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A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 2

Continued from A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 1

Before we left Walter, he had agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and defer the payment of the last €5,000 until we sold Julisa. We now owned a bigger and better boat. A boat, we thought, which we could use for winter living. A classic Dutch craft which would serve all our cruising and living requirements. Cynthia and I were delighted.

For a while.

Buying Dik Trom was a mistake. A big mistake, and it was all mine. I purchased the boat with my heart rather than with my mind. By then, I had six years of narrowboat ownership under my belt. And I had the accumulated knowledge shared with me by narrowboat fitters, marine electricians, painters and engineers at the Warwickshire marina where I lived and worked. I should have known better.

Dik Trom, by Dutch standards, was effectively insulated. Compared to English narrowboats, she was barely protected from cold weather at all.  

And she had acres of heat sapping glass plus an intermittently working heating system marginally more effective than a burning candle. As the autumn days shortened and the thermometer plummeted, so did our spirits and the temperature in our floating home. 

By December we were confined to our tiny galley and dining area. The blown air heater had stopped working by then, so we used a one-kilowatt electric heater to try to keep us warm. A bedsheet draped over the companionway steps prevented our precious hear from climbing four steps to the cockpit and its expanse of single glazed windows. We were almost warm enough in our small space, but damp and miserable.

The boat’s poor insulation allowed condensation to form on every surface. Climbing out of a warm bed to squeeze into damp clothing took tremendous willpower. At least I could look forward to a day in a heated workplace. I wasn’t quite so keen on the eight hours laying on my back painting the hulls of speedboats costing as much as English country houses, but I had more to look forward to than Cynthia.

My working days were warm but tedious. Cynthia also had tedium to look forward to while I was away. Still, she didn’t have moral boosting heat or a change of environment. She sat for hours on the boat alone, with nothing to do but contemplate her failing health.

The novelty of touring Europe without a care in the world was far behind us. We could afford to live in northern Europe in the summer and flee to the south of France to escape the winter cold. But only if I worked all summer doing an unhealthy and tedious job to supplement Cynthia’s pension. While I merely disliked the change in our circumstances, the damp, bone penetrating cold and the isolation had a dangerous effect on Cynthia’s health.

She couldn’t find the daily company she needed to help take her mind off her struggle with the simplest physical tasks. Solitude accelerated both her mental and physical decline. Cynthia’s weight loss alarmed me, as did her extreme reaction to the mildest of ailments. 

We needed to make an immediate change in our lifestyle for the sake of Cynthia’s health and our happiness, and we needed to do it quickly.

I couldn’t see a way out of our situation. One of the reasons we left England was Cynthia’s difficulty in staying long term with me in my country. As an American citizen, she was entitled to stay for a maximum of six months. Our marriage didn’t make any difference to her entitlement. But as we discovered to our dismay, getting permission for an extended stay in mainland Europe was just as tricky. By then, we had been wading through Dutch red tape for eighteen months. Our experience with a succession of reluctant government officials was a soul-destroying affair.

The novelty of extended foreign travel had well and truly worn off. Especially for me. I pined for England’s muddy ditches and the gaily painted narrowboats which cruised them. I would have returned to that lifestyle in a heartbeat, but I suspected at the time that Cynthia didn’t feel the same way. I didn’t want to fuel my desire to return to the UK by openly discussing the possibility. So I did what Englishmen do. I stiffened my upper lip, squared my shoulders and immersed myself in a life of unfulfilling tedium.

I underestimated Cynthia. She was a force of nature. If she sunk her teeth into an idea, she wouldn’t let go until it became a reality. And, I was delighted to discover, she was quite keen on exploring the concept of a return to England.

“I’ve been thinking,” she told me when I climbed into the cabin after another tedious day laying under millionaire’s playthings. “You are at your happiest messing about on the English waterways. Your face lights up when you talk about narrowboats. You miss your old life in England, don’t you?” That was a risky question for me to answer. I had enthusiastically agreed to Cynthia’s European travel plans and embraced the logistical challenges we faced both on the road and on the water. I enjoyed driving through exotic landscapes and meeting new and fascinating people. However, I missed England and the country’s magnificent waterways network.

But much as the thought of a return to England’s canals excited me, I couldn’t imagine how we would achieve it.

We had a collection of empty bank accounts between us. Our only equity was in a fifteen-year-old German motorhome and a 1984 Dutch motor cruiser. We could quickly move off the boat and live full time in the motorhome. That would allow us to instruct a broker to sell our Dutch summer home. However, selling a boat in the Netherlands can be a long-winded affair. Waiting a year or two is for an offer is common and we didn’t want to wait that long. Now that Cynthia had broached the subject, I knew that any delay would drive me mad. And push Cynthia further down the slippery slope of ill health and depression.

Even if we found a boat buyer willing to pay our asking price we still wouldn’t have enough money. We would need to sell the Hymer too, but we couldn’t do that until we had a narrowboat to live on and we couldn’t buy a boat until we sold the motorhome. The situation was hopelessly frustrating, especially after Cynthia’s next statement.

“I’ve found a Steve Hudson boat I know you’ll love.” Cynthia handed me her iPad and showed me the listing on Apolloduck. “The boat is called Orient. It’s the same length as your old boat, James, and it’s filled with beautiful fitted pine furniture.” Cynthia knew that one of my pet hates was a boat devoid of storage space. I’ve lost count of the number of adverts I’ve seen claiming a “spacious and attractively priced narrowboat ideal for full-time living.” In reality, the boat’s low price could only be achieved by the builder avoiding time-consuming and expensive internal joinery. A narrowboat offers very little living space at the best of times. Without plenty of storage space, a boat soon becomes cluttered. For someone like me, who insists on perfectly aligned cup handles and storage jar lids, too little storage space is distressing.

“Look at that,” she said, pointing at a photo. “Orient has a cabin at the back with its own stove. You could use it as your office.” Cynthia knew which buttons to press. Neither our Dutch boat nor our motorhome allowed either of us much privacy. Separate spaces at either end of the craft would give both us some much needed alone time. I began to fall in love with Orient.

Cynthia scrolled through the images. Orient looked gorgeous. I liked everything about her, apart from the monstrous green engine dominating its own room in the middle of the boat. I am neither a competent nor enthusiastic mechanic at the best of times. As far as I was concerned, engines were for hiding behind or under soundproof boards. I felt that engines on display wasted valuable living space and added unnecessary noise and pollution to the cabin. I suspected that keeping this old Lister in good condition would require a level of skill beyond me. Taking on a vintage engine would require some serious thought.

Then there was the price. Sixty-two thousand pounds. It might as well have been a million. We couldn’t raise the asking price even if we managed to sell both our motorhome and our Linssen yacht. We would need to take out yet another loan to buy Orient. And that was without the cost of a survey or any remedial work.

A boat buyer who doesn’t need to invest a few thousand pounds in essential replacements or repairs is a lucky man. The battery bank replacement often initiates the first of many visits to a rapidly disappearing bank balance. I had to change the batteries on my previous three boats as soon as I moved onto them. That would prove to be the case with Orient too. I l discovered to my dismay that there were thirteen on board. However, that particular treat was several months in the future. 

I needed to concentrate on buying the boat first. I wanted to budget five thousand pounds for essential repairs and upgrades. We needed to raise nearly seventy thousand pounds to make sure we covered all eventualities. Seventy thousand pounds more than our combined savings.

The situation looked hopeless. I told Cynthia that there was no point getting excited about a boat we simply couldn’t afford. There was no point in either of us investing time or money in such an unrealistic dream.

“If you had the money, would you buy it?” Cynthia asked. I looked at the photographs again. The engine in its own room didn’t appeal to me, and I wasn’t happy about the limited space in the boat’s saloon area but, apart from that, I loved it. Yes, I would buy it in a heartbeat if we had the cash. Cynthia sensed an opportunity.

“You’ve always wanted a Steve Hudson boat, so why don’t we focus on ways of making this work rather than dismissing the idea out of hand? Why don’t you look at this as an opportunity rather than a problem?” Why indeed. Why did I always dig deeply into any possibility in my life to find reasons not to pursue it? For Cynthia’s sake, I tried to be more positive.

Although we were living in Holland, I realised that viewing Orient wouldn’t be too difficult. I had taken our Hymer back to our Nottingham motorhome dealer two weeks earlier to have some essential repairs done under warranty. I planned to collect the motorhome the following week. As Orient’s mooring at Tattenhall marina was only an hour’s drive away, viewing the boat wouldn’t be a problem. I picked up my iPhone and dialled the listing contact number. I arranged to meet broker Steve Harrel to look at the boat and possibly take her for a test drive. 

And then I spent the rest of the week fretting about money.

The boat exceeded my wildest expectations. It was love at first sight. You know when you’ve found the right boat. It speaks to you. This beautiful craft whispered to me seductively as soon as I stepped on board. Even the engine room had a certain charm. If I could learn to maintain the aged Lister, I thought I could accept the loss of living space. Yes, this boat would do.

I took Orient for a chug around the marina. The two-cylinder Lister JP2 started first time from cold. The engine’s slow and steady thump sounded like the beat of a healthy and happy heart. It was a sound which would entrance many canalside visitors in the years to come.

I knew that the boat was perfect for us. I emailed dozens of photos to Cynthia. She loved what she saw and trusted my judgement. I was sure that we would settle into our new home quickly. Orient was my dream boat and hopefully my last if we could overcome one little problem. 


We contacted both of our banks. Cynthia was quickly approved for a £20,000 loan, but HSBC’s automated system laughed at me. With little income over the previous two years, I didn’t stand a chance. I knew that I would need to try less orthodox routes.

I borrowed £12,500 from two private lenders. Both of them bent over backwards to help me. We now had fifty per cent of the asking price. It wasn’t enough, but the money gave me the confidence to go to the broker with an offer.

I told Steve Harral that we wanted Orient. What’s more, we were prepared to pay the asking price, providing that everything on the boat was in working order and providing that we could have time to pay.

We didn’t expect our Dutch boat to sell quickly. Dutch boaters are a fussy bunch. They want everything in perfect working order, a craft painted, varnished and maintained to the highest standards. Dik Trom was an old girl, still in need of more tender loving care than I had time to give her. We bought her for €53,000 and then invested another €8,000 in essential repairs and upgrades. Hoping for a quick sale to a bargain hunter, we instructed our broker to advertise her at €49,000. Then we focussed on selling our six-wheeled home.

We purchased the Hymer for £30,000 in March 2016 and then drove the beast 30,000 through Europe. We knew that we would be lucky to get £25,000 for the motorhome if we wanted to sell quickly. We decided to advertise at that price initially to see if there was any interest. 

And then we had a lucky break.

During any boat buying process, one of the first questions I ask is why the owner wants to sell. What motivates him? Does he need the money or is finding the right home for his pride and joy more important? A little knowledge can help enormously.

We discovered that the owner and his wife wanted to spend less time boating and more quality time with their new grandchild. Between babysitting visits, they wanted to travel more and visit parts of England they hadn’t seen before. And they wanted to do it in a motorhome.

Our Hymer was left-hand drive. Because of that, and because England was the least motorhome friendly country of the eleven we toured, we knew that this wouldn’t be a suitable vehicle for them to use to explore England. But it would be perfect if they took it on a ferry or train over to France.

France was our favourite country for motorhome touring by a country mile. Most French villages and towns have free or low-cost motorhome parking, often with an open water supply and sometimes with free electricity too. The people are friendly, the scenery stunning and there’s more history than you can shake a stick at. We talked passionately to the broker about our experiences in France. We hoped that he would pass on some of our enthusiasm to Orient’s owners. 

He did.

The owners agreed to take our Hymer in part-exchange, and they accepted the £25,000 valuation without seeing the vehicle. The owner’s wife, Sue, explained. “We trust your judgement. You seem like honest folk, so I’m sure that the Hymer is in perfect condition. It wasn’t, and I made sure that she knew it. I reminded her that we had spent the previous two years living in it while we toured. However, we agreed to have the motorhome professionally cleaned before we handed it over. That was the plan anyway. Circumstances dictated otherwise.

Even with the Hymer part-exchange and three loans, we still didn’t have enough money. The only option was to further test the owners’ generous nature. We explained our predicament in detail and told them that we were a good bet. We had equity in an old but much-respected Linssen motor cruiser which we were confident would sell soon. We were honest people, we told him, boat lovers who took pride in their floating homes. We promised to lavish Orient with all the tender loving care that she deserved.

The Gods smiled upon us. Owners Stuart and Sue agreed to the sale on our terms; part cash, part motorhome exchange and the balance, £6,500, deferred until Orient sold. I couldn’t believe our good fortune. Cynthia just smiled contentedly and reminded me of the power of positive thinking.

We still had a great deal of work to do. Selling Dik Trom was the biggest challenge. Neither broker Steve or Sue and Stuart knew the difficulty we faced selling an older boat in Holland. Our Linssen was a needle buried under a bewildering haystack of craft for sale. Waiting a year or two for a vessel to sell was typical. We once saw a vintage sailing boat which had been for sale for a decade. All we could do was hope that our discounted selling price would attract serious interest.

In the meantime, we needed to move back to England. The first step was to make sure that Orient was all that she claimed to be. With years of experience in and around narrowboats, I was confident that a surveyor would find very little to worry us. I’ve been wrong many times in my life. This was one such occasion.

My mate, Russ, agreed to look at Orient for me. Russ was a Calcutt Boats fitter and a Boat Safety Scheme examiner. I trusted his judgement completely, and I was looking forward to him confirming that Orient was a gem among narrowboats. He wasn’t as complimentary as I hoped.

