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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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Netherlands Boating by Engine and Sail

Life goes on, at least for some of us. Florence’s passing becomes a little more bearable as the days go by. Cynthia still can’t bear the thought of visiting the island again where Florence died so, on the few occasions we passed that way recently, Cynthia hasn’t been able to even look in that direction.

This difficult time has been eased by the many messages of support sent to us by site subscribers. We both appreciate each and every one of them, so thank you for your thoughts.

Time is a great healer and, as many of you suggested, so is getting another dog. In that respect, we’ve been very, very lucky.

Over the years, Cynthia has kept in touch with the lady responsible for looking for homes for the retired breeding bitches at the Pennsylvania kennel that Tasha, Florence and a number of other bassets Cynthia rescued came from. There’s usually a long waiting list for these dogs, but Cynthia jumped straight to the head of the queue because of her past track record.

She’s been offered two year old Agnes, Florence’s half sister.

Like Florence, Agnes was retired early because of complications when she gave birth to her first and last litter. Also like Florence, she has a very silly name for a dog. I was all for changing her name to something more suitable, like Bruiser, Fang, or Killer. For reasons completely beyond me, Cynthia wants to stick with Agnes.

We now need to tackle the logistics of collecting our new pooch from a breeder on the other side of the Atlantic. You might think that flying a total of 7,400 miles to collect a new pet is an outrageous and expensive extravagance. It would be if Cynthia hadn’t spent most of her life working for American Airlines. She, and now I, can take advantage of the airline’s lifetime of almost free travel for its thousands of retirees.

Providing that there’s a free seat on a flight, we can have it for a token charge. Hopefully, I’ll fly to Philadelphia at the end of the month. I plan to go a few days early to get to know Agnes (and to ask her if she wants to change her name), and to help prepare her for what is probably her first journey away from the kennel where she was raised.

We aren’t sure whether the airline will agree to carry Agnes at the moment. Their temperature limit for safe pet transport at the terminal, in the cargo area, or on the aircraft itself, is eighty five degrees fahrenheit. Temperatures in Philadelphia over the last two weeks have been consistently higher than that.

We’re praying for cooler weather in the weeks to come.

When we haven’t been keeping ourselves entertained with international dog rescue, we’ve spent much of our time carrying our belongings between the Hymer and Julisa.

Our original plan was to put the Hymer to bed for the summer after 15,000 miles of European exploration. Life has conspired against us. We’ve had to use the motorhome on several occasions recently to ferry Cynthia to and from an Eindhoven clinic, to collect Florence’s ashes and, on a more positive note, to enjoy a weekend’s sailing on a proper boat.

Our boatyard host, Jos, and his bubbly wife Brenda, invited Cynthia and I to crew for them in an annual tjalk race on the Markermeer close to Amsterdam.

In order to enjoy a stress free weekend sailing, we had to raise our stress levels considerably to get there. Our TomTom performed faultlessly until we reached Monnickendam town centre.

Friday is market day. The narrow town streets are blocked by stalls on market day. All traffic is diverted down even narrower streets filled with bicycles, nose to tail parked cars, and hundreds of market visitors.

It’s no place for an eight metre motorhome.

Unfortunately, we had no choice. With a solid queue of traffic behind us, we had to follow a stallholder’s directions down a footpath-thin side street. A handful of smiling market traders enthusiastically moved stalls, bicycles and people so that we could squeeze through the narrowest of gaps onto a series of roads on a housing estate more suitable for minis than motorhomes.

After half an hour of inching past double rows of parked cars we made it to our equally congested waterside campsite. A combination of good weather, the weekend, early summer holidays, and a number of different boating activities, meant that the campsite was bursting at the seams.

Sadly, Cynthia wasn’t one of the happy campers. She still felt incredibly weak after an adverse reaction to antibiotics weeks earlier. She was barely strong enough to manage the motorhome steps. A day hauling windlasses, ropes and sails was out of the question.

Two marinas, Hemmeland and Waterland, shared the water next to the campsite. A thousand sailboats bobbed gently on their moorings. Close to the harbour entrance, the relaxed crews of forty tjalks waited for the weekend’s first race.

After an early breakfast with Cynthia, I enjoyed a second hearty breakfast on Jos’s boat  – thank you Brenda. The bacon was a much enjoyed and often missed treat – before we untied our lines for the one hour cruise to the race start line.

Watching the Dutch helmsmen at work was a joy.

Many of the boats, including ours, left and entered the harbour breasted up. I don’t think that any of the tjalks had bow thrusters but, with two boats tied side by side and both engine’s running, the helmsmen managed inch perfect reversing through chaotic harbour traffic every time.

Sailing without wind

Sailing without wind

Saturday’s race appeared to be mayhem to the uninitiated. Forty tall masted tjalks under full sail jockeyed for position at the start line, then quickly headed in different directions, the different crews trying to make the most of the light breeze, each making judgements about wind speed and direction, and each plotting the best courses to keep their sails filled, which often meant heading directly towards their fellow competitors.

