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Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.


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Buying a Narrowboat: Pre Purchase Tips and Recommendations

If you are considering buying a narrowboat, don’t part with your hard earned cash before you read this post

There’s a steep learning curve to life on the cut, steepest when you are buying a narrowboat and over your first few days on board. Apart from emptying your bank account and the physical challenge of cramming your life into a tiny home, you have to master a boat filled with unfamiliar systems and equipment. 

And then there are the day-to-day logistics you face living on the water, especially if you plan to adopt and off-grid lifestyle. Moving house is one of life’s most stressful experiences. Learning to live in a completely different way doesn’t help.

I hope that the following suggestions aid your transition. My 10th living afloat anniversary is two months away. I’ve bought four boats, sold three and refurbished one of them. Using the wonderful gift of hindsight, I can help you avoid making expensive mistakes. Please read this post in conjunction with An Essential Checklist Before You Consider Buying A Narrowboat.

Buying a Narrowboat: Boat Safety Scheme Certificates and Surveys

You shouldn’t consider buying a narrowboat without having a survey done. The owner may have a recent survey report to show you. If it’s more than a couple of years old, or if you don’t feel you can trust the seller, have another done. You’ll have to pay £600 – £800 including the boat lift out fee, but the report will confirm that you have a sound boat, or alert you to potentially expensive problems. 

The same applies to your narrowboat’s Boat Safety Scheme certificate.

Get a BSS examination done as part of the purchase deal if you can, and have the seller rectify any problems. Either that or ask the seller to reduce the asking price by the estimated cost of the rectification work.

A BSS examination is the waterways equivalent of your car’s MOT. The emphasis is on safety. YOUR safety. And because your safety is on the line, you shouldn’t necessarily trust an existing BSS certificate. 

Let me give you an example from personal experience.

When I viewed Orient for the first time in October 2018, I thought I had found my perfect boat. After all, this wasn’t my first experience buying a narrowboat.

Orient on brokerage at Tattenhall marina

Orient on brokerage at Tattenhall marina

Apart from minor signs of neglect I couldn’t find fault. It’s just as well that I’m not a BSS examiner because there was plenty wrong. A friend of mine, Russ Fincham, a first-class BSS examiner who has forgotten more than I could ever hope to know about narrowboats, agreed to come with me on my second viewing.

He identified faults which would cost thousands of pounds to rectify. Two of the defects, a poorly sited bow thruster motor and a cracked stove, could have had catastrophic consequences. 

The stove crack probably appeared after Orient’s last BSS exam in 2017. However, the bow thruster looked as though it was part of the original construction. A recess in the gas locker base housed the bow thruster motor. Cabling to its two batteries in a front deck locker allowed escaping gas to fill the cabin bilge rather than drain into the canal. Despite the potential to turn Orient into a 62’ floating bomb, the boat had passed four previous exams.

A current boat safety certificate doesn’t always guarantee that your boat is safe. Schedule another examination when you buy your boat, and make sure the examiner has a good reputation. Ask someone impartial for recommendations. Canalworld Discussion Forum is a useful source.

Russ’s advice allowed me to negotiate an immediate £2,500 price reduction. His insistence that I had another BSS exam done after the remedial work was complete would have saved me more money and a lot of hassle.

I didn’t follow his advice. I was more concerned about Cynthia’s deteriorating health than saving a few quid.

I had a commercial BSS examination seven months later when I upgraded to a Roving Trader license. Even though it’s a slightly stricter exam than the standard certificate requirements, most of the fifteen failures still applied. 

The rectification work cost me £1,200. Finding money was the easy part. Getting someone to do the job took three attempts over five months. 

Getting an expert to assess the boat for me saved me £2,500 and possibly prevented a nasty accident. Even though I had two years remaining on my BSS certificate, negotiating the inclusion of a new examination when I bought the boat would have saved me another £1,200 and a great deal of frustration.

Buying a Narrowboat: Familiarisation

You should try to find out as much as possible about your new boat before your first day on board. Bombard your surveyor, boat safety examiner and broker with questions. They’re usually happy to help.

Unless you’re fortunate, buying a narrowboat and making it your home can be a bewildering experience. Every narrowboat is unique and very few come with manuals. You’ll be pushing and pulling unknown knobs, switches and levers for weeks. If possible, ask the previous owner to show you the ropes but, If the boat’s been on brokerage, that’s probably not possible. The guys selling and examining your new home may be able to answer basic questions, but everything else is up to you.

If your boat has a modern engine, that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about too much. You need to check oil and water before you start the engine and that’s about it. You probably have a keel cooled model, but you need to be a little more careful with raw water cooling systems.

Keel cooled engines circulate water through a skin tank, a tank attached to the boat’s hull. Raw water cooling draws canal water through a heat exchanger and then return water to the canal via a wet exhaust.

How do you know what type you have?

Ask the broker or the owner if you’re buying privately. If you’re buying through a broker and he doesn’t know, you’ll need to slip into your overalls and investigate.

Check your engine exhaust. It’s either close to the waterline at the stern or the side of the boat near the engine. If all you see is a little smoke, your engine is probably keel cooled. Either that, or it’s raw water cooled and has the gate valve closed. Some owners close the water inlet as a sensible precaution when the engine isn’t running. 

The raw water cooling system on my first boat failed twice during cruises. Fortunately, I was able to moor quickly and stop the engine. Even so, the water level in the engine room bilge rose six inches in a few minutes. My raw water system always worried me and made a noise like a steam train. Switching to a keel cooling system saved both my hearing and my heart.

There’s an essential post-cruise habit you need to adopt. You probably have a stern gland greaser on your boat which helps prevent canal water from entering your engine bay via the propeller shaft. If you don’t want to drown your engine and take your battery bank for a swim, tighten your stern gland greaser at the end of every cruise.

You can read more about using and refilling your greaser here.

Buying a Narrowboat: Engine Maintenance and Pre Cruise Checks

You’ll probably need someone to show you the ropes if you take on a boat with a vintage engine like Orient’s green beast. It’s a Lister JP2M, an eighty-three-year-old lass with a mesmerising voice and the ability to turn the heads of a disturbing number of middle-aged men. 

Find out as much as you can about your engine before you move on board

Find out as much as you can about your engine before you move on board

Even though the Lister isn’t difficult to maintain, there are more pre-start checks than with a modern engine. I have to transfer fuel with a hand pump from the main five hundred litre tank to a thirty-litre day tank, make sure that the points are greased and oiled correctly and that there’s enough header tank water: nothing complicated or time-consuming, but all-important. 

Starting your engine can be a challenge. The boat should have a mains supply. If not, the boat’s battery master switches should be off. You’ll need to turn the engine battery master switch on before you can start the engine. Make sure you know the master switch location. They should be labelled but often aren’t.

If you don’t know your way around old engines, get someone to show you the ropes. I use Primrose Engineering. Owner, Richard Powell, has been in the trade for four decades. And he’s a nice guy too. I highly recommend his services if you have a vintage engine.

