Paul Smith

Author Archives: Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.

The Pros And Cons Of Narrowboat Marina Moorings

Two months have passed since I returned from my nine-week winter break, tethered to a tiny area of England’s canal and river network by coronavirus restrictions, winter stoppages and ice. Despite thoroughly enjoying time off doing nothing more meaningful than rearranging my sock drawer, I missed aspects of marina life.

There’s been an avalanche of waterways interest over the last turbulent year. Narrowboats are selling as quickly as brokers can advertise them, and holiday hire boat operators are laughing all the way to their collective bank. My experience and helmsman training day bookings have gone through the roof as aspiring liveaboard narrowboat owners investigate life on England’s muddy ditches.

(If you plan to join me for an information-packed and thoroughly enjoyable cruise on the cut this year, you need to secure a date soon. Despite reducing my marina working days to accommodate more aspiring boat owners, I’m now fully booked until early September. You can see and book available dates here, and you can read more about my Discovery Day service here.)

Because many new inland waterways boaters still need to work, finding residential moorings is high on their list of priorities. Given that I’ve lived both in a marina and out on the cut for the last eleven years, I thought I would share some of the highs and lows of marina life with you.

Firstly, I must point out that, although I live on one of Calcutt Boats two marinas, the company doesn’t offer residential moorings. The relatively few boaters who live afloat here are employed by or connected with the company. That’s a shame for you if you want a residential mooring because Calcutt Boats has two of the prettiest marinas in the country, in my slightly biased opinion.

If you are looking for a marina mooring, there are several factors you should take into consideration, especially if you hope to live on your boat there full time.

Travel To And From Your Marina

The UK’s inland waterways network encompasses over 2,000 miles of connected and navigable canals and rivers. It stretches from Ripon, North Yorkshire and Tewitfield in Lancashire in the north, down to Avonmouth in the southwest and Goldaming in the south. With an appropriately thin boat, you can cruise east until you reach The Wash and then provide endless entertainment for the holidaymakers in Skegness as your flat-bottomed and underpowered boat sinks without trace.

There are hundreds of marinas and online mooring providers up and down the network. I spent many hours creating a bespoke Google map listing them all half a decade ago. Sadly, the good people at Google appear to have deleted my map. However, the free map included with the Waterways World annual lists 397 boatyards and marinas. That’s a good place for you to start if you have your heart set on a marina mooring.

Most of these marinas and boatyards DO NOT welcome residential boat owners. Some do but don’t advertise the fact. The only way you can establish the rules – published or otherwise – is to visit a marina or mooring provider you fancy, identify liveaboard boats by chimney smoke and roof clutter and chat to the owners.

There’s plenty of scope for you if you just want a leisure mooring, a mooring where you can park your boat when you return to your house rather than use it as a full-time home. Most marinas have spaces these days, including those at Calcutt Boats.

If you’re searching for a leisure mooring, try to avoid locations more than a couple of hours drive from your home. You’ll be full of enthusiasm when you buy your boat. You’ll smile as you think about using it for relaxing weekend breaks after stressful working weeks. Unfortunately, you may gloss over the logistical challenges ahead of you.

Unless you’re prepared to fill your boat with all the clothing and equipment you need for your second home, you’ll spend hours packing before you leave your house, more frustrating hours fighting Friday night traffic and then you’ll face the tedium of carrying, unpacking and tidying when you reach your boat. Before long, you’ll associate visits to your weekend retreat with exhaustion. And you’ll decide to stay at home instead.

Most marinas have far too many rarely visited narrowboats. Calcutt Boats is no exception. There are boats moored on their two marinas which haven’t seen visitors in years. Imagine paying £2,500 for moorings and another £1,000 a year for a license and not using your boat. It’s crazy.

Ensure that you fully understand the logistical issues you’ll need to overcome to use your boat if it’s moored on a distant marina.

Cruising Potential

And if you’re going to use your boat regularly, you want to have as many route options available to you as possible. That’s one of the reasons Calcutt Boats and the other nearby marinas are so popular. Boat owners can take the South Oxford down to the Thames, the Grand Union west towards Birmingham and the northern canals, or east towards Braunston, where there are more route options. There’s the North Oxford towards Coventry or the Grand Union down to London. A flight of locks, a fascinating tunnel passage and a pleasant hour’s cruise on the Grand Union takes boaters to Norton Junction and access to the Grand Union Leicester Line’s tranquil summit pound. While summer boaters fight for overcrowded moorings on popular routes, the Leicester Line’s twenty-mile summit pound is a peaceful haven for work-weary recreational boaters.

Then for a bit of excitement, there’s Foxton’s iconic flight of ten staircase locks popular with hordes of Leicester gongoozlers. Pretty Market Harborough is two pleasant hours from the Foxton flight along a peaceful arm. The canals accessible from Calcutt Boats offer boaters a wide range of cruising experiences.

The other extreme is a mooring at the end of a long arm or canal on the network’s edge. Boaters often have to face a tedious cruise on an overly familiar waterway before reaching a new route. The monotony becomes too much to bear, and once again, a poor narrowboat sits on its lonely mooring for months or years on end.

Aesthetics

‘All marinas are equal, but some marinas are more equal than others,’ is a phrase you won’t find in Animal Farm. There’s more to a mooring than space where you park your boat.

The sun sets over Calcutt Boats Meadows marina

If you own a recreational boat, sometimes all you want is a tranquil alternative to your brick and mortar home, somewhere to unwind after a hectic working week. You don’t have the energy to cruise. All you want is a peaceful space where you can relax and unwind.

For me, that doesn’t mean sidestepping boaters on congested moorings shoehorned into small and aesthetically displeasing spaces. That’s where Calcutt Boats really excels. Imagine leaving a congested motorway and then driving along increasingly peaceful roads until the only other traffic has four legs and a rider in a high visibility jacket. Oh, and maybe a tractor dashing between crop filled fields.

Imagine turning off that quiet road onto a half-mile private lane dotted with riding stables. Then you enter a security code to open a pair of wrought iron electric gates and drive into paradise.

Three SSSI wildflower meadows flank a long private Tarmac drive onto the spacious site. It’s early spring, so a sea of yellow cowslips has replaced swathes of nodding daffodils. When the cowslips disappear, they’ll be replaced by colourful wildflowers with wonderfully odd names; bristly oxtongue, bird’s foot trefoil, lady’s bedstraw and the Victorian lady of the night, Tansy Ragwort. Just reading these names should bring a smile to your face.

You drive deeper into the site, beneath Meadow’s marina’s flower dotted bank. Footpaths meander through seven woodland acres to your left. Tranquil dusk walks are there if you want them and the thrill of fleeting glimpses of muntjak deer, buzzards and barn owls. You can look forward to a night serenaded by pigeon coos and owl hoots, interrupted by the rat-a-tat-tat of green woodpeckers. The nighttime cries are a pleasant change from the din created by traffic and late-night drunken revellers near your city home.

Then there are the site’s two spacious marinas teeming with fish; pike, perch and zander lurking in the shallows, waiting to nip the toes of bare-footed boaters, shoals of rudd, tench, bream and solitary carp as large as small children. The crystal clear water is also home to a healthy population of water birds.

While the site’s pen swan sits regally on a nest the size of a jacuzzi, her mate spends his day paddling, flapping and flying at his deadly enemies, a flock of honking Canada geese.

Three cygnets relax on Calcutt’s slipway

The mallards squabble over mates, coots swim in aimless circles and kingfishers dart across the marina like bright blue bullets. This is a haven for both wildlife and people.

Choose your marina mooring carefully. Not all are this peaceful.

Tranquillity – Proximity to busy roads, railways and airports

There are many occasions when you want to stay on your boat for a few days but not take it out cruising. If you’re going to do little more than relax, having a pretty place to moor is only part of the equation. The peace and quiet of many marinas are spoiled by their proximity to busy roads, railways or aircraft flight paths.

Calcutt’s two marinas are not too bad in that respect. The nearest main road is over half a mile away, so you can just about hear the muted drone of passing traffic on still days. There is a railway track nearby, but as it hasn’t been used for sixty years, its proximity doesn’t cause any boater hardship. Unlike many roadside marinas, you have to listen carefully to hear traffic noise at Calcutt Boats.

