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.
If you own a narrowboat, sooner or later you will have a conversation with another boater about the relative merits of different types of toilets. You’ll discuss the logistics of emptying the end results of your gourmet dinners and how much it smells.
The Holy Grail of onboard narrowboat toilet systems is one which doesn’t smell and is easy to empty in all weather conditions.
There are four different toilet types for use on your narrowboat. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each system.
In its most basic form, the pump-out toilet is a conventional toilet which sits on top of a stainless steel tank. If you want to transfer your waste to the steel box, you need to open a flap between the toilet and the reservoir. This can be a very smelly affair. Imagine several hundred litres of liquid slurry and the smell it produces. That’s what you’ll have wafting through your legs as you ponder the meaning of life.
A slightly better option is a pump-out toilet fitted with a macerator. This device chews the solids into manageable chunks so that it can be sucked through a relatively narrow bore pipe into the tank.
Incidentally, the tank is usually built into space beneath a fixed double bed. When you lay under your warm duvet on a cold winter night listening to the gentle slap of canal water against your hull, the waves might be coming from beneath your bed.
The benefit of a pump-out toilet is that it is the closest in style and functionality to the one you’ll find in a domestic bathroom. The downside is that you need to move your boat to a sanitary station every few weeks to have the contents sucked out with a powerful pump. That dubious pleasure will cost you £15- £20 each time you have it done.
Pump out toilet owners have to watch the weather. If there is a prolonged cold snap which freezes the canal, you can’t move your boat, and you can’t empty your toilet. For that reason, many pump-out toilet owners also carry a cassette toilet on board for emergencies.
There is one final problem with pump out toilet tanks. They can leak. The first you’ll know if it is when you notice a brown and fetid stream flowing down the boat towards you.
Replacing a leaking tank can be a nightmare. Imagine a stainless steel tank with the same footprint as a double bed. Then imagine a solids buildup in the tank corners increasing its already considerable weight. Not only is the tank heavy, but because of its size, it’s challenging to manoeuvre through the narrow confines of a boat. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of helping fitters remove leaking tanks on many occasions. The task requires four or five strong men and a great deal of cursing.
The more straightforward and easy to manage toilet solution is a cassette.
A narrowboat cassette toilet is like a scaled-down version of a drop-through pump out toilet. There’s a flap between the toilet bowl and the waste tank which you open when you want to make a deposit. The cassette capacity is much less than a pump-out toilet holding tank though, typically no more than twenty litres.
Twenty litres provides enough capacity for two people for two days, a little more if both people are seasoned boaters. You learn the art of using other people’s facilities as often as possible soon after you move on board. Narrowboat toilet systems don’t usually provide you with the same cleansing torrent as you enjoy when you flush a regular household toilet. And then there’s the weight.
Each time you fill your toilet, you need to carry your cassette through your boat carefully. You need to keep it horizontal to avoid a foul-smelling spillage as you wriggle through your home’s narrow corridor. The good news is that you’ll develop shoulder muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Getting your brimming cassette is only half the battle. First, you have to find a working Elsan point and one in a condition which doesn’t make you gag.
Let’s say that you began a cruise leaving from Calcutt Boats heading towards Market Harborough. Any route will do, but I know this one well, and it’s a cruise I plan to do over my Christmas break.
There are two Elsan points at Calcutt Boats. Elsan points are open sewage points in varying designs. There’s one in the older of the company’s two marinas and one on the wharf between the Calcutt flight’s middle and top locks. Imagine that I’ve sailed past both without using them. Maybe it’s the excitement of the adventure ahead of me, or perhaps it’s because I’ve reached the age when simple tasks like remembering my own name are noteworthy victories. Anything more demanding is beyond me.
Unlike driving a car or cruising on spacious European waterways, turning around to go back is not an easy option. The canal is forty feet wide, my boat sixty. The next winding hole, turning point, is an hour ahead, so you decide to press on to the next Elsan point two hours away in Braunston.
After navigating Braunston junction’s tricky concrete triangle, squeezing past boats moored either side of the canal as it passes the Boathouse, I crawl cautiously through the A45 bridge hole. And breathe a relieved sigh as I squeeze into a gap between moored boats either side of the Elsan point. And then spot the yellow and black plastic ribbons announcing the sewage point’s inaccessibility. It’s blocked again. I’m two hours into my cruise, three if I count the three lock ascent from Calcutt Boats two marinas, and my three toxic toilet tanks are still full.
I have a choice. One option is to press on to the next Elsan point on my route. But that’s six miles, thirteen locks and a tunnel away at the top of the Watford flight. Single-handed, the journey will take me five hours. The second option is to retrace my steps and try the second Braunston Elsan point next to Midland Chandlers. The half-mile diversion involves turning my boat twice, once to cruise back to the junction and a second time to point in the right direction for the rest of my journey. And it’s all a waste of time.
The second disposal point is working, but I wish it wasn’t. A local farmer appears to have taken his muck spreader into the tiny room. There’s shit everywhere, and I know the culprit. There’s a tendency among some single male boaters to use their cassettes for solids only. They urinate in a bottle and throw the contents overboard or in a hedge. Consequently, when their cartridge is filled to the brim with solids, it’s really solid.
There’s no quick fix, no holding of breath for a minute to empty a conventionally filled cassette. The poo packing person has to shake and shake and shake some more. Then rinse and shake again. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Boaters without a cast-iron constitution aren’t keen to follow in their foul footsteps. I draw the line at wading through another boater’s slurry.
I resign myself to an onward journey to the point at Watford. I visit Midland Chandlers before I go. I buy a mooring chain I don’t really need so that I can use their toilet, which I need very much. Light in both wallet and bowel I relax a little. I won’t need to use my cassette toilet for serious business until the following day when I reach the Watford flight. I pray that this one will be both working and clean enough to use.
Of course, this is a worst-case scenario, but cassette emptying concerns are always at the back of my mind when I’m cruising. A much more practical option is a composting toilet.
Join me on a day filled with fun and adventure on Warwickshire’s beautiful rural canals. Enjoy a twelve mile, six lock contour canal cruise. Learn how to handle a 62′ narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat on England’s inland waterways (including narrowboat toilet systems). Experience the joy of living in a fully equipped, off-grid floating home.
I had a composting toilet for my final eighteen months on my last boat. I paid £872.94 for my Airhead Compact and another £150 to have it fitted, which is pretty easy for all but the most inept DIY dunces. Sadly, I’m one of this gormless group.
Like many people, before I researched composting toilets, I thought that they were smelly things, suitable for little more than drunkards at festivals. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Early composting toilets weren’t particularly useful. Users dumped both liquids and solids in the same holding tank. They offered little more than pump out or cassette holding tanks and smelled just as much. Today’s designs are far more effective and virtually odour free.
Both sexes have to sit to do their business so that they’re firing in the right direction. Liquids to the front and solids to the rear. The toilet has a manual flap in the toilet bowl bottom, which you can open when seated. Fluids are collected in a large and robust container attached to the front of the toilet base. This container has to be emptied every day. The solids container lasts much longer, especially if you dispose of your toilet tissue in a bin rather than the solids container.
Becoming comfortable with a composting toilet took me a while. I had to become more familiar with the remains of my previous day’s food than I liked. However, I soon developed a routine and really appreciated the toilet’s practicality for an off-grid lifestyle.
My cruising regime was no longer controlled by my toilet tank capacity and the availability of working disposal points. By removing the liquids each day, I only had to worry about emptying the solids container once a month. And what a worry that was initially.
I dreaded lifting the toilet seat off the solids container for the first time. I dreamed unpleasant dreams, visions of uncovering a bubbling and reeking mass of stinking waste, home to scuttling insects, slugs and snails.
As the dreaded day approached, I grew increasingly apprehensive. It’s a natural state for me. I worry about forthcoming events, using my vivid imagination to ill effect. The reality of whatever iI worry about is always more pleasant than its anticipation.
I remember the day clearly, a scorcher in late June. A dry day towards the end of a long spell without rain. Not ideal conditions for toilet content disposal. You see, at the time, I thought that the best and most responsible way of getting rid of my poo was to bury it in a shallow hole. I had a brand new Spear and Jackson spade, purchased expressly for waste burial.
There were two problems with my plan. The first was its legality. I didn’t own the land wherever I moored so I didn’t have the right to bury anything in it. I reasoned that done sensibly, no one would notice and I would prevent a large plastic bag filled with human waste from rotting in a landfill site for a hundred years. The second problem was my plan’s practicality.
I fortified myself with a bottle of red wine first. The world’s a better place after a glass or two of merlot, even if the world in question is the contents of a septic bucket.
What an anti-climax. A small 12V fan had been drawing moisture from the solids container for a month, drying any wet bits I unearthed with the solids stirring handle. The container contents were as inoffensive and smell free as clay. What a relief after all those sleepless nights.
Maintaining my composting toilet was a breeze after that, and my bathroom was smell free. Far more pleasing to my delicate nose than my previous cassette toilet or the majority of pump-out toilets I had experienced in the past.
One of the composting toilet’s many benefits was how easy it was to clean. I emptied the solids container once a month. I had to remove the liquids bottle and the toilet to get at it. I took the three parts out onto the towpath at the crack of dawn, emptied the solids bucket and then used canal water and an eco spray to clean each bit thoroughly. I had a spotless and germ-free toilet every four weeks. What’s more, with the bathroom toilet space obstruction-free, I could sanitise the area with ease. You can’t do that with other toilet types.
I haven’t come across incinerating narrowboat toilets before. Not many boaters have. There’s an article in the December 2019 issue of Waterways World describing the installation and use of one of the first incinerating toilets fitted in a narrowboat.
The toilet described is a Cinderella Motion combustible toilet. The first thing to put me off was the eye-watering price. You can purchase a basic Porta Potti cassette toilet for under £100 or a more sophisticated model for a few hundred more. Buy a composting toilet like my Airhead, and you’ll have to part with just under a thousand pounds. However, if you want the pleasure of incinerating your waste, you need to save long and hard. You could take a family of four on an exotic foreign holiday, buy a 16” and a 13” MacBook Pro or get yourself a decent family car. Or you could invest in a Cinderella Motion incinerating toilet. In each case, you would expect to pay £3,500, and extra to have the toilet fitted.
Your expenditure doesn’t end with the Cinderella’s purchase and fitting. The toilet burner uses propane gas for each incineration, so the burner roars into life after four deposits. The couple who reviewed the toilet had the luxury of a second toilet on board. That wouldn’t be an option for most narrowboat owners.
I don’t know about you, but my toilet visits have become more frequent as I’ve aged. I’ve reached the stage now where I have to debate the wisdom of leaving the bathroom at all. I’m sure that I get more exercise each night shuffling between the bedroom and the bathroom than most people get taking their dogs for a walk.
With two people on board and one incinerating toilet, you could expect maybe four burns each day. The burner runs for forty minutes during each cycle, so you would be pouring propane into it for two and a half hours each day.
Each of my two thirteen kilogram cylinders lasts me for two months. I only use gas for cooking these days, but I had an on-demand gas water heater on my last boat. My gas consumption then was one cylinder every three weeks. I suspect that the Cinderella burner would use more gas than my old Paloma. If I had enough money to invest in an incinerating toilet, I could expect my propane expenditure to quadruple.
No, thank you.
The initial capital investment is enough to put me off. But then there’s the additional cost of gas, electricity and a plentiful supply of greaseproof paper for poo parcel wrapping. And the need to stick my down the toilet bowl after use to wrap each disgusting deposit.
Oh, and if that isn’t enough, there’s the noise to consider. We boaters are a geriatric bunch. Our bowels and bladders don’t hold as much as they once did. A nighttime trip or two to the loo is more likely than not. Having your partner crawl over you on her way to the bathroom doesn’t help you relax into a deep and restful sleep. Having to endure the jet aircraft roar of the Cinderella burner in the wee small hours is likely to be the straw which breaks the camel’s back.
There you go. Four options for collecting your bodily waste. The one, for me, which stands head and shoulders above the rest is the composting loo. After the modest capital outlay, the only running cost is a few pounds each month for a composting medium. I used hamster bedding, a compressed block of wood chippings the size of a toilet cassette. Five pounds and a trip to a pet store every six months. And no smell. And freedom from rancid Elsan points. And I’m helping save the planet.
I’ll be a happy boating eco-warrior again once I’ve saved enough money to replace my cassette toilet.
The cost is usually £15 - £20 for each tank you want pumped out.
The composting toilet is the most pleasant smelling of the three main toilet options. The combustible toilet is too, but many boat owners find this type prohibitively expensive.
If you wait until your toilet is full, you'll be carrying as much as 20kg (44lb) through the narrow confines of your boat.
You'll need to find a pump-out station if you have a pump-out toilet and an Elsan point for your cassette toilet. Both are marked in popular waterways guides such as Pearsons and Nicholsons.
Several factors dictate whether you shiver your way through a winter’s evening or strip off to your boxer shorts and throw all the doors open to let the heat out.
I have been living onboard James, pictured on its mooring at Calcutt Boats Meadows marina in early February 2012, for two years. My first winter was a baptism of fire. It was the coldest winter for 100 years. The canal and the marina were immobilised by four inches of ice from the last week of November 2010 to the first week of January 2011. One night I recorded a rather chilly minus eighteen outside. It was so cold that I woke up the following morning to discover a quarter an inch of frost covering the engine room pine cladding next to my bedroom. The temperature in the bedroom was just above freezing. There was a spell when the daytime maximum was minus six. It was a cold, cold winter, so severe that I was forced to dress like an Eskimo inside my home.
The following winter, the winter of 2011/2012, has been much more pleasant.
Two reasons. The winter has been relatively mild compared with last year and, more importantly, I have made some improvements to my home. James, at thirty-five, is quite an old girl. The original cabin sides and roof were Masonite, an oil-treated ply with four seams between the cabin’s five ply roof sheets. The seams, at some point in the boat’s history, had begun to leak, so they had been sealed with duct tape. The remedy didn’t work, so the gaps allowed water into the cabin during heavy showers. The water would find its way through the roof and then trickle along the inside of the internal cladding. Then it would find a weak point to drip through into the cabin. When I heard the sound of rain drumming on the roof, I would gather together a collection of pots and pans to place carefully under the drips.
Not all of the water found its way into the cabin. Much of it lay on the underside of my beautiful pirana pine, slowly discolouring and staining the grain. To a lesser extent, the cabin sides let in water too. The prevailing south-westerly meant that wind and the rain scoured the port (left) side of the boat. Where the neglected paintwork peeled along the ply joins, the water found its way in.
