dawncraft chronicles - canal du midi

Now for something completely different. In the last week of September Mrs W and I left the middle of nowhere in Somerset for the bright lights of Toulouse and the start of our tour of the canal du Midi. We had a brief stop for a few nights in the city, taking in a boat trip that explained the importance of this canal as well as giving us our first glimpse of an automated lock (more of these later!). We then set off by train to the French version of the middle of nowhere Port Lauragaise about 40 minutes train journey and the base of Nicols boat hire. To be fair, although we disembarked from the train on what was barely a platform, the port itself is new and part of a motorway stop over containing a restaurant café, shop and boat yard.

Canal di midi, Simon WoollenThe boats are smart glass fibre cruisers with fly bridges, large saloons, en suite shower rooms and very well appointed. The one we hired was about 26 foot long and about 10 foot wide. Great, apart from the fact that we couldn’t see it, and that’s because it wasn’t there - having failed to be returned from a long journey to a medieval city about four days down the canal. So we had what is known as an upgrade roughly 40 foot long sleeping four in two separate cabins and about 16 foot wide – What didn’t come as a sweetener was the tow behind hot tub that you could hire separately that hooked on to tow bar ball hitches. The size compared with Dawntreader was initially rather daunting as there was only two of us but after a thorough hand over with reassuring words such as it wont steer in reverse and beware the fly bridge on parts with restricted head room we trundled off slowly. Oh yes one last tip once you have turned the engine off on the stop button make sure you turn off the ignition - I will explain why at the end.

Before ambling off on this article I would point out two things that made our trip so much more enjoyable. One, brush up, learn or at least try and speak the language. Many of the people especially in the large cities like Toulouse will smile sweetly at you and then reply in perfect and almost ashamedly good English but in some areas they don’t at all. Also it gives you the confidence to wander off the beaten track - after all you are in a foreign country. Two, you are in a foreign country where they do things completely different to us, basically they don’t rush about, especially in the afternoons, so best not try and micro plan a journey.

We set off about three o'clock on Monday afternoon and had to return the boat by 9am Friday. We soon encountered our first automated lock – the highest on the system: push buttons and it empties, the gate opens and you drive in and tie up , the gate shuts behind you and you push another button in the direction you are going and it fills/ empties and reopens the gate. Why we haven’t done this is beyond me - apparently it was done doing WW2 to speed up transport .However, for those of us that are used to coming tight along side there is a special design feature to confuse you , they are not rectangular but oblong! We opted for my usual safe method of pulling the boat in by ropes, one because I hadn’t quite mastered the controls at this stage and two because they had £1000 of my money as a deposit and I would rather not damage their boat.

canal di midi, SImon WoollenWe were back packing so didn’t really have much in the way of food with us and just bought some basic provisions – mainly wine because the plan was to buy it at a supermarket in a small village about 2km walk from the canal- it’s also worth noting that the canal passes through some very remote regions. The boat is provided with pins similar to the type we use but without the hooks which means to keep a 40 foot boat from coming adrift one must be capable of a semi decent rolling hitch .So after a good brisk walk we found it shut for a stock take, never mind we can use the canal side café – that was also shut on a Monday, so the first meal aboard was duck pate, pasta and wine whilst sat out on an aft sun deck. The showers were excellent, and the hot water came off the engine and seeing as this was designed to sleep four ,6 at a push we had plenty. The bunks were cleverly designed and could be pushed together to make a double or set as standard v berth, hatches and opening windows provided ventilation because although we did this at he start of autumn and interestingly the entire system shuts at the end of October and opens in March it was still pleasantly warm – mid summer it must be very warm.

Refreshed we set off towards Castelnaundary through a wide plane tree lined canal. Many of the locks we encountered were multiples and had lock attendants who were more than happy to help especially as we were short handed on quite a large boat but we learnt to handle the ropes from the fly bridge making sure that they didn’t catch any part of the boat and were under the guard rails and doing our usual hand it through the locks slowly and carefully. However, even these were automatic, and the lock keeper operated them via remote control.

I didn’t plan to do the journey to Castelnaudary in one hop; the idea had always been to cruise for say three hours a day and take in the local villages etc. However, with a food and wine shortage it was prudent to push on. At this point I came across something that has changed my entire holiday and my outlook on life – a remote automated lock complete with picturesque keepers’ house. We dutifully tied up and set off with newfound confidence to push a few buttons – nothing not even a whirr. being a man, I pushed them again and this time with more purpose – nothing, until I managed to read the sign. They might be automatic but they also shut for lunch, there’s no point in fighting it just open the wine and eat the last of the duck pate, we are going nowhere and neither is any one else for a hundred mile radius – makes a mockery of our trying to look busy reading pointless emails over a sandwich in an office – or worse still a lunch time meeting.

Castelnaudary has a huge basin – the size of a lake .It was at one point a major port on the canal We were met by two very quick and enthusiastic harbour masters who were keen to get us tied up as quick as possible and as tight as possible with bow springs the works, following us along were very black clouds and this area being close to the Pyrenees and jammed between high ground either side is prone to storms with high winds, strong enough for the original builders to incorporate an island in the basin to provide shelter. Seconds after we tied up, it hit with squally winds and thunder. Although we were relieved of 20 euros to berth alongside this included electric hook up and water, hot showers on shore etc. For 22 euros you could order the local delicacy – Cassoulet, duck pork and beans in a dish a sort of up market just eat. You even get to keep a hand thrown casserole dish. The boat was re-provisioned from the local Spar – which was nothing like ours they have such more varied types of food rather than our 10 varieties of chicken wing we get (Microwave meals). No wonder Lidl has caught on.

Canal di midi, Simon WoollenThe following day we set off about 10 and made it through two locks before lunch and then decided to stop and go exploring for the afternoon, walking through fields of sunflowers – Both Mrs W and myself are professional horticulturalists – we have even been head gardener of the same gardens so plants fascinate us – the varieties growing wild in the hedge rows amongst derelict farm houses that we could only dream about growing . We stumbled into an old village that seemed empty and a time warp of sun-bleached shutters, tree lined squares providing shade from the summer sun – in the same way the plane trees were planted along the canal. Back to the boat for supper and finish reading our books, remember this is a holiday - slogging at the helm for hours whilst pouring over canal maps to check progress is more akin to a motorway journey.

The last day we toddled along to make it to a pottery, the one which made the casserole dishes. This rather rundown looking place would be a shock to any one risk adverse or in the visitor attraction business and has a health and safety officer who loves hazard tape. Basically, you just wonder about whilst they make pots on a wheel, pass a wood fired kiln, shelves full of pots drying and rooms of a house built in 1820s with pottery in every conceivable corner. We duly paid 3 quid for a smaller version of the casserole dish and returned for a gentle cruise up to the canal side café that was shut the Monday we passed. This is where a little French is handy – even just for ordering a beer. This is along side a major pottery and most of the work force came for lunch for a couple of hours. This was really the last afternoon as the boat had to be back by 9 am Friday morning. At one point we did tie up about 30 minutes from the marina but eventually thought we may as well toddle in having walked around an ancient mill site and seen the monument to Pierre Paul Riquet the builder of this UNESCO canal.

I was actually pleased we toddled in as the French use a stern first mooring with no finger pontoons – trying this manoeuvre in a large boat that wont steer in reverse was playing on my mind and not the kind of thing you want to do in a hurry. Basically, we managed to turn and reverse enough to hand our way in using a moored cruiser with out a bump. Supper in the café and a good clean of the boat ready for the hand back. Ok there is a theme running through this we took everything slowly and carefully, maybe I would like to have gone on further but it was a holiday and we didn’t rush, we broke one coffee cup that I offered to replace from the café full of coffee if need be! However, some were not so lucky and had to pay 600 Euros damage to the boat caused by a careless rope getting caught around part of the fly bridge. The first cost is the diesel, and this was charged by the hours that the engine had run. We did about 20 hrs over 4 days and were charged a reasonable 20 euros – hence turning the ignition off. Full deposit returned said our goodbyes and returned to the middle of nowhere station – only to find out that we had to go back to Castelnaudary first to get back to Toulouse or wait until mid-afternoon.

The total cost of everything including boat came to about £1000 for two. Would we do it again, yes, we are already looking. The hire company were excellent and the boats far in excess of anything we expected. The area is incredibly historic and warm and sunny, the canal is wide, and the natives are friendly and the wine tastes like wine not the sludge we get.

Simn WoollenSimon has been boating since he was 15. He's sailed everything from dinghies to tall ships. He owns  a  Dawncraft 25 called Dawntreader. Simon's articles show us ingenious & cheap ways to solve the many problems his boat has...

