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All You Need to Know About Narrowboat Toilet Systems

And a few things you don’t want to read about narrowboat toilet systems if you have a delicate stomach

If you own a narrowboat, sooner or later you will have a conversation with another boater about the relative merits of different types of toilets. You’ll discuss the logistics of emptying the end results of your gourmet dinners and how much it smells.

The Holy Grail of onboard narrowboat toilet systems is one which doesn’t smell and is easy to empty in all weather conditions.

There are four different toilet types for use on your narrowboat. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each system.

Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Pump-Out Toilets

In its most basic form, the pump-out toilet is a conventional toilet which sits on top of a stainless steel tank. If you want to transfer your waste to the steel box, you need to open a flap between the toilet and the reservoir. This can be a very smelly affair. Imagine several hundred litres of liquid slurry and the smell it produces. That’s what you’ll have wafting through your legs as you ponder the meaning of life.

Narrowboat pump out toilet

Narrowboat pump out dump through toilet – The toilet is sitting on a raised platform hiding the tank.

A slightly better option is a pump-out toilet fitted with a macerator. This device chews the solids into manageable chunks so that it can be sucked through a relatively narrow bore pipe into the tank.

Incidentally, the tank is usually built into space beneath a fixed double bed. When you lay under your warm duvet on a cold winter night listening to the gentle slap of canal water against your hull, the waves might be coming from beneath your bed.

The benefit of a pump-out toilet is that it is the closest in style and functionality to the one you’ll find in a domestic bathroom. The downside is that you need to move your boat to a sanitary station every few weeks to have the contents sucked out with a powerful pump. That dubious pleasure will cost you £15- £20 each time you have it done.

Pump out toilet owners have to watch the weather. If there is a prolonged cold snap which freezes the canal, you can’t move your boat, and you can’t empty your toilet. For that reason, many pump-out toilet owners also carry a cassette toilet on board for emergencies.

There is one final problem with pump out toilet tanks. They can leak. The first you’ll know if it is when you notice a brown and fetid stream flowing down the boat towards you.

Replacing a leaking tank can be a nightmare. Imagine a stainless steel tank with the same footprint as a double bed. Then imagine a solids buildup in the tank corners increasing its already considerable weight. Not only is the tank heavy, but because of its size, it’s challenging to manoeuvre through the narrow confines of a boat. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of helping fitters remove leaking tanks on many occasions. The task requires four or five strong men and a great deal of cursing.

The more straightforward and easy to manage toilet solution is a cassette.

Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Cassette toilets

A narrowboat cassette toilet is like a scaled-down version of a drop-through pump out toilet. There’s a flap between the toilet bowl and the waste tank which you open when you want to make a deposit. The cassette capacity is much less than a pump-out toilet holding tank though, typically no more than twenty litres.

Porta Potti cassette toilet

Porta Potti cassette toilet – It’s one of the cheapest narrowboat toilets you can buy. We had this one fitted in our little Dutch motor cruiser

Twenty litres provides enough capacity for two people for two days, a little more if both people are seasoned boaters. You learn the art of using other people’s facilities as often as possible soon after you move on board. Narrowboat toilet systems don’t usually provide you with the same cleansing torrent as you enjoy when you flush a regular household toilet. And then there’s the weight.

Each time you fill your toilet, you need to carry your cassette through your boat carefully. You need to keep it horizontal to avoid a foul-smelling spillage as you wriggle through your home’s narrow corridor. The good news is that you’ll develop shoulder muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Thetford Cassette Toilet

This is the Thetford cassette toilet on Orient. The cassette is removed through the cupboard behind the toilet

Getting your brimming cassette is only half the battle. First, you have to find a working Elsan point and one in a condition which doesn’t make you gag.

Let’s say that you began a cruise leaving from Calcutt Boats heading towards Market Harborough. Any route will do, but I know this one well, and it’s a cruise I plan to do over my Christmas break.

There are two Elsan points at Calcutt Boats. Elsan points are open sewage points in varying designs. There’s one in the older of the company’s two marinas and one on the wharf between the Calcutt flight’s middle and top locks. Imagine that I’ve sailed past both without using them. Maybe it’s the excitement of the adventure ahead of me, or perhaps it’s because I’ve reached the age when simple tasks like remembering my own name are noteworthy victories. Anything more demanding is beyond me.

Unlike driving a car or cruising on spacious European waterways, turning around to go back is not an easy option. The canal is forty feet wide, my boat sixty. The next winding hole, turning point, is an hour ahead, so you decide to press on to the next Elsan point two hours away in Braunston.

After navigating Braunston junction’s tricky concrete triangle, squeezing past boats moored either side of the canal as it passes the Boathouse, I crawl cautiously through the A45 bridge hole.  And breathe a relieved sigh as I squeeze into a gap between moored boats either side of the Elsan point. And then spot the yellow and black plastic ribbons announcing the sewage point’s inaccessibility. It’s blocked again. I’m two hours into my cruise, three if I count the three lock ascent from Calcutt Boats two marinas, and my three toxic toilet tanks are still full.

I have a choice. One option is to press on to the next Elsan point on my route. But that’s six miles, thirteen locks and a tunnel away at the top of the Watford flight. Single-handed, the journey will take me five hours. The second option is to retrace my steps and try the second Braunston Elsan point next to Midland Chandlers. The half-mile diversion involves turning my boat twice, once to cruise back to the junction and a second time to point in the right direction for the rest of my journey. And it’s all a waste of time.

The second disposal point is working, but I wish it wasn’t. A local farmer appears to have taken his muck spreader into the tiny room. There’s shit everywhere, and I know the culprit. There’s a tendency among some single male boaters to use their cassettes for solids only. They urinate in a bottle and throw the contents overboard or in a hedge. Consequently, when their cartridge is filled to the brim with solids, it’s really solid.

There’s no quick fix, no holding of breath for a minute to empty a conventionally filled cassette. The poo packing person has to shake and shake and shake some more. Then rinse and shake again. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Boaters without a cast-iron constitution aren’t keen to follow in their foul footsteps. I draw the line at wading through another boater’s slurry.

I resign myself to an onward journey to the point at Watford. I visit Midland Chandlers before I go. I buy a mooring chain I don’t really need so that I can use their toilet, which I need very much. Light in both wallet and bowel I relax a little. I won’t need to use my cassette toilet for serious business until the following day when I reach the Watford flight. I pray that this one will be both working and clean enough to use.

Of course, this is a worst-case scenario, but cassette emptying concerns are always at the back of my mind when I’m cruising. A much more practical option is a composting toilet.


 Join me on a day filled with fun and adventure on Warwickshire’s beautiful rural canals. Enjoy a twelve mile, six lock contour canal cruise. Learn how to handle a 62′ narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat on England’s inland waterways (including narrowboat toilet systems). Experience the joy of living in a fully equipped, off-grid floating home.

Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Composting Toilets

I had a composting toilet for my final eighteen months on my last boat. I paid £872.94 for my Airhead Compact and another £150 to have it fitted,  which is pretty easy for all but the most inept DIY dunces. Sadly, I’m one of this gormless group.

Like many people, before I researched composting toilets, I thought that they were smelly things, suitable for little more than drunkards at festivals. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Early composting toilets weren’t particularly useful. Users dumped both liquids and solids in the same holding tank. They offered little more than pump out or cassette holding tanks and smelled just as much. Today’s designs are far more effective and virtually odour free.

Both sexes have to sit to do their business so that they’re firing in the right direction. Liquids to the front and solids to the rear. The toilet has a manual flap in the toilet bowl bottom, which you can open when seated. Fluids are collected in a large and robust container attached to the front of the toilet base. This container has to be emptied every day. The solids container lasts much longer, especially if you dispose of your toilet tissue in a bin rather than the solids container.

The Airhead Compact Composting toilet

The Airhead Compact Composting toilet – An easy to use and odour free narrowboat toilet option

Becoming comfortable with a composting toilet took me a while. I had to become more familiar with the remains of my previous day’s food than I liked. However, I soon developed a routine and really appreciated the toilet’s practicality for an off-grid lifestyle.

My cruising regime was no longer controlled by my toilet tank capacity and the availability of working disposal points. By removing the liquids each day, I only had to worry about emptying the solids container once a month. And what a worry that was initially.

I dreaded lifting the toilet seat off the solids container for the first time. I dreamed unpleasant dreams, visions of uncovering a bubbling and reeking mass of stinking waste, home to scuttling insects, slugs and snails.

As the dreaded day approached, I grew increasingly apprehensive. It’s a natural state for me. I worry about forthcoming events, using my vivid imagination to ill effect. The reality of whatever iI worry about is always more pleasant than its anticipation.

I remember the day clearly, a scorcher in late June. A dry day towards the end of a long spell without rain. Not ideal conditions for toilet content disposal. You see, at the time, I thought that the best and most responsible way of getting rid of my poo was to bury it in a shallow hole. I had a brand new Spear and Jackson spade, purchased expressly for waste burial.

There were two problems with my plan. The first was its legality. I didn’t own the land wherever I moored so I didn’t have the right to bury anything in it. I reasoned that done sensibly, no one would notice and I would prevent a large plastic bag filled with human waste from rotting in a landfill site for a hundred years. The second problem was my plan’s practicality.

I fortified myself with a bottle of red wine first. The world’s a better place after a glass or two of merlot, even if the world in question is the contents of a septic bucket.

What an anti-climax. A small 12V fan had been drawing moisture from the solids container for a month, drying any wet bits I unearthed with the solids stirring handle. The container contents were as inoffensive and smell free as clay. What a relief after all those sleepless nights.

Maintaining my composting toilet was a breeze after that, and my bathroom was smell free. Far more pleasing to my delicate nose than my previous cassette toilet or the majority of pump-out toilets I had experienced in the past.

One of the composting toilet’s many benefits was how easy it was to clean. I emptied the solids container once a month. I had to remove the liquids bottle and the toilet to get at it. I took the three parts out onto the towpath at the crack of dawn, emptied the solids bucket and then used canal water and an eco spray to clean each bit thoroughly. I had a spotless and germ-free toilet every four weeks. What’s more, with the bathroom toilet space obstruction-free, I could sanitise the area with ease. You can’t do that with other toilet types.

Narrowboat Toilet Systems – Combustible Toilets

I haven’t come across incinerating narrowboat toilets before. Not many boaters have. There’s an article in the December 2019 issue of Waterways World describing the installation and use of one of the first incinerating toilets fitted in a narrowboat.

Cinderella Motion combustible toilet

A Cinderella Motion combustible toilet – You’ll need deep pockets to buy and then maintain this toilet

The toilet described is a Cinderella Motion combustible toilet. The first thing to put me off was the eye-watering price. You can purchase a basic Porta Potti cassette toilet for under £100 or a more sophisticated model for a few hundred more. Buy a composting toilet like my Airhead, and you’ll have to part with just under a thousand pounds. However, if you want the pleasure of incinerating your waste, you need to save long and hard. You could take a family of four on an exotic foreign holiday, buy a 16” and a 13” MacBook Pro or get yourself a decent family car. Or you could invest in a Cinderella Motion incinerating toilet. In each case, you would expect to pay £3,500, and extra to have the toilet fitted.

Your expenditure doesn’t end with the Cinderella’s purchase and fitting. The toilet burner uses propane gas for each incineration, so the burner roars into life after four deposits. The couple who reviewed the toilet had the luxury of a second toilet on board. That wouldn’t be an option for most narrowboat owners.

I don’t know about you, but my toilet visits have become more frequent as I’ve aged. I’ve reached the stage now where I have to debate the wisdom of leaving the bathroom at all. I’m sure that I get more exercise each night shuffling between the bedroom and the bathroom than most people get taking their dogs for a walk.

With two people on board and one incinerating toilet, you could expect maybe four burns each day. The burner runs for forty minutes during each cycle, so you would be pouring propane into it for two and a half hours each day.

Each of my two thirteen kilogram cylinders lasts me for two months. I only use gas for cooking these days, but I had an on-demand gas water heater on my last boat. My gas consumption then was one cylinder every three weeks. I suspect that the Cinderella burner would use more gas than my old Paloma. If I had enough money to invest in an incinerating toilet, I could expect my propane expenditure to quadruple.

No, thank you.

The initial capital investment is enough to put me off. But then there’s the additional cost of gas, electricity and a plentiful supply of greaseproof paper for poo parcel wrapping. And the need to stick my down the toilet bowl after use to wrap each disgusting deposit.

Oh, and if that isn’t enough, there’s the noise to consider. We boaters are a geriatric bunch. Our bowels and bladders don’t hold as much as they once did. A nighttime trip or two to the loo is more likely than not. Having your partner crawl over you on her way to the bathroom doesn’t help you relax into a deep and restful sleep. Having to endure the jet aircraft roar of the Cinderella burner in the wee small hours is likely to be the straw which breaks the camel’s back.

Narrowboat Toilet Systems Conclusion

There you go. Four options for collecting your bodily waste. The one, for me, which stands head and shoulders above the rest is the composting loo. After the modest capital outlay, the only running cost is a few pounds each month for a composting medium. I used hamster bedding, a compressed block of wood chippings the size of a toilet cassette. Five pounds and a trip to a pet store every six months. And no smell. And freedom from rancid Elsan points. And I’m helping save the planet.

I’ll be a happy boating eco-warrior again once I’ve saved enough money to replace my cassette toilet.


How much does a pump out toilet cost to empty?

The cost is usually £15 - £20 for each tank you want pumped out.

Which is the least smelly narrowboat toilet

The composting toilet is the most pleasant smelling of the three main toilet options. The combustible toilet is too, but many boat owners find this type prohibitively expensive.

How heavy is a narrowboat toilet cassette

If you wait until your toilet is full, you'll be carrying as much as 20kg (44lb) through the narrow confines of your boat.

Where do I empty my narrowboat toilet?

You'll need to find a pump-out station if you have a pump-out toilet and an Elsan point for your cassette toilet. Both are marked in popular waterways guides such as Pearsons and Nicholsons.

Useful Information

Discover the Answer to the Often Asked Question, “Is A Narrowboat Cold In Winter?”

One of the most frequently asked questions during the colder months is, “Is a narrowboat cold in winter?” The standard response from boat owners is a laugh, a smile and the assurance that the craft is toasty warm. That’s not always the case, though. Here’s what you need to know to keep you warm in winter.

Several factors dictate whether you shiver your way through a winter’s evening or strip off to your boxer shorts and throw all the doors open to let the heat out.

