Buying a Second Hand Narrowboat – Orient, Six Months On

Time heals, so they say. But I don’t know who “they” are and why I should believe them. I think time dulls rather than heals. Cynthia has been gone now for two months. Two long, lonely and hectic months.

Dik Trom, our Dutch boat, was a constant worry. The ongoing mooring, maintenance and insurance fees have been a massive and almost unsustainable financial drain. Thankfully, the drain, stress, and boat have now gone. A German couple paid a deposit for her last week and the balance yesterday. I should be jumping for joy. Hooray! Money in the bank and a much-needed reduction to a five-day working week. Sadly, it’s not to be. The sale proceeds have gone to Cynthia’s estate.

The money will cover a bridging loan which helped with Orient’s purchase and will return Cynthia’s share in Orient to her estate. Then I’ll be debt free once I’ve satisfied my own boating creditors.

Paying off Orient’s debts will take the rest of the year. I’ll need to work seven days a week until late December. I’m very much looking forward to a day or two off at Christmas and maybe even a short cruise.

I don’t mind the short term pain. It’s a price I’m willingly paying for our exciting European tour and an adventurous last three years for my wife. Cruising and relaxing will be back on the agenda in 2020. Until then it’s non-stop work during the day and organising my home’s various repairs and improvements at night.

Cynthia and I took possession of Orient on a damp and dismal day in December 2018. The last six months have been eventful. I found a perfect home and lost a perfect wife. I carefully blacked my hull over three days and then lost most of the paint five weeks later on a fourteen-day winter cruise south from Tattenhall marina to Calcutt Boats, three of them through thick ice. I’ve returned to work helping to maintain the marina’s beautiful grounds and embraced additional work tending the expansive gardens of my boss’s nearby country home. And then I shoehorn Discovery Day trips into my agenda. It’s a busy, busy life. One which helps me come to terms with Cynthia’s loss, pay off our combined boating debts and fund my home’s many planned repairs and improvements.

We paid £60,000 for our dream boat, a craft which we hoped to call home for many years to come. I had always admired Steve Hudson’s easily identifiable narrowboats with their pinched bow, fake rivets, midships engine room and boatman’s cabin filled with brass and lace. I wanted one. Now I have one, but am I happy with it?

We knew that the boat required a little work. The gas locker needed modifying to prevent leaking gas from using the bow thruster wiring to enter the cabin bilge. The cracked stove required replacing, and the Kabola diesel boiler wanted some TLC. The onboard generator had some issues, there wasn’t a single secure hatch or door on the boat, and all but one of Orient’s thirteen batteries needed either replacing or removing. Including the addition of two more lights and lower anchor points for the bow fender’s bottom chains, the labour bill came to £1,394 in addition to a £2,500 allowance paid by the owner for most of the remedial work.

We invested a total of £3,947 in the first three months on repairs and maintenance labour and parts. In addition to a sophisticated battery monitor and alternator booster, we purchased two new chimneys, and a roof-mounted engine exhaust, all in stainless steel. The Little Chimney Company purchases are a long term cost saving. During my first few years on board James, I replaced the chandlery bought chimneys several times after they failed to survive 24/7 liveaboard use. I invested in a stainless steel model two years before I sold my first narrowboat. I could quickly return its showroom shine with a little soap and water. The chimney will serve James’ new owners for many years to come.

Our high repairs and maintenance total included many purchases associated with buying a partially equipped second-hand narrowboat. I bought a reel of paracord and a recovery magnet, and disposable rubber gloves and a dispenser for the engine room. I invested in a trio of mooring chains to replace the less user-friendly onboard stock of nappy pins, piling hooks as they are correctly called. I bought cratch cover cleaner, polish and polishing cloths, new coolie hats, a new set of four anodes and the labour to install them, hull paint, and a roller and tray to apply it and, last but not least, two fifty metre hoses to reach the closest water point to my remote Calcutt Boats mooring.

All of Orient’s many systems appeared to be operational when we left Tattenhall marina in February. That didn’t last long. Orient is now mostly functional, reasonably comfortable and is aesthetically pleasing. However, there is much to do to bring her up to scratch.

