Sid the Swan, Solar Savings and Troublesome Toilets

I am a prisoner in my own home, the victim of relentless aggression, intimidation and bad-tempered nastiness. I worry about opening my front deck cratch cover or the galley’s side doors. Even walking along my gunnel fills me with nervous anticipation. This is not the tranquil lifestyle I signed up for.

I’ve been at the wrong end of numerous unexpected attacks in recent weeks. They’re a flashback of my pub management days when mindless, drunk and drug-crazed thugs tried to gain the upper hand in my south London bar. I moved onto the inland waterways to escape this unpleasant and unacceptable behaviour. The move had been successful until recently. Now, a pair of heavyweight bullies visit me throughout the day and late into the evening. They know my work schedule, so they’re ready and waiting for me at the end of a hard day at the marina. They circle my boat like bloodthirsty Indians galloping around a besieged wagon train, taunting me relentlessly. Even on the warmest summer evenings, I’m forced to cook with the galley door closed to avoid assault, intimidation or theft.

Plenty of room for a groundsman's fat fingers

Plenty of room for a groundsman’s fat fingers

The attacks began on a sunny summer’s day in early June. My mooring is unusual. Orient’s bow juts thirty-five feet into the marina from the rusty barge to which the centre and stern are tied. I’ve chosen this position so that the bow sits in open water with a clear view over a swaying reed bed of Calcutt Bottom lock. The price I pay for such a glorious landscape is a precarious shuffle along my narrow and often slippery gunnel each time I climb on or off my boat, a journey made even more difficult by the antics of my assailants.

Because of regular heavy showers at the beginning of last month, I kept the canvas cover over my front deck, my cratch cover, rolled down to keep the front of the boat dry. My harrowing ordeal began soon after I returned from work on a warm and sunny evening. I unzipped one of the cratch cover side panels on the port side and then sat on the gunnel with my back to the water while rolled up and secured the canvas. That was a mistake.

I heard a loud hiss and almost immediately felt an excruciating pain in my left elbow. The male, the cob, of Calcutt’s breeding pair of mute swans had a loose fold of elbow skin firmly clamped in its serrated beak. I didn’t realise how far my skin could stretch without tearing, and I hope to avoid any further demonstrations. I pivoted to slap the swan with my right hand. That was a mistake too. He let go of my elbow and, in the blink of an eye, had my right index finger clamped in his mouth. Big as they are, swans are no match for human adults fuelled by fear. I escaped with most of my finger skin still attached and a healthy respect for the lightning fast strike of one of the world’s heaviest flying birds.

Since that first skirmish, Sid (I named him after Mr Vicious of Sext Pistols fame, and his equally aggressive wife, Sandra, have exploited every opportunity to make my life a misery.

Orient’s ventilation is inadequate, to say the least. The boat turns into a sauna when cooking an evening meal on a summer’s day. An open galley hatch reduces the temperature substantially but often provides too much temptation for the pair of barmy birds.

Orient is deep draughted, so the galley hatch is close enough to the water to allow long-necked swans access to anything on the starboard worktop. Nothing is safe. They didn’t think much of the grape punnet they stole a couple of weeks ago but Wednesday’s half empty bag of Warburtons thick sliced seeded bread went down very well. They even shared their illicit haul with half a dozen mallards and a pair of coots. How kind.

Walking successfully along Orient’s often rain-slicked four-inch wide gunnel takes concentration at the best of times. Now I have to also deal with a large orange beak clamped onto my socks or shoelaces trying to pull me into the marina.

I’m not the only boater at Calcutt to suffer. I mentioned my ordeal to a friend who moors on nearby Meadows marina. He told me that the same swans harrassed him a couple of weeks ago when he was painting his cabin side. The first attack came when he was bent double trying to remove a loose brush bristle from his pristine paintwork. The cob silently swam behind him and pecked his posterior. He shot forward in shock and headbutted his tacky cabin paint. He transferred a substantial number of head hairs to his cabin side and had to endure a further hour of bad-tempered hissing. It’s something else for you to think about when you’re considering your summer boat maintenance schedule.

The swans just want food, of course. They’re used to being fed by boaters, so they’ve become semi-domesticated and quite demanding. They usually back off with a stern word or a gentle tap on the head. On the whole, mute swans are a pleasant addition to life on the cut. I just need to be mindful of them if I’m working on Orient’s exterior or in the marina shallows during my working day.

Talking of working on my boat, I mentioned the improvements and repairs I want and need to make to Orient in my last post. I left a couple of items off the list. The first is a new crach cover for the front deck.