Cabin Insulation

I have been living onboard James, pictured on its mooring at Calcutt Boats Meadows marina in early February 2012, for two years. My first winter was a baptism of fire. It was the coldest winter for 100 years. The canal and the marina were immobilised by four inches of ice from the last week of November 2010 to the first week of January 2011. One night I recorded a rather chilly minus eighteen outside. It was so cold that I woke up the following morning to discover a quarter an inch of frost covering the engine room pine cladding next to my bedroom. The temperature in the bedroom was just above freezing. There was a spell when the daytime maximum was minus six. It was a cold, cold winter, so severe that I was forced to dress like an Eskimo inside my home.

The following winter, the winter of 2011/2012, has been much more pleasant.


Two reasons. The winter has been relatively mild compared with last year and, more importantly, I have made some improvements to my home. James, at thirty-five, is quite an old girl. The original cabin sides and roof were Masonite, an oil-treated ply with four seams between the cabin’s five ply roof sheets. The seams, at some point in the boat’s history, had begun to leak, so they had been sealed with duct tape. The remedy didn’t work, so the gaps allowed water into the cabin during heavy showers. The water would find its way through the roof and then trickle along the inside of the internal cladding. Then it would find a weak point to drip through into the cabin. When I heard the sound of rain drumming on the roof, I would gather together a collection of pots and pans to place carefully under the drips.

Not all of the water found its way into the cabin. Much of it lay on the underside of my beautiful pirana pine, slowly discolouring and staining the grain. To a lesser extent, the cabin sides let in water too. The prevailing south-westerly meant that wind and the rain scoured the port (left) side of the boat. Where the neglected paintwork peeled along the ply joins, the water found its way in.

In November last year, I had the opportunity to ship James off to a local boat builder to have the cabin sides and roof and the front and back doors overplated. While they were doing the work, I asked them to sandwich insulation between the old Masonite and the new steel. I used one-inch polystyrene for most of the surface area and Rockwool for the sections where the guys were welding. Rather than saving a few pounds by using the cheaper polystyrene, I should have used spray foam on all surfaces as it is a more effective insulator.

The additional insulation has made a significant difference, as has the fact that the roof and cabin sides are no longer holding water for much of the time. The boat, with the same heating inside, is both warmer and less damp.

Heating Systems

James has a solid fuel stove with a back boiler installed right at the front of the boat. The back boiler feeds three radiators along the starboard side. The furthest radiator is forty feet away in the main bedroom. The system struggles to push heat down to the far end. I can’t find out the make of the stove, but I understand that it’s as old as the hills – as old as James anyway – and it isn’t very efficient.

I know several liveaboards who swear by Morso Squirrel stoves. I’ve heard stories of coal that will carry on burning for up to two days if the fire is “damped down” (has the airflow reduced, so the fuel smoulders). The longest I can achieve with the stove on James is about twelve hours.

Rather than a solid fuel stove, I could install a diesel heating system. I could then have the convenience of waking to a warm boat, but I (a) can’t afford to at the moment and (b) don’t like a lot of them because of the noise. Some (particularly the Hurricane diesel heating system we sell so successfully at Calcutt Boats) are very noisy. The Hurricane sounds like a hurricane. There is a boat moored on the opposite side of the marina from me that has one fitted. I can hear it from James.

The diesel Bubble stove is very quiet. A friend has one. His boat was very cosy when I visited with hardly a sound from the stove.


There’s no point filling a bucket with water if it’s full of holes. The same applies to pumping heat into your boat. Draughts can very quickly make the cabin feel cold. The new steel front, rear and side doors on James weren’t a perfect fit. I’ve added ply panels to the doors’ inside faces to insulate them a little, but there’s still a bit of a draught. I’ve fitted draught excluder around the front and rear doors and the centre doors and hatches. There’s still a draught from the centre door hatch on the weather side so it can be a bit chilly there when there’s a stiff breeze.


I moor James at the western end of the marina. The prevailing wind is south-westerly. Calcutt Boats lays in a wind “corridor” – the old working boatmen used to refer to the pound below Calcutt Bottom Lock as “windy corner” – so there’s usually a stiff breeze. The boat then is buffeted by the wind daily. On the few occasions when there is little or no wind, James feels very much warmer. Of course, the breeze always finds the draughts.

When people ask me if a narrowboat is cold in winter, I should say… “Well, it depends on the heating system you use, how well insulated your boat is, whether you have any draughts, and what the weather is like”. But I won’t. I’ll smile and assure them that I’m toasty warm. And this morning, as I write this, with an outside temperature of minus five but no wind, and the coal fire roaring, I am toasty warm.


Try before you buy. Join me on a day filled with fun and adventure on Warwickshire’s beautiful rural canals. Enjoy a twelve mile, six lock contour canal cruise. Learn how to handle a 62′ narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat on England’s inland waterways. Experience the joy of living in a fully equipped, off-grid floating home.

Fast forward seven and a half years to November 2019…

I wrote the above post in February 2012 after living afloat for nearly two years. I sold James No 194 in October 2016 following six and a half happy years afloat. I didn’t sell because I was disenchanted with the lifestyle. I loved living afloat, and all that living afloat entailed. But I had an ill wife. Cynthia suspected that she didn’t have many years left in her.  I enthusiastically agreed to her suggestion that we tour Europe by motorhome in the winter and by boat in the summer. We sold our respective homes to fund our travels.

We owned two boats during our stay in Holland; a classic steel-hulled motor cruiser with a mahogany cabin and an all-steel Linssen motor yacht. We stayed on both during cold autumn and spring periods. Then we moved back to England and my current narrowboat, Orient, in December 2018. Let me tell you this: English narrowboats are superbly insulated compared with any Dutch motor cruisers. Narrowboat insulation is in a different league, and most narrowboats have heating systems designed for constant use. My abiding memory of our last Dutch boat is the bone-chilling cold and unhealthy, soul-destroying damp.

Rereading my old post, I think that I can improve on the information I gave you then.

Life on James was usually warm enough at the front of the boat. The problem I had was pushing warm air towards the stern. Because of my stove’s double-skinned top plate, a stovetop fan wouldn’t work. These fans are perfect for off-grid living. They use the temperature difference between their bottom and top plate to generate free electricity to power the fan. My solution wasn’t as off-grid friendly. I had a 12V fan fitted on the ceiling close to the stove. With it running, I could push enough heat to the back of the boat, to my bedroom, to raise the temperature by a couple of degrees. Useful, but not great.

Orient is better insulated than James and a saloon stove suitable for powering an Ecofan. Still, the new boat has a similar design to my Norton Canes boat. An open plan boat is relatively easy to heat. Orient, like James, has bulkheads separating the galley, bathroom, main bedroom, engine room and the boatman’s cabin. Each partition restricts airflow.

Orient’s saloon is heated by a Morso Squirrel stove. There’s another solid fuel stove, a Premiere range, in the boatman’s cabin at the back of the boat and a Kubola diesel boiler in the bathroom. The Kabola heats water for my calorifier, my hot water tank, and also powers radiators in the main bedroom and the engine room, and a bathroom towel rail. I have three heat sources, but, most of the time, I use one.

I don’t use the Kabola boiler because I don’t like to waste fuel, water or money. I need hot water twice a day for dishwashing and showering, so I use a kettle for dishwashing and a kettle and a Hozelock Porta Shower for the keeping myself clean. I don’t need working radiators either. The main bedroom is only used for storage, there’s no need to heat the engine room. And I can’t be bothered to light the boiler for towel rail heating when I’m in the shower.

The boatman’s cabin range doesn’t see much use either. It’s a pain to manage during the day. Because the firebox is small, keeping the stove going throughout the day requires dropping half a dozen coal briquettes in every couple of hours. It’s a nuisance to top up when I’m away from the boat during the day, and my sleeping space is uncomfortably warm if I let stove coal burn too far into the evening. Keeping things simple is the cheapest and most efficient solution. The range stays cold unless I’m cruising on chilly days.

Winter cruising can be a bone-chillingly cold affair if you’re not careful. Cruiser stern boats are the coldest. You stand still for hours on end, open to the elements, slowly freezing and waiting for the ordeal to end. Traditional stern narrowboats offer more protection than cruiser sterns. And, if they are equipped with a back cabin range like Orient, they can turn an unpleasant winter cruise into a truly tranquil experience.

I brought Orient south from Tattenhall marina in February. I cruised for two weeks through a frozen landscape. I needed to reach the Farmer’s Bridge flight of locks in Birmingham city centre before they closed for essential repairs. I had to use Orient as an icebreaker to crash through increasingly thick ice for three days. I ground to a halt on an urban Birmingham backwater. The ice was too thick. I was stuck on a frozen waterway with swans marching over the ice in front of me.

Cynthia’s hand appeared in the hatchway, holding an insulated pot filled with stew. I slowed my engine to idle, opened the steaming container and enjoyed ten minutes of pure bliss. The heat from my Premiere range swirled around my legs as I wolfed down a pint of hot meat and potatoes. I was comfortably warm and sublimely happy to be standing at the helm of my new home. The same journey on a cruiser stern boat would be a far less pleasant experience.

Because my sole heat source most of the time is the saloon stove, the temperature drops significantly as I move further away from the bow. I have temperature sensors throughout Orient.  As last night was chilly, I noted the readings this morning at 8 am.

Saloon: 13°C

Bedroom: 10°C

Boatman’s cabin (where I sleep): 7°C

Front deck (it’s protected by a canvas cratch cover and is heated slightly by the heat lost through my cabin front doors’ two single glazed windows): 1°C

Outside -2°C

Now, I don’t know about you, but thirteen degrees is far too chilly for me to sit still typing for hours on end. My first job of the day at this time of the year is to increase the cabin temperature. I throw a log or coal onto the fire, riddle the grate, empty the ash pan, open both stove vents and make a coffee.

The stove takes an hour to bring the cabin to a bearable temperature. Now, at 11.30 am, the temperatures are…

Saloon: 23°C

Bedroom: 15°C

Boatman’s cabin: 13°C

Front deck: 8°C

Outside: 3°C

Although the saloon area is warm enough for me to sit and work comfortably for hours on end, the back of the boat is distinctly chilly. If I wanted to, I could double my workload, increase my daily fuel expense and turn the boatman’s cabin into a furnace. But there’s no point with only me on board.

Orient’s stern remains cold unless I’m cruising. I have neither the time nor the energy to keep it warm.

I could, possibly, modify the diesel Kabola heating system to heat all of my home. The big challenge would be finding somewhere in the boatman’s cabin for a radiator. There’s no empty wall space to fit one. The room is filled with fitted furniture, so there’s no free wall space larger than a dinner plate.

I’m not going to waste any time worrying about that little problem. Solid fuel stoves are dirty and time-consuming to maintain. They need a regular supply of heavy fuel and daily ash pan emptying and glass polishing. However, sitting in front of a silent stove watching flickering flames dance across burning coals is very comforting on a cold winter’s night.

Is a Narrowboat Cold in Winter?

There you go. If you’re asked is a narrowboat is cold in winter, you could give a detailed reply. You could wax lyrical about insulation, draughts, differing heating types and efficiency. You won’t, though. You’ll smile serenely and assure the enquirer that your steel home, half-submerged in frigid water, is as warm as toast.

Can I use wood I find by the canal for heating?

Yes, you can but it's not a good idea. The wood will probably be unseasoned which means that its water content will be higher than 20%. Fresh cut oak is usually 50% water, ash slightly lower at 40%. Burning unseasoned wood will mean less heat and more chance of a blocked flue, flue fires and a dirty brown stain down your cabin side.

Will my stove get all of the boat warm?

No. The back of your boat will be much cooler than the front, especially if you don't have an open plan boat. If you want all of your boat the same temperature, consider a central heating option.

What's the cheapest way of heating my boat?

Coal briquettes. I use them on my 62' narrowboat. Keeping my cabin at 20°C costs £3-£4 a day at December 2019 prices.

Which is the best insulation?

Spray foam. It's the standard insulation on most modern narrowboats. Pre 1990 boats are more likely to have polystyrene insulation which can crumble and leave cold spots.

Useful Information

Why A Narrowboat Centre Line Is So Important For Solo Owners

A correctly deployed narrowboat centre line can make a massive difference to your cruising pleasure and safety. Here’s why it’s so important.

The most essential piece of kit for you as a helmsman is this length of rope, fastened in the right place and always to hand.

I currently moor, and work, at Calcutt Boats on the Grand Union canal close to Napton Junction. There are 2,500 narrowboats moored within a ten-mile radius. The network’s busiest lock flight at Hillmorton is four hours cruise away. The scenery is stunning, and you can be heading in five different directions within a few hours. It’s tremendously popular with narrowboat owners, and with holiday hirers too.

Black Prince, Napton Narrowboats and Kate Boats are all within spitting distance of Calcutt. Added to Calcutt Boats’ dozen hire boats, there are one hundred craft available for hire within a tiny area. Most new hirers start their cruises on a Saturday. Summer Saturdays on the Calcutt flight of three locks are pandemonium, especially at the top of the Calcutt flight of three locks.

That’s where the inexperienced crews from both Black Prince and Napton Narrowboats often converge. And where they meet the equally clueless Calcutt Boats hirers coming up from the company wharf beneath the top lock. The descending crews are nervous because they’re approaching their first lock and petrified because this is the first time they’ve had to stop their unwieldy floating home.

A narrowboat just sixty feet long can be the temporary home for as many as eight holidaymakers. At this point in the cruise, seven of them will flow from the boat onto the towpath like lemmings. Some will leap from the bow and some from the stern and then, like opposing tug of war teams, they’ll haul on the boat’s mooring lines for all they’re worth. At the same time, the poor sod they’ve left at the helm will be revving the Morse control with one hand and aimlessly waving his tiller from side to side with the other. That’s what happens when you’re inexperienced and aren’t working as part of a team.

Sometimes, a couple pulls up on a boat behind them and shows the newbie crew how it’s done. The man at the helm – it’s nearly always a man at the helm on a flight of locks – pulls slowly to the side. His wife steps off and, without a backward glance, walks casually past the screaming hire boat crew. The man on the private boat steps off too. He holds his secret weapon, the bit of kit which enables him to handle his boat easily on his own. That’s despite his craft being even longer than the hire boaters charge.

His secret weapon is, of course, a centre line.

A quick note on knots. I use a lighterman’s hitch on a lock landing. It secures the boat in seconds and is perfect for lock landing bollards. You can see how to tie a lighterman’s hitch here.

