The Transition From Water To Wheels

This is my first post for nearly two months, a period of great change in my life.

I moved onto the water on 2nd April 2010, my 50th birthday. At the time I was at an emotional, financial and physical low. The previous years had been exceptionally stressful. I had tried and failed to expand a very successful local business throughout the UK. The failure resulted in bankruptcy and the demise of my twenty years marriage and, because of the failure, a breakdown in my once strong relationship with my three wonderful sons, Blake, Brad and Brook.

My move onto a boat was more to get me away from my matrimonial home than to bring me closer to a more tranquil life afloat. I wasn’t interested in boats at all. I just happened to be working part time at a marina and noticed a tatty looking boat which I thought could possibly provide me with a leaky roof over my head until I could afford something better.

I fell in love with the lifestyle as soon as I moved on board, but my new home was far from perfect.

For eighteen months I had to position pots and pans under rainwater cascading through gaping holes in the aged ply roof panels. Rainwater also overflowed blocked scupper drains on the small rear deck into the engine room bilge beneath. It joined canal water which seeped through the boat’s old stern gland packing, more water from the calorifier pressure relief valve, water from a bathroom leak and, the first time I topped up my water tank, gallons of the stuff which escaped through a split under-deck filler hose into the cabin bilge before racing back to the engine room to add to bilge’s deepening swimming pool.

With the help of Calcutt Boats’ fitters and engineers, I identified and fixed the leaks. In November 2011 I paid £1,200 to have the boat transported eight miles by road to have the decaying wooden cabin over plated with 4mm steel. The over plating cured the roof leaks, but reduced my bank balance by £6,500.

The new steel cabin really showed up the algae covered sagging cratch cover, so that needed replacing too.

All the soft furnishings needed replacing. The design on my faded green curtains was obscured by mould. Eight foam seat cushions needed replacing because of more mould and, annoyingly, burns from flying sparks through unprotected window openings when the new steel was fitted.

A priority replacement was the fixed double bed’s dirt encrusted mattress which sported a large and suspiciously yellow circular stain.

The threadbare filthy beige carpet had to go. Living on a narrowboat is like living in a long hallway. Flooring needs to be both durable and easy to clean in such a high traffic area. The carpet was neither durable nor easy to clean. Karndean oak effect laminate flooring was an effective and aesthetically pleasing alternative.

The solid fuel stove’s cracked flue and door glass needed replacing before I could use it. Actually, neither was replaced until after I used it on one almost disastrous occasion. Not only was the flue cracked, but it was also blocked and had no chimney to improve the stove’s draw. The cabin very quickly filled with thick acrid smoke. I had to open all the boat’s doors, windows and hatches for several freezing hours to let the smoke escape and then endure an unpleasant evening in an unheated boat.

The boat’s tiny bathroom had a ridiculously small bath. I had to sit in it with my knees drawn up to my chin under to use alternately freezing and scalding shower water fed by a temperamental on demand gas water heater.

The bathroom didn’t include a toilet. I found an old Porta Potti which had been removed from another boat and used that until I could afford a Porta Potti of my own. I eventually upgraded to an Airhead composting toilet, replaced the tiny bath with a decent sized shower cubicle and removed the unsafe water heater.

The engine and the engine room were a mess. The engine, a Mercedes OM636, designed in the 1940’s for the 1950’s Mercedes sedans, was protected by a dangerously unstable, very heavy coffin shaped wooden cover. In theory, it could be lifted away from the engine and secured to a roof mounted catch. The catch fell apart the first time I tried to use it, allowing the heavy engine cover to fall, trapping me between it and the filthy engine.

I removed the unstable woodwork surrounding the engine, had a steel frame fitted to take its place and then had the engine room boarded and soundproofed.

I knew nothing about engines when I moved on board. I still don’t. I don’t understand my lack of engineering ability or enthusiasm at all. My father was chief engineer on a merchant navy ship. Why didn’t he pass those skills on to me?

The first time I took my boat out I broke down at Braunston Junction. My maiden voyage took me two and a half hours. The walk back to the marina to collect my car to ferry my guests back took an hour and a half. A narrowboat is not the quickest forms of transport available to you.

I was towed back to Calcutt Boats, thanks Russ, to have the problem identified and fixed. Thanks again Russ for cleaning a filthy fuel filter and getting the engine running again.

The second time I ventured out of the marina, I broke down again. This time a pair of perished hoses dumped my gearbox oil into the bilge. I limped back to marina with the boat slipping in and out of drive. It was all very embarrassing.

