Searching for a Winter Home in Maastricht
I haven’t written any blog posts since the beginning of October. Our lives over the last four weeks have been hectic. I don’t know how that’s even possible now that I’m not working full time for a living, but life has certainly been very full indeed.
At the end of the last post, we were still in England, running around like headless chickens, trying to complete the countless items on our to do list before we returned to France. The task uppermost in our minds was actually getting Cynthia back into mainland Europe.
Cynthia had technically overstayed her entitlement on our last visit. As an American, she is only allowed to stay for a maximum of three months in any of twenty six countries in the Schengen area. She had actually been there for over a year. After a great deal of research, we discovered what we thought was a loophole which allowed non European spouses of EU citizens the same right to roam as EU citizens. We thought we were OK, but we still hadn’t tested the theory.
We booked a return passage through the channel tunnel. On our passage to Folkestone from Calais, we were waved through the French border control checkpoint, but stopped by English border control officers. They quizzed Cynthia for half an hour after being alerted by a marker on her passport. She was deported at Heathrow two years earlier for entering the UK to marry me without a required marriage visit visa.
Our investigating officer finally allowed her through, but warned us that we might face problems entering France on our return trip. That worrying information played on our minds throughout our ten day stay in England. We didn’t sleep much at all the night before our scheduled 4.40pm train on 10th October, but at least we didn’t have the dogs to worry about.
I’ve used Eurotunnel to cross between Folkestone and Calais ten times in the last eighteen months. The five crossings from Folkestone to Calais weren’t a problem. The only animal checks done on the way to France are to ask whether vehicle owners have dogs on board. There’s an £18 fee for each dog each way. Incidentally, the same fee applies to a ferret in case you’re thinking of taking one on holiday with you.
The leg from Calais to Dover is a different kettle of fish.
I’ve been stopped on two out of the five crossings into England. I had to leave one dog, Tasha, in Calais with Cynthia on one occasion. The other time, at the beginning of October this year, a French official at the pet reception centre noticed an incorrect microchip insertion date. Fortunately, we had the original microchip documentation with us so we were allowed through.
We didn’t have the dogs to worry about, but getting Cynthia through Calais was more than enough to keep us occupied.
We were off to a good start. We presented our tickets at the first checkpoint. Everything was in order, and there was an additional bonus of being offered an earlier train at no extra cost. We were funnelled quickly through Eurontunnel’s endless approach roads, diverted past the parking and services area, and then joined a short queue for the first of two border control checkpoints.
The English border control officer waved us through after a cursory passport examination. A hundred metres later we pulled in line behind a dark blue Mercedes and a white van at the French border control booth.
It was then that we suspected that booking a train at a time of day when traffic was light and border control officers had time on their hands wasn’t a particularly good idea. I’ve made the crossing several times during busy periods. On those occasions, bored French officials waved long lines of vehicles through the checkpoint without looking at passports at all. Now, with just three vehicles waiting, they had plenty of time to thoroughly check passports without holding up traffic.
Cynthia bit her lip, took a deep breath, and tried to look relaxed. I worried as usual, imagining the worst case scenario. Cynthia’s passport would be examined, we would be detained, questioned at length, possibly held in adjoining cells without food or water, and then fined and deported.
My overactive imagination ran riot. We would have to return to England and, unable to travel to mainland Europe, after Cynthia’s permitted six months in the UK expired, she would have to return to the USA. She had nowhere to live there. She would be homeless and, because she didn’t have an address there, she wouldn’t be able to sponsor me for a long stay visa or residency. We would have to live on different continents. Cynthia would only be able to join me in England for six months in every year. I wouldn’t be able to fly across the pond to be with her because of the dogs. What a nightmare. I suspected that we were minutes away from an effective end to our idyllic married life, and I was very, very scared.
The van driver stopped at the French border control booth. Rather than waving the vehicle on as was usual, the unsmiling officer demanded passports. After several tense minutes, the officer pointed to an empty bay behind his booth where the van driver could park while he was investigated further. I wondered whether security checks had been increased since our last visit. Maybe now the drivers of all vehicles were being checked thoroughly. My worst fears were being confirmed. I knew that we were in trouble.
The Mercedes driver pulled up next. The officer demanded his passport too. As we waited, barely able to breathe, vehicles began queueing behind us. Two cars, another van, and then a fully loaded tour coach. Would each of drivers be stopped and questioned too, or would the now lengthy queue mean that the border control officer had to return to random checks? We didn’t know, but we were about to find out.