In November last year, I had the opportunity to ship James off to a local boat builder to have the cabin sides and roof and the front and back doors overplated. While they were doing the work, I asked them to sandwich insulation between the old Masonite and the new steel. I used one-inch polystyrene for most of the surface area and Rockwool for the sections where the guys were welding. Rather than saving a few pounds by using the cheaper polystyrene, I should have used spray foam on all surfaces as it is a more effective insulator.
The additional insulation has made a significant difference, as has the fact that the roof and cabin sides are no longer holding water for much of the time. The boat, with the same heating inside, is both warmer and less damp.
James has a solid fuel stove with a back boiler installed right at the front of the boat. The back boiler feeds three radiators along the starboard side. The furthest radiator is forty feet away in the main bedroom. The system struggles to push heat down to the far end. I can’t find out the make of the stove, but I understand that it’s as old as the hills – as old as James anyway – and it isn’t very efficient.
I know several liveaboards who swear by Morso Squirrel stoves. I’ve heard stories of coal that will carry on burning for up to two days if the fire is “damped down” (has the airflow reduced, so the fuel smoulders). The longest I can achieve with the stove on James is about twelve hours.
Rather than a solid fuel stove, I could install a diesel heating system. I could then have the convenience of waking to a warm boat, but I (a) can’t afford to at the moment and (b) don’t like a lot of them because of the noise. Some (particularly the Hurricane diesel heating system we sell so successfully at Calcutt Boats) are very noisy. The Hurricane sounds like a hurricane. There is a boat moored on the opposite side of the marina from me that has one fitted. I can hear it from James.
The diesel Bubble stove is very quiet. A friend has one. His boat was very cosy when I visited with hardly a sound from the stove.
There’s no point filling a bucket with water if it’s full of holes. The same applies to pumping heat into your boat. Draughts can very quickly make the cabin feel cold. The new steel front, rear and side doors on James weren’t a perfect fit. I’ve added ply panels to the doors’ inside faces to insulate them a little, but there’s still a bit of a draught. I’ve fitted draught excluder around the front and rear doors and the centre doors and hatches. There’s still a draught from the centre door hatch on the weather side so it can be a bit chilly there when there’s a stiff breeze.
I moor James at the western end of the marina. The prevailing wind is south-westerly. Calcutt Boats lays in a wind “corridor” – the old working boatmen used to refer to the pound below Calcutt Bottom Lock as “windy corner” – so there’s usually a stiff breeze. The boat then is buffeted by the wind daily. On the few occasions when there is little or no wind, James feels very much warmer. Of course, the breeze always finds the draughts.
When people ask me if a narrowboat is cold in winter, I should say… “Well, it depends on the heating system you use, how well insulated your boat is, whether you have any draughts, and what the weather is like”. But I won’t. I’ll smile and assure them that I’m toasty warm. And this morning, as I write this, with an outside temperature of minus five but no wind, and the coal fire roaring, I am toasty warm.
Try before you buy. Join me on a day filled with fun and adventure on Warwickshire’s beautiful rural canals. Enjoy a twelve mile, six lock contour canal cruise. Learn how to handle a 62′ narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat on England’s inland waterways. Experience the joy of living in a fully equipped, off-grid floating home.
I wrote the above post in February 2012 after living afloat for nearly two years. I sold James No 194 in October 2016 following six and a half happy years afloat. I didn’t sell because I was disenchanted with the lifestyle. I loved living afloat, and all that living afloat entailed. But I had an ill wife. Cynthia suspected that she didn’t have many years left in her. I enthusiastically agreed to her suggestion that we tour Europe by motorhome in the winter and by boat in the summer. We sold our respective homes to fund our travels.
We owned two boats during our stay in Holland; a classic steel-hulled motor cruiser with a mahogany cabin and an all-steel Linssen motor yacht. We stayed on both during cold autumn and spring periods. Then we moved back to England and my current narrowboat, Orient, in December 2018. Let me tell you this: English narrowboats are superbly insulated compared with any Dutch motor cruisers. Narrowboat insulation is in a different league, and most narrowboats have heating systems designed for constant use. My abiding memory of our last Dutch boat is the bone-chilling cold and unhealthy, soul-destroying damp.
Rereading my old post, I think that I can improve on the information I gave you then.
Life on James was usually warm enough at the front of the boat. The problem I had was pushing warm air towards the stern. Because of my stove’s double-skinned top plate, a stovetop fan wouldn’t work. These fans are perfect for off-grid living. They use the temperature difference between their bottom and top plate to generate free electricity to power the fan. My solution wasn’t as off-grid friendly. I had a 12V fan fitted on the ceiling close to the stove. With it running, I could push enough heat to the back of the boat, to my bedroom, to raise the temperature by a couple of degrees. Useful, but not great.
Orient is better insulated than James and a saloon stove suitable for powering an Ecofan. Still, the new boat has a similar design to my Norton Canes boat. An open plan boat is relatively easy to heat. Orient, like James, has bulkheads separating the galley, bathroom, main bedroom, engine room and the boatman’s cabin. Each partition restricts airflow.
Orient’s saloon is heated by a Morso Squirrel stove. There’s another solid fuel stove, a Premiere range, in the boatman’s cabin at the back of the boat and a Kubola diesel boiler in the bathroom. The Kabola heats water for my calorifier, my hot water tank, and also powers radiators in the main bedroom and the engine room, and a bathroom towel rail. I have three heat sources, but, most of the time, I use one.
I don’t use the Kabola boiler because I don’t like to waste fuel, water or money. I need hot water twice a day for dishwashing and showering, so I use a kettle for dishwashing and a kettle and a Hozelock Porta Shower for the keeping myself clean. I don’t need working radiators either. The main bedroom is only used for storage, there’s no need to heat the engine room. And I can’t be bothered to light the boiler for towel rail heating when I’m in the shower.
The boatman’s cabin range doesn’t see much use either. It’s a pain to manage during the day. Because the firebox is small, keeping the stove going throughout the day requires dropping half a dozen coal briquettes in every couple of hours. It’s a nuisance to top up when I’m away from the boat during the day, and my sleeping space is uncomfortably warm if I let stove coal burn too far into the evening. Keeping things simple is the cheapest and most efficient solution. The range stays cold unless I’m cruising on chilly days.
Winter cruising can be a bone-chillingly cold affair if you’re not careful. Cruiser stern boats are the coldest. You stand still for hours on end, open to the elements, slowly freezing and waiting for the ordeal to end. Traditional stern narrowboats offer more protection than cruiser sterns. And, if they are equipped with a back cabin range like Orient, they can turn an unpleasant winter cruise into a truly tranquil experience.
I brought Orient south from Tattenhall marina in February. I cruised for two weeks through a frozen landscape. I needed to reach the Farmer’s Bridge flight of locks in Birmingham city centre before they closed for essential repairs. I had to use Orient as an icebreaker to crash through increasingly thick ice for three days. I ground to a halt on an urban Birmingham backwater. The ice was too thick. I was stuck on a frozen waterway with swans marching over the ice in front of me.
Cynthia’s hand appeared in the hatchway, holding an insulated pot filled with stew. I slowed my engine to idle, opened the steaming container and enjoyed ten minutes of pure bliss. The heat from my Premiere range swirled around my legs as I wolfed down a pint of hot meat and potatoes. I was comfortably warm and sublimely happy to be standing at the helm of my new home. The same journey on a cruiser stern boat would be a far less pleasant experience.
Because my sole heat source most of the time is the saloon stove, the temperature drops significantly as I move further away from the bow. I have temperature sensors throughout Orient. As last night was chilly, I noted the readings this morning at 8 am.
Boatman’s cabin (where I sleep): 7°C
Front deck (it’s protected by a canvas cratch cover and is heated slightly by the heat lost through my cabin front doors’ two single glazed windows): 1°C
Now, I don’t know about you, but thirteen degrees is far too chilly for me to sit still typing for hours on end. My first job of the day at this time of the year is to increase the cabin temperature. I throw a log or coal onto the fire, riddle the grate, empty the ash pan, open both stove vents and make a coffee.
The stove takes an hour to bring the cabin to a bearable temperature. Now, at 11.30 am, the temperatures are…
Boatman’s cabin: 13°C
Front deck: 8°C
Although the saloon area is warm enough for me to sit and work comfortably for hours on end, the back of the boat is distinctly chilly. If I wanted to, I could double my workload, increase my daily fuel expense and turn the boatman’s cabin into a furnace. But there’s no point with only me on board.
Orient’s stern remains cold unless I’m cruising. I have neither the time nor the energy to keep it warm.
I could, possibly, modify the diesel Kabola heating system to heat all of my home. The big challenge would be finding somewhere in the boatman’s cabin for a radiator. There’s no empty wall space to fit one. The room is filled with fitted furniture, so there’s no free wall space larger than a dinner plate.
I’m not going to waste any time worrying about that little problem. Solid fuel stoves are dirty and time-consuming to maintain. They need a regular supply of heavy fuel and daily ash pan emptying and glass polishing. However, sitting in front of a silent stove watching flickering flames dance across burning coals is very comforting on a cold winter’s night.
There you go. If you’re asked is a narrowboat is cold in winter, you could give a detailed reply. You could wax lyrical about insulation, draughts, differing heating types and efficiency. You won’t, though. You’ll smile serenely and assure the enquirer that your steel home, half-submerged in frigid water, is as warm as toast.
Can I use wood I find by the canal for heating?
Yes, you can but it's not a good idea. The wood will probably be unseasoned which means that its water content will be higher than 20%. Fresh cut oak is usually 50% water, ash slightly lower at 40%. Burning unseasoned wood will mean less heat and more chance of a blocked flue, flue fires and a dirty brown stain down your cabin side.
Will my stove get all of the boat warm?
No. The back of your boat will be much cooler than the front, especially if you don't have an open plan boat. If you want all of your boat the same temperature, consider a central heating option.
What's the cheapest way of heating my boat?
Coal briquettes. I use them on my 62' narrowboat. Keeping my cabin at 20°C costs £3-£4 a day at December 2019 prices.
Which is the best insulation?
Spray foam. It's the standard insulation on most modern narrowboats. Pre 1990 boats are more likely to have polystyrene insulation which can crumble and leave cold spots.
My alarm roused me from a deep and dreamless sleep. I rolled over and reached towards the bedroom’s tiny bedside drawer chest for my iPhone and the alarm’s snooze button. “That’s odd,” I thought, “my alarm rarely sounds like that.” Then I realised that the morning light streaming through the bedroom’s two portholes was missing and the piercing alarm was coming from somewhere at the front of the boat.
I turned on the bedroom light and checked my phone. Three o’clock. Far too early for my alarm. The two wall-mounted railway lights illuminated a thick smog hugging the bathroom and galley ceiling and obscuring the front of the cabin and the source of the smoke. It wasn’t the most reassuring sight to wake to in the wee dark hours.
Like most boaters, I leave my multi fuel stove burning overnight. In fact, like most boaters, I leave my stove burning twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week throughout the winter and far into England’s chilly spring. living semi-submerged in icy water has its drawbacks.
I’ve been living afloat for most of the last nine years. I’ve never had a problem leaving a stove alight at night. Until now.
I fill the lit stove with coal briquettes before I go to bed and then reduce the airflow to slow the burn to ensure that I wake to a warm and cosy boat, a boat usually free of choking smog.
It was the smoke alarm which woke me. The carbon monoxide alarm did not. That didn’t surprise me really as the dismantled device lay on the kitchen worktop waiting for me to fit a new battery.
The bitter smoke thickened as I watched, swirling ever closer to the floor and two blissfully unaware sleeping dogs. I couldn’t breathe. I struggled to think. A pounding headache probably had something to do with my confusion.
I dropped to the floor, crawled back to my bedroom, threw on some clothes and then did what I could to ventilate the boat. I opened both sides of the front deck cratch cover, opened the cabin front’s double wooden doors, flung open the galley side hatch and used a boat hook to jam the Houdini hatch as wide as possible.
The acrid smoke eventually cleared, the process slowed by a steady stream of smog still billowing from the Squirrel’s top vent.
I didn’t want to risk sleeping again until the stove was safe. That meant either extinguishing the Squirrel’s burning coals or removing the source of the smoke from the boat. Taking the smoldering fuel off the boat would create less mess and less smoke. Opening the stove’s front door to get at the coal rapidly filled the cabin with a bitter smog again. I couldn’t either see or breathe unless I lay on the floor. I used a coal shovel to transfer dozens of glowing briquettes from the stove’s firebox to the ash pan and threw them on the sloping mud bank next to the boat. I was alive, and the boat was in one piece. I was thankful for those two small mercies.
An hour after being rudely awakened by the smoke alarm, the boat was cold and smoke free. I could breathe without coughing and think past the throbbing behind my eyes. Carbon monoxide kills. I could live with a headache, and I was alive thanks to the smoke alarm.
I slept with the doors and windows open for the rest of the night. Better cold than dead. I fell out of bed at dawn the following day, worrying about a boat with no heating and the length of time I would take to resolve the problem.
How hard could it be? The boat was filling with smoke rather than channelling it though the flue and out of the cabin. The stove had been drawing badly for a few days. An obstruction was obviously the culprit, one which could only be in either the flue or the stove. Surely, even my preschool DIY skills would be enough for the task at hand.
Both potential blockages were easy to check. I climbed onto the cabin roof armed with a powerful head torch and a long boat hook. I removed the chimney and shined the torch down the flue. It didn’t look blocked. I lowered the blunt end of the boathook down the flue’s full length. I couldn’t feel a blockage. The problem must have been in the stove.
There’s a baffle plate above the firebox in a Morso Squirrel stove. It curves from the back plate over the top of the firebox. Smoke rises over the baffle plate and into the flue. An accumulation of soot on top of the baffle plate sometimes causes blockages. I swept the baffle plate clear using my head torch and a poker. I found a little soot, but not enough to block the flue completely.
Hoping that a little poking and prodding with my improvised tools had cleared the blockage, I threw a firelighter into the firebox, added a handful of kindling and a match and stood back. Then I panicked when the stove filled the boat with more smoke than the previous night. After a repeat smoke and flue clearing performance I left Orient to look for inspiration. I found it in the bow locker of a neighbouring boat.
