Misty Summer Mornings on the Dutch Canals


The solar system comedy of errors continued this week, although most of the errors turned out to be mine, and I didn’t find the comedy very funny at all.

On James, my narrowboat, I had a 3 x 100w solar array fitted by Tim David of Onboard Solar. Tim’s work, and the system he fitted, was first class. The three bracket mounted solar panels produced enough electricity to allow me to stay for days, weeks even, on a mooring during the summer months without ever having to run my engine to charge my bank of four 160ah AGM batteries.

The system was perfect for my live aboard lifestyle.

I didn’t do a power audit before putting my narrowboat electrical system together, so I was lucky that everything worked so well. I had my MacBook plugged in and charging all day and night, watched television for a couple of hours in the evening, used a vacuum cleaner for fifteen minutes a day, a low power twin tub washing machine twice a week, and used a variety of chargers for Kindles, phones and a few other electronic devices. I also had my 12v fridge on all day, every day.

The solar array generated more power than I could reasonably use during the summer months. During the winter months, I had to run my engine for an hour most days, sometimes for two, to keep my battery bank at 100%.

When we considering buying Julisa, we knew that we would want to make alterations and improvements. Julisa’s previous owner, Piet, used Jos van Galen in Leiden for servicing and repairs, so we asked Jos to quote for a number of improvements, including the installation of a solar array.

Jos emailed a quote with a very detailed breakdown. Unfortunately, the quote was in Dutch. I used Google translate to convert it to English, and was delighted to discover that he had quoted for a 400w solar array. Four hundred watts, more powerful than my narrowboat setup), coupled with our new bank of four 130ah AGM batteries, would give us all the power we needed.

Due to Google translate, and my own skewed interpretation of the quote, I cocked up.

The installed array is not more powerful than the one I had on James. In fact, it has a fraction of the capacity I was expecting. There’s a huge difference between the 400W I thought I was being quoted for, and the actual 400WHD on the paperwork.

From the research that I’ve done in the last week after being at a loss to understand why my installed solar panels weren’t working, I now understand a little more about the electrical wizardry.

In a perfect world, a 400W system would produce four hundred useable watts all day long. The world in general, and England’s weather in particular, is far from perfect. The sun doesn’t shine all of the time. Let’s face it, in many parts of England, it rarely shines at all.

Because of the cooler, cloudier climate, which is quite similar to the climate here in the Netherlands, solar panel manufacturers and distributors use a simple formula to calculate a solar system’s realistic output. For summer output, the number of watts is multiplied by six, the average hours of sunshine in an English day. During the winter, formula is based on a very dismal one hour’s sunshine.

A boat is lifted over our Leiden mooring

A boat is lifted over our Leiden mooring

Using this formula, a four hundred watt system would be expected to produce 400 x 6 = 2,400 watts. The output is sometimes be referred to as 2,400WHD (Watt Hour Day). My system, I can see now, was clearly quoted by Jos as 400WHD, and not 400W as I thought.

The reality is that I have a dismal 67W system compared with the 300W system on James. I have 400WHD compared to my narrowboat’s 1,800WHD.

The system still wasn’t working correctly until the beginning of this week. Jos discovered that the wiring wasn’t quite right. After swapping a couple of wires, the system limped rather than burst into life.

The solar panels aren’t a dead loss. At midday, when the summer sun is blazing from a clear sky, baking the earth and our solar panels beneath, the system can just about keep up with our two fridges. I think the panels could provide adequate power for the boat if we just had a single fridge, but we need two, so there’s no point complaining.

If I knew what I was doing in the first place, could I have done better? I don’t think I could. Julisa is a small and beautiful boat. The solar panels we’ve fitted suit the boat. Larger capacity freestanding panels simply wouldn’t fit. Even if they did, they would look completely out of place.

This is one of the very few occasions I favor form over function.

Fortunately, we’ll only be using the boat during the late spring and summer when the solar panels are most efficient. And we have the engine too.

Thanks to our new Victron battery monitor, I can assess the alternator’s input at different engine speeds. At 1,800rpm, our normal cruising speed, the alternator produces 500W. We think we’ll be cruising an average of two hours a day, so that’s another 1,000 WHD to add to our input. That should keep us fully topped up.

A typical Leiden canal walk - Great for taking my mind off solar panels

A typical Leiden canal walk – Great for taking my mind off solar panels

The only other outstanding job after the solar array wiring was tweaked, was to fit Cynthia’s new Piraat dinghy to Julisa’s new extended davits. The dinghy matches Julisa very well indeed. The Piraat was all Cynthia’s idea. The only contribution I made to the proceedings was to mutter the occasional “What a waste of money!”, “It’ll never fit on Julisa!”, and “I don’t expect that we’ll ever use it!”. As you can tell, I probably wasn’t as supportive as I should have been.

