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.
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.
Purchase cost, licensing, part or full time mooring fees, propulsion and heating diesel, coal, gas and electricity generation costs... Trying to estimate the real cost of living afloat can be a real headache. In this comprehensive package, ALL the costs you are likely to incur are broken down and explained. Then you can enter your own specific costs in a bespoke narrowboat budget calculator. Low cost and backed by a 100% unconditional money back guarantee.
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.
Purchase cost, licensing, part or full time mooring fees, propulsion and heating diesel, coal, gas and electricity generation costs... Trying to estimate the real cost of living afloat can be a real headache. In this comprehensive package, ALL the costs you are likely to incur are broken down and explained. Then you can enter your own specific costs in a bespoke narrowboat budget calculator. Low cost and backed by a 100% unconditional money back guarantee.
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.
We’re several steps closer to returning to life on the water full time.
We’re now penniless, but the very proud owners of a robust and beautifully designed Linssen yacht. She’s an old girl who has obviously spent a fair amount of time at the gym and has stuck to a balanced diet.
She’s in very good shape for her age and quite attractive in the right light.
A major hurdle to overcome was the defunct Eberspacher diesel central heating system. Cynthia and I secretly hoped that the Eberspacher was terminally ill. Former owner, Walter, agreed to either repair or replace the central heating system when we bought the boat from him. If we had a choice between a repaired thirty year old diesel burner and a brand new heating unit, I know which we would go for.
Sadly for us, and much to Walter’s delight, a new pump solved the problem. Even though it’s an old central heating system, it produces a lot of heat. Unfortunately, all of it is in one place.
The boat has a forward cabin, a shower room, a galley and dining area, a spacious cockpit with another table, a toilet and a rear cabin. There are only blown air heating ducts in the combined cockpit and galley areas. The rest of the boat is unheated at the moment.
We’ll have to see if we can afford to have the system modified to include additional heating ducts in both cabins, the bathroom and the toilet. Until then we’ll have to rely on electric heaters in the bedrooms and bathroom. We’ll only be able to heat these areas if we’re connected to a shore supply. Using a one kilowatt electric heater when we’re off grid would quickly drain the battery bank.
Actually running the Eberspacher heating system at all is proving to be a bit of a problem at the moment. The boat electrics are woefully inadequate for living on board full time. The existing battery bank isn’t holding a charge, not that it’s getting much of a charge to hold.
The ancient Bosch battery charger is also terminally ill. From the 16 amp shore supply, it’s managing to put just 1 amp into the battery bank. Given that the Eberspacher appears to draw three amps, and the fridge a similar amount, even on a mooring with an electrical hookup, we can’t generate enough power for the most basic electrical requirements on board.
We need to install a new battery bank, and a new charger/inverter, before we can move on board.
We can’t find a decent marine electrician anywhere in this area. We’ve spoken to one near Maastricht. He’s waiting for us to bring the boat to him so that he can quote for the work. He can’t commit to a timescale, and we’ll have to cruise for three or four days to reach him.
Fast forward a week.
Our electrical system in on its knees. Running our Eberspacher system for just one day appears to have depleted the battery bank completely. I say THE battery bank, because there’s only one. The engine doesn’t have a dedicated starter battery, so if the main bank discharges completely, as is the case at the moment, there’s no way to start the engine to recharge the batteries. It’s a risky configuration and one which most boaters try to avoid.
So we have a lovely looking boat with an aged and useless battery bank and charger and no way to move it to Maastricht to the marine electrician who is waiting to install a new system for us.
We needed to find a Belgian company to do the installation instead. Although there wasn’t one close to our mooring, Walter chatted to his yacht club cronies and located two companies specialising in marine electrical installations in Antwerp docklands. He also identified a specialist battery supplier which, he was told, also installed their products.
We visited the battery specialist first and quickly crossed them off our list.
We discovered that they no longer do installations. One of their colour blind technicians wired a system incorrectly on a commercial barge resulting a €3,000 alternator replacement bill.
This was disappointing because their batteries were competitively priced. Cynthia suggested that we should buy them and I should do the installation myself.
Can you imagine that?
I have what can only be described as the opposite to the golden touch where DIY is concerned. I’ve replaced wall tiles which fell down as soon as I turned my back. I spent an hour repairing a broken sink drain on my last boat which lasted less than a minute when I ran water into the sink. I replaced an exhaust muffler on my narrowboat’s aged raw water cooling system. It fell off on my first cruise after the repair, flooding the engine bay and almost sinking the boat.
After fifty seven years on this planet, I have finally mastered changing a plug… I think.
Me changing a battery bank successfully and getting the wiring right is about as likely as me being able to fly to the moon without a rocket.
It’s just not going to happen.
The owners of both the marine electrical companies visited the boat to quote for the work a few days ago. One sold Mastervolt products, the other Victron.
Our visitors couldn’t have been more different. Mr. Victron arrived first in his modest hatchback. We was dressed in clean but well worn work clothes and a pair of sensible boots, and carried a dog eared clipboard. His introduction was short and to the point, almost brusque. He was clearly there to do a job, and he was keen to get on with it. He was He was also a small man which, on Dik Trom, helped tremendously.
There’s a lot of free space in Dik Trom’s engine bay, but it’s difficult to get at. The battery bank sits in front of the engine. It isn’t accessible from the engine bay itself so anyone working on the batteries has to rely on a different route.
