Cruising Differences Between the Dutch and English Inland Waterways

We’ve had to take some time out of our busy cruising schedule this week to tick some jobs off our to do list.

We’ll be returning to the UK at the beginning of October to have some warranty work done on the Hymer, and for the motorhome’s MOT. To get both Abbie and Tasha either over or under the English Channel –  we haven’t decided which yet – we also needed to have a new passport done for Abbie, and to correct an error on Tasha’s passport which was noticed at the Calais Eurotunnel terminal last October. Even though Tasha had successfully crossed the channel twice earlier in the year on the same passport, she was refused when an over zealous French animal control officer spotted an incorrectly recorded rabies vaccination date.

Our doggie documentation is in order now so we should, in theory, cross the Channel without a problem.

While we were out in the Hymer, we popped in to Winkel to have the Hymer serviced, the brake pads renewed and a headlight bulb replaced. I was quoted the best part of €1,000 for the work to be done in Germany in April. Dick Groot Safaricampers in Winkel did the work this week for €580.

We were delighted with both the bill total and the service, so we’ve asked them to quote for replacing the bedroom window I knocked off a couple of months ago. I imagine that a substantial part of the bill will be for removing the two rolls of industrial strength duct tape keeping what’s left of the window stuck to the frame.

After half a day sitting in a draughty motor home showroom we drove south to a clinic in Eindhoven for Cynthia. On the way down, we stopped for a few hours at De Valk yacht brokers in Loosdrecht.

We’re more than happy with our 32’ Dutch Super Favorite cruiser, but it doesn’t suit our future plans. Much as we’ve enjoyed touring far and wide in our Hymer motorhome, the waterways are our spiritual home.

Cynthia lived on a sailboat in San Diego for  seven years. I spent six and a half hugely enjoyable years living afloat on the English waterways. After six months off the water, moving our meagre possessions back onto a boat felt like coming home.

Now that we have reached the end of our first Dutch cruising season, we don’t want to leave. We have exciting plans for the coming winter. We’ll return to England briefly in October. Then we’ll cross the channel again to visit Cynthia’s German clinic for a week, followed by a few weeks in Austria, Switzerland and Italy. As winter approaches, we’ll drive south to Provence in France. We’ll stay on France’s Mediterranean coast until April 2018, and then follow the spring north for another cruising season in the Netherlands.

That’s been our plan until very recently, but now we’re not so sure.

Cynthia often tells me that I’m like a bear with a sore head when I’m driving. Actually, I’m like a bear with a sore head when I’m not driving, but I’m worse when I’m at the wheel. Keeping an unwieldy five tonne, eight metre long vehicle on narrow roads with sheer drops to rocky river beds is a stressful affair.

The Hymer also feels quite claustrophobic after spending a few months on Julisa. Everything’s relative. On the boat, we still have about as much living space as a bricks and mortar home’s single garage, but there’s more space on the boat than in the Hymer.

We don’t want to come off the water, so we’re considering ways of living on either the Dutch or French waterway network full time. Our visit to De Valk in Loosdrecht was the first tentative step towards a return to full time living afloat.

We’ve been doing a great deal of research. If we’re going to be on a boat in the winter, it needs to large enough and warm enough to live comfortably. Julisa just isn’t suitable. We could just about manage the limited space, but Julisa’s lack of insulation, especially in the middle third of the boat, the cockpit, with its canvas roof, would mean that any warm air generated by the Eberspacher central heating system, would quickly escape.

The boat we went to see at Loosdrecht is a Crown trawler.

A trawler with a bit of a problem

A trawler with a bit of a problem

The boat, at 10.5m, is a metre longer than Julisa, but there is far more living space because of the flybridge, the roof mounted steering position. That means that the internal cockpit space, canvas covered and difficult to heat on Julisa, is a covered and insulated part of the living accommodation.

The trawler ticked all of the boxes on our wish list; plenty of internal storage space, a flybridge and loads of deck space for alfresco dining and general lazing about. It has a decent bedroom and – Cynthia was dribbling uncontrollably when she found out – two fridges. Unfortunately, one of them created a bit of a problem.

