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


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Life After Lockdown And Why Social Distancing Can Be Fun

I wrote my last blog post at the beginning of March, shortly before the world closed down to slow the spread of Covid-19. The last three months have been a traumatic time for many as they lost freedom, livelihoods and lives. Please accept my sympathy and condolences if you have suffered financial hardship or the loss of a loved one. We live in a time of uncertainty, frustration and unrest, hoping that the ‘new normal’ will be normal enough to allow the global economy and the world’s population to flourish. But not everyone has found the last three months taxing.

I haven’t written anything for the site recently for two reasons. Firstly, with the canal network locked down and the majority of boats confined to marina moorings, I haven’t had anything exciting or constructive to document. Secondly and, more importantly, I haven’t felt comfortable writing about my circumstances.

My blog post notification email goes out to 5,000 inland waterways enthusiasts. Some are statistically likely to have lost a family member to coronavirus or know someone who has. My intention is not to make light of this devastating pandemic or the damage done to the economy by worldwide restrictions on trade and personal movement. Recovery from the virus and the attempts to control it will take many years. But life for some hasn’t been bad at all.

The pandemic has inconvenienced me rather than caused me hardship. Like most waterways services, my Discovery Day familiarisation and training cruises had to stop in March. I missed but didn’t need the income from these days. I missed the company of people like you more than money. I managed during the lockdown’s dark days because I had another financial string to my bow. Thanks to the ever generous and considerate Preen family who own and control Calcutt Boats, I continued to work maintaining the company’s beautiful forty acres.

Rather than struggle during these last few months, I have thrived. Forgive me for saying this if you are struggling with financial or physical loss or a feeling of isolation or depression, but England’s national lockdown has bracketed one of the happiest periods of my life.

Boaters are a peculiar bunch. They are both gregarious and insular, as happy to party with new friends as they are to spend extended periods alone. Alone but not lonely. I am one of those fortunate people.

Calcutt Boats furloughed most employees but retained a skeleton staff to maintain the sprawling site. My job has been to keep forty acres of spring growth in check. Several of those acres are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Three meadows filled with more varieties of wildflowers than half a dozen naked boaters can count on their exposed extremities. We have a lot of different wildflowers here and most of them are at their colourful best at this time of the year.

More wildflowers than you can shake a stick at

More wildflowers than you can shake a stick at

My days have involved gentle mowing and trimming on a private estate in a beautiful corner of rural Warwickshire, often under a cloudless and quiet blue sky. Another lockdown bonus, for me, has been the absence of noisy aircraft roaring to and from Birmingham and East Midlands airports. The planes have been replaced by circling buzzards, honking geese and the occasional hawk. A red kite with its distinctive forked tail graced us with its presence one afternoon. I feel blessed to live here.

Keeping the shower block frontage tidy

Keeping the shower block frontage tidy

With the site closed to boat owners in the lockdown’s early weeks, our abundant wildlife became increasingly bold. A fox pack regularly sprinkled our lawn with half-chewed bones, timid muntjac deer flitted through the shadows of our seven-acre wood, and berry-filled badger droppings littered the marina banks. Our rabbits did what rabbits do, untroubled by meddlesome people. Bobbing white tails filled the woodland fringes at dusk prompting excited yapping from lead-restrained pooches.

Food for the soul on a working day at Calcutt Boats

Food for the soul on a working day at Calcutt Boats

Life has changed for me recently. But, unlike the restricted lives of much of our country’s population, my life has changed for the better. 

Those of us still working at the marina also live here. We’ve worked together and rarely left the site. I’ve made just three brief visits to our local village store in the last three months. Being anti-social most of the time has its advantages. Self-isolation is a natural state. 

We’ve worked together, so we’ve socialised together too. I’m sure that some would argue that we’ve been breaking the lockdown guidelines. However, when I see media coverage of protesters standing shoulder to shoulder or thousands of half-naked sun worshipers wedged together on crowded beaches, quite frankly I don’t give a shit.

So we’ve barbecued, drunk to excess, argued, debated and bonded in equal measures. We’ve read and watched reports about society unravelling across the world, and we’ve thanked our collective lucky stars that we live and work on England’s inland waterways network. And we’ve concluded that we’ll be welcoming many more to our happy little band in the coming months.

One of our barbecue night's posh revellers

One of our barbecue night’s more sophisticated revellers

Cheese and wine (followed by port and whisky)

Cheese and wine (followed by port and whisky)

An approaching storm puts an end to our after work drinking

An approaching storm puts an end to our after work drinking

One of the few positive developments to come out of this global mess has been the realisation that there are millions of people worldwide who don’t need to return to full-time work in a distant office. 

Working from home, wherever that home may be, will be the new normal for an increasing number of people. In my immediate circle, two fortunate boaters have told me how their lives have changed for the better. One is a project manager for a new factory somewhere in troubled Trump land. The other is a mental health nurse. Both can now perform most of their duties remotely, all but eliminating tedious travel, and work while they cruise. They are both very happy bunnies.

A day out on the cut during lockdown

A day out on the cut during lockdown

Living on a narrowboat offers a unique opportunity to explore much of England and parts of Wales at a relaxed pace far away from the stresses and strains of modern-day life. And a well-appointed narrowboat costs much less than the smallest brick and mortar homes. 

I read an article in The Telegraph recently which reported that the cheapest property in London in 2015 was a studio flat in Clapham. You didn’t get much of a home for your hard-earned cash—a claustrophobic space without a view, garden or any sense of tranquillity. However, the seventy-five thousand pounds needed to buy the Clapham float will buy you a stunning narrowboat. Orient, my pride and joy, cost less than that and is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and comfortable floating living spaces you could wish to call your home.

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Living afloat isn’t for everyone. I’ve written extensively about the downsides of living on a narrowboat. The most recent post is here. However, in light of the worldwide pandemic, living on England’s inland waterways is an increasingly attractive and viable proposition for many.

Social distancing is easy for liveaboard boat owners. Most narrowboat owners moor at least a boat length apart. Towpaths are rarely crowded so avoiding strangers is easy. I’ve read some angry posts on Facebook written by outraged boaters driven to distraction by towpath users. They’re apoplectic at the sight of walkers, joggers and cyclists passing less than two metres from their steel-clad cabins. Why? The virus can’t penetrate metal. The canals and their towpaths offer a safe and aesthetically pleasing playground far away from crowded pubs, streets, parks and beaches.

The playground was filled with the sound of merriment yesterday when the government lifted holiday accommodation restrictions. Hire boat owners through the network have been working flat out to prepare for the late start to this year’s season.

Here at Calcutt Boats, that meant making quite a few changes. There’s a one-way system for both the wharf and the chandlery, more cleaners on hand for changeover days, PPE for wharf staff and video tuition for new hirers. But the hard work has been worthwhile. The office phones are continually ringing as holiday-deprived families book a boat for a few days in paradise. The wharf feels alive once more and echoes with the sounds of happy boater banter.

I’ve been busy with my little boating operation too. If you’re new to this site you may not know about my Discovery Day service for aspiring narrowboat owners. You can discover more about my experience days here and check availability here.

I haven’t hosted training days on Orient since early March, but I’ve joined several new narrowboat owners for training days on boats they’ve recently purchased but haven’t had the confidence to use.

Discovery Day guest Jane Doran on the Bucky flight

Discovery Day guest Jane Doran on the Bucky flight

The last of these away day training trips was yesterday. I joined Graham and Maureen on their cosy floating home, September Star, for a cruise on the first day of the coronavirus boating season.