The gas locker configuration was downright dangerous and the multi-fuel stove unusable. Russ identified dozens of smaller faults too. All of them were either safety concerns or had the potential for costly remedial work in the years to come. He estimated that resolving all of the issues would cost £2,500.

We were lucky again. The owners agreed to take care of the problems before we moved on board. Even though Orient had two years remaining on its four year BSS certificate, I planned to have another done before we concluded the sale. Stuart and Sue agreed with that too, but circumstances conspired against us. Cynthia’s continued failing health was more of a concern. I would have saved another thousand pounds if I kept to my original plan. Still, my wife’s wellbeing was a higher priority, so the new BSS examination wasn’t done before we moved on board.

Christmas 2018 was an exhausting affair. We had just forty-eight hours to move our possessions. And then remove all traces from the motorhome of two years with fur shedding dogs. 

I failed miserably with the cleaning, despite a marathon scrubbing and polishing session on Christmas Day. Sue and Stuart arrived on Boxing Day to find me on the verge of a nervous breakdown. All we could do was promise to have the vehicle professionally valeted inside and out and move gratefully into our new home.

Yet another of Cynthia’s dreams had become a reality. It proved to be the last of her successes in a long and adventurous life.

This year has been a roller coaster for me. I am back on the English canals where I feel I belong. Sadly, I am here without my wife. I’m still coming to terms with her loss in April. Cynthia’s can-do attitude persuaded me to negotiate the purchase of a first-class narrowboat with no money in the bank. Sadly, she isn’t here to enjoy the result of her drive and determination. It’s one of my life’s saddest ironies.

This year has been financially tough. I further discounted our Dutch boat after Cynthia died. Cynthia’s brother Jeff, her estate executor, pressed for an early sale to repay her bank loan. I paid the final balance to Sue and Stuart after the boat sold in July. Cynthia’s estate had the rest. That just left me to settle the debts to my two private lenders. By the year-end, both of those will be gone too, and I’ll be able to reduce my seven-day working week.

I plan to celebrate with a ten-day cruise to Market Harborough. I’ll find a remote and tranquil spot to spend Christmas Day on the Grand Union Leicester Line’s peaceful summit pound and reflect on the joyful highs and tragic lows of an eventful year. I’ll raise a glass to Cynthia’s memory and to my future on the English waterways. Thank you, Cynthia, for the vision, optimism and determination which encouraged me to negotiate the purchase of my beautiful home with an empty bank account.

Discovery Day Update

Steve and Sue joined me yesterday for my first salesmanship training day of the month. The morning weather was awful. A lively breeze forced us to crab out way past Napton reservoir and blinded us with smoke from my roof-mounted exhaust stack. It wasn’t the most promising start to a day which Steve hoped would convert Sue to an ardent inland waterways enthusiast.

Sue suffers from acute motion sickness. She worried that a cruise on the gentle swell of England’s ordinarily placid canals would cause her more pain than pleasure. And the thought of tackling the rushing waters of a Grand Union canal lock terrified her.

Heavy rain throughout the morning failed to dampen their enthusiasm. Sue’s lock wheeling job didn’t begin until the end of the day. She enjoyed much of the cruise sheltering from the rain and basking in the heat radiating from my boatman’s cabin range.

Talk changed as the day progressed from whether they should buy a boat to what equipment they should buy when they did. As we tackled our sixth and final lock, Sue confided that locks aren’t nearly as intimidating as she expected. And she admitted that the exercise the liveaboard lifestyle entails would do them both a power of good. 

Sue and Steve chatted excitedly about visiting local narrowboat brokers as they left. Both were confident that neither motion sickness nor lock fear would play a part in their floating lives. It was a happy conclusion to a successful day.

If you are considering living afloat on England’s inland waterways, or if you are thinking about purchasing a narrowboat for recreational cruising, I urge you to join me for a day. You’ll learn how to handle a narrowboat safely, and you’ll gain valuable insight into life on the English waterways network.

You can read more about my Discovery Day service here and see and book available dates here.

Useful Information

A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part One

October and the tail end of the hire boat season are almost upon us. Colder and wetter days keep many aspiring boat owners indoors. They remember balmy summer days strolling beneath weeping willows watching brightly painted narrowboats chug slowly along a thin ribbon of sparkling water. They remember the joy of spotting pairs of majestic swans leading flotillas of ungainly signets. And the lucky few who hired boats for summer holidays smile at the memory of the good-natured boat yard banter at the beginning of their idyllic breaks afloat.

They browse wistfully through the narrowboat sales listings on popular boating sites like Apolloduck and think about the life they could have. If only.

…If only I didn’t have to work…

…If only I didn’t have to… (insert excuse here)…

And arguably the most challenging barrier to overcome for many aspiring narrowboat owners.

…If only I had enough money in the bank.

A cash shortage may be all that’s standing between you and your boating dreams, your hope for a less stressful and more tranquil way of life. Especially where buying your boat is concerned.

Rather than sabotaging a potentially happy future, search for the solutions rather than the problems. I talk from personal experience, although I needed constant coaching from one of life’s greatest optimists when I purchased my last two boats.

Let me give you some examples of creative narrowboat purchasing from my own experience.

I moved onto my first narrowboat on 2nd April 2010, my fiftieth birthday. I wasn’t interested in boating back then. The neglected boat, James No 194, was in a terrible state. The tired old girl had paint hanging in ribbons from the plywood cabin, and the engine room and aft cabin were inches underwater. I didn’t care. I was licking my wounds after saying goodbye to the business I had worked so hard to grow for fifteen years. My business failure was followed a few short months later by the demise of my twenty-year marriage.

The old boat was all I could afford. I paid a peppercorn rent to the owner, Roger Preen, my boss at the marina, and promised to do all I could to help prevent the boat’s further decline.

I instantly fell in love with the boating lifestyle in general and James in particular. Although I could never quite get my head around calling a boat a man’s name and then referring to it as “she”.

After renting James for eighteen months, I wanted to return my home to its former glory. Despite peeling paint and gunnels hidden under a thick layer of crunchy rust and a roof which leaked like a sieve, she was beautiful inside. James had a cabin fitted with gorgeous fitted pine furniture and, at the stern, a classic Mercedes engine waited to push the boat gently along England’s connected canals and rivers.

But I wasn’t prepared to invest any money into my home unless I owned it. Even though James hadn’t moved from her mooring in over a decade. Roger’s wife, Rosemary, often used the old girl to entertain her fellow artists. She was emotionally attached to the boat, so she was reluctant to part with James.

I managed to eventually persuade her that the boat would be better off with me. I told her that James needed to be pampered, painted and polished regularly rather than used for occasional summertime parties.

When Rosemary reluctantly agreed to sell, I dropped my bombshell.

I worked at the marina at the time, helping maintain the company’s beautiful and expansive grounds. The work was as enjoyable as the pay was awful. I supplemented my income with products I sold on my fledgeling boating website. I had no savings and very little disposable income. I couldn’t afford to buy a takeaway meal, let alone a boat.

I couldn’t afford the boat, but I had nothing to lose by asking.

My brief conversation about the purchase went something like this;

“Thank you for agreeing to sell James to me. I know that you’ll love what I plan to do with her. There’s just one little problem. I don’t have any money. Will you allow me time to pay for your lovely boat?”

The answer from my boss both surprised and delighted me. “Here’s the deal,” he offered immediately. “You can pay me what you want when you want. I don’t mind how little or how much you pay me each month. Take as long as you want, but you can’t stop working for me until you’ve paid for the boat.”

How’s that for a win-win deal? I worked hard to keep the marina looking good. As far as I was concerned, and I still feel the same way, Calcutt Boats has two of the prettiest marinas on the network. Working there was a pleasure. My boss recognised that and was happy to lock me into working a few years at the marina. I was delighted with the outcome. I think he was too.

Three years passed before I could pay my final instalment. By that time, I had also invested a substantial sum into the boat’s refurbishment. I couldn’t have switched to a floating lifestyle without Roger’s generous assistance. I repaid his kindness by resigning as soon as I made the final payment so that I could cruise the network full time. I’m not proud of myself.

I purchased James No 194 using an informal hire purchase agreement

I purchased James No 194 using an informal hire purchase agreement

You might wonder how this helps you. Surely, you’ll argue, people and situations like this are unique?

Arrangements like this, or their potential, are far more common than you might expect.

Here’s another example.

My wife, Cynthia, and I sold our respective homes in 2016, my boat and her house in Arlington, Vermont and crossed the English Channel for a life of leisure on the continent. We toured far and wide in our Hymer motorhome, from the north coast of Denmark in the north down to Spain’s southernmost tip.

But much as we enjoyed our travels we both missed boating.

The Netherlands’ vast network of connected canals, rivers and lakes enchanted us. We toured extensively through the Dutch landscape of low fields, working windmills and nodding tulips. The more time we spent parked close to waterways filled with bobbing boats, the more we wanted to join them.

We had enough money between us to purchase a classic Dutch motor cruiser. Then we spent much of our remaining savings on improvements and essential repairs. Julisa was a quality boat but, with its wooden top and canvas roof, she wasn’t suitable for anything other than summer cruising. After a few short weeks back on the water we talked about buying a bigger boat, a craft better suited to three or four season cruising and maybe, just maybe, a boat suitable for living on permanently.

Dutch motor cruiser, Julisa. The only boat I've purchased outright.

Dutch motor cruiser, Julisa. The only boat I’ve purchased outright.

We found what we thought was the perfect boat moored at a small boat club on the outskirts of Antwerp. We loved everything but the name. Dik Trom was the Dutch answer to England’s Billy Bunter; a fat boy, sorry, calorically challenged young man, renowned for his greed. Dik Trom was also famous for riding a donkey backwards. Given that I had a backwards approach to DIY, I felt an immediate connection with the boat.

Our new floating home, a 1984 Linssen motor cruiser, suited its name perfectly. She was short and fat and ate as much as possible. I was used to my Mercedes engine, pushing my narrowboat slowly along a series of muddy ditches. The thirty-eight horsepower engine consumed a modest litre an hour. Dik Trom, with nearly three times as many horses under the bonnet, used three and a half litres an hour to surge through Holland’s deep and extensive waterways. She was an expensive girl to please.

Dik Trom’s owner, Walter, was a kindly and retired pilot who lost the mobility needed to climb aboard his boat. Dik Trom had already been for sale for two years, priced far too ambitiously at €63,000 (£55,000). The boat’s asking price was too much for us. Most of our money was tied up in our German motorhome and our Dutch motor cruiser. But we wanted Dik Trom, so we needed to find a creative solution, one which would allow the boat without me having a nervous breakdown.

I don’t feel comfortable with an empty bank account. I worry and fret If I don’t have a financial safety net. Ever since the UK’s Revenue and Customs department forced me and my failing business into bankruptcy in 2008, money shortage has terrified me.

Cynthia, on the other hand, was always the eternal optimist. “What’s the worst that can happen?” she would often ask. She was trying to reassure me but asking me something like that is looking for trouble. I have a vivid imagination, especially where doom and gloom is concerned. I pictured unforeseen medical emergencies; Cynthia losing her pension, dwindling interest in my website and anything I offered for sale. I imagined a country which didn’t want to employ me under any circumstances. I worried about doggy disasters requiring expensive surgery, homelessness and poverty, and the pair of us wandering the streets of Europe without a penny between us.

I was so far out of my comfort zone that I had trouble breathing.

But Cynthia was as persuasive as I am easy to persuade. “You have skills,” she reassured me. “You’ll have no problem earning money if you set your mind to it.” Yeah, right. I owned and managed small businesses for most of my life. I was fifty-seven with no employment history and no skills likely to persuade a potential employer to hire me. I wasn’t keen on exploring that route.

“You’re a talented photographer,” she assured me. “You can easily earn money by selling your work online.” I didn’t consider myself talented, nor did I think that selling anything online was easy especially photographs. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of websites offering millions of pictures uploaded by both amateur and professional photographers. Few of them attracted buyers. Professional photographers using the latest and most expensive digital cameras invested an extraordinary amount of time and effort for little financial return. My photos were reasonably well composed, but my handheld iPhone camera pictures didn’t have the pin-sharp clarity necessary to encourage potential buyers to part with their hard-earned cash.

I quickly dismissed the idea too, so Cynthia tried a different line of attack.

“You are a gifted writer,” she told me. “You can earn money from your scribbling.” Was she serious? Writing blog posts for narrowboat enthusiasts hardly put me in the same league as J.K. Rowling. I earned a little from the site’s guides and packages. But the longer I stayed in Europe far away from England’s muddy ditches, the less I made. My income potential would probably be higher in a French burger bar.

My most realistic opportunity to earn some cash was to apply for a position at one of Holland’s many boatyards, boat clubs or marinas. Despite having the practical skills of a three-year-old, at least I could work hard. I reasoned that, with tens of thousands of boats using The Netherlands’ vast waterways network, boatyard employers must need someone to do their grunt work.

Then I would have the language barrier to overcome — something else to worry me. But my endless money concerns were slowly being eclipsed by a desire to return to life on the water.

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t… you’re right!”

Cynthia eventually persuaded me to think positively and imagine that I could find paid employment. She encouraged me to step far outside my comfort zone, walk a boat buying tightrope without a financial safety net and empty my bank account. “Everything will be all right in the end,” she assured me.

