Archive

Monthly Archives: October 2017

Searching for a Winter Home in Maastricht


I haven’t written any blog posts since the beginning of October. Our lives over the last four weeks have been hectic. I don’t know how that’s even possible now that I’m not working full time for a living, but life has certainly been very full indeed.

At the end of the last post, we were still in England, running around like headless chickens, trying to complete the countless items on our to do list before we returned to France. The task uppermost in our minds was actually getting Cynthia back into mainland Europe.

Cynthia had technically overstayed her entitlement on our last visit. As an American, she is only allowed to stay for a maximum of three months in any of twenty six countries in the Schengen area. She had actually been there for over a year. After a great deal of research, we discovered what we thought was a loophole which allowed non European spouses of EU citizens the same right to roam as EU citizens. We thought we were OK, but we still hadn’t tested the theory.

We booked a return passage through the channel tunnel. On our passage to Folkestone from Calais, we were waved through the French border control checkpoint, but stopped by English border control officers. They quizzed Cynthia for half an hour after being alerted by a marker on her passport. She was deported at Heathrow two years earlier for entering the UK to marry me without a required marriage visit visa.

Our investigating officer finally allowed her through, but warned us that we might face problems entering France on our return trip. That worrying information played on our minds throughout our ten day stay in England. We didn’t sleep much at all the night before our scheduled 4.40pm train on 10th October, but at least we didn’t have the dogs to worry about.

I’ve used Eurotunnel to cross between Folkestone and Calais ten times in the last eighteen months. The five crossings from Folkestone to Calais weren’t a problem. The only animal checks done on the way to France are to ask whether vehicle owners have dogs on board. There’s an £18 fee for each dog each way. Incidentally, the same fee applies to a ferret in case you’re thinking of taking one on holiday with you.

The leg from Calais to Dover is a different kettle of fish.

I’ve been stopped on two out of the five crossings into England. I had to leave one dog, Tasha, in Calais with Cynthia on one occasion. The other time, at the beginning of October this year, a French official at the pet reception centre noticed an incorrect microchip insertion date. Fortunately, we had the original microchip documentation with us so we were allowed through.

We didn’t have the dogs to worry about, but getting Cynthia through Calais was more than enough to keep us occupied.

We were off to a good start. We presented our tickets at the first checkpoint. Everything was in order, and there was an additional bonus of being offered an earlier train at no extra cost. We were funnelled quickly through Eurontunnel’s endless approach roads, diverted past the parking and services area, and then joined a short queue for the first of two border control checkpoints.

The English border control officer waved us through after a cursory passport examination. A hundred metres later we pulled in line behind a dark blue Mercedes and a white van at the French border control booth.

It was then that we suspected that booking a train at a time of day when traffic was light and border control officers had time on their hands wasn’t a particularly good idea. I’ve made the crossing several times during busy periods. On those occasions, bored French officials waved long lines of vehicles through the checkpoint without looking at passports at all. Now, with just three vehicles waiting, they had plenty of time to thoroughly check passports without holding up traffic.

Cynthia bit her lip, took a deep breath, and tried to look relaxed. I worried as usual, imagining the worst case scenario. Cynthia’s passport would be examined, we would be detained, questioned at length, possibly held in adjoining cells without food or water, and then fined and deported.

My overactive imagination ran riot. We would have to return to England and, unable to travel to mainland Europe, after Cynthia’s permitted six months in the UK expired, she would have to return to the USA. She had nowhere to live there. She would be homeless and, because she didn’t have an address there, she wouldn’t be able to sponsor me for a long stay visa or residency. We would have to live on different continents. Cynthia would only be able to join me in England for six months in every year. I wouldn’t be able to fly across the pond to be with her because of the dogs. What a nightmare. I suspected that we were minutes away from an effective end to our idyllic married life, and I was very, very scared.

The van driver stopped at the French border control booth. Rather than waving the vehicle on as was usual, the unsmiling officer demanded passports. After several tense minutes, the officer pointed to an empty bay behind his booth where the van driver could park while he was investigated further. I wondered whether security checks had been increased since our last visit. Maybe now the drivers of all vehicles were being checked thoroughly. My worst fears were being confirmed. I knew that we were in trouble.

The Mercedes driver pulled up next. The officer demanded his passport too. As we waited, barely able to breathe, vehicles began queueing behind us. Two cars, another van, and then a fully loaded tour coach. Would each of drivers be stopped and questioned too, or would the now lengthy queue mean that the border control officer had to return to random checks? We didn’t know, but we were about to find out.

“Just stay calm,” I ordered Cynthia, my voice a nervous squeak. I took a deep breath, released the Hymer’s handbrake, and crawled forward until my side window was level with the control booth.

The officer stared at me intently, switched his attention to Cynthia, looked at the Hymer, and then slowly held out his hand for our passports. This was it, the end of our idyllic lifestyle, the beginning of married life lived on separate continents.

I picked up our two passports from the dashboard and then slowly reached out of the window to hand them over and seal our fate. The officer looked at me, glanced at our passports, and then turned his head to examine the growing queue behind us. With a casual flick of his wrist, he made two frightened people very happy. He didn’t have time to examine us we were free to go.

We knew that we were lucky, but we also knew that we stood a better chance of being lucky entering Europe from France rather than any other country. French border officials are renowned for being more relaxed than most.

