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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Time heals, so they say. But I don’t know who “they” are and why I should believe them. I think time dulls rather than heals. Cynthia has been gone now for two months. Two long, lonely and hectic months.
Dik Trom, our Dutch boat, was a constant worry. The ongoing mooring, maintenance and insurance fees have been a massive and almost unsustainable financial drain. Thankfully, the drain, stress, and boat have now gone. A German couple paid a deposit for her last week and the balance yesterday. I should be jumping for joy. Hooray! Money in the bank and a much-needed reduction to a five-day working week. Sadly, it’s not to be. The sale proceeds have gone to Cynthia’s estate.
The money will cover a bridging loan which helped with Orient’s purchase and will return Cynthia’s share in Orient to her estate. Then I’ll be debt free once I’ve satisfied my own boating creditors.
Paying off Orient’s debts will take the rest of the year. I’ll need to work seven days a week until late December. I’m very much looking forward to a day or two off at Christmas and maybe even a short cruise.
I don’t mind the short term pain. It’s a price I’m willingly paying for our exciting European tour and an adventurous last three years for my wife. Cruising and relaxing will be back on the agenda in 2020. Until then it’s non-stop work during the day and organising my home’s various repairs and improvements at night.
Cynthia and I took possession of Orient on a damp and dismal day in December 2018. The last six months have been eventful. I found a perfect home and lost a perfect wife. I carefully blacked my hull over three days and then lost most of the paint five weeks later on a fourteen-day winter cruise south from Tattenhall marina to Calcutt Boats, three of them through thick ice. I’ve returned to work helping to maintain the marina’s beautiful grounds and embraced additional work tending the expansive gardens of my boss’s nearby country home. And then I shoehorn Discovery Day trips into my agenda. It’s a busy, busy life. One which helps me come to terms with Cynthia’s loss, pay off our combined boating debts and fund my home’s many planned repairs and improvements.
We paid £60,000 for our dream boat, a craft which we hoped to call home for many years to come. I had always admired Steve Hudson’s easily identifiable narrowboats with their pinched bow, fake rivets, midships engine room and boatman’s cabin filled with brass and lace. I wanted one. Now I have one, but am I happy with it?
We knew that the boat required a little work. The gas locker needed modifying to prevent leaking gas from using the bow thruster wiring to enter the cabin bilge. The cracked stove required replacing, and the Kabola diesel boiler wanted some TLC. The onboard generator had some issues, there wasn’t a single secure hatch or door on the boat, and all but one of Orient’s thirteen batteries needed either replacing or removing. Including the addition of two more lights and lower anchor points for the bow fender’s bottom chains, the labour bill came to £1,394 in addition to a £2,500 allowance paid by the owner for most of the remedial work.
We invested a total of £3,947 in the first three months on repairs and maintenance labour and parts. In addition to a sophisticated battery monitor and alternator booster, we purchased two new chimneys, and a roof-mounted engine exhaust, all in stainless steel. The Little Chimney Company purchases are a long term cost saving. During my first few years on board James, I replaced the chandlery bought chimneys several times after they failed to survive 24/7 liveaboard use. I invested in a stainless steel model two years before I sold my first narrowboat. I could quickly return its showroom shine with a little soap and water. The chimney will serve James’ new owners for many years to come.
Our high repairs and maintenance total included many purchases associated with buying a partially equipped second-hand narrowboat. I bought a reel of paracord and a recovery magnet, and disposable rubber gloves and a dispenser for the engine room. I invested in a trio of mooring chains to replace the less user-friendly onboard stock of nappy pins, piling hooks as they are correctly called. I bought cratch cover cleaner, polish and polishing cloths, new coolie hats, a new set of four anodes and the labour to install them, hull paint, and a roller and tray to apply it and, last but not least, two fifty metre hoses to reach the closest water point to my remote Calcutt Boats mooring.
All of Orient’s many systems appeared to be operational when we left Tattenhall marina in February. That didn’t last long. Orient is now mostly functional, reasonably comfortable and is aesthetically pleasing. However, there is much to do to bring her up to scratch.
The front deck offers useful storage space for low-value items, providing that it’s rain protected. Orient’s cratch cover has seen better days. I’ve managed to remove most of the vomit green organic stain which came with the boat. I can’t do much about the small splits in the clear plastic windows on both sides of the cover, or the frayed edge on the cover’s bottom edge. Although the canvas keeps most rain off the front deck, water leaks through the window splits and through the zips in heavy rain. I want to replace the cover when funds allow.
Kinver Covers quoted £1,000 to replace it. They replaced the covers worn press studs from the bottom edge to stop the canvas from sagging inside the well deck and funnelling water inside on rainy days. Kinver charged a very reasonable £80 for the repair. They also offered to replace the split windows and fit covers over the leaking zips. The repairs would have to be done in-house though so I would be without a cratch cover for several weeks. I would rather put up with the shabby cover for now and invest in new canvas for the front of my boat when I have money again. I’ll need to plan in advance. Kinver Canopies’ current lead time is three months.
We replaced the original and cracked Morso Squirrel stove using our initial £2,500 allowance. The Squirrel, fitted by a well-known canal tradesman with a good reputation spanning twenty years, worked faultlessly until it almost killed me. Squirrels are delivered with an airflow restrictor fitted as standard, a part which needs removing before installing in a narrowboat. It wasn’t so, over three months, the restrictor slowly clogged with stove debris until, in the early hours of a cold and wet winter’s mooring, I woke to a shrieking alarm and a boat filled with smoke.
I returned to bed after two hours of frantic boat ventilating and stove emptying. Thank God for working smoke alarms. Another alarm alerted me to a second stove problem a month later. This time carbon monoxide was the problem, caused by a poorly sealed roof collar. The stove is working fine now, but I wasn’t happy with the installer.
When the boat’s many alarms aren’t warning me of impending death, I like nothing more than relaxing in a comfortable chair watching the stove’s flickering flames on a wet and windy day. Sadly, I can’t do that on Orient. The boat doesn’t have any comfortable chairs.
The first task on my lengthy to-do list as we prepared to move on board was to donate the saloon’s two captain’s chairs to Tattenhall marina’s workshop tea room. Despite the aesthetic appeal and undeniable comfort of the two chairs decked out in cracked green leather, they used too much valuable space.
The immediate alternative was more practical but less comfortable. The top of a folding pine table forms the front of a hidden cupboard on the cabin’s port side. It housed two folding chairs and a pair of pine side tables. Until my bank account is much healthier than it is now, the uncomfortable chairs and a temporary table will have to do.
I plan to remove the glass-fronted bookcase built into the saloon and galley partition and install an L shaped upholstered bench seat which will convert into a bed. A skilled local craftsman visited me a couple of months ago to quote for the work. A word of encouragement here for any quality joiners considering moving afloat. You can charge an absolute fortune for narrowboat work. The guy quoted me £2,500 to construct the pine bench and table, not including the upholstery. He even managed to keep a straight face when he delivered the bad news.
High as it is, I’m prepared to pay his price. I know his work is first class and I’ll have comfortable and multifunctional seating which will allow me to rest in comfort at the end of a hard day’s labour. He’ll build the seat bases with lift out lids so that I can quickly reach items in the storage space beneath. I had a similar design on James which I used to store a pair of folding camp chairs to use for towpath sunbathing, an anchor, chain and rope, a vacuum cleaner and bulky engine spares which wouldn’t easily fit elsewhere. This useful storage space isn’t available to boaters who use captain’s chairs.
My almost perfect boat kitchen is next to the saloon area. There’s plenty of storage for pots and pans, crockery and enough fresh and dried food to last me weeks, topped by an expansive workspace which allows me to prepare the most exotic meals. Meals which I can cook on and in a full sized hob and oven, which is something of a rarity on a narrowboat. The space is perfect apart from the Houdini hatch, which drives me mad.
Orient’s spray foam insulation is first class. The boat’s ventilation is not. I can’t open the boat’s porthole windows to welcome a cooling breeze or to allow moisture-laden air to escape. Any moisture in the cabin condenses on the Houdini hatch and falls like rain from the hatch’s steel frame. I wake in the morning to a rectangular wet patch on the galley floor and endure constant drips as I cook.
The solution is to fit an insulating clear plastic panel to the hatch frame. It will prevent condensation, but will also stop me from cracking the hatch open to gain some much-needed ventilation.
There’s a floor to ceiling cupboard on the port side in the bathroom close to the galley door. The Kabola boiler cupboard is opposite. This is my tiny utility room. The port side cupboard used to house the boat’s Zanussi washing machine before it decided that its primary function was to transfer the water tank contents as quickly as possible into the cabin bilge. The cause was a cracked drum. Replacing the washing machine will cost me £400. It’s not something I can either afford or want to do at the moment. The marina has adequate laundry facilities which will have to do for now. I’ll probably install a machine before I begin cruising again in earnest. Either that or rely on on the list of canalside launderettes supplied by the Aylesbury Canal Society.
The Kabola boiler opposite is another low priority problem. A replacement pot cost me an arm and a leg at the beginning of the year. The boiler worked well for a day and then gave up. The issue appears to be a fuel blockage.
The boiler is the only way I can heat water when I’m off -grid. Most narrowboats get gallons of hot water from the engine when it’s running. My Lister doesn’t work up much of a sweat with its slow and steady beat, so it’s no use for water heating. I have a heater in the calorifier which I can use when I’m connected to the national grid but not when I’m cruising.
A plentiful supply of hot water is not a real concern. I can boil a kettle or two for dishwashing and one and a half litres of boiling water mixed with three litres of cold is all I need for my Hozelock Porta Shower. Fixing the boiler is towards the bottom of my to-do list.
My bedroom is next to the bathroom. It’s an area which doesn’t particularly please me. Orient’s sleeping arrangement is, quite frankly, a little bit shit. There’s a cross bed in the main bedroom and another in the boatman’s cabin. Neither allows an adult enough space to stretch out. At 5’10” I’m not the tallest of people, but even my little body can’t lay flat out on the bed. I have to sleep diagonally on the main bedroom bed or curled up like a hedgehog on the shorter bed in the boatman’s cabin.
Ventilation is a problem too, not just in the bedroom but throughout the boat. Orient has five portholes down either side. Ten little circular windows which don’t open. Keeping warm on board isn’t a problem. Keeping cool when the thermometer tops twenty degrees is a different matter. With several days forecast to reach the high twenties next week, I’m going to be sleeping in a sauna.
The solution is to have the current windows replaced with portholes with an opening top hopper. I hope I can get them fitted before I melt.
My gorgeous Lister JP2 engine is in its own room next to the bedroom. It’s a thing of beauty. I wish I had more time to invest in keeping it looking pretty. I could easily spend an hour a day polishing its brass fittings and copper pipes. I don’t have the time, so all it gets is a furtive rub every now and then.
The Lombardini generator, which shares the engine room space, ran for a while after we had it serviced as part of the purchase agreement and then made some worrying noises before I could shut it down. I don’t know how ill it is, nor do I care at the moment. I have no need for it. If I want lots of power which I can’t or don’t want to take from the five battery domestic bank, I have my ever faithful 2KW Honda suitcase generator. Repairing the Lombardini is a long way off.
My man cave, the boatman’s cabin, completes my living space. It’s a cosy, comfortable and quiet area which I use for sleeping in hot weather.
The room’s two portholes don’t open so, on dry nights, I sleep with the back doors and hatch open. I’m serenaded by the marina’s water birds and the soothing slap of waves against the stern. I drift off to sleep fantasising about my Christmas Day off on a debt-free boat and the years ahead filled with long cruises in a problem free floating home.
Remember my brush with carbon monoxide poisoning a month ago, when I was rudely disturbed in the middle of the night by a shrieking alarm and a boat filled with smoke? I had another slightly less dramatic episode earlier in the week.
The first problem was caused by my Squirrel stove’s incorrect fitting. The airflow restrictor which should have been removed before installation was left on, a restrictor which clogged with burned stove debris until it blocked the flue completely and channelled the smoke, and the carbon monoxide, from the burning coal briquettes into the cabin. The latest issue is also as a result of the recent stove installation.
The early morning wail of my carbon monoxide alarm coincided with the appearance of white crumbs on my stove top and a hardened bird shit like paste running down the flue from the roof collar.
My guardian angel, BSS examiner Russ Fincham, told me that the debris is cement dust from the space between the collar and flue. The little remaining cement needs vigorously scrubbing with a wire brush and then replacing with high-temperature sealant. There’s also a gap between the collar and the roof, a space which also needs filling with some high-temperature sealant.
Despite having a high quality double skinned stainless steel chimney, I also have a brown stain around the collar and along the roof to the nearest gap in the handrail. The marks then head south down the Orient’s grey cabin side onto the black painted hull.
I will repaint the once black collar when I’ve removed the crumbling cement, but not until I’ve removed the brown stain. Traffic film remover is the go-to product for banishing unsightly chimney surround stains. That and a fair degree of elbow grease. I’ve already spent an hour on mark removal. I think I’ll need to invest several more before my grey paint is blemish free.
While sealing the collar leak and silencing my life-saving alarm is a high priority, making the outside of the boat look pretty is not. I have bigger fish to fry. My Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) examination failed on a dozen points earlier in the week. I was furious. Not with the examiner or Orient, but angry with myself for not heeding the advice that I give so often to aspiring boat owners. I always suggest that boat buyers insist on a BSS exam as part of the purchase.