Boat Safety Scheme examiner, Russ Fincham, offered to look at the Squirrel for me. He found the cause of the problem immediately. He shone a torch into the narrow gap between the baffle plate and the flue. “There’s your culprit,” he told me as he handed me the torch and pointed to the baffle plate. “Can you see above the baffle plate? Look towards the centre of the stove where the flue comes in. See that fitting that looks like a black dome? That’s an air restrictor. It’s used in stoves fitted in house fireplaces with a good draw. The fires burn too hot if installers don’t fit the restrictor. Narrowboat stove flues don’t produce enough of a draw to warrant using this extras bit. Fitters should ALWAYS remove the restrictor before fitting a stove on a narrowboat.”
“It’s a simple fix. Take out the fire brick at the back. That will allow the baffle plate to swing down so you can remove the restrictor. I think it’s a 10mm spanner you need. Do you want me to show you how to use a spanner?” Russ has worked with me at Calcutt Boats for many years. He knows me well.
He was right. Removing the restrictor was a simple if filthy process. The stove’s been in the boat for just three months. You can see from the photo below how blocked it was.
The stove’s now back together and working better than ever. The incident has prompted me to throw the old carbon monoxide alarm out and replace it with a new model which complies with the latest BSS requirements. I’ll also try to remember to check the batteries regularly.
Apart from nearly killing myself, life afloat during the month since my last blog post has been uneventful. That’s why I like this lifestyle, far from the stresses and strains of modern day life. Far away from most stressful situations, anyway. I’ve had a couple noteworthy exceptions over the last four weeks.
The first was on the marina slipway on a midweek day a few weeks ago.
Calcutt Boats is a busy marina. We have boats which need pulling out of the water for surveys or for blacking every day. And sometimes we have boats brought here by road transport from other parts of the network or from builders yards. On this occasion the builders ballasted a recently refurbished boat in a most peculiar fashion.
I work on the grounds most of the time, often far away from other marina activities and, because I work with noisy machinery, I can’t hear any background chatter. I didn’t know that this boat had already been into the marina once, pushed into the marina on the slipway’s wheeled steel cradle. It floated free for a minute or two and was then quickly dragged out again. All I heard was a call for anyone nearby who could steer a slipway boat. I heard snatches about the owner not wanting to steer the boat himself but i didn’t dwell on it.
The owners of brand new narrowboats, often costing over £100,000, sometimes have little boating experience. I’ve met one or two who had never set foot on a narrowboat until they stepped on the back deck of a boat they had used most of their life savings to buy. I thought this was another of those cases.
Anyway, the owner climbed the steel slipway steps onto the back deck with me. He appeared nervous and didn’t say much. Putting a boat back in the water is an easy job for the helmsman. All he has to do is to establish what type of cooling the boat engine has. If it’s an internal cooling system, he starts the engine before the boat hits the water. He waits until the hull sinks below the surface if it’s a raw water system. That’s pretty much it. The slipway tractor pushes the boat laden cradle down the slipway until the boat floats free. The helmsman reverses, as does the tractor driver, and the boat is back where it belongs and ready to cruise. It’s a simple process as long as the boat is in a fit condition to use.
This one wasn’t.
All I had to do was bring the boat onto a mooring alongside the slipway. Easy. A burst of forward throttle to counteract the reverse motion from the slipway tractor, a sharp turn to port to steer us in the right direction and a laugh and a joke with the guy standing next to me. It’s an easy and stress free job unless the boat looks and feels like it will turn over.
Even on the windless day, a moderate turn tipped the boat until the gunnel touched the water and the cabin side formed a forty-five degree angle with the marina surface. Another guy stood on the bow. He probably weighed eight stone soaking wet, so his sudden switch from one side of the boat to the other shouldn’t have caused it to swing quickly in an arc until the opposite gunnel also touched the water. His movement shouldn’t have caused the sudden swing, but it did. I could see why the owner looked so nervous.
The cruise to the slipway mooring point took less than a minute but took years off my life. I was confident that, if two or more people had moved from one side of the boat to the other like the guy in front, we would have turned turtle. We would have been trapped in three feet of water under a fifteen tonne boat.
The popular theory among marina staff was that the boat cabin had been over plated, a process which added a considerable amount of weight. The additional weight would have increased the boat draught and brought the through-hull outlets too close to the waterline. To remedy this, they had removed some under floor ballast. The result was a pretty but dangerously top heavy boat, one which is exceptionally unstable. Calcutt Boats’ owner, Roger Preen, felt duty bound to warn the owner not to use the boat until they had it professionally surveyed and made safe. They didn’t. The owner and his crew subsequently took the boat for a short cruise up through the Calcutt flight to Napton junction and back again. We saw the boat, bobbing and swaying like a rubber duck in a bath, as they braved a cruise on a calm day. Heaven help them if they go out again when there’s a strong wind blowing.
I’ve now used my day’s allocation of writing energy and enthusiasm, so I’ll save my second anecdote for next week. It’s a good ‘un so I know you’ll like it. Here are a few photo’s to whet your waterways appetite in the meantime.
You may have noticed that my last post was four weeks ago. That’s the problem with living an idyllic life here at the marina. A wise man once said if you have nothing to say, say nothing. Much as I’ve enjoyed the last month, I’ve had little of interest to relay to you.
To be frank, I’m considering hanging up my blogging hat. I get disheartened when I send out a blog post notification email and receive very few replies or comments. Maybe I’ve passed my sell by date. Maybe the written word in considered too old-fashioned now that there are so many boaters making vlogs, video logs. Maybe I should just concentrate on the commercial side of the site and give up on the fun stuff.
I registered this site in 2010 when I first moved afloat. It’s always been semi commercial. Access to the vast amount of information on the site is free, but I also offer paid products and services. My most popular product has always been my Narrowbudget Gold package. It includes a bespoke online budget calculator and several digital guides for anyone thinking about living afloat.
I created the package five years ago. Potential buyers have often asked me if the data is recent. It concerned me that, as the years passed, the initial data could become less and less relevant. I’ve now changed that.
I’ve lived afloat now for long enough to provide different data sets spanning a reasonable period. In January this year I decided to publish one post each month just to detail the costs of living afloat. Each post covers a detailed breakdown of boating costs for the previous month, the same month three years earlier and another for the same month six years earlier. Aspiring boaters now have access to detailed narrowboat living costs that are always less than a month old, and they can compare the costs over half a decade. You can read the first of this post series here. You need to log into your Narrowbudget Gold account to read the complete article.
If you want a practical boating experience, you can join me on a Narrowboat Discovery Day. Nearly three hundred guests have joined me on my boat so far for a pleasant twelve mile, six lock cruise between Braunston and Calcutt Boats marinas. The days have been hugely successful. I think I’ve enjoyed them as the people who have cruised with me.
My first boat, James No 194, was, by the time I finished refurbishing it, a superb live aboard narrowboat. James was fully equipped to live in off grid full time. Orient is as good if not better. There are a few bells and whistles to add before I’m happy, but I know what I need and how much those additions of modifications will cost.
The day is as much about knowledge sharing as it is practical boating. Guests leave me with a much clearer understanding of the practicalities involved in living afloat. The day’s emphasis is on fun but, I’ve often told by my guests, the knowledge they’ve gained is worth every penny of the modest investment they’ve made in the day. Here’s what my last guest said…
I have been receiving your newsletter for some time now, and in the last 12 months I have been thinking more and more about the possibility of living on a narrowboat myself. Your Discovery Day was a perfect opportunity to see what narrowboat live aboard life was like, and to also experience what it was like to maneuver one and take it through some locks. Plus, I had the opportunity to ask plenty of questions. My plans now are to work on funding and then I will start to look at boats when I am ready to make a purchase.
All of your communications reading the logistics of the Discovery Day were perfect. Suggesting that I stay at Wigrams was a huge help. In my case they had the family crisis which prevented me from staying there, but that couldn’t be helped. Wigrams looked like a perfect location for lodging.
I would definitely recommend to anyone who has any kind of interest in narrowboats to join you for a Discovery Day. It is an excellent way to learn what it is like to live on one full time. It is also the perfect way to learn about boat systems and the logistics of living on the canals in a narrowboat. You have years of experience living on narrowboats. You are based in a marina and work in a marina, so you see all aspects of daily narrowboat/marina life. You also have a very professional and relaxed way of interacting with your visitor. You encourage questions and don’t have any judgement about how little experience a visitor may have when they join you. You put everything you have into the day to make it an enjoyable, memorable experience for the visitor.
Thank you so much again Paul.
?Chris Amson, March 2019
Anyway, I’ve waffled on too long. If you want to discover the actual cost of living afloat, you can find out more about my Narrowbudget Gold package here. If you want a hand’s on chance to experience the reality of living afloat, my Discovery Day page is here. And if my blog posts interest you or are useful to you, reply to the introductory email to let me know. Either that, or email me through the site’s contact form. I want to carry on blogging. I enjoy writing. Some site visitors even say I’m quite good at it. However, there’s no point in me investing my time and money in a website that no one is really interested in.
Until next week… Maybe!
We are now without a washing machine. After sliding, lifting and squeezing the cumbersome appliance through the boat’s narrow passageways, we examined the useless pile of junk thoroughly. I hoped for a simple solution, a cheap to fix split hose or loose connection. Life is rarely that easy.
The cause of a soapy cascade from the cupboard mounted machine into the cabin bilge was a split drum. Replacing the broken part would involve reducing the Zanussi to its component parts by someone who knew what he was doing. That certainly wasn’t going to be me. Qualified plumbers aren’t best known for low-cost servicing, so I suspected that there would be a hefty call out charge, much grimacing and teeth sucking and a promise to try to fix the machine at an hourly rate close to my weekly wage. We’ve taken the path of least resistance and consigned our washing machine to the site scrap metal bin.
Removing the washing machine has provided more storage space in the bathroom, a little extra exercise for me, and it’s made our calf muscles ache.
The Zanussi weighed close to 50kg, about the same as a couple of bags of coal, or Cynthia in her winter coats and boots. Losing the weight from a cupboard two feet above the floor on the port side has caused a noticeable list to starboard. To rebalance the boat, I will either have to find £400 for a new machine or ask Cynthia to spend most of her onboard time sitting in the empty pine cupboard.
The Cynthia option would need to be a short term solution. She’s flying back to America in two weeks, not, she assures me, because I’ve asked her to act as temporary ballast.
Our bureaucratic nightmare continues. After three tedious years, we still haven’t secured Cynthia permission to stay with me long term. During our recent two year tour of Europe, we spent much of our time in Holland. Sadly for us, the Dutch are enthusiastic rule followers. The authorities wouldn’t consider an application for Cynthia to stay long term unless we could provide them with an official Dutch address. We couldn’t provide one because of our lifestyle. We lived a nomadic life during the summer months as we explored the Netherlands’ vast network of canals, rivers and lakes in our Linssen yacht. During the rest of the year, we were just as mobile in our Hymer motorhome.
We secured an official address after eighteen months and seven different applications. Two guys from the local town hall visited our mooring in North Holland at the marina where I worked temporarily. They questioned us at length about the nature of the mooring. Did we live on the boat at that particular mooring permanently? Who owned the mooring? How long had we lived there? Where, exactly, on the hundred-metre long pier did our mooring begin and end?
The guys took photographs, measurements and several years off my life before returning to their Aalsmeer office to decide our fate. After several months, countless follow-up phone calls and a few more grey hairs Aalsmeer town hall issued us with an official houseboat address. Then, and only then, could Cynthia submit an application to stay that had the remotest chance of success. By that time our love affair with all things Dutch was over.
We had seen enough tulips and windmills to last us several lifetimes. The country felt too small, claustrophobic and overrun by kamikaze cyclists. The vast and perfectly maintained waterways network lost its appeal as well. I missed England’s muddy ditches, the long thin boats which bumped, scraped and scratched their way through the system and, most of all, the colourful characters who steered them.
Cynthia returned to England with me on Monday 17th December. She had to endure the usual Gestapo interrogation at border control. Once my wife satisfied the officials that she wasn’t a threat to national security or, more importantly, government resources, she was allowed to enter for six months. Cynthia is entitled to stay until mid-June but, in this Brexit obsessed climate, she doesn’t want to wait that long.
So, two weeks today, she will leave springtime England. Her mission is to secure a spousal visa to allow her a worry free return. Her success isn’t assured by any means. She will have to complete enough forms to gladden the hearts of every red tape loving government worker in her way, and then part with a substantial chunk of hard earned cash.
The process can take months rather than weeks. Success is not assured, even with the help of ruinously expensive visa agents. She can fast track the application and reduce the wait to something almost bearable, providing she parts with enough money to buy a decent used car. In the meantime, life will go on in my wonderful watery world. Heartwarming tasks like finding out why on Earth we still don’t have any hot water on board.
Living with cold water isn’t the end of the world. Heating a kettle for dish washing is no big deal, nor is organising a tank full of the hot stuff for showering. With Orient’s onboard generator still out of commission, I can fire up our ever trusty Honda suitcase generator to power the calorifier’s immersion heater. Or, if I really want to spend some money, I can power the immersion heater via my shoreline from the marina’s electricity supply.
Neither of these inconveniences is a real problem, nor is the cold towel rail in an even colder bathroom. What I want, what I really, really want, is to be able to step out of a steaming shower and wrap myself in a soft and fluffy hot towel. A towel warmed by a working towel rail.
A working towel rail and radiators to the bedroom and engine room requires a working Kabola boiler. We don’t yet have one of those.
The problem, we thought, was a hopelessly solidified burner pot. A new pot arrived two weeks ago. Swapping old for new was so simple even I could do it. The Kabola worked so well that, within a couple of hours, we had a constant stream of scalding water flowing from our taps and Cynthia reduced to a small and sweaty puddle in the main bedroom. My success was short-lived. The comforting orange glow visible through the Kabola’s front panel glass disappeared by the end of the day. I haven’t been able to relight it since then. It’s back to the drawing board now and endless praying for a simple solution.
High on our long list of Orient remedial work is a new cratch cover. The current cover is driving me mad. The port side has six broken press studs failing to secure the bottom horizontal edge to the hull. The starboard side has none at all. In anything more than a light breeze, which is most of the time at Calcutt Boats, the cratch cover blows inside the well deck, forming a funnel for any rain. Recently, there’s been more rain pooled on our front deck than in the water tank beneath it.
Fitting new studs should provide temporary well deck waterproofing, but the cover is past its best. It’s coated with algae the same spring green as the new buds on the willow overhanging our dump barge mooring, and it’s frayed and tattered around the edges. It’s so old and unsightly it could be my twin.
AJ Canopies in Braunston have an excellent reputation. Consequently, they aren’t cheap. They have such a positive flow of new business that they weed out time wasters over the phone. Sadly, on this occasion, I was one of them. The base price is determined by the distance from the cratch board to the cabin top. Then there’s £75 to add for each zip. Our current cover has six of them, four hundred and fifty extra pounds to bring our telephone quote to £1,500. We can’t afford it at the moment, nor can we find the money for the joinery work we also need completing.