The only slightly annoying traffic noise comes from a nearby landowner and his microlight. Much as I’ve been tempted to take potshots at him with an air rifle, I’ve been reminded that shooting planes isn’t the done thing in the UK.

Manoeuvrability

Finding and securing a decent marina mooring is just one part of your happiness afloat equation. Actually getting your boat on and off it is another consideration.

Narrowboats are large and unwieldy craft, often as long and heavy as a three-axle articulated lorry. These peculiar boats are famously unresponsive on windy and open waters, which you have on most marinas.

The last thing you want is a mooring hemmed in by other boats. Removing your craft from a rank of boats packed like sardines in a tin can be enough of a trauma to discourage you from cruising.

Which of the following marinas would you prefer.

Calcutt Boats Meadows Marina

Calcutt Boats Meadows Marina

22,000 square metres for 140 boats = 157 square metres per boat

Wigrams Turn Marina

Wigrams Turn Marina

29,000 square metres FOR 225 boats = 128 square metres per boat

Bill Fen Marina

Bill Fen Marina

12,000 square metres for 135 boats = 89 square metres per boat

Services

Very few marinas offer as many services as Calcutt Boats. There are two Elsan (sewage disposal) points for cassette toilet owners and two pump-out stations for boats with holding tanks. Gas, coal, kindling, logs and diesel are available, as is a comprehensive range of narrowboat fittings, spares and equipment. There’s a slipway for self-launches, hull and stern gear repairs and a painter available all year round for hull blacking.

Orient has her bottom pampered

Orient has her bottom pampered

Calcutt Boats employ two full and one part-time engineer, fitters, painters and a marine electrician. Although the company no longer builds its successful Clipper class narrowboat, skilled tradesmen are on hand for repairs and modifications. All the owners of boats moored at Calcutt have to do to organise BSS exams, repairs, or alterations is pick up a phone. Calcutt employees collect boats from their moorings and return them when the work is completed. Getting the same job done at a marina without services is much more difficult.

Security

Is your boat always safe on a marina mooring? Not necessarily. Marinas on the towpath side of a canal are far easier to access than those on the offside. Marinas near public roads are similarly accessible.

I have lived and worked at Calcutt Boats on and off for eleven years now, and I can’t remember a single instance of theft from boats within the marina. Thieves have a hard time of it here. They have to drive along a half-mile private drive and key in a passcode to an electric gate before they can get onto the site. And then they have to escape the beady eyes of the staff who work at the marina. We like to think that we’re a welcoming bunch at the marina unless your intentions are less than noble. Then we’re like a pack of rabid Rottweilers with hangovers and impacted wisdom teeth. You and your boat are safe here while the dogs are prowling.

Cost

The further south you go, the more you’re going to have to pay to park your boat. A prestige mooring in central London can cost you £1,000 each month. In contrast, a leisure mooring at Calcutt Boats – with arguably two of the network’s prettiest marinas, located in picturesque rural Warwickshire – will cost you a mere £2,600 a year for a 60’ boat.

And suppose you think you need the additional space offered by a fat boat. In that case, you can look forward to paying twice that at marinas with moorings predominantly used by narrowboats. At least in a wide beam craft, you’ll get value for your mooring money. You’re likely to find extended cruising so stressful that you’ll spend most of your time tethered to a pier.

Mooring Classification

Most mooring owners on the inland waterways network offer leisure moorings only. You are usually not allowed to live on a leisure mooring, but the exact rules differ widely. If you want to live aboard your boat full time, you need to secure a residential mooring, and you’ll pay a pretty penny for that.

While most marinas won’t offer you an official residential mooring, they may let you slip under the net. You will need to visit a marina you fancy and talk to boat owners about the unwritten rules. Still, you will always stand a better chance of staying long term on a marina mooring if you blend in.

That means being pleasant to the marina staff and following their rules. If you put your head above the parapet, you’re likely to get shot. An otherwise lovely boat owner at Calcutt was recently asked to leave the marina after constantly refusing to adhere to the rules.

Your boat’s condition will play a part in your acceptability too. If the marina you want to stay in is filled with clean and tidy narrowboats, and you bring in something which looks like it belongs in a skip, you aren’t going to win any popularity contests. Obey the rules, be nice and keep a tidy boat and you’re halfway there.

Discovery Day Update

There has been an extraordinary surge in interest in the inland waterways in the last year. With more and more people able to work remotely, narrowboats are selling as quickly as brokers can advertise them. Whilton Marina, one of the network’s largest brokers, often has 75+ narrowboats for sale. Today, there are just eight. Although Calcutt Boats’ brokerage is a much smaller operation, the company often has twenty for sale. That’s down to two boats today.

It’s a seller’s market at the moment so prices are sky high and decent boats are few and far between. The good news for you if you’re considering buying a narrowboat is that there will be many boats coming back on the market in the near future. Many new narrowboat owners have invested their life savings into boats that they haven’t researched. I’ve spoken to several disenchanted people who’ve bought boats over the last twelve months who are now considering selling.

There’s much more to living afloat than many people think. They have to consider mooring type and availability, electricity use, reduction and generation, coal, water, gas and diesel resupply and shoehorning a life’s possessions into a much smaller space than they’re used to. Narrowboat ownership isn’t something you should rush into without research.

This website is a good place to start. I’ve added hundreds of articles over the last decade. You can use the search facility at the top of the right-hand column to find the answers to any lifestyle questions you have. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, please let me know. I’m always happy to point an aspiring narrowboat owner in the right direction.

If you still think the lifestyle is right for you, get some practical experience. Hire a narrowboat for a week or two, preferably in the winter months when you won’t be able to look at the lifestyle through rose-tinted glasses. Even better, book an experience day with me.

I’ve taken hundreds of people out for the day since my first Discovery Day booking in June 2014. I’ve received many emails since then from happy customers, like this one below…

Well, I have a couple of days off now from the coal face, so it's a time to relax and review our day onboard your home. Thank You so much for allowing me onto Orient and the time you spent with me and all of your advice. It was a fantastic day!! Couldn't have asked for more and really enjoyed it. I also had the best night's sleep in a long time, so there must be something in all of this fresh air hey?


I had researched boat life before around 5-6 years ago and had found you then and used your calculator to cost interpret the dream. Life got in the way, some work decisions were changed and it got shelved. However, I am considering it again and so it made perfect sense to spend time with yourself knowing how you have helped many others before me. Through your blogs I knew you had vast amounts of experience.


The day was nice and relaxed and great company. I was watered with plenty of coffee! The initial questions I had sent were answered throughout the day along with more information than I had considered. I found the walkthrough of your boat useful as I could see what I did/didn't need and how I may want a layout for myself. Think this now allows a much narrower view when looking at boats.


I couldn't imagine considering any part of my research now without having spent time with you & I'll be looking to spend more time either before and prior to the boat purchase.

andrew larig0

15th May 2021

If you’re serious about living afloat or even buying a narrowboat for recreational use, make sure that you understand what’s in store for you. Join me for a day. You can read more about my Discovery Day service here and view and book dates here. Please note that there’s nothing wrong with my calendar. I’m fully booked until early September. Don’t let that put you off though. Autumn and winter cruises give you the opportunity to experience the reality of living afloat when the sun’s not shining. Don’t be worried about that. Winter is my favourite time of the year for tranquil cruising.

I hope to welcome you aboard Orient soon. Tea or coffee?

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Summary

Bullock Battles And Sainsbury Silliness

I’m back on my Calcutt Boats mooring now following my two months cruising break. Not that I managed to do any cruising. I moved less than a mile a day during my sixty-day holiday thanks to Lockdown 3.0. I couldn’t complain. I moored for weeks at a time, far from the stresses and strains of modern-day life.

