Boat days, good and bad

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The clock is ticking down faster and faster it seems.  I’ve now got just eight days left before I fly off to Azerbaijan to what promises to be something completely different.  In the next eight days I’ve got to finish a lingering bit of work, get a whole load of equipment onto the boat, get a fair bit of different stuff off the boat, finish packing up all my belongings in Brixton, gather and pack all the bits and pieces I’m taking to Baku, and enjoy a whirlwind tour of coffee dates, drinks and evenings out with friends I want to catch up with before I’m gone for 8 months.  It all seems a bit much sometimes.

However, that didn’t stop me from spending a few days moving the boat from far-flung Uxbridge into central London a few weeks ago.  This was mostly just for fun, because it seemed a shame to go through all the faff of buying a boat and learning how to manage it, and talking about it endlessly to anyone in earshot without giving people a chance to see it for themselves.  So I set off one Saturday morning from Uxbridge in the hopes of getting to Paddington over two days.  It’s about 17 miles, and the boat tops out around 3-1/2 miles per hour, so though it might be technically possible to manage the trip in a single day, driving the boat alone that far it would have been miserable.

It was kind of fun though, and included some sunny spells, and some nicely foreboding clouds.

Here’s the thing about driving a boat versus driving a car.  If you’re on a long road trip in a car it’s not such a big deal to be on your own because it’s easy to simply pull over, shut off the engine and take a break.  On a boat it’s not so simple.  Yes, you can pull over to the bank and stop, but then you’ll have to pound in mooring stakes and tie off properly before you can relax. It’s not impossible, but it’s a process.  And keep in mind that when driving a boat you’re outside all the time, at the tiller.  If you’re alone this means no tea breaks and no pee breaks. It can even be difficult to go get a sweater if it gets chilly.  Even though the boat crawls along at a slow walking pace, you really can’t leave the tiller for more than about 30 seconds without the possibility of things going horribly off course.  On an empty section of canal this is not a disaster - you simply steer back to the middle and keep going, hoping you don’t end up with some unintended contact with the banks, or another boat.  But it does mean that you’re really tied to the tiller the whole time you’re moving.  So that’s why it took me two days to go 17 miles.

And how was it?  Boat life in central London?  I was surprised by my reaction.  I arrived at Paddington Basin around 4pm on a Tuesday, and though there was a definite sense of accomplishment at having successfully piloted my boat to its intended destination, there was also a real feeling of sort of… embarrassment.  Yep.  Do you remember the Not Quite Ready for Prime Time Players?  Well I had the definite sense that me and my boat fall into the Not Quite Ready For Paddington Basin Boaters category.  This is partly because I’m still not supremely confident with handling the boat, but truthfully, it’s mostly because my little green boat is pretty rough looking.  Paint peeling, loud and smelly, and just kinda… well, kinda not quite ready for Paddington Basin.

I was here.

Of course there are much rougher looking boats on the canals than mine, but that didn’t enter my thinking as I moored up alongside another boat at the far end of the basin.  It all just felt… wrong.  Too urban.  Perhaps this was because almost all my experience on the boat so far has been very suburban: leafy towpaths, not glass office towers.  Whatever the reason, I was uneasy.

See what I mean?

Nonetheless, I stuck it out at my coveted Paddington Basin mooring spot for the full seven days I was allowed.  And I did have a couple of people over, and we hung out in the boat with the fire going, drinking beer and talking about boats and other bollocks and they were generally complimentary about the boat.  Or at least they were good at PRETENDING to be generally complimentary about the boat, which is good enough for me.

On the morning of the following Tuesday, I woke up in the boat with plans to move west a bit, in compliance with the seven-day mooring limitation at Paddington Basin.  You might remember that was the night and morning when the UK endured a bit of rough weather caused by the tail end of a hurricane, so when I woke up to lashing rain and cloudy skies I was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of being outdoors at all.  Luckily, by the time breakfast was finished the skies had cleared and the sun came out and I leapt into action to take advantage of the break in the weather.  I turned on the engine pre-heat and then cranked it up, only to have the engine resolutely refuse to actually turn over.  It would crank, but not catch.  Somewhat alarmed, I stepped back a bit and let the pre-heater do its work for a while longer, and that did the trick.  Engine chugging away, I untied my mooring lines and was on the dock, literally pushing the boat out, when I glanced back to see smoke emanating from the engine compartment.