Storage space is all important on a liveaboard narrowboat. I’ve maximised the secure space I have at the back of the boat by choosing a floating home with a traditional rather than a cruiser or semi-traditional stern. Orient’s previous owners made the most of the space up front by fitting a canvas cover over the front deck. The cover is supported by a glazed, wood-framed vertical triangular board installed between the front deck and the bow locker and a top plank running between the cratch board and the leading edge of the cabin roof.

Orient's front deck

Orient’s front deck

The weatherproofed deck space is a handy area for me as a live aboard boat owner. It’s not secure, so I don’t leave anything of value on the front deck, especially as my current cover has clear plastic windows on both sides, windows clouded and split enough to allow rain to trickle through in heavy downpours.

There’s a large steel locker on my front deck which is secured by a padlock. I don’t keep anything of great value to anyone else in there other than half a dozen tins of bespoke cabin paint and the accessories I need before, during and after painting. There are a few spare windlasses too. You can never have enough. I lost both of my windlasses on a South Oxford cruise in 2015. The last disappeared into the cut in the middle of a lock flight. A guest disposed of my first windlass the previous day, along with my recovery magnet when she lowered it into the canal on the end of a length of paracord using a knot any self-respecting three year old would be ashamed of. I completed the rest of the flight using a pair of mole grips. Never again. I have six windlasses now… and two recovery magnets.

My deck space is home to my hose reel. Enough heat leaks through the front doors to the cabin to ensure that I don’t have to have to endure lengthy ice-breaking sessions if I want to fill my water tank on freezing winter mornings. Not that I have to fill my tank very often. 

I keep my shoes and boots on the covered front deck as well. Late autumn is the time I like least on the canals. The towpath turns into a shallow sea of liquid mud, a footwear coating which is a pain to remove before entering the cabin. Mud is even more of a nuisance if you have dogs. Quick toilet breaks become labours of love with owners struggling to cope with wriggling pets and their muddy paws. At least a cratch cover allows you to escape heavy rain while you attend to your doggy housekeeping.

In addition to keeping bad weather out, a decent cratch cover also helps keep heat in. On a cold day with a bow wind, the temperature inside boats without covered front decks plummets as soon as crew open the front doors.

Most cratch cover suppliers quote over the phone these days. They determine the base price by the length of the front deck or, if there’s a cratch cover already in situ, by the length of the top plank. At 192cm (6’4″), Orient’s front deck is relatively long. Manufacturer’s prices vary wildly. The most expensive I’ve had so far is £1,500 from a long-established supplier in Braunston with an excellent reputation, a reputation which allows them to charge an arm and a leg. I’ve had a quote for just over half the price from a local man recommended by two different subscribers to this site. I’ve provisionally booked him in for early August. All I have to do before then is find the money.

Solar power is also on my wish list. Tim Davis from Onboard Solar installed a three hundred watt solar array on my previous boat, James No 194, in March 2013. The three panels and their MPPT controller worked tirelessly until I sold James in October 2016.

Installing solar power was a game changer. My battery bank rarely dropped below 90% capacity during the summer months. I could stay in the same spot for weeks at a time without having to worry about battery charging. The panels were far less productive during the winter, typically dropping to about 10% of their summer output, but they were far more cost-effective than running the engine to generate electricity.

Tim David fitting solar panels on James No 194

Tim David fitting solar panels on James No 194

The only problem with the installation as far as I was concerned was the inconvenience for me as a single-handed boater. The panels need to be installed as close to possible to the batteries they charge to avoid too much of a voltage drop. On most boats that means fitting them on the roof between the centre and the stern, as they were on James. Right on the path which I needed to walk as I climbed in and out of locks. Post installation, my lock passages became quite challenging. I would climb down the lock escape ladder, a ladder often fitted so close to the moss slicked wall that getting my feet on the rungs was almost impossible, and then face the solar panel roof dance.

Combined with the steel rack holding my pole, plank and boat hook, the three solar panels used nearly all the available space. I usually reached the stern more by luck than good judgement. Tiptoeing half the boat length was bad enough on a dry day, but after rain, or worse still, on icy winter mornings, I often resorted to crawling back to the helm. It’s neither a safe way to get to the stern nor a dignified one

Ideally, I will have the new panels fitted on the forward roof section, leaving the roof free for lock passages and dignity preservation.

