Cruising Differences Between the Dutch and English Inland Waterways Part 2

We’ve seen more rain in the last week than we have all summer. In fact, I think that we saw more rain on Friday alone than we did all summer, which was a shame given that we cruised for eight hours.

Keverhaven Island Caretaker's Floating Home

Keverhaven Island Caretaker’s Floating Home

We’ve done a great deal of cruising since we left our mooring at Keverhaven last Sunday. Cynthia’s friend, Alex, flew into Schiphol from Boston last Sunday to spend a week with exploring the waterways with us. Two hundred and ten kilometres of cruising on through vast lakes, quiet canals and rivers, and two mercifully short crossings of the Amsterdam Rijnkanaal, the arterial waterway route between Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

Cynthia's friend Alex joins us for lunch at Muiden's Fort H

Cynthia’s friend Alex joins us for lunch at Muiden’s Fort H

As ever, cruising has been a pleasure, but we’ve had another frustrating episode with the Netherland’s automated bridge system. Although several Dutch boat owners have assured us that the system rarely, if ever, breaks down, we’ve been delayed four times now in the last three weeks.

The latest hiccough was on the Merwede Kanaal on the outskirts of Utrecht. An automated lift bridge which should have been in service showed two red lights, indicating that we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. After chugging slowly in circles for quarter of an hour waiting for the lights to change, we decided to backtrack for a while and then try a slightly longer route through a commercial lock onto the mighty river Lek.

The lock keeper quickly put us off the idea.

We passed a long row of 3,000 tonne barges moored two abreast before tying precariously to a lock landing which dwarfed our little boat. I walked from the landing past two cavernous locks towards the distant lock keeper’s office.

The thought of taking Julisa through the two locks terrified me. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could. Rather than vertical, the lock sides were bowl shaped to accommodate the gigantic barges which used it. We wouldn’t be able to reach the lock walls to tie up. Even if we could, the post box sized bollards would be far too high above us to reach.

The locks clearly weren’t designed to accommodate boats less than a football pitch in length.

“You don’t want to bring that little boat in here.” the lock keeper laughed, looking at Julisa bobbing like a toy at the bottom of the lock landing. ‘You need to use the lock for sports boat at the far end of the canal,” he told us, pointing back the way we’d just come.

After explaining the bridge closure problem, he made a phone call. “It’s working now. The guy in the control room had to leave for a few minutes because of an emergency. Everything’s working now.”

A trip boat squeezes through a narrow bridge at Maarssen

A trip boat squeezes through a narrow bridge at Maarssen

Bridges and locks on English canals might be harder work, but at least you have a little more control over them.

The more I think about Dutch waterways automation, the more I miss English locks and bridges. English Locks especially offer wonderful opportunities to enjoy short breaks from what can become monotonous cruising over a long day. Depending on the time of day, and the time of the year, a lock passage can take anything from ten minutes to a couple of hours. It’s time which normally flies by thanks to inevitable interaction with a wide range of boaters and bystanders. Boaters especially are prepared, and sometimes far too keen, to share details of their journey or life to date. Striking up a conversation with someone at an English lock is a bit of a lottery, but one I’m always happy to take part in.

Once we’d backtracked again, and now running out of time, we approached the outskirts of Utrecht. With half an hour left before the city’s bridges closed for the day, we waited impatiently for one to open. After a ten minute wait, the bridge’s lights changed from red to red and green, an indication that the bridge was about to open. The bridge slowly raised until it was locked vertically. The lights remained on red and green, which meant that we still needed to wait. With no boats waiting on the far side of the bridge, we surged forward before it dropped again. Halfway through, an agitated voice blared from a nearby speaker. We were being reprimanded in Dutch for moving before the lights turned green. Cynthia suggested that we stop. I laughed. “We’re through now. What can they do?”

We found out what they could do five minutes later when we reached the next bridge, a bridge no doubt controlled by the same operator as the one we’d just illicitly raced through. A single red light means that the bridge is in service, but that boats need to wait. We waited, and we waited, and we waited. Fifteen minutes later we gave up. Our punishment for moving before we were supposed to was being held up by a bridge keeper with too much power, and being forced to moor on a scruffy section of canal in the commercial outskirts of Utrecht when all the bridges in the area closed for the day several minutes later.