We were shocked by the price. We have a compact saloon, ten feet from the well deck steps to the galley bulkhead. We want a pine bookcase removing, and an L shaped bench seat building, plus a removable table to use for dining during the day and as a bed base at night. Like the rest of the boat, we wanted it built in pine. Nothing fancy so, we wrongly thought, not terribly expensive.
The guy who visited us was charismatic, affable and clearly a craftsman. And a Ferrari owner as well judging by his price. Two thousand eight hundred pounds, without upholstery, is far more than we can afford. We’ll have to make do with a pair of folding canvas chairs and no overnight guests for the foreseeable future.
We welcomed a daytime guest on board yesterday for a fun-filled day on the cut. Chris Ansome incorporated a Discovery into his hectic three-week schedule before he flies back to the States next week. Chris is exploring the possibility of returning to the UK after spending much of his working life in the good old US of A. He wanted to experience a typical day’s cruising in winter weather. Zeus was happy to oblige. Zeus is the god of weather in case you’re wondering who this mysterious guy is.
We began our cruise on a calm day under a cloudless sky. The sky filled with clouds, the air with wind and rain. We were buffeted, wetted and would have been chilled to the bone if not for the blazing Premiere range beneath our feet. We had a high old time, culminating with an exciting passage up and down the Calcutt flight. Orient handled the difficult weather magnificently, as did novice helmsman, Chris.
I gather from his frequent comments throughout the day that he enjoyed himself. “Isn’t this fantastic!” he exclaimed more than once. “Thank you for this glimpse into your wonderful life,” he told me several times. The comment which really revealed his feeling though was, “This is the most exciting day I’ve had in many, many years!” Coming from a long term sound engineer with Jethro Tull, that’s really saying something.
Chris enjoyed a memorable day and gained some valuable information about the liveaboard lifestyle into the bargain. As have all of the hundreds of guests who have joined me on board James No 194 and now Orient.
I don’t like to blow my own trumpet, but I’m going to. There’s no one else to do it for me. Learning how to steer twenty tonnes of unwieldy steel can be a stressful experience. Some of my guests have been on other helmsmanship courses. They complained that their instructors treated novice boaters like parade ground rookies. That’s not my style at all.
I want YOU to have a good time. Living the lifestyle is fun. So should learning about it. If you are at all interested in buying a narrowboat to live or cruise on England’s inland waterways, do yourself a favour and join me on a fun and information filled day aboard one of the cosiest and comfortable narrowboats you’ll ever see. You can find all about my Discovery Day service here, or book a date directly here.
I’ll write to you again in a couple of weeks. Maybe I’ll welcome you on board Orient one day soon too. Tea or coffee?
This is one of an ongoing series of posts detailing my narrowboat expenses. Each post breaks down my monthly costs for the previous month, the same month three years earlier and a third set of figures for three years before that. As a Narrowbudget Gold user, you will always have access to the narrowboat running expenditure no more than a month old and you’ll be able to compare it with data which spans six years. You’ll be able to use this information to estimate the likely cost of buying and maintaining your own floating home.
Calculating accurate costs for the boat you intend to purchase is difficult. There are so many variables that the best you can hope for is a good idea of the expenses involved and the nature of the variables you need to consider. Even on the two similar length boats I have owned over the last decade, the running costs have varied signifficantly. With that in mind, I have explained the difference in the two boats’ systems, style and design in the series’ first post here.
I’ve copied this text from the January 2013 blog post detailing my running costs.
“This year (2013) is going to be an expensive year for Sally and I. We have a huge amount of work to do to get James up to scratch. I’ve had some of the more major work done already. In November 2011 I replaced the old perished leaking and rotten wooden top with a new steel cabin. Actually, I didn’t replace one with the other. I had the new steel added on top of the existing cabin, and added another layer of insulation between the two. Removing the existing wooden cabin would have meant destroying much of the woodwork inside the cabin. James is beautifully fitted inside. Removing the woodwork would have been a tragic, almost criminal waste.
The new steel work, transportation and remedial work cost roughly £10,000. The transport alone was £1,100 for a delivery to and collection from a boatbuilder just eight miles away. The boatbuilder didn’t have any lifting gear on site so the road haulage company had to provide a crane too.
In April 2012 I took James out of the water to black the hull. Two days of dirty, back-breaking labour saved me the £500 that I would have been charged if I had asked Calcutt Boats to do the work for me. After James was put back in the water, I took her into one of our paint tents, took three weeks off work and painted the rest of the boat. It was a frustrating but ultimately rewarding project which resulted in a half decent finish and which saved me a fortune. As a ball park figure, you can bank on £100 a foot to have your boat painted by the professionals. James, at 62?, would therefore have cost me over £6,000 for a “proper” job. As it was, the cost of the materials plus the hire of the paint tent was under £1,000.
So I started 2013 with steelwork to the top and to the bottom of the boat with a decent layer of paint. The hull needs doing every three years so I next need to do it mid 2015. The cabin should last five or six years at least if it’s looked after properly, which brings me to January 2013 and my expenses for the month. Here they are…
Electricity: Each mooring has a 230v electrical supply which is charged at 20p per unit and topped up cards available from our reception. I generally buy 3 x £10 electricity cards at a time. I bought cards twice this month. My electricity purchases should be significantly reduced in March when I have the solar panels fitted. Time will tell. – £60
Gas: I should have known better. I ran out of gas in January. I have two 13kg propane cylinders in the front gas locker. When one runs out I usually buy a replacement on the same day. I forgot in December so when the smell of gas alerted me to the fact that the cylinder in use was on its way out on a bitterly cold January morning, I scrambled out of the boat to the gas locker to (I thought) quickly switch from the empty to the full cylinder. Both were empty so there was no morning cup of coffee, and no toast. I wasn’t happy. Consequently, I bought two cylinders later than day. – £45.90
Coal: I get a better deal if I buy ten bags at a time. Ten 25kg bags of Pureheat last me about a month – £108
Mooring: My mooring costs £2,300 a year – £191.66
Maintenance & Repairs: There were no maintenance and repair expenses as such in January, but I did make a purchase to help me when I’m out cruising. I bought a folding bike. Folding bikes are very handy for getting to and from the local shops, or returning to a parked car so that it can be brought to the boat’s current mooring. You can pay £500 or more for a new folding bike. The one I bought was being sold by the owners of a narrowboat we have on brokerage. It’s very comfortable, but basic Apollo folding bike from Halfords. The list price is £149 but this one has had Derailleur gears added. The cost to me? – £65
Heating the boat increases my monthly outgoings during the winter. In January I spent £108 for coal and about £30 more than I would during the summer on electricity. The increased electricity cost is due to two 500w Dimplex Coldwatcher greenhouse heaters that I use to provide additional heat towards the rear of the boat where the stove’s heat can’t reach.
The total directly boat related regular expenses this month were £213.90 for heating and electricity and £191.66 for my mooring, a total of £427.80. Then of course there was the bike purchase bringing the total to £492.80.
Of course, the boat expenditure is only a part of the cost of life on the boat. Here’s what we spent on our day to day expenses in January
Internet: I use the excellent mobile broadband dongle from Three. For the last two and a half years, since my bankruptcy, I have been using the Pay As You Go option because my credit rating wasn’t pretty. The PAYG service costs £25 for 7GB per month. I’m connected 24/7 as I’m aditing the site early morning, on breaks from work through the day, and in the evening. Sally has an iPad. She’s online quite a bit too. Consequently, we often ran over the monthly allowance. Over the last 12 months I’ve been trying my luck by attempting to order a dongle on a 24 month contract. In January I was successful. My mobile broadband now costs me £15.99 a month for 15GB rather than last year’s average of £29.69 a month. – £15.99
Telephone (Mobile): Sally and I both have mobiles on contract and Sally has an iPad, also on contract – £115
Laundry: Calcutt Boats as two washing machines and a dryer for moorers’ use. We only use the washing machines. Sally hangs the damp washing inside the boat. It’s dry within 24 hours. The washing machines take tokens which we buy at reception. Each token costs £1 and keeps the washing machines going for 45 minutes. – £20
Groceries: We eat well but not extravagantly. £366.40
Eating out: We enjoy a coffee in a cafe and the occasional meal out. In January we had a meal in local pub, a fiery chicken feast in Nandos in the Bullring, Birmingham and a coffee in a canalside cafe – £81.60.
Entertainment: I love to read. I love my Kindle. It’s so easy to finish a book, use my laptop to browse through the Kindle books on Amazon, click a button and open my new book within a minute or two. I don’t read as much as I would like because of the time I spend adding content to this site. However, I still get through three or four books a month. We also buy second hand DVDs from Blockbuster about once a month. The local store sells four for £10 – £32.50
Car: The insurance on my Seat Althea was due in January (£298). I don’t use my car very much so just £31.10 for fuel – £329.35
Clothing: I try to spend as little as possible on clothing but in January I needed a new pair of wellies and a fleece hat – £58.49
My total none-boat-related living costs for January were £1,019.33 bringing my overall total for January to £1,512.13. I fear that the totals for the coming few months are going to be far more than that with the improvements we have planned but what a lovely boat James will be when she’s finished!”
Now we’ll move on to the running costs for the same boat three years later.
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Orient’s Zanussi washing machine isn’t performing quite as well as we would like. Its primary function at the moment seems to be to transfer the contents of our seven hundred litre water tank into the cabin bilge without washing any clothes.
Removing the excess bilge water has proven a little challenging.
My previous narrowboat, James, was sensibly designed. Bilgewater could flow the full cabin length back to the engine room and then be sucked out of the boat with an electric bilge pump.
Orient’s underfloor area appears to be split into several self-contained sections. All of them are inaccessible. Builder Steve Hudson fitted out the engine room and boatman’s cabin. Everything else was done by the first owner. He was a craftsman. The beautifully designed fitted furniture is as substantial as it is aesthetically appealing. He did a great job, but not one which makes remedial work at all easy.
Before he constructed the boat’s many cupboards, shelves and heavy-duty doors, he hauled two tonnes of hardwood flooring into the Orient’s cabin. He secured the long planks with enough over engineered brass screws to open his own hardware shop. Orient’s cabin floor is a thing of beauty, unmarred by unsightly but often necessary inspection hatches. There’s no chance of lifting any of the hardwood planks without dismantling the carefully crafted furniture above it.
Removing leaked water is a problem I haven’t yet been able to overcome, as is removing the appliance which is responsible for the unwanted liquid.
The Zanussi washing machine installation was done early in the boat’s fitout programme. I suspect it was lifted onto a sturdy pine shelf on the cabin’s port side and then surrounded with batons, doors and shelves until it was buried at the bottom of an expansive airing cupboard. The equally substantial Kabola boiler cupboard was built opposite the washing machine. A weighty pine door to the galley opens between the two.
The washing machine cupboard door and the galley door will need to come off before there’s any chance of sliding the washing machine out. And then the appliance will need hauling, sliding and lifting around, between and over a host of cupboards, drawer chests and partitions towards the cabin’s forward doors. Getting the machine out of the boat is going to be a monumental pain in the arse.
In the meantime, life goes on.
Cupboards filled with dirty clothes until a long trek to the marina washing and drying machines became a necessary evil. The pleasant one thousand yard return trip (I’ve just measured it on Google Maps) from Orient to the facilities block morphed into a tedious trudge after the fifth load. Ah, the joys of living afloat!
Banging into the boiler cupboard door as I wrestled with the uncooperative washing machine reminded me that the long-awaited replacement Kabola boiler pot still hasn’t arrived. It was ordered directly from the German supplier at the beginning of January. They estimated three weeks before it would reach our Tattenhall base. We postponed our cruise south to Calcutt, hoping that we could get it fitted before we left. We began our journey potless and without hot water. The third revised delivery date has now passed, so we have to rely on a stable shoreline connection for water heating.
A constant shore supply is a hit and miss affair. One hundred yards of a blue plastic coated cable is buried at the bottom of a shallow ditch between our rusty dump barge mooring and the nearest electricity metre. Somewhere, I don’t yet know where, there is a weakness or a partial break in the cable. Running mains appliances, heating water and charging our domestic battery bank is an exercise requiring patience and a stout pair of walking boots. A saloon table top lamp is our usual indicator. Like a Pavlovian dog, if the cabin suddenly dims, I climb out of the boat reset the trip switch. I’m frustrated but exceptionally fit.
All of these issues are nothing more than minor and temporary inconveniences. They are not third world problems. We have a comfortable and warm floating home, moored at one of the best locations at, for my money, one of the prettiest marinas in the country.
Returning to work here has been a joy. I was employed by Calcutt Boats on and off from September 2009 until October 2016. I enjoyed the work and appreciated the beauty of the hundred plus acres of rural Warwickshire I maintained. However, two years driving 30,000 miles through the varied landscapes of eleven European countries reinforced my love for England’s often spectacular countryside. Especially after spending much of last year in Holland.
There’s more varied scenery in this remote corner of rural Warwickshire than there is in most of the Netherlands (My apologies to Dutch friends Gilia and Edwin who will read this). We stayed in Holland because of the vast network of rivers, canals and lakes. The Dutch are masters of waterway management. They have to be. Much of the country’s reclaimed land is below sea level. Waterways fill many of the low lying areas which, in this exceptionally flat corner of Europe, is most of the country.
The waterways are meticulously maintained. Everything works. On the rare occasion that a bridge or lock fails, technicians are on site in the blink of an eye to fix the fault. The Dutch waterways network operates like a well-oiled machine, a reliable machine with minimal character.
Very few boaters live afloat on Holland’s four thousand miles of connected waterways. If you want to live on Dutch waterways, you usually buy one of the country’s thousands of houseboats, floating homes so elaborate that they often have brick walls and slate or thatched roofs. It’s living on the water, but it’s not boating. There are exceptions of course. The Dutch build beautiful boats. They’re often not insulated, but if you find one that is you have a spacious, comfortable and pretty home. Like Edwin and Gilia’s boat below.
The Dutch are enthusiastic and proud fair weather boaters. A poorly maintained craft on the Dutch network is a rare sight. Boating in Holland is all about aesthetics. Open day boats costing six figures are common, as are forty-foot motor cruisers costing a million or more. Despite these boats’ extraordinary cost, very few of them are suitable for four season cruising or for living on board full time.
Consequently, the Dutch network is lifeless for half of the year. September is a hectic time for boatyards when many crafts are removed from their moorings. They’re lifted from the water, moved to hard standing, sometimes in huge heated hangers, and left until the spring.