We checked the cabin’s underfloor storage. We could have hidden bodies in the cavernous cupboards and bilge area. We found the clean and neatly installed battery bank, a well wrapped calorifier, a decent sized water tank, an acceptably large black water tank but, after ten minutes of frustrating head scratching and deck board lifting, we couldn’t find the engine. In desperation, I even resorted to looking in cupboards.

Slightly embarrassed, I walked from the sales piers to the site office to ask the broker to find it for me.

The harbour master returned to the boat with us looking a little sheepish. He pointed to a fridge built into a raised seating area in the middle of the cockpit. “You have to slide the fridge backwards and lift that deck board,” he told me, pointing to a board trapped under the fridge’s leading edge.

“I’ve tried that,” I told him, “I can’t move the fridge any further back to lift the board”.

“Nor could we without taking the fridge apart!” he admitted.

A very basic pre cruise check is ensuring that the engine has enough water and oil. Not only was  the Crown Trawler engine buried under a difficult to move fridge but, once the fridge was moved enough to lift the deck board, an insulating box had to be taken apart before either oil or water could be checked.

The harbour master pulled and pushed the fridge for a few minutes before giving up. “This is a terrible design. I guess that some people think that the engine will run forever without any care”.

We didn’t spend any more time looking at that boat but, of the one hundred other boats on display, two or three were very well suited for living on board full time.

We really liked one of them. It is a spacious and well thought out boat equipped with a flybridge with plenty of space for alfresco dining, a large and cosy cabin and master stateroom and two guest bedrooms. Two guest bedrooms would be essential if we go ahead with one of our boating plans.

Plenty of space on the large rear deck

Plenty of space on the large rear deck

I’m thinking about resurrecting my discovery day service, this time for the endless Dutch waterways network. Because of the logistics involved, discovery day guests would have to spend longer than a day with us.

The Dutch waterways are as beautiful as they are easy to navigate. Over the last one hundred and thirty two days we’ve cruised six hundred and forty one kilometres, but passed through just fourteen locks. We didn’t even have to leave the comfort of the boat for them.

A large and cosy cabin for cold winter nights

A large and cosy cabin for cold winter nights

On my English discovery days, many guest found locks intimidating and quite hard work. On the English network, twenty miles (32 km) over 10 hours is considered good going as the route will invariably include a handful of locks and a couple of hours of hard physical labour. Last Saturday, on a cruise through Gouda to Aalsmeer, we managed 40km and two locks in six hours without breaking into a sweat.

Plenty of guest seating

Plenty of guest seating

Boating in the Netherlands is as easy as it is varied.

Sundays are wonderful on the canals over here. The Dutch are fair weather boaters, probably because so many of their boats are open to the elements. There’s no pleasure sitting motionless in pouring rain for hours on end, but, on a sunny summer Sunday, canals and lakes are a mass of watercraft, ranging from tiny rowing boats and kayaks to towering passenger boats hosting a hundred happy day trippers. The Dutch are a friendly bunch, so most of them smile and wave as they pass.

And then there’s the scenery.

The Netherlands is only a small country, but the population density is nearly 50% higher than in the UK. You’re never far from people, roads or buildings, so it’s just as well that the people are pleasant, the roads quiet and the buildings a pleasure to look at.

Unlike the UK where many a canal’s approach to a town or city is heralded by waterborne debris, graffiti and down at heel industry, Dutch city canals are generally clean and pleasant. You’re more likely to see someone’s front door than their back garden fence, and hordes of happy families out for weekend bike rides than hooded youth furtively looking at anything other than the people they pass.


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If you don’t fancy cooking on a Dutch waterways cruise, you’re never far from a convenient waterside restaurant, often with convenient moorings for passing boaters. It’s a real joy to moor for a while, grab a coffee or a bite to eat, and watch weekend boaters chug serenely by.

The more I think about it, the more appealing a Dutch discovery day service appears to be. Even for those not interested in or ready for boat buying, a pleasant cruise on a small but comfortable boat surely has some appeal.