The front deck offers useful storage space for low-value items, providing that it’s rain protected. Orient’s cratch cover has seen better days. I’ve managed to remove most of the vomit green organic stain which came with the boat. I can’t do much about the small splits in the clear plastic windows on both sides of the cover, or the frayed edge on the cover’s bottom edge. Although the canvas keeps most rain off the front deck, water leaks through the window splits and through the zips in heavy rain. I want to replace the cover when funds allow.

Kinver Covers quoted £1,000 to replace it. They replaced the covers worn press studs from the bottom edge to stop the canvas from sagging inside the well deck and funnelling water inside on rainy days. Kinver charged a very reasonable £80 for the repair. They also offered to replace the split windows and fit covers over the leaking zips. The repairs would have to be done in-house though so I would be without a cratch cover for several weeks. I would rather put up with the shabby cover for now and invest in new canvas for the front of my boat when I have money again. I’ll need to plan in advance. Kinver Canopies’ current lead time is three months.

We replaced the original and cracked Morso Squirrel stove using our initial £2,500 allowance. The Squirrel, fitted by a well-known canal tradesman with a good reputation spanning twenty years, worked faultlessly until it almost killed me. Squirrels are delivered with an airflow restrictor fitted as standard, a part which needs removing before installing in a narrowboat. It wasn’t so, over three months, the restrictor slowly clogged with stove debris until, in the early hours of a cold and wet winter’s mooring, I woke to a shrieking alarm and a boat filled with smoke.

I returned to bed after two hours of frantic boat ventilating and stove emptying. Thank God for working smoke alarms. Another alarm alerted me to a second stove problem a month later. This time carbon monoxide was the problem, caused by a poorly sealed roof collar. The stove is working fine now, but I wasn’t happy with the installer.

When the boat’s many alarms aren’t warning me of impending death, I like nothing more than relaxing in a comfortable chair watching the stove’s flickering flames on a wet and windy day. Sadly, I can’t do that on Orient. The boat doesn’t have any comfortable chairs.

Orient's saloon seating

Orient’s saloon seating – Despite the padded wheelchair seat on the computer chair, I still get a numb bum after half an hour.

The first task on my lengthy to-do list as we prepared to move on board was to donate the saloon’s two captain’s chairs to Tattenhall marina’s workshop tea room. Despite the aesthetic appeal and undeniable comfort of the two chairs decked out in cracked green leather, they used too much valuable space.

The immediate alternative was more practical but less comfortable. The top of a folding pine table forms the front of a hidden cupboard on the cabin’s port side. It housed two folding chairs and a pair of pine side tables. Until my bank account is much healthier than it is now, the uncomfortable chairs and a temporary table will have to do.

I plan to remove the glass-fronted bookcase built into the saloon and galley partition and install an L shaped upholstered bench seat which will convert into a bed. A skilled local craftsman visited me a couple of months ago to quote for the work. A word of encouragement here for any quality joiners considering moving afloat. You can charge an absolute fortune for narrowboat work. The guy quoted me £2,500 to construct the pine bench and table, not including the upholstery. He even managed to keep a straight face when he delivered the bad news.

High as it is, I’m prepared to pay his price. I know his work is first class and I’ll have comfortable and multifunctional seating which will allow me to rest in comfort at the end of a hard day’s labour. He’ll build the seat bases with lift out lids so that I can quickly reach items in the storage space beneath. I had a similar design on James which I used to store a pair of folding camp chairs to use for towpath sunbathing, an anchor, chain and rope, a vacuum cleaner and bulky engine spares which wouldn’t easily fit elsewhere. This useful storage space isn’t available to boaters who use captain’s chairs.

Plenty of space in the galley

Plenty of space in the galley to cook the most elaborate meals, which is a bit of a shame given that I only have to feed one.

My almost perfect boat kitchen is next to the saloon area. There’s plenty of storage for pots and pans, crockery and enough fresh and dried food to last me weeks, topped by an expansive workspace which allows me to prepare the most exotic meals. Meals which I can cook on and in a full sized hob and oven, which is something of a rarity on a narrowboat. The space is perfect apart from the Houdini hatch, which drives me mad.