We enjoyed an enchanting cruise on a thin and twisting ribbon of sparkling water between Napton and Braunston junctions. Maureen and Graham grinned like Cheshire cats throughout, supremely happy to have achieved their narrowboat ownership goal.

We passed two dozen hire boat on our travels, crewed by mainly happy holidaymakers. Some looked as though they would have been happier moored immoveably to a grassy bank. Threading twenty tonnes of steel through boat width gaps using a brass bar anchored to a platform sixty feet behind the boat’s bow takes a little practice. 

Taking a hire boat down the Calcutt flight

Taking a hire boat down the Calcutt flight

Thanks to Covid-19 precautions, practice for novice narrowboat hirers is now in short supply. “If you want the front of the boat to turn to the right, push the tiller to the left”. That’s all the advice many hire boat company instructors offer before unleashing their quaking charges. This unavoidable response to social distancing requirements means that many novice hire boat crews will be even more unprepared for narrowboat handling than ever before.

The wind buffeted 65′ September Star throughout the day. As we dropped through the Calcutt flight, the breeze strengthened. Calcutt Boats’ marina entrance is a challenge in windy conditions. The weeping willows either side of the narrow opening give boaters a reliable indication of wind speed and direction. The trees looked like Bobby Charlton caught in a wind tunnel as we left the bottom lock. My heart sank, and I was thankful that I stood at the helm of a boat with a powerful engine.

I live on a beautiful boat. The soothing thump of my vintage two-cylinder Lister JP2 turns heads wherever I cruise. But my engine is better equipped for posing than practical boating. Orient’s modest 21hp isn’t enough to get me out of trouble when I need a burst of power. And because of the boat’s deep draught, reversing on shallow canals and marinas is an exercise in frustration. I would have struggled to push Orient through the marina entrance’s howling wind yesterday.

Function over form won the day. September Star’s classic 1.8l BMC pushed us through the narrow gap without a moment’s hesitation. Power without posing. There’s more to life on the cut than owning a pretty boat.

I’ve had a day off today. It hasn’t been a very productive one. I can hear passing boats from my mooring close to both the marina entrance and Calcutt Bottom lock. The wind is blowing even harder than yesterday, so I’ve heard an endless surge of narrowboat engines as helmsmen and women fought a losing battle against the buffeting breeze. The stretch of canal beneath Calcutt Bottom lock was called ‘Windy Corner’ by the old working boatmen for good reason. 

My day followed a predictable pattern. I heard the roar of a narrowboat engine and a windblown curse, so I closed my laptop, climbed out of my boat and watched the action. A frustrated boater pushed his bow from the towpath towards the canal centre. The wind blew it back again. He repeated the exercise half a dozen times before climbing wearily onto his stern, ramming his throttle forward and grinding along the concrete canal siding until he reached a stand of trees and respite from the wind. As soon as the hapless boater careened around the first bend, I returned to my work until the next helmsman announced himself. Ah, the simple joys of living afloat!

I gave up gongoozling for a spell to help a couple of friends through the flight. Here’s a friendly warning for you. Boating is an addiction. Many boat owners moored near a flight of locks set out on a canalside walk equipped with a windlass. They can’t help themselves. Boating is fun, and lock passages offer an opportunity to talk to people who share a passion for the great outdoors. Buy a boat, and you’ll probably join this happy band.

The evening view from my front deck

The evening view from my front deck

I’m making the most of my lazy windlass-waving Sunday. It’s the last I’ll have for a while. I’ve received a steady stream of enquiries and bookings for my Discovery Day service over the last couple of weeks. My diary is filling for the remainder of the boating season.

The sun sets on another fabulous day

The sun sets on another fabulous day

I’m looking forward to welcoming the first of those guests into my home next Saturday. Despite having cruised between Napton and Braunston junctions at least three hundred times, I’m looking forward to two more enchanting experiences next weekend. I’ll listen to the dreams and plans of four more narrowboat enthusiasts and hope that I’ll help them in some small way to move towards a more tranquil lifestyle. If you’re an aspiring narrowboat owner maybe, one day, I’ll have the pleasure of your company too.

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Fifteen Reasons Why Living On A Narrowboat Is A Bad Idea: Part 2

Warning! Living on a narrowboat may be harder than you think. Here are more reasons for NOT living afloat

This is the concluding part of the post I recently published highlighting the many aspects of living afloat which aspiring narrowboat owners may not fully appreciate. In part one I discussed the real cost of living on a narrowboat, mooring availability, living and storage space considerations and personal fitness.

Providing part one hasn’t sunk your boating plans, today’s post addresses exposure to the elements, a steep learning curve, the dangers you face as a boat owner, the challenge of keeping your home warm and condensation free, organisational issues and the dreaded narrowboat toilet. If you think you can deal with that lot, you’ll want to know how to deal with post and parcels. And then, if you’re still keen, you may want to join me on a Discovery Day. You’ll be able to ask all the many questions your research has reaised so far. And you have the pleasure of taking my home for a spin on Warwickshire’s wonderful waterways.

Anyway, on with the post. I hope that you find the information useful.

Exposure To The Elements

Do you enjoy being outdoors in all weather? If not, you possibly won’t enjoy living afloat. 

For a start, you’re out in the open when you’re at the helm. A few narrowboats have a wheelhouse. Many more have pram covers, rear deck covers. Neither is practical or enjoyable to use when cruising. The easiest and arguably safest way to helm your boat is from a back deck open to the elements. 

I’ve been asked a few times if I postpone my cruise if there’s rain forecast. They’re raindrops, not bullets. Cruising in the rain, even heavy rain, isn’t necessarily unpleasant. In fact, once I’m wearing my bomb-proof Guy Cotten trawler man’s waterproofs I’m quite happy to cruise in torrential rain all day. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.

The wind is a different matter. Relatively shallow draughted, flat-bottomed boats with high sides are difficult to control in anything more than a moderate breeze. Wheelhouses and pram covers add even more wind resistance and challenge.

Even boats equipped with powerful bow thrusters struggle on windy days. The solution is to postpone your cruise until the wind subsides, or take advantage of the prevailing breeze. That’s where a helm open to the elements is beneficial. If you can feel the wind, you know what it’s going to do to your boat. If you hide from the weather behind canvas or wood, judging wind speed and direction can be much more difficult.

Your utilities force you outside too. You need to replenish your coal or log supply, change gas cylinders, refill your water tank and empty your toilet cassette or pump out holding tank. If you’re a continuous cruiser, especially in one of CRT’s mooring hotspots, you’re obliged to move your boat every fourteen days to comply with regulations. Unless the weather is considered dangerous, you’ve got to cruise. Unless you enjoy the elements, these forced cruises can quickly become an unpleasant chore.

A continuous cruiser once told me that he used to dread “moving day”, especially in heavy rain. He treated his bimonthly cruises as unpleasant work for many years. Then his view changed. He realised that hire boaters pay vast sums for the privilege of doing what he detested. He decided to treat his moving day as a holiday. He dressed for the weather and transformed an unpleasant chore into a mini vacation.

How’s your sense of smell? There are many treats and torments for your nose on the inland waterways; fresh-cut hay, blossom in the spring and cut grass from CRT contractors once in a blue moon towpath trimming. Those are the pleasant experiences providing pollen doesn’t knock you for six. How about the reek of rotting vegetation as you pole your home off a shallow mudbank? Or, joy of joys, the heady aroma of a drowned critter’s carcass, a half-submerged mine filled with nauseating gas, waiting to explode at the touch of a narrowboat bow?

One of my few disenchanted Discovery Day guests gagged when we nudged the bloated corpse of an unlucky sheep. He told me that, in the unlikely event that he moved afloat, he would insist on steering from an enclosed wheelhouse. 