There’s a U shaped seating area in the cockpit. To reach the batteries, the upholstered seat back and base needs removing and then a 15” x 21” hatch above the underseat storage area has to be taken out. Once any stored items are removed, a 14” x 21” panel in the base of the storage area can be lifted out. Anyone unlucky enough to have to work on the batteries has to lower himself through both hatches onto the battery bank beneath.
Providing he doesn’t snag his family jewels on the battery wiring, he can then shuffle sideways into a crawl space which would make a tinned sardine feel claustrophobic.
It’s not an ideal working environment for portly technicians.
Mr. Victron was lithe as an eel. He slipped into the crawl space like water down a drain. After a quick investigation, he explained his recommended installation based on my requirements.
“Yes, we can everything you want, but splitting the batteries so that you have a separate starter battery will take some investigating. We can split the batteries, but the work might take a long time if changing the way the engine is wired to the control panel is difficult.
“You’ll need to help our engineer with the battery installation. Each 220ah battery weighs 63kg. That’s 140lb or ten stones, which is probably more that your wife weighs.” He pointed to the suitcase sized hole in our cockpit bench seating base as he talked. “Can you imagine lowering her on a rope through that engine bay hatch on your own?” I could imagine it without a problem. I could also imagine the difficulty I would have climbing back onto the boat from the canal if I ever tried.
Despite their weight, dealing with cumbersome batteries would be much easier than coping with an irate wife.
Helping with the battery installation wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, I would enjoy the exercise. What bothered me was an unknown addition to a quote which was already stretching our budget. I suppose a straightforward solution was too much to ask, but I don’t ever want to find myself in the position again where I can’t start the engine because the boat’s only batteries have failed, so I guess we’ll have to bite the bullet even if the work takes longer.
He had more bad news for us. “Just replacing the battery bank isn’t going to be enough. Your battery charger is no good. Even if it’s working properly, which I doubt, it’s a car battery charger which isn’t designed to be left permanently connected to batteries.” I didn’t want to tell him that the battery charger had, as far as I knew, been installed when the boat was built in 1983 and had been plugged into a shore supply twenty four hours a day for at least the last two years. No wonder the battery bank was terminally ill.
Mr. Victron’s quote hit my inbox just two hours after he left me. All the items were nicely itemised, as was the €700 in tax which we wouldn’t be paying if we accepted his quote.
Mr. Victron is a great believer in cash deals. So am I.
The quote for four 220ah AGM batteries split into three leisure and one starter battery banks, a Victron 12/70/1600 combi charger inverter, and an all singing, all dancing battery monitor was €3,400.
The price is about what we expected and, according to the yacht club guys, is a reasonable price for that kind of work here in Belgium.
Our experience with Mr. Mastervolt was completely different. Both Mr. Victron and Mr. Mastervolt were nice guys. Mr. Victron was rough-and-ready nice. Mr. Mastervolt was much more polished.
He arrived a day later than Mr. Victron because of two delays. The first was due to an important commercial big barge client of his with electrical problems. Mr. Mastervolt was very attentive to his mainly business-to-business customer needs. Probably because they have much more money than us little boat guys.
Purchase cost, licensing, part or full time mooring fees, propulsion and heating diesel, coal, gas and electricity generation costs... Trying to estimate the real cost of living afloat can be a real headache. In this comprehensive package, ALL the costs you are likely to incur are broken down and explained. Then you can enter your own specific costs in a bespoke narrowboat budget calculator. Low cost and backed by a 100% unconditional money back guarantee.
The second delay, early the following morning, was the result of a careless driver reversing across a Dutch cycle lane far too quickly in front of his bicycling wife. Pacifying his wife and taking her and her dented bike to work, with a short interlude to enthusiastically squeeze the the stroppy car driver’s testicles, delayed his arrival by another hour. But he kept me informed. I appreciated that very much.
Mr. Mastervolt arrived in his top of the range four wheel drive Volvo, dressed elegantly in designer jeans and a crisp white shirt. He carried a soft leather attache in one manicured hand. He exuded a sense of both charm and success.
This didn’t bode well for the price of his work at all.
While Mr. Victron was a short and slim Belgian, Mr. Mastervolt was a very tall, stoutly built Dutchman. Getting him through the small hatch into our cockpit wasn’t easy. Persuading him to jam his tall frame and designer jeans through a small hatch onto the battery bank was out of the question.
Listening to Mr. Mastervolt talk was like watching a video on how to sell successfully.
He told us what a wonderful boat we had, asked us about our future boating plans, and asked about our European boating experience. He told us about his wife, his life, his work. He let us know how hard he worked, how much he missed his six week old daughter, his wife and his home during long days at the office far from his Dutch home on the delightful Zeeland coast. He used his charm and his stories to build a personal connection with us, and then he told us about his products and services.
He told us about Mastervolt and their products, why they were superior to their competitors and why, luckily for us, they were perfect for our needs. He dazzled us with science, explaining how batteries received and held their charge, and why their 1600w inverter charger wasn’t powerful enough for our needs. We would need something bigger, more powerful and, of course, far more expensive.
He showed us a colour diagram as he explained how the batteries linked to the engine, the alternator, a fuse board, a control panel, a fancy digital display, a monitor and an inverter charger. He talked about the complexity of getting the wiring just right, and why his estimated three days labour at €65 an hour was entirely reasonable.
