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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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How NOT to Leave a Windy Mooring


We’re off the water now, and neither of us is very happy about it.

Our late September priority was to put Julisa to bed. I’m constantly amazed at the volume of stuff we can shoehorn into our little boat, and the even smaller wheeled box we spend our winters in. We slaved for the best part of a day transferring our meagre possessions from boat to motorhome, alternately baking in the September sun and dodging heavy showers.

We also had a number of minor repairs to attend to. One of the most pressing was looking for a reasonably priced sailmaker to restitch Julisa’s two cockpit covers. On a cruise earlier in the year we stopped at a high end canalside chandler near Leiden. I don’t know why we bothered. ‘Posh’ is always expensive. We were quoted €250 to restitch just one of the two covers. The sailmaker didn’t really appear bothered whether we accepted the price or not. Sailmaking and repairing is a high demand profession in the Netherlands with its profusion of sailboats, cruisers with cockpit covers, and expensive open day boats which spend half of the year under wraps.

Cynthia insisted that we look further afield. She found a sailmaker a pleasant half hour drive away who was happy to restitch both covers for the same price we were quoted in Leiden for just one. We plan to collect the repaired canvas when we return to Leiden next spring.

Once the boat was empty, I set to with a vacuum cleaner inside and a soft bristled brush outside. Thoroughly cleaning the boat’s exterior highlighted this season’s battle scars; scrapes on the starboard side gunnel towards the bow where the then fenderless boat slid along a lock wall, abrasion on both port and starboard gunnels from rubbing centre lines, and a bare metal gouge caused by inept helmsmanship on a particularly windy day.

We had moored overnight beneath Muiden’s medieval castle in preparation for a long day’s cruise to Amstelveen on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The early morning weather as we prepared for our journey was foul. Heavy rain bounced inches off our flimsy canvas cockpit roof. White capped waves marched into the mouth of the river Vecht past our sheltered marina mooring. Nothing moved on a popular waterway normally teeming with boats.

My marine weather app indicated that the wind was force six on the Beaufort Scale, described rather misleadingly as a ‘strong breeze’. The mischievous breeze didn’t know its own strength. It pushed us sideways out of the marina, and then the wind and the waves conspired together to slam us hard against the marina’s wooden refueling quay, which was just as well because we needed to top up our nearly empty two hundred litre tank.

After quickly securing Julisa with the centre line, I spent an unpleasant ten minutes making small talk with the harbourmaster’s wife as we tried to shelter from torrential horizontal rain under a wind-whipped golfing umbrella.

With the howling wind still forcing our vulnerable white painted steel against the quay’s uneven timber, I knew that Cynthia and I needed to work both quickly and seamlessly as a team if we stood any chance of gaining the river centre without incident. Because I am the consummate professional, I gave Cynthia precise instructions before we attempted to move.

“The wind’s blowing really hard now. We’re going to have to act very quickly to get away from the quay. Listen to me carefully. When I tell you to go, push the bow thruster lever to the right. That will move our bow away from the side. I’ll push the stern to stop it from swinging into the quay as the bow swings out.

“As soon as the bow is pointing towards the channel, quickly push the Morse control forward until the gauge registers 1,000rpm. Don’t worry about me. I know what I’m doing. I’ll jump on board as the boat moves away.

“It’s very important that you do exactly as I tell you. If you don’t, we’re going to be slammed back into the quay. Do you understand?”

Cynthia looked at me with disdain and growing apprehension. She had known what to do before I’d said a word. The only thing I had achieved was to frighten the life out of her.  

Ever professional, I made sure that everything was in order before we launched ourselves into the wind.

Centre line undone and secured so that it couldn’t fall in the water and foul the propeller?

Check.

Fuel cap secured and the fuel cap key hung back on its hook?

Check.

The engine turned on and in gear?

Check.

Cynthia at the helm waiting for my signal?

Check.

Everything was in order. I waited for the wind to drop slightly, pushed the stern away from the rough wooden quay, and shouted loudly so that Cynthia could hear me over the rain pounding the canvas inches above her head.

“OK. Bow thruster to the right now. Go, GO, GO!”

The bow moved out, but not as quickly or as far as I expected. The wind must have been stronger than I thought to defeat our powerful bow thruster. We couldn’t afford to wait any longer though. I could feel the gale increasing again.

“Right. Push the Morse control forward quickly. No, quicker than that. We need to go NOW!”