I think I’m wrong on the first count and, as the photo shows, I was definitely wrong on the second count. I’ll probably be wrong on all three counts if, as I suspect, I use the dinghy regularly and enthusiastically.

Securing the Pirate in place

Securing the Pirate in place

I dipped my toe in the deep and murky waters of dinghy rowing on a balmy midweek evening after most of the canal’s powerful dayboat owners had returned to suburbia. I’m not very good at rowing. I rowed on small English boating ponds briefly and more years ago than I care to remember. I don’t know how much I learned at the time, but after a couple of minutes quaking in the bottom of the violently rocking and frighteningly unstable Piraat, I realised that I had forgotten everything.

The first painful lesson was not to stand in the tiny boat at all if possible, unless I want to embrace the steel swim ladder again with my teeth. For the rest of the evening I looked like a downmarket version of Mick Jagger, all big lips and wrinkled skin. At least the big lips will subside in time.

The most unnatural rowing style in the world?

The most unnatural rowing style in the world?

Have you rowed before in a tiny boat with oversized oars? A lazy flick of my wrist with an oar anywhere near the water was enough to set the boat spinning like a top, much to the chagrin of the first houseboat I careered into. I couldn’t understand his Dutch, but his sign language indicated that he wasn’t too keen on me rowing through his garden.

I spent half an hour on the canal, most of it dodging moored boats and trying to replace our cheap pine oars in the loose fitting and even cheaper rowlocks. I might possibly have looked a little more professional if I had remembered to take the price tags off the oars before I set off.

Despite my inability to row the boat in anything like a straight line – whoever decided that rowing a boat should be done while facing away from the direction of travel had a real sense of adventure – I enjoyed myself tremendously. I hope to hone my rowing skills considerably over the coming months.

To complete the Piraat installation, we needed a cover to protect the woodwork and prevent the boat from filling with gallons of water in the event of rain. Cynthia, first with the bright ideas as usual, suggested using the now redundant external bike rack cover from the Hymer.

“Don’t be daft,” I told her “the cover is made for 1.5m bikes, not 2.4m boats. It will never fit!”

“But what if it does?” she calmly suggested. How could I argue with that?

Fully expecting to waste half an hour, I rummaged deep in the Hymer’s cavernous garage for the cover, dragged it unceremoniously down to Julisa’s wharfside mooring, and slung it over the dinghy. It appeared to be far too short, until I remembered that the cover had a stretchy elasticated rim.

The cover, much to Cynthia’s delight and my chagrin, fitted perfectly, especially after I used eight plastic clamps from a nearby DIY store to fix the cover securely to the boat.. The clamp purchase was a success, which is more than I could say for the drive to get them.

Jos’s yard is quite congested. The Hymer is parked close to the wharf, half under the crane’s half tonne steel lifting frame. In order to leave the yard, I have to reverse along a narrow alley between rows of boats on winter frames and trailers, past a building site entrance usually blocked by lorries carrying cement and steel framing, and then reverse onto a street before beginning my journey. The first leg, past towering yachts and cruisers, is tightest.

Three of the Hymer’s double skinned plastic windows are hinged at the top and can be locked in place parallel with the ground to allow maximum ventilation on hot days. The day I collected the clamps, the day was very hot.

Cynthia had left a window open on the driver’s side to try to cool the Hymer’s furnace like interior. I shut the window, and then very carefully reversed through the narrow gap between parked boats and cars, congratulating myself on precision maneuvering… Until I heard a sickening crunch followed by the clatter of something hitting the concrete roadway.

That’s how easy it is to rip an expensive bedroom window from a motorhome. Hindsight is a wonderful gift. I now realise that checking both sides of the Hymer for open windows would have been a good idea. The window had been above the wing mirror’s field of view. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

I shudder to think how expensive the window replacement is going to be. I don’t know whether we’ll actually be able to find one for a fourteen year old Hymer. Because sometimes it’s nice not to know about things, I’ve used a roll of duct tape to fix what’s left of the window back in place. I’ll think about organizing the replacement another day.

After eight weeks moored at Jos’s yard, Julisa finally set sail this week, but not until we were able to tend to Cynthia’s medical needs. Cynthia tries very hard to have nothing at all to do with western medicine and drugs with often harmful side effects. This week, she had no choice. Over the last ten days, a simple toe infection steadily worsened to the point where the lymph glands in her groin swelled so much she could hardly walk. The accompanying fever confined her to bed.

We had to find a general practitioner able to prescribe her antibiotics, and then work out how to pay for medical services in a foreign country. The process was as simple as it was inexpensive.

A Google search revealed a number of general practitioners in Leiden. Unfortunately the closest one open for business was also one of the most inaccessible in the Hymer. The building was in the centre of a maze of narrow streets made even more difficult to reach by extensive road works.