I managed to find employment at the prestigious marina where we had collected Julisa. The company needed someone to apply antifouling systems to an endless procession of expensive yachts. It wasn’t employment which gladdened by heart, but it would help with the bills if we were to buy another boat.

Even with a bridging loan from Cynthia’s bank, we were still €15,000 short, so we asked the broker to arrange a meeting with owner Walter.

Walter was a kind and compassionate man. He had lived on or near the water for most of his working life. Walter was passionate about boats and boating and loved his Linssen yacht. We met Walter for coffee in his canalside clubhouse. He talked about his frustration now that he lacked the mobility or energy to maintain his beautiful boat properly. “A boat should be cherished and treated with respect,” he sighed. “I can’t do that any more. She needs to go to someone who will look after her.”

Dik Trom's owner agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and give us time to pay the €5,000 balance

Dik Trom’s owner agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and give us time to pay the €5,000 balance

That was our opportunity. I showed Walter photographs of James throughout her five-year restoration project and photos of the work we had done on Julisa. I convinced Walter that Dik Trom would be in good hands. I talked enthusiastically about the jobs I would tackle immediately. I planned to renew the antifouling, paint the hull and superstructure, varnish any exposed woodwork and tackle a long list of minor repairs. Much as he was encouraged by my enthusiasm, Cynthia enchanted him with her warmth and compassion. Before we left Walter, he had agreed to…

Read A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 2…

Discovery Day Update

I continue to work during the week for Calcutt Boats and at the weekend for myself. I host experience and helmsmanship training days on my 62′ narrowboat, Orient. Here’s what a recent guest had to say…

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

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

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

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

Useful Information

Bottom Blacking, Rust Removal and Aerial Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orient's saloon before we moved on board

Orient’s saloon before we moved on board

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

Temporary seating to numb the most padded bum

Temporary seating to numb the most padded bum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve switched back to bitumen.

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

Unlike my cabin roof.

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

This rust needed stopping in its tracks

This rust needed stopping in its tracks

The saloon chimney collar after a little tlc

The saloon chimney collar after a little tlc

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

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

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

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

Right. On with the listing.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

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

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Useful Information

Laughable Lockmates and Mirth in the Mikron Marquee

Our lovely English weather is back to normal. Wet, windy and chilly days with occasional sunny spells. And nights cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Like many other boaters at the marina, I have been toying with the idea of lighting my stove. I’ve resisted the temptation so far. The evenings on Orient are usually warm enough thanks to the sun’s heat during the day. However, the mornings are a little chilly.

My solution is to boil a kettle in the morning and leave the gas ring burning for ten minutes. Thanks to Orient’s effective spray foam insulation, my cabin heats up very quickly. The difference is remarkable compared to the heat retention on my old boat. James had polystyrene insulation. It’s a reasonable insulator but sometimes crumbles, leaving cold spots which quickly suck out the cabin heat.

My front deck view after a hard day at the marina

My front deck view on warm evenings after a hard day at the marina

I purchased ten bags of coal briquettes in early April. I have six bags left thanks to effective insulation, global warming and the tendency to get hot and bothered when fellow boaters do silly things.

I started to write last week about odd behaviour that I have witnessed on the Calcutt flight of three locks. I had another exciting experience mid-week when I took a boat from the marina up through Calcutt bottom and middle locks to our wharf.

Usually, the first boat into a double lock goes in on the towpath side. The towpath side is the most practical side to use to work through a flight of locks. Boaters stick to their chosen position as they progress through a lock flight.

That’s the etiquette anyway.

As I negotiated our marina entrance, I noticed a narrowboat already in the lock on the towpath side. There was a free space next to it, but the offside gate was closed. A boater stood with his hands on his hips, staring at me as I tied up to the lock landing.

“Aren’t you coming in?” he asked, quite aggressively, I thought.

“Yes,” I replied, “but as I can’t get my boat over the gate, I need to tie up so that I can open it.” Cynthia always advised me to avoid sarcasm if possible.  It certainly didn’t appear to help matters with my new lock buddy.

He shook his head and shouted. “You don’t need to do that. Just push the gate open with your boat.”

There were several problems with his suggestion. Firstly, I didn’t have a bow fender on the customer’s boat that I was moving. Driving ten tons of steel into a couple of tons of oak wouldn’t do the boat or any of its internal fittings any favours. What’s more, the craft was quite small and light. If I tried to do what he suggested, there was a good chance that my little boat would bounce off the massive oak gate and bounce into his stern. As he didn’t look the friendliest man in the world, I didn’t think he would have appreciated that.

Just as importantly, as far as I was concerned, was the damage that I could do to the expensive lock gates. A pair can cost as much as £20,000. If a pair of gates are used carefully, they will last between 20 and 25 years. If narrowboats regularly ram them to save the owners a couple of minutes tying the boat up and opening them properly, the gates won’t last nearly as long.

So I tied my boat up to the lock landing, walked past the unhappy boater, negotiated the upstream gate, ran down the chamber’s opposite side, opened the offside gate and returned to my boat. The man was still standing with his hands on his hips and a scowl on his face. I suspected that our three lock ascent wasn’t going to be filled with lively conversation.

Mr Unhappy gave me the kind of look that a seasoned boater usually reserves for complete novices, and walked to the upstream gate ready to raise his paddle. I brought my boat into the lock next to his, climbed the escape ladder holding my centreline, and tied it to a convenient bollard. By now, he had his windless on the paddle gear ready to let water into the empty lock. He looked at me impatiently, waiting for me to reach the paddle opposite him.

The etiquette in an ascending lock is for both upstream paddles to be raised very slowly initially. Quickly raising the paddles lets a torrent of water into the lock. The turbulence flow can rattle the boats together alarmingly. The water races to the downstream end of the lock and then surges back towards the upstream gates driving the boats forward like arrows from a bow. Any unsecured craft can ram the lock sill with great force and cause considerable damage to the boats, their fittings and their contents.

If I’m going through a lock flight with an experienced and responsible boater, I don’t bother tying up. I didn’t know this guy, and I didn’t particularly like his attitude, so securely tying Orient’s centreline was a worthwhile precaution.

I reached my paddle after closing the downstream gate behind my boat. “Aren’t you ready yet?”  my miserable lock partner asked, huffing in exasperation.

“I’m ready,” I replied, “but maybe you had better close the gate behind your boat before you let any water in.”

The unhappy man threw his windlass on the ground and stormed off to close his downstream gate, trying to hide his embarrassment at making such an obvious mistake.

Communication is the key to a successful and harmonious lock flight passage with an unknown boat crew. My miserable lock partner seemed interested in neither conversation nor harmony. He surged out of the lock without a backward glance, narrowly missed the bow of an oncoming boat and clipped my front fender with his stern as he cut across me to switch sides in the next lock. At least he remembered to close his downstream gate this time. But not his upstream gate as he left the second lock.

I thought I would leave his misery behind as I reversed onto our wharf. Sadly he followed me to buy purchase diesel and seize another opportunity to spread light and joy. “That’s not very good, is it?” he asked no one in particular as he waved a dismissive hand and three of the company’s thirteen strong hire fleet moored on the wharf. “If you can’t rent out all of your boats at this time of the year you might as well give up!” He left before any of the wharf staff could wrap an anchor chain around his neck and toss him into the murky water beneath his rusty boat.

Happy Calcutt wharf staff

Happy Calcutt wharf staff with equally happy customers. Not all of them are quite so jolly.

The following day, I saw another mistake on the flight. This time, it wasn’t an error in technique, but a fundamental boat buying mistake.

Three or four months ago a widebeam boat was brought to Calcutt Boats by road transport and lowered into the marina.

The boat wasn’t really suitable for life on England’s inland waterways. It had been purchased for a song by a somewhat confused individual who planned to use it as a floating home as he cruised the canal network.

The boat had many faults. Widebeams are difficult enough to cruise in at the best of times. Most of the craft on the Midlands’ canals, even the wide canals, are narrowboats. They take similar lines along the waterway and through the canals’ many bridge holes. They plough a relatively deep and debris free channel along the waterway as they pass. Widebeam boats straddle this channel and often ground. They are also too wide to pass through bridge holes easily. Widebeam helmsmen negotiate bridge holes exceptionally carefully. Consequently, they pass through them at a snail’s pace, often resulting in a queue of inpatient narrowboat owners in their wake.

The new owner of this Dutch styled widebeam had several additional problems to contend with.

The most significant, perhaps, was the wheelhouse height. Most of the staff at Calcutt Boats, boaters who knew the local waterways very well indeed, were convinced that the new owner would be unable to negotiate all, or indeed any, of the local bridge holes.

What’s more, the engine didn’t work, the boat had no insulation, and there was no heating on board. In fact, the boat was nothing more than an empty shell once the new owner finished working on it.

He wasn’t aware of any of the problems he faced. His judgement was clouded by a complete lack of knowledge about boating on England’s inland waterways, a misplaced sense of optimism, and vast quantities of strong lager.

When the marina management discovered that the boat’s engine wasn’t working, they allowed the new owner to stay moored next to the slipway for a few days until he could resolve the problem. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any money to pay for someone to examine the engine, nor did he have either tools or knowledge to sort out the problem himself.

A routine developed over the following week. The enthusiastic owner would spend a couple of hours in the morning ripping the existing internal fittings apart and leaving them in untidy piles on the adjacent pontoon. A drink induced stupor would overtake him by mid-morning, and then he would spend the rest of the day sitting inside his empty shell surrounded by equally empty cans.

He hadn’t made any noticeable progress after his first week. In fact, the situation appeared to be worsening. He had removed most of the boats internal fittings, so the craft sat higher in the water, further reducing any chance of him negotiating the local bridges.

He didn’t have the inclination, or the ability, to pay for a mooring, so he was asked to leave. Over the following week, the poor guy poled his boat out of the marina, and then pulled it’s along the towpath for a couple of miles like an unsteady two-legged pit pony. He eventually found a convenient mooring. He had neither mooring pins nor a lump hammer on board so he could only stop where canalside objects offered anchor points for his bow and stern lines.  He stayed in the same place for several months, surrounded by cans of strong lager and a haze of fragrant smoke.

He tried to sell his white elephant during frequent visits to local pubs. No one was interested, especially as he was asking £10,000 for a boat which couldn’t move under its own steam.  Even if it could,  it wasn’t able to travel further than a couple of miles along the canals because of low bridges.

Anyway, he turned up at the marina entrance last week. He planned to tie up next to the slipway, but he didn’t get that far.

Calcutt Boats’ slipway is often booked by owners of craft which aren’t moored at the marina. This was one such reservation. A potential buyer reserved a day for a wide beam to be lifted out of the water so that it could be surveyed. We didn’t know then that this was the same boat.

The light finally dawned when the widebeam owner, two hours later than anticipated, walked into our reception reeking of booze and marijuana.

He told us that he had a problem with his engine which, he claimed, had been working for most of his journey. The frustrated surveyor had been waiting for an hour for the boat to arrive. He offered to try to pinpoint the problem.

The surveyor returned half an hour later, shaking his head in dismay.

“There is no point in even lifting the boat out of the water,” he explained. It’s in an awful state. I’m going to recommend to my client that he doesn’t waste his money on a survey.”

The surveyor phoned the potential buyer and then drove away. He left the dejected widebeam owner tied to the Calcutt flight bottom lock landing. His immediate problem was to appease the CRT employee who told him to move his boat. The unsteady guy pulled his floating skip up through the three flight lock and then tied his boat to the lock landing bollards.

He left after three days. He won’t, can’t, go far. No doubt I’ll meet him on my next Discovery Day cruise.

My week ended with a treat. Calcutt Boats hosted a Mikron Theatre performance, Redcoats, on Friday night.

The actors arrived mid-afternoon in their 1937 workboat, Tyseley. Actors love a bit of attention, so they didn’t mind the crowd which gathered to watch them attempt to fight their way through the marina entrance against a strengthening gale. They weren’t so keen on the driving rain which worsened as the day progressed.

The forecast for the evening was dire, but in the proper theatrical fashion they declared, “The show must go on!” And it did, aided by a couple of marquees and an afternoon of hard work from Calcutt Boats and Mikron employees.

Given the weather forecast and reality, the evening was a huge success. Many guests brought their own chairs. The rest used mismatched seating from around the marina. All were able to sit in relative comfort and enjoy the show.

I had the pleasure of manning the ice cream and cold drinks stand. Needless to say, I wasn’t rushed off my feet. With nothing else to do, the nearby supply of wine and Pimms was too much of a temptation. The concession stand was too far away to hear a word the actors said over the wind and driving rain, so we relaxed and drank and marvelled at the surreal scene in front of us.

On a mid summer’s evening, one hundred and twelve theatre lovers sat huddled in coats and hats in a wind-whipped tent trying and failing to hear the dialogue from a quartet of determined actors in front of them. One elderly lady complained of cold hands. She enjoyed most of the evening wearing a pair of marigold rubber gloves we found in the office kitchen. Rain drummed on the tent roof, canvas snapped taught, and guy ropes strained against sudden gusts. Daylight failed, the weather worsened, and the show went on.

I don’t know whether I have low expectations these days. Maybe I was anaesthetised by countless glasses of red, or made merry by my partner in wine, Jason, but I haven’t had so much fun for a long time. I’m really looking forward to next year’s performance.

After a bottle (or two) of wine I was very pleased with this shot of the Redcoats audience

After a bottle (or two) of wine I was very pleased with this shot of the Redcoats audience

This week I was going to begin my A-Z series of everything to do with narrowboats. There was too much happening on the waterways to distract me. I’m hoping for a less interesting week ahead. Maybe then I can concentrate on writing about everything beginning with the letter A.