Orient had a current certificate, valid until 2021. However, when my BSS examiner buddy, Russ Fincham, looked through Orient with me last December just before I agreed to buy her, he pointed out several faults which should have resulted in previous BSS exam fails. One of the most severe was the bow thruster motor in an open recess in the gas locker. The installation allowed escaped gas to flow through a bulkhead opening carrying the bow thruster battery wiring and enter the cabin bilge. I had the bow thruster decommissioned and a new steel floor fitted in the gas locker to blank off the bow thruster motor.
Russ pointed out a few other BSS fails. I used the list of faults to persuade the seller to reduce Orient’s price by £2,500. I planned to have the rectification work done and then ask Russ to carry out an official BSS exam. Both the broker and seller agreed to this, but life got in the way. I have some first class excuses, including Cynthia’s deteriorating health, but none of them should have stopped me from organising this simple task. That omission will cost me a pretty penny.
The most worrying and potentially costly fault on the BSS report was my Rangemaster 55’s inability to comply with boat safety regulations. The cooker is a thing of beauty and something of a rarity on narrowboats. It’s a full-size cooker with a large oven and grill and a four-burner hob which actually fits four regular sized pans. I use it often and enjoy the experience. Replacing a perfectly good cooker simply because it wasn’t flame failure compliant would have broken my heart and my bank balance. Fortunately, the stove can stay.
I told the boat safety examiner, Justin Green, that Orient was sold to the first owner, the guy who fitted the boat out, in 2002. What I didn’t mention is that the builder, Steve Hudson, kept Orient, then Yorkshire Tyke, for his own use when the hull was constructed in 1995. The boat was registered at that time, so, luckily for me, it predates the flame failure requirement.
I’ll save the best part of £1,000 by keeping the cooker, which is just as well because I’ll have to find another thousand pounds to have the rest of the work done.
When Justin delved beneath the engine room’s pretty aluminium checker plate to examine Orient’s battery banks, he highlighted another potentially more expensive problem.
“That’s a good idea,” Justin agreed, “Immerse your batteries in icy water. That will stop them overheating!” He was joking, of course. Seven batteries up to their collective plastic waists in water are just a few worrying inches from the battery banks’ terminals and several sets of terminal batteries.
The water was coming from Orient’s seven hundred and fifty-litre water tank thirty feet away under the front deck. The tank worried me when I took Russ with me to view Orient in December. He noticed that the plastic had been patched and suggested to have it checked thoroughly to ensure that it wasn’t leaking. It wasn’t leaking then but bumping and banging through several hundred locks since December seemed to have been too much for it.
I knew that replacing the tank was going to be a disruptive and costly affair. Water tanks are rarely easy to remove from a narrowboat. They’re usually fitted before any internal cladding or furniture building is done. Removing mine would involve taking apart a set of steps and a bespoke floor to ceiling pine corner unit and removing the recently installed Morso Squirrel stove and its tile surround. I didn’t want to do that. The only other option was to go in from above and remove Orient’s steel well deck, and the tea chest sized locker welded to it. I would then have to endure a period without a front deck after the old plastic tank was removed and I waited for the new stainless steel version to be delivered and fitted. It wasn’t going to be a pleasant task but, given that the only other option was to sink the boat, I didn’t really have a choice. Or so I thought.
I like to think that I’m efficient. I spoke to the marina management to see if they had time to do the work for me. I chatted to the guys who would do the cutting, welding and plumbing jobs. I found a likely tank manufacturer, researched their tank quality and established a reasonable lead time. With that all in place, I arranged to move Orient to a temporary mooring where the work could be carried and where I could quickly get on and off the boat without a front deck for a week or two. I researched, investigated, planned and arranged everything with meticulous attention to detail. I prepared for everything apart from one tiny step which would have saved me a great deal of heartache.
“Before we start the ball rolling, have you actually checked that the tank is leaking?” Russ Fincham offering some sage advice as usual.
“I’ve shone a torch through the inspection hatch,” I told him somewhat defensively.
“And what did you find?” I could tell by the look he gave me that he already knew the answer.
“I couldn’t see a leak in the tank,” I offered brightly.
“No, but from the inspection hatch, you probably couldn’t see ALL of the tank or any of the fittings. How do you know the water isn’t coming from a loose fitting or from the water pump? You’re supposed to change your water pump every three years. How old is yours?” Russ was right, of course. I didn’t know the pump’s age, nor had I carried out a thorough investigation. That would have involved using a screwdriver and some thought. Both of which are beyond me when boating appliances need fixing.
Russ arrived at my mooring the following evening armed with a bulging tool bag. Watching a good tradesman at work is, to me, like stone age man experiencing fire making for the first time. It’s witchcraft, a dark art generally accompanied by much swearing and manly grunting.
Within minutes Russ had my cabin steps in pieces and had removed the pine bulkhead hiding the crawl space beneath my front deck. He shone a torch briefly into the dark recess and then turned to me looking smug.
“I thought so,” he declared triumphantly. He paused briefly to enjoy my increasing despair. “Your tank’s fucked. There’s a hole in it big enough to drive my van through.” My worse fears had been confirmed. I would have to find a couple of thousand pounds I didn’t have if I wanted a new tank. Not that I had a choice. I couldn’t stay on Orient with a water tank steadily filling the bilge. I would have to stretch my meagre finances well past their breaking point. This was a disaster.
Russ saw the look of my dismay. “Just kidding!” he laughed. You’re hopeless, aren’t you? Look there,” He pointed his torch at the dust-covered water pump. Water trickled steadily from its connection with a grey plastic pipe. The tank itself was bone dry. The culprit was a water pump dating back to 2003, thirteen years older than its suggested replacement date.
Within half an hour I had collected a new water pump from Calcutt’s extensive chandlery stock and given it to Russ who quickly fitted it and put the boat back together again. Seventy-nine pounds for parts and the promise of a few beers and a meal at a nearby curry house for Russ. I was far happier with that compared with the cost and disruption of fitting a new tank. I was so pleased that I didn’t mind the subsequent mickey taking reminding me of my DIY failings. Which is just as well because I cocked up again last week.
My early days on board Orient were typical of those experienced by many buyers of second-hand narrowboats, especially those sold by owners who had lost interest in boating. Some boaters walk away from their craft, leaving virtually all the onboard kit you could ever hope to need for cruising and living afloat.
I enjoyed a couple of cold winter days on board keeping warm while I waited for my new stove to be fitted by sorting through the boat’s endless cupboards, drawers and underfloor storage compartments. Much of it was only either useful or of interest to the previous owner. I transferred that to Tattenhall marina’s skip or gave it to local boaters.
But there was wheat among the chaff; a full dinner service and utensils glasses and mugs in the galley, a set of cruising guides in a stove-side cupboard, mooring pins, two lump hammers and enough windlasses in a steel locker on the front deck to open my own lock-side shop. I found a cabinet filled with paint tins and oil bottles in the engine room, and then a little something extra in a bilge recess. Three full five-litre plastic bottles of Elsan Blue.
For those of you unfamiliar with narrowboat toilets, let me explain. There are three different solutions onboard for storing your unmentionables; composting, pump out and cassette toilets. Composting toilets store liquid and solid waste separately. There’s hardly any offensive odour, which is more than you can say for many pump out and cassette toilets. A pump out loo in its most basic form is a toilet perched on a coffin-sized steel tank. To use the toilet, you open a flap between the bowl and several hundred litres of fetid slurry. The smell can sometimes be eye wateringly offensive. Much of the odour is eliminated in pump out toilet systems fitted with a macerator. All you have to worry about then is the macerator blocking and the immediate need to take the device apart to remove the blockage. It’s not something you want to be doing at meal times.
A cassette toilet is like a mini dump through version. The holding tank is rarely larger than twenty litres, which is good news as the cassette has to be removed every two or three days and carried to the nearest Elsan point, an open sewage disposal point. Because you have to open the cassette flap each time you use the toilet, ensuring that the contents mix with an effective odour killer is an essential part of pong free boating life.
Elsan Blue is a thick formaldehyde based liquid with a pleasant smell. It effectively removes toilet smells and much of the cash from your wallet. At fifteen pounds for a five-litre bottle, three full containers in the engine room bilge were very welcome.
In my defence, all I can say is that my bathroom is poorly lit and my sense of smell almost none existent. Earlier in the week, I carried a full cassette a couple of hundred yards to the nearest Elsan point, emptied and rinsed it and then, back on the boat, carefully added a generous dollop of liquid into the cassette from one of my recently liberated bottles.
Boating life continued as usual, apart from in the bathroom. The toilet stank. Passing flies plummeted to the ground when I opened my cassette flap, flowers wilted, strong men cried. I switched to my spare cassette, which I also dosed with my new supply of Elsan Blue. The smell was just as unpleasant. Then the penny finally dropped.
Maybe the three bottle’s location inside the engine room should have warned me, or the liquid’s complete lack of fragrance, or even the darker than usual colour. So you can learn from my own mistake. If you ever consider saving money by substituting Elsan Blue for used engine oil, please don’t. You’ll have to live with smells that have no place on a boat, and you’ll have to endure comments as I have over the last couple of weeks. “Oi, Smithy, when’s your toilet due for its next oil change?” It’s my mission in life to keep my co-workers entertained.
On the rare days when I haven’t been tending the marina grounds, hosting weekend Discovery Days or making a fool of myself, I’ve been trying to keep on top of Orient’s never-ending list of jobs. Removing the spilt contents of my water tank had the highest priority. I think I took about four hundred litres out in total. Four hundred litres is two-fifths of a tonne or the same weight as five people like me. I can’t say that the boat feels any different now that the weight has gone, but I certainly feel better now that I know its no longer there.
With the excess water removed, my to-do list is still as long as it was before. When one task disappears from the top, another shows up at the bottom. I still need to reseal the chimney flue, there are a dozen small patches of roof rust to deal with and my side and rear door canal art needs re-varnishing and refixing to the doors. Then the hull could do with another blacking after three days chugging through thick ice in February and, should I ever reach the end of that lot, there’s Sisyphean brass and copper polishing to keep me occupied.
Not that I mind really. At the end of most days, I get to relax on my front deck for an hour, drinking good coffee, listening to quacks and coos, screeches and honks. I sit quietly watching the water swirl as giant carp suck waterborne morsels from the surface and marvel at the ever-changing sunsets and skyscapes. I’ve posted a few of my evening iPhone photos below. Not bad, eh?
All is quiet on board. The silence is broken only by the ticking of the galley clock and muted quacks from two squabbling mallards. Gone are reassuring sounds of domestic bliss; Cynthia’s tuneless humming and occasional curse as she juggled pans in the galley, creating another of her many gourmet delights. And there’s no more click-clack of iron hard basset nails on the hardwood floor, no more gentle while from Sadie at my feet, begging for the comfort of a warm lap. My three girls have gone, one to her maker, the others to better homes.
I am alone.
I am alone, but not as lonely as I feared because YOU, dear reader, have generously lent me a virtual crutch. I’ve received hundreds of supportive messages since my last post, emails offering condolences, advice and hope. They’ve all been much appreciated, even if the contents were sometimes a little sad.
We waterways enthusiasts are a peculiar bunch. By the time we reach the age that most of us can afford the cost of a narrowboat or the time to appreciate one, our health often prevents us from enjoying the lifestyle comprehensively, or even at all. Bits of us begin to fail or need repairing or replacing. Sadly, sometimes the solution is beyond the marvels of modern medicine. We die and leave those around to deal with the emotional trauma of our loss.
There was a recurring theme to many of the email I received. “I feel your pain. I’ve just lost my wife/husband/father/mother/brother/sister…” They told tales of traumatic bereavements months or even years ago. “Time will heal, but the pain will endure,” appeared to be the theme. For many, each new day has been an opportunity to mourn the loss of a loved one. While I fully understand the sentiment, I’m trying to avoid following that unhealthy route.
Cynthia taught me many useful lessons. One of the best was to always view a glass as half full, to see the positive in any situation, to search for the silver lining of the darkest of clouds.
So I’m not going to mourn Cynthia’s loss. I’m going to celebrate our time together, the adventures we had, the fun places we explored. I have hundreds of photos of Cynthia in exotic locations; in endless forests, on high mountain tops, on deserted beaches, by lakes, rivers and canals. In each and every one she’s smiling, imploring me to embrace all that life has to offer. So embrace it I will as I slowly but surely adapt to my new lifestyle.
Cynthia’s possessions have, like the dogs, gone to a better home. My wife liked to dress well and, some would say, oddly. One of her favourite ensembles was a red cashmere cape and yellow Wellington boots, with appropriate clothing in between of course. Stylish in a strange kind of way. Cynthia made her mark wherever she went.
I crammed all her shoes and clothing into two dozen black plastic bin bags for the four-mile journey to a Myton Hospice shop in Southam. The charity offers superb end of life care to people suffering terminal illnesses. I know Cynthia would have approved.
Abbie and Sadie, basset and Coton du Tulier, left me last Saturday. They have gone to separate but equally loving homes. Basset Abbie has joined a similarly lugubrious pal at a beachfront property in rural Devon, a house surrounded by miles of car-free walking. Her new owners manage their own holiday property during the summer and explore Europe by motorhome in the colder months. Abbie will have the time of her life.
Sadie will be similarly happy. She’s been adopted by Sam, the founder of the basset charity who collected both dogs. Sadie jumped on Sam’s lap the moment they met and then stayed there throughout Sam’s brief stay on Orient and the two-hour car journey to her new home. I will miss both dogs, but they have gone to homes with owners who have the time to look after them properly. I made the right decision.
I am alone now but not particularly lonely. I don’t have time to focus on unhealthy thoughts, and Cynthia’s ever-present voice warns me against self-indulgent misery. I have the joy of working on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds during the week and hosting Discovery Days at the weekend. And, if I don’t have weekend bookings, there are five acres of rural Warwickshire at my boss’s country pile to maintain.
