2016 01 31 Newsletter – Essential Narrowboat Tools

With another work week successfully completed I’m now just four weeks away from the start of this year’s extended cruise. I can’t wait. Much as I enjoy the winter work I have been doing at Calcutt Boats, being stuck in one spot for months on end is driving me mad after nine months of continuous cruising last year. I have very itchy feet which need a darn good scratching.

There hasn’t been much boat related activity on board over the last week. The highlight was probably a torrential downpour on Friday night. It was by far the heaviest and most prolonged rain we’ve had this winter. We woke on Saturday morning to an underwater towpath. As you can appreciate, with a dog on board which needs to use the towpath several times a day for toilet breaks, being moored next to one which is under water is a bit of a problem.

Fortunately the canal bank has a slightly raised concrete edge where we are tied up, so basset Tasha walked precariously along the dry edge in search of a patch of almost dry grass while I waited for my early morning guest.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a problem I thought I had with my Kipor suitcase generator not charging my battery bank. I tried to use the generator after my alternator failed during our Christmas cruise. I ran the Kipor for two hours but turned it off after my Smartgauge battery monitor failed to show any increase in the bank’s capacity. I assumed my charger wasn’t working properly or at all.

Fellow Calcutt Boats moorer Graham Mills offered to help. He arrived equipped with two things I don’t possess; a multi meter and the ability to use it.

Within a few minutes he established what many people who emailed me had suspected. The generator is working fine. So is the charger. Unfortunately the 20amp charger just isn’t up to the job of replenishing depleted batteries on a liveaboard narrowboat. It’s capable of topping up the batteries of a leisure cruiser left for months on end on a marina mooring, but not much good for me. I think another battery charger needs to go on our shopping list and, maybe, a multi meter as well to add to my collection of rarely used tools.

I’m probably not the best person on the inland waterways to wax lyrical about the best tools to keep on board your narrowboat. Historically my on board DIY skills have been on a par with those of Rowan Atkinson in Mr. Bean.

I’m more inept than lazy. I can’t understand it at all. My father was chief engineer on a merchant navy ship for many years before I came along. All through my childhood I remember him building, repairing and refurbishing anything he could get his hands on. He could break an engine down into a thousand pieces, improve it and rebuild it seemingly without effort. This kind of proficiency looked like witchcraft to me. It still does. Why don’t I have the same skills? I look more and more like my father as I grow older, I endure the same spells of forgetfulness and aimless wandering and I enjoy many of life’s pleasures that he does. I just can’t fix anything. It’s not fair.

While I acknowledge that anything more than fixing a bulkhead coat hook is probably too much for me, I realise that I am very organised and tidy. These two attributes are very important when you live in such a small space. Having somewhere secure and out of sight to store all of your on board tools is also very useful, which is why I am such a fan of traditional stern narrowboats for liveaboard boaters.

In case you are unfamiliar with narrowboat sterns, there are three types; traditional stern, semi traditional stern and cruiser stern.

Cruiser sterns are what you see on the majority of hire boats. They have large open decks at the back of the boat, usually protected by a rail. They are perfect for groups of people who want to stand with the helmsman as he weaves nervously along the canal. The downside for a liveaboard boater is that they reduce the amount of secure and weather protected internal storage space.

Semi traditional stern narrowboats look like traditional stern boats from a distance. The boat’s cabin sides extend nearly all the way to the stern, but the roof only extends as far back as the roof on a cruiser stern boat. The semi trad boat therefore has two protective wings, usually with lockers inside the wings which double as seats. The lockers can be used to store tools but they aren’t usually either secure or weather proof.

A traditional stern narrowboat has a fully enclosed cabin which extends almost to the back of the boat. The rear deck is just two or three feet deep so only two people, three at a push, can stand at the helm. Trad stern boats aren’t really suitable for groups of holiday boaters but are arguably the best configuration if you’re going to be living on board full time.

Some traditional stern narrowboats have the engine housed in its own space forward of a rear “boatman’s cabin”. You can often see the engines in these boats through side hatches polished to gleaming perfection.

The other and, to me, more useable configuration is with the engine at the back of the boat. That’s what I have. My engine sits under insulated boards slightly in front and below me as I stand and steer. The deck boards above it hide the engine and deaden its noise, and leave me with quite a large secure and dry space to store my tools.

