The good, the bad and the…

I thought it’d be good to list a few pros and cons of boaty life. Anyone looking for a few things to consider if they’re thinking of moving onto a boat could have a read through. These aren’t in any order of importance but in the order they occurred to me!

  1. Contact with the outdoors. Even at this point in the year, when it’s dark by 4:20 and often dank, dreary, and miserable, we are aware of the seasons, the weather and the cycle of Nature. Temperatures in houses can feel uncomfortably warm at night. Outdoor temperatures, and morning ones on the boat, can be surprisingly acceptable. I love having this contact with the outdoors and September was hard because I was suddenly spending hours and hours indoors instead of outside, as over the whole summer. We don’t sit out much at the moment (all the seats are damp!) but we do walk and cycle when we’re not at school and work, even just over to the block to do washing or use the showers or the loos. When you do this routinely, you also see beauty as part of your routine. Mist rising off the water. The smoke from a flue hanging in the still air. Sunrise. Sunset. Moonrise. Enormous skies, down here on the flats near the river. We have little traffic noise, no neighbour noise. There’s a tawny owl nearby who we hear more regularly than our neighbours.
  2. Community. We’re massively supported by our quiet neighbours. People are always willing to chat- or not to. To advise. To help. To lend tools and equipment, onions and eggs. Check your battery charger. Steer you back to safety when the wind takes you broadside and you get stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. To make tea or drink gin with you. Help you change your tiller handle when you accidentally break it on a plastic boat, while you were trying to leave your berth on a windy day. One of our neighbours plays the harmonica and the sounds drift gently across sometimes adding a very filmic vibe to living here. Another neighbour plays folk guitar at the local pub. I’m invited to pub quizzes and to swimming (I can’t often go because of Boat Girl, but it’s very nice to be asked). Boat Girl has many friends who look out for her- old, young, human, dog and cat. It’s a real village.
  3. Friends. There’s Single Dad, who likes to do things with us when his boys are around. He gave us a canoe which I really must get a paddle for! There’s Single Mum, whose daughter and Boat Girl are great friends. Single Mum and I are something of kindred spirits, I think- she’s a real friend to us. There’s B, who does joinery and fits kitchens. I want her to come and make mine better, but I’m delighted to have met her properly because she’s another kindred spirit. We’ve shared a couple of drinks once or twice and had a good natter. Then there’s Tattooed Bloke who came and drank a lot on my boat a number of times over the summer, but who’s been busier of late with a new job and some courses. We’re considering a Boxing Day festive drink. In fact I’m hoping to have a festive drink with most of these guys. That’s without even mentioning our other friends, the bird watcher, the older people who treat me almost like a daughter, the guys who look after our maintenance and the familiar faces who nod and smile when we pass.
  4. Nature. We see tons of birds- a couple of weeks back we were late for school because Boat Girl spotted a kingfisher sitting on a post not three metres from our window, and then moments later we saw a grey wagtail using the dead nettles to get down to the edge of the water. I don’t know what it was doing- having a drink maybe, or looking for spiders and aphids or something? It was a gorgeous bird though, really beautiful. Herons are common for us and we’ve seen a family of cygnets grow up to, by now, be almost adult birds, with their white feathers dominating the greyish-brown ones. We also see a huge number of fish- perch, rudd, bream, and even pike hanging in the water just outside the kitchen window.
  5. Cosy times. I love my boat, its cosy saloon with the stove, the gorgeous look of it. I love feeling the slight rock as I get into bed and I tie my ropes slightly loose just so I can feel that 🙂
  6. Flexibility. I can just get up and go whenever I want to- to be alone, to be with friends, to go to the pub for a meal, to change the scene or to change the neighbours.
  7. Sustainability. We are both far more conscious of the water we’re using, the lights we’re leaving on. With grey water going straight into the canal, you can’t just buy any old washing up liquid or soap full of perfumes and parabens. You have to get something biodegradable, that doesn’t harm the ecosystem. We’re also getting a composting loo to further reduce our dependency on marina facilities and our use of potable water for unnecessary purposes (more about that another time!).