I’ll raise a glass to the next week then, and the sincere hope that your lifestyle brings you as much pleasure as mine does to me.

A clear sky after heavy rain

A clear sky after heavy rain

Discovery Day Update

Thank you if you are one of the dozens of boating enthusiasts who has enquired about or booked a day with me recently. I try to provide as much information as possible about the day before guests book with me, but I have to make sure that I don’t overwhelm people with too much information. 

I am regularly asked similar questions though, so I’ll answer them here if you’re still thinking of booking.

How far in advance can I book?

As far in advance as you like really. I try to reserve Saturdays and Sundays for Discovery Day cruises. My availability may change some time next year, but I’ll always honour any existing bookings.

What happens if I can’t make my booking date?

No matter how hard you try to stick to your plans, life sometimes gets in the way. You get an unexpected opportunity to have your new hip/heart/head fitted, your beloved dog has kittens or, like today’s scheduled guest, you twist your back. I understand that and I’m not going to penalise you for it. You can either reschedule your day or I’ll refund your full payment. It’s what I would like if I were you. It’s really not an issue. To be quite frank, much as I look forward to your company, sometimes it’s great to just have a day to myself.

I’m travelling to you from afar. Can you recommend a decent local B & B?

Yes, I can. It’s Wigrams. The owner, Ben Heaf, has been providing first class accommodation and early morning breakfasts you need to scale with ropes for my Discovery Day guest for the last five years. He’s a pleasant ten minute towpath stroll away.

I get seasick. How much does your boat rock?

Very little. Orient is a deep draughted boat on a shallow canal. Over three hundred people have spent a day on board with me so far. No one has felt the slightest bit uncomfortable.

Are you Royal Yachting Association certified?

No, I’m not, so I can’t provide you with a certificate. What I can give you is as much patience as you need to make you comfortable at the helm, an unbeatably scenic cruise, and first class helmsmanship and lock training. I can scribble something on a piece of paper too if it’s really important to you.

I’ve booked a holiday hire boat. Will your day help me get more out of my short time afloat?

Here’s what a recent guest, Shaun Bounds, had to say…

“I’ve been looking at narrowboats for some time now, as I’m considering downsizing and moving to a life afloat. However, I’d never taken the helm of a narrowboat before and was a bit nervous about handling a vessel of a size that would be suitable for living aboard. I’d been considering an RYA helmsman course, but felt that would be a bit formal, then I came across Paul’s discovery days advertised on eBay, and having read Paul’s advert, I knew that the day would be an ideal introduction to narrowboat life.

The information about the discovery day was comprehensive and thorough, with several emails from Paul covering subjects relevant to a life afloat. Most of the questions I had about narrowboat life were covered. Finding Paul on the day was a doddle given the simple to follow directions. 

I attended the discovery day with a friend, who was also a boating novice. We met Paul who welcomed us aboard his home and took time to settle us in gently, showing us around his narrowboat, explaining things as we went, taking time to answer any questions we might have. He was open and honest about the features of his boat and gave excellent advice about buying a used narrowboat. Before long, we were underway on the cut, and we took turns to be in control of the tiller, under Paul’s excellent tuition. The stretch of canal Paul had chosen was winding, with numerous bridges, moored vessels and six locks at the end of the day. Plenty to keep us entertained! Throughout the day, Paul was patient and the perfect host. Ten hours flew by, and we both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

I would highly recommend a discovery day to anyone considering a life afloat, Paul offers excellent advice and tips, shared from the experience of his life as a live-aboard boater. In fact, I would recommend his discovery day to anyone considering a narrowboat holiday as it is an opportunity to gain boat handling experience prior to the 30 – 60mins instructions given at the start of a holiday.”

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

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Useful Information

Horrible Heatwaves and Newbie Cruising Catastrophes

Oh, for a boat with opening windows. The recent heatwave baked me to a crisp. The saving grace was that mosquitoes were notable by their absence. That was fortunate considering that I had to sleep with every hatch and door thrown wide open in the hopeless quest for a cooler craft.

The nighttime heat became so insufferable that I slept on the tiny boatman’s cabin cross bed curled like a hibernating hedgehog. The main bedroom, devoid of nearby doors or hatches of opening hatches felt like a sauna. Orient’s mooring is stern to the prevailing south-westerly. I left the back doors open as well as the door between the boatman’s cabin and the engine room. Then I also ensured that the engine room hatches were ajar, so I was cooled by the brisk breeze flowing through the boat.

My bedding colour indicates the recent nighttime temperature in my poorly ventilated bedroom

My bedding colour indicates the recent nighttime temperature in my poorly ventilated bedroom

I fell asleep one sultry night soothed by the buffeting breeze, happy as a pig in shit until a storm raced across the marina. The howling gale didn’t wake me, nor did the creak of mooring lines stretched close to breaking point or the angry honking of thirty wind-tossed Canada Geese. It was the machine gun rat-a-tat-tat of pea-sized raindrops hurled into my bedding by the shrieking wind.

Thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and the boatman’s cabin felt like the inside of an industrial washing machine. A washing machine without a dryer. The storm disappeared far more quickly than the water soaked into my duvet. I didn’t mind too much. The wet bedding cooled me, aiding a restless sleep filled with disturbing dreams about nighttime childhood accidents.

The heatwave reached its unpleasant peak on an energy-sapping marina workday. Working in direct sunlight was as dangerous as it was exhausting. As the thermometer climbed past thirty degrees, I trudged into our seven-acre wood to do some gentle tree trimming and to work on a personal project for my much-missed wife.

I bought a picnic bench in Cynthia’s memory a few months ago. I placed it on the lawn next to Orient, overlooking Calcutt Bottom lock. In hindsight, I realised that Cynthia would have appreciated our woodland tranquillity more than the often stressed shouts of virgin lock negotiators.

Cynthia's memorial picnic table perfectly positioned for quiet reflection

Cynthia’s memorial picnic table perfectly positioned for quiet reflection

The thermometer peaked at thirty-six degrees, an unbearable temperature for the fragile English constitution. But, by the end of the day, I had cleared a space on the woodland fringe and installed Cynthia’s table overlooking an adjacent meadow. My reward for working through such a challenging day was a peaceful evening picnic sitting at my new table. Pigeons fluttered in the oak above me, and an owl hooted softly. The real treat arrived as the light failed. As I popped the top off my fourth bottle of dewed beer, I watched the quivering progress of a nervous muntjac deer on a narrow footpath deeper in the woods. A little slice of heaven here at Calcutt.

Predictably, our English heatwave was followed by days on the cut cool enough to wear hats and coats. And on one memorable and very wet Discovery Day cruise last weekend, cold enough to warrant lighting my stove.

My guests for the day, Christ and Ali, followed their pre-cruise instructions to the letter. “It’s an English summer,” I wrote, “so bring plenty of layers and a waterproof coat.” They did, but there are waterproof coats suitable for a walk in a park or a quick trip to the shops, and there are those that will keep you dry if a fire hose is turned on you. Those are the type you need if you want to remain comfortable as you stand on the exposed stern of a narrowboat for hours on end.

I invested in a bomb proof set of trawlermen’s waterproofs many years ago. The bottoms, with their bib and shoulder straps, make me look like a DayGlo hillbilly. Worn with a jacket of the same material and a pair of insulated wellington boots, I can keep dry and comfortable all day in the hardest rain. Chris and Ali could not. They were both soaked to the skin by lunchtime. So, on an English summer’s day in late July, I threw a handful of kindling into my Morso Squirrel stove, topped it with a pile of coal briquettes and lit a fire for the first time since early May.

There was a silver lining to Chris and Ali’s dark cloud. While they enjoyed an unexpected hour basking in the welcome heat from a glowing stove, I had the pleasure of steering my own boat. I’ve cruised the route between Braunston and Napton junctions over three hundred times. The scenery is beautiful and, because the contour canal twists and turns through countless blind bends, there’s excitement at every turn. I love the route, but not all boaters enjoy their cruises on this section quite so much.

I hosted three consecutive Discovery Day cruises recently on a canal which is popular with crews on narrowboats hired from nearby bases. Although some hirers have more knowledge and practical skills than many narrowboat owners, a worrying number are complete novices. They’re beginners who receive little in the way of helmsmanship training before being unleashed onto the waiting waterways. It’s these hapless helmsmen and women, and sometimes children, who liven up my training days considerably. Here, for your education and entertainment, is a selection of antics and accidents from my recent Discovery Day cruises.

The Oxford is a contour canal. Its route follows the landscape’s twists and turns rather than enjoying the dubious advantage for leisure cruisers of travelling in a straight line through lock flights, high embankments and deep cuttings. The canal has more tight curves than a bowl filled with spaghetti. There are endless opportunities for entertainment at every blind bend and skewed bridge hole. The scenery is magnificent if you can take a wary eye off the waterway long enough to enjoy it.
The canal’s circuitous route, combined with the waterway’s popularity, is a heart-stopping challenge for virgin helmsmen and women. Trembling holidaymakers who have recently been given a leaflet detailing lock procedure, the keys to a seventy feet long boat and very little practical training. They’re told, “If you want the boat to go one way, steer in the opposite direction” and the unleashed on the waiting world. Steering is hard enough for the uninitiated, but novice crews also have to take a self-taught crash course in waterways etiquette, rules and regulations.

My usual training cruise is from Napton to Braunston junction with a turn in Braunston marina entrance. We return along the same route and then finish the day with two passages through the Calcutt flight of three locks, one down and later, one up.

It’s on our journey home and in the locks that we meet most of the new hirers. Mid-afternoon is usually when the madness begins. Novice Black Prince, Napton Narrowboats and Calcutt Boats hirers are often still coming to terms with a counter-intuitive steering system when they reach their journey’s first pinch point. The canal narrows until two boats cannot pass easily. Braunston bound boats have to forge their way through muddy shallows close to canalside banks of hawthorn and bramble and risk sweeping their roofs clean with low hanging willow, oak and ash.

Experienced crews usually hold back and wait in open water before the pinch point until the towpath hugging approaching boats have passed. Many novice hirers do not. We met a procession of four such craft last weekend, lead by a quivering wretch and his caustic wife.

The man bounced his holiday home from bank to bank as he approached us. Then, in a desperate attempt to avoid slamming headfirst into our bow, he ploughed deep into the offside undergrowth. With a panicked push on the Morse control, accelerator to landlubbers, he managed to get the stern in too, wedging his boat firmly on a shallow mudflat. “Didn’t you listen, you idiot? His adoring wife screamed, alternately punching him in his left arm and gesturing wildly with her hands. If you want to go THAT WAY, you push that brass pole the other way! It’s not rocket science!” 

For all her helpful advice, she didn’t seem keen to demonstrate her recently acquired expertise. To be fair, she didn’t have much free time with all the effort she put into humiliating her husband.

We don’t have to rely on narrowboat novices for entertainment. On the approach to Braunston are the idyllic garden moorings at Wolfhampcote. Each mooring owner has purchased a parcel of farmland and created an expansive narrowboat garden. Some have spent almost as much on the land and its decoration as they have on their boats. The gardens tend to reflect the condition of the craft on them. The smallholdings range from the kind of elaborately designed and equipped gardens you would expect to see behind a bricks and mortar home, to unkempt jungles partially hiding piles of rotting wood and dozens of scavenging chickens. 

Many boats are permanently tethered to their garden moorings. Some might not even be capable of moving. They range from massive wide beams to tiny narrowboats. One, a pocket-sized aluminium Sea Otter, is too small to use for most boaters to use for anything other than a brief day trip. There’s an exception nearby. It’s a short and scruffy cruiser with opaque windows and a steady trickle of grey smoke from its dirty chimney.

There’s a wide beam with what looks like a garden shed built over its wheelhouse towards the middle section of garden moorings. There’s always been enough room for two boats to pass here. The recent appearance of a continuous moorer on the towpath opposite made the gap a little tight, but two-way traffic was still possible with care. Then another boat turned up a few weeks ago. The owner has tied his craft alongside the wide beam, effectively restricting the navigation to one-way traffic. To make matters more interesting, he’s tied a tatty rowing boat, laden to the gunwales with useless crap, by a single line to his stern.

The canal between Napton and Braunston junctions is a busy route. There are 2,500 boats moored in marinas within a ten-mile radius. It’s a pretty route too with plenty of pleasant and peaceful moorings with gorgeous views and hedgerows filled with blackberries in late summer. A single file bottleneck further restricted by a swinging rowing boat is not popular with time-starved narrowboat owners trying to enjoy a few days on the cut, far away from hectic real life. Sometimes they are too busy and impatient to wait.

There are plenty of obstructions like this up and down the network. Boaters negotiate them using common sense and a degree of consideration for fellow waterways enthusiasts. Most of the time.

On a wet and windy day last week I watched what can happen when two bullish and inconsiderate boaters meet. We were part of a steady procession of boats cruising in both directions. We gently nosed into the narrow gap and pushed the swinging rowing boat to one side. We engaged in some gentle banter with the kindly helmsman who held off to let us pass and then carried on our merry way.

The craft approaching us and the narrowboat following us didn’t fare quite so well. Neither helmsman had the time nor the inclination to wait for the other. They both ploughed determinedly into the gap. The two boats bounced off each other’s bows and sideswiped the boats moored either side of them. They clanged together again and scraped slowly forward until they stopped, wedged into a space too small to pass. The owners, no first-time hirers here, shouted obscenities at each other until one grew up a little and reversed enough to allow the oncoming boat through. They managed to resist fisticuffs as they passed, but I could hear their caustic exchange hundreds of feet away. Neither seemed to understand the concept of a relaxing cruise.