He warned us that good marine electricians are hard to find and, because of that, finding a company to do the work at short notice is very difficult. He told us we were lucky though. A customer had just rescheduled the installation of a similar system. He had availability the following week. He could fit us in, but only if we made the decision to use his services quickly.
He left us with a winning smile and a promise to email his quote within a couple of hours.
The quote arrived eight hours later. When I read it I understood why he had taken so long to put it together.
He had clearly anticipated our quote acceptance and spent much of the day placing an order for a new yacht. His price was astounding. He wanted €669 for each 200ah battery compared to Mr. Victron’s €360 for each of his higher capacity 220ah batteries. The difference in battery prices alone was €1,236. He also wanted €1,560 for labour. Even with his “very generous” 10% discount, the total price for installing four new batteries and an inverter/charger was an unbelievable €8,509.95. He wanted €5,100 more than Mr. Victron for a similar specification installation, and he wanted half of it before he set foot on the boat.
Choosing between the two was easy. Even if we wanted to, we simply couldn’t afford Mr. Mastervolt’s ridiculous prices. We asked Mr. Victron to do the work for us. The installation has been scheduled for the end of next week.
We still have plenty to keep us busy before then.
Walter sold the boat to us complete with its contents. He’s a kind and generous man who has become a good friend over the last few weeks, but he’s a bit of a hoarder. The boat looked tidy enough when we viewed it, but every cupboard, drawer, locker and storage space was crammed full. We spent days removing his possessions before we could even think about moving ours on board.
We found three electric kettles, two spare anchors, six plastic buckets, four 25 litre containers for extra diesel storage, several crockery and cutlery sets, five life jackets, and enough tools to open a shop. There was an electric drill, a jigsaw, a wire brush, a sander, socket sets, spanner and screwdriver sets, and enough nuts and bolts to ballast a boat. Given that I’ve only just learned to change a plug, and I’m the proud owner of three screwdrivers already, all of the tools, and everything else on board for that matter, was surplus to requirements.
The yacht club harbour master gratefully accepted all of the tools. He wasn’t quite so keen on the eighteen tins of hardened paint we tried to give him, but he was delighted with two new sets of folding steps, two hose reels, and a dozen long lengths of mainly unused rope, none of which was suitable for Dik Trom, and a pair of plastic oars.
There were three oars on board, crammed into a crawl space under the bed in the aft cabin. Belgian waterway regulations require owners of motorised small craft to keep one oar on board in case of an engine breakdown. I’m not quite sure how we would propel a ten tonne steel boat with a six foot long plastic oar, but I’m happy to give it a go.
Did I mention that Walter is a kind and generous man? He demonstrated just how generous when he visited us one day last week. He knew about our battery problems. His boat was a big part of his life. He’s lost without it. For a little while at least, he can maintain a connection with it by spending as much time as possible with us each day.
He stopped by for a coffee to discuss our latest boat fixing developments. We told him about the two different electrical quotes, and that we had accepted the less expensive price. Before we set foot on Dik Trom, we knew that we would probably need to replace the battery bank and upgrade the electrics. We were hoping to delay the upgrade until we reached Maastricht, but we knew that the work would have to be done sooner rather than later. The cost of the electrical work was ours, and ours alone. Walter had already dealt with his few repair obligations. The electrical work was up to us.
That’s what we thought anyway.
After Walter heaved himself up the two steps into our Hymer and wedged himself into a space on a bench seat next to the dogs, he talked about something which he told us had been on his mind for a few days. “I feel really bad that you’ve had all these problems with Dik Trom. I haven’t moved it for so long that I didn’t know the batteries were in such poor shape. I didn’t know the charger was damaging the batteries either. I feel responsible, so I want to pay for half of the installation.”
We tried, rather halfheartedly, to refuse his offer. We didn’t want to take advantage of an elderly and very kind hearted guy, but saving €1,700 on the installation would allow us to have the Eberspacher modification work done. He insisted. We gratefully accepted.
Over the last few days, while Cynthia moved many of our possessions from the motorhome into our new boat, I concentrated on cleaning the boat’s dirty algae coated exterior.
As I washed and scrubbed, I realised that we have a great deal of touching up to do. Walter, because of failing health and painful rheumatism, hasn’t been able to do much at all.
That will have to wait until next spring. Wet and windy November days aren’t suitable for boat painting. Anyway, we had more important things to deal with.
We had to find ourselves a new broker to help sell Julisa.
We asked the broker involved in the sale of Dik Trom to help us sell Julisa. In hindsight, we realise that we made a mistake.
Julisa is a classic wooden topped Dutch motor cruiser. She’s a beautiful boat, but she’s in a niche market. Broker Willem wasn’t particularly familiar with the boats, their appeal or the market for them.
He insisted that we listed the boat with him for €8,000 less than we wanted. We queried his recommendation. He told us he wasn’t a magician and that we wouldn’t find anyone prepared to pay a figure even close to our asking price. We were very disappointed.
We spoke to the broker who sold us Julisa earlier this year. He told us that our asking price was in fact realistic. He confirmed that he has personally sold a boat identical to Julisa six months ago for €2,000 more than our asking price. He further confided that he had sold a number of these cruisers for a similar price over the last few years.
