Learn about life afloat the easy way

Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.


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2

Barmy Brokers and a Belgian Boater’s Generosity


We’re several steps closer to returning to life on the water full time.

We’re now penniless, but the very proud owners of a robust and beautifully designed Linssen yacht. She’s an old girl who has obviously spent a fair amount of time at the gym and has stuck to a balanced diet.

She’s in very good shape for her age and quite attractive in the right light.

A major hurdle to overcome was the defunct Eberspacher diesel central heating system. Cynthia and I secretly hoped that the Eberspacher was terminally ill. Former owner, Walter, agreed to either repair or replace the central heating system when we bought the boat from him. If we had a choice between a repaired thirty year old diesel burner and a brand new heating unit, I know which we would go for.

Our roadside lunch stop on a trip into Antwerp

Our roadside lunch stop on a trip into Antwerp

Sadly for us, and much to Walter’s delight, a new pump solved the problem. Even though it’s an old central heating system, it produces a lot of heat. Unfortunately, all of it is in one place.

The boat has a forward cabin, a shower room, a galley and dining area, a spacious cockpit with another table, a toilet and a rear cabin. There are only blown air heating ducts in the combined cockpit and galley areas. The rest of the boat is unheated at the moment.

We’ll have to see if we can afford to have the system modified to include additional heating ducts in both cabins, the bathroom and the toilet. Until then we’ll have to rely on electric heaters in the bedrooms and bathroom. We’ll only be able to heat these areas if we’re connected to a shore supply. Using a one kilowatt electric heater when we’re off grid would quickly drain the battery bank.

Actually running the Eberspacher heating system at all is proving to be a bit of a problem at the moment. The boat electrics are woefully inadequate for living on board full time. The existing battery bank isn’t holding a charge, not that it’s getting much of a charge to hold.

The ancient Bosch battery charger is also terminally ill. From the 16 amp shore supply, it’s managing to put just 1 amp into the battery bank. Given that the Eberspacher appears to draw three amps, and the fridge a similar amount, even on a mooring with an electrical hookup, we can’t generate enough power for the most basic electrical requirements on board.

We need to install a new battery bank, and a new charger/inverter, before we can move on board.

We can’t find a decent marine electrician anywhere in this area. We’ve spoken to one near Maastricht. He’s waiting for us to bring the boat to him so that he can quote for the work. He can’t commit to a timescale, and we’ll have to cruise for three or four days to reach him.

Fast forward a week.

Our electrical system in on its knees. Running our Eberspacher system for just one day appears to have depleted the battery bank completely. I say THE battery bank, because there’s only one. The engine doesn’t have a dedicated starter battery, so if the main bank discharges completely, as is the case at the moment, there’s no way to start the engine to recharge the batteries. It’s a risky configuration and one which most boaters try to avoid.

So we have a lovely looking boat with an aged and useless battery bank and charger and no way to move it to Maastricht to the marine electrician who is waiting to install a new system for us.

We needed to find a Belgian company to do the installation instead. Although there wasn’t one close to our mooring, Walter chatted to his yacht club cronies and located two companies specialising in marine electrical installations in Antwerp docklands. He also identified a specialist battery supplier which, he was told, also installed their products.

We visited the battery specialist first and quickly crossed them off our list.

We discovered that they no longer do installations. One of their colour blind technicians wired a system incorrectly on a commercial barge resulting a €3,000 alternator replacement bill.

This was disappointing because their batteries were competitively priced. Cynthia suggested that we should buy them and I should do the installation myself.

Can you imagine that?

I have what can only be described as the opposite to the golden touch where DIY is concerned. I’ve replaced wall tiles which fell down as soon as I turned my back. I spent an hour repairing a broken sink drain on my last boat which lasted less than a minute when I ran water into the sink. I replaced an exhaust muffler on my narrowboat’s aged raw water cooling system. It fell off on my first cruise after the repair, flooding the engine bay and almost sinking the boat.

After fifty seven years on this planet, I have finally mastered changing a plug… I think.

Me changing a battery bank successfully and getting the wiring right is about as likely as me being able to fly to the moon without a rocket.

It’s just not going to happen.