Nonetheless, we didn’t want to repeat the experience. The following day, we booked an appointment to apply for a residency permit. The earliest date available is late November. All we have to do now is persuade someone in the Netherlands to allow us to use their address for the permit. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

With that particular worry at least temporarily out of the way, we resumed our search for the perfect live aboard boat for European waterways.

We considered a number of barges. Many were for sale within our budget, including two very well maintained boats owned by a friend of my old boss at Calcutt Boats, Roger Preen.

The ‘his and hers’ barges are in immaculate condition. They were strong contenders, but we finally decided that, at twenty five metres, they just weren’t practical.

Our plan is to spend much of our time in the Netherlands where there are many free moorings. However, the majority of them are more suitable for boats up to fifteen metres in length. A twenty five metre boat would be more difficult to find a mooring for, more costly to moor in a country where paid moorings are charged by the metre, and much more costly to maintain than a shorter boat.

Because of these practicalities, barges around fifteen metres in length are very popular and therefore quite expensive. It’s not uncommon to see a twenty five metre barge with a decent specification listed at a lower cost than one ten metres shorter.

We continued looking at a variety of barge styles, lengths and configurations. Despite there being thousands of boats for sale in the Netherlands, most of them are motor cruisers. Although motor cruisers are perfect for fair weather cruising, because they lack insulation, they aren’t suitable for living on all year round. Our search continued, but we were running out of steam, until we found Dik Trom.

DIk Trom is a mischievous fat boy, sorry, mischievous and generously proportioned boy, from a series of Dutch children’s books. More importantly as far as we were concerned, it was the name of a likely looking candidate for our continental liveaboard plans.

Dik Trom is a 10.5m Linssen motor cruiser. Cynthia and I have always admired Linssen boats, but they have always been way above our budget. Knowing we couldn’t afford the boat, we viewed a  ten year old 9.5m Linssen earlier in the year. Linssens are renowned for their build quality and attention to detail. Although shorter than we would like, this particular boat was very well configured. It had two bedrooms, an outside and an inside steering position, and, surprisingly for a Dutch motor cruiser, it was well insulated. Unfortunately, it was €137,000. We walked away but continued to dream of owning one.

Linssen yacht Dik Trom - Could this be our new home?

Linssen yacht Dik Trom – Could this be our new home?

Dik Trom is a much older boat, but an old boat isn’t necessarily a bad boat. The listing photographs showed a charming interior, comprehensively fitted with attractive solid wood, two cabins and interior and exterior helms. What we didn’t know was whether the boat was insulated.

The broker didn’t know either. He suggested that we view the boat and check for insulation on the day. We agreed, but I also emailed Linssen to ask what records they kept for one of their vintage boats.

Linssen customer service bent over backwards to help. Engineer Rennie Hénuy told us that he had only worked with the company for twenty years, so he had to contact Linssen’s retired founding owner. He was told that Linssen yachts built at that time were fully insulated with Styropor, an expandable polystyrene.

Polystyrene isn’t great insulation, but it’s more insulation than most Dutch cruisers have.  We decided that the boat was worth looking at.

Dik Trom is moored at a small yacht club in Sint-Job-in-’t-Goor a few miles north east of Antwerp in Belgium. We met broker, Willem, and owner, Walter, at the yacht club two weeks ago.

We instantly fell in love with the boat. It ticked all of our boxes. It felt dry, cosy, spacious, homely, and utterly impractical for two short legged, long bodied, heavy dogs. To enter the cabin two vertical steps need negotiating to reach the rear deck, and then there are another four vertical steps down into the cockpit. It wasn’t an impossible problem to overcome, but it would need some thought.

One of the first things we checked for was a musty smell, an indication of damp. The inside of Dik Trom looked and smelled dry. The boat felt huge after so much time spent in the Hymer and, because it has a fully enclosed cockpit unlike our Super Favorite cruiser, it offered a much larger boat living space than we’ve had when cruising this year.

We liked the boat enough to make a cheeky offer. We knew that the boat had been listed for sale for two years. We also knew that owner Walter was so emotionally attached to it that he hadn’t been prepared to move on the price. However, now in his late seventies and not in the best of health, he had recently agreed with his wife that the time had come to move on. The broker told us that Walter was prepared to do a deal.

Much to both our surprise and our delight, Walter accepted our offer without haggling. The boat was ours. Hooray!

All we had to do then was find a way of paying for it.

The following two weeks were difficult for me. I still had a reasonable amount in my bank account as a rainy day fund and I still need to earn a living to supplement Cynthia’s pension which currently pays most of our living expenses. Despite countless hours slaving away over a hot keyboard, I still haven’t completed two projects which I hope will increase my income, my online narrowboat course and a book. I regularly have to dip into my savings to help pay the bills.

Our joint income would be just enough to live on if we were careful, but it wouldn’t provide us with much of a surplus. We didn’t have enough capital to buy the new boat, even at the much reduced price, so we would have to pretty much empty my bank account in addition to taking out a bridging loan until we could sell both our Super Favorite and our Hymer motorhome. We came to the conclusion that if I couldn’t increase my online income quickly, I would probably need to find at least a part time job.

We’ve spent the following two weeks debating the wisdom of buying another boat before our current boat and our motorhome have been sold, working out how much we would need to spend in total if we bought it, and figuring out a way of raising the money without launching me down a stress induced ever steepening downhill slope.

I don’t handle being without money very well at all.