My evenings are a potential incubator for dark thoughts. To ensure that misery can’t make its mark there, I fill my time with blog post writing and web site development. If all else fails, I have a television. I just need to work out how to turn it on.
All things considered, I feel better now than I did a month ago. Cynthia had left me four weeks earlier to return to the States on her perpetual quest for better health. Her condition, quite rightly in hindsight, worried me. As did a perceived lack of interest in this website. I wrote in my last post about my inclination to stop blogging and indulge in a more rewarding pastime, maybe stamp collecting, train spotting or dogging.
Your thoughtfulness overwhelmed me. Over two hundred emails offering support and feedback landed in my inbox since that post. I appreciated and replied to every one of them.
Because of them, I will continue with the blog, doing what I can to give aspiring narrowboat owners an insight into the often challenging and always rewarding life I lead afloat on England’s inland waterways. I know that many of you live aboard like me. We face and usually overcome similar challenges in our day to day lives. Some of you have been forced by unhappy circumstances to move back into a brick and mortar home and away from an idyllic life afloat.
There’s no denying that living on a boat can be hard work. One of life’s ironies for many boaters is that when they are most able to afford the lifestyle, they are least able to deal with the physical demands. There are heavy lock gates, stiff paddles, steep climbs up and down lock ladders, straddles over high sided decks, stoops under low covers, bends through low doorways and squeezes into engine room crawl spaces designed for midgets. It’s not an easy life with stiff backs, hips and knees.
And then there are the daily weightlifting workouts.
Narrowboats with multi-fuel stoves are more common than those without. Wood is an aesthetically pleasing and aromatic fuel. It’s also impractical for boating purposes. Unless a boat owner wants a creosote-soaked roof and tar lined flue, the wood must be both seasoned and burned at temperatures high enough to make the inside of the boat melt. It burns too hot, needs topping up too frequently and uses storage space the average boater simply doesn’t have. The sensible and widely available alternative is coal briquettes.
These bags weigh fifty-five pounds, four stone in traditional English measurements, half a woman or a whole basset hound like our girl Abbie. Each bag is as heavy as it’s unwieldy. Each one needs lifting and tipping, manoeuvring onto decks, through narrow and low doorways and, finally, decanting into a coal scuttle close to the stove.
Propane cylinders are just as heavy, just as unwieldy and often far more of a challenge than coal bags. Most narrowboats use propane gas for cooking, some for water heating and occasionally, if the boat owner is strong of heart and deep of pocket, for central heating. On traditional stern narrowboats like mine, the gas is stored in a small locker only accessible to boaters prepared to leap gazelle-like onto the boat’s tiny bow, a steel surface often coated with dew, rain, ice or algae and slipperier than an Olympic ice rink. Changing a gas bottle is always a test of both nerves and strength.
And then there are the ever-present dangers associated with using the boat for its intended purpose.
If you see a narrowboat gliding towards you through the murky water of a reed-fringed canal and spot a person or two walking casually across the steel cabin roof, you can bet your bottom dollar that the brave boaters are novices. Any seasoned cruiser on the cut knows better. A boat roof is slippery, liberally adorned with trip hazards and far too close to the uneven brickwork of low bridge arches.
Moving from bow to stern along a boat’s narrow gunnel is asking for trouble too. If you’re a narrowboat newbie, the gunnel is the thin horizontal steel strip between the boat’s hull top and its cabin bottom. The gunnel is rarely more than four inches wide, sometimes is painted with a non-slip coating and occasionally, much to the dismay of careless crew, slopes away from the boat towards the canal’s muddy bed.
Gunnel walking is an irresistible challenge for young and invincible hire boat crew, as is the temptation to jump on and off a lock enclosed boat roof. Locks are accidents waiting to happen. Fast flowing water, moss and algae coated edging stones and ladders, slippery steel boats and inexperienced crew, newbie boaters often more careless still after a holiday drink or two.
Lock accidents are common; slips, trips and falls, tumbles between moving boats and solid walls, graceless plummets into the frothing water of a turbulent lock and the rare but far too frequent collision between soft flesh and spinning steel.
Gongoozlers sometimes risk life and limb too. Falls into locks while waiting for pretty boats to chug through are common. I stood at a lock on the Foxton flight with Cynthia a few years ago. We watched in horror as a pretty young mother wearing a set of inappropriately high heels tottered along a lock lip to amuse a toddler in a pushchair. She stepped on wet moss and with a frantic windmilling of arms disappeared into the murky water of the lock beneath her feet. “There’s no point in crying over a spilled MILF,” is what Cynthia didn’t say when she saw my look of consternation.
These are the dangers we can see and avoid. More worrying is the silent and invisible threat, the killer which nearly caused my early demise last month; carbon monoxide.
The risk to boaters is discussed occasionally. Boaters understand both the problem and the solution. The solution is to fit both smoke and carbon monoxide detectors at some stage of their boat ownership and then, all too often, ignore both the detector’s warning and its maintenance. Here’s an email I received after last week’s scare.
“As an LPG/NG engineer, I cannot stress enough the importance of a working and in date carbon monoxide alarm or three!
Caravan owners of a certain age, because “they’ve always done it” don’t think it’s important. I’m sure boat owners are the same.
This season alone, in fact, yesterday, I found six carbon monoxide units with no batteries in. Most of these were older than the “replace by” dates printed on the units!
Even with good batteries, they would be useless. You don’t have to be told how lucky you were. Very glad that you are safe though!
In your next blog, please reiterate the fact that a “working “ carbon monoxide alarm may actually not actually be working. Each unit has a replace by date. This MUST be adhered to!
Personally, I stamp out of date units underfoot in front of the owners. Most I know will put them back up if I don’t once I’ve left! Silly I know, but they know best. “
Are you guilty as charged? When did you last check your alarm batteries or dates? Do it now. While you’re at it, check your smoke detectors too. A ten-minute break from an enthralling blog post could save your life.
I’ll tell you a secret. My cooking doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes there are clouds of smoke which I’m pretty sure aren’t part of the recipe I’m trying to follow. Naturally, the smoke sets off the smoke detectors. They carry on shrieking as long as there’s smoke in the boat. The air can take an eternity to clear at a time when I’m trying to concentrate on a variety of bubbling pans. The easy solution is to remove the offending alarm’s batteries. And then forget to replace them. I’m sure that you are more responsible than me. Your life is more important than the temporary inconvenience of a shrieking siren.
Or is it?
I sincerely hope that this post, and the one detailing my rude awakening in the middle of the night by a shrieking alarm, triggers the replacement of a few out of date or faulty carbon monoxide monitors across England’s waterways network.
Despite the occasional risk to life and limb, and my recent unhappy transition from family to a single life, I love living afloat. I don’t particularly like living tethered to a marina, but if I need to work and if I have to work, there’s nowhere I would rather work than on the beautiful grounds at Calcutt Boats. The aspect of my working day which appeals to me most is the constant and ever-changing variety.
There are the usual grounds maintenance tasks; tree felling and trimming, ditch clearance, fence repairs, painting and replacement, marina pier and reed management and, as the thermometer rises and the sky fills with rain-filled clouds, endless grass cutting. We have a ride on mower for cutting most of the site’s forty landscaped acres. It’s a magical task at this time of the year to sail through a sea of green peppered with cowslips, buttercups and dandelions, enveloped by the heady aroma of cut grass and freshly minced dog shit.
We also have a delicate machine for cutting the wharf’s lawn, a three-wheeled monster for Meadows marina’s sloping banks and a new Flymo for my least liked weekly task. There are three high and steep banks adjacent to Locks marina which are too steep to cut with conventional machines. Each cut involves six hours hauling the wheeled Flymo up and down the banks on a length of rope. It’s hard work, so I’m always grateful when my radio crackles and a distorted voice asks me to pause my brutal task and start another, more urgent job.
I might be asked to move a boat or offload a palleted delivery with the site’s Merlot forklift truck. The call might be to repair a pier hit by a poorly steered boat, provide visiting boaters with coal, gas or a pump out or two or, the one I really don’t like, wade shin deep in raw sewage to clear a blockage in the pipe to our reed bed filtration system.
Each day is filled with variety and rural tranquillity. I love it.
I’m keeping myself busy with two goals in mind, one financial, one emotional. I don’t regret the recent adventures I had with Cynthia for a moment. We really had a blast. Cynthia went out in style. She managed to indulge her lifelong passion for exploration despite her failing health. I am happy to have done what I could to help her live her dream. However, two and a half hedonistic years and a frenzy of boat buying had an inevitable effect on our bank balances. Six or seven-day working weeks for the rest of the year will help to clear the debts, and they’ll help me focus on more positive thoughts than of life as a widower. Onward and upward. That’s my motto. Onward and upward towards financial and emotional stability and another adventure on the far distant horizon.
I receive emails every week thanking me for my sometimes funny, often useful blog posts which usually entertain and even inform my narrowboat site visitors. This isn’t one of them. I received some tragic news on “Good” Friday.
Cynthia flew to the States a month ago in an ongoing quest to reverse her failing health. She visited friends and family she hadn’t seen since handing over the keys of her Vermont home to the new owner in 2016. Four large suitcases and an even larger basset travelled with her on a flight from Toronto to Amsterdam, everything she needed for her new adventure in Europe with me.
She rented a house for two months in Friesland, the Netherlands’ most northerly province, waiting for me to sell my beloved narrowboat, James No 194, load all my worldly goods into our five and a half tonne twin axle Hymer motorhome and join her in the picturesque Dutch village of Rottevalle for the start of our grand European adventure. Cynthia was always the queen of ambitious plans.
Over the following twenty-six months we drove 28,952 miles through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland, peppering our itinerary with occasional trips back to the UK.
Cynthia set our travel style early on. She would invest an hour or two in online research, look up from her battered iPad and say, “I’ve always wanted to visit..” That was it. We’d climb into the Hymer’s high cab with its panoramic windows and take the slowest, most difficult route she could find to our new destination.
Keeping the Hymer on strange country roads was often a challenge. We wedged ourselves immoveably in a French balcony road tunnel, removed our wing mirrors on a Danish steel bridge and bowled over a working film crew on one of Lyon’s impossibly narrow cobbled streets. We brought Marseille’s rush hour traffic to a halt on the city’s underground road network and slipped and slid our way over a variety of icy Swiss mountain passes. While I wrestled with the wheel and cursed, Cynthia smiled serenely and admired the ever-changing scenery around us. Apart from the high mountain passes. On those, she usually held her head between her knees and wailed like a banshee.
Much as we loved travelling far and wide on Europe’s backcountry roads, we both missed living afloat. Before we left Holland on our way to winter sunshine on the French Mediterranean coast, we window shopped for a suitable boat for summer cruising on the vast Dutch network of connected canals, rivers and lakes. Cynthia fell in love with one we viewed, stored for the winter in an immaculate barn on a North Holland farm.
Julisa was a classic Dutch motor cruiser with a steel hull and mahogany superstructure. She was the wrong boat for us; acres of wood to maintain, a canvas cockpit roof, no insulation, no shower, a broken sea toilet and, worst of all, no way to quickly get two heavy bassets on board.
On a moonlit walk on the rocky shore of a French saltwater lagoon, we decided to buy Julisa. Despite an enthusiastic exercise in identifying every reason why we shouldn’t buy the boat, Cynthia countered with reasons why we should. So we paid a deposit from the comfort of our six-wheeled winter home on the Mediterranean coast and then counted the days until we could collect her in the spring.
Boating, done properly, is an expensive hobby. Repairs, alterations, replacements and upgrades cost us €9,000, including €750 to have a bespoke basset friendly dog door fitted. We didn’t mind. After all, it wasn’t as though we were going to make a habit of boat buying and refurbishment. Yeah, right!
We cruised the Netherlands bewildering network of connected waterways during the summer and autumn of 2017. We sailed along placid waterways through rainbow-hued fields of nodding tulips, marvelled at an endless procession of working windmills and regularly stopped at waterside cafes and restaurants filled with smiling Dutch. We both loved our return to a watery lifestyle. Much as I enjoyed the scenery and experiences on Europe’s back roads, driving such a large vehicle along them was a stressful affair.
Cynthia was a sensitive soul. My stress caused her stress which further weakened her health. I was more relaxed cruising the gentle waters of island peppered lakes than negotiating thin ribbons of asphalt clinging precariously to cliffsides. We decided, perhaps unwisely in hindsight, to find a suitable boat and live on the European waterways network full time.
We found what we thought was the perfect boat moored in a small and friendly yacht club on a canal close to Antwerp. You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “Love is blind”. That doesn’t only apply to people. We fell in love with Dik Trom, a thirty-five foot Linssen motor cruiser.
Why I, a seasoned live aboard boater, thought Dik Trom would be right for living on throughout the year is entirely beyond me. Poorly insulated, acres of heat sapping glass and a blown air heating system fit for little more than taking the morning chill off a tiny truck cab, Dik Trom was hardly fit for all seasons.
Anyway, we purchased the boat mid-December, spent another small country’s national debt on repairs and the inevitable battery bank replacement, checked the long-range weather forecast for South Holland, and decided to have just one more winter under the cloudless skies of France’s Mediterranean coast before moving afloat full time. It proved to be a wise decision. We checked the Dutch weather forecast as we sat in the sun on our folding camp chairs on the rocky shores of a selection of saltwater lagoons along France’s south-east coast. Sub-zero days, colder nights and enough snow and ice to frighten a polar bear. While getting to the south of France in our Hymer home was sometimes stressful, living there was a delight. But then two large black clouds filled the blue sky of our hedonistic lifestyle. Health and money.