“Just stay calm,” I ordered Cynthia, my voice a nervous squeak. I took a deep breath, released the Hymer’s handbrake, and crawled forward until my side window was level with the control booth.
The officer stared at me intently, switched his attention to Cynthia, looked at the Hymer, and then slowly held out his hand for our passports. This was it, the end of our idyllic lifestyle, the beginning of married life lived on separate continents.
I picked up our two passports from the dashboard and then slowly reached out of the window to hand them over and seal our fate. The officer looked at me, glanced at our passports, and then turned his head to examine the growing queue behind us. With a casual flick of his wrist, he made two frightened people very happy. He didn’t have time to examine us we were free to go.
We knew that we were lucky, but we also knew that we stood a better chance of being lucky entering Europe from France rather than any other country. French border officials are renowned for being more relaxed than most.
Nonetheless, we didn’t want to repeat the experience. The following day, we booked an appointment to apply for a residency permit. The earliest date available is late November. All we have to do now is persuade someone in the Netherlands to allow us to use their address for the permit. Surely that’s not too much to ask?
With that particular worry at least temporarily out of the way, we resumed our search for the perfect live aboard boat for European waterways.
We considered a number of barges. Many were for sale within our budget, including two very well maintained boats owned by a friend of my old boss at Calcutt Boats, Roger Preen.
The ‘his and hers’ barges are in immaculate condition. They were strong contenders, but we finally decided that, at twenty five metres, they just weren’t practical.
Our plan is to spend much of our time in the Netherlands where there are many free moorings. However, the majority of them are more suitable for boats up to fifteen metres in length. A twenty five metre boat would be more difficult to find a mooring for, more costly to moor in a country where paid moorings are charged by the metre, and much more costly to maintain than a shorter boat.
Because of these practicalities, barges around fifteen metres in length are very popular and therefore quite expensive. It’s not uncommon to see a twenty five metre barge with a decent specification listed at a lower cost than one ten metres shorter.
We continued looking at a variety of barge styles, lengths and configurations. Despite there being thousands of boats for sale in the Netherlands, most of them are motor cruisers. Although motor cruisers are perfect for fair weather cruising, because they lack insulation, they aren’t suitable for living on all year round. Our search continued, but we were running out of steam, until we found Dik Trom.
DIk Trom is a mischievous fat boy, sorry, mischievous and generously proportioned boy, from a series of Dutch children’s books. More importantly as far as we were concerned, it was the name of a likely looking candidate for our continental liveaboard plans.
Dik Trom is a 10.5m Linssen motor cruiser. Cynthia and I have always admired Linssen boats, but they have always been way above our budget. Knowing we couldn’t afford the boat, we viewed a ten year old 9.5m Linssen earlier in the year. Linssens are renowned for their build quality and attention to detail. Although shorter than we would like, this particular boat was very well configured. It had two bedrooms, an outside and an inside steering position, and, surprisingly for a Dutch motor cruiser, it was well insulated. Unfortunately, it was €137,000. We walked away but continued to dream of owning one.
Dik Trom is a much older boat, but an old boat isn’t necessarily a bad boat. The listing photographs showed a charming interior, comprehensively fitted with attractive solid wood, two cabins and interior and exterior helms. What we didn’t know was whether the boat was insulated.
The broker didn’t know either. He suggested that we view the boat and check for insulation on the day. We agreed, but I also emailed Linssen to ask what records they kept for one of their vintage boats.
Linssen customer service bent over backwards to help. Engineer Rennie Hénuy told us that he had only worked with the company for twenty years, so he had to contact Linssen’s retired founding owner. He was told that Linssen yachts built at that time were fully insulated with Styropor, an expandable polystyrene.
Polystyrene isn’t great insulation, but it’s more insulation than most Dutch cruisers have. We decided that the boat was worth looking at.
Dik Trom is moored at a small yacht club in Sint-Job-in-’t-Goor a few miles north east of Antwerp in Belgium. We met broker, Willem, and owner, Walter, at the yacht club two weeks ago.
We instantly fell in love with the boat. It ticked all of our boxes. It felt dry, cosy, spacious, homely, and utterly impractical for two short legged, long bodied, heavy dogs. To enter the cabin two vertical steps need negotiating to reach the rear deck, and then there are another four vertical steps down into the cockpit. It wasn’t an impossible problem to overcome, but it would need some thought.