While we debated, planned and worried, we toured and wild camped. It was during those two weeks that we were provided with clear signs that moving afloat full time sooner rather than later was the way to go for us.

After an eventful and sometimes harrowing working life, I crave tranquility. Standing at the helm of a gently rocking boat cruising along tranquil waterways soothes me. Laying on my bed listening to small waves gently slapping against the hull inches from my head lulls me into a deep and peaceful sleep. Cleaning nighttime condensation from a wet deck at the crack of dawn relaxes me.

I feel more at peace on a boat than I do anywhere else, which is more than I can say for life in a motorhome.

We wandered Zierkzee's seaside streets

We wandered Zierkzee’s seaside streets debating the wisdom of buying another boat

And then we ate Zierikzee mussel landed by this boat

And then we ate Zierikzee mussel landed by this boat

Roads in the Netherlands are pretty good. There’s usually enough room for us to pass oncoming traffic, but it’s often tight. Dutch motorists are generally both patient and friendly, but there are exceptions. And when a belligerent driver coming towards me tries to force his way through a too small gap, I take exception. Too much violent confrontation in my chequered past has scarred me. Despite, and maybe because of, Cynthia’s well intentioned advice to take things easy, I struggle to stay calm.

HOW MUCH WILL YOUR NARROWBOAT COST TO MAINTAIN?

Purchase cost, licensing, part or full time mooring fees, propulsion and heating diesel, coal, gas and electricity generation costs... Trying to estimate the real cost of living afloat can be a real headache. In this comprehensive package, ALL the costs you are likely to incur are broken down and explained. Then you can enter your own specific costs in a bespoke narrowboat budget calculator. Low cost and backed by a 100% unconditional money back guarantee.

Even when I have finished driving for the day, I can’t relax. Unlike France, wild camping isn’t allowed in the Netherlands. It’s often tolerated, but we never know when we’re likely to be disturbed.

The Dutch police force are the official enforcers, but we also have to be wary of park officials and even members of the public. Car drivers will often stop and stare if they see our motorhome parked late at night or early in the morning close to a beach or national park. Two or three of them over the last year have taken time out of their busy days to share their knowledge of Dutch parking laws with us. At least they can’t force us to move, although I suspect that more than one have telephoned the police to report our crime.

In the last two weeks we have been moved on by the police three times.

The first time was on a night when we really needed to get some sleep. Cynthia had to endure a four train, ten hour journey from Rotterdam to the 3E holistic cancer clinic near Stuttgart in Germany. I didn’t want to drive her there because of a slow oil leak the Hymer has developed on the drive shaft. I needed to get that fixed before I could confidently drive long distances, not that the thought of driving long distances filled me with joy.

Because I wanted Cynthia to have a good night’s sleep before an arduous day of travel, we drove from the Zeeland coast to a likely looking spot close to Brielse meer to the west of Rotterdam.

As is our normal practice, we found a quiet rural car park, checked to make sure that there were no signs prohibiting overnight parking, found a level spot with a decent view, and then settled down for what we hoped would be a peaceful evening.

It wasn’t.

At 10pm, just as we were preparing for bed, we saw the headlights of an approaching vehicle. That’s always a bad sign, especially if the vehicle stops close to us. This one did and, less than a minute later, we heard the expected knock on our door.

The Dutch are usually charming, even when they’re doing an unpleasant job. We were told, politely but firmly, that we had to leave immediately. Cynthia asked if there was anywhere else we could stay locally. The two park rangers told us that there was a large car park on the lake’s opposite shore. Motorhomes often stopped there, they told us, so we could relax for the rest of the night.

The officers left. We left a few minutes later. We followed what we thought were the right directions for a few miles. We turned into another small car park. Cynthia saw some lights on in a nearby house and shadowy figures entering a side door. She decided to check to make sure we were in the right place. We didn’t want to be moved again.

Much to her surprise, the house occupants were the park rangers who had just moved us. Ever helpful, they drew us a map and wrote the name of the restaurant down for us. Half an hour later, at 11pm, we were at our new home for the night, finally settling in for a good night’s sleep.

We were woken at 1am, this time by the police. They assured us that the park rangers didn’t know what they were talking about and that we couldn’t stay the night. “Where can we go at this time of the night?” a very tired and increasingly frustrated Cynthia asked. “That is not our problem. Find a campsite somewhere, anywhere, but you can’t stay here!”

So for the second time that night, we moved on, looking for an open campsite in the wee dark hours. Of course, we didn’t find one. We ended up at the tail end of a long line of lorries hugging the grass verge in a lay-by next to a main road filling station, trying to sleep despite the roar of passing traffic and the sodium glare of a nearby street light shining through our bedroom window.

Living in a motorhome was quickly losing its appeal. Driving was stressful, parking for the night was always questionable unless we were prepared to find a campsite open in October and we were prepared to pay up to €25 per night for the pleasure of parking there.

A week later, again at 10pm just as we were preparing for bed, the police moved us on again. They assured us that motorhome parking wasn’t allowed anywhere along the Zeeland coast, and directed us to a campsite in a distant city. Fortunately, we had overnighted successfully in a pleasant seaside car park ten miles away on a number of occasions. Despite the police warning to the contrary, we moved there and enjoyed a peaceful if slightly anxious night.

At least I wasn’t disturbed while Cynthia was away. I found a quiet place to park close to a beach near Camperduin in North Holland and spent most of my time either walking on the beach with Abbie, or trying to work out how we could afford to juggle our finances enough to buy our new boat.

