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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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4

Party Boats and Summer Sun

 

Guess what?

We’re still in Leiden, moored on a narrow canal arm, hemmed in by residential properties and endless lines of boats of all shapes and sizes. We will definitely be setting off on our summer cruise in the next few days but, for now, we’re quite happy moored where we are, relaxing on the water in a thriving waterways community of happy boaters.

We haven’t actually done much this week other than move from one mobile home to another, but we both feel like we’ve put in as much effort as we did when we were working.

When you’re a modern day hobo, minor day to day tasks can feel like major obstacles. Take Cynthia’s tax returns for example. Her accountant couldn’t file her tax returns in the normal manner because she’s living abroad. He uploaded her paperwork to a secure portal for us to download, sign and return by snail mail to both the federal and state authorities in the USA.

Internet connectivity was the first issue we had to contend with. Several months ago, my UK phone provider, EE, cut off my mobile data service for exceeding their sixty-days-out-of-the-country limit. I also had a mobile broadband dongle with another UK provider, Three. They cut me off for the same reason a month earlier. Since then, I had to endure the financial heartache of paying £3 a day for EE’s European 500mb daily allowance.

I unlocked my iPhone and, two weeks ago, switched to a SIM with Vectone, the most cost effective provider for Pay As You Go mobile phone services in the Netherlands. I now pay €15 for a 30 day bundle which gives me a 10GB data allowance, and unlimited national calls and texts.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a warning when the data allowance runs low. Renewing my monthly bundle online costs half the price of renewing through one of the thousands of retail outlets in the Netherlands selling Vectone vouchers so, when I inevitably ran out of data, I couldn’t get online to top up without finding the nearest McDonalds with free WiFi.

Back online, all I needed to do was log into Cynthia’s accountant’s secure portal and download and print the tax statements for Cynthia to sign and post. Printing and posting was our next hurdle. The problem with always being on the move is that we have to constantly relearn all the thousands of details which become subconscious when you live somewhere long term; the location and directions to supermarkets, pharmacies, post offices, restaurants, car parks – always difficult in the Netherlands for motorhome owners – and, in this case a business prepared to print documents for us and another where we could send Cynthia’s important documents via DHL.

We found the businesses we need at about the same time that we discovered that Cynthia’s accountant needed to add another document to our growing pile of things to be printed and posted. It’s a good job we haven’t started cruising yet.

The light of Cynthia's life

The light of Cynthia’s life

We’ve had a little more work done over the last week; we’ve had a new brass lamp fitted above our cosy dinnette, and the Piraat tender has been fitted with lifting points and rowlocks, and has had the davits extended and painted. The davits will be reattached to Julisa tomorrow, and the dinghy will be fixed in place, ready for sailing on one of the many lakes we’ll pass through on our travels, or to row along canals to narrow or with bridges too low for Julisa.

All we need to do now is have the new solar panel regulator fitted, cross our fingers and hope the solar panels burst into life, and then spring one or two little jobs on Jos, and hope that he can fit them in before we leave, hopefully, on Tuesday.

Julisa’s water tank is tiny compared with most UK narrowboats. My tank on James was considered small at three hundred and fifty litres. Most narrowboat water tanks can hold 700-1,000 litres. Julisa’s tiny tank holds  just two hundred litres, which is why we aren’t particularly happy that our head sink tap is leaking.

Cynthia, ever resourceful, has come up with an interim solution. One of a series of saucepans now constantly nestles in the sink beneath the offending cap, collecting ten litres of precious water each day to use for topping up the dogs’ drinking bowl or for dish washing. It’s not an elegant solution but it works until, we hope, Jos has time to fix the leak.

I know that virtually every red blooded male reading this post will be shaking his head in disgust, thinking to himself, “What a wally. All he needs to do is replace the washer!” I know, I know, but I also know myself too well. I would start off with the best of intentions but, within minutes, I would be fending off a torrent gushing from the rapidly emptying water tank, wondering why I hadn’t called in the professionals in the first place. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s one I’ve come to terms with. I’m better off focussing on the things I’m good at. I just need to work out what they are.

Much as we’ve been frustrated by our lengthy delays, we’ve really enjoyed our time in Leiden on and around the city’s canal network.

The Dutch people are boating mad. There appear to be as many boats on the waterways as there are bicycles on the streets, and there are a staggering number of bikes.

