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Hire Boat And Live Aboard Narrowboat Heating Costs Compared

Continued from this post.

I shed a tear and dropped on bended knees to plead with the CRT guys and gals to take me up the lift to the canal. The guy I spoke to was super helpful, which is more than I could say for the lady on duty.

I assumed that she worked for CRT part-time because her full-time position as the chief lemon sucker for a huge citrus fruit processing plant must be a full-time commitment. Then I realised that she responded to my abrasiveness, modified my behaviour, and hoped she would forgive me. And, more to the point, persuade her workmates to extend their working day to help me out.

I waited, and I worried. Even though my fuel tank wasn’t quite empty, it was dangerously low. The engine fuel line would be slightly above the tank bottom and the diesel heater above that. So I could expect the heating system to fail first, followed shortly by the engine. I couldn’t last another four days until I could book the first available passage on the following Friday. The forecast for the next week was for sub-zero nights, so my frigid cabin would be unbearably cold without the heater. What’s more, I couldn’t generate any power without my engine. Without diesel, I would be up Shit Creek without a paddle.

The lady I had insulted returned ten minutes later wearing a frown. Was that because she saw me, or was she the bearer of bad news?

‘You’re lucky,’ the unsmiling lady told me. ‘The guys have agreed to take you, but you’ll have to wait half an hour. And you have to phone our office to book and pay for your passage.’ So I did as she asked and booked a return passage down to the river an hour later as well.

I was reasonably confident that my diesel would last half an hour, providing I turned my engine and heating off and pushed the boat along the riverbank to the waiting lift. Unfortunately, my attempt to ingratiate myself with the taciturn CRT lady as the lift rose was like a wasp trying to make friends at a summer picnic. Fortunately, she didn’t have a fly swat handy.

I reached Anderton Marina without mishap, filled my tank and emptied my wallet. One hundred and twenty litres filled my tank. Added to the forty I put in ten days earlier, that was a total of one hundred and sixty litres of diesel in fourteen days, an average of 11.4 litres a day. It’s an eye-watering amount of fuel to use.

To put that figure in perspective, if that average remains constant throughout my six-week hire, I will go through 478 litres before I hand the boat back. I claimed 90% at the duty-free rate because I used most fuel for heating and battery charging. Even so, the diesel for my six-week hire boat holiday will cost me about five hundred pounds, mainly because of the Eberspacher heater. That’s an absurd amount to spend on heating a narrowboat.

So that you can appreciate the vast difference between different heating costs, let me detail my heating and propulsion fuel costs from the same period last year.

A 25kg bag of Excel coal briquettes cost £13 and lasted a little over three days, but let’s say three days to simplify the calculation. I used fourteen bags of coal during these six weeks, so heating Orient cost £182. My propulsion fuel didn’t add much to the total.

Orient’s diesel for the same six weeks last year cost me £30. Admittedly, the national lockdown limited my cruising ability, but diesel for the same route in Orient as I’ve taken in my hire boat would cost just £60.

Heating and propulsion fuel on a much smaller boat will cost twice as much as it would on Orient. What’s more, I can’t run my hire boat heater overnight or warm the cabin to a comfortable temperature.

Maybe I’m not treating this hire boat with the respect it deserves. But, other than the heating system, it’s a fine boat. It has a reliable engine and a shallow draught. I can cruise wherever I like without worrying about grounding. The Fridge is a responsive boat, easy to handle, a doddle to slip into small and awkward mooring spots, a dream when river cruising. I couldn’t ask for more.

Despite the cold cabin, the double bed is so comfortable that I don’t want to leave it. Probably because of the chilly living space. There’s plenty of storage space for a holiday boat, a well-equipped galley and a comfortable saloon. This boat is perfect for a holiday adventure. And that’s my point.

Many aspiring liveaboard boaters consider ex-hire boats. Most have diesel central heating rather than multi-fuel stoves. Coal-burning stoves are cheaper to run and more reliable than mechanical heating systems. Some potential boat buyers argue that the simple solution is to buy a hire boat and install a stove. Unfortunately, that is often an expensive and challenging exercise. Anyway, I digress.


Discover Life Afloat

Discover all you need to know about living on England's inland waterways during a day on my beautiful narrowboat, Orient. You'll helm my boat on a 12-mile, 6-lock route through beautiful rural Warwickshire. During the day we'll discuss the designs, features, fitting and equipment necessary to live a comfortable and tranquil life afloat.

I filled my diesel tank, tried and failed to empty my cassette at the recently and often broken Anderton Elsan point and sped back to the lift for my 2 pm decent. The lift crew were ready for me with open gates and happy smiles. I returned to the river ninety minutes after leaving it, exhausted but with a full fuel tank.

Phew, this retirement’s an exhausting game.

I flew up the river to Northwich town centre, donated the rest of my savings to Waitrose and staggered back to The Fridge with enough food to last another week. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the energy to move my boat, so I had the pleasure of listening to a mob of teenage skateboarders falling down the Odeon cinema steps into my mooring security gate. Oh, the joy of convenient urban moorings!

Northwich Crane Cormorants

A favoured wing drying spot for the Weaver’s many cormorants

I broke a new misery record on The Fridge the following day. I woke to a thick frost outside and a cabin thermometer reading of 1.5°C. I jumped out of bed, flipped the Eberspacher’s switch and slid under my duvet, waiting for the reassuring roar of a working diesel burner. Instead, the Eberspacher clanked, gasped for a few minutes, and then shut down. I prepared myself for an increasingly familiar early morning routine.

I stepped onto my exposed cruiser stern wearing nothing more than a pair of nipple-hugging Y fronts and a sheepish grin, turned the engine on, noted the dismayed glance from an early morning dog walker, slipped back into my cabin, turned the heater on again and returned to my cooling duvet for an hour. The cabin temperature increased just three degrees in that time. The heater is hopeless.

Anyway, I couldn’t hang about in bed all day. I had miles to cruise and locks to negotiate. I tended to my housekeeping first, a quick march to Waitrose for a crafty crap and then a hundred-metre cruise to empty my brimming cassette. With no facilities beyond the two locks I planned to negotiate, I had to ensure that I had enough toilet space for at least a week.

Two CRT guys reached the lock before me. Just as well, really, given that the downstream gates had frozen together. They freed the gates with a bit of cursing and a lot of kicking and raised me to the next level. I arranged a passage through the following lock, Vale Royal, as part of the same exercise. I couldn’t see anything worth stopping for on either Google or Ordnance Survey maps, so there was no point staying on that river section.

I had to tread water for fifteen minutes when I reached Vale Royal lock. More kicking and cursing unstuck the second downstream gate.

Vale Royal Cut Mooring

Vale Royal Cut Mooring

After ten minutes of gentle cruising, I reached here and planned to stay for a few days.

As I walked along a footpath to the river’s southern navigable terminus to Winsford, I had high hopes. Sadly, the town didn’t offer much of interest. I stopped at Morrisons on a soulless retail park for a light lunch and walked back to the river searching for decent mooring spots.

Apart from the dozen boat spaces on CRT’s Vale Royal Cut visitor moorings, the only other possible mooring spot south of Vale Royal Lock is close to ‘Winsford Marina’. Whoever gave the duck shit covered slipway that title must have been having a laugh. There’s a shallow basin next to the marina with enough space for three boats and an excellent chance of catching Avian Flu. So other than possibly making a flying visit to resupply while moored close to a flock of coughing birds, I decided to steer well clear of Winsford’s dubious delights.

Winsford Basin Birds

Winsford Basin Birds

Much as I enjoyed the tranquillity of my Vale Royal Cut mooring, there wasn’t much to do there either. Neither Winsford nor the walk to it offered much of interest other than the unsightly buildings above Britain’s deepest salt mine. So I decided to abandon this section of the river and head north.

I had to endure another day on this uninspiring stretch before the lock keepers could help me on my way again. The wind picked up and drove me mad when my hull crashed against the riverbank every few minutes. Finally, I moved to Vale Royal lock landing to get out of the wind and set off on my daily walk.

An unsuccessful shortcut along a narrow path behind a commercial estate boundary’s concrete wall added excitement to the day. On a secluded stretch away from prying eyes, I met four feral folk, faces grey as a winter’s day, huddled around a communal joint big enough to ride. An air of menace radiated from them. The closest guy stared aggressively as I squeezed between the group and a concrete wall.

I danced a mental joy jig and released a breath held far too long. I listened for footsteps behind me and relaxed as I drew further away from the unpleasant group. I tempted fate by thanking my lucky stars that our paths would never cross again. That’s when I reached a high barbed wire fence blocking the route and realised that I had to retrace my steps and face the feral four again.

The four guys now blocked my path completely. I carefully slipped my Leatherman out of its belt pouch and held it beneath my coat. I wasn’t sure what help it would be. Maybe I could catch and squeeze an errant testicle with the needle-nosed pliers and a jutting chin with the titanium rasp or use the marlinspike to remove a stone from a cloven hoof.

I gave the leader my best timid stare, hoped I wouldn’t fire a fear fart in his direction, pushed him out of my way and strode away on trembling legs. I tensed for the expected punch in the back of my head, ignored their offensive comments and resisted the urge to run.

Several miles later, I relaxed on a riverside bench watched an angling trio doing fishy things to a roach. It was a different kind of roach to the one familiar to my would-be attackers. I ate a Waitrose roast beef sandwich and revelled in my newfound freedom, my recent escape and the promise of many more adventures to come.

Plenty of mooring space beneath the Anderton Boat Lift

Plenty of mooring space beneath the Anderton Boat Lift

I passed through Vale Royal lock the following morning and then chugged serenely to Hunt’s lock where the boys in blue waited for me. That’s the boys in CRT blue, not the plod type. They dropped me down the second lock, and I cruised for another five minutes to Northwich’s Odeon moorings.

To and fro, hither and thither, back and forth, that’s the nature of my River Weaver cruising.

I walked to Waitrose to deliver yesterday’s food and collect tomorrow’s, booked a passage through Saltersford lock the following morning and moved The Fridge to The Anderton Lift moorings. After a lifetime filling my working days with hard physical labour, keeping fit fills much of my leisure time these days. I try to walk five to ten miles a day so having Anderton’s beautiful and fascinating nature park on my doorstep is a real bonus.

Anderton Nature Park

Anderton Nature Park

I rushed around the following morning to ensure I was ready for my 11 am passage through Saltersford lock. I planned to backtrack slightly to the service point in Northwich, empty my cassette, fill my water tank and then race back to the lock. Five minutes after setting off, I realised that my timing would be tight. I turned around midstream and cruised towards my appointment. I didn’t want to keep the lock keeper waiting.

I arrived at the lock half an hour early, the lock keeper twenty minutes late. Still, he came, I was in no rush, so I chatted to him as he let the lock water out. He shared two fascinating facts; the largest boat through the lock weighed one thousand tonnes, and the record for the most craft in the lock stood at thirty-three. So it’s an enormous lock.

Emptying 2,500,000 litres out of a lock takes a while, half an hour at Saltersford with one paddle out of commission. The lockkeeper left me to open the downstream gate. The process appeared overly complicated.

He pressed buttons, opened and closed control boxes, twisted handles, tugged one of the gates experimentally, made a few phone calls and looked to the sky for inspiration. Then he hailed me as I bobbed about in the vast chamber to explain that the gate mechanism needed hydraulic oil. I waited another thirty minutes for the oil to arrive and then waited a little longer while the lock keeper and his new friend examined the gates and their mechanisms in detail and at length.

Two and a half hours after entering the lock, I left it travelling backwards. Unfortunately, the broken gate wouldn’t be fixed or even looked at until the following Monday, so I thought I might have missed my chance to explore the Weaver’s northern section.

Shortly after leaving the lock on a quiet mooring in Barnton Cut, I stopped for the day. There’s a bench on the towpath overlooking the mooring. There’s a path to the Trent & Mersey canal and Barnton village and its Texaco filling station SPAR shop. So I had tranquillity, exercise and shops, all rolled into one. It was the perfect spot to stop for a day or two to catch up with my blog post writing.

A pretty River Weaver Cruiser

A pretty River Weaver Cruiser

Discovery Day Update

Just eight weeks remain until my first Discovery Day of the year. I thought I had an explosive start to 2021, but this year is even busier.

My ‘season’ begins this year in March and extends until the end of April. Then I’m off again until July. There are currently five dates left in March and one in April. I expect all of those to go before the end of February so, if you want to join me for a thoroughly enjoyable and highly informative day cruising through beautiful Warwickshire you can see and book dates here. And if you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, you can read about my Discovery Day service here.

 

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Cruising North In The Fridge

I found my temporary hire boat home moored beside a disused service point next to the Hureleston flight of four locks at the junction with the Llangollen and Shropshire Union canals.

Although the January day was cold, it was warmer than the boat’s freezing cabin. I flicked the cabin’s Eberspacher switch and unpacked my bags while I waited for the diesel burner to flood my floating home with comforting heat. 

I flew through the handover checklist with Cheshire Cat Narrowboats owner, Linda. ‘Absolutely no walking on either the roof or the gunnels.’ I didn’t respond. Linda gave me a knowing look. As an RYA instructor, Linda knew how to handle boats. She also knew that, as a solo boater, I had to walk on the roof or the gunnels or both. I made a mental note to clean my muddy footprints off the cabin roof before returning the boat.

Linda made some last-minute additions to my boating equipment. She loaned me an anchor and life jacket for the River Weaver and an extension lead long enough to stretch from the boat’s only 240v socket in a stern cupboard to the saloon table near the boat’s bow. I hoped to write as much as I cruised and not break my neck on the trailing cable.

Linda left, I made a coffee, wondered why I could see thick steam clouds rising from the china mug and tried to determine the quickest way of silencing the incessantly barking dog in a nearby lock cottage.

I Waited for five hours for the Eberspacher to warm my cabin and the manic mutt to stop his barking. When neither happened, I decided to make the most of the day’s remaining light to move closer to my first holiday goal, Tattenhall Marina.

My love affair with Orient began at Tattenhall Marina in November 2018. I’ve run her stunning vintage Lister engine for 1,452 hours, cruised 2,221 miles and negotiated 1,477 locks since then. So now I planned to return to the marina in a hire boat, meet some good friends, drink far too much wine and remember where this chapter in my boating book began.

I dropped down Hurleston’s four lock flight, tied up in Barbridge at dusk and climbed into my cabin to check the Eberspacher’s performance. That’s when I decided to leave my two winter cruising fleeces on. And my hat.

I could see that the heating situation wouldn’t get any better. According to my iPhone weather app, the outside temperature was 9°C, not particularly cold for a winter’s day. But unfortunately, there was a cold snap forecast which wouldn’t help matters, nor would turning the heater off when I went to bed.

Although I wouldn’t say I liked the thought of waking on a January morning in an unheated steel tube, I had no choice. I suspected that my little domestic battery bank would struggle to run the diesel heater overnight, not that I could stand the noise of it droning away under the back deck ten feet from where I slept. So I turned the Eberspacher off and wrapped myself like a mummy in the bed’s 13.5 tog duvet.

I woke at 7 am, bracing myself to leave my duvet nest to reach the Eberspacher’s switch. The heater rewarded my bravery with a low moan, a few clicks and clanks and then… nothing. I repeated the effort with the same result. Even after running my engine until the 8 pm curfew, the 3 x 110 ah domestic batteries didn’t have enough charge in them to start the heater. I crawled back into bed and watched the minutes tick by until 8 am and an acceptable time to start my engine.

The Eberspacher fired up when I started my engine, but I was still freezing two hours later. I didn’t know how cold, but I knew that seeing steam drift slowly from my coffee cup to the cabin roof was a bad sign. So that’s when my boat name, formerly ‘The Angel of the North’ changed to ‘The Fridge.’

I warmed myself up nicely with a few locks, none of which proved quite as demanding as I feared. I started with the Bunbury flight of two staircase locks. There was nothing to them, really, as long as I filled and emptied the two chambers in the correct order. Tilstone lock next and then mounting tension as I neared Beeston’s two locks, one stone, the other iron.

Three years ago, my passage through the iron lock on Orient’s maiden voyage nearly ended in tragedy. Beeston Iron Lock was the first I had ever negotiated without an escape ladder. I foolishly tried to jump out of the lock, not understanding that the sheet-iron sides offered no handholds. I slid down the wall like a cartoon cat down a chalkboard and decided to jump blindly towards the boat roof rather than fall into the lock water wearing my heavy winter gear. I fell onto the boat roof, happy to bruise my back rather than drown.