Cynthia’s bridging loan wasn’t enough, even with the rest of my savings. We needed money for the bridging loan repayments, money for expected repairs and upgrades for the new boat, and even more money to get both the Super Favorite and the Hymer ready to sell.

I tried friends and family, banks and building societies. I even bought some lottery tickets. Nothing worked. We were still short of money. We almost decided to draw a line under our full time liveaboard plans, until at least the Super Favorite was sold. That would probably mean another year of motorhome ownership and the associated stress. It was a depressing thought.

As a last ditch attempt, I tried a creative approach.

I suggested to Willem, the broker selling Dik Trom, that he could also sell our Super Favorite. Walter, the owner, would wait for the balance due for his boat until Julisa, our Super Favorite, sold. Because he would be effectively lending us the remaining money that we needed to buy his boat, we would pay him an additional amount equal to the interest that we would have had to pay on a bridging loan. That sum would be paid straight from the broker’s account when Julisa sold. It was a win/win situation. Willem would gain an additional commission, plus the commission due for Dik Trom, Walter would sell his boat, and eventually earn a little extra money, and we would be able to overcome a difficult situation and finally purchase our live aboard boat.

The plan’s success revolved around Walter being prepared to trust us. We were asking a lot of him. Boats can take years to sell in the Netherlands. He knew nothing about motorhomes. He might have to wait a considerable time before he received all of his money. Walter didn’t know anything about Cynthia or me. We could have had an appalling financial track record and a history of deceit. Either or both of us could die before he was paid his money, or suffer serious injury or illness. The more I thought about it, the less I expected him to agree.

Much to our delight and our surprise Walter agreed. We had a deal. The final step was the out of water survey. Walter, because of his failing health, had been unable to take on the boat’s necessary regular maintenance for the previous few years. In fact, the boat had rarely been off its mooring. We knew it hadn’t been out of the water for at least four years. What we could see of the boat looked in good condition, but what lay beneath the surface?

We found out last Thursday.

Thursday was a chaotic day at the small yacht club. The members had booked a crane to take a ten boats out of the water for the winter. There wasn’t a huge amount of space so, if we wanted to inspect Dik Trom’s hull, we would have to wait until all ten boats had been taken out. There wouldn’t be any room for Dik Trom, so the boat would have to be hoisted above a pier to allow our surveyor, Tom, an opportunity to check the hull thickness and condition and examine the stern gear.

Dik Trom being lifted out

Dik Trom being lifted out

The yacht club is a close knit community of enthusiastic retired boat owners. Most of them arrived early Thursday morning. Only two people plus the crane operator were needed to lift out each boat, but a dozen helped, laughing and joking and generally getting in each other’s way. They were all retired. This was a social event. There was no rush, which was a little frustrating as we were last in the queue and Tom had a two hour drive back to north Amsterdam.

I was given a rope to hold. I don't know why.

I was given a rope to hold. I don’t know why.

While we were waiting to be lifted, Tom inspected the boat’s interior. As we suspected, after several years languishing on a yacht club mooring, there were a few problems. The horn didn’t work, nor did the electric windlass. The depth sounder indicated that we were moored, at a small inland yacht club on a narrow and shallow canal,  in thirty five metres of water. There was a leak in one of the porthole seals, another around the shower tray drain, and there was some serious rust around the bilge pump outlet and on the anchor chain tube. During our short sea trial a short bow thruster blast completely drained the domestic battery bank. We later discovered that the three large lead acid batteries hadn’t been topped up with distilled water for years. Walter simply couldn’t reach the batteries in the engine bay’s far corner. They would all need replacing before we could use the boat, but we expected that.

What we didn’t expect was a defunct central heating system. At first, we thought that the Eberspacher failure was due to the flat batteries. Back from the sea trial and once more attached to the national grid, the heater still failed to run.

The list of problems and failures continued to grow.

By mid afternoon all ten boats were precariously balanced on rickety homemade cradles ready for six months cold weather. We were next. Our future boating plans hinged on a successful hull survey. We could overcome all of the interior problems, but a rusty and weakened hull would be a bridge too far. Cynthia was her usual positive self. “The hull will be fine. You’ll see. The rest of the boat is in pretty good condition. Why should the hull be any different?” I could think of a dozen reasons why.

Pretty good condition for an old girl

Pretty good condition for an old girl

The hull hadn’t been painted for a number of years. The boat had been moored at a yacht club for a decade plugged into the shore supply along with two dozen other boats doing the same. I didn’t know if Dik Trom had anodes or, if it did, what condition they would be in. In such an environment, without anodes, the hull could suffer from electrical leakage. The crane lift could reveal a hull pitted and corroded beyond affordable repair. The boat was thirty four years old. A lot could go wrong in three and a half decades. So many things could compromise the hull’s integrity. As the crane slowly lifted Dik Trom from the canal’s murky water I could hardly breathe. This was it, the moment of truth. Permanent boating within a few shorts weeks or another twelve months enduring bad tempered drivers, over enthusiastic police officers, narrow roads and endless stress. As the crane’s lifting straps creaked under Dik Trom’s ten tonnes, I held my breath.

The hull surprised us all. A thin layer of slippery algae covered a hull free of bits, blemishes or any other sign of decay. Subject to Cynthia and I being able to come to an agreement about the survey faults, we were looking at our new home.