Some narrowboat owners insist on even more extreme measures.

A boatbuilder told me that he had one hoity-toity lady customer who insisted that he install air conditioning on her narrowboat. He informed her that the installation wouldn’t be a problem, but the unit would cause power management issues. “I don’t care,” she told him. “I can’t stand the canal smells, so I need air conditioning.”

If you don’t enjoy the great outdoors, its weather and its odours, don’t buy a narrowboat.

Living On A Narrowboat Can Be A Dangerous Lifestyle For Careless Boaters

Rain slicked steel, moss-covered stone, drink driving and ignorance of the risks involved increase your chances of serious injury. I’ve lost count of the number of accidents I’ve seen on our little three lock flight here at Calcutt Boats. 

I’ve witnessed many more on my travels.

Carelessness, ignorance and alcohol are the main culprits. Party loving novice hirers in locks frighten me. I’ve seen foolishness bordering on insanity. This example takes some beating though.

On a hot summer’s day several years ago, I passed a scruffy hire boat crewed by drunken men. They entered Calcutt Top lock as I left. All waved beer bottles at passing boaters, swapping good-natured banter and insults.

I watched as a guy standing on the hire boat’s bow handed his bottle of Bud to a mate, stripped off to his boxers and dived into the canal in front of his moving boat. He surfaced laughing and thrashing, grabbed either side of the bow fender and swung his feet onto the deck. The guy at the helm, for a laugh, thrust the Morse control forward and charged into the empty lock towards the unyielding downstream gate. The water baby was still doing his best impression of a hundred and eighty-pound skin and bone fender.

Twenty feet away from killing his cruising buddy, the novice helmsman threw his ten-tonne boat into reverse. He stopped his craft TWO FEET away from the gate. A few seconds delay putting the boat into reverse, a slightly less powerful engine or a shallower lock could have resulted in a fatality. None the wiser, the crew opened another half dozen beer bottles and carried on cruising. 

Isn’t that scary?

But you don’t have to be drunk to hurt yourself on the inland waterways. A Calcutt Boats moorer cruising solo slipped off his boat into the frigid water of a February lock. Too weak and cold to climb out of danger, he clung to his rudder, screaming for help for fifteen minutes before someone heard him. He was so cold that neither the Calcutt first aiders nor the ambulance crew could raise his body temperature. He needed hospital treatment for that.

Another experienced but careless lady boater broke her collar bone. She stepped off her boat on a lock landing, as she had done a thousand times before, tripped over a raised paving stone and fell onto a lock landing bollard. That was the end of her summer cruise.

Young men competing with each other create risk too. Who can jump the furthest from a moving narrowboat gunnel onto a mud-slicked towpath, long jump a narrow lock or raise the quickest paddle? It’s a game many males like to play.

One careless hire boater raised a paddle in a blur of spinning windlass. The young man lost his grip on the windlass handle when the paddle reached its high point. With his face inches from the paddle gear, the windlass, still attached to the rapidly descending paddle and spinning like a propeller, caught him in the mouth. He arrived back at base with a stitched lip and a few fewer teeth than he would have liked.

Most boaters have fallen into the canal network’s murky waters more than once. Happily, most damage nothing more than their pride. I’ve been in four times in ten years. Each dip was down to carelessness. My first was a spectacular backward summersault into the frozen marina when the centre line knot unravelled on the boat I was pulling in. 

Canal bathing in January is not pleasant.

I’ve been for a dip in the summer too. I was working on our wharf one sunny summer’s day selling coal, gas and diesel to passing boaters. One narrowboat approached onto our wharf bow first and far too fast. A handful of feet away from an unpleasant collision with unyielding concrete, I signalled the owner to reverse. He did that quickly as well. As I leaned over the water to grab his bow line, the boat shot backwards. I dived headfirst into three feet of muddy water, much to the amusement of everyone watching. 

Fellow boaters are more likely to reach for a camera than a life ring. 

Make sure that you know what you’re facing before you move afloat. Join a boat owning friend for a cruise or two, take an RYA helmsman course or join me for a Discovery Day. Act like a boy scout and be prepared.

Warning: Familiarity breeds contempt. You’re going to end up in the cut at some stage of your boating career. Embrace the experience. Just make sure that you have a change of clothes handy.

There’s A Steep Learning Curve For New Narrowboat Owners

I was incredibly naive when I moved afloat. My old floating home’s sole purpose was accommodation. I had little interest in narrowboats as such and no plans to use mine for cruising. I expected my transition to be no more complicated than moving from one house to another. 

The reality was mind-numbingly confusing.

I had electricity, water and gas on tap throughout my fifty years living in houses. I warmed my living space by flicking a switch. I didn’t have to think about anything running out. As long as someone continued to pay the bills, life was effortless.

All of that changed on the first day of my life afloat. 

I didn’t move my new home off its mooring at all during my first year afloat. The thought of threading twenty tonnes of steel through narrow lock entrances filled me with dread. The Oxford Canal is nearby. It offers a scenic cruise between Napton and Braunston junctions and challenges at each blind bend and narrow bridge hole. With no formal training to help me, I found the experience quite stressful. Especially when my classic Mercedes engine failed to start six miles from the marina.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons that day. 

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Lesson No 1 – Engines don’t like sitting unused on a static mooring for months or years on end. My Mercedes OM636 ran for just half an hour in three years before my maiden voyage to Braunston. Most of the hoses had perished, and the fuel filter was blocked solid.

After weathering the embarrassment of being towed back to base, I had all the engine hoses replaced. It’s a shame I didn’t do the same with the gearbox. I lost all of my gearbox oil through a cracked hose on my second cruise. I managed to limp home without assistance on that occasion. As soon as I returned, I scheduled a complete engine overhaul. Engines need as much TLC as people.

Lesson No 2 – Narrowboats travel very slowly. My maiden cruise six miles from Calcutt Boats to Braunston took two and a half hours. Walking back to the marina to collect my car took an hour less. Don’t expect to get very far on your narrowboat cruises.

My trial by fire continued. My boat electricity worked at the marina. I expected it to work when I cruised as well. That was when I was introduced to the mysterious relationships between chargers, inverters and split battery banks. It was all very confusing.

I had to carefully manage my water supply. My first boat had a tiny 350-litre water tank, enough for thirty-five minutes in the shower or five baths at house dwelling consumption levels. Not that I had a bath. There’s no room for one on a narrowboat. 

I regularly ran out of water, twice at the terribly soapy stage of taking a shower. Braving an icy north-easterly wearing little more than bubble bath wasn’t the most pleasant way to fill an empty water tank, but it had to be done.

I have a much bigger tank these days, and I’m far more careful with my water. My 750-litre tank lasts me for two months. And, no, I don’t smell like a tramp.

There’s so much to learn when you move afloat that pre-purchase familiarisation is essential. You can’t research what you don’t know, so try to spend some time with a liveaboard boat owner before you commit to a narrowboat lifestyle. What? Don’t you have any narrowboat-owning friends? No problem. You can join me on a Discovery Day cruise.

Keeping All Of Your Floating Home Warm Is A Challenge

Yes, you CAN have a warm and cosy cabin during the cold winter months, but you’ll need to work hard to get there.

I love my boat. I don’t want to live anywhere else. The lifestyle is perfect for me, but keeping my boat warm is hard work. It’s five degrees outside at the moment and blowing a gale. It’s 20°C at the front of the cabin by my fire. It’s a comfortable temperature to sit and work. Twenty feet away in the main bedroom, the temperature drops to 16°C. I sleep in the boatman’s cabin at the back of the boat. It’s 12°C there now, which is relatively warm. The prevailing wind usually blows from the stern and often lowers my bedroom temperature to 7°C. That’s coat, hat and scarf temperature for most people. 