I learned my lesson this time. I had the engine serviced and all of the perishable rubber replaced. I also booked a one to one engine service with River Canal Rescue.

RCR’s engineer, Kerry, did a first class job. At the beginning of the day he asked me a number of questions to assess my technical knowledge, then correctly pitched his instruction as he would for an intellectually challenged four year old. If I’m backed into a corner, I can now carry out a basic engine service.

The boat’s electrics were woefully inadequate; one ageing 110ah starter battery and another similar sized battery for the leisure bank. That was it.

Over the last six and a half years I have upgraded the electrics considerably. There’s a new 110ah lead acid starter battery and four 160ah AGM leisure batteries, a 300w solar array, a battery charger and a 2,000w pure sine inverter. I’ve also added a dozen 230v double sockets throughout the boat.

Until 2015, I spent most of my time living and working at Calcutt Boats. The marinas are beautiful and the moorings first class, but I always felt as though I was returning to a very comfortable open prison after trips away.

I needed to stay at the marina to earn money to pay for the boat’s refurbishment. The final jobs were completed last year when I had a diesel Webasto Themotop C central heating system installed and had the dangerously inefficient engine cooling system changed.

The engine was originally raw water cooled which meant that canal water was drawn into the engine through a fine meshed grill in the hull, then pumped through a heat exchanger before being expelled, slightly warmer, through the exhaust. The system failed catastrophically… twice.

The first failure happened after the engine’s Vetus waterlock broke free from its plastic retaining clip and vibrated towards the engine until it came to rest against a rotating coupling. The coupling quickly wore a hole in the plastic which meant that most of the water which should have been pushed out of the exhaust cascaded into the engine bilge.

I didn’t spot the problem until I tied up for the day and lifted the deck boards to turn down the stern gland greaser. Bilge water swirled around the engine mountings and was within half an inch of flooding the cabin.

After bailing the water out for an hour with a bucket, I wrapped a roll of rescue tape around the inch wide gash. The following day I managed to limp to Streethay Wharf where they fitted a replacement second hand waterlock.

Two months later the system failed again. This time the hose connecting the waterlock to the heat exchanger failed, allowing all of the water being drawn from the canal to be dumped into the bilge. Fortunately I was on a placid canal with plenty of easily accessible moorings. I was able to turn the engine off within five minutes and then remove twenty loads of water from the bilge with my Draper wet vac. If I had been on a river I would have been in real trouble.

For the last year the boat has run perfectly. The hull and the internal cladding are nearly forty years old, but almost everything else is brand new. It’s now a very comfortable and superbly specified boat. It’s just about perfect for living aboard and permanent off grid cruising.

Last year was a wonderful cruising year. I covered 1,753 miles and negotiated 948 locks, mostly on my own. I loved every minute of it. I hoped to do the same again this year, but my personal circumstances changed.

Cynthia came into my life in 2015. She joined me in September for a “discovery day” which lasted ten days and resulted in her packing all her worldly goods into five large suitcases and flying with her two basset hounds to London’s Heathrow airport last November. Two dogs and five suitcases were allowed into the UK. Cynthia wasn’t.

Cynthia is a retired international flight attendant. She’s visited the UK dozens of times, maybe many hundreds of times. She knew that she could stay in England for six months without a visa. As part of her thorough preparation for this new and exciting chapter of her life she checked the UK government website again. Nothing had changed. She could still stay for six months without a visa.

What she didn’t know was that she needed a visa if she intended to marry within that six month period. She was refused permission to stay. After much pleading and a few tears, she was given a week’s stay of execution.

Cynthia stayed with me for five days before being deported to New York where she had to wait ten days for a marriage visit visa to be issued.

The plan was for Cynthia and I to marry on the Isle of Skye in Scotland in April this year. We had to change our plans when I realised that, nearly six years after leaving my matrimonial home, my much anticipated divorce wouldn’t be completed in time.

Cynthia’s marriage visit visa expired in May, so she had to leave the UK.

I’ve lost track of the places she’s stayed since then, but I think they are Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, back the USA to finalise her house sale, and then another hop across the pond to her current rented house in Rottevalle, a Dutch village eighty miles north of Amsterdam.

Some of that travel was with me. I drove under the English Channel in June to join her for a long drive north from Calais to where we hoped to marry on the island of Aero in Denmark. Our arrival in Denmark should have coincided with the arrival of my decree absolute. It didn’t.

We discovered that, as is often the case in the UK, we were victims of governmental red tape. The paperwork wouldn’t reach us for another week. Neither of us could afford to wait. Cynthia had found a cash buyer for her house so had to return to Vermont, and I had to return to work at the marina.