Surveyor Tom carefully examines the hull

Surveyor Tom carefully examines the hull

Walter has been both charming and accommodating. He brought in an electrician to fix the electrical problems. The odd depth sounder readings are probably due to a build up of dirt. We’ll take the boat out of the water some time in the next six months to clean and repaint the hull. We’ll clean the depth sounder while we’re at it. If that works, great. If not, being without a depth sounder on Europe’s inland waterways isn’t going to be much of a problem.

The central heating system still isn’t working. The pump is currently the prime suspect. We may have to wait a week before a new pump arrives from the German factory. If that doesn’t work, Walter will buy a new Eberspacher diesel burner. Both Cynthia and I are secretly hoping that the new pump doesn’t work. The current burner is thirty four years old. We can’t imagine it lasting much longer.

We’re in Maastricht today, three days cruise from Antwerp. The boat is still on its mooring waiting for the central heating repair. We’ve driven here in the Hymer to look for a winter mooring. We’ve found one at beautiful Maastricht marina. We’re heard and read much about the city. It would make a good winter home. Maastricht marina is within biking distance of the city centre. It’s pretty, quiet, and dirt cheap. If we commit to five months, we’ll have to pay just €2.40 (£2.12) a day. All we have to do today is establish whether we’ll be allowed to live on board. The Dutch are much more relaxed about owners living on marina moorings full time, but not all marina owners allow it. We hope that this one does.

Then there’s the small matter of actually getting the boat across Belgium to Maastricht. I understand that a VHF radio is required if a VHF radio is installed. Dik Trom has two working VHF radios, which is good. Not being able to operate one or having a license to do so is not so good.

I’ll be stepping outside my comfort zone again, and I don’t like it, but I’m sure that in future years I’ll remember our maiden voyage fondly. All I need to do at the moment is to make sure that I’m legal for our maiden voyage.

Does anyone have any idea where I can get a short range certificate for VHF/DSC before the end of next week?


If You Enjoy These Newsletters, Please Help Support This Site

I enjoy writing newsletters which, I am often told, are very useful to anyone considering living an alternative lifestyle either afloat on the English or Dutch waterways, or leading a nomadic life on the road in the tiny living space offered by a motorhome. The downside is that adding content to the site, maintaining it, and answering dozens of emails each week takes a considerable amount of time. I invest up to twenty hours every week on the site and, over the course of the year, many hundreds of pounds. I can’t afford the investment in either time or money without a little help. If you are in the fortunate position to be able to afford a small financial subscription or one off donation to help with the site’s running costs, please click on this link to find out more. If you are one of the generous souls who already support the site, thank you!

How NOT to Leave a Windy Mooring


We’re off the water now, and neither of us is very happy about it.

Our late September priority was to put Julisa to bed. I’m constantly amazed at the volume of stuff we can shoehorn into our little boat, and the even smaller wheeled box we spend our winters in. We slaved for the best part of a day transferring our meagre possessions from boat to motorhome, alternately baking in the September sun and dodging heavy showers.

We also had a number of minor repairs to attend to. One of the most pressing was looking for a reasonably priced sailmaker to restitch Julisa’s two cockpit covers. On a cruise earlier in the year we stopped at a high end canalside chandler near Leiden. I don’t know why we bothered. ‘Posh’ is always expensive. We were quoted €250 to restitch just one of the two covers. The sailmaker didn’t really appear bothered whether we accepted the price or not. Sailmaking and repairing is a high demand profession in the Netherlands with its profusion of sailboats, cruisers with cockpit covers, and expensive open day boats which spend half of the year under wraps.

Cynthia insisted that we look further afield. She found a sailmaker a pleasant half hour drive away who was happy to restitch both covers for the same price we were quoted in Leiden for just one. We plan to collect the repaired canvas when we return to Leiden next spring.

Once the boat was empty, I set to with a vacuum cleaner inside and a soft bristled brush outside. Thoroughly cleaning the boat’s exterior highlighted this season’s battle scars; scrapes on the starboard side gunnel towards the bow where the then fenderless boat slid along a lock wall, abrasion on both port and starboard gunnels from rubbing centre lines, and a bare metal gouge caused by inept helmsmanship on a particularly windy day.

We had moored overnight beneath Muiden’s medieval castle in preparation for a long day’s cruise to Amstelveen on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The early morning weather as we prepared for our journey was foul. Heavy rain bounced inches off our flimsy canvas cockpit roof. White capped waves marched into the mouth of the river Vecht past our sheltered marina mooring. Nothing moved on a popular waterway normally teeming with boats.

My marine weather app indicated that the wind was force six on the Beaufort Scale, described rather misleadingly as a ‘strong breeze’. The mischievous breeze didn’t know its own strength. It pushed us sideways out of the marina, and then the wind and the waves conspired together to slam us hard against the marina’s wooden refueling quay, which was just as well because we needed to top up our nearly empty two hundred litre tank.

After quickly securing Julisa with the centre line, I spent an unpleasant ten minutes making small talk with the harbourmaster’s wife as we tried to shelter from torrential horizontal rain under a wind-whipped golfing umbrella.

With the howling wind still forcing our vulnerable white painted steel against the quay’s uneven timber, I knew that Cynthia and I needed to work both quickly and seamlessly as a team if we stood any chance of gaining the river centre without incident. Because I am the consummate professional, I gave Cynthia precise instructions before we attempted to move.

