Happy New Year!

Boat Girl and I had a quiet one here with Star Wars episodes V and VI (taking advantage of shore power!), and Tattooed Bloke came round to join in and share the Prosecco. Boat Girl fell asleep around 9:30 but she woke up for the fireworks at midnight. Either that or she couldn’t sleep through my rendition of Auld Lang Syne

In the night the rain arrived, and the temperatures dropped from Unseasonably Mild to Bitterly Cold In The Wind And Rain. We also ran out of fuel (my bad) so we couldn’t light the fire this morning and after a run out to get some more, and to walk the temporary dog, I got home to 7 degrees in the warmest part of the boat. It’s been raining since midnight, that cold, persistent rain that gets straight to the thighs as it runs off your raincoat. Luckily the water was hot so I could have a nice shower, and the stove quickly began kicking out a high old heat. I could use a stove-top fan but even without it the temperature rose ten degrees within about twenty minutes (guess who got a weather station for Christmas!?).

It’s lovely and cosy now. I’ve got woollen socks, a woollen cardi, and a selection of blankets, as well as a warm dog and this lush Morso Squirrel stove. I’m so lucky!

Happy New Year everyone. Let’s hope it’s a happier one than last year.

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.

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*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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

The Avon again- Evesham to Tewkesbury

C and her family once again came to my rescue, giving up their bank holiday to help me down the lower part of the Avon Navigation to Tewkesbury. With the three children helping and hindering (it varies according to how recently they’ve been fed, and how close it is to bedtime) and swapping clothes (don’t ask), we got from Evesham to Pershore on the first afternoon- a short journey by road, but a good four hours by boat. The locks were quite unmemorable, although I still don’t like the weirs!

On the following day it was me and C and Boat Girl (her disappointment at not getting a sleepover with C’s children was tempered by the realisation that we would be an all-female party on board Dreams… We took a little time getting started because of Pershore Lock, but that was probably the easiest one of the day. There were some beautiful stretches of countryside (pics to follow) but the wind picked up, and some of the lock entrances were not terribly straightforward: the warning and information signs are very small and quite close to the lock/weir partings, so there isn’t always a lot of notice of which side you’re making for, or when you need to turn. At Nafford we had a difficult time mooring up to open the gates and the bridge across, and we were disconcerted to see this boat, which came to grief in the recent high waters; its present was quite off-putting:

boat on weir

I later heard its story and was happy to hear that nobody was on board at the time, although some poor people lost their boat which is always sad.

Anyway, after that the last lock of the day was the trickiest but because of the wind rather than anything else. A boat was already in the lock as we approached, but slowing down and reversing to allow them out, we were almost blown into the plastic (GRP/fibreglass) boats moored directly above. We got turned around and had to perform the same manoeuvre again (though knowing what to do meant it was much less stressful than it was the last time) and nearly went across to the tubs again….

After that it was straightforward to the marina, and we tied up on the visitors’ pontoon as it was too windy for us to risk trying to manoeuvre inside the basin (we were told!). Tewkesbury is a nice marina and very smart. We could hear ewes and lambs calling to each other as we went to sleep- always a soporific sound for me, since I was little. It was also a relief to know I was at the end of the Avon, that there was just one more river to navigate, and that we were at last in the right county.

I also got the number of the  local Marine Volunteer Service– who helped me down to Gloucester.

 

An epic voyage

So on Sunday, it dawned rainy, but there was blue sky on the horizon and after my early start with the ducks and swans, I was able to have a couple of cups of coffee and be raring to go. I drove down to Evesham to meet Ian (the canal car shuffle means leaving one vehicle at your destination point, and another at your starting point, then using the one to get back to the other). I was early and wandered about the little marina, which is small and quiet, with the wide river meandering past. It looks a nice place to be.

Back in Stratford, we met J and boarded Dreams, set sail and got ourselves onto the Avon. The Avon Lock is the most public one I’ve done but it was pretty straightforward and we all managed to get back onboard without falling in, emptying the pound, hanging the boat up on the cill or any of the other disasters which could happen. I remembered just in time that I hadn’t sorted the anchor out, so with J at the helm Ian and I fixed the rope to the chain and the chain to the anchor point. Phew. If we needed it, it would be more than a huge and heavy ornament. The sun was shining and at the Colin P. Witter Lock, opposite Holy Trinity Church, we picked up a lock partner to go down with (although they stayed on their boat and allowed us to do all the work on the lock… don’t worry, we allowed them to set a lock a bit further down!).

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The Warwickshire Avon

Boating on the river was really quite lovely. The town quickly fell behind us and apart from the odd glimpse of a marathon runner, there was very little urbanisation along the Avon. Several amazing, footballers-wives type houses, with boathouses and rolling lawns mown into perfect stripes- but very little other habitation. Ian played a bit of guitar and it was a perfect, lazy-Sunday mood. However, despite the lazy appearance, the flow of the river is really quite swift and we fell foul of this near Welford.