I chose the quietest place I could find for my final three weeks, three miles away from the nearest shop and the place I chose for collecting my weekly Sainsbury grocery order. My last collection was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

I considered cruising into Braunston to collect my groceries, then decided against it when I saw the broken ice patches’ thickness. My boat had been trapped by two inches of ice for five days. I had enough capacity in my remaining cassette to last another night, so I decided to show some consideration for my hull blacking, leave Orient stationery and walk into Braunston to collect my Sainsbury order.

I ambled along the muddy towpath, basking in the weak spring sun. I dillied, and I dallied on my way to The Boathouse car park for my grocery appointment, arriving with ten minutes to spare. A few minutes before the start of my hour slot, my phone rang. ‘I’m stuck outside your gate with your delivery,’ a lady told me in broken English. I couldn’t understand why she was at a closed gate when The Boathouse car park is gate-free. Then, because I have a mind like a razor, I deduced that she was outside Calcutt Boats’ main gates in Stockton instead of where she should have been in Braunston.

I tried to explain to the driver that she was in the wrong place. She didn’t understand me. I told her to cancel the order. I couldn’t collect my food from Stockton if I was stuck in Braunston without transport. This wasn’t at all like the efficiency I was used to from Sainsbury.

I was frustrated and a little pissed off. I phoned Sainsbury’s customer service department and complained about their rare but annoying system failure. I explained in tedious detail the effort I had put into reaching the delivery point. My six-mile return journey would take two hours, I told the poor guy listening to me. Sainsbury had let me down, and I wasn’t happy. I wanted the unfortunate customer service guy to appease me with a swift resolution.

The patient man tried to reason with me. He offered to reroute the van and try to deliver my groceries to the correct address later in the evening. I pointed out to him that I was three miles from my home, standing in a windswept pub car park. He apologised for the inconvenience and promised to credit my account with ten pounds.

Despite feeling let down, I tried to make the most of the situation. I climbed a hill to Braunston’s convenience store to buy something for my evening meal. I decided to’ spend’ my Sainsbury voucher and treat myself to a steak and a decent bottle of wine. I filled my basket with other groceries while I was there too. I decided that I might as well fill my rucksack with food from Braunston if I couldn’t get any from Sainsbury’s delivery driver. I selected food for the next couple of days, paid and hauled my basked outside the shop to load my rucksack.

My phone rang again. A cheerful man declared that he was waiting in The Boathouse car park with my delivery. I was confused. Surely Sainsbury wouldn’t reroute a delivery van just for me? I wanted to know how the driver had driven from Stockton to Braunston so quickly and why he had changed from a woman to a man. I said as much to him, which is probably why he laughed nervously and hung up.

I waddled as quickly as I could with my heavy rucksack, half a mile from the village centre to the pub, puffing, panting and wondering what on Earth was happening. Then the truth hit me like a bolt of lightning.  I checked my phone and confirmed that the original phone call had come from Amazon and not Sainsbury’s. I had managed to cancel an Amazon delivery at the marina and complain about the non-delivery of an order waiting for me in a Braunston pub car park. What a cock up.

I apologised to the Sainsbury driver who was waiting patiently for me in the pub car park, shoehorned a week’s groceries into my rucksack on top of my Braunston shopping and staggered three miles back to my boat.

I had just enough strength left for a second call to Sainsbury’s customer services department, this time to apologise rather than complain. The man I spoke to was so pleased to hear a rare apology that he insisted that I keep the £10 voucher. Sometimes honesty pays!

My confused mind often encourages me to make decisions that don’t end well. With very little interest to tell you about my last few weeks on the cut, let me tell you about one of those catastrophic cockups from 2015.

I left my job at Calcutt Boats in April that year to live the life of a carefree continuous cruiser. I dashed hither and thither like an unrestrained child in a shop filled with open sweet jars. I wanted to cruise every canal on the network, tick off all ‘must see’ inland waterways sights and generally wear myself into the ground.

Seven hundred miles into my cruising year, I nervously shut Duke’s Cut lock gate behind me and crept through a winding channel onto the mighty River Thames. I was relieved to discover that during a dry spell in mid-July, the Thames wasn’t as intimidating as I expected… until I reached Eynsham Lock.

I waxed lyrical about the river’s tranquillity as I handed over a wad of cash for my seven day Thames license. The portly middle-aged lock keeper offered me some peculiar advice. ‘You need to be careful if you’re going as far as Lechlade.’ He pointed at the colourful flower basket on my gas locker lid. ‘That’s a mid-morning snack for the bullocks there. There isn’t a fence between them and Lechlade’s riverside moorings. They’ll eat your flowers and chew your mooring lines. They’ll try your cratch cover too if they can get hold of it.’ I dismissed the lock keeper’s advice as a typical and harmless attempt at winding up a Thames virgin.

Experience And Training Days For Aspiring Live Aboard Narrowboat Owners

Join me on beautiful narrowboat Orient for an idyllic cruise through rural Warwickshire. Discover all you need to know about living on the inland waterways and learn how to handle a 62' narrowboat on a winding canal and through six Grand Union locks.

I began to worry a little when I received the same advice at Pinkhill Lock half an hour later. Either these two lock keepers had a mischievous streak, or my Lechlade stay might not be quite as relaxed as I hoped. I decided to err on the side of caution and hide my flowers.

Paranoia had set in by the time I reached St John’s and the final short leg to Lechlade three days later.’ Yes, I know about the bullocks,’ I assured the lock keeper as I carried my flower basket to my rear deck and gently lowered it onto the deck boards covering my old Mercedes engine. I knew so much about the frisky cowlings that the thought of mooring anywhere near Lechlade worried me senseless.

I could see a dozen of them on the far side of a vast meadow as James slipped over shallow mud to reach the river bank. I hammered a couple of mooring pins into the sun-baked ground, made sure that anything remotely edible was stored out of sight and walked into Lechlade to replenish my dwindling food supply.

I returned an hour later to a worrying sight. I was moored at the tail end of a four narrowboat row. Bovine admirers obscured their cabin sides as they licked, nibbled and tugged at ropes and canopies. One bullock plucked a canvas sun hat from a cabin roof, worrying it like a dog with a bone.

Three of the enormous beasts focussed on my floating home; one nibbled my braid-on-braid bow mooring line, another licked my side hatch cover, while a third explored my stern with its basket of hidden flowers.

I gave the nearest a gentle slap. The baby bull twitched its ample rump and continued its inedible meal. Talking to them quietly was equally ineffective. My best John Wayne cattle-driving howl provoked a response, but only from two giggling American tourists who gazed in wonder at a slice of eccentric English country life.

I left the determined bullocks to their grazing, climbed into my cabin and worried. I knew that I wasn’t going to sleep that night. I was sure that nightmares of four-footed horned demons would haunt me, so I devised a cunning plan.

A barbed-wire fence dipped into the river behind our field-side moorings. There was a rough bank behind it, just long enough for me to moor if I could get close enough to the river bank to jump ashore. I would need to hold my heavy home against the offshore breeze while I found a way of securing twenty tonnes of steel to the hardened clay bank. I knew that it would be hard work. Still, if I could get in there, I would be safe from bullocky nighttime forays.

My boat sped away from the bank as soon as I untied my mooring lines. The wind was stronger than I expected. I knew that I would get one chance to tie up on my cow-safe mooring before the wind pushed my home into the river centre. Forward planning was critical if I wanted to avoid the embarrassing sight of my boat sailing off without me.

I pushed my boat into the new mooring’s bank-side mud and threw my stern over to join it. I leapt four feet onto the high bank armed with my centre line, two mooring pins and a lump hammer. I could feel my centre line tightening as soon as I landed. Before I could tie my bow and stern lines to nearby trees, I needed to secure my centre line to stop James from drifting out of reach. I dropped my centre line, stood on it with both feet, grabbed one of the two steep pins and hammered it into the hard clay for all I was worth.

The rock hard ground defeated me. After a dozen hard blows, I had done little more than dent the solid clay. My frustration grew as I felt my centre line slipping beneath my feet. I hit the pin as hard as I could once, twice… nothing. After a third enormous whack, half the pin disappeared. Another hit, and it was in all the way to its head. Perfect, I thought, until the first few wasps of an angry swarm circled my head.

