Another new start…

Some might say I’ve got form for this. Others may think I’m going through a mid-life crisis. Labels aside, it’s true that it’s not the first time I’ve made radical changes to my life – only this time, I’m already in a much better place.

Family and friends will know that it’s been just over a decade since I first ‘started again’, when I finished my PhD, left a 10-year relationship and moved into a small flat in Stoke in the space of a few weeks. Now, in my 40s, it’s a marriage I’m leaving behind; the new chapter in my career is my second consultant post, which I started last month, and the new home will soon be a 59 foot narrowboat.

I won’t be talking about the marriage part, because I’ve never been one for airing my dirty linen in public. All I’ll say is that it was my decision and a difficult one, and that the man I married is still one of the most wonderful human beings I have ever had the privilege to meet, let alone spend a significant part of my life with. 

We also have two beautiful cats, one of whom will be coming with me. This was again an extremely difficult decision, but made mutually on the basis of what will be best for both them and us. 

So, that’s some context in a nutshell. 

If you’re reading this, then you’re either a family member, friend or colleague who wants to keep up with how I’m doing, or here for the boat stuff. Possibly both. Either way, I’ll be sharing my experiences of setting up and starting my new life for anyone who is interested, or might even be considering similar.

You’ll learn a bit about me in the process, and I’ll be as honest as I can about what it’s like. This isn’t Instagram; there will be plenty of pretty pictures of course, but I’m not here to convince you how idyllic and perfect my life is. There have already been some challenges and I expect plenty more along the way. I’m happy to share them as they might help someone out there make a more informed decision.

It’s also not a ‘how to’ guide for buying or living on a boat. I’m not remotely an expert, and if that’s what you need then there are far better resources out there – but I’ve found hearing about the experiences of others (especially from when they were newbies themselves) both interesting and helpful. This is just my story from my perspective: no more and no less.

Like the sound of that? Then welcome. I’d say pull up a chair, but there would probably be a cat sitting on it.

Featured post

One year on

I love big oak tree on the marina. It reflects nature’s journey through the seasons, changing with the weather and the light. 

When I first moved here with Newman a year ago, it was cold and the oak tree was bare. Our first winter on the boat was mild; until this morning I thought this one would be the same, until I looked out and saw the thick layer of snow covering the jetty and neighbouring boats.

Newman didn’t get to see his second boat winter. I wonder if he’d have gone out to play in the snow like he did at the house, or if he’d have stayed inside by the stove like Storm. Soon it will be a whole year without him, but not before I go through two months of ‘this time last year’ memories, which I know is going to hurt because it already does.

Nightwish looks much more like a home now and less like a show boat. I have pictures and plants everywhere,  including several of Newman and his brother Fazio. I’ve started to accumulate books again despite my intentions of a more minimalist lifestyle. The boat is littered with cat toys and unfinished craft projects, just like my house was. Storm has also started using Newman’s old bed, which warmed my heart but broke it a little at the same time.

I’m much more prepared this winter than I was last year. I have a backup cassette toilet, which I’m using over winter so that I don’t find myself having to do a pump-out in the wind and rain; I’ve started burning coal instead of wood and keeping my stove going all night; and I’ve bought an electric blanket, much to Storm’s delight. The boat is warmer than the house was, and while it’s not exactly cheap to heat (I’m getting through a couple of bags of coal a week), it evens out during the months where I hardly need the stove or heating on at all.

I’ve also discovered stove cooking as a way of becoming a bit more energy efficient. Potatoes wrapped in foil bake perfectly when placed on glowing, but not flaming coals, and a casserole dish placed on the top is a great slow cooker for sauces, soups and curries. It also keeps my kettle on the go all day for easy hot drinks.

The pandemic has meant that I’ve spent much more time on the boat than I would have under normal (the ‘old’ normal) circumstances. I’ve worked from home since April, which has been a privilege – not just with the reduced risk, but also all the time I’ve had with Storm. He’s endeared himself to all my colleagues via Teams and Zoom, even though they’ve all seen his backside at least once.

During the summer I felt like I was truly living the life I’d hoped for, other than the obvious limitation of not being able to cruise. I spent long sunny days stretched out on my bow in a bikini, sunglasses and big hat, reading a book and drinking a G&T. I chatted with my neighbours on the jetty as we sat on our boats watching the world go by, socially distanced but still a community. There were families of swans and ducks that would come to the jetty to be fed, which Storm was fascinated by. 

