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Ghent to Dokkum: Chaos into Order

Relaxing in the sun. After all, this was a Sunday, not that days of the week matter any more

We are just ten days into an adventure we hope will last for many years. We are already losing track of time. Yesterday we had to check our iPhones to determine the day. We have nothing to do but relax and enjoy our travels, but every day is full.

On Wednesday morning after yet another surprisingly restful night at a motorway service station, this time near Ghent in Belgium, I drove for five hours along mile after tedious mile of motorway. Cynthia was waiting for me with Florence-the-Fat, a recent addition to our gypsy family. Florence is a shadow of her former self. At her heaviest, when she was used for breeding in a Pennsylvania kennels weighed an unhealthy 105lb. She had dropped to 95lb by the time Cynthia collected her on 10th August. Today, after many vigorous walks and a strict diet, she is a comparatively svelte 64lb. With her stumpy little legs, she still rolls onto her back every time she lifts a paw, but we love her.

I arrived in Rottevalle in what I thought was a pretty full motorhome. Two hours later, the Hymer was really full. We managed to squeeze in another five suitcases, four large wheelbarrows of additional bits and pieces, two very substantial Dutch bikes complete with cavernous panniers, and a folding covered trailer for transporting Tasha and Florence.

Bassets aren’t the most energetic dogs in the world. Tasha is a ten year old who has decided that walking is for the foolish. She likes to exercise by walking from bed to bowl and back again. Four year old Florence is much more energetic, but she can’t cover the distances that Cynthia and I want to travel when we explore. The two dogs are reasonably comfortable in the one trailer. As the one pulling them, I’m not so comfortable, but all exercise is welcome now that I have given up work for a living.

With everything on just about on board, and the motorhome bulging at the seams, we made a quick stop in Rottevalle for bike rack restraining straps and a small folding step. I suspect the Hymer’s previous owner was a giant. Each of our bikes is heavy, but I had to lift them at full stretch above my head to place them on the rack, and then climb onto the Hymer’s tow bar so that I could secure the bikes’ upper frames. We invested in a folding step to make the job less likely to result in a hernia.

A bike rack high enough to make your nose bleed!

A bike rack high enough to make your nose bleed!

Bikes secured, we drove two hours south west to Heemskerk for a two day campsite stay and Hymer reorganisation. I think I suffer a little from claustrophobia. I was certainly very uncomfortable indeed on the journey to Heemskerk. All of Cynthia’s suitcases and a jumble of odds and sods littered the cabin. We couldn’t put one foot in front of another without stepping or tripping. An emergency stop would have been very dangerous indeed.

Cynthia takes a break from reorganisation

Cynthia takes a break from reorganisation

We had the campsite to ourselves, which was just as well given the mess we made emptying the cavernous Hymer garage contents out onto the grass. By the time we left, we almost had an uncluttered cabin. Cynthia constantly chastises me for trying to do too much too quickly. I was frustrated by inability to move through our “home” without having to move something out of the way first. She gently reminded me that we were two days into our new life and that we had done very well indeed to reduce the contents of a three bed detached house and a 62’ narrowboat into a space the size of a modest conservatory.

Half of our garage contents

Half of our garage contents

The rest of our garage clutter

The rest of our garage clutter

We took a brief break mid organisation to take Tasha to a homeopathic vet in Heemskerk. Ten year old Tasha had lost her wag, her zest for life. I suspected encroaching old age. Cynthia assured me that the vet would be able to restore Tasha to her former energetic self, not that a ten year old basset can reasonably be described as energetic.

Cynthia was right. I was wrong.

The day after what appeared to be quite painful manipulation with fingers and acupuncture needles, Tasha had recovered her zest for life. She was so energetic she almost asked to go for a walk.

From Heemskerk we drove north east, then south around the vast freshwater Ijsselmeer looking for a suitably quiet spot to stop for the night. There’s never any shortage of these in the Netherlands. Our haven that evening was in a very quiet car park next to a twenty berth marina at Hinderloopen, empty apart from a single fisherman tinkering with his outboard motor, and a somewhat frazzled German on a ten meter hired cruiser.