My centre line slipped a little further, allowing my boat to drift six feet away from the bank. I was out of options. I had to ignore the wasps, move a couple of feet away from their nest and try again. The swarm wasn’t at all happy. I felt a jab like a blunt needle in my left ear, another in my chin, more on my exposed arms. Reacting to a calf sting, I jerked one foot away from my centre line, and my home slipped further out of reach.

After what felt like a lifetime of hammering and excruciating fresh stings, I banged two pins in far enough to secure my centre line. Then I waded into the river, first at my stern and then again at my bow to retrieve my mooring lines and secured them to nearby trees. I climbed onto my back deck, my body a mass of pain and angry red swelling.

But the ordeal was behind me. I was safe from stinging wasps and destructive cows.I climbed into my cabin and heated the remainder of the previous day’s stew, opened my last bottle of red and poured half of it into a goldfish bowl goblet.

Antiseptic cream relived some of the pain. Half a pint of Wolf Blass dulled the rest. I began to relax and think about the quiet night ahead. That was when my cabin lurched suddenly towards the river and my evening meal and the rest of my wine crashed to the floor.

I didn’t have a clue what was happening. I could hear unfamiliar thuds coming from my stern, so I staggered through my tilting cabin to the back of the boat to determine the reason for my list.

Remember my crafty plan for keeping my flower basket out of harm’s way? In my hurry to treat my stings, I had left my rear doors open. That wouldn’t be a problem on any other occasion. On the day from hell, though, fate had other ideas.

My four-legged tormentors had walked down the muddy riverbank and into the Thames. Walking around the end of the barbed wire fence wasn’t a problem for such tall animals. The lead bullock didn’t have a problem either when it faced a further obstacle between him and a tasty treat. He reared up, placed his two forelegs on my back deck and leaned forward into my engine room to reach my flowers. That’s what caused my list. Narrowboat sterns aren’t meant to accommodate half-tonne bullocks.

I’m not proud of what I did next. I was in agony. Even though the antiseptic cream covering my body helped, each of my fourteen wasp stings throbbed painfully. My evening meal was slipping through my floorboards into the cabin bilge, and the remains of an expensive bottle of red dripped off galley cupboards and pooled on the floor like a prop from a horror movie. I was uncomfortable, hungry, thirsty, and, most of all, angry, so angry that I punched the bullock hard on the nose.

I didn’t want to harm him, but I wanted him off my boat. He’d destroyed my flower basket and scraped my back deck back to bare metal with the edges of his jagged hooves. Using brute force to get the poor animal off my boat worked but, quite rightly, backfired.

The bullock leapt backwards to get away from me, removing the substantial weight which held my boat down. The stern shot up, I slipped in a pool of rear deck bullock water and fell headfirst into the riverside reeds.

I waded from the river covered in rotting vegetation. I watched the flower-eating bullock stroll towards the front of my boat and chew contentedly on my bow line. I knew I was beaten. I untied my mooring lines, allowed the wind to push me into the river centre and chugged slowly through the fading light to St John’s lock. I moored on the lock landing that night and dreamed about garland-wearing wasps riding bullocks into a victorious battle against stupid narrowboat owners.

Discovery Day Update

There’s a bright light at the end of the pandemic’s long, dark tunnel. The inland waterways will awake on 12th April when both hire and private narrowboats will again cruise our river and canal network. That’s when I’ll resume my service too.

Because I was obliged to reschedule all my March bookings, and because of the increase in staycations and remote working has raised the inland waterways’ profile, my Discovery Day calendar has filled quickly. I have just one date left in May and four in June. I have plenty of dates available from July onwards. If you want to secure an early summer break, I suggest you think about booking now. 

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

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Summary

Unexpected Canal Dredging And Another Remote Icy Mooring

I mentioned towards the end of my last post the worrying list I developed on the South Oxford canal’s summit pound. My attempt to cruise this through route to Oxford and the River Thames didn’t end well.

I moored for five days at Priors Hardwick. It’s the most tranquil place I’ve ever stopped. I had a view to die for, no passing boats for five days, no dog walkers or hikers… nothing and no one to disturb the tranquillity. But I can understand why the canal isn’t used as often as other local routes.

I climbed the last three locks of the Napton flight after several days of heavy rain, snow and sleet. There was so much water on the summit pound that it flowed over the top lock’s upstream gates. Needless to say, I didn’t have any problems with the canal depth on my hour cruise to Priors Hardwick. But over the next few days, the water level slowly dropped until Orient sat on mud next to the towpath, allowing the port side to drop slowly towards the canal centre.

A sharp crack from my stern mooring chain woke me at dawn on my sixth day. Orient shuddered and groaned as her hull slid another inch closer to the main channel. I leapt out of bed, twisted my ankle and fell over. Orient listed to such a degree that many of my starboard cupboard doors had swung open, and I couldn’t stand anything on my kitchen worktop. My calf muscles ached as they countered the steeply sloping cabin floor, but my legs didn’t hurt as much as my head as I started to worry.

My fertile imagination doesn’t help me when things like this happen. I had visions of my home turning turtle or me trapped on the canal for weeks waiting for the next downpour. I wondered if there had been a breach which would see Orient beached on a thin ribbon of deep noxious mud. I considered the logistics of living on a waterless canal for months until CRT raised the millions of pounds necessary to repair the damage. I felt so anxious I began to hyperventilate. I knew that worrying about staying would drive me mad, so I knew I had to move. But then I feared that Orient would ground immovably on the shallow canal, blocking any through route for other boaters. Damned if I moved, cursed if I didn’t.

I decided that leaving was the lesser of two evils. I filled my Thermos travel mug with honey-sweetened fresh ground coffee, took a deep breath and began what I suspected would be a long and gruelling day. I wanted to retrace my steps, drop down the nine locks of the Napton and Marston Doles flights where I could rejoin the Grand Union Canal and deeper water. The nearest place I could turn Orient was at Fenny Compton, four shallow and twisting miles ahead of me. I wasn’t looking forward to the cruise.

With my stern glued to the canal-side mud, pushing Orient off my mooring took half an exhausting hour. Reversing didn’t work, nor did using my pole to lever my boat away from the towpath. I tried every combination known to the inland waterways and then resorted to stamping my feet and trying to kick my home into the middle of the cut. Orient eventually slid into deeper water and regained an even keel. I briefly considered anchoring in the canal centre until more rain fell, but spun my speed wheel instead and pushed my bow through clinging mud towards Fenny Compton.

Reaching Fenny Compton took four exhausting hours. I bumped over rocks, slid on stone and grounded frequently on muddy banks. I became hypersensitive to my engine’s slow beat. When my propeller clawed at shallow mud banks, my Lister groaned and laboured. Twenty-two tonnes of steel ground to a halt and, once more, I thrust my overworked pole into the canal bed.

I heaved, thrust, levered and cursed in equal measures. Sometimes the hull centre rather than the stern caught raised mudflats on shallow bends. Attempting to push the stern into deeper water grounded my bow. I would edge nervously along my gunnel, carefully sidestep my bow cratch cover to stand on the rain-slicked bow. Planting the far end of my pole into the soft canal bank I would then push with all my might. The pole plunged deep into the mud more often than not, so I then had to try heaving it out without doing a backward summersault into the canal. After a while the bow would swing slowly away from the bank and, like a sixty feet long compass needle, the stern would swing back towards it and onto the mud again. Each grounding was a backbreaking, exhausting and frustrating affair.

My pole, recently refurbished with two coats of back gloss, finished the day looking like a chewed toothpick, twelve inches shorter, paint-free and as knackered as me.

I arrived at Fenny Compton exhausted, turned Orient and prepared myself for another passage of the same route. Although the thought of the return journey filled me with dread, I didn’t want to stay another night in case the water level dropped further.

The return trip was even more painful. I hated the canal, loathed the inland waterways and detested my deep draughted boat. I grounded so hard at one point and put so much effort into getting myself off that I felt giddy. But I couldn’t pull over for a break in case I grounded again. I left Orient skewed across the canal and abandoned the helm to refill my coffee mug. I hadn’t seen a moving boat for nearly a week, so there was no need to hurry.

