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


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Common Narrowboat Newbie Mistakes And How To Avoid Them Part 2

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

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

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

Orient's roof is looking better

Orient’s roof is looking better

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

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

Jason adds the last few drops of Craftmaster Raddle Grey

Jason adds the last few drops of Craftmaster Raddle Grey

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

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

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

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

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

Fending off with body parts, boat hooks or poles

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

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

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

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

The Folly Of Adhering To A Rigid Timetable

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

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

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

 Crew Communication

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

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

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

And inside narrowboats’ cosy cabin too.

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

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

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

Helmsman Training & Experience Days

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

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

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

Waiting at Calcutt Top lock

Waiting at Calcutt Top lock

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

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

Boats jockey for position on the Calcutt flight

Boats jockey for position on the Calcutt flight

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

Madness! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not all narrowboat accidents end so well.

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

Ascend Locks Carefully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One End Up, One End Down

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

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

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

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

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

Man Overboard

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

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

Summary

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

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

Discovery Day Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Harries enjoying a Discovery Day cruise

Nina Harries enjoying a Discovery Day cruise

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Paul Smith
 

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.