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Dokkum to Folkestone: Motorhome Insurance Problems

At the end of my last post I mentioned that we had one more immediate hurdle to overcome before we could relax into our new lifestyle. We now have to overcome an additional hurdle as a result of bureaucratic ineptitude, but I’ll come to the second problem shortly.

I knew that we would need some distraction free time to resolve our problem so we booked ourselves into a very comfortable camp site on the outskirts of one of our favourite towns in the Netherlands, Dokkum. Our campsite stay also allowed us to replenish our water supply and empty our grey water and black water tanks.

We are nearing the end of our motorhome honeymoon period. I am very much aware of the importance of keeping within a fixed budget if we are going to be able to sustain our wonderful nomadic lifestyle. A major expense for most motorhome owners is camp site fees. The fees, once the cost of electric, showers, water, dogs and people are included, tend to be about €20 a night. The cost soon mounts up. If we were to stay at a campsite every night, we would have to pay a massive €7,300 a year.

Travel reports in the UK’s most popular motorhome magazine, Motorhome Monthly, always include the cost of the writer’s motorhome tour. The major expense is always campsite fees as most of the reports include campsite stays nearly every night.

We had acres of empty beachfront carpark to empty the Hymer into

We had acres of empty beachfront carpark to empty the Hymer into

Our modest budget doesn’t allow for such luxury, but we have to stay  at campsites fairly regularly to top up our batteries, use the site’s laundry facilities, dispose of our black waste, our toilet contents and, our most pressing requirement, top up our water tank.

Castricum an Zee sunset - Cynthia took this photo from inside a beachfront cafe

Castricum an Zee sunset – Cynthia took this photo from inside a beachfront cafe

I can make our 120 litre tank last seven days on my own. When Cynthia’s on board, the tank only lasts for two days. Cynthia cooks much more than I do. She produces three magnificent meals each and every day. Pots, pans, cutlery and crockery need washing after each meal of course.

That’s where most of our water goes.

Cynthia also uses the Hymer’s tiny little shower. I don’t. It’s a very small space which makes me feel quite uncomfortable. I would rather jump the often bewildering hurdles which need scaling every time I need to use a campsite shower. Is the shower coin operated or do I need an electronic key? If coin operated, which denomination coins? If electronically operated, where do I obtain the key and how does it work? And last but not least, how long does the shower last?

If my brief experiences so far are anything to go by, the showers tend to last

Our 651b lap dog Florence

Our 651b lap dog Florence

three to four minutes. I was caught out recently, lathered to soapy perfection, when the shower stopped after three minutes. I had been told that there wasn’t a restriction on the amount of time I could use it for, but I hadn’t been told that the shower supply would be cut off after three minutes and then I would have to endure a three minute delay in a freezing cold shower block until I could turn it back on again. Campsite showers are a bit of a headache sometimes, but at least they aren’t as claustrophobic as the Hymer’s tiny bathroom.

Zeelust restaurant Westenschouwen - a bowl of mussels big enough to swim in

Zeelust restaurant Westenschouwen – a bowl of mussels big enough to swim in

Zeelust restaurant Westenschouwen - Cynthia's vegetarian dish was just as substantial

Zeelust restaurant Westenschouwen – Cynthia’s vegetarian dish was just as substantial

So, with our utilities housekeeping done, we settled down to a couple of days of problem solving.

We made a bit of a cock up with our travel insurance. I made a bit of a cock up with our travel insurance. During my last two weeks afloat I ran myself ragged trying to cram in a dozen discovery days as well as moving everything I owned from the boat to the Hymer, and try to deal with the logistics of selling a thirty two year old classic Mercedes which had failed its MOT. I simply didn’t have time to deal with the travel insurance, especially when there were three factors involved which travel insurance companies don’t particularly like; age, lengthy trips abroad and serious medical conditions.

I spent most of the day on Tuesday and Wednesday on the phone to insurance companies. Most of them didn’t want anything to do with us.

Cynthia is seventy. An incredibly healthy seventy, but her age is what the insurance companies focus on. Her age, and the fact that she was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (blood cancer to you and I) in 2011.

Cynthia doesn’t do western medicine. When she was diagnosed, she didn’t want destructive chemotherapy or any other mainstream treatment likely to have nasty side effects. She cured herself by finding and following a very specific eastern diet. Five years later she is healthy and fitter than anyone else I know of a similar age. In fact, she’s fitter and healthier than anyone I know of half her age.

Of course travel insurers aren’t interested in her current health. She’s seventy and she’s been diagnosed with cancer, and she wants to forsake modern day comforts for a life spent on the road.

Cynthia is very difficult to insure.

