Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.
All is quiet on board. The silence is broken only by the ticking of the galley clock and muted quacks from two squabbling mallards. Gone are reassuring sounds of domestic bliss; Cynthia’s tuneless humming and occasional curse as she juggled pans in the galley, creating another of her many gourmet delights. And there’s no more click-clack of iron hard basset nails on the hardwood floor, no more gentle while from Sadie at my feet, begging for the comfort of a warm lap. My three girls have gone, one to her maker, the others to better homes.
I am alone.
I am alone, but not as lonely as I feared because YOU, dear reader, have generously lent me a virtual crutch. I’ve received hundreds of supportive messages since my last post, emails offering condolences, advice and hope. They’ve all been much appreciated, even if the contents were sometimes a little sad.
We waterways enthusiasts are a peculiar bunch. By the time we reach the age that most of us can afford the cost of a narrowboat or the time to appreciate one, our health often prevents us from enjoying the lifestyle comprehensively, or even at all. Bits of us begin to fail or need repairing or replacing. Sadly, sometimes the solution is beyond the marvels of modern medicine. We die and leave those around to deal with the emotional trauma of our loss.
There was a recurring theme to many of the email I received. “I feel your pain. I’ve just lost my wife/husband/father/mother/brother/sister…” They told tales of traumatic bereavements months or even years ago. “Time will heal, but the pain will endure,” appeared to be the theme. For many, each new day has been an opportunity to mourn the loss of a loved one. While I fully understand the sentiment, I’m trying to avoid following that unhealthy route.
Cynthia taught me many useful lessons. One of the best was to always view a glass as half full, to see the positive in any situation, to search for the silver lining of the darkest of clouds.
So I’m not going to mourn Cynthia’s loss. I’m going to celebrate our time together, the adventures we had, the fun places we explored. I have hundreds of photos of Cynthia in exotic locations; in endless forests, on high mountain tops, on deserted beaches, by lakes, rivers and canals. In each and every one she’s smiling, imploring me to embrace all that life has to offer. So embrace it I will as I slowly but surely adapt to my new lifestyle.
Cynthia’s possessions have, like the dogs, gone to a better home. My wife liked to dress well and, some would say, oddly. One of her favourite ensembles was a red cashmere cape and yellow Wellington boots, with appropriate clothing in between of course. Stylish in a strange kind of way. Cynthia made her mark wherever she went.
I crammed all her shoes and clothing into two dozen black plastic bin bags for the four-mile journey to a Myton Hospice shop in Southam. The charity offers superb end of life care to people suffering terminal illnesses. I know Cynthia would have approved.
Abbie and Sadie, basset and Coton du Tulier, left me last Saturday. They have gone to separate but equally loving homes. Basset Abbie has joined a similarly lugubrious pal at a beachfront property in rural Devon, a house surrounded by miles of car-free walking. Her new owners manage their own holiday property during the summer and explore Europe by motorhome in the colder months. Abbie will have the time of her life.
Sadie will be similarly happy. She’s been adopted by Sam, the founder of the basset charity who collected both dogs. Sadie jumped on Sam’s lap the moment they met and then stayed there throughout Sam’s brief stay on Orient and the two-hour car journey to her new home. I will miss both dogs, but they have gone to homes with owners who have the time to look after them properly. I made the right decision.
I am alone now but not particularly lonely. I don’t have time to focus on unhealthy thoughts, and Cynthia’s ever-present voice warns me against self-indulgent misery. I have the joy of working on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds during the week and hosting Discovery Days at the weekend. And, if I don’t have weekend bookings, there are five acres of rural Warwickshire at my boss’s country pile to maintain.
My evenings are a potential incubator for dark thoughts. To ensure that misery can’t make its mark there, I fill my time with blog post writing and web site development. If all else fails, I have a television. I just need to work out how to turn it on.
All things considered, I feel better now than I did a month ago. Cynthia had left me four weeks earlier to return to the States on her perpetual quest for better health. Her condition, quite rightly in hindsight, worried me. As did a perceived lack of interest in this website. I wrote in my last post about my inclination to stop blogging and indulge in a more rewarding pastime, maybe stamp collecting, train spotting or dogging.
Your thoughtfulness overwhelmed me. Over two hundred emails offering support and feedback landed in my inbox since that post. I appreciated and replied to every one of them.
Because of them, I will continue with the blog, doing what I can to give aspiring narrowboat owners an insight into the often challenging and always rewarding life I lead afloat on England’s inland waterways. I know that many of you live aboard like me. We face and usually overcome similar challenges in our day to day lives. Some of you have been forced by unhappy circumstances to move back into a brick and mortar home and away from an idyllic life afloat.
There’s no denying that living on a boat can be hard work. One of life’s ironies for many boaters is that when they are most able to afford the lifestyle, they are least able to deal with the physical demands. There are heavy lock gates, stiff paddles, steep climbs up and down lock ladders, straddles over high sided decks, stoops under low covers, bends through low doorways and squeezes into engine room crawl spaces designed for midgets. It’s not an easy life with stiff backs, hips and knees.
And then there are the daily weightlifting workouts.
Narrowboats with multi-fuel stoves are more common than those without. Wood is an aesthetically pleasing and aromatic fuel. It’s also impractical for boating purposes. Unless a boat owner wants a creosote-soaked roof and tar lined flue, the wood must be both seasoned and burned at temperatures high enough to make the inside of the boat melt. It burns too hot, needs topping up too frequently and uses storage space the average boater simply doesn’t have. The sensible and widely available alternative is coal briquettes.
These bags weigh fifty-five pounds, four stone in traditional English measurements, half a woman or a whole basset hound like our girl Abbie. Each bag is as heavy as it’s unwieldy. Each one needs lifting and tipping, manoeuvring onto decks, through narrow and low doorways and, finally, decanting into a coal scuttle close to the stove.
Propane cylinders are just as heavy, just as unwieldy and often far more of a challenge than coal bags. Most narrowboats use propane gas for cooking, some for water heating and occasionally, if the boat owner is strong of heart and deep of pocket, for central heating. On traditional stern narrowboats like mine, the gas is stored in a small locker only accessible to boaters prepared to leap gazelle-like onto the boat’s tiny bow, a steel surface often coated with dew, rain, ice or algae and slipperier than an Olympic ice rink. Changing a gas bottle is always a test of both nerves and strength.
And then there are the ever-present dangers associated with using the boat for its intended purpose.
If you see a narrowboat gliding towards you through the murky water of a reed-fringed canal and spot a person or two walking casually across the steel cabin roof, you can bet your bottom dollar that the brave boaters are novices. Any seasoned cruiser on the cut knows better. A boat roof is slippery, liberally adorned with trip hazards and far too close to the uneven brickwork of low bridge arches.
Moving from bow to stern along a boat’s narrow gunnel is asking for trouble too. If you’re a narrowboat newbie, the gunnel is the thin horizontal steel strip between the boat’s hull top and its cabin bottom. The gunnel is rarely more than four inches wide, sometimes is painted with a non-slip coating and occasionally, much to the dismay of careless crew, slopes away from the boat towards the canal’s muddy bed.
Gunnel walking is an irresistible challenge for young and invincible hire boat crew, as is the temptation to jump on and off a lock enclosed boat roof. Locks are accidents waiting to happen. Fast flowing water, moss and algae coated edging stones and ladders, slippery steel boats and inexperienced crew, newbie boaters often more careless still after a holiday drink or two.
Lock accidents are common; slips, trips and falls, tumbles between moving boats and solid walls, graceless plummets into the frothing water of a turbulent lock and the rare but far too frequent collision between soft flesh and spinning steel.
Gongoozlers sometimes risk life and limb too. Falls into locks while waiting for pretty boats to chug through are common. I stood at a lock on the Foxton flight with Cynthia a few years ago. We watched in horror as a pretty young mother wearing a set of inappropriately high heels tottered along a lock lip to amuse a toddler in a pushchair. She stepped on wet moss and with a frantic windmilling of arms disappeared into the murky water of the lock beneath her feet. “There’s no point in crying over a spilled MILF,” is what Cynthia didn’t say when she saw my look of consternation.
These are the dangers we can see and avoid. More worrying is the silent and invisible threat, the killer which nearly caused my early demise last month; carbon monoxide.
The risk to boaters is discussed occasionally. Boaters understand both the problem and the solution. The solution is to fit both smoke and carbon monoxide detectors at some stage of their boat ownership and then, all too often, ignore both the detector’s warning and its maintenance. Here’s an email I received after last week’s scare.
“As an LPG/NG engineer, I cannot stress enough the importance of a working and in date carbon monoxide alarm or three!
Caravan owners of a certain age, because “they’ve always done it” don’t think it’s important. I’m sure boat owners are the same.
This season alone, in fact, yesterday, I found six carbon monoxide units with no batteries in. Most of these were older than the “replace by” dates printed on the units!
Even with good batteries, they would be useless. You don’t have to be told how lucky you were. Very glad that you are safe though!
In your next blog, please reiterate the fact that a “working “ carbon monoxide alarm may actually not actually be working. Each unit has a replace by date. This MUST be adhered to!
Personally, I stamp out of date units underfoot in front of the owners. Most I know will put them back up if I don’t once I’ve left! Silly I know, but they know best. “
Are you guilty as charged? When did you last check your alarm batteries or dates? Do it now. While you’re at it, check your smoke detectors too. A ten-minute break from an enthralling blog post could save your life.
I’ll tell you a secret. My cooking doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes there are clouds of smoke which I’m pretty sure aren’t part of the recipe I’m trying to follow. Naturally, the smoke sets off the smoke detectors. They carry on shrieking as long as there’s smoke in the boat. The air can take an eternity to clear at a time when I’m trying to concentrate on a variety of bubbling pans. The easy solution is to remove the offending alarm’s batteries. And then forget to replace them. I’m sure that you are more responsible than me. Your life is more important than the temporary inconvenience of a shrieking siren.
Or is it?
I sincerely hope that this post, and the one detailing my rude awakening in the middle of the night by a shrieking alarm, triggers the replacement of a few out of date or faulty carbon monoxide monitors across England’s waterways network.
Despite the occasional risk to life and limb, and my recent unhappy transition from family to a single life, I love living afloat. I don’t particularly like living tethered to a marina, but if I need to work and if I have to work, there’s nowhere I would rather work than on the beautiful grounds at Calcutt Boats. The aspect of my working day which appeals to me most is the constant and ever-changing variety.
There are the usual grounds maintenance tasks; tree felling and trimming, ditch clearance, fence repairs, painting and replacement, marina pier and reed management and, as the thermometer rises and the sky fills with rain-filled clouds, endless grass cutting. We have a ride on mower for cutting most of the site’s forty landscaped acres. It’s a magical task at this time of the year to sail through a sea of green peppered with cowslips, buttercups and dandelions, enveloped by the heady aroma of cut grass and freshly minced dog shit.
We also have a delicate machine for cutting the wharf’s lawn, a three-wheeled monster for Meadows marina’s sloping banks and a new Flymo for my least liked weekly task. There are three high and steep banks adjacent to Locks marina which are too steep to cut with conventional machines. Each cut involves six hours hauling the wheeled Flymo up and down the banks on a length of rope. It’s hard work, so I’m always grateful when my radio crackles and a distorted voice asks me to pause my brutal task and start another, more urgent job.
I might be asked to move a boat or offload a palleted delivery with the site’s Merlot forklift truck. The call might be to repair a pier hit by a poorly steered boat, provide visiting boaters with coal, gas or a pump out or two or, the one I really don’t like, wade shin deep in raw sewage to clear a blockage in the pipe to our reed bed filtration system.
Each day is filled with variety and rural tranquillity. I love it.
I’m keeping myself busy with two goals in mind, one financial, one emotional. I don’t regret the recent adventures I had with Cynthia for a moment. We really had a blast. Cynthia went out in style. She managed to indulge her lifelong passion for exploration despite her failing health. I am happy to have done what I could to help her live her dream. However, two and a half hedonistic years and a frenzy of boat buying had an inevitable effect on our bank balances. Six or seven-day working weeks for the rest of the year will help to clear the debts, and they’ll help me focus on more positive thoughts than of life as a widower. Onward and upward. That’s my motto. Onward and upward towards financial and emotional stability and another adventure on the far distant horizon.
I receive emails every week thanking me for my sometimes funny, often useful blog posts which usually entertain and even inform my narrowboat site visitors. This isn’t one of them. I received some tragic news on “Good” Friday.
Cynthia flew to the States a month ago in an ongoing quest to reverse her failing health. She visited friends and family she hadn’t seen since handing over the keys of her Vermont home to the new owner in 2016. Four large suitcases and an even larger basset travelled with her on a flight from Toronto to Amsterdam, everything she needed for her new adventure in Europe with me.
She rented a house for two months in Friesland, the Netherlands’ most northerly province, waiting for me to sell my beloved narrowboat, James No 194, load all my worldly goods into our five and a half tonne twin axle Hymer motorhome and join her in the picturesque Dutch village of Rottevalle for the start of our grand European adventure. Cynthia was always the queen of ambitious plans.
Over the following twenty-six months we drove 28,952 miles through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland, peppering our itinerary with occasional trips back to the UK.
Cynthia set our travel style early on. She would invest an hour or two in online research, look up from her battered iPad and say, “I’ve always wanted to visit..” That was it. We’d climb into the Hymer’s high cab with its panoramic windows and take the slowest, most difficult route she could find to our new destination.
Keeping the Hymer on strange country roads was often a challenge. We wedged ourselves immoveably in a French balcony road tunnel, removed our wing mirrors on a Danish steel bridge and bowled over a working film crew on one of Lyon’s impossibly narrow cobbled streets. We brought Marseille’s rush hour traffic to a halt on the city’s underground road network and slipped and slid our way over a variety of icy Swiss mountain passes. While I wrestled with the wheel and cursed, Cynthia smiled serenely and admired the ever-changing scenery around us. Apart from the high mountain passes. On those, she usually held her head between her knees and wailed like a banshee.
Much as we loved travelling far and wide on Europe’s backcountry roads, we both missed living afloat. Before we left Holland on our way to winter sunshine on the French Mediterranean coast, we window shopped for a suitable boat for summer cruising on the vast Dutch network of connected canals, rivers and lakes. Cynthia fell in love with one we viewed, stored for the winter in an immaculate barn on a North Holland farm.
Julisa was a classic Dutch motor cruiser with a steel hull and mahogany superstructure. She was the wrong boat for us; acres of wood to maintain, a canvas cockpit roof, no insulation, no shower, a broken sea toilet and, worst of all, no way to quickly get two heavy bassets on board.
On a moonlit walk on the rocky shore of a French saltwater lagoon, we decided to buy Julisa. Despite an enthusiastic exercise in identifying every reason why we shouldn’t buy the boat, Cynthia countered with reasons why we should. So we paid a deposit from the comfort of our six-wheeled winter home on the Mediterranean coast and then counted the days until we could collect her in the spring.
Boating, done properly, is an expensive hobby. Repairs, alterations, replacements and upgrades cost us €9,000, including €750 to have a bespoke basset friendly dog door fitted. We didn’t mind. After all, it wasn’t as though we were going to make a habit of boat buying and refurbishment. Yeah, right!
We cruised the Netherlands bewildering network of connected waterways during the summer and autumn of 2017. We sailed along placid waterways through rainbow-hued fields of nodding tulips, marvelled at an endless procession of working windmills and regularly stopped at waterside cafes and restaurants filled with smiling Dutch. We both loved our return to a watery lifestyle. Much as I enjoyed the scenery and experiences on Europe’s back roads, driving such a large vehicle along them was a stressful affair.
Cynthia was a sensitive soul. My stress caused her stress which further weakened her health. I was more relaxed cruising the gentle waters of island peppered lakes than negotiating thin ribbons of asphalt clinging precariously to cliffsides. We decided, perhaps unwisely in hindsight, to find a suitable boat and live on the European waterways network full time.
We found what we thought was the perfect boat moored in a small and friendly yacht club on a canal close to Antwerp. You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “Love is blind”. That doesn’t only apply to people. We fell in love with Dik Trom, a thirty-five foot Linssen motor cruiser.
Why I, a seasoned live aboard boater, thought Dik Trom would be right for living on throughout the year is entirely beyond me. Poorly insulated, acres of heat sapping glass and a blown air heating system fit for little more than taking the morning chill off a tiny truck cab, Dik Trom was hardly fit for all seasons.
Anyway, we purchased the boat mid-December, spent another small country’s national debt on repairs and the inevitable battery bank replacement, checked the long-range weather forecast for South Holland, and decided to have just one more winter under the cloudless skies of France’s Mediterranean coast before moving afloat full time. It proved to be a wise decision. We checked the Dutch weather forecast as we sat in the sun on our folding camp chairs on the rocky shores of a selection of saltwater lagoons along France’s south-east coast. Sub-zero days, colder nights and enough snow and ice to frighten a polar bear. While getting to the south of France in our Hymer home was sometimes stressful, living there was a delight. But then two large black clouds filled the blue sky of our hedonistic lifestyle. Health and money.