Another option is a one-to-one service with River Canal Rescue (RCR). They’re the waterways equivalent of the AA, an essential service for boat owners like me who don’t know one end of a spanner from the other.

One of the company’s senior engineers, Kerry, showed me how to service my first narrowboat’s Mercedes engine. He had the patience of a saint and asked questions before he began to establish my proficiency. Kerry realised that he was dealing with a middle-aged man with the mechanical ability of a four-year-old girl. He explained every process slowly and clearly and instilled enough confidence in me to tackle routine services. As the recommended service interval for my engine was 250 hours, and I could accumulate a thousand running hours a year, Kerry’s instruction saved me a fortune.

OK. So you know enough about your engine. The next step is to take the old girl out for a cruise. Make sure you have all the boating equipment you need before you go. You don’t want to be stuck on a three feet deep canal without all the appropriate gear. All right, failing to prepare for a canal cruise isn’t going to kill you, but your maiden voyage will be much more pleasant if you know what you’re doing.

The first step is to get some training and to make sure that the tuition is from someone who knows what he’s doing. I’ve witnessed many new boat owners offering dubious advice to fellow narrowboat buyers. It’s easy to begin your boating career with the wrong information. Get help and practical hands-on tuition from professionals. It’s an essential ingredient to your boating confidence, competence and happiness.

Many companies offer RYA accredited inland waterways training. Willow Wren near Calcutt provides one and two-day courses. They are an excellent source of both information and training. 

If you want to learn how to handle a narrowboat in a relaxed and indescribably lovely classroom and learn all about liveaboard narrowboat equipment, systems and design, you can spend a day with me. I guide guests on a twelve-mile six lock cruise through rural Warwickshire. 

Join me or take an RYA course. Choose whichever suits you best, but get some professional training before you untie your mooring lines for the first time.

Assuming you’ve successfully transformed buying a narrowboat from a whistful dream into exciting reality, you need to overcome the day-to-day logistics of life afloat.

Your first job is lighting a fire. 

Experience Life Afloat

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover life afloat on a 12 mile, six lock cruise through rural Warwickshire

Buying a Narrowboat – Lighting Your First Fire

If you buy your boat in the winter, your priority should be heating your home. A steel boat submerged two or three feet in icy canal water can be brutally cold. Mechanical heating systems are easier to manage but not as reliable as a simple multi-fuel stove.

The above Cruising The Cut video describes the fire lighting process correctly, but a little more information will make your first attempt bombproof.

Before you light your fire for the first time make sure that (A) your ash pan is empty and (B) your flue is clear and (C) you’ve removed your chimney cap if you have one.

Narrowboats are often offered for sale because the owner has lost interest in boating or is no longer able to cope with the physical demands. Consequently, always check your onboard equipment to make sure that it’s working correctly. You should have checked everything when you had your survey done. You did have a survey, didn’t you?

If you purchased or surveyed your boat on a blazing hot day, lighting a fire was probably way down on your list of priorities, but make sure that you check it before you light the stove for the first time.

Before your first lighting, make sure that you have all the following equipment and supplies.

  • Matches or a lighter (and spares)
  • Firelighters – The Zip firelighter used int he video work very well. Beware eco-friendly firelighters. I’ve tried a few different types over the years. Most are great for the environment because if they’re hard to light, they can’t cause any pollution. Give me paraffin-based firelighters any day.
  • Kindling – During the winter months, your stove will probably be alight 24/7. But during the spring and autumn months when you don’t want your fire blazing all day, you’ll need plenty of kindling for daily fire lighting. If you don’t want to buy kindling, you can use twigs. During wet periods the stuff laying on the ground will be damp and a pain to light. The lower dead branches of woodland trees work very well.
  • Coal briquettes – They’re available from many boatyards and chandlers or your local coal boat. Buy briquettes rather than solid coal-like anthracite. It’s a pig to light, but once it’s going, it will provide more heat than the centre of the sun and melt you and your boat. Please note that wood will not burn well unless you season it.
  • A companion set – You’ll want a small shovel or tongues for briquette handling, a poker for prodding your burning fire or scraping out ash, and a brush of some kind for cleaning up the mess you make.
  • A stovetop fan – I have an original Ecofan. They’re expensive compared to many other models, but they’re well-engineered and stand the test of time.
  • Coal storage – I like my boat neat and tidy. I have a copper coal scuttle beside the fire and a large plastic storage box under the cratch cover on the front deck. Coal sacks usually have a hole or two in them. If you bring the bag into your boat, you’re probably going to have to mop up a trail of liquid coal dust. I decant my coal into the deck coal box and fill my scuttle from there.
  • A clean flue – The flue is the pipe running from your stove to your cabin roof. The collar is the fitting on your roof holding the pipe in place. Your chimney should fit snuggly onto the collar. Your flue needs sweeping a couple of times a year to allow your stove to draw enough air to burn properly. A restricted airflow, at best, means a poor burn and little heat. At worst, a blocked flue can fill your boat with suffocating smoke in the middle of the night. If you don’t have a working smoke alarm, it’s curtains for you and your life afloat.
  • A working smoke alarm – Need I say more? Just make sure that you have one by your stove(s) and in your bedroom. A working smoke alarm probably saved my life earlier this year.

Here’s a short clip of my stove this morning, burning the last of my stock of seasoned elm. I keep the glass spotlessly clean by rubbing it daily with a damp kitchen towel dipped in cold stove ash.

Pretty, isn’t it?

I’ll give you a few more tips next week to help make buying a narrowboat a less stressful experience.

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Which Are The Best Narrowboat Stern Types For Living Afloat?

Life on a narrowboat is all about compromise. Different narrowboat stern types offer pros and cons depending on your preferred cruising and living style, so here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision.

Your floating home’s stern design, its back end, can have a considerable impact on your day to day life. One design offers you more secure living and storage space, another gives you plenty of space for cruising companions and the third is a hybrid of both. Here’s what you need to know about narrowboat sterns.

Traditional “Trad” Narrowboat Stern Types

That’s what I have on Orient. The cabin sides and roof extend almost to the back of the hull, leaving a small platform for the helmsman to stand with one or two close friends. Without risking life and limb by standing on narrow and often slippery gunnels, there isn’t much room to stand without each other’s way.

Narrowboat stern types - Traditional

Narrowboat stern types – Traditional

Cruiser Narrowboat Stern Types

You see these sterns on most hire boats. The boat’s cabin sides and roof are six to ten feet shorter than the hull, leaving an open deck for groups to stand and obscure the steerer’s view. Sorry, for groups to gather and socialise.

Narrowboat stern types - Cruiser stern

Narrowboat stern types – Cruiser stern

Narrowboat stern types - Cruiser stern with pram cover

Narrowboat stern types – Cruiser stern with pram cover

Semi-Trad Narrowboat Stern Types

This is a cross between cruiser and traditional stern boats. The boat’s cabin sides extend as far back as a traditional stern, but the cabin roof ends in the same place as a cruiser stern craft.

Narrowboat stern types - Semi traditional

Narrowboat stern types – Semi traditional

So what’s the big deal? Does the rear deck design make much of a difference if you’re living afloat?