Despite the goings-on on the cut, our two passages through the Calcutt flight of three locks are often even more entertaining. The Calcutt flight the first set of locks facing many inexperienced crews. It’s also the first time their helmsman has needed to stop since his handover instruction. An instruction which rarely covers the niceties of stopping a twenty-tonne waterborne tank.

The helmsman’s initial ploy is to steer the boat’s front end close to the concrete-clad towpath. A crew member jumps ashore holding a bow rope as though his life depends on it. The bow hits the lock landing in an explosion of concrete dust. In a knee jerk reaction to the collision, the helmsman slams the boat into reverse hoping to undo the damage he’s already done. All he achieves is to slowly and surely pull the crew member who’s furiously tugging the bow line closer to the cut. Another guy onboard tells the helmsman to swing the stern into the bank. He does it at full throttle. Because a narrowboat pivots on its centre, as the helmsman unleashes forty horsepower in a spray of white water and the stern swings rapidly towards the bank, his bow hauling crew member slides towards the cut alarmingly. To prevent an unexpected early morning dip, the bow hauler releases his rope. Like a wildly swinging compass needle, the front of the boat shoots away from the lock landing, causing the back to slam into another section of concrete and topple the aft deck crew like dominoes. Once the novice boaters regain their feet, they leap onto the towpath and make short work of tying their temporary floating home to the lock landing. They use every rope they can find. Then they breathe a collective sigh of relief, laugh and joke about their first narrowboat adventure and then gaze at the double lock gates in front of them with a mixture of awe and fear. They dimly remember something about raising and lowering paddles and the sudden and horrible death which awaits them if they anger the dreaded lock cill.

There’s so much that can go wrong in a lock if it’s mishandled that something usually goes awry on a novice crew’s first passage. The hirers go through with experienced boaters if they’re lucky. If there’s no one about they’ll do their best. On occasion in the past, on a descending passage, their best efforts have resulted in some colourful language from Calcutt’s band of happy engineers.

New crews on Napton Narrowboats and Black Price boats don’t often get a physical lock instruction. They’re given the theory but not the practice. But after an early start and a long drive to collect their boats, holiday hirers are too tired to absorb everything they are told about their temporary charge. They’re shown a bewildering variety of switches for different features and functions. Hirers have to learn how to check their engines every morning. They also need to understand the shutdown procedure at the end of the day. They have to come to terms with the onboard utility limitations, especially concerning the electrical supply. There’s no wonder then that they forget the odd detail, like the importance of lowering a lock paddle once its done its job.

A lock flight left with some or all of the paddles raised by an inexperienced crew is not unusual. Calcutt Boats’ wharf, home to the company’s hire fleet and brokerage, is between Calcutt Top and Middle locks. There a steep concrete slope running down from the canal to the engineering workshop, a workspace which our oily engineers understandably like to keep dry.
Two pairs of raised paddles in the top lock allow a raging torrent into the small wharf pound. During the first few years I worked at Calcutt, the engineers’ angry shouts heralded the arrival of a canal tsunami racing down the hill into their oily domain. The wharf would flood in a matter of minutes. So quickly in fact that the engineers would usually catch the offending hirers in the next lock and offer them some much-needed paddle closing advice.

The engineers impromptu bathing stopped a few years ago when CRT contractors repairing a crumbling lock base on the Calcutt flight installed a concrete step along the wharf edge. Misbehaving boaters flood the towpath these days instead of the workshops, and our engineers don’t bathe quite so often.

That’s it for now. As is often the case these days, I’m out of time. I could write a book about the antics I’ve seen on the cut close to home and on the lock flight a stone’s throw from my mooring. All is quiet at 6 am on a wet and windy Sunday morning. The first happy band of boaters will appear in a couple of hours when I leave Orient for another day at the marina. I’ll tell you more about their cruising catastrophes next time.

Another dramatic sky over Calcutt Boats

Another dramatic sky over Calcutt Boats

Discovery Day Update

This year has been challenging. I’ve committed so much time to work on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds that I haven’t had enough time to concentrate what I love to do most; hosting my Discovery Day experiences. If you’re an aspiring narrowboat owner, whether you want your craft for recreation cruising or as a full-time home, you’ll find a day out with me as enjoyable as it is practical. I’ve lived afloat for a decade now. I’ve spoken to hundreds, maybe thousands, of narrowboat owners in that time. Many purchased a boat without doing any research at all. I met one such chap during my working day five years ago. 

I’ll call him Alan to save his embarrassment. Alan retired from the military with a large lump sum which he was determined to spend as soon as possible. He had an expensive narrowboat built to his own specifications, which was a bit of a risk given his boating experience.

Anyway, his beautiful boat was delivered to Calcutt Boats’ slipway by road transport. He followed the lorry in his car. The craft was taken off the trailer with our boat lift and gently lowered onto the company trolley, a wheeled steel cradle attached to a John Deere tractor. For insurance purposes, boat owners can’t steer their craft off the trolley when it’s rolled down the slipway into the marina, but they can accompany a member of staff. I happened to be passing at the time and had the pleasure of reversing Alan’s gleaming £150,000 boat into the marina. Once I was clear of the trolley I spun the boat around, moved away from the tiller and gestured to Alan. “There you go. Your new home’s in the water. Do you want to take her for a spin?”

Alan looked at me in horror. “Can you show me what to do? I’ve never steered one of these things before!” He then revealed just how much of a novice he was. This was the first time he had set foot on a narrowboat, yet he’d spent an enormous amount of money having a bespoke boat built.

The tale didn’t end well. Alan’s design was a result of daydreaming rather than research or practical experience. It was unsuitable for him in so many different ways. None of that mattered because he moved off the water six months later because he simply didn’t like the lifestyle. 

Alan lost a fortune when he sold his boat. His case was extreme, but I’ve met dozens of boat owners who have suffered to a lesser degree, all for the sake of doing a little research beforehand and acquiring some hands-on experience. 

Getting to know narrowboats and learning how to handle them can be a hit and miss affair. You don’t know whether what you read is accurate or if canal-side tips are worth following. You’ll get a lot of advice as a novice boater. Not all of it is good. That’s where I can help you.

I hosted my first Discovery Day on 4th July 2014. Martyn already owned a boat, but locks made him nervous. We negotiated twenty-six locks by the end of the day, and Martyn was wielding his windlass with a big smile on his face. I’ve welcomed over three hundred aspiring boat owners on board since then. And, I’m regularly told, I’m very good at what I do. Here’s what last Saturday’s guest, Shaun Bounds had to say…

“I’ve been looking at narrowboats for some time now, as I’m considering downsizing and moving to a life afloat. However, I’d never taken the helm of a narrowboat before and was a bit nervous about handling a vessel of a size that would be suitable for living aboard. I’d been considering an RYA helmsman course, but felt that would be a bit formal, then I came across Paul’s discovery days advertised on eBay, and having read Paul’s advert, I knew that the day would be an ideal introduction to narrowboat life.

The information about the discovery day was comprehensive and thorough, with several emails from Paul covering subjects relevant to a life afloat. Most of the questions I had about narrowboat life were covered. Finding Paul on the day was a doddle given the simple to follow directions. 

I attended the discovery day with a friend, who was also a boating novice. We met Paul who welcomed us aboard his home and took time to settle us in gently, showing us around his narrowboat, explaining things as we went, taking time to answer any questions we might have. He was open and honest about the features of his boat and gave excellent advice about buying a used narrowboat. Before long, we were underway on the cut, and we took turns to be in control of the tiller, under Paul’s excellent tuition. The stretch of canal Paul had chosen was winding, with numerous bridges, moored vessels and six locks at the end of the day. Plenty to keep us entertained! Throughout the day, Paul was patient and the perfect host. Ten hours flew by, and we both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

I would highly recommend a discovery day to anyone considering a life afloat, Paul offers excellent advice and tips, shared from the experience of his life as a live-aboard boater. In fact, I would recommend his discovery day to anyone considering a narrowboat holiday as it is an opportunity to gain boat handling experience prior to the 30 – 60mins instructions given at the start of a holiday.”

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

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Useful Information

Sid the Swan, Solar Savings and Troublesome Toilets

I am a prisoner in my own home, the victim of relentless aggression, intimidation and bad-tempered nastiness. I worry about opening my front deck cratch cover or the galley’s side doors. Even walking along my gunnel fills me with nervous anticipation. This is not the tranquil lifestyle I signed up for.

I’ve been at the wrong end of numerous unexpected attacks in recent weeks. They’re a flashback of my pub management days when mindless, drunk and drug-crazed thugs tried to gain the upper hand in my south London bar. I moved onto the inland waterways to escape this unpleasant and unacceptable behaviour. The move had been successful until recently. Now, a pair of heavyweight bullies visit me throughout the day and late into the evening. They know my work schedule, so they’re ready and waiting for me at the end of a hard day at the marina. They circle my boat like bloodthirsty Indians galloping around a besieged wagon train, taunting me relentlessly. Even on the warmest summer evenings, I’m forced to cook with the galley door closed to avoid assault, intimidation or theft.

Plenty of room for a groundsman's fat fingers

Plenty of room for a groundsman’s fat fingers

The attacks began on a sunny summer’s day in early June. My mooring is unusual. Orient’s bow juts thirty-five feet into the marina from the rusty barge to which the centre and stern are tied. I’ve chosen this position so that the bow sits in open water with a clear view over a swaying reed bed of Calcutt Bottom lock. The price I pay for such a glorious landscape is a precarious shuffle along my narrow and often slippery gunnel each time I climb on or off my boat, a journey made even more difficult by the antics of my assailants.

Because of regular heavy showers at the beginning of last month, I kept the canvas cover over my front deck, my cratch cover, rolled down to keep the front of the boat dry. My harrowing ordeal began soon after I returned from work on a warm and sunny evening. I unzipped one of the cratch cover side panels on the port side and then sat on the gunnel with my back to the water while rolled up and secured the canvas. That was a mistake.

I heard a loud hiss and almost immediately felt an excruciating pain in my left elbow. The male, the cob, of Calcutt’s breeding pair of mute swans had a loose fold of elbow skin firmly clamped in its serrated beak. I didn’t realise how far my skin could stretch without tearing, and I hope to avoid any further demonstrations. I pivoted to slap the swan with my right hand. That was a mistake too. He let go of my elbow and, in the blink of an eye, had my right index finger clamped in his mouth. Big as they are, swans are no match for human adults fuelled by fear. I escaped with most of my finger skin still attached and a healthy respect for the lightning fast strike of one of the world’s heaviest flying birds.

Since that first skirmish, Sid (I named him after Mr Vicious of Sext Pistols fame, and his equally aggressive wife, Sandra, have exploited every opportunity to make my life a misery.

Orient’s ventilation is inadequate, to say the least. The boat turns into a sauna when cooking an evening meal on a summer’s day. An open galley hatch reduces the temperature substantially but often provides too much temptation for the pair of barmy birds.

Orient is deep draughted, so the galley hatch is close enough to the water to allow long-necked swans access to anything on the starboard worktop. Nothing is safe. They didn’t think much of the grape punnet they stole a couple of weeks ago but Wednesday’s half empty bag of Warburtons thick sliced seeded bread went down very well. They even shared their illicit haul with half a dozen mallards and a pair of coots. How kind.

Walking successfully along Orient’s often rain-slicked four-inch wide gunnel takes concentration at the best of times. Now I have to also deal with a large orange beak clamped onto my socks or shoelaces trying to pull me into the marina.

I’m not the only boater at Calcutt to suffer. I mentioned my ordeal to a friend who moors on nearby Meadows marina. He told me that the same swans harrassed him a couple of weeks ago when he was painting his cabin side. The first attack came when he was bent double trying to remove a loose brush bristle from his pristine paintwork. The cob silently swam behind him and pecked his posterior. He shot forward in shock and headbutted his tacky cabin paint. He transferred a substantial number of head hairs to his cabin side and had to endure a further hour of bad-tempered hissing. It’s something else for you to think about when you’re considering your summer boat maintenance schedule.

The swans just want food, of course. They’re used to being fed by boaters, so they’ve become semi-domesticated and quite demanding. They usually back off with a stern word or a gentle tap on the head. On the whole, mute swans are a pleasant addition to life on the cut. I just need to be mindful of them if I’m working on Orient’s exterior or in the marina shallows during my working day.

Talking of working on my boat, I mentioned the improvements and repairs I want and need to make to Orient in my last post. I left a couple of items off the list. The first is a new crach cover for the front deck.

Storage space is all important on a liveaboard narrowboat. I’ve maximised the secure space I have at the back of the boat by choosing a floating home with a traditional rather than a cruiser or semi-traditional stern. Orient’s previous owners made the most of the space up front by fitting a canvas cover over the front deck. The cover is supported by a glazed, wood-framed vertical triangular board installed between the front deck and the bow locker and a top plank running between the cratch board and the leading edge of the cabin roof.

Orient's front deck

Orient’s front deck

The weatherproofed deck space is a handy area for me as a live aboard boat owner. It’s not secure, so I don’t leave anything of value on the front deck, especially as my current cover has clear plastic windows on both sides, windows clouded and split enough to allow rain to trickle through in heavy downpours.