We quickly exhausted my savings; the proceeds of my narrowboat sale and a substantial income tax refund. Although Cynthia received a decent pension, the income wasn’t enough to support our lavish lifestyle. The more I worried about money, the more stressed I became. Ever sensitive Cynthia needed a calm and stress-free environment to thrive. Without one her body rebelled. Bug bites caused swellings the size of tennis balls, and summer sniffles became severe episodes requiring bed rest. Even a short walk on level ground would need a short rest and a restorative nap.
Spending on holistic remedies and potions and appointments with specialist practitioners further drained our resources, a drain which increased my money worries, caused more stress for me and deepening emotional turmoil and worsening health for Cynthia.
We decided to return to the Netherlands and look for a boatyard job for me. After a month trawling through hundreds of marina listings, I secured a position at a prestigious marina in South Holland a handful of miles from Amsterdam. Sadly, the marina was even closer to Schiphol airport and the endless stream of large aircraft which thundered into the sky from it every minute of the day.
Working for my new Dutch employers couldn’t have been more different from the gentle life I enjoyed at Calcutt Boats. The Dutch boatyard was spotless and operated with military precision. Everyone knew what they were doing and worked as hard as they could every minute of the day. A mid-morning siren announced the start of a fifteen-minute tea break. Not sixteen minutes, or even fifteen and a half. Fifteen minutes exactly. Coffee cup down, tools up and on you go. I hated every minute of it, despite the kindness and consideration both Cynthia and I were shown by the marvellous Kempers family.
Much as I disliked the mind-numbing tedium of applying anti-fouling systems to multi-million-pound motor yachts and speedboats, I was well paid by UK boatyard standards. Once again, we had more than enough money to pay the bills. Sadly, our new regime didn’t allow us to enjoy our newfound financial security. Neither of us was happy, but Cynthia felt the strain more than me.
By then we had moved Dik Trom from its Belgian mooring to Kempers Watersport, our new home and my workplace. We’d transferred our possessions from the motorhome to the boat and live on board at the marina as far away from other craft and their claustrophobic moorings as possible. The marina nestled in the south-east corner of a vast lake. We had a stunning view of the lake from our spot on the marina’s visitor moorings. However, much as Cynthia enjoyed the landscape, she began to feel increasingly isolated.
Cynthia couldn’t walk far without pain. Even using her folding bike to ride a mile to the nearest village became too much of a strain. She was confined to the interior of our thirty-five-foot boat, as were the dogs unless I was around.
Getting the dogs on and off the boat required a degree of strength and physical fitness which proved too much for Cynthia. Three steep steps from the gunwale to the flybridge and then four vertical wooden steps down into the cockpit. Another four to get them into the galley. We bought a telescopic ramp to save having to manhandle dogs weighing as much as a sack of coal. Even the ramp was too much for Cynthia in her worsening condition.
Cynthia had no one to talk to near our mooring, no way of walking or cycling to anywhere she could find a conversation and was frustrated by a growing feeling of helplessness that she had to rely on me so much. Bureaucracy further added to the strain of our day to day life.
Cynthia had been frustrated continuously by governmental red tape for three years by then. The farce began in November 2015 when Cynthia, an employee of American Airlines who had visited the UK on hundreds of occasions, was deported by UK Border Control. They told her she didn’t have the right visa to enter the country to marry me. They planned to deport her immediately. After much tearful pleading, they gave her a week’s stay of execution.
Cynthia’s difficulty entering and staying in the UK long term was the catalyst for our European adventure, but we didn’t have any luck there either. After five different appointments in the Netherlands, Spain and France, we finally managed to get her a new passport in downtown Marseilles. Much as passport renewal was frustrating, it was a piece of cake compared to the application process for an extended stay visa in Holland.
We were moved from pillar to post and back again. There seemed to be little connection or co-operation between local and national government agencies. Cynthia needed an official address in the Netherlands for the application. As we lived on our boat where I worked, we tried to use the marina address. The request was denied. Trying to find a way around the problem took seven different applications over the best part of a year. We finally convinced the local town hall to send employees out to our marina to measure and photograph our mooring so that they could create a bona fide address for the Dutch registration system.
By then both Cynthia and I had had enough of travelling in Europe generally and the Netherlands in particular and the constant bureaucratic difficulties presented by a homeless mixed-race couple living like gipsies throughout mainland Europe.
Then Cynthia surprised me one day. Her body may have been failing, but her mind was still as hyperactive and inventive as ever. “I’ve been thinking long and hard about our situation. We’re both unhappy here. We’re hardly living the dream any more, are we? You hate your job here, we’re close enough to Schiphol to wave at the passengers in passing jets, we’re spending far too long each day dealing with government paperwork and I’m struggling with life on board this boat, in this marina so far away from companionship of any kind. Why don’t we go back to England and live on a narrowboat?”
I had been considering a return to the UK too. But I couldn’t see past the problems we would face trying to make the move possible. “We can’t do it,” I told her. “We don’t have any money left to buy another boat, and you would still have to apply for a visa to stay in the UK.”
Cynthia was all about solutions, not problems. “We’ll sell this thing,” Cynthia waved a dismissive at Dik Trom’s beautiful mahogany cabin,” and we’ll sell the Hymer too. There’s more than enough equity in both to buy a decent narrowboat.”
My mind was still filled with seemingly insurmountable problems. Selling both the motorhome and the boat would probably be a lengthy process, and we couldn’t seriously consider buying a narrowboat until we had money in the bank from both sales. I voiced my concerns.
“Look, if we focus on what we can do rather than the challenges we need to overcome, we’ll get there. You’re good at getting things done. You’re inventive too. Apply yourself to making this happen. I know how passionate you are about the English waterways. Keep that in mind and let’s go for it!”
So go for it we did. I had to return to the UK the following week to pick up our motorhome from the Nottingham dealer where it had been for three weeks having some warranty work done. Cynthia had found what she thought was the perfect narrowboat for us on Apolloduck. The boat was moored at Tattenhall marina. A detour to Cheshire on my way back to Holland would only add an extra two hours for my journey. I phoned the broker and arranged to view and test drive the Steve Hudson built boat.
Once again, Cynthia was right. She was right about returning to the UK, and she was right about the boat being perfect. It’s now our home. Sorry, it’s now my home.
The buying process was far from easy. We needed to take out a bridging loan, take out two further loans from private lenders and part exchange our motorhome. Even then, we were still short of money. I managed to overcome the problem by persuading the owner to wait for the balance until Dik Trom sold.
We returned to the UK mid-December. Orient’s owners arrived on Boxing Day to collect our motorhome and bid a tearful goodbye to their beautiful boat. After an abortive cruise south back to Calcutt Boats we returned to Tattenhall for battery replacement and then endured the coldest two weeks of the winter on an eventful journey to our current mooring. Cynthia sat inside for all of it, keeping warm and trying and failing to stay healthy.
Unable to sleep, she spent most nights fretting about her deteriorating health and worsening mobility. Because she couldn’t sleep at night, she was exhausted during the day. She slept during the day so couldn’t sleep at night. The vicious cycle continued, and her feeling of isolation and depression deepened.
I didn’t help much. Cynthia was a touchy-feely heart-on-her-sleeve kind of gal, and I’m from the stiff-upper-lip emotionally bankrupt old English school of carry on regardless. She didn’t get any of the compassion from me that she both needed and richly deserved.
She decided to return to the States for an appointment with a world-renowned holistic practitioner who planned to do an exhaustive health study to get to the root of her problem. Cynthia was too weak to manage the flight on her own so her friend, Alec, flew from the States to escort her back.
She visited the friends and family she hadn’t seen for three years. She spent a week with her brother, Jeff and then moved into her best friend Tom’s house in Rockport MA.
Cynthia was always a diligent and effective communicator. She sent me WhatsApp messages regularly on her return flight and throughout her stay with brother Jeff and then Tom. Two weeks ago today those communications stopped.
I was worried after twenty-four silent hours. Followup messages failed to provoke a response either. I phoned, texted, WhatsApp’ed and emailed over the next three days and then, on Thursday, emailed her friend Tom. But, even though I hadn’t heard from Cynthia for four days, I was somewhat reassured by her proximity to so many friends and family. What I didn’t know then was that her sister, brother and Tom were also trying and failing to get any response from her.
My phone rang on Good Friday at 12.32pm. A WhatsApp call from Cynthia. What a relief. I prepared to give her a bollocking for worrying me so much.
A stranger spoke in a quavering voice. “Hi, Paul. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but Cynthia died on Wednesday.”
I don’t remember feeling shocked. I suppose that Cynthia’s worsening health coupled with an uncharacteristic lack of communication steeled me for bad news on some level.
Jeff’s wife, Melanie, went on to tell me what had happened. Jeff had also been worried by Cynthia’s silence. He contacted Tom on Wednesday. Tom hadn’t heard from Cynthia either. Jeff was much closer to the house than Tom, so he agreed to drive three hours to the house to investigate.
The house was locked and dark when they arrived. Jeff called the police. They confirmed that a 911 call had been placed by a lady at that address the previous day. The lady was rushed by ambulance to the nearest ER department and died within fifteen minutes of arriving. Hospital tests showed a tumour and cancer in her blood. Cynthia, who had more friends than anyone I’ve ever met, spent the last three days of her life alone. Life just isn’t fair.
Jeff, still grieving after the loss of his beloved dog a few days earlier, has been a star. There was an annual celebration of Cynthia’s mother’s life scheduled for last Tuesday in Big Bear, California. Jeff asked permission to arrange for Cynthia’s cremation on Bank Holiday Monday so that Cynthia could join her family for the memorial. I think Cynthia would have liked that.
So, for some of us, life goes on.
The last week has been stressful. I haven’t been firing on all cylinders, and our two sensitive dogs picked up on that. My melancholy and Cynthia’s absence has particularly affected three-year-old basset, Abbie. Any attention is better than none at all so, barring the good, she’s gone for the bad.
Bassets aren’t considered intelligent dogs, but they are, this one is, smart enough to get the tops off sealed jars. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Abbie’s first trick was to make things disappear, namely a whole 1kg bag of muesli, a sealed 500g bag of mixed nuts and two Green and Black’s chocolate bars. She managed to hold it all down, but I had to take her out every two hours throughout the night and the following day for copious grass fertilisation.
It was my fault. I didn’t close a cupboard properly, so Abbie easily nosed it open. Nothing like this had ever happened before. It’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
She upped her game the following day. She successfully removed the sealed tops from two jars of nut butter and one of honey. She still managed to hold down the contents, but disposing of them proved an explosive affair.
I tried to Abbie proof the boat after that. I put all temptation out of reach. At least I thought I had. On day three she removed a full 500ml bottle of extra virgin olive oil from the wine rack, chewed the top off and drank the lot. I suspect that it came back up much quicker than it went down. Clearing up after the mischievous dog took two hours, but now the hardwood floor has a lovely sheen. Thanks, Abbie.
I thought I was safe yesterday. All that I left within reach was my stock of red wine. Why I thought the wine would be less of a temptation than the olive oil is beyond me.
Fortunately, I returned to the boat just as she was chewing through the last thread on the metal cap. I didn’t fancy dealing with the bowel movements of a boozy basset at all.
I’m not surprised Abbie’s started acting up. The unfortunate dogs have been without loving Cynthia for a month and without any company at all for nine hours a day during the week while I am at work, and just as long at the weekend if I have Discovery Day guests.
Their life hasn’t been much better on my return from work. The combination of hard physical labour and my advancing years has meant that I’ve been too tired to walk them regularly or even pay them much attention.
I decided that these two lovely dogs deserve a better life. I need to work long hours for at least the next year or two to recover financially from our travels and our boat buying spree. The last two of my three girls will leave me next Saturday. It’s been a hard decision, but the right one. Cynthia, my guardian angel, is still with me. I asked myself what she would do in a similar situation. I know that she would focus on finding the best solution. The best solution for Abbie and Sadie is to secure both of these adorable dogs a loving home with someone who has time to care for them is the way forward.
Heartbreaking as it’s been, I have arranged for The Basset Rescue Network of Great Britain to rehome both dogs. Someone will come next Saturday to remove the last two of my three beautiful girls. Then I’ll be a solo boater again. The difference this time is that I will have the memories, journals and photos of the three most challenging, exciting and ultimately rewarding years of my life. It has been a complete privilege to share that time with Cynthia. She was a remarkable woman and I count myself fortunate to have shared part of her life.
The weeks and months will be difficult, but I will have the English waterways and you, my virtual friends, to help keep me sane. I don’t believe that Cynthia has gone on to a better place, but I know that she made this place better while she was here. Goodbye darling Cynthia.
What an unloved and unlovely place a Dutch marina is in the winter. Less than a hundred boats remain in the mostly empty berths. Most moorers here have taken their boats out of the water, and either moved them onto the once spacious marina car park or into covered docks or large sheds on farms surrounded by endless flat fields. The few still in the water, including ours, can only be reached by skating across slippery wooden piers. Over the last week, I’ve had the place to myself. The only sign of life has been two guys cutting and burning the bank of head high reeds which enclose the marina on three sides. Their hard work cut short several times a day by bands of heavy rain sweeping south from Aalsmeer across Westeinderplassen lake.
I’ve been boat cleaning; vacuuming, washing and polishing, trying my hardest to remove all traces of two fur shedding bassets before taking our Linssen yacht on one last cruise. I’m not looking forward to the eight-hour solo journey. Even though the Dutch network is still open for business, there’s very little traffic on it. On our return journey from a shopping trip last weekend we drove several miles alongside the Ringvaart canal. We pass hundreds of boats on this four-mile stretch during the summer months. We didn’t see a single moving boat last week. There’s a good reason for that. The weather is awful.
There’s wind, wind and more wind. The canals often tower above the surrounding flat fields and drainage ditches. There is nothing to stop the howling wind apart from the few boats whose owners are daft enough to venture onto the waterways.
I will need to wait for up to fifteen minutes for each of the nineteen bridges on my route to open, trying to maintain the channel centre without a working bow thruster and, more importantly, without a working heating system to keep the boat warm. Getting there in a day would involve nighttime cruising on a boat without a headlight. Splitting the trip into two days would require the purchase of thermal underwear.
Anyway, the great big shining light at the end of our ever-shortening Dutch tunnel is our imminent return to the UK. We’ve moved several steps closer over the last week.
Seven days ago, we still didn’t know the cost of numerous essential repairs which need to be made on our new boat before we could move on board, or how we were going to find the money to pay for them.
The new workshop crew at Tattenhall marina quoted for the jobs early last week. They agreed to do all the necessary work for £2,500. Their price included buying and fitting a new Squirrel stove. The quote seemed fair, but who was going to pay for it? Stretched to financial breaking point, we would struggle to find the money for a new tea bag at the moment. Unearthing an extra two and a half grand was out of the question.
The seller’s broker, Steve Harrel, phoned midweek with some good news. Owners Stuart and Sue agreed to lower their asking price by £2,500. While we were thrilled with the price reduction, that still didn’t help our cash flow. Sue and Stuart had already kindly agreed to a substantial initial deposit, the possibility of taking our motorhome in part exchange for the boat, and the balance once we sold our Dutch yacht. We still didn’t know whether they were serious about our Hymer, especially as they hadn’t seen it. Nor did we know whether they would accept our valuation for the motorhome.
Kind and generous people that they are, the couple came to our aid again. They agreed to lower the initial deposit by £2,500 so that we had enough money to pay for the repairs. That was another worry out of the way, but we still didn’t know if they wanted the Hymer,
The following day broker Steve phoned again. More good news. Despite initially resisting the idea of using our left-hand drive motorhome for predominantly UK travel, and despite still not having driven or even seen the vehicle, they agreed in principle to take it on. All we have to do now is make sure that the Hymer is in first class condition when they see it for the first time.
We used the motorhome’s pre-sale preparation as an excuse to escape our marina base. The aircraft noise has become an auditory version of the Chinese water torture. We’re six miles from Schiphol airport and the one thousand seven hundred planes which thunder into the air from its four runways every day. When the wind is blowing from our marina towards the airport, ascending planes pass low enough overhead for us to check the tyre tread on their landing gear. The noise is obscene, worse now that we know we only have a week left to endure.
We drove north to a little-used beach car park at Camperduin. The sound of crashing surf and howling wind replaced the unpleasant thunder of ascending planes. We enjoyed the peace there for three days, leaving briefly to have the Hymer serviced and a few small repairs done at a small motorhome service centre in nearby Winkel.
