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.


Find out more
2

Île de Ré – A Welcome Alternative to Winter on a Frigid Cruiser


When I wrote my last blog post I was worried about Dik Trom’s suitability for living aboard during the northern Europe’s chilly winter months.

I still am.

The onboard heating was a concern. The aged Eberspacher D4 4KW blown air heater failed shortly after we handed over a wad of hard earned cash in exchange for our beautiful thirty four year old Linssen yacht. Previous owner Walter agreed to replace the heater’s faulty pump. The Eberspacher worked for a while, then failed again. Walter then very kindly replaced the complete heater with a reconditioned unit. The new heater worked, but filled the boat with toxic fumes. The fumes disappeared after the exhaust fittings were renewed and that, we hoped, was the end of our heating problems.

It wasn’t.

Either the Eberspacher isn’t powerful enough to heat the boat, or the Linssen’s insulation is failing to retain the diesel burner’s output. The bottom line is that our new boat is too cold to live on comfortably this winter.

Replacing the Eberspacher exhaust fittings in our claustrophobic engine bay

Replacing the Eberspacher exhaust fittings in our claustrophobic engine bay

I’m sure that we’ll find a solution. Much as I would like to, installing a solid fuel stove isn’t going to work. Supplies of coal or coal briquettes aren’t as readily available in either the Netherlands or France as they are in the UK. Logs are a little easier to find, especially in France, but wood isn’t really practical unless there’s a reasonable amount of covered storage space near the boat’s mooring. Decent winter moorings with adequate storage space are few and far between so that isn’t a realistic option at the moment, which is a shame.

I’ve always appreciated the simplicity, reliability and the aesthetic appeal of a multifuel stove. I had a diesel heating system as a backup on my narrowboat, but the stove did all the real work. From mid October to mid April, the stove burned coal briquettes pretty much twenty four hours a day. It never let me down. My Webasto Thermotop C diesel burner didn’t let me down either, but I didn’t have it installed for long enough, or run it for long enough periods, to give it a chance.

Even with a brand new Eberspacher heater on Dik Trom, using it as the boat’s only heat source would have made me very nervous, especially after receiving the following email shortly after publishing my last blog post.

Not often I put pen to paper, or in this case finger to keyboard, but I have offered advice about heaters in the past. Forty years a marine engineer and the last ten making a crust from Webasto and Eberspacher heaters. Do you remember the comedy program “Hello – Hello” ?? Well I will say this only ONCE. They are made as night heaters for lorries. They will not last when used for long periods. You are wasting your time and money trying to live aboard a boat with them as a sole source of heating. Despite all the claims of marine application, believe me that is total bollocks. Great for a few hours every winter when the rich pop round to have a G&T aboard and watch the ducks ice skating.

When I lived aboard, I had what I think is the best heater ever produced ( Webasto air top 5000 ) no longer in production, I actually had 2 – not a problem for me, when the heater failed halfway through winter I fitted the other unit I had overhauled, then overhauled the failed unit. As I did this all myself I could keep the cost down but the cost of service parts is totally bonkers even with my trade discount. I tell folk year after year after year they are not designed for long term use, fortunately for me they still carry on spending a small fortune polishing a turd!! I am now at the stage that I no longer have to remove and refit the offending item, all the engineers for miles around just bring them to my door and I sit in my cosy workshop. I no longer have to listen to boat owners ranting and raving about the expense, reliability and inconvenience, not to mention freezing for a week or more.

Get yourself a diesel drip heater and install some radiators, it will outlast you. Okay it will cut out if you are bouncing about in a force 7 at sea but it will soon fire up again in calmer waters and if you are honest you will not be going anywhere far through the winter anyway. I know you won’t take any notice of a word I’ve said – – – – ( written ) no one ever does, I have arrived at the conclusion that all boat owners are masochists and the more money they can waste on total crap the better they feel.

That’s why I just work  for a few months a year – – – –  POLISHING TURDS ! ! !”

Hardly reassuring news is it? I think we need to start saving for a diesel drip heater.

The onboard heating hasn’t been our only worry.

Getting into the boat’s living space isn’t easy. We have to step from the shore onto a narrow walkway, climb three vertical steps to the rear deck and exterior helm, open the waist high cockpit door and hatch, and then climb down five vertical steps into the cabin.

The steps up onto the rear deck and down into the cabin are too steep for our ridiculously short legged dogs. They both wear harnesses so that they can be lifted up the steps to the rear deck – a strenuous workout with fifty five pound Abbie – and then guided down a two metre long dog ramp into the cabin.

Getting people and dogs on board is enough of a challenge in the best of conditions. I discovered that it’s almost impossible in snow.