I reached Marston Doles Top Lock at 5.30 pm as the night engulfed the canal. I had rarely worked so hard or felt as happy and relieved to reach a destination. I apologised to Orient for all of the bad things I’d said about her during the day and stroked my engine for a while to show my appreciation and hoped that the old girl forgave me. It was just a lover’s spat.

I don’t think I’ll be attempting the South Oxford in this boat again. It’s a stunningly beautiful canal, but the experience is spoiled by the logistics involved in getting a deep craft from one end to the other. What’s more, there’s even less water in the South Oxford during the summer months. There’s often so little water in the summit pound during the summer that lock passages through the Napton flight are restricted to a few hours each day.

Leaving the South Oxford canal to find deeper water

Leaving the South Oxford canal to find deeper water


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I returned to my muddy mooring halfway down the Napton flight for a couple of days, then dropped down the remaining three locks to the service point near The Folly pub. Despite the challenging twelve months since the pandemic restrictions paralysed the pub trade, Napton’s gregarious pub landlord had tradesmen busily repairing his roof and improving his garden. I hope that this year is easier for our struggling pub, cafe and restaurant owners. I consider myself blessed to be in the fortunate position where I continue to earn an income, whether back at the marina or out on the cut.

Even so, I began my two-month work break feeling like a wild animal locked into a small and claustrophobic cage. I wanted to range far and wide, enjoy new experiences, see new sights, live life to the full. I felt cheated by fate, unable to travel to Australia and my family and then barred from unnecessary canal cruising. But the dark cloud had a bright silver lining.

I’m usually hopeless at resting. I look for any opportunity to fill free time with hard labour. I left my marina work behind in 2015 in favour of a carefree continuous cruising lifestyle. I approached my new freedom like a bull at a gate, hurtling along England’s inland waterways on ten, twelve, fourteen hour cruising days. I made a mental note of the dozens of idyllic moorings or quaint villages I passed, promising that I would stop and explore them when I had time. I never did.

The lockdown travel restrictions have forced me to slow down. I’ve spent the last ten days on the same remote towpath mooring, untroubled by people, traffic or mainstream life. I’ve had time to write, think, read and wander through England’s beautiful countryside without a care in the world. I’m going to have a bumper sticker made for my boat – ‘Loving Lockdown Lethargy’. I am at peace with the world, at one with nature, loving my lifestyle and the boaters who share it with me.

My nearest neighbour is a mile away

My nearest neighbour is a mile away

Most of them anyway.

I’m going to scream if I see another video featuring a smug boater clad in little more than saggy Y fronts while snow falls and ice forms outside. They either have the constitutions of polar bears or insulation borrowed from space ships. I have neither.

I climbed out of bed on Wednesday for my usual middle of the night toilet visit. I then checked the cabin temperature as is my habit. The display showed -5°C outside. Ice crackling against my hull confirmed the reading’s accuracy, as did the reading next to my burning stove. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that 8°C is an appropriate cabin temperature for lounging around in underwear. My bedroom thermometer read 4°C, and the one in my unheated boatman’s cabin showed 0°C. I immediately worried about my engine, of course, so I wedged the top section of the stable door between my bedroom and engine room open. This allowed ‘warm’ air to flow from my bedroom into the engine room and cold air to fill my already chilly bedroom.

Still, I had blankets, gloves and a coat, so I survived the night. I had both stoves blazing by 9 am the following morning and a comfortable 23°C throughout the cabin. I don’t want you to think that I’m moaning about my miserable existence. I’m not, I love my boat and the lifestyle I lead. I just don’t want you to think that all narrowboats are so warm all of the time that you need to throw all of your windows and doors open to let the heat out.

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

If you buy an older boat with polystyrene insulation, interior bulkheads and draughty hopper windows, you’ll have far more of a challenge keeping your boat warm than on a modern narrowboat with decent insulation and an open plan layout.

While my boat’s heat retention might not be all I want, I couldn’t hope for a better performance from my new solar array. The three 215W solar panels struggled to produce any meaningful power in November or December. They’re making up for it now though.

I haven’t needed to run my engine for battery charging for the last ten days. I feel sorry for my Lister. I don’t need to use it to generate electricity, and I can’t use it to move my home. I’m surrounded by ice thick enough to peel the paint off my hull as quickly as the skin off a Scot on his second day in Benidorm. But despite not wanting to move, I have to reach Braunston soon.

I have a couple of wees left in the last of my three cassettes, but nothing else is a problem. I’ve just switched to my spare 13kg propane cylinder. That should last me for another couple of months. I have enough coal to keep me going until the end of this month and enough water for another six weeks.

Who are you looking at?

Who are you looking at? Spring lambs on my walk into Braunston

Food isn’t a problem either. I chose this mooring because it’s tranquil and, because it’s miles from anywhere, the location encourages me to exercise. The nearest shops, Braunston’s little grocery store and butcher opposite are two and a half miles away along the canal or through fields past the site of Wolfhampcote village. I go there every day to keep blood pumping around my ageing body. Sainsbury delivers groceries to me at Braunston’s Boathouse pub car park whenever I need things I can’t buy locally. I’m as well provisioned on this remote mooring as I am back on my marina mooring. The only weak link in my off-grid lifestyle now is my toilet.

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

My Compoost composting toilet should be ready for delivery in mid-May. That’s not going to help me now, but I’ll be entirely self-sufficient for any future off-grid adventures. The solids container will allow me to stay away from stinky Elsan points forever.

I’m looking forward to that day.

I’ve gone off-piste there. I was discussing solar arrays. I’ve now added the second part of a detailed three-part solar system post I linked to last month. I hope that you’ll read what Onboard Solar’s Tim Davis has written if you’re considering buying a narrowboat, or if you currently have a narrowboat but don’t yet have solar power.

There’s nothing in this for me. Tim hasn’t paid me to advertise his service, nor am I on commission. I just think that solar on a narrowboat is an absolute game-changer, even if you only use your boat for leisure cruising. Electricity generation and management are two of the most challenging aspects of living afloat. Solar power virtually eliminates this worry.

An optimistic Roving Trader in Braunston

An optimistic Roving Trader in Braunston – I didn’t see anyone on the towpath on a two-hour walk but this guy was still open for business!

Tim has fitted solar arrays on both my narrowboats. He is the consummate professional who installs high-quality systems exceptionally well. I’ve not come across many inland waterways tradesmen to shout about, but Tim is one of the best. You can read part two of his guide to narrowboat solar power here. Part one is linked from the top of the post.

Right, I’m off for a wee. I’m not going to use the precious space in my cassette, so guess I’ll have to brave the Arctic gale to reach the towpath hedge again.

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Snow, Ice And A Worrying List On The South Oxford Canal

So much for my plans to cruise far and wide on the inland waterways winter wonderland. I moved further on the first day of the month last year than I have all month in 2021. Still, I shouldn’t complain.

I returned to Calcutt Boats for a couple of days to buy coal and gas and do my laundry. Then I was off again on my windy winter wanderings. I cruised sideways up the cut to the bottom of the Napton flight of seven locks, delighted with my progress.

The South Oxford Canal is notoriously shallow, especially during the summer months. I’ve been down to Oxford and out onto the Thames several times in my old boat, James. I remembered grounding on several occasions, so now with a hull six inches deeper, I was a little nervous.

I changed my mind after negotiating the first four locks. I hoped that Orient would ground a little if only to stop the gale from blowing me into the offside reeds. I decided that I’d had enough and looked for a decent spot to moor in the next short pound. I developed a cunning plan.

The wind was blowing so hard off the towpath that I knew the second I stepped off my rear deck Orient would be off cruising on her own. I left my boat in the lock, found a decent place to moor and wrapped a mooring chain around the Armco barrier. ‘Clever me,’ I thought. Now I could jump onto the towpath as soon as my stern was close enough and tie off my centre line to stop Orient racing into the offside shrubbery.

Not so smart, actually. As soon as I jumped onto the muddy path, Orient was off like a racing greyhound. By the time I managed to get a rope loop through the mooring ring, Orient’s bow had joined the rats in their offside burrows.