The owners of both the marine electrical companies visited the boat to quote for the work a few days ago. One sold Mastervolt products, the other Victron.

A tight entrance to Dik Trom's battery bank

A tight entrance to Dik Trom’s battery bank

Our visitors couldn’t have been more different. Mr. Victron arrived first in his modest hatchback. We was dressed in clean but well worn work clothes and a pair of sensible boots, and carried a dog eared clipboard. His introduction was short and to the point, almost brusque. He was clearly there to do a job, and he was keen to get on with it. He was He was also a small man which, on Dik Trom, helped tremendously.

There’s a lot of free space in Dik Trom’s engine bay, but it’s difficult to get at. The battery bank sits in front of the engine. It isn’t accessible from the engine bay itself so anyone working on the batteries has to rely on a different route.

There’s a U shaped seating area in the cockpit. To reach the batteries, the upholstered seat back and base needs removing and then a 15” x 21” hatch above the underseat storage area has to be taken out. Once any stored items are removed, a 14” x 21” panel in the base of the storage area can be lifted out. Anyone unlucky enough to have to work on the batteries has to lower himself through both hatches onto the battery bank beneath.

Providing he doesn’t snag his family jewels on the battery wiring, he can then shuffle sideways into a crawl space which would make a tinned sardine feel claustrophobic.

It’s not an ideal working environment for portly technicians.

Mr. Victron was lithe as an eel. He slipped into the crawl space like water down a drain. After a quick investigation, he explained his recommended installation based on my requirements.

“Yes, we can everything you want, but splitting the batteries so that you have a separate starter battery will take some investigating. We can split the batteries, but the work might take a long time if changing the way the engine is wired to the control panel is difficult.

“You’ll need to help our engineer with the battery installation. Each 220ah battery weighs 63kg. That’s 140lb or ten stones, which is probably more that your wife weighs.” He pointed to the suitcase sized hole in our cockpit bench seating base as he talked.  “Can you imagine lowering her on a rope through that engine bay hatch on your own?” I could imagine it without a problem. I could also imagine the difficulty I would have climbing back onto the boat from the canal if I ever tried.

Despite their weight, dealing with cumbersome batteries would be much easier than coping with an irate wife.

Helping with the battery installation wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, I would enjoy the exercise. What bothered me was an unknown addition to a quote which was already stretching our budget. I suppose a straightforward solution was too much to ask, but I don’t ever want to find myself in the position again where I can’t start the engine because the boat’s only batteries have failed, so I guess we’ll have to bite the bullet even if the work takes longer.

He had  more bad news for us. “Just replacing the battery bank isn’t going to be enough. Your battery charger is no good. Even if it’s working properly, which I doubt, it’s a car battery charger which isn’t designed to be left permanently connected to batteries.” I didn’t want to tell him that the battery charger had, as far as I knew, been installed when the boat was built in 1983 and had been plugged into a shore supply twenty four hours a day for at least the last two years. No wonder the battery bank was terminally ill.

Mr. Victron’s quote hit my inbox just two hours after he left me. All the items were nicely itemised, as was the €700 in tax which we wouldn’t be paying if we accepted his quote.

Mr. Victron is a great believer in cash deals. So am I.

The quote for four 220ah AGM batteries split into three leisure and one starter battery banks, a Victron 12/70/1600 combi charger inverter, and an all singing, all dancing battery monitor was €3,400.

The price is about what we expected and, according to the yacht club guys, is a reasonable price for that kind of work here in Belgium.

Our experience with Mr. Mastervolt was completely different. Both Mr. Victron and Mr. Mastervolt were nice guys. Mr. Victron was rough-and-ready nice. Mr. Mastervolt was much more polished.

He arrived a day later than Mr. Victron because of two delays. The first was due to an important commercial big barge client of his with electrical problems. Mr. Mastervolt was very attentive to his mainly business-to-business customer needs. Probably because they have much more money than us little boat guys.

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The second delay, early the following morning, was the result of a careless driver reversing across a Dutch cycle lane far too quickly in front of his bicycling wife. Pacifying his wife and taking her and her dented bike to work, with a short interlude to enthusiastically squeeze the the stroppy car driver’s testicles, delayed his arrival by another hour. But he kept me informed. I appreciated that very much.