A Leiden city centre canal

A Leiden city centre canal

The photo above is a typical boat lined Leiden canal. Leiden, voted one of the prettiest of the one hundred and forty six Netherlands cities, has an extensive network of canals running through it. Because of the immovable low bridges on many of the city’s canals, they can only be negotiated using low profile day boats, which are as popular as they are expensive. A price in excess of €100,000 is not unusual for these beautiful craft which, in reality, are little more than glorified rowing boats with powerful inboard engines. Jos told me that the engine alone, unfitted, in one of the premium models costs an eye watering €50,000. Appearance is everything though, as is keeping up with your neighbours. The household with the most expensive boat wins.

There’s no denying that the day boats are as beautiful as they are fun to cruise in. After heavy rain earlier in the week – that reminds me – we have a leak in the aft skylight as well Jos – the weather over the last few days has been wonderful.

Bikes and boats galore

Bikes and boats galore

Wonderful weather means a huge surge of boats on the Leiden network. Over the last hour I’ve counted forty five passing Julisa. I know that indicates that I have far too much time on my hands, but I have to do something to keep my mind busy.

Today, the waterways crowd are a gentle bunch; “ladies who lunch” are out in their best clothes, wicker baskets open, crystal glasses filled with white wine; family groups of a dozen or more picnic and chat in perfectly maintained boats helmed by proud patriarchs, young couples enjoy romantic cruises, and the occasional group of teenaged boys misbehave in the typical well behaved Dutch fashion.

Last night’s crowds were very different. Saturday night, especially on a sweltering early summer evening, was party night. Larger groups of youngsters plied the waterways. Groups of twenty or more men laughed and sang and toasted each other with bottles of beer, cheering when they passed boats similarly laden with women.

Although drinking on boats is common in the Netherlands, drunkenness, and the antisocial behavior so commonly associated with drinking alcohol in the UK, is not. The Saturday night revellers were out for fun.

Maybe the Leiden crowds are more sophisticated than most. Leiden’s 35,000 students attend one of the top universities in Europe, a university which has produced thirteen Nobel and Rembrandt who, I believe, did a bit of painting in his time. The university population may have something to do with well mannered revellers, but I doubt it. Everywhere we go in the Netherlands, the Dutch people are a pleasure to mix with.

Navigating the Dutch waterways, especially narrow and busy canals such as the ones which thread their ways through and around Leiden, is something which still intimidates me. One of the more difficult aspects of Dutch boating to come to terms with is not touching other boats or inanimate objects.

Cruising in a narrowboat is often referred to as a contact sport. Narrowboats are built for contact. The bows are fitted with heavy duty rope or rubber fenders and raised rubbing strakes line both bow and sides to protect the boat during inevitable contact with inanimate objects, and the occasional glancing blow off an oncoming boat on a blind bend, at a bridge hole, or a section of canal narrowed by overhanging shrubbery or moored boats. All narrowboats which have cruised more than a handful of miles or negotiated more than a few locks carry battle scars, scrapes and scratches, usually on the hull but, especially on hire boats, also on the cabin sides.

Dutch boats are usually immaculate. Scrapes and scratches are a rarity. Most of the day boats have continuous rope fenders fitted to the top of the hull, but ‘fending off’ is an important part of boating, a job often enthusiastically done by the youngsters on board.

Julisa has three fenders on both the port and the starboard sides which offer some protection, but fending off in a six tonne boat is far more difficult and unwieldy than in a much lighter and smaller day boat. Cruising on these smaller city canals is also made much more difficult by both the boat’s width and its air draught, the height from the waterline to the highest point on the boat.

My WaterKaarten app showing Leiden

My WaterKaarten app showing Leiden

Negotiating bridges still confuses me. The image on the left shows a screenshot of a small section of the canal network in Leiden. The arrow indicates our current location. You can see dozens of bridge to the left of the arrow. Below the arrow in red, you can see one bridge marked ‘Wilhelminabrug BB H25 W100’ That tells me that the bridge is twenty five decimetres high, or 2.5 metres. That’s fine. Julisa has an air draught of 2.4 metres so, providing that the bridge measurement is correct, the water level isn’t higher than normal, or we haven’t significantly increased our air draught by removing a heavy load (like when basset Florence steps off) we should be able to pass under the bridge without trouble. However, many of the other bridges confuse me.

There are nearly three dozen bridges marked to the left of the arrow. If I zoom in on them, the heights are displayed. Some are as low as 1.4 metres, so are clearly off limits to Julisa, unless they open for passing craft.

Some bridges have permanent bridge keepers, others have cameras so that they can be opened remotely from keepers on other bridges. A few will only open by appointment for local residents, and yet more necessitate phoning or radioing ahead.

Once the bridge keeper knows you’re waiting, the bridge is not necessarily going to open as quickly as you would like it to. The man in charge has to balance the waterways traffic with the road traffic. Some opening bridges are on motorways. A ten minute bridge opening often results in traffic tailing back for several miles. In this case, the bridge keeper will wait for a lengthy period until he feels that he can justify stopping the road traffic. In the meantime, the unlucky boat owner has to hold station against the wind and the current, ever mindful of the growing number of expensive and immaculate boats building up around him.

