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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Laughable Lockmates and Mirth in the Mikron Marquee

Our lovely English weather is back to normal. Wet, windy and chilly days with occasional sunny spells. And nights cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Like many other boaters at the marina, I have been toying with the idea of lighting my stove. I’ve resisted the temptation so far. The evenings on Orient are usually warm enough thanks to the sun’s heat during the day. However, the mornings are a little chilly.

My solution is to boil a kettle in the morning and leave the gas ring burning for ten minutes. Thanks to Orient’s effective spray foam insulation, my cabin heats up very quickly. The difference is remarkable compared to the heat retention on my old boat. James had polystyrene insulation. It’s a reasonable insulator but sometimes crumbles, leaving cold spots which quickly suck out the cabin heat.

My front deck view after a hard day at the marina

My front deck view on warm evenings after a hard day at the marina

I purchased ten bags of coal briquettes in early April. I have six bags left thanks to effective insulation, global warming and the tendency to get hot and bothered when fellow boaters do silly things.

I started to write last week about odd behaviour that I have witnessed on the Calcutt flight of three locks. I had another exciting experience mid-week when I took a boat from the marina up through Calcutt bottom and middle locks to our wharf.

Usually, the first boat into a double lock goes in on the towpath side. The towpath side is the most practical side to use to work through a flight of locks. Boaters stick to their chosen position as they progress through a lock flight.

That’s the etiquette anyway.

As I negotiated our marina entrance, I noticed a narrowboat already in the lock on the towpath side. There was a free space next to it, but the offside gate was closed. A boater stood with his hands on his hips, staring at me as I tied up to the lock landing.

“Aren’t you coming in?” he asked, quite aggressively, I thought.

“Yes,” I replied, “but as I can’t get my boat over the gate, I need to tie up so that I can open it.” Cynthia always advised me to avoid sarcasm if possible.  It certainly didn’t appear to help matters with my new lock buddy.

He shook his head and shouted. “You don’t need to do that. Just push the gate open with your boat.”

There were several problems with his suggestion. Firstly, I didn’t have a bow fender on the customer’s boat that I was moving. Driving ten tons of steel into a couple of tons of oak wouldn’t do the boat or any of its internal fittings any favours. What’s more, the craft was quite small and light. If I tried to do what he suggested, there was a good chance that my little boat would bounce off the massive oak gate and bounce into his stern. As he didn’t look the friendliest man in the world, I didn’t think he would have appreciated that.

Just as importantly, as far as I was concerned, was the damage that I could do to the expensive lock gates. A pair can cost as much as £20,000. If a pair of gates are used carefully, they will last between 20 and 25 years. If narrowboats regularly ram them to save the owners a couple of minutes tying the boat up and opening them properly, the gates won’t last nearly as long.

So I tied my boat up to the lock landing, walked past the unhappy boater, negotiated the upstream gate, ran down the chamber’s opposite side, opened the offside gate and returned to my boat. The man was still standing with his hands on his hips and a scowl on his face. I suspected that our three lock ascent wasn’t going to be filled with lively conversation.

Mr Unhappy gave me the kind of look that a seasoned boater usually reserves for complete novices, and walked to the upstream gate ready to raise his paddle. I brought my boat into the lock next to his, climbed the escape ladder holding my centreline, and tied it to a convenient bollard. By now, he had his windless on the paddle gear ready to let water into the empty lock. He looked at me impatiently, waiting for me to reach the paddle opposite him.

The etiquette in an ascending lock is for both upstream paddles to be raised very slowly initially. Quickly raising the paddles lets a torrent of water into the lock. The turbulence flow can rattle the boats together alarmingly. The water races to the downstream end of the lock and then surges back towards the upstream gates driving the boats forward like arrows from a bow. Any unsecured craft can ram the lock sill with great force and cause considerable damage to the boats, their fittings and their contents.

If I’m going through a lock flight with an experienced and responsible boater, I don’t bother tying up. I didn’t know this guy, and I didn’t particularly like his attitude, so securely tying Orient’s centreline was a worthwhile precaution.

I reached my paddle after closing the downstream gate behind my boat. “Aren’t you ready yet?”  my miserable lock partner asked, huffing in exasperation.

“I’m ready,” I replied, “but maybe you had better close the gate behind your boat before you let any water in.”

The unhappy man threw his windlass on the ground and stormed off to close his downstream gate, trying to hide his embarrassment at making such an obvious mistake.

Communication is the key to a successful and harmonious lock flight passage with an unknown boat crew. My miserable lock partner seemed interested in neither conversation nor harmony. He surged out of the lock without a backward glance, narrowly missed the bow of an oncoming boat and clipped my front fender with his stern as he cut across me to switch sides in the next lock. At least he remembered to close his downstream gate this time. But not his upstream gate as he left the second lock.