However, I’m rather biased. I need an objective opinion. In this newsletters introductory email, there’s a link to click if you are interested in receiving more information about my proposed discovery day/recreational breaks. Please register your interest by simply clicking on it.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll be tagged in my newsletter subscriber database. I won’t bombard you with unwanted emails, but I’ll let you know more about availability and cost if there appears to be enough interest.

If you would like to email me directly to ask any questions about the proposed service, you can either simply reply to the introductory email or click on this link.

That’s all I have to say about the new venture at the moment, but thinking intently about both the Dutch and the English waterways for a week or two has prompted me to outline the differences between inland waterway boating in the two countries.

Cynthia and I have been touring the Netherlands in our motorhome or cruising the Dutch waterways on and off for the last year. Before that, I lived on a narrowboat on the English canals for six and a half years. Cynthia spent six months on the English network with me.

We know enough about boating in both England and the Netherlands to understand the similarities, and the many differences. I know that many people who read my blog posts are considering opting out of mainstream living to enjoy a far more tranquil life afloat.

You might be one of them.

Here’s some useful information for you if you might be tempted to spend some or all of your time boating in mainland Europe. I’ll conclude the article below next week.

The Differences Between Dutch and English Inland Waterways Boating

I spent six and a half years living on the English canal and river network. There were a few aspect of English inland waterways boating which drove me mad, but I enjoyed nearly every minute of it. Cynthia and I are relatively new to Dutch boating, but we enjoy it just as much as we did in England. Both networks have their similarities, but they have just as many differences. Here they are…

No Touching Please

If you spend any time researching England’s inland waterways, before too long you’ll hear someone casually declare, “Narrowboating is a contact sport!”

While bumping into things shouldn’t be an aspiration, it’s often unavoidable. English canals are often narrow and sometimes overgrown, and you steer your long thin boat from a long way behind the bow on waterways that twist and turn like a spade chopped worm as they pass through bridges so low you need to duck to save your head.

Blind bends, especially on the older contour canals, are frequent, as is the likelihood that you will meet an oncoming narrowboat at the tightest and narrowest bend, a bend often partially blocked by overhanging bramble, hawthorn, oak, ash or willow.

When you touch an oncoming boat for the first time, you might worry about the owner’s reaction. You shouldn’t. If he or she is a veteran narrowboat owner, and you haven’t done something terminally stupid to cause the collision, the worst you can expect is a slightly disapproving frown. However, you’re more likely to be on the receiving end of a cheery smile and friendly wave.

Light contact with other narrowboats is part and parcel of English inland waterways cruising.

So is brushing against two hundred year old moss covered walls as you negotiate one of the network’s one and a half thousand locks which make cruising at an ever changing elevation possible.

Regular guests aboard my own boat usually found locks the most challenging part of their seven hour cruise.

My discovery days usually followed the same format. After five or six hours of very pleasant cruising along the snake like contours of the combined Grand Union and Oxford canals between Napton and Braunston junctions, the day’s grand finale would be the return trip through Calcutt’s three lock flight; three locks down and then three locks back up again.

I usually faced the same problem each time a novice helmsman nervously approached the first oh so narrow lock. I would give very clear and specific instructions, “This is a double lock, but we’re going in on our own. There’s only one gate open, because we only need one gate. This boat will fit, but it’s a tight fit. Forget what’s happening on the left hand side of the boat. Concentrate on the right. I want you to scrape the boat down the right hand wall”. The confused helmsman would look at me in horror, “You want me to intentionally crash your boat?”

Of course I didn’t want them to crash my home, but lock entrances are very, very tight. Narrowboats are 6’10” wide. A single lock, or a single gate to a double lock, is just over 7’0” wide. Making contact with lock walls is as unavoidable as it is necessary.

Boating on the Dutch waterways couldn’t be more different.

The canals are wide, deep and well maintained. Boating is very definitely not a contact sport over here. Negotiating the smaller urban waterways can be a little tricky, but boat owners here appear to be more skilled than many English narrowboat owners. They also have boats which are more maneuverable than narrowboats, and they usually have keels and bow thrusters.

