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Battery Problems On An Aborted Shropshire Union Canal Cruise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaking lock gates on the Shropshire Union canal

Leaking lock gates on the Shropshire Union canal

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

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

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

Not so easy on Orient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

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

I hope to meet you soon.

 

Paul

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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 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.