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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Horrible Heatwaves and Newbie Cruising Catastrophes

Oh, for a boat with opening windows. The recent heatwave baked me to a crisp. The saving grace was that mosquitoes were notable by their absence. That was fortunate considering that I had to sleep with every hatch and door thrown wide open in the hopeless quest for a cooler craft.

The nighttime heat became so insufferable that I slept on the tiny boatman’s cabin cross bed curled like a hibernating hedgehog. The main bedroom, devoid of nearby doors or hatches of opening hatches felt like a sauna. Orient’s mooring is stern to the prevailing south-westerly. I left the back doors open as well as the door between the boatman’s cabin and the engine room. Then I also ensured that the engine room hatches were ajar, so I was cooled by the brisk breeze flowing through the boat.

My bedding colour indicates the recent nighttime temperature in my poorly ventilated bedroom

My bedding colour indicates the recent nighttime temperature in my poorly ventilated bedroom

I fell asleep one sultry night soothed by the buffeting breeze, happy as a pig in shit until a storm raced across the marina. The howling gale didn’t wake me, nor did the creak of mooring lines stretched close to breaking point or the angry honking of thirty wind-tossed Canada Geese. It was the machine gun rat-a-tat-tat of pea-sized raindrops hurled into my bedding by the shrieking wind.

Thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and the boatman’s cabin felt like the inside of an industrial washing machine. A washing machine without a dryer. The storm disappeared far more quickly than the water soaked into my duvet. I didn’t mind too much. The wet bedding cooled me, aiding a restless sleep filled with disturbing dreams about nighttime childhood accidents.

The heatwave reached its unpleasant peak on an energy-sapping marina workday. Working in direct sunlight was as dangerous as it was exhausting. As the thermometer climbed past thirty degrees, I trudged into our seven-acre wood to do some gentle tree trimming and to work on a personal project for my much-missed wife.

I bought a picnic bench in Cynthia’s memory a few months ago. I placed it on the lawn next to Orient, overlooking Calcutt Bottom lock. In hindsight, I realised that Cynthia would have appreciated our woodland tranquillity more than the often stressed shouts of virgin lock negotiators.

Cynthia's memorial picnic table perfectly positioned for quiet reflection

Cynthia’s memorial picnic table perfectly positioned for quiet reflection

The thermometer peaked at thirty-six degrees, an unbearable temperature for the fragile English constitution. But, by the end of the day, I had cleared a space on the woodland fringe and installed Cynthia’s table overlooking an adjacent meadow. My reward for working through such a challenging day was a peaceful evening picnic sitting at my new table. Pigeons fluttered in the oak above me, and an owl hooted softly. The real treat arrived as the light failed. As I popped the top off my fourth bottle of dewed beer, I watched the quivering progress of a nervous muntjac deer on a narrow footpath deeper in the woods. A little slice of heaven here at Calcutt.

Predictably, our English heatwave was followed by days on the cut cool enough to wear hats and coats. And on one memorable and very wet Discovery Day cruise last weekend, cold enough to warrant lighting my stove.

My guests for the day, Christ and Ali, followed their pre-cruise instructions to the letter. “It’s an English summer,” I wrote, “so bring plenty of layers and a waterproof coat.” They did, but there are waterproof coats suitable for a walk in a park or a quick trip to the shops, and there are those that will keep you dry if a fire hose is turned on you. Those are the type you need if you want to remain comfortable as you stand on the exposed stern of a narrowboat for hours on end.

I invested in a bomb proof set of trawlermen’s waterproofs many years ago. The bottoms, with their bib and shoulder straps, make me look like a DayGlo hillbilly. Worn with a jacket of the same material and a pair of insulated wellington boots, I can keep dry and comfortable all day in the hardest rain. Chris and Ali could not. They were both soaked to the skin by lunchtime. So, on an English summer’s day in late July, I threw a handful of kindling into my Morso Squirrel stove, topped it with a pile of coal briquettes and lit a fire for the first time since early May.

There was a silver lining to Chris and Ali’s dark cloud. While they enjoyed an unexpected hour basking in the welcome heat from a glowing stove, I had the pleasure of steering my own boat. I’ve cruised the route between Braunston and Napton junctions over three hundred times. The scenery is beautiful and, because the contour canal twists and turns through countless blind bends, there’s excitement at every turn. I love the route, but not all boaters enjoy their cruises on this section quite so much.

I hosted three consecutive Discovery Day cruises recently on a canal which is popular with crews on narrowboats hired from nearby bases. Although some hirers have more knowledge and practical skills than many narrowboat owners, a worrying number are complete novices. They’re beginners who receive little in the way of helmsmanship training before being unleashed onto the waiting waterways. It’s these hapless helmsmen and women, and sometimes children, who liven up my training days considerably. Here, for your education and entertainment, is a selection of antics and accidents from my recent Discovery Day cruises.