Boaters who tell you that their cabin is warm throughout are being economical with the truth, or they have a tiny and open cabin or a central heating system. Many narrowboat central heating systems aren’t designed for running twenty-four hours a day. Multi-fuel stoves are, but they aren’t suitable for regulating the cabin temperature throughout.

A multi-fuel stove is a narrowboat owner’s most reliable heat source. Once they’ve mastered the skill of keeping them alight, using the right fuel and keeping the flue debris free. There’s SO much to learn.

Organisation Is Your New Best Friend

Living on a narrowboat can be a nightmare if you don’t plan ahead. Water tanks often don’t have gauges. You need to devise a system for establishing how much liquid is in the large steel tank under your front deck and how quickly you’re using your remaining supply. It’s not so much of a problem if you’re on a marina mooring, but life out on the cut is more challenging. You need to know the location of your nearest water point and, in the winter, whether an icy canal is going to prevent you from reaching it.

The same applies to your diesel tank. Not many narrowboats have fuel gauges. If there’s a straight drop from the filler cap into your tank, you can use a dipstick. Ladies, the dipstick I’m talking about is not your husband. It’s a slender length of wood marked at intervals.

Some narrowboats have diesel heating systems so, if you don’t want to dress like an Eskimo inside your cabin, you need to make sure that you have plenty of fuel. The good news is that, if your diesel central heating system has been fitted correctly, you’ll run out of heating fuel before propulsion diesel. 

Managing your electricity supply is one of the more challenging aspects of living afloat. Off-grid electricity is costly and time-consuming to generate. Life is less stressful if you learn to manage with less rather than installing large battery banks which are a challenge to charge. Poorly organised battery charging regimes kill battery banks quickly. You need to be disciplined enough to manage your power supply efficiently, or dig deep and replace your battery bank regularly.

Every aspect of your life needs careful consideration when you’re off-grid. Where can you buy food? Where’s the next sewage disposal point, the nearest rubbish disposal bins and where on Earth do you get critical medical supplies when you’re out on the cut? Let’s face it, if you’re a typical narrowboat owner, you’ve reached the stage where bits of you are beginning to drop off or stop working. Easy access to doctors and dentists can be crucial. 

Life for car-owning continuous cruisers can be a nightmare. You can’t park your car outside your house, so you need to find somewhere convenient near your temporary mooring. Then you move your boat and leave your car behind. You cruise for a few miles, moor for the night and walk or cycle back for your car, hoping that it’s still in one piece. Cars parked on bridge lay-bys are easy targets for thieves.

If you like to fly by the seat of your pants, living on a narrowboat is probably not for you.

The Dreaded Narrowboat Toilet

Flush and forget. That’s what you do in a house. Your poor little poo doesn’t get any attention at all. It’s deposited in a bowl and washed far, far away with an unlimited supply of mains water.

You can forget all that on a narrowboat. You need to get up close and personal with the processed remains of previous meals. A pump-out toilet is best for you if the sight of a little faecal matter turns your stomach. But even then your tank has to be pumped out every few weeks. And that is an unusual first-time experience. It’s a challenging half-hour for those with a keen sense of smell. However, you won’t suffer as much as those poor boaters with cassette toilets.

Let’s face it, a cassette toilet is nothing more than a fancy bucket topped with a toilet seat. Most cassette designs, mine included, require the user to bend down perilously close to the toilet bowl to open the flap to the cassette. So, while you have your nose in your toilet bowl, you flip aside a thin plastic plate separating you from twenty litres of decaying waste. It’s enough to make a strong man weep.

That’s the easy part. Once you’ve made your deposits you have to transfer them to the national sewage system. Carrying a 20kg poo pot through your homes narrow walkways is a challenge. Especially once you realise that lifting it by the built-in handle is likely to result in a stream of waste decorating your lovely clean floor.

The really unpleasant part is next. You have to take your precious parcel to an Elsan point for disposal. This is often a bowl around a pipe to the sewer topped by a stainless steel grid. The grid is a highly effective toilet tissue collector, a fetid collection which responsible boaters will wash away with the Elsan hose. But not all boaters are capable and considerate human beings. You may experience the joy of using an Elsan point after a boat owner who shouldn’t be allowed out in public without a carer.

How are you feeling? If this section makes you want to lie on a soft bed in a darkened room until nausea passes, narrowboat life probably isn’t for you.

Condensation: The Bane Of A Boater’s Life

Mouldy fabric, damp paper, stained woodwork, ceiling drips and window runs. Condensation can cause misery, expense and ill health. 

Heating, ventilation and insulation are the Holy Trinity of condensation free boats. Get the balance right, and you can say goodbye to damp dresses, mouldy mattresses and unpleasant undies.

I suffered terribly from condensation during my first year afloat. My bedroom at the stern was so damp it was almost wet. It was an environment more suitable for pike and perch than people. However, I virtually eliminated damp from my back bedroom by making a few simple changes. 

Remember what I said earlier about heating the back of your boat? That was one of the primary reasons I had condensation in my bedroom. In an attempt at conserving the heat at the front of my floating home, I kept my bedroom door closed. Because the bedroom was then unheated, I closed my bedroom windows to try to keep my sleeping space a little warmer. All I did was create the perfect climate for condensation.

I put an electric heater in my bedroom in the early days and opened the windows. The condensation disappeared. I installed a diesel central heating system a few years later so I could heat the back of the boat when I cruised.

You can always cure your condensation problem if you have the time, energy and money. Or you could live in a properly insulated house with central heating and save yourself the inconvenience.

I had condensation problems again two boats and eight years later. Cynthia and I purchased a high-end Linssen motor yacht for four-season Dutch waterways cruising.

I didn’t take into consideration the piss-poor insulation fitted on boats in Holland. The Dutch are fair-weather sailors. Equipping craft for winter living is not high on their list of priorities.

The Linssen’s blown air heating system didn’t provide enough heat to keep us warm. Even then, the slight temperature difference between our cabin and the frigid Dutch winter air produced rivers of condensation on our cabin walls and ceiling.

Towards the end of our stay in Holland, we had to live in our galley area. We draped a blanket draped over the companionway to conserve heat, and dreamed of a life in a narrowboat.

Orient, my fourth boat and second narrowboat, is condensation free. However, the boatman’s cabin is a little damp. I have a Premiere range in there, but keeping two stoves on the go is a pain in the arse, especially when one of them has a tiny fire box. 

I have temperature and humidity sensors throughout Orient’s cabin. The humidity in my saloon near my Squirrel stove is 32%. Ideally, it should be close to 50% for optimal health. In the unheated boatman’s cabin the humidity is currently 63%. It’s a shame I can’t push some of the moisture towards the bow. 

Living afloat is all about finding the balance. And, if you can’t find a happy medium, making do with what you’ve got.

Receiving Post, Parcels and Deliveries

“How does the postman find you?”, one gongoozler asked. “Does your boat have a letterbox?” enquired another. He doesn’t, and no, I don’t.

I don’t need an address for letters these days. In our digital age, you can manage most of your life online. I have digital banking, insurance, licensing and taxation. I don’t need anything else sending by letter. I am a regular Amazon customer, but the retailer doesn’t need my address. They just need a delivery address. A pub, shop or post office will do. Sometimes a postcode is all I need. 