I thought I would leave his misery behind as I reversed onto our wharf. Sadly he followed me to buy purchase diesel and seize another opportunity to spread light and joy. “That’s not very good, is it?” he asked no one in particular as he waved a dismissive hand and three of the company’s thirteen strong hire fleet moored on the wharf. “If you can’t rent out all of your boats at this time of the year you might as well give up!” He left before any of the wharf staff could wrap an anchor chain around his neck and toss him into the murky water beneath his rusty boat.

Happy Calcutt wharf staff

Happy Calcutt wharf staff with equally happy customers. Not all of them are quite so jolly.

The following day, I saw another mistake on the flight. This time, it wasn’t an error in technique, but a fundamental boat buying mistake.

Three or four months ago a widebeam boat was brought to Calcutt Boats by road transport and lowered into the marina.

The boat wasn’t really suitable for life on England’s inland waterways. It had been purchased for a song by a somewhat confused individual who planned to use it as a floating home as he cruised the canal network.

The boat had many faults. Widebeams are difficult enough to cruise in at the best of times. Most of the craft on the Midlands’ canals, even the wide canals, are narrowboats. They take similar lines along the waterway and through the canals’ many bridge holes. They plough a relatively deep and debris free channel along the waterway as they pass. Widebeam boats straddle this channel and often ground. They are also too wide to pass through bridge holes easily. Widebeam helmsmen negotiate bridge holes exceptionally carefully. Consequently, they pass through them at a snail’s pace, often resulting in a queue of inpatient narrowboat owners in their wake.

The new owner of this Dutch styled widebeam had several additional problems to contend with.

The most significant, perhaps, was the wheelhouse height. Most of the staff at Calcutt Boats, boaters who knew the local waterways very well indeed, were convinced that the new owner would be unable to negotiate all, or indeed any, of the local bridge holes.

What’s more, the engine didn’t work, the boat had no insulation, and there was no heating on board. In fact, the boat was nothing more than an empty shell once the new owner finished working on it.

He wasn’t aware of any of the problems he faced. His judgement was clouded by a complete lack of knowledge about boating on England’s inland waterways, a misplaced sense of optimism, and vast quantities of strong lager.

When the marina management discovered that the boat’s engine wasn’t working, they allowed the new owner to stay moored next to the slipway for a few days until he could resolve the problem. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any money to pay for someone to examine the engine, nor did he have either tools or knowledge to sort out the problem himself.

A routine developed over the following week. The enthusiastic owner would spend a couple of hours in the morning ripping the existing internal fittings apart and leaving them in untidy piles on the adjacent pontoon. A drink induced stupor would overtake him by mid-morning, and then he would spend the rest of the day sitting inside his empty shell surrounded by equally empty cans.

He hadn’t made any noticeable progress after his first week. In fact, the situation appeared to be worsening. He had removed most of the boats internal fittings, so the craft sat higher in the water, further reducing any chance of him negotiating the local bridges.

He didn’t have the inclination, or the ability, to pay for a mooring, so he was asked to leave. Over the following week, the poor guy poled his boat out of the marina, and then pulled it’s along the towpath for a couple of miles like an unsteady two-legged pit pony. He eventually found a convenient mooring. He had neither mooring pins nor a lump hammer on board so he could only stop where canalside objects offered anchor points for his bow and stern lines.  He stayed in the same place for several months, surrounded by cans of strong lager and a haze of fragrant smoke.

He tried to sell his white elephant during frequent visits to local pubs. No one was interested, especially as he was asking £10,000 for a boat which couldn’t move under its own steam.  Even if it could,  it wasn’t able to travel further than a couple of miles along the canals because of low bridges.

Anyway, he turned up at the marina entrance last week. He planned to tie up next to the slipway, but he didn’t get that far.

Calcutt Boats’ slipway is often booked by owners of craft which aren’t moored at the marina. This was one such reservation. A potential buyer reserved a day for a wide beam to be lifted out of the water so that it could be surveyed. We didn’t know then that this was the same boat.

The light finally dawned when the widebeam owner, two hours later than anticipated, walked into our reception reeking of booze and marijuana.

He told us that he had a problem with his engine which, he claimed, had been working for most of his journey. The frustrated surveyor had been waiting for an hour for the boat to arrive. He offered to try to pinpoint the problem.

The surveyor returned half an hour later, shaking his head in dismay.

“There is no point in even lifting the boat out of the water,” he explained. It’s in an awful state. I’m going to recommend to my client that he doesn’t waste his money on a survey.”