We met the broker, Warner, and his charming wife, Conny, yesterday at the boatyard where Julisa is on hardstanding for the winter. They wanted to make sure that Julisa is still in the excellent condition she was when we bought her just six short months ago. She is, apart from a little missing hull paint which we will remedy before she goes back in the water in the spring.
Conny and Warner are happy to sell the boat for us, so that’s another problem dealt with for now. Next on the list is a trip to a local chandler for replacement fender rope. Dik Trom’s ten fenders, and the ropes that fixes them to the boat’s railings, look like they’ve been recently dredged from the canal bottom. I’m hoping that elbow grease and a liberal application of traffic film remover will rejuvenate the plastic fenders. New fender rope will help improve the boat’s aesthetics.
I have to stop writing now to deal with an emergency. We’ve just run out of gas, so we have no heating. They Hymer cools very quickly on a chilly November day. This is the first time we’ve run out of gas completely. Emptying the tanks fully is a schoolboy error. Our tank capacity is forty litres. We use about four litres a day in the winter. We last topped up ten days ago. Simple maths, but sometimes I forget.
I suppose it’s a sign of getting old. I’m losing the ability to think coherently. I’m only a hop, skip and a jump away from sitting in front of a blazing fire with a rug over my knees, staring into the flames chuckling to myself as I remember the adventures I’ve had. At least I will have had some adventures to remember. For that, I’m very thankful.
It is difficult on some levels to believe that we were zinging down the mountain roads of southern France at this time last year. At that time we had no inkling that our motorhome days of living on the road would come to an end sooner rather than later…..
Looking back over the past summer I guess in the back of mind I kind of saw it coming.
As soon as both of us slip into a boat on the water, everything changes, and the stresses of the day seem to melt away. And if you haven’t lived on the water, you probably won’t understand what I’m talking about.
Having and living on a beautiful and comfortable motorhome is nice, but just not the same as living and relaxing on a boat. Boats seem to have their own personality and you develop a deep and lasting connection to them. And maybe because water is so basic and necessary to life, you feels that much more connected when your house is on the water. Perhaps this sounds a bit crazy, but that’s how I feel about it, and I know Paul may use different words, but feels the same.
Having lived on three sailboats in San Diego with my first husband back in the ’70’s, that love of living on a boat never left me. I swore when I stepped off our last sailboat back in 1976, just prior to starting my airline training, that some day I would live back on the water. So there you go! Another dream that simmered for many years and has finally taken root again and come true.
Getting back to the title of this contribution-“The Truth”-the most pressing reason we are letting go of life on the road is because it was destined to be out of balance. Paul has to do ALL of the driving as I am A) too old to get a license to drive it, and B) the vehicle is too big and heavy for me to qualify for the appropriate license.
I hate seeing him stressed out at the end of a long day of driving, and I felt helpless to be able to do anything meaningful to make things better.
I had a feeling once we cast off in Julisa that we were destined to become full time live aboard people again, and here we are doing just that!
We have a number of things to accomplish before we can push away from the dock at Sint Job in ‘t Goor, Belgium, and wave a tearful good-bye to Walter, and point our bow to Maastricht where our winter mooring awaits us. The electrical necessities will be attended to in another week and then we will transfer our remaining things on board and head south.
We have heard nothing but wonderful things about Maastricht, and it is quite different from the rest of the Netherlands, as it is in the southeastern most part of the country sandwiched between Belgium to the west, and Germany to the east. So it is an eclectic mix of people of cultures that we are very much looking forward to experiencing.
We will enjoy exploring the waterways there and to also embrace the fact that there are hills to embrace and hike as well.
Stay tuned for more news as life moves on—surprises and adventure around every turn!
Even though we have the added stress of owning three vehicles and having to sell two of them in the near future, we have the peace of mind knowing we will be living a good and happy life aboard a lovely boat that should suit our needs for a long time to come.
I haven’t written any blog posts since the beginning of October. Our lives over the last four weeks have been hectic. I don’t know how that’s even possible now that I’m not working full time for a living, but life has certainly been very full indeed.
At the end of the last post, we were still in England, running around like headless chickens, trying to complete the countless items on our to do list before we returned to France. The task uppermost in our minds was actually getting Cynthia back into mainland Europe.
Cynthia had technically overstayed her entitlement on our last visit. As an American, she is only allowed to stay for a maximum of three months in any of twenty six countries in the Schengen area. She had actually been there for over a year. After a great deal of research, we discovered what we thought was a loophole which allowed non European spouses of EU citizens the same right to roam as EU citizens. We thought we were OK, but we still hadn’t tested the theory.
We booked a return passage through the channel tunnel. On our passage to Folkestone from Calais, we were waved through the French border control checkpoint, but stopped by English border control officers. They quizzed Cynthia for half an hour after being alerted by a marker on her passport. She was deported at Heathrow two years earlier for entering the UK to marry me without a required marriage visit visa.
Our investigating officer finally allowed her through, but warned us that we might face problems entering France on our return trip. That worrying information played on our minds throughout our ten day stay in England. We didn’t sleep much at all the night before our scheduled 4.40pm train on 10th October, but at least we didn’t have the dogs to worry about.
I’ve used Eurotunnel to cross between Folkestone and Calais ten times in the last eighteen months. The five crossings from Folkestone to Calais weren’t a problem. The only animal checks done on the way to France are to ask whether vehicle owners have dogs on board. There’s an £18 fee for each dog each way. Incidentally, the same fee applies to a ferret in case you’re thinking of taking one on holiday with you.