Mr. Mastervolt arrived in his top of the range four wheel drive Volvo, dressed elegantly in designer jeans and a crisp white shirt. He carried a soft leather attache in one manicured hand. He exuded a sense of both charm and success.

Dik Trom's cosy cockpit

Dik Trom’s cosy cockpit

The cockpit looking aft towards the steep steps two short legged bassets will need to negotiate

The cockpit looking aft towards the steep steps two short legged bassets will need to negotiate

This didn’t bode well for the price of his work at all.

While Mr. Victron was a short and slim Belgian, Mr. Mastervolt was a very tall, stoutly built Dutchman. Getting him through the small hatch into our cockpit wasn’t easy. Persuading him to jam his tall frame and designer jeans through a small hatch onto the battery bank was out of the question.

Listening to Mr. Mastervolt talk was like watching a video on how to sell successfully.

He told us what a wonderful boat we had, asked us about our future boating plans, and asked about our European boating experience. He told us about his wife, his life, his work. He let us know how hard he worked, how much he missed his six week old daughter, his wife and his home during long days at the office far from his Dutch home on the delightful Zeeland coast. He used his charm and his stories to build a personal connection with us, and then he told us about his products and services.

He told us about Mastervolt and their products, why they were superior to their competitors and why, luckily for us, they were perfect for our needs. He dazzled us with science, explaining how batteries received and held their charge, and why their 1600w inverter charger wasn’t powerful enough for our needs. We would need something bigger, more powerful and, of course, far more expensive.

He showed us a colour diagram as he explained how the batteries linked to the engine, the alternator, a fuse board, a control panel, a fancy digital display, a monitor and an inverter charger. He talked about the complexity of getting the wiring just right, and why his estimated three days labour at €65 an hour was entirely reasonable.

He warned us that good marine electricians are hard to find and, because of that, finding a company to do the work at short notice is very difficult. He told us we were lucky though. A customer had just rescheduled the installation of a similar system. He had availability the following week. He could fit us in, but only if we made the decision to use his services quickly.

He left us with a winning smile and a promise to email his quote within a couple of hours.

The quote arrived eight hours later. When I read it I understood why he had taken so long to put it together.

A quote to quiver the firmest of lips

A quote to quiver the firmest of lips

He had clearly anticipated our quote acceptance and spent much of the day placing an order for a new yacht. His price was astounding. He wanted €669 for each 200ah battery compared to Mr. Victron’s €360 for each of his higher capacity 220ah batteries. The difference in battery prices alone was €1,236. He also wanted €1,560 for labour. Even with his “very generous” 10% discount, the total price for installing four new batteries and an inverter/charger was an unbelievable €8,509.95. He wanted €5,100 more than Mr. Victron for a similar specification installation, and he wanted half of it before he set foot on the boat.

Choosing between the two was easy. Even if we wanted to, we simply couldn’t afford Mr. Mastervolt’s ridiculous prices. We asked Mr. Victron to do the work for us. The installation has been scheduled for the end of next week.

We still have plenty to keep us busy before then.

Walter sold the boat to us complete with its contents. He’s a kind and generous man who has become a good friend over the last few weeks, but he’s a bit of a hoarder. The boat looked tidy enough when we viewed it, but every cupboard, drawer, locker and storage space was crammed full. We spent days removing his possessions before we could even think about moving ours on board.

The dinette - currently one of just two heated areas on board

The dinette – currently one of just two heated areas on board

We found three electric kettles, two spare anchors, six plastic buckets, four 25 litre containers for extra diesel storage, several crockery and cutlery sets, five life jackets, and enough tools to open a shop. There was an electric drill, a jigsaw, a wire brush, a sander, socket sets, spanner and screwdriver sets, and enough nuts and bolts to ballast a boat. Given that I’ve only just learned to change a plug, and I’m the proud owner of three screwdrivers already, all of the tools, and everything else on board for that matter, was surplus to requirements.

