, draughts, differing heating types and efficiency. You won’t, though. You’ll smile serenely and assure the enquirer that your steel home, half-submerged in frigid water, is as warm as toast.

Can I use wood I find by the canal for heating?

Yes, you can but it's not a good idea. The wood will probably be unseasoned which means that its water content will be higher than 20%. Fresh cut oak is usually 50% water, ash slightly lower at 40%. Burning unseasoned wood will mean less heat and more chance of a blocked flue, flue fires and a dirty brown stain down your cabin side.

Will my stove get all of the boat warm?

No. The back of your boat will be much cooler than the front, especially if you don't have an open plan boat. If you want all of your boat the same temperature, consider a central heating option.

What's the cheapest way of heating my boat?

Coal briquettes. I use them on my 62' narrowboat. Keeping my cabin at 20°C costs £3-£4 a day at December 2019 prices.

Which is the best insulation?

Spray foam. It's the standard insulation on most modern narrowboats. Pre 1990 boats are more likely to have polystyrene insulation which can crumble and leave cold spots.

Why A Narrowboat Centre Line Is So Important For Solo Owners

 

A correctly deployed narrowboat centre line can make a massive difference to your cruising pleasure and safety. Here’s why it’s so important.

The most essential piece of kit for you as a helmsman is this length of rope, fastened in the right place and always to hand.

I currently moor, and work, at Calcutt Boats on the Grand Union canal close to Napton Junction. There are 2,500 narrowboats moored within a ten-mile radius. The network’s busiest lock flight at Hillmorton is four hours cruise away. The scenery is stunning, and you can be heading in five different directions within a few hours. It’s tremendously popular with narrowboat owners, and with holiday hirers too.

Black Prince, Napton Narrowboats and Kate Boats are all within spitting distance of Calcutt. Added to Calcutt Boats’ dozen hire boats, there are one hundred craft available for hire within a tiny area. Most new hirers start their cruises on a Saturday. Summer Saturdays on the Calcutt flight of three locks are pandemonium, especially at the top of the Calcutt flight of three locks.

That’s where the inexperienced crews from both Black Prince and Napton Narrowboats often converge. And where they meet the equally clueless Calcutt Boats hirers coming up from the company wharf beneath the top lock. The descending crews are nervous because they’re approaching their first lock and petrified because this is the first time they’ve had to stop their unwieldy floating home.

A narrowboat just sixty feet long can be the temporary home for as many as eight holidaymakers. At this point in the cruise, seven of them will flow from the boat onto the towpath like lemmings. Some will leap from the bow and some from the stern and then, like opposing tug of war teams, they’ll haul on the boat’s mooring lines for all they’re worth. At the same time, the poor sod they’ve left at the helm will be revving the Morse control with one hand and aimlessly waving his tiller from side to side with the other. That’s what happens when you’re inexperienced and aren’t working as part of a team.

Sometimes, a couple pulls up on a boat behind them and shows the newbie crew how it’s done. The man at the helm – it’s nearly always a man at the helm on a flight of locks – pulls slowly to the side. His wife steps off and, without a backward glance, walks casually past the screaming hire boat crew. The man on the private boat steps off too. He holds his secret weapon, the bit of kit which enables him to handle his boat easily on his own. That’s despite his craft being even longer than the hire boaters charge.

His secret weapon is, of course, a centre line.

A quick note on knots. I use a lighterman’s hitch on a lock landing. It secures the boat in seconds and is perfect for lock landing bollards. You can see how to tie a lighterman’s hitch here.

You cannot handle a narrowboat effectively without a centre line and, as the name implies, your line should be tied to the centre of your boat roof. I’ve seen some ropes which aren’t secured to the boat centre, often because of the boat design. A non-central centre line is better than nothing, but life is much easier if it’s fixed to the middle of your craft.

If your rope is secured to your craft’s midpoint, and if the line reaches you at the helm, you have total control.

The length of your centre line is critical too. It must be accessible to you at the helm if it’s going to be of any use. Some boaters like a long line, one which will reach past the stern. Long ropes are useful if you need to step off the back of your boat onto solid ground and then pull your craft sideways so that it’s parallel with the bank. Boaters visiting Calcutt Boats’ wharf sometimes need to do this if, for example, they want to empty their pump out toilet tanks. Reversing and pulling the boat around is much easier than coming at a concrete wall bow first and trying to judge the distance from the boat’s helm sixty or seventy feet away.

A long centre line is a double-edged sword. It’s handy if you need to step off the back of a boat, but you need to watch it like a hawk. If the line falls from your roof, it will drop into the water and head like a guided missile for your propeller. Fouling your prop in this way can be frightening, inconvenient and very expensive.

I’ve done it once. One of my Discovery Day guests actually let it slip off the roof, but it was my fault for not noticing.

The rope, draped over the end of my boat pole, fouled the propeller and instantly pulled taught. It tightened so quickly that it flipped the pole ten feet in the air. The bang of the engine stopping was followed almost immediately by the crash of the pole landing on the roof, narrowly missing one of my guests.

I was lucky. The sudden strain on the drive shaft can tear the engine from its mounting and cause extensive damage. Even though the engine wasn’t damaged, I was. On a cold February day, I had to lay face down on my back deck for half an hour with my arm up to my shoulder in icy canal water. I had to feel blindly through my weed hatch to remove a dozen iron-tight bands of 12mm rope from the propeller. I came away from the ordeal with a ruined polo shirt, a forearm rubbed raw from the abrasive weed hatch surround, and a healthy respect for centre line etiquette.