With no official moorings between two now out of service bridges blocking our progress in any direction, we carefully nosed up to a grassy bank, making sure that we skirted piles of silt covered broken bricks visible less than a metre beneath our hull. We used two towering oak as mooring posts and then, for the rest of the evening, enjoyed staring at a graffiti covered wall on one side of the canal, and lycra clad, middle aged businessmen through floor to ceiling glass windows pounding treadmill mil

Bridge after bridge through Ultrecht

Bridge after bridge through Ultrecht

es in the Top Team Fitness Centre next to a busy mail road on the opposite side.

Cruising in the Netherlands isn’t always glamorous.

We were released from our low bridged prison early the following morning. We cruised north through Ultrech’s city centre along a sunken canal spanned by an endless series of low and narrow stone arches. It was one of the few occasions on the Dutch canals when I would have been more comfortable at the helm of a low narrowboat than a tall and fat Dutch cruiser.

While Cynthia and Alex marvelled at the city’s canalside architecture, I marvelled at my inability to breathe as we squeezed through and under one seemingly impassible bridge after another. Julisa negotiated the scary bridges unscathed. My underpants didn’t.

The final shock of the morning came when we passed under the last stone bridge and onto the landing of Weerdsluis, the lock allowing boaters from Utrecht onto the delightful river Vecht. We paid €5 for the five minute, one metre drop in height and then cruised north towards Loosdrecht and a second viewing of what we thought would be a suitable boat for us to live on full time.

Utrecht city centre's very narrow canal

Utrecht city centre’s very narrow canal

Sadly, we now realise that Dutch cruisers, regardless of their size, price or rough water handling capabilities, just aren’t up to the job. I understand that some of the more modern cruisers are fairly well insulated, but the relatively new cruisers large enough to live on full time are way above our price bracket.

The Dutch cruisers that we can afford generally aren’t insulated at all. The one we planned to view in Loosdrecht is one of them. The broker assured us that insulation could be retro fitted. I doubt that it can but, at the broker’s suggestion, I contacted a nearby boatyard to ask them to quote for the work. If the boatyard gets back to me at all, I expect a price too high for our modest means.

We’re back to searching online boat sales sites, hoping to find and insulated boat large enough to live on full time which doesn’t cost the Earth.

Taking of buying stuff, we topped up our diesel tank this week for the third time this season.

Our Peugeot 106hp engine is averaging 1.6 litres per hour at a cruising speed of ten kilometres per hour (6mph/ 5.2 knots) which, at current prices, means that our average fuel cost per cruising hour is €2.34 (£2.13).

We’re very happy with that. We need to make the most of it. Upgrading to a bigger boat means upgrading to a heavier boat that requires more diesel to push it through the water at our normal cruising speed. We’ll be lucky to find a suitably sized boat which uses less than twice our current average.

Blue sky after a day of rain at Amstelveen

Blue sky after a day of rain at Amstelveen

Our cruising week finished in truly filthy weather. We were in Muiden, just a hop, skip and a jump across the Ijmeer and through Amsterdam harbour to Amstelveen where we wanted to moor for a few days to allow Alex to do the tourist sight seeing thing. The problem wasn’t so much the day long, torrential rain, but the day long, gale force wind.

We’ve made the mistake of taking Julisa out onto open water once in a force five. It’s not an experience we’re keen to repeat. The alternative to three hours of relentless pounding by metre high waves was a relatively calm but long day skirting open waterways.

Steering from the relative comfort of a canvas sheltered cockpit is a mixed blessing. On my narrowboat, if I expected heavy rain, I simply climbed into my Guy Cotten commercial fishing waterproofs and stood exposed to the elements on the boat’s stern.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

On the Dutch waterways, I can sit in my heated cockpit wearing a tee shirt and shorts, oblivious to rain pounding off the canvas inches above my head. I stay bone dry, and completely blind.

A single glazed windscreen, warmed by the boat’s Webasto heater on one side, and cooled by heavy rain on the other, quickly becomes opaque. The only solution is to open the windscreen to increase visibility. Opening the windscreen also allows windblown rain to flood the cockpit.

So, on a boat in a weather protected cockpit, I ended up colder and wetter than on a narrowboat’s stern open to the elements.