The Oxford is a contour canal. Its route follows the landscape’s twists and turns rather than enjoying the dubious advantage for leisure cruisers of travelling in a straight line through lock flights, high embankments and deep cuttings. The canal has more tight curves than a bowl filled with spaghetti. There are endless opportunities for entertainment at every blind bend and skewed bridge hole. The scenery is magnificent if you can take a wary eye off the waterway long enough to enjoy it.
The canal’s circuitous route, combined with the waterway’s popularity, is a heart-stopping challenge for virgin helmsmen and women. Trembling holidaymakers who have recently been given a leaflet detailing lock procedure, the keys to a seventy feet long boat and very little practical training. They’re told, “If you want the boat to go one way, steer in the opposite direction” and the unleashed on the waiting world. Steering is hard enough for the uninitiated, but novice crews also have to take a self-taught crash course in waterways etiquette, rules and regulations.

My usual training cruise is from Napton to Braunston junction with a turn in Braunston marina entrance. We return along the same route and then finish the day with two passages through the Calcutt flight of three locks, one down and later, one up.

It’s on our journey home and in the locks that we meet most of the new hirers. Mid-afternoon is usually when the madness begins. Novice Black Prince, Napton Narrowboats and Calcutt Boats hirers are often still coming to terms with a counter-intuitive steering system when they reach their journey’s first pinch point. The canal narrows until two boats cannot pass easily. Braunston bound boats have to forge their way through muddy shallows close to canalside banks of hawthorn and bramble and risk sweeping their roofs clean with low hanging willow, oak and ash.

Experienced crews usually hold back and wait in open water before the pinch point until the towpath hugging approaching boats have passed. Many novice hirers do not. We met a procession of four such craft last weekend, lead by a quivering wretch and his caustic wife.

The man bounced his holiday home from bank to bank as he approached us. Then, in a desperate attempt to avoid slamming headfirst into our bow, he ploughed deep into the offside undergrowth. With a panicked push on the Morse control, accelerator to landlubbers, he managed to get the stern in too, wedging his boat firmly on a shallow mudflat. “Didn’t you listen, you idiot? His adoring wife screamed, alternately punching him in his left arm and gesturing wildly with her hands. If you want to go THAT WAY, you push that brass pole the other way! It’s not rocket science!” 

For all her helpful advice, she didn’t seem keen to demonstrate her recently acquired expertise. To be fair, she didn’t have much free time with all the effort she put into humiliating her husband.

We don’t have to rely on narrowboat novices for entertainment. On the approach to Braunston are the idyllic garden moorings at Wolfhampcote. Each mooring owner has purchased a parcel of farmland and created an expansive narrowboat garden. Some have spent almost as much on the land and its decoration as they have on their boats. The gardens tend to reflect the condition of the craft on them. The smallholdings range from the kind of elaborately designed and equipped gardens you would expect to see behind a bricks and mortar home, to unkempt jungles partially hiding piles of rotting wood and dozens of scavenging chickens. 

Many boats are permanently tethered to their garden moorings. Some might not even be capable of moving. They range from massive wide beams to tiny narrowboats. One, a pocket-sized aluminium Sea Otter, is too small to use for most boaters to use for anything other than a brief day trip. There’s an exception nearby. It’s a short and scruffy cruiser with opaque windows and a steady trickle of grey smoke from its dirty chimney.

There’s a wide beam with what looks like a garden shed built over its wheelhouse towards the middle section of garden moorings. There’s always been enough room for two boats to pass here. The recent appearance of a continuous moorer on the towpath opposite made the gap a little tight, but two-way traffic was still possible with care. Then another boat turned up a few weeks ago. The owner has tied his craft alongside the wide beam, effectively restricting the navigation to one-way traffic. To make matters more interesting, he’s tied a tatty rowing boat, laden to the gunwales with useless crap, by a single line to his stern.

The canal between Napton and Braunston junctions is a busy route. There are 2,500 boats moored in marinas within a ten-mile radius. It’s a pretty route too with plenty of pleasant and peaceful moorings with gorgeous views and hedgerows filled with blackberries in late summer. A single file bottleneck further restricted by a swinging rowing boat is not popular with time-starved narrowboat owners trying to enjoy a few days on the cut, far away from hectic real life. Sometimes they are too busy and impatient to wait.

There are plenty of obstructions like this up and down the network. Boaters negotiate them using common sense and a degree of consideration for fellow waterways enthusiasts. Most of the time.

