The trials & tribulations of acquiring our first canal boat
PUBLISHED: 13:24 18 January 2021 | UPDATED: 11:45 25 January 2021
Novice canal boater Mark Strange expected to get his feet wet, but not in the engine room!
For many years my wife and I had wanted to buy a narrowboat. We came to this conclusion when we visited a friend who had bought a narrowboat and moored it on the river Stort. He took us out for a short cruise and we quickly realised that this is by far the best way to see England’s countryside at its best.
On that trip we met other boaters along the way and they all waved and smiled and said hello. This left a very good impression on both of us. On returning home we investigated the cost of narrowboats and quickly realised that this is not a cheap pastime! While we saved and dreamed, we did lots of research on the internet to establish exactly what we wanted in a boat. One piece of luck was that some other friends had a boat built and often needed crew when going out on a cruise. On these trips we gained more experience in locking and steering but not to the point where we felt comfortable or confident. We went to the Crick show the following year and stumbled across Terry Robertson, who runs TR Boat Handling on the Shropshire Union canal. We decided to treat ourselves and booked a two-day course for both of us. This proved to be money well spent and we learned so much on those two days not just handling a canal boat but tying knots and the etiquette of the waterways. We also got to experience one of the prettiest canals on the network. In fact, so impressed were we, that we returned to the Shropshire Union the following year when we hired from Autherly junction for a long weekend with friends. The following year we decided to hire for longer but this time on the Mon & Brec. Once again a beautiful canal with lots of lovely scenery and interesting places to visit. The various hiring and trips on our friends boats allowed us to experience different types of boat with different layouts. This was very useful when deciding what we wanted to buy.
In 2018, my wife took early retirement from being a maths teacher and we decided to use her pension lump sum to buy our first boat. My wife had worked part-time for much of her working life so we didn’t have a fortune to spend but we could look beyond project boats. We decided on a trad stern boat with a boatmans cabin and a vintage engine of some description. In December 2018, I spotted one for sale at a well known brokerage in Northamptonshire. My mother-in-law lived near Northampton so we combined a visit to her and a trip out to view this boat. I wasn’t expecting my wife to like the boat – I can’t remember why I thought this but as soon as she stepped on board she was smitten. Nisha is a 60ft trad with a Beta BD3 engine. I had some concerns – the paintwork was quite faded and needed some attention. What I could tell from walking around was that she had been well cared for and this was a good omen. So, we put in an offer and after some wrangling, we paid the deposit. A survey was organised and whilst this did throw up a couple of issues, they were fixed and the balance was paid in the middle of January 2019.
Prior to buying the boat we had spent some time working out where to moor – we live near Lechlade and so our first thought was to check this out. Lechlade is at the end of the navigable Thames and this would mean that we could only cruise in one direction – and having lived here some time we knew that the level of the river can go up quite considerably during winter so we quickly ruled out Lechlade. We then looked further east on the Thames but again we couldn’t see anything we liked the look of. In the end we visited Cropredy Marina on the South Oxford – it is about 1 hour 15 minutes drive from us and seemed a good location. So, it was in February that we left the brokerage to travel to Cropredy and as luck would have it the weather gods smiled on us; we had temperatures in the 20s.
We arrived in Cropredy after three days travel, tired, but pleased to have made our first journey. Before leaving the boat, we topped her up with water as we had used quite a bit on the journey. We returned the following weekend to do jobs and start to make the boat our own. I entered first and walked through to the engine room to turn on the electric. I was somewhat shocked to spot that water was sitting all around the engine – that wasn’t there last time. I quickly looked in the back cabin fearing that water would be there as well but to my relief no sign. I walked back to my wife who could see I was worried about something – I explained what I had seen.
I didn’t know what to do at all – I decided to go to the marina office and ask for advice. This proved to be a good idea – I returned to Nisha with help. We established that, much to my relief, we were not in fact sinking. The water must be coming from inside the boat. We ended up calling out RCR as we couldn’t get a suitable pump to remove the water. Thankfully, the problem did not turn out to be a leaking pump-out tank. After lots of investigation we found that there were two connections to the freshwater tank – and one of these had badly corroded. This meant that fresh water was leaking form the tank at the front and draining down the length of the boat and accumulating against the bulkhead in the engine room.
The leaking pipe was positioned on the right hand side of the water tank and the only way I could fix this was to smash all the tiles off the wall behind the multi-fuel stove and cut an inspection hatch into the wall. I managed to do this and fix the corroded pipework.
The water in the hull eventually dried up but it took me quite a few weeks of mopping up. Another downside of the leak was that it shorted out the pump in the shower – so I had to get somebody in to fix that as well. In doing all this work I certainly got to know more about the boat earlier than planned.
Once we got over all these issues and I had retiled behind the multi-fuel stove all was well again. This allowed us to go on a few cruises. We did a few journeys South through Banbury and we also returned north to Napton a few times.
This year we had hoped to do lots of jobs and then get more cruising in but then the pandemic came along.
Before the lockdown, I went and completed a training course at RCR in Stafford on engine maintenance. Once done, I serviced the engine in February.
One other job on my long list was to repaint the roof – it seemed to only have undercoat on and it was a dark red which meant in summer it got very hot. I decided to sand back to bare metal and put rust inhibitor on and repaint. I was lucky enough to get some help with this from my dad and my nephew. It was hard work but so far seems to have been a success.
Next year, I plan to repaint the gunwales down to the rubbing strake as this is particularly bad.
We did manage to get a couple of longer cruises in this year. We went south as far as Thrupp and back again. We also went through Braunston and then onto the Grand Union Leicester line and onto the Welford Arm in the autumn.
During our various journeys we have been lucky enough to come across a few roving traders. In no particular order we have met:-
Kay on nb Pea Green (Kays canal crafty arts) – Kay paints items in the traditional Roses & Castles style. I have bought a number of items from Kay as they make great presents but the best item was my own birthday present of a Buckby Can which is now known as the “precious” on our boat.
Richard on nb Bluebelle (by bike &boat) makes amazing jewellery from recycled copper pipe. My wife particularly likes his work!
We also met a floating blacksmith at Braunston – he makes some amazing things – apparently I had to buy a wine glass holder for my wife for when we have barbecues!
I am a member of the Cotswold Canals Trust and I volunteer on this project. The village I have lived in all my life is on the line of the Thames & Severn canal and on Thursday evenings in the summer months, I can be found assisting in restoring various sections of the canal.
This past year, despite Covid, we have worked at Inglesham lock which is where the canal joins the Thames.
We hope to have an open day at this location next year so the general public can see what progress has been made.
I would like to make mention of how friendly and helpful all the people at Cropredy Marina have been. As they are part of the Castle Marina’s group we have the added advantage of the reciprocal berthing arrangement which allows us to leave our boat at other marinas in the group (if they have space that is). We have made use of this on a couple of occasions allowing us to cruise a little bit further.