The surveyor phoned the potential buyer and then drove away. He left the dejected widebeam owner tied to the Calcutt flight bottom lock landing. His immediate problem was to appease the CRT employee who told him to move his boat. The unsteady guy pulled his floating skip up through the three flight lock and then tied his boat to the lock landing bollards.

He left after three days. He won’t, can’t, go far. No doubt I’ll meet him on my next Discovery Day cruise.

My week ended with a treat. Calcutt Boats hosted a Mikron Theatre performance, Redcoats, on Friday night.

The actors arrived mid-afternoon in their 1937 workboat, Tyseley. Actors love a bit of attention, so they didn’t mind the crowd which gathered to watch them attempt to fight their way through the marina entrance against a strengthening gale. They weren’t so keen on the driving rain which worsened as the day progressed.

The forecast for the evening was dire, but in the proper theatrical fashion they declared, “The show must go on!” And it did, aided by a couple of marquees and an afternoon of hard work from Calcutt Boats and Mikron employees.

Given the weather forecast and reality, the evening was a huge success. Many guests brought their own chairs. The rest used mismatched seating from around the marina. All were able to sit in relative comfort and enjoy the show.

I had the pleasure of manning the ice cream and cold drinks stand. Needless to say, I wasn’t rushed off my feet. With nothing else to do, the nearby supply of wine and Pimms was too much of a temptation. The concession stand was too far away to hear a word the actors said over the wind and driving rain, so we relaxed and drank and marvelled at the surreal scene in front of us.

On a mid summer’s evening, one hundred and twelve theatre lovers sat huddled in coats and hats in a wind-whipped tent trying and failing to hear the dialogue from a quartet of determined actors in front of them. One elderly lady complained of cold hands. She enjoyed most of the evening wearing a pair of marigold rubber gloves we found in the office kitchen. Rain drummed on the tent roof, canvas snapped taught, and guy ropes strained against sudden gusts. Daylight failed, the weather worsened, and the show went on.

I don’t know whether I have low expectations these days. Maybe I was anaesthetised by countless glasses of red, or made merry by my partner in wine, Jason, but I haven’t had so much fun for a long time. I’m really looking forward to next year’s performance.

After a bottle (or two) of wine I was very pleased with this shot of the Redcoats audience

After a bottle (or two) of wine I was very pleased with this shot of the Redcoats audience

This week I was going to begin my A-Z series of everything to do with narrowboats. There was too much happening on the waterways to distract me. I’m hoping for a less interesting week ahead. Maybe then I can concentrate on writing about everything beginning with the letter A.

I’ll raise a glass to the next week then, and the sincere hope that your lifestyle brings you as much pleasure as mine does to me.

A clear sky after heavy rain

A clear sky after heavy rain

Discovery Day Update

Thank you if you are one of the dozens of boating enthusiasts who has enquired about or booked a day with me recently. I try to provide as much information as possible about the day before guests book with me, but I have to make sure that I don’t overwhelm people with too much information. 

I am regularly asked similar questions though, so I’ll answer them here if you’re still thinking of booking.

How far in advance can I book?

As far in advance as you like really. I try to reserve Saturdays and Sundays for Discovery Day cruises. My availability may change some time next year, but I’ll always honour any existing bookings.

What happens if I can’t make my booking date?

No matter how hard you try to stick to your plans, life sometimes gets in the way. You get an unexpected opportunity to have your new hip/heart/head fitted, your beloved dog has kittens or, like today’s scheduled guest, you twist your back. I understand that and I’m not going to penalise you for it. You can either reschedule your day or I’ll refund your full payment. It’s what I would like if I were you. It’s really not an issue. To be quite frank, much as I look forward to your company, sometimes it’s great to just have a day to myself.

I’m travelling to you from afar. Can you recommend a decent local B & B?

Yes, I can. It’s Wigrams. The owner, Ben Heaf, has been providing first class accommodation and early morning breakfasts you need to scale with ropes for my Discovery Day guest for the last five years. He’s a pleasant ten minute towpath stroll away.

I get seasick. How much does your boat rock?

Very little. Orient is a deep draughted boat on a shallow canal. Over three hundred people have spent a day on board with me so far. No one has felt the slightest bit uncomfortable.

Are you Royal Yachting Association certified?

No, I’m not, so I can’t provide you with a certificate. What I can give you is as much patience as you need to make you comfortable at the helm, an unbeatably scenic cruise, and first class helmsmanship and lock training. I can scribble something on a piece of paper too if it’s really important to you.

I’ve booked a holiday hire boat. Will your day help me get more out of my short time afloat?

Here’s what a recent 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.