Contact details: Email 



below you can read Simon's previous articles: simply scroll down or click on a title

all white?

sound ship and take to the boat

minutes of the steering committee

no place like home

cabin fever

weighed yourself recently?

bloke down the pub said...

not on my life

gone cruising

wet from the inside out...

it was cheap

dawncraft chronicles: all white?

First the news, and for the first time in Ten years or more we are dry. Suspiciously dry inside given the spate of recent thunderstorms one of which is happening as I write. Ok I have kept the water channels in the windows clear of moss and even drilled the drain holes out a little and the odd squirt of eco washing up liquid helps but there are not the usual drips from the vents or roof lining something that I have spent far too much time and expensive mastic on to no avail. So, what did I do so very different?

pva and leaks

It started with the need to tidy Dawntreader (DT) up a little with a coat of paint (more later). I noticed for ages that the hand rails were worn where they bolt through the deck and used every different type of sealer you could think of but this time I didn’t have any but what I did have to hand was 1 litre of water proof PVA glue, which by adding water you can change from a thick gloop to a runny mixture – thinning it out. Basically, I went to the handrails where they bolt through the deck and made a coffer dam out of plasticine – actually it was blue tack but who cares. I then poured the mixture at 50:50 into the dam and watched loads of bubbles form. I left it like this for several hours – note though it was an incredibly hot day with temperatures up in the 30s and no good for painting, finally finishing off with a full thickness coat which I applied with a paint brush. It set clear and rock hard. Spurred on by the cheapness of the whole idea I did all the deck fittings, the vents, the Sampson post in the foredeck even the sides of the navigation lights and all for less than 6 quid. Ok technically it’s not my or even a new idea, there is a liquid called Captains Tolley’s creeping crack cure which roughly did the same thing. The glue has dripped through every small screw hole and imperfection and set sealing it up as well as sealing up the wood of the handrails making them less prone to rotting in the first place. Result!

paint job

Simon Woollen paint job on Dawncraft DawntreaderNext the paint job of which I have done a few over the years none of which seem to last mainly because I have a glass fibre problem called crazing. The gel coat has cracked like shattered glass over most of the deck. I still intend to cover them with treading but saving money for my trip on the Canal du midi in September I needed a cheap fix. My guide to maintaining your boat suggests that I open each crack with a Dremel type tool and smooth in with gel coat filler. All 25 foot of boat. Essentially I see two problems with this, one time and two I really don’t have the patience for that kind of malarkey so I set about sanding back with a detail sander , please go very carefully or you will wear off the gel coat and make it worse. I am still very loathed to use paint strippers on my decks and even less warm air guns; glass fibre isn’t as immune to chemicals as we think.

I think there are more types of paint you could use on a boat than any other object, twin packs, enamels, water-based gloss etc, in fact most chandlers seem to have a paint for everything and every part of the boat. However, I noticed something that I did years ago. I painted the metal gas locker with a well-known smooth white metal paint and being me got it on the glass fibre on the inside – it has never peeled blistered or flacked off. Hmm! and this stuff is dirt cheap and readily available and if you believe the advert will stick quite happily to a rusty railing so tentatively, I sanded back the foredeck and used a tin of smooth white Hammarite. In fairness to this paint job the deck couldn’t have got any dryer in 36 degree heat and I think some of my previous attempts may have had water residue still in the cracks but it stuck – better still having decided to sand back the first coat something in it had filled all the cracks and for the first time in years DT stopped looking like it has a nasty skin complaint.so Far so good – it has survived extreme temperatures , now howling gales and rain and hasn’t peeled or moved. In fairness it hasn’t had a frost which would blow any moisture trapped in the glazing, but it was dry to start with which is another lesson!

home comforts

Simon Woollen cabin side partitionMeanwhile work continues in the cabin with the addition of a privacy screen, basically a piece of plywood that has been built on to a frame and set at the side of the seat. It’s not really for privacy, it’s just great to pile cushions up against and lean into whilst reading or listening to the radio. The whole job cost less than £20 and I have noticed that nearly everybody opts for that seat and does same thing, it’s a bit like a pub settle seat you feel cosy and secure.

Fly screens were added this season made from a white rigid nylon environ mesh available from any garden centre at pence per metre- what a difference these make ,you can leave the windows open all night with the light on and not get eaten alive by midges – that’s if and only if you make sure you made something similar for the cabin door.


Simon Woollen spider spray damageLastly and because of the weather it is spider season. Now I don’t mind them, there are two as I write bouncy about on their silk bungy ropes just above my head. What I don’t like is webs in my face every five minutes -or having them in my bunk with me and that weird feeling at night that you are not alone! I have in the past used a spray that leaves a residue especially in the canopy where they seem to favour – Look what happened to the windows when some got sprayed on them, they aged went brittle and cracked. Some things we might have to learn to live with.

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sound ship and take to the boat

I have just come back from Crick boat show so bouncing full of new ideas, but something struck me looking at all the boats with some superb fit outs that are better standard than our own cottage. We are not a house we are a boat and things can and do go horribly wrong and we need to be able to “sound ship” and in a hurry. What you may ask is sound ship – basically it’s a person in blind panic ripping out the interior with a torch in their mouth checking for water ingress due to an unfortunate encounter.

Mine was down to a simple fact that none of the locks on the K and A are a standard width. Ever conscious of saving water one tends to share the “bath “ with complete strangers and here is the rub – DT (Dawn treader) is 6 foot 10 inches at her widest point, and one of those locks is about 12 foot 6. This means that me and a narrow boat can’t quite fit. This unfortunately did not deter the 40-ton steel barge who well barged in despite my explanation. DT shook and flexed in a manner which I never though possible with some horrible protesting noises, cupboard doors flew open - the works. dawncraft interior with access to below water lineDt is basic, I suppose this comes from my sailing days, there is nothing below the water line but glass fibre- all carpet and insulation stops 18 inches from the bilge. I can even see the screws that hold the lower wooden rubbing strake on. (For the person on line who said that his was below the water line – shed some weight and quick, they are supposed to be four inches above.) I doubt after forty years those screws are anywhere near water tight. However, my basic approach meant that I could check that boat and if need be repair it from stem to stern in a matter of minutes. There are some superb goos available now that will set underwater and I suggest all boats have a few tubes handy in a panic box. Anyhow no damage done but today all I could think off wasn’t the cherry wood ply, granite work tops and fantastic interior lining,  it was how the heck do I rip this lot out in a hurry to get to the hull.

two man inflatable dinghy on a dawncraft cruiserSomething else was missing from all the boats which I have realised I cannot live with out especially single handed – the dinghy, mine is a two-man inflatable. Now before the smirks appear, why do you need a life boat on the canal – I don’t but the boat does: I use mine for operating swing bridges whose landing is on the wrong side, I use it for cleaning the hull, adding wood hardener to old rubbing strakes – or wood oil to the ones that aren’t soft. I have rowed lines across the river Avon and pulled my self back on to the mooring when the wind was too much. Set an anchor to pull my self of a silt bar. Pulled plastic bags off the prop, and my own mooring line (oops). Never underestimate even on a canal the importance of being able to have a good look along the water line. I saw a stand at the show selling them and it almost looked out of place alongside the superb boats but trust me it’s worth every penny. Remember it's just an inflatable – it doesn’t need davits; I blow mine up with a 12 volt inflator from Lidl’s and chuck it out the rear canopy. I have also found a unique and easy launch storage system akin to any sea going bulk carrier- but I wouldn’t sit in it whilst it launched.

cork decking pieces for dawncraft cruiserBack to the show, I wasn’t going at one point – it was too far, raining, Mrs W hadn’t been well, but we trundled off on Sunday and had a superb time. I have ordered some rubberised cork decking and suddenly realised we have all been doing this insulation business the wrong way round - we are doing it from the inside when the simplest way is to glue it on the outside and make DT look smarter and save hours and expense of deck painting, which because it is flat and absorbs the sun – the paint doesn’t last too long. I have just cleaned the Spar out of brown paper as we attempt to make a full deck template. It works out almost the same price as painting properly.

Mrs W spent happy hours looking at all the luxurious fittings and fixtures that have become the norm. I spent longer looking at Electric outboards; Barrus have something really interesting in the pipeline and have it water cooled into the bargain. (electric motors get hot as well) Or we could go the same way as a narrow boat owner who used a small generator to drive an electric motor and provide power for the boat, admittedly the space below their bed was one large battery bank but trust me the power the prop could push out and the efficiency of the set up was awe-inspiring and has to be the way forward – I keep saying this but submarines have been doing it for years so I cant see why it's taken us so long and before any one from the Boat safety certificate gets excited about battery gas from a battery bank etc – the average sub dealt with it and in a confined space.