I can get supermarket shopping delivered to me while I cruise. Sainsbury’s delivery service works very well for me. If I’m on the cut, I add driver delivery instructions to my order. I find the postcode of a house or a pub close to the nearest canal bridge and ask the driver to ring me as soon as he arrives. On the rare occasion that I haven’t had a phone signal, I’ve had to wait for an hour near the delivery address. I prayed that the homeowner didn’t report a suspicious character loitering at the end of his drive.

If the address I’ve given is a pub, I force myself to sit at the bar and have a couple of pints while I’m waiting.

This is another occasion when a liveaboard boater has to be both organised and flexible. 

Do You Still Fancy Living On A Narrowboat?

There you go, the downside of living afloat. How do you feel about the lifestyle now?

I have one final treat for you, a rant from liveaboard boater Pauline Roberts. Pauline claimed that she enjoyed living afloat. You wouldn’t think so from her description of life on England’s inland waterways. You can read her post here. To achieve a balanced view, please read the two posts linked at the bottom of Pauline’s account.

Did you find these two posts useful? If you did, please take a second or two to add a star rating below.

Discovery Day Update

The recent high winds have been a challenge, but I decided to take the bull by its horns and take two aspiring narrowboat owners on a Discovery Day cruise last Sunday.

The Met Office issued a yellow wind warning from midday Saturday for twenty four hours. I decided, sensibly as it turns out, to climb Calcutt’s three lock flight on Saturday morning to escape the worst of the wind. I’m glad I did.

I pair of novice hirers shared the locks with me on my ascent. One of them, a golfing enthusiast, carried one of the sturdiest umbrellas I’ve ever seen. “You need to be careful with that,” I warned him as their boat nosed out of the top lock. “The forecast is for gusts approaching 40mph.”

He looked at me smugly and boasted that his expensive brolly was bomb proof. “I’ve had this umbrella for years and it’s still as good as new!”

The gods of you-shouldn’t-have-said-that were listening. A squall hit us seconds later. Orient listed twenty degrees to port and raced sideways across the empty lock. My home remained pinned immoveably to the lock wall until the sqaull passed. My golf mad lockmate wasn’t quite so lucky. He was right. His brolly was very strong, so strong that it lifted him off his feet. Rather than carry on with his impression of a balding Mary Poppins he let go. His brolly shot into the air like a bright blue rocket and was last seen flying high over Warwickshire’s rolling farmland.

The wind had died down a little by the following morning. My guest, Ady and Tim, enjoyed the challenge of negoriating a wind blown canal on our cruise to Braunston and a tranquil canal on our return. I had yet another pleasant and stimulating day on the cut. Ady and Tim left full of enthusiasm and plans for a boating future. 

Here’s what they said about their day with me.

Discovery Day guests Tim & Ady Henderson

Discovery Day guests Tim & Ady Henderson

“We do not have any boating experience at all.  Both of us wanted to see if we could live onboard a boat for two to three years before we retired.  Our plan once retired to travel the canal throughout the UK.

A great way to spend a day, very relaxing, informative and very hands-on.  The day covered everything we needed to know to get us started on our canal adventure. Brilliant experience if you are considering living on board.

I have already recommended you to friends and family. Regardless of future plans, I would do this discovery day again in a heartbeat.  A wonderful introduction to boating, very hands-on, safe and clear instruction, easy to find, and a beautiful boat.  Highly recommend this experience.”

Tim & Ady Henderson, Devon

If you’re ready to take your narrowboat research to the next level, join me on a Discovery Day cruise. I’m Coronavirus free, as are the waterways around me. Save yourself, live on England’s inland waterways network!

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Fifteen Reasons Why Living On A Narrowboat Is A Bad Idea

Warning! Living on a narrowboat may be harder than you think. Here’s what you need to know before taking the plunge

Summer is a dangerous time of the year for aspiring boat owners. Gaily painted narrowboat sirens lure novice liveaboard boaters onto the rocks of poorly researched decisions. Towpaths up and down the network are littered with shattered dreams. Unhappy boat owners scowl at passing traffic like bulldogs chewing wasps. These recent liveaboard narrowboat owners are not a happy bunch. The reality of life afloat is a far cry from the gin-swilling snapshot glimpsed on a sunny summer’s day.

They could have saved a great deal of heartache before plundering their pension pot. These new boat owners sell all that they own. They empty their bank account into narrowboats floating close to the silty bed on one of England’s inland waterways and leap aboard for a life of relaxed hedonism. 

And then reality sets in.

I’m sure that you, as a prudent chap or chapess, have researched the lifestyle thoroughly. I’m sure that you know all about the physical, logistical and emotional challenges you’ll face living in a muddy ditch with no fixed address. I bet you’ve invested long hours trawling the internet to make sure that this odd lifestyle will suit you and your spouse/partner/companion/dog/cat/goldfish. But just in case you haven’t researched living on a narrowboat yet, here are a few reasons you might not want to turn your rose-tinted dream into cold and muddy reality.

  1. The lifestyle costs far more than you think
  2. Limited residential mooring availability
  3. Limited living space
  4. Little storage space
  5. You need to be fitter and more flexible than you do living in a house
  6. Living afloat requires some hard physical work
  7. More exposure to potential accidents
  8. Exposure to the elements
  9. It’s easy to feel lonely on the inland waterways
  10. There’s a steep learning curve to living afloat
  11. Keeping all of your floating home warm is a challenge
  12. You to be organised
  13. You have to get far closer to bodily waste than you do in a house
  14. Condensation can sap your will to live if you don’t understand how to prevent it
  15. If you adopt a nomadic continuous cruising lifestyle, receiving post and renewing documents can be a challenge
  16. If you overcome all of the above, you’ll run the risk of enjoying life far too much. And driving your landlubber friends, family and work colleagues mad as you regale them with tales from the cut.

Perceived Low-Cost Accommodation

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard or read about people wanting to live afloat to save money. If that’s your plan, forget it. You won’t be happy. Life on a narrowboat is for those who want to get away from modern-day society and live closer to nature than they would in their bricks and mortar fortress.

The destination for many is London, where house purchase costs and rent are eye-wateringly expensive. Yes, you can buy a narrowboat for a fraction of the purchase price of the smallest London flat. And, yes, your living costs could be less too. That’s IF you ignore your licensing and boat maintenance obligations and CRT’s continuous cruising guidelines if you don’t want to pay for a residential mooring.

Living on a narrowboat can be a low-cost lifestyle, but so can living in a cardboard box in the doorway of a high street shop. Neither would be a happy or healthy way to live. If you want to live comfortably and ensure that your floating home lasts you for many years, you need to budget as much as you would for a small family home.

You’ll find the most detailed breakdown of narrowboat running costs on or off the internet in my Narrowbudget Gold package here.

Residential Mooring Availability

When you license your boat, you have to declare your home mooring, the place where you pay to park your boat. If you don’t, you are in the ‘boat without a home mooring’ category. You are a continuous cruiser and, as such, you are obliged to observe CRT’s constant cruising guidelines.

CRT will email, text or phone you to remind you of your obligations. Continuous cruisers are obliged to move their boats on a progressive journey along the waterways throughout the year. The guidelines are suitable for those who don’t want or need to stay in one place for work, schooling or medical needs. Many owners of boats without a home mooring are watched closely by CRT’s enforcement team. Boat owners move their craft from A to B and back to A again. They are supposed to move from A to B to C to D.

One of the many problems with the system is the lack of clear rules. The distance an owner must move his boat each year is vague. Liveaboard boaters are often at loggerheads with the authorities. In extreme cases, CRT will refuse to relicense boats which haven’t moved enough. Then, if the craft is unlicensed, CRT can begin proceedings to have it removed from the waterways network.