Many minor canals shut down for the winter. Not because of essential repairs or freezing weather, but because the bridge and lock keepers aren’t at their posts. There’s no point. There are no boaters to provide a service for.
Major waterways routes remain open from dawn till dusk for commercial traffic. On the waterways near our Aalsmeer base, we could count the daily commercial boats on the fingers of one hand. The work of a Dutch winter bridge keeper must be a tedious affair.
Even though winter cruising is not overly popular on English and Welsh canals, the UK inland waterways network has a very different feel from its continental cousin during the colder months of the year.
Thanks to my work, and our mooring overlooking the bottom lock of the Grand Union canal’s Calcutt flight, I can watch daily events on the waterways as they unfold. I saw more boats moving through the flight on one lazy Sunday morning in February than I did in a week on the Dutch canals before we left the Netherlands last December.
I could hear the sounds from my boatman’s cabin office; the rush of water from raised paddles, the roar of an engine to combat the surge from paddles raised too quickly and shouted banter between lock and helm crew. They’re such comforting sounds.
There are still signs of life on England’s canal and river network on the coldest winter days. Thousands of moored boats line the cut, many occupied by liveaboard boaters. Cruising past a row of moored boats usually creates a burst of canalside activity. Heads appear through hatches, out of engine bays, above towering bags of coal. Some boat owners offer a cheery wave, a friendly greeting or, if the cruising boater passes too fast, a shaken fist and a little heartfelt advice. English canals are alive, even in the depth of winter.
Not that we’ve had much of a winter this year.
I was able to work in a tee shirt for much of last week as I burned hawthorn stripped from the fence line between Calcutt Boats and neighbouring Napton reservoir. A Colditz style fence complete with stainless steel gates was recently installed to exclude otters from the carp-filled lake. Now the foreign fish eating mink have the reservoir to themselves. Aren’t they lucky?
I hosted my first Discovery Day of the season yesterday. My guest, Paul, booked his day back in December. He told me he wanted to experience a day on a liveaboard narrowboat at the coldest time of the year. He didn’t want to be seduced by a warm day cruising under an azure sky. Although he didn’t show any outward signs, he must have been bitterly disappointed.
The day dawned with a light mist and a seasonal nip in the air. After checking the day’s weather report, Paul arrived carrying nothing more substantial than a light jacket. Standing still on the back of a narrowboat for hours on end twitching an arm occasionally to guide the craft around gentle turns can be a cold affair. I considered offering him a coat, but I didn’t need to worry. A warm sun burned the mist off by mid-morning. Paul stood comfortably at the helm for the afternoon session in a tee shirt and shorts. In February. In England. The weather has gone mad.
I’m back on our dump barge mooring today, sitting in Orient’s back cabin with the doors wide open. The marina has been an unusual hive of activity for this time of the year. Calcutt Bottom lock behind me has been busy for most of the day as local boaters seized the chance to do a little fair weather boating. They need to make the most of this early season opportunity. If the current warm weather and clear skies continue, the network will struggle to remain fully operational. We need rain and plenty of it if we want to avoid summer lock closures and restrictions. Brits begging for rain in England? It’s not a common request.
The forecast for the week ahead is for lots more sun. Narrowboat owners and daffodils will be out in force. I’ll be working beside the Grand Union canal watching happy boaters chug along wishing that I was one of them.
I welcomed Orient’s first Discovery Day guest on Saturday. Aspiring liveaboard boater, Paul, joined me for a twelve mile, six lock cruise on the combined Oxford and Grand Union canals. The waterway weaves a fascinating route through some of Warwickshire’s finest scenery.
We began the day at 8am with a hot drink in front of the glowing coals of Orient’s multi fuel stove. We enjoyed an hour discussing essential bits of onboard kit, rules and etiquette on the network’s watery roads, the true cost of living a life afloat, and any other questions about this wonderful lifestyle Paul wants to throw at me.
Fully refreshed and raring to go, we fired up Orient’s vintage engine. Saturday’s weather was unbelievable; a cloudless blue sky and a sun warm enough to encourage Paul to strip off to tee shirt and shorts for the afternoon cruise back to Calcutt. Even though I’ve cruised the Discovery Day route hundreds of times I never tire of it. Buzzards circling overheard during the day, owls swooping low over the canal at dusk, the occasional trembling muntjac kneeling to drink in the offside shallows and, in March, mad hares cavorting in waterside meadows. The route is as fascinating as it is beautiful. The day with Paul passed in a blur. I tied up at the end of the day eager to greet my next guest and the many more to follow through the changing seasons.
If you want a break from all this Brexit nonsense and escape the stresses and strains of modern day life for a while, come and join me for an idyllic day on the cut. I promise you a truly relaxing day out filled with answers to all your narrowboat questions. You’ll learn how to handle a narrowboat with confidence too. Click on the link above to book your day.
Kingswinford, West Midlands
Searching the internet I came across Paul's Discovery Day web site for all aspects of living on a canal boat. I thought, "Wow, that would be ideal for me even though I've been living on a canal boat for 18 months but no experience in cruising the cut"..so i booked a Discovery Day with Paul to gain some experience in cruising. With Paul's experience my confidence grew during the day. Now I'm ready to to cruise the canals.
My son and me had a brilliant Discovery Day. Paul answered all questions regarding living aboard and full instruction cruising the canals. We came away at the end of the day with a lot more experience and confidence.
My Discovery Day showed me a different way of life living aboard. Paul was there to answer any questions regarding all aspects of living aboard and instruction with cruising the cut. I would recommend Paul's Discovery Day who is thinking about buying a canal boat."
Graham was an experienced live aboard boater, but like many people living afloat he used his home as a floating flat. He didn’t have the confidence to explore England’s beautiful and ever changing waterways. A day’s tuition opened up a whole new world to him.
If you’re thinking about buying a narrowboat, regardless of whether it’s for recreational cruising or as a primary home, do yourself a huge favour and begin your boat buying process with enough knowledge and experience to help you make the right choices and decisions. Book a Discovery Day today.
We woke to a tranquil world. Mallards slipped and slid over the solid ice sheet covering the canal and surrounding Orient. The rest day I craved had become an unavoidable necessity. Despite a forecast temperature spike over the next few days, melting ice up to two inches thick would take a while. So we relaxed into the day, sat in front of a Squirrel filled with glowing coals and talked about a new dog.
Bassets aren’t happy solo boaters. Since twelve-year-old Tasha failed to wake on a dreary morning at Tattenhall marina three weeks earlier, our remaining basset, Abbie, has been far more depressed than usual.
Cynthia has rescued a string of bassets. They’re amiable comedians, non-confrontational, affectionate and loyal. They also shed so much fur that owners need to follow behind them with a small truck. The breed is also prone to simultaneous drooling and head shaking which sometimes result in walls which wouldn’t look out of place on an alien film set. They’re big dogs, far too big and heavy for Cynthia to lift easily, or even at all, over a narrowboat gunnel on and off the boat. Great dogs, but not particularly narrowboat friendly.
Cynthia had a few suggestions, but I had ideas of my own. I haven’t owned a pet since I managed a Chef & Brewer pub on a rough Milton Keynes estate in the mid-eighties. I had two then. A ten stone rottweiler, Conan – named after Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian, and an eight-foot-long Burmese python inexplicably named Arthur. I liked impressive and memorable pets.
As we sat in front of our glowing stove, I tried to imagine the perfect dog for me. “I want something to reflect my character,” I told Cynthia. “A manly kind of dog, strong in both body and mind and reasonably intelligent. I want an animal which suits the life I lead and the work I am returning to at Calcutt Boats. What’s more, I want the dog to have a strong name. Thunder, Thor, Conan or Fang maybe.”
Cynthia is a dutiful and perceptive wife. After many hours of careful thought and online research, she found what she thought was the perfect dog, one which would suit both my character and my needs. The breed wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but the idea grew on me as we discovered more about them.
Exhausted by a morning doing very little, we swapped a glowing boat stove for the blazing logs of a country pub fireplace. The Boat in Catherine-de-Barnes offered the perfect remedy for an insatiable appetite generated by two weeks of dawn till dusk cruising. I snuffled my way through a mixed grill the size of an English village, found room for a sugar-laden dessert and staggered back to Orient for an afternoon of inactivity.
The Grand Union canal looked promising on Monday morning. Water rather than ice surrounded the boat. Water that hid a nasty surprise.
A shallow layer of meltwater covered the ice beneath. After my pre-cruise checks and with the engine straining at the mooring lines eager to tackle a new day’s cruising, I thawed the cabin roof ice with a couple of kettles of boiling water. The first time I climbed down the frozen rungs of a lock escape ladder and stepped onto a roof more slippery than a used car salesman was also the last. These days I always make sure that the cabin top is safe to walk on before the day’s cruise begins.
Once the roof was safe for rubber-clad feet, I walked its length smashing the ice which still held Orient firmly on its mooring. I hoped that any frozen patches along our route would quickly disappear as the thermometer raced towards the forecast high of ten degrees. They didn’t.
Forcing a path through ice is hard. Hard on the boat, harder on the paint covering it and hardest of all on the boat owner and his bank balance. Losing expensively applied hull paint is inevitable. Shards of ice flay the waterline steel. Even thin ice can reveal bright steel after an hour or two. Scraping blacking off canalside boats can be lead to even more heartache. Moored boaters hear a distant hiss and crackle. They know a boat is coming. They open side hatches and windows, pop heads out of engine bays while they pretend to carry out routine maintenance. They’re really waiting and watching, noting the cracks which radiate from the bow of the oncoming boat. They look for broken sheets with ragged edges, forced at speed into their own waterline. God help any ice breaker who moves past a line of moored boats at anything faster than the slowest crawl.
That presents the helmsman of the moving boat with a dilemma. He needs to power through patches of thick ice. Thick ice often thins, so the crawling boat surges forward, forcing jagged chunks at all and sundry. Too little power and the moving boat shudders to a halt, close enough to the boats they pass to be offered candid opinions on the wisdom of cruising on frozen canals at all.
My problem wasn’t so much with the boats I passed, there were precious few, but with the direction in which the cracking ice forced us to move. As the ice thickens the boat slows and the more likely the bow is to follow the path of the ice cracks. On several occasions that direction was towards the offside shallows.
No matter how quickly I reacted, Orient was slow to respond. By the time I noticed the bow veering off the centre channel, dialled down my engine speed with the speed wheel, slipped the boat into reverse and wound my throttle up again, the bow had usually strayed too far into dangerous territory. The cabin would tip further and further askew until my walkie talkie would crackle with the inevitable response from Cynthia in the galley below. “Is this a narrowboat or a sailing ship? All the cupboard doors have flown open, we’ve lost a glass and a china plate!”
Reversing our course was usually an exhausting and frustrating affair. The bow would be firmly glued to a mud flat by then and the stern resting in loose silt. Without the aid of passing boats or towpath users, the only way to escape the canal’s offside embrace was to pole the stern into the centre channel. Once there, the propeller would hopefully have enough water to provide some meaningful reverse thrust and help drag the boat free.
ur first grounding took twenty minutes to escape. The second lasted three-quarters of an hour. Sweat trickled down my back despite the shaded cuttings’ icy chill and shedding most of my insulating layers. I saw stars and an end to our cruising day. I knew the next grounding would be our last. I didn’t have the energy to press. After four hours of back-breaking work I had to admit defeat.
Our short cruising day ended at Knowle’s flight of five locks. I needed water. There was a tap at both the top and the bottom of the flight. A friendly volunteer lock keeper offered to help me through the flight so i ignored the first tap. The five locks took half an hour. Forcing my way through thick ice to the water point below the flight took just as long. Discovering that it had been turned off was a bitter disappointment, especially when the lock keeper told me the tap above the flight was running freely.
The canal ahead of us was frozen and the water point unusable. We tempted fate and the possible wrath of other water seeking boaters by staying the rest of the day and night on the water point. No one bothered us. We enjoyed a peaceful and trouble-free night before the next day’s assault on the twenty-one lock Hatton flight.
We reached Hatton lock 26 on the twelfth day of our cruise south from Tattenhall marina. Over the twelve days, we passed just ten moving boats. I dropped down the first lock and then moored on the lock landing before the second, outside the excellent Canal and River Trust managed Hatton Locks Cafe. After seeing an average of less than one cruising boat a day, what were the chances of one wanting to use the lock landing while Cynthia and I stopped long enough for a bite to eat? Sod’s Law and all that. Just as I finished tying my stern line, a CRT volunteer appeared out of nowhere to ask me to move. He was behind us in a maintenance tug.
After a little negotiation, I set the lock ahead of me for the tug, they sailed past and Orient stayed where she was. We walked into the cafe to see if the sign behind the counter lived up to its promise. “We don’t serve fast food. We serve home cooked food as fast as we can.” It’s good news for passing boaters. Their food is wonderful.
Despite the energy boost from a delicious slab of homemade cottage pie, I could only manage a dozen locks before darkness defeated me. It wasn’t a problem. There are plenty of mooring opportunities on the Hatton flight, and no one is fighting for them on cold February days.
I grounded again the following day. We flew down the remains of the Hatton flight, dropped down through the two Cape locks and the spotted a possible mooring in central Leamington Spa close to a retail park offering food cupboard salvation.
A seductive row of sturdy bollards lured me onto a shallow mud flat. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t reverse off or move the boat an inch with a pole. After sweating for half an hour, I tied my two centre lines together, fixed the long rope to a stern deck dolly and tossed it to a pair of passing runners. The army types, all brawn and can-do attitude, huffed and puffed and did their level best to slip right out of their teeny tiny shorts. Their manly grunting worked wonders, especially for Cynthia who watched slack-jawed from the galley porthole. Orient’s stern slid into the centre channel and then onto a mooring next to Liddl where I should have stopped in the first place.
We shopped and then cruised some more, mooring at dusk on another landing, this time on a remote lock on the Fosse flight. It was our last scheduled night out on the cut. A gentle cruise and nineteen undemanding locks the following day brought us home. How to Calcutt Boats, the beautiful location where I have moored and lived for most of the last decade.
Orient has done us proud. The Eighty-three-year-old Lister engine has performed tirelessly for one hundred and twenty-five hours since our first attempt to cruise south on Sunday 29th December. The freshly blacked hull has bashed and scraped its way through one hundred and eighty-eight locks and many miles of frozen canal. The engine and hull have passed the test with flying colours, although much of the lower part of the boat looks like it’s been on the wrong side of an argument with Mike Tyson.