Dik Trom on a snowy Belgian mooring

Dik Trom on a snowy Belgian mooring

Three inches fell, partially thawed, froze, and was then joined by another three inches of wet and very slippery flakes. I soon realised that a rear deck protected by a layer of mirror smooth paint and covered shin deep in wet snow is a very interesting surface to walk on. Because the blindingly obvious sometimes takes a while to sink in, I pirouetted gracelessly across the deck several times on my own before realising that the only safe way onto the boat was on my hands and knees. I didn’t want to consider the likely outcome of trying the same route with a young and powerful dog straining at the leash across a slippery deck surrounded by widely spaced rails offering an unprotected two metre drop into the icy canal beneath. Cynthia following one or more dogs into the freezing water was even more of a worry. I realised that we would need to install anti slip matting before even considering moving on board.

To add to our woes, our shower tray needs replacing. Our surveyor identified a split in the waste surround. Using the shower would result in most of the dirty water flowing into the bilge rather than the plastic box which holds the shower pump.

I asked a plumber who lived opposite the yacht club to repair the split for me. When he saw the shower tray he shook his head a few times, sucked his teeth, shook his head again, and told me that the shower tray would need replacing and, because it was a bespoke shower tray curved to fit the Linssen’s hull, the repair was beyond him.

The yacht club harbour master had other ideas. He told me the repair was easy to do, disappeared into his cavernous store room for a few minutes, handed me a tube of clear silicone sealant, and told me to get squeezing.

I squeezed for all I was worth. The shower tray now isn’t quite as deep as it used to be. Unfortunately, I managed to miss most of the crack. The shower still leaks.

We have a cold boat which is impossible to get on in icy weather and a shower which, should we be brave enough to try to use it in the unheated bathroom, is likely to turn the Linssen into a giant bath.

We came to the conclusion that, realistically, we wouldn’t have time or, more importantly, the money, to make the necessary changes this year. Especially as our Hymer home needed another sizeable chunk of our rapidly disappearing savings.

Our leisure bank of two 100ah lead acid batteries failed three weeks ago. They lasted just twenty months, but they had a pretty hard life. They were asked to cater for all our electrical needs last winter living off grid with very little sun for the solar panel to be of any use. We used our suitcase generator when we could, but the fear of upsetting nearby motorhome owners meant that we didn’t use it as often as we needed to. Consequently, the two batteries were often drained more than was good for them.

Replacing them with two 90ah AGM batteries cost £500. On top of that we had to replace the galley tap… again.

The galley tap was replaced last December in Narbonne by national chain Narbonne Accessories. The guys there couldn’t have been more pleasant or accommodating. We would have liked them to have been competent too.

They weren’t.

We asked them to fit a water pump with a non return valve. They didn’t. We had to take the Hymer back to them to get the correct pump fitted a few days later. They managed to install the correct pump, but wired it incorrectly. After enduring low water pressure for six months, a Dutch motorhome fitter spent ten minutes correcting the wiring.

HOW MUCH WILL YOUR NARROWBOAT COST TO MAINTAIN?

Purchase cost, licensing, part or full time mooring fees, propulsion and heating diesel, coal, gas and electricity generation costs... Trying to estimate the real cost of living afloat can be a real headache. In this comprehensive package, ALL the costs you are likely to incur are broken down and explained. Then you can enter your own specific costs in a bespoke narrowboat budget calculator. Low cost and backed by a 100% unconditional money back guarantee.

We had other equally unsuccessful repair work done in France last winter. We took the Hymer to a French garage for a simple headlight replacement. When we left the garage, we noticed that the headlight blinked when the indicator was turned on. We returned to the garage to have it fixed. My schoolboy error was to take the Hymer back on an afternoon following what I suspected was the garage’s Christmas party. Correcting the problem took six mechanics an hour and a half. Several days driving later, we realised that the post party fix coincided with both our fuel gauge and odometer failure. By then, we were too far away to return for remedial work.

The fuel gauge no longer works and, as soon as the ignition is turned on, regardless of whether the engine is running or not, the odometer adds one kilometre every two seconds to the running total. According to the dashboard display, we have driven 439,579 kilometres (273,141 miles) in the last year. That’s the equivalent of nearly eleven times around the Earth. No wonder I feel constantly exhausted.

Selling the Hymer with the current mileage display could be a bit of a problem.

The galley tap was much more of an inconvenience than incorrectly displayed dashboard numbers. It looked cheap and nasty and performed as poorly as it looked. The water flow was abysmal, the tap base leaked and, over the last two months, the tap has regularly fallen off its counter-top mounting.