Please learn from my mistake. Watch your centre line like a hawk if its long enough to reach the back of your boat. And wear a cheap top if you need to dive down your weed hatch. Here’s a forum post with more information about centre line length.

Narrowboat Centre Line – Conclusion

Centre lines are not for decoration. If you leave one coiled prettily on your boat roof, you might as well throw it away. And if you have rope snagging obstacles on your roof – chimneys, poles, planks, boat hooks, wheelbarrows, potted plants etc. – make sure that you have two centre lines, one running down each side of your boat. You don’t want to step off your boat with your rope to realise that the line is caught on the wrong side of an expensive chimney. You then pull on your rope and lose your stack, or drop your line and say goodbye to your boat. Neither option is desirable, so you need to make sure that your centre lines are obstruction-free before you need to use them.

There you go. You can’t handle a narrowboat effectively without a centre line, which is a bit of a problem if you have a pram cover on your boat. You can read about that particular problem here.

 

The Pros and Cons of Narrowboat Pram Covers

 

Narrowboat pram covers protect your rear deck and provide additional living and storage space, but are they a practical addition when cruising?

I have a love-hate relationship with pram covers.

I love to hate them.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, a pram cover is canvass over a steel or aluminium frame. It’s often used to protect the rear deck of a cruiser or semi-traditional stern narrowboat. I don’t think that cruisers stern boats are as practical as traditional stern craft for living aboard, but that’s a highly subjective point of view. In the interest of balance, here’s a forum post written by a liveaboard boater who adores pram covers.

Anyway, from a boat handling point of view, I think pram covers stink. That’s another subjective point of view but bear with me. I think I can justify my dislike.

I have to handle different narrowboats every day. Boats are dragged onto Calcutt Boats slipway most days, swapped with a freshly blacked boat. The painted boat has to one returned to its mooring, carefully of course, because it’s hull is sporting a flawless coating of bitumen.

Marinas are notoriously tricky for boat handling. Flat bottomed narrowboats with acres of cabin sides don’t make the task easy. Even in the slightest breeze, they skate over the water like a toy plastic duck. Add a pram cover, and you compound your problems.

The pram cover increases wind resistance. What’s more, because you’re protected from the elements, you can’t feel the wind on your face. Knowing where the wind is coming from is essential. You always want to do any delicate manoeuvring into the wind and not against it. With a pram cover protecting you from the great outdoors, you don’t have a clue what’s happening outside. In fact, quite often, you can’t see where you’re going either.

Moving a marina narrowboat fitted with a pram cover spoils my day. I know it’s not a third-world problem, but I live in paradise. Insignificant issues are all I have.

Many aspiring narrowboat owners are seduced by the thought of weather-protected cruising. “Oh, how much fun,” they think, “cruising at a warm and dry helm on a rainy day!” No standing out in the elements enduring, or enjoying, fickle nature. It’s narrowboat ownership without getting cold and wet. And it’s narrowboat cruising often filled with stress. Consider this fictitious but realistic example.

The day begins well enough. You start your engine and reverse off your mooring. Then you head for the marina entrance with a smile on your face. You’re cocooned from the elements and feel smug as you pass a poor bloke at the helm of a trad stern boat, his legs bowed under the weight of his waterlogged jacket. You’re delighted you don’t have to get THAT close to nature.

You stand under a rainproof canvas cover fitted with plastic windows. With cold rain on the outside and warm bodies and a piping hot engine inside, you have the perfect recipe for condensation. Your enjoyable cruise now becomes a constant battle to keep your view ahead mist free. You give up eventually, roll down your opaque window and let the rain in.

“Things aren’t too bad,” you reason, “I’m still protected from the nasty wet stuff falling from above.” That’s fine until you reach your first low bridge.

Your pram hood shudders and compresses as it catches the bridge arch. Under a hail of dislodged mortar, you leave the bridge behind with only your pride damaged. You were lucky this time, but what about the next bridge, and the one after that? A carefree cruise in the rain has become a wet day of worry.

You’re moving slowly, debating whether to try lowering your hood to avoid potential damage when you hear the angry tooting of a narrowboat horn behind you. You peer through the haze of condensation covering your rear window and see the bow of a boat an arm’s length from your stern. You hear an angry shout from the back of the following boat and see a figure frantically waving for you to move over.

Now that you’re out of the way, the inconvenienced boat surges past. The helmsman shouts as he passes. “What’s the matter with you?” he demands angrily. “I’ve been trying to pass you for a mile. Can’t you see out of that thing?” He waves dismissively at your stern cover and speeds ahead shaking his head. You begin to think that two thousand pounds for a rear deck cover perhaps wasn’t the best use of your hard-earned cash.

Your confidence in your new all-weather cruising companion sinks even further at your journey’s midpoint. You’ve reached the junction where you plan to turn your boat before heading back to base. You’ve done enough cruising to realise the importance of working with the wind. It’s a breezy day, and you know that you need to turn into the wind. You’ll lose control of your boat if you turn against it. Before you had your pram cover fitted, you could feel any air movement on your face. Now you can’t. The cover blocks the wind and any chance of knowing which way to go. There are no visible trees to give you an indication so, knowing that you and a fifty, fifty chance of getting it right, you turn to the left… and get blown straight into a reed bank.

With the aid of your pole and a mooring rope thrown to a passing dog walker, you manage to get your boat around and then head sadly back to your mooring. That’s where your last pram cover problem awaits you.

Before you had your pram cover fitted, you had a time tested routine for coming onto your marina mooring. The prevailing wind pushed your starboard side away from the often slippery wooden finger pier. To prevent crashing into the boat moored on your port side, you were used to steering your boat inches away from the wooden walkway. You grabbed your centre line and stepped carefully off your rear deck. Then you could hold your craft out of harm’s way while your crew secured your mooring lines. Life isn’t quite so easy now that you have a pram cover in the way.