Orient has done us proud, but she still needs a lot of tender loving care. The Kabola boiler often fails to stay alight, nor does it provide heat to the bathroom, bedroom or engine room radiators. We hope a replacement pot will cure the problem. Time will tell.
The washing machine has sprung a leak. We hope it’s a simple fix. Determining the cause will involve extracting the packing which has been jammed in place to stop the appliance from shaking when it spins. Until that issue is resolved, we will have to use the marina facilities.
The generator had what may have been a terminal fit on our cruise south. We need a diagnosis from an engine doctor sometime soon. Fortunately, we still have our trusty Honda suitcase generator for emergency situations, like the one we have now.
Our new mooring is in the little-used north-west corner of Calcutt Boats’ Locks marina. I laid a one hundred metre power cable to the mooring three years ago. The cable was buried under tonnes of clay to protect it. The protection didn’t work. Someone, possibly equipped with a very sharp gardening tool, appears to have nicked the cable. It will need replacing before Orient can have shore power.
Apart from these teething problems, our new home is pretty much perfect. All we have to do now is finish paying for her. A task which will be made much less painful if we sell our Dutch cruiser which is currently moored in South Holland. At least I will have a delightful distraction after a hard day’s work.
We hired a car and drove to Whitby yesterday. Enterprise Car Hire is exceptionally boater friendly. They picked us up at the marina and drove us ten miles to their Daventry branch to collect a Hyundai i10. The comfortable little car cost us £37 for the weekend, roughly half the cost of the fuel for the seven-hour drive.
Our trip north was to collect the new dog Cynthia has spent weeks looking for. Remember the criteria? Rough, tough, muscles like a bodybuilder on steroids and with a name to make an Italian hit man proud? Here’s our new mutt.
She’s a Coton de Tulear, a pocket pup popular with Madagascan royalty. She’s neither rough nor tough but has many redeeming features. She doesn’t shed so there’s no wading knee deep through discarded fur. She’s also surprisingly quiet for a little dog. We’ve had her on the boat for twenty-four hours now. Apart from a low growl when I walked into the boat this morning, she hasn’t uttered a sound. Although she’s in a completely alien environment, she’s already made herself at home. She walks to heel and responds to her new name. She came to us with the name Lady. We prefer Sadie. She doesn’t seem to mind what she’s called, as long as calling her involves a little affection.
Sadie is the perfect boat dog as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I’ll look as though I’m more comfortable with a handbag than a hand grenade, but looks aren’t as important as having a gentle companion, one who is reputedly an expert at rat catching. Visitors, you have been warned.
Seven days to go. Seven days to cover a mere forty-three miles. How difficult could that be?
That was our goal when we left Market Drayton last Monday morning. The sky was clear and the canal untroubled by the fierce gusts which had buffeted us all the previous day.
We needed to reach central Birmingham and the bottom of the thirteen lock Farmer’s Bridge flight by last light on Sunday 3rd February. The flight was scheduled to close at 8 am the following morning and, I thought at the time, close any route to Napton Junction.
The weather forecast concerned me. Circumstances conspired against us. We would be travelling at the very worst time of the year thanks to the delay with Orient’s remedial work. The forecast was for heavy snow the following Thursday and, more worryingly, a string of sub-zero nights and only marginally warmer days. Snow would be an inconvenience, mildly uncomfortable and slightly challenging when negotiating locks. Thick ice could stop us dead in our tracks. Sure, we could batter our way through ice up to an inch thick providing I didn’t mind losing all the paint I had carefully applied to the waterline just five weeks earlier. We prayed for balmy days and mild nights. No one listened.
We met the day’s first challenge at Tyreley’s five lock flight where the canal runs through a dismal sandstone cutting. The channel is narrow, very narrow, and difficult to negotiate in a deep boat. I grounded too far away from the first lock landing to jump ashore so had to painfully and slowly reverse for a hundred yards to a spot where I could reach the bank. There was nowhere to tie a rope to on the rocky canalside ledge, so I had to leave a trailing centre line on the towpath and hope the boat behaved itself.
Evidence of the previous day’s high winds lay beside and sometimes across the locks throughout the flight. Fortunately, our only moving boat sighting of the day, a CRT workboat, ascended the flight ahead of us clearing the way. We ground our way through the flight and then entered the deep and dismal world of Woodseaves mile long cutting. The CRT workboat saved the day again. A wind-felled tree leaned across the canal, its lower branches blocking the channel altogether. Two contractors worked tirelessly for an hour using cutting edge technology to clear the way. One guy held the workboat in place while the other slipped and slid over his cabin’s ice-slicked roof. He used a pruning saw tied to a boat hook with a length of old rope to carve out a tunnel wide and high enough for Orient to pass.
The first water point we stopped at had been turned off. Fortunately the second worked after being given the kiss of life by a kettle of boiling water. We had enough water for another week. Now, all we needed was coal.
After eight and a half hours of high embankments, deep cuttings and painfully slow bumping-along-the-bottom progress, we moored on a muddy towpath in the gloom of a tree-shaded cutting at Gnosall Heath.
I checked the weather forecast the following morning. The prediction remained unsettling. Plummeting temperatures, ice and blankets of snow. I steered clear of anything written by the tabloids online. They suggested that Britain’s Big Freeze was going to decimate the population and bring the country to its knees.
The day’s cruising routine remained the same. Up at 6am to clean the ash out of both fires and coax them back to life. Then the engine checks; dip the fuel pump, gearbox and engine oil, fill the header tank and fill and tighten the grease points. By 7.30am I was waiting for enough light before setting off.
Our exit from Gnossal Heath was delayed by a shopping trip. I scoured both Gnossal Heath and Gnossal for anything worth eating. I don’t know why I bothered. Neither village has much to offer passing boaters.
Fortunately, the cruising day was short. We travelled ten miles and negotiated a single lock in five hours. Our mooring for the night was an hour north of Atherley Junction and the start of our three-day urban cruise.
Five days to go. The thermometer crept ever south. Weather forecasters still predicted heavy snow and nights cold enough to worry the elderly. And concern me too. We were down to three bags of coal and a single string net of kindling. I prayed again for nights without ice. No one listened this time either.
I paused briefly at the stop lock at Autherley Junction. Good news and bad news at Napton Narrowboats. They usually sold coal, but they were out of stock. I turned right at the junction and pulled onto the lock landing at the bottom of the Wolverhampton Twenty One.
I wasn’t looking forward to our passage through Wolverhampton and Birmingham. My one and only narrowboat visit to England’s second largest city hadn’t been particularly pleasant. On a long April day, I skirted Birmingham’s south-east on a Warwick Ring circuit. The route included Camp Hill and Garrison locks. I stopped four times on the Camp Hill flight to clear my propeller. The locks and the pounds between were a sea of plastic bottles and bags and discarded clothing. I saw more canalside than waterborne rubbish on the Garrison flight. Three emaciated men in tattered clothing slumped next to a burned out building by one of the locks. Drunk by mid-morning on special strength lager and bumper bottles of mind-rotting cider, they mumbled obscenities to me as I passed. They were harmless but unpleasant, very similar to the bobbing contents of the lock they sat beside.
I expected more of the same on this trip. I knew we would have to moor overnight somewhere within the urban sprawl for at least two nights, more if the forecast ice and snow caused delays.
I worried about utilities. Would the taps at water points be turned on and would they be ice free? Tracking our water supply is difficult. There’s an empty hole within a small metal frame to the side of the pine steps in front of the water tank. It’s labelled “Water Gauge”. That’s another entry on our lengthening to do list. We think we have a 700-800 litre tank. It should last us two weeks with careful management and a reluctance to bathe. We don’t know when we’ll run out, so we have to fill the tank as often as possible.
Heating fuel was another concern. Orient is not an efficient space to heat. There are three different areas; the forward cabin which includes the saloon, galley, bathroom and bedroom, the engine room and the boatman’s cabin. Our Squirrel does a passable job of heating the forward cabin back as far as the galley. It provides little meaningful heat to the bedroom.
Orient’s boatman’s cabin has a Premiere range. It doesn’t heat the cabin so much as melt everything that’s in it. The thermometer showed minus four when I wrote this section, but I sat typing on the cabin’s small fold-down table with the back doors wide open. It’s overkill for heating such a small space but brilliant for baking potatoes.
The boat’s centre section can, in theory, be heated by the Kabola boiler. There’s a towel rack in the bathroom, a radiator in the bedroom and another in the engine room. “The Kabola heating system is super simple to turn on,” previous owner Stuart told me. “All you need to do is turn the thermostat up until it clicks and, voila, you have hot radiators!” No matter what I’ve tried so far, no click and no central heating. At least we’re saving on money for heating diesel.
So we have three different heat sources, but only two of them work. We have two coal-burning stoves to feed. A twenty-five-kilo bag of coal briquettes lasts about three days. I used about the same just for one stove on my last boat. Orient’s multifuel stoves burn more efficiently than the stove on James and Orient’s spray foam insulation retains heat much more effectively than the James’ polystyrene. More efficient coal burning maybe, but we still needed to ensure that we had enough.
Multiple sub-zero days and a string of lock closures meant that we could be stuck for several days in one spot at the coldest time of the year. I had seen little activity on the waterways we cruised. Many of the boatyards appeared to be closed for the season, nor had I passed any roving fuel boats. Finding a canalside fuel supply was proving to be more of a challenge than I expected. I don’t mind walking a mile or two to do grocery shopping, but the thought of walking a similar distance carrying coal didn’t appeal to me at all.
So I tied up on the lock landing beneath the Wolverhampton Twenty One somewhat preoccupied. I didn’t notice the solid sheet of ice which filled the bottom lock. Ice in locks is a right royal pain in the backside. My expected five-hour lock passage became eight.
The ice was still thin enough to push through with the boat, but too thick to open the gates completely. Orient’s pole joined me on the lock ascent. On the many occasions when a gate became obstructed by ice, I swept it out of harm’s way with the pole.
My pace slowed even more halfway up the flight when I ran out of water. That’s when I fell in love with Wolverhampton dog walkers and cyclists. As I crept through a low pound painfully slowly a dog walker gave a cheery wave and told me that contractors had drained a lock at the head of the flight.
The Farmer’s Bridge flight was my main concern, but the Wolverhampton Twenty One was also scheduled to close for maintenance the following Monday. Had they decided to close the flight early? I was about to phone CRT when another dog walker shouted over to me. “I’m going home in a minute. I’ll jump in my car and go to the head of the flight for you to see what’s happening.” How kind. A cyclist also stopped, spoke to the dog walker and decided that he could take half an hour out of his day to make the return trip to the problem lock on his bike. Another unexpected act of kindness.
He returned half an hour later with good news. The contractors were measuring up for the following week. They would be finished long before I reached them and taking most of the flight’s water with them judging by the increasingly shallow pounds.
No sooner had the cyclist left than a CRT employee arrived with a big smile and a windless. “Don’t worry about the low pounds,” he reassured me. “Give me half an hour, and I’ll run some water down the flight for you.” God bless all CRT employees.
As darkness fell, I cruised out of the final lock and on to a superb mooring in Wolverhampton city centre next to a small park. We were away from the towpath and felt very safe. It was the perfect urban mooring, which was just as well. Leaving the following day wasn’t easy.
I woke to a thermometer showing minus seven and a half an inch of ice surrounding the boat. We had four days to reach the other side of Birmingham before the route closed. It wouldn’t have been a problem under normal conditions, but the ice was a big problem. Added to the cruising difficulties we needed both water and coal. We really needed to move, but would we able to fight our way through the frozen stuff? What would happen if we couldn’t couldn’t break our way through? If we missed our Farmer’s Bridge deadline, we would have to find another route south. The only one I could think of was back up the Shroppie to the Middlewich branch and then down the Trent and Mersey. That would add another couple of weeks to the journey. The alternative was to have Orient lifted out and shipped by road. I phoned a few local boatyards. None of them had lifts on site. The cost at one for bringing in a crane was £550, plus the cost of road transport and putting Orient back in the water at the other end. The price was too high. We needed to try ice breaking. I decided to walk along our route for half an hour trying to judge the ice thickness and the chance of forging a path through it.
I spotted a CRT workboat fifteen minutes later idling on an offside mooring, a trail of broken ice behind it. If I could reach the furrow it had ploughed I could follow that at least part of the way. I hurried back to Orient.
We fought our way off our mooring and onto the service point at Broad Street basin for water. While I defrosted the tap with two kettles of boiling water, coaxed the ice plugs out of our own hose and filled our tank the broken expanse of water behind us began to freeze again. By the time we reached the path opened by the CRT tug, it was a jumbled mess of refrozen ice. We crashed into the first of it and said goodbye to our month old hull paint.
The semi-broken track continued as far as Factory Locks where I had to turn to avoid a stoppage further along the main line. To prevent damaging moored boats through Tipton, and angering their owners, I reduced our speed to a crawl. Slowing down meant reducing our icebreaking capability. Orient was dead in the water by the time we reached Tipton Junction.
I ate the hot meal Cynthia brought up to me on the back deck as the bow butted ineffectively against inch thick ice. I had a choice. I could either reverse a few hundred yards onto a line of iced in moorings or try to break my way through and hope that the ice thinned again further down the canal. The worry of missing Farmer’s Bridge made the decision for me. I reversed fifty feet, twisted the speed wheel, said a prayer and charged forward.
Cynthia likened the rest of the day to be like living inside a tumble dryer. The afternoon wasn’t the most peaceful she’s ever enjoyed on board. The day wasn’t much more pleasant on the back deck. I carried on until dusk. The canal ice varied from quarter of an inch to a particularly unpleasant spot one and a half inches thick, with the odd patch of clear water between. We bypassed Oldbury and then through the scaffolding forest beneath the M5 motorway at West Bromwich. Finally, aided by Orient’s tunnel light, we found Smethwick locks and forced our way onto the frozen lock landing. Then I spent the rest of the evening trying to warm up.
Winter cruising is quite pleasant on Orient providing I remember or have time to keep the stove burning. I focussed so much on keeping the boat ploughing along a central channel the fire had died down hours earlier. I was very, very cold.
We woke to slightly better conditions, but a rather depressing view. We were moored opposite a burned out toll house on a strip of green through a sea of ugly housing. This is not a place I would want to stay when warmer weather encourages the local single digit IQ males of dubious parentage to venture outdoors.
Three locks and an hour on an icy canal brought us to neat and tidy central Birmingham and Sherbourne Wharf. We’d made it. The first of the Farmer’s Bridge flight was two minutes away, and we had found a trading coal supplier. Hooray!