You cannot handle a narrowboat effectively without a centre line and, as the name implies, your line should be tied to the centre of your boat roof. I’ve seen some ropes which aren’t secured to the boat centre, often because of the boat design. A non-central centre line is better than nothing, but life is much easier if it’s fixed to the middle of your craft.

If your rope is secured to your craft’s midpoint, and if the line reaches you at the helm, you have total control.

The length of your centre line is critical too. It must be accessible to you at the helm if it’s going to be of any use. Some boaters like a long line, one which will reach past the stern. Long ropes are useful if you need to step off the back of your boat onto solid ground and then pull your craft sideways so that it’s parallel with the bank. Boaters visiting Calcutt Boats’ wharf sometimes need to do this if, for example, they want to empty their pump out toilet tanks. Reversing and pulling the boat around is much easier than coming at a concrete wall bow first and trying to judge the distance from the boat’s helm sixty or seventy feet away.

A long centre line is a double-edged sword. It’s handy if you need to step off the back of a boat, but you need to watch it like a hawk. If the line falls from your roof, it will drop into the water and head like a guided missile for your propeller. Fouling your prop in this way can be frightening, inconvenient and very expensive.

I’ve done it once. One of my Discovery Day guests actually let it slip off the roof, but it was my fault for not noticing.

The rope, draped over the end of my boat pole, fouled the propeller and instantly pulled taught. It tightened so quickly that it flipped the pole ten feet in the air. The bang of the engine stopping was followed almost immediately by the crash of the pole landing on the roof, narrowly missing one of my guests.

I was lucky. The sudden strain on the drive shaft can tear the engine from its mounting and cause extensive damage. Even though the engine wasn’t damaged, I was. On a cold February day, I had to lay face down on my back deck for half an hour with my arm up to my shoulder in icy canal water. I had to feel blindly through my weed hatch to remove a dozen iron-tight bands of 12mm rope from the propeller. I came away from the ordeal with a ruined polo shirt, a forearm rubbed raw from the abrasive weed hatch surround, and a healthy respect for centre line etiquette.

Please learn from my mistake. Watch your centre line like a hawk if its long enough to reach the back of your boat. And wear a cheap top if you need to dive down your weed hatch. Here’s a forum post with more information about centre line length.

Narrowboat Centre Line – Conclusion

Centre lines are not for decoration. If you leave one coiled prettily on your boat roof, you might as well throw it away. And if you have rope snagging obstacles on your roof – chimneys, poles, planks, boat hooks, wheelbarrows, potted plants etc. – make sure that you have two centre lines, one running down each side of your boat. You don’t want to step off your boat with your rope to realise that the line is caught on the wrong side of an expensive chimney. You then pull on your rope and lose your stack, or drop your line and say goodbye to your boat. Neither option is desirable, so you need to make sure that your centre lines are obstruction-free before you need to use them.

There you go. You can’t handle a narrowboat effectively without a centre line, which is a bit of a problem if you have a pram cover on your boat. You can read about that particular problem here.


Useful Information

The Pros and Cons of Narrowboat Pram Covers

Narrowboat pram covers protect your rear deck and provide additional living and storage space, but are they a practical addition when cruising?

I have a love-hate relationship with pram covers.

I love to hate them.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, a pram cover is canvass over a steel or aluminium frame. It’s often used to protect the rear deck of a cruiser or semi-traditional stern narrowboat. I don’t think that cruisers stern boats are as practical as traditional stern craft for living aboard, but that’s a highly subjective point of view. In the interest of balance, here’s a forum post written by a liveaboard boater who adores pram covers.

Anyway, from a boat handling point of view, I think pram covers stink. That’s another subjective point of view but bear with me. I think I can justify my dislike.

I have to handle different narrowboats every day. Boats are dragged onto Calcutt Boats slipway most days, swapped with a freshly blacked boat. The painted boat has to one returned to its mooring, carefully of course, because it’s hull is sporting a flawless coating of bitumen.

Marinas are notoriously tricky for boat handling. Flat bottomed narrowboats with acres of cabin sides don’t make the task easy. Even in the slightest breeze, they skate over the water like a toy plastic duck. Add a pram cover, and you compound your problems.

The pram cover increases wind resistance. What’s more, because you’re protected from the elements, you can’t feel the wind on your face. Knowing where the wind is coming from is essential. You always want to do any delicate manoeuvring into the wind and not against it. With a pram cover protecting you from the great outdoors, you don’t have a clue what’s happening outside. In fact, quite often, you can’t see where you’re going either.

Moving a marina narrowboat fitted with a pram cover spoils my day. I know it’s not a third-world problem, but I live in paradise. Insignificant issues are all I have.

Many aspiring narrowboat owners are seduced by the thought of weather-protected cruising. “Oh, how much fun,” they think, “cruising at a warm and dry helm on a rainy day!” No standing out in the elements enduring, or enjoying, fickle nature. It’s narrowboat ownership without getting cold and wet. And it’s narrowboat cruising often filled with stress. Consider this fictitious but realistic example.

The day begins well enough. You start your engine and reverse off your mooring. Then you head for the marina entrance with a smile on your face. You’re cocooned from the elements and feel smug as you pass a poor bloke at the helm of a trad stern boat, his legs bowed under the weight of his waterlogged jacket. You’re delighted you don’t have to get THAT close to nature.

You stand under a rainproof canvas cover fitted with plastic windows. With cold rain on the outside and warm bodies and a piping hot engine inside, you have the perfect recipe for condensation. Your enjoyable cruise now becomes a constant battle to keep your view ahead mist free. You give up eventually, roll down your opaque window and let the rain in.

“Things aren’t too bad,” you reason, “I’m still protected from the nasty wet stuff falling from above.” That’s fine until you reach your first low bridge.

Your pram hood shudders and compresses as it catches the bridge arch. Under a hail of dislodged mortar, you leave the bridge behind with only your pride damaged. You were lucky this time, but what about the next bridge, and the one after that? A carefree cruise in the rain has become a wet day of worry.

You’re moving slowly, debating whether to try lowering your hood to avoid potential damage when you hear the angry tooting of a narrowboat horn behind you. You peer through the haze of condensation covering your rear window and see the bow of a boat an arm’s length from your stern. You hear an angry shout from the back of the following boat and see a figure frantically waving for you to move over.

Now that you’re out of the way, the inconvenienced boat surges past. The helmsman shouts as he passes. “What’s the matter with you?” he demands angrily. “I’ve been trying to pass you for a mile. Can’t you see out of that thing?” He waves dismissively at your stern cover and speeds ahead shaking his head. You begin to think that two thousand pounds for a rear deck cover perhaps wasn’t the best use of your hard-earned cash.

Your confidence in your new all-weather cruising companion sinks even further at your journey’s midpoint. You’ve reached the junction where you plan to turn your boat before heading back to base. You’ve done enough cruising to realise the importance of working with the wind. It’s a breezy day, and you know that you need to turn into the wind. You’ll lose control of your boat if you turn against it. Before you had your pram cover fitted, you could feel any air movement on your face. Now you can’t. The cover blocks the wind and any chance of knowing which way to go. There are no visible trees to give you an indication so, knowing that you and a fifty, fifty chance of getting it right, you turn to the left… and get blown straight into a reed bank.

With the aid of your pole and a mooring rope thrown to a passing dog walker, you manage to get your boat around and then head sadly back to your mooring. That’s where your last pram cover problem awaits you.

Before you had your pram cover fitted, you had a time tested routine for coming onto your marina mooring. The prevailing wind pushed your starboard side away from the often slippery wooden finger pier. To prevent crashing into the boat moored on your port side, you were used to steering your boat inches away from the wooden walkway. You grabbed your centre line and stepped carefully off your rear deck. Then you could hold your craft out of harm’s way while your crew secured your mooring lines. Life isn’t quite so easy now that you have a pram cover in the way.

You realise to your dismay that your centre lines are now beyond reach. Your pram cover now occupies the space where the centre lines would usually terminate. Now the only way to reach your centre line is to sidle along your gunnel like a tightrope walker over a wet and muddy safety net. The manoeuvre is made more difficult by the vertical pram cover side. There are no handholds, and the cover pushes you back over the water. Rather than step off with your centre line, you are forced to jump off the boat without it and then hope that you can dash along the pier to grab the rope off your boat roof. It’s not a bad plan, but you fail.

narrowboat pram cover 2

A narrowboat pram cover – Note that the centre line is inaccessible from the stern

A traditional stern narrowboat

A traditional stern narrowboat (my boat, Orient) with accessible centre lines

Your boat bumps gently against the pier, and you step off. Before you can reach your line, a gust blows your boat out of reach and into your neighbour’s boat, the aptly named Too Shiny For Cruising. As usual, your neighbour is leaning over his gunwale, touching up waterline scratches with an artist’s paintbrush. Twenty tonnes of steel crashing sideways into his pride and joy does not please him. Today has not been a good day.

Even though my view is subjective, many narrowboat owners feel the same. Some of the narrowboats sold at Calcutt Boats are fitted with pram covers. Their new owners often cruise the canals close to Calcutt Boats for months after moving on board. Most set off on their maiden voyages with the pram covers intact. Some are taken off after a few short weeks. I was recently given the job of moving one such boat.

A lady phoned Calcutt Boats with some tragic news. Her estranged husband purchased a narrowboat on brokerage there earlier in the year. The police called to tell her that the man had died. He’d apparently fallen off his boat and drowned. She wanted Calcutt Boats to move both his craft and car and store them at the marina.

I was asked to bring the boat back from its canalside mooring four miles away on the combined Grand Union and Oxford canal close to Braunston Junction. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the day. Much as I enjoy taking a boat for a cruise, and getting paid for it, the untimely demise of another inland waterways boater dampened my enthusiasm. As did the memory of the times I had moved this boat earlier in the year.

Fortunately, I didn’t have the pram cover problems to deal with. The owner clearly didn’t think much of rear deck covers either. The canvas panels lay in a sodden pile on the boat roof, and the aluminium frame was folded as flat as it would go. It wasn’t flat enough to be out of harm’s way, but folded and flexible was better than fixed and in my way. My two-hour cruise back to Calcutt in light rain was far more pleasant than it would have been if I had been encased in canvas.

One final noteworthy point about my journey; if you want to enjoy quiet cruising, don’t try it on a boat fitted with a Barrus Shanks engine. At tickover, the engine sounds like an enthusiastically rattled bucket of bolts, only not quite as pleasant.

Even on a dull day, the scenery was magnificent. Sheep flecked the shoulder of a nearby hill like woolly dandruff. A buzzard circled lazily overhead, and adolescent swans effortlessly kept as I negotiated the canal’s many blind bends. I’m sure that the natural waterway sounds would have calmed me if I could have heard them over the rattling engine. I was forced to cruise at slightly less than the speed of light to avoid the annoying tickover rattle. Nature lovers, choose your engines carefully… And think long and hard about fitting a pram cover.

Useful Information

A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 2

Continued from A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 1

Before we left Walter, he had agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and defer the payment of the last €5,000 until we sold Julisa. We now owned a bigger and better boat. A boat, we thought, which we could use for winter living. A classic Dutch craft which would serve all our cruising and living requirements. Cynthia and I were delighted.

For a while.

Buying Dik Trom was a mistake. A big mistake, and it was all mine. I purchased the boat with my heart rather than with my mind. By then, I had six years of narrowboat ownership under my belt. And I had the accumulated knowledge shared with me by narrowboat fitters, marine electricians, painters and engineers at the Warwickshire marina where I lived and worked. I should have known better.

Dik Trom, by Dutch standards, was effectively insulated. Compared to English narrowboats, she was barely protected from cold weather at all.  

And she had acres of heat sapping glass plus an intermittently working heating system marginally more effective than a burning candle. As the autumn days shortened and the thermometer plummeted, so did our spirits and the temperature in our floating home. 

By December we were confined to our tiny galley and dining area. The blown air heater had stopped working by then, so we used a one-kilowatt electric heater to try to keep us warm. A bedsheet draped over the companionway steps prevented our precious hear from climbing four steps to the cockpit and its expanse of single glazed windows. We were almost warm enough in our small space, but damp and miserable.

The boat’s poor insulation allowed condensation to form on every surface. Climbing out of a warm bed to squeeze into damp clothing took tremendous willpower. At least I could look forward to a day in a heated workplace. I wasn’t quite so keen on the eight hours laying on my back painting the hulls of speedboats costing as much as English country houses, but I had more to look forward to than Cynthia.

My working days were warm but tedious. Cynthia also had tedium to look forward to while I was away. Still, she didn’t have moral boosting heat or a change of environment. She sat for hours on the boat alone, with nothing to do but contemplate her failing health.

The novelty of touring Europe without a care in the world was far behind us. We could afford to live in northern Europe in the summer and flee to the south of France to escape the winter cold. But only if I worked all summer doing an unhealthy and tedious job to supplement Cynthia’s pension. While I merely disliked the change in our circumstances, the damp, bone penetrating cold and the isolation had a dangerous effect on Cynthia’s health.

She couldn’t find the daily company she needed to help take her mind off her struggle with the simplest physical tasks. Solitude accelerated both her mental and physical decline. Cynthia’s weight loss alarmed me, as did her extreme reaction to the mildest of ailments. 

We needed to make an immediate change in our lifestyle for the sake of Cynthia’s health and our happiness, and we needed to do it quickly.

I couldn’t see a way out of our situation. One of the reasons we left England was Cynthia’s difficulty in staying long term with me in my country. As an American citizen, she was entitled to stay for a maximum of six months. Our marriage didn’t make any difference to her entitlement. But as we discovered to our dismay, getting permission for an extended stay in mainland Europe was just as tricky. By then, we had been wading through Dutch red tape for eighteen months. Our experience with a succession of reluctant government officials was a soul-destroying affair.

The novelty of extended foreign travel had well and truly worn off. Especially for me. I pined for England’s muddy ditches and the gaily painted narrowboats which cruised them. I would have returned to that lifestyle in a heartbeat, but I suspected at the time that Cynthia didn’t feel the same way. I didn’t want to fuel my desire to return to the UK by openly discussing the possibility. So I did what Englishmen do. I stiffened my upper lip, squared my shoulders and immersed myself in a life of unfulfilling tedium.

I underestimated Cynthia. She was a force of nature. If she sunk her teeth into an idea, she wouldn’t let go until it became a reality. And, I was delighted to discover, she was quite keen on exploring the concept of a return to England.