Why my interest, DT is running quite well, touch wood, on a Suzuki 25 because it has something that the electric motors have in bucket loads - torque in low revs which makes tight manoeuvring in confined space AKA my own mooring bliss. Anyway enough rambling, it’s the season to get out there and remember aspirations are great - what other people have or don’t have is interesting, but don’t let any of it get in the way of just enjoying your pastime. Happy boating what ever you float in!

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minutes of the steering committee

sails versus outboard for Dawntreader

The last few weeks have been a bit of a trial to the point where I quite missed my old sailing boat and started to wonder if Dawntreader would be better converted to a Sailing Wherry than ever trying to retro fit an outboard to a boat that wasn’t built for it. I still think arriving at Semington under 1500 foot of billowing canvas on bank holiday claiming right of way is just what the canal needs.

Ok we need quickly to look at the design of most glass fibre bathtubs – they are either built to take an inboard so have a solid transom with a hole for the z drive or prop., or they were built to take an outboard in which case they have a dedicated well it sits in. Dawncraft get full marks for simplicity of design with their inboard outboard because they just cut a gurt great hole in the engine bay floor and stuck it down there on a large lump of wood – sorted.

inboard, or outboard?

outboard engine dawncraft cruiserThe reason they didn’t cut an outboard well in the original transom design and why other boats with inboards won’t convert that well is because there is a large structural deck beam right where the engine needs to tilt. My old Honda would just tilt with the cover off, this new 25 hp hasn’t a hope and I am beginning to give up myself. The only way forward is to mount this engine on an external bracket.

I did write 1000 words on the sheer frustration of doing this, but it was boring so here are the salient points. The word flexible cable needs quantifying – steering cables are nothing more than a spring going through a plastic cog (possibly made in china). They bend about as much as I do in my mid-fifties, and groan just as loud when overdone. Don’t put them through any more than a 9-inch radius bend. Worse than that they are rated for the size of outboard. I am now running a 25 hp and before you all scream 'that’s far too big for the canal', because of my weight problem and large bottom it’s what Dawncraft recommended in 1970. (It was also incredibly cheap and available which is always the starting point.) It did have a rudder fitted and although I am very fond of these on the canal as they give much more control at low speed, I felt the extra pressure on the steering gear would be too much for the 'made in china' cog. Any one who has sailed a dinghy and felt the rudder pressure will understand the forces involved – something worth considering if you are fitting one. What it does have is a prop guard, a simple plastic cage that bolts over the propeller and stops it hitting logs, shopping trolleys and the like. I had so many arguments in the sailing club about getting these for rescue boats – I wanted them fitted, but people said they rob power. Seeing as I have now have plenty, it's not an issue and really worth doing.

simon woollen outboard set upWhy my fascination with how far steering gear will bend? If you are going to fit an outboard on a bracket bolted to the back of the boat, you need to take the steering gear through the transom. Remember that the said out board is now 5 inches or so backwards, so by the laws of geometry Pythagoras and crew – it won't steer on full lock. Don’t ever think it doesn’t have to - I’ve tried and failed to make a turn around before the swing bridge.

Now the fun bit, drilling a large 25mm hole through your boat and for this you will need to invest in a tank cutter drill bit. Word of advice: these come in a variety of forms from dead cheap off ebay to gulp. Sadly, buy the gulp one. You are about to drill through two layers of glass fibre and 10mm of marine ply so you need to have at least 20mm of saw blade that doesn’t heat up, bend and disappear into the canal to cool off. NEVER start drilling holes from the inside of the boat always start from the outside where you can see the water line and where the cable needs to line up. My fascination with a 9-inch radius bend? simply make a template from hardboard that will show you exactly where the hole has to be drilled to get a nice easy bend. Once you hit the inner ply you will also realise that your transom packing is probably a little damp and rotten and will spend happy hours drilling smal holes and injecting with wood hardener. However, it will remind you to purchase the correct rubber boots designed to stop water from getting in through cable holes in the first place. Don’t forget to buy similar ones for the control cables. Not only do they stop the water they also stop that horrible vibration by preventing your transom from becoming a wobble board.

Ok it was much more difficult to retro fit than I thought – I could not have done it without doing a scale drawing first and I really could do with longer control cables because they had to go through two 90-degree bends. But does it work? Yes, DT is trundling along the canal quite happily under its new engine. The fact I had to fit it wearing waders in temperatures of five degrees with snow on the ground is forgotten when the sun is out. There is some glass fibre work to do- namely glassing in wooden blocks so cables can be clipped back against the hull so I can use the lockers again without risk of snagging a control line. Don’t be tempted to glass if the temperature is below 10 degrees – it will set, but won't bond into the layer below. Also, I couldn’t have done this without some of the online boat groups and especially sourcing good used parts. Out of interest a quote from a boat yard for this job? Just shy of £800.

a nifty solution for under bunk storage

makeshift storage using plastic boxesMeanwhile inside a nifty solution to under bunk storage – basically cheap plastic tubs on their sides screwed to the ply. It's brilliant - water proof, cost me nothing and still allows space below the bunks for ballast. In fact, I am so pleased with them they are sprouting up all around the boat. My desire to fit some form of hanging locker was thwarted by having far less room on board than the brochure suggests so I have installed simple wooden rails in the roof in the fore cabin – just enough to hang up bedding to air out.

My trusty hand sewing machine has been making rope bags, most sailing boats have them on to stuff lose ropes into them. The idea came to me when I tripped over one and managed to rip the locker top off and jam a loose rope around the morse lever at an inopportune moment -it's amazing how the grey matter remembers little tricks after the event.

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no place like home

the princess and the pea...

I said that I wasn’t going to do anything to the interior over the winter. In fact, I stated that I could achieve more in a decent day in March or April than I ever could in January or February. 

However, spurred on by pictures of fellow boaters on the internet completely refitting interiors and remembering that mine is shabby – the chic bit having been missing for years,  I bit the bullet - but this time with a little bit of wisdom and experience.

Also, it’s the winter panto season and I suppose the Princess and the Pea is as good as any. Mrs W playing the part of the princess who can’t get comfortable and Dawn Treader's shabby interior the pea.

First: measure and measure again, then take a sheet of A3 and draw out your boat to scale or at least the bit you wish to work on. If you have the advantage of a garage or large shed – go one further, chalk it up on the floor in full scale. If only to show you that we don’t have as much space as we think. Top tip older boats are built in feet and inches (suits me) stay in feet and inches - 2000000.85 mm confuses things from the outset. This measuring will also allow you to work out exactly all the timber, screws etc. you will need to complete the job and save the most valuable resource for any weekend boater – TIME!

Second: think long, deep and hard over a period of days or weeks. What is it that I want to achieve, need, desire and for what purpose? Before ripping out any existing structures. 

Next download or at least look at original manufacturer’s brochures and their layout. These people were professional they knew how to squeeze out every inch of living space and had the advantage, having built the thing, and they knew which parts were structurally integral: bulkheads, strengthening beams, large slabs of glass fibre in the floor. No matter how inconvenient these are, it's best not to cut them with an angle grinder to make a cool box, or removed because you smack your head on them.

Third: Set a budget. This is often overlooked and an idea of doing the whole interior in teak faced veneer is appealing until you look at the cost. Remember that time is the most precious of resources and Mrs W would not thank me for spending every hour of every weekend working on the boat. Because I have learnt one thing. Once you start it becomes addictive and you won’t stop until the whole boat has been transformed in your own image. The latter point being often overlooked. What I think looks good doesn’t mean that another person would like it. Indeed, if we go back to the original article, they won't and will comment as such.

OK mine was refitted in the early 90s - nothing essentially wrong, bunks, table seating and a half decent galley. But no attention was paid to comfort , the backs of the seating were upright, the table a bit of an after-thought to the point where we abandoned it in favour of a picnic table, and its deep under bunk storage did nothing but grow mushrooms and mould. (Whilst having to remove cushions every five minutes meant whatever got shoved down there stayed down there and was seldom or if ever used proving that we didn’t need it in the first place.) Coupled to this and from a previous article it was all made of out of scrap 12mm ply – the weight alone being an issue.  

dawn treader interior fittingsI took out the original table and chairs 4 years ago and put in camping chairs so I could lean back in comfort – it worked ok, but sadly the cabinets were not ply, they were faced MDF so soon swelled. Note the Freeplay wind up radio with solar power. I have had it years and is my main source of entertainment.

However, after 4 years thinking I bit the bullet and did my take on a table and seating area.

From a budgeting point of view, we need to look at what we already have in the way of cushions and if they can be used down below. In my case the cockpit cushions – after all most people I met have only one bum and it saves trying to store these down below in the winter. Making things dual purpose on a boat saves so much room.