“The wind’s blowing really hard now. We’re going to have to act very quickly to get away from the quay. Listen to me carefully. When I tell you to go, push the bow thruster lever to the right. That will move our bow away from the side. I’ll push the stern to stop it from swinging into the quay as the bow swings out.

“As soon as the bow is pointing towards the channel, quickly push the Morse control forward until the gauge registers 1,000rpm. Don’t worry about me. I know what I’m doing. I’ll jump on board as the boat moves away.

“It’s very important that you do exactly as I tell you. If you don’t, we’re going to be slammed back into the quay. Do you understand?”

Cynthia looked at me with disdain and growing apprehension. She had known what to do before I’d said a word. The only thing I had achieved was to frighten the life out of her.  

Ever professional, I made sure that everything was in order before we launched ourselves into the wind.

Centre line undone and secured so that it couldn’t fall in the water and foul the propeller?

Check.

Fuel cap secured and the fuel cap key hung back on its hook?

Check.

The engine turned on and in gear?

Check.

Cynthia at the helm waiting for my signal?

Check.

Everything was in order. I waited for the wind to drop slightly, pushed the stern away from the rough wooden quay, and shouted loudly so that Cynthia could hear me over the rain pounding the canvas inches above her head.

“OK. Bow thruster to the right now. Go, GO, GO!”

The bow moved out, but not as quickly or as far as I expected. The wind must have been stronger than I thought to defeat our powerful bow thruster. We couldn’t afford to wait any longer though. I could feel the gale increasing again.

“Right. Push the Morse control forward quickly. No, quicker than that. We need to go NOW!”

Cynthia did exactly as she was told. The boat surged forward as I leapt on board. I allowed myself a self congratulatory smile as our 106hp Peugeot engine drove us powerfully away from the quay.

My smugness didn’t last very long.

The boat skewed to the left and ploughed back into the wooden walkway we’d just left. I was thrown onto my knees by the force of the impact.

I wasn’t at all happy.

“What happened? I told you to push the bow thruster to the right. Did you push it to the left by mistake?”

“Of course I didn’t. I know my left from my right! That’s my right hand. I’ve had it for seventy years, and that,” Cynthia pointed at the foam crested waves surging down the river’s main channel, ‘is where I was heading”.

Still suspecting that Cynthia had suffered from temporary panic induced confusion, I jumped back onto the quay, and walked quickly towards the bow.

The real cause of the accident was immediately apparent.

As we had pulled onto the quay before refuelling, while I secured Julisa using the centre line, the harbourmaster’s wife, unknown to me, had secured the bow line as well. The bow was still anchored firmly to the quay as we moved off. Failing to notice her tying the line was no excuse. Failing to check all the mooring lines before we set off was a schoolboy error.

Cynthia looked at me. I pointed to the still taught bow rope. She shook her head in dismay and looked away.

My poor wife has a lot to put up with.

A Dutch boat for sale - We liked this one until we saw the rust

A Dutch boat for sale – We liked this one until we saw the rust

Ninety euros for a pair of ball fenders was enough to prevent any further damage to the gunnels during our remaining lock passages this season. Less overconfidence and more careful pre cruise checks prevented any further silly mistakes, but we couldn’t do much about tied centres lines abrading the gunnel paintwork.

I don’t like using the centre lines to moor, but sometimes we don’t have a choice. Anchor points at overnight moorings this season have often been either missing or spaced wrongly for our boat length. We’ve had to use the centre lines.

One solution to prevent future damage to the paintwork is to have stainless steel strips fitted over the areas on each side of the boat where the centre lines rub. That will be done this winter while Julisa is out of the water, as will repairs to the other gouges, scuffs and scrapes.

Hull maintenance was much easier and cheaper on my narrowboat. A few dabs with a bitumen covered brush would have been enough. Julisa is a beautiful lady, but she’s very high maintenance.

She’s high maintenance, but we miss her. Even though she’s only 9.5m (31’) long, she feels so much more spacious than the slightly smaller 7.7m (25’) length that we’re crammed into now.

Our last Dutch lift bridge in 2017

Our last Dutch lift bridge in 2017

I mourn the lack of space more than Cynthia, but it’s not just about the space.

Travelling by water is so much less stressful than travelling by road, especially for us. I have to do all the driving. Cynthia can’t drive the five and a half tonne Hymer on her American license. She would have to take a UK driving test for the C1 (3.5 tonne to 7.5 tonne) category. Even if she took and passed this test, we would have increased insurance premiums to consider. Insurers aren’t keen on anyone over the age of seventy driving large motorhomes. The increased premium would probably be prohibitive so, for as long as we own the motorhome, I will remain constantly at the wheel.

Cynthia dislikes the situation just as much as me. She knows that I find the driving stressful, and she’s frustrated because she can’t share the workload with me. She can on the waterways, although she doesn’t need to very often.

Cruising on a boat is very relaxing, especially now that we’re used to the busy Dutch waterways, and keeping out of the way of the occasional towering commercial barge. During the summer months I wished that the boat had an outside helm, a flybridge. I remembered my summer narrowboat cruises with great fondness, perched on cabin top padded seat, shiny brass tiller in my hand as I soaked up the sun.

Towards the end of the season, as more and more open day boats passed carrying shivering passengers trying to hide from heavy rain and icy winds, Julisa’s heated and covered cockpit was far more appealing.