You realise to your dismay that your centre lines are now beyond reach. Your pram cover now occupies the space where the centre lines would usually terminate. Now the only way to reach your centre line is to sidle along your gunnel like a tightrope walker over a wet and muddy safety net. The manoeuvre is made more difficult by the vertical pram cover side. There are no handholds, and the cover pushes you back over the water. Rather than step off with your centre line, you are forced to jump off the boat without it and then hope that you can dash along the pier to grab the rope off your boat roof. It’s not a bad plan, but you fail.

narrowboat pram cover 2

A narrowboat pram cover – Note that the centre line is inaccessible from the stern

A traditional stern narrowboat

A traditional stern narrowboat (my boat, Orient) with accessible centre lines

Your boat bumps gently against the pier, and you step off. Before you can reach your line, a gust blows your boat out of reach and into your neighbour’s boat, the aptly named Too Shiny For Cruising. As usual, your neighbour is leaning over his gunwale, touching up waterline scratches with an artist’s paintbrush. Twenty tonnes of steel crashing sideways into his pride and joy does not please him. Today has not been a good day.

Even though my view is subjective, many narrowboat owners feel the same. Some of the narrowboats sold at Calcutt Boats are fitted with pram covers. Their new owners often cruise the canals close to Calcutt Boats for months after moving on board. Most set off on their maiden voyages with the pram covers intact. Some are taken off after a few short weeks. I was recently given the job of moving one such boat.

A lady phoned Calcutt Boats with some tragic news. Her estranged husband purchased a narrowboat on brokerage there earlier in the year. The police called to tell her that the man had died. He’d apparently fallen off his boat and drowned. She wanted Calcutt Boats to move both his craft and car and store them at the marina.

I was asked to bring the boat back from its canalside mooring four miles away on the combined Grand Union and Oxford canal close to Braunston Junction. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the day. Much as I enjoy taking a boat for a cruise, and getting paid for it, the untimely demise of another inland waterways boater dampened my enthusiasm. As did the memory of the times I had moved this boat earlier in the year.

Fortunately, I didn’t have the pram cover problems to deal with. The owner clearly didn’t think much of rear deck covers either. The canvas panels lay in a sodden pile on the boat roof, and the aluminium frame was folded as flat as it would go. It wasn’t flat enough to be out of harm’s way, but folded and flexible was better than fixed and in my way. My two-hour cruise back to Calcutt in light rain was far more pleasant than it would have been if I had been encased in canvas.

One final noteworthy point about my journey; if you want to enjoy quiet cruising, don’t try it on a boat fitted with a Barrus Shanks engine. At tickover, the engine sounds like an enthusiastically rattled bucket of bolts, only not quite as pleasant.

Even on a dull day, the scenery was magnificent. Sheep flecked the shoulder of a nearby hill like woolly dandruff. A buzzard circled lazily overhead, and adolescent swans effortlessly kept as I negotiated the canal’s many blind bends. I’m sure that the natural waterway sounds would have calmed me if I could have heard them over the rattling engine. I was forced to cruise at slightly less than the speed of light to avoid the annoying tickover rattle. Nature lovers, choose your engines carefully… And think long and hard about fitting a pram cover.

A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 2

 

Continued from A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 1

Before we left Walter, he had agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and defer the payment of the last €5,000 until we sold Julisa. We now owned a bigger and better boat. A boat, we thought, which we could use for winter living. A classic Dutch craft which would serve all our cruising and living requirements. Cynthia and I were delighted.

For a while.

Buying Dik Trom was a mistake. A big mistake, and it was all mine. I purchased the boat with my heart rather than with my mind. By then, I had six years of narrowboat ownership under my belt. And I had the accumulated knowledge shared with me by narrowboat fitters, marine electricians, painters and engineers at the Warwickshire marina where I lived and worked. I should have known better.

Dik Trom, by Dutch standards, was effectively insulated. Compared to English narrowboats, she was barely protected from cold weather at all.  

And she had acres of heat sapping glass plus an intermittently working heating system marginally more effective than a burning candle. As the autumn days shortened and the thermometer plummeted, so did our spirits and the temperature in our floating home. 

By December we were confined to our tiny galley and dining area. The blown air heater had stopped working by then, so we used a one-kilowatt electric heater to try to keep us warm. A bedsheet draped over the companionway steps prevented our precious hear from climbing four steps to the cockpit and its expanse of single glazed windows. We were almost warm enough in our small space, but damp and miserable.

The boat’s poor insulation allowed condensation to form on every surface. Climbing out of a warm bed to squeeze into damp clothing took tremendous willpower. At least I could look forward to a day in a heated workplace. I wasn’t quite so keen on the eight hours laying on my back painting the hulls of speedboats costing as much as English country houses, but I had more to look forward to than Cynthia.

My working days were warm but tedious. Cynthia also had tedium to look forward to while I was away. Still, she didn’t have moral boosting heat or a change of environment. She sat for hours on the boat alone, with nothing to do but contemplate her failing health.

The novelty of touring Europe without a care in the world was far behind us. We could afford to live in northern Europe in the summer and flee to the south of France to escape the winter cold. But only if I worked all summer doing an unhealthy and tedious job to supplement Cynthia’s pension. While I merely disliked the change in our circumstances, the damp, bone penetrating cold and the isolation had a dangerous effect on Cynthia’s health.