Three weeks ago we had a new mixer tap installed, had a number of minor modifications and repairs made, tried and failed to get our defective fuel gauge working and, while the Hymer was in for repair, discovered that by next spring at the latest, we need to find nearly three thousand pounds for more essential repairs.

The fuel gauge was the first bad news. The garage suspected that a mechanical problem in the fuel tank was the likely culprit. After the fuel tank pump was removed and replaced and found to be fully working, an electronic problem was on the next to-be-investigated list. The fuel gauge is part of an integral dashboard display. To replace the fuel gauge, the complete display has to be changed. The cost for a replacement display is £400.

There is no guarantee that the replacement display will cure the fault with the fuel gauge or the odometer. Cynthia and I suspect that last winter’s post party headlight repair and wiring alteration is more likely to be the cause. Extensive electrical investigation and/or rewiring is the likely solution, but we can’t afford that at the moment.

We also asked the Dutch garage to fix a ‘minor coolant leak’. The leak, we were told, was the reason for a noisy fan running most of the time the engine was running. Following a quick glance on a previous visit, the garage owner suggested that the repair would involve a replacement hose and half an hour’s labour. After looking at it properly on our last visit, he told us that the radiator and part of the air conditioning system needs replacing. The work will take a full day and cost us the best part of a thousand pounds.

Tyre replacement is also nearing the top of our motorhome to do list. We’ve driven twenty thousand miles on the current set. The front tyres will need changing next spring. The cost will be £400 for a decent pair of Michelins. Before the end of 2018, we’ll have to budget £800 to replace the rear four tyres.

Last, but far from least, is a tiny leak from a drive shaft seal. The good news is that a new seal will cost just £10. Unfortunately for our bank account, replacing the seal is a multi day job which is likely to cost another £1,000. We’ve been aware of the leak for several months now. It doesn’t appear to be getting any worse. Although we’re burying our collective head deep in the sand and hoping the seal won’t fail completely over the winter, we know we’ll need to attend to it before we begin cruising next year. If we can’t find the money I’ll have to work the sordid streets of Amsterdam’s red light district. I just hope I can find my little red dress.

The Hymer was working well enough to allow us to leave the Netherlands ten days ago. We broke our five hour drive into France with a two hour stop at our Belgian mooring. Dik Trom will be protected from frost damage by two shore powered greenhouse heaters while we are away, and checked regularly by former owner Walter. Much as we disliked leaving our new boat for three months, staying on a cold boat for twelve weeks wasn’t very appealing.

Today, the final day of 2017, is a good day for reflection. We’ve enjoyed such an exciting and varied year. Cynthia is to blame for all of it.

Cynthia has an insatiable thirst for adventure. Without her drive and enthusiasm, we wouldn’t have seen as many sights, met as many people, or visited as many countries as we have in the last twelve months.

We spent last winter on France’s balmy Mediterranean coast close to Narbonne. As the first spring buds appeared in mid February, we set off on a very slow drive north to Germany and a month’s scheduled stay for Cynthia at an alternative cancer clinic close to Stuttgart.

Leaving France took a little longer than expected. Our alternator, and consequently our lights, failed on a narrow French mountain road at dusk. We were transported by a too small recovery lorry to Montpellier and endured a terrifying twenty mile drive with the wagon threatening to tip over at every bend in the road. We spent four days locked into a scrap yard before having a new alternator fitted. Even a simple breakdown added excitement and adventure to our lives.

A 5.5 tonne Hymer loaded on a wagon with a 3.5 tonne weight limit

A 5.5 tonne Hymer loaded on a wagon with a 3.5 tonne weight limit

We drove on to Switzerland for two weeks mountain hiking, and then through Liechtenstein and Austria to Germany.  While Cynthia enjoyed a month’s pleasant and successful treatment, I was free to hike for many miles each day in endless tranquil forests. We left the spring behind and drove north to the Netherlands via Luxembourg and Belgium.

We bought a boat at a marina close to Aalsmeer in April and then enjoyed a six month, 1,000km season on the fascinating Dutch waterways. Our wonderful time on the water was marred by the tragic death of Florence, one of our bassets who, we think, ate poison left for rats on the island we moored on overnight.

Thanks to Cynthia’s travel privileges as a retired American Airlines employee, I was able to fly to Philadelphia free of charge to collect our beautiful and mischievous new two year old basset Abbie. She will never replace her sorely missed cousin Florence, but she is a very welcome addition to our nomadic family.

As the thermometer dropped and we reluctantly ended our cruising year, we decided that we wanted to return to living full time on the water. Our gorgeous steel and mahogany classic Dutch cruiser was only suitable for three season cruising, so we swapped water for wheels and visited marinas and yacht brokers throughout the Netherlands and Belgium searching for a new floating home.