What I needed was a seating area that could have adjustable backs, easy access storage beneath, was light (as Dawntreader is currently on a new year’s diet to shed half a ton and improve her performance) and easily moved around if required to make bunk, chaise lounge whatever. I need comfort. Somewhere to relax after a voyage. 

Basically, I built two wooden frames from inch by inch and a half deal. The backs are hinged so that the rest can be set at various angles from lean back to prostrate. They are not fixed so can slide, in fact they can face for and aft or mid ship depending on what I want. The two frames with their backs folded down flat meet exactly in the middle and form a bunk. Which is where the chalking on the floor is a must. Plenty of 45 degree strengthening points and two coats of wood stain varnish. I actually used white faced hard board as pads for the cushions, I know this isn’t water proof, but it is half way there especially with a coat or two of PVA on neat and it's dirt cheap and weighs nothing.

dawn treader sofa frameworkVery simple light weight frame work for the seating- I can pick this up with one hand -you can see the back folds down -note the table supports which are glassed to the hull at the base and the 3inch shelf as the boat widens at this point. Simple plastic boxes slide in under for storage – you can even get them in different colours. 

I didn’t bother with sides – the open frame work allows air to circulate under the cushions preventing mould and condensation and simple plastic tubs slide easily under the frames – seeing as I used these in the original lockers to keep things dry from condensation it seemed a logical step. 

fold back table support on Dawn TreaderNext some form of table support. I made mine fold back against the hull and when I am on my own which is more often than not, just a simple wooden tray is enough to hold the radio and a coffee mug. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, having built it I settled back – moved the end one to form a foot rest and promptly dozed off for a few hours in front of the Propex heater. That has to be perfection!

Fold Back table supports – there are now two hinges per bracket this was first fit – they are made from hard wood tree stakes 

table and seating on Dawn TreaderThe whole thing was designed to utilise the existing cockpit cushions and to be mobile. The backs even though they are hardboard have worked as long as they are given a good coating of waterproof PVA. I haven’t sorted the drains yet for the condensation drip but they will lead out to the bilge via conduit.

Mrs Woollen aboard Dawn TreaderFinally, someone is sitting comfortable with a cup of tea and some where to place it and she didn’t have to make more cushions. The Princess and the pea final act.

OK it sounds idyllic and a job well done but as always here’s the reality. 

Even with two weeks off for Christmas I only managed 2 actual days on the boat construction time; glues required the heater to be on for them to set and as for the Varnish stain, it stayed tacky for three days -even though it is supposed to dry in 20minutes (covering a decent shirt before I realised it was still wet). I even resorted to heating the wood up with a paint stripper in the hope of getting it to dry quicker. 

Most of the work was completed at home in the shed, cutting, pre-drilling and sanding. I would have constructed the whole thing at home but knowing it would not fit through the door of DT, I made it in sections with the minimum of screwing together on board.

Working after 4pm in winter is OK but you need better lighting than LED cabin lights. I used work lamps. None of it is finished properly and drip trays had to be screwed in to catch the condensation from the channels and they are still there awaiting attention. They will have to wait until its lighter and warmer and I can achieve more in the day.

Meanwhile, a window vac makes short work of condensation. A suck and chuck type approach, I now wouldn’t be without it. I even clean the decks with it, canopy, anything where I have to suck up and remove dirty water. White vinegar cleans the mould off the canopy better than anything I have tried. 

The replacement engine started leaking fuel. This did interest me. As an ex ag engineer I could probably have fixed this myself,  BUT if my diagnosis was wrong and the boat caught fire, I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, so some things are best left to a professional - if only for the paper trail. 

However, it has inspired me to fit a proper bulk head mounted fuel filter and water separator and drop the transom height by 4 inches so that it tilts better. The under-sink foot pump water tank is fantastic, a welcome addition rather than draining down each time in the winter. It also increases my capacity by a third.

I tried replacing some of the old carpet side in super new lining only to find that because of the condensation, it wont stick properly!! 

Oh yes I forgot having done all this it's back down the bilges shifting sand bags about to level up. Remember what ever you do will have a huge impact somewhere else.

Yep that works for me – you can see where I started the headlining but its all too cold and damp. Some things are best left until spring. The upright hand hold was an idea from my sailing days. I have to say every small boat should have one down below, even though I have noticed it's not up level it makes moving around confined spaces so much easier.

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cabin fever

It is the season to be jolly and for those of us boat orientated it throws up a dilemma of a few days off work enjoying our hobby or the call to arms that Christmas is all about families not boats. 

Now I have got away with this often in the past by sailing the icicles race on Boxing day - a race that had it origins based on the great classic Christmas film the great escape -  and our need to. We are a bit stymied to link Christmas to any thing boat like, it would have been better if the three wise men breezed in on an Arab dhow or at least fishermen not shepherds turned up. So we are on a bit of a loser. 

The internet forums are buzzing with people like me having great ideas of what we will do to the boat this winter and it's great that the internet can bring together people who would otherwise never meet, and let them swap photos and ideas instantly. However, perhaps it is because we are all bored and stuck down below on a cold wet raining winter's evening that we start looking around at how we can improve our 18foot by six-foot living area - as opposed to the summer when we just go below to sleep, use the loo or make a brew.

For those of us like me with heating – I use a Propex hot air system - we can extend our season, but the reality is from 4.30pm it's pitch dark and miserable. Even if I did want to build in some sort of hanging locker, extend the shower room, put the sliding door back to the fore cabin, unfortunately the glues and paints required have other ideas and most don’t like it below 10 degrees. What I have learned is I can achieve twice as much in April than I can ever do in December. 

PHOTO: Dawn Treader cruising along the Kennet & Avon in November

For those of us who don’t live on board permanently its time to 'winterise'. 

  • Disconnect and drain the water pump – mine froze one year and cost £125 to replace and the reason I delayed draining down was because it was too difficult to get to, having to unscrew the floor. We won’t be making that mistake again so a large hatch was fitted. 
  • Just slide back clips and let the tanks drain – I turn the pump on its side to make sure there's no water in it 
  • Make everything easily accessible – note three pins not four !
  • Open all taps and leave the shower off the hook in the bottom of the tray- not only to drain it from frost but it would be a good source of legionnaires if you don’t intend to use it until spring. 
  • Put some petroleum jelly on battery terminals to stop corrosion. 
  • Turn up all cushions on edge.
  • Spray cockpit canopy with silicone polish - it gets into the stitching and helps seal it up.  It also stops the mould forming, I have even used window cleaning spray and that really works to remove the grime. 
  • My big fuel tank is off, empty and at home. Don’t leave it half full you will be shocked how much condensation builds up inside and also the fuel goes off causing the engine real problems. Long voyages are out of the question it's canal maintenance time, so I don’t need 15 litres of petrol.

Dawn Treader - winterising a boat

All this sounds like Dawntreader is being laid up for the winter and that’s it for another season -don’t be stoopid ! Winterising the boat just means changing a few things over. 

  • In comes a portable water tank with a hand pump (I am going to connect this to the work top by the sink one day) holding just enough water for a couple of days. 
  • An old solar shower bag replaces the pumped unit hanging off the holder and filled with warm water from a kettle -Its really good get two - mix one with Radox and keep the other one for rinsing.
  • A small portable 40-amp battery is charged at home and taken with me when required and the fuel tank is replaced by a 10 litre one – my short-range version. 
  • Bedding is aired and dried by the Propex and shoved in a vacuum bag and sealed up dry ready for the next adventure. Add in the hot water bottle and we are good to go at a moment’s notice.

Anyhow its time to reflect on last season and what a great time...

smashed window on Dawn Treaderperspex boat windows

I smashed the windows in with a tree (photo shows last or the original glass windows) and replaced them with perspex.

Climbed Caen Hill up and down in 26 hours. Photo - notice the swan in the lock!

Broke down at Semington (never did find out what caused that) Stopped dead in Devizes with a huge water lily attached.

Got attacked by a Swan.

Replaced the outboard impeller

Had the outboard stolen and replaced all of that. 

Got stuck at Rusty swing bridge in a howling gale. 

Got stuck at Seend due to lack of water. 

Managed to get a rope round the prop and had to go in and free it.

Bent the TV Arial – though it's better for it. 

Broke the canopy zips yet again.

Lost a windlass and a mooring spike. 

Pulled the plastic handle off the loo pump.

Cracked the shower tray – again. 

Actually, maybe I don’t really want to re fit my inferior interior over winter – I just need a restSeasons greetings to you all and Happy Boating- if you get the chance.

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weighed yourself recently?

Since my last article I arrived at the boat to find my well used and abused Honda 9 outboard had been stolen. 