There’s a large steel locker on my front deck which is secured by a padlock. I don’t keep anything of great value to anyone else in there other than half a dozen tins of bespoke cabin paint and the accessories I need before, during and after painting. There are a few spare windlasses too. You can never have enough. I lost both of my windlasses on a South Oxford cruise in 2015. The last disappeared into the cut in the middle of a lock flight. A guest disposed of my first windlass the previous day, along with my recovery magnet when she lowered it into the canal on the end of a length of paracord using a knot any self-respecting three year old would be ashamed of. I completed the rest of the flight using a pair of mole grips. Never again. I have six windlasses now… and two recovery magnets.

My deck space is home to my hose reel. Enough heat leaks through the front doors to the cabin to ensure that I don’t have to have to endure lengthy ice-breaking sessions if I want to fill my water tank on freezing winter mornings. Not that I have to fill my tank very often. 

I keep my shoes and boots on the covered front deck as well. Late autumn is the time I like least on the canals. The towpath turns into a shallow sea of liquid mud, a footwear coating which is a pain to remove before entering the cabin. Mud is even more of a nuisance if you have dogs. Quick toilet breaks become labours of love with owners struggling to cope with wriggling pets and their muddy paws. At least a cratch cover allows you to escape heavy rain while you attend to your doggy housekeeping.

In addition to keeping bad weather out, a decent cratch cover also helps keep heat in. On a cold day with a bow wind, the temperature inside boats without covered front decks plummets as soon as crew open the front doors.

Most cratch cover suppliers quote over the phone these days. They determine the base price by the length of the front deck or, if there’s a cratch cover already in situ, by the length of the top plank. At 192cm (6’4″), Orient’s front deck is relatively long. Manufacturer’s prices vary wildly. The most expensive I’ve had so far is £1,500 from a long-established supplier in Braunston with an excellent reputation, a reputation which allows them to charge an arm and a leg. I’ve had a quote for just over half the price from a local man recommended by two different subscribers to this site. I’ve provisionally booked him in for early August. All I have to do before then is find the money.

Solar power is also on my wish list. Tim Davis from Onboard Solar installed a three hundred watt solar array on my previous boat, James No 194, in March 2013. The three panels and their MPPT controller worked tirelessly until I sold James in October 2016.

Installing solar power was a game changer. My battery bank rarely dropped below 90% capacity during the summer months. I could stay in the same spot for weeks at a time without having to worry about battery charging. The panels were far less productive during the winter, typically dropping to about 10% of their summer output, but they were far more cost-effective than running the engine to generate electricity.

Tim David fitting solar panels on James No 194

Tim David fitting solar panels on James No 194

The only problem with the installation as far as I was concerned was the inconvenience for me as a single-handed boater. The panels need to be installed as close to possible to the batteries they charge to avoid too much of a voltage drop. On most boats that means fitting them on the roof between the centre and the stern, as they were on James. Right on the path which I needed to walk as I climbed in and out of locks. Post installation, my lock passages became quite challenging. I would climb down the lock escape ladder, a ladder often fitted so close to the moss slicked wall that getting my feet on the rungs was almost impossible, and then face the solar panel roof dance.

Combined with the steel rack holding my pole, plank and boat hook, the three solar panels used nearly all the available space. I usually reached the stern more by luck than good judgement. Tiptoeing half the boat length was bad enough on a dry day, but after rain, or worse still, on icy winter mornings, I often resorted to crawling back to the helm. It’s neither a safe way to get to the stern nor a dignified one

Ideally, I will have the new panels fitted on the forward roof section, leaving the roof free for lock passages and dignity preservation.

The final missing component for extended stays in idyllic spots is my choice of a toilet. Potable water isn’t an issue. My tank holds seven hundred and fifty litres. Using my Hozelock Porta shower every other day and washing dishes once a day, my water supply will last me at least a month. I last filled my tank on 25th May. I don’t have a gauge for the tank so filling a kettle at the moment is an exciting affair. It’s a sad life when reaching the end of a day with water still in my tank fills me with joy. Ah, the simple pleasures of life on the water.

With the new solar panels fitted I won’t have a problem with electricity generation either. The only fly in the ointment for problem free extended stays will be my cassette toilet and the challenge emptying it.

I began life afloat on James with a cassette toilet. I didn’t have a spare cassette, so I needed to find an Elsan point every three days, every four days if I had enough privacy to water the hedge regularly. Reaching an Elsan point in time was always a challenge, as was finding one in full working order and clean enough to use without gagging.

My toilet stress disappeared when I had an Airhead Compact composting toilet fitted. Before I researched the subject, I thought that composting were the exclusive domain of latter-day hippies, glorified buckets filled with reeking sludge. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I discovered to my surprise and delight that composting toilets are actually the least smelly of the three toilet options available to boaters. Pump out toilets in their most basic form can be stomach-turning affairs. The dump through pump out toilet is simply a toilet sitting on top of a clad steel holding tank. The unfortunate user needs to open a flap between the toilet and the tank before they do their business, and then sit on top of an open hole in a tank filled with several hundred litres of decaying waste. It’s not an exercise for the faint-hearted. Pump out toilets fitted with macerators are far less smelly, but then you have the possibility of the macerator clogging and the unenviable task of taking it apart to remove the blockage. It’s not something I would enjoy doing before breakfast.

In addition to the challenge of finding somewhere to empty your toilet cassette, you have to carry it to the Elsan point. Wriggling through the narrow confines of a narrowboat cabin carefully holding a plastic box filled with twenty kilos of stinking waste is not the easiest affairs. Especially when, like earlier in the week on Orient, you discover that the rubber seal keeping the contents away from your lovely clean hardwood floor has decayed. Dumping the cassette’s contents took me ten minutes. Removing the reeking brown trail seeping into the cracks between my floorboards added another hour to the task. My experience with composting toilets has been far more pleasant.

After five years of cassette carting on James, I had my Airhead Compact composting toilet fitted in May 2015. The model cost me £850 plus a further £100 to have a roof vent installed.

The toilet had a slightly bigger footprint than my Porta Potti. A conventional toilet bowl and seat, moulded from high-quality plastic, was mounted above a twenty-litre bucket used to store solid waste. Another smaller container was fitted in front of the bucket. This bottle, used for liquids, could be quickly detached for daily emptying.

Airhead Composting Toilet on board James No 194

Airhead Composting Toilet on board James No 194

Both men and women had to sit to do their business so that they were pointing in the right direction to launch liquids into the front container and drop solid waste into the main bucket. I had to add a composting medium to the larger pot to kick start the process. A bale of hamster bedding, compressed sawdust, lasted me about six months and cost less than a fiver.

I emptied the liquids bottle in a towpath hedge every day, making sure to add a couple of heaped spoons of brown sugar to the bottle before I put it back. Suger apparently helps reduce the ammonia smell. It worked well enough. I just had to make sure that I didn’t use the same sugar or spoon for my coffee.
The thought of emptying the solids bucket for the first time made me feel quite ill. A fertile imagination isn’t an advantage where human waste is concerned. I managed to delay the terrifying task for a month. Then at the crack of dawn one sunny summer’s day, I unclipped the toilet, carted it out onto the towpath, removed the bucket from the two brackets fixing it to my bathroom floor and, trying not to look at the bucket’s contents, hauled the end result of my last month’s grocery shopping off the boat.

As with most worries in life, the reality was far less painful than the anticipation. The bucket was filled with an almost odourless brown clay. The contents were far less offensive than those of a cassette or pump out toilet. After dumping the waste into a double thickness black bin bag, I scoured the bucket with a dedicated toilet brush and an eco-toilet cleaner and rinsed it in the canal.

Within half an hour I had a gleaming and sweet smelling toilet and bucket and, because I was able to remove the entire assembly from the bathroom, I was able to sanitise the area under the toilet too.

A composting toilet is high on my shopping list. Realistically, I’m not going to be able to get that and everything else on my list taken care of until the end of next year. Only then can I think about returning to the canals full time. In the meantime, I’m going to try to make friends with my two assailants. Either that or install a bigger oven and look for a recipe for swan a l’orange.

A tranquil spot away from aggressive birds

A tranquil spot away from aggressive birds (and I don’t mean the female crew working through the Calcutt flight)

Useful Information

Buying a Second Hand Narrowboat – Orient, Six Months On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orient's saloon seating

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

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

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

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

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

Plenty of space in the galley

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

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

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

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

Orient's spacious bathroom

Orient’s spacious bathroom

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

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

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

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

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

Orient's bedroom - A room fit for a dwarf

Orient’s bedroom – A room fit for a dwarf

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

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

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

The engine and generator room

The engine and generator room

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

My man cave, the boatman's cabin

My man cave, the boatman’s cabin

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

Useful Information

Beware Narrowboat Buyer’s Freebies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orient's water tank access

Orient’s water tank access

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A stormy sky over Calcutt Boats

A stormy sky over Calcutt Boats

Rain clouds sweep over Meadows marina

Rain clouds sweep over Meadows marina

Reflections on a still marina at Calcutt Boats

Reflections on a still marina

A beautiful sunset over Calcutt Boats Meadows marina

A beautiful sunset over Calcutt Boats Meadows marina

A tranquil mooring for Orient

A tranquil mooring for Orient

Useful Information

Celebrating Shared Experiences And Moving Forward

All is quiet on board. The silence is broken only by the ticking of the galley clock and muted quacks from two squabbling mallards. Gone are reassuring sounds of domestic bliss; Cynthia’s tuneless humming and occasional curse as she juggled pans in the galley, creating another of her many gourmet delights. And there’s no more click-clack of iron hard basset nails on the hardwood floor, no more gentle while from Sadie at my feet, begging for the comfort of a warm lap. My three girls have gone, one to her maker, the others to better homes.

I am alone.

I am alone, but not as lonely as I feared because YOU, dear reader, have generously lent me a virtual crutch. I’ve received hundreds of supportive messages since my last post, emails offering condolences, advice and hope. They’ve all been much appreciated, even if the contents were sometimes a little sad.

We waterways enthusiasts are a peculiar bunch. By the time we reach the age that most of us can afford the cost of a narrowboat or the time to appreciate one, our health often prevents us from enjoying the lifestyle comprehensively, or even at all. Bits of us begin to fail or need repairing or replacing. Sadly, sometimes the solution is beyond the marvels of modern medicine. We die and leave those around to deal with the emotional trauma of our loss.

There was a recurring theme to many of the email I received. “I feel your pain. I’ve just lost my wife/husband/father/mother/brother/sister…” They told tales of traumatic bereavements months or even years ago. “Time will heal, but the pain will endure,” appeared to be the theme. For many, each new day has been an opportunity to mourn the loss of a loved one. While I fully understand the sentiment, I’m trying to avoid following that unhealthy route.

Cynthia taught me many useful lessons. One of the best was to always view a glass as half full, to see the positive in any situation, to search for the silver lining of the darkest of clouds.

So I’m not going to mourn Cynthia’s loss. I’m going to celebrate our time together, the adventures we had, the fun places we explored. I have hundreds of photos of Cynthia in exotic locations; in endless forests, on high mountain tops, on deserted beaches, by lakes, rivers and canals. In each and every one she’s smiling, imploring me to embrace all that life has to offer. So embrace it I will as I slowly but surely adapt to my new lifestyle.

Orient's tranquil mooring on Locks marina

Orient’s tranquil mooring on Locks marina

Cynthia’s possessions have, like the dogs, gone to a better home. My wife liked to dress well and, some would say, oddly. One of her favourite ensembles was a red cashmere cape and yellow Wellington boots, with appropriate clothing in between of course. Stylish in a strange kind of way. Cynthia made her mark wherever she went.

I crammed all her shoes and clothing into two dozen black plastic bin bags for the four-mile journey to a Myton Hospice shop in Southam. The charity offers superb end of life care to people suffering terminal illnesses. I know Cynthia would have approved.

Abbie and Sadie, basset and Coton du Tulier, left me last Saturday. They have gone to separate but equally loving homes. Basset Abbie has joined a similarly lugubrious pal at a beachfront property in rural Devon, a house surrounded by miles of car-free walking. Her new owners manage their own holiday property during the summer and explore Europe by motorhome in the colder months. Abbie will have the time of her life.

Sadie will be similarly happy. She’s been adopted by Sam, the founder of the basset charity who collected both dogs. Sadie jumped on Sam’s lap the moment they met and then stayed there throughout Sam’s brief stay on Orient and the two-hour car journey to her new home. I will miss both dogs, but they have gone to homes with owners who have the time to look after them properly. I made the right decision.

Orient on her spacious berth

Orient on her spacious berth

I am alone now but not particularly lonely. I don’t have time to focus on unhealthy thoughts, and Cynthia’s ever-present voice warns me against self-indulgent misery. I have the joy of working on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds during the week and hosting Discovery Days at the weekend. And, if I don’t have weekend bookings, there are five acres of rural Warwickshire at my boss’s country pile to maintain.

My evenings are a potential incubator for dark thoughts. To ensure that misery can’t make its mark there, I fill my time with blog post writing and web site development. If all else fails, I have a television. I just need to work out how to turn it on.
All things considered, I feel better now than I did a month ago. Cynthia had left me four weeks earlier to return to the States on her perpetual quest for better health. Her condition, quite rightly in hindsight, worried me. As did a perceived lack of interest in this website. I wrote in my last post about my inclination to stop blogging and indulge in a more rewarding pastime, maybe stamp collecting, train spotting or dogging.

Your thoughtfulness overwhelmed me. Over two hundred emails offering support and feedback landed in my inbox since that post. I appreciated and replied to every one of them.