One of the first things we checked for was a musty smell, an indication of damp. The inside of Dik Trom looked and smelled dry. The boat felt huge after so much time spent in the Hymer and, because it has a fully enclosed cockpit unlike our Super Favorite cruiser, it offered a much larger boat living space than we’ve had when cruising this year.
We liked the boat enough to make a cheeky offer. We knew that the boat had been listed for sale for two years. We also knew that owner Walter was so emotionally attached to it that he hadn’t been prepared to move on the price. However, now in his late seventies and not in the best of health, he had recently agreed with his wife that the time had come to move on. The broker told us that Walter was prepared to do a deal.
Much to both our surprise and our delight, Walter accepted our offer without haggling. The boat was ours. Hooray!
All we had to do then was find a way of paying for it.
The following two weeks were difficult for me. I still had a reasonable amount in my bank account as a rainy day fund and I still need to earn a living to supplement Cynthia’s pension which currently pays most of our living expenses. Despite countless hours slaving away over a hot keyboard, I still haven’t completed two projects which I hope will increase my income, my online narrowboat course and a book. I regularly have to dip into my savings to help pay the bills.
Our joint income would be just enough to live on if we were careful, but it wouldn’t provide us with much of a surplus. We didn’t have enough capital to buy the new boat, even at the much reduced price, so we would have to pretty much empty my bank account in addition to taking out a bridging loan until we could sell both our Super Favorite and our Hymer motorhome. We came to the conclusion that if I couldn’t increase my online income quickly, I would probably need to find at least a part time job.
We’ve spent the following two weeks debating the wisdom of buying another boat before our current boat and our motorhome have been sold, working out how much we would need to spend in total if we bought it, and figuring out a way of raising the money without launching me down a stress induced ever steepening downhill slope.
I don’t handle being without money very well at all.
While we debated, planned and worried, we toured and wild camped. It was during those two weeks that we were provided with clear signs that moving afloat full time sooner rather than later was the way to go for us.
After an eventful and sometimes harrowing working life, I crave tranquility. Standing at the helm of a gently rocking boat cruising along tranquil waterways soothes me. Laying on my bed listening to small waves gently slapping against the hull inches from my head lulls me into a deep and peaceful sleep. Cleaning nighttime condensation from a wet deck at the crack of dawn relaxes me.
I feel more at peace on a boat than I do anywhere else, which is more than I can say for life in a motorhome.
Roads in the Netherlands are pretty good. There’s usually enough room for us to pass oncoming traffic, but it’s often tight. Dutch motorists are generally both patient and friendly, but there are exceptions. And when a belligerent driver coming towards me tries to force his way through a too small gap, I take exception. Too much violent confrontation in my chequered past has scarred me. Despite, and maybe because of, Cynthia’s well intentioned advice to take things easy, I struggle to stay calm.
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Even when I have finished driving for the day, I can’t relax. Unlike France, wild camping isn’t allowed in the Netherlands. It’s often tolerated, but we never know when we’re likely to be disturbed.
The Dutch police force are the official enforcers, but we also have to be wary of park officials and even members of the public. Car drivers will often stop and stare if they see our motorhome parked late at night or early in the morning close to a beach or national park. Two or three of them over the last year have taken time out of their busy days to share their knowledge of Dutch parking laws with us. At least they can’t force us to move, although I suspect that more than one have telephoned the police to report our crime.
In the last two weeks we have been moved on by the police three times.
The first time was on a night when we really needed to get some sleep. Cynthia had to endure a four train, ten hour journey from Rotterdam to the 3E holistic cancer clinic near Stuttgart in Germany. I didn’t want to drive her there because of a slow oil leak the Hymer has developed on the drive shaft. I needed to get that fixed before I could confidently drive long distances, not that the thought of driving long distances filled me with joy.
Because I wanted Cynthia to have a good night’s sleep before an arduous day of travel, we drove from the Zeeland coast to a likely looking spot close to Brielse meer to the west of Rotterdam.
As is our normal practice, we found a quiet rural car park, checked to make sure that there were no signs prohibiting overnight parking, found a level spot with a decent view, and then settled down for what we hoped would be a peaceful evening.
At 10pm, just as we were preparing for bed, we saw the headlights of an approaching vehicle. That’s always a bad sign, especially if the vehicle stops close to us. This one did and, less than a minute later, we heard the expected knock on our door.
The Dutch are usually charming, even when they’re doing an unpleasant job. We were told, politely but firmly, that we had to leave immediately. Cynthia asked if there was anywhere else we could stay locally. The two park rangers told us that there was a large car park on the lake’s opposite shore. Motorhomes often stopped there, they told us, so we could relax for the rest of the night.