Can you understand why I’m a little nervous?

Anyway, that’s enough for now. It’s time for my lunch. After that, I have to go to work. After eight

Back at work for a while

Back at work for a while

months of doing nothing more strenuous than enjoying the occasional leisurely walk, I spent a few hours strimming yesterday. It’s Cynthia’s fault.

On a day when the Tarmac was melting under the heat of a white hot sun, Jos, our boatyard host, decided to tackle the unsightly bank of three feet high weeds growing through the paving on his wharf. When he stopped for a minute to mop up the rivers of sweat cascading from his brow, Cynthia shouted over to him, ‘Why don’t you let Paul do that? He’s too shy to ask you himself, but he would love to do it, and he needs the exercise!”

So I spent yesterday afternoon in heavy overalls wielding a strimmer, brush and spade. Cynthia was right. I loved it. I miss my work at Calcutt Boats. This was a pleasant reminder. I’ll finish the job after lunch, and then I’ll sit and read and watch a steady stream of happy Dutch boaters cruise slowly by, and hope that I can join them in a day or two.

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Cynthia says…

 “The Looong Transition”
Without thumbing through my diary, I can’t tell you the exact date we began the Hymer-to-Julisa transition, but I know it was more than 10 days ago.  We had originally figured it would take us a couple of days, and as far as moving most of our stuff was concerned, this was pretty much true.  The first day I was able to move the majority of the galley (kitchen for you landlubbers) things aboard and get them organised.  The second and third day I transitioned the clothes and was able to get them tucked into the two drawers we have in the aft cabin and the rest I used the vacuum bags, separating things in categories i.e. trousers, shirts, lingerie etc.  I was concerned I wouldn’t get these bags stowed in the small space provided at the foot of the single bed, but I did and was very happy.  It is nice to have all the clothes stored out or sight, as neither Paul or myself like to have our spaces untidy.
We have run into one slight problem—where do we hang the jackets we use on a regular basis?  These need to be easily accessible, so we are contemplating a couple of different places where we can put up some hooks.  Overall at this beginning stage I think we are both pretty happy with how things have turned out.  We purchased a number of plastic containers that are great for keeping items organised and together.
The boat still has a number of spaces that are available for use but we don’t want to overload it—nice to have some open places for things we might need in the future.  And we will be leaving a lot of stuff we won’t need on the Hymer.  It’s nice to think we won’t have to look at those winter clothes for another 6 months +!
Transitioning can come in many forms, and I just stated the more obvious transition.  There is also the getting used to being in a different type of space and getting our “sea legs” even though we aren’t actually at sea, just moored up on the canal.  But since I sat down to write this (it is a Sunday of course and very busy on the waterways) I’ll bet there’s been at least 87 boats coming by with their engines gurgling and causing wakes that rock Julisa.  It is a comforting feeling and it’s nice to be a voyeur as we watch these boats pass–filled to the brim sometimes–with joyful people enjoying the fine weather, their drinks, conversation and food.  It is a happy sight that I never tire witnessing.  Much better than when I lived in a marina in San Diego that is somewhat isolated from the waterways.
The transition phase will continue once we cast off the lines and head out on the waterways.  We have a few more items that need attending to, namely getting the solar panels charging the batteries, and having the Piraat affixed to the davits.  She is rigged and ready to go and I am very excited about dipping that centreboard in the water and sailing off to parts unknown…..
By next week all should be shipshape and we will hopefully be able to tell you about the most important transition—figuring out how to navigate the Dutch waterways!  It will be exciting and challenging I have no doubts, and we are up to the challenge!
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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.

Comments
  • mross Monday,12 June, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    Paul, have you had to obtain any boaty qualifications to transit the canals? I don’t recall you ever mentioning it. Leiden sounds and looks wonderful, I must visit it.

     
    • Paul Smith Tuesday,13 June, 2017 at 9:01 am

      No qualifications are required on the Dutch waterways for boats less than 20m in length or those not capable of excessive speed (like speedboats). Any boat that you are likely to use for pleasure cruising doesn’t need either qualifications or a license.

       
  • Alan Cranford Monday,12 June, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    Unable to find your survey – no pop-up occured…. can you post a link?
    Thanks!

     
    • Paul Smith Tuesday,13 June, 2017 at 9:02 am

      It wasn’t a survey Alan, it was a pop up form for a new mini course I’m in the process of writing. If you would like me to add you to that particular mailing list, please let me know.

       
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