Armed with that memory, this time I used The Fridge’s centre line to pull the boat out of the empty lock and a boat hook to retrieve the rope from beneath the lock entrance’s footbridge. The remaining three locks were hard work but similarly uneventful.

Much as I’m frustrated with my hire boat’s inadequate heating, I’m delighted with its ‘go anywhere’ status. ‘You can go anywhere in the network in a boat shorter than fifty-seven feet.’ That’s what people tell aspiring boaters. It’s rubbish. The boat’s draught is arguably more limiting than its length on the network’s increasingly shallow canals.

The Shropshire Union Canal in general and Beeston Iron Lock, in particular, are good examples of those limitations. Cruising the Shroppie in Orient is hard work. Negotiating Beeston Iron Lock in my deep draughted boat is dangerous.

The ‘Shroppie Shelf’ makes mooring close to the towpath difficult. The deeper the draught, the greater the problem. Beeston Iron Lock’s downstream landing is a pig in a deep boat. I couldn’t get Orient closer than three feet. Jumping off Orient’s little back deck onto a towpath covered in slippery mud was bad enough, but leaping off the towpath in mud-caked Wellington boots onto Orient’s four-inch ice-slicked gunnels was far more challenging.

I haven’t had any problems with my little hire boat. I can cruise confidently along shallow canals, sure that I can veer off the main channel when another boat approaches and moor whenever I like without worrying about grounding. Carefree cruising makes a welcome change, and I love it.

I stopped for three nights in Tattenhall Marina for a series of dinner invitations with previous customers, now good friends, Steve and Sue Ghost. They offered good food, wine and conversation and a warm cabin. My hire boat heating worried me, as did the number of hours I needed to run the engine each day to charge the little battery bank and keep the Eberspacher running.

I hoped to eliminate noisy and expensive excessive engine running on my marina mooring by plugging into the marina’s shore supply. Alas, that was not to be. The Fridge doesn’t have a shoreline connection, so I had to annoy the poor guy next to me on the marina’s temporary mooring block for hours each day with engine and diesel heater noise.

I became so obsessed with my cold cabin that I purchased a digital thermometer. It’s a basic model which shows the current temperature and humidity and the daily highs and lows.

The display read 1.5°C when I jumped out of bed the following morning to turn the heating on. I crawled back into bed and waited an hour for the cabin to warm up. The thermometer had risen to 5.5°C the second time I checked, so I made a breakfast which required two gas rings, the oven and the grill burning. That increased the cabin temperature to a bearable 14°C, providing I wore two fleeces and a hat.

Trying to view my frigid living conditions positively, I realised that after early morning breakfast in a cold cabin, standing on the unprotected deck of a cruiser stern boat didn’t seem so bad.

I had thirty miles to cover to reach my next target, The Anderton Boat Lift. I filled my diesel tank before I left Tattenhall. Because I’m data-obsessed, I wanted to know how much diesel the engine and the Eberspacher burned each day. The forty-one litres I put in didn’t please me. After four days on the boat, that meant that I had used ten litres a day, so I could expect to put another four hundred litres in the tank before I returned The Fridge to Overwater Marina. To put this figure in perspective, it’s about the same amount of fuel Orient needed to transport me 1,143 miles over 12 months last year.

Whartpn's Lock - Any idyllic spot for three days

I cruised for three miles to Wharton’s lock and stayed there for three days. One of the many aspects of winter cruising I love is the tranquillity. I see a few dog walkers and hikers at weekends, but the countryside is all mine most of the time.

Descending Wharton's Lock

I made the most of a cloudless sky on my second day and squelched through shin-deep mud along the Sandstone Trail to Beeston Castle. A firm surface to walk on justified the National Heritage £11 entrance fee.

I stayed for three hours admiring and exploring the 1,000-year-old ruins. Much as I enjoyed them, the roundhouse, recently constructed based mainly on guesswork and post holes unearthed by archaeologists in the castle’s inner keep, fascinated me more.

Enthusiasts invested 10,000 hours in the build and used replicas of the tools available to the Bronze Age builders. The guy I spoke to knew everything about the construction methods. I tried to catch him out when I asked why there was no roof hole to let the fire’s smog escape. He explained that an earlier roundhouse build attempt in East Anglia went spectacularly wrong when the ‘chimney hole’ allowed the fire to draw so well that it burned the building down. Mind you, at least they would have been warm.

Beeston Castle Round House


Discover Life Afloat

Discover all you need to know about living on England's inland waterways during a day on my beautiful narrowboat, Orient. You'll helm my boat on a 12-mile, 6-lock route through beautiful rural Warwickshire. During the day we'll discuss the designs, features, fitting and equipment necessary to live a comfortable and tranquil life afloat.

I waded back through muddy lakes to The Fridge and stood on the back deck for an hour talking to an aspiring boat owner. John was desperate for advice after being tempted by an irresistible offer. That’s never a good sign, nor was his determination to buy a narrowboat for £6,000.

John was walking along a London canal towpath when he heard a guy standing on a boat roof, touting for buyers. The boat, John says, has rotten steelwork, decayed wood, a decommissioned stove and probably a broken engine. Still, John thinks that the scrap pile is a bargain, so he wants to buy and live on it. I tried to persuade him otherwise.

John emailed me at length, still determined to buy the boat. I suggested he have a survey and a boat safety examination before parting with any money, but he didn’t like what I said. Nevertheless, John appeared convinced that he had found a bargain boat and wanted to move forward with the purchase. I pointed out that if this boat was in as good condition as the owner claimed, he could sell it instantly online at that price. There were so many warning bells ringing that I couldn’t hear myself think.

John didn’t contact me again after that. I hope he didn’t buy the boat, but I suspect that he did. With the market’s currently inflated boat prices, the prospect of purchasing a narrowboat for next to nothing might have been too much of a temptation.

I cruised towards Anderton, stopping at Calveley Bridge Service Station to do boating things. I filled my water tank and emptied both my cassette and bowels, but not in the same hole. Disappointingly, the Elsan sewage hole was cleaner than the toilet I used. Inland waterways cruising isn’t always glamorous.

I dropped a worryingly large bag of empty beer and wine bottles in the Biffa bins then cruised for a few hundred yards to Calveley Mill Cafe. I stopped long enough for a Cappuccino and a toasted cheese and onion sandwich and then continued my journey. Ah, the simple pleasures of life on the cut.

The thermometer dropped, ice formed on the canal and in my underwear, and I floated gently towards Anderton. I tinkled gently through the ice-broken paths forged by early rising boaters. The days were windless, quite possibly warmer than my cabin and perfect. The winter sun warmed my neck and blinded the few boaters I passed on my cruise.

I dropped down a couple of deep locks, turned left at the junction with the Trent & Mersey canal, descended 32′ through Middlewich’s three locks and then moored next to a dog shit bin, close to an industrial estate and a busy road bridge. So it’s just as well I only stopped to shop.

This is not my favourite mooring

I walked half a mile to Middlewich Morrisons store to buy food and, more importantly, replenish my exhausted Henry Weston supply and then tried to find the high street and a decent coffee shop.’ Sorry, love, we don’t have a high street, but you’re standing in the doorway of our only cafe!’ The elderly lady cackled as she staggered towards the bingo hall.

Narrow Middlewich Passage

Narrow Middlewich Passage

I cruised through ice through a pretty landscape marred for a while by steam-spouting chimneys at Rudheath. The canal passes through a bleak landscape here; run-down buildings, dilapidated boatyards and noisy roads and railroads. Yet, despite all this, some narrowboat owners choose to moor on dreary towpaths here. Why, when there are beautiful moorings a stone’s throw away?

The T & M passes through several flashes in this area. They’re expansive and exceptionally shallow lakes, separated by buoys and warning signs from the main channel. Dangerous, but very pretty.

I stopped on Anderton’s visitor moorings, tried and failed to find someone to talk to about my following morning’s lift decent and then enjoyed a couple of happy hours wandering around Anderton’s gorgeous nature park.

A friend, Joy, joined me for the fifty feet descent onto the River Weaver. The Anderton Boat Lift is an awe-inspiring structure. Built in 1875 and little changed over the following 150 years, it’s one of the wonders of the inland waterways. The lift cost £48,428 to build (£5,954,000 today) plus a further £7,000,000 to restore in 2001. Each narrowboat passage requires four CRT operators for up to an hour. The cost to narrowboat license holders to use the lift is a gift at £5 each way. So you get a great deal of value for your modest license fee.

Anderton Lift At Night

Oh, the joy of cruising on a deep waterway! We surged through the glass-smooth water to Hunt’s Lock, raced downstream to Saltersford Lock, dashed back to Norwich and stopped after twelves delightful miles at a Northwich riverside cafe. The river’s wide enough to turn a narrowboat wherever you want, deep enough (never less than ten feet according to one of the CRT guys) to eliminate any worry about grounding and almost deserted at this time of the year.

I thoroughly explored the riverside nature reserves, footpaths, towns, and villages for three days. Finally, I booked a passage through Hunt’s and Vale Royal locks for the fourth day of my Weaver stay and then did something profoundly and unusually sensible. I dipped my hire boat diesel tank.

I lay in bed thinking about my diesel consumption the previous night. Oh, how my life has changed. I remember restless nights with my mind filled with lovely images of naked and willing women. I’m happy enough with the boater’s equivalent of counting sheep these days.

Remembering that I used about ten litres a day during my first four days on this boat and realising that I hadn’t topped up the tank for ten days, I suspected I might not have much left. Tank dipping with my boathook confirmed my suspicion. I had enough fuel left to half fill a young flea’s football boot. I desperately needed diesel.

I phoned Northwich marina, another boatyard beyond Hunt’s lock and the local coal boat. Then I spoke to a guy on a liveaboard boat moored on the Northwich’s Odeon moorings. They all confirmed that no one sells diesel on the River Weaver. I knew I was in trouble.

I phoned CRT to see if I could book an emergency passage up to the Trent & Mersey Canal. I was out of luck. The lift only operates on Mondays and Fridays through the winter months. I phoned at 12.30 pm on Monday. ‘The lift’s already in operation for the day. If you’re lucky, they may agree to fit you in. Mind you; they might not!’ That wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

I set a new Weaver record for the fastest narrowboat passage between Northwich and Anderton, skidded to a halt next to the lift moorings and sprinted towards the lift in search of help.

I shed a tear and dropped on bended knees to plead with the CRT guys and gals to take me up the lift to the canal. The guy I spoke to was super helpful, which is more than I could say for the lady on duty.

I assumed that she worked for CRT part-time because her full-time position as the chief lemon sucker for a huge citrus fruit processing plant must be a full-time commitment. Then I realised that she responded to my abrasiveness, modified my behaviour, and hoped she would forgive me. And, more to the point, persuade her workmates to extend their working day to help me out.

I waited, and I worried. Even though my fuel tank wasn’t quite empty, it was dangerously low. The engine fuel line would be slightly above the tank bottom and the diesel heater above that. So I could expect the heating system to fail first, followed shortly by the engine. I couldn’t last another four days until I could book the first available passage on the following Friday. The forecast for the next week was for sub-zero nights, so my frigid cabin would be unbearably cold without the heater. What’s more, I couldn’t generate any power without my engine.

The lady I had insulted returned ten minutes later wearing a frown. Was that because she saw me, or was she the bearer of bad news?

I’ll tell you the rest of the story next week.

Discovery Day Update

Just nine weeks remain until my first Discovery Day of the year. I thought I had an explosive start to 2021, but this year is even busier.

My ‘season’ begins this year in March and extends until the end of April. Then I’m off again until July. There are currently seven dates left in March and two in April. I expect all of those to go before the end of February so, if you want to join me for a thoroughly enjoyable and highly informative day cruising through beautiful Warwickshire you can see and book dates here. And if you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, you can read about my Discovery Day service here.

 

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Comparing A Hire Boat With A Live Aboard Narrowboat

I’m back from the dead with my first blog post since May last year.

Dear reader, I love writing to you, but I haven’t had the time. I had so many Discovery Day enquiries last year that I could only accommodate half of them. So I worked four days a week at the marina and then the other three hosting experience days. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t fit them all in.

My exhausting seven workday regime last year had a purpose, though. I had several expensive items to remove from Orient’s dwindling to-do list, and I wanted enough of a financial buffer to allow me to feel comfortable severing my ties to Calcutt Boats.

I’ve worked at the marina maintaining the company’s extensive grounds on and off for twelve years. Although I enjoyed the workplace banter, camaraderie and the hard graft, recovery after physically demanding days proved increasingly painful. So I made the emotionally tricky but sensible decision last April to resign in December.

That’s it; I’m now free to explore the inland waterways and pamper my little boat to the point of obsession.

Even though I fell in love with Orient the instant I stepped on board, I realised that I had many improvements, alterations and repairs to make before she looked her best.

I began by taking the old girl out of the water to black her bottom and then did the job again six months later, thanks to a maiden voyage through paint-stripping ice. I had additional anodes fitted, purchased a set of four look-at-me stainless steel chimneys, repainted the roof, most of the cabin sides, the front and back decks and the boatman’s cabin bilge.

I tackled the bilge painting over Christmas. To add a little spice to The Big Day, I discarded my Christmas dinner for one, slipped into my overalls and painted half a tonne of bilge ballast. Who says I don’t know how to enjoy myself?

Orient's painted ballast bars

I replaced my dead domestic battery bank, upgraded the electrical system, added a 645-watt solar array, fitted a saloon table with bench seating, replaced my front doors and rear hatch, renewed my fenders, installed a composting toilet – thank you, CRT, for your latest waste disposal directive – upgraded to a commercial boat safety scheme certificate, replaced my aged cratch cover, switched to stainless steel roof vents, replaced my Squirrel stove and flue and, the last job in 2021, fitted new chunky brass portholes.

When I say that *I* made all of these improvements and alterations, I’m telling a little white lie. I have a comprehensively stocked toolbox, filled with stuff I know how to use in theory but not practice. While I’m hopeless at DIY, I’ve raised the skill of looking lost to an art form. I find that asking for help while demonstrating incompetence works very well, as does having good people to call on. I have Calcutt’s Jason Robin to thank for much of Orient’s beautification and Dave Reynolds and his lovely wife, Alex, for my electrics. I don’t know what I would have done without such competent friends and workmates.

Fifteen brass portholes ready for fitting

So I parked my mower and hung up my strimmer for the last time on Wednesday 22nd December, pushed my big-bottomed baby through Locks marina’s shallow mud into one of their covered docks, used the Christmas break to do something meaningful with my time and anticipated a new life filled with adventure.

Because I needed a rest after watching all of that hard work, I decided to treat myself.

A freshly installed porthole

My retirement gift to me is a six-week tour on the network’s northern section in a hire boat. I wanted to hire a boat somewhere on the Leeds Liverpool canal but couldn’t find a company prepared to rent to solo boaters. Cheshire Cats Narrowboats would, though, so their 48′ Angel of the North is my home until 13th February.

Why hire a boat when I own one? Good question.

Orient is an undeniably pretty boat. I can turn the head of many a middle-aged man on the cut. It’s not what I want, but I’ll take all the attention I can get these days. Sadly, there’s more to narrowboating than a craft’s sweeping lines or a vintage engine’s mesmerising beat. One of the most critical considerations on England’s muddy ditches is a narrowboat’s draught. That’s where my old girl falls flat on her aged bottom.

Cruising with a big-bottomed boat is difficult on some canals and impossible on others. Orient’s maiden voyage from Tattenhall marina near Chester to Napton Junction was hard work. I ploughed through canal beds thick with fallen leaves, ground over rocks and often failed to moor closer to canal banks than three or four feet.

I tried to explore Warwickshire’s South Oxford canal last January after heavy rain raised the water level enough – I thought – to ease Orient’s passage. I was wrong.

I stayed for three nights on a remote and tranquil mooring close to Priors Hardwick. I woke each morning to a more pronounced list. Finally, the tilting cabin threw me out of bed and slid my coffee cup off my kitchen worktop on the fourth morning. I knew I had to move.

The three-mile cruise to reach a winding hole and four-mile return leg took ten hours of backbreaking effort. I slipped along the muddy bottom for a few hundred metres, grounded, tried and failed to reverse off and then resigned myself to another exhausting session pushing twenty-two tonnes off high mudflats with a wooden pole. I hated the canal network in general and Orient in particular when I finished.

Orient’s deep draught causes me anxiety and takes the edge off cruises on unknown canals. So I decided to invest my hard-earned pennies in a temporary holiday home better suited to shallow waterways. But would it be as comfortable as my beautiful boat?