After a painful hobble several hundred metres to the practice, a quick examination and a prescription for the despised but necessary drugs, Cynthia held her breath, crossed her fingers and asked how much she owed. The answer delighted her. Twenty seven euros was all she had to pay. She claimed that a similar service in the USA would have cost at least ten times as much.

With a drawer full of drugs, and a boat in full working order, we were ready to begin our summer adventure.

I was nervous. Because of Cynthia’s debilitated condition, I had to handle the boat on my own. I was worried about negotiating the same tight bridges we faced on our voyage a month earlier, and correctly judging the boat’s width without Cynthia’s occasional “Move over to the left. You’re going to crash into that concrete piling!’

The view from our cockpit

The view from our cockpit

The problem is that I’m not used to driving a boat like a car. I found steering a narrowboat much easier, despite standing at the rear with 62’ of boat in front of me. On the narrowboat I was standing outside with the same amount of boat either side of me. I could see over the boat’s roof in front of me, and I could see obstacles either side of the boat.

The marina at dawn

The marina at dawn

On Julisa, I sit in an enclosed cockpit behind a steering wheel on the boat’s port side. There’s three metres of boat to my right where Cynthia normally sits on her white leather high chair. With Cynthia out of action, I had to rely on my own judgement of the boat’s width which, at the moment, is far from perfect.

Despite one or two close encounters with several concrete bridge supports and, on one occasion, the concrete base of a bright green channel marker as I sped across a lake at very impressive ten kilometres per hour, the first day of our summer cruise was a joy.

The Dutch love their boating and, on a sunny summer Saturday in June, they were out in force. We passed day boats by the score, a steady stream of immaculate motor cruisers, sailing barges and dinghies, rowing boats, and boat which I couldn’t begin to categorise, all of them filled with half naked Dutch crews of all ages. The two and a half hour cruise back to the marina on the Westeinderplassen where we collected Julisa two months ago was a joy, right up to my embarrassing mooring attempt.

I like to think I’m pretty good at boat handling. After all, I taught it on the inland waterways for three years. So why on Earth did all my hard earned knowledge desert me the minute I crossed the English Channel?

Cynthia was still feeling a weak as a kitten, so she wasn’t able to play any part in the proceedings. Still, mooring a 32’ boat on my own should have been simple enough. All I needed to do was cruise slowly and carefully up to the pontoon, step off holding a centre line attached to the middle of the boat, pull Julisa as close to the pontoon as I could, secure the centre line, and then secure both bow and stern moorings.

Dawn before the mist cleared

Dawn before the mist cleared

Common sense deserted me. An elderly Dutch boater walked from his mooring in front of us to help. He waved and smiled engagingly. “Throw me your line!” he commanded, comfortable with all aspects of boating after seventy five years boating experience. He told us this, and a great deal more, half an hour later after he had recovered from the shock of nearly being dragged into the marina by a wild eyed Englishman using his bow thruster far too often in an over enthusiastic attempt to keep his white painted hull away from the pontoon’s rough wooden siding.

The tactic worked, but, apart from rapidly pulling an elderly Dutchman ever close to an early evening bath, the offshore breeze ensured that the stern swung away from the pontoon even more rapidly than the bow.

After a great deal of sign language and the occasional muttered Dutch curse, we had Julisa and her mooring lines in the correct place. Then I had to endure a lengthy but softly spoken reprimand. “You must always secure your centre line before your bow line, especially if you have an offshore breeze” was the gist of it, repeated often and in as many different ways as possible to ensure that a novice boater understood a basic boating lesson. The real problem I had wasn’t being told how to do something new, but being told how to do something which I had done a thousand times before in slightly different circumstances on the English waterways. I felt a complete fool.

That aside, both Cynthia and I are thrilled to be cruising on the waterways again. We’ll be even happier once Cynthia is fighting fit again. The antibiotics appear to be working, but progress is slow, and she appears to be suffering some side effects from the drugs. Those, coupled with the boat’s oven like interior under the midday sun, are getting Cynthia down. I’m praying for both rain and good health. A boat with more living space, air conditioning, and a solar array capable of charging more than a torch battery would be good too.

By the way, Cynthia sends her apologies for not writing to you this week. She doesn’t have the energy to do much more than breathe. She hopes that you understand.

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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.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 2 comments
norfolkbloter - Monday,19 June, 2017

By your comments I thought you done rather well. I am so pleased that you have water under your feet and not tarmac, So sorry that Her who will be obeyed is not feeling top notch at the moment so please give her my love and best wishes for a speedy recovery I’m sure with your TLC she will be as right as rain in no time.
Best wishes
Del Powell.


    Paul Smith - Tuesday,20 June, 2017

    There’s water under us at the moment Del, but not for long. We have had to abandon our current plans to sort Cynthia’s health out. We are back at our Leiden base preparing for a three hour round trip to get Cynthia to a good doctor. Fingers crossed that we can find a remedy for her current allergic reaction to antibiotics.



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