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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?

Useful Information
Entertainment
Summary

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.

Experience And Training Days For Aspiring Live Aboard Narrowboat Owners

Join me on beautiful narrowboat Orient for an idyllic cruise through rural Warwickshire. Discover all you need to know about living on the inland waterways and learn how to handle a 62' narrowboat on a winding canal and through six Grand Union locks.

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.

Useful Information
Entertainment
Summary

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!

Discover Life Afloat

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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Summary

Common Narrowboat Newbie Mistakes And How To Avoid Them

I wanted to send you an email weeks ago. My mind was willing, but my body weak. Life and the insidious ravages of time on my old bones thwarted my plans. I’ve been too busy, tired and obsessed with earning a crust to add any new posts to my website.

I’m sorry.

I consider myself lucky. I’ve watched this wretched pandemic destroy livelihoods and lives from the safety and comfort of my idyllic mooring in rural Warwickshire. I’m grateful that I’ve still been able to earn a crust at the marina. I’m blessed that the social distancing restrictions haven’t had much of an impact on my day-to-day life. Not much of an effect, but enough to stop me from writing to you.

My employers, the Preen family, here at Calcutt Boats have bent over backwards to support their staff during the lockdown. They kept me on, allowed me to earn a crust, keep the wolf from the door and my bank manager’s fetid breath from my neck. But mine is a lifestyle job, perfect for living a simple, stress-free and undemanding lifestyle. But not so good for creating enough of a disposable income for me to lavish on my floating home.

So, for the three months I couldn’t trade on a closed canal network I lived frugally, investing wisely in good food and not so sensibly on too much drink. Then, when the waterways opened for business again, I committed to five working days for the marina and two for my boating business at the weekend.

Although the surge in Discovery Day bookings recently has helped my bank balance, I haven’t had any time to invest in Orient’s maintenance regime. Fortunately, a very capable marina workmate has stepped into the breach. He’s spending a day a week on Orient, tackling the jobs which I can’t or don’t have time to do.

The first was, I thought, some simple rust treatment around my Squirrel flue collar. Jason wanted to remove the collar so that he could do a thorough job. I felt that removing the collar would be a waste of time. One of my few virtues is that I’m prepared to defer to people who are clearly more talented than me.

Removing the collar revealed a six-inch length of rotten steel flue pipe. And closer examination identified a small flue hole inside my cabin. Jason’s thoroughness saved me from possible carbon monoxide poisoning and a collapsed flue.

Orient's damaged flue surround

Orient’s damaged flue surround

A narrowboat stove without a flue isn't much use

A narrowboat stove without a flue isn’t much use

Jason also discovered that the ‘professionals’ who installed the flue collar had done an abysmal job. They positioned one of the collar bolts too close to a bearer and then screwed it finger tight. Consequently, the fitting has been loose on one side for the last eighteen months. It has allowed flue gases to condense into tar which as trickled along the starboard side of my roof and down the cabin side. With the collar now appropriately fitted I’ve been able to clean off the tar and return my paintwork to its former glory – which isn’t terribly glorious.

I need to repaint just about everything. I suspect that the current cabin paintwork is at least ten years old. The rails, bow and rear deck are showing a lot of wear and tear. Getting on top of the paintwork is going to take a few months at only one day a week. Especially if I carry on ruining all of Jason’s hard work.

Orient's freshly painted bow

Orient’s freshly painted bow

I was delighted with the bow repainting he did last week. Four days later – far too little time to allow the paint to harden – I took Orient out for two weekend Discovery Day cruises. Half hour moored on the cut and half a dozen inconsiderate boaters racing past was too much for the soft paint. The area will need painting again. This time I’ll keep the area rope free for a couple of weeks.

I’ve changed my fairleads too. The old ones were dull brass sitting on bubbling rust patches. The areas are now rust-free and home to new stainless steel fairleads – with stainless steel screws – to match my forest of stainless steel chimneys. Orient is my home, my pride and my joy, so she’s worth all the hard work. Especially when someone else is doing it.

My Discovery Day cruises have kept me out of trouble every weekend, and given me something to write about today. I live and work on one of the busiest sections of the inland waterways. The Hillmorton flight of three tandem locks is said to be one of the most used on the network. That’s no surprise given that there are 2,500 boats moored within a ten-mile radius, a couple of hundred hire boats plying the waterways in this area and an unrivalled choice of routes.

Narrowboat hire companies are doing very well at the moment. Most of them have most of their boats out most of the time. That means that I meet many novice crews on my cruises every day I’m out. And on EVERY cruise we witness mistakes, incidents and accidents. I pulled a boater out of Calcutt Bottom lock last week. He hadn’t quite reached the drowning stage, but he was close to panic and clutched a lock chain as though his life depended on it. His life did depend on holding the chain because he couldn’t swim.