Returning to the marina this morning felt like coming back home and work after an exciting sunshine holiday. We felt quite depressed. There’s so much to do over the next seven days. Continued high winds could prevent me from taking our Linssen to its new winter mooring. I might have to find something closer. The thought of navigating our boat through Amsterdam in high winds while trying to avoid cruise ships and commercial barges is causing me some concern. Actually, the thought terrifies me. The last and only time we crossed manic Amsterdam harbour we narrowly avoided being run down by a ferry. This time I would also have to brave a lock also used by towering commercial barges. I’m not sure that my heart is equal to the task.
That aside, we have medical appointments for Cynthia and the dogs. Not at the same time or for the same reason. Cynthia assures me that her rabies jabs are up to date and that she’s wormed herself recently. Travelling from Calais to Dover shouldn’t present my wife too much of a problem, but the two dogs may prove tricky. On previous passages, minor errors in their paperwork delayed me once and stopped Tasha travelling at all on another occasion. We don’t want any delays this time.
Then there’s Kempers Watersport Christmas bash. Our marina owners, the ever generous Kempers family, have kindly invited Cynthia and me to an extravagant dinner and show on Saturday night. I’ll have to be on my best behaviour. We’ll leave for Calais at dawn on Sunday, stopping briefly in Belgium to say goodbye to Walter, the guy we purchased the Linssen yacht from just a year ago.
Once back in England we have to divert to Portsmouth to have an annoying problem fixed. When I left the Hymer with Oaktree motorhomes last month to have some warranty work done, they removed the odometer and sent it to a specialist company for resetting. The display showed a total distance covered of 650,000 kilometres instead of the correct 110,000. The fault reared its ugly head after we were daft enough to allow a bunch of fuzzy-headed French mechanics to change a lightbulb on a Friday afternoon following a two-hour liquid lunch. We were delighted to find that the returned unit displayed the correct figure. We weren’t quite so pleased when we discovered that the total showed miles rather than kilometres. We hope that the one hundred mile diversion will allow us to correct the problem.
We should be back at Tattenhall marina next Tuesday. It will be a big day for Cynthia. Despite finding Orient on an Apolloduck listing six weeks ago, she hasn’t physically seen the inside of the boat which will be her home for what I hope will be many happy years to come. “I trust you!” she told me when I asked if we should commit to the purchase. I hope she loves the reality of the boat as much as the advert’s pretty pictures or I’m in real trouble.
I sat with my head in my hands opposite broker, Steve Harral. He listened to me as I reeled off a list of faults unearthed during a two-hour survey.
“There’s too much to do Steve,” I told him unhappily. “There are three different heat sources on the boat. All of them have problems which need addressing before we can move on board. The Squirrel is cracked and needs replacing, and the range in the boatman’s cabin has a loose flue. That needs fixing before we can light it. We can’t use either multi-fuel stove, and we can’t turn the central heating system on because the Kabola boiler is leaking diesel!”
Steve made a note. “Anything else?” he asked. He didn’t look at all concerned. It was all right for him. He didn’t have to find the extra few thousand pounds needed to fix the problems.
“The water tank has a hole near the top. It’s holding water but if we aren’t careful every time we top up our tank we’re going to flood the boat. The tank either needs fixing or replacing.” The water tank worried me. It was probably the original tank, which meant it was sixteen-year-old plastic. Already weakened by an open crack, I didn’t know how many jolts it could stand before bursting like a ripe melon dropped from a high wall. English locks, often staffed by well-meaning but inexperienced bystanders, are no place for a delicate craft.
I carried on working my way through my mental list. “The generator’s in a bit of a state too. It’s leaking in three or four places. An effort’s been made to seal the leaks with epoxy, but it hasn’t worked. That needs servicing too before we can use it.”
Steve scribbled on his reporter’s notepad again. “Is that it?”
“No, I’ve saved the best till last. We opened the gas locker hatch to reveal a real can of worms. There are four reasons why the boat shouldn’t have passed its BSS exam eighteen months ago. Two are quick fixes. I’m not bothered about them, but the other two need some work. Concrete has been poured into the front half of the gas locker to raise the floor. Because the steel base is now inaccessible, it’s an automatic fail until the concrete is removed so the steel can be examined. But the bigger problem is the bow thruster housing.” I explained what my mate and Boat Safety examiner, Russ, had told me about the potential for leaking gas to flow from the locker into the bilge and back to the engine. “There’s a lot of work which needs doing before we can consider moving on board. We can’t afford to have it done at the moment. Do you have any bright ideas?”
Steve looked up from his notes and saw my worried look. “Look, I don’t think any of this is going to be a problem. As far as I’m concerned, these jobs are the seller’s responsibility. I’ve been in this kind of situation many times before. Most sellers look at their boats through rose tinted glasses. They think their pride and joy is perfect. It’s often far from it. If I make these issues go away, are you still interested in buying the boat?” Of course, I was still interested. I had always admired Steve Hudson boats for their elegant design and quality build. I was also acutely aware how few narrowboats for sale have what I consider to be adequate storage space. Although Orient didn’t quite have as many built-in cupboards and drawers as my old Norton Canes boat, it came pretty close. I felt reasonably confident that even after Cynthia’s recent attempt to buy one of everything Amazon had for sale, we would be able to store all our worldly goods and still have a tidy boat.
Steve correctly interpreted my nodding dog impression as agreement. “Right then, I need to try to have a chat with Stuart.” Stuart Palmer was Orient’s owner. Although I hadn’t met him or his wife Sue I liked them immensely. They were clearly exceptionally kind and trusting people.
Our proposed purchase was far from straightforward. All of our money was invested in our two homes; a 2003 Hymer motorhome and a 1983 Dutch Linssen yacht. We could raise up to half of Orient’s asking price via a bridging loan through Cynthia’s American bank. We hoped to pay most of the balance when we sold our Hymer. The remainder would come from the proceeds of our boat sale sometime the following year. We hoped.
Stuart and Sue had bent over backwards to accommodate us. Now we would be testing their generosity to breaking point by asking them to swallow the cost of the boat’s essential repairs, replacements and modifications. The first step, actually talking to them, was far from easy.
Their son was tying the matrimonial knot thousands of miles away. While the Palmer family cavorted somewhere on a Mexico beach, far, far away from working smartphones, tablets or laptop computers, we waited and worried. Stuart and Sue wouldn’t be back in dark and damp England for a further four days. I hoped and prayed that their enthusiasm to sell to us wouldn’t be dampened by an unhappy return to a wet English autumn or a tequila-induced hangover. Time would tell. In the meantime, I had a long drive ahead of me.
I didn’t enjoy the journey back to Holland. Ten hours of tedious motorway driving, broken by a lengthy wait at Eurotunnel’s Folkestone terminal.
I booked a return Channel Tunnel crossing a month earlier when I took our Hymer to England to have some warranty work done. I didn’t know exactly when I would be able to return. The repairs took longer than expected, so I had already altered my return date once. The fee for changing a ticket date depends on train availability. The charge to switch to an early morning train was a very reasonable £1. I arrived at the terminal at 10pm feeling reasonably wide awake after my six-hour drive from Tattenhall marina. I knew the cost of switching again to the 10pm train was an eye-watering £95, so I decided to try the sympathy card.
The uniformed guy at the ticket barrier appeared happy enough. I adopted a miserable expression. I told him about my poorly wife suffering unpleasantly on a damp and partially heated boat moored on a windswept Dutch marina. I explained how an earlier train would improve both her physical and mental health immeasurably. He nodded sympathetically and called his supervisor.
“Good news!” he told me with a smile as he finished his call. You can change to the 10pm train and get back to your wife early.” He fiddled with the display in front of him. “That’s £95. How do you want to pay?”
I put away my wallet and steeled myself for a night trying to sleep in a floodlit carpark, and hoped that Cynthia would understand.
I didn’t enjoy my return to work at a high-end Dutch marina at all. I always felt that I didn’t quite fit in. There was the language issue for a start. Nearly all young Dutch people can speak English when they have to but, of course, they don’t need to very often when most of their coworkers are Dutch. Coffee breaks in the canteen have always been a painful affair, both emotionally and physically. The Dutch are not a quiet race, especially in a workshop canteen. Imagine ten men all trying to talk at once in a language you don’t understand, usually with mouths filled to overflowing with chocolate spread covered bread, at the volume of a four-engined jet struggling to leave Mother Earth. It’s enough to make your ears bleed.
The one saving grace, for me, is the Dutch obsession with cream cakes.
If you have a birthday, if you get a promotion, if you start or leave a job, or if you just fancy enhancing your artery-clogging diet, you stagger into work bow legged under a towering pile of cardboard boxes filled with fresh cream cakes. That’s a typical canteen coffee break in Holland; rounds of dry bread spread thickly with sweetened chocolate spread, a doorstep wedge of sponge filled with fresh cream and a mug of caffeine thickened with heaps of sugar. It’s no wonder my co-workers sounded like guests at a children’s birthday party. I sat quietly on my own reading my Kindle and marvelling at the empty calories being devoured with such enthusiasm while I ploughed my way through my own knee-high mound of cream.
Steve phoned me on a wet Wednesday as I half-heartedly polished the hull of a £300,000 second-hand speedboat. “I have some news which I think you’ll like,” he offered enigmatically. What news did Steve think I would like? That the sun was shining on Tattenhall marina, that Orient was still leak free despite not being heated during the recent cold snap, or could it be that he had finally spoken to the elusive Palmers?
“I spoke to Stuart yesterday. I told him about the problems. I didn’t phone you then because he needed to talk to his wife before making a decision. I have good news for you. They have agreed to lower the sale price by the total of the quotes for all the different repairs!” This WAS good news, but not great news. In my experience, a quoted price is often far removed from the final bill. It’s an indication, a starting point and, on occasion, complete guesswork. I suggested, for us, a better solution.
“I want the price we pay to include the total cost for all of the work done,” I told him. “What if we pay you a substantial deposit. Rather than Stuart having to pay for any repairs, you can use the deposit to pay for them. You can reduce the boat price by the final repair bill total. How about that?”
“I see your point,” agreed Steve. “I’ll need to run your idea by Stuart. I’ll get back to you as soon as I’ve heard from him. In the meantime, I have some more news for you. Stuart and Sue may want to take your motorhome in part exchange.” That was marvellous news. Orient’s annual mooring at Tattenhall marina expired at the end of December. We didn’t want to renew it but, until CRT’s contractors had completed on the various locks and bridges on our route back to Warwickshire, we wouldn’t have anywhere to store the Hymer when we advertised it for sale. We could hardly adopt a continuous cruising lifestyle on Cheshire’s canals with a five-tonne motorhome to think about. Stuart and Sue taking our motorhome would solve that problem instantly.
Then Steve stuck a pin in my growing bubble of happiness. “Oh, I just want to confirm one detail with you. The Hymer is right-hand drive, isn’t it?” Shit. No, it wasn’t. The vehicle was UK registered but designed for continental travel. The speedometer was calibrated in kilometres, the odometer the same and, more importantly, the steering wheel was definitely on the wrong side for driving on English roads.
I waxed lyrical about the joy of continental touring compared to motorhoming in the UK. I talked about the weather, the food, free campsites, magnificent scenery, the French people’s love affair with motorhome owners and their disposable income. I spoke passionately and perhaps a little desperately. Steve didn’t appear impressed at all.
“Look, here’s Stuart’s email address and telephone number. He insisted that they wanted a right-hand drive vehicle. Maybe you can convince them left-hand drive will work for them.” Steve’s tone suggested otherwise, but I had nothing to lose by speaking with the Palmers.
I phoned Stuart briefly. I tried to switch his allegiance to foreign roads. He listened without enthusiasm and then ended the call with what I suspected was a ploy I had used all too often before. “That’s all very interesting Paul, but I have to go. My wife is waving at me. We’re late for an appointment.”
I was bitterly disappointed. Over the last half hour, I had gone from worrying about the logistics of selling our six-wheeled home to virtual euphoria at the thought of a quick sale, to a deep depression when I suspected we were back to square one. All I could do was wait and hope that the Palmers contacted us again when they had more time.
So I waited and waited, and then I waited some more.
I received an unexpected and very welcome email three days later. “We haven’t completely discounted the possibility of buying a left-hand drive motorhome…” Sue began. It wasn’t the positive reply I hoped for, but it wasn’t a flat-out refusal. She wanted details about the vehicle’s condition, service history and running costs. All of her questions indicated interest and ignited a tiny flame of hope. I emailed the details, complete with a link to an online photo album of the Hymer dominating a variety of exotic landscapes. And then I waited some more.
Sue replied two days later. More positive news. They wanted to do a deal. She suggested taking the motorhome in part exchange and then named the balance they wanted us to pay. The proposal was good in principle, but the email didn’t address who was going to be responsible for the necessary repairs to the boat before we could move on board. I pointed that out to her. The Palmers need to think some more.
In the meantime, I still don’t know how much the repairs are likely to cost, who’s going to be doing them, and when they can be done. We hoped to be on board by Christmas. That deadline is feeling more and more unrealistic.
Tattenhall marina has sublet their marina workshop. The new guy will be open for business tomorrow. He’s going to quote for the work. If his price is acceptable, he should be able to start work immediately. In a perfect world, he would work on our boat to the exclusion of all else, all the parts he needed would be readily available, and he would be finished within a week. Oh, and pigs would fly, and money would grow on trees.
Thank you to those who have booked a day with me in 2019 already. And a big thank you to two of my future guests who asked if I could package a Discovery Day as a Christmas gift. What a great idea. On a feedback form, I received two or three years ago one happy lady told me, “This has been the best anniversary gift I’ve received in twenty-four years of marriage!” I know how much people enjoy their eight-hour cruise with me, so what a wonderful gift to give at a time of the year when balmy summer days are a distant memory.
If you are wondering what on Earth you can buy your significant other for Christmas, here’s an opportunity to arrange something they will really enjoy. They’ll receive an animated Jackie Lawson boating card on Christmas Day with a message including a link to a special Christmas gift. The lucky recipient will land on a Christmas Discovery page on my site describing the treat in store for them in detail. It’s a gift they will always remember fondly.
If you want to see the Discovery Day route, here’s a virtual cruise along the combined Oxford and Grand Union canals between Napton and Braunston junctions.
The video was put together by Discovery Day guest Mike Shacklock on a gorgeous summer’s day in June 2015. The relaxing video shows a rooftop view of my boat on a calm canal and the waving helmsman of narrowboats cruising along a winding canal fringed by rolling hills. The footage ends with an ascent of the three lock Calcutt flight. Set to relaxing music, the video is a great way to rest for twenty minutes while you dream about the summer ahead and the possibility of joining this happy band of boaters.
I don’t know why I make plans. Things rarely work out the way I want them to. Everything seemed so straightforward on my survey day To Do list.
• Ask permission to black Orient while it’s out of the water
• Make sure there’s a pressure washer available
• Buy bitumen, rollers, weed hatch tape and rolls of paper towels for drying a damp hull on a dull autumn day
• Employ a surveyor for the day
• Jump for joy when the surveyor tells me that the boat is in as good a condition as I suspect
I missed an important item from my list. “Add an extra twelve hours to the day”. I don’t know how I thought I was going to go through the boat with the surveyor and then find time to black Orient too. Not that painting a hull with bitumen was even a consideration after the phone call I received on Friday afternoon.
Cynthia called. She was still on our damp and unheated boat back in Holland. I could barely recognise her voice. She sounded awful, but not as bad as she felt. She told me she had a fever, her mouth had swelled so much that speaking was difficult and that she was so weak that she didn’t have enough strength to climb the companionway steps to the boat’s rear deck. She had two weighty dogs needing a toilet break and no way of getting them outside. Cynthia was understandably upset. The marina was practically deserted. She had no one to turn to. Cynthia felt scared and isolated. I felt helpless.
We discussed our options. We could phone for an ambulance, but they would take Cynthia to a hospital and pump her full of the western medicine she tried so hard to avoid. We scrubbed that idea.
I could abandon my Sunday survey plans and drive back to Holland immediately. We scrubbed that one too. The drive would take ten hours plus whatever delay I would face crossing the channel. Neither Cynthia nor the dogs could wait that long. Cynthia needed someone she could turn to nearby. She has a small number of Dutch friends who she thought might be able to help. One of them, Mariella, the marina owner’s wife, responded to Cynthia’s texted cry for help immediately.
Mariella said that she was working but that she could collect the various herbal medications Cynthia needed when she finished for the day. The following day was Saturday. She would be happy to walk our two bassets three our four times and check on Cynthia at the same time.
That news alone helped Cynthia’s recovery tremendously. She was finding the isolation hard to bear. Most of her vast network of friends lived on the far side of the Atlantic ocean. The North Sea kept her away from her husband and a cultural divide from the Dutch people around her. Despite her many years of international travel, life on a foreign shore had never felt so challenging.