Despite the pandemic and my escalating workload, I’d never felt more at peace. But the nights drew in and the weather grew colder, I found myself spending even more time working. It was only at 4:30pm on Christmas Day, when I shut down my laptop after my final shift, that I realised just how exhausted and run down I was. I’m now on leave until 4th January, which is the longest time I’ve had off since this time last year. 

As much as I miss my family, and as bad as I feel for thinking this, it was a relief to not have the option of travelling over the Christmas period. It means I’ll spend this week resting, getting myself organised and enjoying some of the things I don’t usually have time for, instead of running around trying to please everyone else. 

This year has been a learning curve in so many ways and while it’s been far from ideal, I have so much to be grateful for. Huge thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my intermittent ramblings over the last year, even though I’ve not been able to update as much as I’d have liked. I wish you a happy, healthy and safe start to 2021.

Storm’s adventure

One thing that’s always surprised me about Storm is his apparent lack of interest in the outdoors.

While he’s happy to sit on the stern watching the ducks, or take a stroll along the jetty, he’s never shown an interest in going further. At night he’ll use the cat flap to get to his litter box, then immediately come back in and snuggle next to me until morning. I put it down to his difficult background and wanting to enjoy his home comforts in his mature years.

Last night I went to bed and left him snoozing on the pouffe. I woke up a couple of hours later and he was on the sofa – not entirely unusual for him, especially given that it was a warm night.

What was unusual was waking up at 6 a.m. and finding that he still wasn’t there. He wasn’t on the sofa either, or under it.

I started to feel incredibly uneasy. I’d been here before as you know, and the outcome was the worst case scenario. I couldn’t bear to go through that again.

I searched every nook and cranny of the boat, even the places it would be impossible for Storm to get into. Déjà vu. I walked up and down the jetty, calling his name as I checked every boat and the surrounding water. More déjà vu. I said a quick prayer and walked out to Hanbury Road, hoping with every fibre of my being that Storm hadn’t met the same fate as Newman.

After searching the marina and surrounding area for almost two hours, I went back to the boat. I made myself a cup of coffee and stood on the stern, calling softly in case he was on a nearby boat.

And there it was… a meow.

It was faint, but it was there. I listened. There it was again, louder this time. It definitely wasn’t coming from Nightwish, so I walked up the jetty. As I called, the meowing became Storm’s unmistakable foghorn.

It seemed to be coming from a boat approximately four mooring spaces away – but I couldn’t see Storm, and couldn’t quite work out which boat he was on. My neighbour passed by on his way to work, saw what was happening and helped me look.

As we stood on the jetty the meowing grew more urgent, and we realised it was coming from under our feet. He got down to look underneath, and there was Storm – perched on a narrow ledge just inches from the water, terrified and howling.

There were boats either side of the jetty and both were unoccupied. One of the boats had a space the other side, so we decided that the best course of action would be to untie one end of the boat and push it out so that I could get in the water and reach Storm.

However, another neighbour came to help and suggested that instead of trying to get Storm out sideways, we could take up a couple of planks and let him come up onto the jetty himself. He went to fetch a crowbar, and within minutes Storm was out.

He was soaking wet and hissing, and completely disorientated. He ran up the jetty and onto the bow of the nearest boat, before realising that I was there and allowing me to give him ear scritches. I felt him relax as I scooped him up and wrapped him in my jumper.

We realised he must have wriggled under the pram cover and somehow ended up in the water. On the positive side, he obviously had the strength, agility and intelligence to swim to a place of safety, and to communicate to let us know where he was. I’m trying very hard not to think about what might have happened if he hadn’t been able to scramble onto the ledge, or if I hadn’t heard that first meow.

My amazing neighbours replaced the planks in the jetty while I took Storm home and gave him some of his favourite food, which he inhaled in seconds. He spent the rest of the morning washing himself thoroughly to get rid of the manky canal water, and is now spread out in a patch of sun while he dries off. He looks most put out and I can’t say I blame him.

I’m hoping that this deters Storm from future night-time wanders, or at least encourages him to be more careful around the water. In the meantime, I’m just so glad to have my beautiful grey boy back.


Hello Storm

I think it’s fair to say that a lot has happened in the weeks that have passed since Newman’s death.

While a global pandemic is Never A Good Thing, I’ve been haunted by knowing how much he’d have loved me working at home so much – and the nagging thought that if the roads had been this quiet back then, he might have lived.