Most of the incidents I witness result from insufficient knowledge. The holiday hirers are not at fault. They’re often given the keys to a twenty-tonne boat with very little or zero training. Imagine yourself in the same situation as fictitious holiday hirer Harold.

The time-starved instructor hands a set of keys to Harold, the happy hirer and races through his clipboard checklist. “Turn that key to start the engine, pull that knob to stop it, turn this dial to run your central heating and press that button if you want to run mains appliances. How do you steer the boat? That’s easy. If you want to steer one way, push the tiller – yes, the brass bar you’re holding – in the opposite direction. Oh, and don’t forget to drive like a foreigner and stay on the right.”

With the comprehensive handover out of the way, the smiling instructor gives Harold a reassuring virtual pat on the back and wishes him a happy holiday.

And so begins Harold’s baptism of fire, his first day at the helm of a flat bottomed boat as long and unwieldy as an articulated lorry. And if Harold’s hired from one of the dozen companies based within a handful of miles of my base near Napton junction, he’ll bump into many of the hundred-plus other hirers negotiating the blind bends and bridge holes holidaying on Warwickshire’s contour canals.

You can recognise many first time hirers by their startled looks, similar to that of rabbits caught in car headlights. The learning curve to inland waterways boating is steep. These holidaymakers, many of them future boat owners, don’t have a clue what to do. They learn from their mistakes and, as there are so many of them on short breaks, they’re still making mistakes on their last day.

Cruising on England’s inland waterways is an enjoyable and relaxing pastime once you’ve mastered the basics. Even the most professional narrowboat hire companies can’t tell you a fraction of what you need to know during their necessarily brief handovers. You have to learn from your own mistakes.

At least narrowboat hirers are given some tuition. Most first time buyers are entirely clueless when they attempt their maiden voyages. They learn through trial and error, often building on bad techniques and well-meaning but inappropriate advice. “Wrap your centre line around your waist,” is the most dangerous advice I’ve heard offered to novice boaters. Are they mad? Imagine a flat bottomed and high sided twenty-tonne boat being pushed away from the bank by a lively breeze. The most likely result is a rope wrapped boater plucked from the towpath for an unexpected dip.

You’ll be offered plenty of tips and tricks when you begin your waterways journey. Your job is to sort the wheat from the chaff. All I’ve written below is a distillation of my experiences over the last decade. I’ve cruised thousands of mile, handled hundreds of narrowboats and made enough cock-ups to keep my fellow boaters laughing for weeks. I hope that the following advice helps to keep you safe and mostly free from ridicule. If you plan to hire a boat for a short break, don’t let the inevitable newbie cock-ups put you off. Persevere and you’ll soon reach a point where handling a narrowboat is as intuitive as driving a car, but with much more enjoyment and fewer insurance claims.

HELMSMAN TRAINING AND EXPERIENCE DAYS

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about life on England's inland waterways

Casting Off

Let’s start at the beginning. You CANNOT steer a narrowboat from its bankside mooring into the canal centre. A narrowboat pivots on its midpoint, usually where the centre line is attached. If the bow is to go to the right, the stern must come to the left. Clearly, the stern can’t do that if it’s already against a bank. The solution is simple. The helmsman or one of his crew must push the boat’s bow off the side. This simple technique allows the helmsman to steer in a straight line to the canal centre.

The alternative method, and it’s a strategy often chosen by newbie boaters, is to grind their craft along concrete banks until a curve launches the boats into open water. Unsurprisingly, this second technique removes many layers of protective hull paint quite quickly.

Mooring Lines Are Not For Cruising

Remember the bit about a narrowboat pivoting on its centre? This is often a novice boater’s first frustration.

Calcutt Boats’ wharf is between Calcutt Top and Middle locks. My mooring is close to Calcutt Bottom lock. I watch boats arriving at the flight often while I work and play. Kate Boats are a half-hour cruise from the bottom lock, Napton Narrowboats and Black Prince at Wigram’s Turn ten minutes from the top lock and the three businesses have 80 – 100 hire boats between them. The Calcutt flight is where many new hirers stop their craft for the first time. Or fail to control their boat for the first time.

On a smaller boat, often crewed by a couple, the stopping routines are often similar. The man – it’s nearly always the man at the helm – throws his lump of steel at the towpath, sometimes but not always stopping before he hits it, and jettisons his poor wife and her bow line. She tumbles onto the towpath pulling the bow line as though her life depends on it. Drawing in the bow pushes the stern away from the bank. So the husband rams the Morse control against its stop to bring the stern back to the bank. This manoeuvre pulls the bow and his wife away from the bank. The tug of war and the ensuing argument continues until the couple divorces, and the boat runs out of fuel. It’s not a happy start to their holiday.