The leg from Calais to Dover is a different kettle of fish.
I’ve been stopped on two out of the five crossings into England. I had to leave one dog, Tasha, in Calais with Cynthia on one occasion. The other time, at the beginning of October this year, a French official at the pet reception centre noticed an incorrect microchip insertion date. Fortunately, we had the original microchip documentation with us so we were allowed through.
We didn’t have the dogs to worry about, but getting Cynthia through Calais was more than enough to keep us occupied.
We were off to a good start. We presented our tickets at the first checkpoint. Everything was in order, and there was an additional bonus of being offered an earlier train at no extra cost. We were funnelled quickly through Eurontunnel’s endless approach roads, diverted past the parking and services area, and then joined a short queue for the first of two border control checkpoints.
The English border control officer waved us through after a cursory passport examination. A hundred metres later we pulled in line behind a dark blue Mercedes and a white van at the French border control booth.
It was then that we suspected that booking a train at a time of day when traffic was light and border control officers had time on their hands wasn’t a particularly good idea. I’ve made the crossing several times during busy periods. On those occasions, bored French officials waved long lines of vehicles through the checkpoint without looking at passports at all. Now, with just three vehicles waiting, they had plenty of time to thoroughly check passports without holding up traffic.
Cynthia bit her lip, took a deep breath, and tried to look relaxed. I worried as usual, imagining the worst case scenario. Cynthia’s passport would be examined, we would be detained, questioned at length, possibly held in adjoining cells without food or water, and then fined and deported.
My overactive imagination ran riot. We would have to return to England and, unable to travel to mainland Europe, after Cynthia’s permitted six months in the UK expired, she would have to return to the USA. She had nowhere to live there. She would be homeless and, because she didn’t have an address there, she wouldn’t be able to sponsor me for a long stay visa or residency. We would have to live on different continents. Cynthia would only be able to join me in England for six months in every year. I wouldn’t be able to fly across the pond to be with her because of the dogs. What a nightmare. I suspected that we were minutes away from an effective end to our idyllic married life, and I was very, very scared.
The van driver stopped at the French border control booth. Rather than waving the vehicle on as was usual, the unsmiling officer demanded passports. After several tense minutes, the officer pointed to an empty bay behind his booth where the van driver could park while he was investigated further. I wondered whether security checks had been increased since our last visit. Maybe now the drivers of all vehicles were being checked thoroughly. My worst fears were being confirmed. I knew that we were in trouble.
The Mercedes driver pulled up next. The officer demanded his passport too. As we waited, barely able to breathe, vehicles began queueing behind us. Two cars, another van, and then a fully loaded tour coach. Would each of drivers be stopped and questioned too, or would the now lengthy queue mean that the border control officer had to return to random checks? We didn’t know, but we were about to find out.
“Just stay calm,” I ordered Cynthia, my voice a nervous squeak. I took a deep breath, released the Hymer’s handbrake, and crawled forward until my side window was level with the control booth.
The officer stared at me intently, switched his attention to Cynthia, looked at the Hymer, and then slowly held out his hand for our passports. This was it, the end of our idyllic lifestyle, the beginning of married life lived on separate continents.
I picked up our two passports from the dashboard and then slowly reached out of the window to hand them over and seal our fate. The officer looked at me, glanced at our passports, and then turned his head to examine the growing queue behind us. With a casual flick of his wrist, he made two frightened people very happy. He didn’t have time to examine us we were free to go.
We knew that we were lucky, but we also knew that we stood a better chance of being lucky entering Europe from France rather than any other country. French border officials are renowned for being more relaxed than most.
Nonetheless, we didn’t want to repeat the experience. The following day, we booked an appointment to apply for a residency permit. The earliest date available is late November. All we have to do now is persuade someone in the Netherlands to allow us to use their address for the permit. Surely that’s not too much to ask?
With that particular worry at least temporarily out of the way, we resumed our search for the perfect live aboard boat for European waterways.
We considered a number of barges. Many were for sale within our budget, including two very well maintained boats owned by a friend of my old boss at Calcutt Boats, Roger Preen.
The ‘his and hers’ barges are in immaculate condition. They were strong contenders, but we finally decided that, at twenty five metres, they just weren’t practical.
Our plan is to spend much of our time in the Netherlands where there are many free moorings. However, the majority of them are more suitable for boats up to fifteen metres in length. A twenty five metre boat would be more difficult to find a mooring for, more costly to moor in a country where paid moorings are charged by the metre, and much more costly to maintain than a shorter boat.
Because of these practicalities, barges around fifteen metres in length are very popular and therefore quite expensive. It’s not uncommon to see a twenty five metre barge with a decent specification listed at a lower cost than one ten metres shorter.
We continued looking at a variety of barge styles, lengths and configurations. Despite there being thousands of boats for sale in the Netherlands, most of them are motor cruisers. Although motor cruisers are perfect for fair weather cruising, because they lack insulation, they aren’t suitable for living on all year round. Our search continued, but we were running out of steam, until we found Dik Trom.
DIk Trom is a mischievous fat boy, sorry, mischievous and generously proportioned boy, from a series of Dutch children’s books. More importantly as far as we were concerned, it was the name of a likely looking candidate for our continental liveaboard plans.