Cynthia’s condition had improved enough by Saturday to allow me to return my focus to boat buying, surveying and blacking.
I had neither the time nor the inclination to black the boat on Sunday. Even if I wanted to, the practicalities overwhelmed me. I had permission to black Orient from the marina management, but didn’t have a pressure washer to clean the hull with first. The marina’s workshop services were in transition, about to be outsourced to a subcontractor who wouldn’t open for business until the beginning of December. The company’s own pressure washer had been moved to another site. I managed to borrow one from every helpful broker Steven Harral. The machine was a Karcher, better suited for car bodywork grime removal than mud, weed and the rock hard secretions of aquatic creatures. As the pressure washer wasn’t up to the job and I didn’t have the time to clean the boat in preparation for blacking or to do the hull painting itself, I reluctantly removed blacking from my list.
I didn’t have a surveyor either. I asked boat safety examiner and old friend from Calcutt Boats, Russ Fincham, to help me on the day.
Even though Russ has worked with narrowboats for twenty years, I wasn’t really sure I needed him at first. I’ve been around narrowboats since 2010. Over the last eight years, the experiences I’ve had living afloat at one of the country’s most prominent marinas has taught me a thing or two. I’ve learned a great deal from the fitters and engineers I’ve worked with and from my own mistakes and the experiences of the many hundreds of narrowboat owners I’ve had the pleasure to meet. I know a good boat when I see one, and I knew as soon as I saw Orient that I’d found a gem. That’s what I thought.
I arrived at Tattenhall marina two days before survey day. I had plenty of time to mooch around the boat examining it from every angle, inside and out. I was confident that this lovely boat was in first class condition.
Overconfident as it happens. Misguided even. Deluded and clueless, some would say.
The rudder was my only real concern. When I viewed the boat for the first time three weeks earlier I had the chance to take her out for a spin. Even though the boat handled beautifully the steering was very heavy. I hoped that the skeg, the horizontal steel bar which supports the rudder cup, hadn’t come into contact with a lock cill and bent upwards, pinching the rudder bearing and causing the stiff handling.
After a coffee and a chat about our mutual oddball boating acquaintances, I left Russ to his own devices for an hour. I didn’t think he needed me there to confirm my opinion. I looked forward to him telling me that Cynthia had found a delightful problem free waterway home for us. The survey was, I assured myself, a formality, nothing more.
“What do you think?” I asked Russ’s jean-clad arse as he bent double to unhook his trapped belt from the brass speed wheel. Why are so many tradesmen working in small narrowboat spaces such big men? “It’s a cracking boat, isn’t it?” I waited for his enthusiastic confirmation.
Red-faced and puffing, he backed out of the boatman’s cabin. He looked at me and wrinkled his nose. “I’ve seen worse,” he conceded resting an arm on the tiller’s swan’s neck.
I pointed at the steel deck beneath his feet. “What about the tiller then? Was I right? Is it going to be a problem?” Orient had to be back in the water the following day. There wasn’t enough time to do any work on it before then. I suspected that the boat would need to be lifted out again and the sturdy steel skeg somehow straightened to relieve some of the tiller tension.
Russ sucked his teeth. Tradesman teeth sucking is always advanced warning of lengthy and costly repairs. “I’ve got to hand it to you,” he admitted, giving the tiller an experimental tweak, “You spotted a big problem there.” I knew it. We’d have to pay hundreds of pounds, maybe a thousand or more, to put the problem right.
I hesitated before asking the burning question. “How much is the repair going to cost me?” He grinned. “About fifteen minutes labour and a couple of quid for parts. There’s just a bit of muck in the rudder cup. Fitting a grease nipple should free it up a bit.”
So much for my expert opinion. Still, I was happy on this occasion to be proven wrong. My only worry turned out to be nothing at all. I breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s great news. I take it everything inside was OK too?” I was pretty sure it was, but having Russ there to confirm it was handy.
“Let’s take a walk through the boat. I want to show you a few things.” He wedged himself back into the boatman’s cabin companionway and reached over the range to its flue. “See this here?” he looked up to where the flue passed through the cabin roof and firmly rocked it from side to side. “This needs properly sealing to prevent rainwater ingress.”
“Is that it?” Resealing the flue wasn’t going to break the bank. I could live with that. “Keep walking,” Russ insisted and lead me past the back cabin’s upholstered bench seats, brass lamps and decorative wall mounted plates. We ducked through the low doorway into the engine room.
Most modern narrowboats are designed to make the most of the limited cabin space. The engine is at the back of the boat either under boards beneath the helmsman’s feet on cruiser stern boats or inside an engine room in front of the steerer on a trad stern boat. Orient’s design is along the lines of the old working narrowboats. The helmsman, and often his wife and children, would live in a small room, the boatman’s cabin, at the rear of the boat. The engine was in its own room forward of the living accommodation.
Orient’s engine room is dominated by a bright green 1936 Lister JP2M. There are two pairs of side doors which can be folded open to allow passing boaters and towpath users to see the engine buffed to shiny perfection. Russ hadn’t brought me to see the Lister. He agreed that it was a beautiful piece of machinery. “It’s simple to maintain,” he reassured me. “Even YOU should be able to do it!” He knows me so well.
“The engine’s not a problem. The generator is a different kettle of fish.” He removed the generator housing’s green painted lid. “Nice generator,” I offered. “No, it’s not. It’s leaking like a sieve.” He wiped a grimy finger around a joint. It came away smeared with diesel. “And see there, and there, and there. Oh, and there too?” He pointed at other joints. “They’ve all been leaking at some stage. They’ve been plastered in epoxy. The whole thing needs a good service before you consider running it up.” More bad news, but the worst was yet to come.
We walked from the engine room into the spacious bathroom. An elegant shower cubicle filled one corner. A cassette toilet squatted beside it. That was on our list of things to change if we got the boat. It was fine for now, but I had an unhappy relationship with cassettes for five years on my last narrowboat. I lost count of the number of times I arrived at an Elsan point with my two cartridges filled to bursting to find the sewage disposal point out of order. My time on an idyllic mooring was always limited by my waste carrying capacity. Boating life improved immeasurably as soon as I threw my cassette toilet in Calcutt Boats’ skip and installed a composting toilet in its place. I gave the cassette a sly kick as we walked through the bathroom into the galley and then into the saloon.
“What do you think of the stove?” Russ asked. “I’ve always wanted a Squirrel,” I told him, imagining it filled with glowing coal and topped by a spinning Ecofan. I tried to guess why Russ was questioning me. I could see that the stove needed a coat of paint, but that wouldn’t take me long to sort out.
He ran a stubby finger along the back edge of the stove’s top plate. “You’re happy with this crack here then?” He lowered his finger to another point beneath the front door’s sooty glass, “And look at this one here. It’s nearly wide enough to put my finger in.” Why hadn’t I noticed the faults? I know my sight’s not what it used to be, but I shouldn’t have missed clear indications that the stove was falling apart.
“Can I use it until we can afford to have a new stove fitted?” I asked hopefully. “Of course you can,” he assured me, “as long as you wear gas masks to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.” I guessed he meant that we needed a new stove. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. We couldn’t move onto the boat without reliable heating. Then I remembered that the Squirrel stove wasn’t the boat’s only heat source.
“We should be able to keep warm though. The Kabola’s a good boiler, isn’t it?” I asked hopefully. We walked back to the bathroom where the sturdy central heating boiler sat at the bottom of a large pine cupboard. Russ opened the double doors, turned on an overhead light and pointed at the glistening steel sheet the boiler sat on. “The boiler’s been leaking. The light’s reflecting off spilt diesel. I wouldn’t turn it on until it’s been serviced if I were you.” That was terrible news. We had a boat with three heat sources. The stove had cracks in it, a range had a leaking flue, and the central heating boiler was leaking diesel. We had just endured a couple of miserable months on one unheated boat. We didn’t want to move onto another one.
“I’ve saved the best till last,” Russ warned me as we returned to the front of the boat. He opened a small inspection hatch at the top of two steps leading to the front deck and illuminated the dark space with a torch. “That’s your water tank.” He indicated a large plastic cube filling most of the space beneath the well deck. “You can see where it’s been repaired.” He shone his torch on a rough patch at the top of the side facing us and then traced the filler pipe upwards to the deck fitting. “There’s a hole in the filler pipe. If you don’t watch the water going in very carefully every time you top your tank up you’ll flood your boat. In its weakened state, if the boat stops suddenly like if you surge forward and hit the gates in a lock, there’s a chance the tank will rupture. The whole thing really needs replacing with good quality food grade stainless steel. You should expect to pay about £700 for a new tank.”
“Would that include the fitting?” I asked, imagining our bank balance’s cry of despair. Buying the boat had stretched our finances beyond breaking point as it was. The financing was creative, to say the least. I didn’t know how we could also afford these additional repair costs.
Russ didn’t try to soften the blow. “Fitting the tank is likely to cost you at least as much as buying it. There are two ways to do it. Your first option is to slide it out from the deck into the cabin.” He gestured to the beautifully fitted pine cupboards on the front doors’ port side. “Most of that will have to be removed to get the tank out.” He pointed to the starboard side. “And the stove will have to be removed too. If you’re replacing the stove, you can do it at the same time as the tank.” I didn’t like the sound of that. I’ve seen fitted furniture removed from other boats. It’s never quite the same when it’s put back in again. I hoped the alternative would involve less damage. That hope was short lived.
“The alternative is to go in from above. A section, or sections, of the deck will need to be cut away to allow the old tank to be lifted out and the new one to be dropped in. If you go in through the deck, you can use a special plastic bag insert. It will cost half as much as a steel tank but the boat’s existing pipework will have to be altered to fit the bag. Even though a stainless steel tank will cost more, it can be made to fit the existing connections so there will be less labour. Both jobs will be a similar price. Which way it’s done is up to you.” Neither way sounded particularly appealing to me. Not that we could afford to do that work or any of the other jobs on Russ’s growing list. He had one more to add.
The boat specifications on the sales listing hadn’t included a bow thruster. Now that Orient was out of the water we could see that there was one fitted and even though the batteries appeared to be dead there were working controls at the helm. I didn’t have a bow thruster on my last boat. One would have been handy on occasion, but I managed pretty well without. A bow thruster was just something else to go wrong and another expensive set of batteries to maintain. And on Orient, the reason for an immediate boat safety examination failure.
“I need to be able to get into the gas locker,” Russ insisted. I can feel concrete through the drain hole. Hudsons sometimes have water ingress issues in the bow locker because of the hull design. One possible but inadvisable solution is to pour concrete into the gas locker base to raise the floor and prevent whatever is in there from getting wet. Concrete in the gas locker means that the locker floor can’t be examined, so it’s an automatic fail.” That puzzled me. Orient’s BSS certificate expires in 2020. Unless the concrete was a recent addition, the boat should have failed its last inspection. “There’s something else too,” he pointed to the electrical wiring leading from the bow thruster batteries in the well deck locker towards the gas locker. “I need to find out where the bow thruster motor is. If it’s in the gas locker, we have a problem!” Not another one. I had problems coming out of my ears.
We spoke briefly to Steve Harral. The bow locker lid was secured with a combination padlock. He didn’t have the code but offered us a simple solution. “The gas locker shouldn’t be locked anyway. Emergency services need to be able to get in the gas locker if there’s an emergency. Cut it off!!”
A couple of minutes later we were staring at the gas locker floor. Half of it, as Russ suspected, was hidden under an inches deep concrete base. The two 13kg gas bottles rested on a raised steel platform held in place by bolts above a recess housing the bow thruster. “Fail, fail, fail and fail!” Russ pointed to the unsecured bottles and their attached hoses, the concrete base and, most dangerous of all, the bow thruster recess. He pointed to the gap between the gas locker and the bow thruster. “That is very dangerous. Imagine gas leaking from almost empty cylinders, which they often do.”
“The gas locker drain holes are supposed to be no more than an inch above the locker base. They’ve been raised to about five inches here when the concrete was added. So, where’s the leaking gas going to flow instead of through those holes and into the canal?” He looked at me and shook his head when he saw my slack-jawed expression. “The leaking gas will find the lowest point which, in this case, is the bow thruster housing. It won’t stop there though. The gas will find the gaps around the wiring, flow into the bilge and then work its way back to the engine. You know what can happen then? No, of course you don’t. A stray spark and…” He threw his arms into the air and made a sound like a bomb going off. I got the picture.
“What can we do to get around this?” I could see our narrowboat plans being buried beneath a growing pile of insurmountable problems. The quick boat walkthrough was turning into a nightmare.
“If you can live without the bow thruster, the solution is relatively straightforward. You can seal both ends of the bow thruster tube and weld a plate over the recess in the locker so the gas can’t get into it. What do you think?” I was thinking that remaining in Holland on a freezing boat might be our only option if we couldn’t find a way of getting this work done without resorting to bank robbery. Russ estimated that the total bill for repairs and alterations would be between five and eight thousand pounds. I knew we couldn’t stretch that far.
All I could think of doing was reporting the issues Russ unearthed to broker Steve and see what he had to say. I trudged over to Ash Boats’ waterside office and slumped into a seat opposite him. “How did the survey go?” he asked brightly. “Not well Steve,” I warned him. I think we have a problem.”
We’re still at war with the damp on our cold boat. And losing every skirmish.
Dealing with unwanted moisture has become an exhausting daily ritual. Each morning while Cynthia slaves over two or three lit burners on our moisture making gas hob I invest half an hour scraping, mopping and wiping condensation from single glazed windows, aluminium frames and poorly insulated cabin walls and ceilings. I hang the wrung cloths in the wheelhouse to dry. I know they’ll be just as wet when I return to them the following morning.
Our single kilowatt of electric heat is barely enough to remove the chill from mild autumn evenings. Its miserable effort at drying our wet bedding would be laughable under happier circumstances. We don’t find it funny at all. We have towels, tea towels, clothes and sheets hanging from every available cockpit hook and knob. The wheelhouse controls are buried under bedding. There’s little point in hanging anything up. Nothing dries under the weak sun struggling to penetrate our wet windows.
Just when we thought we’d reached an all-time low, two new problems reared their ugly heads. Mould has begun to creep across every fabric surface touching our uninsulated walls and windows. An unwelcome blue mottle is rising from the curtain hems. Similar marks spread slowly over cushions, mattresses and sheets. Our fabric is as unsightly as it’s damp. We tried to bury our collective head in the sands of denial by hiding our wet aft cabin behind a closed wooden door. We can’t even do that now. As our bedding rots our woodwork swells.
I laughed at first. I was able to use the problem as an excuse. “When are you going to put another screw in the galley light cover you took down three weeks ago?” Cynthia asked politely. I knew I should have secured it earlier. DIY isn’t one of my strengths. My desire to buy shiny tools is in inverse proportion to my ability to use them. I have a LOT of tools.
I reluctantly climbed through the bedding walls of our galley cave. The only way we can keep our tiny living area warm is by draping fleece sheets over the companionway to keep the heat in. I slid open a wooden door covering three rows of drawers cleverly built into space beneath our wide gunnels. Clever providing no one wants to use the drawers during prolonged periods of wet weather. Which is most of the time in northern Europe. All of my tools are now locked securely out of reach by pine runners swollen immoveably together.
I don’t mind that so much. Not being able to close the ply door to our mould filled cabin is more of a frustration. The swollen door regularly swings open, welcoming warm air which sticks like glue to every cold surface and enthusiastically contributes to the mould making process.
The small wooden door from our bedding festooned wheelhouse has swelled past practical use too. If I force it closed Cynthia can’t get in and out of the boat. I can’t have that. Without Cynthia, I would starve to death. The door has to be left slightly ajar which, as you can imagine, allows damp air as well as Cynthia to tumble from the exposed rear deck into the pool of misery beneath.
At least I have been able to escape for a while.
A phone call from Oaktree Motorhomes to tell us that our Hymer was ready for collection kickstarted a day of frustrating online travel booking last week. We began in a buoyant mood. “I am always grateful for my lifetime travel privileges at times like this,” Cynthia enthused. Thanks to American Airlines employee travel scheme she can travel virtually anywhere in the world for next to nothing. Now, because we are married, so can I. That’s the theory anyway.
So we logged into AA’s retiree website and browsed through a long list of scheduled flights between Schiphol and Heathrow. Flying to East Midlands would have made much more sense than to Heathrow, but the only carrier we could find which allowed American Airlines staff was British Airways. Their closest destination was Heathrow. We saw a suitable flight, paid the laughably low administration fee, high fived each other for a job well done, and then read the confirmation email small print.
We needed to complete one further small step. One which sounded easy enough in theory but one which improved impossible in practice. We had to list our standby booking with British Airways.
