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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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9

Solar Sorrow and a Lofty Loo

 

 

We finally managed to move on board Julisa on Wednesday, at least for the night. But before we could enjoy our first night afloat in an awfully long time – eight months for me, thirteen months for Cynthia – we slogged through a long day of testing, fault finding, organising and disposing.

Most of Julisa’s scheduled work was complete, but not everything appeared to be working correctly, especially in the electrical department. Jos fitted a Victron BMV 702 battery monitor for me. I wanted something as simple as the Smartgauge battery monitor I had on my narrowboat. The monitor displayed the battery banks’ voltage and the charge percentage remaining in the domestic bank. Jos wasn’t familiar with Smartgauge, so he installed an all-singing-all-dancing model from Victron. I wasn’t terribly sure that Jos was familiar with Victron battery monitors either. You can get away with just entering the battery bank capacity to begin using the monitor, but, if you really want to fry your brain, there are an additional sixty eight settings available to fine tune the readings, set alarms and monitor the FTSE100 stock market. I may be wrong about stock market monitoring. All I know is that the setup looks horribly complicated.

The monitor keeps track of two battery banks; the starter and the leisure bank. It displays in depth information for the main bank, and a voltage reading for the auxiliary bank. The display showed a reassuring 100% for the main bank when I first looked at it. To assess whether the monitor was working correctly, I turned the fridge up high, turned the inverter on, kept a couple of MacBooks on charge for twenty four hours, ran a vacuum cleaner, a hair dryer, and anything else I could think of to partially drain the batteries. The following morning, the display still read 100% capacity and 12.62v for the main bank. Surprisingly, the auxiliary bank display had dropped to 12.32v. After questioning Jos, I discovered that he had set the monitor to register the single starter battery as the main bank, rather than the domestic battery information that really interested me.

The Victron battery monitor on its slow countdown to empty

The Victron battery monitor on its slow countdown to empty

The display also showed a constant 3w input from the solar array day and night. Rather surprising given that the two solar panels total 480w and the daytime temperature peaked at thirty degrees. Something was clearly amiss.

Jos rewired the Victoron monitor to display in depth information for the leisure bank of four 130ah AGM batteries. I could now watch the steadily decreasing charge in the main battery bank, despite a furnace-like sun scorching our two very expensive solar panels all day long. We paid the better part of €2,000 for a powerful and low profile solar array which clearly wasn’t working.

I also tested our new Porta Potti Excellence cassette toilet. The cheap and cheerful plastic loo has replaced the environmentally unfriendly sea toilet in place when we bought Julisa. Our options were limited when we considered a replacement because of the size of Julisa’s head, or ‘bathroom’ as most normal people call it, and the platform it needs to sit on . The oval Excellence Porta Potti was the only toilet we could find to fit the footprint.

Unfortunately it’s quite high, and it has to sit on the raised platform. The end result is a loo which requires extensive mountaineering experience for those brave enough to tackle it. Cynthia and I will have to make do with a painter’s step ladder, which one of us will have to hold while the other climbs towards the rarified atmosphere surrounding the toilet seat.

Once in situ, the desperate toilet user will then have to sit with the head door open and their feet jutting out into the galley. Our new arrangement will make conversation easier, but perhaps make food preparation or consumption just that little bit more challenging. Anyone for a sausage?

Caught in the act

Caught in the act

As the evening of our first day back at the boatyard approached, our long awaited fridge arrived at the same time as Cynthia’s new toy, sorry, the last of our essential boat purchases, our new tender.

The Piraat zeilboot sailing dinghy is 2.4m long, and 1.2m wide. The length isn’t a problem, but the dinghy is too wide for Julisa’s davits. We’ve inadvertently delayed our departure by adding another job to Jos’s list. He’s going to have to extend the steel davits for us, install tackle to lift and hold the dinghy in place, and install lifting points on the dinghy. He’s also going to add a pair of rowlocks, or oarlocks as Cynthia and her transatlantic buddies insist on calling them.

I suspect that we’ll use the dinghy for rowing far more often than we will for sailing, so the rowlocks and the oars to go with them are essential additional kit. So is a cover for the dinghy.