On a wet and windy day last week I watched what can happen when two bullish and inconsiderate boaters meet. We were part of a steady procession of boats cruising in both directions. We gently nosed into the narrow gap and pushed the swinging rowing boat to one side. We engaged in some gentle banter with the kindly helmsman who held off to let us pass and then carried on our merry way.

The craft approaching us and the narrowboat following us didn’t fare quite so well. Neither helmsman had the time nor the inclination to wait for the other. They both ploughed determinedly into the gap. The two boats bounced off each other’s bows and sideswiped the boats moored either side of them. They clanged together again and scraped slowly forward until they stopped, wedged into a space too small to pass. The owners, no first-time hirers here, shouted obscenities at each other until one grew up a little and reversed enough to allow the oncoming boat through. They managed to resist fisticuffs as they passed, but I could hear their caustic exchange hundreds of feet away. Neither seemed to understand the concept of a relaxing cruise.

Despite the goings-on on the cut, our two passages through the Calcutt flight of three locks are often even more entertaining. The Calcutt flight the first set of locks facing many inexperienced crews. It’s also the first time their helmsman has needed to stop since his handover instruction. An instruction which rarely covers the niceties of stopping a twenty-tonne waterborne tank.

The helmsman’s initial ploy is to steer the boat’s front end close to the concrete-clad towpath. A crew member jumps ashore holding a bow rope as though his life depends on it. The bow hits the lock landing in an explosion of concrete dust. In a knee jerk reaction to the collision, the helmsman slams the boat into reverse hoping to undo the damage he’s already done. All he achieves is to slowly and surely pull the crew member who’s furiously tugging the bow line closer to the cut. Another guy onboard tells the helmsman to swing the stern into the bank. He does it at full throttle. Because a narrowboat pivots on its centre, as the helmsman unleashes forty horsepower in a spray of white water and the stern swings rapidly towards the bank, his bow hauling crew member slides towards the cut alarmingly. To prevent an unexpected early morning dip, the bow hauler releases his rope. Like a wildly swinging compass needle, the front of the boat shoots away from the lock landing, causing the back to slam into another section of concrete and topple the aft deck crew like dominoes. Once the novice boaters regain their feet, they leap onto the towpath and make short work of tying their temporary floating home to the lock landing. They use every rope they can find. Then they breathe a collective sigh of relief, laugh and joke about their first narrowboat adventure and then gaze at the double lock gates in front of them with a mixture of awe and fear. They dimly remember something about raising and lowering paddles and the sudden and horrible death which awaits them if they anger the dreaded lock cill.

There’s so much that can go wrong in a lock if it’s mishandled that something usually goes awry on a novice crew’s first passage. The hirers go through with experienced boaters if they’re lucky. If there’s no one about they’ll do their best. On occasion in the past, on a descending passage, their best efforts have resulted in some colourful language from Calcutt’s band of happy engineers.

New crews on Napton Narrowboats and Black Price boats don’t often get a physical lock instruction. They’re given the theory but not the practice. But after an early start and a long drive to collect their boats, holiday hirers are too tired to absorb everything they are told about their temporary charge. They’re shown a bewildering variety of switches for different features and functions. Hirers have to learn how to check their engines every morning. They also need to understand the shutdown procedure at the end of the day. They have to come to terms with the onboard utility limitations, especially concerning the electrical supply. There’s no wonder then that they forget the odd detail, like the importance of lowering a lock paddle once its done its job.

A lock flight left with some or all of the paddles raised by an inexperienced crew is not unusual. Calcutt Boats’ wharf, home to the company’s hire fleet and brokerage, is between Calcutt Top and Middle locks. There a steep concrete slope running down from the canal to the engineering workshop, a workspace which our oily engineers understandably like to keep dry.
Two pairs of raised paddles in the top lock allow a raging torrent into the small wharf pound. During the first few years I worked at Calcutt, the engineers’ angry shouts heralded the arrival of a canal tsunami racing down the hill into their oily domain. The wharf would flood in a matter of minutes. So quickly in fact that the engineers would usually catch the offending hirers in the next lock and offer them some much-needed paddle closing advice.

The engineers impromptu bathing stopped a few years ago when CRT contractors repairing a crumbling lock base on the Calcutt flight installed a concrete step along the wharf edge. Misbehaving boaters flood the towpath these days instead of the workshops, and our engineers don’t bathe quite so often.

That’s it for now. As is often the case these days, I’m out of time. I could write a book about the antics I’ve seen on the cut close to home and on the lock flight a stone’s throw from my mooring. All is quiet at 6 am on a wet and windy Sunday morning. The first happy band of boaters will appear in a couple of hours when I leave Orient for another day at the marina. I’ll tell you more about their cruising catastrophes next time.