With every good comes some bad, so for the purposes of balance…

  1. It’s harder work. You have to be conscious of the water you’re using- how often do you want to fill the well? (Equally, how long do you want your water to sit in the tank?) You have to be conscious of heating the space- if you’re out all day do you leave the fire in with coal, or do you light it from scratch each evening? You consider your batteries. They need charging up every time you use your lights, or the shower pump, or the water pump to any of the taps. In the marina you can connect to shoreline power but on the canal you have to run the engine. You think about when you use the loo, when to charge your phone (can you do it at work?), whether to watch a DVD or read a book instead. Things we take for granted on land all have much greater impact on a boat. (This could be a positive instead- I do think if more of us had to think in this way, we’d be getting somewhere faster than we are at present…)
  2. Sometimes it’s a pain being in such a small space. There’s nowhere to put things (or we have too many things). Guests have to be carefully considered. At present we can’t eat at a table, though I’d like us to. We just don’t have a suitable space at the moment.
  3. Things do break quite regularly. I had to buy a new battery charger last week. Luckily for me, my friend fitted it and didn’t charge me to do that (see “community” and “friends” above). But in August it was the diesel polish; in February it’s the dry dock and blacking (and hopefully nothing else!). There’s always something to pay for.
  4. Heavy, prolonged rain induces mild anxiety. Where will the water get in?
  5. Cold weather brings a different water problem: condensation. We’ve got the heater but Aussie Boater says we should have asked for a dehumidifier as well; it pumps out the heat while sucking the wet, she says…
  6. Single handing makes mooring really quite tricky at times. Windy weather is particularly challenging. Community helps but sometimes there’s really no-one around and you have to cope on your own.
  7. Changing the gas.*

I think that’s really it for the cons. At the moment I have to say I wouldn’t go back. Every day I feel more ‘boaty’ and I miss it more when I stay on land. I feel it’s a positive choice I’m making, where maybe back in February when I started looking, it felt more Hobson’s choice or making the best of a bad hand. I feel like Boat Girl and I both benefit enormously from it. The list of pros massively outweighs the list of cons- for us, for now. Never say never, I suppose, but I’m happy to be boaty.

frosty-boat

 

 

*Still on the same cylinder…

Boat life in wintry weather

We’ve had a few frosts this autumn but the real winter weather started yesterday, with overnight low temperatures down here of about -5°C. We woke to a stunning white world, frost coating every blade of grass. The following night was even colder and when I woke up this morning, the edge of my duvet was slightly damp where my breath had condensed onto it. We have had ice on the brass window frames once or twice, but this morning’s was most impressive.

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Ice on the inside of the bedroom window

We’ve not been cold in our beds; we are snug in warm cotton pyjamas and good duvets (feather for me, wool for Boat Girl) and have blankets on top, plus leg warmers for warming cold feet. In the mornings I usually get up first and throw a cardi or a fleecy hoodie over my pyjamas as I get out of bed- my cotton dressing gown is no match for these early temperatures! It doesn’t usually feel too bad getting out of bed, although this morning was a bit sharp, I must admit, and I hurried to grab my hoodie. Boat Granny recently finished making us some lovely new curtains, using the old ones as linings, and that’s a massive help because being so much thicker, they really cut out the draft. She’s even made us a door curtain and again, that’s made a huge improvement.

My first job is to riddle the fire and stoke it up- I bank it up overnight with coal, so in the morning it doesn’t need re-lighting and the saloon end of the boat doesn’t get too cold. That way it warms up again quickly in the mornings and also in the evenings. Sometimes I chuck on a few logs to ramp up the heat, but on work days I heap on more coal so that once we’re on the way out, I can just turn down the vent and leave it to burn low all day long. Our shoes stay down by the stove overnight, which helps with cold feet as we’re heading out for the day.

Boat Girl’s dad gave us an electric heater and that’s been a boon the last couple of mornings. Coming on for an hour at six, morning and evening, it takes the edge off the chill by her bed, and helps keep that end of the boat less damp-feeling as it starts to solve the problem of condensation on the metal and means the air isn’t too cold when she goes to bed, or when she gets up. It isn’t too expensive on the pillar, either; though I don’t know how it’ll run on the inverter. Hopefully over Christmas I’ll get to try it out on the cut and see how practical life will be living out there full time. Having said that, I’m glad of the facilities at the moment. We use the shower and the loos in the block here, saving our own water- pontoon water is off while the temperatures are so low- and we have shoreline electrics. My battery charger doesn’t seem to be charging the batteries at the moment so it’s all on the solar panels- and while they are doing well, the daylight is so limited just now that they can’t fully charge the batteries; we’re floating between 60 and 80% at the moment. Out there, we have no immersion so will still need to run the engine to heat water (and charge batteries) until I find a way around that problem.

