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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Bottom Blacking, Rust Removal and Aerial Advice

What a glorious bank holiday weekend! One of the few in recent years with decent weather and hot enough to encourage every man and his dog out onto the cut. So hot in fact that most of the marina based boaters who ventured out onto the cut moored rather than cruised and left the waterways around here virtually free.

The extreme heat also encouraged many boaters to remove far too much clothing or wear garments better suited to a secluded beach.

I worked on Calcutt Boats’ wharf on bank holiday Saturday. The short-staffed wharf crew needed help to prepare nine hire boats for the afternoon’s guests. I usually work on my own, so I welcome the opportunity to share a little workplace banter. 

After a busy morning moving and preparing boats, we sat at a shaded table on the lawn close to our reception for lunch. A group of visiting boaters walked down from the lock. A stocky and impressively muscled lady in a pale blue mini dress strolled by, guiding an elderly man. The unsteady gent clung to a bulging bicep as the lady guided him towards Calcutt’s chandlery. Noticing that the shop was closed, she turned a stubbled chin towards us and in her best Barry White bass asked, “Oi lads, do you sell rolling tobacco?”

She was joined by an even more outrageous friend wearing a tiny floral bikini. The two scraps of lycra did little to conceal her beer belly, hairy forearms or a pair of testicles better suited to a Hereford bull. Users of England’s inland waterways are generally an accepting bunch. We laughed quietly and then focussed on the task of preparing a fleet of floating homes for our holiday hirers. 

There’s rarely a dull day on the inland waterways.

I had two real and overly hot ladies out with me on Sunday. Jackie and her friend, Alma. Jackie booked her date a month ago. She emailed me to discuss details and raise her concern about the weather. Jackie was worried about the summer heat. “Don’t worry,” I assured her, “You’re going to spend a day on the canals in England in August. Bring gloves and a warm coat!”

Jackie brought clothing for every eventuality, apart from a scorching Mediterranean sun blazing from a cloudless sky. The thermometer peaked at thirty-four degrees. Standing on Orient’s back deck with the sun bouncing off the canal’s mirrored surface was exhausting. Alma watched the world go by from the comfort of a shaded chair on Orient’s front deck for much of the afternoon, leaving heat hating Jackie at the helm. We drank enough water to float a battleship on our return journey and tried to avoid touching bare metal.

As usual on a bank holiday weekend, Calcutt’s three lock flight was pandemonium. Novice Black Prince and Napton Narrowboat crews struggled to understand safe or even effective lock passage on the way down. Kate Boats’ hirers suffered similarly on their ascent.

A Kate Boats crew brought the navigation to a halt at the top of the flight. The canal widens at an unofficial winding hole, next to the water point and opposite the top lock landing. It’s possible, just, to turn a seventy-foot boat there with care. The inexperienced helmsman decided to turn his sixty-five-foot craft there, even though the navigation width was reduced by a boat on the lock landing waiting to go down. He managed to wedge his boat across the canal with his rear fender bent double against the waiting narrowboat.

Half a dozen boaters formed an impromptu tug of war team and hauled the hire boat out of harm’s way. There was no harm done, and everyone had another chaos on the cut tale to recount.

I said goodbye to my guests and dropped down the flight again to my mooring. I’d had enough after nine and a half hours cruising in tropical conditions. I moored Orient and then dived headfirst into an ice-cold bath of Stella Artois. I felt much better when I surfaced.

I’m slowly working my way through Orient’s to-do list. The most pressing and most expensive is to alter my saloon seating. The current arrangement is exceptionally uncomfortable. I donated the boat’s two leather captain’s chairs to Tattenhall marina’s workshop tearoom as soon as I moved on board. They were comfortable but used far too much valuable space, so I was left with a set of folding furniture; two chairs and a pine table. The pine table wobbles precariously on its single wooden leg. The two canvas seated chairs are so uncomfortable that I can’t use them for more than an hour without losing all feeling in my backside.

Orient's saloon before we moved on board

Orient’s saloon before we moved on board

The solution is to install an L shaped upholstered bench seat and a table with desmo legs which converts into a bed. The upholstered seating will be multi-purpose. It will double as storage units for larger boat items such as folding chairs for the towpath, an anchor plus its chain and rope and a vacuum cleaner. They’re all things which don’t have a tidy home at the moment.

Temporary seating to numb the most padded bum

Temporary seating to numb the most padded bum

Wharf House Narrowboats will do the work which is planned for early October. They’re also going to fit a new pair of front doors to replace the flimsy pair currently in use. Wharf House will further reduce my struggling bank balance by replacing both rotting rear hatch runners and building me a new hatch.

One important consideration when living full time afloat is managing the logistics of staying on board if any work needs doing. Orient will need to remain at their workshop in Braunston for two weeks. I can’t afford to take any time off so I will need to commute. This is one of the few occasions when car ownership would be handy. I’ll have to borrow a car, rent one or take time off work. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. I don’t really fancy a six-mile commute along a towpath at either end of a physically demanding day, but maybe that’s the way I’ll have to go. Much as I could do with the time off work, I need the income to pay for Orient’s new woodwork. I have a month to come up with a solution. I had another little job to organise while I’m waiting.

I brought Orient south from Tattenhall marina in February, five weeks after applying three coats of Keelblack to my hull. For three days of the journey, from Wolverhampton to Warwick, I forged a path through virgin ice. Half an inch of frozen water is more than enough to strip protective paint from a boat’s hull. The three inches of ice I crashed through on my journey through Birmingham scoured my waterline like an industrial grinder. I reached Calcutt marina with a waterline devoid of any protection. I tied Orient to my rusty dump barge mooring, gave myself a mental pat on the back for reaching Calcutt safely and promptly forgot about my hull.