The officers left. We left a few minutes later. We followed what we thought were the right directions for a few miles. We turned into another small car park. Cynthia saw some lights on in a nearby house and shadowy figures entering a side door. She decided to check to make sure we were in the right place. We didn’t want to be moved again.
Much to her surprise, the house occupants were the park rangers who had just moved us. Ever helpful, they drew us a map and wrote the name of the restaurant down for us. Half an hour later, at 11pm, we were at our new home for the night, finally settling in for a good night’s sleep.
We were woken at 1am, this time by the police. They assured us that the park rangers didn’t know what they were talking about and that we couldn’t stay the night. “Where can we go at this time of the night?” a very tired and increasingly frustrated Cynthia asked. “That is not our problem. Find a campsite somewhere, anywhere, but you can’t stay here!”
So for the second time that night, we moved on, looking for an open campsite in the wee dark hours. Of course, we didn’t find one. We ended up at the tail end of a long line of lorries hugging the grass verge in a lay-by next to a main road filling station, trying to sleep despite the roar of passing traffic and the sodium glare of a nearby street light shining through our bedroom window.
Living in a motorhome was quickly losing its appeal. Driving was stressful, parking for the night was always questionable unless we were prepared to find a campsite open in October and we were prepared to pay up to €25 per night for the pleasure of parking there.
A week later, again at 10pm just as we were preparing for bed, the police moved us on again. They assured us that motorhome parking wasn’t allowed anywhere along the Zeeland coast, and directed us to a campsite in a distant city. Fortunately, we had overnighted successfully in a pleasant seaside car park ten miles away on a number of occasions. Despite the police warning to the contrary, we moved there and enjoyed a peaceful if slightly anxious night.
At least I wasn’t disturbed while Cynthia was away. I found a quiet place to park close to a beach near Camperduin in North Holland and spent most of my time either walking on the beach with Abbie, or trying to work out how we could afford to juggle our finances enough to buy our new boat.
Cynthia’s bridging loan wasn’t enough, even with the rest of my savings. We needed money for the bridging loan repayments, money for expected repairs and upgrades for the new boat, and even more money to get both the Super Favorite and the Hymer ready to sell.
I tried friends and family, banks and building societies. I even bought some lottery tickets. Nothing worked. We were still short of money. We almost decided to draw a line under our full time liveaboard plans, until at least the Super Favorite was sold. That would probably mean another year of motorhome ownership and the associated stress. It was a depressing thought.
As a last ditch attempt, I tried a creative approach.
I suggested to Willem, the broker selling Dik Trom, that he could also sell our Super Favorite. Walter, the owner, would wait for the balance due for his boat until Julisa, our Super Favorite, sold. Because he would be effectively lending us the remaining money that we needed to buy his boat, we would pay him an additional amount equal to the interest that we would have had to pay on a bridging loan. That sum would be paid straight from the broker’s account when Julisa sold. It was a win/win situation. Willem would gain an additional commission, plus the commission due for Dik Trom, Walter would sell his boat, and eventually earn a little extra money, and we would be able to overcome a difficult situation and finally purchase our live aboard boat.
The plan’s success revolved around Walter being prepared to trust us. We were asking a lot of him. Boats can take years to sell in the Netherlands. He knew nothing about motorhomes. He might have to wait a considerable time before he received all of his money. Walter didn’t know anything about Cynthia or me. We could have had an appalling financial track record and a history of deceit. Either or both of us could die before he was paid his money, or suffer serious injury or illness. The more I thought about it, the less I expected him to agree.
Much to our delight and our surprise Walter agreed. We had a deal. The final step was the out of water survey. Walter, because of his failing health, had been unable to take on the boat’s necessary regular maintenance for the previous few years. In fact, the boat had rarely been off its mooring. We knew it hadn’t been out of the water for at least four years. What we could see of the boat looked in good condition, but what lay beneath the surface?
We found out last Thursday.
Thursday was a chaotic day at the small yacht club. The members had booked a crane to take a ten boats out of the water for the winter. There wasn’t a huge amount of space so, if we wanted to inspect Dik Trom’s hull, we would have to wait until all ten boats had been taken out. There wouldn’t be any room for Dik Trom, so the boat would have to be hoisted above a pier to allow our surveyor, Tom, an opportunity to check the hull thickness and condition and examine the stern gear.
