Dark Days on the Dutch Canals
We live an idyllic lifestyle; the weather is good, we are fit and healthy, and we have all the time in the world, and just about enough money, to tour or cruise wherever we want in Europe, but there’s a dark and dismal cloud hanging over Julisa today.
After two peaceful days on our island mooring, Oude Kooi on the Klein Kerkegat, we, our happy band of four, cruised for an hour north to Kempers Watersports on the Westeinderplassen to resupply.
The boat’s tiny 200l water tank wasn’t the problem, but our 21l capacity toilet cassette was close to overflowing. Initially we resisted buying a second cassette because of the logistics of finding somewhere to store it securely and out of sight. We’ve now discovered that there is more than enough room in the engine bay.
A second cassette will certainly be out of sight, but possibly not out of smell. Twenty litres of liquid poo slowly cooking beneath our feet as it nestles next to a hot engine as we travel is not a particularly happy thought, but I think the advantage of being able to stay another couple of days away from the expense of marina moorings outweighs the disadvantages of standing above a fetid slow cooker. I think we’ll be ordering a second cassette, and a packet of clothes pegs for our noses, in the very near future.
We both continue to marvel at the size of the waterways over here, and realise once more why narrowboats need to be as tough as they are. I was reminiscing earlier in the week, leafing through the vast collection of digital photo’s I took on my watery wanderings. Sections of canal barely wide enough to accommodate a 6’10” wide narrowboat are common, often through rocky cuttings where a wider waterway would have been a laborious and costly affair in the days when picks and shovels were the builders’ only tools. No wonder then that all narrowboats are a mass of scrapes and scratches.
The vast Westeinderplassan couldn’t be more different. Over fifty marinas circle the three and a half mile long, mile and a half wide lake. A jumble of tightly packed islands form narrow navigable channels through the lake’s northern section. Most are privately owned and used for recreation. Some are still used to grow strawberries and herbs. One, Starteiland, is a publically accessible nature reserve.
After a night at Kempers Watersports marina to top up with water, empty our cassette, and charge our battery bank, we ploughed for forty minutes through white topped swells to the much more placid public moorings sheltered by the small island.
We had the island, and the two hundred feet long jetty to ourselves, until another small cruiser arrived at dusk carrying a father and his two teenage sons. The father, a retired jazz musician from Aalsmeer at the lake’s northern tip, left the the boys and the boat to their own devices when his wife arrived in a second boat to collect him.
His plan was to allow the lads to enjoy a night on their own, fishing from the island using the boat as a refuge in case the weather turned. The reality was far different. After setting up a couple of rods close to the boat, the teenagers climbed into their bunks and slept until morning, leaving the island free for Tasha and Florence to explore at leisure.
After a night on the island, we chugged north to Aalsmeer, the largest town on the lake, and tied up on two hour visitor moorings close to the town centre for food shopping and a two hour cafe visit to use their free WiFi to update Cynthia’s MacBook operating system.
We had a choice of moorings for the night. Another island close to Aalsmeer offered free forty eight hour moorings, but with a lively breeze blowing and just one small space free between two expensive cruisers, we decided to return to the tranquility of Starteiland.
I wish we hadn’t.
That night was peaceful enough, apart from the ever present roar of passenger aircraft launching themselves into the sky from Schipol airport a handful of miles to the north, but the following day was anything but quiet.
At 8am a Dutch waterways work boat arrived to replace a section of broken pilings close to our mooring. The boat mounted excavator hammered in new 25’ long pilings all morning, and then six boats from the local sailing club arrived, each crewed by half a dozen excited children and their patient instructor.
By mid afternoon the work and pleasure boats had motored and sailed away, leaving us alone on the tree studded island again, free to relax and read or, for Florence and Tasha, free to explore the picnic tables for any sailing club lunchtime droppings.
Our two bassets are mischievous little gits. They are living vacuum cleaners, sucking up any morsel left on the ground. Their constant hoovering sometimes causes stomach upsets but, rather than subjecting them to the indignity and inconvenience of muzzles, we keep an eye on them to keep them away from from the inedible and unhealthy.
Neither are terribly active, both are wilfully stubborn, more inclined to sleep than exercise, but they both have huge characters, especially Florence.