In this cold weather I’m using more coal- lots more. Probably a sack a week, supplemented with logs. It’s still affordable when you offset that cost against the savings made by having no other utility bills to speak of*, no council tax and minimal rent (and that only for a berth in the marina; out on the cut, it would only be the annual cost of the licence). £11.30 is good for 25kg of Taybrite fuel. I’m sharing the logs with Boat Granny, so that’s another saving (a load is far cheaper than buying by the net, and free logs can be found in the woods; we cut them up and stack them together). I’m comforted that it’s a primary use of fossil fuels- our own heating and also some (quite a lot of) cooking. It’s more sustainable than using electricity generated by a coal-fired power station; and wood is carbon neutral, of course.

frosty-boat
Solar panels on the roof box- frosted!

My second morning job is to get the coffee on, and then the porridge. Each evening I put Boat Girl’s school clothes near the fire so that they’re nice and warm for her to put on in the mornings. Pyjamas go there in the evenings, and towels hang there to dry. I need an enormous cup of coffee to start the day. Boat Girl often has hot chocolate and again, if I leave the kettle near the stove it makes boiling up in the mornings a quicker process.

Changing in this weather is done quickly. Bottom half, then top half. Boat Girl changes by the fire but I don’t because although we’ve curtains on the side windows, our front windows are currently open to the world! As a child I remember getting dressed under the bedclothes because I didn’t have a radiator in my attic bedroom (no, my parents didn’t make me sleep in a garret!) and it’s similar now. No hanging about. We shower in the evenings and put pyjamas on with a fluffy dressing gown (Boat Girl) or an old cardi or hooded top, and slippers, and sit by the fire for stories and cwtches before bed. It’s important to stay warm in the evenings, because warming up in a cold bed is hard if you’re already chilled. Our camping experience comes in handy for things like that! In the morning, a splash of super-chilled water on the face is great for waking you up!

freezing-fog

On weekends, I have a day when Boat Girl is with her dad, and a day with her. On the day I’m alone, I do jobs like cleaning, filling the well, moving the boat to the pumpout station and so on. I make mental lists of jobs I’ve not got round to, like sanding down and rust-proofing those pesky patches on the roof and around the windows. “In the spring,” I think, recalling the drying advice on the tin of Jenolite… I also try to take time to admire our home, tidy it, and enjoy it. It’s pretty special and on mornings like this morning, it’s not hard to see why I still say I’m loving our boaty life.

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My neighbour’s boat had impressive webs, beautiful in the frost

*I’m still waiting for that gas bottle to run out. One day soon, one day soon… it’s been in place since 1st August! Undoubtedly it’ll go on a wet, dark day or night, when I really don’t want to wrangle with it and can’t do without it…

 

The Gas Locker

My gas stove seems to be quite efficient. The first full cylinder I used lasted exactly three months, and we cook every day. However I’ve changed the gas twice now, and it hasn’t been me in either case. As I’m expecting that soft ‘pht’ which heralds the emptying of the cylinder at any moment now (probably before 7am or after 5pm, when it’ll be dark and even more difficult to do), I thought I’d look at the problems inherent in The Gas Locker.

First of all, there’s the design of the gas cylinder. You open the connector using a special spanner, but you have to turn it the wrong way. They are inevitably tightly closed, so you need a lot of force to do this.

gas locker close up.JPG
The gas bottle. Hard to disconnect and also hard to photograph.

However, at this point the design of the gas locker comes into play. Ingeniously stored in the prow of the boat, it is nicely tucked away and doesn’t take up valuable space elsewhere.

That said, reaching inside means crouching over the hatch, perched precariously on the prow yourself. While you want to have a good purchase and use your weight to open the bolts, you can’t because of your strange position. You want to be on a level with the gas cylinder but you’d be in the water. So you have your knees under your chin, you’re balancing so as not to fall, and you’re trying to turn a screw that’s below the level of your feet.It’s a horrible task.

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My feet next to the locker. You can see how little room there is to balance while you try to change the gas.

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The string holds the gas spanner, so that it doesn’t get lost inside the locker. There’s room in here for three bottles, but having three makes it even harder to manipulate them when you want to change them over.

This is a strong reason for reversing the layout (more on that another time) because you could have the gas bottles on the deck at the stern.

 

Wow, it’s autumn already… and the clocks have gone back.

I can’t believe it’s been so long. And a lot’s happened: Boatgirl learned to ride her bike, taking nine days (no stabilisers). She quickly managed to cycle several kilometers and is now confident and stable- a true cyclist!