I’m repainting it before the weather turns. The company allows staff to use the slipway at a reduced rate on the rare days when it’s not being used for scheduled work. There was a vacant slot this weekend. 

I will spend the next couple of nights with my hull high and dry. I’m on the slipway now, watching the dawn light strengthen on a chilly morning.

Managing a solid fuel stove at this time of the year is a pain in the backside. Cold mornings – it’s 7 a.m. and one degree Celcius as I write this – are often followed by warm days. I light the stove to combat the early morning chill. The cabin heat continues to build until, by lunchtime, the inside of the boat often feels like a sauna. Roll on the winter’s cold days and nights so that I can have the stove on full time and not have to worry about heatstroke.

Orient was dragged out of the marina on Friday. I had an opportunity to see how the underwater sections of my Keelblack coated hull have fared during the last nine months. Sadly, not very well at all.

I expected bare steel and signs of rust on the waterline after its icy scouring. I wasn’t prepared for the dozens of golfball-sized brown marks under the waterline. This kind of damage’ wouldn’t have happened with bitumen.’ I’m all in favour of saving the planet by using green products, but not if I have to risk weakening an essential part of my floating home.

I’ve switched back to bitumen.

My hull now looks brand new again. I’ll add a few marks during next weekend’s Discovery Day cruises, but my waterline will be safe from rust for another year or two.

Unlike my cabin roof.

That’s a job for this afternoon. I want to catch the couple of dozen pea sized rust marks starting to show through the grey roof paint. I’ll treat the spots with Hammerite Kurust this afternoon and then hope that the half tin of grey paint left on board matches the rest of the roof. It won’t match of course, so a full roof repaint is on the cards before the year ends.

This rust needed stopping in its tracks

This rust needed stopping in its tracks

The saloon chimney collar after a little tlc

The saloon chimney collar after a little tlc

You can see now why narrowboat maintenance has so much in common with the Forth bridge.

In my last blog post, I promised to write an A -Z of everything to do with narrowboats. That, as you can imagine, is quite a tall order. I’ve begun the task with the letter A and Aerials. 

If you’re a regular blog reader, you’ll know about my technical and practical ineptitude. And you’ll also have come to the conclusion that I’m occasionally (exceptionally) opinionated. 

To make this new A -Z section as useful as possible, I would like your help if you are a narrowboat owner. If you have anything constructive to say about aerials, the first item on my listing, or if you want to correct anything that I’ve written, please get in touch. You can either leave a comment below or send me a message.

Right. On with the listing.

Aerials

I try wherever possible to be objective, but forgive me if I stray far from the path for a moment.

I don’t see the point of having a tv set on board. I don’t see the need for a tv set. Period.

I haven’t succumbed to sessions in front of the evil eye since I moved onto my first narrowboat in April 2010. I thought I needed one and invested hours in researching the best method of ensuring that my digital flat screen received a mind-numbing variety of free channels. I had my traditional tunnel and bridge snagging aerial replaced with a small, neat and effective white plastic dome. 

The Digidome SLx comes with a kit to fix it to vertical walls. The steel elbow needed modifying to allow the aerial to be installed on a boat roof. Once fitted and connected, I had sixty channels of tedious television to suck free time out of my evenings. After a few months, on the verge of a vegetative state, I turned off my TV set for the last time.

There’s a flat-screen TV on board Orient. I turned it on once on a pre-purchase visit, watched blocks of colour from a barely received signal flash on the screen a few times and turned it off again. That was the set’s only use.

I have a decent laptop, a 13” MacBook Pro, and an Amazon Prime account. I can watch films and episodes from an endless selection of popular television series if I want a televisual treat. 

And then there’s YouTube. Did you know that if you watched end to end video clips twenty-four hours a day, viewing the video platform’s catalogue would take 60,000 years? I limit myself to an occasional session watching comedy panel show clips MORE HERE

I realise that I am in the minority. I am missing the gene that makes people want or need to be part of mainstream society. I suspect that you will want a working tv on board, so you will need an aerial.

Getting a decent signal on board can often be a challenge. Decent reception requires line of sight to the transmitter, something which you will struggle with on many low lying canals. And then on urban moorings, tall buildings will block your line of sight too.

I have seen many attempted solutions on my travels. One is to bolt a household television aerial to the top of a vertical scaffolding pole fixed to the forward cabin bulkhead. This method is not particularly aesthetically pleasing and is labour intensive. The pole is usually too hight to pass through tunnels or bridge holes, so it needs to be removed and replaced for travelling.

I currently have a roof-mounted version of this type of aerial. It’s mounted on a fixed height pole. The base is accessible in my Kabola boiler cupboard. The problem with this design is water ingress through the roof fitting. A Digidome type aerial removes this problem. The dome shelters the cable access hole. And because the dome is low profile, there’s no chance of catching it in a tight tunnel or bridge hole arch.

Here’s a post I wrote about aerials seven years ago…

https://livingonanarrowboat.co.uk/narrowboat-tv-aerial-the-perfect-choice-for-your-boat/

And here’s some more information on the excellent FitOutPontoon website…

https://www.thefitoutpontoon.co.uk/av-communication/aerials/ 

Discovery Day Update

I’ve hosted a couple of experience days since my last blog post. My last guest was kind enough to return a completed feedback questionnaire…

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

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

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

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

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

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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.