Although it was Cynthia who rescued Florence from a basset breeder in Pennsylvania where she was considered surplus to requirements after a difficult birth, and transported her from the USA to the Netherlands after a great deal of paperwork and even greater cost, she always considers Florence to be my dog.
Florence has always been a wonderful companion.
I don’t display emotion easily, other than anger – a trait, Cynthia assures me, which is a result of PTSD after enduring a considerable amount of workplace violence following a decade of managing tough pubs, especially in London. In the short period that this wonderful dog has been with us, Florence has helped calm me considerably.
She is an affectionate clown. Her favourite place is on my lap, which is quite a feat considering she weighs 65lb. The pain in my crushed testicles is always outweighed by the pleasure I feel as she leans her football sized head against me and paws me gently with dinner plate feet.
She grows both restless and mischievous if she doesn’t get enough exercise. In that respect she is very similar to me. I often escape with her for an hour or two. We wander around new towns and villages, stopping occasionally for a drink. The cappuccino brought to me is always accompanied by a bowl of water for Florence. After our drinks we doze and dribble, often in unison, as we relax and watch the world go by. Ours is a very happy partnership.
An idyllic day on the island drew to a close, so we wandered back to the boat for what we expected would be an evening of quiet relaxation.
Both Tasha and Florence are very conscientious with their toilet needs. A gentle whine, or a solitary bark is enough to let us know that they need to go outside. Soon after we climbed back on the boat, after an afternoon of happy picnic bench snacking, Florence whined quietly by the cockpit steps. By the time I put my shoes on, she was pacing restlessly and whining insistently. After opening the sliding cockpit window for her, she hauled her considerable bulk onto a portable step we installed to accommodate her stumpy legs, squeezed herself laboriously through the recently constructed dog door, squatted on the pier’s wooden decking, and shat copiously and at length. She walked a few steps, and then squatted again. Within a couple of minutes she had squatted five times to fire bright brown jets of illness through the decking slats into the lake beneath.
The event didn’t worry me. Both dogs occasionally pay the penalty for their gluttonous ways. To be perfectly honest, I was more annoyed than concerned.
I am not proud to admit it, but I am not very tolerant of anything which makes a mess of what I consider to be a necessarily tidy home, especially one as small as our 32’ long boat.
When Florence jumped back on board and promptly vomited on the cockpit’s highly varnished wooden decking, I was a little irritated. When Tasha followed that by quickly squatting and pebbledashing the rest of the cockpit, I was angry.
“This is too much! We spend all of our time cleaning up after these two. If it’s not dog hair on everything, it’s slobber, vomit or shit! I hate living in a mess all of the time. The dogs are a nightmare!”
While I was busy with my childish tantrum, Florence scrambled outside again to squat and strain, shortly followed by Tasha. Cynthia, ever the diplomat, spoke to me quietly. “When something like this happens, I always ask myself how important I will think it is in a month or a year from now. Is life really THAT bad?” Yes, at the time, I really did think life was that bad. I wouldn’t have done if I knew what was coming.
While she spoke, Cynthia used yards of kitchen roll to calmly clear up the mess, trying to keep up with the regular deposits of watery vomit made by Florence. She constantly soothed ‘my’ dog with gentle and reassuring words and touches, trying to comfort her and ease her distress.
I did my bit by going to bed.
For several hours, Cynthia climbed wearily out of bed every time she heard Florence gag, to mop vomit and encourage her to drink. I did nothing other than lay awake and fume.
Eventually, the storm appeared to pass. The retching stopped and was replaced by the slow and steady breathing of trouble free sleep. I slept too, deeply and without regret, until dawn the following day.
A high pitched heart-rending scream startled me awake. “Oh my God, Oh my God!” Cynthia wailed. “She’s dead. Florence is DEAD!”
I rushed into the cockpit to find Cynthia sitting on the wooden decking above the engine bay with Florence’s limp and lifeless form cradled in her arms. “It’s my fault! It’s all my fault. When I walked with them around the island last night I saw them eating scraps beneath the picnic benches, but I didn’t stop them. WHY didn’t I stop them?!”
Cynthia draped a blanket over Florence, which suited me fine. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her, or even look at her. While the dog which had given me so much unconditional love quietly died on her own, I lay in bed cursing the mess that she made. I felt, and still feel, a selfish, bad tempered, childish prick.
I’m not very good at relationships, feelings or emotional stuff, but give me a clinical task to complete, and I’m pretty much unbeatable.