Dik Trom is a 10.5m Linssen motor cruiser. Cynthia and I have always admired Linssen boats, but they have always been way above our budget. Knowing we couldn’t afford the boat, we viewed a ten year old 9.5m Linssen earlier in the year. Linssens are renowned for their build quality and attention to detail. Although shorter than we would like, this particular boat was very well configured. It had two bedrooms, an outside and an inside steering position, and, surprisingly for a Dutch motor cruiser, it was well insulated. Unfortunately, it was €137,000. We walked away but continued to dream of owning one.
Dik Trom is a much older boat, but an old boat isn’t necessarily a bad boat. The listing photographs showed a charming interior, comprehensively fitted with attractive solid wood, two cabins and interior and exterior helms. What we didn’t know was whether the boat was insulated.
The broker didn’t know either. He suggested that we view the boat and check for insulation on the day. We agreed, but I also emailed Linssen to ask what records they kept for one of their vintage boats.
Linssen customer service bent over backwards to help. Engineer Rennie Hénuy told us that he had only worked with the company for twenty years, so he had to contact Linssen’s retired founding owner. He was told that Linssen yachts built at that time were fully insulated with Styropor, an expandable polystyrene.
Polystyrene isn’t great insulation, but it’s more insulation than most Dutch cruisers have. We decided that the boat was worth looking at.
Dik Trom is moored at a small yacht club in Sint-Job-in-’t-Goor a few miles north east of Antwerp in Belgium. We met broker, Willem, and owner, Walter, at the yacht club two weeks ago.
We instantly fell in love with the boat. It ticked all of our boxes. It felt dry, cosy, spacious, homely, and utterly impractical for two short legged, long bodied, heavy dogs. To enter the cabin two vertical steps need negotiating to reach the rear deck, and then there are another four vertical steps down into the cockpit. It wasn’t an impossible problem to overcome, but it would need some thought.
One of the first things we checked for was a musty smell, an indication of damp. The inside of Dik Trom looked and smelled dry. The boat felt huge after so much time spent in the Hymer and, because it has a fully enclosed cockpit unlike our Super Favorite cruiser, it offered a much larger boat living space than we’ve had when cruising this year.
We liked the boat enough to make a cheeky offer. We knew that the boat had been listed for sale for two years. We also knew that owner Walter was so emotionally attached to it that he hadn’t been prepared to move on the price. However, now in his late seventies and not in the best of health, he had recently agreed with his wife that the time had come to move on. The broker told us that Walter was prepared to do a deal.
Much to both our surprise and our delight, Walter accepted our offer without haggling. The boat was ours. Hooray!
All we had to do then was find a way of paying for it.
The following two weeks were difficult for me. I still had a reasonable amount in my bank account as a rainy day fund and I still need to earn a living to supplement Cynthia’s pension which currently pays most of our living expenses. Despite countless hours slaving away over a hot keyboard, I still haven’t completed two projects which I hope will increase my income, my online narrowboat course and a book. I regularly have to dip into my savings to help pay the bills.
Our joint income would be just enough to live on if we were careful, but it wouldn’t provide us with much of a surplus. We didn’t have enough capital to buy the new boat, even at the much reduced price, so we would have to pretty much empty my bank account in addition to taking out a bridging loan until we could sell both our Super Favorite and our Hymer motorhome. We came to the conclusion that if I couldn’t increase my online income quickly, I would probably need to find at least a part time job.
We’ve spent the following two weeks debating the wisdom of buying another boat before our current boat and our motorhome have been sold, working out how much we would need to spend in total if we bought it, and figuring out a way of raising the money without launching me down a stress induced ever steepening downhill slope.
I don’t handle being without money very well at all.
While we debated, planned and worried, we toured and wild camped. It was during those two weeks that we were provided with clear signs that moving afloat full time sooner rather than later was the way to go for us.
After an eventful and sometimes harrowing working life, I crave tranquility. Standing at the helm of a gently rocking boat cruising along tranquil waterways soothes me. Laying on my bed listening to small waves gently slapping against the hull inches from my head lulls me into a deep and peaceful sleep. Cleaning nighttime condensation from a wet deck at the crack of dawn relaxes me.
I feel more at peace on a boat than I do anywhere else, which is more than I can say for life in a motorhome.
Roads in the Netherlands are pretty good. There’s usually enough room for us to pass oncoming traffic, but it’s often tight. Dutch motorists are generally both patient and friendly, but there are exceptions. And when a belligerent driver coming towards me tries to force his way through a too small gap, I take exception. Too much violent confrontation in my chequered past has scarred me. Despite, and maybe because of, Cynthia’s well intentioned advice to take things easy, I struggle to stay calm.
Even when I have finished driving for the day, I can’t relax. Unlike France, wild camping isn’t allowed in the Netherlands. It’s often tolerated, but we never know when we’re likely to be disturbed.
The Dutch police force are the official enforcers, but we also have to be wary of park officials and even members of the public. Car drivers will often stop and stare if they see our motorhome parked late at night or early in the morning close to a beach or national park. Two or three of them over the last year have taken time out of their busy days to share their knowledge of Dutch parking laws with us. At least they can’t force us to move, although I suspect that more than one have telephoned the police to report our crime.
In the last two weeks we have been moved on by the police three times.