Because of house purchase and rental costs, London’s waterways are overcrowded. So much that touring boaters often struggle to find a place to moor. Having to breast up to another liveaboard boater isn’t unusual. Finding somewhere to empty your cassette toilet is a challenge and living a stress-free life is nigh on impossible.

The simple logistics of complying with CRT’s continuous cruising guidelines is an immense challenge. Many London boaters have mooring “buddies”, fellow boaters moored elsewhere on London’s waterways. In an attempt at compliance, they swap moorings every couple of weeks, sometimes leaving a boating pal to guard “their” mooring until their buddy arrives. Touring narrowboat owners are in for a bit of a shock if they try to moor in one of these guarded spots.

Comply with CRT’s continuous guidelines or secure a residential mooring before you move afloat. You’ll have problems if you don’t, and more of the stress that you tried to leave behind.

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Limited Living And Storage Space

At sixty two feet, Orient gives me more living space than many narrowboats. Still, “more living space” is relative. My cabin is roughly fifty feet long and six feet wide. Three hundred square feet to contain all that I own and provide me with barely enough room to swing a tiny cat.

If you’re thinking about living on a narrowboat, don’t be seduced by a broker’s terminology. He might write something like, “this is a spacious boat which is perfect for full-time living.” 

Rubbish!

What he should tell you is that the boat in question appears to be spacious because it has little or no fitted furniture. If you think you can use your house furniture, forget it. Nothing will fit. To maximise a narrowboat’s limited storage space, you need a cabin filled with fitted furniture.

One of my daily tasks at the marina is boat moving. I have to walk through the boat’s living space looking for keys and switches. It’s a welcome opportunity to compare other narrowboats with Orient. 

Not many of these boats have adequate storage space for liveaboard boat owners.

If you’ve reached the boat viewing stage of your grand narrowboat plan, make sure that you check storage space carefully. Mentally move your possessions onto the boat. Where are you going to store the years of accumulated tat which fits easily into your house? Where will you put the contents of your loft, cellar, garage and garden shed? Where will you store your best set of bone china crockery, your food processor and all the other rarely used kitchen gadgets? What about your tool filled garage complete with a couple of motorbikes? Where will that lot go?

The painful truth is that, even in the most accommodating narrowboat, you won’t have space for much at all. You have to learn to live with less than you did in your spacious house. Much less.

Hanging space is at a premium. You’ll have one tiny wardrobe at best, space for no more than a couple of dozen items. And, ladies, your extensive shoe collection will have to go. You’ll be reduced to wellies, walking boots, summer trainers or Crocs and a pair of heels for those rare occasions when the towpath is dry enough to support them.

Personal Fitness

You need to be much more robust to live afloat than you do in a house. The simplest of tasks take more effort, more time and require more strength than many people are either used to or enjoy.

I offer a Discovery Day service for aspiring narrowboat owners. Most want to live afloat. The day is structured to give as much of an insight into liveaboard life as possible. Their day begins in a small car park at Napton reservoir, following a grassy footpath around the western edge of the twenty-acre lake. They walk along a canalside path to Calcutt Top lock and cross the upstream gate. And then negotiate a hundred metres of muddy towpath to reach Orient’s Discovery Day mooring.

This ten minute start to a boating day has caused a few problems. One generously proportioned lady suggested that the distance she had to walk was unreasonable, all five hundred and fifty metres of it. If you think that a quarter of a mile walk on a level path is too taxing, living afloat is not for you.

The next challenge for many is using a narrowboat walkway topping an oak gate to cross a lock. If the lock is empty, there’s a ten feet drop to a concrete platform drenched by a frothing torrent gushing from the leaky gates. The crossing is a little disconcerting for anyone who fears heights.

The final pre-cruise challenge is getting onto my boat. 

Like many narrowboats, especially liveaboard boats, I have a canvas cover, a cratch cover, over my front deck. It provides me with some useful additional storage space and a wet-weather changing area which prevents too much cabin heat escaping on a windy day. This arrangement requires a degree of flexibility when getting on and off the boat. I have to simultaneously duck under the cratch cover roof and step two feet over the hull side. It’s second nature to seasoned boaters. However, many aspiring narrowboat owners don’t have the flexibility forced upon them by life on the cut.

More than a few of my guests have struggled to negotiate this initial hurdle. Some have needed to use their hands to lift reluctant legs over the hull. My front deck is the least difficult of my two cabin entry points. The back cabin access requires eel-like flexibility.

The hatch is twenty-one inches (54cm) wide with an eighteen inch (45cm) step down into my boatman’s cabin. Getting in from the rear is further complicated by old fashioned controls. My speed wheel throttle control and gear selector handle are fixed to the cabin roof in the hatch space. The best technique is to back in, bend double and step down eighteen inches onto a wooden step/storage box.

Many of my guests grunt, groan and curse as they tackle this manoeuvre. The good news is that constant repetition increases flexibility. Stick with it, and before long you’ll be jumping onto a boat as enthusiastically as a seasoned sailer offered a double rum ration.

Everything about liveaboard life requires more effort. Even the simplest of tasks like walking the length of your floating home requires flexibility, especially on a boat like Orient. The cabin is filled with fitted furniture which narrows the walkways. My engine room is a challenge for many. The doorway from my main bedroom to the engine room is 5’ 0” (152cm) high and 1’5” (44cm) wide. A typical house doorway is roughly 6’6” tall and 2’6” wide. 

I’ve had a few big blokes join me on my training cruises. One, a broad-shouldered giant of a man standing 6’6” tall, wedged himself immovably in the engine room doorway, much to the amusement of his dainty wife.

At 5’10” tall, I’m not the largest person in the world. Even so, I have to walk like an Egyptian to get from the saloon to my boatman’s cabin. And, because I’ve reached a certain age, my forehead bears the scars of many forgotten doorway ducks.

Managing your utilities is hard work, especially if you have a multi-fuel stove. Bags of coal weigh 55lb (25kg) and need manhandling (person handling these days?) inside the boat two or three times a week during the winter months. Gas cylinders are a similar weight. You have the additional challenge with your propane of dragging the heavy bottle onto a rain-slicked bow and then lowering it through an impossibly narrow hatch into its tiny gas locker. Changing the connection requires a degree of flexibility usually only seen on stage.

Even shopping requires a gym-like workout. If you adopt the life of a continuous cruiser, you might not own a car. Taking one with you on your travels requires so much effort that many boaters don’t bother. So you have to walk to the shops, armed with a cavernous rucksack and grim determination. A successful shopping trip is an event worth celebrating. 

Living afloat, especially if you’re a continuous cruiser, forces you to exercise and achieve a degree of flexibility. If you treat all of your daily physical chores as welcome exercise, you’ll enjoy your liveaboard experience. Couch potatoes, you have been warned!

I’ll finish this list next week in part two, and treat you to the unhappy scribblings of a disenchanted boater. (Spoiler alert: Some of us actually enjoy this lifestyle.)

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Buying A Narrowboat: Tools, Equipment and Security

Following the fun you had buying a narrowboat, you now need the right tools and equipment and learn how to stay safe on your maiden voyage

This post continues from last week’s Buying a Narrowboat: Pre Purchase Tips and Recommendations. The post covered pre-purchase considerations and the importance of discovering all you can about your boat before you move on board.

With the purchase stress behind you, consider the practicality of life afloat and the tools and equipment you’ll need to maintain your new home and help you with your cruising. 