We’re close to Amstelveen now, moored at WV de Koenen on Nieuwe Meer’s windy eastern shore. Our boat’s gentle rocking has just been compounded by the twin bow and stern thrusters of a thirty tonne Linssen yacht pulling off the mooring behind us. The €1,300,000 boat has more bells and whistles than you can shake a stick at, but I wonder if the owners who paid thirty times more than we did for our little boat are having thirty times the fun. I somehow doubt it, but I wouldn’t mind slipping into the owner’s shoes for a while.

I finished writing last week’s newsletter sitting on freshly mown grass on one of Julisa’s folding Comfort chairs next to a wind ruffled lake as I watched the sun sink slowly beneath the horizon. Here’s the few from my office window today.

The view from WV de Koenan clubhouse

The view from WV de Koenan clubhouse

I’m in the WV De Koenen clubhouse. Through a wall of two metre high windows in front of me, I can see forty white sailed yachts jockeying for position at the start of a half day race around the two hundred and fifty acre lake. Two wrinkled old Dutch yachtsmen are quietly playing billiards behind me. The clubhouse’s only other occupants are two harbourmasters drinking coffee as they wait for new boating customers.

There are far worse places to be.

Last week, I wrote a little about the differences between Dutch and English inland waterways boating. Here’s the concluding part. I hope that you find it useful.

Boat Styles

Boat styles on the English waterways network are quite limited because of water depth, lock width and bridge height. A ‘go anywhere’ narrowboat needs to be less than 57’ long to pass through all the locks on the network (60’ long if you don’t mind negotiating some locks diagonally).

Consequently, most of the boats on English canals are narrowboats.

If you decide that bigger is better, you can cruise some of the canals in a wide beam ‘narrowboat’. In reality, a wide beam will reduce your cruising options by about 50% in total. Not that you could cruise all of the waterways your wide beam could negotiate without incurring substantial costs.

A wide beam can’t cruise between the northern and southern sections of the network because of lock width restrictions, nor can they move between these two sections and the eastern waterways. If you have a wide beam, and want to visit all of the network, you have to have your boat shipped between sections by road. These style boats are usually used more as stationary floating flats than vehicles to explore the network.

At least a wide beam is low enough and has a shallow enough draught to pass under most canal bridges.

You’ll see a variety of steel and GRP motor cruisers on larger English rivers such as the Thames and the Severn. They are in their element on these waterways, which is just as well because, most of the time, they have to stay there.

Most cruisers are too high and too deep for most inland waterway canals.

On the Dutch network, just about anything goes, although far more of the network can be explored on a boat with an air draught of less than 2.5m. There’s still plenty of water to explore for boats higher than this. We regularly see boats able to transport one hundred and fifty passengers in comfort, commercial barges, cruisers costing over €1,000,000, tall masted sailboats, tugboats and trawlers which can cruise on many hundreds of kilometres of beautiful waterways.

What we don’t see regularly, or what we can’t easily identify, is boats being used as primary homes. If people want to live on the water over here, they tend to do so on dedicated houseboats. Here’s a quirky houseboat with its own car.

A quirky houseboat on Amsterdam's river Amstel

A quirky houseboat on Amsterdam’s river Amstel


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Canalside Facilities

Our boat had a sea toilet on board when we purchased it. Discharging black waste into the Dutch waterways isn’t officially allowed these days, we were told, so the sea toilet had to go.

Most Dutch boats, if they have onboard facilities, have pump out toilets. We considered one, but the available space only allowed for a 47 litre waste tank, which is about twice the size of a standard cassette toilet holding tank and a fraction of a size of the average tank on a UK narrowboat.

After asking about the practicality of using a cassette toilet in the Netherlands on the excellent Dutch Barge forum, and learning that black waste disposal points, Elsan points to English waterways users, were few and far between, I checked my very detailed Waterkaarten phone app.

While most marinas or yacht clubs didn’t appear to have Elsan points, the app indicated enough of them to make cruising long term with a cassette toilet relatively problem free. Unfortunately we’ve discovered that the Waterkaarten listings aren’t always terribly accurate.

Take last month for example; we cruised for five hours past dozens of marinas and yacht clubs. Only one out of seven showing Elsan points on the Waterkaarten app, Kempers Watersports where we collected our boat and had the survey done, actually had one.

We’ve cruised fairly widely over the last few weeks. Chemical toilet points are still something of a rarity, but we’ve learned to adapt. There are more healthy canal-side bushes about thank to a little furtive watering. We save the cassette for the solid stuff. Consequently, the cassette will now last a week, but the emptying process is a little less pleasant.