Farmer’s Bridge was a delight. Thirteen easy to negotiate locks and then a short cruise to a super mooring in a clean area close to Aston University. And yet another cold night.
The following morning I walked the length of both the Ashted and the Camp Hill flights. Many of the locks were obstructed by ice, but we decided to push on towards a much-anticipated rest day at Catherine-de-Barnes the following day.
The icy lock flight routine continued. Over half the locks needed jagged pieces of ice cleared from behind the gates. The first flight was smooth enough apart from a short but nerve-wracking passage through Ashted tunnel. I had been warned (thank you Pete Earley) that the tunnel was low enough to remove the expensively applied paint on the cabin’s handrail. Setting the next lock downstream would remove an inch or two of water in the tunnel pound and possibly save the handrails. I set the next lock and lowered the water but, despite having a boat with a low air draught, we still touched the uneven offside tunnel roof. I didn’t examine the damage at the time. I don’t like crying in public.
Camp Hill bottom lock was a mess. It didn’t look as though it had been used for many days. Bottles, plastic bags, both empty and full, and shreds of clothing obscured a lock mouth blocked by ice. Breaking through the mess with Orient’s bow was easy. Stopping the refuse from swirling across the stern and down onto the propeller was impossible.
I developed a new routine for the Camp Hill flight. I used my pole to break and clear the ice from behind the lock gates and a boat hook to remove the shit from my propeller. The flight passage was hard work, especially when I tried to negotiate the hairpin bend before lock four. The ice caked pound was low, very low. I should have spotted the tide mark on the canalside concrete. However, trying to make a U-turn on an ice-caked lock pound is a demanding affair. I didn’t notice so grinding to a halt halfway into the lock came as a surprise. Neither reverse nor forward worked. The water was too low. I had to climb onto the cabin roof, walk to the front of the boat where the cabin was highest and vault onto the lock wall carrying my centre line. The only solution was to run some water through the lock from the upstream pound to float Orient out of the mud. Doing that would require so much water that I would drain the upstream pound too. To ensure that all the remaining locks held enough water I had to walk to the head of the flight opening every paddle I passed. Half an hour later Orient was afloat and the rest of the flight passable.
We stopped briefly at the service point at the top of the flight. Thanks to an eight-foot-high needle sharp metal fence protecting it, the facilities block is in first class condition. It’s worth negotiating the Camp Hill flight just to pay a visit. I emptied one of our cassettes and cursed the owner of the rusty wreck of a boat moored on the water point. Then we continued ice breaking.
This was the most challenging icebreaking of the trip so far. Thick ice and a shallow canal made life very difficult. If I cruised slowly to prevent the stern digging into the loose leaves, twigs, cloth and plastic obscuring the canal bed I didn’t have enough power to force myself through. So I had to wind up the throttle to break the ice and lower my precious propeller into endless snagging opportunities. For half an hour I had a small tree stuck to the rudder. It’s lower branches, aided by the thrashing propeller, swept the canal bed clean. The debris which avoided my spinning bronze blades clung to the sapling’s trailing branches until I had my own tree decorated with multicolour plastic leaves.
I stopped every few hundred yards to give the propeller a blast in reverse in an attempt at throwing the rubbish off. Either that or remove the weed hatch to give the propeller a thrashing with a boat hook I kept within reach.
As the afternoon wore on the ice thickened as much as the water thinned. I ground to a halt as I tried to creep past a moored boat on the tree-lined cutting north of Catherine-de-Barnes. Tired, cold, hungry and frustrated, I didn’t have enough patience for any finesse. Try as I might, brute force didn’t work. I gently switched between reverse and forward gears, moving ever so slowly backwards and forwards before finding a route through.
Five minutes later, just two hundred yards from our intended village mooring the same thing happened again. This time Orient wouldn’t move at all. All that reversing achieved was to swing the bow into the bank. At least I could jump onto the towpath and try pushing and pulling the boat. It wouldn’t move. Two male dog walkers offered to help. They helped me push Orient sideways into the channel centre where I hoped there was a little more water.
The owner of the GRP cruiser I had slowed to avoid turned up while we were huffing and puffing. I asked if many boats grounded on this stretch of canal. I know Orient is relatively deep, but there are plenty of narrowboats with a similar draft. Her reply? “You’re the first boat to get stuck this year.”
“How many boats have you seen pass this year so far?” I asked.
She smiled. “You’re the first boat this year!”
Thanks for that.
Back in marginally deeper water, I managed to creep past Mrs Comedian and smash enough ice a little further on to moor for the night, and for the following day. A freezing night was forecast. I suspected that cruising the next morning would be out of the question, not that I had the energy. I was looking forward to a rest day and a mixed grill on a dustbin-sized plate at the village pub. Boating is an exceptionally effective form of exercise. Because of that I’m eating like a horse and still losing weight.
Much as the journey south has been challenging so far, I’m enjoying every minute of it. Each day has been an adventure, a set of hurdles to overcome. The cruising is physically demanding, mentally taxing but very rewarding. Much as I’m looking forward to reaching Napton Junction towards the end of next week, a part of me wishes the journey could continue. But I don’t live in a world where money grows on trees. I need to return to work for a while, long enough to plan and save for the next adventure.
I should be back at Calcutt Boats within the next week. That means that I am now in a position to take bookings for winter experience days. I have taken a few already but I still have space for one or two later this month. You will only see dates on my calendar for April onwards. I have to make special arrangements for winter dates because of possible disruption from ice or snow. If you want to arrange a winter date you can either email me or call me on 07868 981943. Click here to find out more about my Discovery Day service or click here to check my available dates between April and December.
This is the first of an ongoing series of posts detailing my narrowboat expenses. Each post will break down my monthly costs for the previous month, the same month three years earlier and a third set of figures for three years before that. I will publish each post in the middle of the month. You will always have access to the narrowboat running expenditure no more than a month old and you’ll be able to compare it with data which spans six years. You’ll be able to use this information to estimate the likely cost of buying and maintaining your own floating home.
Calculating accurate costs for the boat you intend to purchase is difficult. There are so many variables that the best you can hope for is a good idea of the expenses involved and the nature of the variables you need to consider. With that in mind, I have explained the difference in the two boats’ systems, style and design below.
The data spans my two different periods living afloat on England’s inland waterways. I lived on board my first boat, James No 194, from April 2010 until October 2016. I moved off the cut then until December 2018. My wife, Cynthia, and I explored Europe for twenty six months in a 2003 Hymer motorhome. We enjoyed two winters languishing on France’s Mediterranean coast and much of the summer months cruising the vast Dutch waterways network. Much as we enjoyed our European adventures we missed England and the English canal network too much.
We returned to the UK mid December 2018 and purchased our second narrowboat from Ash Boats at Tattenhall marina. Our new floating home is Orient, a 62′ Steve Hudson traditional stern narrowboat.
What you pay to maintain and run your narrowboat will be determined by many factors including the boat length, layout, heating system(s), insulation, complexity, your ability and desire to maintain and repair your home, and by your boat use and lifestyle.
The boats we have lived on are similar. Here they are in detail.
Type: Our first boat was a 62′ Norton Canes traditional stern narrowboat. She was constructed in 1977 with a steel hull and a oil treated ply cabin. I over plated the wooden cabin with steel in November 2011. The boat had polystyrene insulation, typical in a boat built in the seventies and not very efficient. I sandwiched another layer of polystyrene between the original cabin and the new steel. In hindsight, and what a wonderful gift that is, I should have used spray foam instead.
Year of Construction: 1977
Width: 6’ 10”
Building Material: Steel hull with an oil treated ply cabin. The cabin was eventually over plated with 4mm steel. While the new cabin weatherproofed the boat and didn’t neccesitate disturbing the boat’s beautiful internal pine cladding, the extra weight increased the boat draught and raised its centre of gravity. The result was a rather wobbly boat.
Heating: Initially, a Torgem (or was it Torglow?) multi fuel stove at the front of the cabin which gravity fed three radiators along the starboard side. I eventually removed the stove’s back boiler and had a Webasto Thermotop C diesel central heating system installed to heat the back end of the boat. Solid fuel stoves can’t adequately heat a boat divided into two or more rooms.
Engine: Mercedes OM636. This was an extremely reliable if slightly smokey engine. It clocked up 6,173 hours over forty years. People who knew what they were talking about told me that the engine should run for ten times as long without any problems.
Engine Power: 42 horsepower
Fuel consumption: 1.97 litres per hour – Most narrowboat engines use between one and one and a half litres of diesel per hour. James was a thirsty girl
Diesel tank size: 300 litres – A large tank by narrowboat standards, but a baby compared with Orient’s whopper.
Batteries: 1 engine starter, 4 x 160ah AGM batteries in the domestic bank. I began my boat life with just one 110ah leisure battery. I quickly doubled the capacity and then doubled it again a year or two later. Soon after that I realised the mistake I made. If you need to add to a battery bank, replace the whole bank. If you don’t, the oldest battery in the bank will fail and drag the rest with it.
Inverter:1600 watt Sterling pure sine. More than enough for onboard use.
Generator: A 2KW Kipor suitcase generator. It cost half as much as a similar specification Honda. That’s because it weighed much more, made more noise and wasn’t as reliable. I rarely used it.
Battery monitor: Smartgauge.
Solar power: 3 x 100w panels mounted on a tilting bracket, and an MPPT controller. Supplied and fitted by Tim Davis of Onboard Solar. These three panels allowed me to stay as long as I wanted on a summer mooring without having to run the engine for battery charging. I ran my engine for an hour a day in the winter months to supplement the panels’ reduced output.
Water heating: Three options; via the engine when cruising, through the calorifier’s immersion heater when attached to a mains supply and, initially, using a wall mounted on demand gas heater. The gas heater failed catastrophically when I was in the shower, resulting in a cloud of super heated steam rather than hot water from the shower head. I removed the gas heater immediately.
Cooking: A four ring gas hob, grill and oven.
Type: Steve Hudson traditional with an engine room and boatman’s cabin. The boat has bulkheads between the galley and the bathroom, the bathroom and the bedroom, the bedroom and the engine room and the engine room and the boatman’s cabin. More bulkheads means greater difficulty pushing heat through the boat from a single multi fuel stove.
Year of Construction: 1996 hull construction, 2002 sale and owner fit out.
Length: 61’ 6”
Width: 6’ 10”
Draught: 3’ 0”
Building Material: Steel
Insulation: Spray foam
Heating: Morso Squirrel in the main cabin, Premiere range in the boatman’s cabin and a Kabola boiler for hot water and for heating a towel rain in the bathroom and radiators in the engine room and main bedroom.
Engine: Lister JP2M – It’s a thing of beauty, housed in its own engine room and visible to all through port and starboard side doors. The downside is that it takes up a huge amount of space, weighs as much as a small car and is the reason towpath users often find me bent double in a darkened room furiously polishing my pistons.
Engine Power: 21 horsepower – It’s about half the power of engines you find in many modern narrowboats of a similar length. However, working boats carrying forty tonne loads and towing a similarly laden butty used engines similar to this. If they were good enough for working boatmen, they’re good enough for me.
Fuel consumption: 0.97 litres per hour – Most narrowboat engines use between one and one and a half litres of diesel per hour. Orient’s fuel consumption came as a pleasant surprise.
Diesel tank size: 500l – This is an enormous tank for a narrowboat, twice the size of many boats, four times the size of some. It feeds the engine, the generator and the Kabola boiler
Batteries: 1 engine starter, 1 generator 1 starter, 5 x 130AGM batteries in the domestic bank – There were thirteen batteries on board when we bought the boat; one engine starter, one generator starter, two for the bow thruster, seven in the domestic bank and two connected to nothing at all under the engine room floor. Twelve of the thirteen wouldn’t hold a charge.
Inverter: 3,000W Sterling – Overkill as far as I’m concerned. A more powerful inverter increases the temptation to use power hungry devices which quickly drain the battery bank. The key to a happy off grid life is using less power, not equipping your boat with expensive kit so that you can use more.
Generator: Lombardini 15LD 315 5KW – What a useful tool this would be if it worked. It doesn’t. It didn’t work when we viewed the boat. We had it serviced. The Lombardini worked perfectly for a while MORE HERE
Battery monitor: Sterling PMP1
Solar power: None
Water heating: If we’re connected to a shore line, or during the brief period we could use the onboard generator, we could turn on the calorifier’s immersion heater. The immersion heater would quickly drain the battery bank so we can’t use it if we’re powering the boat through the inverter. The most cost effective method is via the Kabola diesel boiler. That’s when it’s working. A clogged burner pot was initially to blame. After I replaced that with a ruinously expensive new part the boiler worked perfectly for a day. The latest problem is likely to be a blocked fuel filter or line. Orient’s slow revving Lister doesn’t get hot enough to heat water.
Cooking: A gas hob and oven in the galley plus limited cooking on the Premiere range in the boatman’s cabin.
I didn’t know anything about narrowboats when I stepped aboard my first floating home nearly nine years ago. I didn’t know how to handle my long, thin boat either, which was just as well really. James No 194 wasn’t in any condition to take out on the cut. The once beautiful boat had been languishing on a marina mooring for ten years. Everything on board needed servicing, refurbishing, repairing or replacing. I didn’t earn much so the boats beautification took five long years.
Apart from the occasional nerve wracking cruise around the marina, my boat was nothing more than a floating flat for the first three years. The forty year old Mercedes engine remained cold for most of that time. A clogged fuel filter brought the engine to an embarrassing stop six miles from home on my first cruise. One of the marina fitters used a hire boat to tow me back to base. A split gearbox hose put a stop to my second cruising attempt. I pretty much gave up after that until I could afford to have the engine’s perishables replaced and attend to some dangerous faults in the engine room.
I ran the engine for less than fifty hours in my first thirty three months on board. The boat’s condition and my confidence and competence improved dramatically in 2014. I recorded a slightly more respectable three hundred and seventy four engine hours in 2014. In 2015, I swapped my job at the marina for the life of a continuous cruiser. I clocked up 1,134 hours at the tiller that year and lived off grid for all of it. I kept a mooring at Calcutt Boats but didn’t use it. I stayed on the cut all winter, living completely off grid. In fact, I used my shore line to connect the the national grid for just one day in the whole year.
My life changed completely in 2016. I met my wife Cynthia in the autumn of 2015. We both adored the live aboard lifestyle but we agreed that a few months away from the mud and damp of English canal winters would do us both the world of good. We bought a second hand Hymer motorhome to take us to France’s Mediterranean coast then, after battling bureaucracy for a few months and failing to secure the visa Cynthia needed to stay long term in the UK, we decided to sell my narrowboat and tour Europe full time.