Here are photo’s of my engine room taken from four different angles. The port cabin side houses all of the boat’s electrics; a Sterling 20amp charger and a separate Sterling 1600w pure sine inverter, an MPPT controller for the 300w solar array and a switch for changing from shore to boat 240v power.

All of the other space in the engine room is used to store tools and equipment. My engine room has plenty of storage space but it’s hopeless as a point of access into the boat from the rear deck. You have to be as flexible as a very slippery eel to be able to use the narrow doorway from the engine room into  the back cabin. It’s fine for Cynthia and me. Both of us are whippet thin but for anyone more generously proportioned it’s quite a challenge.

Even though I’m not entirely sure what to do with them, I have a reasonably comprehensive range of tools. With my traditional stern I can store my tools out of sight, under cover and securely. If I had a cruiser stern boat, the tools would have to be stored in an insecure and often wet engine bay, or take up valuable space inside the boat. I would have a similar problem with a semi trad stern boat.

The door from the engine room to the bedroom

The door from the engine room to the bedroom

Here’s the rather tight entrance from the engine room through to the cabin. A coat rack further obscures the narrow entrance but provides dry storage for our wet weather gear (and a rather fetching pair of my heavy duty work trousers).

Plenty of racking for bulky items

Plenty of racking for bulky items

The starboard cabin side is used for storing bulky stuff. There are hooks for our shore line and a shorter 5m lead which I use with the generator, and for my stern mooring line while the boat is moving. I’m not one of those brave souls who hangs their mooring line off the tiller. After recently catching one of my centre lines around the propeller and spending an hour hacking iron taught rope off the drive shaft, I want to keep my lines away from the back end of the boat. I also keep two spare alternator belts there as well as another for the water pump. I just wish I knew how to change them.

There’s a roll of ratchet spanners neatly screwed to the cabin side easily visible and ready for use. I think I’ve used a 13mm spanner once but at least I know where the rest are.

Shelves for pots and polishes

Shelves for pots and polishes

I use this lot quite often. There’s a box of black nitrile gloves on the top shelf for working on the engine and for painting. On the next shelf down there are two tubs of waterproof grease for the stern gland greaser and a narrow bladed wallpaper scraper to help pack the greaser. There’s also a spare fuel filter and a broken torch I thought I had thrown away months ago. Below are a variety of brass polishes, three in one and WD40 oils, a reel of paracord, my recovery magnet and some cleaning cloths.

out of the way storage for essential tools

out of the way storage for essential tools

This is where all the manly tools are stored. I am actually able to use one or two of them. I have a cordless drill with a wide range of bits, mole grips, screwdrivers, a junior hacksaw and wood saw, claw hammer, awl, chisel and bolt croppers. A head torch allows me to work hands free in the dim depths of the engine bay and a jumbo blue paper roll is close at hand for inevitable oil drips and smears.

That’s pretty much all I can say about my own tools. At the front of the boat under the deck next to my water tank I keep my tins of external cabin paint, paint brushes and sandpaper. I used to keep the paint in the engine bay until I discovered that, due to the engine heat, the paint hardened almost overnight.

I may not know much about tools and how to use them, but many boat owners who use this site have been kind enough to complete a survey I created a few months ago. I asked what tools they carry on board with them. Here’s what they wrote…

Mole wrench. Club hammer. Hand drill and drill bits. Centre punch. Lots of torches and spare batteries. Small mirror. Screwdriver set, inc. posidrive. Litter picker, everything you drop will be just out of reach! Pliers. Wire cutters. Carving knife. Secateurs, shears. Multimeter. Funnel. Assorted polythene pipe. Loads of “oily rags”. Magnet.

Too many to list because I still have a house and tools come and go between my 2 tool boxes. I am ready to deal with all electrical and plumbing challenges and of course removing and replacing panelling to gain access. So, wire cutters, wire strippers, crimping tool, long nose pliers, regular pliers, wide jaw pliers, 8″ and 10″ adjustable spanners, a range of screw drivers, bradawl, hacksaw, chisel, Stanley knife, craft knives. If WD40 counts as a tool then that too. I don’t carry a hammer but use my mallet on the occasions when it is needed. I also carry a decent supply of brass screws in various different sizes. The boat fitters used steel screws and they invariably come out slightly corroded so I replace them with brass screws as and when I encounter them. On the odd occasion when a screw doesn’t hold, I can replace it with a longer or wider one.