Yes, it can. An enormous difference, pleasure or pain, secure or not, hot or cold, convenient or pain in the arse. I think that a traditional stern narrowboat offers you far more liveaboard practicality than either a cruiser or semi-traditional design.

Here’s why.

Practical Living Space

Stem to stern, Orient is 61’6”. Only 47’ 2” is enclosed cabin space. The rest of the boat length is taken up by the bow locker and the front and rear deck. Given that my interior cabin width is 5’10” and that a cruiser stern rear deck can be 8’ longer than those on a trad stern boat, I would lose up to forty square feet of living space. This wouldn’t be a large enough area to worry about in a house. Still, on a narrowboat, you’re looking at an extra bedroom, office, hobby room or living area. It’s a big deal if you live afloat.

Note: Narrowboats, like Orient, with midships rooms housing vintage engines cost you more living space. My boatman’s cabin and engine room use fifteen feet of cabin space. My effective living space is therefore reduced to thirty-two feet.

Secure Storage Space

A traditional stern narrowboat usually has an engine room with the engine hidden behind soundproofed boards, which gives you plenty of secure storage space. I don’t have as much room for storing tools on Orient. My boat has a vintage engine displayed for all to see in its own midships room. There are double doors on both the port and the starboard side which are usually open during the summer months. The boat’s two-cylinder Lister JP2 is so slow running that it doesn’t produce much heat. The only reason for these doors is so that a proud boat owner can show off his pride and joy, buffed to gleaming perfection. 

I am one such owner, ridiculously proud and emotionally attached to an inanimate object. I think I need to get out more.

I had the more popular traditional stern engine room on my first narrowboat, James No 194. With the boat’s Mercedes engine boxed in, I had ample storage space for a large amount of gear. You can see it all in this post’s photograph.

https://livingonanarrowboat.co.uk/2015-05-03-newsletter-engine-room-storage-space-explained/

You lose all of that safe storage space with a cruiser stern and, to a slightly lesser degree, with a semi-traditional stern.

The engine is in a bay beneath your feet, protected by deck boards constructed from marine ply. The engine bay is rarely secured. Some cruiser stern owners use the engine bay space for storage. It’s a decision born of necessity, but stacking things around the engine is asking for trouble. I know from personal experience.

I accompanied one of our engineers on a call out a few years ago on a call out for a Hurricane heating system. We had a phone call from the owners of a boat with one installed. They weren’t at all happy. A month after having the heater fitted, it stopped working.

Given that you usually turn your heater on when you’re cold, the caller suggested that he and his wife were close to death’s door. The heating system was rubbish, he said. Not fit for purpose, he claimed. He threatened legal action, jumped up and down a bit and demanded an immediate visit to get this rubbish bit of kit working.

Calcutt’s fitter took longer introducing himself than he did “fixing” the problem. Here’s a tip for you if you buy a cruiser stern boat. Don’t store your deck mop in the engine bay with the wooden handle resting on your heater’s on/off switch. The decision can have embarrassing repercussions, especially if you’ve done a bit of macho chest-beating before the cause of your unhappiness is discovered.

Find out all you need to know about stern types (and everything else about living afloat) on a bespoke Discovery Day cruise

You need to thoroughly research life afloat before investing in a narrowboat home. A Discovery Day cruise offers you a unique taste of life on England's inland waterways, and an opportunity to learn narrowboat helmsmanship. 

Dry Engine Bay

Another benefit of having an enclosed engine bay in a traditional stern boat is being able to keep the weather out.

Cruiser and semi-traditional stern engine bays are covered by marine ply deck boards. These wooden sheets are supported by C shaped steel channel. The channel usually has several drain holes to collect any rainwater which finds its way through the boards. During a typical English season, any season, there’s enough rain to keep the drain holes fully employed.

The problem with these narrow diameter drainage holes is that they block easily. Falling leaves and mud carried on board by boater boots slips between the board joins into the channel. Once the drains are blocked or restricted, rainwater cascades over the channel sides into the engine bay.

Time passes, the wooden deck boards decay, the gap between them widens, allowing more debris into the channel and more water into the engine bay. There are several cruiser stern narrowboat owners here at the marina who phone our office regularly during the winter months to ask staff to check for water ingress.

Engine bay water ingress isn’t a problem if your bilge pump is working. If your battery bank dies, your shore supply trips or fails, or your bilge pump gives up the ghost, you have a potential problem if you don’t check your engine bay regularly.

We rescued an almost sunken cruiser stern narrowboat a few years back. One of our fitters noticed that the stern was low in the water. We discovered an engine bay half-filled with rainwater and a craft just a day or two from taking a shallow dive four feet to the marina bottom.

The brave fitter started the engine, sidestepped the water plume from an underwater spinning flywheel and aimed for our slipway. Despite rocking alarmingly, the water-logged boat made our slipway narrowboat trolley without sinking. The owner received a bill for our rescue work and a recommendation to replace his badly worn deck boards.

You can reduce or eliminate engine bay water ingress by regularly checking and clearing drain hoes and replacing boards. But that won’t help if you need to work on your engine. And it certainly won’t help you if you’re paying someone else to do the work for you.

There’s much gnashing of teeth and toys thrown out of prams here at Calcutt if the engineers are forced to service the engine of a cruiser stern boat on a wet day. I spoke to one self-employed vintage engine expert recently who point blank refuses to work on engines open to the elements. Crouching in a cold engine bay on a wet day trying to grip the tools with numb fingers is no fun at all.

Cruising Warmth

Cold weather boating on a cruiser stern narrowboat is an unpleasant experience. I’ve been closer to hyperthermia on summer trips aboard cruiser stern narrowboats than I have on nine-hour winter cruises on my traditional stern narrowboat.

Nine years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a Calcutt Boats built Clipper south on the Oxford canal to a trade show on the mighty Thames. Clippers are fifty-foot cruiser stern boats and, like all other cruiser stern narrowboats, standing motionless at the helm for hours on end can be a painful experience, even during summer months.

On one bitterly cold summer’s day, the second of four long cruising days, I suffered mild hyperthermia. I didn’t own a decent set of waterproofs at the time. Soaked by half an hour’s heavy rain, chilled to the bone and shivering violently, I had to stop for a while to recover. I lit the stove, filled it with coal briquettes and sat as close as I could until my wet jacket steamed. Early afternoon in mid-July and I was forced to sit in front of a blazing fire until I regained feeling in my hands.

That was not a fun boating experience.

A cruiser stern offers zero weather protection. You stand in an open space far removed from your heated cabin. The wind swirls around your legs and slowly freezes you from the feet up. I have passed hundreds of cruiser stern narrowboats moving during the winter months. The poor souls at the helm look like modern-day mummies, wrapped from head to foot in all that they own. With faces covered in scarves, hoods and hats, they twitch a frigid head in icy greeting as they pass. Winter cruising doesn’t have to be that unpleasant.

It doesn’t have to be unpleasant at all.