She couldn’t find the daily company she needed to help take her mind off her struggle with the simplest physical tasks. Solitude accelerated both her mental and physical decline. Cynthia’s weight loss alarmed me, as did her extreme reaction to the mildest of ailments. 

We needed to make an immediate change in our lifestyle for the sake of Cynthia’s health and our happiness, and we needed to do it quickly.

I couldn’t see a way out of our situation. One of the reasons we left England was Cynthia’s difficulty in staying long term with me in my country. As an American citizen, she was entitled to stay for a maximum of six months. Our marriage didn’t make any difference to her entitlement. But as we discovered to our dismay, getting permission for an extended stay in mainland Europe was just as tricky. By then, we had been wading through Dutch red tape for eighteen months. Our experience with a succession of reluctant government officials was a soul-destroying affair.

The novelty of extended foreign travel had well and truly worn off. Especially for me. I pined for England’s muddy ditches and the gaily painted narrowboats which cruised them. I would have returned to that lifestyle in a heartbeat, but I suspected at the time that Cynthia didn’t feel the same way. I didn’t want to fuel my desire to return to the UK by openly discussing the possibility. So I did what Englishmen do. I stiffened my upper lip, squared my shoulders and immersed myself in a life of unfulfilling tedium.

I underestimated Cynthia. She was a force of nature. If she sunk her teeth into an idea, she wouldn’t let go until it became a reality. And, I was delighted to discover, she was quite keen on exploring the concept of a return to England.

“I’ve been thinking,” she told me when I climbed into the cabin after another tedious day laying under millionaire’s playthings. “You are at your happiest messing about on the English waterways. Your face lights up when you talk about narrowboats. You miss your old life in England, don’t you?” That was a risky question for me to answer. I had enthusiastically agreed to Cynthia’s European travel plans and embraced the logistical challenges we faced both on the road and on the water. I enjoyed driving through exotic landscapes and meeting new and fascinating people. However, I missed England and the country’s magnificent waterways network.

But much as the thought of a return to England’s canals excited me, I couldn’t imagine how we would achieve it.

We had a collection of empty bank accounts between us. Our only equity was in a fifteen-year-old German motorhome and a 1984 Dutch motor cruiser. We could quickly move off the boat and live full time in the motorhome. That would allow us to instruct a broker to sell our Dutch summer home. However, selling a boat in the Netherlands can be a long-winded affair. Waiting a year or two is for an offer is common and we didn’t want to wait that long. Now that Cynthia had broached the subject, I knew that any delay would drive me mad. And push Cynthia further down the slippery slope of ill health and depression.

Even if we found a boat buyer willing to pay our asking price we still wouldn’t have enough money. We would need to sell the Hymer too, but we couldn’t do that until we had a narrowboat to live on and we couldn’t buy a boat until we sold the motorhome. The situation was hopelessly frustrating, especially after Cynthia’s next statement.

“I’ve found a Steve Hudson boat I know you’ll love.” Cynthia handed me her iPad and showed me the listing on Apolloduck. “The boat is called Orient. It’s the same length as your old boat, James, and it’s filled with beautiful fitted pine furniture.” Cynthia knew that one of my pet hates was a boat devoid of storage space. I’ve lost count of the number of adverts I’ve seen claiming a “spacious and attractively priced narrowboat ideal for full-time living.” In reality, the boat’s low price could only be achieved by the builder avoiding time-consuming and expensive internal joinery. A narrowboat offers very little living space at the best of times. Without plenty of storage space, a boat soon becomes cluttered. For someone like me, who insists on perfectly aligned cup handles and storage jar lids, too little storage space is distressing.

“Look at that,” she said, pointing at a photo. “Orient has a cabin at the back with its own stove. You could use it as your office.” Cynthia knew which buttons to press. Neither our Dutch boat nor our motorhome allowed either of us much privacy. Separate spaces at either end of the craft would give both us some much needed alone time. I began to fall in love with Orient.

Cynthia scrolled through the images. Orient looked gorgeous. I liked everything about her, apart from the monstrous green engine dominating its own room in the middle of the boat. I am neither a competent nor enthusiastic mechanic at the best of times. As far as I was concerned, engines were for hiding behind or under soundproof boards. I felt that engines on display wasted valuable living space and added unnecessary noise and pollution to the cabin. I suspected that keeping this old Lister in good condition would require a level of skill beyond me. Taking on a vintage engine would require some serious thought.

Then there was the price. Sixty-two thousand pounds. It might as well have been a million. We couldn’t raise the asking price even if we managed to sell both our motorhome and our Linssen yacht. We would need to take out yet another loan to buy Orient. And that was without the cost of a survey or any remedial work.

A boat buyer who doesn’t need to invest a few thousand pounds in essential replacements or repairs is a lucky man. The battery bank replacement often initiates the first of many visits to a rapidly disappearing bank balance. I had to change the batteries on my previous three boats as soon as I moved onto them. That would prove to be the case with Orient too. I l discovered to my dismay that there were thirteen on board. However, that particular treat was several months in the future. 

I needed to concentrate on buying the boat first. I wanted to budget five thousand pounds for essential repairs and upgrades. We needed to raise nearly seventy thousand pounds to make sure we covered all eventualities. Seventy thousand pounds more than our combined savings.

The situation looked hopeless. I told Cynthia that there was no point getting excited about a boat we simply couldn’t afford. There was no point in either of us investing time or money in such an unrealistic dream.

“If you had the money, would you buy it?” Cynthia asked. I looked at the photographs again. The engine in its own room didn’t appeal to me, and I wasn’t happy about the limited space in the boat’s saloon area but, apart from that, I loved it. Yes, I would buy it in a heartbeat if we had the cash. Cynthia sensed an opportunity.