“How do I do that?” I asked Cynthia hopefully. She’s been on hundreds of standby flights. I knew she would have the answer. “I don’t have a clue. I haven’t listed for a standby flight with British Airways in years. The process is bound to be different now. I’m sure with your internet skills you’ll sort it out easily!”
So I began searching, phoning and, eventually, pleading which took longer than the expected flight. I called British Airways four times. No one had a clue what I was talking about. That, in itself, isn’t unusual. Cynthia phoned American Airlines three times. They suggested we call BA. She phoned a fourth time, demanding to talk to a department supervisor.
At last, we found someone with a little useful knowledge. “No problem,” drawled a helpful lady sweltering at a desk somewhere in America’s deep south. “You can make the listing online. All you have to do is complete a simple form. I’ll walk you through it”, and she did, right up to the point when the booking form threw up a message telling us that the ticket wasn’t valid for British Airways travel.
We endured another round of telephone calls and escalated helpline assistance before we resolved the ticket invalidity mystery. British Airways doesn’t allow the spouses of American Airline staff to travel on their own. If Cynthia couldn’t come with me, I couldn’t go. She couldn’t, so after three hours of wasted effort, we were back to square one. THAT kind of thing is one of the many reasons I want to return to the peace and quiet of the English waterways and stay there. If I want to travel anywhere, all I have to do is untie a couple of ropes, start my engine and chug at a snail’s pace to my new destination. Surely that’s not too much to ask?
We endured another half hour trawling through listings on a handful of comparison websites trying to find a one-way ticket for less than the cost of a plane. Then Cynthia had another of her many bright ideas. “Why don’t you take an overnight ferry from the Hook of Holland? You can get a cabin and sleep during the crossing. It has to be better than flying!” Cynthia was right. I hate the stress and rush involved in checking in for flights. I looked forward to a much more pleasant experience on board a boat. I wouldn’t have been quite as relaxed if I knew how long the journey was going to take me.
The first leg of my bus, train, train, train, bus, ferry, train, train, train, train and bus marathon started well enough. I reached the vast train terminal at Schiphol airport and booked tickets to get me to the Hook of Holland. I climbed on board the first train and settled down for the usual efficient Dutch service. The train broke down five miles away from Schiphol. Regular tannoy updates kept us informed. The driver was on the phone to a help desk. The train would only travel backwards unless they could fix the problem. They couldn’t. It lurched back the way it came and then carried on for another half hour, still going backwards, to central Amsterdam to connect us with an alternative train. After an hour’s travel, I was twenty miles further away from my destination than when I started.
I arrived at Oaktree Motorhomes twenty-five hours later. The boating part of it was relaxing. The small unheated cabin still felt like a sauna after our icebox boat, but at least I could sleep for a few hours.
Back on English soil, not wanting to be outdone by Dutch railway delays, my fifth train of the English leg was cancelled. Rather than waiting for two hours, I decided to find a bus to take me from Nottingham city centre ten miles north-west to the motorhome dealership. One bus and a five-mile walk later I stepped into our Hymer home.
All the repairs had been completed, the service manager told me. He was right, after a fashion, but I didn’t find the right royal cock up one of their suppliers made for two days.
Because I’m obsessive about details I record all of our boating and motorhome journeys in spreadsheets. I note the starting and stopping mileage and the distance we’ve covered. I didn’t notice a discrepancy on our motorhome spreadsheet until I reached Tattenhall marina the following day.
Our Hymer is left-hand drive. We purchased it in the UK. The motorhome is UK registered but designed for continental travel. In addition to the steering wheel, the dashboard display is also designed for mainland Europe. One of the more essential repairs was to the Hymer’s distance counter. A fault resulted in the kilometre total increasing by one a second when the ignition was turned on even if the motorhome wasn’t moving. The total had reached more than six hundred thousand. I wanted the fault fixed, and the counter reset to the correct figure. Because of my spreadsheet, I could show the actual distance the vehicle had travelled. I submitted a copy of that with garage repair receipts from our European travels. The receipts showed the dashboard reading on the date the repair was carried out.
The odometer repairers aren’t always either willing or able to reset the clock. I was delighted when Oaktree’s service manager confirmed that ours had been reset to the correct figure.
What neither of us knew at the time was that it had been reset to 115,739 as I asked but in miles rather than kilometres. The vehicle has done 71,916 MILES, 43,823 less than the gauge now indicates. So we have a left-hand drive vehicle with a speedometer marked in kilometres counting distance in miles and showing a wildly inaccurate total distance. And we’re trying to sell the motorhome to buy the boat. Correcting the cockup will probably mean another ten days without the motorhome at a time when we are trying to move from one country to another, in the motorhome, and preparing the vehicle for a hoped-for quick sale. The situation is really frustrating.
At least being back at an English marina has helped calm me down, as has the help I’ve received from the marina staff. They have an official you-will-be-shot-if-you’re-found-sleeping-in-your-motorhome policy. No exceptions or excuses, unless you’re on friendly terms with the marina manager. Orient’s broker, Steve Harral, stepped up to the plate on my behalf. “This chap,” he pointed at me, “is having a survey done on Orient on Sunday. Can he stay in his motorhome until then?” The manager looked at Steve and then across the marina to where the Hymer dominated a small car park. “You know the rules, Steve. He can’t sleep in his motorhome on site. If I let him, I’ll have to let other moorers do it too.” He turned away to deal with another customer. “Mind you, if he wedged it into the small gap between Orient and the workshop I wouldn’t be able to see it from my office window.”
Orient was high and dry on a cradle beside a brick building on the far side of the marina. There was a muddy gap ten feet wide between their tractor-trailer rig and polythene covered boat blacking and painting tent. The Hymer fitted with inches to spare. The gap was so narrow I had to crack open the driver’s door and squeeze through a small gap straight onto the trailer’s towbar. I kept a low profile for two days. I covered all our windows with the Hymer’s blackout screens, used as few lights as possible and waited anxiously for today’s survey.
I’ve had a few challenges to keep the old grey matter active while I waited. Even though the boat looks in good condition out of the water, it doesn’t appear to have been blacked for a few years. I wanted to throw a couple of coats of bitumen on while it was out. The marina used to allow moorers to black their own boats. There was a decent pressure washer for hire and staff at hand to drive the tractor and trailer rig. Lakeland Leisure then decided to subcontract all onsite repairs and services. The new regime doesn’t begin until December. In the meantime, the pressure washer has been moved to another site and the only person now capable of driving the tractor has to come down from the Lake District.
I’ve managed to borrow a domestic pressure washer from ever-helpful broker Steve. The boat has been out of the water for six days. The boat’s organic growth is as hard as cement. Removing it with a Karcher designed for removing dust from shiny cars is going to be like colouring a sheet of paper as large as a football field with a child’s crayon. I’m not looking forward to it.
Added to that is the pressure to get back to Cynthia as soon as possible. She continues to suffer in a horribly cold and damp environment. She developed a fever yesterday, possibly as a result of a gum abscess. I came close to abandoning our plans to drive back to her. She considered calling an ambulance at one stage when she realised she was too weak to climb out of the boat to take the dogs out. One of her many guardian angels came to the rescue. Mariella, the marina owner’s wife, responded to her text plea for help. She brought medicinal supplies and offered to walk the dogs. We went from red to amber alert. Now, I think, we’re back in the green.
Today is surveying day. I hope it goes as well as I expect. This traditional boat with a traditional boatman’s cabin, and an engine room with beautiful old Lister, also has a very untraditional bow thruster. The bow thruster batteries appear to be dead. Maybe I’ll leave them that way. I’ve often described bow thruster controls very dismissively as “girlie buttons” Now, having experienced a very good bow thruster on our first Dutch boat, I know how useful they can be in difficult conditions. Maybe I’ll replace the batteries after all.
Right, where’s that piddly little pressure washer? It’s time to go to work!
Phew! That was exciting. Since my last proper narrowboat post, a little over two years ago, Cynthia and I have been very, very busy.
I sold my lovely narrowboat, James No 194 and left England’s historic canal network for a life of happy exploration on mainland Europe. We clocked up twenty-seven thousand miles through eleven countries. You can read about our motorhome travels on this blog. We purchased a Dutch cruiser for waterways exploration in Holland, sold that, bought another, and cruised a thousand miles through a landscape filled with flat fields, spinning windmills and endless rows of multicoloured tulips. We fought bureaucratic nonsense at every turn, trying to secure permission for Cynthia to stay in the country.
We failed again, and again and again.
We travelled and we wined and dined like royalty for eighteen glorious months and then, on a very sad day last April, realised that I needed to do some work to pay the bills. I found a mooring at a prominent boatyard in North Holland and employment painting their customer’s ridiculously expensive boats.
That’s when the rot began to set in.
My job is well-paid work by boatyard standards, but there’s only so much pleasure a man in his late fifties can get from crawling around under a variety of posh steel cruisers splashing himself liberally with toxic antifouling paint. The fact that I can’t speak the language and quickly became apprenticed to an unskilled eighteen-year-old didn’t help either.
Much as I have been frustrated by my working life, Cynthia’s plight has been worse.
She can’t drive our five and a half tonne motorhome on her now expired American driving license so she’s been stuck on our boat moored in an expanse of concrete and steel with no one to talk to.
And believe me, my wife likes to talk.
An old hip injury means that walking anywhere causes her pain. Nor can she cycle to interesting places to spend the day while I am at work. The distances are just too great. Isolation in a cold and damp boat for days on end has begun to affect her health. Her only break from the monotony has been weekend trips to a nearby bio grocery store. It’s a sad life when the highlight of your week is buying groceries.
Cynthia, understandably, has been even unhappier than me.
Fortunately for both of us, Cynthia realised the futility in living as we did. My wife is very good at hunting for solutions. She realised we needed to change. She suggested, hopefully, and maybe a little fearfully, that the best course of action would be for us to move back to good old Blighty. That was the situation two weeks ago. Our plans have moved on apace since then. The good news for us, and possibly for you if you like reading about life on England’s muddy ditches, is that we should be back in the UK very soon.
Here’s the beginning of the next chapter in our nomadic lives…
Everything on board is either wet or very damp. Cynthia and I are damp too, as are our spirits. This fancy Linssen of ours is as much use as a winter live aboard craft as a chocolate fireguard.
It just doesn’t work.
The boat is big enough to live on comfortably. It’s thirty-five-foot length and twelve-foot beam gives us four hundred and twenty square feet of living space. Which is a shame given that we can’t use most of it.
The cabins at either end of the boat are too cold and damp to consider using for sleeping. We have heat in neither room. As the thermometer sinks steadily towards zero – Thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit for Cynthia, she comes from a country which hasn’t embraced decimal anything yet – we’re compressed into a smaller and smaller living space.
We now spend most of our time crammed like sardines into the galley area, a space encompassing just sixty square feet. There’s a dinette which converts into a spacious bed. Spacious unless you share it with your significant other, two large dogs and a kitchen. Ever positive Cynthia tries to look on the bright side of everything. “At least now I can sit on the bed while I’m cooking,” she told me last week as she sat on the duvet stirring a pot of lentil stew. A few days later my wife shared another gem. “We don’t have to spend money on getting another fridge installed,” she enthused, “I can use either of the bedrooms or the bathroom to keep our food cool”. But even Cynthia, the lady who can find a silver lining in any black cloud, can’t think of anything positive to say about the damp.
We have more than our fair share of windows. Our cockpit alone has eleven picture windows, more than many narrowboats twice the length. In addition to the vast expanse of cockpit glass, we have a dozen portholes. All twenty-three windows are single glazed. They suck heat out of the boat faster than we can make it. Not that we can make it very quickly.
The condensation is awful. Any time-served boater knows that this unwanted moisture is an unhappy union between inferior insulation, insufficient heating and poor ventilation. We are cursed with all three.
When we were researching suitable liveaboard Dutch boats, we called Linssen Yacht’s head office to ask if our St Joseph Vlet is insulated. We were assured that it is. I would very much like to meet that man I spoke to on the phone, take him to one of the country’s many working canalside windmills and tie him by his testicles to a spinning sail. The insulation on the few cabin wall sections of our floating fridge not covered by single panes of glass is tissue thin. If we are brave enough to lay on the mortician’s slab which masquerades as a double bed in the boat’s small aft cabin, we can watch clouds of moisture-laden breath drift towards the ceiling. Our exhalations form swelling beads which grow until they pop and then fall as cold rain upon our musty quilt.
That’s why we don’t sleep there any more.
Opening a window or two and heating a room is usually an effective condensation reducer. Unless the space in question is on a 1984 Linssen yacht designed by a man who doesn’t know his arse from his elbow. He thoughtlessly designed the porthole frame with a two-inch wide lip running around the window’s exterior. Any falling rain is channelled through the window into the cabin beyond. With no top hopper, the only way to ventilate a room is by swinging the porthole inwards on its single hinge. We left the windows open for ventilation in a summer storm on one of our first nights onboard. The experience was like standing under a power shower on its highest setting. Rain during this record-breaking summer has been rare. We were able to open the windows regularly to keep the boat thoroughly ventilated. Now the rain has returned. We can only open two of our twenty-three windows without running the risk of sinking.
The final nail in the coffin of our onboard comfort is the shit heating system. It’s a refurbished diesel burner which smokes rather than burns. Most of the smoke is ejected from the boat via the exhaust. Enough of it filters through the boards above the engine to turn the cabin interior into a nineteenth-century London smog. Even if we can get the heater started, a hit and miss affair at best, we stand a real chance of poisoning ourselves. Needless to say, we can’t risk using it.
Our emergency heating is provided by a one-kilowatt electric heater. Because the boat’s wiring was installed by an electrician with the technical competence of a starfish, even if we’re using the marina’s electrical supply, we can only use appliances which the boat’s inverter can handle. A typical narrowboat’s solid fuel stove heat output is seven kilowatts, seven times the heat we have at our disposal.
We are constantly cold and damp. Boating is no fun on the Dutch waterways on craft incapable of dealing with winter weather. Very few over here are built for overnight stays when there’s a nip in the air. Even less are suitable or are used for living on board full time.
Our Dutch marina has mostly empty berths now. Of the five hundred moorings here, only two of them have boats with people living on board. There’s Cynthia and me and a crazy old guy who either heats or drinks meths to keep warm. The only thing keeping us going at the moment is the knowledge that our time living in a meat locker is coming to an end.
We’ve almost bought a narrowboat. We’ve paid a deposit and agreed to buy it subject to survey. The hurdle we need to overcome first is actually getting to England to see the boat.
The reason we’re currently living like Eskimos is that our motorhome is at a Nottingham dealership being repaired. It’s thirty-one months into a thirty-six-month warranty. We had a list of relatively minor repairs to make before the warranty expires. The most important was the odometer. Our Hymer records the distance in kilometres at a rate which is enthusiastic but inaccurate. The problem reared its ugly head when we were foolish enough to ask a rural French garage to change a light bulb on a Friday afternoon following a two-hour liquid lunch break. The clock has been adding one kilometre every second since then when the ignition is turned on, regardless of the vehicle’s movement. The current total is six hundred and thirty-five thousand kilometres, three hundred and ninety-four thousand miles. We have to use the sale proceeds from our motorhome to buy our new boat. We will struggle to attract potential buyers if the vehicle appears to have been driven sixteen times around the Earth.
I’m waiting for a call before I can return to England to collect our Hymer. Then I can drive to Chester to see our new home. Providing there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the boat I’ll sign on the dotted line. We’ll have a boat but, as often seems the case these days, I’ll have a wife in a different country. I will need to return to her, take our stuff off our Dutch boat and then sail it six hours north to our broker in Zaandam. Once the craft is safely on its new berth, cleaned and polished to perfection, I need to prepare myself for a ten-hour drive from Aalsmeer back to Chester. Then I’m going to light my first coal fire in two years and dive head first into a bottle of merlot.
That’s the plan anyway.
Our further hope is that we can move our boat down the Shroppie to the Grand Union at Napton Junction. The route will involve waiting for seven pre-Christmas stoppages to be completed. They need to be finished on time to allow us to complete the rest of our journey before several New Year stoppages begin. Any delay in opening these stretches of the waterway will leave us in the middle of nowhere until the spring. We aren’t terribly keen on that happening.
Oh, I forgot to mention the boat.
It’s a beautiful 61’6” traditional stern Steve Hudson boat, currently moored at Tattenhall Marina. I’ll tell you all about it next week. Here’s a sneaky peak through the front doors. What do you think?
With my marina work all but finished for the season I’ve had plenty of time to focus what I’m going to do back in the UK. And, thanks to Cynthia, that will be what I do best; talking passionately and at length about narrowboats and life on England’s inland waterways.
I had a phenomenal response to last week’s email. I asked you, my newsletter subscribers, if you would be interested in joining me for a relaxed day of helmsmanship instruction and learning everything necessary to live a comfortable, safe and relaxed life on the water.