Discover Life Afloat

Discover all you need to know about living on England's inland waterways during a day on my beautiful narrowboat, Orient. You'll helm my boat on a 12-mile, 6-lock route through beautiful rural Warwickshire. During the day we'll discuss the designs, features, fitting and equipment necessary to live a comfortable and tranquil life afloat.

You may think about buying an ex hire boat as a floating home. You might even consider following the advice given on many forums and Facebook groups and hire a narrowboat before you buy one. Hiring a narrowboat, many think, allows you to experience living afloat. But does it?

Here’s what I think. Apart from two years messing about in motorhomes and boats in Europe, I’ve lived on narrowboats since April 2010. Most of that time has been on two boats fully equipped for living off-grid. However, I have lived and cruised on hire boats half a dozen times over the last decade.

Companies design and equip hire boats for hosting lots of people for a week or two during the spring, autumn and summer. Even though most private boats accommodate fewer people than hire boats, they are similarly designed and equipped for occasional use. However, narrowboats used as homes have more robust heating systems and enhanced electrical systems if used for off-grid living.

Most hire boats are therefore poorly equipped for extended winter stays. I’ve had that confirmed quite painfully over the last two weeks. Is there a cure for frostbite?

I have three different heat sources on Orient; a Morso multi-fuel stove in the saloon, a Kabola diesel boiler in the middle of the boat and a Premiere range in my boatman’s cabin. Even though Orient’s polystyrene isn’t as efficient an insulator as the spray foam you find on modern boats, Orient’s saloon Squirrel provides enough heat to keep me warm on the coldest of days.

A comfortable living room temperature is about 20°C. I like the room slightly warmer if I plan to sit in front of my MacBook screen for hours on end.

I don’t use the Kabola boiler, but it will heat three radiators in the middle of the boat and Orient’s calorifier, its hot water tank. I rarely use the back cabin range either. Still, I have the option to waft hot air up my trouser leg on a cold winter’s day cruise. I’ve passed boaters on cruiser sterns during many of my winter cruises. They’re usually swaddled like Mitchellin men and still look cold. I now know how they feel.

Angel of the North, my six-week holiday hire, is a cold winter home, so chilly that I’ve given the boat a more appropriate name. She’s now called ‘The Fridge’.

The boat’s sole heat source is an Eberspacher diesel heater. I don’t know how much power the heater draws from the boats small 3 x 110 ah lead acid leisure bank, but it’s too much to allow overnight use. Because of that, as my extremities can testify, the unheated narrowboat chills very quickly.

I ordered an Amazon room thermometer after I’d been on the boat for a couple of days. I knew the cabin was uncomfortably cold, but, being a martyr to the cause, I wanted to know precisely how much I suffered.

The thermometer showed 2.1°C when I woke the following morning. That’s a comfortable temperature for refrigerated sausage storage, although mine didn’t seem to like it.

I turned the Eberspacher on and climbed into bed for another hour. Fortunately, the 13.5 tog duvet made bedtime bearable. Unfortunately, the thermometer only climbed just two degrees over the next hour, so I ate breakfast wearing two fleeces and a rabbit-skin hat. It wasn’t a good look, but it’s one which I’ve adopted on many mornings since then.

I can increase the cabin temperature a little by lighting a gas hob ring or two. The problem with that is the moisture created by burning gas. I can have a warm and wet cabin or a cold and dry one. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

Here’s one final problem with the Eberspacher. Even when the heater’s running correctly, it can’t get the cabin as warm as I want.

My Squirrel keeps my cabin 20°C warmer than the outside temperature, even when I turn it down to its lowest setting. I can increase that difference to 30°C if I open both vents. When it’s working flat out, the Eberspacher will produce a maximum 15°C difference between inside and outside. Unfortunately, the heater’s not powerful enough, and it’s expensive to run; at least it is on this hire boat.

The Fridge’s Eberspacher is perfect for eliminating spring and autumn chills but hopelessly inadequate for winter warming, as is the battery bank.

With five 135ah AGM batteries, Orient has an average battery bank for a liveaboard boat. Because I have a battery monitor attached to my leisure bank, I can check their state of charge and ensure they don’t drop too low. Deep discharges shorten the battery bank’s life and lead to situations where you don’t have the power you need, as I discovered on my first night onboard The Fridge.

Orient’s larger capacity battery bank – 675 ah compared with 330 ah on my hire boat – doesn’t need to work very hard. It powers my 12v cabin lights, pumps, fridge, and 240v appliances via my inverter. This larger bank also has power coming in from my solar array, even during the coldest, darkest months of the year. The hire boat’s little bank has to work much harder.

In addition to similar lights, pumps, refrigeration and 240v appliances, The Fridge’s batteries also have to cope with the Eberspacher’s electrical requirements. And that’s where it struggles.

I’ve discovered that I need to run the hire boat’s engine for at least six hours every day to keep the heater running. I tried fewer hours, but the heater died in the evening after the 8 pm engine running curfew. So on those nights, I retired to my warm bed at 8.30 pm to worry about the amount of diesel I was using.

Orient’s vintage Lister JP2M uses just over half a litre an hour. At this time of the year, I need to run the engine for no more than an hour a day for battery charging to supplement my poor winter solar array input. Compare that to at least six hours a day on my hire boat on a modern engine twice the fuel consumption. I suspect that I’m using about ten litres of diesel a day to run both the hire boat’s engine and heater. If that’s the case, I’ll use as much fuel on a six-week hire boat holiday as I did on Orient all of last year.

Now please don’t understand me; I’m not criticising this particular hire boat. I would have hired the only craft in the Cheshire Cats fleet with a multi-fuel stove if it had been available. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t, so this boat was the best alternative.

It’s a dream to handle, especially on shallow canals. I suspect the draught is closer to two feet than Orient’s three. Even so, on some of the Trent & Mersey canal’s northern stretches, I’ve sometimes hit bottom.

The boat’s Nanni engine is good too. It starts the first time on the coldest mornings and runs all day without complaint. I can’t ask for more than that.

Apart from the cabin temperature, it’s comfortable and well equipped. Of course, it’s not as comfortable as a boat designed as a primary home, but you don’t expect that from a craft used to accommodate people who spend more of their time enjoying outside cruising than inside living. And that’s the point I’m trying to make.

Follow popular advice by all means. Book a winter holiday on a narrowboat to gain an insight into life on a narrowboat. But realise this: Companies don’t design hire boats to accommodate one or two people in comfort all year round. If you choose wisely, your liveaboard home will have better power generation and storage capabilities, a better, quieter, more reliable heating system with lower running costs than a hire boat, and far more comfort. Much as I enjoy my northern adventure, I can’t wait to get back to Orient’s cosy cabin.

I’ve told you about my temporary home. I’ll let you know where I’ve been in it in the next post.

One of Orient's ridiculously loud chimneys

Discovery Day Update

Now that I no longer have a job to tie me to my Warwickshire base, I’ve decided that I want to spend as much time as possible exploring new waterways. But I will continue to host Discovery Day cruises.

Rather than make dates available every weekend like I did last year, I’ll cruise for a couple of months and then return to base for a month’s intensive training and experience day bookings. 

My ‘season’ begins this year in March and extends until the end of April. Then I’m off again until July. There are currently nine dates left in March and six in April. I expect most of those to go before the end of February so, if you want to join me for a thoroughly enjoyable and highly informative day cruising through beautiful Warwickshire you can see and book dates here. And if you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, you can read about my Discovery Day service here.

 

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The Pros And Cons Of Narrowboat Marina Moorings

Two months have passed since I returned from my nine-week winter break, tethered to a tiny area of England’s canal and river network by coronavirus restrictions, winter stoppages and ice. Despite thoroughly enjoying time off doing nothing more meaningful than rearranging my sock drawer, I missed aspects of marina life.

There’s been an avalanche of waterways interest over the last turbulent year. Narrowboats are selling as quickly as brokers can advertise them, and holiday hire boat operators are laughing all the way to their collective bank. My experience and helmsman training day bookings have gone through the roof as aspiring liveaboard narrowboat owners investigate life on England’s muddy ditches.

(If you plan to join me for an information-packed and thoroughly enjoyable cruise on the cut this year, you need to secure a date soon. Despite reducing my marina working days to accommodate more aspiring boat owners, I’m now fully booked until early September. You can see and book available dates here, and you can read more about my Discovery Day service here.)

Because many new inland waterways boaters still need to work, finding residential moorings is high on their list of priorities. Given that I’ve lived both in a marina and out on the cut for the last eleven years, I thought I would share some of the highs and lows of marina life with you.

Firstly, I must point out that, although I live on one of Calcutt Boats two marinas, the company doesn’t offer residential moorings. The relatively few boaters who live afloat here are employed by or connected with the company. That’s a shame for you if you want a residential mooring because Calcutt Boats has two of the prettiest marinas in the country, in my slightly biased opinion.

If you are looking for a marina mooring, there are several factors you should take into consideration, especially if you hope to live on your boat there full time.

Travel To And From Your Marina

The UK’s inland waterways network encompasses over 2,000 miles of connected and navigable canals and rivers. It stretches from Ripon, North Yorkshire and Tewitfield in Lancashire in the north, down to Avonmouth in the southwest and Goldaming in the south. With an appropriately thin boat, you can cruise east until you reach The Wash and then provide endless entertainment for the holidaymakers in Skegness as your flat-bottomed and underpowered boat sinks without trace.

There are hundreds of marinas and online mooring providers up and down the network. I spent many hours creating a bespoke Google map listing them all half a decade ago. Sadly, the good people at Google appear to have deleted my map. However, the free map included with the Waterways World annual lists 397 boatyards and marinas. That’s a good place for you to start if you have your heart set on a marina mooring.

Most of these marinas and boatyards DO NOT welcome residential boat owners. Some do but don’t advertise the fact. The only way you can establish the rules – published or otherwise – is to visit a marina or mooring provider you fancy, identify liveaboard boats by chimney smoke and roof clutter and chat to the owners.

There’s plenty of scope for you if you just want a leisure mooring, a mooring where you can park your boat when you return to your house rather than use it as a full-time home. Most marinas have spaces these days, including those at Calcutt Boats.

If you’re searching for a leisure mooring, try to avoid locations more than a couple of hours drive from your home. You’ll be full of enthusiasm when you buy your boat. You’ll smile as you think about using it for relaxing weekend breaks after stressful working weeks. Unfortunately, you may gloss over the logistical challenges ahead of you.

Unless you’re prepared to fill your boat with all the clothing and equipment you need for your second home, you’ll spend hours packing before you leave your house, more frustrating hours fighting Friday night traffic and then you’ll face the tedium of carrying, unpacking and tidying when you reach your boat. Before long, you’ll associate visits to your weekend retreat with exhaustion. And you’ll decide to stay at home instead.

Most marinas have far too many rarely visited narrowboats. Calcutt Boats is no exception. There are boats moored on their two marinas which haven’t seen visitors in years. Imagine paying £2,500 for moorings and another £1,000 a year for a license and not using your boat. It’s crazy.

Ensure that you fully understand the logistical issues you’ll need to overcome to use your boat if it’s moored on a distant marina.

Cruising Potential

And if you’re going to use your boat regularly, you want to have as many route options available to you as possible. That’s one of the reasons Calcutt Boats and the other nearby marinas are so popular. Boat owners can take the South Oxford down to the Thames, the Grand Union west towards Birmingham and the northern canals, or east towards Braunston, where there are more route options. There’s the North Oxford towards Coventry or the Grand Union down to London. A flight of locks, a fascinating tunnel passage and a pleasant hour’s cruise on the Grand Union takes boaters to Norton Junction and access to the Grand Union Leicester Line’s tranquil summit pound. While summer boaters fight for overcrowded moorings on popular routes, the Leicester Line’s twenty-mile summit pound is a peaceful haven for work-weary recreational boaters.

Then for a bit of excitement, there’s Foxton’s iconic flight of ten staircase locks popular with hordes of Leicester gongoozlers. Pretty Market Harborough is two pleasant hours from the Foxton flight along a peaceful arm. The canals accessible from Calcutt Boats offer boaters a wide range of cruising experiences.

The other extreme is a mooring at the end of a long arm or canal on the network’s edge. Boaters often have to face a tedious cruise on an overly familiar waterway before reaching a new route. The monotony becomes too much to bear, and once again, a poor narrowboat sits on its lonely mooring for months or years on end.

Aesthetics

‘All marinas are equal, but some marinas are more equal than others,’ is a phrase you won’t find in Animal Farm. There’s more to a mooring than space where you park your boat.

The sun sets over Calcutt Boats Meadows marina

If you own a recreational boat, sometimes all you want is a tranquil alternative to your brick and mortar home, somewhere to unwind after a hectic working week. You don’t have the energy to cruise. All you want is a peaceful space where you can relax and unwind.

For me, that doesn’t mean sidestepping boaters on congested moorings shoehorned into small and aesthetically displeasing spaces. That’s where Calcutt Boats really excels. Imagine leaving a congested motorway and then driving along increasingly peaceful roads until the only other traffic has four legs and a rider in a high visibility jacket. Oh, and maybe a tractor dashing between crop filled fields.

Imagine turning off that quiet road onto a half-mile private lane dotted with riding stables. Then you enter a security code to open a pair of wrought iron electric gates and drive into paradise.

Three SSSI wildflower meadows flank a long private Tarmac drive onto the spacious site. It’s early spring, so a sea of yellow cowslips has replaced swathes of nodding daffodils. When the cowslips disappear, they’ll be replaced by colourful wildflowers with wonderfully odd names; bristly oxtongue, bird’s foot trefoil, lady’s bedstraw and the Victorian lady of the night, Tansy Ragwort. Just reading these names should bring a smile to your face.

You drive deeper into the site, beneath Meadow’s marina’s flower dotted bank. Footpaths meander through seven woodland acres to your left. Tranquil dusk walks are there if you want them and the thrill of fleeting glimpses of muntjak deer, buzzards and barn owls. You can look forward to a night serenaded by pigeon coos and owl hoots, interrupted by the rat-a-tat-tat of green woodpeckers. The nighttime cries are a pleasant change from the din created by traffic and late-night drunken revellers near your city home.

Then there are the site’s two spacious marinas teeming with fish; pike, perch and zander lurking in the shallows, waiting to nip the toes of bare-footed boaters, shoals of rudd, tench, bream and solitary carp as large as small children. The crystal clear water is also home to a healthy population of water birds.

While the site’s pen swan sits regally on a nest the size of a jacuzzi, her mate spends his day paddling, flapping and flying at his deadly enemies, a flock of honking Canada geese.

Three cygnets relax on Calcutt’s slipway

The mallards squabble over mates, coots swim in aimless circles and kingfishers dart across the marina like bright blue bullets. This is a haven for both wildlife and people.

Choose your marina mooring carefully. Not all are this peaceful.

Tranquillity – Proximity to busy roads, railways and airports

There are many occasions when you want to stay on your boat for a few days but not take it out cruising. If you’re going to do little more than relax, having a pretty place to moor is only part of the equation. The peace and quiet of many marinas are spoiled by their proximity to busy roads, railways or aircraft flight paths.

Calcutt’s two marinas are not too bad in that respect. The nearest main road is over half a mile away, so you can just about hear the muted drone of passing traffic on still days. There is a railway track nearby, but as it hasn’t been used for sixty years, its proximity doesn’t cause any boater hardship. Unlike many roadside marinas, you have to listen carefully to hear traffic noise at Calcutt Boats.

The only slightly annoying traffic noise comes from a nearby landowner and his microlight. Much as I’ve been tempted to take potshots at him with an air rifle, I’ve been reminded that shooting planes isn’t the done thing in the UK.

Manoeuvrability

Finding and securing a decent marina mooring is just one part of your happiness afloat equation. Actually getting your boat on and off it is another consideration.

Narrowboats are large and unwieldy craft, often as long and heavy as a three-axle articulated lorry. These peculiar boats are famously unresponsive on windy and open waters, which you have on most marinas.

The last thing you want is a mooring hemmed in by other boats. Removing your craft from a rank of boats packed like sardines in a tin can be enough of a trauma to discourage you from cruising.

Which of the following marinas would you prefer.