It was inevitable that I would get another cat, though I was planning to leave it a while to give myself time to grieve. The cat people among you will be completely unsurprised to know it didn’t work out that way, because it rarely does. There’s always a lost feline soul looking for their perfect human, and for me that was Storm.

Storm and I found each other through Pepper’s Pet Rescue in Halesowen. Run by the lovely Sophie and her husband, the shelter is a safe haven for cats and other animals until they find their new homes.

I brought Storm home just in time for the lockdown, so he’s been with me for a few weeks. So far he’s settling well into boat life, although he is yet to go out (and if the truth be told, I’m dreading it). He’s also learning how to be a pet, having fended for himself for much of his adult life; while he craves affection and fuss, he can also be quite defensive and bites if he’s overwhelmed or uncertain.

Storm is very different to Newman, who only ever knew love and security and implicitly trusted humans. He’s around 11 years old and mostly roamed the streets in his previous life. I wouldn’t touch his belly unless I wanted to be eviscerated, and picking him up is more miss than hit.

Yet in many ways he’s surprised me; he stays close to me while I work, greets me with purrs and head boops when I come back from the shops, and climbs onto my lap while I’m watching TV. He’s a lovely cat, if not a slightly unpredictable one.

As the season changes and we move through spring, I’ll be doing all the things I was looking forward to doing with Newman – but with Storm by my side. That bittersweet feeling will stay with me for a while, and it’s hard knowing that I could only ever have one without the other.

The time I had with Newman will always be a blessing. I think of him every day and will miss him until the day I die. Finding Storm was also a blessing though, and he is helping me to heal in a way that only a cat could. My boat is a home again, and she has a new captain.

Goodbye Newman

This is the hardest thing I have ever had to write. My beautiful Newman – my cat, my companion, my baby – has died.

After spending all of last Wednesday indoors with me while I worked from home, he went out at around 10 p.m. That was the last time I saw him.

I’d got used to his occasional wanders, and was certain he’d be back within a few hours as usual – stuffing his face with biscuits,  meowing loudly to tell me all about his adventure, then demanding belly rubs and curling up on his bed by the stove.

I started to worry the next morning when he didn’t come home for his breakfast. When he didn’t come home for his dinner I started to panic.

The cat people among you will know what an utterly horrible feeling it is. I felt sick and exhausted from the constant anxiety, and not being able to eat or sleep. Every worst case scenario was played out in my head over and over again – but deep down I was sure he’d come back to me.

I called every vet in the area, marked him as missing on the microchip database, posted in several Facebook groups and on Twitter (he even had his own hashtag), posted on AnimalSearch, put posters up in the marina, posted flyers to houses nearby and spread the word to anyone I saw.

I left his litter box out on the stern, and sprinkled some used litter and the contents of the vacuum cleaner near the fields he liked to visit. 

I went out morning and night to search and call for him, walking all around the marina and rattling a container of food.

I even did the unthinkable and scanned the water daily, praying that I wouldn’t find his body.

On Sunday I went to a housing estate three miles away because someone had spotted a tabby wandering around.

Each night I lay awake listening to the wind and rain, hoping he had enough to eat and had found somewhere safe to shelter.

I was on my way home on Tuesday afternoon when I got the call I’d been dreading: a cat that looked like him was spotted lying dead by Hanbury Road, not far from the pub.

The circle markings on his side were unmistakable. I knew it was him even before I checked for the nick in his ear, even before his chip was scanned. 

The pain is indescribable and the boat feels cold and empty without Newman  – as do I. As I packed away his things yesterday, it hit home that the new life I’d planned won’t have him in it, and we won’t get to enjoy the changing seasons on the water together. He will never know the joy of basking on the roof on a summer’s day, or sitting out on the bow watching the birds.

I’m extremely touched and grateful for the kindness and support I’ve received from friends, colleagues, the boating community, and even strangers. They’ve offered advice and kind words, shared their own stories, and above all understood how important Newman was.

He’s being cremated so that he will always be with me on my travels. This is still his boat.

I had almost six years with Newman, which wasn’t nearly long enough – but every day was a privilege. I miss his purrs and chirps. I miss the way he used to follow me around the boat. I miss his fluffy belly and his little soft feet. I miss the slow blinks and head boops. I loved him so much; I still do, and always will.

Rest in peace, my beautiful tabby boy. My heart will stay broken, but you’ll always be in it.

Two months in…

It’s occurred to me that almost two whole months have passed since my last update. It feels like no time at all, but at the same time my old life feels so distant; as if it belonged to someone else. 