Winter specific tools: flue brush small splitting axe selection of hammers (very small through rubber mallet to lump hammer) a good knife (much easier for dealing with coal sacks, and will find many other uses) enough coal or wood to last you six weeks (you don’t know if the fuel boat is going to be able to get through — ice and flooding can both interrupt supplies) working smoke and CO alarms enough tea and/or coffee for six weeks Year round tools (essential in winter because if something breaks the weather will make it harder to buy tools if you don’t already own them, and we all know things like to go wrong at the very worst moment): hacksaw and spare blades screwdrivers (at least small and large slot and small and large phillips) strap wrench (for changing the oil filter — you’ll probably want to do this in march and september) enough clean oil for a complete oil change (engine and gearbox) plus excess for top ups “waterproof grease” (isn’t grease waterproof by definition?) set of ring/combination spanners adjustable spanner (or another set of combination spanners) set of hex/allen keys socket set multimeter one spare set of everything (belts, pumps, fuel cut off cables, …) General stuff which really comes into its own in winter: Books (or magazines, or something to read when there’s no internet or other reception Non-electrical hobby stuff (musical instruments, sketch pad and pencil, notebook and pencil, whatever you are into that you can do to keep yourself and loved ones entertained when everything seems to be against you)

Screwdrivers, adjustable spanners, a good pair of end cutters for general use and help with clearing the prop. A set of spanners that match your engine. spare empty plastic milk containers for cutting up to collect drips, as a baler and bleeding radiators etc.

When equipping our new boat I got a handyman tool kit from Screwfix. It was comprehensive (screw drivers/files/tape measure/clamps/pliers/knife/etc etc) and very well priced and included a decent bag. I then added specifics such as: Combination spanner set (good to have both ring and open ended for awkward places) Allen key set (make sure you have one big enough for all the bolts eg Beta alternator belt adjustment (ours fell off at 25 hours from new which is when I discovered it was BIG!)) Hand suction pump to get oil out of the gearbox when you change it (much easier than getting to the drain plug and will pay for itself on first use) Oil filter spanner. Best is Draper mole wrench style (I’ve used others … let me save you the grief) as it doesn’t puncture the canister and make a mess and the grip and range of movement is excellent. Clamp on multi meter that can measure DC as well as AC (really useful for clamping to the alternator output so you can see what’s going on and how engine revs impact output … if at all! Mine paid for itself in first week of non wasted fuel) Good old WD40 Spare set of all fuel and oil filters and all belts. Big roll of garage type blue absorbent towelling. Water proof grease for stern gland and general use. Antifreeze (engine and heating system). Various ‘dip sticks’ for fuel and water levels if you don’t have guages. Gas bottle key (at least two!). Roll of insulation tape. Roll of ‘duct’ tape (aka duck tape). Small roll of electrical wire and connection blocks (temp / emergency electrical fault fixing). Really good rubber gloves (only one thing worse than toilet trouble is realising you have no gloves). Powerful rechargeable LED torch. Assortment of jubilee clips. Assortment of tie wraps. Magnet for retrieving dropped items from canal / engine hole. Ball of twine.

Axe/hatchet and log splitting wedge Chimney brush (I sweep fortnightly!) Chainsaw (mine is battery powered) and chain file to sharpen it cordless drill Full socket and spanner set Lump hammer Normal size claw hammer small hammer Hacksaw Bow saw Adjustable wrench and mole grips Set of files Box of assorted screws, nuts (esp nyloc), washers and bolts Full set of spare filters for air, fuel and oil, and spare belts I also carry (but would not consider essential!) blowtorch angle grinder chain hoist (if I need to do any lifting of engine/gearbox, e.g. to change engine feet, driveplate)

Basic electrical set up, test meter, spare fuses, decent wire strippers, side piars, small screwdrivers. decent socket and spanner set. DO check you have the right sizes for the most used sizes on your boat (AF or Metric). An extra rope and stell bucket. A handy firefighting tool when the neighbouring boats hot ashes burst into flame at 3 in the morning and try to take your boat, their boat and a 100 feet of hedge and trees with them!