Calcutt Boats Meadows Marina

Calcutt Boats Meadows Marina

22,000 square metres for 140 boats = 157 square metres per boat

Wigrams Turn Marina

Wigrams Turn Marina

29,000 square metres FOR 225 boats = 128 square metres per boat

Bill Fen Marina

Bill Fen Marina

12,000 square metres for 135 boats = 89 square metres per boat

Services

Very few marinas offer as many services as Calcutt Boats. There are two Elsan (sewage disposal) points for cassette toilet owners and two pump-out stations for boats with holding tanks. Gas, coal, kindling, logs and diesel are available, as is a comprehensive range of narrowboat fittings, spares and equipment. There’s a slipway for self-launches, hull and stern gear repairs and a painter available all year round for hull blacking.

Orient has her bottom pampered

Orient has her bottom pampered

Calcutt Boats employ two full and one part-time engineer, fitters, painters and a marine electrician. Although the company no longer builds its successful Clipper class narrowboat, skilled tradesmen are on hand for repairs and modifications. All the owners of boats moored at Calcutt have to do to organise BSS exams, repairs, or alterations is pick up a phone. Calcutt employees collect boats from their moorings and return them when the work is completed. Getting the same job done at a marina without services is much more difficult.

Security

Is your boat always safe on a marina mooring? Not necessarily. Marinas on the towpath side of a canal are far easier to access than those on the offside. Marinas near public roads are similarly accessible.

I have lived and worked at Calcutt Boats on and off for eleven years now, and I can’t remember a single instance of theft from boats within the marina. Thieves have a hard time of it here. They have to drive along a half-mile private drive and key in a passcode to an electric gate before they can get onto the site. And then they have to escape the beady eyes of the staff who work at the marina. We like to think that we’re a welcoming bunch at the marina unless your intentions are less than noble. Then we’re like a pack of rabid Rottweilers with hangovers and impacted wisdom teeth. You and your boat are safe here while the dogs are prowling.

Cost

The further south you go, the more you’re going to have to pay to park your boat. A prestige mooring in central London can cost you £1,000 each month. In contrast, a leisure mooring at Calcutt Boats – with arguably two of the network’s prettiest marinas, located in picturesque rural Warwickshire – will cost you a mere £2,600 a year for a 60’ boat.

And suppose you think you need the additional space offered by a fat boat. In that case, you can look forward to paying twice that at marinas with moorings predominantly used by narrowboats. At least in a wide beam craft, you’ll get value for your mooring money. You’re likely to find extended cruising so stressful that you’ll spend most of your time tethered to a pier.

Mooring Classification

Most mooring owners on the inland waterways network offer leisure moorings only. You are usually not allowed to live on a leisure mooring, but the exact rules differ widely. If you want to live aboard your boat full time, you need to secure a residential mooring, and you’ll pay a pretty penny for that.

While most marinas won’t offer you an official residential mooring, they may let you slip under the net. You will need to visit a marina you fancy and talk to boat owners about the unwritten rules. Still, you will always stand a better chance of staying long term on a marina mooring if you blend in.

That means being pleasant to the marina staff and following their rules. If you put your head above the parapet, you’re likely to get shot. An otherwise lovely boat owner at Calcutt was recently asked to leave the marina after constantly refusing to adhere to the rules.

Your boat’s condition will play a part in your acceptability too. If the marina you want to stay in is filled with clean and tidy narrowboats, and you bring in something which looks like it belongs in a skip, you aren’t going to win any popularity contests. Obey the rules, be nice and keep a tidy boat and you’re halfway there.

Discovery Day Update

There has been an extraordinary surge in interest in the inland waterways in the last year. With more and more people able to work remotely, narrowboats are selling as quickly as brokers can advertise them. Whilton Marina, one of the network’s largest brokers, often has 75+ narrowboats for sale. Today, there are just eight. Although Calcutt Boats’ brokerage is a much smaller operation, the company often has twenty for sale. That’s down to two boats today.

It’s a seller’s market at the moment so prices are sky high and decent boats are few and far between. The good news for you if you’re considering buying a narrowboat is that there will be many boats coming back on the market in the near future. Many new narrowboat owners have invested their life savings into boats that they haven’t researched. I’ve spoken to several disenchanted people who’ve bought boats over the last twelve months who are now considering selling.

There’s much more to living afloat than many people think. They have to consider mooring type and availability, electricity use, reduction and generation, coal, water, gas and diesel resupply and shoehorning a life’s possessions into a much smaller space than they’re used to. Narrowboat ownership isn’t something you should rush into without research.

This website is a good place to start. I’ve added hundreds of articles over the last decade. You can use the search facility at the top of the right-hand column to find the answers to any lifestyle questions you have. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, please let me know. I’m always happy to point an aspiring narrowboat owner in the right direction.

If you still think the lifestyle is right for you, get some practical experience. Hire a narrowboat for a week or two, preferably in the winter months when you won’t be able to look at the lifestyle through rose-tinted glasses. Even better, book an experience day with me.

I’ve taken hundreds of people out for the day since my first Discovery Day booking in June 2014. I’ve received many emails since then from happy customers, like this one below…

Well, I have a couple of days off now from the coal face, so it's a time to relax and review our day onboard your home. Thank You so much for allowing me onto Orient and the time you spent with me and all of your advice. It was a fantastic day!! Couldn't have asked for more and really enjoyed it. I also had the best night's sleep in a long time, so there must be something in all of this fresh air hey?


I had researched boat life before around 5-6 years ago and had found you then and used your calculator to cost interpret the dream. Life got in the way, some work decisions were changed and it got shelved. However, I am considering it again and so it made perfect sense to spend time with yourself knowing how you have helped many others before me. Through your blogs I knew you had vast amounts of experience.


The day was nice and relaxed and great company. I was watered with plenty of coffee! The initial questions I had sent were answered throughout the day along with more information than I had considered. I found the walkthrough of your boat useful as I could see what I did/didn't need and how I may want a layout for myself. Think this now allows a much narrower view when looking at boats.


I couldn't imagine considering any part of my research now without having spent time with you & I'll be looking to spend more time either before and prior to the boat purchase.

andrew larig0

15th May 2021

If you’re serious about living afloat or even buying a narrowboat for recreational use, make sure that you understand what’s in store for you. Join me for a day. You can read more about my Discovery Day service here and view and book dates here. Please note that there’s nothing wrong with my calendar. I’m fully booked until early September. Don’t let that put you off though. Autumn and winter cruises give you the opportunity to experience the reality of living afloat when the sun’s not shining. Don’t be worried about that. Winter is my favourite time of the year for tranquil cruising.

I hope to welcome you aboard Orient soon. Tea or coffee?

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Bullock Battles And Sainsbury Silliness

I’m back on my Calcutt Boats mooring now following my two months cruising break. Not that I managed to do any cruising. I moved less than a mile a day during my sixty-day holiday thanks to Lockdown 3.0. I couldn’t complain. I moored for weeks at a time, far from the stresses and strains of modern-day life.

I chose the quietest place I could find for my final three weeks, three miles away from the nearest shop and the place I chose for collecting my weekly Sainsbury grocery order. My last collection was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

I considered cruising into Braunston to collect my groceries, then decided against it when I saw the broken ice patches’ thickness. My boat had been trapped by two inches of ice for five days. I had enough capacity in my remaining cassette to last another night, so I decided to show some consideration for my hull blacking, leave Orient stationery and walk into Braunston to collect my Sainsbury order.

I ambled along the muddy towpath, basking in the weak spring sun. I dillied, and I dallied on my way to The Boathouse car park for my grocery appointment, arriving with ten minutes to spare. A few minutes before the start of my hour slot, my phone rang. ‘I’m stuck outside your gate with your delivery,’ a lady told me in broken English. I couldn’t understand why she was at a closed gate when The Boathouse car park is gate-free. Then, because I have a mind like a razor, I deduced that she was outside Calcutt Boats’ main gates in Stockton instead of where she should have been in Braunston.

I tried to explain to the driver that she was in the wrong place. She didn’t understand me. I told her to cancel the order. I couldn’t collect my food from Stockton if I was stuck in Braunston without transport. This wasn’t at all like the efficiency I was used to from Sainsbury.

I was frustrated and a little pissed off. I phoned Sainsbury’s customer service department and complained about their rare but annoying system failure. I explained in tedious detail the effort I had put into reaching the delivery point. My six-mile return journey would take two hours, I told the poor guy listening to me. Sainsbury had let me down, and I wasn’t happy. I wanted the unfortunate customer service guy to appease me with a swift resolution.

The patient man tried to reason with me. He offered to reroute the van and try to deliver my groceries to the correct address later in the evening. I pointed out to him that I was three miles from my home, standing in a windswept pub car park. He apologised for the inconvenience and promised to credit my account with ten pounds.

Despite feeling let down, I tried to make the most of the situation. I climbed a hill to Braunston’s convenience store to buy something for my evening meal. I decided to’ spend’ my Sainsbury voucher and treat myself to a steak and a decent bottle of wine. I filled my basket with other groceries while I was there too. I decided that I might as well fill my rucksack with food from Braunston if I couldn’t get any from Sainsbury’s delivery driver. I selected food for the next couple of days, paid and hauled my basked outside the shop to load my rucksack.

My phone rang again. A cheerful man declared that he was waiting in The Boathouse car park with my delivery. I was confused. Surely Sainsbury wouldn’t reroute a delivery van just for me? I wanted to know how the driver had driven from Stockton to Braunston so quickly and why he had changed from a woman to a man. I said as much to him, which is probably why he laughed nervously and hung up.

I waddled as quickly as I could with my heavy rucksack, half a mile from the village centre to the pub, puffing, panting and wondering what on Earth was happening. Then the truth hit me like a bolt of lightning.  I checked my phone and confirmed that the original phone call had come from Amazon and not Sainsbury’s. I had managed to cancel an Amazon delivery at the marina and complain about the non-delivery of an order waiting for me in a Braunston pub car park. What a cock up.

I apologised to the Sainsbury driver who was waiting patiently for me in the pub car park, shoehorned a week’s groceries into my rucksack on top of my Braunston shopping and staggered three miles back to my boat.

I had just enough strength left for a second call to Sainsbury’s customer services department, this time to apologise rather than complain. The man I spoke to was so pleased to hear a rare apology that he insisted that I keep the £10 voucher. Sometimes honesty pays!

My confused mind often encourages me to make decisions that don’t end well. With very little interest to tell you about my last few weeks on the cut, let me tell you about one of those catastrophic cockups from 2015.

I left my job at Calcutt Boats in April that year to live the life of a carefree continuous cruiser. I dashed hither and thither like an unrestrained child in a shop filled with open sweet jars. I wanted to cruise every canal on the network, tick off all ‘must see’ inland waterways sights and generally wear myself into the ground.

Seven hundred miles into my cruising year, I nervously shut Duke’s Cut lock gate behind me and crept through a winding channel onto the mighty River Thames. I was relieved to discover that during a dry spell in mid-July, the Thames wasn’t as intimidating as I expected… until I reached Eynsham Lock.

I waxed lyrical about the river’s tranquillity as I handed over a wad of cash for my seven day Thames license. The portly middle-aged lock keeper offered me some peculiar advice. ‘You need to be careful if you’re going as far as Lechlade.’ He pointed at the colourful flower basket on my gas locker lid. ‘That’s a mid-morning snack for the bullocks there. There isn’t a fence between them and Lechlade’s riverside moorings. They’ll eat your flowers and chew your mooring lines. They’ll try your cratch cover too if they can get hold of it.’ I dismissed the lock keeper’s advice as a typical and harmless attempt at winding up a Thames virgin.

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I began to worry a little when I received the same advice at Pinkhill Lock half an hour later. Either these two lock keepers had a mischievous streak, or my Lechlade stay might not be quite as relaxed as I hoped. I decided to err on the side of caution and hide my flowers.

Paranoia had set in by the time I reached St John’s and the final short leg to Lechlade three days later.’ Yes, I know about the bullocks,’ I assured the lock keeper as I carried my flower basket to my rear deck and gently lowered it onto the deck boards covering my old Mercedes engine. I knew so much about the frisky cowlings that the thought of mooring anywhere near Lechlade worried me senseless.

I could see a dozen of them on the far side of a vast meadow as James slipped over shallow mud to reach the river bank. I hammered a couple of mooring pins into the sun-baked ground, made sure that anything remotely edible was stored out of sight and walked into Lechlade to replenish my dwindling food supply.

I returned an hour later to a worrying sight. I was moored at the tail end of a four narrowboat row. Bovine admirers obscured their cabin sides as they licked, nibbled and tugged at ropes and canopies. One bullock plucked a canvas sun hat from a cabin roof, worrying it like a dog with a bone.

Three of the enormous beasts focussed on my floating home; one nibbled my braid-on-braid bow mooring line, another licked my side hatch cover, while a third explored my stern with its basket of hidden flowers.

I gave the nearest a gentle slap. The baby bull twitched its ample rump and continued its inedible meal. Talking to them quietly was equally ineffective. My best John Wayne cattle-driving howl provoked a response, but only from two giggling American tourists who gazed in wonder at a slice of eccentric English country life.

I left the determined bullocks to their grazing, climbed into my cabin and worried. I knew that I wasn’t going to sleep that night. I was sure that nightmares of four-footed horned demons would haunt me, so I devised a cunning plan.

A barbed-wire fence dipped into the river behind our field-side moorings. There was a rough bank behind it, just long enough for me to moor if I could get close enough to the river bank to jump ashore. I would need to hold my heavy home against the offshore breeze while I found a way of securing twenty tonnes of steel to the hardened clay bank. I knew that it would be hard work. Still, if I could get in there, I would be safe from bullocky nighttime forays.

My boat sped away from the bank as soon as I untied my mooring lines. The wind was stronger than I expected. I knew that I would get one chance to tie up on my cow-safe mooring before the wind pushed my home into the river centre. Forward planning was critical if I wanted to avoid the embarrassing sight of my boat sailing off without me.

I pushed my boat into the new mooring’s bank-side mud and threw my stern over to join it. I leapt four feet onto the high bank armed with my centre line, two mooring pins and a lump hammer. I could feel my centre line tightening as soon as I landed. Before I could tie my bow and stern lines to nearby trees, I needed to secure my centre line to stop James from drifting out of reach. I dropped my centre line, stood on it with both feet, grabbed one of the two steep pins and hammered it into the hard clay for all I was worth.

The rock hard ground defeated me. After a dozen hard blows, I had done little more than dent the solid clay. My frustration grew as I felt my centre line slipping beneath my feet. I hit the pin as hard as I could once, twice… nothing. After a third enormous whack, half the pin disappeared. Another hit, and it was in all the way to its head. Perfect, I thought, until the first few wasps of an angry swarm circled my head.

My centre line slipped a little further, allowing my boat to drift six feet away from the bank. I was out of options. I had to ignore the wasps, move a couple of feet away from their nest and try again. The swarm wasn’t at all happy. I felt a jab like a blunt needle in my left ear, another in my chin, more on my exposed arms. Reacting to a calf sting, I jerked one foot away from my centre line, and my home slipped further out of reach.

After what felt like a lifetime of hammering and excruciating fresh stings, I banged two pins in far enough to secure my centre line. Then I waded into the river, first at my stern and then again at my bow to retrieve my mooring lines and secured them to nearby trees. I climbed onto my back deck, my body a mass of pain and angry red swelling.

But the ordeal was behind me. I was safe from stinging wasps and destructive cows.I climbed into my cabin and heated the remainder of the previous day’s stew, opened my last bottle of red and poured half of it into a goldfish bowl goblet.

Antiseptic cream relived some of the pain. Half a pint of Wolf Blass dulled the rest. I began to relax and think about the quiet night ahead. That was when my cabin lurched suddenly towards the river and my evening meal and the rest of my wine crashed to the floor.

I didn’t have a clue what was happening. I could hear unfamiliar thuds coming from my stern, so I staggered through my tilting cabin to the back of the boat to determine the reason for my list.

Remember my crafty plan for keeping my flower basket out of harm’s way? In my hurry to treat my stings, I had left my rear doors open. That wouldn’t be a problem on any other occasion. On the day from hell, though, fate had other ideas.

My four-legged tormentors had walked down the muddy riverbank and into the Thames. Walking around the end of the barbed wire fence wasn’t a problem for such tall animals. The lead bullock didn’t have a problem either when it faced a further obstacle between him and a tasty treat. He reared up, placed his two forelegs on my back deck and leaned forward into my engine room to reach my flowers. That’s what caused my list. Narrowboat sterns aren’t meant to accommodate half-tonne bullocks.