Here’s a post I wrote a few years ago about tools…

Buying A Narrowboat – Equipment

In addition to these tools, you want to ensure that you have the right boating equipment. Here are the essential items I have with me when I cruise and the reasons why…

Hose and hose reel – I tried several different hose types before settling on my current hose. I owned two of the flat blue versions on white reels you often see in chandlers. They were rubbish. The reels fell apart within days, and after a couple of month of dragging the hose through water point gravel, they swelled until they would no longer fit on the broken reel. I moved on to the standard Hozelock hoses and reels after that, and they didn’t fare much better. The entry-level hose kinks so quickly that unfortunate boaters spend more time straightening weak plastic than pushing water through them.

I now have a Hozelock maxi plus anti-kink hose. It’s marvellous. The hose and reel have served me faultlessly since October 2013. That’s three years service on James No 194, two years alternating between motorhome and boat on our European tour, and a year on Orient. At £20.49 for the hose, it’s fair to say that I’ve had value for money.

A dog poo spade You might think that it’s not much use to you if you don’t have a dog, but bear with me. In my dog-owning days, We didn’t collect our dogs’ mess in plastic bags because we then had to carry the waste around with us. And when we did finally find a bin for it, it ended up as landfill forever preserved in plastic. Instead, we used a spade, a small coal shovel, to flick the poo out of the way where it couldn’t be stood on, usually in a hedge, where it decomposed within days.

Even though I’m now dogless, I have kept my spade. Landing on an idyllic mooring in the middle of nowhere and stepping on a pile of fetid faeces is a frustrating affair. 

Garden shears – Otherwise perfect moorings are often quite frustrating to use when the bankside grass is too long. Five minutes with the shears soon sorts the grass out.

Folding chairs and table – Mine are from Midland Chandlers. I can sit and enjoy my evening meal on the towpath or just watch the world go by at a snail’s pace.

Windlasses (two on a rack in the boatman’s cabin and two more in a bow locker) – I used to have two on board and a partner who didn’t know how to tie knots. She dropped a windless into the canal. “No problem,” I told her, “Tie a length of paracord to the recovery magnet and fish it out.” She returned a few minutes later with a wet length of cord and no magnet.

I fished out my spare windlass as we approached a flight of ten locks. I stopped to make a coffee halfway up the flight and, cup and windlass in hand tried to negotiate a narrow lock walkway. My second windlass joined the fishes, so I had the dubious pleasure of negotiating five locks with a pair of mole grips. There are far easier exercises for strengthening my wrists, so I carry enough windlasses with me these days to stock a small chandlery. 

Mooring Chains – If you can find a canal bank strengthened using Armco style rails, mooring chains are the most straightforward and secure tools for keeping your boat in one place. Some boaters prefer piling hooks, but I don’t think that they are as safe as chains.

Tip: If you are a solo boater, carry at least three chains with you. You’ll want a spare, and to use as an extra hand on windy days. If your boat is being pushed away from the bank, you can use a chain to secure your centre line while you anchor your bow and stern mooring lines.

Mooring Stakes – A metal pin driven three feet into the ground might sound like a secure anchor point, but it isn’t. Especially during periods of constant rain. That’s pretty much all of the time in England. Still, if there are no convenient rails, it’s the only game in town. Like your mooring chains, carry a spare.

Lump hammer – To give you a little exercise at the end of the day, knocking pins into rock hard ground. Carry a spare.

A recovery magnet – It’s worth its weight in gold. My Maxi-grab magnet has roughly the same diameter as a two pence piece. It’s about the length of a box of matches and can lift an impressive fifty pounds. I have used it to retrieve several windlasses, mooring hooks, shackles and, on two occasions, my main bunch of keys.

A reel of paracord – It’s great for securing my recovery magnet when I go fishing. And it’s useful for temporary washing lines, shoelaces, belts and dog leads.

British Waterways Key – for the locking plates on the water points, the waterways owned Elsan points, showers and toilets and for some lift and swing bridges.

Water Conservation (Handcuff) Key – Interfering with the canal network’s water levels is a fulfilling pastime for society’s maladjusted youth. CRT secure many urban locks to spoil their fun. You may trap yourself for the night on a less than pleasant mooring if you don’t have a key with you.

Anchor, Chain & Rope – I don’t need an anchor for most of my cruises, but when I’m cruising the network full time, an anchor will be essential. 

Life Jackets – I have two similar to the ones worn by CART employees.

Weed Hatch Tools – A sharp knife with a serrated blade, bolt croppers and mole grips for removing obstacles from the propeller. Items of clothing, plastic bags, fishing line and rope are the usual offenders. Still, you would be amazed at what you can jam around your propeller with a little effort. I’ve listened to war stories about battles with sofas, bed frames, bicycles and car tyres. My most unpleasant experience was half an hour down the weed hatch getting far too close to the rotting carcass of a fragrant badger.

Tools – More often than not, my tools are still wrapped in their original packaging. I’m not the network’s most practical boater. They include screwdrivers, spanners, a socket set, Stanley knife, pliers, electric drill and bits, Allen keys, hacksaw, wood saw and my favourite and most often used tool, a hammer.

Torches – We have two of them, one kept in the engine room and another in a cupboard near the front doors

A military-grade green laser pen – What’s to like about Canada geese or the noise they make? By all accounts, they don’t taste pleasant either. A quick flash over the water is enough to scare them off. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys peace and quiet.

Roof furniture – Pole, plank and boat hook, and also a children’s fishing net for those little things which frequently blow into the water.

Incidentally, you have Hobson’s choice with your plank. You can grit the painted wood to give it a non-slip surface and spend most of your time trying to get it clean, or you can keep it grit-free and risk life and limb each time you use it.

Coal or logs, kindling and firelighters – Some boaters carry ten or more bags of coal on their cabin roof during the winter months. Each to their own but I would rather reduce the chance of rust forming under wet coal bags and store my coal on my front deck. At a push, there’s enough room for a three week supply.

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Carbon monoxide and smoke alarms – Carbon monoxide and smoke can kill. Fit one of each close to every heat source and in bedroom areas too. 

Stovetop Fan – The original, and probably most popular, is the Ecofan. They use the heat from the stove to power a fan to push heat further into the cabin. There are many brands available now for a fraction of the Ecofan price. They’re cheaper, but are they as durable? I don’t know.

A spare 13kg gas cylinder – Most narrowboats use propane gas for cooking. Living on board full time, cooking daily and using gas for water heating too, a bottle costing £35 will last me for two months. 

Oil and grease – Spare engine and gearbox oil 

Extra waterproof grease for the stern gland greaser – Turning down your greaser at the end of each cruising session is essential. The greaser is a brass syringe which forces grease between the stern gland packing and the propeller shaft. This helps prevent canal water from entering the engine bay along the prop shaft. 

A fuel tank dipstick – On my first narrowboat, I used a four feet length of dowel which I marked at the full, half and quarter levels. I don’t have a straight drop into Orient’s tank. I use a spreadsheet instead of a piece of wood. By recording my engine hours and the number of litres I add to my tank, I can calculate my fuel consumption and my remaining fuel.

Rope – A bow line, stern line and two centre ropes, plus a spare stored in the engine room. All present and in good condition.

Maps – The two most popular guides are Nicholson’s and Pearsons’s. I favour Pearson’s simply because they are the ones I’ve always used. Nicholson guides are equally comprehensive. They are essential for finding water points, turning areas, estimated journey times and quiet mooring spots away from housing, roads and railways.

A Compass – I don’t need one to find out where I’m going, but it’s useful to know where the sun is going to end up in the evening. I try to find a mooring which is open to the west so I know I can bask in the evening sun.

A pair of binoculars – There’s plenty to see when cruising, but it’s often not close enough to examine in detail. Binoculars allow us to get much more intimate. However, that can be a double-edged sword. I know of a middle-aged guy with a fondness for lady’s underwear and open curtains. You have been warned.

