Learn about life afloat the easy way

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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Electrical Problem Solving And Pre Cruise Preparation

There was no great rush to return to Tattenhall marina. We had five days before the workshop guys could begin our electrical work. I stood at the tiller for two eight hour days on the twenty-three mile, twenty-eight lock cruise from Tattenhall to Market Drayton. It was exhausting. We allowed four four-hour cruising days for the return journey, and what a pleasure it was.

The cruise to Market Drayton was hard. A journey in a new boat with unfamiliar controls and a deep draught along an unknown stretch of the Shropshire Union canal, a waterway peppered with demanding locks. And all of the while trying to keep to an almost impossible schedule. The return journey was so much easier.

I felt much more confident with the boat. Each lock landing offered a new opportunity to experiment with different methods of slowing and stopping close enough to shallow banks to jump ashore. My attempts became less awkward, more accomplished, even graceful on occasion. Steering the heavy boat became less of a challenge too.

During our first two days, I was determined to cover as much distance as possible while I had enough light to see. I cruised slightly faster than I would normally. The journey was all about making miles rather than leisurely sightseeing. I gave the engine too much throttle. Consequently the already deep draughted stern bit another inch or two into the canal or, on the shallow Shroppie, into the canal bed. Easing off on the throttle on the return leg raised the stern a little and made steering much more manageable. I was able to enjoy regular heron sightings and the occasional blue flash of a waterside kingfisher. My mind was occupied more with scenic canal banks than useless battery banks.

Our terminally ill domestic batteries continued to work after a fashion. They could hold the charge generated by a four-hour cruise for no more than half a day. Our twelve-volt system worked until we retired for the night, but then we woke the following mornings to dim cabin lights, a water pump gasping like a dying man and a lifeless inverter.

Orient has a built-in generator. It’s supposed to be a get out of jail free card for charging a dead domestic bank. But this failsafe will only work if the generator’s own battery is kept fully charged. It hasn’t been. The generator is responsible for charging its own battery. It apparently hasn’t taken its obligations seriously in the past.

We tried to run the gennie on our way back to Tattenhall to discover that I had inadvertently flattened its starter battery when running the beast for the first time. It’s easy to do. The generator is stopped by pulling a wire rather than using a key to turn it off. Unless the user pulls the six-inch length of steel and then also turns off the ignition key, the battery slowly drains until it’s a useless lump of lead. It’s a poorly designed system, one which relies on the operator remembering the two-step shutdown procedure. That counts me out. Pulling the wire was all I could manage. I’ll have to change the charging regime when funds allow.

The generator failure could have caused us some discomfort. The boat’s two-cylinder Lister, beautiful as it both looks and sounds, doesn’t heat Orient’s calorifier like most modern narrowboat engines. That’s because, so I’m told, the Lister doesn’t run hot enough to provide any meaningful heat. Orient’s water is heated in two different ways. The generator provides a 240v supply for the calorifier’s 2kw heater. Powering the coil from the domestic battery bank through the inverter would murder the five 130ah batteries. The only off-grid alternative is to use the generator. No generator, no hot water, because off-grid option number two wasn’t working correctly either.

We can still get water from the boat’s Kabola boiler… if we don’t mind a steady trickle of sticky brown creasote running from the Kabola chimney collar down the cabin side to the gunnel, or clouds of nauseating smoke drifting back to my steering position as I cruise. We do mind, so we’re not using the boiler for either water heating or for the radiators to the bathroom, bedroom or engine room until we can replace the boiler pot and burn diesel efficiently. The new part should arrive next week, hopefully before we have to begin our cruise south. Without the built-in generator or the Kabola boiler, our only option would have been the kettle to cater for our hot water needs. However, we had a secret weapon, a belt and braces approach to off-grid cruising.

Because I am suspicious by nature and didn’t trust the new boat’s onboard systems until they had proven themselves beyond question, I kept the Honda 2KW suitcase generator which travelled across Europe with us in our motorhome. It was a godsend on the return journey. We used it to power the calorifier heater and for all the appliances which make Cynthia’s marathon galley sessions such a joy.

The final hurdle for me to overcome before we reached electrical salvation at Tattenhall Marina was the Fearsome Four, the locks which defeated me on our southbound cruise.

The anticipation was much worse than the reality. After fifty-eight years on the planet, I should have realised by now that tackling something like a bull at a gate isn’t always the most effective solution.