Wood and metal saws. Spanners from very small to very big. Multitude of Philips and flat nosed screwdrivers. Electric sander Hand and electric drills Small work bench Electric connectors and crimper’s The new hand held Karcher used for cleaning windows but gets condensation cleaned in a short time, great tool. Hand held vac

I have a long paint roller handle used for painting behind radiators. I have curved the end into a hook shape. This is used when feeding a mooring chain through Armco pilings. Lower the small end of the chain behind the horizontal support for the Armco. Using the hook end grab the small end of the chain and bring it up on the outside of the support. Place small ring through the large one then pass your mooring rope through the small ring. Job done without too much bending or kneeling on wet grass, or worse still, Paul’s favourite muddy towpaths.

Leatherman Wave Multi-Tool, on belt at all times. Zippo Lighter. Large Axe. Folding Wood Saw. Hacksaw with Blades by Bahco Sandflex, very flexible. KNIPEX Heavy Duty Wire Cutters. Flexible Jubilee Clip Driver. Changeable bit Screwdriver and bits. Socket and Spanner Set. Mole Grips. Cordless Drill. OX 10″ Pro Claw Bar/Hammer. Multi-meter Electrical Tester. Manual Bilge Pump. Sea Searcher Magnet. TV Signal Finder….

The tools I have used is a strong LED head light that allows you to keep your hands free. A good set of screwdrivers. Spare lock key. A box full of various screws. Thread tape Electrical meter Various spanners

socket set, screwdrivers of every type, Stillson wrench, adjustable spanner, soldering iron, hacksaw, WD40 gaffer type, Allen keys, G clamp. Will probably take the electric chain saw too. Tools I wish I had – electric multi meter, strap wrench for changing filters.

Wire cutters, knife etc for clearing weed hatch Spanners, Allen keys, adjustable, screw drivers, pliers, filter wrench for engine maintenance. Paint, brushes, wet and dry, wire brush, Temporary pipe repair tape / putty. Stilton, tap spanner Multimeter, electrical connectors and crimp told, insulating tape.

battery drill. hammer .various size spanners. adjustable wrench. socket set. speed clamps’ sharp knives sorted screwdrivers. mole grips. pliers multi meter.hacksaws. axe. magnet on a rope. flexi mirror. drill bits.tape. glues. sealers .

lump hammer, claw hammer, adjustable open ended & ring spanners, screw drivers large & small flat & philips, pliers,mole grips, tape measure, pencil, socket set, spare hoses & clips, gear & throttle cables, oil & filter, spare diesel & filter, plumbers tape, insulation tape, hack saw, hand saw, log saw,spare fenders & rope, various size nails & screws.

Stanley knife. Cordless drill, bits and assorted screwdriver bits. Bikers combination tool. Set of spanners. Plastic tubing. Duct tape. Insulation tape. Assorted screwdrivers. Test lamp or multimeter. Saws-hacksaw, junior hacksaw, joiners saw. Mole grips. Quick clamp. Combination square. Crowbar. Blowlamp. Extra rope. Electric wire. Stacking boxes with tools labelled on each box. Paint brushes. Thinners. Paint. Sealant and sealant gun. Head torch. Ordinary torch.

Magnet on a chain. Two open ended spanners to adjust the stern gland. Cable ties. Circuit tester. Toolbox with mixture of screwdrivers, stanley knife, hammer, Spare fan belt, spare bulbs, spare windlass, spare mooring rope

I have a good Black and Decker tool box with a general selection of tools – pliers, hammer, drill etc with a good range of screws. I have a jigsaw for general wood repairs and making. Other ‘tools’ include spare mooring lines, black heat resistant paint, varnish, paint etc.

Spare windlasses, torches, candles, firelighters, beer, wine, bottle opener, toilet roll, solar charger for a mobile phone, curry paste and toilet blue

I’ve got a boxed section under the dinette with a hinged front flap – it’s only about 5 cm high but very long – I have 4 large tupperware boxes full of tools – electrical in one, heavy in another etc – they are in a train tied by bungee cord so I pull one out and the others follow . . . it just makes use of the space and obviates the need for a huge trad-sized toolbox.

Test meter. Pliers. Spanners. Duct tape. Wire cutters. Electric and manual drills. Drill bits.