The answer was a resounding “Yes PLEASE!”
I’ve recreated and rewritten my old Discovery Day booking system and decided on next year’s dates. I will be hosting my experience days during the first two weeks of April, June, August, October and December 2019. I don’t want to jump the gun until Orient has had a successful out of water survey. I’m hoping to arrange that next week sometime. The very minute my unofficial surveyor gives me the green light, I’ll email a link to my calendar to everyone who has already expressed an interest. If you want to know more and haven’t yet logged your interest by clicking on either of the links in the last two emails from me, let me know by clicking here. (You don’t need to bother if you clicked on the Discovery Day link in this post’s introductory email) I’ll add you to the list of people to be notified as soon as the booking system is live.
Our winter-time wanderings on France’s Atlantic coast continue. We’ve slipped seamlessly back into our cold weather motorhome routine. We drive, we explore, we resupply, I throw a cabin-fever-induced tantrum, we travel some more, we find another new place, we top up again, and then I throw another fit. I’m a creature of habit. We enjoy the nomadic lifestyle, apart from when I’m throwing cabin-fever-induced tantrums, but much of our travelling time is spent searching for potable water and somewhere to empty our waste.
One of the many benefits of French winter motorhome touring is virtually unrestricted and fantastic overnight stops, either out in the wild or in official motorhome service and parking areas or, as the French call them, ‘aires’.
We recently spent a week on the Île de Ré parked close to endless empty beaches. Our tranquillity was only broken by the need to resupply. Aires, often with free or low-cost sanitary stations, have been mostly empty at this less popular motorhome touring time of year. The downside to so much unoccupied space is that these essential facility oases are also often closed during the colder months or have their water supply turned off.
Our last day on the Île de Ré was typical. We found a beautiful place to stay for the night with an outstanding view. Our aire parking spot offered a panoramic view of the island’s eastern coast, and access to miles of golden sand from a narrow path close to the Hymer’s habitation door. An unusual and very welcome bonus at this particular aire was an unmetered supply of free electricity, the first aire that we’ve found offering this generous addition. We couldn’t understand why such a perfect overnight stop had so few motorhomes parked there.
We discovered why the following morning.
Our potable water tank holds one hundred litres. It’s a small supply compared to the three hundred and fifty-litre water supply I had on my narrowboat, or the four hundred litre tank on our Linssen yacht. Even so, we can make our water last us three days if we’re careful. We also have a spare ten-litre food grade water carrier stored in our tiny bathroom. If our primary tank runs out, we know that we have an emergency supply that will last us half a day. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card which we have been very grateful for more times than we can count.
At our idyllic Île de Ré aire, we were down to our last ten emergency litres. We weren’t particularly concerned. The luxurious aire offered grey and black water disposal and potable water as well as free electricity. The bonus for me, the chief water filler, was that the aire had a fresh water tap close enough to the Hymer to use our 30m hose and one with a thread to allow me to fit the hose connector.
The alternative to topping up our water supply with the hose is good old fashioned hard labour, trudging ten times between tap and tank with the ten-litre emergency canister. A hoseless fill is a standard feature of cemetery visits where the water supply in an enclosed area inaccessible to most vehicles, especially larger vans like ours. We often use cemeteries when aire water is turned off.
Cemetary water filling can be a pain, so I was delighted that we were parked at a fully serviced aire, close enough to use our hose without moving. After I unrolled our hose, thankful that we could spend another day or two watching the seascape from the comfort of our little lounge while our battery bank filled with free electricity, I pressed a green button above the aire’s potable water tap. Nothing. I checked to see if we needed to pay to activate the water supply. We didn’t. The water supply had been turned off for the winter. That’s why the aire was almost empty despite free electricity.
We had to change our plans. Murphy’s Law kicked in of course. The closest alternative water supply was in a cemetery on the mainland, accessible via a congested car park next to a ruined abbey. C’est la vie. Onwards and upwards!
The further south we drove, the more homeless men and the occasional women we saw. They seem to be tolerated more in France than they are in the UK. There was a regular crew at the Carrefour supermarket we often used last winter in Narbonne. They gathered under an awning close to the store entrance, drinking strong lager and tripping over their mangy dogs. Sometimes they stood near the supermarket’s car park washing machines. Sometimes, we suspected, the temptation to dispose of any drink-related excess bodily fluids in the spin dryer was a little too much for them. Because of this, and because of their fondness for invading my personal space to breathe stinking fumes over me while we were sorting through our underwear, we didn’t use these otherwise useful machines.
We came across our first gentleman of the streets this winter in Arcachon. We had been wild camping in a deserted pine forest car park next to a glorious beach under the towering Dune du Pilat, Europe’s highest dune. With depleted water and full waste tanks, we reluctantly left our blissful solitude to resupply. The Arcachon aire was, beyond question, the most poorly maintained, inadequately equipped and aesthetically unappealing motorhome service point we have visited in two winter tours of France.
The aire, located on a noisy main road opposite a large car dealership and a busy petrol station, wasn’t exactly what you would call an oasis of tranquillity. Having to tiptoe through an inch of mud to reach the grey water drain was an additional unpleasant and frustrating experience, as was trying to attach a hose to a cold water tap poking drunkenly from a rectangular plastic facilities box held together with a roll of grey duct tape.
Much as we disliked it, the aire appeared popular with a trio of entry-level motorhome owners who had claimed the site as their very own.
Their old vehicles surrounded the only service point, which meant me joining their merry band to attach our hose and to empty two full and very smelly toilet cassettes. The three French lads and two girls didn’t seem to mind the smell. As I poured the stinking brown slurry into a chemical toilet disposal point an arm’s length from the nearest van’s open galley window, they crowded round to question me in loud, rapid-fire French.
“How old is your camper? What does it weigh? Are you Eeenglish? What do you think of France? Where are you going? You are very old. Have you stopped working now?”
They were drunk, mischievous, and utterly charming, which is more than I could say for our next guest.
Our Hymer has a large ‘garage’, a cavernous storage compartment under our fixed double bed at the rear of the vehicle, accessible by lifting the mattress on a sprung hinge inside the cabin, or by opening a top-hinged door outside.
We have many essentials stored in the garage, including two folding bikes and an essential and rather expensive Honda suitcase generator. We also keep a thirty-metre hose and reel in there for water tank filling.
I left the garage door open after removing the hose reel. I shouldn’t have done. The temptation to look inside for something worth stealing was too much for a homeless Arcachon resident.
Cynthia stayed inside the Hymer when I climbed out to tend to my ‘blue’ jobs, the tasks which we’ve both agreed are mine. The steady rain put her off joining me outside, as did the filthy aire, the vocal French youngsters, and a shifty looking middle-aged man who lurched past the back of our Hymer before leaning against a nearby concrete wall to urinate copiously over his own feet.
She spotted an even more dishevelled man skulking behind a row of parked cars, peering through their windows, furtively searching for an open door. Cynthia watched him reach the end of the row, and then stagger through a series of puddles as he headed towards our open garage.
She hammered on the lounge window to warn me, trying to make herself heard over the laughter of my new friends as they searched for appropriate English questions or insults using Google Translate.
By the time I reached our garage, the man, dressed in a filthy and ragged quilted coat, was bent at the waist, stretching into the storage space towards a 20kg bag of dog food. I shouted at him. He ignored me. I pulled his elbow gently. He shrugged me off. I yanked him backwards by the scruff of his neck. He fell into a muddy puddle, climbed unsteadily to his feet, glared at me, and held out a filthy hand, palm upwards in the universal request for money. I shook my head. He held two blackened fingers close to his mouth miming smoking. I shook my head again. He stared at me aggressively, grabbed my arm and once more held out his hand for money. The paragon of virtue that I am, I told him to fuck off and pushed him off his feet.
Happy with a job well done, I climbed back into the Hymer to remind Cynthia how lucky she was to have a man about the house, someone to defend her against the scum of French society.
She was sorting through one of our food cupboards, looking for a few pieces of spare fruit. “Did you see the state of that poor man?” she asked. “Did you see that soaking sleeping bag he carried? Can you imagine what life must be like in weather like this with no home? We should give him something to eat. I feel so sorry for him!” Not half as sorry as she would have felt if she had seen the way I treated him. I decided not to brag about my manliness after all.
We drove south to continue our life of exploration. Another day. Another set of chores ahead of us. Check the water gauge. How much longer can we last without water? Find a water supply, check if it’s working, check if we can get close enough to use it. Check the toilet cassettes. How much longer can we last before emptying them? Check the grey water tank. Where can we drain it? Check the Hymer spreadsheet. How long since we last filled the gas tanks? What’s our average daily consumption at the moment? How much gas do we have left? Where’s the nearest supply if we need it? Check our food supply. More importantly, check Cynthia’s stock of the organic products she needs to stay healthy. Do we need to resupply? Where is the nearest organic store? Check the battery gauge. Do the batteries need topping up? Can we run the generator where we are without upsetting neighbouring motorhome owners/campers/nature lovers/residents or, on occasion, passing motorists? And then the big one; where do we want to move our home for the coming night? The list of things to do is as exhausting as it is tedious.
Trying to find somewhere new, peaceful and scenic is a game. It’s a game I enjoy playing, but one that we play too often. Only five of the last nineteen days have been static. We need to increase the number of zero mileage days and decrease expensive and sometimes stressful travel days. Until we learn to slow down, we’ll continue with our usual new-home finding routine.
A decent internet connection makes research much more straightforward than driving blindly along streets looking for somewhere suitable. Google Maps is our saviour, apart from in Germany where Google Street View doesn’t cover most of the countryside outside the major cities. That’s not a problem at the moment. We’re in France and, unless Cynthia has plans she hasn’t mentioned to me, we’re staying here for the winter.
We search the nearby area on Google Maps, looking for somewhere free to park. The location needs to be away from main roads. Dead end roads terminating at beach car parks are the locations we like most. Google’s satellite view is perfect for discovering a promising location. We can sometimes see car parks with motorhomes already parked in them. It’s an indication that they’re worth checking out. A car park at the end of a quiet road is perfect, providing that the surface is suitable for our heavy vehicle and our big-pawed, low bodied dogs. A provincial car park covered in muddy potholes is not ideal. Nor is a car park with a height barrier. We check car park surface and barrier obstructions with Google Street view.
Our last Atlantic overnight stop was to the south of the 4,000-year-old twenty-one square mile north Biscarrosse lake. Despite heavy rain over the previous week, the fifty-space motorhome parking area was pretty dry. At least, the aire was as dry as we could hope for given the conditions. We were getting more than a little fed up with the weather.
Much as we enjoyed the Atlantic coast with its wide open spaces, coastal pine forests and quiet beaches, constant grey skies, heavy rain and muddy paths began to depress us. The straw which broke the camel’s back was a particularly unpleasant day parked in Navarrosse next to a beautiful lake mostly obscured by squalls.
The heavy rain eased off, then stopped. We quickly climbed into waterproof coats, hats, scarves and gloves. Tasha and Abbie wagged excitedly. We reached for their leads. The heavens opened again. We reluctantly removed our wet weather gear and tried to calm two over-excited dogs. Then we waited for the rain to stop again. And we waited. Then we waited some more. After thirty-six hours listening to the steady patter of constant rain, our tiny Hymer home felt like a prison.
Our original plan was to take our time driving south along the Atlantic shore, thoroughly exploring the west coast before turning south-east through the Pyrenees to reach the Mediterranean. They were OUR plans, so we didn’t need to stick to them. Rather than adhere to the route, and endure another unpleasant month of miserable weather, we plotted the quickest course to Peyriac-de-Mer on the Mediterranean.
We stayed in our around Peyriac for six weeks last year. The sun frequently shone from a cloudless sky, the air was warm, the landscape divine and, because of the weather, I was able to escape our little box for daily rambles in the sun-drenched hills.
The problem with reaching a destination quickly in France is that the journey is usually expensive. We always try to travel on National ‘N’ or Departmental ‘D’ roads. They’re free to use, are quiet, and usually, pass through beguiling towns and villages.
According to Google Maps, reaching Peyriac-de-Mer on Departmental roads would take six and a half hours to cover two hundred and sixty-one miles. An estimated six and a half hours of driving in heavy rain and strong wind on often single-track mountain roads with unprotected muddy verges bordering steep drops. We decided to invest a few euros in our mental health and use autoroute ‘A’ roads instead.
The three hundred mile drive took us most of the day, cost £80 in diesel and £45 in toll charges, but it was worth every minute, every mile, and every last penny.
We arrived here two days ago. The journey’s climax was an adrenalin-fueled dash along a short section of exposed coast road battered by gale force winds. After all, this part of the Mediterranean coast is the windiest part of France. We don’t mind. It’s also one of the sunniest.
We’re delighted with our new aire home. Sleeping last night was an exciting experience. Wind gusts reached 70mph. We learned from experience and parked bow into the wind. The owner of the motorhome next to us made a schoolboy error and parked broadside to the gale. He lasted until 1:00 am before driving to a more sheltered spot behind a nearby building. He looked quite tired during this morning’s dog walk.
We’re delighted that we decided to leave the Atlantic coast. I often find motorhome driving stressful, but the ability to quickly move our home away from lousy weather makes occasional unpleasant driving worthwhile. Our new plan is to stay on the Mediterranean in the sun until spring. That’s the plan for now anyway.
Cynthia Says–“The Executive Decision”
As a lot of you know, we departed the cold and dreary Netherlands a month ago today and headed back to France with a Christmas stopover in beautiful Vendome to spend the holiday with a friend.
We then headed further west to the beautiful Ile de Re (island) near La Rochelle. We loved it there–gorgeous beaches with thundering waves and breathtaking seascapes. I was in awe over the windsurfers and other such water worshippers risking their well being in the unforgiving surf.
After a few days there, we headed further south and found verdant forests that stopped where the dunes took over. It was a beautiful combination of wood and beach. We were captivated. We were lucky enough to find several areas where we could wild camp with the beach right at our doorstep.
At Andernos Les Bains, we found the perfect spot at the beach where it was quiet and allowed us to step out right onto the beach and take the dogs for a walk. The location also provided us with beautiful sunrises and sunsets and views of the lights of Arcachon in the distant foreground across the bay. And the fact that the Bio shop was just a stone’s throw away didn’t hurt!
Being the wanderers that we are, we decided to head the Hymer into the wind and go further south close to the Spanish border. Again we were greeted by breathtaking sea and landscapes and the famous Dune du Pilat at Le Petit Nice. We happened upon a campsite that, except for the beach day-trippers and a small assortment of motorhomes, we had to ourselves. The ocean views there were some of the most spectacular we have encountered. We ended up spending several days and nights here.
Heading further south we encountered the delightful village of Biscarrosse. Paul found a pleasant aire there that was nestled close to a forest and beside a small yacht basin and a lovely beach on the second largest lake in France. On the 19th we were blessed with a day of partial sunshine, and we took advantage of it. However, as all good things must come to an end, the next day we awakened to unrelenting rain, rain and more rain. We took a glance at the weather app and just after finishing breakfast, Paul made his executive decision–to head back to Peyriac de Mer and the Narbonne region, and SUN.
So nearly 300 miles later and a LOT of rain and wind (especially as we got close to Peyriac) we made it!
Those of you who were reading the newsletters last winter might remember how much we loved this spot. A take-your-breath-away gorgeous medieval village flanked by the salt basins–the etangs that are full of flamingoes and other birds–a real sanctuary for them.
Yesterday we awoke to the rays of the sun beating down upon the Hymer, and we were overjoyed. The wind was still kicking up, but it was calm enough to sit outside for awhile and enjoy the warming rays of sunshine. Pure heaven for me!
When we looked at the weather map for France yesterday, the area we were in was the only place in France that wasn’t drenched with rain–are we lucky or what??!!
The day was a bit of a bittersweet one, as it would have been the 6th birthday of our beloved Basset Florence.
After lunch, braving the fierce wind, we headed off to take the same path around the lake that we had exactly a year ago on her 5th birthday.
As we had her cremated back in the Netherlands, we had the ashes with us, and I decided this would be the perfect place to scatter some of them as she loved her walks here so much. I shed a few tears as I thought about her and how much she meant to us, and at the same time, I felt profoundly grateful that we had the great fortune to have her half-sister, dear sweet Abbie in our lives, and of course the indomitable Tasha who is just about to turn twelve.
We will head back to this region this autumn to get our dose of milder weather and warming sun. It IS a better balance for us, so I believe we will continue this pattern until or unless something better shows up for us.
Thank you SO much, Paul, for making this executive decision–one of the best you have made so far this year!
When I wrote my last blog post I was worried about Dik Trom’s suitability for living aboard during the northern Europe’s chilly winter months.
I still am.