Newman and I have settled into boat life even more quickly and easily than I’d anticipated. I’ve managed to fit a deceptively large amount of stuff on board, and I don’t even notice the downsize in space. 

This is mostly because everything is exactly where I want it and how. There are no wires gathering dust, no clutter covering every surface, no piles of paper and magazines. I haven’t felt like this since I moved into my little flat in Stoke all those years ago.

It’s confirmed what I suspected all along: that my issue isn’t with space, but with the compromise that comes with cohabiting. 

What that means for my future remains to be seen, but in the meantime sharing with Newman is ideal. He’s clean, takes up little space, and I come home to purrs and head boops every day. It’s like having a small and very hairy child, only much cheaper and with far less potential for disappointment.

We are currently moored at Droitwich Spa Marina, which is ideally located and has excellent facilities. I was a bit apprehensive about being so close to other boats, but our neighbours have all been lovely and I’ve really appreciated all the help and support that comes from a community of like-minded people.

The change has done wonders for my mental health. Other than a minor breakdown over a gas valve and the occasional paranoia about leaks,* I’m feeling calmer and happier than I have in a long time. 

I’ve also started to enjoy cooking again, and not just because I don’t have an address to deliver takeaways to. By complete coincidence, I’ve also learned that silicone rubber burns to ash; that LeCreuset pots really are invincible; and that fire blankets are vital pieces of galley equipment.**

Newman has learned how to use his cat flap and has started to explore the world outside the boat, having claimed everything inside by rubbing his face on it. Fortunately he seems to be conscious of the water around us and how to avoid it, and has the self-awareness to know that he’s too fat to turn around on a gunwale.

Being on the boat feels so natural that I can’t imagine ever going back to living in a house or flat. With the first winter almost behind us, it’s only going to get better.

*So far the only unexpected water turned out to have come from Newman, who was most disgruntled at having his litter box moved to the stern deck and proceeded to pee on the bathmat.

**Don’t ask.

Boat in build (12/12/19 – 22/12/19)

18 Sept 2019

One of the things I’m most looking forward to over the coming weeks is watching my boat take shape.

Aqualine have a factory in Gdansk, Poland – and that’s where she’s being built as we speak. I’ll be updating this post as the work progresses. Credit to Aqualine for all photos.

For anyone who gets anywhere near as excited about this sort of thing as I do, I’ll start with the plans. Note the portholes in the bedroom and shower room *eeep*

Steelwork is currently underway as of this week. It’s starting to feel very real now.

20 Sept 2019

Starting to look vaguely narrowboat-shaped.

4 Oct 2019

Starting to look very narrowboat-shaped.

11 Oct 2019

Steelwork is now complete, and she’s ready to be painted. This is the bow, where the doors to the bedroom will be. I’m still ridiculously excited about those portholes.

This is the stern, with doors to the galley (kitchen). One of the doors will have a cat flap for Newman.

I’ve chosen to add a wraparound front section with lockers for extra storage and seating, to make the most of this space. I doubt I’ll use it much in winter, but you can’t beat sitting outside on a boat in summer.

The time is passing more quickly than I thought it would, and I’m amazed at how much progress has been made over the last couple of weeks. I’m also slightly worried at how much I still have left to do.

18 Oct 2019

Base coat is on.

The stern door with the larger hole in it is where Newman’s cat flap will go. This is fortunate, as he’s a big cat.

25 Oct 2019

Painting almost complete.

30 Oct 2019

I’d been a little apprehensive about the colour scheme I’d chosen, having only had a colour chart to work from, but the combination of dark grey and almost-white is exactly as I’d visualised it. She’s really starting to look like my boat now.

Every time I get these updates I’m amazed at how perfect everything looks, and how much skill and work is going into it.

My boat is in fitout as we speak. It’s strange to think that this dark, empty space will soon be a fully functional home for me and Newman.

Here’s a view of the stern head-on, which shows off the colours beautifully. She looks so tiny next to that massive widebeam.

8 Nov 2019

So much progress in just over a week. This will be the saloon (living room); the room opposite the porthole at the end will be the toilet/shower room.

18 Nov 2019

Another 10 days on, and the different sections are starting to take shape.

28 Nov 2019

A month ago, this was starting to look like my boat on the outside. Now she’s starting to look like my boat on the inside. I’m once more reassured that I’ve made the right colour choices, this time with the wall panels and kitchen cabinets.