The final missing component for extended stays in idyllic spots is my choice of a toilet. Potable water isn’t an issue. My tank holds seven hundred and fifty litres. Using my Hozelock Porta shower every other day and washing dishes once a day, my water supply will last me at least a month. I last filled my tank on 25th May. I don’t have a gauge for the tank so filling a kettle at the moment is an exciting affair. It’s a sad life when reaching the end of a day with water still in my tank fills me with joy. Ah, the simple pleasures of life on the water.

With the new solar panels fitted I won’t have a problem with electricity generation either. The only fly in the ointment for problem free extended stays will be my cassette toilet and the challenge emptying it.

I began life afloat on James with a cassette toilet. I didn’t have a spare cassette, so I needed to find an Elsan point every three days, every four days if I had enough privacy to water the hedge regularly. Reaching an Elsan point in time was always a challenge, as was finding one in full working order and clean enough to use without gagging.

My toilet stress disappeared when I had an Airhead Compact composting toilet fitted. Before I researched the subject, I thought that composting were the exclusive domain of latter-day hippies, glorified buckets filled with reeking sludge. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I discovered to my surprise and delight that composting toilets are actually the least smelly of the three toilet options available to boaters. Pump out toilets in their most basic form can be stomach-turning affairs. The dump through pump out toilet is simply a toilet sitting on top of a clad steel holding tank. The unfortunate user needs to open a flap between the toilet and the tank before they do their business, and then sit on top of an open hole in a tank filled with several hundred litres of decaying waste. It’s not an exercise for the faint-hearted. Pump out toilets fitted with macerators are far less smelly, but then you have the possibility of the macerator clogging and the unenviable task of taking it apart to remove the blockage. It’s not something I would enjoy doing before breakfast.

In addition to the challenge of finding somewhere to empty your toilet cassette, you have to carry it to the Elsan point. Wriggling through the narrow confines of a narrowboat cabin carefully holding a plastic box filled with twenty kilos of stinking waste is not the easiest affairs. Especially when, like earlier in the week on Orient, you discover that the rubber seal keeping the contents away from your lovely clean hardwood floor has decayed. Dumping the cassette’s contents took me ten minutes. Removing the reeking brown trail seeping into the cracks between my floorboards added another hour to the task. My experience with composting toilets has been far more pleasant.

After five years of cassette carting on James, I had my Airhead Compact composting toilet fitted in May 2015. The model cost me £850 plus a further £100 to have a roof vent installed.

The toilet had a slightly bigger footprint than my Porta Potti. A conventional toilet bowl and seat, moulded from high-quality plastic, was mounted above a twenty-litre bucket used to store solid waste. Another smaller container was fitted in front of the bucket. This bottle, used for liquids, could be quickly detached for daily emptying.

Airhead Composting Toilet on board James No 194

Airhead Composting Toilet on board James No 194

Both men and women had to sit to do their business so that they were pointing in the right direction to launch liquids into the front container and drop solid waste into the main bucket. I had to add a composting medium to the larger pot to kick start the process. A bale of hamster bedding, compressed sawdust, lasted me about six months and cost less than a fiver.

I emptied the liquids bottle in a towpath hedge every day, making sure to add a couple of heaped spoons of brown sugar to the bottle before I put it back. Suger apparently helps reduce the ammonia smell. It worked well enough. I just had to make sure that I didn’t use the same sugar or spoon for my coffee.
The thought of emptying the solids bucket for the first time made me feel quite ill. A fertile imagination isn’t an advantage where human waste is concerned. I managed to delay the terrifying task for a month. Then at the crack of dawn one sunny summer’s day, I unclipped the toilet, carted it out onto the towpath, removed the bucket from the two brackets fixing it to my bathroom floor and, trying not to look at the bucket’s contents, hauled the end result of my last month’s grocery shopping off the boat.

As with most worries in life, the reality was far less painful than the anticipation. The bucket was filled with an almost odourless brown clay. The contents were far less offensive than those of a cassette or pump out toilet. After dumping the waste into a double thickness black bin bag, I scoured the bucket with a dedicated toilet brush and an eco-toilet cleaner and rinsed it in the canal.

Within half an hour I had a gleaming and sweet smelling toilet and bucket and, because I was able to remove the entire assembly from the bathroom, I was able to sanitise the area under the toilet too.

A composting toilet is high on my shopping list. Realistically, I’m not going to be able to get that and everything else on my list taken care of until the end of next year. Only then can I think about returning to the canals full time. In the meantime, I’m going to try to make friends with my two assailants. Either that or install a bigger oven and look for a recipe for swan a l’orange.

A tranquil spot away from aggressive birds

A tranquil spot away from aggressive birds (and I don’t mean the female crew working through the Calcutt flight)

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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.