A traditional stern narrowboat protects you from the elements. You can stand inside your cabin with your upper body in your open hatch space like a tank commander (but with much less chance of being blown to bits). Your cabin will shield your lower body from icy winds and heat from your running engine will warm your feet and legs.

Orient’s engine sits in its own room, too far away and too slow running to offer me any heat. Other than the warm and fluffy feeling I get inside when I listen to its mesmerising beat. But I don’t mind, I have something much better to keep me warm.

Boats like mine don’t suit everyone. Having an engine in its own room mean that you have lest usable living space. But you also get a boatman’s cabin, usually with a second solid fuel stove, a range, to heat your boat’s stern.

I cruised south from Tattenhall marina to Calcutt Boats in February last year. The journey took eleven days, three of them through increasingly thick ice. My 21hp Lister struggled to push me along the frozen canals. I encountered the thickest ice as I forged my way towards Birmingham from Wolverhampton. I ground to a halt beneath the Factory flight in Tipton.

Even with my trusty two-cylinder engine using most of its horses, I failed to break through. Stuck in a glistening white field and with heat rising from the range beneath me, I stopped for lunch. Cynthia handed me an insulated mug of stew. I enjoyed an alfresco meal in a frozen landscape, warm as toast and very, very happy.

Cruising Convenience

There’s more to pleasant cruising than keeping warm. Once you become proficient at the helm, a narrowboat journey is all about watching the world slip ever so slowly by. Canal guides help you pinpoint your location and provide you with information about the landmarks around you. Binoculars give you a better view of passing wildlife, a camera helps capture enduring memories and food and drink sustain you as you cruise. Having somewhere convenient to put your cruising accessories adds to your cruising pleasure.

With a traditional stern narrowboat, your cabin roof and hatch provide you with an accessible table for your gear. You can reach it all without fuss and without taking your eye off the watery road. Narrowboat tillers don’t like to be left on their own, much like your car’s steering wheel. The few seconds to reach a cruiser stern’s distant roof is all that’s needed for your wilful boat to abandon its route and head for bramble banks and low hanging willows.

Narrowboat Stern Types Summary

Horses for courses, each to their own. Plenty of liveaboard narrowboat owners live full and happy lives on cruiser stern craft. They enjoy the additional back of boat space, and they can accommodate half a dozen of their best friends on summer season adventures. And welcome the challenge of trying to see over their bobbing heads as guests obstruct the helmsman’s view.

My point of view is subjective. I like what I’ve got and consider trad stern narrowboats the most practical for life on the cut. You may decide otherwise, but now at least you fully understand the pros and cons of different sterns.

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A Christmas cruise from Market Harborough to Calcutt Boats

Filthy, stinking cold. I was a snot fountain, a drool reservoir, an old geezer with a red hooter and a hacking cough. On a cruising rest day moored at Union Wharf, Market Harborough, I had nothing to do but transfer bodily fluid to endless tissues and feel sorry for myself.

Oh, woe is me.

I didn’t have the energy to do anything constructive. I woke with a fever and a leaking nose and went downhill from there. The problem with boating on your own is that if you can’t do something, it doesn’t get done. There’s no “I” in team, no helping hand, no one to bail you out. You’re on your own through thick and thin. Most of the time I like it that way.

Thanking God that I didn’t have to cruise, I pulled a rucksack from a dusty cupboard and stumbled a mile to Market Harborough’s Sainsbury store. I needed enough fresh food to last me a week and to treat myself at my one-person New Year’s Eve party. Chilli with dark chocolate washed down with a good bottle of red. Simple food but tasty and cheap.

After two days rest, feeling slightly better but still leaving a slug-like snot trail wherever I walked, I started my return cruise. I stopped at Union Wharf’s service point to empty two cassettes and get rid of my rubbish, then cruised back through reeds and floating logs back to Foxton, dragging silt all the way.

The only real problem was an impossibly shallow reed bed restricting the navigation next to the swing bridge at the bottom of the Foxton flight. CRT has removed the visible reeds but left an underwater bed of impenetrable stumps. I tried to give them a wide berth but still grounded slightly. I noticed that the boat behind me, helmed by a guy with apparent local knowledge, pulled over to the CRT workboats opposite the reed beds and dragged his boat along them. Surely it’s time for a little dredging. Come on, CRT!

I negotiated both swing bridges without incident. A feisty mob of eight retired lady ramblers kept approaching cars at bay with brandished hiking poles and opened the swing road bridge for me. Then a dog-walking boater with his own key saw me through the footbridge. “Keep away from the reed bed,” he ordered as I crept past. “The canal’s really shallow there,” shouted an elderly lady, out for a walk with her Zimmer frame. “Ha, ha. Look at that boat leaning over,” screamed a shrill and spotty-faced teen. CRT, don’t make the reed bed an entertaining diversion for Foxton residents. Get rid of it, please!

Preparing for a Foxton flight ascent on a cold winter's day

Preparing for a Foxton flight ascent on a cold winter’s day

The Foxton flight was as easy going up as it was coming down. A little too easy actually. I managed to do the first three on my own, enjoying chatting with bystanders, relishing the company and having a laugh, when a lock keeper insisted that I stay at the helm. “You wouldn’t believe the paperwork we have to fill in if you have an accident!” That’s the third time I’ve heard a lock keeper say that on this trip. I think that they’ve been ordered to keep solo boaters on their boats.

I moored within walking distance of the flight summit’s bacon bap supply. I sat for an hour hiding from an icy wind behind the cafe wall, boat watching, drinking coffee and eating pig.

I moved an hour away from people and distractions the following morning. New Year’s Eve and a time for me to sit quietly and think about an eventful 2019.

The year began well enough. Cynthia and I had owned Orient for a week. With our possessions on board and a boat we thought was fully operational, we started a cold winter cruise south from Chester to Napton Junction and Calcutt Boats.

We didn’t get far.

Orient’s battery bank died at Market Drayton, so we limped sixteen hours back to Tattenhall marina to have a new set fitted. We began our second attempt twenty-two days later, and what an adventure we had. We raced to beat Birmingham stoppages on increasingly icy canals. Five weeks after blacking our new boat, I stripped the waterline back to bare metal. And I frequently grounded, often for half an hour, straining with a wooden pole to push our flat bottomed girl off raised mudflats.

I reached Calcutt Boats after eighty-eight hours at the helm. After twenty-six months of driving and cruising across Europe, I returned my spiritual home, ready for a gruelling work slog. Two years of hedonism cost us a fortune. We purchased a motorhome and two Dutch boats. We’d sold one of them, and part exchanged the motorhome for Orient. Cynthia and I still owned one of the Dutch craft, Dik Trom. Its maintenance costs and mooring fees were bleeding us dry. Returning to work, even in such a beautiful setting, was a necessary evil.

The months passed, Cynthia’s health declined, and her feeling of isolation grew. She flew back to the USA in April to visit friends and relatives. And to search for a cure for her worsening condition. She died there two weeks later, alone in a friend’s house, far away from the company she craved.