While we looked, we returned to England to MOT the Hymer and visit friends. After ten days, we returned to mainland Europe and drove to Belgium to view our new boat for the first time. We bought the boat, planned to move on board full time, realised we couldn’t, put the new boat and the old boat to bed, and then drove south towards warmer weather (and hopefully a rest).

When we started looking for a new boat, the plan was to simplify our lives by reducing our ‘homes’ from two to one. We’ve actually gone the other way, and increased the total from two to three.

C’est la vie.

Our new boat isn’t really fit for purpose. We allowed our hearts to rule our minds. I lived six years on my narrowboat, including during the coldest English winter since 1910 (and the second coldest since records began in 1659). My solid fuel stove kept me warm and the cabin was easy to access regardless of the weather. Solid fuel stoves are something of a rarity over here, so fuel is hard to find or prohibitively expensive.

Dik Trom is a substantial and beautiful cruiser suitable, like Julisa, our Super Favourite cruiser, for three season cruising. Dik Trom is more spacious than Julisa, slightly more weather resistant, and she has plenty of space for al fresco dining. She’s perfect for extended summer cruising but, to be brutally honest, she’s not a wise choice as a full time home, especially in northern Europe.

We made a mistake. I think that Cynthia likes to call them ‘learning opportunities’ rather than mistakes. If that’s the case, we learned a great deal from the purchase of our new boat.

In hindsight, and what a wonderful gift that is, we could have left our life exactly as it was; kept the slightly smaller but adequate Super Favorite cruiser and not incurred a substantial, and, to me, worrying bridging loan. Our idyllic life would have continued without having to make so many scary changes… the sort of changes which terrify me and which Cynthia embraces with twinkling eyes and a happy smile.

What’s done is done. We’re not going to spend time crying over spilt milk. Our purchase is going to result in some (hopefully) short term financial hardship, but Dik Trom should provide a comfortable summer base for the rest of our cruising days.

The whole move-back-to-the-water-full-time project has been very useful in one respect. It’s made us appreciate our Hymer motorhome and the ability it gives us to escape the perpetually cloudy winter skies of northern Europe.

Returning to France last week came as a bit of a shock after so long in the Netherlands. The Dutch are as friendly as they are clean and tidy. Their country is small but very well organised. Streets are clean, litter bins plentiful and well used, public toilets spotlessly clean and fully equipped, and the roads are safe and easy to use for both car and bicycle users.

We spent our second night in France at picturesque Vendome

We spent our second night in France at picturesque Vendome

France is very, very different. You need a strong stomach to use a public toilet in France, and your own toilet seat and a plentiful supply of toilet paper. You also need a plentiful supply of toilet paper if you’re brave enough, or foolish enough, to cycle on French roads. Roads are often steep or narrow, or steep and narrow, and almost always without cycle lanes. Cycling in France is not for those with nervous dispositions.

Christmas lights in Vendome

Christmas lights in Vendome

The sanitary standards might be questionable, and the roads difficult for bike riders, but the scenery is so much more pleasant than the flat and largely featureless Dutch countryside.

Artwork on an old Vendome house

Artwork on an old Vendome house

We found a wonderful spot to park last night on the Île de Ré close to La Rochelle two hundred and fifty miles south west of Paris. North Atlantic surf is crashing onto the deserted Bay of Biscay beach a stone’s throw from our haven on a sandy car park surrounded by pine trees.

Our temporary home on Île de Ré

Our temporary home on Île de Ré

We’re looking forward to a New Year’s day stroll on the beach this afternoon… if there’s a break in the weather. A force eight gale is driving torrential rain horizontally against the Hymer’s rear. Thunder is crashing overhead, not that we can hear it too well over the wind whistling through the pine trees surrounding us.

Compact computing in our tiny Hymer home

Compact computing in our tiny Hymer home

Regardless of the weather, the scenery and our location are perfect. Regardless of the teething problems we’ve had with our new boat, we’re going to enjoy our winter. Regardless of the financial uncertainty our recent boat purchase has caused, we are both confident that Dik Trom is going to bring us pleasure for many years to come.

I hope that YOUR plans for the coming year are just as exciting as ours.

Cynthia Says…

“On Being Honest”

In a previous newsletter of the not too distant past I wrote about our decision to remain in the Netherlands for the winter.  I also stated how our travels in the motorhome were out of balance due to the fact that Paul had to do all the driving and that was very stressful for him.

What I wasn’t doing was truly being honest with myself about gutting out the winter in the dreariness of the Dutch winters with little sun.  