Expected completion is around December 13th, due to be delivered to the UK around the 18th. There will then be 7-10 days of additional fitting (carpets and covers) and safety checks before I’ll be able to move in.

There was always going to be some flexibility around the delivery date, but up until this point I was sure I’d be in by Christmas – and now that’s not looking likely. More on that elsewhere because this post is purely for boat porn.

29 Nov 2019

I wasn’t expecting another update so soon, but appreciated it after yesterday’s setback. Even a day has made a difference, and has reminded me of why I wanted an Aqualine so much.

If you look at the stern door in the first picture, you can see the cat flap. It made me smile, but my heart also broke a little.

4 Dec 2019

The granite worktops are in now, and the solid fuel stove in the saloon. With every update I can see more and more of the home I envisaged for myself and Newman.

Naturally I’m delighted by the cat flap, but the thing that’s excited me most this week is the porthole above the bed.

6 Dec 2019

Two days later and there’s even more to be excited about: the heated towel rail in the shower room, and the wine storage compartment in the galley floor.

Now that the floor tiles are down it’s really started to bring the colour scheme together. If all goes to plan, the fitting out will be completed by this time next week.

12 Dec 2019

And she’s on her way! Today my beautiful boat left Gdansk for the long journey to Hanbury Wharf.

It has taken just 12 weeks to build her from scratch. Once the carpets and covers have been fitted and checks have been completed, Newman and I will be able to move in – if not before Christmas, then very soon after.

22 Dec 2019

Today I met my amazing new boat for the first time. The photos really don’t do justice to how well designed and beautifully made these boats are – there’s no wasted space, and every small detail has been considered.

The special cat step for Newman, which will make it easier for him to reach his cat flap, was an especially thoughtful touch.

More on today’s events will follow in a separate post (after all, the day you get a boat is pretty monumental as days go), and I will of course be updating the About My Boat section with lots of pictures. In the meantime, I’ll conclude this chapter by saying a huge thank you to all involved in making my narrowboat fantasy a reality.

I’ve named her Nightwish.

What’s your luxury?

As I’m sorting through and minimising my belongings for on-board living, I’m reminded of a question one of my colleagues asked me a few weeks ago: “What will be your luxury?”

It was a good question, and still is. In a sense the boat itself is my luxury; I knew the second I walked onto the demo Aqualine that I’d found my perfect boat, and the added extras I chose (including that wine storage compartment) took me to the upper limit of my budget. There are still many things I’ll be doing without though, mostly because they’ll take up too much space or use too much water and/or energy to be practical or cost-effective.

I hadn’t realised just how many of the items I currently own are luxuries rather than necessities – and just how many of those seem to be in the kitchen. Electric kettle. Toaster. Stand mixer. Food processor. Blender. Microwave. Coffee machine. Toastie maker. Washing machine. Pots, pans, baking tins and utensils in every conceivable size and for almost every purpose. Multiple sets of crockery, cutlery, glasses and cups. 

Some of these things might not seem like luxuries at all because they’ve become so ingrained into our everyday lives, but when I think back to my 1980s childhood we had hardly any of the labour-saving devices many of us (and I certainly) have come to take for granted. 

We had a stove-top kettle and espresso maker, both of which were constantly on the go; one of my fondest memories of my mum is the Thermos flask she kept by her bedside, ready for her to enjoy a strong cup of coffee and cigarette before she’d even got out of bed.* 

Toast was made under the grill. Baked potatoes in the oven. Anything out of a tin heated on the hob. If something required mixing or whisking, it was done with a wooden spoon or hand whisk. Blending wasn’t even a thing in our house. 

We did have a washing machine – an old twin tub, which frequently broke down. Sometimes we used the launderette down the road.

We also had a lot of crockery, glassware and baking equipment, because cooking and eating are the main activities in any Italian household. I’m convinced that my need to have things in sets of six comes from my mum’s frequent laments about how her espresso cup-and-saucer sets always ended up as fives. (My preference for having just one set comes from the fact that our ‘best’ sets always smelled faintly of dust, despite mum swearing blind that they didn’t).

In many ways I’ll be going back to this simpler and, if I’m really honest, only marginally less convenient life. Taking my laundry to the marina facilities every week or two will be a small price to pay for an extra cupboard (and having to fill my water tank less often), and any additional time or fuel it takes to prepare food can be offset by careful planning and batch cooking. Although a blender has become one of my essentials over the years, I’ve bought a hand blender with attachments to replace my big glass blender,** stand mixer and hand mixer. The things I choose to keep will be smaller, lighter*** and fewer.