We quickly exhausted my savings; the proceeds of my narrowboat sale and a substantial income tax refund. Although Cynthia received a decent pension, the income wasn’t enough to support our lavish lifestyle. The more I worried about money, the more stressed I became. Ever sensitive Cynthia needed a calm and stress-free environment to thrive. Without one her body rebelled. Bug bites caused swellings the size of tennis balls, and summer sniffles became severe episodes requiring bed rest. Even a short walk on level ground would need a short rest and a restorative nap.
Spending on holistic remedies and potions and appointments with specialist practitioners further drained our resources, a drain which increased my money worries, caused more stress for me and deepening emotional turmoil and worsening health for Cynthia.
We decided to return to the Netherlands and look for a boatyard job for me. After a month trawling through hundreds of marina listings, I secured a position at a prestigious marina in South Holland a handful of miles from Amsterdam. Sadly, the marina was even closer to Schiphol airport and the endless stream of large aircraft which thundered into the sky from it every minute of the day.
Working for my new Dutch employers couldn’t have been more different from the gentle life I enjoyed at Calcutt Boats. The Dutch boatyard was spotless and operated with military precision. Everyone knew what they were doing and worked as hard as they could every minute of the day. A mid-morning siren announced the start of a fifteen-minute tea break. Not sixteen minutes, or even fifteen and a half. Fifteen minutes exactly. Coffee cup down, tools up and on you go. I hated every minute of it, despite the kindness and consideration both Cynthia and I were shown by the marvellous Kempers family.
Much as I disliked the mind-numbing tedium of applying anti-fouling systems to multi-million-pound motor yachts and speedboats, I was well paid by UK boatyard standards. Once again, we had more than enough money to pay the bills. Sadly, our new regime didn’t allow us to enjoy our newfound financial security. Neither of us was happy, but Cynthia felt the strain more than me.
By then we had moved Dik Trom from its Belgian mooring to Kempers Watersport, our new home and my workplace. We’d transferred our possessions from the motorhome to the boat and live on board at the marina as far away from other craft and their claustrophobic moorings as possible. The marina nestled in the south-east corner of a vast lake. We had a stunning view of the lake from our spot on the marina’s visitor moorings. However, much as Cynthia enjoyed the landscape, she began to feel increasingly isolated.
Cynthia couldn’t walk far without pain. Even using her folding bike to ride a mile to the nearest village became too much of a strain. She was confined to the interior of our thirty-five-foot boat, as were the dogs unless I was around.
Getting the dogs on and off the boat required a degree of strength and physical fitness which proved too much for Cynthia. Three steep steps from the gunwale to the flybridge and then four vertical wooden steps down into the cockpit. Another four to get them into the galley. We bought a telescopic ramp to save having to manhandle dogs weighing as much as a sack of coal. Even the ramp was too much for Cynthia in her worsening condition.
Cynthia had no one to talk to near our mooring, no way of walking or cycling to anywhere she could find a conversation and was frustrated by a growing feeling of helplessness that she had to rely on me so much. Bureaucracy further added to the strain of our day to day life.
Cynthia had been frustrated continuously by governmental red tape for three years by then. The farce began in November 2015 when Cynthia, an employee of American Airlines who had visited the UK on hundreds of occasions, was deported by UK Border Control. They told her she didn’t have the right visa to enter the country to marry me. They planned to deport her immediately. After much tearful pleading, they gave her a week’s stay of execution.
Cynthia’s difficulty entering and staying in the UK long term was the catalyst for our European adventure, but we didn’t have any luck there either. After five different appointments in the Netherlands, Spain and France, we finally managed to get her a new passport in downtown Marseilles. Much as passport renewal was frustrating, it was a piece of cake compared to the application process for an extended stay visa in Holland.
We were moved from pillar to post and back again. There seemed to be little connection or co-operation between local and national government agencies. Cynthia needed an official address in the Netherlands for the application. As we lived on our boat where I worked, we tried to use the marina address. The request was denied. Trying to find a way around the problem took seven different applications over the best part of a year. We finally convinced the local town hall to send employees out to our marina to measure and photograph our mooring so that they could create a bona fide address for the Dutch registration system.
By then both Cynthia and I had had enough of travelling in Europe generally and the Netherlands in particular and the constant bureaucratic difficulties presented by a homeless mixed-race couple living like gipsies throughout mainland Europe.
Then Cynthia surprised me one day. Her body may have been failing, but her mind was still as hyperactive and inventive as ever. “I’ve been thinking long and hard about our situation. We’re both unhappy here. We’re hardly living the dream any more, are we? You hate your job here, we’re close enough to Schiphol to wave at the passengers in passing jets, we’re spending far too long each day dealing with government paperwork and I’m struggling with life on board this boat, in this marina so far away from companionship of any kind. Why don’t we go back to England and live on a narrowboat?”
I had been considering a return to the UK too. But I couldn’t see past the problems we would face trying to make the move possible. “We can’t do it,” I told her. “We don’t have any money left to buy another boat, and you would still have to apply for a visa to stay in the UK.”
Cynthia was all about solutions, not problems. “We’ll sell this thing,” Cynthia waved a dismissive at Dik Trom’s beautiful mahogany cabin,” and we’ll sell the Hymer too. There’s more than enough equity in both to buy a decent narrowboat.”
My mind was still filled with seemingly insurmountable problems. Selling both the motorhome and the boat would probably be a lengthy process, and we couldn’t seriously consider buying a narrowboat until we had money in the bank from both sales. I voiced my concerns.
“Look, if we focus on what we can do rather than the challenges we need to overcome, we’ll get there. You’re good at getting things done. You’re inventive too. Apply yourself to making this happen. I know how passionate you are about the English waterways. Keep that in mind and let’s go for it!”
So go for it we did. I had to return to the UK the following week to pick up our motorhome from the Nottingham dealer where it had been for three weeks having some warranty work done. Cynthia had found what she thought was the perfect narrowboat for us on Apolloduck. The boat was moored at Tattenhall marina. A detour to Cheshire on my way back to Holland would only add an extra two hours for my journey. I phoned the broker and arranged to view and test drive the Steve Hudson built boat.
Once again, Cynthia was right. She was right about returning to the UK, and she was right about the boat being perfect. It’s now our home. Sorry, it’s now my home.
The buying process was far from easy. We needed to take out a bridging loan, take out two further loans from private lenders and part exchange our motorhome. Even then, we were still short of money. I managed to overcome the problem by persuading the owner to wait for the balance until Dik Trom sold.
We returned to the UK mid-December. Orient’s owners arrived on Boxing Day to collect our motorhome and bid a tearful goodbye to their beautiful boat. After an abortive cruise south back to Calcutt Boats we returned to Tattenhall for battery replacement and then endured the coldest two weeks of the winter on an eventful journey to our current mooring. Cynthia sat inside for all of it, keeping warm and trying and failing to stay healthy.
Unable to sleep, she spent most nights fretting about her deteriorating health and worsening mobility. Because she couldn’t sleep at night, she was exhausted during the day. She slept during the day so couldn’t sleep at night. The vicious cycle continued, and her feeling of isolation and depression deepened.
I didn’t help much. Cynthia was a touchy-feely heart-on-her-sleeve kind of gal, and I’m from the stiff-upper-lip emotionally bankrupt old English school of carry on regardless. She didn’t get any of the compassion from me that she both needed and richly deserved.
She decided to return to the States for an appointment with a world-renowned holistic practitioner who planned to do an exhaustive health study to get to the root of her problem. Cynthia was too weak to manage the flight on her own so her friend, Alec, flew from the States to escort her back.
She visited the friends and family she hadn’t seen for three years. She spent a week with her brother, Jeff and then moved into her best friend Tom’s house in Rockport MA.
Cynthia was always a diligent and effective communicator. She sent me WhatsApp messages regularly on her return flight and throughout her stay with brother Jeff and then Tom. Two weeks ago today those communications stopped.
I was worried after twenty-four silent hours. Followup messages failed to provoke a response either. I phoned, texted, WhatsApp’ed and emailed over the next three days and then, on Thursday, emailed her friend Tom. But, even though I hadn’t heard from Cynthia for four days, I was somewhat reassured by her proximity to so many friends and family. What I didn’t know then was that her sister, brother and Tom were also trying and failing to get any response from her.
My phone rang on Good Friday at 12.32pm. A WhatsApp call from Cynthia. What a relief. I prepared to give her a bollocking for worrying me so much.
A stranger spoke in a quavering voice. “Hi, Paul. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but Cynthia died on Wednesday.”
I don’t remember feeling shocked. I suppose that Cynthia’s worsening health coupled with an uncharacteristic lack of communication steeled me for bad news on some level.
Jeff’s wife, Melanie, went on to tell me what had happened. Jeff had also been worried by Cynthia’s silence. He contacted Tom on Wednesday. Tom hadn’t heard from Cynthia either. Jeff was much closer to the house than Tom, so he agreed to drive three hours to the house to investigate.
The house was locked and dark when they arrived. Jeff called the police. They confirmed that a 911 call had been placed by a lady at that address the previous day. The lady was rushed by ambulance to the nearest ER department and died within fifteen minutes of arriving. Hospital tests showed a tumour and cancer in her blood. Cynthia, who had more friends than anyone I’ve ever met, spent the last three days of her life alone. Life just isn’t fair.
Jeff, still grieving after the loss of his beloved dog a few days earlier, has been a star. There was an annual celebration of Cynthia’s mother’s life scheduled for last Tuesday in Big Bear, California. Jeff asked permission to arrange for Cynthia’s cremation on Bank Holiday Monday so that Cynthia could join her family for the memorial. I think Cynthia would have liked that.
So, for some of us, life goes on.
The last week has been stressful. I haven’t been firing on all cylinders, and our two sensitive dogs picked up on that. My melancholy and Cynthia’s absence has particularly affected three-year-old basset, Abbie. Any attention is better than none at all so, barring the good, she’s gone for the bad.
Bassets aren’t considered intelligent dogs, but they are, this one is, smart enough to get the tops off sealed jars. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Abbie’s first trick was to make things disappear, namely a whole 1kg bag of muesli, a sealed 500g bag of mixed nuts and two Green and Black’s chocolate bars. She managed to hold it all down, but I had to take her out every two hours throughout the night and the following day for copious grass fertilisation.
It was my fault. I didn’t close a cupboard properly, so Abbie easily nosed it open. Nothing like this had ever happened before. It’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
She upped her game the following day. She successfully removed the sealed tops from two jars of nut butter and one of honey. She still managed to hold down the contents, but disposing of them proved an explosive affair.
I tried to Abbie proof the boat after that. I put all temptation out of reach. At least I thought I had. On day three she removed a full 500ml bottle of extra virgin olive oil from the wine rack, chewed the top off and drank the lot. I suspect that it came back up much quicker than it went down. Clearing up after the mischievous dog took two hours, but now the hardwood floor has a lovely sheen. Thanks, Abbie.
I thought I was safe yesterday. All that I left within reach was my stock of red wine. Why I thought the wine would be less of a temptation than the olive oil is beyond me.
Fortunately, I returned to the boat just as she was chewing through the last thread on the metal cap. I didn’t fancy dealing with the bowel movements of a boozy basset at all.
I’m not surprised Abbie’s started acting up. The unfortunate dogs have been without loving Cynthia for a month and without any company at all for nine hours a day during the week while I am at work, and just as long at the weekend if I have Discovery Day guests.
Their life hasn’t been much better on my return from work. The combination of hard physical labour and my advancing years has meant that I’ve been too tired to walk them regularly or even pay them much attention.
I decided that these two lovely dogs deserve a better life. I need to work long hours for at least the next year or two to recover financially from our travels and our boat buying spree. The last two of my three girls will leave me next Saturday. It’s been a hard decision, but the right one. Cynthia, my guardian angel, is still with me. I asked myself what she would do in a similar situation. I know that she would focus on finding the best solution. The best solution for Abbie and Sadie is to secure both of these adorable dogs a loving home with someone who has time to care for them is the way forward.
Heartbreaking as it’s been, I have arranged for The Basset Rescue Network of Great Britain to rehome both dogs. Someone will come next Saturday to remove the last two of my three beautiful girls. Then I’ll be a solo boater again. The difference this time is that I will have the memories, journals and photos of the three most challenging, exciting and ultimately rewarding years of my life. It has been a complete privilege to share that time with Cynthia. She was a remarkable woman and I count myself fortunate to have shared part of her life.
The weeks and months will be difficult, but I will have the English waterways and you, my virtual friends, to help keep me sane. I don’t believe that Cynthia has gone on to a better place, but I know that she made this place better while she was here. Goodbye darling Cynthia.
What an unloved and unlovely place a Dutch marina is in the winter. Less than a hundred boats remain in the mostly empty berths. Most moorers here have taken their boats out of the water, and either moved them onto the once spacious marina car park or into covered docks or large sheds on farms surrounded by endless flat fields. The few still in the water, including ours, can only be reached by skating across slippery wooden piers. Over the last week, I’ve had the place to myself. The only sign of life has been two guys cutting and burning the bank of head high reeds which enclose the marina on three sides. Their hard work cut short several times a day by bands of heavy rain sweeping south from Aalsmeer across Westeinderplassen lake.