Plan C was for me to fly to Vermont two weeks later to marry Cynthia in a civil ceremony. I don’t know why plan C wasn’t plan A, but hindsight is a wonderful gift. Plan C was successful. We are now married. Not that we see much of each other.

We married on Saturday 16th July. We spent two days together after the ceremony before I had to fly back to the UK. I drove to Cynthia’s Dutch rented house two weeks ago for another four days. As of today, Sunday 11th September, we have been married for fifty seven days, but together for just six of them.

Our original plan once we married was for Cynthia to apply for another visa which, if the application was successful, would allow her to stay in the UK for three years before applying for residency. The problem with our plan was that the visa application process was horribly expensive and didn’t guarantee success. We decided on another strategy.

In March this year we bought a Hymer B754 motorhome. The idea at the time was to use it to escape wet and dreary English winters. We would head south to Spain and then return to the boat for spring and summer cruising.

Our thoroughly enjoyable maiden voyage was to Devon and Cornwall in March this year. After that trip, and the one which followed to Denmark, we decided that, despite being much more compact than the narrowboat, we would be quite comfortable living in the motorhome for extended periods. We also decided that if Cynthia couldn’t stay in the UK for extended periods, I would join her in mainland Europe where she is more welcome.

Both France and Spain welcome foreign visitors who are financially independent. We will register with the Spanish authorities as soon as we arrive in Spain. We can either apply for a long term retirement visa for Cynthia or, according to one of the government sites which Cynthia found, simply prove that we are married to allow Cynthia the same right to stay in Europe as I have.

On 9th October 2016, the day after eleven consecutive discovery days, I will welcome Rob and Deanna Sharratt on board. At the end of the day they won’t be leaving. They will own James No 194. I will not.

I advertised the sale of my boat in my last newsletter. There was a huge amount of interest, but Rob and Deanna were the most interested. They joined me on 6th November 2015 for a wet and windy discovery day. Despite the weather, they both enjoyed their day afloat. In fact Deanna said that the experience was “The best anniversary present I’ve had in twenty four years!”

Rob and Deanna began to look for a boat of their own, but couldn’t find one as well specified as mine. They emailed me as soon as they read that the boat was for sale and quickly wired a deposit to my bank.

Sunday 9th October will be a very sad day for me. When I moved on board, both the boat and I were on our knees. Over the last six and a half years we’ve both recovered together. We are both fit and well now. I like to think that we’ve worked well as a team. I hope my beloved boat will forgive me for leaving her (can you call a boat called James “her”?).

James No 194 will be in good hands. I hope James, Rob and Deanna have many happy years together. I will be sad to say goodbye to the UK’s inland waterways and the wonderful people I have met on them. We will be moving off the water, but both Cynthia and I feel that it will only be a temporary move.

Our plan is to visit every one of Europe’s forty nine countries over the next two or three years. The more I look at my map of Europe, the more I realise how little I know about the countries in it. I have only visited a handful of them. Cynthia has visited one or two more. I’m sure that we will have many adventures on the road, but I’m sure that we’ll also have many more after we’re done with the road and are back on the water.

Cynthia has a passion for sailing. She lived afloat on sailing boats many years ago. She loved the experience. We have both enjoyed our brief experience of the Netherlands and the wonderful people we’ve met there. We’re fascinated by the Netherland’s canal culture and the country’s very popular network of canals, rivers and lakes.

There are nearly 4,000km of navigable waterways in the Netherlands which run into a staggering number of lakes, or meers, of all sizes. The largest is five metre deep IJsselmeer which covers a staggering 1,100 km.

We’ve enjoyed many a canal-side coffee watching boats drift slowly by. Our favourites are lemsteraaks. I don’t know much about these boats or how much they cost to maintain, but we would really like something like the one below. We can just about afford to buy it. Whether we can afford to maintain it is a different matter.

We can scrape enough together to buy this boat, but can we afford to maintain it?

We can scrape enough together to buy this boat, but can we afford to maintain it?

We have plenty of time to research the subject. While we’re researching, we’ll be exploring Europe, from inside the Arctic Circle on Norway’s northern coast to the sun drenched south of Spain, and everything in between. Ours will be an exciting journey. I hope you’ll join us on our new site here. We’ll both update the site regularly and comprehensively. I know it’s not boating, but there will be many elements that I’m sure you enjoyed on this site; travel and adventure and, predictably, a smattering of incidents and accidents along the way. I hope you enjoy reading the accounts as much as we enjoy experiencing them.

The new site is here.

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Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.