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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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Heating Problems on the Belgian Kempesch Canal


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.

A weekend break from the yacht club's towering electricity pylons

A weekend break from the yacht club’s towering electricity pylons

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.

Cynthia turns her back on me. For once  , the stunning sunset is to blame and not my bad mood.

Cynthia turns her back on me. For once , the stunning sunset is to blame and not my bad mood.

When we arrived at the yacht club a month ago, the weather was a little kinder and, because of that, essential utilities were more accessible. We could plug the Hymer into the club’s electricity supply, refill our empty water tank from a nearby tap, and sneakily empty our toilet cassette. The club doesn’t have a chemical toilet disposal point, but we discovered that, in the dead of night, we could access the site sewage system by lifting a breeze block covering an open manhole behind a Portakabin toilet block.

Life became a little more difficult when the club’s water supply was turned off two weeks ago.

Now, if we need to top up the Hymer’s tank, I need to march around the club’s perimeter to close every tap on site, lift a heavy ply sheet in a locked building covering the site’s underground stopcock, fill our tank, turn off the stopcock and then open all the site taps again to prevent frost damage. I have to coordinate water filling with toilet emptying so that I have a water supply to use to unclog an often blocked cassette.

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Oh, the joys of life on the road in the winter months!

Added to our winter blues are worries about our new boat. Apparently, we have a bow thruster so powerful that it could spin a supertanker like a whirling dervish. That’s wonderful news if we want to use it while still attached to a shore supply. Given that the times we want to use the bow thruster while still on a marina or yacht club mooring are remote to say the least, the thought of trying to replenish a battery bank drained by a five thousand watt bow thruster motor was a little worrying.

A commercial barge on the Kempesch canal near our mooring

A commercial barge on the Kempesch canal near our mooring

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.

An hour into my first porthole. Just two more hours to go... and then I can work on the remaining nine portholes

An hour into my first porthole. Just two more hours to go… and then I can work on the remaining nine portholes

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.

Enjoying a winter afternoon in our little motorised box

Enjoying a winter afternoon in our little motorised box

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.

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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 now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.

Comments
  • ChristopherHowe Monday,11 December, 2017 at 10:36 am

    Wow, not sure my patience would be coping with all that. Hopefully you get it all sorted soon

     
    • Paul Smith Monday,11 December, 2017 at 1:39 pm

      Part and parcel of buying a second hand boat I’m afraid Chris. I can’t say that I’m enjoying the delays, but I recognise that we’ll resolve all the issues before too long. We both look forward to an exciting season on European waterways in 2018.

       
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