I’m not proud of what I did next. I was in agony. Even though the antiseptic cream covering my body helped, each of my fourteen wasp stings throbbed painfully. My evening meal was slipping through my floorboards into the cabin bilge, and the remains of an expensive bottle of red dripped off galley cupboards and pooled on the floor like a prop from a horror movie. I was uncomfortable, hungry, thirsty, and, most of all, angry, so angry that I punched the bullock hard on the nose.

I didn’t want to harm him, but I wanted him off my boat. He’d destroyed my flower basket and scraped my back deck back to bare metal with the edges of his jagged hooves. Using brute force to get the poor animal off my boat worked but, quite rightly, backfired.

The bullock leapt backwards to get away from me, removing the substantial weight which held my boat down. The stern shot up, I slipped in a pool of rear deck bullock water and fell headfirst into the riverside reeds.

I waded from the river covered in rotting vegetation. I watched the flower-eating bullock stroll towards the front of my boat and chew contentedly on my bow line. I knew I was beaten. I untied my mooring lines, allowed the wind to push me into the river centre and chugged slowly through the fading light to St John’s lock. I moored on the lock landing that night and dreamed about garland-wearing wasps riding bullocks into a victorious battle against stupid narrowboat owners.

Discovery Day Update

There’s a bright light at the end of the pandemic’s long, dark tunnel. The inland waterways will awake on 12th April when both hire and private narrowboats will again cruise our river and canal network. That’s when I’ll resume my service too.

Because I was obliged to reschedule all my March bookings, and because of the increase in staycations and remote working has raised the inland waterways’ profile, my Discovery Day calendar has filled quickly. I have just one date left in May and four in June. I have plenty of dates available from July onwards. If you want to secure an early summer break, I suggest you think about booking now. 

You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here and view and book my available dates here.

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Unexpected Canal Dredging And Another Remote Icy Mooring

I mentioned towards the end of my last post the worrying list I developed on the South Oxford canal’s summit pound. My attempt to cruise this through route to Oxford and the River Thames didn’t end well.

I moored for five days at Priors Hardwick. It’s the most tranquil place I’ve ever stopped. I had a view to die for, no passing boats for five days, no dog walkers or hikers… nothing and no one to disturb the tranquillity. But I can understand why the canal isn’t used as often as other local routes.

I climbed the last three locks of the Napton flight after several days of heavy rain, snow and sleet. There was so much water on the summit pound that it flowed over the top lock’s upstream gates. Needless to say, I didn’t have any problems with the canal depth on my hour cruise to Priors Hardwick. But over the next few days, the water level slowly dropped until Orient sat on mud next to the towpath, allowing the port side to drop slowly towards the canal centre.

A sharp crack from my stern mooring chain woke me at dawn on my sixth day. Orient shuddered and groaned as her hull slid another inch closer to the main channel. I leapt out of bed, twisted my ankle and fell over. Orient listed to such a degree that many of my starboard cupboard doors had swung open, and I couldn’t stand anything on my kitchen worktop. My calf muscles ached as they countered the steeply sloping cabin floor, but my legs didn’t hurt as much as my head as I started to worry.

My fertile imagination doesn’t help me when things like this happen. I had visions of my home turning turtle or me trapped on the canal for weeks waiting for the next downpour. I wondered if there had been a breach which would see Orient beached on a thin ribbon of deep noxious mud. I considered the logistics of living on a waterless canal for months until CRT raised the millions of pounds necessary to repair the damage. I felt so anxious I began to hyperventilate. I knew that worrying about staying would drive me mad, so I knew I had to move. But then I feared that Orient would ground immovably on the shallow canal, blocking any through route for other boaters. Damned if I moved, cursed if I didn’t.

I decided that leaving was the lesser of two evils. I filled my Thermos travel mug with honey-sweetened fresh ground coffee, took a deep breath and began what I suspected would be a long and gruelling day. I wanted to retrace my steps, drop down the nine locks of the Napton and Marston Doles flights where I could rejoin the Grand Union Canal and deeper water. The nearest place I could turn Orient was at Fenny Compton, four shallow and twisting miles ahead of me. I wasn’t looking forward to the cruise.

With my stern glued to the canal-side mud, pushing Orient off my mooring took half an exhausting hour. Reversing didn’t work, nor did using my pole to lever my boat away from the towpath. I tried every combination known to the inland waterways and then resorted to stamping my feet and trying to kick my home into the middle of the cut. Orient eventually slid into deeper water and regained an even keel. I briefly considered anchoring in the canal centre until more rain fell, but spun my speed wheel instead and pushed my bow through clinging mud towards Fenny Compton.

Reaching Fenny Compton took four exhausting hours. I bumped over rocks, slid on stone and grounded frequently on muddy banks. I became hypersensitive to my engine’s slow beat. When my propeller clawed at shallow mud banks, my Lister groaned and laboured. Twenty-two tonnes of steel ground to a halt and, once more, I thrust my overworked pole into the canal bed.

I heaved, thrust, levered and cursed in equal measures. Sometimes the hull centre rather than the stern caught raised mudflats on shallow bends. Attempting to push the stern into deeper water grounded my bow. I would edge nervously along my gunnel, carefully sidestep my bow cratch cover to stand on the rain-slicked bow. Planting the far end of my pole into the soft canal bank I would then push with all my might. The pole plunged deep into the mud more often than not, so I then had to try heaving it out without doing a backward summersault into the canal. After a while the bow would swing slowly away from the bank and, like a sixty feet long compass needle, the stern would swing back towards it and onto the mud again. Each grounding was a backbreaking, exhausting and frustrating affair.

My pole, recently refurbished with two coats of back gloss, finished the day looking like a chewed toothpick, twelve inches shorter, paint-free and as knackered as me.

I arrived at Fenny Compton exhausted, turned Orient and prepared myself for another passage of the same route. Although the thought of the return journey filled me with dread, I didn’t want to stay another night in case the water level dropped further.

The return trip was even more painful. I hated the canal, loathed the inland waterways and detested my deep draughted boat. I grounded so hard at one point and put so much effort into getting myself off that I felt giddy. But I couldn’t pull over for a break in case I grounded again. I left Orient skewed across the canal and abandoned the helm to refill my coffee mug. I hadn’t seen a moving boat for nearly a week, so there was no need to hurry.

I reached Marston Doles Top Lock at 5.30 pm as the night engulfed the canal. I had rarely worked so hard or felt as happy and relieved to reach a destination. I apologised to Orient for all of the bad things I’d said about her during the day and stroked my engine for a while to show my appreciation and hoped that the old girl forgave me. It was just a lover’s spat.

I don’t think I’ll be attempting the South Oxford in this boat again. It’s a stunningly beautiful canal, but the experience is spoiled by the logistics involved in getting a deep craft from one end to the other. What’s more, there’s even less water in the South Oxford during the summer months. There’s often so little water in the summit pound during the summer that lock passages through the Napton flight are restricted to a few hours each day.

Leaving the South Oxford canal to find deeper water

Leaving the South Oxford canal to find deeper water


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I returned to my muddy mooring halfway down the Napton flight for a couple of days, then dropped down the remaining three locks to the service point near The Folly pub. Despite the challenging twelve months since the pandemic restrictions paralysed the pub trade, Napton’s gregarious pub landlord had tradesmen busily repairing his roof and improving his garden. I hope that this year is easier for our struggling pub, cafe and restaurant owners. I consider myself blessed to be in the fortunate position where I continue to earn an income, whether back at the marina or out on the cut.

Even so, I began my two-month work break feeling like a wild animal locked into a small and claustrophobic cage. I wanted to range far and wide, enjoy new experiences, see new sights, live life to the full. I felt cheated by fate, unable to travel to Australia and my family and then barred from unnecessary canal cruising. But the dark cloud had a bright silver lining.

I’m usually hopeless at resting. I look for any opportunity to fill free time with hard labour. I left my marina work behind in 2015 in favour of a carefree continuous cruising lifestyle. I approached my new freedom like a bull at a gate, hurtling along England’s inland waterways on ten, twelve, fourteen hour cruising days. I made a mental note of the dozens of idyllic moorings or quaint villages I passed, promising that I would stop and explore them when I had time. I never did.

The lockdown travel restrictions have forced me to slow down. I’ve spent the last ten days on the same remote towpath mooring, untroubled by people, traffic or mainstream life. I’ve had time to write, think, read and wander through England’s beautiful countryside without a care in the world. I’m going to have a bumper sticker made for my boat – ‘Loving Lockdown Lethargy’. I am at peace with the world, at one with nature, loving my lifestyle and the boaters who share it with me.

My nearest neighbour is a mile away

My nearest neighbour is a mile away

Most of them anyway.

I’m going to scream if I see another video featuring a smug boater clad in little more than saggy Y fronts while snow falls and ice forms outside. They either have the constitutions of polar bears or insulation borrowed from space ships. I have neither.

I climbed out of bed on Wednesday for my usual middle of the night toilet visit. I then checked the cabin temperature as is my habit. The display showed -5°C outside. Ice crackling against my hull confirmed the reading’s accuracy, as did the reading next to my burning stove. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that 8°C is an appropriate cabin temperature for lounging around in underwear. My bedroom thermometer read 4°C, and the one in my unheated boatman’s cabin showed 0°C. I immediately worried about my engine, of course, so I wedged the top section of the stable door between my bedroom and engine room open. This allowed ‘warm’ air to flow from my bedroom into the engine room and cold air to fill my already chilly bedroom.

Still, I had blankets, gloves and a coat, so I survived the night. I had both stoves blazing by 9 am the following morning and a comfortable 23°C throughout the cabin. I don’t want you to think that I’m moaning about my miserable existence. I’m not, I love my boat and the lifestyle I lead. I just don’t want you to think that all narrowboats are so warm all of the time that you need to throw all of your windows and doors open to let the heat out.

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

If you buy an older boat with polystyrene insulation, interior bulkheads and draughty hopper windows, you’ll have far more of a challenge keeping your boat warm than on a modern narrowboat with decent insulation and an open plan layout.

While my boat’s heat retention might not be all I want, I couldn’t hope for a better performance from my new solar array. The three 215W solar panels struggled to produce any meaningful power in November or December. They’re making up for it now though.

I haven’t needed to run my engine for battery charging for the last ten days. I feel sorry for my Lister. I don’t need to use it to generate electricity, and I can’t use it to move my home. I’m surrounded by ice thick enough to peel the paint off my hull as quickly as the skin off a Scot on his second day in Benidorm. But despite not wanting to move, I have to reach Braunston soon.

I have a couple of wees left in the last of my three cassettes, but nothing else is a problem. I’ve just switched to my spare 13kg propane cylinder. That should last me for another couple of months. I have enough coal to keep me going until the end of this month and enough water for another six weeks.

Who are you looking at?

Who are you looking at? Spring lambs on my walk into Braunston

Food isn’t a problem either. I chose this mooring because it’s tranquil and, because it’s miles from anywhere, the location encourages me to exercise. The nearest shops, Braunston’s little grocery store and butcher opposite are two and a half miles away along the canal or through fields past the site of Wolfhampcote village. I go there every day to keep blood pumping around my ageing body. Sainsbury delivers groceries to me at Braunston’s Boathouse pub car park whenever I need things I can’t buy locally. I’m as well provisioned on this remote mooring as I am back on my marina mooring. The only weak link in my off-grid lifestyle now is my toilet.

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

My Compoost composting toilet should be ready for delivery in mid-May. That’s not going to help me now, but I’ll be entirely self-sufficient for any future off-grid adventures. The solids container will allow me to stay away from stinky Elsan points forever.

I’m looking forward to that day.

I’ve gone off-piste there. I was discussing solar arrays. I’ve now added the second part of a detailed three-part solar system post I linked to last month. I hope that you’ll read what Onboard Solar’s Tim Davis has written if you’re considering buying a narrowboat, or if you currently have a narrowboat but don’t yet have solar power.

There’s nothing in this for me. Tim hasn’t paid me to advertise his service, nor am I on commission. I just think that solar on a narrowboat is an absolute game-changer, even if you only use your boat for leisure cruising. Electricity generation and management are two of the most challenging aspects of living afloat. Solar power virtually eliminates this worry.

An optimistic Roving Trader in Braunston

An optimistic Roving Trader in Braunston – I didn’t see anyone on the towpath on a two-hour walk but this guy was still open for business!

Tim has fitted solar arrays on both my narrowboats. He is the consummate professional who installs high-quality systems exceptionally well. I’ve not come across many inland waterways tradesmen to shout about, but Tim is one of the best. You can read part two of his guide to narrowboat solar power here. Part one is linked from the top of the post.

Right, I’m off for a wee. I’m not going to use the precious space in my cassette, so guess I’ll have to brave the Arctic gale to reach the towpath hedge again.

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Snow, Ice And A Worrying List On The South Oxford Canal

So much for my plans to cruise far and wide on the inland waterways winter wonderland. I moved further on the first day of the month last year than I have all month in 2021. Still, I shouldn’t complain.

I returned to Calcutt Boats for a couple of days to buy coal and gas and do my laundry. Then I was off again on my windy winter wanderings. I cruised sideways up the cut to the bottom of the Napton flight of seven locks, delighted with my progress.

The South Oxford Canal is notoriously shallow, especially during the summer months. I’ve been down to Oxford and out onto the Thames several times in my old boat, James. I remembered grounding on several occasions, so now with a hull six inches deeper, I was a little nervous.

I changed my mind after negotiating the first four locks. I hoped that Orient would ground a little if only to stop the gale from blowing me into the offside reeds. I decided that I’d had enough and looked for a decent spot to moor in the next short pound. I developed a cunning plan.

The wind was blowing so hard off the towpath that I knew the second I stepped off my rear deck Orient would be off cruising on her own. I left my boat in the lock, found a decent place to moor and wrapped a mooring chain around the Armco barrier. ‘Clever me,’ I thought. Now I could jump onto the towpath as soon as my stern was close enough and tie off my centre line to stop Orient racing into the offside shrubbery.

Not so smart, actually. As soon as I jumped onto the muddy path, Orient was off like a racing greyhound. By the time I managed to get a rope loop through the mooring ring, Orient’s bow had joined the rats in their offside burrows.

Trying to moor on a windy day

Trying to moor on a windy day

I switched to Plan B. I removed my stern line, skated along my narrow gunnel with muddy wellies, slipped onto my rain-slicked bow and tied my stern and bow lines together. I hoped that I would be able to throw the long line to the towpath and then pull my bow over to the bank and a waiting mooring ring. If only I had someone to help me.

I thought my prayer had been answered. A father with his teenage son strolled by and stopped to chat. ‘Bit windy,’ he offered as I hurled my rope towards him and the distant bank. ‘Blimey,’ he exclaimed as he turned to his son. ‘That must be tough work on his own!’ The pair wandered off then, so they didn’t see me break down in tears.

Fortunately, I didn’t need them. Mooring took me half an hour, but I got there in the end, and all the hard work was worthwhile. I had a clear view of the valley beneath me and very few passing boats or walkers to spoil my tranquillity.

I enjoyed the spot so much that I stayed for eight days.

The silver lining to our current lockdown is, for me, the chance to enjoy life at a much slower pace than I’ve ever done before. I planned to cruise extensively during my two-month break, north along the Oxford Canal, and Coventry onto the Trent & Mersey, then east to Mercia marina. I planned to stop there to metaphorically and literally recharge my batteries. Then I hoped to cruise to the Trent & Mersey’s northern terminus with a brief diversion onto the Weaver. I haven’t unleashed Orient’s full twenty-one horses on a waterway yet, so this would be an opportunity to reach a previously unattainable 4 mph.

I’m pleased that the lockdown has forced me to adopt a slower life pace. I think the restrictions have saved me from getting into trouble. My route to Mercia marina has been blocked three times this month by floodwater. My River Weaver plans would have been scuppered by bank bursting and the Anderton Lift breakdown. I also thought I might pop in to see the good folk I met at Tattenhall marina when I bought Orient. The breach at Beeston Iron Lock would have caused me no end of problems, possibly marooning me in Cheshire past my planned return to work in March. Thank you, Boris.

So, rather than standing on my little back deck from dawn till dusk cruising hundreds of miles I’ve averaged half a mile a day in January. But by moving less, I’ve discovered more about my local countryside than I’ve done in the last decade.

I’ve downloaded the excellent Ordnance Survey app and invested in an annual subscription. The Landranger map overlay shows me footpaths I can use to explore the countryside wherever I stop. I’ve hiked through hidden woods, explored the sites of abandoned medieval villages, examined crumbling ruins and slipped and slid through muddy fields. Unlimited exercise, endless wonder, all for the price of a couple of bags of coal.