“I’ve been thinking,” she told me when I climbed into the cabin after another tedious day laying under millionaire’s playthings. “You are at your happiest messing about on the English waterways. Your face lights up when you talk about narrowboats. You miss your old life in England, don’t you?” That was a risky question for me to answer. I had enthusiastically agreed to Cynthia’s European travel plans and embraced the logistical challenges we faced both on the road and on the water. I enjoyed driving through exotic landscapes and meeting new and fascinating people. However, I missed England and the country’s magnificent waterways network.

But much as the thought of a return to England’s canals excited me, I couldn’t imagine how we would achieve it.

We had a collection of empty bank accounts between us. Our only equity was in a fifteen-year-old German motorhome and a 1984 Dutch motor cruiser. We could quickly move off the boat and live full time in the motorhome. That would allow us to instruct a broker to sell our Dutch summer home. However, selling a boat in the Netherlands can be a long-winded affair. Waiting a year or two is for an offer is common and we didn’t want to wait that long. Now that Cynthia had broached the subject, I knew that any delay would drive me mad. And push Cynthia further down the slippery slope of ill health and depression.

Even if we found a boat buyer willing to pay our asking price we still wouldn’t have enough money. We would need to sell the Hymer too, but we couldn’t do that until we had a narrowboat to live on and we couldn’t buy a boat until we sold the motorhome. The situation was hopelessly frustrating, especially after Cynthia’s next statement.

“I’ve found a Steve Hudson boat I know you’ll love.” Cynthia handed me her iPad and showed me the listing on Apolloduck. “The boat is called Orient. It’s the same length as your old boat, James, and it’s filled with beautiful fitted pine furniture.” Cynthia knew that one of my pet hates was a boat devoid of storage space. I’ve lost count of the number of adverts I’ve seen claiming a “spacious and attractively priced narrowboat ideal for full-time living.” In reality, the boat’s low price could only be achieved by the builder avoiding time-consuming and expensive internal joinery. A narrowboat offers very little living space at the best of times. Without plenty of storage space, a boat soon becomes cluttered. For someone like me, who insists on perfectly aligned cup handles and storage jar lids, too little storage space is distressing.

“Look at that,” she said, pointing at a photo. “Orient has a cabin at the back with its own stove. You could use it as your office.” Cynthia knew which buttons to press. Neither our Dutch boat nor our motorhome allowed either of us much privacy. Separate spaces at either end of the craft would give both us some much needed alone time. I began to fall in love with Orient.

Cynthia scrolled through the images. Orient looked gorgeous. I liked everything about her, apart from the monstrous green engine dominating its own room in the middle of the boat. I am neither a competent nor enthusiastic mechanic at the best of times. As far as I was concerned, engines were for hiding behind or under soundproof boards. I felt that engines on display wasted valuable living space and added unnecessary noise and pollution to the cabin. I suspected that keeping this old Lister in good condition would require a level of skill beyond me. Taking on a vintage engine would require some serious thought.

Then there was the price. Sixty-two thousand pounds. It might as well have been a million. We couldn’t raise the asking price even if we managed to sell both our motorhome and our Linssen yacht. We would need to take out yet another loan to buy Orient. And that was without the cost of a survey or any remedial work.

A boat buyer who doesn’t need to invest a few thousand pounds in essential replacements or repairs is a lucky man. The battery bank replacement often initiates the first of many visits to a rapidly disappearing bank balance. I had to change the batteries on my previous three boats as soon as I moved onto them. That would prove to be the case with Orient too. I l discovered to my dismay that there were thirteen on board. However, that particular treat was several months in the future. 

I needed to concentrate on buying the boat first. I wanted to budget five thousand pounds for essential repairs and upgrades. We needed to raise nearly seventy thousand pounds to make sure we covered all eventualities. Seventy thousand pounds more than our combined savings.

The situation looked hopeless. I told Cynthia that there was no point getting excited about a boat we simply couldn’t afford. There was no point in either of us investing time or money in such an unrealistic dream.

“If you had the money, would you buy it?” Cynthia asked. I looked at the photographs again. The engine in its own room didn’t appeal to me, and I wasn’t happy about the limited space in the boat’s saloon area but, apart from that, I loved it. Yes, I would buy it in a heartbeat if we had the cash. Cynthia sensed an opportunity.

“You’ve always wanted a Steve Hudson boat, so why don’t we focus on ways of making this work rather than dismissing the idea out of hand? Why don’t you look at this as an opportunity rather than a problem?” Why indeed. Why did I always dig deeply into any possibility in my life to find reasons not to pursue it? For Cynthia’s sake, I tried to be more positive.

Although we were living in Holland, I realised that viewing Orient wouldn’t be too difficult. I had taken our Hymer back to our Nottingham motorhome dealer two weeks earlier to have some essential repairs done under warranty. I planned to collect the motorhome the following week. As Orient’s mooring at Tattenhall marina was only an hour’s drive away, viewing the boat wouldn’t be a problem. I picked up my iPhone and dialled the listing contact number. I arranged to meet broker Steve Harrel to look at the boat and possibly take her for a test drive. 

And then I spent the rest of the week fretting about money.

The boat exceeded my wildest expectations. It was love at first sight. You know when you’ve found the right boat. It speaks to you. This beautiful craft whispered to me seductively as soon as I stepped on board. Even the engine room had a certain charm. If I could learn to maintain the aged Lister, I thought I could accept the loss of living space. Yes, this boat would do.

I took Orient for a chug around the marina. The two-cylinder Lister JP2 started first time from cold. The engine’s slow and steady thump sounded like the beat of a healthy and happy heart. It was a sound which would entrance many canalside visitors in the years to come.

I knew that the boat was perfect for us. I emailed dozens of photos to Cynthia. She loved what she saw and trusted my judgement. I was sure that we would settle into our new home quickly. Orient was my dream boat and hopefully my last if we could overcome one little problem. 


We contacted both of our banks. Cynthia was quickly approved for a £20,000 loan, but HSBC’s automated system laughed at me. With little income over the previous two years, I didn’t stand a chance. I knew that I would need to try less orthodox routes.

I borrowed £12,500 from two private lenders. Both of them bent over backwards to help me. We now had fifty per cent of the asking price. It wasn’t enough, but the money gave me the confidence to go to the broker with an offer.

I told Steve Harral that we wanted Orient. What’s more, we were prepared to pay the asking price, providing that everything on the boat was in working order and providing that we could have time to pay.

We didn’t expect our Dutch boat to sell quickly. Dutch boaters are a fussy bunch. They want everything in perfect working order, a craft painted, varnished and maintained to the highest standards. Dik Trom was an old girl, still in need of more tender loving care than I had time to give her. We bought her for €53,000 and then invested another €8,000 in essential repairs and upgrades. Hoping for a quick sale to a bargain hunter, we instructed our broker to advertise her at €49,000. Then we focussed on selling our six-wheeled home.

We purchased the Hymer for £30,000 in March 2016 and then drove the beast 30,000 through Europe. We knew that we would be lucky to get £25,000 for the motorhome if we wanted to sell quickly. We decided to advertise at that price initially to see if there was any interest. 

And then we had a lucky break.

During any boat buying process, one of the first questions I ask is why the owner wants to sell. What motivates him? Does he need the money or is finding the right home for his pride and joy more important? A little knowledge can help enormously.

We discovered that the owner and his wife wanted to spend less time boating and more quality time with their new grandchild. Between babysitting visits, they wanted to travel more and visit parts of England they hadn’t seen before. And they wanted to do it in a motorhome.

Our Hymer was left-hand drive. Because of that, and because England was the least motorhome friendly country of the eleven we toured, we knew that this wouldn’t be a suitable vehicle for them to use to explore England. But it would be perfect if they took it on a ferry or train over to France.

France was our favourite country for motorhome touring by a country mile. Most French villages and towns have free or low-cost motorhome parking, often with an open water supply and sometimes with free electricity too. The people are friendly, the scenery stunning and there’s more history than you can shake a stick at. We talked passionately to the broker about our experiences in France. We hoped that he would pass on some of our enthusiasm to Orient’s owners. 

He did.

The owners agreed to take our Hymer in part-exchange, and they accepted the £25,000 valuation without seeing the vehicle. The owner’s wife, Sue, explained. “We trust your judgement. You seem like honest folk, so I’m sure that the Hymer is in perfect condition. It wasn’t, and I made sure that she knew it. I reminded her that we had spent the previous two years living in it while we toured. However, we agreed to have the motorhome professionally cleaned before we handed it over. That was the plan anyway. Circumstances dictated otherwise.

Even with the Hymer part-exchange and three loans, we still didn’t have enough money. The only option was to further test the owners’ generous nature. We explained our predicament in detail and told them that we were a good bet. We had equity in an old but much-respected Linssen motor cruiser which we were confident would sell soon. We were honest people, we told him, boat lovers who took pride in their floating homes. We promised to lavish Orient with all the tender loving care that she deserved.

The Gods smiled upon us. Owners Stuart and Sue agreed to the sale on our terms; part cash, part motorhome exchange and the balance, £6,500, deferred until Orient sold. I couldn’t believe our good fortune. Cynthia just smiled contentedly and reminded me of the power of positive thinking.

We still had a great deal of work to do. Selling Dik Trom was the biggest challenge. Neither broker Steve or Sue and Stuart knew the difficulty we faced selling an older boat in Holland. Our Linssen was a needle buried under a bewildering haystack of craft for sale. Waiting a year or two for a vessel to sell was typical. We once saw a vintage sailing boat which had been for sale for a decade. All we could do was hope that our discounted selling price would attract serious interest.

In the meantime, we needed to move back to England. The first step was to make sure that Orient was all that she claimed to be. With years of experience in and around narrowboats, I was confident that a surveyor would find very little to worry us. I’ve been wrong many times in my life. This was one such occasion.

My mate, Russ, agreed to look at Orient for me. Russ was a Calcutt Boats fitter and a Boat Safety Scheme examiner. I trusted his judgement completely, and I was looking forward to him confirming that Orient was a gem among narrowboats. He wasn’t as complimentary as I hoped.

The gas locker configuration was downright dangerous and the multi-fuel stove unusable. Russ identified dozens of smaller faults too. All of them were either safety concerns or had the potential for costly remedial work in the years to come. He estimated that resolving all of the issues would cost £2,500.

We were lucky again. The owners agreed to take care of the problems before we moved on board. Even though Orient had two years remaining on its four year BSS certificate, I planned to have another done before we concluded the sale. Stuart and Sue agreed with that too, but circumstances conspired against us. Cynthia’s continued failing health was more of a concern. I would have saved another thousand pounds if I kept to my original plan. Still, my wife’s wellbeing was a higher priority, so the new BSS examination wasn’t done before we moved on board.

Christmas 2018 was an exhausting affair. We had just forty-eight hours to move our possessions. And then remove all traces from the motorhome of two years with fur shedding dogs. 

I failed miserably with the cleaning, despite a marathon scrubbing and polishing session on Christmas Day. Sue and Stuart arrived on Boxing Day to find me on the verge of a nervous breakdown. All we could do was promise to have the vehicle professionally valeted inside and out and move gratefully into our new home.

Yet another of Cynthia’s dreams had become a reality. It proved to be the last of her successes in a long and adventurous life.

This year has been a roller coaster for me. I am back on the English canals where I feel I belong. Sadly, I am here without my wife. I’m still coming to terms with her loss in April. Cynthia’s can-do attitude persuaded me to negotiate the purchase of a first-class narrowboat with no money in the bank. Sadly, she isn’t here to enjoy the result of her drive and determination. It’s one of my life’s saddest ironies.

This year has been financially tough. I further discounted our Dutch boat after Cynthia died. Cynthia’s brother Jeff, her estate executor, pressed for an early sale to repay her bank loan. I paid the final balance to Sue and Stuart after the boat sold in July. Cynthia’s estate had the rest. That just left me to settle the debts to my two private lenders. By the year-end, both of those will be gone too, and I’ll be able to reduce my seven-day working week.

I plan to celebrate with a ten-day cruise to Market Harborough. I’ll find a remote and tranquil spot to spend Christmas Day on the Grand Union Leicester Line’s peaceful summit pound and reflect on the joyful highs and tragic lows of an eventful year. I’ll raise a glass to Cynthia’s memory and to my future on the English waterways. Thank you, Cynthia, for the vision, optimism and determination which encouraged me to negotiate the purchase of my beautiful home with an empty bank account.

Discovery Day Update

Steve and Sue joined me yesterday for my first salesmanship training day of the month. The morning weather was awful. A lively breeze forced us to crab out way past Napton reservoir and blinded us with smoke from my roof-mounted exhaust stack. It wasn’t the most promising start to a day which Steve hoped would convert Sue to an ardent inland waterways enthusiast.

Sue suffers from acute motion sickness. She worried that a cruise on the gentle swell of England’s ordinarily placid canals would cause her more pain than pleasure. And the thought of tackling the rushing waters of a Grand Union canal lock terrified her.

Heavy rain throughout the morning failed to dampen their enthusiasm. Sue’s lock wheeling job didn’t begin until the end of the day. She enjoyed much of the cruise sheltering from the rain and basking in the heat radiating from my boatman’s cabin range.

Talk changed as the day progressed from whether they should buy a boat to what equipment they should buy when they did. As we tackled our sixth and final lock, Sue confided that locks aren’t nearly as intimidating as she expected. And she admitted that the exercise the liveaboard lifestyle entails would do them both a power of good. 

Sue and Steve chatted excitedly about visiting local narrowboat brokers as they left. Both were confident that neither motion sickness nor lock fear would play a part in their floating lives. It was a happy conclusion to a successful day.

If you are considering living afloat on England’s inland waterways, or if you are thinking about purchasing a narrowboat for recreational cruising, I urge you to join me for a day. You’ll learn how to handle a narrowboat safely, and you’ll gain valuable insight into life on the English waterways network.

You can read more about my Discovery Day service here and see and book available dates here.

Useful Information

A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part One

October and the tail end of the hire boat season are almost upon us. Colder and wetter days keep many aspiring boat owners indoors. They remember balmy summer days strolling beneath weeping willows watching brightly painted narrowboats chug slowly along a thin ribbon of sparkling water. They remember the joy of spotting pairs of majestic swans leading flotillas of ungainly signets. And the lucky few who hired boats for summer holidays smile at the memory of the good-natured boat yard banter at the beginning of their idyllic breaks afloat.