I’ve been boat cleaning; vacuuming, washing and polishing, trying my hardest to remove all traces of two fur shedding bassets before taking our Linssen yacht on one last cruise. I’m not looking forward to the eight-hour solo journey. Even though the Dutch network is still open for business, there’s very little traffic on it. On our return journey from a shopping trip last weekend we drove several miles alongside the Ringvaart canal. We pass hundreds of boats on this four-mile stretch during the summer months. We didn’t see a single moving boat last week. There’s a good reason for that. The weather is awful.
There’s wind, wind and more wind. The canals often tower above the surrounding flat fields and drainage ditches. There is nothing to stop the howling wind apart from the few boats whose owners are daft enough to venture onto the waterways.
I will need to wait for up to fifteen minutes for each of the nineteen bridges on my route to open, trying to maintain the channel centre without a working bow thruster and, more importantly, without a working heating system to keep the boat warm. Getting there in a day would involve nighttime cruising on a boat without a headlight. Splitting the trip into two days would require the purchase of thermal underwear.
Anyway, the great big shining light at the end of our ever-shortening Dutch tunnel is our imminent return to the UK. We’ve moved several steps closer over the last week.
Seven days ago, we still didn’t know the cost of numerous essential repairs which need to be made on our new boat before we could move on board, or how we were going to find the money to pay for them.
The new workshop crew at Tattenhall marina quoted for the jobs early last week. They agreed to do all the necessary work for £2,500. Their price included buying and fitting a new Squirrel stove. The quote seemed fair, but who was going to pay for it? Stretched to financial breaking point, we would struggle to find the money for a new tea bag at the moment. Unearthing an extra two and a half grand was out of the question.
The seller’s broker, Steve Harrel, phoned midweek with some good news. Owners Stuart and Sue agreed to lower their asking price by £2,500. While we were thrilled with the price reduction, that still didn’t help our cash flow. Sue and Stuart had already kindly agreed to a substantial initial deposit, the possibility of taking our motorhome in part exchange for the boat, and the balance once we sold our Dutch yacht. We still didn’t know whether they were serious about our Hymer, especially as they hadn’t seen it. Nor did we know whether they would accept our valuation for the motorhome.
Kind and generous people that they are, the couple came to our aid again. They agreed to lower the initial deposit by £2,500 so that we had enough money to pay for the repairs. That was another worry out of the way, but we still didn’t know if they wanted the Hymer,
The following day broker Steve phoned again. More good news. Despite initially resisting the idea of using our left-hand drive motorhome for predominantly UK travel, and despite still not having driven or even seen the vehicle, they agreed in principle to take it on. All we have to do now is make sure that the Hymer is in first class condition when they see it for the first time.
We used the motorhome’s pre-sale preparation as an excuse to escape our marina base. The aircraft noise has become an auditory version of the Chinese water torture. We’re six miles from Schiphol airport and the one thousand seven hundred planes which thunder into the air from its four runways every day. When the wind is blowing from our marina towards the airport, ascending planes pass low enough overhead for us to check the tyre tread on their landing gear. The noise is obscene, worse now that we know we only have a week left to endure.
We drove north to a little-used beach car park at Camperduin. The sound of crashing surf and howling wind replaced the unpleasant thunder of ascending planes. We enjoyed the peace there for three days, leaving briefly to have the Hymer serviced and a few small repairs done at a small motorhome service centre in nearby Winkel.
Returning to the marina this morning felt like coming back home and work after an exciting sunshine holiday. We felt quite depressed. There’s so much to do over the next seven days. Continued high winds could prevent me from taking our Linssen to its new winter mooring. I might have to find something closer. The thought of navigating our boat through Amsterdam in high winds while trying to avoid cruise ships and commercial barges is causing me some concern. Actually, the thought terrifies me. The last and only time we crossed manic Amsterdam harbour we narrowly avoided being run down by a ferry. This time I would also have to brave a lock also used by towering commercial barges. I’m not sure that my heart is equal to the task.
That aside, we have medical appointments for Cynthia and the dogs. Not at the same time or for the same reason. Cynthia assures me that her rabies jabs are up to date and that she’s wormed herself recently. Travelling from Calais to Dover shouldn’t present my wife too much of a problem, but the two dogs may prove tricky. On previous passages, minor errors in their paperwork delayed me once and stopped Tasha travelling at all on another occasion. We don’t want any delays this time.
Then there’s Kempers Watersport Christmas bash. Our marina owners, the ever generous Kempers family, have kindly invited Cynthia and me to an extravagant dinner and show on Saturday night. I’ll have to be on my best behaviour. We’ll leave for Calais at dawn on Sunday, stopping briefly in Belgium to say goodbye to Walter, the guy we purchased the Linssen yacht from just a year ago.
Once back in England we have to divert to Portsmouth to have an annoying problem fixed. When I left the Hymer with Oaktree motorhomes last month to have some warranty work done, they removed the odometer and sent it to a specialist company for resetting. The display showed a total distance covered of 650,000 kilometres instead of the correct 110,000. The fault reared its ugly head after we were daft enough to allow a bunch of fuzzy-headed French mechanics to change a lightbulb on a Friday afternoon following a two-hour liquid lunch. We were delighted to find that the returned unit displayed the correct figure. We weren’t quite so pleased when we discovered that the total showed miles rather than kilometres. We hope that the one hundred mile diversion will allow us to correct the problem.
We should be back at Tattenhall marina next Tuesday. It will be a big day for Cynthia. Despite finding Orient on an Apolloduck listing six weeks ago, she hasn’t physically seen the inside of the boat which will be her home for what I hope will be many happy years to come. “I trust you!” she told me when I asked if we should commit to the purchase. I hope she loves the reality of the boat as much as the advert’s pretty pictures or I’m in real trouble.
I sat with my head in my hands opposite broker, Steve Harral. He listened to me as I reeled off a list of faults unearthed during a two-hour survey.
“There’s too much to do Steve,” I told him unhappily. “There are three different heat sources on the boat. All of them have problems which need addressing before we can move on board. The Squirrel is cracked and needs replacing, and the range in the boatman’s cabin has a loose flue. That needs fixing before we can light it. We can’t use either multi-fuel stove, and we can’t turn the central heating system on because the Kabola boiler is leaking diesel!”
Steve made a note. “Anything else?” he asked. He didn’t look at all concerned. It was all right for him. He didn’t have to find the extra few thousand pounds needed to fix the problems.
“The water tank has a hole near the top. It’s holding water but if we aren’t careful every time we top up our tank we’re going to flood the boat. The tank either needs fixing or replacing.” The water tank worried me. It was probably the original tank, which meant it was sixteen-year-old plastic. Already weakened by an open crack, I didn’t know how many jolts it could stand before bursting like a ripe melon dropped from a high wall. English locks, often staffed by well-meaning but inexperienced bystanders, are no place for a delicate craft.
I carried on working my way through my mental list. “The generator’s in a bit of a state too. It’s leaking in three or four places. An effort’s been made to seal the leaks with epoxy, but it hasn’t worked. That needs servicing too before we can use it.”
Steve scribbled on his reporter’s notepad again. “Is that it?”
“No, I’ve saved the best till last. We opened the gas locker hatch to reveal a real can of worms. There are four reasons why the boat shouldn’t have passed its BSS exam eighteen months ago. Two are quick fixes. I’m not bothered about them, but the other two need some work. Concrete has been poured into the front half of the gas locker to raise the floor. Because the steel base is now inaccessible, it’s an automatic fail until the concrete is removed so the steel can be examined. But the bigger problem is the bow thruster housing.” I explained what my mate and Boat Safety examiner, Russ, had told me about the potential for leaking gas to flow from the locker into the bilge and back to the engine. “There’s a lot of work which needs doing before we can consider moving on board. We can’t afford to have it done at the moment. Do you have any bright ideas?”
Steve looked up from his notes and saw my worried look. “Look, I don’t think any of this is going to be a problem. As far as I’m concerned, these jobs are the seller’s responsibility. I’ve been in this kind of situation many times before. Most sellers look at their boats through rose tinted glasses. They think their pride and joy is perfect. It’s often far from it. If I make these issues go away, are you still interested in buying the boat?” Of course, I was still interested. I had always admired Steve Hudson boats for their elegant design and quality build. I was also acutely aware how few narrowboats for sale have what I consider to be adequate storage space. Although Orient didn’t quite have as many built-in cupboards and drawers as my old Norton Canes boat, it came pretty close. I felt reasonably confident that even after Cynthia’s recent attempt to buy one of everything Amazon had for sale, we would be able to store all our worldly goods and still have a tidy boat.
Steve correctly interpreted my nodding dog impression as agreement. “Right then, I need to try to have a chat with Stuart.” Stuart Palmer was Orient’s owner. Although I hadn’t met him or his wife Sue I liked them immensely. They were clearly exceptionally kind and trusting people.
Our proposed purchase was far from straightforward. All of our money was invested in our two homes; a 2003 Hymer motorhome and a 1983 Dutch Linssen yacht. We could raise up to half of Orient’s asking price via a bridging loan through Cynthia’s American bank. We hoped to pay most of the balance when we sold our Hymer. The remainder would come from the proceeds of our boat sale sometime the following year. We hoped.
Stuart and Sue had bent over backwards to accommodate us. Now we would be testing their generosity to breaking point by asking them to swallow the cost of the boat’s essential repairs, replacements and modifications. The first step, actually talking to them, was far from easy.
Their son was tying the matrimonial knot thousands of miles away. While the Palmer family cavorted somewhere on a Mexico beach, far, far away from working smartphones, tablets or laptop computers, we waited and worried. Stuart and Sue wouldn’t be back in dark and damp England for a further four days. I hoped and prayed that their enthusiasm to sell to us wouldn’t be dampened by an unhappy return to a wet English autumn or a tequila-induced hangover. Time would tell. In the meantime, I had a long drive ahead of me.
I didn’t enjoy the journey back to Holland. Ten hours of tedious motorway driving, broken by a lengthy wait at Eurotunnel’s Folkestone terminal.
I booked a return Channel Tunnel crossing a month earlier when I took our Hymer to England to have some warranty work done. I didn’t know exactly when I would be able to return. The repairs took longer than expected, so I had already altered my return date once. The fee for changing a ticket date depends on train availability. The charge to switch to an early morning train was a very reasonable £1. I arrived at the terminal at 10pm feeling reasonably wide awake after my six-hour drive from Tattenhall marina. I knew the cost of switching again to the 10pm train was an eye-watering £95, so I decided to try the sympathy card.
The uniformed guy at the ticket barrier appeared happy enough. I adopted a miserable expression. I told him about my poorly wife suffering unpleasantly on a damp and partially heated boat moored on a windswept Dutch marina. I explained how an earlier train would improve both her physical and mental health immeasurably. He nodded sympathetically and called his supervisor.
“Good news!” he told me with a smile as he finished his call. You can change to the 10pm train and get back to your wife early.” He fiddled with the display in front of him. “That’s £95. How do you want to pay?”
I put away my wallet and steeled myself for a night trying to sleep in a floodlit carpark, and hoped that Cynthia would understand.
I didn’t enjoy my return to work at a high-end Dutch marina at all. I always felt that I didn’t quite fit in. There was the language issue for a start. Nearly all young Dutch people can speak English when they have to but, of course, they don’t need to very often when most of their coworkers are Dutch. Coffee breaks in the canteen have always been a painful affair, both emotionally and physically. The Dutch are not a quiet race, especially in a workshop canteen. Imagine ten men all trying to talk at once in a language you don’t understand, usually with mouths filled to overflowing with chocolate spread covered bread, at the volume of a four-engined jet struggling to leave Mother Earth. It’s enough to make your ears bleed.
The one saving grace, for me, is the Dutch obsession with cream cakes.
If you have a birthday, if you get a promotion, if you start or leave a job, or if you just fancy enhancing your artery-clogging diet, you stagger into work bow legged under a towering pile of cardboard boxes filled with fresh cream cakes. That’s a typical canteen coffee break in Holland; rounds of dry bread spread thickly with sweetened chocolate spread, a doorstep wedge of sponge filled with fresh cream and a mug of caffeine thickened with heaps of sugar. It’s no wonder my co-workers sounded like guests at a children’s birthday party. I sat quietly on my own reading my Kindle and marvelling at the empty calories being devoured with such enthusiasm while I ploughed my way through my own knee-high mound of cream.
Steve phoned me on a wet Wednesday as I half-heartedly polished the hull of a £300,000 second-hand speedboat. “I have some news which I think you’ll like,” he offered enigmatically. What news did Steve think I would like? That the sun was shining on Tattenhall marina, that Orient was still leak free despite not being heated during the recent cold snap, or could it be that he had finally spoken to the elusive Palmers?
“I spoke to Stuart yesterday. I told him about the problems. I didn’t phone you then because he needed to talk to his wife before making a decision. I have good news for you. They have agreed to lower the sale price by the total of the quotes for all the different repairs!” This WAS good news, but not great news. In my experience, a quoted price is often far removed from the final bill. It’s an indication, a starting point and, on occasion, complete guesswork. I suggested, for us, a better solution.
“I want the price we pay to include the total cost for all of the work done,” I told him. “What if we pay you a substantial deposit. Rather than Stuart having to pay for any repairs, you can use the deposit to pay for them. You can reduce the boat price by the final repair bill total. How about that?”
“I see your point,” agreed Steve. “I’ll need to run your idea by Stuart. I’ll get back to you as soon as I’ve heard from him. In the meantime, I have some more news for you. Stuart and Sue may want to take your motorhome in part exchange.” That was marvellous news. Orient’s annual mooring at Tattenhall marina expired at the end of December. We didn’t want to renew it but, until CRT’s contractors had completed on the various locks and bridges on our route back to Warwickshire, we wouldn’t have anywhere to store the Hymer when we advertised it for sale. We could hardly adopt a continuous cruising lifestyle on Cheshire’s canals with a five-tonne motorhome to think about. Stuart and Sue taking our motorhome would solve that problem instantly.