“You’ve always wanted a Steve Hudson boat, so why don’t we focus on ways of making this work rather than dismissing the idea out of hand? Why don’t you look at this as an opportunity rather than a problem?” Why indeed. Why did I always dig deeply into any possibility in my life to find reasons not to pursue it? For Cynthia’s sake, I tried to be more positive.

Although we were living in Holland, I realised that viewing Orient wouldn’t be too difficult. I had taken our Hymer back to our Nottingham motorhome dealer two weeks earlier to have some essential repairs done under warranty. I planned to collect the motorhome the following week. As Orient’s mooring at Tattenhall marina was only an hour’s drive away, viewing the boat wouldn’t be a problem. I picked up my iPhone and dialled the listing contact number. I arranged to meet broker Steve Harrel to look at the boat and possibly take her for a test drive. 

And then I spent the rest of the week fretting about money.

The boat exceeded my wildest expectations. It was love at first sight. You know when you’ve found the right boat. It speaks to you. This beautiful craft whispered to me seductively as soon as I stepped on board. Even the engine room had a certain charm. If I could learn to maintain the aged Lister, I thought I could accept the loss of living space. Yes, this boat would do.

I took Orient for a chug around the marina. The two-cylinder Lister JP2 started first time from cold. The engine’s slow and steady thump sounded like the beat of a healthy and happy heart. It was a sound which would entrance many canalside visitors in the years to come.

I knew that the boat was perfect for us. I emailed dozens of photos to Cynthia. She loved what she saw and trusted my judgement. I was sure that we would settle into our new home quickly. Orient was my dream boat and hopefully my last if we could overcome one little problem. 

Money.

We contacted both of our banks. Cynthia was quickly approved for a £20,000 loan, but HSBC’s automated system laughed at me. With little income over the previous two years, I didn’t stand a chance. I knew that I would need to try less orthodox routes.

I borrowed £12,500 from two private lenders. Both of them bent over backwards to help me. We now had fifty per cent of the asking price. It wasn’t enough, but the money gave me the confidence to go to the broker with an offer.

I told Steve Harral that we wanted Orient. What’s more, we were prepared to pay the asking price, providing that everything on the boat was in working order and providing that we could have time to pay.

We didn’t expect our Dutch boat to sell quickly. Dutch boaters are a fussy bunch. They want everything in perfect working order, a craft painted, varnished and maintained to the highest standards. Dik Trom was an old girl, still in need of more tender loving care than I had time to give her. We bought her for €53,000 and then invested another €8,000 in essential repairs and upgrades. Hoping for a quick sale to a bargain hunter, we instructed our broker to advertise her at €49,000. Then we focussed on selling our six-wheeled home.

We purchased the Hymer for £30,000 in March 2016 and then drove the beast 30,000 through Europe. We knew that we would be lucky to get £25,000 for the motorhome if we wanted to sell quickly. We decided to advertise at that price initially to see if there was any interest. 

And then we had a lucky break.

During any boat buying process, one of the first questions I ask is why the owner wants to sell. What motivates him? Does he need the money or is finding the right home for his pride and joy more important? A little knowledge can help enormously.

We discovered that the owner and his wife wanted to spend less time boating and more quality time with their new grandchild. Between babysitting visits, they wanted to travel more and visit parts of England they hadn’t seen before. And they wanted to do it in a motorhome.

Our Hymer was left-hand drive. Because of that, and because England was the least motorhome friendly country of the eleven we toured, we knew that this wouldn’t be a suitable vehicle for them to use to explore England. But it would be perfect if they took it on a ferry or train over to France.

France was our favourite country for motorhome touring by a country mile. Most French villages and towns have free or low-cost motorhome parking, often with an open water supply and sometimes with free electricity too. The people are friendly, the scenery stunning and there’s more history than you can shake a stick at. We talked passionately to the broker about our experiences in France. We hoped that he would pass on some of our enthusiasm to Orient’s owners. 

He did.

The owners agreed to take our Hymer in part-exchange, and they accepted the £25,000 valuation without seeing the vehicle. The owner’s wife, Sue, explained. “We trust your judgement. You seem like honest folk, so I’m sure that the Hymer is in perfect condition. It wasn’t, and I made sure that she knew it. I reminded her that we had spent the previous two years living in it while we toured. However, we agreed to have the motorhome professionally cleaned before we handed it over. That was the plan anyway. Circumstances dictated otherwise.

Even with the Hymer part-exchange and three loans, we still didn’t have enough money. The only option was to further test the owners’ generous nature. We explained our predicament in detail and told them that we were a good bet. We had equity in an old but much-respected Linssen motor cruiser which we were confident would sell soon. We were honest people, we told him, boat lovers who took pride in their floating homes. We promised to lavish Orient with all the tender loving care that she deserved.

The Gods smiled upon us. Owners Stuart and Sue agreed to the sale on our terms; part cash, part motorhome exchange and the balance, £6,500, deferred until Orient sold. I couldn’t believe our good fortune. Cynthia just smiled contentedly and reminded me of the power of positive thinking.

We still had a great deal of work to do. Selling Dik Trom was the biggest challenge. Neither broker Steve or Sue and Stuart knew the difficulty we faced selling an older boat in Holland. Our Linssen was a needle buried under a bewildering haystack of craft for sale. Waiting a year or two for a vessel to sell was typical. We once saw a vintage sailing boat which had been for sale for a decade. All we could do was hope that our discounted selling price would attract serious interest.