There’s an assumption of more sustainable living that comes with choosing to live on a narrowboat, but as with the finance, it’s dependent on many factors relating to the boat itself and how it will be used. However, one thing I’ve heard a lot from boaters is that it does make you more conscious of what you are using, which naturally leads to being more careful. The things most of us wouldn’t think twice about doing in a house – long showers, leaving the lights on, impulse buying stuff you want rather than need – become trade-offs between time, energy, comfort and space.

The shift in lifestyle is a significant part of my decision to live on a narrowboat. There’s little point, in my view, of attempting to replicate the experience of living in a house or flat on a boat; I’m hoping the change can help me to declutter my mental space as well as my physical space. 

At the same time, I can’t deny that my choice of boat was driven largely by the added storage capacity and comparatively spacious feel. I’m going to spend a long time in that narrow space with my cat (especially as I’ll never be able to buy anything ever again) so it needs to be somewhere we’re both comfortable, safe and happy. We’ll only really have room for what we need, so my luxury has been buying best I can for everything – not necessarily the most expensive, but what I really love rather than something that will merely do the job.

Whether you live on water or land, what are the things you couldn’t live without? What are your ‘nice-to-have’ items? How about the things you keep hold of because they might be useful one day, or have sentimental value?

What’s your luxury?

*How I ended up in public health is, somehow, simultaneously a mystery and completely unsurprising.

**Known as The Awesome Blender for the 11 years I had it. The AB will live on in my estranged husband’s house, probably for another 11 years

***With the exception of the massive LeCreuset pot which may well sink the boat, but it’s orange and beautiful and most definitely a luxury, so I’ll take my chances.

Cave

It is often said of art that if it pisses someone off or causes an emotional response, then it’s done its job. Today a piece produced such a visceral response in me that I’d like to reflect on it here. 

It was Antony Gormley’s Cave, which is part of his current exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. 

Near the end of the exhibition, which included a range of works from drawings and sculptures in various media to installations filling entire rooms, this piece took us through a winding tunnel made from 27 tonnes of steel.*

The tunnel was pitch black. I found myself feeling lost and vulnerable, reaching out around me for support and finding none, even though I could sense the steel surrounding me, suffocating me… 

I felt panic, and froze momentarily; I didn’t know what lay ahead or which way to go. I couldn’t even see myself.

Reassurance that the path was straightforward, and that the darkness would soon pass, was forgotten as I concentrated on just one thing: moving forward.

And then there was light.

It was faint, but enough to guide me through. I could once more make out my own shape, and where I fitted in with my surroundings. I started to feel more confident in how I moved through the space, and the darkness I’d found oppressive began to feel calm and comforting.

Above, in the distance, I could see where the light was coming from. It was so close, yet so far. I knew I’d have to pass through more darkness to reach it – but knowing it was there made it easier somehow.

I’ve struggled to describe how I’ve been feeling over the last year or so, even to myself. It was only through feeling and seeing it by positioning myself in steel and light, both physically and metaphorically, that how I’ve felt for the past year became both clear and tangible.

I’m passing through darkness a lot of the time, and have been for a while. It’s difficult and there are still days where it gets overwhelming. 

But at last, as I prepare to embrace a new life in steel, water and nature, there’s a way out. It may not be happiness, at least not yet, but it’s freedom. Hope. Calm.

Light.

*My first thought on reading this was that it was approximately two narrowboats worth of steel. This may become my go-to unit of measurement for all things steel-related.

RYA Helmsman Course 19-20 October 2019

Having spent a whole day cruising on a narrowboat, the next step was to learn how to handle one.

For someone who struggles to steer a car in a straight line and is scared of locks, this was a somewhat daunting prospect – so I did the sensible thing for once and booked myself onto a 2-day course to learn how to do it properly. 

There’s no legal requirement to do this, which is slightly worrying) given the risks of navigating an almost 60ft, 15-tonne vessel through narrow waterways – but as this would be my home, and more importantly Newman’s, I wasn’t prepared to take any chances.

The Narrowboat Skills Centre in Leicestershire runs various RYA-accredited training courses from Debdale Wharf Marina. I travelled to Market Harborough by train on Friday evening, and stayed in a hotel two miles from the marina.

The course instructor, Nick, was a retired police officer who played in a rock covers band and had a boat named after Iron Maiden. Our crew was completed by Richard, who had owned a narrowboat for several years, and Sonia, who was a novice like me and also planning a life on board. They were all excellent company, and it felt more like a social outing than a course as we shared stories about what had brought us there and why. 