They browse wistfully through the narrowboat sales listings on popular boating sites like Apolloduck and think about the life they could have. If only.

…If only I didn’t have to work…

…If only I didn’t have to… (insert excuse here)…

And arguably the most challenging barrier to overcome for many aspiring narrowboat owners.

…If only I had enough money in the bank.

A cash shortage may be all that’s standing between you and your boating dreams, your hope for a less stressful and more tranquil way of life. Especially where buying your boat is concerned.

Rather than sabotaging a potentially happy future, search for the solutions rather than the problems. I talk from personal experience, although I needed constant coaching from one of life’s greatest optimists when I purchased my last two boats.

Let me give you some examples of creative narrowboat purchasing from my own experience.

I moved onto my first narrowboat on 2nd April 2010, my fiftieth birthday. I wasn’t interested in boating back then. The neglected boat, James No 194, was in a terrible state. The tired old girl had paint hanging in ribbons from the plywood cabin, and the engine room and aft cabin were inches underwater. I didn’t care. I was licking my wounds after saying goodbye to the business I had worked so hard to grow for fifteen years. My business failure was followed a few short months later by the demise of my twenty-year marriage.

The old boat was all I could afford. I paid a peppercorn rent to the owner, Roger Preen, my boss at the marina, and promised to do all I could to help prevent the boat’s further decline.

I instantly fell in love with the boating lifestyle in general and James in particular. Although I could never quite get my head around calling a boat a man’s name and then referring to it as “she”.

After renting James for eighteen months, I wanted to return my home to its former glory. Despite peeling paint and gunnels hidden under a thick layer of crunchy rust and a roof which leaked like a sieve, she was beautiful inside. James had a cabin fitted with gorgeous fitted pine furniture and, at the stern, a classic Mercedes engine waited to push the boat gently along England’s connected canals and rivers.

But I wasn’t prepared to invest any money into my home unless I owned it. Even though James hadn’t moved from her mooring in over a decade. Roger’s wife, Rosemary, often used the old girl to entertain her fellow artists. She was emotionally attached to the boat, so she was reluctant to part with James.

I managed to eventually persuade her that the boat would be better off with me. I told her that James needed to be pampered, painted and polished regularly rather than used for occasional summertime parties.

When Rosemary reluctantly agreed to sell, I dropped my bombshell.

I worked at the marina at the time, helping maintain the company’s beautiful and expansive grounds. The work was as enjoyable as the pay was awful. I supplemented my income with products I sold on my fledgeling boating website. I had no savings and very little disposable income. I couldn’t afford to buy a takeaway meal, let alone a boat.

I couldn’t afford the boat, but I had nothing to lose by asking.

My brief conversation about the purchase went something like this;

“Thank you for agreeing to sell James to me. I know that you’ll love what I plan to do with her. There’s just one little problem. I don’t have any money. Will you allow me time to pay for your lovely boat?”

The answer from my boss both surprised and delighted me. “Here’s the deal,” he offered immediately. “You can pay me what you want when you want. I don’t mind how little or how much you pay me each month. Take as long as you want, but you can’t stop working for me until you’ve paid for the boat.”

How’s that for a win-win deal? I worked hard to keep the marina looking good. As far as I was concerned, and I still feel the same way, Calcutt Boats has two of the prettiest marinas on the network. Working there was a pleasure. My boss recognised that and was happy to lock me into working a few years at the marina. I was delighted with the outcome. I think he was too.

Three years passed before I could pay my final instalment. By that time, I had also invested a substantial sum into the boat’s refurbishment. I couldn’t have switched to a floating lifestyle without Roger’s generous assistance. I repaid his kindness by resigning as soon as I made the final payment so that I could cruise the network full time. I’m not proud of myself.

I purchased James No 194 using an informal hire purchase agreement

I purchased James No 194 using an informal hire purchase agreement

You might wonder how this helps you. Surely, you’ll argue, people and situations like this are unique?

Arrangements like this, or their potential, are far more common than you might expect.

Here’s another example.

My wife, Cynthia, and I sold our respective homes in 2016, my boat and her house in Arlington, Vermont and crossed the English Channel for a life of leisure on the continent. We toured far and wide in our Hymer motorhome, from the north coast of Denmark in the north down to Spain’s southernmost tip.

But much as we enjoyed our travels we both missed boating.

The Netherlands’ vast network of connected canals, rivers and lakes enchanted us. We toured extensively through the Dutch landscape of low fields, working windmills and nodding tulips. The more time we spent parked close to waterways filled with bobbing boats, the more we wanted to join them.

We had enough money between us to purchase a classic Dutch motor cruiser. Then we spent much of our remaining savings on improvements and essential repairs. Julisa was a quality boat but, with its wooden top and canvas roof, she wasn’t suitable for anything other than summer cruising. After a few short weeks back on the water we talked about buying a bigger boat, a craft better suited to three or four season cruising and maybe, just maybe, a boat suitable for living on permanently.

Dutch motor cruiser, Julisa. The only boat I've purchased outright.

Dutch motor cruiser, Julisa. The only boat I’ve purchased outright.

We found what we thought was the perfect boat moored at a small boat club on the outskirts of Antwerp. We loved everything but the name. Dik Trom was the Dutch answer to England’s Billy Bunter; a fat boy, sorry, calorically challenged young man, renowned for his greed. Dik Trom was also famous for riding a donkey backwards. Given that I had a backwards approach to DIY, I felt an immediate connection with the boat.

Our new floating home, a 1984 Linssen motor cruiser, suited its name perfectly. She was short and fat and ate as much as possible. I was used to my Mercedes engine, pushing my narrowboat slowly along a series of muddy ditches. The thirty-eight horsepower engine consumed a modest litre an hour. Dik Trom, with nearly three times as many horses under the bonnet, used three and a half litres an hour to surge through Holland’s deep and extensive waterways. She was an expensive girl to please.

Dik Trom’s owner, Walter, was a kindly and retired pilot who lost the mobility needed to climb aboard his boat. Dik Trom had already been for sale for two years, priced far too ambitiously at €63,000 (£55,000). The boat’s asking price was too much for us. Most of our money was tied up in our German motorhome and our Dutch motor cruiser. But we wanted Dik Trom, so we needed to find a creative solution, one which would allow the boat without me having a nervous breakdown.

I don’t feel comfortable with an empty bank account. I worry and fret If I don’t have a financial safety net. Ever since the UK’s Revenue and Customs department forced me and my failing business into bankruptcy in 2008, money shortage has terrified me.

Cynthia, on the other hand, was always the eternal optimist. “What’s the worst that can happen?” she would often ask. She was trying to reassure me but asking me something like that is looking for trouble. I have a vivid imagination, especially where doom and gloom is concerned. I pictured unforeseen medical emergencies; Cynthia losing her pension, dwindling interest in my website and anything I offered for sale. I imagined a country which didn’t want to employ me under any circumstances. I worried about doggy disasters requiring expensive surgery, homelessness and poverty, and the pair of us wandering the streets of Europe without a penny between us.

I was so far out of my comfort zone that I had trouble breathing.

But Cynthia was as persuasive as I am easy to persuade. “You have skills,” she reassured me. “You’ll have no problem earning money if you set your mind to it.” Yeah, right. I owned and managed small businesses for most of my life. I was fifty-seven with no employment history and no skills likely to persuade a potential employer to hire me. I wasn’t keen on exploring that route.

“You’re a talented photographer,” she assured me. “You can easily earn money by selling your work online.” I didn’t consider myself talented, nor did I think that selling anything online was easy especially photographs. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of websites offering millions of pictures uploaded by both amateur and professional photographers. Few of them attracted buyers. Professional photographers using the latest and most expensive digital cameras invested an extraordinary amount of time and effort for little financial return. My photos were reasonably well composed, but my handheld iPhone camera pictures didn’t have the pin-sharp clarity necessary to encourage potential buyers to part with their hard-earned cash.

I quickly dismissed the idea too, so Cynthia tried a different line of attack.

“You are a gifted writer,” she told me. “You can earn money from your scribbling.” Was she serious? Writing blog posts for narrowboat enthusiasts hardly put me in the same league as J.K. Rowling. I earned a little from the site’s guides and packages. But the longer I stayed in Europe far away from England’s muddy ditches, the less I made. My income potential would probably be higher in a French burger bar.

My most realistic opportunity to earn some cash was to apply for a position at one of Holland’s many boatyards, boat clubs or marinas. Despite having the practical skills of a three-year-old, at least I could work hard. I reasoned that, with tens of thousands of boats using The Netherlands’ vast waterways network, boatyard employers must need someone to do their grunt work.

Then I would have the language barrier to overcome — something else to worry me. But my endless money concerns were slowly being eclipsed by a desire to return to life on the water.

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t… you’re right!”

Cynthia eventually persuaded me to think positively and imagine that I could find paid employment. She encouraged me to step far outside my comfort zone, walk a boat buying tightrope without a financial safety net and empty my bank account. “Everything will be all right in the end,” she assured me.

I managed to find employment at the prestigious marina where we had collected Julisa. The company needed someone to apply antifouling systems to an endless procession of expensive yachts. It wasn’t employment which gladdened by heart, but it would help with the bills if we were to buy another boat.

Even with a bridging loan from Cynthia’s bank, we were still €15,000 short, so we asked the broker to arrange a meeting with owner Walter.

Walter was a kind and compassionate man. He had lived on or near the water for most of his working life. Walter was passionate about boats and boating and loved his Linssen yacht. We met Walter for coffee in his canalside clubhouse. He talked about his frustration now that he lacked the mobility or energy to maintain his beautiful boat properly. “A boat should be cherished and treated with respect,” he sighed. “I can’t do that any more. She needs to go to someone who will look after her.”

Dik Trom's owner agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and give us time to pay the €5,000 balance

Dik Trom’s owner agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and give us time to pay the €5,000 balance

That was our opportunity. I showed Walter photographs of James throughout her five-year restoration project and photos of the work we had done on Julisa. I convinced Walter that Dik Trom would be in good hands. I talked enthusiastically about the jobs I would tackle immediately. I planned to renew the antifouling, paint the hull and superstructure, varnish any exposed woodwork and tackle a long list of minor repairs. Much as he was encouraged by my enthusiasm, Cynthia enchanted him with her warmth and compassion. Before we left Walter, he had agreed to…

Read A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 2…

Discovery Day Update

I continue to work during the week for Calcutt Boats and at the weekend for myself. I host experience and helmsmanship training days on my 62′ narrowboat, Orient. Here’s what a recent guest had to say…

“(I) Wanted to learn about steering canal boats and using locks as (I) wanted to buy and live on a boat and be able to safely move it without recking or sinking it within minutes of purchase!! I also wanted some tips about living on a boat from someone who actually does it….not just a broker who is keen to sell me a boat….

(My Discovery Day was) well above expectations. Yes, I wanted it very ‘hands on’ with the boat and got lots of practical experience which is exactly what i needed! Also, lots of guidance given about what to do and the theory side. I came back feeling confident I could handle boat now in most situations. You were also great company and very patient. It would also be good to additionally learn how to move swing bridges and ‘the other type’ but I guess none on that stretch of canal. I think i do need to do a bit more knot tying experience but I guess that is a days course on it’s own and the phone app you suggested looks great!  

Yes, (I would) definitely (recommend your day to others). I have already done so and told them it is great value for money! The location is also beautiful and the boat stunning.” Jackie Tonks, 

I’m grateful for Jackie’s kind words. Her feedback is similar to hundreds of testimonials that I’ve received over the past half decade. I haven’t shared the  comments with you to show off (although it’s nice that I can), but to emphasise that, if you want to increase your chances of enjoying your time afloat and purchasing a problem free boat, you will be in very good hands. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here. I hope that you can join me on an idyllic and instructive day out on the cut.

Useful Information

Bottom Blacking, Rust Removal and Aerial Advice

What a glorious bank holiday weekend! One of the few in recent years with decent weather and hot enough to encourage every man and his dog out onto the cut. So hot in fact that most of the marina based boaters who ventured out onto the cut moored rather than cruised and left the waterways around here virtually free.

The extreme heat also encouraged many boaters to remove far too much clothing or wear garments better suited to a secluded beach.

I worked on Calcutt Boats’ wharf on bank holiday Saturday. The short-staffed wharf crew needed help to prepare nine hire boats for the afternoon’s guests. I usually work on my own, so I welcome the opportunity to share a little workplace banter. 

After a busy morning moving and preparing boats, we sat at a shaded table on the lawn close to our reception for lunch. A group of visiting boaters walked down from the lock. A stocky and impressively muscled lady in a pale blue mini dress strolled by, guiding an elderly man. The unsteady gent clung to a bulging bicep as the lady guided him towards Calcutt’s chandlery. Noticing that the shop was closed, she turned a stubbled chin towards us and in her best Barry White bass asked, “Oi lads, do you sell rolling tobacco?”

She was joined by an even more outrageous friend wearing a tiny floral bikini. The two scraps of lycra did little to conceal her beer belly, hairy forearms or a pair of testicles better suited to a Hereford bull. Users of England’s inland waterways are generally an accepting bunch. We laughed quietly and then focussed on the task of preparing a fleet of floating homes for our holiday hirers. 

There’s rarely a dull day on the inland waterways.

I had two real and overly hot ladies out with me on Sunday. Jackie and her friend, Alma. Jackie booked her date a month ago. She emailed me to discuss details and raise her concern about the weather. Jackie was worried about the summer heat. “Don’t worry,” I assured her, “You’re going to spend a day on the canals in England in August. Bring gloves and a warm coat!”

Jackie brought clothing for every eventuality, apart from a scorching Mediterranean sun blazing from a cloudless sky. The thermometer peaked at thirty-four degrees. Standing on Orient’s back deck with the sun bouncing off the canal’s mirrored surface was exhausting. Alma watched the world go by from the comfort of a shaded chair on Orient’s front deck for much of the afternoon, leaving heat hating Jackie at the helm. We drank enough water to float a battleship on our return journey and tried to avoid touching bare metal.

As usual on a bank holiday weekend, Calcutt’s three lock flight was pandemonium. Novice Black Prince and Napton Narrowboat crews struggled to understand safe or even effective lock passage on the way down. Kate Boats’ hirers suffered similarly on their ascent.