We had to deal with the logistics of disposing of Florence’s rapidly stiffening husk. We didn’t know the rules in the Netherlands. Did we have to notify the authorities? What did we need to do with her body? We were stuck on a boat on an island in the middle of a large lake, without the transport necessary to move the body of a large dog to a veterinary practice or, as the very last resort, to the closest skip.
My first thought was to call the local police station but, tragic as the circumstances were, it clearly wasn’t an emergency and, at 6am, the small town police station was likely to be closed.
We decided to return to Kempers Watersports with its easy access to a main road and ever helpful staff. The cruise was a sombre affair through grey water streaked with bright green algae under a sky filled with ominous grey clouds.
We tied up at 7am, still much too early to call any of the local authorities, so, still unwilling to accept Florence’s death, I stepped over her blanket wrapped body to attend to our practical needs. The cassette needed emptying, our water tank needed filling and our batteries needed charging.
By the time I completed my tasks, the time was respectable enough to start making phone calls. I tried to phone the local police station, but my Netherlands SIM card blocked calls to 09 prefixes. I called 112, the emergency services number, and asked them for an alternative local number. They couldn’t give me one.
I tried phoning a branch of the Netherlands pet ambulance service. The guy who answered didn’t speak English. I tried another branch. The lady who answered spoke English but couldn’t understand me because of my poor phone signal.
By then, the marina office staff had arrived for work. Martine, the ever helpful receptionist, offered to call the ambulance service and translate for me. They would come, she told me, but there would be a charge for coming, and another for disposing of the body.
Back at the boat, while we waited for the ambulance, I took a deep breath and tackled the unpleasant task of carrying Florence’s stiff body off the boat. She was a big and heavy dog who struggled to fit through the narrow door we had made for her and Tasha. Now that rigor mortis had set in, the task was especially difficult.
I gently lifted the blanket off her. Maybe she wasn’t dead after all. She looked like she was sleeping and, when I slipped my hands between her fur and the deck boards, her body felt warm. Cynthia must have made a mistake. She was probably just in a deep and exhausted sleep.
Then I realised that her body heat was because of the hot engine in the bay beneath her. Our big, adorable, affectionate clown had left us good, and I didn’t have the common decency to comfort her as she suffered.
The ambulance driver and receptionist Martine arrived carrying a stretcher between them, offering quietly spoken condolences. The ambulance driver frowned when she heard we were English, checked her phone and told us the bad news. “I am so sorry for your loss, and I’m sorry to tell you that, because you are not Dutch, the disposal charges are very high. You need to pay €25 for me to transport the body, and then €170 for the cremation”.
We didn’t really have a choice. The only other option was to drop Florence’s body in one of the marina’s half dozen wheelie bins. That wasn’t a consideration as far as either of us was concerned. Cynthia was in favour of cremation after remembering a story I told her about the English waterways.
A few years ago, I met a lone boater standing beside a lock, holding a wooden box wrapped in a tattered plastic shopping bag. I discovered that, after twenty years of saving for a boat to spend their retirement on as they cruised the network, his wife died a week before their custom built narrowboat was launched.
The husband cruised on his own, stopping at each lock he passed to sprinkle a few grains of his wife’s ashes on the water. By doing this, he told me, his wife would be with him in spirit.
When we asked about collecting Florence’s ashes, the ambulance driver had another unpleasant surprise for us. The price she quoted was for a group cremation. If we wanted the ashes, we would have to have a solo cremation, which would cost an additional €100.
I helped carry Florence’s inert form along the marina pontoon to the waiting ambulance and then watched sadly as she was driven away forever.
Florence’s Dutch vet, Anneka, learned of her death through an email from Cynthia. In her reply, she told Cynthia that both people and animals come into your lives for a reason. They are there to teach you a valuable lesson. I don’t know whether I believe this, but I know what I have learned from this sad episode.
I stress far too much about the little things in life so much that I lose sight of the bigger picture. I can’t see the wood for the trees. Rather than focussing on trivial dog hair, muddy paw prints and the occasional strand of drool flicked from a joyously shaken head, I should concentrate on the unconditional love that dogs, especially bassets give so freely.
I don’t think that we will wait long before getting another basset. She won’t ever replace beautiful Florence, but she’ll certainly help.
If You Enjoy These Newsletters, Please Help Support This Site
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!