Driving onto a train at Calais

Driving onto a train at Calais

Both covered and open steering positions on a boat appeal to me now. I’m stuck behind the wheel of an unwieldy vehicle on often congested roads filled with inconsiderate and bad tempered drivers.

HOW MUCH WILL YOUR NARROWBOAT COST TO MAINTAIN?

Purchase cost, licensing, part or full time mooring fees, propulsion and heating diesel, coal, gas and electricity generation costs... Trying to estimate the real cost of living afloat can be a real headache. In this comprehensive package, ALL the costs you are likely to incur are broken down and explained. Then you can enter your own specific costs in a bespoke narrowboat budget calculator. Low cost and backed by a 100% unconditional money back guarantee.

We crossed the Dutch border into Belgium ten days ago.The roads immediately took a turn for the worse, as did the people we saw. The happy smiling Dutch were replaced by sullen and scowling faces, particularly among the teenagers. The problem with living in a country considered to be one of the happiest on Earth is that every other country is less friendly.

A French town which doesn't take its officials too seriously

A French town which doesn’t take its officials too seriously

At least the border crossing from the Netherlands to Belgium didn’t worry us. The crossing from France to England was a different kettle of fish.

Despite constant research over the last year, Cynthia and I are still nervous about border crossings outside mainland Europe. As an American citizen, Cynthia is allowed to stay in any Schengen country for up to thirty days without a visa. Any longer than that and she’s obliged to obtain a long stay visa.

However, according to a case we found documented online, Cynthia, because she’s married to an EU citizen (me), has the same right to roam in Europe as I do. That’s the theory anyway. The site which details the case warns that many border officials aren’t aware of the case. It advises printing out the case summary, and carrying it along with a marriage certificate. Ever prepared, Cynthia had all of the required documents neatly stored in a plastic folder in the Hymer’s glove compartment as we drove towards Eurotunnel’s security fence protected Calais terminal.

The first hurdle to overcome was getting the dogs booked in, something which has proven problematic in the past.

Tasha, our eldest basset, was refused entry when I crossed the channel last October. Although her documentation was current, there was a discrepancy between two dates on the passport. I had to leave her in Calais with Cynthia while I paid a lightning visit to the UK to obtain specialist travel insurance.

Our Dutch vet issued a replacement passport for Tasha last month, and a new passport for Abbie. On last week’s crossing, Tasha’s passport was fine, but there was a date discrepancy on Abbie’s brand new passport.

On this occasion, the French official was unusually flexible. Because we had all of Abbie’s documentation with us from her flight from Philadelphia to Amsterdam in August, Abbie was allowed through. However, we were warned that she would be refused if the dates were still incorrect on her next crossing.

With that out of the way, we checked into the terminal, and then crawled through the French border control checkpoint. We were waved through without a second glance. All that remained was an expected brief drive through the UK’s border control checkpoint.

The fun started when the kiosk officer checked Cynthia’s passport and spotted last year’s deportation stamp.

Cynthia, retired flight crew for American Airlines, has flown into the UK more time than most people have had hot dinners. When she flew into Heathrow in 2015 with the intention of marrying me, she didn’t think twice about required paperwork.

Nor did I.

She knew that she was allowed to stay in the UK for up to six months without a visa. What she didn’t know was that the rules change if you intend to marry within those six months.

After skipping happily up to Heathrow border control and announcing to all and sundry that she couldn’t wait to marry her lovely English fiance – her feelings might possibly have changed by now – she was told that she couldn’t enter the UK without the correct documentation. She was given a seven day stay of execution, and was then sent back to the USA to obtain a ridiculously expensive marriage visit visa.

She secured the visa, but we didn’t marry in the UK due to complications. We then tried again, and failed again, in Denmark. We finally married in Vermont.

It’s a complicated story complicated further by our European attempts to get Cynthia’s passport surname changed from Schultz to Smith. It was a painful and frustrating affair which saw us visiting, or making appointments with, American consulates in Amsterdam, Madrid and Marseilles. Cynthia finally succeeded in Marseilles. When we arrived at Calais, she proudly held her new passport in her grubby little hand, which caused no end of problems.

Her new American passport contained no European entry or exit stamps.

We were waved out of the line of traffic and into an empty bay close to the UK border control office. I was worried. Cynthia was her normal super confident and eternally optimistic self. I tried to bring her down to my level.

“This is a serious situation. We have to prepare for the worst. You could be deported. Be very careful what you say to whoever questions us. These officials don’t have much of a sense of humour”.

Just as I finished talking, a stern faced officer drew level with Cynthia’s sliding passenger window. From the look on his face, I suspected that he was suffering from very painful piles. His scowl deepened when Cynthia slid her window wide open, leaned through the gap, looked him in the eye and asked, “Do you want fries with that?”

He wasn’t impressed.

After an hour of intensive questioning followed by half an hour on the phone in his office, he mellowed slightly. “Your deportation put a marker on your passport. Your convoluted marriage and unusual lifestyle further complicated the situation. You’re free to go, but make sure that the next time we see you, you have a residence permit for one of the countries you visit in Europe”.

We think we can secure a residence permit in the Netherlands,  All we have to do is get back into France next week to start the process.

Cynthia admires the Wife Cliffs of Dover

Cynthia admires the Wife Cliffs of Dover

We’ve been back in the UK now for over a week. Much as I’ve enjoyed returning to Calcutt Boats to visit my extended narrowboat family, we’re not particularly enjoying our stay.