Of course, buying a cover isn’t as simple as it should be. We can find an off the peg cover to fit the dinghy, but it fits flush with the gunnels, so we can’t have anything above the gunnels, such as rowlocks, or the four lifting points essential for removing the dinghy from the water and securing it to Julisa’s davits. We can have a cover custom made, providing we don’t mind paying more for the cover than we did for the boat, and providing we don’t mind waiting for up to two months for an overworked Dutch sail maker to fit us in. We’re rather hoping that Jos can come up with a solution, but we’ll spring that one on him after he’s solved the solar problem.

After the end of an exhausting day, or what passes for one these days anyway, we needed to relax. We had a choice. We could sit inside the Hymer, wedged into a corner of the boatyard under a crane’s half tonne steel lifting frame, or we could lounge on the white painted steel front deck of a boat bobbing on the surprisingly clear water of a Leiden city centre canal watching the world go by. No contest then. We sat for a couple of hours watching a steady stream of day boats cruise gently past us, mostly helmed by respectable couples and families taking advantage of the glorious weather to enjoy an al fresco evening meal on the water.

There are always exceptions of course. Inland waterways boat ownership and cruising in England is usually the domain of the middle aged. No such restrictions apply in the Netherlands. We see as wide a cross section of society helming boats on the waterways as we do walking and bicycling down the high street, including an occasional maladjusted youth or two.

As I immersed myself in a book and a bottle of Belgian beer, I heard a single phrase being repeated at great volume in a voice only recently broken. The noise increased as four scruffy young teenagers in a small and tatty boat with a smoking outboard motor chugged slowly past. “Allahu Akbar!” one screamed as he stood on the bow, confusingly, throwing a Nazi salute, staring manically about him for someone to annoy. He picked the wrong country. This is the Netherlands. Everyone ignored him, apart from me. I dropped our weighty anchor through the bottom of his boat as he passed.

Just kidding.

With all the beer and discontented youth gone for the night, the time came to shoehorn ourselves into our tiny new bedroom. It really is very small, so small in fact that the bottom part of the bed is in a coffin like box which forms part of the adjacent cockpit, and a third of the bed’s width is just two feet below the starboard gunnel. The smallest space, the one most difficult side to get out of is, of course, where anyone suffering claustrophobia shouldn’t sleep. I do, and I did, but only because I always insist on sleeping on the right. Self imposed rules are there for the foolish to stick to, so I stuck to this one and enjoyed a night in a coffin-like windowless room with my nose pressed against the steel hull.

Oh happy days!

Despite the space restrictions, we both enjoyed a wonderful night’s sleep. There’s something very comforting about the boat’s soothing rocking and the rhythmic slap of gentle waves against a thin steel hull.

Cynthia proudly displays the classy flyaway she found in a cockpit cupboard

Cynthia proudly displays the classy flyaway she found in a cockpit cupboard

The following morning, I needed to test our new Eberspacher blown air heating system. I didn’t want to take it for a spin the previous day because of the temperature. The heater’s thermostat in the forward cabin showed a sweltering twenty eight degrees. The following morning was slightly cooler, so I turned the Eberspacher on until a candle on the dinette began to melt and the thermostat cried for help. After I turned it off and rehydrated myself, I decided to leave it off until we really need it… probably some time in January if we decide to take the boat up into the Arctic Circle.

Another jigsaw piece fell into place this week; storing either the boat or the Hymer when we aren’t using them. We need somewhere we consider comfortable, secure, affordable, and which has a reasonable range of shops within walking or biking distance. We originally intended to take Julisa from the boatyard here in Leiden to a small marina in Eastermar, close to Drachten where Cynthia stayed in a rented house for two months last year. We were quoted €1,100 for internal winter storage for the boat, and €350 to store the Hymer inside in the summer.

Both prices were far more competitive than others we had been quoted at larger marinas. The only problem was overcoming the logistics of me taking the Hymer from Leiden to Eastermar and then travelling 200km back again on public transport from a remote rural marina. The trip would have involved a 15km bike ride, and then a two hour bus ride followed by half an hour on a train, carrying my 20kg folding bike. It wasn’t a journey I was really looking forward to.

We realised that Eastermar didn’t offer an ideal cruising base either. Eastermar is in Friesland, at the far north of the Netherland’s extensive waterways network. Any cruise from there would involve travelling south on increasingly familiar waterways until we reached virgin territory. Much as we enjoy Friesland’s tranquility, there’s much to be said for a more central base.