The yacht club harbour master gratefully accepted all of the tools. He wasn’t quite so keen on the eighteen tins of hardened paint we tried to give him, but he was delighted with two new sets of folding steps, two hose reels, and a dozen long lengths of mainly unused rope, none of which was suitable for Dik Trom, and a pair of plastic oars.

There were three oars on board, crammed into a crawl space under the bed in the aft cabin. Belgian waterway regulations require owners of motorised small craft to keep one oar on board in case of an engine breakdown. I’m not quite sure how we would propel a ten tonne steel boat with a six foot long plastic oar, but I’m happy to give it a go.

Did I mention that Walter is a kind and generous man? He demonstrated just how generous when he visited us one day last week. He knew about our battery problems. His boat was a big part of his life. He’s lost without it. For a little while at least, he can maintain a connection with it by spending as much time as possible with us each day.

He stopped by for a coffee to discuss our latest boat fixing developments. We told him about the two different electrical quotes, and that we had accepted the less expensive price. Before we set foot on Dik Trom, we knew that we would probably need to replace the battery bank and upgrade the electrics. We were hoping to delay the upgrade until we reached Maastricht, but we knew that the work would have to be done sooner rather than later. The cost of the electrical work was ours, and ours alone. Walter had already dealt with his few repair obligations. The electrical work was up to us.

That’s what we thought anyway.

After Walter heaved himself up the two steps into our Hymer and wedged himself into a space on a bench seat next to the dogs, he talked about something which he told us had been on his mind for a few days. “I feel really bad that you’ve had all these problems with Dik Trom. I haven’t moved it for so long that I didn’t know the batteries were in such poor shape. I didn’t know the charger was damaging the batteries either. I feel responsible, so I want to pay for half of the installation.”

We tried, rather halfheartedly, to refuse his offer. We didn’t want to take advantage of an elderly and very kind hearted guy, but saving €1,700 on the installation would allow us to have the Eberspacher modification work done. He insisted. We gratefully accepted.

Over the last few days, while Cynthia moved many of our possessions from the motorhome into our new boat, I concentrated on cleaning the boat’s dirty algae coated exterior.

As I washed and scrubbed, I realised that we have a great deal of touching up to do. Walter, because of failing health and painful rheumatism, hasn’t been able to do much at all.

We look forward to returning to listening to waterways wildlife from our cosy cabin

We look forward to returning to listening to waterways wildlife from our cosy cabin

That will have to wait until next spring. Wet and windy November days aren’t suitable for boat painting. Anyway, we had more important things to deal with.

We had to find ourselves a new broker to help sell Julisa.

We asked the broker involved in the sale of Dik Trom to help us sell Julisa. In hindsight, we realise that we made a mistake.

Julisa is a classic wooden topped Dutch motor cruiser. She’s a beautiful boat, but she’s in a niche market. Broker Willem wasn’t particularly familiar with the boats, their appeal or the market for them.

He insisted that we listed the boat with him for €8,000 less than we wanted. We queried his recommendation. He told us he wasn’t a magician and that we wouldn’t find anyone prepared to pay a figure even close to our asking price. We were very disappointed.

We spoke to the broker who sold us Julisa earlier this year. He told us that our asking price was in fact realistic. He confirmed that he has personally sold a boat identical to Julisa six months ago for €2,000 more than our asking price. He further confided that he had sold a number of these cruisers for a similar price over the last few years.

We met the broker, Warner, and his charming wife, Conny, yesterday at the boatyard where Julisa is on hardstanding for the winter. They wanted to make sure that Julisa is still in the excellent condition she was when we bought her just six short months ago. She is, apart from a little missing hull paint which we will remedy before she goes back in the water in the spring.

Conny and Warner are happy to sell the boat for us, so that’s another problem dealt with for now. Next on the list is a trip to a local chandler for replacement fender rope. Dik Trom’s ten fenders, and the ropes that fixes them to the boat’s railings, look like they’ve been recently dredged from the canal bottom. I’m hoping that elbow grease and a liberal application of traffic film remover will rejuvenate the plastic fenders. New fender rope will help improve the boat’s aesthetics.