Another dramatic sky over Calcutt Boats

Another dramatic sky over Calcutt Boats

Discovery Day Update

This year has been challenging. I’ve committed so much time to work on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds that I haven’t had enough time to concentrate what I love to do most; hosting my Discovery Day experiences. If you’re an aspiring narrowboat owner, whether you want your craft for recreation cruising or as a full-time home, you’ll find a day out with me as enjoyable as it is practical. I’ve lived afloat for a decade now. I’ve spoken to hundreds, maybe thousands, of narrowboat owners in that time. Many purchased a boat without doing any research at all. I met one such chap during my working day five years ago. 

I’ll call him Alan to save his embarrassment. Alan retired from the military with a large lump sum which he was determined to spend as soon as possible. He had an expensive narrowboat built to his own specifications, which was a bit of a risk given his boating experience.

Anyway, his beautiful boat was delivered to Calcutt Boats’ slipway by road transport. He followed the lorry in his car. The craft was taken off the trailer with our boat lift and gently lowered onto the company trolley, a wheeled steel cradle attached to a John Deere tractor. For insurance purposes, boat owners can’t steer their craft off the trolley when it’s rolled down the slipway into the marina, but they can accompany a member of staff. I happened to be passing at the time and had the pleasure of reversing Alan’s gleaming £150,000 boat into the marina. Once I was clear of the trolley I spun the boat around, moved away from the tiller and gestured to Alan. “There you go. Your new home’s in the water. Do you want to take her for a spin?”

Alan looked at me in horror. “Can you show me what to do? I’ve never steered one of these things before!” He then revealed just how much of a novice he was. This was the first time he had set foot on a narrowboat, yet he’d spent an enormous amount of money having a bespoke boat built.

The tale didn’t end well. Alan’s design was a result of daydreaming rather than research or practical experience. It was unsuitable for him in so many different ways. None of that mattered because he moved off the water six months later because he simply didn’t like the lifestyle. 

Alan lost a fortune when he sold his boat. His case was extreme, but I’ve met dozens of boat owners who have suffered to a lesser degree, all for the sake of doing a little research beforehand and acquiring some hands-on experience. 

Getting to know narrowboats and learning how to handle them can be a hit and miss affair. You don’t know whether what you read is accurate or if canal-side tips are worth following. You’ll get a lot of advice as a novice boater. Not all of it is good. That’s where I can help you.

I hosted my first Discovery Day on 4th July 2014. Martyn already owned a boat, but locks made him nervous. We negotiated twenty-six locks by the end of the day, and Martyn was wielding his windlass with a big smile on his face. I’ve welcomed over three hundred aspiring boat owners on board since then. And, I’m regularly told, I’m very good at what I do. Here’s what last Saturday’s guest, Shaun Bounds had to say…

“I’ve been looking at narrowboats for some time now, as I’m considering downsizing and moving to a life afloat. However, I’d never taken the helm of a narrowboat before and was a bit nervous about handling a vessel of a size that would be suitable for living aboard. I’d been considering an RYA helmsman course, but felt that would be a bit formal, then I came across Paul’s discovery days advertised on eBay, and having read Paul’s advert, I knew that the day would be an ideal introduction to narrowboat life.

The information about the discovery day was comprehensive and thorough, with several emails from Paul covering subjects relevant to a life afloat. Most of the questions I had about narrowboat life were covered. Finding Paul on the day was a doddle given the simple to follow directions. 

I attended the discovery day with a friend, who was also a boating novice. We met Paul who welcomed us aboard his home and took time to settle us in gently, showing us around his narrowboat, explaining things as we went, taking time to answer any questions we might have. He was open and honest about the features of his boat and gave excellent advice about buying a used narrowboat. Before long, we were underway on the cut, and we took turns to be in control of the tiller, under Paul’s excellent tuition. The stretch of canal Paul had chosen was winding, with numerous bridges, moored vessels and six locks at the end of the day. Plenty to keep us entertained! Throughout the day, Paul was patient and the perfect host. Ten hours flew by, and we both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

I would highly recommend a discovery day to anyone considering a life afloat, Paul offers excellent advice and tips, shared from the experience of his life as a live-aboard boater. In fact, I would recommend his discovery day to anyone considering a narrowboat holiday as it is an opportunity to gain boat handling experience prior to the 30 – 60mins instructions given at the start of a holiday.”

I’m grateful for Shaun’s kind words. His feedback is similar to hundreds of testimonials that I’ve received over the past half decade. I haven’t shared Shaun’s comments with you to show off (although it’s nice that I can), but to emphasise that, if you want to increase your chances of enjoying your time afloat and purchasing a problem free boat, you will be in very good hands. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here. I hope that you can join me on an idyllic and instructive day out on the cut.

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

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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.