My upstream passage through one lock required Orient’s engine, Big Barry from Barnsley, his tiny wife and me straining at the gate to coax it open. Travelling downstream with a little more time on my hands and a smidgeon of common sense, I was able to negotiate Beeston Stone Lock on my own. All I needed was time, lots and lots of time. Courtesy of a pair of badly leaking upstream gates, the lock emptied at what felt like a teaspoon a minute. I leaned on a lock balance beam for nearly half an hour admiring distant Beeston castle before the gate swung slowly open. The following locks were similarly easy but painfully slow to operate. Cruising in a narrowboat isn’t a hobby for the impatient. I should know that by now.

We arrived back at Tattenhall two weeks ago, determined to resolve the most pressing issues before we set sail again. The job list was both long and expensive.

Our original seven battery domestic bank has been removed. There were two domestic banks actually; four 110ah lead acid batteries in one and three 120ah in another. They’ve now been replaced by five 130ah AGM batteries. The batteries were delivered to us in the blink of an eye by the good folk at Calcutt Boats. I’ve lost count of the number of times the marina owners, the Preen family, have bent over backwards to help me out, usually with little or no benefit to their own business. I will be forever grateful, and forever working on the grounds for them judging by Orient’s insatiable appetite for bank balance busting repairs.

A happy battery bank - I can see at a glance that the domestic bank is fully charged.

A happy battery bank – I can see at a glance that the domestic bank is fully charged.

I’ve had a Sterling Power Management Panel (PMP1) fitted in addition to the batteries. I want to be able to check the voltage for the domestic bank and both the engine and the generator starter batteries. The panel will also give me an idea of the domestic bank’s state of charge by constantly monitoring amp hours in and out of the battery bank. The five batteries total six hundred and fifty amp hours, so I have three hundred and twenty-five usable amp hours. That should be plenty for our modest liveaboard needs.

Putting more power into the bank than we take out is a challenge at the moment. The boat has no LED lights yet. Each of the boat’s twenty-five cabin ceiling lights has a twenty-one-watt bulb drawing 1.75 amps. I can replace them with 2.6 watt LEDs which will be as bright as a 35-watt tungsten bulb but only draw 0.22 amps. More light at a fraction of the running cost of the original bulbs. It’s free money for narrowboat owners. OK, replacing the bulbs will cost £150 – £200 but we won’t have to run the engine or the generator to charge the batteries quite so often. Nor will we need to fork out quite so much for prohibitively expensive marina electricity.

We had a few teething problems with the battery monitor. It showed an incorrect voltage for each of the battery banks if any of the boat’s 12v lights or pumps were used. The culprit was a partially severed earth lead. The readings are all correct now and have highlighted two more problems; the engine starter battery is supposed to be charged when we’re connected to a shore supply. It isn’t. The generator is also supposed to charge its own battery. It doesn’t and, unlike the engine battery which is pumped full of electrical goodness by the Lister’s steady beat, there’s no other way of charging it at the moment.
These two issues will have to remain on our to-do list for a little while longer. We’ve run out of money. The engine room rewiring, battery replacement and PMP1 purchase and installation have cost us a fortune. We’ve had to make a few other changes too while we’ve been waiting at Tattenhall Marina. The locks on the well deck stable doors, the doors to the boatman’s cabin and one of the engine room hatches were either broken or defective. We couldn’t secure the boat if we left it. Now we can.

A robust new bow fender - A little more protection for our new floating home.

A robust new bow fender – A little more protection for our new floating home.

I’ve also invested in a new bow fender to replace the ragged old man’s beard which provided absolutely no lock protection at all. Thanks to Karl hanging off the bow like a welder wielding monkey, Orient is sporting two anchor points for the fender’s lower chains. Now, if Cynthia’s busy in the galley while I’m working my way through a lock, she shouldn’t be thrown off her feet quite so often when Orient gently bumps into a lock gate.

One final change, one which probably won’t be popular with narrowboat traditionalists, was the removal of a dozen pretty but pointless wall mounted plates from behind the boatman’s cabin range. They have made room for some much more practical boating equipment. There’s now a brace of windlasses, mooring chains and pins and a lump hammer within easy reach of the back deck. There’s also a handy charging point in the boatman’s cabin for our pair of Motorola walkie-talkies.

One of our Motorola walkie-talkies

One of our Motorola walkie-talkies

Cynthia is usually inside the cabin while we are cruising. The radios allow us to communicate easily and quickly. They’re very handy for warning her if we’re about to bump a lock gate while she’s holding a pan of boiling water or, more importantly, if I’ve run out of either food or coffee at the helm. Single-handed boating is all about preparations and organisation. I’m now a little closer to my perfect cruising setup.