Not all of the exercise I’ve been doing has been fun.

I moored for a week in a deserted pound above the fourth lock in Napton’s seven lock flight. I could have squeezed into a tight space on a muddy towpath on the visitor moorings beneath the flight. Still, I didn’t want to moor bow to stern in a long line with other liveaboard boaters. But the space and tranquillity I found halfway up the flight came at a price.

Walking a mile for grocery shopping at Napton village post office wasn’t a problem. Walking half a mile to the Elsan point with a full cassette was hard work. So much so that, after sliding down a snow-covered towpath with my third 401b cassette of the week, I decided to change my toilet.

I had a composting toilet, an Airhead Compact, for the last eighteen months I owned my first narrowboat, James No 194. I loved the flexibility it gave me. I could stay for weeks away from CRT facilities without needing to worry about toilet tank capacity.

A cassette toilet holds all of its putrefying waste in a single container which has to be transported to and emptied in an Elsan point. A twenty-litre cassette lasts two days for a couple, four for a solo boater like me. As I discovered in Napton, transporting a heavy cassette from a remote mooring to a distant Elsan point is a tear-inducing exercise.


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Composting toilets change all that. The loo usually has two different compartments; one for solids, the other for liquids. The Environment Agency allows compost toilet owners to empty their urine containers outside providing they do so at least ten metres from the nearest watercourse, so that’s what I used to do. That left just the solids to deal with. Providing I bagged and binned my toilet tissue, the solids container would only need emptying once a month.

The solids don’t compost in a month so could choose one of two options. I could carry a couple of spare solids containers on the boat and leave my rotting remains in them for a couple of months until the compost was fit for feeding my vegetables. Alternatively, I could tip the stuff into a biodegradable bag and consign it to a landfill.

There are endless comments on forums and Facebook groups about the harm compost toilet owners do to the environment by consigning part-composted human waste to landfills. Compared with an estimated three BILLION nappies and thirteen BILLION dog poo bags buried in landfills each year, monthly composting loo deposits in biodegradable bags made by a small number of narrowboat owners are going to make very little difference. And, unlike dump-through and cassette toilet holding tanks, there are no harmful chemicals involved.

Snow place like home

Snow place like home

I decided to move on after a final cassette carrying chore on my eighth day. After four days of heavy snow, sub-zero overnight lows and thick ice, the weather took a turn for the better. There was no sign of canal ice on my final Napton toilet trek. The snow had disappeared too, apart from the deflated remains of a once-proud snowman. I walked a little way along the cut beneath the flight as a final check. Mallards and swans swam happily through muddy water. I was free to cruise again… for two locks.

A sensible person would maybe think about checking the canal’s condition in the direction they hoped to go rather than where they’d been. I clearly don’t fit into that category.

I set the first lock as I whistled happily to myself, comfortable wearing a thin fleece after weeks wrapped in a duck down jacket. I left Orient in the first lock and sauntered jauntily along the slippery towpath to prepare the next lock and saw, to my dismay, a solid ice sheet stretching to a far bend.

I know from painful experience how quickly even the thinnest icy crust can strip away protective hull paint. With nowhere to moor in the short pound beneath me, I brought Orient into the final lock, grabbed my wooden boat pole and gave the ice an exploratory prod.

Running water at the lock’s entrance morphed into a quarter-inch, half an inch and then a full hull-stripping inch. I resigned myself to a night on the lock landing and smashed a path with my boat pole for Orient to follow. And broke my wooden in half. Ah, well. Time to buy another.

I was just finishing my path pounding when I heard a labouring two-cylinder engine approaching. I could also hear ice squeaking, cracking and tinkling. The gleaming steel of a bitumen-free bow appeared around the distant bend forcing a path through the frozen waterway.

The ice was so thick in parts that the ice breaker frequently ground to a halt. The helmsman reversed, stamped on his narrowboat accelerator and repeatedly crashed into the ice blocking his route. His wife walked towards me, wincing each time her home screeched to a halt, while toddler at her feet clapped his hands with joy.

They’d been flighting ice since dawn, determined to reach Braunston and an essential repair to their broken central heating system. This was their third day with nothing but their galley hob to keep them warm. All three wrapped like mummies shivered violently.

Love them or hate them, a solid fuel stove is your narrowboat get-out-of-jail-free card. These stoves rarely let you down. Flues can rot and block, but with regular maintenance, they’re not going to let you down when you need them most. I like multi-fuel stoves so much, I have two!

I helped the shivering trio through the lock, moved Orient through the recently broken ice away from the lock landing and moored for the night. I covered a third of a mile on my ninety-minute cruise. I could have continued, following the trail of recently broken ice, but I’ve discovered through bitter experience that cruising through fractured ice can still strip the waterline back to bare steel.

The temperature rose throughout the day and night, returning the canal to its usual muddy brown. As the thermometer rose, so did the canal’s water level and the wind.

Plenty of water on the South Oxford

Plenty of water on the South Oxford

Water cascaded over the lock gates, which pleased me immensely. I was so happy I almost stopped worrying about the South Oxford’s shallow depth and the likelihood of Orient’s fat bottom getting stuck in the mud.

A crafty way to avoid a waterways license?

A crafty way to avoid a waterways license?

I cruised slowly from Marston Doles along a peaceful waterway, silent apart from a brief chainsaw buzz and boat-mounted wood chipper rattle. CRT’s waterways maintenance is subject to constant social media criticism. Maybe those internet trolls should get out on the cut more and see the continuous hard work being done cutting back overgrown vegetation and maintaining and repairing locks. All I see is meticulous attention to detail and consideration for passing boaters. Thank you, guys!

Not wanting to break the sloth-like cruising regime I’ve developed over the last month, I found a remote, tranquil and beautiful spot near Priors Hardwick to moor two and a half hours into my cruising day. Besides moving two hundred metres towards all-day solar panel sunlight, I’ve been stationary for the last three days, and I plan to remain here for the week to come.

Hoping for rain on an increasingly dry South Oxford Canal

Hoping for rain on an increasingly dry South Oxford Canal

If you fancy some real peace and quiet and a complete escape from people and modern-day pressure, I can’t recommend this spot on the South Oxford at this time of the year highly enough. Neither people nor boats have passed me in the last four days. I haven’t seen a car, train, plane or even a tractor since I’ve been here. My only companions are the wind in the willows and two buzzards soaring high above me. My mooring is perfect, apart from my list.

I cruised here on a canal filled to the brim by recent heavy rain. The rain stopped, and the water dropped to what I suspect is its average winter level. My starboard side is sitting in silt, tipping my port side into the canal centre’s deeper water.

My list disappeared briefly yesterday after eight hours of heavy sleet and snow. I’m sloping again now, so much that my bedroom door swings shut if I don’t wedge it open and I can only cook eggs on one side of my frying pan. I’m so used to walking on a slope now that I’m like a mountain goat, only not quite so attractive.

I hope the water level doesn’t drop any further. There’s no more rain forecast for the next week, but I need to move before next weekend. I will have run out of food, coal and toilet tank capacity by then.

Please join me in a prayer for heavy rain.

Discovery Day Update

Winter and, hopefully, our government’s lockdown restrictions are drawing to a close. Spring and the start of a new cruising season are on their way. With more and more people thinking about better weather and the opportunity to travel extensively in the UK again my Discovery Day calendar is filling quickly. Apart from one recent mid-March cancellation I’m now fully booked until mid-May. 

I currently restrict my Discovery Day cruises to weekends because of my work commitments at Calcutt Boats. If you want to secure a late spring date, please consider booking now. You can read more about my Discovery Day cruises here and see and book available dates here

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Curtailed Cruising And The Lunacy Of A Lonely Lad

I looked forward to my two-month break for so long. I worked long hours last year, often working seven days a week. I felt exhausted by the end of December, dizzy with fatigue, devoid of either energy or enthusiasm. The thought of recuperating while cruising gently along winter canals made my heart skip a beat.

My cruise started as planned, slowly and gently. I moored on a deserted towpath with a vast plain on one side and rolling hills on the other. This, I thought, is the perfect spot to relax and write for a few days before beginning my cruise to the Trent & Mersey’s northern terminus.

I was as happy as a pig in shit far away from people and the noise they make. The serene landscape calmed me, as did the squabbling mallards’ soft quacks and the gentle sigh of winter wind caressing waterside willows. I watched buzzards circling lazily overhead and sparrow hawks hovering over mice-filled fields. Life was good as I rested before a long cruise.

And then I discovered that our government wanted me to rest some more.

Lockdown 3.0 didn’t really surprise me. Christmas gatherings caused an expected infection spike and the inevitable restrictions which followed. I considered carrying on regardless. After all, I reasoned, I had a Roving Trader license and earned an income from waterway writing. And I would still be self-isolating more effectively than most of the population. I lived alone on my boat, far from other people.

What’s more, the only shops I used were grocery stores, and those visits were rare. I asked Sainsbury to deliver food to me as I travelled. What risk did I pose?

‘You don’t understand,’ complained rabid boaters on Facebook groups and forum threads. ‘You touch gates every time you pass through a lock. Think of the potential for infection!’ Yes, I thought about the risk. Back at Calcutt, I watched a handful of narrowboats pass through the lock flight each day, a tiny number compared with the dozens of walkers, joggers and cyclists using the lock gates as a footpath. The risk from me or to me was minimal, especially as I wore gloves when locking.

But after justifying my continued travel, I decided to stay where I was. One fly in my cruising ointment was my need for clean clothes. I don’t have a washing machine on Orient these days. The cubicle it once occupied is now filled with dried and canned food. The broken machine with its cracked drum left me two years ago. Since then, I’ve used our site facilities or washing machines at other marinas if I’ve been out cruising.

I phoned a few marinas on my route. Mooring owners usually only allow their own boat owners to use their facilities, including those on short term moorings. Although the businesses remained open for essential services for passing boaters – coal, diesel, gas and sewage disposal – the people I spoke to told me that they didn’t want overnight visitors.

Common sense prevailed, as did the need for trousers which wouldn’t remain standing when I removed them. I would join the little band of brave boaters rooted to an idyllic mooring, waiting patiently for CRT’s cruising green light.

So I walked, wrote, waited, withered and wailed. I discovered to my dismay that the sedentary life of a retired boater doesn’t work for me. I cleaned and polished until my arms ached, waded through difficult miles of towpath mud until my boots begged forgiveness and wrote for hours on end.

I realised that I was on a downward spiral after investing an hour in organising my galley bin cupboard. I walked up and down my narrow passageway examining the bin from different angles while I muttered like a meths-soaked tramp. I considered the best positions for the cupboard’s bin bags, Method kitchen cleaner and a long-handled bottle brush. Then, to add variety to my surreal day, I opened my galley side hatch and howled at a pair of passing pigeons.

There were a few highlights in an otherwise uneventful fortnight. I cruised two miles into Braunston to escape a forecast four-day freeze. I needed to collect a Sainsbury grocery delivery, too heavy to carry miles along a muddy towpath. I moored a stone’s throw from The Boathouse pub and wait for the canal to morph into a winter wonderland. While the canal’s rural stretches disappeared beneath an icy crust, Braunston’s busy boaters kept the village canal clear.


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Braunston’s village butcher helped me retain a degree of sanity. The business’s delicious fare fattens many local boaters. I bought smoked bacon for breakfast, steak pies for lunch and beef for an evening roast. One time I asked the lady owner if she sold herbs. “No, my love,’ she smiled, ‘but I can tell you where you can pick some for free!’ She directed me to Braunston’s community herb garden, a small cultivated plot next to their village hall. I picked a handful of rosemary and thyme and a pinch of sage, all fresh and free.

Braunston's community herb garden

Braunston’s community herb garden

My phone rang late on my fourth afternoon in Braunston, a call from my Sainsbury delivery. I added a note to my order to let the driver know that I was on a boat near the pub and asked him to call me when he arrived. He sounded confused. ‘Where are you?’ he asked. I told him that I was on my boat nearby. ‘Sorry mate, I can’t get my van down to the canal,’ he apologised. ‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured him, ‘I’ll come to you.’ He sounded incredulous. ‘How are you going to get your boat up here?’ The conversation had become more difficult than I expected.

The driver looked a little sheepish when I arrived with a rucksack rather than a boat. ‘I haven’t delivered to a boat before,’ he confessed. I could tell.

I left the relative noise of a sleepy village and returned to my peaceful mooring, and I wrote and walked some more. Tasks expand to fill the available time. With few jobs on my to-do list, I dealt with each carefully, slowly and obsessively. I rearranged more cupboards, charged device batteries I didn’t need to use and sat for hours watching my solar display.

I wrote a little about my new solar array in my last post. The weather since then has been bleak. Thanks to constant rain, sleet and endless low cloud, my three panels have struggled to produce much at all. Mooring in Braunston didn’t help.

Braunston is popular with cruising boaters during the summer months and with local liveaboard narrowboat owners throughout the winter. Boats often stay on the same moorings for many weeks in regular times. Still, some narrowboats have become permanent fixtures during the pandemic.

I took the only free mooring available, a shaded spot next to Braunston marina entrance. My location frustrated me on two cloudless days. The trees above me bathed in unaccustomed light while my shaded solar panels sulked in the shadows below.

No sun for my solar panels

No sun for my solar panels

Tim Davis, the guy from Onboard Solar who fitted my array, wrote a solar power post for me in 2013. He kindly shared the knowledge he’d accumulated, first as a boat builder and then fitting solar arrays to narrowboats throughout our inland waterways network. He’s now written another comprehensive post, 2,000 array fittings later, detailing the latest developments in solar technology, the solar arrays offered by Onboard Solar and why Tim thinks that they’re the best you can buy and, in part one which you can read here, how you should prepare for off-grid living.

At the risk of repeating myself, managing your electrical supply is arguably THE most challenging aspect of an off-grid lifestyle. Many boaters don’t embrace or understand the constant need to monitor and conserve their battery bank charge.

I have spoken to dozens of off-grid boaters and seen many hundreds more who use the ‘finger in the air’ power monitoring technique. Without the benefit of a battery monitor, they simply run their engines for a while each day for battery charging. They don’t know the battery bank’s state of charge when they start or stop their engines, so these boat owners don’t have a clue how deep they’re discharging their batteries each day.

I spoke to one novice boater who told me he had a simple and effective battery charging system. He ran his engine to top up his bank when the lights began to dim in his cabin. That’s battery charging suicide. Here’s a chart which demonstrates why.

AGM Discharge Chart

AGM Discharge Chart

Allowing your batteries to drain to the point where your 12v lights dim is a 100% discharge. As you can see on the chart, you could only do this 350 times (roughly) before your battery bank failed. I try to limit my AGM battery bank discharge to 70%, which means that my bank should stand 1,600 cycles. Given that my battery bank cost £900, I want them to last as long as possible.

Getting your electrical head in the right place is another essential part of the equation. Any mains electrical appliance which produces heat is your battery bank’s worst nightmare. If you’re going to live off-grid, throw away your electric kettles, toasters, irons, heaters, hairdryers, and straighteners. Toast your water and boil your bread with gas. Throw everything else out. You don’t need them.

I still don’t have the perfect off-grid electrical setup, but it’s better now than it was at the beginning of the week.

My MacBook and its internet connectivity needed some refining. I have a 240V power lead for my MacBook and a 240V router linked to a rooftop signal booster. I need to use my elderly Sterling 3KW inverter to run them. The inverter is too big, too old and uses an unacceptable amount of power. Thanks to a midweek purchase from Amazon’s online store, I can now leave my inverter switched off for most of the day.

My new Morphie car charger will power my MacBook from a 12V socket near my saloon table. My internet connectivity solution isn’t quite so elegant. I place my iPhone next to the cratch board on my covered front deck and then share the phone’s hotspot with my MacBook. The iPhone’s signal isn’t as powerful as my rooftop booster, but it’s good enough for email and web browsing.

Apart from swapping five rarely-used fluorescent strips with LED bulbs, there’s not much more I can do to improve my off-grid efficiency. I’ll carry on running my engine to supplement my solar array’s meagre input until the weather improves and the sun shows its welcome face. And I’ll wonder whether I’ll be a gibbering idiot before Boris allows me to cruise again.