Then Steve stuck a pin in my growing bubble of happiness. “Oh, I just want to confirm one detail with you. The Hymer is right-hand drive, isn’t it?” Shit. No, it wasn’t. The vehicle was UK registered but designed for continental travel. The speedometer was calibrated in kilometres, the odometer the same and, more importantly, the steering wheel was definitely on the wrong side for driving on English roads.
I waxed lyrical about the joy of continental touring compared to motorhoming in the UK. I talked about the weather, the food, free campsites, magnificent scenery, the French people’s love affair with motorhome owners and their disposable income. I spoke passionately and perhaps a little desperately. Steve didn’t appear impressed at all.
“Look, here’s Stuart’s email address and telephone number. He insisted that they wanted a right-hand drive vehicle. Maybe you can convince them left-hand drive will work for them.” Steve’s tone suggested otherwise, but I had nothing to lose by speaking with the Palmers.
I phoned Stuart briefly. I tried to switch his allegiance to foreign roads. He listened without enthusiasm and then ended the call with what I suspected was a ploy I had used all too often before. “That’s all very interesting Paul, but I have to go. My wife is waving at me. We’re late for an appointment.”
I was bitterly disappointed. Over the last half hour, I had gone from worrying about the logistics of selling our six-wheeled home to virtual euphoria at the thought of a quick sale, to a deep depression when I suspected we were back to square one. All I could do was wait and hope that the Palmers contacted us again when they had more time.
So I waited and waited, and then I waited some more.
I received an unexpected and very welcome email three days later. “We haven’t completely discounted the possibility of buying a left-hand drive motorhome…” Sue began. It wasn’t the positive reply I hoped for, but it wasn’t a flat-out refusal. She wanted details about the vehicle’s condition, service history and running costs. All of her questions indicated interest and ignited a tiny flame of hope. I emailed the details, complete with a link to an online photo album of the Hymer dominating a variety of exotic landscapes. And then I waited some more.
Sue replied two days later. More positive news. They wanted to do a deal. She suggested taking the motorhome in part exchange and then named the balance they wanted us to pay. The proposal was good in principle, but the email didn’t address who was going to be responsible for the necessary repairs to the boat before we could move on board. I pointed that out to her. The Palmers need to think some more.
In the meantime, I still don’t know how much the repairs are likely to cost, who’s going to be doing them, and when they can be done. We hoped to be on board by Christmas. That deadline is feeling more and more unrealistic.
Tattenhall marina has sublet their marina workshop. The new guy will be open for business tomorrow. He’s going to quote for the work. If his price is acceptable, he should be able to start work immediately. In a perfect world, he would work on our boat to the exclusion of all else, all the parts he needed would be readily available, and he would be finished within a week. Oh, and pigs would fly, and money would grow on trees.
Thank you to those who have booked a day with me in 2019 already. And a big thank you to two of my future guests who asked if I could package a Discovery Day as a Christmas gift. What a great idea. On a feedback form, I received two or three years ago one happy lady told me, “This has been the best anniversary gift I’ve received in twenty-four years of marriage!” I know how much people enjoy their eight-hour cruise with me, so what a wonderful gift to give at a time of the year when balmy summer days are a distant memory.
If you are wondering what on Earth you can buy your significant other for Christmas, here’s an opportunity to arrange something they will really enjoy. They’ll receive an animated Jackie Lawson boating card on Christmas Day with a message including a link to a special Christmas gift. The lucky recipient will land on a Christmas Discovery page on my site describing the treat in store for them in detail. It’s a gift they will always remember fondly.
If you want to see the Discovery Day route, here’s a virtual cruise along the combined Oxford and Grand Union canals between Napton and Braunston junctions.
The video was put together by Discovery Day guest Mike Shacklock on a gorgeous summer’s day in June 2015. The relaxing video shows a rooftop view of my boat on a calm canal and the waving helmsman of narrowboats cruising along a winding canal fringed by rolling hills. The footage ends with an ascent of the three lock Calcutt flight. Set to relaxing music, the video is a great way to rest for twenty minutes while you dream about the summer ahead and the possibility of joining this happy band of boaters.
I don’t know why I make plans. Things rarely work out the way I want them to. Everything seemed so straightforward on my survey day To Do list.
• Ask permission to black Orient while it’s out of the water
• Make sure there’s a pressure washer available
• Buy bitumen, rollers, weed hatch tape and rolls of paper towels for drying a damp hull on a dull autumn day
• Employ a surveyor for the day
• Jump for joy when the surveyor tells me that the boat is in as good a condition as I suspect
I missed an important item from my list. “Add an extra twelve hours to the day”. I don’t know how I thought I was going to go through the boat with the surveyor and then find time to black Orient too. Not that painting a hull with bitumen was even a consideration after the phone call I received on Friday afternoon.
Cynthia called. She was still on our damp and unheated boat back in Holland. I could barely recognise her voice. She sounded awful, but not as bad as she felt. She told me she had a fever, her mouth had swelled so much that speaking was difficult and that she was so weak that she didn’t have enough strength to climb the companionway steps to the boat’s rear deck. She had two weighty dogs needing a toilet break and no way of getting them outside. Cynthia was understandably upset. The marina was practically deserted. She had no one to turn to. Cynthia felt scared and isolated. I felt helpless.
We discussed our options. We could phone for an ambulance, but they would take Cynthia to a hospital and pump her full of the western medicine she tried so hard to avoid. We scrubbed that idea.
I could abandon my Sunday survey plans and drive back to Holland immediately. We scrubbed that one too. The drive would take ten hours plus whatever delay I would face crossing the channel. Neither Cynthia nor the dogs could wait that long. Cynthia needed someone she could turn to nearby. She has a small number of Dutch friends who she thought might be able to help. One of them, Mariella, the marina owner’s wife, responded to Cynthia’s texted cry for help immediately.
Mariella said that she was working but that she could collect the various herbal medications Cynthia needed when she finished for the day. The following day was Saturday. She would be happy to walk our two bassets three our four times and check on Cynthia at the same time.
That news alone helped Cynthia’s recovery tremendously. She was finding the isolation hard to bear. Most of her vast network of friends lived on the far side of the Atlantic ocean. The North Sea kept her away from her husband and a cultural divide from the Dutch people around her. Despite her many years of international travel, life on a foreign shore had never felt so challenging.
Cynthia’s condition had improved enough by Saturday to allow me to return my focus to boat buying, surveying and blacking.
I had neither the time nor the inclination to black the boat on Sunday. Even if I wanted to, the practicalities overwhelmed me. I had permission to black Orient from the marina management, but didn’t have a pressure washer to clean the hull with first. The marina’s workshop services were in transition, about to be outsourced to a subcontractor who wouldn’t open for business until the beginning of December. The company’s own pressure washer had been moved to another site. I managed to borrow one from every helpful broker Steven Harral. The machine was a Karcher, better suited for car bodywork grime removal than mud, weed and the rock hard secretions of aquatic creatures. As the pressure washer wasn’t up to the job and I didn’t have the time to clean the boat in preparation for blacking or to do the hull painting itself, I reluctantly removed blacking from my list.
I didn’t have a surveyor either. I asked boat safety examiner and old friend from Calcutt Boats, Russ Fincham, to help me on the day.
Even though Russ has worked with narrowboats for twenty years, I wasn’t really sure I needed him at first. I’ve been around narrowboats since 2010. Over the last eight years, the experiences I’ve had living afloat at one of the country’s most prominent marinas has taught me a thing or two. I’ve learned a great deal from the fitters and engineers I’ve worked with and from my own mistakes and the experiences of the many hundreds of narrowboat owners I’ve had the pleasure to meet. I know a good boat when I see one, and I knew as soon as I saw Orient that I’d found a gem. That’s what I thought.
I arrived at Tattenhall marina two days before survey day. I had plenty of time to mooch around the boat examining it from every angle, inside and out. I was confident that this lovely boat was in first class condition.
Overconfident as it happens. Misguided even. Deluded and clueless, some would say.
The rudder was my only real concern. When I viewed the boat for the first time three weeks earlier I had the chance to take her out for a spin. Even though the boat handled beautifully the steering was very heavy. I hoped that the skeg, the horizontal steel bar which supports the rudder cup, hadn’t come into contact with a lock cill and bent upwards, pinching the rudder bearing and causing the stiff handling.
After a coffee and a chat about our mutual oddball boating acquaintances, I left Russ to his own devices for an hour. I didn’t think he needed me there to confirm my opinion. I looked forward to him telling me that Cynthia had found a delightful problem free waterway home for us. The survey was, I assured myself, a formality, nothing more.
“What do you think?” I asked Russ’s jean-clad arse as he bent double to unhook his trapped belt from the brass speed wheel. Why are so many tradesmen working in small narrowboat spaces such big men? “It’s a cracking boat, isn’t it?” I waited for his enthusiastic confirmation.
Red-faced and puffing, he backed out of the boatman’s cabin. He looked at me and wrinkled his nose. “I’ve seen worse,” he conceded resting an arm on the tiller’s swan’s neck.
I pointed at the steel deck beneath his feet. “What about the tiller then? Was I right? Is it going to be a problem?” Orient had to be back in the water the following day. There wasn’t enough time to do any work on it before then. I suspected that the boat would need to be lifted out again and the sturdy steel skeg somehow straightened to relieve some of the tiller tension.
Russ sucked his teeth. Tradesman teeth sucking is always advanced warning of lengthy and costly repairs. “I’ve got to hand it to you,” he admitted, giving the tiller an experimental tweak, “You spotted a big problem there.” I knew it. We’d have to pay hundreds of pounds, maybe a thousand or more, to put the problem right.
I hesitated before asking the burning question. “How much is the repair going to cost me?” He grinned. “About fifteen minutes labour and a couple of quid for parts. There’s just a bit of muck in the rudder cup. Fitting a grease nipple should free it up a bit.”
So much for my expert opinion. Still, I was happy on this occasion to be proven wrong. My only worry turned out to be nothing at all. I breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s great news. I take it everything inside was OK too?” I was pretty sure it was, but having Russ there to confirm it was handy.
“Let’s take a walk through the boat. I want to show you a few things.” He wedged himself back into the boatman’s cabin companionway and reached over the range to its flue. “See this here?” he looked up to where the flue passed through the cabin roof and firmly rocked it from side to side. “This needs properly sealing to prevent rainwater ingress.”
“Is that it?” Resealing the flue wasn’t going to break the bank. I could live with that. “Keep walking,” Russ insisted and lead me past the back cabin’s upholstered bench seats, brass lamps and decorative wall mounted plates. We ducked through the low doorway into the engine room.
Most modern narrowboats are designed to make the most of the limited cabin space. The engine is at the back of the boat either under boards beneath the helmsman’s feet on cruiser stern boats or inside an engine room in front of the steerer on a trad stern boat. Orient’s design is along the lines of the old working narrowboats. The helmsman, and often his wife and children, would live in a small room, the boatman’s cabin, at the rear of the boat. The engine was in its own room forward of the living accommodation.
Orient’s engine room is dominated by a bright green 1936 Lister JP2M. There are two pairs of side doors which can be folded open to allow passing boaters and towpath users to see the engine buffed to shiny perfection. Russ hadn’t brought me to see the Lister. He agreed that it was a beautiful piece of machinery. “It’s simple to maintain,” he reassured me. “Even YOU should be able to do it!” He knows me so well.
“The engine’s not a problem. The generator is a different kettle of fish.” He removed the generator housing’s green painted lid. “Nice generator,” I offered. “No, it’s not. It’s leaking like a sieve.” He wiped a grimy finger around a joint. It came away smeared with diesel. “And see there, and there, and there. Oh, and there too?” He pointed at other joints. “They’ve all been leaking at some stage. They’ve been plastered in epoxy. The whole thing needs a good service before you consider running it up.” More bad news, but the worst was yet to come.
We walked from the engine room into the spacious bathroom. An elegant shower cubicle filled one corner. A cassette toilet squatted beside it. That was on our list of things to change if we got the boat. It was fine for now, but I had an unhappy relationship with cassettes for five years on my last narrowboat. I lost count of the number of times I arrived at an Elsan point with my two cartridges filled to bursting to find the sewage disposal point out of order. My time on an idyllic mooring was always limited by my waste carrying capacity. Boating life improved immeasurably as soon as I threw my cassette toilet in Calcutt Boats’ skip and installed a composting toilet in its place. I gave the cassette a sly kick as we walked through the bathroom into the galley and then into the saloon.
“What do you think of the stove?” Russ asked. “I’ve always wanted a Squirrel,” I told him, imagining it filled with glowing coal and topped by a spinning Ecofan. I tried to guess why Russ was questioning me. I could see that the stove needed a coat of paint, but that wouldn’t take me long to sort out.
He ran a stubby finger along the back edge of the stove’s top plate. “You’re happy with this crack here then?” He lowered his finger to another point beneath the front door’s sooty glass, “And look at this one here. It’s nearly wide enough to put my finger in.” Why hadn’t I noticed the faults? I know my sight’s not what it used to be, but I shouldn’t have missed clear indications that the stove was falling apart.
“Can I use it until we can afford to have a new stove fitted?” I asked hopefully. “Of course you can,” he assured me, “as long as you wear gas masks to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.” I guessed he meant that we needed a new stove. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. We couldn’t move onto the boat without reliable heating. Then I remembered that the Squirrel stove wasn’t the boat’s only heat source.