While I regularly moan about stress caused by trying to keep a large motorhome on the right side of narrow country lanes and high mountain roads, at least there are plenty of beautiful places to park free of charge in mainland Europe.

Each of our evening stops in England has been on £20 a night campsites.

We stopped in a Gloucester pub car park one night. The parking was free, but we were obliged to eat in their very pleasant restaurant. The only truly free overnight parking has been at Calcutt Boats. Thank you Roger, Rosemary and Matt Preen for your enthusiastic welcome and continued generosity.

One of the reasons for returning to the UK was to have some long overdue warranty work done to the Hymer. We bought the vehicle from Oaktree Motorhomes in Nottingham in March 2016. While we’ve been away, we’ve had a few problems. The galley mixer tap disintegrated, we had a skylight roof leak, the alternator and the hot water supply failed, both headlights failed on separate occasions and, soon after the last headlight failure, our fuel tank gauge malfunctioned, and the odometer developed a mind of its own. Rather than clocking up kilometres driven, the odometer increased the vehicle’s total mileage a the rate of one kilometre every second or two, regardless of whether the Hymer was moving or not.

Our new basset Abby finally visits England

Our new basset Abby finally visits England

We have now discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, that visiting French garages after the mechanics have enjoyed two hour liquid lunches is not a particularly good idea.

On one occasion, immediately after French mechanics changed a headlight bulb, the headlights blinked whenever the indicators were used. We took the Hymer back to them. The problem was eventually resolved by the combined efforts of six mechanics on a Friday afternoon. We didn’t notice the associated odometer or fuel gauge problems until two days and many hundreds of miles later. By then, we were too far away to return to the garage which caused the problem.

On another occasion, a mechanic at a different garage changed a water pump for us. After experiencing problems with our water supply, on the advice of Oaktree Motorhomes, we asked the same company to make sure that the pump had a non return valve on it to prevent water in the Hymer’s boiler from draining back into the cold water tank. I don’t know what the French garage did to fix it, but the hot water supply worked briefly and then failed again. This week, Oaktree Motorhomes discovered that the pump fitted in France didn’t in fact have a non return valve. Earlier in the year, after the French pump bodge, we took the Hymer to a Dutch garage to rectify poor water pressure. They discovered that the pump fitted in France had also been wired incorrectly.

The Oaktree fitters spent half a day trying to get to the bottom of our electrical problem. They tried, but they failed. They told us that the electrical system requires extensive investigation which will take time that they don’t have. Oaktree Motorhomes have been voted as one of the best companies to deal with in the country. They sell a lot of motorhomes. Because of that, their fitters and mechanics are busy checking up to fifteen motorhomes sold by the company every week. They simply don’t have time for lengthy electrical investigation, or to dismantle gearboxes to rectify leaks.

The gearbox leak was an added bonus, discovered while Oaktree investigated the odometer oddities. In addition to the fluid oozing out of the gearbox, there’s a slight engine oil leak.

Oh the joy of motorhome ownership!

Oaktree didn’t have time to deal with the leaks on the day, and we don’t have enough time to take the Hymer anywhere else before returning to the continent. We’ll have to find a company there to fix the leaks somewhere in mainland Europe. The nominated garage certainly won’t be in France.

During our recent travels, we have continued our search for a bigger boat, a boat which we can live on full time, and hopefully leave the stresses and strains of life on the road far behind.

We’ve found one or two likely candidates in England. Unfortunately, they aren’t quite as competitively priced as similar sized boats on the continent. We would also have to consider the cost and logistics of getting it onto the European network.

Peter Coupland, a knowledgeable English broker we’ve been swapping emails with recently told us…

“The cost of bringing a boat back to mainland Europe always works out to be circa £3,000 including fuel as the Insurance companies now require 3 persons on board, 2 being qualified and one other. There is the daily rate for the crew and then all expenses including getting them back to their base or starting point. There will be no more crossings this year I am afraid as the weather windows are few and far between now and there will be too much waiting time for good weather.”

Three thousand pounds would be too much out of our budget. We would rather spend the shipping money on a big bank of long life batteries and a large solar array to keep the batteries topped up. We’ll focus on boats in the Netherlands from now on.

We’ll head south later today, enduring a couple of hours of motorway driving on our way to tomorrow’s MOT. The MOT and renewing our ridiculously expensive travel insurance are the last two items on our UK to do list.

All we will need to do then is to formulate a plan for the coming winter. Boat searching in the Netherlands or basking in the sun on France’s Mediterranean coast are the two most likely outcomes. I prefer basking in the sun, but if enduring a cold and wet winter allows us to move back onto the water full time, we’ll probably head north from Calais.


If You Enjoy These Newsletters, Please Help Support This Site

I enjoy writing newsletters which, I am often told, are very useful to anyone considering living an alternative lifestyle either afloat on the English or Dutch waterways, or leading a nomadic life on the road in the tiny living space offered by a motorhome. The downside is that adding content to the site, maintaining it, and answering dozens of emails each week takes a considerable amount of time. I invest up to twenty hours every week on the site and, over the course of the year, many hundreds of pounds. I can’t afford the investment in either time or money without a little help. If you are in the fortunate position to be able to afford a small financial subscription or one off donation to help with the site’s running costs, please click on this link to find out more. If you are one of the generous souls who already support the site, thank you!

>