Locks are wide, long, and very, very gentle. In an English lock, you have to have your wits about you. Most locks on the UK’s inland waterways are self service. If you’re very lucky, you’ll be the only boat in a lock and you’ll be in control of the water flow. A more realistic scenario is sharing a double lock with an inexperienced or impatient crew, or being helped by a boater waiting to come through the lock in the opposite direction.

If the paddles in a lock are raised too quickly, especially gate paddles which can allow a torrent to pour into the lock on top of your boat, you’re in for a rough ride. If paddles are raised quickly on both sides of the lock, strong currents can push you violently from side to side. In a single lock, your boat will be initially pushed quickly towards the bottom gate, and then even more quickly towards the upstream gate. Hard contact with several tonnes of solid oak can throw you off your feet and do a substantial amount of damage to your boat.

I was caught out on the Trent and Mersey canal a few years ago. I had thousands of lock passages behind me at that time but, just for a few important seconds, I was distracted from the job at hand. I had someone helping me with the lock. She had helped me with dozens of locks at that point, but a momentary lapse proved rather expensive.

While I was busy daydreaming deep in the single lock, she quickly wound the paddle fully open. I was still daydreaming as my boat began accelerating backwards. I woke up as my rudder was about to strike the downstream gate. I pushed my Morse control forward to slow myself down, just as the flood of brown water hit the gate, bounced back and pushed me quickly towards the upstream gate. I couldn’t stop the boat before it smashed into the concrete cill beneath the upstream gates. The impact shattered the four chains holding my £100 rope fender in place, and threw me forward into the rear deck’s steel hatch frame. Fortunately, my head hit first so there was no damage done to me, but I lost my week old fender.

Dutch locks are an entirely different affair. A major difference between them and locks in the UK is that locks in the Netherlands are nearly always manned. This is a mixed blessing. Unlike manned locks in the UK which can often be switched to self service during off peak hours, or if there’s a staff shortage, Dutch locks are impassible outside designated times. The same applies to bridges.

I always enjoyed early morning cruising in England. The sky is often clearer, the wind more gentle, and locks and canals are easier to navigate. I don’t have that option on Dutch waters. Cruise start times are dependant on when the nearest lock or bridge is open for business.

Timing aside, Dutch locks are very user friendly. Two red lights tell you that the lock is out of service. A single red light means that the lock keeper is present, but that boaters need to wait. A red and a green light warn you to get ready, normally when the gate or gates are about to open, and then it’s green for go.

Once in the lock, you use bow and stern lines to looped around a lockside bollard to keep your boat ready, turn your engine off and enjoy a few minutes of gentle ascent or descent. Nothing could be easier.

Out on the waterways, keeping away from other boats is easy too. The canals, rivers and lakes are wide. In fact some of the lakes are so wide that seeing the nearest boat is difficult, so bumping into them is out of the question.

If you want wide waterways with little chance of an accidental bump into another boater’s pride and joy, the Dutch waterways is the place for you.

The Boat Cost

You can buy a pretty good second hand narrowboat for £30,000 – £40,000. If you’ve done your homework properly, you’ll get a comfortable home, fully equipped for long term off grid cruising, and an engine capable of handling river currents and gentle tidal flows.

If you want to really push the boat out, you can have your own bespoke narrowboat designed and fitted out to a high specification for £150,000.

In the Netherlands, the sky’s the limit. A budget of £40,000 will buy you a pretty decent 30-40 year old little motor cruiser like ours, but if you have money to burn, you can pay £100,000 for an open dayboat. If you want the ultimate in luxury, you can ask Feadship to build a yacht for you. You won’t get much change from £200,000,000. These superyachts are too big to cruise on the inland waterways here, but Feadship build more modest motor cruisers.