We are still without travel insurance, but we think we have it cracked. After two days on the phone we have found a company which will insure her providing her current condition is excluded. Unfortunately, the final piece of the insurance jigsaw is a return to the UK.

Every insurance company we spoke to insisted that we take out the policy while still in our home country. Of course the UK isn’t Cynthia’s home country but the policy doesn’t require her to be in it to take out the insurance, but I have to.

We were very briefly tempted to pretend that we were in the UK rather than the Netherlands when we paid the premium, but I know the way insurance companies work. They’ll do anything to avoid paying a claim, so there is a very good chance that in the event of a claim they will want us to provide a mountain of paperwork, including proof that we were in the UK when we took out the policy.

The plan was to drop Cynthia off here on Wednesday where she was booked in to spend a day and a night in the company of a very pleasant French lady who offers AIrbnb accommodation with first class reviews. Then drive back to Calais with the dogs – we couldn’t find any Airbnb lodgings which would accept two loveable bassets – enjoy my sixth half hour passage under the English Channel in the last three months, make a phone call, part with £1,145 for a year’s travel insurance for the pair of us, relax for half an hour during English Channel crossing number seven, then head south west to pick up Cynthia for our onward journey to Spain where we hope to overcome our final current hurdle.

Fortunately we are now adept at changing our plans at the last minute. It’s a good job, because any plans involving French authorities, especially those in charge of processing animals at Calais, usually need changing very quickly at the last minute. Our plans certainly did on Wednesday.

I’ll come to our English Channel crossing problems in a minute, but let me introduce you to another problem which reared its ugly head recently.

Cynthia collected a long awaited package from her previous rented house in Rottevalle a week ago. This was her third attempt at changing the name on her passport from Schultz to Smith.

Dealing with any American consulate in Europe is a right royal pain in the arse. The American consulates don’t do telephone help lines serviced by real people.

They rely on an automated service which directs users to the consulate’s extensive and impossible to navigate web site. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you are offered a telephone number to call… which directs you back to the impossible to navigate web site and the aforementioned telephone number to call. You are caught in a loop which is likely to result in insanity.

Alternatively, you can visit any consulate for the service you require, providing you satisfy specific criteria. You can pop in for a new passport, or to replace one which has been stolen, but you can’t make an appointment to change your passport name if you have recently married.

Cynthia had to complete a form, then post her passport to the American Consulate in Amsterdam with a cheque for $110. Thorough as always, she had checked the consulate web site to make sure that she had the cheque payee details written correctly.

A week later, the consulate sent her passport back with a note to tell her that US passport services don’t accept cheques, despite evidence to the contrary on the consulate web site.

She posted her passport again, this time including her debit card details. A week later her passport was returned again and, once more, there was a note telling her that the card had been declined. This is the card which Cynthia uses several times a day. Just to be absolutely sure that there were no problems with it, she phoned her bank. The card and her account were both in perfect working order.

Cynthia sent off her passport a third time, this time including a terse note in deeply etched lettering insisting that the cerebrally challenged consulate staff call her if they encountered any problems.

A week later the passport hadn’t been returned to Cynthia’s Rottevalle address. Cynthia took this as a good sign. She checked her bank account. Yippee! The US government had successfully debited $110 from her account. They’d finally managed to enter her card details correctly.

We waited a further week before Cynthia received a text message from her old landlady to say that her passport had arrived.

We drove half an hour from our three day camp site stay in Dokkum to collect it. Cynthia excitedly opened the brown paper package containing her old passport plus a shiny new passport, perfect in every way… apart from one tiny little detail.

The new passport was a duplicate of her old passport in every way, including her old surname, Schultz. After a month, three separate attempts, and $110 we’re back where we started.

We need Cynthia’s passport to reflect her new married name as part of the proof required to allow Cynthia to stay in Europe for longer than the three month visitor’s entitlement granted to US citizens. Cynthia’s three months US citizen visitor entitlement has two weeks to run.

We need the name change done on her passport as soon as possible.

Cynthia decided to take the bull by the horns and storm the US Consulate in Amsterdam as soon as they opened for business the following Monday. In the meantime, we had another boat to look at.

We drove towards Amsterdam on Saturday looking for a suitable and free overnight parking spot.  We thought Giethoorn would suit us perfectly. Giethoorn, the Netherlands: “Small Venice of the North”. The village announces proudly that it has no roads, something we should have considered before arriving in a 30’ long motorhome. There was, of course, nowhere for us to park.

After a tranquil night parked next to a placid canal we drove an hour and a half to a cavernous hanger in Voorhout a stone’s throw from The Hague to view the second Super Favorite classic cruiser on or short list of boats suitable for summer cruising.