“We should be able to keep warm though. The Kabola’s a good boiler, isn’t it?” I asked hopefully. We walked back to the bathroom where the sturdy central heating boiler sat at the bottom of a large pine cupboard. Russ opened the double doors, turned on an overhead light and pointed at the glistening steel sheet the boiler sat on. “The boiler’s been leaking. The light’s reflecting off spilt diesel. I wouldn’t turn it on until it’s been serviced if I were you.” That was terrible news. We had a boat with three heat sources. The stove had cracks in it, a range had a leaking flue, and the central heating boiler was leaking diesel. We had just endured a couple of miserable months on one unheated boat. We didn’t want to move onto another one.
“I’ve saved the best till last,” Russ warned me as we returned to the front of the boat. He opened a small inspection hatch at the top of two steps leading to the front deck and illuminated the dark space with a torch. “That’s your water tank.” He indicated a large plastic cube filling most of the space beneath the well deck. “You can see where it’s been repaired.” He shone his torch on a rough patch at the top of the side facing us and then traced the filler pipe upwards to the deck fitting. “There’s a hole in the filler pipe. If you don’t watch the water going in very carefully every time you top your tank up you’ll flood your boat. In its weakened state, if the boat stops suddenly like if you surge forward and hit the gates in a lock, there’s a chance the tank will rupture. The whole thing really needs replacing with good quality food grade stainless steel. You should expect to pay about £700 for a new tank.”
“Would that include the fitting?” I asked, imagining our bank balance’s cry of despair. Buying the boat had stretched our finances beyond breaking point as it was. The financing was creative, to say the least. I didn’t know how we could also afford these additional repair costs.
Russ didn’t try to soften the blow. “Fitting the tank is likely to cost you at least as much as buying it. There are two ways to do it. Your first option is to slide it out from the deck into the cabin.” He gestured to the beautifully fitted pine cupboards on the front doors’ port side. “Most of that will have to be removed to get the tank out.” He pointed to the starboard side. “And the stove will have to be removed too. If you’re replacing the stove, you can do it at the same time as the tank.” I didn’t like the sound of that. I’ve seen fitted furniture removed from other boats. It’s never quite the same when it’s put back in again. I hoped the alternative would involve less damage. That hope was short lived.
“The alternative is to go in from above. A section, or sections, of the deck will need to be cut away to allow the old tank to be lifted out and the new one to be dropped in. If you go in through the deck, you can use a special plastic bag insert. It will cost half as much as a steel tank but the boat’s existing pipework will have to be altered to fit the bag. Even though a stainless steel tank will cost more, it can be made to fit the existing connections so there will be less labour. Both jobs will be a similar price. Which way it’s done is up to you.” Neither way sounded particularly appealing to me. Not that we could afford to do that work or any of the other jobs on Russ’s growing list. He had one more to add.
The boat specifications on the sales listing hadn’t included a bow thruster. Now that Orient was out of the water we could see that there was one fitted and even though the batteries appeared to be dead there were working controls at the helm. I didn’t have a bow thruster on my last boat. One would have been handy on occasion, but I managed pretty well without. A bow thruster was just something else to go wrong and another expensive set of batteries to maintain. And on Orient, the reason for an immediate boat safety examination failure.
“I need to be able to get into the gas locker,” Russ insisted. I can feel concrete through the drain hole. Hudsons sometimes have water ingress issues in the bow locker because of the hull design. One possible but inadvisable solution is to pour concrete into the gas locker base to raise the floor and prevent whatever is in there from getting wet. Concrete in the gas locker means that the locker floor can’t be examined, so it’s an automatic fail.” That puzzled me. Orient’s BSS certificate expires in 2020. Unless the concrete was a recent addition, the boat should have failed its last inspection. “There’s something else too,” he pointed to the electrical wiring leading from the bow thruster batteries in the well deck locker towards the gas locker. “I need to find out where the bow thruster motor is. If it’s in the gas locker, we have a problem!” Not another one. I had problems coming out of my ears.
We spoke briefly to Steve Harral. The bow locker lid was secured with a combination padlock. He didn’t have the code but offered us a simple solution. “The gas locker shouldn’t be locked anyway. Emergency services need to be able to get in the gas locker if there’s an emergency. Cut it off!!”
A couple of minutes later we were staring at the gas locker floor. Half of it, as Russ suspected, was hidden under an inches deep concrete base. The two 13kg gas bottles rested on a raised steel platform held in place by bolts above a recess housing the bow thruster. “Fail, fail, fail and fail!” Russ pointed to the unsecured bottles and their attached hoses, the concrete base and, most dangerous of all, the bow thruster recess. He pointed to the gap between the gas locker and the bow thruster. “That is very dangerous. Imagine gas leaking from almost empty cylinders, which they often do.”
“The gas locker drain holes are supposed to be no more than an inch above the locker base. They’ve been raised to about five inches here when the concrete was added. So, where’s the leaking gas going to flow instead of through those holes and into the canal?” He looked at me and shook his head when he saw my slack-jawed expression. “The leaking gas will find the lowest point which, in this case, is the bow thruster housing. It won’t stop there though. The gas will find the gaps around the wiring, flow into the bilge and then work its way back to the engine. You know what can happen then? No, of course you don’t. A stray spark and…” He threw his arms into the air and made a sound like a bomb going off. I got the picture.
“What can we do to get around this?” I could see our narrowboat plans being buried beneath a growing pile of insurmountable problems. The quick boat walkthrough was turning into a nightmare.
“If you can live without the bow thruster, the solution is relatively straightforward. You can seal both ends of the bow thruster tube and weld a plate over the recess in the locker so the gas can’t get into it. What do you think?” I was thinking that remaining in Holland on a freezing boat might be our only option if we couldn’t find a way of getting this work done without resorting to bank robbery. Russ estimated that the total bill for repairs and alterations would be between five and eight thousand pounds. I knew we couldn’t stretch that far.
All I could think of doing was reporting the issues Russ unearthed to broker Steve and see what he had to say. I trudged over to Ash Boats’ waterside office and slumped into a seat opposite him. “How did the survey go?” he asked brightly. “Not well Steve,” I warned him. I think we have a problem.”
We’re still at war with the damp on our cold boat. And losing every skirmish.
Dealing with unwanted moisture has become an exhausting daily ritual. Each morning while Cynthia slaves over two or three lit burners on our moisture making gas hob I invest half an hour scraping, mopping and wiping condensation from single glazed windows, aluminium frames and poorly insulated cabin walls and ceilings. I hang the wrung cloths in the wheelhouse to dry. I know they’ll be just as wet when I return to them the following morning.
Our single kilowatt of electric heat is barely enough to remove the chill from mild autumn evenings. Its miserable effort at drying our wet bedding would be laughable under happier circumstances. We don’t find it funny at all. We have towels, tea towels, clothes and sheets hanging from every available cockpit hook and knob. The wheelhouse controls are buried under bedding. There’s little point in hanging anything up. Nothing dries under the weak sun struggling to penetrate our wet windows.
Just when we thought we’d reached an all-time low, two new problems reared their ugly heads. Mould has begun to creep across every fabric surface touching our uninsulated walls and windows. An unwelcome blue mottle is rising from the curtain hems. Similar marks spread slowly over cushions, mattresses and sheets. Our fabric is as unsightly as it’s damp. We tried to bury our collective head in the sands of denial by hiding our wet aft cabin behind a closed wooden door. We can’t even do that now. As our bedding rots our woodwork swells.
I laughed at first. I was able to use the problem as an excuse. “When are you going to put another screw in the galley light cover you took down three weeks ago?” Cynthia asked politely. I knew I should have secured it earlier. DIY isn’t one of my strengths. My desire to buy shiny tools is in inverse proportion to my ability to use them. I have a LOT of tools.
I reluctantly climbed through the bedding walls of our galley cave. The only way we can keep our tiny living area warm is by draping fleece sheets over the companionway to keep the heat in. I slid open a wooden door covering three rows of drawers cleverly built into space beneath our wide gunnels. Clever providing no one wants to use the drawers during prolonged periods of wet weather. Which is most of the time in northern Europe. All of my tools are now locked securely out of reach by pine runners swollen immoveably together.
I don’t mind that so much. Not being able to close the ply door to our mould filled cabin is more of a frustration. The swollen door regularly swings open, welcoming warm air which sticks like glue to every cold surface and enthusiastically contributes to the mould making process.
The small wooden door from our bedding festooned wheelhouse has swelled past practical use too. If I force it closed Cynthia can’t get in and out of the boat. I can’t have that. Without Cynthia, I would starve to death. The door has to be left slightly ajar which, as you can imagine, allows damp air as well as Cynthia to tumble from the exposed rear deck into the pool of misery beneath.
At least I have been able to escape for a while.
A phone call from Oaktree Motorhomes to tell us that our Hymer was ready for collection kickstarted a day of frustrating online travel booking last week. We began in a buoyant mood. “I am always grateful for my lifetime travel privileges at times like this,” Cynthia enthused. Thanks to American Airlines employee travel scheme she can travel virtually anywhere in the world for next to nothing. Now, because we are married, so can I. That’s the theory anyway.
So we logged into AA’s retiree website and browsed through a long list of scheduled flights between Schiphol and Heathrow. Flying to East Midlands would have made much more sense than to Heathrow, but the only carrier we could find which allowed American Airlines staff was British Airways. Their closest destination was Heathrow. We saw a suitable flight, paid the laughably low administration fee, high fived each other for a job well done, and then read the confirmation email small print.
We needed to complete one further small step. One which sounded easy enough in theory but one which improved impossible in practice. We had to list our standby booking with British Airways.
“How do I do that?” I asked Cynthia hopefully. She’s been on hundreds of standby flights. I knew she would have the answer. “I don’t have a clue. I haven’t listed for a standby flight with British Airways in years. The process is bound to be different now. I’m sure with your internet skills you’ll sort it out easily!”
So I began searching, phoning and, eventually, pleading which took longer than the expected flight. I called British Airways four times. No one had a clue what I was talking about. That, in itself, isn’t unusual. Cynthia phoned American Airlines three times. They suggested we call BA. She phoned a fourth time, demanding to talk to a department supervisor.
At last, we found someone with a little useful knowledge. “No problem,” drawled a helpful lady sweltering at a desk somewhere in America’s deep south. “You can make the listing online. All you have to do is complete a simple form. I’ll walk you through it”, and she did, right up to the point when the booking form threw up a message telling us that the ticket wasn’t valid for British Airways travel.
We endured another round of telephone calls and escalated helpline assistance before we resolved the ticket invalidity mystery. British Airways doesn’t allow the spouses of American Airline staff to travel on their own. If Cynthia couldn’t come with me, I couldn’t go. She couldn’t, so after three hours of wasted effort, we were back to square one. THAT kind of thing is one of the many reasons I want to return to the peace and quiet of the English waterways and stay there. If I want to travel anywhere, all I have to do is untie a couple of ropes, start my engine and chug at a snail’s pace to my new destination. Surely that’s not too much to ask?
We endured another half hour trawling through listings on a handful of comparison websites trying to find a one-way ticket for less than the cost of a plane. Then Cynthia had another of her many bright ideas. “Why don’t you take an overnight ferry from the Hook of Holland? You can get a cabin and sleep during the crossing. It has to be better than flying!” Cynthia was right. I hate the stress and rush involved in checking in for flights. I looked forward to a much more pleasant experience on board a boat. I wouldn’t have been quite as relaxed if I knew how long the journey was going to take me.
The first leg of my bus, train, train, train, bus, ferry, train, train, train, train and bus marathon started well enough. I reached the vast train terminal at Schiphol airport and booked tickets to get me to the Hook of Holland. I climbed on board the first train and settled down for the usual efficient Dutch service. The train broke down five miles away from Schiphol. Regular tannoy updates kept us informed. The driver was on the phone to a help desk. The train would only travel backwards unless they could fix the problem. They couldn’t. It lurched back the way it came and then carried on for another half hour, still going backwards, to central Amsterdam to connect us with an alternative train. After an hour’s travel, I was twenty miles further away from my destination than when I started.
I arrived at Oaktree Motorhomes twenty-five hours later. The boating part of it was relaxing. The small unheated cabin still felt like a sauna after our icebox boat, but at least I could sleep for a few hours.
Back on English soil, not wanting to be outdone by Dutch railway delays, my fifth train of the English leg was cancelled. Rather than waiting for two hours, I decided to find a bus to take me from Nottingham city centre ten miles north-west to the motorhome dealership. One bus and a five-mile walk later I stepped into our Hymer home.
All the repairs had been completed, the service manager told me. He was right, after a fashion, but I didn’t find the right royal cock up one of their suppliers made for two days.
Because I’m obsessive about details I record all of our boating and motorhome journeys in spreadsheets. I note the starting and stopping mileage and the distance we’ve covered. I didn’t notice a discrepancy on our motorhome spreadsheet until I reached Tattenhall marina the following day.
Our Hymer is left-hand drive. We purchased it in the UK. The motorhome is UK registered but designed for continental travel. In addition to the steering wheel, the dashboard display is also designed for mainland Europe. One of the more essential repairs was to the Hymer’s distance counter. A fault resulted in the kilometre total increasing by one a second when the ignition was turned on even if the motorhome wasn’t moving. The total had reached more than six hundred thousand. I wanted the fault fixed, and the counter reset to the correct figure. Because of my spreadsheet, I could show the actual distance the vehicle had travelled. I submitted a copy of that with garage repair receipts from our European travels. The receipts showed the dashboard reading on the date the repair was carried out.