The first time was on a night when we really needed to get some sleep. Cynthia had to endure a four train, ten hour journey from Rotterdam to the 3E holistic cancer clinic near Stuttgart in Germany. I didn’t want to drive her there because of a slow oil leak the Hymer has developed on the drive shaft. I needed to get that fixed before I could confidently drive long distances, not that the thought of driving long distances filled me with joy.
Because I wanted Cynthia to have a good night’s sleep before an arduous day of travel, we drove from the Zeeland coast to a likely looking spot close to Brielse meer to the west of Rotterdam.
As is our normal practice, we found a quiet rural car park, checked to make sure that there were no signs prohibiting overnight parking, found a level spot with a decent view, and then settled down for what we hoped would be a peaceful evening.
At 10pm, just as we were preparing for bed, we saw the headlights of an approaching vehicle. That’s always a bad sign, especially if the vehicle stops close to us. This one did and, less than a minute later, we heard the expected knock on our door.
The Dutch are usually charming, even when they’re doing an unpleasant job. We were told, politely but firmly, that we had to leave immediately. Cynthia asked if there was anywhere else we could stay locally. The two park rangers told us that there was a large car park on the lake’s opposite shore. Motorhomes often stopped there, they told us, so we could relax for the rest of the night.
The officers left. We left a few minutes later. We followed what we thought were the right directions for a few miles. We turned into another small car park. Cynthia saw some lights on in a nearby house and shadowy figures entering a side door. She decided to check to make sure we were in the right place. We didn’t want to be moved again.
Much to her surprise, the house occupants were the park rangers who had just moved us. Ever helpful, they drew us a map and wrote the name of the restaurant down for us. Half an hour later, at 11pm, we were at our new home for the night, finally settling in for a good night’s sleep.
We were woken at 1am, this time by the police. They assured us that the park rangers didn’t know what they were talking about and that we couldn’t stay the night. “Where can we go at this time of the night?” a very tired and increasingly frustrated Cynthia asked. “That is not our problem. Find a campsite somewhere, anywhere, but you can’t stay here!”
So for the second time that night, we moved on, looking for an open campsite in the wee dark hours. Of course, we didn’t find one. We ended up at the tail end of a long line of lorries hugging the grass verge in a lay-by next to a main road filling station, trying to sleep despite the roar of passing traffic and the sodium glare of a nearby street light shining through our bedroom window.
Living in a motorhome was quickly losing its appeal. Driving was stressful, parking for the night was always questionable unless we were prepared to find a campsite open in October and we were prepared to pay up to €25 per night for the pleasure of parking there.
A week later, again at 10pm just as we were preparing for bed, the police moved us on again. They assured us that motorhome parking wasn’t allowed anywhere along the Zeeland coast, and directed us to a campsite in a distant city. Fortunately, we had overnighted successfully in a pleasant seaside car park ten miles away on a number of occasions. Despite the police warning to the contrary, we moved there and enjoyed a peaceful if slightly anxious night.
At least I wasn’t disturbed while Cynthia was away. I found a quiet place to park close to a beach near Camperduin in North Holland and spent most of my time either walking on the beach with Abbie, or trying to work out how we could afford to juggle our finances enough to buy our new boat.
Cynthia’s bridging loan wasn’t enough, even with the rest of my savings. We needed money for the bridging loan repayments, money for expected repairs and upgrades for the new boat, and even more money to get both the Super Favorite and the Hymer ready to sell.
I tried friends and family, banks and building societies. I even bought some lottery tickets. Nothing worked. We were still short of money. We almost decided to draw a line under our full time liveaboard plans, until at least the Super Favorite was sold. That would probably mean another year of motorhome ownership and the associated stress. It was a depressing thought.
As a last ditch attempt, I tried a creative approach.
I suggested to Willem, the broker selling Dik Trom, that he could also sell our Super Favorite. Walter, the owner, would wait for the balance due for his boat until Julisa, our Super Favorite, sold. Because he would be effectively lending us the remaining money that we needed to buy his boat, we would pay him an additional amount equal to the interest that we would have had to pay on a bridging loan. That sum would be paid straight from the broker’s account when Julisa sold. It was a win/win situation. Willem would gain an additional commission, plus the commission due for Dik Trom, Walter would sell his boat, and eventually earn a little extra money, and we would be able to overcome a difficult situation and finally purchase our live aboard boat.
The plan’s success revolved around Walter being prepared to trust us. We were asking a lot of him. Boats can take years to sell in the Netherlands. He knew nothing about motorhomes. He might have to wait a considerable time before he received all of his money. Walter didn’t know anything about Cynthia or me. We could have had an appalling financial track record and a history of deceit. Either or both of us could die before he was paid his money, or suffer serious injury or illness. The more I thought about it, the less I expected him to agree.
Much to our delight and our surprise Walter agreed. We had a deal. The final step was the out of water survey. Walter, because of his failing health, had been unable to take on the boat’s necessary regular maintenance for the previous few years. In fact, the boat had rarely been off its mooring. We knew it hadn’t been out of the water for at least four years. What we could see of the boat looked in good condition, but what lay beneath the surface?
We found out last Thursday.
Thursday was a chaotic day at the small yacht club. The members had booked a crane to take a ten boats out of the water for the winter. There wasn’t a huge amount of space so, if we wanted to inspect Dik Trom’s hull, we would have to wait until all ten boats had been taken out. There wouldn’t be any room for Dik Trom, so the boat would have to be hoisted above a pier to allow our surveyor, Tom, an opportunity to check the hull thickness and condition and examine the stern gear.