The following twenty six months were filled with excitement, adventure and non stop travel. We drove thirty thousand miles through eleven countries, stopping each summer in Holland to explore the Netherland’s vast waterways network in our Dutch Linssen yacht. Much as we enjoyed immersing ourselves in new cultures and experiences we missed the English canals. I missed them most.
We returned to England in December 2018, driving north from Dover to Tattenhall marina near Chester and onto Orient, or new home.
After six weeks and one abandoned attempt to cruise south to Calcutt Boats we waved a fond farewell to the good folk of Tattenhall and endured an eventful two week trip during to coldest two weeks of the year. Orient kept us warm and dry and performed magnificently during three days of inadvisable ice breaking. The hull I blacked three weeks before our journey south needed blacking again by the time we reached Napton Junction.
I spent far, far too much during our time away and then invested even more in Orient’s purchase. I had an opportunity to return to work at Calcutt Boats, helping to maintain the business’s one hundred and ten acres of glorious Warwickshire countryside. I’ve been working full time at the marina since February 2019, escaping on high days and holidays for a few days cruising.
Marina life doesn’t suit everyone. I don’t think it would suit me if I moored anywhere else. I don’t like the idea of looking through any of Orient’s dozen portholes and seeing another boat moored an arm’s length away. Fortunately, I don’t have to. Orient has a unique mooring, tied to to rusty thirty five foot long dump barge in a little use corner of Lock’s marina, the elder of Calcutt’s two marinas.
I have the best of both worlds. I have a marina mooring with expansive views, including the antics of novice boaters arriving at Calcutt Bottom lock for the first time.
Read on to discover the actual and detailed expenses for January 2013, January 2016 and January 2019. I’m often asked by aspiring boaters how much the cost of boating increases over the years. If you’re one of them, here’s the information you’ve been looking for.
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“I want to be able to relax more. I’m fed up working so hard. I’m going to sell my house and use the equity to live a life of leisure on England’s inland waterways. My lifestyle will be so much easier than the hectic pace I endure at the moment.”
I’ve received dozens of emails like this over the years. Looking at canal life through rose-tinted glasses is easy when you walk along a summer towpath admiring brightly coloured narrowboats chugging slowly past, crewed by sun-bronzed boaters enjoying a leisurely cruise. You might see the same boat further along the canal moored against a grassy bank, the owners relaxing in comfortable chairs, sipping from wine filled glasses. You can’t wait to return home, turn on your computer and spend a happy evening daydreaming as you browse through endless adverts selling the promise of an idyllic life afloat.
It’s true. Living afloat can be a real joy, providing you don’t mind far more physical work than you’re used to in your spacious bricks and mortar home. I love the lifestyle. I treat the occasional hard labour as much needed exercise, but not everyone feels the same way.
This was my morning earlier this week. What do you think; pain or pleasure?
I woke at 7.30am following a restless night. We have two “double” beds on Orient. Both of them are designed for dwarfs. At 5’10” I’m not the tallest of people, but lying on either bed makes me feel like a giant. I can rest on my back on the main cabin’s cross bed if I don’t mind head and feet rammed against the hull under the gunnel. There’s a couple of inches less space in the boatman’s cabin cross bed. The only way I can lay on my back there is by sleeping diagonally with my ankles crossed and my head jammed against a pine beam. There isn’t really enough room for two people to sleep on either bed. Cynthia has the more spacious bed up front. I have the cramped but cosy den at the back of the boat.
Sleeping isn’t always comfortable, but waking to the sound of water rippling against the hull is a joy. I can’t relax and listen to the soothing natural sounds for too long though. There’s too much to do.
Orient has a Morso Squirrel stove in the main cabin and a Premiere range in the boatman’s cabin. We use coal briquettes on both. I load the Squirrel with briquettes and reduce the stove’s airflow before we retire for the night. There’s not much unburned coal left the following morning, but what remains is still alight. My first morning job is to empty the stove’s ash pan. I make sure that I remove the ash before I riddle the grate. If I don’t, I’ll have a steel tray full of red hot embers producing deadly carbon monoxide. Emptying the burning embers into the marina’s waste bin would cause a fire, and leaving the ash anywhere inside the boat could poison us. I tip the cold ash into the site wheelie bin, riddle the grate, load the stove with fresh briquettes and open the vents to get the fire blazing and warm the cabin. Then I scurry to the stern to tend to the boatman’s cabin range.
This one takes longer.
I can’t leave the Premiere range burning overnight. I would be boiled alive, so I wake to a cold stove. Once I’ve emptied the ash pan and riddled the grate I throw in a firelighter, light it, add a handful of kindling, wait for that to reduce to a glowing bed of embers, and then add a few coal briquettes. I add some more once they’re burning well, providing I have some more to add. I didn’t on the morning in question.
Restocking our coal supply involved a three hundred yard walk to the marina office towing a two-wheeled steel trolley and then hauling the cart back to the boat loaded with two hundred pounds of coal. Coal which needed putting away. There isn’t much space on a narrowboat so storing large fuel bags is always an exercise in ingenuity. The contents of one went in a coal box on top of the well deck locker, and then I tucked another two bags into the well deck corners. The final two went in the bow locker, which involved taking everything crushable out first so the forty-four-pound bags could lie in the locker bottom without crushing everything else. This exercise was more exciting than usual thanks to the thick layer of ice on the bow which made trying to stand on it holding a cumbersome bag of coal a little tricky.
Having worked up a healthy appetite for breakfast, I walked into the cabin and another job.
“The red light’s just lit up on the toilet,” Cynthia revealed, pulling up the hood of her fleece jacket. The Squirrel takes a while to heat the front of the cabin and struggles to provide any meaningful heat to either the bathroom or the bedroom. Our new Kabola pot should solve that problem if it ever arrives. In the meantime, the boat is a little chilly when we wake.
The Thetford toilet red light is a warning that the cassette is filled to the brim with forty pints of a toxic slurry. To ignore it is to risk a flood of the very worst kind. I ignored it once as a narrowboat novice. Never again.
So I made my second trip of the day to the marina facilities block and endured five minutes in the enclosed Elsan cubicle thanking my lucky stars that I have a terrible sense of smell. I made both journeys to and from the marina office with my head down to avoid stinging windblown sleet.
After a quick breakfast, brunch really thanks to my long list of morning jobs, I battled with our Kabola boiler again. We think it’s the original boat boiler, seventeen years old and a bit of a pain to light. The instructions are simple enough. Open the fuel cock to allow a fifty pence piece pool of diesel to form in the bottom of the boiler pot, drop in a sliver of burning firelighter, wait until the diesel has ignited and is burning well and then open the fuel cock again.
The first problem was monitoring the fuel flow into the pot. There’s a tiny door on the boiler’s front face. Despite my very best contortions and a faceful of soot from trying to get my head through the little opening, I couldn’t see the pot bottom. The only solution was to confiscate one of Cynthia’s makeup mirrors without her noticing. Then I went through the kind of double-jointed bending that made Harry Houdini famous trying to angle the mirror towards the pot base and simultaneously attempting to illuminate it with a torch.
That was the easy part. Checking that the correct amount of primer diesel flowed into the pot base wasn’t easy, but slipping a blazing sliver of firelighter through a narrow opening in a cylindrical wire cage in the pot centre would have tested the patience of a saint. Getting the diesel to stay alight has defeated me on each of my four attempts so far. The pot’s condition doesn’t help. It’s been attacked with a variety of industrial-strength liquids, wire brushes and even a small hammer. Many of the pot’s air vents are still caked with calcified deposits. The boiler can’t suck in enough air to stay alight. There’s a new pot winging its way to us from Germany. We hoped it would arrive before we left for Calcutt Boats. It didn’t.
My morning jobs took until lunchtime to complete. Then I made four more trips to the marina facilities block to take, wash and dry two large bags of dirty laundry. We had a working washing machine on board at the time. It washed but didn’t dry. Drying wet laundry in the tight confines of a narrowboat isn’t the easiest or quickest of jobs. Using the marina’s facilities costs more money but saves on time and effort.
The washing machine sprung a leak towards the end of the week. It’s packed so tightly into a wooden frame to stop it leaping about when it spins that I can’t remove it. Yet another piece of Orient’s machinery to bite the dust. Yet another entry on our we’ll-fix-it-when-we-have-money to do list.
There you go. Not all of these things need doing every day. Some of them are seasonal. Some can be eliminated by using better systems or technology. None of the daily chores are a problem if you have the right attitude. Do YOU have what it takes? Of course you do. The point is, does this way of life appeal to you?
All of these tedious tasks paled into insignificance midweek. Wednesday was a sad day for the Orient Smiths. hur family of four became three.
Twelve-year-old Tasha had been off-colour for a few days. Her health appeared to improve on Tuesday when she showed an interest in food and smelling anything foul on her short walks. She curled up on a fleece lined bed next to Cynthia that night. We woke to a cold boat and an even colder dog in the morning and then worked through the logistics of moving her to her final resting place without a car.
Sleepy Meadow Pet Cemetery in Sandbach saved the day. Owner Sue and her husband Terry collected Tasha within a couple of hours of calling them. They charged us a reasonable fee for cremation and then returned the ashes to us twenty-four hours later. Sue read a poem over Tasha’s covered body before they took her away. The reading pleased Cynthia as much as it embarrassed me. Given the difficult circumstances, we couldn’t have been treated better. Tasha will be resting in that luxurious boned filled kennel in the sky now. I hope she remembers us.
With all of our planned remedial work done by Thursday, and Tasha’s loose ends tied up, we set sail for our Calcutt Boats base at first light on Friday. I looked forward to the cruise. I couldn’t wait to tackle the four locks which thwarted my single handed boating attempts a month earlier.I had come to the conclusion that patience was the key. I failed at these four locks on my first attempt because I tried to open the lock gates far too quickly. I had to resort to nudging the upstream gates with Orient in gear. Even then, I needed the help of dog walkers and hikers to get them open.
Patience. It doesn’t come readily to me. I needed focus on the journey rather than the destination, stop and smell the roses, and all that good stuff.
So I exercised a great deal of patience. I opened both upstream paddles of the first lock, climbed into the cabin to make myself a coffee, brought the coffee outside, sat on a balance beam and enjoyed the landscape of rolling hills around me. I finished my coffee, polished some brass, read a few pages of Pearson’s excellent guide to the Shroppie and cleaned some more brass. After waiting for half an hour for the water level to rise the last difficult inch, I gave up. I managed that lock and the three which followed thanks to our Lister’s underwhelming twenty-one horses.
Apart from the initial challenging locks and the frustration of trying to hold a steady line going through the strong cross-current from the weir at each lock mouth, the cruise was a delight. I passed just four moving boats on the first day, none until early afternoon. I had the waterway to myself on day two. Not a single cruising boat on my twenty locks, nine-mile route. Maybe the weather had something to do with it.
Yesterday was as mild as it was wet. Standing on Orient’s back deck in the rain, even torrential downpours isn’t a problem. I wear warm clothes under a set of bombproof Guy Coten deep-sea fisherman’s waterproofs. I stay as dry as a bone all day, providing I don’t work up a sweat. If there are locks along the route, Saturday’s journey included twenty of them, the inside of my plastic waterproofs quickly turns into a sauna.
There’s been a lot of rain recently. The towpath along much of the route was liquid mud. Unpleasant to walk through but not as much of a problem as rain-slicked, moss-covered steps and narrow lock walkways. I slipped half a dozen times on Saturday’s cruise.
There’s snow forecast for three out of the next ten days. I will average fourteen locks a day. Snow covered lock gates will need to be tackled with care.
The weather worsened on the last hour to Market Drayton. Black clouds scudded overhead, blown by an increasingly fierce northwesterly. Heavy rain bounced inches off Orient’s roof and ran in rivulets down my glasses. Still, I was a very happy bunny, especially when Cynthia brought me lunch.
There’s not enough light at this time of the year to afford the luxury of a leisurely meal on a convenient towpath mooring. I’ve been starting at first light and cruising all day. I eat meals as I travel or while I wait for a lock to fill.
I ate Saturday’s meal in driving rain. I had the tiller tucked under my left arm, an insulated pot filled with stir fry Thai beef in my left hand and a spoon in my right. Food never tasted so good. I had the canal to myself. I was at the helm of a beautiful boat listening to the heartbeat of its Lister engine cruising through some of England’s most beautiful canal scenery. Heavy rain couldn’t spoil the day, but a gale force wind could make cruising very difficult.
Today’s forecast wasn’t encouraging. Thirty mile an hour winds blowing rain, sleet and snow. Winds above 20mph are challenging in a narrowboat. Couple thirty mile an hour winds with the strengthening cross current from the Shroppie’s rain saturated canal, and you have the recipe for an extremely unpleasant day. We decided to wait it out.
With my continued inability to light the Kabola boiler, the only way we could have hot water was by running the generator to power the calorifier’s immersion heater. After running for an hour last night, the generator suffered a heart attack. It squealed and groaned, flickered and died.
Fortunately, we still have our Honda suitcase generator to help us heat water. Orient’s generator is the latest entry on our to-do list. We’re not letting that get us down. Cynthia and I are still in love with the boat. We’ll get all these teething problems fixed sooner or later. A lottery win would help. Maybe we had better buy a ticket. In the meantime we have the adventure of another sixty hours winter cruising ahead of us, a diary steadily filling with Discovery Day bookings and the joy of returning to work on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds as the first spring flowers appear. Life is good.
I’m playing around with videos at the moment. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t have the equipment to do it with. It’s probably not the best combination, but it’s a start. The video below took me a few seconds using a free iPhone app. It’s far from perfect. I know the first clip is out of focus, I know the first few clips are far from smooth, I realise that the colour needs correcting and, yes, I know that there’s a bit of muck on the lens in one of the clips. Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Do you want to see more along these lines?
I want to hear from you if you have any experience making professional quality videos for YouTube with low cost equipment. Is that even possible? Using an iPhone 7 Plus is handy for me because I always have the phone with me and it fits easily into my pocket. Can I use this to produce decent videos? What other equipment do I need? Please remember that, given our recent boat purchase and repair, money is very tight at the moment. Maybe I’m being too optimistic. I want you to share your words of wisdom.
From a consumer point of view, what video content would you like to see on the site; gentle cruises through beautiful countryside, instructional videos on different boating techniques, or videos of me droning on ad nauseam? Again, I would like to hear from you. Please click on this link to send me an email, or simply reply to this week’s post’s introductory email. Thank you.
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.
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.