Earlier in the week, Cynthia and I visited De Valk yacht brokers in Loosdrecht. They had over one hundred second hand boats for sale. They had some wonderful almost affordable boats for sale, some amazing and completely unaffordable boats which, if we won the lottery, we would love to own, and one boat which we wouldn’t consider if we had all the money in the world.

Yours for €650,000

Yours for €650,000

This irredeemably ugly floating bathtub is for sale for a mere €450,000 (£415,000). For that, you get the shell and an electric engine. That’s it. De Valk, in an attempt at offloading the monstrosity, asked a boatyard to quote for the remaining interior fitting. This boat, fully fitted, will cost over £650,000. That’s a lot of money for an ugly boat.

The more spacious boats that we have been looking at for living on full time cost €70,000 – €100,000. For that, you get a 6-8 berth boat with two bedrooms, an interior and exterior steering position, enough external deck space for a table and chairs, and all the bells and whistles you need to live on board comfortably for extended periods.

Of course, the bigger the boat, the larger the engine and the higher the cruising cost.

That’s it for this week. I’ve run out of steam. Much as I’ve enjoyed sitting on a peaceful island in the shade with my MacBook on my lap, the time has come to take the top off a bottle of Belgian beer and watch the sun go down.

An office with a view

An office with a view

Next week I’ll cover boat styles and quality, sanitary stations, the size of the two networks, fuel costs, mooring costs and availability, and policing the waterways. I hope that you’ll find the information useful.

I took this short video as Cynthia prepared our morning meal. Even though we were a hundred metres away from the Amsterdam Rijnkanaal, we were still constantly buffeted by their wash as we tried to eat. As I complained while prodding a fork full of food for the third time into my ear instead of my mouth, Cynthia quoted one of her favourite sayings, “Remember, this isn’t a third world problem!” She was right. We weren’t starving, although if we stayed on the lock landing for a few days, I think we would have been very hungry.

By mid afternoon, after six hours of pleasant cruising on the mainly rural Hollandse Ijssel, our plans were thwarted at Haastrecht by the usually faultless Dutch bridge automation.

Most bridge opening is automatic. A single red light indicates that the bridge is operational but you should wait. However, some are frustratingly awkward self service. Somewhere close to the bridge, only accessible from the water, there will be a small button which has to be pressed to close the bridge’s road barriers and either lift or swing the bridge.

A floating bar with an outboard motor

A floating bar with an outboard motor

On a cruiser even as small as ours, pressing the button means nosing the boat almost within touching distance of the bridge, and then laying on the deck and reaching down to press the button. We only learned about this self service bridge type after waiting patiently for half an hour at one bridge for it to open. Eventually, a Dutch day boat sped past us. The owner skidded expertly to a stop inches from the bridge, leaned casually over his bow, pressed the button and then reversed just as casually backwards to wait a minute or two for the bridge to open.

After that, we checked each bridge carefully for hidden buttons.

The bridge at Haastrecht had one. Our bridge management skill was a joy to watch. Cynthia expertly maneuvered the bow close to the bridge. I hung off the bow like a monkey to press the button. We congratulated ourselves on a job well done, and then reversed a little to wait for the bridge to open.

It didn’t.

We should have noticed the bridge’s two red lights, which meant that the bridge was out of service. And then we noticed a line of moored boats filled with boaters enjoying the spectacle.

One told us that the bridge was broken. An engineer was on his way, but the bridge probably wouldn’t be operational until the following day. We found a space among the waiting boats, and then watched the engineer work on the bridge until 10pm. A cheer heralded the bridge raising once again. Two boats slipped through before the engineer left for the night. We laughed. What was the point? The next bridge, closed for the night, was just half a mile away.

We weren’t laughing later on that night. The bridge developed a mind of its own. The road barriers dropped on their own, the bridge raised briefly and then dropped again. Much to the frustration of local bikers and car owners, the road barriers stayed down until the following day.

A further three hours work the following morning by the same engineer finally cured the fault. The bridge raised, horns tooted, and a dozen boats raced through the open bridge before anything else went wrong.