In the meantime, we needed to move back to England. The first step was to make sure that Orient was all that she claimed to be. With years of experience in and around narrowboats, I was confident that a surveyor would find very little to worry us. I’ve been wrong many times in my life. This was one such occasion.

My mate, Russ, agreed to look at Orient for me. Russ was a Calcutt Boats fitter and a Boat Safety Scheme examiner. I trusted his judgement completely, and I was looking forward to him confirming that Orient was a gem among narrowboats. He wasn’t as complimentary as I hoped.

The gas locker configuration was downright dangerous and the multi-fuel stove unusable. Russ identified dozens of smaller faults too. All of them were either safety concerns or had the potential for costly remedial work in the years to come. He estimated that resolving all of the issues would cost £2,500.

We were lucky again. The owners agreed to take care of the problems before we moved on board. Even though Orient had two years remaining on its four year BSS certificate, I planned to have another done before we concluded the sale. Stuart and Sue agreed with that too, but circumstances conspired against us. Cynthia’s continued failing health was more of a concern. I would have saved another thousand pounds if I kept to my original plan. Still, my wife’s wellbeing was a higher priority, so the new BSS examination wasn’t done before we moved on board.

Christmas 2018 was an exhausting affair. We had just forty-eight hours to move our possessions. And then remove all traces from the motorhome of two years with fur shedding dogs. 

I failed miserably with the cleaning, despite a marathon scrubbing and polishing session on Christmas Day. Sue and Stuart arrived on Boxing Day to find me on the verge of a nervous breakdown. All we could do was promise to have the vehicle professionally valeted inside and out and move gratefully into our new home.

Yet another of Cynthia’s dreams had become a reality. It proved to be the last of her successes in a long and adventurous life.

This year has been a roller coaster for me. I am back on the English canals where I feel I belong. Sadly, I am here without my wife. I’m still coming to terms with her loss in April. Cynthia’s can-do attitude persuaded me to negotiate the purchase of a first-class narrowboat with no money in the bank. Sadly, she isn’t here to enjoy the result of her drive and determination. It’s one of my life’s saddest ironies.

This year has been financially tough. I further discounted our Dutch boat after Cynthia died. Cynthia’s brother Jeff, her estate executor, pressed for an early sale to repay her bank loan. I paid the final balance to Sue and Stuart after the boat sold in July. Cynthia’s estate had the rest. That just left me to settle the debts to my two private lenders. By the year-end, both of those will be gone too, and I’ll be able to reduce my seven-day working week.

I plan to celebrate with a ten-day cruise to Market Harborough. I’ll find a remote and tranquil spot to spend Christmas Day on the Grand Union Leicester Line’s peaceful summit pound and reflect on the joyful highs and tragic lows of an eventful year. I’ll raise a glass to Cynthia’s memory and to my future on the English waterways. Thank you, Cynthia, for the vision, optimism and determination which encouraged me to negotiate the purchase of my beautiful home with an empty bank account.

Discovery Day Update

Steve and Sue joined me yesterday for my first salesmanship training day of the month. The morning weather was awful. A lively breeze forced us to crab out way past Napton reservoir and blinded us with smoke from my roof-mounted exhaust stack. It wasn’t the most promising start to a day which Steve hoped would convert Sue to an ardent inland waterways enthusiast.

Sue suffers from acute motion sickness. She worried that a cruise on the gentle swell of England’s ordinarily placid canals would cause her more pain than pleasure. And the thought of tackling the rushing waters of a Grand Union canal lock terrified her.

Heavy rain throughout the morning failed to dampen their enthusiasm. Sue’s lock wheeling job didn’t begin until the end of the day. She enjoyed much of the cruise sheltering from the rain and basking in the heat radiating from my boatman’s cabin range.

Talk changed as the day progressed from whether they should buy a boat to what equipment they should buy when they did. As we tackled our sixth and final lock, Sue confided that locks aren’t nearly as intimidating as she expected. And she admitted that the exercise the liveaboard lifestyle entails would do them both a power of good. 

Sue and Steve chatted excitedly about visiting local narrowboat brokers as they left. Both were confident that neither motion sickness nor lock fear would play a part in their floating lives. It was a happy conclusion to a successful day.

If you are considering living afloat on England’s inland waterways, or if you are thinking about purchasing a narrowboat for recreational cruising, I urge you to join me for a day. You’ll learn how to handle a narrowboat safely, and you’ll gain valuable insight into life on the English waterways network.

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

A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part One

 

October and the tail end of the hire boat season are almost upon us. Colder and wetter days keep many aspiring boat owners indoors. They remember balmy summer days strolling beneath weeping willows watching brightly painted narrowboats chug slowly along a thin ribbon of sparkling water. They remember the joy of spotting pairs of majestic swans leading flotillas of ungainly signets. And the lucky few who hired boats for summer holidays smile at the memory of the good-natured boat yard banter at the beginning of their idyllic breaks afloat.

They browse wistfully through the narrowboat sales listings on popular boating sites like Apolloduck and think about the life they could have. If only.

…If only I didn’t have to work…

…If only I didn’t have to… (insert excuse here)…

And arguably the most challenging barrier to overcome for many aspiring narrowboat owners.

…If only I had enough money in the bank.

A cash shortage may be all that’s standing between you and your boating dreams, your hope for a less stressful and more tranquil way of life. Especially where buying your boat is concerned.

Rather than sabotaging a potentially happy future, search for the solutions rather than the problems. I talk from personal experience, although I needed constant coaching from one of life’s greatest optimists when I purchased my last two boats.

Let me give you some examples of creative narrowboat purchasing from my own experience.