Cynthia did exactly as she was told. The boat surged forward as I leapt on board. I allowed myself a self congratulatory smile as our 106hp Peugeot engine drove us powerfully away from the quay.

My smugness didn’t last very long.

The boat skewed to the left and ploughed back into the wooden walkway we’d just left. I was thrown onto my knees by the force of the impact.

I wasn’t at all happy.

“What happened? I told you to push the bow thruster to the right. Did you push it to the left by mistake?”

“Of course I didn’t. I know my left from my right! That’s my right hand. I’ve had it for seventy years, and that,” Cynthia pointed at the foam crested waves surging down the river’s main channel, ‘is where I was heading”.

Still suspecting that Cynthia had suffered from temporary panic induced confusion, I jumped back onto the quay, and walked quickly towards the bow.

The real cause of the accident was immediately apparent.

As we had pulled onto the quay before refuelling, while I secured Julisa using the centre line, the harbourmaster’s wife, unknown to me, had secured the bow line as well. The bow was still anchored firmly to the quay as we moved off. Failing to notice her tying the line was no excuse. Failing to check all the mooring lines before we set off was a schoolboy error.

Cynthia looked at me. I pointed to the still taught bow rope. She shook her head in dismay and looked away.

My poor wife has a lot to put up with.

A Dutch boat for sale - We liked this one until we saw the rust

A Dutch boat for sale – We liked this one until we saw the rust

Ninety euros for a pair of ball fenders was enough to prevent any further damage to the gunnels during our remaining lock passages this season. Less overconfidence and more careful pre cruise checks prevented any further silly mistakes, but we couldn’t do much about tied centres lines abrading the gunnel paintwork.

I don’t like using the centre lines to moor, but sometimes we don’t have a choice. Anchor points at overnight moorings this season have often been either missing or spaced wrongly for our boat length. We’ve had to use the centre lines.

One solution to prevent future damage to the paintwork is to have stainless steel strips fitted over the areas on each side of the boat where the centre lines rub. That will be done this winter while Julisa is out of the water, as will repairs to the other gouges, scuffs and scrapes.

Hull maintenance was much easier and cheaper on my narrowboat. A few dabs with a bitumen covered brush would have been enough. Julisa is a beautiful lady, but she’s very high maintenance.

She’s high maintenance, but we miss her. Even though she’s only 9.5m (31’) long, she feels so much more spacious than the slightly smaller 7.7m (25’) length that we’re crammed into now.

Our last Dutch lift bridge in 2017

Our last Dutch lift bridge in 2017

I mourn the lack of space more than Cynthia, but it’s not just about the space.

Travelling by water is so much less stressful than travelling by road, especially for us. I have to do all the driving. Cynthia can’t drive the five and a half tonne Hymer on her American license. She would have to take a UK driving test for the C1 (3.5 tonne to 7.5 tonne) category. Even if she took and passed this test, we would have increased insurance premiums to consider. Insurers aren’t keen on anyone over the age of seventy driving large motorhomes. The increased premium would probably be prohibitive so, for as long as we own the motorhome, I will remain constantly at the wheel.

Cynthia dislikes the situation just as much as me. She knows that I find the driving stressful, and she’s frustrated because she can’t share the workload with me. She can on the waterways, although she doesn’t need to very often.

Cruising on a boat is very relaxing, especially now that we’re used to the busy Dutch waterways, and keeping out of the way of the occasional towering commercial barge. During the summer months I wished that the boat had an outside helm, a flybridge. I remembered my summer narrowboat cruises with great fondness, perched on cabin top padded seat, shiny brass tiller in my hand as I soaked up the sun.

Towards the end of the season, as more and more open day boats passed carrying shivering passengers trying to hide from heavy rain and icy winds, Julisa’s heated and covered cockpit was far more appealing.

Driving onto a train at Calais

Driving onto a train at Calais

Both covered and open steering positions on a boat appeal to me now. I’m stuck behind the wheel of an unwieldy vehicle on often congested roads filled with inconsiderate and bad tempered drivers.

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We crossed the Dutch border into Belgium ten days ago.The roads immediately took a turn for the worse, as did the people we saw. The happy smiling Dutch were replaced by sullen and scowling faces, particularly among the teenagers. The problem with living in a country considered to be one of the happiest on Earth is that every other country is less friendly.

A French town which doesn't take its officials too seriously

A French town which doesn’t take its officials too seriously

At least the border crossing from the Netherlands to Belgium didn’t worry us. The crossing from France to England was a different kettle of fish.