A Kate Boats crew brought the navigation to a halt at the top of the flight. The canal widens at an unofficial winding hole, next to the water point and opposite the top lock landing. It’s possible, just, to turn a seventy-foot boat there with care. The inexperienced helmsman decided to turn his sixty-five-foot craft there, even though the navigation width was reduced by a boat on the lock landing waiting to go down. He managed to wedge his boat across the canal with his rear fender bent double against the waiting narrowboat.

Half a dozen boaters formed an impromptu tug of war team and hauled the hire boat out of harm’s way. There was no harm done, and everyone had another chaos on the cut tale to recount.

I said goodbye to my guests and dropped down the flight again to my mooring. I’d had enough after nine and a half hours cruising in tropical conditions. I moored Orient and then dived headfirst into an ice-cold bath of Stella Artois. I felt much better when I surfaced.

I’m slowly working my way through Orient’s to-do list. The most pressing and most expensive is to alter my saloon seating. The current arrangement is exceptionally uncomfortable. I donated the boat’s two leather captain’s chairs to Tattenhall marina’s workshop tearoom as soon as I moved on board. They were comfortable but used far too much valuable space, so I was left with a set of folding furniture; two chairs and a pine table. The pine table wobbles precariously on its single wooden leg. The two canvas seated chairs are so uncomfortable that I can’t use them for more than an hour without losing all feeling in my backside.

Orient's saloon before we moved on board

Orient’s saloon before we moved on board

The solution is to install an L shaped upholstered bench seat and a table with desmo legs which converts into a bed. The upholstered seating will be multi-purpose. It will double as storage units for larger boat items such as folding chairs for the towpath, an anchor plus its chain and rope and a vacuum cleaner. They’re all things which don’t have a tidy home at the moment.

Temporary seating to numb the most padded bum

Temporary seating to numb the most padded bum

Wharf House Narrowboats will do the work which is planned for early October. They’re also going to fit a new pair of front doors to replace the flimsy pair currently in use. Wharf House will further reduce my struggling bank balance by replacing both rotting rear hatch runners and building me a new hatch.

One important consideration when living full time afloat is managing the logistics of staying on board if any work needs doing. Orient will need to remain at their workshop in Braunston for two weeks. I can’t afford to take any time off so I will need to commute. This is one of the few occasions when car ownership would be handy. I’ll have to borrow a car, rent one or take time off work. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. I don’t really fancy a six-mile commute along a towpath at either end of a physically demanding day, but maybe that’s the way I’ll have to go. Much as I could do with the time off work, I need the income to pay for Orient’s new woodwork. I have a month to come up with a solution. I had another little job to organise while I’m waiting.

I brought Orient south from Tattenhall marina in February, five weeks after applying three coats of Keelblack to my hull. For three days of the journey, from Wolverhampton to Warwick, I forged a path through virgin ice. Half an inch of frozen water is more than enough to strip protective paint from a boat’s hull. The three inches of ice I crashed through on my journey through Birmingham scoured my waterline like an industrial grinder. I reached Calcutt marina with a waterline devoid of any protection. I tied Orient to my rusty dump barge mooring, gave myself a mental pat on the back for reaching Calcutt safely and promptly forgot about my hull.

I’m repainting it before the weather turns. The company allows staff to use the slipway at a reduced rate on the rare days when it’s not being used for scheduled work. There was a vacant slot this weekend. 

I will spend the next couple of nights with my hull high and dry. I’m on the slipway now, watching the dawn light strengthen on a chilly morning.

Managing a solid fuel stove at this time of the year is a pain in the backside. Cold mornings – it’s 7 a.m. and one degree Celcius as I write this – are often followed by warm days. I light the stove to combat the early morning chill. The cabin heat continues to build until, by lunchtime, the inside of the boat often feels like a sauna. Roll on the winter’s cold days and nights so that I can have the stove on full time and not have to worry about heatstroke.

Orient was dragged out of the marina on Friday. I had an opportunity to see how the underwater sections of my Keelblack coated hull have fared during the last nine months. Sadly, not very well at all.

I expected bare steel and signs of rust on the waterline after its icy scouring. I wasn’t prepared for the dozens of golfball-sized brown marks under the waterline. This kind of damage’ wouldn’t have happened with bitumen.’ I’m all in favour of saving the planet by using green products, but not if I have to risk weakening an essential part of my floating home.

I’ve switched back to bitumen.

My hull now looks brand new again. I’ll add a few marks during next weekend’s Discovery Day cruises, but my waterline will be safe from rust for another year or two.

Unlike my cabin roof.

That’s a job for this afternoon. I want to catch the couple of dozen pea sized rust marks starting to show through the grey roof paint. I’ll treat the spots with Hammerite Kurust this afternoon and then hope that the half tin of grey paint left on board matches the rest of the roof. It won’t match of course, so a full roof repaint is on the cards before the year ends.

This rust needed stopping in its tracks

This rust needed stopping in its tracks

The saloon chimney collar after a little tlc

The saloon chimney collar after a little tlc

You can see now why narrowboat maintenance has so much in common with the Forth bridge.

In my last blog post, I promised to write an A -Z of everything to do with narrowboats. That, as you can imagine, is quite a tall order. I’ve begun the task with the letter A and Aerials. 

If you’re a regular blog reader, you’ll know about my technical and practical ineptitude. And you’ll also have come to the conclusion that I’m occasionally (exceptionally) opinionated. 

To make this new A -Z section as useful as possible, I would like your help if you are a narrowboat owner. If you have anything constructive to say about aerials, the first item on my listing, or if you want to correct anything that I’ve written, please get in touch. You can either leave a comment below or send me a message.

Right. On with the listing.


I try wherever possible to be objective, but forgive me if I stray far from the path for a moment.

I don’t see the point of having a tv set on board. I don’t see the need for a tv set. Period.

I haven’t succumbed to sessions in front of the evil eye since I moved onto my first narrowboat in April 2010. I thought I needed one and invested hours in researching the best method of ensuring that my digital flat screen received a mind-numbing variety of free channels. I had my traditional tunnel and bridge snagging aerial replaced with a small, neat and effective white plastic dome. 

The Digidome SLx comes with a kit to fix it to vertical walls. The steel elbow needed modifying to allow the aerial to be installed on a boat roof. Once fitted and connected, I had sixty channels of tedious television to suck free time out of my evenings. After a few months, on the verge of a vegetative state, I turned off my TV set for the last time.

There’s a flat-screen TV on board Orient. I turned it on once on a pre-purchase visit, watched blocks of colour from a barely received signal flash on the screen a few times and turned it off again. That was the set’s only use.

I have a decent laptop, a 13” MacBook Pro, and an Amazon Prime account. I can watch films and episodes from an endless selection of popular television series if I want a televisual treat. 

And then there’s YouTube. Did you know that if you watched end to end video clips twenty-four hours a day, viewing the video platform’s catalogue would take 60,000 years? I limit myself to an occasional session watching comedy panel show clips MORE HERE

I realise that I am in the minority. I am missing the gene that makes people want or need to be part of mainstream society. I suspect that you will want a working tv on board, so you will need an aerial.

Getting a decent signal on board can often be a challenge. Decent reception requires line of sight to the transmitter, something which you will struggle with on many low lying canals. And then on urban moorings, tall buildings will block your line of sight too.

I have seen many attempted solutions on my travels. One is to bolt a household television aerial to the top of a vertical scaffolding pole fixed to the forward cabin bulkhead. This method is not particularly aesthetically pleasing and is labour intensive. The pole is usually too hight to pass through tunnels or bridge holes, so it needs to be removed and replaced for travelling.

I currently have a roof-mounted version of this type of aerial. It’s mounted on a fixed height pole. The base is accessible in my Kabola boiler cupboard. The problem with this design is water ingress through the roof fitting. A Digidome type aerial removes this problem. The dome shelters the cable access hole. And because the dome is low profile, there’s no chance of catching it in a tight tunnel or bridge hole arch.

Here’s a post I wrote about aerials seven years ago…


And here’s some more information on the excellent FitOutPontoon website…


Discovery Day Update

I’ve hosted a couple of experience days since my last blog post. My last guest was kind enough to return a completed feedback questionnaire…

“(I) Wanted to learn about steering canal boats and using locks as (I) wanted to buy and live on a boat and be able to safely move it without recking or sinking it within minutes of purchase!! I also wanted some tips about living on a boat from someone who actually does it….not just a broker who is keen to sell me a boat….

(My Discovery Day was) well above expectations. Yes, I wanted it very ‘hands on’ with the boat and got lots of practical experience which is exactly what i needed! Also, lots of guidance given about what to do and the theory side. I came back feeling confident I could handle boat now in most situations. You were also great company and very patient. It would also be good to additionally learn how to move swing bridges and ‘the other type’ but I guess none on that stretch of canal. I think i do need to do a bit more knot tying experience but I guess that is a days course on it’s own and the phone app you suggested looks great!  

Yes, (I would) definitely (recommend your day to others). I have already done so and told them it is great value for money! The location is also beautiful and the boat stunning.” Jackie Tonks, 

I’m grateful for Jackie’s kind words. Her feedback is similar to hundreds of testimonials that I’ve received over the past half decade. I haven’t shared the  comments with you to show off (although it’s nice that I can), but to emphasise that, if you want to increase your chances of enjoying your time afloat and purchasing a problem free boat, you will be in very good hands. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here. I hope that you can join me on an idyllic and instructive day out on the cut.

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Useful Information

Laughable Lockmates and Mirth in the Mikron Marquee

Our lovely English weather is back to normal. Wet, windy and chilly days with occasional sunny spells. And nights cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Like many other boaters at the marina, I have been toying with the idea of lighting my stove. I’ve resisted the temptation so far. The evenings on Orient are usually warm enough thanks to the sun’s heat during the day. However, the mornings are a little chilly.

My solution is to boil a kettle in the morning and leave the gas ring burning for ten minutes. Thanks to Orient’s effective spray foam insulation, my cabin heats up very quickly. The difference is remarkable compared to the heat retention on my old boat. James had polystyrene insulation. It’s a reasonable insulator but sometimes crumbles, leaving cold spots which quickly suck out the cabin heat.

My front deck view after a hard day at the marina

My front deck view on warm evenings after a hard day at the marina

I purchased ten bags of coal briquettes in early April. I have six bags left thanks to effective insulation, global warming and the tendency to get hot and bothered when fellow boaters do silly things.

I started to write last week about odd behaviour that I have witnessed on the Calcutt flight of three locks. I had another exciting experience mid-week when I took a boat from the marina up through Calcutt bottom and middle locks to our wharf.

Usually, the first boat into a double lock goes in on the towpath side. The towpath side is the most practical side to use to work through a flight of locks. Boaters stick to their chosen position as they progress through a lock flight.

That’s the etiquette anyway.

As I negotiated our marina entrance, I noticed a narrowboat already in the lock on the towpath side. There was a free space next to it, but the offside gate was closed. A boater stood with his hands on his hips, staring at me as I tied up to the lock landing.

“Aren’t you coming in?” he asked, quite aggressively, I thought.

“Yes,” I replied, “but as I can’t get my boat over the gate, I need to tie up so that I can open it.” Cynthia always advised me to avoid sarcasm if possible.  It certainly didn’t appear to help matters with my new lock buddy.

He shook his head and shouted. “You don’t need to do that. Just push the gate open with your boat.”

There were several problems with his suggestion. Firstly, I didn’t have a bow fender on the customer’s boat that I was moving. Driving ten tons of steel into a couple of tons of oak wouldn’t do the boat or any of its internal fittings any favours. What’s more, the craft was quite small and light. If I tried to do what he suggested, there was a good chance that my little boat would bounce off the massive oak gate and bounce into his stern. As he didn’t look the friendliest man in the world, I didn’t think he would have appreciated that.

Just as importantly, as far as I was concerned, was the damage that I could do to the expensive lock gates. A pair can cost as much as £20,000. If a pair of gates are used carefully, they will last between 20 and 25 years. If narrowboats regularly ram them to save the owners a couple of minutes tying the boat up and opening them properly, the gates won’t last nearly as long.

So I tied my boat up to the lock landing, walked past the unhappy boater, negotiated the upstream gate, ran down the chamber’s opposite side, opened the offside gate and returned to my boat. The man was still standing with his hands on his hips and a scowl on his face. I suspected that our three lock ascent wasn’t going to be filled with lively conversation.

Mr Unhappy gave me the kind of look that a seasoned boater usually reserves for complete novices, and walked to the upstream gate ready to raise his paddle. I brought my boat into the lock next to his, climbed the escape ladder holding my centreline, and tied it to a convenient bollard. By now, he had his windless on the paddle gear ready to let water into the empty lock. He looked at me impatiently, waiting for me to reach the paddle opposite him.

The etiquette in an ascending lock is for both upstream paddles to be raised very slowly initially. Quickly raising the paddles lets a torrent of water into the lock. The turbulence flow can rattle the boats together alarmingly. The water races to the downstream end of the lock and then surges back towards the upstream gates driving the boats forward like arrows from a bow. Any unsecured craft can ram the lock sill with great force and cause considerable damage to the boats, their fittings and their contents.

If I’m going through a lock flight with an experienced and responsible boater, I don’t bother tying up. I didn’t know this guy, and I didn’t particularly like his attitude, so securely tying Orient’s centreline was a worthwhile precaution.

I reached my paddle after closing the downstream gate behind my boat. “Aren’t you ready yet?”  my miserable lock partner asked, huffing in exasperation.

“I’m ready,” I replied, “but maybe you had better close the gate behind your boat before you let any water in.”

The unhappy man threw his windlass on the ground and stormed off to close his downstream gate, trying to hide his embarrassment at making such an obvious mistake.

Communication is the key to a successful and harmonious lock flight passage with an unknown boat crew. My miserable lock partner seemed interested in neither conversation nor harmony. He surged out of the lock without a backward glance, narrowly missed the bow of an oncoming boat and clipped my front fender with his stern as he cut across me to switch sides in the next lock. At least he remembered to close his downstream gate this time. But not his upstream gate as he left the second lock.

I thought I would leave his misery behind as I reversed onto our wharf. Sadly he followed me to buy purchase diesel and seize another opportunity to spread light and joy. “That’s not very good, is it?” he asked no one in particular as he waved a dismissive hand and three of the company’s thirteen strong hire fleet moored on the wharf. “If you can’t rent out all of your boats at this time of the year you might as well give up!” He left before any of the wharf staff could wrap an anchor chain around his neck and toss him into the murky water beneath his rusty boat.