The onboard heating was a concern. The aged Eberspacher D4 4KW blown air heater failed shortly after we handed over a wad of hard earned cash in exchange for our beautiful thirty four year old Linssen yacht. Previous owner Walter agreed to replace the heater’s faulty pump. The Eberspacher worked for a while, then failed again. Walter then very kindly replaced the complete heater with a reconditioned unit. The new heater worked, but filled the boat with toxic fumes. The fumes disappeared after the exhaust fittings were renewed and that, we hoped, was the end of our heating problems.
Either the Eberspacher isn’t powerful enough to heat the boat, or the Linssen’s insulation is failing to retain the diesel burner’s output. The bottom line is that our new boat is too cold to live on comfortably this winter.
I’m sure that we’ll find a solution. Much as I would like to, installing a solid fuel stove isn’t going to work. Supplies of coal or coal briquettes aren’t as readily available in either the Netherlands or France as they are in the UK. Logs are a little easier to find, especially in France, but wood isn’t really practical unless there’s a reasonable amount of covered storage space near the boat’s mooring. Decent winter moorings with adequate storage space are few and far between so that isn’t a realistic option at the moment, which is a shame.
I’ve always appreciated the simplicity, reliability and the aesthetic appeal of a multifuel stove. I had a diesel heating system as a backup on my narrowboat, but the stove did all the real work. From mid October to mid April, the stove burned coal briquettes pretty much twenty four hours a day. It never let me down. My Webasto Thermotop C diesel burner didn’t let me down either, but I didn’t have it installed for long enough, or run it for long enough periods, to give it a chance.
Even with a brand new Eberspacher heater on Dik Trom, using it as the boat’s only heat source would have made me very nervous, especially after receiving the following email shortly after publishing my last blog post.
“Not often I put pen to paper, or in this case finger to keyboard, but I have offered advice about heaters in the past. Forty years a marine engineer and the last ten making a crust from Webasto and Eberspacher heaters. Do you remember the comedy program “Hello – Hello” ?? Well I will say this only ONCE. They are made as night heaters for lorries. They will not last when used for long periods. You are wasting your time and money trying to live aboard a boat with them as a sole source of heating. Despite all the claims of marine application, believe me that is total bollocks. Great for a few hours every winter when the rich pop round to have a G&T aboard and watch the ducks ice skating.
When I lived aboard, I had what I think is the best heater ever produced ( Webasto air top 5000 ) no longer in production, I actually had 2 – not a problem for me, when the heater failed halfway through winter I fitted the other unit I had overhauled, then overhauled the failed unit. As I did this all myself I could keep the cost down but the cost of service parts is totally bonkers even with my trade discount. I tell folk year after year after year they are not designed for long term use, fortunately for me they still carry on spending a small fortune polishing a turd!! I am now at the stage that I no longer have to remove and refit the offending item, all the engineers for miles around just bring them to my door and I sit in my cosy workshop. I no longer have to listen to boat owners ranting and raving about the expense, reliability and inconvenience, not to mention freezing for a week or more.
Get yourself a diesel drip heater and install some radiators, it will outlast you. Okay it will cut out if you are bouncing about in a force 7 at sea but it will soon fire up again in calmer waters and if you are honest you will not be going anywhere far through the winter anyway. I know you won’t take any notice of a word I’ve said – – – – ( written ) no one ever does, I have arrived at the conclusion that all boat owners are masochists and the more money they can waste on total crap the better they feel.
That’s why I just work for a few months a year – – – – POLISHING TURDS ! ! !”
Hardly reassuring news is it? I think we need to start saving for a diesel drip heater.
The onboard heating hasn’t been our only worry.
Getting into the boat’s living space isn’t easy. We have to step from the shore onto a narrow walkway, climb three vertical steps to the rear deck and exterior helm, open the waist high cockpit door and hatch, and then climb down five vertical steps into the cabin.
The steps up onto the rear deck and down into the cabin are too steep for our ridiculously short legged dogs. They both wear harnesses so that they can be lifted up the steps to the rear deck – a strenuous workout with fifty five pound Abbie – and then guided down a two metre long dog ramp into the cabin.
Getting people and dogs on board is enough of a challenge in the best of conditions. I discovered that it’s almost impossible in snow.
Three inches fell, partially thawed, froze, and was then joined by another three inches of wet and very slippery flakes. I soon realised that a rear deck protected by a layer of mirror smooth paint and covered shin deep in wet snow is a very interesting surface to walk on. Because the blindingly obvious sometimes takes a while to sink in, I pirouetted gracelessly across the deck several times on my own before realising that the only safe way onto the boat was on my hands and knees. I didn’t want to consider the likely outcome of trying the same route with a young and powerful dog straining at the leash across a slippery deck surrounded by widely spaced rails offering an unprotected two metre drop into the icy canal beneath. Cynthia following one or more dogs into the freezing water was even more of a worry. I realised that we would need to install anti slip matting before even considering moving on board.
To add to our woes, our shower tray needs replacing. Our surveyor identified a split in the waste surround. Using the shower would result in most of the dirty water flowing into the bilge rather than the plastic box which holds the shower pump.
I asked a plumber who lived opposite the yacht club to repair the split for me. When he saw the shower tray he shook his head a few times, sucked his teeth, shook his head again, and told me that the shower tray would need replacing and, because it was a bespoke shower tray curved to fit the Linssen’s hull, the repair was beyond him.
The yacht club harbour master had other ideas. He told me the repair was easy to do, disappeared into his cavernous store room for a few minutes, handed me a tube of clear silicone sealant, and told me to get squeezing.
I squeezed for all I was worth. The shower tray now isn’t quite as deep as it used to be. Unfortunately, I managed to miss most of the crack. The shower still leaks.
We have a cold boat which is impossible to get on in icy weather and a shower which, should we be brave enough to try to use it in the unheated bathroom, is likely to turn the Linssen into a giant bath.
We came to the conclusion that, realistically, we wouldn’t have time or, more importantly, the money, to make the necessary changes this year. Especially as our Hymer home needed another sizeable chunk of our rapidly disappearing savings.
Our leisure bank of two 100ah lead acid batteries failed three weeks ago. They lasted just twenty months, but they had a pretty hard life. They were asked to cater for all our electrical needs last winter living off grid with very little sun for the solar panel to be of any use. We used our suitcase generator when we could, but the fear of upsetting nearby motorhome owners meant that we didn’t use it as often as we needed to. Consequently, the two batteries were often drained more than was good for them.
Replacing them with two 90ah AGM batteries cost £500. On top of that we had to replace the galley tap… again.
The galley tap was replaced last December in Narbonne by national chain Narbonne Accessories. The guys there couldn’t have been more pleasant or accommodating. We would have liked them to have been competent too.
We asked them to fit a water pump with a non return valve. They didn’t. We had to take the Hymer back to them to get the correct pump fitted a few days later. They managed to install the correct pump, but wired it incorrectly. After enduring low water pressure for six months, a Dutch motorhome fitter spent ten minutes correcting the wiring.
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We had other equally unsuccessful repair work done in France last winter. We took the Hymer to a French garage for a simple headlight replacement. When we left the garage, we noticed that the headlight blinked when the indicator was turned on. We returned to the garage to have it fixed. My schoolboy error was to take the Hymer back on an afternoon following what I suspected was the garage’s Christmas party. Correcting the problem took six mechanics an hour and a half. Several days driving later, we realised that the post party fix coincided with both our fuel gauge and odometer failure. By then, we were too far away to return for remedial work.
The fuel gauge no longer works and, as soon as the ignition is turned on, regardless of whether the engine is running or not, the odometer adds one kilometre every two seconds to the running total. According to the dashboard display, we have driven 439,579 kilometres (273,141 miles) in the last year. That’s the equivalent of nearly eleven times around the Earth. No wonder I feel constantly exhausted.
Selling the Hymer with the current mileage display could be a bit of a problem.
The galley tap was much more of an inconvenience than incorrectly displayed dashboard numbers. It looked cheap and nasty and performed as poorly as it looked. The water flow was abysmal, the tap base leaked and, over the last two months, the tap has regularly fallen off its counter-top mounting.
Three weeks ago we had a new mixer tap installed, had a number of minor modifications and repairs made, tried and failed to get our defective fuel gauge working and, while the Hymer was in for repair, discovered that by next spring at the latest, we need to find nearly three thousand pounds for more essential repairs.
The fuel gauge was the first bad news. The garage suspected that a mechanical problem in the fuel tank was the likely culprit. After the fuel tank pump was removed and replaced and found to be fully working, an electronic problem was on the next to-be-investigated list. The fuel gauge is part of an integral dashboard display. To replace the fuel gauge, the complete display has to be changed. The cost for a replacement display is £400.
There is no guarantee that the replacement display will cure the fault with the fuel gauge or the odometer. Cynthia and I suspect that last winter’s post party headlight repair and wiring alteration is more likely to be the cause. Extensive electrical investigation and/or rewiring is the likely solution, but we can’t afford that at the moment.
We also asked the Dutch garage to fix a ‘minor coolant leak’. The leak, we were told, was the reason for a noisy fan running most of the time the engine was running. Following a quick glance on a previous visit, the garage owner suggested that the repair would involve a replacement hose and half an hour’s labour. After looking at it properly on our last visit, he told us that the radiator and part of the air conditioning system needs replacing. The work will take a full day and cost us the best part of a thousand pounds.
Tyre replacement is also nearing the top of our motorhome to do list. We’ve driven twenty thousand miles on the current set. The front tyres will need changing next spring. The cost will be £400 for a decent pair of Michelins. Before the end of 2018, we’ll have to budget £800 to replace the rear four tyres.
Last, but far from least, is a tiny leak from a drive shaft seal. The good news is that a new seal will cost just £10. Unfortunately for our bank account, replacing the seal is a multi day job which is likely to cost another £1,000. We’ve been aware of the leak for several months now. It doesn’t appear to be getting any worse. Although we’re burying our collective head deep in the sand and hoping the seal won’t fail completely over the winter, we know we’ll need to attend to it before we begin cruising next year. If we can’t find the money I’ll have to work the sordid streets of Amsterdam’s red light district. I just hope I can find my little red dress.
The Hymer was working well enough to allow us to leave the Netherlands ten days ago. We broke our five hour drive into France with a two hour stop at our Belgian mooring. Dik Trom will be protected from frost damage by two shore powered greenhouse heaters while we are away, and checked regularly by former owner Walter. Much as we disliked leaving our new boat for three months, staying on a cold boat for twelve weeks wasn’t very appealing.
Today, the final day of 2017, is a good day for reflection. We’ve enjoyed such an exciting and varied year. Cynthia is to blame for all of it.
Cynthia has an insatiable thirst for adventure. Without her drive and enthusiasm, we wouldn’t have seen as many sights, met as many people, or visited as many countries as we have in the last twelve months.
We spent last winter on France’s balmy Mediterranean coast close to Narbonne. As the first spring buds appeared in mid February, we set off on a very slow drive north to Germany and a month’s scheduled stay for Cynthia at an alternative cancer clinic close to Stuttgart.
Leaving France took a little longer than expected. Our alternator, and consequently our lights, failed on a narrow French mountain road at dusk. We were transported by a too small recovery lorry to Montpellier and endured a terrifying twenty mile drive with the wagon threatening to tip over at every bend in the road. We spent four days locked into a scrap yard before having a new alternator fitted. Even a simple breakdown added excitement and adventure to our lives.
We drove on to Switzerland for two weeks mountain hiking, and then through Liechtenstein and Austria to Germany. While Cynthia enjoyed a month’s pleasant and successful treatment, I was free to hike for many miles each day in endless tranquil forests. We left the spring behind and drove north to the Netherlands via Luxembourg and Belgium.
We bought a boat at a marina close to Aalsmeer in April and then enjoyed a six month, 1,000km season on the fascinating Dutch waterways. Our wonderful time on the water was marred by the tragic death of Florence, one of our bassets who, we think, ate poison left for rats on the island we moored on overnight.
Thanks to Cynthia’s travel privileges as a retired American Airlines employee, I was able to fly to Philadelphia free of charge to collect our beautiful and mischievous new two year old basset Abbie. She will never replace her sorely missed cousin Florence, but she is a very welcome addition to our nomadic family.
As the thermometer dropped and we reluctantly ended our cruising year, we decided that we wanted to return to living full time on the water. Our gorgeous steel and mahogany classic Dutch cruiser was only suitable for three season cruising, so we swapped water for wheels and visited marinas and yacht brokers throughout the Netherlands and Belgium searching for a new floating home.
While we looked, we returned to England to MOT the Hymer and visit friends. After ten days, we returned to mainland Europe and drove to Belgium to view our new boat for the first time. We bought the boat, planned to move on board full time, realised we couldn’t, put the new boat and the old boat to bed, and then drove south towards warmer weather (and hopefully a rest).
When we started looking for a new boat, the plan was to simplify our lives by reducing our ‘homes’ from two to one. We’ve actually gone the other way, and increased the total from two to three.
C’est la vie.
Our new boat isn’t really fit for purpose. We allowed our hearts to rule our minds. I lived six years on my narrowboat, including during the coldest English winter since 1910 (and the second coldest since records began in 1659). My solid fuel stove kept me warm and the cabin was easy to access regardless of the weather. Solid fuel stoves are something of a rarity over here, so fuel is hard to find or prohibitively expensive.
Dik Trom is a substantial and beautiful cruiser suitable, like Julisa, our Super Favourite cruiser, for three season cruising. Dik Trom is more spacious than Julisa, slightly more weather resistant, and she has plenty of space for al fresco dining. She’s perfect for extended summer cruising but, to be brutally honest, she’s not a wise choice as a full time home, especially in northern Europe.
We made a mistake. I think that Cynthia likes to call them ‘learning opportunities’ rather than mistakes. If that’s the case, we learned a great deal from the purchase of our new boat.
In hindsight, and what a wonderful gift that is, we could have left our life exactly as it was; kept the slightly smaller but adequate Super Favorite cruiser and not incurred a substantial, and, to me, worrying bridging loan. Our idyllic life would have continued without having to make so many scary changes… the sort of changes which terrify me and which Cynthia embraces with twinkling eyes and a happy smile.
What’s done is done. We’re not going to spend time crying over spilt milk. Our purchase is going to result in some (hopefully) short term financial hardship, but Dik Trom should provide a comfortable summer base for the rest of our cruising days.
The whole move-back-to-the-water-full-time project has been very useful in one respect. It’s made us appreciate our Hymer motorhome and the ability it gives us to escape the perpetually cloudy winter skies of northern Europe.
Returning to France last week came as a bit of a shock after so long in the Netherlands. The Dutch are as friendly as they are clean and tidy. Their country is small but very well organised. Streets are clean, litter bins plentiful and well used, public toilets spotlessly clean and fully equipped, and the roads are safe and easy to use for both car and bicycle users.
France is very, very different. You need a strong stomach to use a public toilet in France, and your own toilet seat and a plentiful supply of toilet paper. You also need a plentiful supply of toilet paper if you’re brave enough, or foolish enough, to cycle on French roads. Roads are often steep or narrow, or steep and narrow, and almost always without cycle lanes. Cycling in France is not for those with nervous dispositions.
The sanitary standards might be questionable, and the roads difficult for bike riders, but the scenery is so much more pleasant than the flat and largely featureless Dutch countryside.
We found a wonderful spot to park last night on the Île de Ré close to La Rochelle two hundred and fifty miles south west of Paris. North Atlantic surf is crashing onto the deserted Bay of Biscay beach a stone’s throw from our haven on a sandy car park surrounded by pine trees.
We’re looking forward to a New Year’s day stroll on the beach this afternoon… if there’s a break in the weather. A force eight gale is driving torrential rain horizontally against the Hymer’s rear. Thunder is crashing overhead, not that we can hear it too well over the wind whistling through the pine trees surrounding us.
Regardless of the weather, the scenery and our location are perfect. Regardless of the teething problems we’ve had with our new boat, we’re going to enjoy our winter. Regardless of the financial uncertainty our recent boat purchase has caused, we are both confident that Dik Trom is going to bring us pleasure for many years to come.
I hope that YOUR plans for the coming year are just as exciting as ours.
“On Being Honest”
In a previous newsletter of the not too distant past I wrote about our decision to remain in the Netherlands for the winter. I also stated how our travels in the motorhome were out of balance due to the fact that Paul had to do all the driving and that was very stressful for him.
What I wasn’t doing was truly being honest with myself about gutting out the winter in the dreariness of the Dutch winters with little sun.
Let me back up a bit here—back in the late ‘70’s my former husband and I moved from Southern California—sunny perfect-weather San Diego to be exact—to the New England area to pursue our careers with the airlines. Each winter became a teeth-gritting experience. Dealing with all the snow shoveling, slipping on the ice, white knuckle driving—you get the picture!!