Forty three year old Oskar was on a long weekend break with his three energetic boys, Emil, Mats and Jan, all under ten and all scampering over the boat roof when Oskar nervously navigated his large and delicate plastic boat onto an available pier. “These things are horrible to steer,” he told me, “I’ve had no training, but I have to allow for wind, and current… and keep an eye on the boys. I have to pay for any damage I do to the boat. I’ll be glad when I get back to my office. I would much rather manage mergers than mooring lines!” Something for Cynthia and I to consider as we are thinking about buying a similar length and style boat. Narrowboats, with their sturdy steel hulls and raised rubbing strakes, are much more forgiving.

We were parked within a marina close to their open facilities block, so we expected to be approached by a marina official at some stage to be either asked to leave or pay a fee for the night. We didn’t see an official, nor did Oskar.

After a peaceful night watching moonlight reflected in gently rippling marina water from our bedroom window we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast as Oskar reluctantly edged his boat out of the marina’s tight confines onto the open canal and his four mile journey back to base and sanity.

After breakfast we drove half an hour to a yacht broker at Heech. We’ve come to the conclusion that, much as we like them, Dutch sailing barges, tjalks and lemsteraaks in particular, are just not suitable for extensive inland waterways cruising. We were pretty sure that they wouldn’t suit us before visiting the brokerage’s eighty boats for sale, but we had to see several of them before ruling them out.

We told the broker our budget. Many he had for sale cost as much as a house. The ones we could afford where in his budget range, but what beauties they were. Here are a couple of photo’s of Cynthia and I with a particularly sexy one hundred and twenty year old tjalk.

Now THAT is a sexy boat!

Now THAT is a sexy boat!…

...and THAT is a bit of a poseur!

…and THAT is a bit of a poseur!

We really liked this boat, but it’s just not practical. Even with the mast stepped, we would be too high for many Dutch waterway bridges, the large open back deck would be wasted space in all but the finest weather, and the boat electrics were limited to 12v. The broker mistakenly informed us that the only way to heat the boat was with a paraffin lamp but, even with the recently fitted Webasto diesel heater, we were very worried about an expansive damp patch on the saloon seating. Actually, that might have been my fault after the broker told me the boat’s fuel consumption.

Over the last few weeks I’ve become obsessed with the amount of fuel boats use on the inland waterways, and how much more they use than boats on England’s canals.

My old boat, twenty tonne, 62’ long Norton Cains narrowboat built in 1977 had a Mercedes engine which used an average of 1.37 litres of diesel an hour. I cruised over 1,000 hours in 2015 at an average of 2 mph. Most narrowboats use between one and one and a half litres an hour.

I was horrified to learn than boats on European waterways routinely use between three and seven litres an hour. Extensive cruising didn’t seem affordable until I put things into perspective.

On a road vehicle you talk about miles per gallon rather than litres per hour but, for comparison purposes, I worked out how many litres per hour our five and a half tonne motorhome uses. When we bought it in March and with very few of our possessions on board we managed 22mpg. Now that we have the vehicle packed to capacity, the average has dropped to 18 mpg.

At an average of 60 mph, we consume an eye watering fifteen litres an hour. Three litres an hour for a classic steel motor cruiser weighing twice as much as the Hymer doesn’t sound so bad now. I feel a little better about the fuel consumption. I would be happier with 1.37 litres an hour but my old 42hp Mercedes engine wouldn’t be powerful enough to manage the waterways safely over here. There are some narrowboats over here, but they aren’t the best tool for the job.

We left Heech happy that we’re wise to discount a sailing barge. Cynthia examined the map looking for a quiet place for the night and directed onto a very narrow series of country roads towards a lakeside hamlet.

Parked between two peaceful lakes

Parked between two peaceful lakes

We parked on a very quiet country lane between two expansive lakes. A white sailed windmill turned lazily in a distant field. The landscape was still, apart from a trio of coots floating slowly by on sparkling water. We’ve found some stunning places to stay for the night in the Netherlands, but this was one of the best.

While I settled down to do a little internet work, Cynthia walked the dogs through Sandfirden village to a small campsite on Flakke Brekken. The grassed pitches nestled a stone’s throw from the lake. For €16 we could have a pitch with electricity and use of their blazingly fast internet. We drove a mile to our new home for the night.

Relaxing in the sun. After all, this was a Sunday, not that days of the week matter any more

Relaxing in the sun. After all, this was a Sunday, not that days of the week matter any more

We spent the day basking in the sun on a lakeside pier, and the night alternating between swatting mosquitoes from the ceiling and pulling their blood-engorged bodies from our sleeping faces. Cynthia reacts particularly badly to mosquito bites so she has to be very careful to avoid them.