Damn. I pulled the boat back into the dock, hastily tied it off and shut off the engine.  Then I opened up the engine compartment to see if I could figure out the problem.  In fact, it was fairly obvious what had happened - the alternator belt was broken and lying half-submerged in the bilge, likely having fallen onto some hot part of the engine in the process.  Luckily, I’ve actually dealt with the alternator belt before, so it didn’t take me long to replace it (I had two spares, for just such an occurrence).  So I was feeling fairly pleased with myself by the time I cast off again and chugged out of Paddington Basin heading west.

I’d already scoped out a likely mooring spot near Westbourne Park and it was still open when I arrived.  Sadly, I was soon to discover WHY it was open.  For some reason that I can’t fathom, there were large blocks of stone submerged near the towpath, making it impossible to get the bloat close enough to the towpath to moor comfortably.  I should have realised there’d be a reason why that mooring space was suspiciously available.  After a few minutes of swearing and consternation, and a brief episode of being sort of stuck on the stones, I pushed onwards into the high winds and eventually found a mooring spot  a little further along.  It was really not a stellar morning on the boat.

Boat Life
Here’s a photo of the kind of submerged stones I encountered along the towpath.  What possible reason is there for this?

(As a non-boat related aside, that day didn’t really get much better.  I got some work done at the theatre and then suited up to cycle home only to discover a massive, catastrophic puncture in my rear tire.

And I do mean massive.  It made a very loud bang.

There was no repairing it, so I folded up the bike and jumped on the tube, only to find that the Victoria line was so backed up that I had to allow about five trains past before there was space to board.  And then when I’d finally carried my bike all the way back to the house I had to sit on the front step waiting for my housemate to get home because the deadbolt locks have been acting funny and I could not get my key to work.  So really, it was just not a good day at all.)

Some days on the boat are like that, when I think this whole thing has been a huge error in judgement and I despair quietly (or loudly, to anyone who will listen).  And then some days are like yesterday.  Yesterday I rocked up to the boat around 11am to continue the journey north and west back to Uxbridge, where I’ll leave the boat when I jet off next week.  (Next week!  Yikes!)  There I was joined by my friends Jeremy and Paola, who you may remember from a certain Italian wedding earlier this summer.  Jeremy and Paola are proper sailing people, so when they expressed interest in seeing the boat and coming along for a ride I was a bit worried that the whole thing might be sort of tame and disappointing for people who were use to reefing mizen masts and sailing sailing over the bounding main and such. After all, piloting a narrowboat at a brisk three miles an hour over a dead flat canal with no tides or currents or salt spray in your face must seem awfully pedestrian.

But of course they were great sports and we had a lovely day.  The weather cooperated and though it was a bit chilly and windy, it’s really not fair to complain when you can spend a dry day out on the boat in just a fleece in late October.  We’re living on borrowed time here in that respect, and every sunny warm day feels a bit like winning a (small) lottery.

Boat Life
They even brought me a present for the boat!

Better still, they were keen on being at the tiller, which meant that the whole trip, though short, was much more sociable and fun than the solitary trip east.  Chatting away and trading off time on the tiller makes for a much more enjoyable day, and leaves time for pleasantries such as making cups of tea and passing around biscuits (still lots left) and taking pictures of passing oddities.

Boat Life
Paola pretending to listen to Jeremy pontificating

We chugged along happily, taking in the sites along the canal, including quite a few very interesting boats.

Another member of the Not Quite Ready For Paddington Basin Boaters?

Boat Life
And we had the excitement of passing over the aqueduct that crosses the North Circular, which is simply very very cool.

There was even a traffic jam down on the road, which made us feel quite smug, because even though we might only have been going about two and half miles an hour, we were still moving. Also, we were on a boat, which is inherently vastly cooler than being stuck in a car on the North Circular.  Oh, also we had bread and cheese and olives and possibly also a bit of beer. And eventually we fetched up at a nice canalside pub and moored up, which is soooo much easier with three people than with one.  And we had a bit of a quencher at the pub before Jeremy and Paolo trotted off to the tube station and I went for a nice long run along the towpath and then came back and lit a fire and settled in for a cozy night of blogging and videos and supper and cozy warmth on the canal.