We like Jos and his boatyard here in Leiden. He’s a one man band working from a workshop below his house. There are currently fifty four boats crammed into his yard during the winter months, all smaller than Julisa. All waterway visitors to his yard have to pass under a 2.4m high fixed bridge. We scraped through with just a few millimetres of daylight between our delicate canvas cockpit roof cover and the bridge’s steel supports. Nothing larger can reach his wharf unless the owner is a local resident, in which case they have to book a slot to have the bridge raised.

Jos only has enough internal storage space for three boats Julisa’s size, and very little apparent free space outside. Not that we were particularly interested in storing Julisa out on the open and exposing the superstructure’s varnished mahogany to winter rain, snow and ice.

Pretty much as an academic exercise, I asked Jos if he could accommodate us. “I’m sorry, but I need the internal space for the boats I work on over the winter,” he told me.

“Do you have space outside?” I don’t know why I asked. External storage wouldn’t do Julisa’s woodwork any good at all.

Jos laughed “I have a list of local people as long as my arm waiting for a free space here!” Then he looked at me and scratched his head. He’s smart, and, by now, he now knows all about my practical incapability. Storing our boat there would undoubtedly result in a steady stream of work for him for years to come.

“OK, you can have a place in the yard for your boat in the winter and your motorhome in the summer. I can build a protective frame and cover for your boat to protect the woodwork.” It’s a win win situation. He increases his passive income and taps into a steady stream of remedial work, and we reduce our storage cost and switch to a more sensible cruising base.

We were delighted with our new location, and even more pleased with the price. Julisa’s hardstanding will cost us €550 for the winter. The Hymer’s summer storage will cost just €105.

We’ll need to buy a large sail for Jos to drape over the frame he’s going to build. Sail prices, as you might expect, vary widely according to quality. We can buy a cheap and cheerful sail for €200 to last us a single season, or we can invest in a €400 sail which should last us a decade or more.

We’ll probably invest in a quality sail, but not for a few months yet. We still have to pay for part of Julisa’s remedial work, and we dug deeper into our bank accounts at the end of this week to buy more boating paraphernalia; a pair of oars and rowlocks for the Piraat, two new polyester ropes for Julisa to replace the old bits of hemp currently disgracing the stern and, to complete the appearance of two already ridiculous looking bassets, a pair of boating neckerchiefs. I’ll turn a blind eye to the neckerchiefs, but I’ll have to put my foot down if Cynthia suggests buying them captain’s hats.

Jos had another bash at getting the solar array working yesterday. He discovered that, buried deep somewhere within the incomprehensible circuitry, is a switch that is turned off at the factory but which needs turning on when the system is fitted. He hoped that finding and setting the switch would cure the problem.

It didn’t.

His latest plan is to replace the regulator. Now, I don’t know much about electrics, but I know that our 480w solar array can produce up to 40 amps on a good day. Jos told me that the regulator can only handle a maximum of 8 amps which, to me, is like expecting a camel to climb through the eye of a needle. Surely he should have fitted a regulator able to handle the solar array’s maximum output in the first place?

So, we’re still at the boatyard, six weeks after arriving to have work done which Jos estimated would take a fortnight. We’ve waited long enough. We’ll spend the rest of today transferring our life from the Hymer to the boat, and then we’ll be off tomorrow for a week.

We’ll return in eight days to have the new regulator installed, and to have the new extended davits fitted and have our little sailboat hung in place. That’s the plan anyway, but, regardless of the country we’re in, boating time appears to be much slower than real time, so we’ll just have to go with the flow and enjoy bobbing about on the waterways around Leiden taking advantage of what the Dutch keep telling us is unseasonably warm weather. I don’t know how the next week will unfold, but I’m pretty sure that we will enjoy it.