An idyllic sunset... just before the mosquitoes attacked

An idyllic sunset… just before the mosquitoes attacked

We viewed another boat in Leeuwarden the following day. This one was a Super Favorite classic motor cruiser, Bellissima a 9.7m long steel hulled boat with a 106hp Peugeot engine giving it a cruising speed of 10mph and a top speed of 15mph.

The boat was perfect in every way, apart from two very minor problems. It has two cabins, one of which I can use as an office, sleeps seven, is in immaculate condition, has an expansive cockpit area for lounging around in the summer, an average fuel consumption at 10 mph of three litres an hour, and is just about within our price range.

One small problem is that it has neither bath nor shower. That’s not a problem to me as I don’t use the Hymer’s claustrophobically small shower at all. I always use campsite facilities. As most of the campsites we’ve visited have coin operated showers, we could use these on our watery travels. There are plenty of campsites within easy walking distance of the canals, and there are plenty of marina facilities if we feel the need to pay for a mooring for the night.

The other problem is slightly more difficult and costly to resolve. We can’t get the dogs on or off the boat.

Bassets are not agile dogs. Walking is a chore. Jumping is out of the question unless the height is more a step than a jump.

Getting on and off Bellissima involves stepping two feet up onto the deck, stepping another two feet over the deck rail, and then climbing three feet down almost vertical steps into the cockpit. Neither of our bassets could manage this and both, especially big bird Florence, are far too heavy to lift in and out.

We want the boat, but we have to be practical. We need to determine the cost of altering a section of the hull to incorporate a door and changing the deck rail above so that it can be temporarily removed.

We will tackle these logistics once we have overcome one more high but scaleable hurdle. I’ll let you know about that in my next post.

{ 36 comments… add one }
  • Adrian Pearson October 22, 2016, 11:55 am

    The last photo is brilliant. Really moody. It should go on a card or be hung on a wall. Pity about the mosquitoes.

    • Paul Smith October 22, 2016, 3:26 pm

      What’s really frustrating is that Cynthia took that one with her iPhone. My thousands of pounds worth of Nikon trickery couldn’t get close to it.

  • Graham October 22, 2016, 11:58 am

    Oh they are lovely sail boats I can understand the attraction, but not for a summer aboard.

    It sounds as if you are settling down and getting sorted for the future.

    Cynthia you look as is you have won back 20 years, almost a teenager. 🙂


    • Paul Smith October 22, 2016, 3:35 pm

      I’ve passed your comment on to Cynthia. She’s busy skipping up and down the canal path at the moment with a big smile on her face. No, the Dutch sailing barges aren’t practical, but aren’t they pretty? I’ll add some photo’s of the classic motor cruiser we’re looking at tomorrow in my next post.

  • Peter October 22, 2016, 12:02 pm

    Having spent 30 years trying to minimise fuel consumption, in continental barge (38m), yacht (11.5m), Jeep 4.7 Grand Cherokee + caravan) and Smart car (887cc), from bitter experience I can assure you that the best option is to have a clean hull and use the fuel consumption graphs on a boat, and cruise at 90 kph in a vehicle.

  • Peter October 22, 2016, 12:07 pm

    I forgot to add, with the extra load, make sure the tyres are at the correct pressure when cold; underinflated tyres can blow-out through overflexing and thus overheating; this will almost certainly cause a roll-over if you are doing 100kph on an autobahn.

    • Paul Smith October 22, 2016, 5:14 pm

      Thank you for some very good advice Peter. I have to admit to not checking my tyre pressure as often as I should.

  • June October 22, 2016, 12:16 pm

    Hi Paul, thank you so much for such an interesting and informative account of your latest journey. I admire both you and Cynthia for your amazing zest for life and for the pragmatic way you approach and overcome the ‘pulled threads in the tapestry of life’! We ‘upped sticks’ sixteen years ago for a life in Spain and have never regretted it but l would love to travel as you do. Too old now I’m afraid but at least I can enjoy your wonderfully descriptive travel adventures. Good luck to you both in your amazing new life together.