Life for me continued. Despite loneliness, devastation and a hopeless sense of loss tinged with more than a little guilt, I couldn’t have been in a better place to grieve. The boating community looks after its own. I had company if I needed it, tranquillity if I didn’t. Months passed as I came to terms with my loss.

Money has little regard for personal feelings. I still needed to earn enough to service the three loans I needed to buy Orient. And I had a surplus boat to maintain in Holland in addition to Orient’s essential maintenance, repairs and modifications.

Reducing my overseas boat maintenance obligations was a costly but straightforward affair. Cynthia’s estate executor insisted on a considerable lump sum for Cynthia’s share in both boats. He hinted that a no-win, no-fee probate lawyer waited in the wings ready to obliterate the estate with an endless stream of legal demands and bills.

The simplest solution for me, both financially and emotionally, was to give Dik Trom to Cynthia’s estate and walk away from endless debate and heartache. 

Resolving Cynthia’s estate issues and disposing of Dik Trom lifted an unbearable weight from my shoulders. Life settled down into a familiar and welcome stress-free routine. I worked at the marina during the week, wrote blog posts before and after work, and hosted Discovery Day cruises most weekends. Although the work was physically taxing, the distraction helped me through the following months without too much quiet time navel-gazing.

A seven-day working week income allowed me to meet my financial obligations and transform Orient from a cold and neglected boat into a warm and welcoming home. My winter cruise was a fitting reward for reaching the end of a challenging year. By late December, I was £500 short of debt freedom and reconciled to life as a solo boater. Despite being wifeless, dogless and occasionally legless, I could see a welcoming light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

2019 was all about simple survival and overcoming adversity. This year’s looking much more promising. A friend recently reminded me that 2020 is auspicious. “20/20 vision allows you to see clearly,” he told me. I don’t know about that, but I intend to plan clearly. I don’t make New Year resolutions. However,  I’m a big fan of setting balanced goals and working relentlessly towards them.

My number one priority for 2020 is to save enough money for an essential foreign holiday.

My parents and my brother live in Australia in one of the few areas not burning at the moment. I haven’t seen them for nine years. Nine years is nine years too long. Getting to and from Australia is painful. Endless hours sitting in a cramped seat watching awful television. It’s too far away to travel to for a short period. I plan to go for at least a month and then take a break in Bali on the way back. A boating mate, Ian, who spends his winters in Indonesia, has invited me to do some volcano hiking. It’ll be a far cry from the gentle life I live on England’s muddy ditches and a welcome break from ankle-deep towpath mud.

Another friend, Alan, has suggested that I should join him for a week cruising in Ireland on the mighty River Shannon. It’s boating on a grander scale than on the English waterways; lakes with islands studded with ancient relics – besides Guinness-soaked village elders – lively pubs and friendly faces. All reached from the comfort of a “yoghurt pot”, a plastic motor cruiser, or a wide-beam canal boat. Another boating experience to enjoy.

DISCOVER ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE ON ENGLAND'S INLAND WATERWAYS

Join me on a gentle cruise through rural Warwickshire. Experience life in the slow lane, learn how to handle a 62' narrowboat, either on your own or as part of a crew. Find out all you need to know about live aboard narrowboat designs, features and equipment. Understand the logistics and the costs involved. Treat yourself to a canal experience you'll never forget. 

Much as I’m excited by the thought of foreign travel and cruising new waterways, paying for the trip will mean another gruelling work year. But life is for living. I don’t know how many active years I have left in me, so I intend to make the most of every one of them.

In the meantime, I have continued to adapt to life on my own again. It hasn’t been much of a stretch. I’m generally an anti-social git, so life as a solo boater suits me well enough. I have enough friends to keep me entertained when I need company, and wind, water and tranquillity when I don’t.

I have just two expensive items remaining on Orient’s original to-do list; replacing my worn cratch cover and fitting a solar array. I don’t need solar power until I begin cruising continuously, and I can’t do that and afford to visit my parents. I’ll put the solar array on the back burner for now and concentrate on the cratch cover.

My black canvas front deck cover is on its knees. There are half a dozen ever-widening splits in its two plastic windows. Added to the rips and frays along the bottom edge, and an unappealing green sheen which I can’t remove, my cratch cover is a bit of a mess. And I get water seeping through each of the six zips in heavy rain. It has to go.

A fellow boater recommended a reasonably priced cratch cover supplier last year. I phoned him to offer him the work, he agreed to take it on and promised to visit me to take measurements. That was five months ago. I have to assume that he’s not interested.

I contacted our local top-end cratch cover supplier, AJ Canopies. They quoted me £1,500 over the phone. When I regained consciousness, I asked Kinver Canopies to quote. Their price is much more reasonable. For £1,000 I get a heavyweight canvas cover with six zips. I don’t want windows this time. Canopy windows offer wannabe thieves a sneak peek at all the goodies I store on my front deck. I want to save these low life predators the discomfort of coming onto my boat and having an anchor chain wrapped around their scrawny necks.

Anyway, that was New Year’s Eve planning out of the way. I ate my chilli, drank my wine, finished with a sneaky Remmy Martin and hit the sack at 10 pm. The last night of my first full year aboard Orient.

I woke to a new year, a momentous year, ninety days away from the start of my seventh decade on planet Earth. How did I get this old? My mind’s as agile as it was forty years ago. My body isn’t. It regularly complains, bitching if I take a long walk, grinding to a halt if I swing a chainsaw about all day. I’m shorter, fatter and hairier than I’ve ever been. If I carry on in the same vein, I’ll be a knee-high fur ball by the time I’m seventy.

I stopped for another day on my quiet mooring near Husbands Bosworth, enjoyed a couple of short circular walks, obsessively polished my brass and smiled a great deal. I lead a simple life.

An quiet New Year's Even mooring - Perfect for planning the year ahead

An quiet New Year’s Even mooring – Perfect for planning the year ahead

I covered thirteen miles in 5.7 hours on my first cruising day of 2020. My underwhelming 2.3 mph average is usual for me. Orient is often forging through canal bed silt. The more I open her up, the lower the stern sinks, and the slower I go. Easing off the throttle gets me to my destination faster and saves eroding passing canal banks. And gives the impatient boaters behind me something to bitch about.

I’m always a little nervous when I stray from the channel centre, usually when I have to make room for oncoming boats. The highlight of the day’s gentle cruise was an unexpected slide on a slippery slope. I moved over to avoid a rare hire boat, helmed by a man convinced he was piloting a jet fighter. He pushed a tidal wave before him, creating wash which forced canal-side waterfowl to run for cover.

I didn’t respond to his cheery wave as he flashed by. Orient’s starboard side reached for the sky. I heard the thud and clink of falling bottles inside, but the wind was blowing too hard to stop and investigate. I hoped that I wouldn’t finish my day drinking whiskey through broken glass on my hardwood floor.

I enjoy winter cruising more often than not. I didn’t enjoy this particular experience. Not because of the hire boat incident. I was cold, despite having the range burning beneath my feet. A frigid and gusty wind didn’t help, nor did standing motionless on the back of the boat all day. Without the welcome distraction of a lock flight or two, winter cruising can become a chilly and monotonous affair.