Decorative plate replacement - Now there's room for more practical narrowboat gear

Decorative plate replacement – Now there’s room for more practical narrowboat gear

Now we’re playing the waiting game. The new boiler pot is due next Thursday. Even if it doesn’t arrive then, we will have to leave Tattenhall at the crack of dawn on Friday. There’s currently only one route open to Warwickshire and our Calcutt Boats base. Fradley junction is closed, and I don’t want to chance the Staffs and Worcester on to the river Severn at this time of the year. Our only option is through Wolverhampton and Birmingham. The one hundred and four miles, one hundred and thirty-four lock cruise should take sixty hours according to Canalplan. I know from experience that, on my own, the trip will actually take eighty hours. I have to get through the Farmers Bridge flight by 4th February when the locks close for repair.

Orient's paintwork is now polished to perfection

Orient’s paintwork is now polished to perfection

The route should be clear after that, apart from the ocean of shit I expect at Camp Hill locks. Last time I passed by that way I had to stop on the flight three times to clear my propeller. Unless the situation has changed, I’ll be dredging up even more rubbish in a boat six inches deeper than the last. I’m not looking forward to that section at all.

I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the cruise. The weather forecast at the moment seems promising. The current cold snap is due to end on Thursday. The thermometer on day one of our journey could reach a positively tropical seven degrees. Relatively mild weather and a glowing range close to my feet should make for a delightful winter cruise. And then we’ll be back at Calcutt Boats, working hard to help pay off our boat bridging loans. I will be tending to Calcutt Boats’ glorious one hundred and ten acres during the week and hosting my Discovery Days at the weekend. The flower beds around the Calcutt greenhouse will be alive with snowdrops now. Banks of daffodils will follow them, and then the site’s three SSI wildflower meadows will be a riot of colour. What a great time of the year to return to work.

Orient's boatman's cabin - A very cosy place to work on a cold winter's day.

Orient’s boatman’s cabin – A very cosy place to work on a cold winter’s day.

Cynthia Says…

Cynthia says:  “Make haste slowly”
 
Hi there everyone—sorry I haven’t been contributing for awhile–life has been busy and each day slides away before I have a chance to complete all the things on my punch list.  There is so much I need to do over the next few weeks and I oftentimes wonder how it will all get done.  I am still sending e-card Happy New Year cards to my many friends.  Sometimes I only get 2-3 done in a day because there are other matters pulling me this way and that.
 
Ear aches and fatigue from too little sleep have taken their toll and I know I need to “make haste slowly” and not be too hard on myself when I fall behind with what I expect of myself.
 
Paul has been a whirling dervish getting everything in order and keeping the boat clean.  I often feel I am not pulling my weight enough here…. This past week was a challenging one with all the electric issues and I know it was frustrating for him.  Seems that things are sorted now and we can hopefully go ahead with our plans to “cast off and set sail” (remember, my background is mostly sailing oriented), and make our way slowly but surely south to Calcutt–without haste!
 
The people here at Tattenhall Marina have been great and it has been a nice experience getting to know some of them.  They have a cafe that serves good food, and a nice warm shower facility, and a laundry room.  I shall miss our RIverford people who deliver our organic food each week.  And Waitrose and Pets at Home.  They have all been a godsend, and I am lucky we will be able to have the same options once we get back to Calcutt.  Not having a car has its pluses and minuses, but it is quite pleasant having things delivered right to our doorstep and not have to fight the crowds in the parking lots or the lines.  Don’t miss that!
 
The winter so far has not been much of a hardship and for that I am most grateful.  I love this warm and cozy boat and I think it certainly suits us.  the only thing I would love is a nice bathtub to soak in! Oh, well nothing’s perfect.
 
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon.  And please keep those Discovery Day bookings coming!

Discovery Day Update

The winter’s longest day is behind us. Days have been lengthening for the last three weeks. Easter and the unofficial start of the cruising season is three short months away. Easter is a wonderful time of year to be on the cut. Canalside fields are alive with wildflowers, hares box, rabbits bob and buzzards circle overhead. On my Discovery Day route from Napton Junction to Braunston Junction there’s even a chance you’ll see escaped deer from the Shuckburgh estate. If you don’t fall in love with the lifestyle at this time of the year, there’s a chance that the lifestyle isn’t right for you.

Spring weather can be cold cruising weather… unless you have a boatman’s cabin equipped with a blazing coal burning range. You can stand on Orient’s back deck in complete comfort while passing boaters shiver under mountains of clothes.

If you want to learn about the live aboard lifestyle (and spend eight hours listening to the engine below) while you learn how to handle a 62′ narrowboat, click on the link below to find out more or to book a date.

Click here to find out what a Discovery Day can do for you.

A few potential guests have emailed me to ask if they can see my available dates without committing to one. Of course you can. Just click on this link and choose the type of day which suits you. You can browse through the available dates. You can reserve one for twenty for hours before you have to confirm the booking with payment. 

I hope to meet you soon.

 

Paul

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Summary
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.

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