OK maybe I could have been more security conscious even though I am in a marina, but this must be weighed up by the damage that a determined thief possibly stealing to order can inflict on a plywood interior. Also, the cost of adding £500 outboard to the insurance policy. One must write it down to experience. Still a nice comforting pamphlet on being the victim of crime later and we are back at square one. We need power. 

This has had me seriously thinking, what power- how much do I need, when do I need it? What might push a Dawncraft 25 easily along the cut on a warm sunny day may struggle uphill on the river Avon in a bit of a breeze – Actually that Honda 9 was far too little for the task - it was even known to have stopped dead trying. So, is it horse power? Bloke down the pub swears his 15 will take him anywhere, apparently horse power doesn’t really exist – it was a marketing tool by James Watt to graphically illustrate the efficiency of his new steam engine in a force that people could equate to or imagine, because in theory 9 horses on the hoof should get a Dawn craft properly bumbling along. 

It's actually the twisting force that a horse can produce known as torque and manufacturers will produce a torque curve for all their engines as another marketing tool. Interestingly my trusty electric back up is rated as 1lb per foot. In my case 55 which is about maximum for a 12 volt motor. Electric motors produce nearly all their torque at zero revs – that sounds crazy but ever got a drill stuck? However, all this doesn’t matter until we know how much power we need and for this we need to work out our displacement, how much water we push out the way. 

Ok brace your self – there are a number of calculations and methods you could use, none of which I can get my head around or are remotely practical to any one but a naval architect – but I assure you are well quoted in any yacht club bar. I found an online calculator which neatly came out as 2450Lb or basically a ton, I say a ton but that doesn’t include me, Mrs W, any guests, weight of engine and half the junk on board - all of which will increase our weight and thus displacement and thus require more power. 

Basically, I don’t know what we weigh any more than any other boat owner and without this I can’t calculate engine size other than recommendations and best guess on what is available. 

We could go back in time and assume that when Dawn Craft made it they had all this scribbled out with the aid of a slide rule - According to an original on line brochure Dawn Treader naked or without junk weighs 32 CWT or 1.6 tons So much for the on line calculator then!! Originally mine came with an in-board petrol BMC driving the Z drive - That had to be 30hp plus to produce enough torque to drive that prop, the diesel I took out was 25 hp. Suddenly who ever nicked my hard-worked Honda 9 is in for a shock – It's properly worn out. 

So what did Dawncraft originally use? – I have researched as much as possible, the brochure says a range of engines to suit your needs. Hmm may be that is salesman's talk for a range of engines to suit your pocket or ones that they had arranged a decent discount for using from the supplier. It would also appear from the brochure that outboards were for the cheaper end of the market- this quote from the original brochure for a 25 with out-board well built in where the inboard would be states ” you’d think this boat was an inboard craft as she cruises past with no engine in sight”. 

I need to to digress here for a moment, during the research for this article I found a number of surveyor reports on sunken 25s of this design, the sides of your engine bay are the same plywood that the inboard is built from, there is a small glass fibre strip of about 5 inches at the water line. I am not saying that this was wrong, I have sailed plywood boats across the North Sea but 30 years of weather, water and being forgotten about has turned many of these to mush, suddenly with a few people on board the glass strip is under water allowing ingress and sinking. Be warned.

Back to the issue in hand we can now look at 1970s out-board engines which were nearly all two strokes. Devil engines that can do more environmental damage than the Exon Valdez, noisy, smelly, won't tick over, too fast for the cut – or so the bloke down the pub said. OK I will admit that I have an old seagull forty that is possessed by evil spirits that want to take your soul to Davy Jones locker, but they reigned supreme for 30 years. Lighter, fewer moving parts etc the later models used petrol injection systems making them very fuel efficient and no oil residues. As for the noise, you measure this in decibels, it would seem the level of noise from the two strokes is not appreciably more than 4 strokes – it is the pitch of the noise, for those with Music O level 4 strokes are some where around D and two strokes F sharp to A. So why the change to 4 strokes? Basically, it was the European craft directive environmental emissions that forced engine manufacturers to develop better and lighter 4 strokes.

Before I am keel hauled for even thinking about replacing my engine with a modern 2 stroke, did you know that 2 stroke has nothing to do with the fuel it burns and that most large ships use diesel 2 strokes – its to do with engine design and the all-important torque curve. The twisting effect on the propeller.

Let’s look at hulls and displacements a moment. We have a displacement hull, it stays in the water pushing its 1.6 tons out the way , in fact we can measure this in 1lbs per foot required from 1 to 6.7 knots the latter being known as hull speed, it doesn’t matter what extra power you have, the weight of water being pushed out the way becomes too great to go any faster. So, a thirty-horse power engine will get Dawn Treader up to 6.7 knots in seconds but won’t go any faster - The propeller will slip cavitate and consume itself in angry bubbles. 

The next hull shape is a planing hull- this climbs out the water on its own bow wave leaving less hull, less drag and thus more speed, the extreme being racing boats of which the prop is the only thing in the water- this is where two strokes reigned supreme. Fast revving engines that spin the prop at obscene speed producing tons of wash whilst pulling water skiers – I have checked, and water skiing doesn’t seem to be banned on the canal, it's covered by the 4-knot limit. There is an in-between hull called semi displacement, the hull will climb out the water and go faster and many estuary cruisers use this to gain speed , whilst producing wash . Some of these have arrived on the canal to spend their lives pottering. It is this hull shape and limit to speed which is why I would never take a Dawncraft to sea, though people do.

So, there was no point in the early Dawn crafts having huge powerful 2 strokes as they couldn’t go any faster if they wanted to - they just need torque to get their great lump of fibre glass moving and more importantly staying moving. All this before we even start calculating the pitch of the prop - too fine like a electrical machine screw and it will whizz round without going forward at any speed, too course like a coach screw and it will take some real effort to turn it – the calculations for this in itself is worthy of A level maths and we all end up with a compromise , fine enough to get us moving without stalling but coarse enough to give some speed.

OK so what have I done - found the cheapest old outboard I could just to keep the boat moving for a few months because I have lost interest in any petrol, diesel or internal combustion engine- there isn’t one that does not burn or lose a bit of oil from their very nature- they are technology that has come directly from the steam engine - they need water cooling impellers which always pack up at most inopportune moments and not the kind of thing you can readily fix on board. They are heavy, and I am getting too old to lump them about and the nearest service agent to me is getting to be a weekend away trip. 

Over the years being an ex ag engineer, I have fixed most things from old diesels to ratty old sea gulls and I am bored of them. Nope I am in my shed building and designing an electric propulsion kit relying not on electric trolling motor which even two together won’t push the boat any faster because they are not designed to. But a proper dedicated motor. Ok so I lose some range, just like electric cars but the technology is there, even You Tube has programmes on charging them as you go along, a sort of hybrid unit. It is no coincidence that nearly all commercial boats are diesel electrics as is the HST 125 train. The benefits of this type of propulsion system have been understood for a long time - they just haven’t been available to us. I read with interest Contessa the sailing boat manufacturer are installing similar power units as standard. The internet is full of companies who can supply and help fir or design your own system. Torquedo make a dedicated powerful electric outboard and If I had the money, I would have bought one straight away. We are at a pioneering change in technology and like all new ideas it always starts off expensive and needs trail blazers prepared to buy into the idea to keep it moving – I had and still do ( I whizzed out tonight on it) one of the first ever electric bikes , people laughed their socks of at me 12 years on and it’s still going strong. The bloke down the pub still swears at his 15 - I tend to swear at them.

electric engine for boats

This little 12-volt 55lb thrust has got me home – albeit slowly more times than it ought to have. You can see how fine the pitch is on the prop- which means it takes little bites of water not propelling the boat any great speed- because of this two together would make little difference.

The LED indicator shows which way the prop is turning in this case forward and speed - more speed the more power it will use – I have seen an installation where this bit has been taken off – the wires extended, and this becomes the control in the cockpit – I will be using a 24 volt for my project.




Engines aside boat life continues with the usual winter moss growing in the channels which get over whelmed when it rains. - hence the drip trays which still work.

I have made the tape removable , giving it a good wash through – I have now started using an anti mould spray see if we can stop the green from coming back.

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bloke down the pub said...

Time to service the out board.

I am very protective of mine. It might only be a second-hand Honda 8 with very faded silver cowling and the remains of a broken tiller handle still attached. However, its purpose is to push the boat along with out dramas. 

The first bit of advice is don’t go on line and ask for help. Buy a service manual – when that fails get on the phone website, email and even pen and paper and ask Honda, never amazes how much more they know about their own engines compared with the bloke down the pub. 