Forty one year old Julisa is thirty two feet long, just over ten feet wide and has a draft of three feet. She has an Eberspacher blown air heating system, a four burner hob, bags of storage space and, according to the boat’s particulars, she will sleep seven. I can only assume that the sleeping people have to be stacked vertically. Still, there’s plenty of room for Cynthia and I and two low slung but chunky bassets.

The boat’s 106 Peugeot diesel engine will provide all the power we want. I just need to make sure I don’t use to much. At the boat’s normal 10 mph cruising speed, she’ll burn three litres an hour. At 15 mph she’ll use a wallet draining seven litres an hour.

The boat is absolutely immaculate. Over the last six years it’s been used a maximum of three or four weeks a year. The current owner runs a business in Amsterdam selling flowers commercially. He works flat out during the spring, summer and autumn running his business, so he has no time to enjoy the boat he maintains so well.

Julisa is kept on hardstanding inside her Voorhout hanger home for six months of the year where, each year, she has her hull repainted and her extensive mahogany revarnished. She’s a joy to behold and is almost perfect for our needs.

There are just three tiny problems. I discussed two of them in detail in last week’s post about our viewing of Julisa’s sister ship Belissima.

The first doesn’t particularly bother either of us. The boat doesn’t have a shower. We don’t care. We can either use the facilities at any one of the thousands of campsites or marinas close to the Dutch waterway network or wash with a water bowl and flannel.

It’s not a problem.

Problem number two is dog access. We’re still waiting for the broker to give us a rough idea of making a few simple changes to the boat to easy entry for dogs with big bodies and small legs.

Problem three also applied to Bellissima, but we weren’t aware of the issue at the time. Thank you Alan Taylor for alerting me to our potential waste disposal issues.

Both Bellissima and Julisa have sea toilets, which means that toilet waste is dumped from the toilet straight into the waterway. A sea toilet, or a conventional toilet which empties into a black water tank which then discharges into the waterway, is quite common on the continent. The law now prohibits black waste discharge into waterways in the Netherlands and prohibits black water discharge on moorings in France.

Technically, we can’t use Julisa’s toilet as it is. The reality, at the moment at least, is that black water discharge into canals, lakes and rivers in the Netherlands and in France is common practice.

Regardless of whether we can get away with dumping untreated sewage into Europe’s waterways, neither Cynthia or I want to. In addition to our moral obligations, we have to consider the boat’s saleability in the future.

I’m a little disappointed in the broker for not mentioning the toilet issue, but it’s up to us as buyers to unearth any potential problems. There are a number of solutions we can investigate, so the toilet issue shouldn’t prevent us from buying the boat.

We can fit a black water tank. This is probably the most difficult, expensive and least desirable option. The boat is fairly light and has a limited amount of free space in the bow close to the toilet. If there’s room in the bow for a tank, I don’t know how if would affect the boat’s trim. And then there’s the availability and cost of pump out stations to consider.

Option two is to remove the existing toilet and fit a composting toilet. My narrowboat composting toilet was an Airhead Compact. At £1,000 including fitting it’s quite expensive. The toilet is a little larger than the current toilet so I don’t know if it would fit where the toilet is now.

The third option is probably the one we will go for. A cheap and cheerful cassette toilet, probably a basic Porta Potti. We can buy one for about £80. All we’ll need to do is remove the existing toilet and do whatever remedial work is necessary to remove the sea toilet.

Looking at this particular cloud’s silver lining, we can probably negotiate a little more off the boat’s asking price. We’ll add this to the negotiations if the ball park figure for dog access alterations is acceptable.

I’ll update you as and when I know more.

From Vourhout we drove to Amsterdam for a one night stay at camping Zeeburg. The campsite, packed to the gills with dozens of motorhomes and hordes of shivering backpackers, sits on a spit of land between the busy A10 and Amsterdam’s eastern docklands. It’s neither pretty nor quiet, but it’s well serviced and is an unbeatable location if you want to explore the capital or, like Cynthia, you want to do battle with the US passport authorities.

A houseboat wedged under the A10 east of Amsterdam

A houseboat wedged under the A10 east of Amsterdam

Cynthia’s battle was over very quickly. She left on a city-bound tram at 9am. She returned somewhat dejected two hours later. The consulate guard allowed her into the building for long enough to tell her, very pleasantly, that she couldn’t go any further. They explained that she would have to email the consulate authorities to report her problem. Of course, the guard couldn’t give her any idea who to contact or what email address to use. He suggested that she search the ever unhelpful consulate web site.