Does a head torch count…. it does not go far from me when I am on board. Otherwise is it decent too, box so tools can be found easily. As to tools depends on what you are prepared to have a go at – I’ll go at most things, but the tap and die set I brough from screwfix has seen a lot of use.

A two-tube metal epoxy kit – this is sometimes two separate tubes and other times two tubes in a sort of builtin hypodermic type injector. When you squeeze out matching amounts of the paste [two different colors] you mix until they become one solid color. Now you have about 15 minutes to apply. Notice I said METAL epoxy… you might wish to consider two kits – one for copper/brass and one for iron/steel. When dry this epoxy can actually be machined! These kits can provide temporary crucial repairs while you are off your mooring – enough that the engine will run safely, the loo will flush without flooding the engine room, or seal a leaking hull seam after a “lock bump” and so on. US cost about $6.00 per set.

Mole grips – especially small ones.

Various screwdrivers , mid sized hammer , adjustable spanner , pliers , side cutters , hacksaw , small socket set , always have a roll of insulation tape , mole grips . being a mechanic I carry a lot more than this , but this should get you by without too much space wasted

spanners, adjustable wrenches, club hammer, bow saw, sea magnet, battery powered drill/driver, hand axe, battery terminal puller

Small socket set, small and large adjustable wrench,monkey wrench, pliers, assorted screwdrivers, telescopic magnet(for picking up screws etc dropped in awkward places) junior hacksaw, sharp knife, multi-meter

All the usual hand tools, hammer, pliers, etc. Bolt croppers, hacksaw, wood saw. Stanley knife and blades. Cordless drill. Spanner and socket set. Plumbing tools and some spare pipe and fittings, PTFE tape etc. Electrical kit, fuses, wire, crimper, insulation tape and fittings.

I have a replica dutch barge not a narrow boat. Not a comprehensive list but some tools which, for the most part, get reasonable use: A stubby adjustable spanner A set of box spanners A crimping tool and spare connectors A simple multi-meter A grease gun Plenty of rags A sturdy emergency knife (I have a riggers/seaman’s knife in a sheath – never been used, fingers crossed)

Electrical. Set of spanners set of screwdrivers hammer mallet adjustables mole grips

There you go. If you’re thinking of moving onto your own boat you now know all the tools to take with you. If you’re already a boat owner you may well have spotted one or two items to add to your shopping list.

Cynthia says—

Getting in gear….

This past week brought several good changes and both of us have benefitted.  We shall carry forward and see if this is sustainable.  We shifted into a more disciplined gear/mode and decided that we would turn off the lights earlier at night and get up earlier in the morning, which is the most productive time of the day for both of us on many levels.

We start the day with Paul working on his site and on the newsletter while I am preparing our breakfast.  Whilst partaking of this healthy repast, we jot down the days goals….I have my goals to accomplish while Paul is at work, and he has his goals for after returning from work which may or may not involve me.  We were able to accomplish a number of things, especially around James—putting up our new bespoke brass latches on the engine door and on the toilet door, replacing the inappropriate but worked-in-a-pinch bungee cord.  They look so nice and are very functional.

photo (3)photo (1)

Paul took the opportunity to see if the brass drawer pulls would polish up, and low and behold they did beautifully!  Please see photos…and tell us what you think!  He is now on a mission to polish every last piece of brass in the place, and I have done the research to find the appropriate non VOC lacquer so that we will no longer need to polish them.  We both agree this small detail makes a big impact.

Bespoke brass latch

Bespoke brass latch

We are gearing up for the future and putting our thoughtful positive energy into getting my house sold this coming spring/summer.  Unfortunately, the market in Vermont has been rather depressed now for a number of years and is coming back slowly.  I have a well-priced and charming house that by American standards is very old…built in the 1760’s.  “Hawley” is the oldest house in town, has a rich history and has water views of the famous fly fishing creek, the Battenkill.  Anyone out there looking for a lovely second home New England?

Whilst visiting the gorgeous National Trust property, Stowe, yesterday, we finished up our lovely walk around the property by paying a visit to their charming gift shop.  While I was perusing the postcards, Paul found the most beautiful book entitled “The National Trust book of the Coast,” and we parted with the necessary £20 so we could take it home.  Just remember, an intense want becomes a justifiable need!