The next bit of advice is to get it done professionally. This means the various electrical components, seals and oils can all be done at the same time. This will mean removing said lump from the rear of the boat. As one gets older outboards get heavier and cunning must replace brute force and youthfulness: a simple hydraulic engine crane saves hours of problems and reduces the chance of not just a service but an after dunking strip down. 

I also don’t bother with electric start on something this small. Outboards should be kept as simple as possible, that way it eliminates a host of other issues. And the day I can’t pull that engine over is the day we go back to horse drawn.

Half the battle is proper winter storage. I see too many outboards sitting in the canal all over winter. Which means the all-important impeller is sitting in the water getting a good freeze up which cannot do them much good. 

Next is the fuel. When I come back to the mooring I never turn the engine off but disconnect the fuel supply and allow the carburettor to run out. Jerry the old mechanic from Bristol Boats told me that not only does this stop water etc building up in the carburettor but also the induced coughing fit at the end helps clear the jets. 

I never keep fuel in the tank over winter. In fact, I only ever add a gallon at a time to the remote tank with an appropriate shot of Redex or similar. 

Also tilt the engine up even in the summer time when not in use. I can remember being driven to distraction on the Kennet and Avon with an intermittent cooling water. To the point of almost stripping the impeller out on the towpath. A quick phone call to a serenely calm Jerry who had seen it all before and several tilts later and a lump of water reed came out the inlet!! Its amazing what gets up there and blocks the tubes.

I have also learnt the hard way to remove the gear linkage cable before tilting, I use Teleflex but even these don’t like being bent too far.

Ok so what do we need for a simple service that we can do?

  • A netting bag the kind that sprouts come in,
  • The correct spark plugs (too short the engine will start on tick over but wont work under load, too long and the engine will never work again)
  • Correct fuel filter for the engine and some new clips, 
  • Correct grade oil and one of those oil suction pumps
  • A plug spanner and some string. 
  • OH yes, I forgot a length of rubber tube that fits over the plug. 

I am lucky my mooring comes off a bank - all I have to do is reverse in and work from the bank.

First rig up the netting under the outboard, duct tape string anything will do, its job is to stop things falling into the canal. 

I won’t bore you with how to change filters or oil but move on to the string. All my tools have holes drilled in the handles. Loop the string through the hole and round your wrist. A sort of mechanics Pandora bracelet. To make yourself feel better count the number of times said tool dangles in mid-air as you let go of it and add an imaginary fiver to the service cost each time it does.

Next job is the plugs

Just loosen them with the wrench then slide the rubber over the top and unwind by hand, the result is the plug will come out still attached to the rubber and not land in the safety net along with the end of the plug socket. Putting them back in is just the reverse, the beauty of this is you cannot get cross threaded, very easy to do when they are sticking out at strange angles. 

Last job is to check the fuel connector. Mine is getting worn. A Honda one is expensive so I bought a cheap one from eBay. It leaked like a sieve so I still have the old one on. Eventually the little o rings get damaged and the first sign is a misfiring and revs all over the place. A quick squirt of carburettor cleaner doesn’t go amiss but the most important thing is a good look round, check for cracks in cables, loose wiring, damaged connectors... Very seldom do engines fail mechanically its always something stupid.

Lastly for your own protection follow this simple risk assessment. NEVER do this on a busy weekend, do it under the cover of darkness at 2 am, do it in the snow... For some reason when I undo my cowling thousands of experts appear from nowhere and one of them is - the bloke down the pub.

THIS WON'T HELP AN IMPELLER...                                                                    CHUGGING AWAY WITH COOLING WATER

outboard with cooling water


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not on my life!

Ok we are getting the idea that although I have an unswerving passion (that some would consider obsession) with all things boats, it is not one necessarily shared by family members – or at least to the same extent. 

So, I find myself often than not single handed. Suits me. However, a couple of instances have happened over the last few years to make me realise that am not getting any younger and the canals were perhaps not designed for such solo adventures. 

Who thought of putting bridges by locks - meaning I can’t pull my boat in to an empty one with out risking a 15 foot climb up a vertical slimy ladder? As for the swing bridge above Seend where one landing stage is on one side and the other the opposite side of the bank, it sends me into torrents every time I have to a figure a way of half opening it, pulling the boat through, clambering over everything and then tugging it shut with a lump of rope.

The most sobering realisation was a winter visit to drained lock 18 – that’s deep, properly deep. Ok not as deep as Bath but when you are standing in the bottom looking through the sluices one realises that a simple slip and wifey is off cruising the south of France on the insurance money.

The first real wake up call was New Year’s Eve 2015. I had been working all day and popped across to the boat. Unbeknown to me the neighbouring boat had thoughtfully tied his centre line to the cleat my side – being black I didn’t see it – all I remember was falling head first through thin ice into freezing water and the sensation that my head was being crushed by cold.

I have done enough dinghy sailing to know how quickly one loses strength, my one and only attempt to haul my carcass up onto the jetty failed. Dawn Treader (DT) sat there bobbing about but no way could I get up her vertical sides. My only option was to swim 50 yards to where I knew I could get out. It was only the air trapped in my jacket that possibly kept me afloat. 

Straight into the shower fully clothed and 10 minutes standing by the heater drinking hot coffee, but it got me thinking. 

There are four life jackets on board, why don’t I keep one in the car? Am I worried I will look silly? It’s a canal but a man can drown in 2 inches of water. These are proper life jackets which make sure I float face up wards even if I was unconscious which was possibly only inches away.

Secondly, I have a perfectly good boarding ladder at the stern which I don’t leave on all the time as I was worried that someone might steal it – one padlock later it is now a permanent feature. This would have saved breast stroking through the ice, but then on the plus side I was proud of my old ticker which could quite easily have said enough is enough and given up with the shock! 

I was always taught that the best solution to a man overboard situation was to stop the person going over in the first place. I grew up in a regime where a deck harness was worn the moment the ensign was lowered (those bright red flags you see on the back of some cruisers come with more rules of etiquette than the average garden party).

Indeed, most sail training vessels had wire stretched down each side that we clipped ourselves to whilst going about our numerous and varied duties on a wet slippery deck. How often have I nimbly slid along my deck sides completely unattached relying on a hand rail that was screwed in with Number 8 wood screws in 1972 – apart from its not any more its bolted through with M8 stainless bolts and washers because it did almost come adrift with me attached. Remembering that what may seem secure with a gentle pull may not hold out with the snatch weight of an 11 ½ stone man. 

Life jackets were also de rigour in my youth and had whistles attached and I am pretty sure that most people on the canal would come and see what the heck the noise was about should I decide to blow one in an emergency. My desire to escape modern life has lead me to the conclusion that on some stretches of the canal I am really on my own.

Actually, Dawn Treader is a death trap. It has a wonderful aluminium framed wheel house and rear canopy but narrow roll up flaps and a high cockpit combing to clamber out – you then must negotiate the outside of the wheel house on a 3½ in deck before reaching the safety of the handrails. In the summer time great - with the canopy down you can easily step aboard. In the winter lethal! 

So where is this all leading? Well I have taken the decision that despite the risk of strange looks DT is being rigged for Atlantic crossing. 

  • Two old rigging lines are being attached securely allowing me to remain clipped on via a deck harness right up to the bow. 
  • Extra hand holds all round the cockpit, (these don’t have to be fancy, loops of rope are ideal cheap and easy to move about) and a life jacket's worn the moment I leave the wheel house. 
  • All mooring lines are long enough to reach from the bow back to the wheel house on both sides, so I no longer have to clamber about on deck.
  • In the advent of an emergency a folding grappling anchor kept by the helm that can be lobbed at anything secured or growing to the bank when I need to stop in a hurry- such as meeting a wide beam coming through the bridge at Martin Slade.

Which leads onto how to negotiate an empty lock with a bridge meaning I can’t pull the boat in safely via ropes and must use the lock ladder. Usually I clamber up holding the bow and stern line in one hand and windless in my belt -which when you see it written down is an accident waiting to happen. What usually occurs is the boat floats off by itself pulling hard on one or the other rope leaving me gripping the ladder for dear life whilst risking having my shoulder dislocated. What we need to do is attach the mooring lines to a lighter heaving line with a monkey’s fist knot which is very nautical looking, whereas half a house brick would also do if you could risk the damage it did if it came back down. It just needs to be something that will carry the lighter line when thrown. 

Here’s a tip: don’t bother looking at the knot book to tie a monkeys fist, I am sure some of these books are written by people who enjoy the thought of us getting into a tangle and not achieving our aim. You tube is very instructive, and you can pause it. 

One wet Sunday afternoon and we have 3 monkey fists, I used golf balls from a charity shop as the centre that I can throw twice as far as my heavy mooring lines. The same deck harness can be attached to the ladder high up reducing the risk of me disappearing between the lock side and the boat.