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Cynthia says…

Biking is Beautiful!
Back in the ’60’s when I was a teenager growing up in Southern California, everyone I knew made a beeline down to the local DVM (Department of Motor Vehicles) and obtained their coveted drivers license on their 16th birthday.  Me?  I honestly couldn’t have cared less….I loved riding my bike to school, work and for pleasure, until I was forced to get my drivers license when I was 20, in order to complete my Bachelors Degree at the University of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles—not a place one would want to bike to, plus it was much too far.Even in those days, I remember how lovely it was to ride by someone’s house while they were cooking and the windows were open, emitting all the delicious aromas.  These tantalizing smells wafted on the breeze and made their way to my nose—pure heaven!  And I always loved the smell of freshly mown lawn—so clean and simple, it spelled SUMMER  in capital letters!

After graduating from university, I got married to my college sweetheart and he joined the Navy.  We moved around a lot and there weren’t any good places to ride, plus we lived on a sailboat and had no place to store a bicycle.

Back in the ’90’s after my amicable divorce, I moved to rural Pennsylvania and started riding again on the beautiful country roads lined with Amish farms—it was glorious, with little traffic save the occasional clip-clop of an Amish horse attached to a buggy full of Amish children barely old enough to walk, let alone drive a horse and buggy!

While living there, I happened to meet a neighbour who was an expert tandem rider.  I became hooked on tandems and we rode everywhere.  Alas, when I moved to Vermont I had no one to tandem ride with, so I bought a hybrid (mountain/road bike) and started riding there.  However, Vermont provided biking challenges because a)  the roads are narrow with little room for bikes and cars together and, b) lots of challenging hills were around nearly every corner.

Luckily, my little house-on-the-hill was just across from one of the prettiest, most scenic dirt roads in Vermont—with little traffic and it followed the Battenkill—a premiere fly fishing river—for 5 1/2 breathtaking miles and just a few easily mastered hills.  And best of all, very few people outside the area knew about it.

No matter how many times I peddled down this road I never tired of it.  And most pleasing of all—the last ride I took on it was in July 2016 with Paul when he flew to the states for our wedding.  My last, best ride down River Road.  I will Never forget it…..

Sequeway to September 2016 when I made my temporary home in Friesland, Netherlands.  I bought the lovely used bike that was ultimately stolen off the back of the Hymer in Malaga last December.  I loved doing my daily chores on this bike and discovering the myriad  bike paths that criss-cross the whole of the Netherlands.  I cherished every minute of it!

After we returned to the south of France last December, I didn’t find many bike paths until we came upon Gruisson on the Mediterranean.  Being a summer holiday area, it turned out to have quite a few nice places to bike—just frustrating because I didn’t have one to take advantage of them…..

So, shortly after our recent return to the Netherlands, we discussed the best of biking options and came up with our current fold-up numbers which we love.  When we first got them, it took Paul about 45 minutes  per bike to fold up and stow in the garage.  That timing has now been reduced to 3 minutes tops!

At first, Paul wasn’t too keen on biking, but we have discovered so many wonderful places that are just beckoning to take advantage of, and the bikes can be easily stowed on the boat out of sight and the grasp of crime.

I speak for both of us when I say that it will be a wonderful balance and a huge plus for our summer cruising days on the canals—we can get our exercise and do the shopping on the bikes, and they can take us to places where the boat cannot.

Back to biking has been a boon in many ways too numerous to mention, but I will also add here before wrapping this up, that I can ride a lot longer and further distances without putting excess strain on the torn hip muscle/tendon issue that is my Achilles Heel when walking.

And best of all???  Biking is Freedom and requires no fuel other than “pedal power”—since we no longer have a car to drive to take us places, I can now get out and go on my bike.  I couldn’t be happier….

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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
  • ray Sunday,4 June, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    A most enjoyable read and pleased that things are coming together albeit a little slower than anticipated

     
    • Paul Smith Tuesday,6 June, 2017 at 7:13 am

      Thank you Ray. We’ve decided that today’s the day we set off on our cruise… and it’s the first day for a month with heavy rain and wind! Ah well, it’s the kind of boating that I’m familiar with.