We did lots of lovely things in the summer: watching Morris dancers outside the pub, pint of cider in hand; a festival or two; a camping trip or three. However it wasn’t until autumn started that we managed to get out on the cut- I had a diesel leak into the engine bilge (a separate section to the main stern bilge, luckily, so diesel wasn’t pumped out into the canal when I pumped the bilge). I also needed my diesel polishing- who knew that you can polish diesel? Anyway, when they started the job my diesel was so gunky that it broke the filter, so there was a delay while they fixed it. There was a leaky return pipe. There was a pressure outlet from the calorifier dripping into the bilge which should have been routed to the outside, so they did that, too. I now have a bitumen-lined bilge which is bone dry, and shiny red diesel with no bugs inside it!

The guys also fitted my solar panels. I’m so pleased, these things are efficient enough that I’ve managed to charge my phone overnight! Even now, in November, the batteries are fully charged when I get home (even though I’m not convinced my battery charger is now working- it used to make a lot of whirring noises and now it’s silent.). Two 100W monocrystalline panels. Even out on the towpath, with the awful cheap fridge I’ve (still) got, I could go out and leave the inverter on and come back to charged batteries. The only thing I can’t do is run the immersion, so at the moment I still need to run the engine to heat the water- it’s progress though!

It’s true that boating’s expensive. The work on the engine plus the panels cost me the best part of a grand, and I’ve just booked dry dock and blacking for February- that’ll be another nearly £1500. I’m trying to save, but life likes to keep us on our toes, so we had a car repair bill last month, and Christmas is coming, and…

But to be honest, living on the boat I feel so rich. So very blessed in our lives: I wake up and climb out into the dawn and feel incredibly thankful that this is my life, my place. I wouldn’t swap it now- well, maybe I’d grab a bit of bank to put a shed on with a decent kitchen, and a couple of chickens! But I feel the boaty life is for me now. Boat Girl saw me deleting an email from Rightmove recently- I haven’t cancelled my updates, I really must- “Mummy, are you looking for a house for us?” she asked. “No,” I said, “would you like me to?”
“No,” she said. “I like our boat.”

She’s not the only one. Everyone who’s been aboard has fallen for her (despite our clutter. Or maybe they’re very kind liars!) and some of the children at school have been desperately imagining what it might be like. Some of them have found out, but we can’t invite people when it’s wet- only in the dry weather. It would have to be a fairly linear party otherwise!

It’s a wonderful lifestyle. I’m missing my outdoor time now that I’m back at work. Autumn here is stunning. The towpath was calm and quiet and peaceful. We started needing a fire in in the evenings, despite the warm days; I don’t mind those chores, the lifting and carrying and sweeping, I relish them for the practical and immediate value they have in warming us, and in the sensual value of the smell of woodsmoke curling from the chimney, the lovely fragrance lightly perfuming our hair and clothes.

We get lovely early-morning mists, we’ve had heaps of blackberries, hips and haws and mellow fruitfulness, and the gorgeous trees in their colours, all accompanied by the incomparable smell of autumn. Last night we had a little Hallowe’en party/ Autumn celebration for some of the boat children and a few from school, with soup and sausages and buckwheat pancakes, cooked partly over the fire bowl and partly in my little kitchen. The dew came down suddenly, with the darkness at five o’clock, after what had been a mellow and golden afternoon, but that was perfect for the celebration. The children loved it, and as we went to bed, our pumpkins guarded us from the spirits wandering the world of the living…

halloween-pumpkins

Getting on my bike

I last owned a bike when I was twelve. Back then, I had the bike I’d desperately wanted when I was ten- it was lilac, and it had a basket. By the time I was twelve I desperately wanted a mountain bike. I also lived at the top of a substantial hill. The two things combined to stop me riding my bike, despite having been a fervent biker since I learned to ride. I never got another bike because “you don’t ride the one you’ve got”! (Chuh, parents.)

Anyway, I went on a borrowed bike with a neighbour’s nephew on a ride when I was 18, just to keep the lad company, and that was the last time I rode one until… last Tuesday. A kind pontoon neighbour lent me hers and I rode to the shop and back. Wobbly, unconfident, but I didn’t fall off (or in) and I really enjoyed it.