Let me back up a bit here—back in the late ‘70’s my former husband and I moved from Southern California—sunny perfect-weather San Diego to be exact—to the New England area to pursue our careers with the airlines.  Each winter became a teeth-gritting experience.  Dealing with all the snow shoveling, slipping on the ice, white knuckle driving—you get the picture!!

So after nearly 38 years of dealing with frigidity, I made a choice back in 2013.  I would no longer spend the winters in the east.  I rented a house for the winter in lovely Santa Fe enjoying much sunshine.  It was chilly there (we even had a bout of snow in February!) as it is nearly 8,000 feet elevation, but is suited my lifestyle on many levels.

The following winter I returned to the mountains of Southern California near Palm Springs and enjoyed a lot of sun and time outdoors.  It’s a little piece of heaven there, and I was lucky enough to rent a cozy bungalow from some dear friends.

And then the BIG move to the UK in November of 2015.  The ensuing winter there was one of the most challenging ones of my life.  I loved our life on James, but hated the cold, the constant rain and mud.  And the days seemed extra short.  And on top of that I made one of the toughest decisions of my life—to re-home my beloved Basset, Bromley.  By the end March I came down with the worst case of the flu and was flat on my back for several weeks.

Most of you know what followed—we decided to head south to France on the Mediterranean for the winter, and that was such a good decision for both of us!  The sun and warmer climes were a joy and so welcome.  We thrived.

And then we made the decision earlier this past summer to live on the water full time—with winters in the Netherlands no less!!  We were so lucky to find our new boat in Belgium as well as a great marina in Maastricht and thought we had it made.  We figured we’d be well ensconced in our new berth by the middle of November or so, but one issue lead to another and we realized that wouldn’t be possible.

About 3 weeks ago we were taking a break from Belgium and were spending a lovely but cold weekend at one of our favorite spots in Zeeland, Netherlands.  It snowed and was cold and miserable the entire time.  I then got real with myself and realized the last thing I wanted to do was spend the winter in the Netherlands on a boat that would most likely not ever get warm enough.  I wanted to head back south to France.  By the end of the weekend Paul reached the same conclusion, and on 22 December after all our appointments and loose ends were tied up we gunned the engine of the Hymer and headed south.

We are currently on the Île de Re near La Rochelle France.  It is so gorgeous here—and peaceful.  There are lovely bike paths crisscrossing the island and beaches galore.  What a find!

We shall continue to head south to Cap Ferret and the Bordeaux area before making our way back to Belgium to get the boat then on the the Netherlands.

We look forward to many adventures and discoveries.  

Having the courage (speaking for myself) to be honest and make a better decision was definitely the right thing to do!  Listening to that little voice deep inside that we all have was, and is, one of THE most important things anyone can do—no matter what the situation is!

Wishing you all a great New Year 2018—may it bring peace, love, happiness and good health— and the courage to speak your truth!

PS. Oh—how we settled the matter of the stress on Paul doing all the driving.  As we have no deadlines, we decided to do as little driving as possible, with stays of several days in one area.  I think this will help balance things out so that we can continue with a better overall balance in our lives….time will tell!
Sent from my iPhone

Useful Information
Entertainment
Summary

Please Help Keep This Site Online

If you enjoy reading these posts, if you find the masses of information on this site and my new motorhome site, rvblog.co.uk both useful and entertaining, please help keep it available for those who both want and need it. There are eight years of painstakingly written and researched information on hundreds of posts and pages on the two sites. They may be lost forever if I can't find a way to maintain them. Click on the button below to find out more.


Click Here to Find Out More
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
  • AlanStock Sunday,4 March, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    So sorry you lost your faithful Bassett. When I had chickens terriers and horses, I never used rat bait. Rifle or the dogs got them. Far quicker and over in seconds. Might be against the law in the U.K. certainly not in France. I knew I man who lost to young pedigree lab’s to rat bait, the vet could not save them. I hurd some heart breaking story’s concerning animals when I lived in my beloved Dorset. There are still parts where time seems stuck in Hardys time. I know I can’t give you advice on campervan or boating, although I did a fair bit of sailing at sea. All I know is how painful it is to lose pet’s. I’ve been there. Regards Alan

     
    • Paul Smith Sunday,4 March, 2018 at 1:44 pm

      Hi Alan,

      Thank you for your kind words. Time heals. Florence has gone, but won’t be forgotten. The silver lining to that dark cloud is our new basset Abbie. She has everything you could wish for in a dog, apart from obedience, and maybe intelligence. Apart from that, she’s a star!

       
  • Post a comment
    You must be logged in to comment. Log in