Trying to moor on a windy day

Trying to moor on a windy day

I switched to Plan B. I removed my stern line, skated along my narrow gunnel with muddy wellies, slipped onto my rain-slicked bow and tied my stern and bow lines together. I hoped that I would be able to throw the long line to the towpath and then pull my bow over to the bank and a waiting mooring ring. If only I had someone to help me.

I thought my prayer had been answered. A father with his teenage son strolled by and stopped to chat. ‘Bit windy,’ he offered as I hurled my rope towards him and the distant bank. ‘Blimey,’ he exclaimed as he turned to his son. ‘That must be tough work on his own!’ The pair wandered off then, so they didn’t see me break down in tears.

Fortunately, I didn’t need them. Mooring took me half an hour, but I got there in the end, and all the hard work was worthwhile. I had a clear view of the valley beneath me and very few passing boats or walkers to spoil my tranquillity.

I enjoyed the spot so much that I stayed for eight days.

The silver lining to our current lockdown is, for me, the chance to enjoy life at a much slower pace than I’ve ever done before. I planned to cruise extensively during my two-month break, north along the Oxford Canal, and Coventry onto the Trent & Mersey, then east to Mercia marina. I planned to stop there to metaphorically and literally recharge my batteries. Then I hoped to cruise to the Trent & Mersey’s northern terminus with a brief diversion onto the Weaver. I haven’t unleashed Orient’s full twenty-one horses on a waterway yet, so this would be an opportunity to reach a previously unattainable 4 mph.

I’m pleased that the lockdown has forced me to adopt a slower life pace. I think the restrictions have saved me from getting into trouble. My route to Mercia marina has been blocked three times this month by floodwater. My River Weaver plans would have been scuppered by bank bursting and the Anderton Lift breakdown. I also thought I might pop in to see the good folk I met at Tattenhall marina when I bought Orient. The breach at Beeston Iron Lock would have caused me no end of problems, possibly marooning me in Cheshire past my planned return to work in March. Thank you, Boris.

So, rather than standing on my little back deck from dawn till dusk cruising hundreds of miles I’ve averaged half a mile a day in January. But by moving less, I’ve discovered more about my local countryside than I’ve done in the last decade.

I’ve downloaded the excellent Ordnance Survey app and invested in an annual subscription. The Landranger map overlay shows me footpaths I can use to explore the countryside wherever I stop. I’ve hiked through hidden woods, explored the sites of abandoned medieval villages, examined crumbling ruins and slipped and slid through muddy fields. Unlimited exercise, endless wonder, all for the price of a couple of bags of coal.

Not all of the exercise I’ve been doing has been fun.

I moored for a week in a deserted pound above the fourth lock in Napton’s seven lock flight. I could have squeezed into a tight space on a muddy towpath on the visitor moorings beneath the flight. Still, I didn’t want to moor bow to stern in a long line with other liveaboard boaters. But the space and tranquillity I found halfway up the flight came at a price.

Walking a mile for grocery shopping at Napton village post office wasn’t a problem. Walking half a mile to the Elsan point with a full cassette was hard work. So much so that, after sliding down a snow-covered towpath with my third 401b cassette of the week, I decided to change my toilet.

I had a composting toilet, an Airhead Compact, for the last eighteen months I owned my first narrowboat, James No 194. I loved the flexibility it gave me. I could stay for weeks away from CRT facilities without needing to worry about toilet tank capacity.

A cassette toilet holds all of its putrefying waste in a single container which has to be transported to and emptied in an Elsan point. A twenty-litre cassette lasts two days for a couple, four for a solo boater like me. As I discovered in Napton, transporting a heavy cassette from a remote mooring to a distant Elsan point is a tear-inducing exercise.


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Composting toilets change all that. The loo usually has two different compartments; one for solids, the other for liquids. The Environment Agency allows compost toilet owners to empty their urine containers outside providing they do so at least ten metres from the nearest watercourse, so that’s what I used to do. That left just the solids to deal with. Providing I bagged and binned my toilet tissue, the solids container would only need emptying once a month.

The solids don’t compost in a month so could choose one of two options. I could carry a couple of spare solids containers on the boat and leave my rotting remains in them for a couple of months until the compost was fit for feeding my vegetables. Alternatively, I could tip the stuff into a biodegradable bag and consign it to a landfill.

There are endless comments on forums and Facebook groups about the harm compost toilet owners do to the environment by consigning part-composted human waste to landfills. Compared with an estimated three BILLION nappies and thirteen BILLION dog poo bags buried in landfills each year, monthly composting loo deposits in biodegradable bags made by a small number of narrowboat owners are going to make very little difference. And, unlike dump-through and cassette toilet holding tanks, there are no harmful chemicals involved.

Snow place like home

Snow place like home

I decided to move on after a final cassette carrying chore on my eighth day. After four days of heavy snow, sub-zero overnight lows and thick ice, the weather took a turn for the better. There was no sign of canal ice on my final Napton toilet trek. The snow had disappeared too, apart from the deflated remains of a once-proud snowman. I walked a little way along the cut beneath the flight as a final check. Mallards and swans swam happily through muddy water. I was free to cruise again… for two locks.

A sensible person would maybe think about checking the canal’s condition in the direction they hoped to go rather than where they’d been. I clearly don’t fit into that category.

I set the first lock as I whistled happily to myself, comfortable wearing a thin fleece after weeks wrapped in a duck down jacket. I left Orient in the first lock and sauntered jauntily along the slippery towpath to prepare the next lock and saw, to my dismay, a solid ice sheet stretching to a far bend.

I know from painful experience how quickly even the thinnest icy crust can strip away protective hull paint. With nowhere to moor in the short pound beneath me, I brought Orient into the final lock, grabbed my wooden boat pole and gave the ice an exploratory prod.

Running water at the lock’s entrance morphed into a quarter-inch, half an inch and then a full hull-stripping inch. I resigned myself to a night on the lock landing and smashed a path with my boat pole for Orient to follow. And broke my wooden in half. Ah, well. Time to buy another.

I was just finishing my path pounding when I heard a labouring two-cylinder engine approaching. I could also hear ice squeaking, cracking and tinkling. The gleaming steel of a bitumen-free bow appeared around the distant bend forcing a path through the frozen waterway.

The ice was so thick in parts that the ice breaker frequently ground to a halt. The helmsman reversed, stamped on his narrowboat accelerator and repeatedly crashed into the ice blocking his route. His wife walked towards me, wincing each time her home screeched to a halt, while toddler at her feet clapped his hands with joy.

They’d been flighting ice since dawn, determined to reach Braunston and an essential repair to their broken central heating system. This was their third day with nothing but their galley hob to keep them warm. All three wrapped like mummies shivered violently.

Love them or hate them, a solid fuel stove is your narrowboat get-out-of-jail-free card. These stoves rarely let you down. Flues can rot and block, but with regular maintenance, they’re not going to let you down when you need them most. I like multi-fuel stoves so much, I have two!

I helped the shivering trio through the lock, moved Orient through the recently broken ice away from the lock landing and moored for the night. I covered a third of a mile on my ninety-minute cruise. I could have continued, following the trail of recently broken ice, but I’ve discovered through bitter experience that cruising through fractured ice can still strip the waterline back to bare steel.

The temperature rose throughout the day and night, returning the canal to its usual muddy brown. As the thermometer rose, so did the canal’s water level and the wind.

Plenty of water on the South Oxford

Plenty of water on the South Oxford

Water cascaded over the lock gates, which pleased me immensely. I was so happy I almost stopped worrying about the South Oxford’s shallow depth and the likelihood of Orient’s fat bottom getting stuck in the mud.

A crafty way to avoid a waterways license?

A crafty way to avoid a waterways license?

I cruised slowly from Marston Doles along a peaceful waterway, silent apart from a brief chainsaw buzz and boat-mounted wood chipper rattle. CRT’s waterways maintenance is subject to constant social media criticism. Maybe those internet trolls should get out on the cut more and see the continuous hard work being done cutting back overgrown vegetation and maintaining and repairing locks. All I see is meticulous attention to detail and consideration for passing boaters. Thank you, guys!