Cynthhia en route to Amsterdam's US Consulate

Cynthia en route to Amsterdam’s US Consulate

Our next attempt at talking sense to passport officials will be at the US consulate in Madrid on 15th November. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of French officialdom on Wednesday afternoon. For the fourth time this year, I handed Tasha’s pet passport over the counter at Eurotunnel’s Pet Reception centre, expertly used the supplied scanner to locate both dogs’ chips, then waited expectantly for their paperwork to be processed.

Will I never learn?

Tasha’s passport has an error on it. I still don’t fully understand exactly what the problem was, but the end result was that the error meant that her passport was unacceptable. When I pointed out to the twelve year old official that this was the same passport that Tasha has sailed into the UK with on three previous occasions, I was told that I was very lucky in the past, but Tasha wasn’t going anywhere with the faulty passport in the future.

I was told that Tasha could travel on the incorrect passport, on this one occasion only, providing that the Dutch vet who stamped her passport earlier in the week could verify a number of details. This had to be done before I could travel.

I tried and failed to contact the vet, so I had a number of options open to me; (A) try to find a vet in Calais open at 5pm who was prepared to fit me in and issue a new passport, (B) find a Calais kennel for Tasha, deliver her to it and return to Eurotunnel in time for my crossing, (C) ask Cynthia to try and persuade cat owning Airbnb host Marie-Christine to let Tasha stay with them for the night or (D) leap over the Pet Reception counter, throttle the young official and make a desperate bid for the border.

Although the last option was very tempting, I phoned Cynthia instead.

The resolution was as simple as it was unexpected. Marie-Christine drove Cynthia from her home close to the Normandy coast at Echinghen 40km north to the Eurotunnel Pet Reception Centre at Calais, collected Tasha from me, listened incredulously while the official explained why Tasha was being refused, then drove Cynthia and Tasha via a scenic coastal route back home.

Now that is good value for money from a one night Airbnb booking!

After an otherwise uneventful crossing, I spent a mostly sleepless night in the busy car park of Ashford’s Tesco Extra with the jarring sound of heavy traffic on the M20 just fifty metres away.

As I write this I’m waiting at the M20’s Folkestone services. I’ve just topped up my LPG supply. Now I’m waiting for 9am when my potential travel insurance provider opens for business. I then have forty minutes to reach Eurotunnel and check in for my return crossing.

Please keep your fingers crossed for me.

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Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 4 comments
Andrew Reynolds - October 30, 2016

Paul and cynthia
I am loving reading about your travel’s and look forward to the alerting email!

Good luck with the passport!!!!

Andrew

Reply
    Paul Smith - October 30, 2016

    Thank you Andrew. I’m sure that we’ll get there in the end.

    Reply
Marc - October 30, 2016

Another enjoyable post, Paul. Now the evenings are drawing in, I always find reading about your adventures with a G&T in hand while waiting for my Sunday roast dinner somehow comforting!
A couple of thoughts on insurance – it sounds like it may be too late to help your case and I hope you are now all sorted.
I’m not an insurance expert but do have some involvement with Regulated Advice – as in regulated by the FCA who would also regulate your travel insurer. The problem I believe is that technically the FCA don’t have jurisdiction over advice given outside the UK, and insurers (and advisers without the necessary permissions) interpret that as meaning the client has to be in the UK for the advice not to be unregulated – unregulated advice being something that a UK regulated adviser would avoid at all costs unless they didn’t mind being drummed out of the brownies. Most advisers who understand that clients just want good service get around that by providing advice by email (or to a c/o address in the UK), so you would probably have got away with saying that you were in the UK. It would have enabled the insurer to tick their box and have been impossible to prove otherwise. That said I definitely understand your concern about insurers wriggling out of things if they possibly can. So you probably did the right thing – if only for the peace of mind.
The other point – which might be helpful next time – is that I too was diagnosed with cancer a year or so ago (all’s fine now) and you’re right it’s a permanent black mark as far as insurers are concerned. I found the local NHS hospital was a terrific resource for getting travel insurance. I think most oncology departments will have a “patient liaison” group which is there – exactly for that sort of thing – and only too happy to help. They pointed me in the direction of suitable and economic insurers. It might be worth giving them a try if you come unstuck in the future.
Good luck with your travels and I look forward to the next instalment.

Reply
Paul Mac - October 30, 2016

Bloody hell fire,
Do you purposely go out of your way to make things difficult,complicated and stressful ? Perhaps you should consider a flat on a council estate and a visit to the job center once every two weeks to give them your autograph. You must have the determination of Donald Trump and the constitution of a bull. I have traveled all over Europe and a good percentage of the world without encountering one percent of all your problems, i personally would have given up and signed myself into a lunatic asylum weeks ago. I did think that you had totally lost the plot when you were going to buy a sail boat to travel Europe, now i just think your crackers whining on about fuel consumption and going for an eco crap ! I do however wish you all the very best Paul

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