Despite constant research over the last year, Cynthia and I are still nervous about border crossings outside mainland Europe. As an American citizen, Cynthia is allowed to stay in any Schengen country for up to thirty days without a visa. Any longer than that and she’s obliged to obtain a long stay visa.

However, according to a case we found documented online, Cynthia, because she’s married to an EU citizen (me), has the same right to roam in Europe as I do. That’s the theory anyway. The site which details the case warns that many border officials aren’t aware of the case. It advises printing out the case summary, and carrying it along with a marriage certificate. Ever prepared, Cynthia had all of the required documents neatly stored in a plastic folder in the Hymer’s glove compartment as we drove towards Eurotunnel’s security fence protected Calais terminal.

The first hurdle to overcome was getting the dogs booked in, something which has proven problematic in the past.

Tasha, our eldest basset, was refused entry when I crossed the channel last October. Although her documentation was current, there was a discrepancy between two dates on the passport. I had to leave her in Calais with Cynthia while I paid a lightning visit to the UK to obtain specialist travel insurance.

Our Dutch vet issued a replacement passport for Tasha last month, and a new passport for Abbie. On last week’s crossing, Tasha’s passport was fine, but there was a date discrepancy on Abbie’s brand new passport.

On this occasion, the French official was unusually flexible. Because we had all of Abbie’s documentation with us from her flight from Philadelphia to Amsterdam in August, Abbie was allowed through. However, we were warned that she would be refused if the dates were still incorrect on her next crossing.

With that out of the way, we checked into the terminal, and then crawled through the French border control checkpoint. We were waved through without a second glance. All that remained was an expected brief drive through the UK’s border control checkpoint.

The fun started when the kiosk officer checked Cynthia’s passport and spotted last year’s deportation stamp.

Cynthia, retired flight crew for American Airlines, has flown into the UK more time than most people have had hot dinners. When she flew into Heathrow in 2015 with the intention of marrying me, she didn’t think twice about required paperwork.

Nor did I.

She knew that she was allowed to stay in the UK for up to six months without a visa. What she didn’t know was that the rules change if you intend to marry within those six months.

After skipping happily up to Heathrow border control and announcing to all and sundry that she couldn’t wait to marry her lovely English fiance – her feelings might possibly have changed by now – she was told that she couldn’t enter the UK without the correct documentation. She was given a seven day stay of execution, and was then sent back to the USA to obtain a ridiculously expensive marriage visit visa.

She secured the visa, but we didn’t marry in the UK due to complications. We then tried again, and failed again, in Denmark. We finally married in Vermont.

It’s a complicated story complicated further by our European attempts to get Cynthia’s passport surname changed from Schultz to Smith. It was a painful and frustrating affair which saw us visiting, or making appointments with, American consulates in Amsterdam, Madrid and Marseilles. Cynthia finally succeeded in Marseilles. When we arrived at Calais, she proudly held her new passport in her grubby little hand, which caused no end of problems.

Her new American passport contained no European entry or exit stamps.

We were waved out of the line of traffic and into an empty bay close to the UK border control office. I was worried. Cynthia was her normal super confident and eternally optimistic self. I tried to bring her down to my level.

“This is a serious situation. We have to prepare for the worst. You could be deported. Be very careful what you say to whoever questions us. These officials don’t have much of a sense of humour”.

Just as I finished talking, a stern faced officer drew level with Cynthia’s sliding passenger window. From the look on his face, I suspected that he was suffering from very painful piles. His scowl deepened when Cynthia slid her window wide open, leaned through the gap, looked him in the eye and asked, “Do you want fries with that?”

He wasn’t impressed.

After an hour of intensive questioning followed by half an hour on the phone in his office, he mellowed slightly. “Your deportation put a marker on your passport. Your convoluted marriage and unusual lifestyle further complicated the situation. You’re free to go, but make sure that the next time we see you, you have a residence permit for one of the countries you visit in Europe”.

We think we can secure a residence permit in the Netherlands,  All we have to do is get back into France next week to start the process.

Cynthia admires the Wife Cliffs of Dover

Cynthia admires the Wife Cliffs of Dover

We’ve been back in the UK now for over a week. Much as I’ve enjoyed returning to Calcutt Boats to visit my extended narrowboat family, we’re not particularly enjoying our stay.

While I regularly moan about stress caused by trying to keep a large motorhome on the right side of narrow country lanes and high mountain roads, at least there are plenty of beautiful places to park free of charge in mainland Europe.

Each of our evening stops in England has been on £20 a night campsites.