I looked forward to reaching my goal; an overnight stop at Yelvertoft to get some margarine from the village post office and a tasty treat from delicatessen Squisito. Alas, Yelvertoft was closed for business. The post office had shut for good, Squisito for Christmas and the Knightley Arms because they felt like it. The pub has been closed more often than open on previous visits. I don’t know how they manage to stay afloat.

I woke late the next morning with a headache, thankful that two weeks of celebrating Christmas on my own had come to an end. I like a drink but have to control my indulgence. My drinks cabinet will remain locked now, opened only for high-days and holiday. There are too many hard-drinking single middle-aged men on the cut. I don’t want to join their self-destructive ranks.

The highlight of my day was an easy Watford flight descent. I had company for forty minutes. A particularly friendly lock keeper helped me down the flight to keep me ahead of three following boats. No matter how quickly I work, I can’t negotiate locks as fast as an experienced couple. It’s rarely a problem, but in a navigation bottleneck like the Watford flight, even in the quieter winter months, CRT staff have to keep the traffic moving.

This guy was an ex narrowboat owner. He sold his boat because he was spending up to four weeks at a time away from his wife. She didn’t like it and told him that he was getting too old for solo boating. He capitulated and sold his boat. But he’s regretting that now. He has to spend all of his time with his wife. Four weeks of solo boating has become an unattainable dream.

I hope that I don’t ever bow down to peer pressure to sell Orient. I don’t know what I would do without a boat in my life. I don’t think that situation is likely. I need to earn a living for the rest of my life. What better way to do that than by hosting my Discovery Day service?

A sunken narrowboat near Braunston tunnel's eastern portal

A sunken narrowboat near Braunston tunnel’s eastern portal

Nearing the start of my sixth and final tunnel passage, I passed the boat above. The sad end to someone’s floating home. Death by fire and water. I can only hope that the owner wasn’t on board at the time. Sights like this make me feel physically sick, and eternally grateful for Orient, my health and my lifestyle.

Yin and Yang, bad and good, The Boathouse and the Admiral Nelson. My meal at The Boathouse on my outward cruise was dismal. And then I enjoyed a fabulous meal at the Admiral Nelson on my return trip; whitebait starter and ham, egg and chips for the main course. The Wiltshire ham was as plentiful as it was tasty. Lovely, as was the bottle of merlot I had with the meal. I enjoyed listening to snippets of parental advice coming from the table next to me too.

A dreadlocked lady boater counselled her teenage daughter. “No, darlin’”, she confided in a low voice, “you want to roll your spliff like this.” And then a little later, “Not too often mind. You don’t want to end up with paranoia like your Dad.” Boat life at its best.

Braunston's Admiral Nelson at night

Braunston’s Admiral Nelson at night

I set off on my final morning without breakfast at 8 am. I planned to drop down two locks from my mooring opposite the pub and stop briefly near the Gongoozler’s Rest cafe boat. I hoped to eat there before heading back to base. The business was closed on my outward journey. I suspected a Christmas break. Sadly, it was still shut, maybe for good. There was a hand-drawn for sale sign taped to a window of the owner’s boat moored next to the cafe. What a shame. I loved their full English breakfasts, toasted cheese and onion sandwiches and potato scallops. Bad for both my pocket and waistline but good for my soul.

I reached the top of the Calcutt flight two hours later, pausing for an hour at the water point to rid Orient of a two-week mud accumulation. I had a Discovery Day booked for the following day, and the old girl needed to look her best.

Mud removed, Orient is ready for a Discovery Day cruise

Mud removed, Orient is ready for a Discovery Day cruise

I always enjoy my Discovery Day cruises. Despite having covered the route more than three hundred times now, each outing is a joy. I have ever-changing company, different people with a similar desire. A quest for a simple existence free of the stresses and strains of modern-day life. They’re enchanted by rural Warwickshire’s rolling hills and green fields. They’re mesmerised by the slow beat of my vintage engine and, at this time of the year, pleasantly surprised by a warm and cosy cabin. Less is more. Boat life is a good life.

Calcutt Boat's Meadows marina on a cloudy day

Calcutt Boat’s Meadows marina on a cloudy day

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A Christmas Cruise to Market Harborough

Day one of my Christmas cruise, a day which felt like prison release. This year has been long and hard, filled with endless work and tragedy. Cynthia’s been gone now for eight months, two-thirds of a year which I’ve filled with seven-day working weeks. Everyone copes in different ways. My method, right or wrong, has been to work hard, sleep, rinse and repeat. I think I’ve reached the year-end without too much mental damage, so maybe mine is an acceptable coping mechanism.

 I woke late on my first morning and smiled as I remembered that I had nothing to do for the following fifteen days. All I had on my to-do list was cruising and writing a few blog posts. Just two items and I still struggled with one of them.

But my number one goal was to cruise, relax and recharge my depleted body battery. That part of my plan has gone very well. And, after daily rain for far too long, regular dry cruising days have been welcome.

I could get used to this. My boating task list was long. I had brass and copper to shine, cupboards to sort through, paintwork to clean… pottering at its best. I loved it.

What a wonderful cruise from Calcutt. An hour and a half of tranquillity. Nothing but birdsong and the mesmerising thump of my JP2 engine. I watched robins, magpies, a sparrow hawk and the canal’s usual complement of coots, mallards and swans. The perfect end to my first festive day of freedom.

I sometimes wonder if I’m normal. I lost Cynthia just eight months ago and then had to say goodbye to two adorable dogs four weeks later. I switched from a boisterous family of four to a reclusive life alone. And there I was looking forward to an enjoyable fortnight on my own, stopping each night out of sight and sound of people and mainstream life. Even though I’m lonely now and then, I enjoy my freedom too much to want to change my life. I know I’m in the minority, but I’m happy more often than I’m sad, and that can’t be a bad thing.

I moored by bridge 100 at Flecknoe for my first night, gently getting pissed on sloe gin. The gin was quite fast, actually. After half a glass, I struggled to see well enough to type my daily journal entry. A relatively new moorer on Calcutt Boats’ Meadows marina gave me the potent brew. Shaun is a welcome addition to our legion of kindly boaters.

I managed to motivate myself enough the following day to cruise for forty-five minutes to Braunston. Life in the slow lane. What a pleasure. I looked forward to a midday meal in the Gongoozler’s Rest cafe boat, tackling a full English breakfast as I watched the world go by. I settled for a cold sausage roll on a canalised bench. The cafe owner had better things to do than cater for the Christmas wishes of a solo boater.

I treated myself to an evening Christmas meal in the boathouse. Another disappointment. Half a dozen limp whitebait to start and then the meal highlight, a steak and ale pie which tasted like an old boot. However, the bottle of merlot which accompanied the meal was excellent. I slid through liquid slurry on a pitch-black towpath back to my floating home. Wearing wellies and mud-stained trousers, I wasn’t the best-dressed diner in the pub, but I was well equipped for winter moorings on soggy towpaths.