So, does it all work! Well yes, apart from almost taking out a bystander with my new heaving line standing by the lock – though they did pull up the mooring line and secure it for me, the rope handles were inspirational and a few more have appeared. The deck harness is great for also attaching the windless to and my life jacket makes a better body warmer than anything from a sailing boutique. 

But more importantly I am sitting here writing this and you never know what can happen next. Lastly and I don’t want to sound a kill joy boating is supposed to be fun but don’t ever try any of this with a few wets in you. I like a Beer or two as much as any man- once the boat is secure and I have finished the day. I have seen a few deaths on the river Avon all attributed to drink.

1. Not the easiest exit to negotiate in a hurry with the canopy up 

2. Rope loops - cheap, simple and highly effective and can be moved about

3. critical missing 3-foot gap between hand rails, now with wire safety rope 

4. Monkey fist made on a simple jig – washing line is great. It's hard wearing and cheap as chips – you can also cheat and run a lighter over it making sure it never slips!! I found the long nose pliers invaluable for tightening up. Play – people don’t play enough life is all taken too seriously. My first attempt was awful these are 3rd or fourth ones 

Simon Woollen safety harness and life jacket

5. Emergency stop mechanism – just a simple folding grapnel anchor doesn’t really need the chain but effective. Keep it in the cockpit ready.

6. Harness and life jacket- it just adds a little extra support and stops me from over balancing .If I have to leave the cockpit single handed its usually in a hurry and for the wrong reasons.

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gone cruising

It’s that time of year when the TV is full of adverts for cruise ships showing off their levels of comfort and sprinkling the word luxury onto everything from the food to the service and even the bathroom. Even the chance of seeing exotic sea life and all this before it's tied up in some sun-drenched port offering excursions and the chance of fine dining alfresco with the natives. 

Well it’s not for me, I go boating to get away from modern life to experience some simplicity – but wait, I do but obviously if some one has built not one but several 1000 of these craft others may not share my ideas. 

Before we go any further I must stress that Mrs Woollen has a unique understanding of the psychology of men and boys – basically there is little difference and we both have the need to play the boat being a grown-up toy and actively encourages me to spend nights on board or to go off and do something with it - tempering it slightly with normal life as obsession can soon over ride all. I know only too well though that one person’s hobby can be a domestic battle ground that no one wins.

OK a week on a cruise ship costs money – but is it any more than the cost of mooring fees, Canal licence, insurance not to mention the variable cost such as fuel, repairs and eBay specials. Add it all up and we are half way through a 5-night river cruise on the Rhone. I may not like it – mainly because they wouldn’t let me drive but I can see Mrs W enjoying 5 days of being pampered and not cooking etc. 

Suddenly the realisation that my idea of getting away from it – sleeping on a two-foot-wide bunk in a pair of cut downs, not shaving for a few days and going easy on the shower water may not be someone else’s - a phenomenon underpinned by the up rise in glamping a long way from the days of the humble tent without ground sheets.

The exotic locations, this is also something that shouldn’t be sneered at. I have learnt that one trip from Foxhangers to Bradford on Avon is great, two trips can be samey and three – the wife isn’t interested in (seen it, done it). This has been highlighted by my sailing days - 20 years of sailing flat out around in circles on the Avon at Salford finally bored me. Indeed my profile picture shows the folding dinghy that has opened a new and varied world. 

Sadly, an old Dawncraft is well beyond the capabilities of a roof rack and even a 4-wheeled trailer is pushing it. Coupled with the need to be moored reasonably locally so maintenance isn’t an issue and far from cruising new ground we are never more than 20 miles from home. As for seeing whales from a private balcony the chances on the Kennet and Avon are nil and any attempt to replicate it would be more pantomime than realistic. As for excursions - difficult when you have lived somewhere for thirty years to find a new one. 

There would even be a good argument for renting a barge each season on a different part of the canal net work rather than owning your own boat, certainly the ones where I am moored are better appointed than our home with every mod con and someone else has to do the laundry, cleaning and painting. 

Maybe one underrated issue is food. 

Now my favourite munchies are sausages wrapped in sliced bread with ketchup or mustard delicately served on a tin plate jammed on the cabin roof. Washed down with a coffee in a mug that perhaps ought to see a dishwasher. In fact, I am harbouring a secret liking for partly dissolved lumps of powdered milk to the point where it may have some addictive qualities. Fine if it’s just me but why wouldn’t Mrs W hanker for table service a choice of menu and not have to cook it your self – that’s before you try washing up in a sink that is too small even for the meanest washing up bowl. I have even joined an online boat cooking group just to make sure that food on board isn’t just heated pasties. 

Suddenly one realises that life on this soggy old Dawncraft is going to have to raise its game.

Comfort is subjective. I have mastered exactly what setting the water heater needs to be on to avoid be lobstered or frozen, I know the vagaries of the port-a-potty and its ability to back pressure – not the most endearing trick when you are trying hard to make someone feel relaxed and at home. Mrs W is 5 feet 2 so has plenty of head room – I am not and only just fit standing upright - a matter made slightly worse by my injection of the headlining with expanding foam. Head room aside, 2 feet by 2 foot square isn’t the best place to try and get undressed showered dried and redressed – something will always get wet. 

I am also pretty sure that your average cruise ship doesn’t ask you to drag the loo to the nearest emptying point on deck any more than it comes with a dial to say its full at the most inopportune moment. 

As for relaxing even I removed the original dining set up in favour of cushioned directors chairs that you can lean back in. The original set up being more like a fast food diner that looks comfortable but is cleverly designed not to be as it doesn’t want you sat there too long. 

One can argue that with a holding tank none of this is an issue but then it becomes an extra cost and my “plastic bathtub” (when you have sailed the amount I have and taught boat handling etc., don’t you just love a little waterway snobbery...) would soon become akin to a toxic tanker.

Finally, I am pretty sure that cruise companies don’t ask the passengers to operate the locks or stuck swing bridges and if they did they may be accused of barking the odd order to stop an errant stern line taking out the prop. Any more than passengers are expected to act as mechanic's mate when the engine plays up. And that is the point - the realisation that family and friends are passengers who just want to relax and get away from it all.

Me? The weather's improved enough to risk filling the water tanks and washing the coffee mug; there is a few hours getting greasy with the engine; I could do with a waterproof loo roll holder but its not essential; there’s still some tins of stew from last season and what I assume are baked beans but the label has come off with the condensation; and I’ve lost all the tea spoons somewhere. But I am off this Friday. 

Mrs W? possibly pleased to have some peace and quiet and look up the prices of a river cruise along the Rhone.

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wet from the inside out...

damp patch on dawn treaderPHOTO: Signs of water damage on the hardboard – dripping on my bunk, if I wasn’t in it at the time I would be convinced the windows were leaking.

When I first bought my Dawncraft it had no insulation at all but was covered in navy blue office carpet – parts of it still are and some even worse brown carpet on bunk sides - two bits of which still exist years later. The reason for this was to stop the dreaded condensation. This issue never really occurred to me as I had more than enough leaks from vents, windows and anything else connected to the outside world to worry about a little damp from condensing water vapour. However, over the last few seasons I have noticed it getting steadily worse and my desire to stay warm may be the problem.

The first thing we installed was a Propex gas fired hot air recirculating heater for the only reason being it was all I could afford. Basically, this takes its oxygen from the outside world burns the gas and sends the exhaust back to the outside. A fan blows the boat air across a heat exchanger and the cabin warms up, any fumes etc. being well away from windows where they could creep back in. This heater is rated at 1800 watt but with the Dawncraft's ability to leak warm air through sliding windows, roof vents, door vents etc. it struggled to lift the temperature more than 10 degrees. Great if it’s five degrees outside, not so good if it’s minus five. 

What was needed was insulation. First job was remove the plastic roof lining and stick a load of bubble wrap with reflective foil. I did notice whilst doing this the amount of condensation that was trapped behind the plastic, but ignored as it wasn’t much. Heater fired up and the boat seemed much warmer, indeed the cabin roof would often have frost on it but inside was a balmy 6 degrees. I noticed the odd drip from the edge of the roof lining, but a few well-placed bowls dealt with this. Finally one of the fluorescent roof mounted lights started buzzing and flashing on and off like Morse code – it was full of water, condensation water. Next job get all the wiring out from behind the roof and surface mount it or in conduit, and every light is now bulk head fitted with condensation loop on the wiring.

dawn treader moisture gathererPHOTO: Portside full-length drip strips and collection points – I got rid of the original table area. It took up too much room and director chairs are far more comfortable on board

What came next, I would not recommend doing. Desperate men can get absorbed with an issue and exclude any rational thought process, but it has worked. Basically, I drilled holes six inches apart through the plastic lining, gave each one a good squirt of expanding foam and then with a broom smoothed it all out until it set. The mark 2 version was even better - a sheet of ply held up with broom on top of the car jack. Feel free to try it but buy a disposable overall with a hood and cover everything in plastic. Don’t go back in the boat until its set and whatever you do don’t light the gas or any spark as the fumes are highly explosive. It really has worked, and the boat got warmer.