The yacht club is a close knit community of enthusiastic retired boat owners. Most of them arrived early Thursday morning. Only two people plus the crane operator were needed to lift out each boat, but a dozen helped, laughing and joking and generally getting in each other’s way. They were all retired. This was a social event. There was no rush, which was a little frustrating as we were last in the queue and Tom had a two hour drive back to north Amsterdam.
While we were waiting to be lifted, Tom inspected the boat’s interior. As we suspected, after several years languishing on a yacht club mooring, there were a few problems. The horn didn’t work, nor did the electric windlass. The depth sounder indicated that we were moored, at a small inland yacht club on a narrow and shallow canal, in thirty five metres of water. There was a leak in one of the porthole seals, another around the shower tray drain, and there was some serious rust around the bilge pump outlet and on the anchor chain tube. During our short sea trial a short bow thruster blast completely drained the domestic battery bank. We later discovered that the three large lead acid batteries hadn’t been topped up with distilled water for years. Walter simply couldn’t reach the batteries in the engine bay’s far corner. They would all need replacing before we could use the boat, but we expected that.
What we didn’t expect was a defunct central heating system. At first, we thought that the Eberspacher failure was due to the flat batteries. Back from the sea trial and once more attached to the national grid, the heater still failed to run.
The list of problems and failures continued to grow.
By mid afternoon all ten boats were precariously balanced on rickety homemade cradles ready for six months cold weather. We were next. Our future boating plans hinged on a successful hull survey. We could overcome all of the interior problems, but a rusty and weakened hull would be a bridge too far. Cynthia was her usual positive self. “The hull will be fine. You’ll see. The rest of the boat is in pretty good condition. Why should the hull be any different?” I could think of a dozen reasons why.
The hull hadn’t been painted for a number of years. The boat had been moored at a yacht club for a decade plugged into the shore supply along with two dozen other boats doing the same. I didn’t know if Dik Trom had anodes or, if it did, what condition they would be in. In such an environment, without anodes, the hull could suffer from electrical leakage. The crane lift could reveal a hull pitted and corroded beyond affordable repair. The boat was thirty four years old. A lot could go wrong in three and a half decades. So many things could compromise the hull’s integrity. As the crane slowly lifted Dik Trom from the canal’s murky water I could hardly breathe. This was it, the moment of truth. Permanent boating within a few shorts weeks or another twelve months enduring bad tempered drivers, over enthusiastic police officers, narrow roads and endless stress. As the crane’s lifting straps creaked under Dik Trom’s ten tonnes, I held my breath.
The hull surprised us all. A thin layer of slippery algae covered a hull free of bits, blemishes or any other sign of decay. Subject to Cynthia and I being able to come to an agreement about the survey faults, we were looking at our new home.
Walter has been both charming and accommodating. He brought in an electrician to fix the electrical problems. The odd depth sounder readings are probably due to a build up of dirt. We’ll take the boat out of the water some time in the next six months to clean and repaint the hull. We’ll clean the depth sounder while we’re at it. If that works, great. If not, being without a depth sounder on Europe’s inland waterways isn’t going to be much of a problem.
The central heating system still isn’t working. The pump is currently the prime suspect. We may have to wait a week before a new pump arrives from the German factory. If that doesn’t work, Walter will buy a new Eberspacher diesel burner. Both Cynthia and I are secretly hoping that the new pump doesn’t work. The current burner is thirty four years old. We can’t imagine it lasting much longer.
We’re in Maastricht today, three days cruise from Antwerp. The boat is still on its mooring waiting for the central heating repair. We’ve driven here in the Hymer to look for a winter mooring. We’ve found one at beautiful Maastricht marina. We’re heard and read much about the city. It would make a good winter home. Maastricht marina is within biking distance of the city centre. It’s pretty, quiet, and dirt cheap. If we commit to five months, we’ll have to pay just €2.40 (£2.12) a day. All we have to do today is establish whether we’ll be allowed to live on board. The Dutch are much more relaxed about owners living on marina moorings full time, but not all marina owners allow it. We hope that this one does.
Then there’s the small matter of actually getting the boat across Belgium to Maastricht. I understand that a VHF radio is required if a VHF radio is installed. Dik Trom has two working VHF radios, which is good. Not being able to operate one or having a license to do so is not so good.
I’ll be stepping outside my comfort zone again, and I don’t like it, but I’m sure that in future years I’ll remember our maiden voyage fondly. All I need to do at the moment is to make sure that I’m legal for our maiden voyage.
Does anyone have any idea where I can get a short range certificate for VHF/DSC before the end of next week?
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