We cruised 38km yesterday, through Gouda, north to Alphen aan den Rijn, and back onto familiar ground. We spent the night at a marina near Aalsmeer where we knew we could empty our toilet cassette for the first time in a week. We can now make our 21l holding tank last a long time with a little care and late night hedge watering.

Making way for a tour boat on the cruise back to Leiden

Making way for a tour boat on the cruise back to Leiden

After a two hour cruise this morning, we’re back at our Leiden base. We have jobs to do which require the Hymer. Cynthia has another appointment at her Eindhoven clinic, we need to get passports for both Tasha and Abbie in preparation for our forthcoming brief return to the UK, and we need to search for a low cost chandler with affordable fenders for our bow.

Cynthia’s out shopping on her little folding bike at the moment. When she returns, we’re going for lunch at a canalside restaurant in the heart of Leiden. We’ll watch the boats pass slowly by and wonder, once again, which way to go. Do we keep our summer boat and winter motorhome, or do we sell both to buy a more comfortable and capable boat for full time living and cruising on the European network? As Cynthia would say, it’s not a third world problem, but it’s the only problem we have, so we’ll continue to focus on it.

Isn’t life wonderful?

Cynthia Says……Trial by Fire

When we first made an appearance at Jos van Galen’s boat yard, we had to guide Julisa down a very narrow canal just barely missing the houseboats lined up along the way.  Just trying not to run into anything was a major accomplishment!  Then in order to moor up properly we had to go past the boat yard and turn around in a small space then backtrack.  I remember those first few times how much in awe I was watching Paul manoeuvre the boat around.  The first time or so was a little tense, then it became routine.

Paul has asked me a number of times if I wanted to be in charge of turning Julisa around in this tiny space and I always declined—-until today, at the end of our 3 week journey where we discovered a decent range of the waterways network.  A couple of days ago I told him I wanted to do this “home port turnaround.”

As we approached the canal I was gagging my nervous level and surprisingly found myself to be quite calm, even though in part of my mind I knew I could easily screw it up.
In all truth it turned out to be far easier than I had imagined, and with just a few timely words from Paul, before I knew it I had turned her around and was headed to the mooring spot!  I was SO happy to end this journey on a positive note.

I haven’t done a lot of the helmsmanship while cruising, not because I don’t care to do so, but because I usually find myself involved in cooking, cleaning, watching our progress on the chart or other (seemingly) important tasks.

What I DO do the majority of the time is bring the boat in for mooring, whether it be along side a canal or lake or in a lock.  At first I was nervous about doing this, but thanks to Paul’s excellent directions it has become quite easy.  I’ve developed a system when docking on the starboard side that works well for me.  I have the window in the main saloon to look through in order to gauge my distances.  Without this, it is difficult to see very well to the right since the wheel is on the left (port) side.

During these past three weeks on the waterways I’ve had the opportunity to watch many boats mooring up and have come to the conclusion that nearly 100% of the time, the man steers the boat while the woman handles the lines (or ropes as they are called depending on the country you are from).

The reason I don’t handle the lines–which usually involves jumping or taking long steps from boat to dock–is because of the injury to my right groin that I sustained a couple of years ago.  It unfortunately has limited some of my movements, though I am working at improving this.

These past three weeks really put my skills to the test, as every lock or docking situation is different depending on weather conditions, the wind, how many boats are in the lock with us, etc.  I really find that I am up to the challenge (a good part of this is because I have such an excellent mentor!), and I will continue to welcome the challenges as they present themselves.

It’s been a great three weeks and we have been blessed with wonderful weather, kind people and lots of exciting experiences and personal interchanges with our fellow boaters.

I just wish the summer wouldn’t end!

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  • SteveF says:

    My purely anecdotal comment is this. We have been continually cruising for the last 6 months and spoken to numerous other people and boaters. Several have said that they are buying or seriously considering a boat in France. I can’t remember a single person even mentioning The Netherlands.
    Apart from Amsterdam it doesn’t seem to even be high on the radar for holidays at all. (I had a cycling holiday there about 20 years ago).
    Hopefully you do get interest but I feel France would be a better option.
    Good luck

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