The odometer repairers aren’t always either willing or able to reset the clock. I was delighted when Oaktree’s service manager confirmed that ours had been reset to the correct figure.
What neither of us knew at the time was that it had been reset to 115,739 as I asked but in miles rather than kilometres. The vehicle has done 71,916 MILES, 43,823 less than the gauge now indicates. So we have a left-hand drive vehicle with a speedometer marked in kilometres counting distance in miles and showing a wildly inaccurate total distance. And we’re trying to sell the motorhome to buy the boat. Correcting the cockup will probably mean another ten days without the motorhome at a time when we are trying to move from one country to another, in the motorhome, and preparing the vehicle for a hoped-for quick sale. The situation is really frustrating.
At least being back at an English marina has helped calm me down, as has the help I’ve received from the marina staff. They have an official you-will-be-shot-if-you’re-found-sleeping-in-your-motorhome policy. No exceptions or excuses, unless you’re on friendly terms with the marina manager. Orient’s broker, Steve Harral, stepped up to the plate on my behalf. “This chap,” he pointed at me, “is having a survey done on Orient on Sunday. Can he stay in his motorhome until then?” The manager looked at Steve and then across the marina to where the Hymer dominated a small car park. “You know the rules, Steve. He can’t sleep in his motorhome on site. If I let him, I’ll have to let other moorers do it too.” He turned away to deal with another customer. “Mind you, if he wedged it into the small gap between Orient and the workshop I wouldn’t be able to see it from my office window.”
Orient was high and dry on a cradle beside a brick building on the far side of the marina. There was a muddy gap ten feet wide between their tractor-trailer rig and polythene covered boat blacking and painting tent. The Hymer fitted with inches to spare. The gap was so narrow I had to crack open the driver’s door and squeeze through a small gap straight onto the trailer’s towbar. I kept a low profile for two days. I covered all our windows with the Hymer’s blackout screens, used as few lights as possible and waited anxiously for today’s survey.
I’ve had a few challenges to keep the old grey matter active while I waited. Even though the boat looks in good condition out of the water, it doesn’t appear to have been blacked for a few years. I wanted to throw a couple of coats of bitumen on while it was out. The marina used to allow moorers to black their own boats. There was a decent pressure washer for hire and staff at hand to drive the tractor and trailer rig. Lakeland Leisure then decided to subcontract all onsite repairs and services. The new regime doesn’t begin until December. In the meantime, the pressure washer has been moved to another site and the only person now capable of driving the tractor has to come down from the Lake District.
I’ve managed to borrow a domestic pressure washer from ever-helpful broker Steve. The boat has been out of the water for six days. The boat’s organic growth is as hard as cement. Removing it with a Karcher designed for removing dust from shiny cars is going to be like colouring a sheet of paper as large as a football field with a child’s crayon. I’m not looking forward to it.
Added to that is the pressure to get back to Cynthia as soon as possible. She continues to suffer in a horribly cold and damp environment. She developed a fever yesterday, possibly as a result of a gum abscess. I came close to abandoning our plans to drive back to her. She considered calling an ambulance at one stage when she realised she was too weak to climb out of the boat to take the dogs out. One of her many guardian angels came to the rescue. Mariella, the marina owner’s wife, responded to her text plea for help. She brought medicinal supplies and offered to walk the dogs. We went from red to amber alert. Now, I think, we’re back in the green.
Today is surveying day. I hope it goes as well as I expect. This traditional boat with a traditional boatman’s cabin, and an engine room with beautiful old Lister, also has a very untraditional bow thruster. The bow thruster batteries appear to be dead. Maybe I’ll leave them that way. I’ve often described bow thruster controls very dismissively as “girlie buttons” Now, having experienced a very good bow thruster on our first Dutch boat, I know how useful they can be in difficult conditions. Maybe I’ll replace the batteries after all.
Right, where’s that piddly little pressure washer? It’s time to go to work!
Phew! That was exciting. Since my last proper narrowboat post, a little over two years ago, Cynthia and I have been very, very busy.
I sold my lovely narrowboat, James No 194 and left England’s historic canal network for a life of happy exploration on mainland Europe. We clocked up twenty-seven thousand miles through eleven countries. You can read about our motorhome travels on this blog. We purchased a Dutch cruiser for waterways exploration in Holland, sold that, bought another, and cruised a thousand miles through a landscape filled with flat fields, spinning windmills and endless rows of multicoloured tulips. We fought bureaucratic nonsense at every turn, trying to secure permission for Cynthia to stay in the country.
We failed again, and again and again.
We travelled and we wined and dined like royalty for eighteen glorious months and then, on a very sad day last April, realised that I needed to do some work to pay the bills. I found a mooring at a prominent boatyard in North Holland and employment painting their customer’s ridiculously expensive boats.
That’s when the rot began to set in.
My job is well-paid work by boatyard standards, but there’s only so much pleasure a man in his late fifties can get from crawling around under a variety of posh steel cruisers splashing himself liberally with toxic antifouling paint. The fact that I can’t speak the language and quickly became apprenticed to an unskilled eighteen-year-old didn’t help either.
Much as I have been frustrated by my working life, Cynthia’s plight has been worse.
She can’t drive our five and a half tonne motorhome on her now expired American driving license so she’s been stuck on our boat moored in an expanse of concrete and steel with no one to talk to.
And believe me, my wife likes to talk.
An old hip injury means that walking anywhere causes her pain. Nor can she cycle to interesting places to spend the day while I am at work. The distances are just too great. Isolation in a cold and damp boat for days on end has begun to affect her health. Her only break from the monotony has been weekend trips to a nearby bio grocery store. It’s a sad life when the highlight of your week is buying groceries.
Cynthia, understandably, has been even unhappier than me.
Fortunately for both of us, Cynthia realised the futility in living as we did. My wife is very good at hunting for solutions. She realised we needed to change. She suggested, hopefully, and maybe a little fearfully, that the best course of action would be for us to move back to good old Blighty. That was the situation two weeks ago. Our plans have moved on apace since then. The good news for us, and possibly for you if you like reading about life on England’s muddy ditches, is that we should be back in the UK very soon.
Here’s the beginning of the next chapter in our nomadic lives…
Everything on board is either wet or very damp. Cynthia and I are damp too, as are our spirits. This fancy Linssen of ours is as much use as a winter live aboard craft as a chocolate fireguard.
It just doesn’t work.
The boat is big enough to live on comfortably. It’s thirty-five-foot length and twelve-foot beam gives us four hundred and twenty square feet of living space. Which is a shame given that we can’t use most of it.
The cabins at either end of the boat are too cold and damp to consider using for sleeping. We have heat in neither room. As the thermometer sinks steadily towards zero – Thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit for Cynthia, she comes from a country which hasn’t embraced decimal anything yet – we’re compressed into a smaller and smaller living space.
We now spend most of our time crammed like sardines into the galley area, a space encompassing just sixty square feet. There’s a dinette which converts into a spacious bed. Spacious unless you share it with your significant other, two large dogs and a kitchen. Ever positive Cynthia tries to look on the bright side of everything. “At least now I can sit on the bed while I’m cooking,” she told me last week as she sat on the duvet stirring a pot of lentil stew. A few days later my wife shared another gem. “We don’t have to spend money on getting another fridge installed,” she enthused, “I can use either of the bedrooms or the bathroom to keep our food cool”. But even Cynthia, the lady who can find a silver lining in any black cloud, can’t think of anything positive to say about the damp.
We have more than our fair share of windows. Our cockpit alone has eleven picture windows, more than many narrowboats twice the length. In addition to the vast expanse of cockpit glass, we have a dozen portholes. All twenty-three windows are single glazed. They suck heat out of the boat faster than we can make it. Not that we can make it very quickly.
The condensation is awful. Any time-served boater knows that this unwanted moisture is an unhappy union between inferior insulation, insufficient heating and poor ventilation. We are cursed with all three.
When we were researching suitable liveaboard Dutch boats, we called Linssen Yacht’s head office to ask if our St Joseph Vlet is insulated. We were assured that it is. I would very much like to meet that man I spoke to on the phone, take him to one of the country’s many working canalside windmills and tie him by his testicles to a spinning sail. The insulation on the few cabin wall sections of our floating fridge not covered by single panes of glass is tissue thin. If we are brave enough to lay on the mortician’s slab which masquerades as a double bed in the boat’s small aft cabin, we can watch clouds of moisture-laden breath drift towards the ceiling. Our exhalations form swelling beads which grow until they pop and then fall as cold rain upon our musty quilt.
That’s why we don’t sleep there any more.
Opening a window or two and heating a room is usually an effective condensation reducer. Unless the space in question is on a 1984 Linssen yacht designed by a man who doesn’t know his arse from his elbow. He thoughtlessly designed the porthole frame with a two-inch wide lip running around the window’s exterior. Any falling rain is channelled through the window into the cabin beyond. With no top hopper, the only way to ventilate a room is by swinging the porthole inwards on its single hinge. We left the windows open for ventilation in a summer storm on one of our first nights onboard. The experience was like standing under a power shower on its highest setting. Rain during this record-breaking summer has been rare. We were able to open the windows regularly to keep the boat thoroughly ventilated. Now the rain has returned. We can only open two of our twenty-three windows without running the risk of sinking.
The final nail in the coffin of our onboard comfort is the shit heating system. It’s a refurbished diesel burner which smokes rather than burns. Most of the smoke is ejected from the boat via the exhaust. Enough of it filters through the boards above the engine to turn the cabin interior into a nineteenth-century London smog. Even if we can get the heater started, a hit and miss affair at best, we stand a real chance of poisoning ourselves. Needless to say, we can’t risk using it.
Our emergency heating is provided by a one-kilowatt electric heater. Because the boat’s wiring was installed by an electrician with the technical competence of a starfish, even if we’re using the marina’s electrical supply, we can only use appliances which the boat’s inverter can handle. A typical narrowboat’s solid fuel stove heat output is seven kilowatts, seven times the heat we have at our disposal.
We are constantly cold and damp. Boating is no fun on the Dutch waterways on craft incapable of dealing with winter weather. Very few over here are built for overnight stays when there’s a nip in the air. Even less are suitable or are used for living on board full time.
Our Dutch marina has mostly empty berths now. Of the five hundred moorings here, only two of them have boats with people living on board. There’s Cynthia and me and a crazy old guy who either heats or drinks meths to keep warm. The only thing keeping us going at the moment is the knowledge that our time living in a meat locker is coming to an end.
We’ve almost bought a narrowboat. We’ve paid a deposit and agreed to buy it subject to survey. The hurdle we need to overcome first is actually getting to England to see the boat.
The reason we’re currently living like Eskimos is that our motorhome is at a Nottingham dealership being repaired. It’s thirty-one months into a thirty-six-month warranty. We had a list of relatively minor repairs to make before the warranty expires. The most important was the odometer. Our Hymer records the distance in kilometres at a rate which is enthusiastic but inaccurate. The problem reared its ugly head when we were foolish enough to ask a rural French garage to change a light bulb on a Friday afternoon following a two-hour liquid lunch break. The clock has been adding one kilometre every second since then when the ignition is turned on, regardless of the vehicle’s movement. The current total is six hundred and thirty-five thousand kilometres, three hundred and ninety-four thousand miles. We have to use the sale proceeds from our motorhome to buy our new boat. We will struggle to attract potential buyers if the vehicle appears to have been driven sixteen times around the Earth.
I’m waiting for a call before I can return to England to collect our Hymer. Then I can drive to Chester to see our new home. Providing there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the boat I’ll sign on the dotted line. We’ll have a boat but, as often seems the case these days, I’ll have a wife in a different country. I will need to return to her, take our stuff off our Dutch boat and then sail it six hours north to our broker in Zaandam. Once the craft is safely on its new berth, cleaned and polished to perfection, I need to prepare myself for a ten-hour drive from Aalsmeer back to Chester. Then I’m going to light my first coal fire in two years and dive head first into a bottle of merlot.
That’s the plan anyway.
Our further hope is that we can move our boat down the Shroppie to the Grand Union at Napton Junction. The route will involve waiting for seven pre-Christmas stoppages to be completed. They need to be finished on time to allow us to complete the rest of our journey before several New Year stoppages begin. Any delay in opening these stretches of the waterway will leave us in the middle of nowhere until the spring. We aren’t terribly keen on that happening.
Oh, I forgot to mention the boat.
It’s a beautiful 61’6” traditional stern Steve Hudson boat, currently moored at Tattenhall Marina. I’ll tell you all about it next week. Here’s a sneaky peak through the front doors. What do you think?
With my marina work all but finished for the season I’ve had plenty of time to focus what I’m going to do back in the UK. And, thanks to Cynthia, that will be what I do best; talking passionately and at length about narrowboats and life on England’s inland waterways.
I had a phenomenal response to last week’s email. I asked you, my newsletter subscribers, if you would be interested in joining me for a relaxed day of helmsmanship instruction and learning everything necessary to live a comfortable, safe and relaxed life on the water.
The answer was a resounding “Yes PLEASE!”
I’ve recreated and rewritten my old Discovery Day booking system and decided on next year’s dates. I will be hosting my experience days during the first two weeks of April, June, August, October and December 2019. I don’t want to jump the gun until Orient has had a successful out of water survey. I’m hoping to arrange that next week sometime. The very minute my unofficial surveyor gives me the green light, I’ll email a link to my calendar to everyone who has already expressed an interest. If you want to know more and haven’t yet logged your interest by clicking on either of the links in the last two emails from me, let me know by clicking here. (You don’t need to bother if you clicked on the Discovery Day link in this post’s introductory email) I’ll add you to the list of people to be notified as soon as the booking system is live.