Unlike any other course I’ve ever been on, this was completely practical, hands-on learning. The only time spent in the classroom was at the start of Saturday for introductions, briefing and paperwork, and at the end of Sunday for certificates and feedback. 

The rest of our time was spent on board the 45ft training boat, Gwendoline May. 

The narrowboat enthusiasts among you may be interested to know that she had a cassette toilet, and no bow thruster. I was very pleased about the latter, because my boat won’t have one either and it was reassuring to find I could cope without.

Day 1: Learning the ropes (literally) and Saddington Tunnel

Before going anywhere, we spent a short while learning how to tie ropes for mooring. I was expecting lots of complicated knots (there’s almost as much online content devoted to knots as there is to toilets), but Nick showed us a couple of ways to secure our ropes that would meet pretty much all our mooring needs – and could be undone without even stepping off the boat. 

Right from the start, it was all about keeping things simple and straightforward, and doing the minimum needed to get where we needed to be. That suited me just fine. Efficiency is a good principle in most areas of life; when confusion or omission carries very real risks, doing the essentials well becomes vital.

As with driving, steering didn’t come naturally to me at all. Even in a boat I still had my tendency to steer too early/too late/too little/too much, drift towards the right, and veer off in the opposite direction when distracted by a shiny object or furry/feathered creatures. Getting used to steering right to go left and vice versa was especially confusing, particularly as I frequently confuse right and left at the best of times (I have to waggle my fingers as a prompt). 

I was surprised that we managed to travel for approximately 23 miles along the Leicester Line of the Grand Union before encountering a lock. After the previous weekend’s trip I had a general idea of what to do, but this one was a bit different: there was no bridge, so someone would have to walk across the lock gates to open the other side.

It’s not so much heights I’m afraid of, but drops – and an empty lock is a long drop. I knew I had to get used to it though, so after watching the others do, it I forced myself across. A bit stressful, but fine.

Crossing back over wasn’t fine. I don’t know if it was seeing a gate move slightly after we’d closed it, or that it just felt less comfortable going in the other direction, but I completely panicked and couldn’t do it again after that. It was more than I ever thought I’d be able to manage though, and I’m assured it will get better with practice (or even better, by getting someone else to cross).

As if facing one fear wasn’t enough, the next stage took us through Saddington Tunnel: over 800m long and pitch black. I’m not claustrophobic and don’t mind the dark, but all I can think of when going through tunnels are SPIDERS. As we learned to use the arc of light cast by the front lamp to navigate through the tunnel, all I could see were cobwebs.

These were soon forgotten however when Nick told us the tunnel was home to a number of bat colonies, which I was incredibly excited by and spent the rest of the time looking for them. We took it in turns to steer our way through, and I took over the tiller at the halfway point on the way back.

This turned out to be something of a lightbulb moment. Up to this point I’d found steering really difficult, but being surrounded by darkness with nothing but the arc of light ahead helped me to concentrate on moving the tiller just the right amount and at the right time. Contrary to what most of us expect, tunnels – like canals themselves – aren’t as straight as they look. After 400m of navigating kinks and bends in the dark (which wasn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds), I finally started to feel like I was getting the hang of it.

It started to rain just as we got back to the marina, which we couldn’t complain about after being so lucky with the weather all day. Even pootling along at less than 4 mph is tiring when you’re learning something new, and I was extremely grateful to Sonia for giving me a lift back to the hotel (and from hotel/to station next day – Market Harborough is nice, but really not pedestrian friendly!).

I’d barely slept the night before, so my good intentions of going out for a run became an early dinner (with much needed glass of wine) followed by an early night with the Inland Waterways Handbook.

Day 2: Boating history at Foxton Locks

The next day took us in the opposite direction to visit Foxton Locks: a Grade II listed, 200-year-old flight of ten locks up a steep hill. The flight consists of two ‘staircases’ (where the bottom gates of one lock form the top gates of the next) of five locks each.

You know my thoughts on locks, and these ones fascinated me even more than usual. I still can’t quite see how they can possibly work, especially on such a steep gradient, and I had to stop now and again to examine them closely. The bridges over the locks made this much easier. While I still felt that sense of fear as I stood over them and watched the water trickle through the gaps in the gates, it was more the thrill of observing danger from a safe distance than the debilitating panic of feeling exposed and vulnerable.