So sometimes things work out and I think this might be a pretty good life after all.


P.S.  Full disclosure: The next day was another BAD boat day involving me managing to disable my engine entirely by sending the radiator cap overboard and it was just crap and I really don’t want to talk about it.

There's a nip in the air

Sunday, October 5, 2014

It was an absolutely glorious September here in London: the warmest in a century and the driest on record. In fact, this September could well have passed through a US airport security checkpoint carrying ID for June or July and not have raised an eyebrow.  And now, as if on cue, October is suddenly properly autumnal.  Seasonal changes are supposed to be gradual, but this year it's as if the Early Sunset switch was flipped and the back-order of brightly coloured, crunchy dried leaves arrived overnight.  I've been busy with a small show at Hampstead Theatre (London readers, go see it) so I haven't been out to the boat in while. However, there was a bit of a clamour for more posts about the boat (here at GSWPL World Headquarters a "clamour" is defined as at least three of the total of eleven GSWPL readers commenting in favour of something), and given the fresh nip in the air, it seemed like an opportune time to talk about boat heating.

I've only been a boat owner for a very short time, but I'd say that there are two questions that everyone asks when they find out I've bought a narrowboat. The first is always "Where are you going to moor it?", which is a topic we'll skip lightly over right now since its a bit of a minefield.  The second is usually something like, "What are you going to do in the winter? Aren't those boats really cold?"  Of course they can be chilly.  A boat has the disadvantage of sitting a foot or two deep in water (of course) which is an excellent way of siphoning off heat. Add to this the fact that most boats aren't overly-well endowed with insulation, which doesn't help matters at all.  The final indignity is that, due to the presence of gas appliances and carbon monoxide producing device on board (like the gas cooker and the wood stove), there are very strict requirements for how many fresh air vents there must be in a boat, and where they are to be located.  So a narrowboat is essentially a steel shell sitting in cold water, riddled with above-the-waterline holes you're not allowed to close.  Not ideal for creating a dry and cozy home.

However, there are solutions!  Right now my boat is equipped with the most basic and reliable of those options, a wood burning stove.  Actually, my stove is what's called "multi-fuel” or “solid fuel” since it can burn wood or coal, which is a great advantage.

The stove in question.

I've had the stove fired up several times since I bought the boat.  Ripping apart some of the more heinous Unabomber decor has provided a reasonable supply of dry wood, and I inherited a partial bag of coal from Nes before he fled to South America.  When it gets going, that stove puts out a lot of heat, but getting it lit properly is by no means an exact science.  At least not for me.  At least not yet.  I've lit many a campfire in my day, but getting a coal fire burning well and evenly is a different ball game.  However, right now it's still a fun diversion starting and tending the fire, and having a roaring fire crackling in the stove is one of the most cozy things imaginable.  I've even managed to get it going well enough that it's still warm to touch the next morning.

However, enjoying poking at a fire on an evening that's just slightly chilly when the heat and light is merely a pleasant addition to a quiet evening is a long way from arriving home late from a long shift in January, when you can see your breath in your own living room and then having to essentially rub sticks together to make warmth to keep yourself alive.  It's all a bit primitive for my tastes.  And when I think about the amount of wood and coal I've burned just running the stove for fun, I'm a bit flummoxed about how to keep enough fuel on hand to have the stove ticking over more or less all the time through the winter.  And there's the question of where to store that amount of wood and bags of coal.  I see quite a few boats with piles of wood on the roof which seems a bit... hillbilly to me.

Some of my boating friends swear by the wood stove, saying it's by far the most reliable method.  Another says he grew up in a house heated by a coal fire and claims you quickly become very proficient at getting it lit and burning efficiently.  A solid fuel stove will also help dry the air in the boat, where humidity and condensation are always an issue.  And apparently a lot of wood can be found by foraging on the towpath when the maintenance crews cut down trees, but that wood then has to be dried and seasoned and stored and chopped and... ugh.  I get exhausted just thinking about it.  It sounds like you'd have to make feeding and tending your woodstove a part time job, which is why I started looking into more advanced boat heating systems.