Discovery Day Update

I’m expecting a busy year. Thanks to the global pandemic, international travel restrictions and the surge in working from home, narrowboats are selling like hotcakes. Consequently, I’m taking more bookings than ever this month. I’m fully booked throughout March and most of April. If you are one of the many aspiring narrowboat owners who have emailed expressing an interest in my experience days, I urge you to secure a date while you can.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please let me explain. I offer combined helmsman training and experiencing cruises on all-day cruises through Warwickshire’s rolling hills. I show my guests a narrowboat fully equipped for comfortable off-grid living. The cruises are both fun and educational. You’ll learn all you need to know about life afloat in a relaxed and beautiful classroom. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here and see and book available dates here

 

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2

A negative View Of Life On A Narrowboat

I’ve met thousands of current and aspiring boat owners over the last ten years. The people, like the boats they own, come in all shapes and sizes. They have varying outlooks on life in general and living on the inland waterways in particular. Some are content with very little. Others have all the bells and whistles of a home on dry land but are far removed from contentment or happiness… like this lady I met a few years ago.

An unhappy customer phoned Calcutt to complain about the Hurricane heater the company had recently installed in the engine bay of her cruiser stern boat. ‘Your diesel heater is rubbish,’ she lamented. ‘I wish I had chosen something better. Still, I’m stuck with it now, so I want you to come as soon as possible to get it working!’

Our heating engineer was unable to drive, so I offered to chauffeur him for the day. We arrived at Braunston marina on a beautiful November morning. The bright sun chased away the earning morning chill and highlighted the vivid oranges, reds and browns of the tumbling autumn leaves. It was, I thought, a glorious day to be alive.

Not everyone agreed.

I had the dubious pleasure of chatting to the lady owner while our engineer squirmed through the engine bay clutter towards the misbehaving Hurricane heater.

‘What a stunning day,’ I enthused, gesturing at the falling leaves. ‘Stunning?’ she fumed. ‘What’s stunning about that lot landing on my roof? I’ll have to spend the rest of the day on my knees sweeping them all off, and that’s no easy task at my age!’ The unhappy lady was in her late forties and more than capable of ten minutes light brushing, providing someone could help hoist her onto her roof.

I thought I would try a different approach.

‘Did you enjoy your summer?’ I asked, hopefully. ‘No, I didn’t!’, she fumed. ‘How boaters stay cool living inside a sardine tin is beyond me. I couldn’t sleep at night with all the doors closed. I suffered from heat exhaustion for months!’

I knew what she meant, but there was an easy solution. If she left her front and back doors open at night, the through breeze would provide some welcome relief on hot nights. I shared my wisdom with her.

‘Are you mad?’ she raged. ‘Do you want me to be robbed while I sleep, or maybe attacked by a sex-starved dog walker?’ I suspected that the amorous dog walker would need to be a braver man than me, but I sensibly kept that thought to myself.

I tried again. ‘Why don’t you moor under trees then? There’s plenty of oak, ash and willow to shade you from the sun. ‘Don’t be daft!’ she sneered. Do you think I want to spend all day cleaning bird shit off my roof? That’s even more of a pain to clean than the leaves!’ She swatted a falling oak leaf out of her path and waddled to the back of her boat to harangue our poor engineer.

She seemed disappointed when she discovered that he has ‘fixed’ her heater. A mop handle she had jammed into a small space beside the Hurricane had flicked a toggle switch to the off position. The engineer began to helpfully point our the danger of cramming so much rubbish around working machinery. I left before the storm hit.

Some people see a world filled with opportunity while others only consider the problems they face. Much I as I love the lifestyle I have to agree that living afloat on England’s inland waterways isn’t always gin and tonics on shady towpaths without a care in the world. Boaters face challenges like people in all other walks of life. How they deal with them determines whether they enjoy life afloat. The unhappy lady boater I spoke to was very much in the glass-half-empty camp.

I thought about the horrible hurricane hag a few weeks ago when I had an issue with Orient. I considered what she would think about my boat and the way I live. Orient isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but this old girl is the love of my life. Even though she’s sometimes difficult, she responds well to regular tender loving care. I’m infatuated by her and hope that our short relationship lasts for the rest of my days.

On the flip side of the coin, I suspect that our angry and reluctant lady boat owner would have this to say about my pride and joy. I think that she would have said something like this.

Confined Space

I live in a shoebox. There’s not enough room to swing a cat. Not that I have a cat or any other pets for that matter. Actually, I don’t like cats or dogs. They make far too much mess, need too much attention and a ridiculous amount of attention.

Even if I wanted animals, there just isn’t enough room for them or anything else in this tiny living space. Before I bought this horrible boat, I was told that sixty-two feet would give me more than enough space. Who were they kidding? There’s less living space in this whole boat than I used to have in just one room in my old house. Oh, how I wish I was back there now, with different neighbours, of course. I couldn’t stand any of them.

There’s no room on board to keep any of my possessions either. None of my furniture fitted the boat, so I had to throw it all out. I can’t keep a fraction of the things I used to have. There’s no room for my party dresses, shoes or handbags. In fact, because my electrics won’t allow me to use an iron, I can’t wear anything remotely smart these days.

Because of that, I don’t go to fancy clubs, restaurants or bars any more. I don’t go to weddings or upscale birthday parties either. In fact, I don’t actually go anywhere at all. I stay on my own in my little metal tube and remember when my life was a little more bearable.

Space wasting captain's chairs in Orient's saloon

Space wasting captain’s chairs in Orient’s saloon

Condensation Issues

Life was so much more comfortable in my centrally heated and double glazed house. I didn’t have rivers of condensation running down my windows and rotting my window frames there. Life was so much easier. If I want to cure my condensation problems these days, I have to make sure that my tiny home is heated and ventilated all the time. I pay a fortune for coal for my stove and then need to ventilate the boat to let all the moisture and the heat out.

People tell me that open-plan boats are easier to heat and control condensation. I wish I knew that before I bought Orient. There are four bulkheads in the boat. Four of them! The heat from my Squirrel stove struggles to get past my little galley. That leaves half of my home unheated. OK. I have a Kabola diesel boiler in the middle of the boat and another stove in the cabin at the back, but maintaining one stove is hard enough. I’m certainly not going to spend my days running between three of them.

This lifestyle is madness!

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Fed up with mainstream life? Learn all about a simpler and more relaxing lifestyle on England's inland waterways. Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat

Transport Problems

Live the dream, they said. Make the most of your narrowboat lifestyle by travelling continuously around the inland waterways network. That’s all well and good, but the reality isn’t quite so attractive. Keeping my car nearby as I cruised was a nightmare. Walking back to my vehicle from a new mooring was out of the question and riding a bike along England’s muddy towpath was asking for trouble.

I sold my car, so I don’t have any transport these days. I sometimes have to trudge miles with bags of heavy shopping. My weekly shopping trips can sometimes take most of the day.

How’s that for a relaxing lifestyle?

Heating Issues

Heating my home is exhausting. My fuel is packaged in 25kg bags, that’s 55lb in old money – about twenty-eight bags of sugar. I’m going to put my back out one of these days hauling my cumbersome fuel bags on and off my boat. And the coal makes such a mess. Most of the bags have holes in them. After they’ve released a stream of black slurry onto my hardwood floor, I have to spend valuable time cleaning up the mess.

I should have found a boat with a better heating system. Oh, how I miss the ease of a centrally heated house!

High Maintenace Costs

I can’t count the number of pound notes I’ve thrown at this old crate. Everywhere I look, there are things which need replacing or repairing. Where will it all end?

I’ve had to replace rotting chimneys, pain the roof, paint the front and back decks, renew my failed battery bank, fit new doors, a new hatch and a new bench seat and table to replace my space-wasting captain’s chairs. The list goes on and on. Every time I manage to put a few bob in the bank, I have to take it out again to throw at my old boat. It drives me mad!

I was told that living afloat was a cheap lifestyle. That’s what I wanted. I struggled to maintain my old house on my paltry pension. Now I have to fork out a similar amount for my boat and have to endure the additional hardship which goes with it.

Utility Exhaustion

Don’t get me started on utilities. Everything’s hard work. I have to carry ridiculously heavy bags of coal from the boatyard to my boat, hump it over the side and then find somewhere to store it. Gas is just as unwieldy and cumbersome. And with that, I have to balance on a slippery steel bow trying to lower a ridiculously heavy bottle of gas into a tiny space. The hard work is going to kill me.

And then there’s my shit to deal with. Not my miserable life, but my actual shit. I have to carry it around with me like a pet lap dog (only it weighs much more than a dog. I must watch my diet)

Not only is my waste a risk to my physical wellbeing, but it’s also a risk to my mental health. Can you imagine mentally topping up the number of wees and poos you have and deciding when you have to take their combined mass for a walk? And that the place you have to take them to is somewhere that no one in their right mind would want to go? Do you know how many middle-aged men live on the cut who don’t know the first thing about personal hygiene? Did you know that the average male liveaboard boater only uses his cassette toilet for solids? So, when the cassette is full to overflowing, he as to do the shake of shame and splatter the walls of the filthy Elsan point outhouses with excrement.

I’m surprised that the physical and mental strain of this demanding and unpleasant lifestyle hasn’t finished me off. I don’t think I can take much more.

Changing a gas bottle is exhausting

Changing a gas bottle is exhausting

A Restricted View

I moor close to houses sometimes hoping to feel a connection with life on dry land. I like to look out of my portholes and try to remember when I was warm and comfortable.

Not that I can see out of my windows. Why on Earth the builder fitted twelve-inch portholes instead of standard rectangular windows is beyond me. I’ve been told that all Steve Hudson boats have portholes. Well, if you ask me, if he fitted proper windows in his craft, he would have sold a lot more of them. And why place them so high up on the cabin wall?

OK. I know that the boat draught has something to do with it, but what’s the point in having windows that owners can’t see out of? And why fit windows which don’t open? Fixed glazing just adds to my condensation issues. I don’t understand the design at all.

There's no chance to see the view through my portholes

There’s no chance to see the view through my portholes

Claustrophobic Bedrooms

I have two bedrooms on my boat. Neither of them is fit to call a bedroom at all. The main bed has a minute six feet by four feet mattress jammed across the width of the boat. I’m not a particularly big woman, but I can’t lay straight when I sleep. There’s no chance of any romance in my life when only one person can sleep on the bed diagonally.

Not only is the main bedroom claustrophobic, but it’s stuffy too. Because I’m a curvy girl, I tend to overheat at night. A small bedroom with tiny windows which don’t open is the last thing I want.

And I have to make up my bed every morning too. I need to make a Herculean effort to try to fold the mattress upwards so that I can lock the lower part of the bed base upright. Sometimes I just don’t have the strength, so I leave my bed down. The problem then is that I can’t get from the central part of the boat to my engine room or boatman’s cabin. I have to climb over my bed like a monkey to squeeze through the open stable door into my engine room.

I’ve been told that I could make my life easier by replacing my mattress with a bespoke two-piece version. But the quote I had made me cry. Eleven hundred pounds! If they think I’m paying that much, they’re sadly mistaken. I guess I have to resign myself to a painful life of narrowboat mountaineering.

Cross beds are only suitable for small people

Cross beds are only suitable for small people

Wasted Engineroom Space

I wasn’t keen on buying a boat with a midships engine room. Still, everything else was almost acceptable, so I bit the bullet and purchased Orient anyway.

What a mistake!

There’s little enough living space on a narrowboat without having to sacrifice a good chunk of it to house an ancient engine. Not only is it as old as Noah, but it’s as weak as a kitten and twice the work. Most boats of this length have a 42hp engine in them. What am I lumbered with? Just 21hp. This old tub couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding. I don’t know why all narrowboats aren’t fitted with modern engines.

The old Lister limits my canal network range too. I can’t cruise on rivers with a strong current, or tidal flow and rivers are often links to canals which I would like to visit. Buying a boat with a vintage engine was a real mistake because it’s hopelessly underpowered and smokes like a Victorian mill owner’s chimney.

What possessed me to buy a boat with an exhaust on the roof which throws out a massive amount of smoke at head level? Cruising into a headwind is a nightmare. I am shrouded in thick choking smoke. I feel nauseous after the shortest of journeys.

I really need to get rid of this engine and gets something modern instead one which doesn’t have such impossibly complicated controls.

Did you know that to handle a boat with an antiquated speed wheel and gear selection rod you need three arms? What’s the point in building a craft which can only be steered by people from Norfolk?

Orient is a nightmare to handle. Because of the boat’s deep draught, old controls and woefully inadequate engine, cruising anywhere is an accident waiting to happen. So I don’t go out very often and, when I do, I keep my trips as short as possible.

Seven feet of valuable cabin space taken by the engine room

Seven feet of valuable cabin space taken by the engine room

Unpleasant Noise

I don’t sleep very well these days. It’s all because of this cursed boat. I’ve told you about the problems I have with the main bedroom. In a futile search for a good night’s sleep, I sometimes resort to my boatman’s cabin bed and the smallest sleeping space on Orient. I have to jam myself so hard into the cabin corner. I’m surprised that I don’t have a pointed head. Mind you, there no chance of getting a decent night’s sleep even if I had enough space to stretch out.

Life afloat is a boisterous affair. When the wind blows hard – which seems to be most of the time since I made the mistake of moving afloat – my nights are troubled by the howling wind and the constant and annoying slap of waves against my metal bottom. At least the wind, waves and rain drown out the racket made by the ducks, geese and swans. It’s no wonder that I wake with a headache most of the time!

Click on the file below and you’ll hear the racket I had to endure when storm Dennis hit Orient.

Water Heating Issues

After a cramped night in a hot bedroom, I’m unpleasantly sticky when wake. I would like to be able to freshen up by taking a long shower. But I live afloat so luxurious showers are out of the question. In fact, showering at all is difficult.

That’s another problem with my stinking old engine. Modern engines generate enough heat to provide plenty of hot water, but this old Lister. It produces more smoke than heat. The only way I have of heating water is to light my Kabola diesel boiler. However, the lighting process is a long-winded and dirty affair, so I avoid it at all costs. I could heat my water by plugging into a marina supply, but then I would need to find the money to stay for a night or two. The reality is that I’m forced to boil a kettle if I want a shower. I have to mix the boiling water with cold in a little chemical sprayer, haul it into the shower cubicle and hope that I can wash before I exhaust my five-litre limit.

I have to boil a kettle for dishwashing too. I’m not living the comfortable lifestyle I hoped when I emptied my bank account into this boat.

My life afloat is one of unpleasant extremes. I have to work very hard to achieve everything I took for granted when I lived in my house. Some boaters seem to enjoy this strange lifestyle. They tell me that I should have done some research before moving afloat. I couldn’t be bothered. All I wanted was somewhere cheap to live. It seemed apparent to me that living in a little boat was going to cost less than maintaining a house. How was I expected to know all about licenses, mooring fees and maintenance? Life is so unfair.

I guess I’m stuck with this boat now. I can’t afford to get on the housing ladder. I wish I could turn back time and move back into my house. Maybe not that particular house, and definitely not the same neighbours. A different location would help too. Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps I wasn’t that happy in my old life. But anything is better than this!

Life on board Orient doesn’t sound particularly appealing from this lady’s point of view. Would you want to invest tens of thousands of pounds into a narrowboat after reading her account?

Probably not.

I’ll publish another post next week, this time written from my point of view. I’m halfway through my eleventh year afloat now and still loving the lifestyle, so I can promise you a much more optimistic opinion.

Discovery Day Update

I can’t really complain about my circumstances during Lockdown 2.0. I’m faring better than most. I have a cosy home with a beautiful view and, more importantly, I’m far, far away from mainstream society and any real risk of contracting Covid-19. Still, I had a full Discovery Day diary for November. I’ve refunded those who wanted their money back (I stand by my unconditional guarantee) and rescheduled most of the other aspiring narrowboat owners.

In addition to the rescheduled bookings, a surge of interest from customers interested in living on England’s inland waterways has quickly filled my diary. I have just one date remaining in December before I take a two-month break.

I’ll be cruising the inland waterways throughout January and February rather than working at the marina during the week and hosting Discovery Day cruises each weekend. My diary’s open again from March 2021 but the free dates are going quickly. 

If you are thinking about living afloat and want to join me for a day of helmsman training and a warts-and-all view of life on a narrowboat, please secure your day as soon as you can. I can promise you a fascinating, eventful and thoroughly enjoyable day out. 

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

 

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Common Narrowboat Newbie Mistakes And How To Avoid Them Part 2

The seasons are changing. We’ve swapped comfortable chairs under shady canal-side willows to even more comfortable seats in front of glowing coals. Aspiring narrowboat owners often ask me to name my favourite season. I wish they wouldn’t. I don’t have a clue.