I’m not sure if anyone knew where their boats ranked in the race. I don’t think anyone cared. They were enjoying simply being on the water and having the opportunity to shout friendly insults at other crews when, as often happened, the boats gently bumped against each other.

Sunday was more about floating than racing, but we enjoyed an interesting diversion on the cruise from

McDonald's Good Times Island

McDonald’s Good Times Island

the harbour to the start line. The Dutch lady owner of the boat tied to us told me, with a mischievous grin, that we were going to stop at a McDonald’s drive through on our way to the start line.

I don’t speak Dutch and, although she spoke very good English, I thought something had been lost in translation. As we approached a small island, the crews of both boats stared and took photographs.

The island didn’t look quite right: tall palm trees waved in the gentle breeze, a waterfall cascaded down a smooth rock face, and a sandy beach rose from the lake towards a trio of picnic tables and a rock painted with a pair of familiar golden arches.

Sailing away from Good Times Island

Sailing away from Good Times Island

We had found McDonald’s ‘Good Times Island’.

The island has been constructed by the global fast food chain for use in one of their latest commercials. You can see the advert here. Fortunately for our health, they didn’t have an operational store outlet on the island. There were prominent signs to discourage landing, so we motored on to an underwhelming start to the race.

The water was glass smooth. Half an hour after hearing the starting gun, we still hadn’t managed to cross the start line. Jos’s heavy boat started badly, and then fell away.

After an eternity, we reached the first buoy. We should have turned on our way to a second buoy, and then a third, before repeating the route several more times. At our speed, completing the race would have taken days.

Jos continued in a straight line after a little banter with the stewards’ boat. We sunbathed and chatted and ate endless snacks as we floated slowly back to Monnickendam harbour. The absence of wind was really a blessing, but Jos didn’t realise that until the following week.

Removing a broken mast

Removing a broken mast

On the return cruise to Leiden, Jos noticed a small crack in his lowered mast. Just before we left his yard to continue our cruise, he unstepped his mast to explore the damage. The mast broke in two. He’s had to shelve his plans for a three week sailing holiday in the tjalk in September.

He’ll probably be able to do the repairs himself, once an engineer friend has made some calculations. He may have to replace the mast, which will be a very expensive affair.

How on Earth do you fix that?

How on Earth do you fix that?

A tjalk was just about within our budget when Cynthia and I began looking for a boat in the Netherlands late last year. I am so pleased that we didn’t buy one. We have neither the funds to maintain one, or the knowledge to sail it.

Our little motor cruiser was a very good choice.

After leaving Monnickendam, we stayed overnight in Leiden and then drove down to Eindhoven to book Cynthia in for another two days of treatment. She came away from the clinic feeling better than she has for weeks, so we decided to carry on cruising.

Cynthia may not have any energy for cruising, but she’s very happy sitting at a table fixing things. She’s very good at finding ways to store the things she needs on board. She wanted a sewing machine. I suggested that we didn’t have room for one. She found a solution. Here it is. Perfect for little jobs on a little boat.

The perfect sewing machine for a small boat

The perfect sewing machine for a small boat

Back on the water, we stayed for the night on Oude Kooi, the private island haven we stopped at for free a week earlier. This time, as storm clouds gathered overhead, a gentle knock on the sliding glass panel that serves as our boat’s front door, indicated that our second visit wasn’t going to be quite as cheap.

We couldn’t complain. The €10 fee secured us a mooring on our very own section of island. I think that the same boating organisation owns all of the island, but our section was separated from the bulk of the island by a wide, weed choked channel, bridged by a single thin and rotting log. Moorings on the far side were stem to stern with visiting boats and pampered owners who didn’t want to stop too far from the island’s basic amenities block.

We were happy with our own boat free stretch of canal bank and its comparative peace and quiet. We lay awake for hours listening to rain pounding on our thin canvas roof and constant thunder crashing as lightning flashed overhead.

A week later we returned to the same island mooring. We stopped on the same stretch on the same day of the week, at the same time of the day, and were asked for money by the same retired couple, working their round from a small dingy with a little outboard motor. This time they charged us €13.50 to stay the night.

At the rate the price is increasing, I think it’s time to move on to pastures new.

I mentioned that the island’s stewards knocked on our glass ‘front door’. The boat’s entrance is something to consider if you are thinking about buying a cruiser like ours.

My narrowboat, James, was typical of many liveaboard narrowboats. The gunnel at the bow was usually about mid thigh high when standing on the towpath, but  the towpath height and the canal water level could change the distance by as much as twelve inches. To climb onto the boat, I had to simultaneously throw a leg over the gunnel into the boat’s well deck, and duck under a support bar for the front deck cratch cover.

I’m pretty fit and flexible, so I didn’t think twice about climbing on and off my boat. Some of my guests weren’t quite as happy. I hosted hundreds of guests on my discovery days. I guess that up to 50% of them struggled to negotiate the small entrance, especially those with stiff joints. Most of my guests were definitely on the wrong side of twenty one!