Larger hire boats have up to ten people on board, ten people who don’t understand the need to work as a team. Their boats slam to a halt in a mess of exhaust smoke and boiling water. Three or four people leap from the front deck with the bow line. A similar number tumble onto the towpath from the stern. The helmsman largely ignores everything his crew is doing and tries to alter the boat’s position with the engine. This crew of ten finally subdues the lively narrowboat, but the process hasn’t been easy.

River techniques are slightly different but, on canals and in their locks, stern and bow lines are only used for mooring.

The correct technique is for the helmsman to glide serenely in tickover at a shallow angle towards the bank. And then, as he touches, he applies the gentlest of bursts in reverse before stepping calmly onto the towpath holding his centre line. Then he holds his boat gently against the side while his poor wife tries to unravel the mysterious workings of a canal lock.

How To Hold A Line Attached To Your Boat

Do not EVER wrap a bow, stern or centre line around any part of your body. In a battle between you, a lively breeze and a twenty-tonne boat, you’re going to lose—every time.

If a rope’s chaffing your hands, don’t wrap it around your arm or waist. Don’t wrap it around your fingers to get a better grip. You’re risking rope burns at best. And if your boat is blown by the wind away from the bank and you’re doing your impression of a human cotton reel you’ll be whisked off your feet into the canal’s murky depths. OK. The channel’s likely to be less than four feet deep, but that’s more than enough water to drown you.

If you want to rest your hands when you’re pulling your boat in, run the line behind your back, hold the rope with both hands and sit or lean on it. If the boat pulls away from you and there’s no one available to lend a hand, let it go. The narrowboat will live. You may not.

This a worst-case scenario, of course. You’re unlikely to begin your boating career alone or on a day so windy that you need to abandon ship. And there are techniques you can use to eliminate any serious problems.

You can read part two of this post here.

Discovery Day Update

A LOT of people are interested in living afloat now. The ability for many to work from home, wherever that home may be, has encouraged more aspiring boaters than ever to consider living on England’s inland waterways network. 

If you are considering following suit, I urge you to book a day with me. I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, but I’m constantly told how much knowledge I share during the course of a Discovery Day and how calm I am with total strangers at the helm of my floating home. You can find out more about my Discovery service here.

Ray Appleton and her partner Darren on a Discovery Day

Ray Appleton and her partner Darren on a Discovery Day

“We’re now ready to sell our home to start living aboard a narrowboat. We booked our discovery day with Paul to learn how to travel the canal, how to work locks and, most importantly, to confirm that it is the life we want. The day spent on Orient was fabulous! Paul was friendly, relaxed, and knew his subject.  He answered all our queries regarding living aboard. 

We would definitely recommend a discovery day for anyone who is contemplating living full-time on a narrowboat.  At the end of the day, having faced some tricky situations, we were steered in the right direction and feel confident that we can now go it alone.”

Ray Appleton

You can read further details and check available dates here.

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Summary

Life After Lockdown And Why Social Distancing Can Be Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More wildflowers than you can shake a stick at

More wildflowers than you can shake a stick at

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

Keeping the shower block frontage tidy

Keeping the shower block frontage tidy

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

Food for the soul on a working day at Calcutt Boats

Food for the soul on a working day at Calcutt Boats

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

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

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

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

One of our barbecue night's posh revellers

One of our barbecue night’s more sophisticated revellers

Cheese and wine (followed by port and whisky)

Cheese and wine (followed by port and whisky)

An approaching storm puts an end to our after work drinking

An approaching storm puts an end to our after work drinking

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

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

A day out on the cut during lockdown

A day out on the cut during lockdown

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

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

Narrowboat Experience Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovery Day guest Jane Doran on the Bucky flight

Discovery Day guest Jane Doran on the Bucky flight

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

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

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

Taking a hire boat down the Calcutt flight

Taking a hire boat down the Calcutt flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The evening view from my front deck

The evening view from my front deck

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

The sun sets on another fabulous day

The sun sets on another fabulous day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exposure To The Elements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some narrowboat owners insist on even more extreme measures.

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

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

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

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

I’ve witnessed many more on my travels.

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that scary?

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

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

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

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

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

Canal bathing in January is not pleasant.

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

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

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

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

There’s A Steep Learning Curve For New Narrowboat Owners

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

The reality was mind-numbingly confusing.

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

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

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

I learned a couple of valuable lessons that day. 

Narrowboat Experience Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping All Of Your Floating Home Warm Is A Challenge

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

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

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

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

Organisation Is Your New Best Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dreaded Narrowboat Toilet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Condensation: The Bane Of A Boater’s Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Receiving Post, Parcels and Deliveries

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

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

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

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

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

Do You Still Fancy Living On A Narrowboat?

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

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

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

Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovery Day guests Tim & Ady Henderson

Discovery Day guests Tim & Ady Henderson

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

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

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

Tim & Ady Henderson, Devon

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

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