Because of them, I will continue with the blog, doing what I can to give aspiring narrowboat owners an insight into the often challenging and always rewarding life I lead afloat on England’s inland waterways. I know that many of you live aboard like me. We face and usually overcome similar challenges in our day to day lives. Some of you have been forced by unhappy circumstances to move back into a brick and mortar home and away from an idyllic life afloat.

How sad.

There’s no denying that living on a boat can be hard work. One of life’s ironies for many boaters is that when they are most able to afford the lifestyle, they are least able to deal with the physical demands. There are heavy lock gates, stiff paddles, steep climbs up and down lock ladders, straddles over high sided decks, stoops under low covers, bends through low doorways and squeezes into engine room crawl spaces designed for midgets. It’s not an easy life with stiff backs, hips and knees.

And then there are the daily weightlifting workouts.

Narrowboats with multi-fuel stoves are more common than those without. Wood is an aesthetically pleasing and aromatic fuel. It’s also impractical for boating purposes. Unless a boat owner wants a creosote-soaked roof and tar lined flue, the wood must be both seasoned and burned at temperatures high enough to make the inside of the boat melt. It burns too hot, needs topping up too frequently and uses storage space the average boater simply doesn’t have. The sensible and widely available alternative is coal briquettes.

These bags weigh fifty-five pounds, four stone in traditional English measurements, half a woman or a whole basset hound like our girl Abbie. Each bag is as heavy as it’s unwieldy. Each one needs lifting and tipping, manoeuvring onto decks, through narrow and low doorways and, finally, decanting into a coal scuttle close to the stove.

Propane cylinders are just as heavy, just as unwieldy and often far more of a challenge than coal bags. Most narrowboats use propane gas for cooking, some for water heating and occasionally, if the boat owner is strong of heart and deep of pocket, for central heating. On traditional stern narrowboats like mine, the gas is stored in a small locker only accessible to boaters prepared to leap gazelle-like onto the boat’s tiny bow, a steel surface often coated with dew, rain, ice or algae and slipperier than an Olympic ice rink. Changing a gas bottle is always a test of both nerves and strength.

And then there are the ever-present dangers associated with using the boat for its intended purpose.

If you see a narrowboat gliding towards you through the murky water of a reed-fringed canal and spot a person or two walking casually across the steel cabin roof, you can bet your bottom dollar that the brave boaters are novices. Any seasoned cruiser on the cut knows better. A boat roof is slippery, liberally adorned with trip hazards and far too close to the uneven brickwork of low bridge arches.

Locks marina from Calcutt Bottom lock

Locks marina from Calcutt Bottom lock

Moving from bow to stern along a boat’s narrow gunnel is asking for trouble too. If you’re a narrowboat newbie, the gunnel is the thin horizontal steel strip between the boat’s hull top and its cabin bottom. The gunnel is rarely more than four inches wide, sometimes is painted with a non-slip coating and occasionally, much to the dismay of careless crew, slopes away from the boat towards the canal’s muddy bed.

Gunnel walking is an irresistible challenge for young and invincible hire boat crew, as is the temptation to jump on and off a lock enclosed boat roof. Locks are accidents waiting to happen. Fast flowing water, moss and algae coated edging stones and ladders, slippery steel boats and inexperienced crew, newbie boaters often more careless still after a holiday drink or two.

Lock accidents are common; slips, trips and falls, tumbles between moving boats and solid walls, graceless plummets into the frothing water of a turbulent lock and the rare but far too frequent collision between soft flesh and spinning steel.

Gongoozlers sometimes risk life and limb too. Falls into locks while waiting for pretty boats to chug through are common. I stood at a lock on the Foxton flight with Cynthia a few years ago. We watched in horror as a pretty young mother wearing a set of inappropriately high heels tottered along a lock lip to amuse a toddler in a pushchair. She stepped on wet moss and with a frantic windmilling of arms disappeared into the murky water of the lock beneath her feet. “There’s no point in crying over a spilled MILF,” is what Cynthia didn’t say when she saw my look of consternation.

These are the dangers we can see and avoid. More worrying is the silent and invisible threat, the killer which nearly caused my early demise last month; carbon monoxide.

The risk to boaters is discussed occasionally. Boaters understand both the problem and the solution. The solution is to fit both smoke and carbon monoxide detectors at some stage of their boat ownership and then, all too often, ignore both the detector’s warning and its maintenance. Here’s an email I received after last week’s scare.

“As an LPG/NG engineer, I cannot stress enough the importance of a working and in date carbon monoxide alarm or three!
Caravan owners of a certain age, because “they’ve always done it” don’t think it’s important. I’m sure boat owners are the same.

This season alone, in fact, yesterday, I found six carbon monoxide units with no batteries in. Most of these were older than the “replace by” dates printed on the units!

Even with good batteries, they would be useless. You don’t have to be told how lucky you were. Very glad that you are safe though!
In your next blog, please reiterate the fact that a “working “ carbon monoxide alarm may actually not actually be working. Each unit has a replace by date. This MUST be adhered to!

Personally, I stamp out of date units underfoot in front of the owners. Most I know will put them back up if I don’t once I’ve left! Silly I know, but they know best. “

Are you guilty as charged? When did you last check your alarm batteries or dates? Do it now. While you’re at it, check your smoke detectors too. A ten-minute break from an enthralling blog post could save your life.

I’ll tell you a secret. My cooking doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes there are clouds of smoke which I’m pretty sure aren’t part of the recipe I’m trying to follow. Naturally, the smoke sets off the smoke detectors. They carry on shrieking as long as there’s smoke in the boat. The air can take an eternity to clear at a time when I’m trying to concentrate on a variety of bubbling pans. The easy solution is to remove the offending alarm’s batteries. And then forget to replace them. I’m sure that you are more responsible than me. Your life is more important than the temporary inconvenience of a shrieking siren.

Or is it?

You can read more about carbon monoxide monitoring requirements on the Boat Safety Scheme website

I sincerely hope that this post, and the one detailing my rude awakening in the middle of the night by a shrieking alarm, triggers the replacement of a few out of date or faulty carbon monoxide monitors across England’s waterways network.
Despite the occasional risk to life and limb, and my recent unhappy transition from family to a single life, I love living afloat. I don’t particularly like living tethered to a marina, but if I need to work and if I have to work, there’s nowhere I would rather work than on the beautiful grounds at Calcutt Boats. The aspect of my working day which appeals to me most is the constant and ever-changing variety.

There are the usual grounds maintenance tasks; tree felling and trimming, ditch clearance, fence repairs, painting and replacement, marina pier and reed management and, as the thermometer rises and the sky fills with rain-filled clouds, endless grass cutting. We have a ride on mower for cutting most of the site’s forty landscaped acres. It’s a magical task at this time of the year to sail through a sea of green peppered with cowslips, buttercups and dandelions, enveloped by the heady aroma of cut grass and freshly minced dog shit.

Acres of grass cutting to keep me busy

Acres of grass cutting to keep me busy

We also have a delicate machine for cutting the wharf’s lawn, a three-wheeled monster for Meadows marina’s sloping banks and a new Flymo for my least liked weekly task. There are three high and steep banks adjacent to Locks marina which are too steep to cut with conventional machines. Each cut involves six hours hauling the wheeled Flymo up and down the banks on a length of rope. It’s hard work, so I’m always grateful when my radio crackles and a distorted voice asks me to pause my brutal task and start another, more urgent job.

I might be asked to move a boat or offload a palleted delivery with the site’s Merlot forklift truck. The call might be to repair a pier hit by a poorly steered boat, provide visiting boaters with coal, gas or a pump out or two or, the one I really don’t like, wade shin deep in raw sewage to clear a blockage in the pipe to our reed bed filtration system.

Each day is filled with variety and rural tranquillity. I love it.

I’m keeping myself busy with two goals in mind, one financial, one emotional. I don’t regret the recent adventures I had with Cynthia for a moment. We really had a blast. Cynthia went out in style. She managed to indulge her lifelong passion for exploration despite her failing health. I am happy to have done what I could to help her live her dream. However, two and a half hedonistic years and a frenzy of boat buying had an inevitable effect on our bank balances. Six or seven-day working weeks for the rest of the year will help to clear the debts, and they’ll help me focus on more positive thoughts than of life as a widower. Onward and upward. That’s my motto. Onward and upward towards financial and emotional stability and another adventure on the far distant horizon.

A spring storm sweeps over Calcutt Boats

A spring storm sweeps over Calcutt Boats

New life on Calcutt Boats’ Meadows Marina

Useful Information


I receive emails every week thanking me for my sometimes funny, often useful blog posts which usually entertain and even inform my narrowboat site visitors. This isn’t one of them. I received some tragic news on “Good” Friday.

Cynthia flew to the States a month ago in an ongoing quest to reverse her failing health. She visited friends and family she hadn’t seen since handing over the keys of her Vermont home to the new owner in 2016. Four large suitcases and an even larger basset travelled with her on a flight from Toronto to Amsterdam, everything she needed for her new adventure in Europe with me.

She rented a house for two months in Friesland, the Netherlands’ most northerly province, waiting for me to sell my beloved narrowboat, James No 194, load all my worldly goods into our five and a half tonne twin axle Hymer motorhome and join her in the picturesque Dutch village of Rottevalle for the start of our grand European adventure. Cynthia was always the queen of ambitious plans.

Over the following twenty-six months we drove 28,952 miles through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland, peppering our itinerary with occasional trips back to the UK.

Cynthia's first visit to Market Harborough

Cynthia’s first visit to Market Harborough

Cynthia set our travel style early on. She would invest an hour or two in online research, look up from her battered iPad and say, “I’ve always wanted to visit..” That was it. We’d climb into the Hymer’s high cab with its panoramic windows and take the slowest, most difficult route she could find to our new destination.

Keeping the Hymer on strange country roads was often a challenge. We wedged ourselves immoveably in a French balcony road tunnel, removed our wing mirrors on a Danish steel bridge and bowled over a working film crew on one of Lyon’s impossibly narrow cobbled streets. We brought Marseille’s rush hour traffic to a halt on the city’s underground road network and slipped and slid our way over a variety of icy Swiss mountain passes. While I wrestled with the wheel and cursed, Cynthia smiled serenely and admired the ever-changing scenery around us. Apart from the high mountain passes. On those, she usually held her head between her knees and wailed like a banshee.

Much as we loved travelling far and wide on Europe’s backcountry roads, we both missed living afloat. Before we left Holland on our way to winter sunshine on the French Mediterranean coast, we window shopped for a suitable boat for summer cruising on the vast Dutch network of connected canals, rivers and lakes. Cynthia fell in love with one we viewed, stored for the winter in an immaculate barn on a North Holland farm.

Cynthia was always at her happiest in the gelley

Cynthia was always at her happiest in the gelley

Julisa was a classic Dutch motor cruiser with a steel hull and mahogany superstructure. She was the wrong boat for us; acres of wood to maintain, a canvas cockpit roof, no insulation, no shower, a broken sea toilet and, worst of all, no way to quickly get two heavy bassets on board.

On a moonlit walk on the rocky shore of a French saltwater lagoon, we decided to buy Julisa. Despite an enthusiastic exercise in identifying every reason why we shouldn’t buy the boat, Cynthia countered with reasons why we should. So we paid a deposit from the comfort of our six-wheeled winter home on the Mediterranean coast and then counted the days until we could collect her in the spring.

Boating, done properly, is an expensive hobby. Repairs, alterations, replacements and upgrades cost us €9,000, including €750 to have a bespoke basset friendly dog door fitted. We didn’t mind. After all, it wasn’t as though we were going to make a habit of boat buying and refurbishment. Yeah, right!

We cruised the Netherlands bewildering network of connected waterways during the summer and autumn of 2017. We sailed along placid waterways through rainbow-hued fields of nodding tulips, marvelled at an endless procession of working windmills and regularly stopped at waterside cafes and restaurants filled with smiling Dutch. We both loved our return to a watery lifestyle. Much as I enjoyed the scenery and experiences on Europe’s back roads, driving such a large vehicle along them was a stressful affair.

Winter on board Dik Trom

Winter on board Dik Trom

Cynthia was a sensitive soul. My stress caused her stress which further weakened her health. I was more relaxed cruising the gentle waters of island peppered lakes than negotiating thin ribbons of asphalt clinging precariously to cliffsides. We decided, perhaps unwisely in hindsight, to find a suitable boat and live on the European waterways network full time.
We found what we thought was the perfect boat moored in a small and friendly yacht club on a canal close to Antwerp. You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “Love is blind”. That doesn’t only apply to people. We fell in love with Dik Trom, a thirty-five foot Linssen motor cruiser.

Why I, a seasoned live aboard boater, thought Dik Trom would be right for living on throughout the year is entirely beyond me. Poorly insulated, acres of heat sapping glass and a blown air heating system fit for little more than taking the morning chill off a tiny truck cab, Dik Trom was hardly fit for all seasons.

Anyway, we purchased the boat mid-December, spent another small country’s national debt on repairs and the inevitable battery bank replacement, checked the long-range weather forecast for South Holland, and decided to have just one more winter under the cloudless skies of France’s Mediterranean coast before moving afloat full time. It proved to be a wise decision. We checked the Dutch weather forecast as we sat in the sun on our folding camp chairs on the rocky shores of a selection of saltwater lagoons along France’s south-east coast. Sub-zero days, colder nights and enough snow and ice to frighten a polar bear. While getting to the south of France in our Hymer home was sometimes stressful, living there was a delight. But then two large black clouds filled the blue sky of our hedonistic lifestyle. Health and money.