The yacht club is a close knit community of enthusiastic retired boat owners. Most of them arrived early Thursday morning. Only two people plus the crane operator were needed to lift out each boat, but a dozen helped, laughing and joking and generally getting in each other’s way. They were all retired. This was a social event. There was no rush, which was a little frustrating as we were last in the queue and Tom had a two hour drive back to north Amsterdam.
While we were waiting to be lifted, Tom inspected the boat’s interior. As we suspected, after several years languishing on a yacht club mooring, there were a few problems. The horn didn’t work, nor did the electric windlass. The depth sounder indicated that we were moored, at a small inland yacht club on a narrow and shallow canal, in thirty five metres of water. There was a leak in one of the porthole seals, another around the shower tray drain, and there was some serious rust around the bilge pump outlet and on the anchor chain tube. During our short sea trial a short bow thruster blast completely drained the domestic battery bank. We later discovered that the three large lead acid batteries hadn’t been topped up with distilled water for years. Walter simply couldn’t reach the batteries in the engine bay’s far corner. They would all need replacing before we could use the boat, but we expected that.
What we didn’t expect was a defunct central heating system. At first, we thought that the Eberspacher failure was due to the flat batteries. Back from the sea trial and once more attached to the national grid, the heater still failed to run.
The list of problems and failures continued to grow.
By mid afternoon all ten boats were precariously balanced on rickety homemade cradles ready for six months cold weather. We were next. Our future boating plans hinged on a successful hull survey. We could overcome all of the interior problems, but a rusty and weakened hull would be a bridge too far. Cynthia was her usual positive self. “The hull will be fine. You’ll see. The rest of the boat is in pretty good condition. Why should the hull be any different?” I could think of a dozen reasons why.
The hull hadn’t been painted for a number of years. The boat had been moored at a yacht club for a decade plugged into the shore supply along with two dozen other boats doing the same. I didn’t know if Dik Trom had anodes or, if it did, what condition they would be in. In such an environment, without anodes, the hull could suffer from electrical leakage. The crane lift could reveal a hull pitted and corroded beyond affordable repair. The boat was thirty four years old. A lot could go wrong in three and a half decades. So many things could compromise the hull’s integrity. As the crane slowly lifted Dik Trom from the canal’s murky water I could hardly breathe. This was it, the moment of truth. Permanent boating within a few shorts weeks or another twelve months enduring bad tempered drivers, over enthusiastic police officers, narrow roads and endless stress. As the crane’s lifting straps creaked under Dik Trom’s ten tonnes, I held my breath.
The hull surprised us all. A thin layer of slippery algae covered a hull free of bits, blemishes or any other sign of decay. Subject to Cynthia and I being able to come to an agreement about the survey faults, we were looking at our new home.
Walter has been both charming and accommodating. He brought in an electrician to fix the electrical problems. The odd depth sounder readings are probably due to a build up of dirt. We’ll take the boat out of the water some time in the next six months to clean and repaint the hull. We’ll clean the depth sounder while we’re at it. If that works, great. If not, being without a depth sounder on Europe’s inland waterways isn’t going to be much of a problem.
The central heating system still isn’t working. The pump is currently the prime suspect. We may have to wait a week before a new pump arrives from the German factory. If that doesn’t work, Walter will buy a new Eberspacher diesel burner. Both Cynthia and I are secretly hoping that the new pump doesn’t work. The current burner is thirty four years old. We can’t imagine it lasting much longer.
We’re in Maastricht today, three days cruise from Antwerp. The boat is still on its mooring waiting for the central heating repair. We’ve driven here in the Hymer to look for a winter mooring. We’ve found one at beautiful Maastricht marina. We’re heard and read much about the city. It would make a good winter home. Maastricht marina is within biking distance of the city centre. It’s pretty, quiet, and dirt cheap. If we commit to five months, we’ll have to pay just €2.40 (£2.12) a day. All we have to do today is establish whether we’ll be allowed to live on board. The Dutch are much more relaxed about owners living on marina moorings full time, but not all marina owners allow it. We hope that this one does.
Then there’s the small matter of actually getting the boat across Belgium to Maastricht. I understand that a VHF radio is required if a VHF radio is installed. Dik Trom has two working VHF radios, which is good. Not being able to operate one or having a license to do so is not so good.
I’ll be stepping outside my comfort zone again, and I don’t like it, but I’m sure that in future years I’ll remember our maiden voyage fondly. All I need to do at the moment is to make sure that I’m legal for our maiden voyage.
Does anyone have any idea where I can get a short range certificate for VHF/DSC before the end of next week?
I enjoy writing newsletters which, I am often told, are very useful to anyone considering living an alternative lifestyle either afloat on the English or Dutch waterways, or leading a nomadic life on the road in the tiny living space offered by a motorhome. The downside is that adding content to the site, maintaining it, and answering dozens of emails each week takes a considerable amount of time. I invest up to twenty hours every week on the site and, over the course of the year, many hundreds of pounds. I can’t afford the investment in either time or money without a little help. If you are in the fortunate position to be able to afford a small financial subscription or one off donation to help with the site’s running costs, please click on this link to find out more. If you are one of the generous souls who already support the site, thank you!