I was interested to learn that boaters passing through wouldn’t work these by themselves, but would be assisted by volunteers from the Canal & River Trust. This makes progressing through the flight far more straightforward than it might seem, although it does take approximately 45 minutes and requires booking in beforehand.

Because of this we didn’t pass through the locks on the boat, but instead wandered up and down on foot while Nick told us about their history and how they were run today. For anyone interested, you can read more here.

The lock paddles were marked red and white, with the red side to be opened first to fill the locks, and white to empty them. Getting the order right is crucial to avoid running into problems, and Nick taught us a simple rhyme to keep it in memory: Red before white, you’ll be alright; white before red, you’ll soon be dead.

I was quite taken with Foxton Locks and was pleased we got to visit, not just because of my awe of the locks themselves as a feat of 19th century engineering. It was the opportunity to learn about some of the history behind the life I’d chosen, and the community I was becoming a part of.

On the way back we practised mooring up and casting off. Once we’d chosen a suitable mooring spot we needed to plan quite far ahead to get the boat into position, and it was easy to miss the turning point; as Richard observed, 4 mph suddenly feels pretty fast when you need to make a decision on the move. We were encouraged to take our time and use the least power needed, guiding the boat to drift into position rather than steering.

To move off, one of us had to untie the ropes and push out the bow, then run back along the length of the boat and hop onto the stern before steering away from the bank.

Being an inquisitive group (and in my case paranoid), we wanted to know what would happen if we broke down on the canal. Here we learned that the pole could be used to help move the boat along the water, by holding the end to the bottom of the canal and walking (VERY carefully) along the gunwale. Sonia demonstrated this very well; I decided against having a go, even though it could have been an opportunity to practice the ‘man overboard’ procedure.

By the end of the course we all had our Helmsman certificates, and were excited for our boating futures. 

So after all that, was it worth it?

I would say most definitely yes. The course wasn’t cheap at £360 (plus accommodation and travel costs taking it to around £500) – but it’s a tiny fraction of the cost of the boat, and I really do feel that I’ll be safer as a result. Overall a very worthwhile investment, even without the added bonus of two highly enjoyable days out. 

That was two weeks ago now, and in a few weeks time I’ll be putting my newly acquired skills into practice. I’m hoping that an extra 14ft of length and an extra tonne or so in clothes and shoes alone won’t make too much of a difference. Watch this space.

Boat trip 13 October 2019: Stone to Milford

It’s been one of those intense weeks that seem to finish almost as soon as they begin. I’ve been meaning to write about last weekend’s epic events in my so far short and extremely limited boating history, but was waylaid by deadlines, assorted crises, and an entire season of Parks and Recreation.

On Sunday we went to join Russell’s lovely uni friends (plus adorable small child and even smaller dog) on a canal cruise as they passed through North Staffordshire on the Four Counties Ring. They’ve spent enough time on narrowboats to know what they’re doing, and very kindly and patiently talked me through the process – and etiquette! – of navigating a long steel box through routes that are often less straightforward than they look from the towpath.

I’d taken the occasional canal trip before, but had never been on an all-day narrowboat cruise (yes, I’m well aware of how insane that makes me sound under the circumstances).  Moreover, the only time I’ve spent at length on any vessel has been where I’ve not had any responsibility other than enjoying the view and not jumping overboard or starting a fire. While I was still very much a passenger this time, I was making extensive mental notes and attempting to help where I could. 

The trip gave me a perfect opportunity to face one of my biggest boating fears: locks. 

Locks have always fascinated and terrified me in equal measure. They feel like they shouldn’t work, yet somehow they do. They’re also a perfect example of the hidden beauty I love so much, and where man-made structures become part of the nature that surrounds them. 

After a couple of times watching a lock emptying and filling up, and standing on the stern while going down into the lock, I was able to pluck up the courage to help with working one. 

This taught me two important things:

1. It all makes logical sense, even the cill marker which is no longer a mystery to me; and 

2. I will most definitely not be doing this without being accompanied by at least one other human – not unless I can train Newman to steer the boat.

I also picked up a number of useful tips, including buying a waterproof phone cover and a cork ball keyring (because keys don’t float) – and perhaps most importantly, avoiding quilted toilet paper.

After a whole day of cruising and chatting about all things boat-related, with a break for lunch at a pub en route, I felt happier and more relaxed than I had all week. I’m looking forward to welcoming the crew onto my own boat next year – hopefully having got the hang of steering by then.

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