Not wanting to break the sloth-like cruising regime I’ve developed over the last month, I found a remote, tranquil and beautiful spot near Priors Hardwick to moor two and a half hours into my cruising day. Besides moving two hundred metres towards all-day solar panel sunlight, I’ve been stationary for the last three days, and I plan to remain here for the week to come.

Hoping for rain on an increasingly dry South Oxford Canal

Hoping for rain on an increasingly dry South Oxford Canal

If you fancy some real peace and quiet and a complete escape from people and modern-day pressure, I can’t recommend this spot on the South Oxford at this time of the year highly enough. Neither people nor boats have passed me in the last four days. I haven’t seen a car, train, plane or even a tractor since I’ve been here. My only companions are the wind in the willows and two buzzards soaring high above me. My mooring is perfect, apart from my list.

I cruised here on a canal filled to the brim by recent heavy rain. The rain stopped, and the water dropped to what I suspect is its average winter level. My starboard side is sitting in silt, tipping my port side into the canal centre’s deeper water.

My list disappeared briefly yesterday after eight hours of heavy sleet and snow. I’m sloping again now, so much that my bedroom door swings shut if I don’t wedge it open and I can only cook eggs on one side of my frying pan. I’m so used to walking on a slope now that I’m like a mountain goat, only not quite so attractive.

I hope the water level doesn’t drop any further. There’s no more rain forecast for the next week, but I need to move before next weekend. I will have run out of food, coal and toilet tank capacity by then.

Please join me in a prayer for heavy rain.

Discovery Day Update

Winter and, hopefully, our government’s lockdown restrictions are drawing to a close. Spring and the start of a new cruising season are on their way. With more and more people thinking about better weather and the opportunity to travel extensively in the UK again my Discovery Day calendar is filling quickly. Apart from one recent mid-March cancellation I’m now fully booked until mid-May. 

I currently restrict my Discovery Day cruises to weekends because of my work commitments at Calcutt Boats. If you want to secure a late spring date, please consider booking now. You can read more about my Discovery Day cruises here and see and book available dates here

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Curtailed Cruising And The Lunacy Of A Lonely Lad

I looked forward to my two-month break for so long. I worked long hours last year, often working seven days a week. I felt exhausted by the end of December, dizzy with fatigue, devoid of either energy or enthusiasm. The thought of recuperating while cruising gently along winter canals made my heart skip a beat.

My cruise started as planned, slowly and gently. I moored on a deserted towpath with a vast plain on one side and rolling hills on the other. This, I thought, is the perfect spot to relax and write for a few days before beginning my cruise to the Trent & Mersey’s northern terminus.

I was as happy as a pig in shit far away from people and the noise they make. The serene landscape calmed me, as did the squabbling mallards’ soft quacks and the gentle sigh of winter wind caressing waterside willows. I watched buzzards circling lazily overhead and sparrow hawks hovering over mice-filled fields. Life was good as I rested before a long cruise.

And then I discovered that our government wanted me to rest some more.

Lockdown 3.0 didn’t really surprise me. Christmas gatherings caused an expected infection spike and the inevitable restrictions which followed. I considered carrying on regardless. After all, I reasoned, I had a Roving Trader license and earned an income from waterway writing. And I would still be self-isolating more effectively than most of the population. I lived alone on my boat, far from other people.

What’s more, the only shops I used were grocery stores, and those visits were rare. I asked Sainsbury to deliver food to me as I travelled. What risk did I pose?

‘You don’t understand,’ complained rabid boaters on Facebook groups and forum threads. ‘You touch gates every time you pass through a lock. Think of the potential for infection!’ Yes, I thought about the risk. Back at Calcutt, I watched a handful of narrowboats pass through the lock flight each day, a tiny number compared with the dozens of walkers, joggers and cyclists using the lock gates as a footpath. The risk from me or to me was minimal, especially as I wore gloves when locking.

But after justifying my continued travel, I decided to stay where I was. One fly in my cruising ointment was my need for clean clothes. I don’t have a washing machine on Orient these days. The cubicle it once occupied is now filled with dried and canned food. The broken machine with its cracked drum left me two years ago. Since then, I’ve used our site facilities or washing machines at other marinas if I’ve been out cruising.

I phoned a few marinas on my route. Mooring owners usually only allow their own boat owners to use their facilities, including those on short term moorings. Although the businesses remained open for essential services for passing boaters – coal, diesel, gas and sewage disposal – the people I spoke to told me that they didn’t want overnight visitors.

Common sense prevailed, as did the need for trousers which wouldn’t remain standing when I removed them. I would join the little band of brave boaters rooted to an idyllic mooring, waiting patiently for CRT’s cruising green light.

So I walked, wrote, waited, withered and wailed. I discovered to my dismay that the sedentary life of a retired boater doesn’t work for me. I cleaned and polished until my arms ached, waded through difficult miles of towpath mud until my boots begged forgiveness and wrote for hours on end.

I realised that I was on a downward spiral after investing an hour in organising my galley bin cupboard. I walked up and down my narrow passageway examining the bin from different angles while I muttered like a meths-soaked tramp. I considered the best positions for the cupboard’s bin bags, Method kitchen cleaner and a long-handled bottle brush. Then, to add variety to my surreal day, I opened my galley side hatch and howled at a pair of passing pigeons.

There were a few highlights in an otherwise uneventful fortnight. I cruised two miles into Braunston to escape a forecast four-day freeze. I needed to collect a Sainsbury grocery delivery, too heavy to carry miles along a muddy towpath. I moored a stone’s throw from The Boathouse pub and wait for the canal to morph into a winter wonderland. While the canal’s rural stretches disappeared beneath an icy crust, Braunston’s busy boaters kept the village canal clear.


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Braunston’s village butcher helped me retain a degree of sanity. The business’s delicious fare fattens many local boaters. I bought smoked bacon for breakfast, steak pies for lunch and beef for an evening roast. One time I asked the lady owner if she sold herbs. “No, my love,’ she smiled, ‘but I can tell you where you can pick some for free!’ She directed me to Braunston’s community herb garden, a small cultivated plot next to their village hall. I picked a handful of rosemary and thyme and a pinch of sage, all fresh and free.

Braunston's community herb garden

Braunston’s community herb garden

My phone rang late on my fourth afternoon in Braunston, a call from my Sainsbury delivery. I added a note to my order to let the driver know that I was on a boat near the pub and asked him to call me when he arrived. He sounded confused. ‘Where are you?’ he asked. I told him that I was on my boat nearby. ‘Sorry mate, I can’t get my van down to the canal,’ he apologised. ‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured him, ‘I’ll come to you.’ He sounded incredulous. ‘How are you going to get your boat up here?’ The conversation had become more difficult than I expected.

The driver looked a little sheepish when I arrived with a rucksack rather than a boat. ‘I haven’t delivered to a boat before,’ he confessed. I could tell.

I left the relative noise of a sleepy village and returned to my peaceful mooring, and I wrote and walked some more. Tasks expand to fill the available time. With few jobs on my to-do list, I dealt with each carefully, slowly and obsessively. I rearranged more cupboards, charged device batteries I didn’t need to use and sat for hours watching my solar display.

I wrote a little about my new solar array in my last post. The weather since then has been bleak. Thanks to constant rain, sleet and endless low cloud, my three panels have struggled to produce much at all. Mooring in Braunston didn’t help.

Braunston is popular with cruising boaters during the summer months and with local liveaboard narrowboat owners throughout the winter. Boats often stay on the same moorings for many weeks in regular times. Still, some narrowboats have become permanent fixtures during the pandemic.

I took the only free mooring available, a shaded spot next to Braunston marina entrance. My location frustrated me on two cloudless days. The trees above me bathed in unaccustomed light while my shaded solar panels sulked in the shadows below.