Happy Calcutt wharf staff

Happy Calcutt wharf staff with equally happy customers. Not all of them are quite so jolly.

The following day, I saw another mistake on the flight. This time, it wasn’t an error in technique, but a fundamental boat buying mistake.

Three or four months ago a widebeam boat was brought to Calcutt Boats by road transport and lowered into the marina.

The boat wasn’t really suitable for life on England’s inland waterways. It had been purchased for a song by a somewhat confused individual who planned to use it as a floating home as he cruised the canal network.

The boat had many faults. Widebeams are difficult enough to cruise in at the best of times. Most of the craft on the Midlands’ canals, even the wide canals, are narrowboats. They take similar lines along the waterway and through the canals’ many bridge holes. They plough a relatively deep and debris free channel along the waterway as they pass. Widebeam boats straddle this channel and often ground. They are also too wide to pass through bridge holes easily. Widebeam helmsmen negotiate bridge holes exceptionally carefully. Consequently, they pass through them at a snail’s pace, often resulting in a queue of inpatient narrowboat owners in their wake.

The new owner of this Dutch styled widebeam had several additional problems to contend with.

The most significant, perhaps, was the wheelhouse height. Most of the staff at Calcutt Boats, boaters who knew the local waterways very well indeed, were convinced that the new owner would be unable to negotiate all, or indeed any, of the local bridge holes.

What’s more, the engine didn’t work, the boat had no insulation, and there was no heating on board. In fact, the boat was nothing more than an empty shell once the new owner finished working on it.

He wasn’t aware of any of the problems he faced. His judgement was clouded by a complete lack of knowledge about boating on England’s inland waterways, a misplaced sense of optimism, and vast quantities of strong lager.

When the marina management discovered that the boat’s engine wasn’t working, they allowed the new owner to stay moored next to the slipway for a few days until he could resolve the problem. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any money to pay for someone to examine the engine, nor did he have either tools or knowledge to sort out the problem himself.

A routine developed over the following week. The enthusiastic owner would spend a couple of hours in the morning ripping the existing internal fittings apart and leaving them in untidy piles on the adjacent pontoon. A drink induced stupor would overtake him by mid-morning, and then he would spend the rest of the day sitting inside his empty shell surrounded by equally empty cans.

He hadn’t made any noticeable progress after his first week. In fact, the situation appeared to be worsening. He had removed most of the boats internal fittings, so the craft sat higher in the water, further reducing any chance of him negotiating the local bridges.

He didn’t have the inclination, or the ability, to pay for a mooring, so he was asked to leave. Over the following week, the poor guy poled his boat out of the marina, and then pulled it’s along the towpath for a couple of miles like an unsteady two-legged pit pony. He eventually found a convenient mooring. He had neither mooring pins nor a lump hammer on board so he could only stop where canalside objects offered anchor points for his bow and stern lines.  He stayed in the same place for several months, surrounded by cans of strong lager and a haze of fragrant smoke.

He tried to sell his white elephant during frequent visits to local pubs. No one was interested, especially as he was asking £10,000 for a boat which couldn’t move under its own steam.  Even if it could,  it wasn’t able to travel further than a couple of miles along the canals because of low bridges.

Anyway, he turned up at the marina entrance last week. He planned to tie up next to the slipway, but he didn’t get that far.

Calcutt Boats’ slipway is often booked by owners of craft which aren’t moored at the marina. This was one such reservation. A potential buyer reserved a day for a wide beam to be lifted out of the water so that it could be surveyed. We didn’t know then that this was the same boat.

The light finally dawned when the widebeam owner, two hours later than anticipated, walked into our reception reeking of booze and marijuana.

He told us that he had a problem with his engine which, he claimed, had been working for most of his journey. The frustrated surveyor had been waiting for an hour for the boat to arrive. He offered to try to pinpoint the problem.

The surveyor returned half an hour later, shaking his head in dismay.

“There is no point in even lifting the boat out of the water,” he explained. It’s in an awful state. I’m going to recommend to my client that he doesn’t waste his money on a survey.”

The surveyor phoned the potential buyer and then drove away. He left the dejected widebeam owner tied to the Calcutt flight bottom lock landing. His immediate problem was to appease the CRT employee who told him to move his boat. The unsteady guy pulled his floating skip up through the three flight lock and then tied his boat to the lock landing bollards.

He left after three days. He won’t, can’t, go far. No doubt I’ll meet him on my next Discovery Day cruise.

My week ended with a treat. Calcutt Boats hosted a Mikron Theatre performance, Redcoats, on Friday night.

The actors arrived mid-afternoon in their 1937 workboat, Tyseley. Actors love a bit of attention, so they didn’t mind the crowd which gathered to watch them attempt to fight their way through the marina entrance against a strengthening gale. They weren’t so keen on the driving rain which worsened as the day progressed.

The forecast for the evening was dire, but in the proper theatrical fashion they declared, “The show must go on!” And it did, aided by a couple of marquees and an afternoon of hard work from Calcutt Boats and Mikron employees.

Given the weather forecast and reality, the evening was a huge success. Many guests brought their own chairs. The rest used mismatched seating from around the marina. All were able to sit in relative comfort and enjoy the show.

I had the pleasure of manning the ice cream and cold drinks stand. Needless to say, I wasn’t rushed off my feet. With nothing else to do, the nearby supply of wine and Pimms was too much of a temptation. The concession stand was too far away to hear a word the actors said over the wind and driving rain, so we relaxed and drank and marvelled at the surreal scene in front of us.

On a mid summer’s evening, one hundred and twelve theatre lovers sat huddled in coats and hats in a wind-whipped tent trying and failing to hear the dialogue from a quartet of determined actors in front of them. One elderly lady complained of cold hands. She enjoyed most of the evening wearing a pair of marigold rubber gloves we found in the office kitchen. Rain drummed on the tent roof, canvas snapped taught, and guy ropes strained against sudden gusts. Daylight failed, the weather worsened, and the show went on.

I don’t know whether I have low expectations these days. Maybe I was anaesthetised by countless glasses of red, or made merry by my partner in wine, Jason, but I haven’t had so much fun for a long time. I’m really looking forward to next year’s performance.

After a bottle (or two) of wine I was very pleased with this shot of the Redcoats audience

After a bottle (or two) of wine I was very pleased with this shot of the Redcoats audience

This week I was going to begin my A-Z series of everything to do with narrowboats. There was too much happening on the waterways to distract me. I’m hoping for a less interesting week ahead. Maybe then I can concentrate on writing about everything beginning with the letter A.

I’ll raise a glass to the next week then, and the sincere hope that your lifestyle brings you as much pleasure as mine does to me.

A clear sky after heavy rain

A clear sky after heavy rain

Discovery Day Update

Thank you if you are one of the dozens of boating enthusiasts who has enquired about or booked a day with me recently. I try to provide as much information as possible about the day before guests book with me, but I have to make sure that I don’t overwhelm people with too much information. 

I am regularly asked similar questions though, so I’ll answer them here if you’re still thinking of booking.

How far in advance can I book?

As far in advance as you like really. I try to reserve Saturdays and Sundays for Discovery Day cruises. My availability may change some time next year, but I’ll always honour any existing bookings.

What happens if I can’t make my booking date?

No matter how hard you try to stick to your plans, life sometimes gets in the way. You get an unexpected opportunity to have your new hip/heart/head fitted, your beloved dog has kittens or, like today’s scheduled guest, you twist your back. I understand that and I’m not going to penalise you for it. You can either reschedule your day or I’ll refund your full payment. It’s what I would like if I were you. It’s really not an issue. To be quite frank, much as I look forward to your company, sometimes it’s great to just have a day to myself.

I’m travelling to you from afar. Can you recommend a decent local B & B?

Yes, I can. It’s Wigrams. The owner, Ben Heaf, has been providing first class accommodation and early morning breakfasts you need to scale with ropes for my Discovery Day guest for the last five years. He’s a pleasant ten minute towpath stroll away.

I get seasick. How much does your boat rock?

Very little. Orient is a deep draughted boat on a shallow canal. Over three hundred people have spent a day on board with me so far. No one has felt the slightest bit uncomfortable.

Are you Royal Yachting Association certified?

No, I’m not, so I can’t provide you with a certificate. What I can give you is as much patience as you need to make you comfortable at the helm, an unbeatably scenic cruise, and first class helmsmanship and lock training. I can scribble something on a piece of paper too if it’s really important to you.

I’ve booked a holiday hire boat. Will your day help me get more out of my short time afloat?

Here’s what a recent guest, Shaun Bounds, had to say…

“I’ve been looking at narrowboats for some time now, as I’m considering downsizing and moving to a life afloat. However, I’d never taken the helm of a narrowboat before and was a bit nervous about handling a vessel of a size that would be suitable for living aboard. I’d been considering an RYA helmsman course, but felt that would be a bit formal, then I came across Paul’s discovery days advertised on eBay, and having read Paul’s advert, I knew that the day would be an ideal introduction to narrowboat life.

The information about the discovery day was comprehensive and thorough, with several emails from Paul covering subjects relevant to a life afloat. Most of the questions I had about narrowboat life were covered. Finding Paul on the day was a doddle given the simple to follow directions. 

I attended the discovery day with a friend, who was also a boating novice. We met Paul who welcomed us aboard his home and took time to settle us in gently, showing us around his narrowboat, explaining things as we went, taking time to answer any questions we might have. He was open and honest about the features of his boat and gave excellent advice about buying a used narrowboat. Before long, we were underway on the cut, and we took turns to be in control of the tiller, under Paul’s excellent tuition. The stretch of canal Paul had chosen was winding, with numerous bridges, moored vessels and six locks at the end of the day. Plenty to keep us entertained! Throughout the day, Paul was patient and the perfect host. Ten hours flew by, and we both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

I would highly recommend a discovery day to anyone considering a life afloat, Paul offers excellent advice and tips, shared from the experience of his life as a live-aboard boater. In fact, I would recommend his discovery day to anyone considering a narrowboat holiday as it is an opportunity to gain boat handling experience prior to the 30 – 60mins instructions given at the start of a holiday.”

I’m grateful for Shaun’s kind words. His feedback is similar to hundreds of testimonials that I’ve received over the past half decade. I haven’t shared Shaun’s comments with you to show off (although it’s nice that I can), but to emphasise that, if you want to increase your chances of enjoying your time afloat and purchasing a problem free boat, you will be in very good hands. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here. I hope that you can join me on an idyllic and instructive day out on the cut.

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Useful Information

Horrible Heatwaves and Newbie Cruising Catastrophes

Oh, for a boat with opening windows. The recent heatwave baked me to a crisp. The saving grace was that mosquitoes were notable by their absence. That was fortunate considering that I had to sleep with every hatch and door thrown wide open in the hopeless quest for a cooler craft.

The nighttime heat became so insufferable that I slept on the tiny boatman’s cabin cross bed curled like a hibernating hedgehog. The main bedroom, devoid of nearby doors or hatches of opening hatches felt like a sauna. Orient’s mooring is stern to the prevailing south-westerly. I left the back doors open as well as the door between the boatman’s cabin and the engine room. Then I also ensured that the engine room hatches were ajar, so I was cooled by the brisk breeze flowing through the boat.

My bedding colour indicates the recent nighttime temperature in my poorly ventilated bedroom

My bedding colour indicates the recent nighttime temperature in my poorly ventilated bedroom

I fell asleep one sultry night soothed by the buffeting breeze, happy as a pig in shit until a storm raced across the marina. The howling gale didn’t wake me, nor did the creak of mooring lines stretched close to breaking point or the angry honking of thirty wind-tossed Canada Geese. It was the machine gun rat-a-tat-tat of pea-sized raindrops hurled into my bedding by the shrieking wind.

Thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and the boatman’s cabin felt like the inside of an industrial washing machine. A washing machine without a dryer. The storm disappeared far more quickly than the water soaked into my duvet. I didn’t mind too much. The wet bedding cooled me, aiding a restless sleep filled with disturbing dreams about nighttime childhood accidents.

The heatwave reached its unpleasant peak on an energy-sapping marina workday. Working in direct sunlight was as dangerous as it was exhausting. As the thermometer climbed past thirty degrees, I trudged into our seven-acre wood to do some gentle tree trimming and to work on a personal project for my much-missed wife.

I bought a picnic bench in Cynthia’s memory a few months ago. I placed it on the lawn next to Orient, overlooking Calcutt Bottom lock. In hindsight, I realised that Cynthia would have appreciated our woodland tranquillity more than the often stressed shouts of virgin lock negotiators.

Cynthia's memorial picnic table perfectly positioned for quiet reflection

Cynthia’s memorial picnic table perfectly positioned for quiet reflection

The thermometer peaked at thirty-six degrees, an unbearable temperature for the fragile English constitution. But, by the end of the day, I had cleared a space on the woodland fringe and installed Cynthia’s table overlooking an adjacent meadow. My reward for working through such a challenging day was a peaceful evening picnic sitting at my new table. Pigeons fluttered in the oak above me, and an owl hooted softly. The real treat arrived as the light failed. As I popped the top off my fourth bottle of dewed beer, I watched the quivering progress of a nervous muntjac deer on a narrow footpath deeper in the woods. A little slice of heaven here at Calcutt.

Predictably, our English heatwave was followed by days on the cut cool enough to wear hats and coats. And on one memorable and very wet Discovery Day cruise last weekend, cold enough to warrant lighting my stove.

My guests for the day, Christ and Ali, followed their pre-cruise instructions to the letter. “It’s an English summer,” I wrote, “so bring plenty of layers and a waterproof coat.” They did, but there are waterproof coats suitable for a walk in a park or a quick trip to the shops, and there are those that will keep you dry if a fire hose is turned on you. Those are the type you need if you want to remain comfortable as you stand on the exposed stern of a narrowboat for hours on end.

I invested in a bomb proof set of trawlermen’s waterproofs many years ago. The bottoms, with their bib and shoulder straps, make me look like a DayGlo hillbilly. Worn with a jacket of the same material and a pair of insulated wellington boots, I can keep dry and comfortable all day in the hardest rain. Chris and Ali could not. They were both soaked to the skin by lunchtime. So, on an English summer’s day in late July, I threw a handful of kindling into my Morso Squirrel stove, topped it with a pile of coal briquettes and lit a fire for the first time since early May.