We quickly exhausted my savings; the proceeds of my narrowboat sale and a substantial income tax refund. Although Cynthia received a decent pension, the income wasn’t enough to support our lavish lifestyle. The more I worried about money, the more stressed I became. Ever sensitive Cynthia needed a calm and stress-free environment to thrive. Without one her body rebelled. Bug bites caused swellings the size of tennis balls, and summer sniffles became severe episodes requiring bed rest. Even a short walk on level ground would need a short rest and a restorative nap.

Spending on holistic remedies and potions and appointments with specialist practitioners further drained our resources, a drain which increased my money worries, caused more stress for me and deepening emotional turmoil and worsening health for Cynthia.

Cynthia made friends everywhere

Cynthia made friends everywhere

We decided to return to the Netherlands and look for a boatyard job for me. After a month trawling through hundreds of marina listings, I secured a position at a prestigious marina in South Holland a handful of miles from Amsterdam. Sadly, the marina was even closer to Schiphol airport and the endless stream of large aircraft which thundered into the sky from it every minute of the day.

Working for my new Dutch employers couldn’t have been more different from the gentle life I enjoyed at Calcutt Boats. The Dutch boatyard was spotless and operated with military precision. Everyone knew what they were doing and worked as hard as they could every minute of the day. A mid-morning siren announced the start of a fifteen-minute tea break. Not sixteen minutes, or even fifteen and a half. Fifteen minutes exactly. Coffee cup down, tools up and on you go. I hated every minute of it, despite the kindness and consideration both Cynthia and I were shown by the marvellous Kempers family.
Much as I disliked the mind-numbing tedium of applying anti-fouling systems to multi-million-pound motor yachts and speedboats, I was well paid by UK boatyard standards. Once again, we had more than enough money to pay the bills. Sadly, our new regime didn’t allow us to enjoy our newfound financial security. Neither of us was happy, but Cynthia felt the strain more than me.

Cynthia with Tasha who died in December 2018

Cynthia with Tasha who died in December 2018

By then we had moved Dik Trom from its Belgian mooring to Kempers Watersport, our new home and my workplace. We’d transferred our possessions from the motorhome to the boat and live on board at the marina as far away from other craft and their claustrophobic moorings as possible. The marina nestled in the south-east corner of a vast lake. We had a stunning view of the lake from our spot on the marina’s visitor moorings. However, much as Cynthia enjoyed the landscape, she began to feel increasingly isolated.

Cynthia couldn’t walk far without pain. Even using her folding bike to ride a mile to the nearest village became too much of a strain. She was confined to the interior of our thirty-five-foot boat, as were the dogs unless I was around.

Getting the dogs on and off the boat required a degree of strength and physical fitness which proved too much for Cynthia. Three steep steps from the gunwale to the flybridge and then four vertical wooden steps down into the cockpit. Another four to get them into the galley. We bought a telescopic ramp to save having to manhandle dogs weighing as much as a sack of coal. Even the ramp was too much for Cynthia in her worsening condition.

Cynthia had no one to talk to near our mooring, no way of walking or cycling to anywhere she could find a conversation and was frustrated by a growing feeling of helplessness that she had to rely on me so much. Bureaucracy further added to the strain of our day to day life.

Cynthia had been frustrated continuously by governmental red tape for three years by then. The farce began in November 2015 when Cynthia, an employee of American Airlines who had visited the UK on hundreds of occasions, was deported by UK Border Control. They told her she didn’t have the right visa to enter the country to marry me. They planned to deport her immediately. After much tearful pleading, they gave her a week’s stay of execution.

A posh meal out in Muiden, Netherlands

A posh meal out in Muiden, Netherlands

Cynthia’s difficulty entering and staying in the UK long term was the catalyst for our European adventure, but we didn’t have any luck there either. After five different appointments in the Netherlands, Spain and France, we finally managed to get her a new passport in downtown Marseilles. Much as passport renewal was frustrating, it was a piece of cake compared to the application process for an extended stay visa in Holland.

We were moved from pillar to post and back again. There seemed to be little connection or co-operation between local and national government agencies. Cynthia needed an official address in the Netherlands for the application. As we lived on our boat where I worked, we tried to use the marina address. The request was denied. Trying to find a way around the problem took seven different applications over the best part of a year. We finally convinced the local town hall to send employees out to our marina to measure and photograph our mooring so that they could create a bona fide address for the Dutch registration system.

Gazing across the crystal clear water of a Swiss lake

Gazing across the crystal clear water of a Swiss lake

By then both Cynthia and I had had enough of travelling in Europe generally and the Netherlands in particular and the constant bureaucratic difficulties presented by a homeless mixed-race couple living like gipsies throughout mainland Europe.

Then Cynthia surprised me one day. Her body may have been failing, but her mind was still as hyperactive and inventive as ever. “I’ve been thinking long and hard about our situation. We’re both unhappy here. We’re hardly living the dream any more, are we? You hate your job here, we’re close enough to Schiphol to wave at the passengers in passing jets, we’re spending far too long each day dealing with government paperwork and I’m struggling with life on board this boat, in this marina so far away from companionship of any kind. Why don’t we go back to England and live on a narrowboat?”

I had been considering a return to the UK too. But I couldn’t see past the problems we would face trying to make the move possible. “We can’t do it,” I told her. “We don’t have any money left to buy another boat, and you would still have to apply for a visa to stay in the UK.”

Cynthia was all about solutions, not problems. “We’ll sell this thing,” Cynthia waved a dismissive at Dik Trom’s beautiful mahogany cabin,” and we’ll sell the Hymer too. There’s more than enough equity in both to buy a decent narrowboat.”

My mind was still filled with seemingly insurmountable problems. Selling both the motorhome and the boat would probably be a lengthy process, and we couldn’t seriously consider buying a narrowboat until we had money in the bank from both sales. I voiced my concerns.

Cynthia couldn't resist posing with statues

Cynthia couldn’t resist posing with statues

“Look, if we focus on what we can do rather than the challenges we need to overcome, we’ll get there. You’re good at getting things done. You’re inventive too. Apply yourself to making this happen. I know how passionate you are about the English waterways. Keep that in mind and let’s go for it!”

So go for it we did. I had to return to the UK the following week to pick up our motorhome from the Nottingham dealer where it had been for three weeks having some warranty work done. Cynthia had found what she thought was the perfect narrowboat for us on Apolloduck. The boat was moored at Tattenhall marina. A detour to Cheshire on my way back to Holland would only add an extra two hours for my journey. I phoned the broker and arranged to view and test drive the Steve Hudson built boat.

Imaginary birds flock over a French hillside village

Imaginary birds flock over a French hillside village

Once again, Cynthia was right. She was right about returning to the UK, and she was right about the boat being perfect. It’s now our home. Sorry, it’s now my home.

The buying process was far from easy. We needed to take out a bridging loan, take out two further loans from private lenders and part exchange our motorhome. Even then, we were still short of money. I managed to overcome the problem by persuading the owner to wait for the balance until Dik Trom sold.

We returned to the UK mid-December. Orient’s owners arrived on Boxing Day to collect our motorhome and bid a tearful goodbye to their beautiful boat. After an abortive cruise south back to Calcutt Boats we returned to Tattenhall for battery replacement and then endured the coldest two weeks of the winter on an eventful journey to our current mooring. Cynthia sat inside for all of it, keeping warm and trying and failing to stay healthy.

Another opportunity for a new friend

Another opportunity for a new friend

Unable to sleep, she spent most nights fretting about her deteriorating health and worsening mobility. Because she couldn’t sleep at night, she was exhausted during the day. She slept during the day so couldn’t sleep at night. The vicious cycle continued, and her feeling of isolation and depression deepened.

I didn’t help much. Cynthia was a touchy-feely heart-on-her-sleeve kind of gal, and I’m from the stiff-upper-lip emotionally bankrupt old English school of carry on regardless. She didn’t get any of the compassion from me that she both needed and richly deserved.

She decided to return to the States for an appointment with a world-renowned holistic practitioner who planned to do an exhaustive health study to get to the root of her problem. Cynthia was too weak to manage the flight on her own so her friend, Alec, flew from the States to escort her back.

She visited the friends and family she hadn’t seen for three years. She spent a week with her brother, Jeff and then moved into her best friend Tom’s house in Rockport MA.

Cynthia was always a diligent and effective communicator. She sent me WhatsApp messages regularly on her return flight and throughout her stay with brother Jeff and then Tom. Two weeks ago today those communications stopped.

I was worried after twenty-four silent hours. Followup messages failed to provoke a response either. I phoned, texted, WhatsApp’ed and emailed over the next three days and then, on Thursday, emailed her friend Tom. But, even though I hadn’t heard from Cynthia for four days, I was somewhat reassured by her proximity to so many friends and family. What I didn’t know then was that her sister, brother and Tom were also trying and failing to get any response from her.

In the days when Cynthia could walk without pain

In the days when Cynthia could walk without pain

My phone rang on Good Friday at 12.32pm. A WhatsApp call from Cynthia. What a relief. I prepared to give her a bollocking for worrying me so much.

A stranger spoke in a quavering voice. “Hi, Paul. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but Cynthia died on Wednesday.”
I don’t remember feeling shocked. I suppose that Cynthia’s worsening health coupled with an uncharacteristic lack of communication steeled me for bad news on some level.

Jeff’s wife, Melanie, went on to tell me what had happened. Jeff had also been worried by Cynthia’s silence. He contacted Tom on Wednesday. Tom hadn’t heard from Cynthia either. Jeff was much closer to the house than Tom, so he agreed to drive three hours to the house to investigate.

Cynthia on our wedding day

Cynthia on our wedding day

The house was locked and dark when they arrived. Jeff called the police. They confirmed that a 911 call had been placed by a lady at that address the previous day. The lady was rushed by ambulance to the nearest ER department and died within fifteen minutes of arriving. Hospital tests showed a tumour and cancer in her blood. Cynthia, who had more friends than anyone I’ve ever met, spent the last three days of her life alone. Life just isn’t fair.

Jeff, still grieving after the loss of his beloved dog a few days earlier, has been a star. There was an annual celebration of Cynthia’s mother’s life scheduled for last Tuesday in Big Bear, California. Jeff asked permission to arrange for Cynthia’s cremation on Bank Holiday Monday so that Cynthia could join her family for the memorial. I think Cynthia would have liked that.

So, for some of us, life goes on.

The last week has been stressful. I haven’t been firing on all cylinders, and our two sensitive dogs picked up on that. My melancholy and Cynthia’s absence has particularly affected three-year-old basset, Abbie. Any attention is better than none at all so, barring the good, she’s gone for the bad.

Bassets aren’t considered intelligent dogs, but they are, this one is, smart enough to get the tops off sealed jars. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Abbie’s first trick was to make things disappear, namely a whole 1kg bag of muesli, a sealed 500g bag of mixed nuts and two Green and Black’s chocolate bars. She managed to hold it all down, but I had to take her out every two hours throughout the night and the following day for copious grass fertilisation.

It was my fault. I didn’t close a cupboard properly, so Abbie easily nosed it open. Nothing like this had ever happened before. It’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

She upped her game the following day. She successfully removed the sealed tops from two jars of nut butter and one of honey. She still managed to hold down the contents, but disposing of them proved an explosive affair.

I tried to Abbie proof the boat after that. I put all temptation out of reach. At least I thought I had. On day three she removed a full 500ml bottle of extra virgin olive oil from the wine rack, chewed the top off and drank the lot. I suspect that it came back up much quicker than it went down. Clearing up after the mischievous dog took two hours, but now the hardwood floor has a lovely sheen. Thanks, Abbie.

I thought I was safe yesterday. All that I left within reach was my stock of red wine. Why I thought the wine would be less of a temptation than the olive oil is beyond me.

Fortunately, I returned to the boat just as she was chewing through the last thread on the metal cap. I didn’t fancy dealing with the bowel movements of a boozy basset at all.

I’m not surprised Abbie’s started acting up. The unfortunate dogs have been without loving Cynthia for a month and without any company at all for nine hours a day during the week while I am at work, and just as long at the weekend if I have Discovery Day guests.

Their life hasn’t been much better on my return from work. The combination of hard physical labour and my advancing years has meant that I’ve been too tired to walk them regularly or even pay them much attention.

I decided that these two lovely dogs deserve a better life. I need to work long hours for at least the next year or two to recover financially from our travels and our boat buying spree. The last two of my three girls will leave me next Saturday. It’s been a hard decision, but the right one. Cynthia, my guardian angel, is still with me. I asked myself what she would do in a similar situation. I know that she would focus on finding the best solution. The best solution for Abbie and Sadie is to secure both of these adorable dogs a loving home with someone who has time to care for them is the way forward.

Heartbreaking as it’s been, I have arranged for The Basset Rescue Network of Great Britain to rehome both dogs. Someone will come next Saturday to remove the last two of my three beautiful girls. Then I’ll be a solo boater again. The difference this time is that I will have the memories, journals and photos of the three most challenging, exciting and ultimately rewarding years of my life. It has been a complete privilege to share that time with Cynthia. She was a remarkable woman and I count myself fortunate to have shared part of her life.

The weeks and months will be difficult, but I will have the English waterways and you, my virtual friends,  to help keep me sane. I don’t believe that Cynthia has gone on to a better place, but I know that she made this place better while she was here. Goodbye darling Cynthia.

Cynthia and Abbie say goodbye

Cynthia and Abbie say goodbye

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