I’ve been talking for years about getting a bike, for the environmental and health benefits. But I finally found one for Boat Girl, and I decided that the time had come to get my own as well- and today, I did! “New Bike Joy!” said my friend M and he was right. After a day of working, I really enjoyed a ride two bridges down and then back through the village. It was lush. I can’t wait for Boat Girl to learn to ride hers so that we can go out together!

Life on the boat

So we’ve been in, and out- of the marina. We were in for a couple of weeks and then I started getting worried that I’d be trapped by fear of the tricky turns to get in and out, so I went out for a night by myself to be meditative. I can’t quite remember when that was, I think it was the week after my dad died, so about a month ago. I was only out for the one night on that occasion, but then Boat Girl and I spent 9 days out the following week, testing the new batteries and, y’know, living the dream!

It was great. We didn’t go far but we enjoyed it immensely. The views just down the canal a way are immense, with big skies, and they really contrast with the prospect in the marina- which is beautiful, but not what you’d call a view. I’ve got pictures but I need to get them from the iPad to the laptop and I’m afraid I haven’t done that yet…

We are having to learn to be much tidier than we’re used to! But we fill the water tank about fortnightly; sometimes we shower in the block, if we’re in the marina, but otherwise we use the water normally but consciously. It’s certainly made me think about how long we run taps for, how much water I need to wash the dishes, that sort of thing.

I’d definitely like an eco toilet. Ours is a SaniMarin, and it’s not great to be honest. It’s really fussy about which paper you use, and it makes the whole boat vibrate while it’s macerating. I pumped the tank out on Whitsun weekend, and I think it’ll do until next weekend- that’s when I’m going to do it, anyway! so about monthly. But an eco/composting loo would be great- no cassette to empty, no chemicals, no pumpout. Apparently they smell better too, which can only be a good thing. I keep a scented candle in our bathroom to light if the outlet is blocked open, which happens when there’s too much paper involved!

The fire service fitted a new smoke alarm for us and had a look round to see if there were any obvious fire hazards. Well, there’s a few. The stove, the polystyrene insulation, the rugs and so on… but they seemed quite happy that I do things responsibly and I have smoke, carbon monoxide and gas detectors around the boat. So touch wood. We’ve been testing it regularly too, as Boat Girl has written a reminder for us to do so and made herself Alarm Test Monitor.

I changed the gas (well, I got Boat Girl’s dad to change it for me) on May Day- another fortunate coincidence making it an easy to remember date to know when the new bottle was started. We cook daily, so I’m pleased with how the gas has lasted. Electric seems to be coming in at about £10-£15 a month. I am thinking though that I need a 12V fridge- I’m told a 240V one will drain your batteries. When we were out, I switched the inverter off most days but we ended up with a lot of lumpy milk, so I need to find a solution or else we’ll only be able to stay out when it’s cold!

Finally for now, the family of six cygnets keep getting bigger and bigger; there’s a new duck with two half-grown ducklings; and the other day I saw a pike swimming about outside my kitchen window. I’ve never seen a pike before. How blessed we are to wake up each morning, whether in or out, in such a beautiful and tranquil environment. The neighbours are lovely, the water is clear, the wildlife is abundant and we can’t even hear the motorway except when the wind’s in an atypical direction. It’s definitely becoming my safe space. There’s even a like-minded friend for Boat Girl (and for me, in her mum). So far, and touch wood, this has been a good decision. In fact the best thing to happen (admittedly in a very limited field of Good Things) in 2016.

Green and grey homecoming

This is overdue, but it’s been a bittersweet homecoming. The G&S canal was green and lined with green, but the skies were grey as we arrived at our home mooring. I had hoped, as recently as the Hatton flight, that my lovely dad would be at the helm once we got into local waters. He’d been tired by then, but still able to get out and about; still able to enjoy a meal with us. We thought that with a short journey to the boat, he’d enjoy a bit of time on the tiller and then a spot of relaxing at the bow, listening to that quiet lapping of water. But it wasn’t to be. Even in the short time between Hatton and Stratford, he went downhill and since the start of May, has been confined to bed and accepting ever-increasing amounts of diamorphine, while his strength, intake of food and interest in reading, conversation and the radio have all decreased day after day. Now that I come to write about getting into the marina, having a home mooring, I find that I can’t- not that people here haven’t been lovely, they have been, we love it and feel very much at home here- but everything in my thoughts somehow comes back at the moment to him, to what’s happening to him. To my mother. And to how this is only happening because of one work assignment when he was seventeen, and still an apprentice.

I’ll come back to this, but for now I can only think about my dad.