Orient’s spray foam insulation is first class. The boat’s ventilation is not. I can’t open the boat’s porthole windows to welcome a cooling breeze or to allow moisture-laden air to escape. Any moisture in the cabin condenses on the Houdini hatch and falls like rain from the hatch’s steel frame. I wake in the morning to a rectangular wet patch on the galley floor and endure constant drips as I cook.

The solution is to fit an insulating clear plastic panel to the hatch frame. It will prevent condensation, but will also stop me from cracking the hatch open to gain some much-needed ventilation.

Orient's spacious bathroom

Orient’s spacious bathroom

There’s a floor to ceiling cupboard on the port side in the bathroom close to the galley door. The Kabola boiler cupboard is opposite. This is my tiny utility room. The port side cupboard used to house the boat’s Zanussi washing machine before it decided that its primary function was to transfer the water tank contents as quickly as possible into the cabin bilge. The cause was a cracked drum. Replacing the washing machine will cost me £400. It’s not something I can either afford or want to do at the moment. The marina has adequate laundry facilities which will have to do for now. I’ll probably install a machine before I begin cruising again in earnest. Either that or rely on on the list of canalside launderettes supplied by the Aylesbury Canal Society.

The Kabola boiler opposite is another low priority problem. A replacement pot cost me an arm and a leg at the beginning of the year. The boiler worked well for a day and then gave up. The issue appears to be a fuel blockage.

The boiler is the only way I can heat water when I’m off -grid. Most narrowboats get gallons of hot water from the engine when it’s running. My Lister doesn’t work up much of a sweat with its slow and steady beat, so it’s no use for water heating. I have a heater in the calorifier which I can use when I’m connected to the national grid but not when I’m cruising.

A plentiful supply of hot water is not a real concern. I can boil a kettle or two for dishwashing and one and a half litres of boiling water mixed with three litres of cold is all I need for my Hozelock Porta Shower. Fixing the boiler is towards the bottom of my to-do list.

My bedroom is next to the bathroom. It’s an area which doesn’t particularly please me. Orient’s sleeping arrangement is, quite frankly, a little bit shit. There’s a cross bed in the main bedroom and another in the boatman’s cabin. Neither allows an adult enough space to stretch out. At 5’10” I’m not the tallest of people, but even my little body can’t lay flat out on the bed. I have to sleep diagonally on the main bedroom bed or curled up like a hedgehog on the shorter bed in the boatman’s cabin.

Orient's bedroom - A room fit for a dwarf

Orient’s bedroom – A room fit for a dwarf

Ventilation is a problem too, not just in the bedroom but throughout the boat. Orient has five portholes down either side. Ten little circular windows which don’t open. Keeping warm on board isn’t a problem. Keeping cool when the thermometer tops twenty degrees is a different matter. With several days forecast to reach the high twenties next week, I’m going to be sleeping in a sauna.

The solution is to have the current windows replaced with portholes with an opening top hopper. I hope I can get them fitted before I melt.

My gorgeous Lister JP2 engine is in its own room next to the bedroom. It’s a thing of beauty. I wish I had more time to invest in keeping it looking pretty. I could easily spend an hour a day polishing its brass fittings and copper pipes. I don’t have the time, so all it gets is a furtive rub every now and then.

The engine and generator room

The engine and generator room

The Lombardini generator, which shares the engine room space, ran for a while after we had it serviced as part of the purchase agreement and then made some worrying noises before I could shut it down. I don’t know how ill it is, nor do I care at the moment. I have no need for it. If I want lots of power which I can’t or don’t want to take from the five battery domestic bank, I have my ever faithful 2KW Honda suitcase generator. Repairing the Lombardini is a long way off.
My man cave, the boatman’s cabin, completes my living space. It’s a cosy, comfortable and quiet area which I use for sleeping in hot weather.

My man cave, the boatman's cabin

My man cave, the boatman’s cabin

The room’s two portholes don’t open so, on dry nights, I sleep with the back doors and hatch open. I’m serenaded by the marina’s water birds and the soothing slap of waves against the stern. I drift off to sleep fantasising about my Christmas Day off on a debt-free boat and the years ahead filled with long cruises in a problem free floating home.

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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.