I adore quiet winter canals with their stark landscapes and plentiful moorings. I enjoy the riot of colour from springtime hedgerows and the marinas’ slow awakening after their deep winter sleep. I love a summer waterway bursting with life, the sounds of happy chatter, the quacking of squabbling geese and the screech of steel on steel of narrowboats grinding along metal-clad banks. And I’m in awe of Mother Nature when she shows us her autumn coat. I would like a little less rain, but I guess I have to take the rough with the smooth.

I’ve moved a little further forward with my home’s refurbishment. In addition to stainless steel chimneys and fairleads, I now have stainless steel roof vents too. They’re quite expensive, but they’ll allow me to keep my roof looking its best with minimal effort. 

Orient's roof is looking better

Orient’s roof is looking better

I’ve had the front roof section painted too. The back section looks pretty good in the photo as well, but that’s because it’s been battered by torrential rain for the last twenty-four hours. The next big decision for me to make is whether to add a solar array.

Form over function, pretty or practical. That’s the question. I’ll be out cruising for two months this winter. Do I spoil Orient’s sexy lines to make electricity generation a little easier, or keep the roof as it is and resign myself to prolonged engine running sessions on otherwise tranquil moorings?

Jason adds the last few drops of Craftmaster Raddle Grey

Jason adds the last few drops of Craftmaster Raddle Grey

While I’m deciding what to do, I need to take my engine into consideration. If I moor close to other boaters, I’m likely to get complaints. My Lister JP2 is eighty-four years old and a little smokey. 

I’ve asked Braunston based Tony Redshaw Vintage Diesels to see what they can do. Paul Redshaw plans to visit me in November to change the injectors. If that doesn’t work, I’ll need to take Orient to his Braunston workshop for a decoke.

I’m enjoying a rare day off today. Today’s Discovery Day guest lives in Iraq. The country’s been locked down again, so he had to cancel. So I’ve sat in my cosy cabin throwing an occasional handful of coal briquettes on my fire and composed this post for you.

This is the second and concluding part about common narrowboat newbie mistakes. I’ve gained a little more material over the last fortnight as novice boaters have thrown themselves into the three locks on the Calcutt flight like lemmings over a cliff.

I hope that recounting their tales of woe will help you avoid making the same mistakes. But if you do, please let me know. I’m always looking for new stuff to write about.

Fending off with body parts, boat hooks or poles

Don’t use yourself as a human fender. It’s a painful and dangerous way to protect your paintwork. 

I see novice boaters doing this regularly during the hectic summer months. I’ve seen little old ladies with arms like sticks trying to push tonnes of steel away from slippery lock walls. I’ve watched indestructible teenagers thrusting feet from rain-slicked bows towards low bridge arches and novice boaters holding boat hooks like lances to fend off approaching boats.

Narrowboats are built like tanks, they have reinforced steel stems, protective rubbing strakes along either side and heavy-duty bow and stern fenders. And, if all else fails, there are teams of fitters and welders available at many boatyards with many years of boat repair experience between them. A damaged narrowboat is much easier to repair than a broken boater. Unfortunately, boaters break with alarming regularity. 

Prevention is better than cure. Invest in some kind of training before you set sail. And, if all else fails, don’t use your body as a flesh and bone buffer.

The Folly Of Adhering To A Rigid Timetable

The anxious diner in the section above caused unnecessary stress for herself and other boaters by trying to stick to a deadline. Timetables, deadlines and inland waterways cruising don’t work well together.

We’ve had many holiday hirers hell-bent on achieving goals. A few have asked me for advice. “We’ll leave here at 4 pm, reach there at 6 pm, moor for the night, set off at first light, reach this lock flight by 8 am and finish it in time for a late breakfast. Then we’ll…” I stop them there and suggest that, if they want a relaxing canal break, they set loose objectives and not treat their break like a military expedition.

Unexpected delays are part of the boating experience. You can be delayed by a fouled propeller, fallen trees, lock queues and damage, grounding on shallow canals and a host of other hindrances for which you can’t plan.

 Crew Communication

The helmsman peers into the far distance at the tiny figure of his wife standing on the boat’s bow. She offers him advice in a conversational tone which he is unable to hear above the engine’s roar beneath his feet. She repeats her instruction half a dozen times, but her bewildered husband can’t understand a word she says. The lady has a bright idea. She waves her arms like a broken windmill and shouts a little louder. The novice helmsman, still clueless, shakes his head, pushes his Morse control firmly forward and slams his hire boat into the protruding base of an old stone bridge. 

This is a less than perfect start to a week’s gentle cruising on England’s tranquil canals.

I’ve witnessed many accidents and potential tragedies caused by ineffective communication and poor teamwork. England’s muddy ditches are wolves in sheep’s clothing and danger lurks around every blind bend, narrow bridge hole and pretty lock. 

And inside narrowboats’ cosy cabin too.

One of the joys of inland waterways cruising is to stand in your galley watching the world float serenely by as you make a hot drink, snack or evening meal. Unfortunately, many novice hirers are blissfully unaware of the risk they face carrying scalding liquid and sharp knives inside a twenty-tonne steel tube being guided around hairpin bends by inexperienced helmsmen.

Do you know how often I see hire boats crash into other craft or concrete banks? At least once on every single Discovery Day cruise throughout a typical summer. And with the pandemic raging and more people holidaying in England, this year has been crazy busy on the waterways.

You must agree on an effective system of communication with your crew at all times. Back in the happy days when I shared my living space, I used a pair of Motorola two way radios. Despite their relatively high cost, the radios were worth every penny.

Helmsman Training & Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat on a 12-mile, 6-lock cruise through stunning Warwickshire countryside and learn all you need to know about the live aboard lifestyle

Hard knocks are inevitable for even the most seasoned crews. Cynthia spent much of her time inside during her final months, often in the galley preparing lunch or our evening meal. She kept a radio within reach at all times. I was able to give her enough warning of an impending bump. I am convinced that these warnings prevented many accidents.

Crew communication is equally essential when stopping and starting a cruise and, most importantly, when negotiating locks.

Waiting at Calcutt Top lock

Waiting at Calcutt Top lock

In the last two weeks alone three people have fallen from their boats in the Calcutt flight, two of them in two different locks at the same time. Better communication would have saved two of them from an impromptu dip and one from a concussion and a hospital visit.

The first, a fortnight ago, fell into the lock ahead of me on one of my Discovery Day cruises. I heard a scream, made sure that my boat was safe as it dropped down Calcutt Middle lock and sprinted as fast as my wobbly old legs would carry me along the towpath to the bottom lock.

Boats jockey for position on the Calcutt flight

Boats jockey for position on the Calcutt flight

A half-submerged man hung on a slippery chain in the empty lock. A dog walker – I don’t think he had any boating experience – had already climbed down the lock ladder onto the man’s deserted cruiser stern and was about to thrust the Morse control forward to try to move the stern closer to the drowning man. 

Madness! 

You DO NOT want a thrashing propeller anywhere near anyone in the water. Anyway, I shut the engine down, threw a life ring close enough for the frightened man to reach and dragged the man and his ring to the boat.

I checked to make sure that the elderly boater had injured nothing more than his pride and then ran back to my boat and straight into an argument. The crews of two narrowboats which had come out of the Calcutt Top lock stood by my stern. One, a bad-tempered lady who reminded me of an elderly bulldog chewing wasps, scolded me for hogging the lock she wanted to use. I explained the situation. Do you know what she said? “Why didn’t you take your boat out of the lock before you ran off?” Jesus Christ, woman. I could only assume that she’d recently finished a light lunch of ground glass and hemlock.

Then, last weekend, we had the Calcutt synchronised lock diving team out in force. One guy, out for a test drive with the owner of a boat he hoped to buy, fell off the lock escape ladder into the water. As our wharf staff fished him out, they heard a scream from the top lock.

“Don’t sit or stand within the tiller arc,” narrowboat hirers are told before they begin their cruise. Cruiser stern hire boats often have gas lockers with arse sized lids either side of the tiller, seats are often too much of a temptation. A lady in the top lock on one of two hire boats descending the flight succumbed. The boat in the lock with them surged out of the empty lock. The wash pushed the boat backwards. The rudder was forced against the exposed cill and folded to one side. So did the tiller. The lady was forced back off her seat, over the rail, off the boat and onto the concrete cill.

The poor woman hit the concrete head first. Her husband jumped overboard to save his wife and left his elderly and stone deaf father in charge of the boat. Our wharf staff reached the lock just as the father was trying to reverse the hire boat towards the stranded couple. Shouting instructions at him didn’t work, so one of them climbed down into the lock, over the hire boat roof and onto its back deck. The father, oblivious to all of the attempted communication with him, nearly had a heart attack when thirteen stones of Calcutt employee and his steel capped boots bounced onto the back deck and took control of the boat.

All of these stories have happy endings. The non-swimming solo boater purchased a life vest, the test driver bought his boat and the hard-headed hirer survived her painful introduction to a lock cill. 

Not all narrowboat accidents end so well.

Locks offer the greatest navigational challenge and more chance of an accident than cruising placid canals. Clear communication and attention to detail are critical to a successful lock flight passage.

Ascend Locks Carefully

When your boat is in an ascending lock, fill the chamber carefully. If you open the lock paddles too quickly, the resulting surge will smash your boat into the lock walls. At best, you’ll rattle your craft enough to knock things over in the cabin. However, an unexpected current in a lock can prove fatal.

Through a combination of inexperience, poor communication and lost concentration, a novice lady hirer lost her life in a South Oxford lock a few years ago. The sudden surge of water from a quickly raised paddle initially pushed her boat towards the downstream gate. It then hurtled towards the upstream gate like an arrow from a bow. She panicked, reacted too slowly and as her craft bounced off the upstream gate she slammed the boat into reverse. The hire boat shot backwards at full speed into the downstream gate again. As the stern bounced off the gate, the lady was catapulted over the back of the boat into the water. The craft, still hard in reverse shot backwards again and pinned her under the boat and its thrashing propeller. 

This tale is as rare as it is tragic. But please learn from it. Do not let water into the lock quickly and don’t let others control your lock.

Young male holiday hirers like to compete. They make me nervous. If I ever see a pair of strapping young lads marching along the towpath towards me, I watch them like a hawk. If YOUR boat is in a lock, YOU control the water flow. It’s your lock to manage. Many boaters will offer to help at busy locks. Accept their assistance by all means, but only on your terms.

Safe lock negotiation is all about communication, with your crew, the crew of the boat in the lock with you, and the crews of other boats waiting nearby. You’re in control so watch everyone like a hawk. The etiquette is that boaters who want to help you should look to you for advice. If they’re experienced, they will know the importance of a carefully managed water flow. If they are inexperienced or in a hurry, their ‘help’ may not be in your best interest. Don’t be bullied into doing things their way.

A domineering lady boater built like a brick outhouse tried to intimidate my novice crew last weekend. Following my suggestion, one had half-raised an upstream paddle as we ascended Calcutt Top lock. “You don’t need to do that,” she assured him as she swung her windlass in circles impatiently. “Raise it all the way. You’ll be fine.”

I stopped him before he followed her instruction. She glared at me and complained that I was wasting her time. She was late for her dinner appointment at a nearby pub. I was going to make her late.

That wasn’t my concern. My boat is my home. It’s a beautiful home which doesn’t deserve to be abused in a lock so that an impatient boater can shave a couple of minutes off her journey. Anyway, the chamber was full by the time she stumbled off her soapbox. Cruising the inland waterways is not a race. Don’t let others force you into going faster than you want.

One End Up, One End Down

A common mistake made by novice boaters is to try to negotiate a lock with the paddles raised at both ends. The lock then becomes a fast-flowing link for canal water from one pound to another—much to the dismay of Calcutt’s band of excitable engineers in days gone by.

Calcutt Boats’ wharf, office and engineering workshops are close to the offside between Calcutt Top sand Middle lock. Our first indication of paddle positioning problems used to be screams of anguish from our engineering workshop. The water gushing through the top lock would spill over the banks of the small pound and race tsunami style down a steep slope towards our diesel dowsed engineers.

The pound floods just as much these days but since the company installed a raised concrete lip along our wharf edge, the towpath floods now instead of our workshops.

Paddles behind a boat should always be closed. Always. Check to make sure before you open the paddles in front of your craft. And always use the correct paddle and gate opening process.

There’s usually a leak or two in a lock gate, sometimes enough of a leak to seal a gate again after you think it’s ready to open. Always open a paddle and leave it open until you’ve opened the gate. Once a gate is open, you can drop the paddle. Remember; paddle, gate, paddle. Always in that order.

Man Overboard

Do not, under any circumstances, reverse a boat close to anyone in the water. Flesh and bone is no match for a rapidly spinning bronze propeller. Don’t throw a life ring at your wet crew mate either. If you hit them with the hard and heavy ring you’re likely to do more harm than good. Throw a ring or a rope near and not at them. If they’ve fallen into a canal rather than a lock, they can probably stand up. Ask them to try.

Carrying an escape ladder on board is a good idea. However, you need someone on board to deploy the ladder for you. Roof-mounted escape ladders are pointless for solo boaters. Narrowboats are notoriously difficult to climb onto from the water. Consider a rope ladder which can be deployed from the water or steps cut into your rudder if you cruise on your own.

Summary

England’s inland waterways network offers a fascinating choice for increasingly popular staycations or an idyllic ‘back garden’ for nature lovers who want and can commit to living afloat. However, thorough preparation is essential for both your safety and your happiness. Treat the waterways and the boats which use them with respect and you can join our happy band of waterways wanderers. Social distancing is easier to do than not, but there’s plenty of company for those who want it.

Despite being half way through my eleventh year afloat I still sometimes make silly mistakes. First time hirers and buyers are really up against it. If you’re considering booking a holiday narrowboat or buying one for recreational cruising or as a full time home make sure that you get some professional tuition first. Ask a seasoned boater to take you out, take an RYA hemslan course or, better still, join me for a Discovery Day cruise.

Discovery Day Update

The madness is almost over for another year. After the busiest couple of months I’ve experienced on the inland waterways over the last decade, more and more narrowboats have returned to their leisure moorings.

The seasons have changed. The summer’s relentless heat has been replaced by wind, rain and a dazzling display of autumn foliage. Every season has its own beauty. This time of the year is more about appreciating a cosy cabin than lazing under a hot sun. My Squirrel coals are glowing as I write this and plan my winter break.

My generous marina employers have agreed that their business will survive without me for a couple of months. With an extended stay with my parents in Australia increasingly unlikely this winter, I expect that I’ll be cruising the waterways. I’ll be away from Christmas until the beginning of March so, if you want a taste of life on a narrowboat during the cooler months, make sure that you book a date soon. You can find out more about my Discovery Day cruises here and prices and availability here.

Discovery Day Guest Nina Harries Takes A Break From International Gigging To Experience Life In The Slow Lane

I’m planning to buy my first liveaboard boat, but I was simply overwhelmed by how much there is to learn about, not to mention navigating the cut and locks by myself! I was already a big fan of Paul’s blog, as it’s so beginner-friendly and covers so many aspects of life afloat, that when i saw he was offering discovery days in person, I jumped at the chance!

“Paul sent me all the info I needed, with clear directions and instructions as to how to find him and his lovely boat! He even asked for a specific overview of what I wanted to discuss and where I had got to in my narrowboat plans so he could tailor the day to best fit my level of experience/ignorance!”

“I had an awesome day, we were lucky with the weather and I got to see some beautiful canal ways that I hadn’t explored yet. Paul was so helpful, clear and provided me with so much useful information about the interior and exterior workings of a boat, the factors to consider when living afloat, and also proper cruising and mooring etiquette, which is SO important. He was also really calm and encouraging with the more scary parts of steering, especially going under low bridges and pulling into tight moorings & narrow locks.

“I would 100% recommend a discovery day with Paul on the Orient, to anyone considering living afloat. He shares with you the genuine experience, with all the pros and cons, the problem solving, navigating and all-important canal way etiquette. Also if you’re looking to purchase a boat, he is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to SO many things, including potential hazards to look out for (both inside the boat and out), certain design aspects to be cautious of and why, and the important day to day life factors to consider such as pets, transport, cruising, engine maintenance, safety on board, awareness of your surroundings and potential hazards, licensing, heating and power systems. He’s a great guy, super helpful and funny, and will even translate that long, boring and confusing hull survey for you if you ask nicely.”

Nina Harries enjoying a Discovery Day cruise

Nina Harries enjoying a Discovery Day cruise

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