    • Paul Smith October 22, 2016, 3:47 pm

      Thank you June. We’re certainly having a blast at the moment. Tonight we’re parked next to a canal at Giethoorn, the “Venice of the North”, preparing for another quiet night before viewing a boat tomorrow. It’s not a bad life!

  • kevin plant October 22, 2016, 12:22 pm

    Paul and Cynthia I’m glad you both have landed on your feet, after a grap year you both had, I’m so happy for you both, please put me on your list for email, as your email brightens up my week

    cheers kev

    • Paul Smith October 22, 2016, 5:11 pm

      Hi Kevin,

      Yes, I agree. We’ve both had a really grap year, one of the grapiest either of us have had in a while. We still have a couple of hurdles to overcome, but we’re getting there.

  • John Ashby October 22, 2016, 1:13 pm

    And here was me thinking that forgetting the day of the week was age-related….now I don’t feel so bad. Happy trails!!! Can’t wait for your next post….

    • Paul Smith October 22, 2016, 5:11 pm

      You’re probably right John. Neither of us is in the first flush of youth!

  • Alan B. Cranford October 22, 2016, 1:20 pm

    GREAT to see you guys back at it! Graham is 100% correct… Cynthia, you seem to have shed cares and years! Paul – love the photos although it looks like you might have had some help by your co-pilot in taking them! Peter’s tire advice is also 100% dead on – failure to follow CAN make you dead!
    Please make sure I am “signed-up” as I don’t want to miss a single minute of this adventure! How about adding a weekly “map scan” so we can follow the twists and curves your trip will throw at you?
    Both AIR draft and WATER draft are important in your choice of a boat. French canals have a maximum set air draft to clear all bridges… and water draft fluctuates seasonally… 1.5-meter water draft seems to be safe while 3.5-meter air draft should clear the low bridges….and if anyone told you that the two of you can step a mast – they lied! As you visit some of the motor barges, you will be astounded at the roominess after your narrow boat James! IF you get a French type Class C [canal & off-shore 60 miles] – You should be able to hit Italy and Spain… by boat.
    Have FUN!

    • Paul Smith October 22, 2016, 5:20 pm

      Hi Alan,

      I don’t think we’re aiming for anything as grand as you imagine. Our boat will have a water draft of less than one metre and an air draft of less than 2.5m. We understand that with an air draft of less than 2.5 metres we can motor under most of the many hundreds, maybe thousands of bridges in the Netherlands, many of which have a toll if they are raised.

      I’m probably going to add a map to the blog at some stage, but I don’t want to be in a position where I’m spending all of my time updating the blog instead of actually visiting the places I’m supposed to be writing about.

  • Aileen October 22, 2016, 1:36 pm

    Thoroughly enjoying your European adventures so far and curious to see what boat you end up with ? We will be joining you (not literally!) in Europe as we’re bringing Quaintrelle to France at the end of November, so our paths may cross in the next year or so!

    • Paul Smith October 22, 2016, 5:22 pm

      Hi Aileen,

      I certainly hope our paths will cross. Every day we spend much of our time driving along or over Dutch canals. We haven’t seen a single narrowboat since I’ve been here. In fact, Cynthia hasn’t seen one either in the two months that she has been living in the Netherlands. You’ll certainly attract a lot of attention.

  • Jean Moir October 22, 2016, 3:32 pm

    Sounds idyllic Paul. I do hope you enjoy the next few years and keep us all entertained as well Jeannie.

  • Paul October 22, 2016, 7:05 pm

    Good Evening to you both!
    Hey it’s Norton Canes not Cains. LOL!
    Great to hear that all’s well with you on your winter sojourn to the Iberian Peninsular. The Tjalk looked beautiful but I agree impractical for you…
    Steel much better for European inland/estuary cruising perhaps look at a Pedro? Doggie access simples & not that costly either. I have been involved with wheelchair accessibility to boats it’s simply a case of ‘cut & shut’ Paul!
    Neoprene gaskets & secure locking. 500/700 mm access outboard opening/ inboard closing with a watertight welded 50 mm flange. Lightweight aluminum folding gangplank & job done. Much easier to access the boat for you & Cynthia too! Hope this helps but see offshore game fish boats with easy access ‘catch’ doors for a clearer picture!
    Nite Nite

    • Paul Smith October 23, 2016, 6:10 am

      Thanks for the correction Paul. My post editor (Cynthia) is from foreign shores, so didn’t pick that one up.

