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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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Beware Narrowboat Buyer’s Freebies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orient's water tank access

Orient’s water tank access

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A stormy sky over Calcutt Boats

A stormy sky over Calcutt Boats

Rain clouds sweep over Meadows marina

Rain clouds sweep over Meadows marina

Reflections on a still marina at Calcutt Boats

Reflections on a still marina

A beautiful sunset over Calcutt Boats Meadows marina

A beautiful sunset over Calcutt Boats Meadows marina

A tranquil mooring for Orient

A tranquil mooring for Orient

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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.