The sun rises over winter Braunston

The sun rises over winter Braunston

The following morning began with a glorious sunrise. I had been on the go for three hours by dawn, preparing for a full day at the helm.

Life is so much more comfortable in a house. Roll out of bed to a house already warmed by an automated central heating system, climb into a car, turn a key and then roar away. No effort or thought involved. Life on autopilot.

Day to day life afloat requires much more work, especially on Orient. 

My morning regime begins with the saloon’s Morso Squirrel stove. If the overnight temperature dips to zero, my thermometer usually registers sixteen degrees in the saloon area and thirteen in the bathroom and in the boatman’s cabin where I sleep. The first job of the day is to generate a bit of heat.

I empty the ash pan, riddle the grate, add more coal from the stove-side scuttle, refill the scuttle from a plastic storage box on the covered front deck and then clean the stove glass with a damp kitchen towel dipped in cold ash.

That’s the front of the boat sorted. Then I have to do battle with my fiddly Premiere range. 

The boatman’s cabin stove has a firebox no bigger than a margarine tub and a tiny ash pan. The Squirrel stays alight for months at a time. The back cabin range goes out every night. Not that I want it burning during the hours of darkness. Sleeping next to a glowing stove is an uncomfortable affair.

I empty the range firebox and ash pan and add a Zip firelighter. Then I top that with some kindling and a handful of coal briquettes, throw the back doors wide open to dispel the initial smoke and light her up. Then I tackle my vintage engine.

My Lister JP2M is a thing of beauty. Eighty-four years old, as strong as an ox, as fit a fiddle. I recently asked a vintage engine expert how many more years use I could expect from the old girl. “The world will run out of fossil fuel before she dies,” he assured me. That’s what you call a reliable engine.

My JP2 is a little more time consuming to maintain than a modern engine, but the maintenance regime is a pleasant chore. I use a hand pump to draw fuel from my main tank into the engine room day tank. Then I add a little engine grease, check three different oil levels, stroke the old girl lovingly and tell her how much I appreciate the effort she puts in. I may be single now, but I know that a little appreciation goes a long way with the remaining lady in my life.

With both stoves ticking over nicely, the engine mollycoddled and a substantial breakfast inside me, dawn broke, and I was ready to rock and roll.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the cruise. I’ll share a secret with you. Despite living afloat for ten years, cruising thousands of miles and handling hundreds of different narrowboats, tunnel passages have always filled me with apprehension. 

I like to feel in control. I am supremely confident that I can avoid possible incidents and accidents if I can see. Put me in a tunnel and remove a clear view of everything ahead of me, and I am scared witless. I am out of control, at the mercy of the confining tunnel walls and any novice boater zig-zagging towards me. I don’t like the feeling at all.

My route for the day included two tunnels, Braunston and Crick, 2,049 yards and 1,528 yards respectively. Two miles, an hour, heading towards a distant light speck, saturated by icy water pouring through a leaking tunnel roof. 

But the first of those unpleasant passages was a couple of hours away. A glorious sunrise lifted my spirit, as did a lady boat owner, dog walking through the Braunston flight. She stopped, chatted and then strolled ahead opening gates for me. Small kindnesses like that make solo boating so much more pleasant. As does having the right equipment for tunnel passages.

Braunston top lock is a stone’s throw away from Braunston tunnel’s western portal. I paused briefly to prepare Orient for the possibility of meeting oncoming boats. Orient has three tall chimneys and an equally long exhaust stack. I have to think carefully about their safety wherever I travel. In tunnels, with the possibility of my starboard side being forced next to low arches, this means removing my Squirrel and Kabola chimneys.

I turned on my tunnel light too, although it provides as little illumination as a flickering candle. But on this boat, I also have two things which have transformed my tunnel cruising; a powerful 12V hand-held lamp at the stern and my two-cylinder engine.

My good luck streak continued when I reached Watford’s seven lock flight. I left Orient tied beneath the locks and walked to the top to meet two volunteer lock keepers. “Bad timing,” warned one. “We’re about to start our lunch break, and we won’t finish until half-past three. And then we close for the day.” He relented when he saw my look of confusion. “Just kidding. Are you on your own? No problem. You stay on your boat, and we’ll see you up. You wouldn’t believe the amount of paperwork we have to do if you fall off and hurt yourself. You’ll do us a favour if you allow us to do all the work.” Who am I to argue? Lockkeepers deserve medals, and an ice cream or two in the summer.

I finished the day at Cracks Hill near Crick, where I proposed to Cynthia in September 2015. Four years have passed, and so much has happened. I owned James then and until I met Cynthia, expected to spend the rest of my days on England’s waterways. Three boats, a motorhome and a European adventure later I’m back on the canal network. I’m alone again but enriched by the many experiences I shared with my American wife.

DISCOVER LIFE AFLOAT

Leave the stresses and strains of modern day life far behind on an idyllic cruise through rural Warwickshire. Find out all you need to know about living afloat and learn how to handle a narrowboat.

On Christmas Day morning, I waded through ankle-deep towpath mud to a wooden bridge spanning the canal. A treacherous trudge through livestock churned muddy fields lead me to Cracks Hill summit. I sat for an hour under the old oak where Cynthia and I discussed our future plans, then returned to Orient alone to prepare for a chilly Christmas Day cruise.

A muddy mooring at Cracks Hill

A muddy mooring at Cracks Hill

Winter cruising is usually a quiet affair. Christmas Day was particularly so. I passed just one moving boat all day, helmed by a middle-aged man who appeared to have spent his Christmas morning sucking lemons. I smiled, he glared, I offered a cheery “Happy Christmas!’, he turned away. Maybe his piles were playing up. I left him to his own devices.

The Cracks Hill oak tree where I proposed

The Cracks Hill oak tree where I proposed

As the light faded from a predominantly dull day, I pulled onto a mooring marked on my Nicholson’s guide. The curse of the deep draughted boat struck again. Orient’s stern slid over shallow mud closer to the bank and then, as soon as I stepped onto the towpath, slipped away towards the canal centre. I moved a few feet, tried again, grounded, sweated for ten minutes pushing myself off the shallows and then gave up two feet from the bank on my third attempt. And there I stayed for two days.

There’s not much point cooking fancy Christmas Day meals for one. My festive fayre consisted of the reheated leftovers from the previous day’s Thai beef stir fry, a can of Stella and a glass of brandy. Fine dining at its best.

At the time of the year usually associated with family gatherings, conspicuous consumption and credit card debt, I saw no one and spent nothing. Alone? Yes. Lonely? No, not particularly. 

Loneliness is a state of mind. I have good friends to turn to if I need some company or a helping hand. But I value the sense of peace and tranquillity I enjoy when I’m boating on my own. Solo boating doesn’t suit everyone, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

I didn’t see a soul for thirty-six hours. No boaters, runners, dog walkers or ramblers, just the gentle buzz of my stovetop fan, the tick of the brass clock on my galley wall and the occasional distant pop of a festive farmer blasting wildlife to bits. Merry Christmas little bunnies. 

I looked forward to Boxing Day, a period I planned to fill with unashamed self-indulgence.