Climbing into Julisa

Climbing into Julisa

Many cruisers don’t have doors at all. Julisa doesn’t. There’s a sliding glass window on both port and starboard sides of the cockpit. To get into the boat, we have to climb in the  same way as we did on James, but as there is less headroom on Julisa, simultaneously ducking and stepping initially stretched muscles I didn’t know I had. I’m used to the contortion now but, on the odd occasion we’ve had guests, there’s much huffing and puffing as they haul themselves through the narrow opening.

We’ve had to adapt to other challenges on Julisa. The most difficult to initially come to terms with was the bathroom.

The boat doesn’t have one.

The head, the toilet room in the bow, is just large enough to sit on with the door closed. There simply isn’t enough room for anything else other than a small and difficult to reach sink.

There’s no room for the most basic of showers.

We considered using a portable shower. We have one on the Hymer, bought when our gas boiler failed. The shower cost us €40 from French sports megastore Decathlon. It’s wonderful.

The seven litre collapsible shower packs down into a bag which takes up very little space. The shower

Plenty of marina shower blocks to choose from

Plenty of marina shower blocks to choose from

itself is a breeze to use. We’re actually using it on the Hymer at the moment. The gas boiler is on the blink again. We both love it, but we can’t easily use it on Julisa.

The Hymer has a wet room shower cubicle. Water drains through the shower tray into the motorhome’s 100l grey water tank, so cleaning up after a shower is easy.

We have no such luxury on the boat. The head is too small to fit a shower tray. Even if there was space, we couldn’t block the bow thruster access panel in the floor in front of the toilet.

We considered setting up a collapsible shower stall and tray in the cockpit area, or even on the canal bank when we moor. Neither option is really practical.

The simplest solutions are often the best, so we’ve decided not to wash. Not wash on the boat, that is, rather than not washing at all. Anyway, I’ve actually discovered that washing too often isn’t good for you.

Showering every day is a relatively recent innovation. Showering too often removes essential oils from both skin and hair leading to all kinds of skin complaints and split ends. Showering less often helps save water, protects our body’s essential oils, and shields us from too many guests.

Showering off the boat is easy. During the course of a half day cruise just about anywhere on the Dutch network, we’re likely to pass dozens of marinas, many of which offer short term moorings which include use of their on site facilities. We haven’t seen a Dutch shower block yet which is anything other than spotless, so we’re spoiled for choice wherever we go.

We’ll certainly have every opportunity to test new waterside facilities over the coming weeks. I’ll overcome another hurdle tomorrow by tackling our first Dutch lock.

I’ve negotiated thousands of English locks, often on my own, but I’ve usually been the only boat, or had just one other similarly sized narrowboat for company. I may have to share a lock with a commercial barge or two tomorrow, each up to one hundred metres long, and probably carrying a car on its rear deck.

I’ll also have the lock traffic light system to contend with. Jos, explained the sequences to me, “If there are two red lights, you must stop. If there are two red and two green lights, you can approach the lock. Two green lights mean that you can enter the lock. Four red lights tell you that the lock’s not working. One red light and two green lights means that one of the red lights isn’t working. Four green lights is an indication that the lock keeper’s having a party, and one green, one yellow, one red and one blue light means that you need your eyes tested!”

I’m not sure whether all, or indeed, any, of the advice was accurate, but I will proceed with care just in case.

Very few locks in the Netherlands are used to gain or lose height as they are on the UK network. Not that we come across many locks on our travels. Granted, we haven’t done  a great deal of cruising yet, but in 167 kilometres cruising on the Dutch waterways, we haven’t encountered one.

The locks primary purpose in the Netherlands is to control water levels rather than to gain or lose height as they do in the UK. Amsterdam is close to a vast body of water, the Markermeer, so there are a number of protective locks between the Markermeer and Amsterdam.

There’s a lot of water to control. At two hundred and seventy square miles, and at an average depth of sixteen feet, there’s more water in the Markermeer than in the entire English waterways network. It’s big, scary, and far too risky for our little boat if there’s anything stronger than a gentle breeze blowing.

If there’s not much in the way of wind tomorrow, we’ll cruise through the Markermeer’s centre, pausing to wave at far distant McDonalds’ Good Times Island, slip through a lock into the Ijsselmeer which dwarfs the vast Markermeer, and then race for shelter onto the comparatively tiny Ketelmeer, which is still twice the size of lake Windermere in England.

Yesterday, we stopped for the night at Kempers Watersports so that we could visit their on site restaurant for a special meal. It was our first anniversary. As we ate, we talked about all we have seen and done in the last twelve months. We’ve covered a lot of ground, figuratively and literally. Neither of us would change a thing.

Celebrating our first year together

Celebrating our first year together

Much as we’ve enjoyed our time in this particular area, we’ll be very pleased to escape the noise. Schiphol, a handful of miles north of us, is the world’s 12th busiest airport. Each year, sixty three million people pass through there. I’ll be one of them at the end of the month but, until then, I want to be as far away from noisy airport traffic as I possibly can.

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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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