So after nearly 38 years of dealing with frigidity, I made a choice back in 2013. I would no longer spend the winters in the east. I rented a house for the winter in lovely Santa Fe enjoying much sunshine. It was chilly there (we even had a bout of snow in February!) as it is nearly 8,000 feet elevation, but is suited my lifestyle on many levels.
The following winter I returned to the mountains of Southern California near Palm Springs and enjoyed a lot of sun and time outdoors. It’s a little piece of heaven there, and I was lucky enough to rent a cozy bungalow from some dear friends.
And then the BIG move to the UK in November of 2015. The ensuing winter there was one of the most challenging ones of my life. I loved our life on James, but hated the cold, the constant rain and mud. And the days seemed extra short. And on top of that I made one of the toughest decisions of my life—to re-home my beloved Basset, Bromley. By the end March I came down with the worst case of the flu and was flat on my back for several weeks.
Most of you know what followed—we decided to head south to France on the Mediterranean for the winter, and that was such a good decision for both of us! The sun and warmer climes were a joy and so welcome. We thrived.
And then we made the decision earlier this past summer to live on the water full time—with winters in the Netherlands no less!! We were so lucky to find our new boat in Belgium as well as a great marina in Maastricht and thought we had it made. We figured we’d be well ensconced in our new berth by the middle of November or so, but one issue lead to another and we realized that wouldn’t be possible.
About 3 weeks ago we were taking a break from Belgium and were spending a lovely but cold weekend at one of our favorite spots in Zeeland, Netherlands. It snowed and was cold and miserable the entire time. I then got real with myself and realized the last thing I wanted to do was spend the winter in the Netherlands on a boat that would most likely not ever get warm enough. I wanted to head back south to France. By the end of the weekend Paul reached the same conclusion, and on 22 December after all our appointments and loose ends were tied up we gunned the engine of the Hymer and headed south.
We are currently on the Île de Re near La Rochelle France. It is so gorgeous here—and peaceful. There are lovely bike paths crisscrossing the island and beaches galore. What a find!
We shall continue to head south to Cap Ferret and the Bordeaux area before making our way back to Belgium to get the boat then on the the Netherlands.
We look forward to many adventures and discoveries.
Having the courage (speaking for myself) to be honest and make a better decision was definitely the right thing to do! Listening to that little voice deep inside that we all have was, and is, one of THE most important things anyone can do—no matter what the situation is!
Wishing you all a great New Year 2018—may it bring peace, love, happiness and good health— and the courage to speak your truth!
PS. Oh—how we settled the matter of the stress on Paul doing all the driving. As we have no deadlines, we decided to do as little driving as possible, with stays of several days in one area. I think this will help balance things out so that we can continue with a better overall balance in our lives….time will tell!
Sent from my iPhone
After a brief return to the UK to MOT the Hymer, we’ve now been back in mainland Europe for two months. As an American citizen, Cynthia is only allowed to stay in any of the combined Schengen countries for a total of three months. We think that she is allowed to stay indefinitely because of her marriage to me. However, it’s a grey area. If we’re wrong and she overstays her three month entitlement, she could be classed as an undesirable and refused entry again if she leaves, as she plans to do, to visit friends and family in the USA.
Understandably, we don’t want to take that risk.
We’ve come to the conclusion that best solution is for her to apply for a long stay permit in the Netherlands where we hope to spend most of our time cruising. Following a UK border control agent’s recommendations, as soon as we arrived in the Netherlands in October, we booked the first available appointment at Leiden town hall so that we could register our intention to stay in the country long term.
That was a mistake.
The first available appointment was on 23rd November, six weeks after we arrived, and half way through Cynthia’s three month entitlement. We discovered to our dismay that the long awaited appointment was a complete waste of time.
We arrived at the town hall in a jaunty mood, hoping that the bureaucratic nightmare was finally over. We weren’t quite so happy when a helpful lady told us we were in the wrong place. She pointed out that we needed to go to an IND office first, not Leiden town hall.
The Dutch department of Immigration and Naturalization handle all initial applications these days. The process used to be a first registration at the local town hall, then a visit to an IND office to apply for a long term permit. The authorities realised that some people who registered at local offices and then applied to the IND were rejected so, to streamline the process, anyone intending to stay long term now needs to visit one of the six IND offices in the Netherlands before registering with a local council.
We rang the IND helpline as soon as we left the town hall and asked for the earliest appointment anywhere in the country. We have one for next Wednesday, nine weeks into Cynthia’s three week entitlement, and just four weeks before she’s officially obliged to leave.
We’ve been sent an eight page application form to complete, all in Dutch of course. Providing that we are able to translate the form well enough to complete it, the application will enter the Dutch system on Wednesday. Processing it can take up to six months. In the meantime, Cynthia will have a stamp added to her passport allowing her to re-enter the Netherlands without issue after her three month entitlement expires.
Please keep your fingers crossed for us.
In the meantime, we’ve been trying, and failing, to move our lives back onto the water. We’ve had a few teething problems with the boat to overcome, and while we’ve been working on them, we’ve also had to deal with the more demanding logistics and psychological issues of winter motorhoming in northern Europe.
Life in a motorised box is more difficult to manage, and more difficult to bear at this time of the year.
This time last year, our living conditions were much more pleasant. We spent much of November exploring the hills around Espéraza, forty miles west of Narbonne. The temperature was only slightly warmer than we are experiencing now in Belgium, but the days were much drier and the sky normally devoid of the grey, all encompassing cloud which makes winters in northern Europe so depressing.
I was able to hike deep into the surrounding mountains through a landscape largely devoid of people. I was able to enjoy a feeling of space and tranquility before returning to the claustrophobic interior of our twenty five feet long home. My daily walks provided me with plenty of exercise and some much needed personal space.
As December arrived and the thermometer continued to drop, our lifestyle became more difficult to manage in France’s mountainous areas. One by one, the aires we used to resupply turned off their water supplies. We had to resort to squeezing our motorhome as close to possible to nearby cemetery gates to use the water there. Although local gendarmerie officers suggested using cemeteries in the first place, we endured occasional hostile stares when filling our ten litres jerry can with water normally reserved for graveside flowers.
We could still empty our cassettes at the waterless aire chemical toilet points but, without water, cleaning up unavoidable mess was impossible. Life without a ready supply of water became too much of a chore.
We moved to the coast and discovered a Mediterranean aire popular with wintertime motorhome owners. It offered year-round free water and chemical disposal point, and two hundred spaces for even the largest motorhomes. Most of them were taken, often by Germans staying long term in top of the range vehicles costing well in excess of €100,000.
The aire was too busy for us, too much like a crowded campsite. After a brief stay, we explored the coastline south of Narbonne and found paradise. Peyriac-de-Mer is a charming coastal village bordering a large lagoon, the Etang du Doul. The lagoon is bordered by low, rocky hills and filled with an endless variety of birds. Flocks of pink flamingos swim next to grebe, coot and prehistoric-looking pelicans. Egrets and herons stand motionless in the shallows. Cormorants sit on posts with black wings spread. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place to live. We both loved our winter there.
This year is very different.
We are one thousand kilometres north of Peyriac. The weather in Antwerp is similar to that endured at this time of the year in England. The days are cool, dull and damp, the evenings cooler, duller and just as damp. The days are either damp or wet. Wet with rain, sleet, snow or hail and, if we’re really lucky, a combination of all four. The weather, quite frankly, is shit.
And added to the misery of a sunless sky are the additional logistical problems we face.
We’ve spent the last few weeks commuting between boats, from Leiden in the Netherlands to Antwerp in Belgium. We stay close to Dik Trom, our new home, during the week and then return to Leiden to Julisa each weekend to make sure that the moisture catching water traps are emptied, that the waterproof cover protecting Julisa’s exterior mahogany is still in place, and to enjoy a welcome break from our weekday parking spot.
Our location isn’t ideal. I said that Dik Trom is moored in Antwerp. It’s not quite. Dik Trom is trapped on a hundred metre stretch of the Kempesch canal a kilometre away from a busy motorway in Sint-Job-in-’t-Goor, a handful of kilometres to the city’s north east.
The yacht club is home to about fifty cruisers moored or stored on a thin hundred metre strip of land beneath a row of towering electricity pylons. The pylons, and the dismal weather are, Cynthia thinks, the reason for her mild depression and my extreme crankiness.
The weather certainly doesn’t help. Rain, rain and more rain during the day. At night, we have rain and, if we’re really lucky, a little sleet, snow or hail to make walking on the boat’s already slippery deck even more of a joy.
We’re both more than a little fed up with the weather, and with the continued problems which delay our maiden voyage to our winter mooring in Maastricht.
When we arrived at the yacht club a month ago, the weather was a little kinder and, because of that, essential utilities were more accessible. We could plug the Hymer into the club’s electricity supply, refill our empty water tank from a nearby tap, and sneakily empty our toilet cassette. The club doesn’t have a chemical toilet disposal point, but we discovered that, in the dead of night, we could access the site sewage system by lifting a breeze block covering an open manhole behind a Portakabin toilet block.
Life became a little more difficult when the club’s water supply was turned off two weeks ago.
Now, if we need to top up the Hymer’s tank, I need to march around the club’s perimeter to close every tap on site, lift a heavy ply sheet in a locked building covering the site’s underground stopcock, fill our tank, turn off the stopcock and then open all the site taps again to prevent frost damage. I have to coordinate water filling with toilet emptying so that I have a water supply to use to unclog an often blocked cassette.
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Oh, the joys of life on the road in the winter months!
Added to our winter blues are worries about our new boat. Apparently, we have a bow thruster so powerful that it could spin a supertanker like a whirling dervish. That’s wonderful news if we want to use it while still attached to a shore supply. Given that the times we want to use the bow thruster while still on a marina or yacht club mooring are remote to say the least, the thought of trying to replenish a battery bank drained by a five thousand watt bow thruster motor was a little worrying.
We were given this little nugget of wonderful news within minutes of a marine electrician arriving to install a new battery bank and to generally upgrade the boat electrics. Abdul, a multilingual and very talented Kazakhstani, did a great deal of head scratching soon after he slipped his wiry frame through a tiny under-seat hatch into an otherwise inaccessible section of Dik Trom’s cavernous engine bay.
He discovered a major reason why the old battery bank was on its knees. There were three 220ah lead acid batteries on board. I thought, and the guy who came to quote for the work agreed, that everything on the boat ran off a single three battery bank; the engine, the boat’s 12v internal and external electrics, and the oh-so-powerful bow thruster.
Abdul discovered that the three batteries were actually split into two banks. Normally, two battery banks would mean one bank exclusively for starting the engine, and one for everything else. Whoever installed Dik Trom’s electrics had other ideas. He thought of an ingenious solution for powering the bow thruster.
To use the boat’s 12v system for the bow thruster, he would have had to run a python thick cable the full length of the boat. To reduce the cable to a manageable size, he decided to use 24v just for the bow thruster. Because of that, two of the boat’s three batteries were reserved exclusively for the bow thruster. Starting the engine and powering everything else on the boat was handled by the single remaining 220ah lead acid battery.
Abdul didn’t know how to sort out the mess without rewiring much of the boat and charging us a fortune for labour. He summoned his boss. The pair of them spent half an hour brainstorming and discussing alternatives before Abdul installed what I am fairly sure is a unique and slightly odd electrical system.
I wanted a Victron combi 1600 charger inverter installed. Because the bow thruster needed to remain on a 24v system, and because the Victron couldn’t charge both 12v and 24v systems, Abdul and his boss gave me an option. They could configure the system so that the bow thruster could only be charged if the boat was attached to a shore supply, which, quite frankly, I thought was a ridiculous idea. Alternatively, by adding a small additional charger, the bow thruster battery could be topped up either by the alternator when the engine is running, or by a shore supply when we’re plugged in on a marina mooring. The latter made far more sense.
Dik Trom now has four new 220ah AGM batteries on board. One is reserved exclusively for the bow thruster, but the bow thruster also draws from the remaining three batteries when in use. Both the boat’s 12v electrics and engine starting are powered by a 3 x 220ah bank. The Victron charger inverter charges and draws 220v power from the three battery bank.
Ordinarily, I would be reluctant to have engine and 12v system on the same bank, but I have a secret weapon. Abdul also fitted a Victron battery monitor.
The battery monitor, mounted on the dashboard on the interior helm, will allow me to constantly check the charge in our main battery bank. We don’t yet have a solar array installed, so we’ll have to rely on battery charging from the alternator while we’re cruising, or via a shore supply when we’re on a marina mooring. Providing that I check the main battery bank’s state of charge regularly, we shouldn’t ever be in the embarrassing position of not being able to start the engine because of flat batteries.
With the electrical issues out of the way, we could concentrate on our heating problems.
The boat’s original Eberspacher D4 4KW diesel heater failed shortly after we bought the boat. Because he’s an old school honest and decent kind of guy, former owner Walter agreed to either repair or replace the heater. He had a new pump fitted. The pump worked but the heater didn’t. He had the heater removed and taken to a local marine heating specialist for investigation. The engineer examined the old burner briefly, laughed, and pointed to a nearby bin.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Walter dug deep and handed over a wad of cash for a reconditioned 4KW burner. His yacht club friend Edgar, a retired heating engineer, fitted the replacement unit earlier this week. Cynthia and I breathed a collective sigh of relief and began planning our maiden voyage to Maastricht.
Our planning was a little premature.
Before we transferred all of our possessions from the Hymer to Dik Trom I wanted to make sure that the new heater actually worked, and was capable of maintaining a comfortable temperature inside the boat. It was at that point that I realised our problems weren’t yet over.
Edgar wasn’t able to fit the heater’s “thermostat” for us. He admitted that although he’s a competent heating engineer, his woodworking skills are poor. He installed the heater, but left the cable connecting the heater’s switch trailing through an open underseat hatch to the engine bay.
My own woodworking skills are undoubtedly worse than Edgar’s. As I haven’t yet found anyone to fit the switch for me, I left the underseat hatch open a little to prevent trapping the cable, turned the heater on full blast, and left the boat to warm up for a couple of hours.
I returned to a cabin filled with choking fumes.
I don’t know much about diesel heating systems. Is this normal for a new installation? Will the fumes disappear over time? Has the burner been fitted incorrectly? I simply don’t know, and as Edgar only speaks a few words of English, I can’t ask him.
I had a diesel burner fitted on my narrowboat. It was sited in the engine room which, as with the majority of narrowboats, was behind the cabin. I can’t remember smelling any fumes in the engine room. They certainly didn’t enter the cabin if there were any.
The problem with a cruiser is that the engine bay is beneath the living accommodation. Any fumes in the engine bay can rise into the cabin. Maybe some fumes from the burner entering the cabin is normal on cruisers. I simply don’t know.
What I DO know is that the switch supplied with the burner is not a thermostat. It’s a variable fan control, which means that we’ll have to constantly adjust the fan speed manually to adjust the cabin temperature. It’s not ideal, but it will do for now. More of a problem are the fumes and, I suspect, the burner’s ability to heat the boat adequately.
With the burner on full blast for 2-3 hours each day for the last three days, all the time making a noise like a jet engine, the thermometer crept slowly to fifteen degrees and then stayed there. The boat appears to be insulated well enough. With the heater working on a cold day, there’s no condensation in the cabin, but there also isn’t a great deal of heat.
There certainly isn’t enough heat for me to live comfortably onboard in the winter months.
Cynthia’s personal thermostat is set differently to mine. She can’t stand hot summer days. I adore them. I love the heat. On cooler days, while she’s quite comfortable in a tee shirt, I often have to wear a thick fleece top, and sometimes a fleece hat too. A maximum cabin temperature of fifteen degrees simply isn’t enough for me. We need to be able to achieve a constant cabin temperature of 20°c, and do that without choking on toxic fumes.
We hope to persuade Edgar to return tomorrow, along with Walter to act as a translator. If Edgar can’t resolve the problem, we’ll have to consider returning to the company which sold the burner to Walter to discuss a resolution.
Each day’s delay worries me more. Our winter mooring is on the mighty river Maas (or the Meuse as it’s known in Belgium) which, following periods of heavy rain or excessive snow melt, has been known to rise as much as four metres. Boats are protected from flooding by floating moorings at the marina. Once we’re there, we shouldn’t have a problem. Cruising down there following a prolonged period of heavy rain might be a different kettle of fish.
This weekend, we’re having a break from electricity pylons, troublesome burners and cruising worries. Yesterday we drove north west from Antwerp to the Dutch coastal town of Westenschouwen in beautiful Zeeland province. We spent last night on a deserted beach car park. Yesterday’s rain and today’s forecast twenty seven knot winds and four hours of snow are perhaps the reason for our solitude.
We don’t mind. We’re warm and dry. There’s no chance of us freezing, being overwhelmed by toxic fumes, washed away by a fast flowing river, or unhinged by the close proximity of ugly electricity pylons. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to move afloat some time next week. We live in hope.