C’est la vie.

It’s just one of those little problems that you learn to overcome when you live afloat.

Pump out points for black waste holding tanks are plentiful but, in the last six months we have only seen one boat using one. Many Dutch boats for sale only have sea toilets on board. I have to assume that the Dutch waterways aren’t quite as clean as they appear to be.

Our washing facilities on board Julisa are very limited too. This hasn’t been a problem at all. There are thousands of marinas and boat clubs on the Dutch network. Many of them have wonderful shower blocks. Every three or four days we stop for a night on a paid mooring to top up both water and batteries and to enjoy a shower.

There are enough marinas and yacht clubs with laundry facilities to cater for our needs too. They usually have reasonably priced, high quality washers and dryers.

Depth, width and quantity

Narrowboats travel on narrow waterways with many narrow locks. A narrow lock can be as little as 7’ wide. A narrowboat is 6’10” wide. Narrowboats generally don’t travel with fenders down. If they do, there’s a good chance they’ll be pulled off when the boat makes occasional and often unavoidable contact with canal banks, other boats and lock landings. If fenders are left down when entering narrow locks, there’s a very good chance of either losing one or more fenders or, in a tight lock, getting the boat stuck.

Many English canals are very narrow. A section 40’-50’ wide feels spacious. Brushing against an oncoming boat as you try to avoid branches from overhanging trees or banks filled with sharp hawthorn or bramble is common, as is having to wait for an oncoming boat to pass before you squeeze through an 8’ wide gap.

The Dutch canals are much more spacious.

Cruising along a canal and seeing three or four boats overtaking each other as they race toward you isn’t unusual, nor is it a problem. There’s plenty of room and rarely any fear of making contact.

The Dutch locks are just as spacious. There’s normally room for relatively large boats two abreast and three or four nose to tail. Locking is far less stressful than on the UK waterways.

There’s far more water over here too. Many of the Dutch network’s lakes have more water in them than the entire UK network. Most canals are at least six to eight feet deep. There’s plenty of water under your keel so there’s very little chance of collecting canal bottom debris with your propeller.

Fuel Cost

Boaters on the English canal network can buy duty free fuel. It’s an odd system developed because of a narrowboat’s unique fuel use. Heating fuel in the UK is duty free. Propulsion fuel is not. A narrowboat often draws fuel for both heating and propulsion from the same tank. Because of that, many, but not all, fuel sellers on the canal network allow you to declare your own fuel split. The default split is 60/40, which means that 40% of your fuel is allowed for heating purposes so it is duty free.

The current diesel price at Calcutt Boats where I used to work is £1.20 for propulsion and £0.70 for heating. At the default 60/40 rate, the cost per litre is £1.00. However, you are allowed to declare all of your diesel purchase at the duty free rate, a 0/100 split. One hundred litres would then cost just £70.

Most narrowboat engines use between one and one and a half litres of diesel per hour. My own forty year old Mercedes engine used 1.29 litres per hour. My three hundred litre tank would therefore cost £300 to fill at the 60/40 rate and would, in theory, allow me to cruise for 233 hours. If I wanted, I could declare 100% heating and fill my tank for £210.

Dutch boaters don’t have a duty free allowance, they have to pay higher pump prices than in the UK, and they generally use much more fuel per hour.

A boat cruising at 6-7mph is usual, so fuel consumption is much higher. Three to five litres an hour is common. We have been very lucky with Julisa. The previous owner told us that the boat used just over two litres an hour, which would have been acceptable.

It doesn’t.

I’ve discovered that the engine hours gauge is faulty. For every two hours we run the engine, the gauge records three. The actual consumption is 1.62 litres per hour.

We filled our tank for the second time this season earlier in the week at a Muiden yacht club. We had to wait for the owner of a £1,000,000 motor cruiser in front of us to add a little more fuel to his enormous twin tanks. They held 4,000 litres. He put in just over 1,000 litres at a cost of €1,500 (£1,384). At 20 litres an hour, his gin palace had a 200 hour range. Two hundred hours cruising would cost him £5,536.

Three hundred litres at current Dutch prices would cost me £396, compared with £300 at the English 60/40 split, or £210 if I declared 100% heating.