When we returned home last evening and were eating our light dinner, Paul had a great idea inspired by the above mentioned book.  Why don’t we take a couple of months and tour the entire coast of the U.K.?  I became quickly enchanted with the idea, and now we are chattering about the possibilities and logistics of making this happen.   Anyone out there know where we could rent/buy a good motor home?  Selling my Vermont house will give us the necessary funds to make this dream a reality.  Life is an adventure and at the end of this piece I will provide my favourite quote that speaks to this…..

As Paul is taking the opportunity to provide you with needed gear aboard a narrowboat, we thought it might be a good idea for me to suggest a few items for the kitchen, so here we go—-

My most useful appliance is my beloved Vitamix which helps me to whip up our smoothies, soups, nut milks and many other things.  They are pricey but a necessity if one is serious about eating healthfully.  A simple food processor is also handy for many jobs.  And for storing our spices and everything from quinoa to dog treats, the Kilner jars are just so nice—and beautiful to look at.  See the photo of our spice collection and please take note of the gorgeous bespoke rack in which to store them!

We are also gearing up to have some extensive joinery work done on James and perhaps some new non-leaky windows will be in the offing.

It’s always fun to plan and dream and as we approach Spring it’s a perfect time to turn our thoughts in these directions…..and dream of a land yacht in our future:-))

See you in February!

And for the promised quote:

Taken from the book “Loki and Loon” by Gifford Pinchot

Advice from the writer’s father:

“He convinced me that taking on adventure was one of man’s most important obligations, as well as being a source of great satisfaction.  You can always find plenty of reasons for following the conventional safe and easy path, but if you do, you will miss some of the very best of life, and never even know it.”  Amen!!

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Discovery Day And Narrowboat Helmsmanship Training

If you’re new to this site you might not know about the service I launched in June 2014. I host narrowboat experience days on board my own 62′ long narrowboat James No 194. The ten hour days are a combination of discussion about the pros and cons of living on board, narrowboat designs and the best equipment for live aboard boaters, and a six to eight hour helmsmanship training cruise along the Oxford and/or Grand Union Canals.

I run my discovery days roughly on the first ten days or so of April, June August, October and December.  If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day next year you can do so by viewing the diary here. You may want to stay locally the night before, the night after or both, in which case I highly recommend this B & B. It’s a five minute stroll from the mooring where I begin my discovery days.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendee Peter Martin who kindly produced a short video of his discovery day experience for me to use on my site. The video is below followed by his comments.

“With two and half years before I can pick up my work pension, a break up of my marriage, kids now independent and need for downsizing, now seems like the time to plan what I’ve often dreamed about over the years.

Living on the cut seems to fit in very well with my lifestyle. I like the outdoors, love boating, independence and getting back to nature.

Having not spent any length of time with live aboard boaters, the Discovery Day was was really just an opportunity to pick up the vibes that go with life on the inland waterways. I needed to do this before committing myself further in the discovery process. Easier to nip things in the bud now if it didn’t appeal before my imagination runs away with itself!

It was a very enjoyable day. I particularly enjoyed the warm welcome of coming in out of the cold to sit in the heat of a toasty, warm cabin. That sold me the lifestyle straight away. It also confirmed that I definitely need a solid fuel stove as primary heat. I know it means hard work lugging coal etc., but what better way to get some outdoor exercise.  I’m also now sold on composting toilets! I never imagined I’d spend the following  week viewing endless YouTube videos of people’s loos!

The helming and boat handling were great experience. By the end of the day I had got over the intimidation of  controlling  60 feet and 20 tons of metal.  A very worthwhile 10 hours and it has confirmed that I’ll continue along this pathway.

The hard work now begins in downsizing, straightening out the finances and then the enjoyable part of finding the right boat.”

You can find out more about my discovery days and availability here.

I Need Some Help!

Each time I write a newsletter, I tick another subject off the list of things which those new to boating have told me that they want to read about. The hardest part of the process isn’t the writing itself, it’s constantly thinking of new content for each issue. The trouble is, I don’t know what you want to read. I think I keep the newsletters reasonably interesting but I don’t know for sure. That’s where I need your help.

Can you let me know what you would like to read in the future? Are there any areas of narrowboat life you don’t think I’ve covered enough or areas which I’ve missed completely? Please let me know what you want to read about. Thanks for your help.