We stopped in a Gloucester pub car park one night. The parking was free, but we were obliged to eat in their very pleasant restaurant. The only truly free overnight parking has been at Calcutt Boats. Thank you Roger, Rosemary and Matt Preen for your enthusiastic welcome and continued generosity.

One of the reasons for returning to the UK was to have some long overdue warranty work done to the Hymer. We bought the vehicle from Oaktree Motorhomes in Nottingham in March 2016. While we’ve been away, we’ve had a few problems. The galley mixer tap disintegrated, we had a skylight roof leak, the alternator and the hot water supply failed, both headlights failed on separate occasions and, soon after the last headlight failure, our fuel tank gauge malfunctioned, and the odometer developed a mind of its own. Rather than clocking up kilometres driven, the odometer increased the vehicle’s total mileage a the rate of one kilometre every second or two, regardless of whether the Hymer was moving or not.

Our new basset Abby finally visits England

Our new basset Abby finally visits England

We have now discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, that visiting French garages after the mechanics have enjoyed two hour liquid lunches is not a particularly good idea.

On one occasion, immediately after French mechanics changed a headlight bulb, the headlights blinked whenever the indicators were used. We took the Hymer back to them. The problem was eventually resolved by the combined efforts of six mechanics on a Friday afternoon. We didn’t notice the associated odometer or fuel gauge problems until two days and many hundreds of miles later. By then, we were too far away to return to the garage which caused the problem.

On another occasion, a mechanic at a different garage changed a water pump for us. After experiencing problems with our water supply, on the advice of Oaktree Motorhomes, we asked the same company to make sure that the pump had a non return valve on it to prevent water in the Hymer’s boiler from draining back into the cold water tank. I don’t know what the French garage did to fix it, but the hot water supply worked briefly and then failed again. This week, Oaktree Motorhomes discovered that the pump fitted in France didn’t in fact have a non return valve. Earlier in the year, after the French pump bodge, we took the Hymer to a Dutch garage to rectify poor water pressure. They discovered that the pump fitted in France had also been wired incorrectly.

The Oaktree fitters spent half a day trying to get to the bottom of our electrical problem. They tried, but they failed. They told us that the electrical system requires extensive investigation which will take time that they don’t have. Oaktree Motorhomes have been voted as one of the best companies to deal with in the country. They sell a lot of motorhomes. Because of that, their fitters and mechanics are busy checking up to fifteen motorhomes sold by the company every week. They simply don’t have time for lengthy electrical investigation, or to dismantle gearboxes to rectify leaks.

The gearbox leak was an added bonus, discovered while Oaktree investigated the odometer oddities. In addition to the fluid oozing out of the gearbox, there’s a slight engine oil leak.

Oh the joy of motorhome ownership!

Oaktree didn’t have time to deal with the leaks on the day, and we don’t have enough time to take the Hymer anywhere else before returning to the continent. We’ll have to find a company there to fix the leaks somewhere in mainland Europe. The nominated garage certainly won’t be in France.

During our recent travels, we have continued our search for a bigger boat, a boat which we can live on full time, and hopefully leave the stresses and strains of life on the road far behind.

We’ve found one or two likely candidates in England. Unfortunately, they aren’t quite as competitively priced as similar sized boats on the continent. We would also have to consider the cost and logistics of getting it onto the European network.

Peter Coupland, a knowledgeable English broker we’ve been swapping emails with recently told us…

“The cost of bringing a boat back to mainland Europe always works out to be circa £3,000 including fuel as the Insurance companies now require 3 persons on board, 2 being qualified and one other. There is the daily rate for the crew and then all expenses including getting them back to their base or starting point. There will be no more crossings this year I am afraid as the weather windows are few and far between now and there will be too much waiting time for good weather.”

Three thousand pounds would be too much out of our budget. We would rather spend the shipping money on a big bank of long life batteries and a large solar array to keep the batteries topped up. We’ll focus on boats in the Netherlands from now on.

We’ll head south later today, enduring a couple of hours of motorway driving on our way to tomorrow’s MOT. The MOT and renewing our ridiculously expensive travel insurance are the last two items on our UK to do list.

All we will need to do then is to formulate a plan for the coming winter. Boat searching in the Netherlands or basking in the sun on France’s Mediterranean coast are the two most likely outcomes. I prefer basking in the sun, but if enduring a cold and wet winter allows us to move back onto the water full time, we’ll probably head north from Calais.


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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!

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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.

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