Cruising on the English canals in my 62’ 20 tonne narrowboat cost me £1.29 an hour. My Mercedes engine was considered fairly thirsty. Cruising in the Netherlands in a 32’ 6 tonne motor cruiser costs £2.13 an hour. The 106hp Peugeot is far more economical than most other live aboard Dutch boats.

Cruising in the Netherlands is far more expensive than it is in the UK.

Free moorings

The UK network is head and shoulders above the Dutch waterways in this regard. Finding a suitable, and often tranquil, place to moor on an English canal generally isn’t difficult. Large sections of English canal banks have vertical banks which are easy to moor against in a vertical sided narrowboat. With the aid of a couple of chains or piling hooks, or two mooring pins and a lump hammer, you can pick any spot which suits you, and then stay on it, free of charge, for as long as you like within reason.

The official limit is fourteen days before you have to move on. However, this limit is rarely enforced outside major population centres. In reality, you’re only limited by your food or heating fuel supply, and the capacity of your potable and black water tanks.

Mooring isn’t quite so easy in the Netherlands.

In the UK, you can pretty much moor anywhere you like on the towpath side of the canal unless there’s a sign telling you that you can’t. In the Netherlands, you can’t moor anywhere unless there’s a sign telling you that you can.

Despite this restriction, we’ve rarely had a problem finding a suitable mooring. The trick, as it is in the UK to a certain degree, is forward planning. The later you end your cruising day, the more trouble you will have finding somewhere suitable. Ideally, you want to finish your cruising day in the early afternoon when most boaters are still travelling.

Leaving your mooring search too late is asking for trouble. You have to take bridge and lock closures into account, and you need a map which shows official moorings.

The Waterkaarten app I have on my iPhone is indispensable. It shows the daily and seasol lock and bridge closing times and all paid and free moorings are clearly marked.

The only time we had a real problem was on a lake only accessible by a single lock. The lake appeared to have plenty of free moorings but there was only enough space for one or two boats at each of the seven locations marked on the map. We couldn’t try anywhere else because the lock was closed for the day. With no free moorings available anywhere on the lake, we searched for a paid mooring. The lake had just one yacht club. The yacht club only had six moorings large enough to take our boat. Only one was free. Fortunately we only needed one. It was a close call but, an hour after we began looking for a mooring for the night, we secured one with a wonderful view.

Fear of the Unknown

This site is visited by narrowboat enthusiasts from over ninety different countries, but most of them are from the UK. Inland waterways boating is a much easier leisure pursuit or lifestyle to adopt in your home country. There are less perceived difficulties; less of a problem with the native language and less of a problem viewing, buying and operating a boat.

I toyed with the idea of exploring the European network for many years. Although the prospect appealed to me, sticking with what was familiar and comfortable was so much easier. I was more likely to find an excuse why I couldn’t or shouldn’t try it than search for a solution to move me closer to my European waterways cruising goal.

Cynthia and the UK government changed all of that.

Shortly after we met, our plan was for Cynthia to move to the UK full time. We would continue to do what I had done for half a decade, live afloat on the English waterways.

The government had other ideas. Despite being able to support herself, and despite being married to me, Cynthia had many difficult and costly hurdles to overcome. When we discovered that her visa application was going to cost $4,000 with no guarantee of success, we decided that me moving out of the UK rather than Cynthia moving in made more financial sense.

I’m so pleased that we decided to do what we did.

I was initially worried about the unknown. I worried about the new waterways regulations and navigational signs displayed in a language I didn’t understand. I worried about the boat buying process, finding a mooring once we’d bought the boat, finding someone both capable and reliable to work on the boat once we’d bought it, and I worried about sharing the waterways with boats weighing five hundred times more than our little cruiser.

As is often the case with worry, the reality was far less daunting than the expectation.

We’re now considering buying a larger boat, one which we can live on full time. The upgrade will necessitate selling both Julisa and the Hymer, possibly buying the new boat in either Belgium or France, and learning about the waterways in either or both of those countries.

Of course, all of the new unknowns frighten me too, but I’m not going to let them stop me.

Time and time again I’ve heard that when people on their deathbeds are asked if they have any regrets in life, it’s the things that they didn’t do which spring to mind, and not the things that they did.

I sincerely hope that if you have considered exploring the vast European network, you don’t let fear of the unknown stop you. Give it a go. I hope the comparison between the two different waterways networks has removed a few of the unknowns for you. If there’s anything else I can help you with, just let me know.

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