Waterproofs – I have a totally bombproof jacket and trousers from Guy Cotten. They are designed for use by deep-sea fishermen and are 100% waterproof but not breathable. They’re perfect for standing immobile in the pouring rain. However, they’re not very good if you’re generating heat negotiating locks. You very quickly get as wet through sweat building up inside the waterproofs as you would from the rain.

Rubber boots – The towpath can get very muddy. Wellies are both comfortable and easy to clean. I prefer Muck Boots for their comfort and heat retention.

Sun hats and sunglasses – I send a list of things to bring to my Discovery Day guests. Sunglasses are on the list. It’s an item often ignored by people who join me in the winter. They realise their folly if we cruise west into a low sun on our return journey from Braunston. 

Gloves – You’ll need them if you do any cold-weather cruising on a cruiser stern boat. Regular trad stern boats are a little better. I don’t bother now I have Orient’s boatman’s cabin range to keep me warm,

Fleece hats and tops. Mine are made by Swazi. They’re warm, durable and have a cute little logo. 

Reference books – Being able to identify flora and fauna will enhance your experience. Collins pocket guides are useful.

Emergency food – Fresh food availability can be limited in many rural areas, so I carry tinned and dried food as a backup. A tin of pilchards, a couple of dried chillies and some rice make a tasty and straightforward meal. I carry enough tinned and dried food to last me a week.

A sense of adventure and a degree of anticipation and flexibility – You never know what’s around the corner. You may want or need to stop for a while. Plans are good, but they need to be flexible. Rigid schedules can be a disaster on the waterways.

Buying A Narrowboat – Security

You’re now ready for your new adventure. There’s one last area I haven’t addressed. Security. I’ve lived afloat now for ten years. I’ve cruised thousands of miles and enjoyed hundreds of night on a wide variety of canal-side moorings. I haven’t experienced a single problem, so you don’t have to worry too much about anti-social behaviour on your travels. But it does happen, and you need to know how to reduce the risk to you or your boat. Here’s a forum thread with lots of useful advice…

https://livingonanarrowboat.co.uk/narrowboat-forum/living-on-a-narrowboat/security-for-ccs/

Here’s a quick list of my most useful tips

  • Prevention is better than cure. Moor away from potential trouble spots. If you have to cruise through problem areas, do so at times when people aren’t likely to be about. Avoid them at weekends, during school holidays or the middle of the day, especially if the weather is good.
  • Don’t fight fire with fire. Avoid confrontation with aggressive people. Always remember that if you want to make a hasty exit, you’re going to escape at two miles an hour. Unless your assailant is using a Zimmer frame, you’re not going to outrun them. Don’t carry weapons. A camera is far more effective.

I met a pair of unsavoury characters at a lock in Birmingham. I had read reports about boaters experiencing problems with thieves at locks in the north. With the boat owner sixty feet away at the helm, they would jump onto the bow and run into the cabin through the open front doors. They would grab whatever they could and sprint away before anyone could respond.

With that in mind, I locked my front doors and closed my cratch cover as I approached the flight. Still, I didn’t like the way these two were acting. I left the helm and walked towards them at the bow. Both were big lads. One walked towards me with his fists clenched. I didn’t need the sixth sense I developed during my pub management days to spot a potential problem. The feeling of menace was tangible.

With both men facing me, I pulled out my iPhone, opened the camera app and took a photo. I told them I was creating a photo album of all the canal-side people I met on my cruise. I asked if they could stand together so I could take a better snap. The leader glanced at his mate, and the pair walked away from the canal without a word. A confrontational approach could have ended badly.

  • Moor far away from bridges and public places. The further you moor away from people, the safer you are.
  • If a spot doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts. Move on. Early morning starts work for me. I often finish eight hour cruising days by mid-afternoon. I have plenty of time to choose a 
  • If you leave your boat at night, close the curtains on the towpath side, leave a light on and maybe some music. I have an old iPod with a hundred song playlist. I connect it to a Bose speaker and set it to a volume which can be heard outside.
  • Don’t advertise your absence with padlocks on your doors. Use door locks which aren’t obvious. If you have a cratch cover, don’t have one with windows which allow would-be thieves to see what you have on your front deck, a padlock on the front door or give them a view of the boat’s interior through your front door glass.

I hope that the information I’ve provided in the last two posts eases your transition to a water based lifestyle. Despite the occasional challenges boaters face, like today’s storm Ciara, life on England’s inland waterways can be a tranquil and peaceful affair if you get it right.

I hope that all of your boating dreams come true. Maybe we’ll meet on an idyllic towpath mooring one day to share tales from the cut and a drink or two. I hope so.

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Buying a Narrowboat: Pre Purchase Tips and Recommendations

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

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

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

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

Buying a Narrowboat: Boat Safety Scheme Certificates and Surveys

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

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

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

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

Let me give you an example from personal experience.

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

Orient on brokerage at Tattenhall marina

Orient on brokerage at Tattenhall marina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buying a Narrowboat: Familiarisation

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

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

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

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

How do you know what type you have?

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

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

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

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

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

Buying a Narrowboat: Engine Maintenance and Pre Cruise Checks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your first job is lighting a fire. 

Experience Life Afloat

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

Buying a Narrowboat – Lighting Your First Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty, isn’t it?

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

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Which Are The Best Narrowboat Stern Types For Living Afloat?

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

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

Traditional “Trad” Narrowboat Stern Types

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

Narrowboat stern types - Traditional

Narrowboat stern types – Traditional

Cruiser Narrowboat Stern Types

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

Narrowboat stern types - Cruiser stern

Narrowboat stern types – Cruiser stern

Narrowboat stern types - Cruiser stern with pram cover

Narrowboat stern types – Cruiser stern with pram cover

Semi-Trad Narrowboat Stern Types

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

Narrowboat stern types - Semi traditional

Narrowboat stern types – Semi traditional

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

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

Here’s why.

Practical Living Space

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

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

Secure Storage Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dry Engine Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruising Warmth

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

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

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

That was not a fun boating experience.

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

It doesn’t have to be unpleasant at all.

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

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

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

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

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

Cruising Convenience

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

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

Narrowboat Stern Types Summary

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

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

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A Christmas cruise from Market Harborough to Calcutt Boats

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

Oh, woe is me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We didn’t get far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sunken narrowboat near Braunston tunnel's eastern portal

A sunken narrowboat near Braunston tunnel’s eastern portal

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

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

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

Braunston's Admiral Nelson at night

Braunston’s Admiral Nelson at night

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

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

Mud removed, Orient is ready for a Discovery Day cruise

Mud removed, Orient is ready for a Discovery Day cruise

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

Calcutt Boat's Meadows marina on a cloudy day

Calcutt Boat’s Meadows marina on a cloudy day

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Summary

A Christmas Cruise to Market Harborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sun rises over winter Braunston

The sun rises over winter Braunston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DISCOVER LIFE AFLOAT

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

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

A muddy mooring at Cracks Hill

A muddy mooring at Cracks Hill

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

The Cracks Hill oak tree where I proposed

The Cracks Hill oak tree where I proposed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brass and copper polishing on Boxing Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a chance.

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

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

No, sadly, I don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I mention that I love the Foxton flight?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 2

Continued from A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 1

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

For a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money.

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

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

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

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

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

And then we had a lucky break.

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

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

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

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

He did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part One

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

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

…If only I didn’t have to work…

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

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

…If only I had enough money in the bank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My brief conversation about the purchase went something like this;

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

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

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

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

I purchased James No 194 using an informal hire purchase agreement

I purchased James No 194 using an informal hire purchase agreement

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

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

Here’s another example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 2…

Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

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

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