       
  • Alan Cranford Sunday,4 June, 2017 at 11:21 pm

    Sorry to hear of your electrical issued – solar AND battery… Sounds to me like Jos is a CRAFTSMAN, used to working wood… and what you need for the electrical issues is a TECHNICIAN… Try seeking out an English speaking solar panel/system fitter… or a marine electrical tech…burning out the system will be VERY expensive – check your guarantee… bet it says a “non-qualified installer voids any guarantee” or something similar…..
    The HEAD…. a simple comfort solution to this issue is a folding step/foot rest… you might find one “pre-made” or get Jos to cut one from some 3/4 inch plywood and mount at the comfortable height [use Cynthia to figure out the “correct” height] – then add some non-slip rubber glued to the step or non-slip pain…. two ways to mount… 1] use piano hinge and a second piano hinge to the brace so it make an upside down L – wide side mounted at the correct height, other side the height required to brace the “step”….I think this would be the cheapest… 2] There are specialized hinges used in motor homes/travel trailers for “folding” steps… strong, large and expensive…
    Years ago, while living in Nova Scotia, Canada, I had a schooner sail boat. The engine was under the deck boards of the cockpit. To work on the engine, you removed the deck boards or one of them and lay down working in the “hole” that held the engine….. My mechanic was a VERY BIG guy who hated working on my engine as he was just too damn big to fit in easily… it was hot… he was working with the occasional beer break… then he had to hit the head… which was small… he got in, the door moved and he moved… now the door was wedged firmly in the middle of his back, no “stand-up” head room… could not reach around his ample frame to get the door…. stood hunched over for 5 hours until, by pure luck, I dropped by the boat and was able to rescue him…..Had to find a new mechanic… AND he charged me for all is “potty time”!

     
    • Paul Smith Tuesday,6 June, 2017 at 7:14 am

      Now THAT is the best toilet story I’ve heard in a while. When you say the guy was big, how big is big? How heavy, how tall?

       
  • GM Monday,5 June, 2017 at 8:02 am

    Paul,

    There are several things that could be wrong regarding your solar panels and maybe the level of experience etc of the small boatyard is telling here.

    Checks I would suggest you do:

    1. First check where do the output wires from the solar panel controller actually go to. The positive (red) should go, possibly via a fuse, straight to either the domestic bank positive or to an automatic battery combiner and then straight to the domestic positive. The negative (black) should go straight to the boat side (load side) of the BMV shunt.

    2. Using a multimeter, check the voltage at the domestic battery terminals and is it the same as the reading on the BMV702?

    3. Check the voltage out of the solar panel controller is it the same as at the domestic battery terminal.

    Let me know the results of those and then I can give further advice.

    Graham

     
    • Paul Smith Tuesday,6 June, 2017 at 7:16 am

      Thanks for the advice Graham, but, as you well know, anything like this is beyond me. I’ll pass your suggestions on to my fitter though, and hope he can use them to identify the problem. Thanks again.

       
  • monzie Sunday,11 June, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    Solar panels are not rocket science to install. I did my own. The biggest issue was getting the cables from the panels into the boat !

    Not sure why you got an MPPT controller when an ordinary PWM controller would suffice considering you’re likely to get more sun over there than here anyway.
    Hope you didn’t get Chinese panels !!!!

    The controller size depends on the maximum combined output of the solar panels (Amps not Watts). If the max output of the panels is 10Amps each then a 30Amp solar controller will do (unless you intend expanding later in which case get a bigger controller now)

    Connect the batteries to the controller first (positive to first battery in the bank) then negative to last battery in the bank) then connect the solar panels to the controller (positive then negative)
    To disconnect, reverse (i.e. Disconnect solar panels from controller then disconnect batteries from controller).

    Ensure that there is a fuse between the batteries and the controller and a diode in each solar panel. You can also put a fuse between the panels and the controller if you want.

    Set the controller up for your battery type (lead acid or Gel or AGM).
    Job done.
    Good luck.

     
    • Paul Smith Monday,12 June, 2017 at 6:39 am

      You South Africans are a clever bunch. It’s all completely beyond me, so I will have to leave it to the professionals. I’m not likely to get more sun over here. The Netherlands climate is very similar to the UK. The conditions and the temperature today are the same as they are in the Midlands, moderately warm and cloudy. That’s why I want the MPPT controller.

      The new controller is being fitted today. Hopefully, that will solve the problem and we can begin our summer cruise.

      Thanks for the advice. It’s very much appreciated.

       
      • monzie Tuesday,13 June, 2017 at 10:41 am

        Lol! It’s amazing what you discover when you read the manual.
        Hope it’s all sorted soon!

         
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