It was lunchtime and, thinking I’d be shouting the boys a pub lunch, I hadn’t brought more than crisps. The decision was made to push on rather than moor up for lunch, with the aim of eating properly in Evesham by 3pm as I’d been told by several different people that the journey was around 4-6 hours, and we left at 10:30. So Ian volunteered to hop off and run into the village to get some sandwiches, then meet us at the lock to get back on board. This he did, with perfect timing, but the lock was on the opposite bank to him and there was no bridge. J and I thought we’d pull in to pick him up so he made his way to a point from which he could jump onboard- but by the time he had done so, the stern, midstream, had been caught and pushed by the current in front of the bows… we were facing the wrong way. We attempted to perform the same manoeuvre in reverse but doing it on purpose was much harder than doing it accidentally had been.

Hunger is never a good companion to stress. Thankfully Ian had made it back with a selection of crisps, sandwiches, nuts and Scotch eggs and we tucked in while we debated what to do. The area above the weir was wider and we eventually decided to go back upstream, through the lock and turn around above it. This we did with no real problems- though Ian, on the bow, got seriously brambled!

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The brambled cratch area after our turning manoeuvre!

Still, after that little excitement we had quite plain sailing to Evesham. It was, however, a lot further than I’d been led to believe, and we didn’t arrive until half past seven. Luckily Boat Girl had stayed with her father (she’d been going to come, but when I told her that neither Ian nor J were bringing any children to entertain her, she changed her mind) and was put to bed at home on time. She’d have been bored- for little ones, too small to work the locks and too short to see and steer, boating isn’t very interesting in itself.

The weirs are quite a thing. Although they are signed, you often don’t get much of a sight of the sign until it’s the moment to make the manoeuvre into the lock cut, and many of the weirs are unprotected so if you’re inattentive, or inexperienced, it would be very easy to come to grief. Basically the river will split into two, with one part being the more natural course with the weir, and the other part being canalised with a lock. The river locks are big- wide enough for three narrowboats- and lined with metal, and the gates are also metal rather than then brick walls and wooden gates you get on the canals. The drop isn’t always deep but the lock chambers themselves are quite deep and menacing-looking (to me). As if you could enter Mordor through them! Being so large they take a big effort to open, although the paddle mechanisms are well looked after in general. As the river reunites under the lock and weir, the stream is obviously much faster for a while and you have to factor this into your navigation, especially with some of the channels which have quite a turn to enter or leave. You also need to be aware of the pull of the weir at the top- I think if you were running on amber boards you could have a few hairy moments.

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This shows the bottom of a lock, the way the channel splits into the lock cut and the weir on the other side. This weir is unprotected.

During the nine hours of navigation, we spotted quite a bit of wildlife: a heron, which had caught an eel; several swans, one of which wanted to take on Dreams in a fight; and these little cuties:

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A family of ducks: mum, dad and about eight babies

J and Ian also spotted a kingfisher, but I missed it because I was getting the drinks from below- so here’s a picture of that!

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I’m incredibly grateful to Ian and J, they were calm and collected when I threatened to diva off and have an attack of grumpiness or back-seat-helmsmanship and they didn’t bail out when the day stretched out and out and they remained unfed. I definitely owe them both a meal and a pint or several!

Noisy ducks!

I appealed on Facebook this week for people who fancied a bit of boating. Out of the blue my friend I offered his help for Sunday- so on Saturday I went back up to Stratford to check on Dreams. I’d had an Overheard-in-Waitrose sort of morning (yoga, followed by a falafel wrap bought in Stroud’s farmers’ market) and I called in at Evesham Marina on the way up to confirm my mooring for the Sunday evening and the week. Noel suggested there might be the possibility of the battery centre having a look at the batteries while she’s moored there, so I’m crossing my fingers on that. I got to Stratford at around 12 and as it was Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations there was nowhere to park so I left the car in the retail park and walked into the centre. I met up with my friend N and her two children, who wanted to see the boat- we had a lovely catch-up and a cup of tea, then we wandered around to the information centre to get my Avon licence (and a Stratford Canal badge for the door). N and the girls had to go after that so I had an early tea at the Red Lion, put up my new badge (no pictures, sorry!) and went to bed at half past eight.

A female duck was quacking non-stop from about 6pm and I’m sure she quacked all night long. I don’t know whether she’d lost a clutch of eggs or chicks- I’ve seen a rat climbing the trees opposite the mooring, so it’s entirely possible. I woke up at half past eleven at the climax of the fireworks show (it was lovely, what I saw of it) and she was still quacking, and she was still quacking at 5:30 the following morning when the swans both sprinted along the canal by Dreams slapping their wings on the water- also very noisy. At this point I gave up and got up for some coffee!