No sun for my solar panels

No sun for my solar panels

Tim Davis, the guy from Onboard Solar who fitted my array, wrote a solar power post for me in 2013. He kindly shared the knowledge he’d accumulated, first as a boat builder and then fitting solar arrays to narrowboats throughout our inland waterways network. He’s now written another comprehensive post, 2,000 array fittings later, detailing the latest developments in solar technology, the solar arrays offered by Onboard Solar and why Tim thinks that they’re the best you can buy and, in part one which you can read here, how you should prepare for off-grid living.

At the risk of repeating myself, managing your electrical supply is arguably THE most challenging aspect of an off-grid lifestyle. Many boaters don’t embrace or understand the constant need to monitor and conserve their battery bank charge.

I have spoken to dozens of off-grid boaters and seen many hundreds more who use the ‘finger in the air’ power monitoring technique. Without the benefit of a battery monitor, they simply run their engines for a while each day for battery charging. They don’t know the battery bank’s state of charge when they start or stop their engines, so these boat owners don’t have a clue how deep they’re discharging their batteries each day.

I spoke to one novice boater who told me he had a simple and effective battery charging system. He ran his engine to top up his bank when the lights began to dim in his cabin. That’s battery charging suicide. Here’s a chart which demonstrates why.

AGM Discharge Chart

AGM Discharge Chart

Allowing your batteries to drain to the point where your 12v lights dim is a 100% discharge. As you can see on the chart, you could only do this 350 times (roughly) before your battery bank failed. I try to limit my AGM battery bank discharge to 70%, which means that my bank should stand 1,600 cycles. Given that my battery bank cost £900, I want them to last as long as possible.

Getting your electrical head in the right place is another essential part of the equation. Any mains electrical appliance which produces heat is your battery bank’s worst nightmare. If you’re going to live off-grid, throw away your electric kettles, toasters, irons, heaters, hairdryers, and straighteners. Toast your water and boil your bread with gas. Throw everything else out. You don’t need them.

I still don’t have the perfect off-grid electrical setup, but it’s better now than it was at the beginning of the week.

My MacBook and its internet connectivity needed some refining. I have a 240V power lead for my MacBook and a 240V router linked to a rooftop signal booster. I need to use my elderly Sterling 3KW inverter to run them. The inverter is too big, too old and uses an unacceptable amount of power. Thanks to a midweek purchase from Amazon’s online store, I can now leave my inverter switched off for most of the day.

My new Morphie car charger will power my MacBook from a 12V socket near my saloon table. My internet connectivity solution isn’t quite so elegant. I place my iPhone next to the cratch board on my covered front deck and then share the phone’s hotspot with my MacBook. The iPhone’s signal isn’t as powerful as my rooftop booster, but it’s good enough for email and web browsing.

Apart from swapping five rarely-used fluorescent strips with LED bulbs, there’s not much more I can do to improve my off-grid efficiency. I’ll carry on running my engine to supplement my solar array’s meagre input until the weather improves and the sun shows its welcome face. And I’ll wonder whether I’ll be a gibbering idiot before Boris allows me to cruise again.

Discovery Day Update

I’m expecting a busy year. Thanks to the global pandemic, international travel restrictions and the surge in working from home, narrowboats are selling like hotcakes. Consequently, I’m taking more bookings than ever this month. I’m fully booked throughout March and most of April. If you are one of the many aspiring narrowboat owners who have emailed expressing an interest in my experience days, I urge you to secure a date while you can.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please let me explain. I offer combined helmsman training and experiencing cruises on all-day cruises through Warwickshire’s rolling hills. I show my guests a narrowboat fully equipped for comfortable off-grid living. The cruises are both fun and educational. You’ll learn all you need to know about life afloat in a relaxed and beautiful classroom. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here and see and book available dates here

 

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The Life Of An Occasional Continuous Cruiser

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shouldn’t happiness be everyone’s life goal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m off to a good start.

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

A smidgeon of ice to deter Orient's progress

A smidgeon of ice to deter Orient’s progress

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

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

Wofhampcote church looking good after 1,000 years

Wofhampcote church looking good after 1,000 years

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

Muddy towpath walking near Flecknoe

Muddy towpath walking near Flecknoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My poor little Squirrel tries hard to keep me warm

My poor little Squirrel tries hard to keep me warm

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

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

Easy.

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

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

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

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

Orient's early morning thermometer

Orient’s early morning thermometer

13.4°C – saloon

10.6°C – main bedroom

2.4°C – boatman’s cabin

4.1°C – front deck

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know what? Tim was right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Positive View Of Life On A Narrowboat

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

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

Cost-Effective Living Space

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

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

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

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

Condensation Conquest

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

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

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

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

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

Free From Transport

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

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

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

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

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

Heating Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

Happiness is a quiet drink by a glowing stove

Happiness is a quiet drink by a glowing stove

High Maintenance Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discover Life Afloat

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

Coal Callisthenics

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

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

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

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

Perfect Privacy

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

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

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

Cosy Bedrooms

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

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

Orient's cross bed stowed for the day

Orient’s cross bed stowed for the day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a cosy bed with a view of the stars

a cosy bed with a view of the stars

The Joy Of A Midships Engine Room

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

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

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

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

Happiness is a man polishing his pistons

Happiness is a man polishing his pistons

Lulled To Sleep By Natural Sounds

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

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

The Advantages Of Careful Water Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sun sets on paradise

The sun sets on paradise

Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

Anni Morgan enjoying a day at the helm

Anni Morgan enjoying a day at the helm

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

A negative View Of Life On A Narrowboat

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

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

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

Not everyone agreed.

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

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

I thought I would try a different approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confined Space

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

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

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

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

Space wasting captain's chairs in Orient's saloon

Space wasting captain’s chairs in Orient’s saloon

Condensation Issues

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

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

This lifestyle is madness!

Discover Life Afloat

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

Transport Problems

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

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

How’s that for a relaxing lifestyle?

Heating Issues

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

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

High Maintenace Costs

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

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

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

Utility Exhaustion

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

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

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

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

Changing a gas bottle is exhausting

Changing a gas bottle is exhausting

A Restricted View

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

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

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

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

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

Claustrophobic Bedrooms

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

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

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

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

Cross beds are only suitable for small people

Cross beds are only suitable for small people

Wasted Engineroom Space

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

What a mistake!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven feet of valuable cabin space taken by the engine room

Seven feet of valuable cabin space taken by the engine room

Unpleasant Noise

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

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

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

Water Heating Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably not.

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

Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Common Narrowboat Newbie Mistakes And How To Avoid Them Part 2

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

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

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

Orient's roof is looking better

Orient’s roof is looking better

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

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

Jason adds the last few drops of Craftmaster Raddle Grey

Jason adds the last few drops of Craftmaster Raddle Grey

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

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

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

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

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

Fending off with body parts, boat hooks or poles

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

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

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

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

The Folly Of Adhering To A Rigid Timetable

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

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

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

 Crew Communication

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

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

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

And inside narrowboats’ cosy cabin too.

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

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

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

Helmsman Training & Experience Days

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

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

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

Waiting at Calcutt Top lock

Waiting at Calcutt Top lock

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

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

Boats jockey for position on the Calcutt flight

Boats jockey for position on the Calcutt flight

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

Madness! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not all narrowboat accidents end so well.

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

Ascend Locks Carefully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One End Up, One End Down

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

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

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

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

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

Man Overboard

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

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

Summary

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

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

Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Harries enjoying a Discovery Day cruise

Nina Harries enjoying a Discovery Day cruise

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Common Narrowboat Newbie Mistakes And How To Avoid Them

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

I’m sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orient's damaged flue surround

Orient’s damaged flue surround

A narrowboat stove without a flue isn't much use

A narrowboat stove without a flue isn’t much use

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

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

Orient's freshly painted bow

Orient’s freshly painted bow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HELMSMAN TRAINING AND EXPERIENCE DAYS

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

Casting Off

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

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

Mooring Lines Are Not For Cruising

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Hold A Line Attached To Your Boat

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

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

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

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

You can read part two of this post here.

Discovery Day Update

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

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

Ray Appleton and her partner Darren on a Discovery Day

Ray Appleton and her partner Darren on a Discovery Day

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

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

Ray Appleton

You can read further details and check available dates here.

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