I moved onto my first narrowboat on 2nd April 2010, my fiftieth birthday. I wasn’t interested in boating back then. The neglected boat, James No 194, was in a terrible state. The tired old girl had paint hanging in ribbons from the plywood cabin, and the engine room and aft cabin were inches underwater. I didn’t care. I was licking my wounds after saying goodbye to the business I had worked so hard to grow for fifteen years. My business failure was followed a few short months later by the demise of my twenty-year marriage.

The old boat was all I could afford. I paid a peppercorn rent to the owner, Roger Preen, my boss at the marina, and promised to do all I could to help prevent the boat’s further decline.

I instantly fell in love with the boating lifestyle in general and James in particular. Although I could never quite get my head around calling a boat a man’s name and then referring to it as “she”.

After renting James for eighteen months, I wanted to return my home to its former glory. Despite peeling paint and gunnels hidden under a thick layer of crunchy rust and a roof which leaked like a sieve, she was beautiful inside. James had a cabin fitted with gorgeous fitted pine furniture and, at the stern, a classic Mercedes engine waited to push the boat gently along England’s connected canals and rivers.

But I wasn’t prepared to invest any money into my home unless I owned it. Even though James hadn’t moved from her mooring in over a decade. Roger’s wife, Rosemary, often used the old girl to entertain her fellow artists. She was emotionally attached to the boat, so she was reluctant to part with James.

I managed to eventually persuade her that the boat would be better off with me. I told her that James needed to be pampered, painted and polished regularly rather than used for occasional summertime parties.

When Rosemary reluctantly agreed to sell, I dropped my bombshell.

I worked at the marina at the time, helping maintain the company’s beautiful and expansive grounds. The work was as enjoyable as the pay was awful. I supplemented my income with products I sold on my fledgeling boating website. I had no savings and very little disposable income. I couldn’t afford to buy a takeaway meal, let alone a boat.

I couldn’t afford the boat, but I had nothing to lose by asking.

My brief conversation about the purchase went something like this;

“Thank you for agreeing to sell James to me. I know that you’ll love what I plan to do with her. There’s just one little problem. I don’t have any money. Will you allow me time to pay for your lovely boat?”

The answer from my boss both surprised and delighted me. “Here’s the deal,” he offered immediately. “You can pay me what you want when you want. I don’t mind how little or how much you pay me each month. Take as long as you want, but you can’t stop working for me until you’ve paid for the boat.”

How’s that for a win-win deal? I worked hard to keep the marina looking good. As far as I was concerned, and I still feel the same way, Calcutt Boats has two of the prettiest marinas on the network. Working there was a pleasure. My boss recognised that and was happy to lock me into working a few years at the marina. I was delighted with the outcome. I think he was too.

Three years passed before I could pay my final instalment. By that time, I had also invested a substantial sum into the boat’s refurbishment. I couldn’t have switched to a floating lifestyle without Roger’s generous assistance. I repaid his kindness by resigning as soon as I made the final payment so that I could cruise the network full time. I’m not proud of myself.

I purchased James No 194 using an informal hire purchase agreement

I purchased James No 194 using an informal hire purchase agreement

You might wonder how this helps you. Surely, you’ll argue, people and situations like this are unique?

Arrangements like this, or their potential, are far more common than you might expect.

Here’s another example.

My wife, Cynthia, and I sold our respective homes in 2016, my boat and her house in Arlington, Vermont and crossed the English Channel for a life of leisure on the continent. We toured far and wide in our Hymer motorhome, from the north coast of Denmark in the north down to Spain’s southernmost tip.

But much as we enjoyed our travels we both missed boating.

The Netherlands’ vast network of connected canals, rivers and lakes enchanted us. We toured extensively through the Dutch landscape of low fields, working windmills and nodding tulips. The more time we spent parked close to waterways filled with bobbing boats, the more we wanted to join them.

We had enough money between us to purchase a classic Dutch motor cruiser. Then we spent much of our remaining savings on improvements and essential repairs. Julisa was a quality boat but, with its wooden top and canvas roof, she wasn’t suitable for anything other than summer cruising. After a few short weeks back on the water we talked about buying a bigger boat, a craft better suited to three or four season cruising and maybe, just maybe, a boat suitable for living on permanently.

Dutch motor cruiser, Julisa. The only boat I've purchased outright.

Dutch motor cruiser, Julisa. The only boat I’ve purchased outright.

We found what we thought was the perfect boat moored at a small boat club on the outskirts of Antwerp. We loved everything but the name. Dik Trom was the Dutch answer to England’s Billy Bunter; a fat boy, sorry, calorically challenged young man, renowned for his greed. Dik Trom was also famous for riding a donkey backwards. Given that I had a backwards approach to DIY, I felt an immediate connection with the boat.

Our new floating home, a 1984 Linssen motor cruiser, suited its name perfectly. She was short and fat and ate as much as possible. I was used to my Mercedes engine, pushing my narrowboat slowly along a series of muddy ditches. The thirty-eight horsepower engine consumed a modest litre an hour. Dik Trom, with nearly three times as many horses under the bonnet, used three and a half litres an hour to surge through Holland’s deep and extensive waterways. She was an expensive girl to please.

Dik Trom’s owner, Walter, was a kindly and retired pilot who lost the mobility needed to climb aboard his boat. Dik Trom had already been for sale for two years, priced far too ambitiously at €63,000 (£55,000). The boat’s asking price was too much for us. Most of our money was tied up in our German motorhome and our Dutch motor cruiser. But we wanted Dik Trom, so we needed to find a creative solution, one which would allow the boat without me having a nervous breakdown.