      Yes, we had come to the same conclusion as you with regard to dog access. I hope that many years will pass before Cynthia and I need the same ease of access, but who knows what the future holds for us?

  • June October 22, 2016, 7:35 pm

    I love your emails , you sound like your really enjoying life at the moment .
    I love the last photo, really beautiful

    • Paul Smith October 23, 2016, 6:12 am

      Cynthia took that last photo June. All the rest are taken with thousands of pounds worth of Nikon equipment. Cynthia’s was taken with her iPhone. Maybe I need to sell my gear!

  • Stuart rose October 22, 2016, 8:37 pm

    Hi glad your enjoying yourselfs
    Just a thought about your dogs
    What about a hoist In a
    Basket lower them down maybe
    Best of luck.

    • Paul Smith October 23, 2016, 6:13 am

      We considered a hoist Stuart, but installing and using it would be a bit of a pain with the dogs wanting to get on and off half a dozen times a day.

  • Randolph Spargo October 23, 2016, 2:40 am

    I read of your exploits from Australia enviously.Keep it up

    • Paul Smith October 23, 2016, 6:15 am

      Don’t be envious Randolph, come and join us! There’s plenty of room in Europe for a few more Aussie travellers.

  • Richard October 23, 2016, 3:31 am

    Hi, its great to read that you are both finally together and living the dream, after the past year’s trials. I sold my motorhome last week and have rented a tiny flat for a while. Looking at buying a house boat here on the River Murray in the near future – always prefer to have a movable home. All the best to you both in your future travels, and please add me to the email list. I always enjoy your blog.

    • Paul Smith October 23, 2016, 6:07 am

      Hi Richard,

      We still have a hurdle or two to overcome, but we’re nearly there. The weather is turning a little chilly here in the Netherlands, so we’ll be heading south for Spain in the next few days. Good luck with your houseboat. Life afloat is a joy!

  • Pete October 23, 2016, 9:00 am

    We are in southern Spain in our motor home in olvera at the moment and it is very nice lots of sun
    Have a good trip down

    • Paul Smith October 24, 2016, 4:21 pm

      Well get there as soon as we can. Save some sun for us please Pete.

  • Peter & Pam October 23, 2016, 1:08 pm

    Hi there you two. We have spent most if our married life travelling and have visited Africa, India, Far East, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. As well as a lot of Europe.
    Having settled in France for the last ten years we are getting itchy feet again and was considering a canal boat in the UK. Your new adventure really set us thinking about doing it in France. Please continue with your emails and let us know if you get near NW France so that we may meet up.
    Cheers P & P.

    • Paul Smith October 24, 2016, 4:23 pm

      Hi Pete/Pam,

      Where in NW France are you? We are going to be around Calais for a few days at the end of this week, and then we’ll be heading east to the Hymer museum near Munich.

  • pat Oshea October 24, 2016, 12:05 pm

    Wow..you are on my goal path..Yes they are beautiful Dutch barges..
    Maybe you will find one that’s suits the dogs..probably best to have a base good side boat or barge to have all your things on..as home. The Hymer for day exploration or short get aways.
    Maybe you could be captain for day for day sailors on the canals to supply the need of Canal travel. We could all appreciate your knowledge and support on canals.
    Good luck in seeking a boat..please continue to post your preference in Dutch boat sellers. I understand that is best way to obtain boat. I had no luck of such finding dealers.

    • Paul Smith October 25, 2016, 8:12 am

      I’ll keep you posted Pat. We’ve had nothing but good experiences with Dutch boat brokers so far. The boats we’ve looked at have all been in much better condition than I have seen when looking at boats for sale in the UK, and there’s an enormous choice over here. Because of that, I understand that the owners are much more flexible on price than they are elsewhere.

  • Mike Atherton October 24, 2016, 1:57 pm

    To paraphrase a well-known expression, “tjalk is cheap” – not! I’ll be following your boat-hunting progress with interest; it’s always fun looking around OBBs (Other Buggers’ Boats).
    Take care,

    • Paul Smith October 25, 2016, 8:16 am

      Very funny Mike, but the joke only works visually. Tjalk is actually pronounced Challuck. If I lived in the Netherlands for the rest of my life I don’t think I could get the hang of the language. The Dutch are much too fond of twenty letter words without any vowels.

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