At the other end of the spectrum from the rubbing-sticks-together method are the highly engineered (mostly German, naturally) gas or diesel burning furnaces.  With names like “Airtronic” and price tags to match, these are tiny things about the size of a loaf of bread, that live in the engine compartment and heat either by blowing forced hot air through small diameter ducts, or by heating water in a separate tank and then pumping the heated water through radiators.  It's the closest thing to the set-it-and-forget-it sort of heating that people have in normal houses.  There are programmable thermostats and you can move the heat to different rooms in the boat, which is a problem with the solid fuel stoves.  Stoves provide a lot of heat for the room they're in, but the bedroom at the end of the boat wouldn't get as much of that heat as I'd like.  The fancy bread-loaf furnaces burn the same diesel that's already in the tank for the engine, so no need for piles of wood on the roof.  The fanciest of the diesel furnaces even come with apps for your phone so you can fire up the furnace as you emerge from the tube station and get things nice and toasty before you ever get on board. Undeniably, there are a lot of advantages to the posh system.

Airtronic and van
Here’s a photo from online of the Airtronic D2, which are popular with people who have camper vans and trailers / caravans.  See? It really is tiny.

So what are the disadvantages?  Cost is one. A complete system with the burner and ducts, properly installed, will end up near the £3,000 mark.  The solid fuel stove is free, since I've already got it.  The machines are also quite noisy - emitting a high pitched sort of whine when they run.  Even though it would be outside under the back deck, having that noise as a background to your life for several months of the year could get tedious.  They also use a fair bit of electrical power to run, which is an important consideration.

The biggest problem, though, is reliability.  Time and again people have told me in person, or I’ve read online that while these systems are great when they work, they require a lot of potentially expensive maintenance and are prone to breaking down.  When I mentioned to the boat mechanic about getting one, he said, quite matter-of-factly, “But you’ll still need the stove for when the other breaks down.”  Not if the other breaks down.  When.  That’s what really pushed me to think about another alternative.  I wasn’t too scared off by the price, since I’ve already decided that I was going to make a point of NOT cheaping out on the parts of the boat that will make it pleasant and comfortable to live on - batteries and battery charging, heating, hot water supply, that kind of thing.  But enough people said enough bad things and the tiny fancy diesel burners that it’s clear I need a third way.

Enter the Refleks stove, a sort of half-way house between the cheap and cozy reliability of the wood burning stove and the expensive fuel efficiency and ease of use of the diesel furnace. Refleks stoves burn diesel fuel, but do so in a stove-style way.  And they come in some very sexy options, including stainless steel.

This is my favourite.  I’ve started calling it the dalek. And that round rail at the top is called a "fiddle rail".  I love that! You can stick a kettle on the top burner to keep hot water on while you've got the stove running.

Yes, they're more expensive than my existing stove - probably about £1,000 installed.  But unlike the wood stove, the Refleks burns diesel from the boat’s existing tank, so there’s no need to forage for wood along to towpath and festoon the boat with piles of deadfall in various stages of preparedness.  And there are no ashes to clean up.  The website claims “instant variable heat output”, though poking around various websites indicates that lighting the stove can be a bit of a process.  But can it really be any worse than piling up sticks and coal and poking away at them hopefully?

And unlike the Ebersbacher type furnaces, there are basically no moving parts to a Refleks stove.  There may be a small pump to pull fuel from the tank, but otherwise, no power draw and no noise.  Maintenance is supposed to be quite simple, and you can get models that have a little round window so you can see the flame and get some of that atavistic coziness that comes from staring at fire.  And you can even get models fitted with what’s called a back-boiler.  That’s essentially a sealed jacket of water that wraps part-way around the back of the stove.  The water is heated by the stove and can then be sent around the boat to radiators to provide heat in other rooms.  (I suppose I should point out here that it's possible to make up a back-boiler system for a solid fuel stove using a jacketed chimney.  But that doesn't eliminate any of the other disadvantages of that kind of stove.)

It really feels like the Refleks stove is the best of both worlds, so the shiny stainless steel dalek stove is currently the top pick for heating on my boat, though purchase and installation will likely have to wait until I’m back from Azerbaijan.  Until then, any time spent on the boat before my departure will be accompanied by the evocative smell of woodsmoke,  somewhat endless poking at reluctant coals, and occasional cursing.  And probably three pairs of socks and a nice wooly jumper worn to bed.