I don’t feel comfortable with an empty bank account. I worry and fret If I don’t have a financial safety net. Ever since the UK’s Revenue and Customs department forced me and my failing business into bankruptcy in 2008, money shortage has terrified me.

Cynthia, on the other hand, was always the eternal optimist. “What’s the worst that can happen?” she would often ask. She was trying to reassure me but asking me something like that is looking for trouble. I have a vivid imagination, especially where doom and gloom is concerned. I pictured unforeseen medical emergencies; Cynthia losing her pension, dwindling interest in my website and anything I offered for sale. I imagined a country which didn’t want to employ me under any circumstances. I worried about doggy disasters requiring expensive surgery, homelessness and poverty, and the pair of us wandering the streets of Europe without a penny between us.

I was so far out of my comfort zone that I had trouble breathing.

But Cynthia was as persuasive as I am easy to persuade. “You have skills,” she reassured me. “You’ll have no problem earning money if you set your mind to it.” Yeah, right. I owned and managed small businesses for most of my life. I was fifty-seven with no employment history and no skills likely to persuade a potential employer to hire me. I wasn’t keen on exploring that route.

“You’re a talented photographer,” she assured me. “You can easily earn money by selling your work online.” I didn’t consider myself talented, nor did I think that selling anything online was easy especially photographs. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of websites offering millions of pictures uploaded by both amateur and professional photographers. Few of them attracted buyers. Professional photographers using the latest and most expensive digital cameras invested an extraordinary amount of time and effort for little financial return. My photos were reasonably well composed, but my handheld iPhone camera pictures didn’t have the pin-sharp clarity necessary to encourage potential buyers to part with their hard-earned cash.

I quickly dismissed the idea too, so Cynthia tried a different line of attack.

“You are a gifted writer,” she told me. “You can earn money from your scribbling.” Was she serious? Writing blog posts for narrowboat enthusiasts hardly put me in the same league as J.K. Rowling. I earned a little from the site’s guides and packages. But the longer I stayed in Europe far away from England’s muddy ditches, the less I made. My income potential would probably be higher in a French burger bar.

My most realistic opportunity to earn some cash was to apply for a position at one of Holland’s many boatyards, boat clubs or marinas. Despite having the practical skills of a three-year-old, at least I could work hard. I reasoned that, with tens of thousands of boats using The Netherlands’ vast waterways network, boatyard employers must need someone to do their grunt work.

Then I would have the language barrier to overcome — something else to worry me. But my endless money concerns were slowly being eclipsed by a desire to return to life on the water.

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t… you’re right!”

Cynthia eventually persuaded me to think positively and imagine that I could find paid employment. She encouraged me to step far outside my comfort zone, walk a boat buying tightrope without a financial safety net and empty my bank account. “Everything will be all right in the end,” she assured me.

I managed to find employment at the prestigious marina where we had collected Julisa. The company needed someone to apply antifouling systems to an endless procession of expensive yachts. It wasn’t employment which gladdened by heart, but it would help with the bills if we were to buy another boat.

Even with a bridging loan from Cynthia’s bank, we were still €15,000 short, so we asked the broker to arrange a meeting with owner Walter.

Walter was a kind and compassionate man. He had lived on or near the water for most of his working life. Walter was passionate about boats and boating and loved his Linssen yacht. We met Walter for coffee in his canalside clubhouse. He talked about his frustration now that he lacked the mobility or energy to maintain his beautiful boat properly. “A boat should be cherished and treated with respect,” he sighed. “I can’t do that any more. She needs to go to someone who will look after her.”

Dik Trom's owner agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and give us time to pay the €5,000 balance

Dik Trom’s owner agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and give us time to pay the €5,000 balance

That was our opportunity. I showed Walter photographs of James throughout her five-year restoration project and photos of the work we had done on Julisa. I convinced Walter that Dik Trom would be in good hands. I talked enthusiastically about the jobs I would tackle immediately. I planned to renew the antifouling, paint the hull and superstructure, varnish any exposed woodwork and tackle a long list of minor repairs. Much as he was encouraged by my enthusiasm, Cynthia enchanted him with her warmth and compassion. Before we left Walter, he had agreed to…

Read A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 2…

Discovery Day Update

I continue to work during the week for Calcutt Boats and at the weekend for myself. I host experience and helmsmanship training days on my 62′ narrowboat, Orient. Here’s what a recent guest had to say…

“(I) Wanted to learn about steering canal boats and using locks as (I) wanted to buy and live on a boat and be able to safely move it without recking or sinking it within minutes of purchase!! I also wanted some tips about living on a boat from someone who actually does it….not just a broker who is keen to sell me a boat….

(My Discovery Day was) well above expectations. Yes, I wanted it very ‘hands on’ with the boat and got lots of practical experience which is exactly what i needed! Also, lots of guidance given about what to do and the theory side. I came back feeling confident I could handle boat now in most situations. You were also great company and very patient. It would also be good to additionally learn how to move swing bridges and ‘the other type’ but I guess none on that stretch of canal. I think i do need to do a bit more knot tying experience but I guess that is a days course on it’s own and the phone app you suggested looks great!  

Yes, (I would) definitely (recommend your day to others). I have already done so and told them it is great value for money! The location is also beautiful and the boat stunning.” Jackie Tonks, 

I’m grateful for Jackie’s kind words. Her feedback is similar to hundreds of testimonials that I’ve received over the past half decade. I haven’t shared the  comments with you to show off (although it’s nice that I can), but to emphasise that, if you want to increase your chances of enjoying your time afloat and purchasing a problem free boat, you will be in very good hands. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here. I hope that you can join me on an idyllic and instructive day out on the cut.

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