I began by languishing in bed until 10 am. And then felt guilty for wasting so much of the day. Then I pottered. I sorted through the storage space beneath the back deck, emptied cupboards I haven’t been in since Cynthia’s passing, put my laundry away and cleaned and lit both stoves. Then I polished. The engine has never looked so good. I rubbed and buffed until my arms ached and the copper shone so brightly it gave me a headache.

Brass and copper polishing on Boxing Day

Brass and copper polishing on Boxing Day. I need to get out more.

Then I realised that the headache was from coal fumes from the Premiere range. I flung open my back doors to let in some air and polished the boatman’s cabin brass. I was bored senseless by 4 pm. I’m no good at this relaxing lark. I did my pre-cruise checks for the following day, watched a film on Amazon Prime and slipped into bed early, ready for a few hours cruising to reach the network’s famous Foxton flight of ten staircase locks.

I hoped to find some company there too. By day five of my fourteen-day cruise, I hadn’t exchanged more than a word or two with anyone since leaving Calcutt. I needed more than a predictable conversation with my bathroom cabinet mirror.

I was on fire the following morning, rising at 5 am and ready to rock and roll by 8 am. Three and a half hours cruising on a bone-chillingly cold day. Dank, misty and thoroughly unappealing. So cold, in fact, that I nearly had to resort to wearing gloves.

I pulled onto a mooring above the Foxton flight. Foxton is the perfect place for vain boat owners to show off. I’m one of them, so I made sure that everything outside looked clean and tidy before I left the boat. And I noted my battery monitor reading too.

I had been monitoring my battery bank charge carefully every day. My bank of five 130ah AGM batteries failed towards the end of last year, just ten months after fitting them. Calcutt Boats supplied them, and they replaced the batteries without quibble. I was pretty sure that my charging regime wasn’t at fault. However, a little extra diligence wasn’t going to hurt.

Managing off-grid electricity is the most challenging aspect of living afloat as far as I’m concerned. The popular misconception is that running your boat’s engine for an hour or two a day is all you need to do. That, according to the experts, is not an efficient battery charging regime.

I have five 130ah batteries so you could be forgiven for thinking that I have 650ah at my disposal. According to Calcutt Boats highly skilled resident marina electrician, Dave Reynolds, the average liveaboard boater uses roughly 60ah a day. So, do I have a ten-day supply of electricity if I begin with a full battery bank? 

Not a chance.

For a start, depleting the battery bank past 50% shortens their life. My battery datasheet tells me that if I regularly run my battery bank down to zero, they’re likely to fail after just 250 cycles. If I run them down regularly to 20% capacity, my expected battery life increases to 500 cycles. The less I extract from the battery bank, the longer they’ll last. A happy balance for me is 50% discharge which should give me 1,000 cycles.

So, if I can safely take my battery bank down to 50%, do I have half of 650ah at my disposal?

No, sadly, I don’t.

I don’t fully understand this, but I have been assured that, despite being labelled 135ah batteries, their capacity is actually 105ah, so I have a total of 525 amp hours, 262.5 of which I can use.

Not so bad, you might think. If I’m an average boater using 60ah a day, I still have four days supply before I need to recharge my battery bank. Wrong again.

I would have a four day supply if I started with 100% capacity. However, if I’m using my engine alternator for charging, I can’t get anywhere close to fully charged. That’s regardless of the length of time I have the engine running.

At seventy amps, my alternator is man enough. The problem is with the batteries. The more depleted the battery bank, the easier they are to charge. I can recharge my batteries to roughly 80% capacity quite quickly. The remaining 20% takes much longer, far longer than I can justify running the engine. The only way to condition batteries properly is to hook them up to a mains supply. I believe that a decent solar array will help maintain my batteries reasonably well, but I need to do more research there.

I’ll be on a mains hookup when I return to Calcutt, so my off-grid charging regime isn’t an issue for the two weeks I’m cruising. I’ll be travelling full time within the next year or two. Before then, I need to fit some solar.

I popped into the cafe at the flight summit for a coffee and a bacon sandwich at lunchtime. And then, late afternoon, walked to the bottom of the flight to Bridge 61 for one of their excellent beef stews served in a giant Yorkshire pudding. Delicious.

love the Foxton flight. With its pleasant walks, an imposing flight of ten staircase locks, the remains of the inclined plane boat lift, a cafe and two pubs, it’s a popular tourist destination. There can be hundreds of Gongoozlers on a sunny summer’s day. On the day I dropped down the flight a couple of dozen watched the boats go by. With the on-duty lock keepers doing much of the work, especially for solo boaters, a boat owner’s main job is answering questions.

“How fast does your boat go?” My average speed of two miles an hour doesn’t impress anyone.

“Does your boat has a toilet?” I told one guy that I keep my poo in a box. I thought he was going to vomit.

“Do you get a good television reception?” When I told the enquirer that I don’t own a television, the young mother gave me such a pitying look that I almost felt deprived. Modern-day life without access to dozens of channels of unadulterated crap? Unthinkable.

Did I mention that I love the Foxton flight?

The descent down through the Foxton flight was a dream. More lock keepers deserving medals. They insisted that I stay at the helm as they worked me through all ten locks. All I had to do was stand proudly on my back deck fielding questions and prepare myself for a painful cruise along the Market Harborough arm.

The problems began when I reached the bottom of the flight, starting with two swing bridges. I managed the first without help. “Grandad, look at that old man climbing on his boat like a monkey!” Don’t you just love children?

The second, a swing road bridge, would have delayed impatient motorists too long. I persuaded a couple on the towpath to do the hard work for me.

The real challenge was a shallow canal filled with reeds and leaves. A cruise which should have taken two hours from the bottom of the Foxton flight to Market Harborough took three. I knew I was in for an exciting time as I entered the arm when an approaching boat moved a few feet off the main channel to let me pass. “F*****g canal,” he muttered as his cabin tipped at an alarming angle and he ground to a halt.

“It’s good to see a boat owner taking his time on our canals,” commented one dog walker. I daren’t go any faster for fear of grounding immovably in the reedy shallows.

I grounded twice and listed as I slid over shallow mud flats several times. I crept into Market Harborough at dusk, carefully navigating around half-submerged logs and sunken branches, glad to reach the end of a tedious journey. And happy to get into a warm cabin.

The nasty cold knocking everyone for six back at the marina finally caught up with me. Luckily I had a couple of days to rest and recuperate at Market Harborough before the return cruise. Time to do nothing but eat, drink and obsessively watch my battery monitor.

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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. 

Money.

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.

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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.

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Bottom Blacking, Rust Removal and Aerial Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orient's saloon before we moved on board

Orient’s saloon before we moved on board

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

Temporary seating to numb the most padded bum

Temporary seating to numb the most padded bum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve switched back to bitumen.

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

Unlike my cabin roof.

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

This rust needed stopping in its tracks

This rust needed stopping in its tracks

The saloon chimney collar after a little tlc

The saloon chimney collar after a little tlc

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

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

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

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

Right. On with the listing.

Aerials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

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

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

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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

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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

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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)

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