There was a silver lining to Chris and Ali’s dark cloud. While they enjoyed an unexpected hour basking in the welcome heat from a glowing stove, I had the pleasure of steering my own boat. I’ve cruised the route between Braunston and Napton junctions over three hundred times. The scenery is beautiful and, because the contour canal twists and turns through countless blind bends, there’s excitement at every turn. I love the route, but not all boaters enjoy their cruises on this section quite so much.

I hosted three consecutive Discovery Day cruises recently on a canal which is popular with crews on narrowboats hired from nearby bases. Although some hirers have more knowledge and practical skills than many narrowboat owners, a worrying number are complete novices. They’re beginners who receive little in the way of helmsmanship training before being unleashed onto the waiting waterways. It’s these hapless helmsmen and women, and sometimes children, who liven up my training days considerably. Here, for your education and entertainment, is a selection of antics and accidents from my recent Discovery Day cruises.

The Oxford is a contour canal. Its route follows the landscape’s twists and turns rather than enjoying the dubious advantage for leisure cruisers of travelling in a straight line through lock flights, high embankments and deep cuttings. The canal has more tight curves than a bowl filled with spaghetti. There are endless opportunities for entertainment at every blind bend and skewed bridge hole. The scenery is magnificent if you can take a wary eye off the waterway long enough to enjoy it.
The canal’s circuitous route, combined with the waterway’s popularity, is a heart-stopping challenge for virgin helmsmen and women. Trembling holidaymakers who have recently been given a leaflet detailing lock procedure, the keys to a seventy feet long boat and very little practical training. They’re told, “If you want the boat to go one way, steer in the opposite direction” and the unleashed on the waiting world. Steering is hard enough for the uninitiated, but novice crews also have to take a self-taught crash course in waterways etiquette, rules and regulations.

My usual training cruise is from Napton to Braunston junction with a turn in Braunston marina entrance. We return along the same route and then finish the day with two passages through the Calcutt flight of three locks, one down and later, one up.

It’s on our journey home and in the locks that we meet most of the new hirers. Mid-afternoon is usually when the madness begins. Novice Black Prince, Napton Narrowboats and Calcutt Boats hirers are often still coming to terms with a counter-intuitive steering system when they reach their journey’s first pinch point. The canal narrows until two boats cannot pass easily. Braunston bound boats have to forge their way through muddy shallows close to canalside banks of hawthorn and bramble and risk sweeping their roofs clean with low hanging willow, oak and ash.

Experienced crews usually hold back and wait in open water before the pinch point until the towpath hugging approaching boats have passed. Many novice hirers do not. We met a procession of four such craft last weekend, lead by a quivering wretch and his caustic wife.

The man bounced his holiday home from bank to bank as he approached us. Then, in a desperate attempt to avoid slamming headfirst into our bow, he ploughed deep into the offside undergrowth. With a panicked push on the Morse control, accelerator to landlubbers, he managed to get the stern in too, wedging his boat firmly on a shallow mudflat. “Didn’t you listen, you idiot? His adoring wife screamed, alternately punching him in his left arm and gesturing wildly with her hands. If you want to go THAT WAY, you push that brass pole the other way! It’s not rocket science!” 

For all her helpful advice, she didn’t seem keen to demonstrate her recently acquired expertise. To be fair, she didn’t have much free time with all the effort she put into humiliating her husband.

We don’t have to rely on narrowboat novices for entertainment. On the approach to Braunston are the idyllic garden moorings at Wolfhampcote. Each mooring owner has purchased a parcel of farmland and created an expansive narrowboat garden. Some have spent almost as much on the land and its decoration as they have on their boats. The gardens tend to reflect the condition of the craft on them. The smallholdings range from the kind of elaborately designed and equipped gardens you would expect to see behind a bricks and mortar home, to unkempt jungles partially hiding piles of rotting wood and dozens of scavenging chickens. 

Many boats are permanently tethered to their garden moorings. Some might not even be capable of moving. They range from massive wide beams to tiny narrowboats. One, a pocket-sized aluminium Sea Otter, is too small to use for most boaters to use for anything other than a brief day trip. There’s an exception nearby. It’s a short and scruffy cruiser with opaque windows and a steady trickle of grey smoke from its dirty chimney.

There’s a wide beam with what looks like a garden shed built over its wheelhouse towards the middle section of garden moorings. There’s always been enough room for two boats to pass here. The recent appearance of a continuous moorer on the towpath opposite made the gap a little tight, but two-way traffic was still possible with care. Then another boat turned up a few weeks ago. The owner has tied his craft alongside the wide beam, effectively restricting the navigation to one-way traffic. To make matters more interesting, he’s tied a tatty rowing boat, laden to the gunwales with useless crap, by a single line to his stern.

The canal between Napton and Braunston junctions is a busy route. There are 2,500 boats moored in marinas within a ten-mile radius. It’s a pretty route too with plenty of pleasant and peaceful moorings with gorgeous views and hedgerows filled with blackberries in late summer. A single file bottleneck further restricted by a swinging rowing boat is not popular with time-starved narrowboat owners trying to enjoy a few days on the cut, far away from hectic real life. Sometimes they are too busy and impatient to wait.

There are plenty of obstructions like this up and down the network. Boaters negotiate them using common sense and a degree of consideration for fellow waterways enthusiasts. Most of the time.

On a wet and windy day last week I watched what can happen when two bullish and inconsiderate boaters meet. We were part of a steady procession of boats cruising in both directions. We gently nosed into the narrow gap and pushed the swinging rowing boat to one side. We engaged in some gentle banter with the kindly helmsman who held off to let us pass and then carried on our merry way.

The craft approaching us and the narrowboat following us didn’t fare quite so well. Neither helmsman had the time nor the inclination to wait for the other. They both ploughed determinedly into the gap. The two boats bounced off each other’s bows and sideswiped the boats moored either side of them. They clanged together again and scraped slowly forward until they stopped, wedged into a space too small to pass. The owners, no first-time hirers here, shouted obscenities at each other until one grew up a little and reversed enough to allow the oncoming boat through. They managed to resist fisticuffs as they passed, but I could hear their caustic exchange hundreds of feet away. Neither seemed to understand the concept of a relaxing cruise.

Despite the goings-on on the cut, our two passages through the Calcutt flight of three locks are often even more entertaining. The Calcutt flight the first set of locks facing many inexperienced crews. It’s also the first time their helmsman has needed to stop since his handover instruction. An instruction which rarely covers the niceties of stopping a twenty-tonne waterborne tank.

The helmsman’s initial ploy is to steer the boat’s front end close to the concrete-clad towpath. A crew member jumps ashore holding a bow rope as though his life depends on it. The bow hits the lock landing in an explosion of concrete dust. In a knee jerk reaction to the collision, the helmsman slams the boat into reverse hoping to undo the damage he’s already done. All he achieves is to slowly and surely pull the crew member who’s furiously tugging the bow line closer to the cut. Another guy onboard tells the helmsman to swing the stern into the bank. He does it at full throttle. Because a narrowboat pivots on its centre, as the helmsman unleashes forty horsepower in a spray of white water and the stern swings rapidly towards the bank, his bow hauling crew member slides towards the cut alarmingly. To prevent an unexpected early morning dip, the bow hauler releases his rope. Like a wildly swinging compass needle, the front of the boat shoots away from the lock landing, causing the back to slam into another section of concrete and topple the aft deck crew like dominoes. Once the novice boaters regain their feet, they leap onto the towpath and make short work of tying their temporary floating home to the lock landing. They use every rope they can find. Then they breathe a collective sigh of relief, laugh and joke about their first narrowboat adventure and then gaze at the double lock gates in front of them with a mixture of awe and fear. They dimly remember something about raising and lowering paddles and the sudden and horrible death which awaits them if they anger the dreaded lock cill.

There’s so much that can go wrong in a lock if it’s mishandled that something usually goes awry on a novice crew’s first passage. The hirers go through with experienced boaters if they’re lucky. If there’s no one about they’ll do their best. On occasion in the past, on a descending passage, their best efforts have resulted in some colourful language from Calcutt’s band of happy engineers.

New crews on Napton Narrowboats and Black Price boats don’t often get a physical lock instruction. They’re given the theory but not the practice. But after an early start and a long drive to collect their boats, holiday hirers are too tired to absorb everything they are told about their temporary charge. They’re shown a bewildering variety of switches for different features and functions. Hirers have to learn how to check their engines every morning. They also need to understand the shutdown procedure at the end of the day. They have to come to terms with the onboard utility limitations, especially concerning the electrical supply. There’s no wonder then that they forget the odd detail, like the importance of lowering a lock paddle once its done its job.

A lock flight left with some or all of the paddles raised by an inexperienced crew is not unusual. Calcutt Boats’ wharf, home to the company’s hire fleet and brokerage, is between Calcutt Top and Middle locks. There a steep concrete slope running down from the canal to the engineering workshop, a workspace which our oily engineers understandably like to keep dry.
Two pairs of raised paddles in the top lock allow a raging torrent into the small wharf pound. During the first few years I worked at Calcutt, the engineers’ angry shouts heralded the arrival of a canal tsunami racing down the hill into their oily domain. The wharf would flood in a matter of minutes. So quickly in fact that the engineers would usually catch the offending hirers in the next lock and offer them some much-needed paddle closing advice.

The engineers impromptu bathing stopped a few years ago when CRT contractors repairing a crumbling lock base on the Calcutt flight installed a concrete step along the wharf edge. Misbehaving boaters flood the towpath these days instead of the workshops, and our engineers don’t bathe quite so often.

That’s it for now. As is often the case these days, I’m out of time. I could write a book about the antics I’ve seen on the cut close to home and on the lock flight a stone’s throw from my mooring. All is quiet at 6 am on a wet and windy Sunday morning. The first happy band of boaters will appear in a couple of hours when I leave Orient for another day at the marina. I’ll tell you more about their cruising catastrophes next time.

Another dramatic sky over Calcutt Boats

Another dramatic sky over Calcutt Boats

Discovery Day Update

This year has been challenging. I’ve committed so much time to work on Calcutt Boats’ beautiful grounds that I haven’t had enough time to concentrate what I love to do most; hosting my Discovery Day experiences. If you’re an aspiring narrowboat owner, whether you want your craft for recreation cruising or as a full-time home, you’ll find a day out with me as enjoyable as it is practical. I’ve lived afloat for a decade now. I’ve spoken to hundreds, maybe thousands, of narrowboat owners in that time. Many purchased a boat without doing any research at all. I met one such chap during my working day five years ago. 

I’ll call him Alan to save his embarrassment. Alan retired from the military with a large lump sum which he was determined to spend as soon as possible. He had an expensive narrowboat built to his own specifications, which was a bit of a risk given his boating experience.

Anyway, his beautiful boat was delivered to Calcutt Boats’ slipway by road transport. He followed the lorry in his car. The craft was taken off the trailer with our boat lift and gently lowered onto the company trolley, a wheeled steel cradle attached to a John Deere tractor. For insurance purposes, boat owners can’t steer their craft off the trolley when it’s rolled down the slipway into the marina, but they can accompany a member of staff. I happened to be passing at the time and had the pleasure of reversing Alan’s gleaming £150,000 boat into the marina. Once I was clear of the trolley I spun the boat around, moved away from the tiller and gestured to Alan. “There you go. Your new home’s in the water. Do you want to take her for a spin?”

Alan looked at me in horror. “Can you show me what to do? I’ve never steered one of these things before!” He then revealed just how much of a novice he was. This was the first time he had set foot on a narrowboat, yet he’d spent an enormous amount of money having a bespoke boat built.

The tale didn’t end well. Alan’s design was a result of daydreaming rather than research or practical experience. It was unsuitable for him in so many different ways. None of that mattered because he moved off the water six months later because he simply didn’t like the lifestyle. 

Alan lost a fortune when he sold his boat. His case was extreme, but I’ve met dozens of boat owners who have suffered to a lesser degree, all for the sake of doing a little research beforehand and acquiring some hands-on experience. 

Getting to know narrowboats and learning how to handle them can be a hit and miss affair. You don’t know whether what you read is accurate or if canal-side tips are worth following. You’ll get a lot of advice as a novice boater. Not all of it is good. That’s where I can help you.

I hosted my first Discovery Day on 4th July 2014. Martyn already owned a boat, but locks made him nervous. We negotiated twenty-six locks by the end of the day, and Martyn was wielding his windlass with a big smile on his face. I’ve welcomed over three hundred aspiring boat owners on board since then. And, I’m regularly told, I’m very good at what I do. Here’s what last Saturday’s guest, Shaun Bounds had to say…

“I’ve been looking at narrowboats for some time now, as I’m considering downsizing and moving to a life afloat. However, I’d never taken the helm of a narrowboat before and was a bit nervous about handling a vessel of a size that would be suitable for living aboard. I’d been considering an RYA helmsman course, but felt that would be a bit formal, then I came across Paul’s discovery days advertised on eBay, and having read Paul’s advert, I knew that the day would be an ideal introduction to narrowboat life.

The information about the discovery day was comprehensive and thorough, with several emails from Paul covering subjects relevant to a life afloat. Most of the questions I had about narrowboat life were covered. Finding Paul on the day was a doddle given the simple to follow directions. 

I attended the discovery day with a friend, who was also a boating novice. We met Paul who welcomed us aboard his home and took time to settle us in gently, showing us around his narrowboat, explaining things as we went, taking time to answer any questions we might have. He was open and honest about the features of his boat and gave excellent advice about buying a used narrowboat. Before long, we were underway on the cut, and we took turns to be in control of the tiller, under Paul’s excellent tuition. The stretch of canal Paul had chosen was winding, with numerous bridges, moored vessels and six locks at the end of the day. Plenty to keep us entertained! Throughout the day, Paul was patient and the perfect host. Ten hours flew by, and we both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

I would highly recommend a discovery day to anyone considering a life afloat, Paul offers excellent advice and tips, shared from the experience of his life as a live-aboard boater. In fact, I would recommend his discovery day to anyone considering a narrowboat holiday as it is an opportunity to gain boat handling experience prior to the 30 – 60mins instructions given at the start of a holiday.”

I’m grateful for Shaun’s kind words. His feedback is similar to hundreds of testimonials that I’ve received over the past half decade. I haven’t shared Shaun’s comments with you to show off (although it’s nice that I can), but to emphasise that, if you want to increase your chances of enjoying your time afloat and purchasing a problem free boat, you will be in very good hands. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here. I hope that you can join me on an idyllic and instructive day out on the cut.

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

Another happy Discovery Day cruise guest

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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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