I have to stop writing now to deal with an emergency. We’ve just run out of gas, so we have no heating. They Hymer cools very quickly on a chilly November day. This is the first time we’ve run out of gas completely. Emptying the tanks fully is a schoolboy error. Our tank capacity is forty litres. We use about four litres a day in the winter. We last topped up ten days ago. Simple maths, but sometimes I forget.

I suppose it’s a sign of getting old. I’m losing the ability to think coherently. I’m only a hop, skip and a jump away from sitting in front of a blazing fire with a rug over my knees, staring into the flames chuckling to myself as I remember the adventures I’ve had. At least I will have had some adventures to remember. For that, I’m very thankful.

Cynthia Says...

The Truth

It is difficult on some levels to believe that we were zinging down the mountain roads of southern France at this time last year.  At that time we had no inkling that our motorhome days of living on the road would come to an end sooner rather than later…..

Looking back over the past summer I guess in the back of mind I kind of saw it coming.

As soon as both of us slip into a boat on the water, everything changes, and the stresses of the day seem to melt away.  And if you haven’t lived on the water, you probably won’t understand what I’m talking about.

Having and living on a beautiful and comfortable motorhome is nice, but just not the same as living and relaxing on a boat.  Boats seem to have their own personality and you develop a deep and lasting connection to them.  And maybe because water is so basic and necessary to life, you feels that much more connected when your house is on the water.  Perhaps this sounds a bit crazy, but that’s how I feel about it, and I know Paul may use different words, but feels the same.

Having lived on three sailboats in San Diego with my first husband back in the ’70’s, that love of living on a boat never left me.  I swore when I stepped off our last sailboat back in 1976, just prior to starting my airline training, that some day I would live back on the water.  So there you go!  Another dream that simmered for many years and has finally taken root again and come true.

Getting back to the title of this contribution-“The Truth”-the most pressing reason we are letting go of life on the road is because it was destined to be out of balance.  Paul has to do ALL of the driving as I am A) too old to get a license to drive it, and B) the vehicle is too big and heavy for me to qualify for the appropriate license.

I hate seeing him stressed out at the end of a long day of driving, and I felt helpless to be able to do anything meaningful to make things better.

I had a feeling once we cast off in Julisa that we were destined to become full time live aboard people again, and here we are doing just that!

We have a number of things to accomplish before we can push away from the dock at Sint Job in ‘t Goor, Belgium, and wave a tearful good-bye to Walter, and point our bow to Maastricht where our winter mooring awaits us.  The electrical necessities will be attended to in another week and then we will transfer our remaining things on board and head south.

We have heard nothing but wonderful things about Maastricht, and it is quite different from the rest of the Netherlands, as it is in the southeastern most part of the country sandwiched between Belgium to the west, and Germany to the east.  So it is an eclectic mix of people of cultures that we are very much looking forward to experiencing.

We will enjoy exploring the waterways there and to also embrace the fact that there are hills to embrace and hike as well.

Stay tuned for more news as life moves on—surprises and adventure around every turn!

Even though we have the added stress of owning three vehicles and having to sell two of them in the near future, we have the peace of mind knowing we will be living a good and happy life aboard a lovely boat that should suit our needs for a long time to come.


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Paul Smith
 

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.

Comments
  • GM Thursday,23 November, 2017 at 12:33 am

    Oh Paul, tool thou may not be able to use them but that friendly boater next mooring who has come to help could 🙂 You should have rung me and paid my airfare. I spend my days sorting out electrics for live-aboards now I have sold Clarence. 🙂

     
    • Paul Smith Thursday,23 November, 2017 at 5:46 am

      Hi Graham,

      The people who use the Dutch waterways are very different to those who live on the UK network. Now that the warm weather has disappeared, so have the boats. Ninety nine percent of them are cruisers, built for summer cruising rather than comfortable winter living. The owners are more likely to carry tools more suited to grilling a BBQ steak to perfection than taking an engine apart.

      Having said that, I still have a comprehensive set of tools on board; spanners, a socket set, screwdrivers and pliers… anything that’s needed to repair a breakdown really. I just didn’t have the room to store, or the ability to use the vast array of power tools that Walter kept on board. They have all gone to a better place where they will be used regularly.

      I’m pleased to read that you are still keeping your hand in. The English waterways are hard to leave, aren’t they?

       
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