Dawn Treader moisture trapPHOTO: Starboard side, this was the worst area, water would collect on the work top. The thermostat is for the Propex heater and the 12-volt adaptor for when we are on shore power. A larger collection vessel has been installed, this is in the trial stage, but it worked.

However, the condensation on the windows became a real issue and I ended up drilling the drain holes out, trying to shift the puddles building up in the channels. This damp channel would soon grow moss, lichen and all sorts of colonising plants filling the inside with water. I cured this by using dilute Eco washing up liquid to reduce the surface tension and get things flowing.

I sleep up forward in the v berths with my feet under the bow and soon developed a new medical complaint called Dawncraft feet. The top half of my body was toasting with the heater, but my feet were minus five and damp – you guessed it - now the entire bow section was wringing wet as condensation formed on the deck head and surrounding hull. 

Finally, the whole hull was covered with 20mm thick polystyrene sheet covered in white hardboard – more of this later. I spent hours cutting lath to support the polystyrene until I discovered 'no more nails' or equivalent. It stuck beautifully, though use plenty. 

The first night on board with this extra insulation was bliss, warm feet dry warm bed - I even removed some winter clothing. However, I woke up one morning in a large damp patch. Your first reaction being a certain age is not the best especially after a congenial evening in the Barge Inn at Seend. I am pleased to report that inside the sleeping bag was still dry. 

Opening the blinds revealed the front window absolutely saturated and dripping down on the shelf and running off on to me. Worse the hard board that I thought would not be an issue – I quote “if this gets wet I have worse problems” resembled O level chemistry chromatography paper.

condensationPHOTO: It's not pretty, but it's highly effective especially if I am not there for a while. Sadly all the panels are damaged by condensation drips and will need replacing.  

OK so what do I think has happened? There is a set volume of air inside the cabin which heats up. Warm air holds moisture in the form of invisible water vapour – even me breathing adds to this. Before I insulated everything in sight condensation probably formed evenly and thinly across the whole boat, but now the same volume of air with the same percentage water vapour condenses on the coldest surfaces – the windows. They used to mist up but never this badly. Even the internal aluminium channel covers on the window frames have beads of moisture on them. 

I am in my “experimental development phase”. I can’t cure the problem, but I can engineer where the water goes, and a simple but effective solution came to me – Wiring conduit mounted under the window frames directs the excess moisture in to collection vessels. Basically, I cut back the carpet to the hull, cleaned it up and stuck the channel on with some special seal (anything any where grip adhesive goo). Within minutes of installing it dripping noises were heard and when I left the boat little drops of water were already collecting in it. It will also act as a flood channel for the sliding windows which have an ability to be overwhelmed by a decent rain storm and overflow. 

Has it worked? The short answer is yes and after visiting the boat today and realising that I was collecting more than anticipated an adaptation with drain tap had to be fashioned to the original collecting vessel under the front shelf. All the window channels had water in which was dripping into various pots and tubs. Once we are through the worst of the winter then a more aesthetic version can be thought up for the front window but for now its saved the bunk. 

condensationPHOTO: The window channels filling with moss and lichen don’t help but its difficult to control - eco washing up liquid has worked but a good clean out with a flat bladed screw driver is the only real solution.




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it was cheap...

When I bought my Dawncraft 25 it had to fit three strict criteria: available immediately, local and come with a mooring. The rest I thought an intelligent man like myself could sort out. The money was duly handed over and I stood on a flexing roof the proud owner of a 1973 icon of boating history. 

Over the years each successive owner had added their many and varied improvements to life below decks from leaking shower tray to Paloma water heater with inbuilt frost damage – why this was never drained during the winter lay up should have alerted me to other issues like, where’s the paper work from a gas fitter? This being essential for the boat safety certificate. 

Anyhow we go boating to live our idea of a dream, chugging along in the sunshine watching the world drift by and enjoying or escaping the hum drum of our reality, leaving behind all modern conveniences for the simple life. Which means we can simplify boat buying too. Does it leak, does the engine work and can it steer left and right and any subsequent problems we can rectify with those immortal words of “ all it needs is..." and "you can get one on eBay" or "I know someone who can do that cheaply". 

Originally my Dawncraft was powered by a BMC petrol engine coupled to what was a reliable almost agricultural Enfield Z drive. It's worth noting that this arrangement was designed both for its weight and power by clever men with slide rules, in fact we could say that the whole boat was designed around this original power to weight ratio and that any subsequent alteration to this would effect the waterline and thus its handling and speed. The Z drive off memory is in effect a 20.1 reduction gear box and a petrol engine can rev at 4000 revs so you can work out prop rotation. Also the Z drive is / was 40 years old – I am in my mid 50s and the NHS has had to do more than one emergency repair to me. Though it is possible to take them off in the water – as I have done it more than once it’s not recommended because it comes from an era when boating stopped in September, all craft were lifted out and engineers called to do annual servicing. Sadly over the years many small boat yards no longer have the lifting facilities or slip ways etc to enable owners to do this and if you can I have just been quoted £300.

My pride and joy had been refitted with a twin cylinder Kubota Diesel engine – truly agricultural as it came from a tractor. Reliable, fuel efficient, powerful, - on paper just what was needed. In reality it weighed twice as much as the petrol engine and was modified badly to take a Jabsco cooling pump. The whole thing fitted the existing engine bay like a glove, which meant that you could not get another hand (especially one clutching a spanner) in there. Also we were now stern heavy to the point where the lower rubbing strake was below the water line and the bow bunk lockers useless as they now contained ballast in a vain attempt to correct this. Add a few guests and the rubber bellows essential to keeping the water out the boat and more importantly the Z drive was now well under water, which according to the owners' manual is bad news.

Before we go any further If you are considering buying an old bargain boat and you want to have people on board you are going to need a little faith as you are about to enter a world of barbed comments, a little 


Buddhism doesn’t go amiss. So is what they are about to say true, necessary or kind? Your pride and joy is about to come under the “ if it was mine I would do this to it" syndrome and indeed you may feel so wounded that you start doing their bidding and miss the elephant in the room. 

The inboard engine in my case got its cooling water from outside via a sea cock. Years of sailing everything from tall ships to racing boats taught me one vital lesson, holes below the water line are trouble and I always viewed this one with suspicion. I always intended to replace this the day I found somewhere that would lift it out cheaply, but being prudent I fashioned from a broom stick with a penknife something that is usually found on time team, the idea being if the worst came I could plug that hole in a hurry. Of course in reality I would have to be on board when it happened but it gave me peace of mind whilst I got rid of the old table and made a new one which was on the “I would do this” list . 

A final word before the main event. Sea cocks etc are made of something that doesn’t usually corrode for some time, but corrode they do -

usually accelerated by some chemical electrical action for example sea water, or stray current on board . Sea cocks are quite expensive where as DIY store taps are not. Sea cocks are an alloy that usually has copper in it somewhere which gives a wonderful pink tinge or patina when aged. 

So to recap. We have one old boat bought cheaply with the wrong engine that no one likes because it is noisy and smelly, a dubious cooling system, a Z drive that despite being off 3 or four times in my ownership is too far down in the water, an interior that is inferior to everyone who ever visits it, and a dream of chugging along in the sunshine with happy friends and spouses getting a good dousing at every opportunity. 

The Kennet and Avon above Bath is beautiful and we were lucky to have found a mooring on the Somerset coal canal – indeed we live in a cottage along side the now defunct bit. The Canal trust spent a fortune lining the notorious leaking bit in concrete, excellent. The K/A at that time suffered like so many from unregulated moorings so that bridge entrances had 3 or 4 barges moored close, add a blind bend into the equation and Sunday mornings can get hectic. Great for gongoozlers who come to watch events unfold but bad for any skipper.

To cut a long story short the Z drive hit the concrete hard, hard enough to stall the diesel engine all whilst I was trying to take immediate action in reverse to avoid being sunk by forty tons of steel barge. By the laws of physics something had to give and said agricultural lump gave – and what appeared to be everything. The faith said it’s just the gear selector again, the heart knew from the noise it sounded more dramatic. We now have everyone’s nightmare - a boat miles from home with no propulsion. Luckily because of my years of being at sea, I came prepared - not with an auxiliary with stale fuel and cooling impeller on its last fins but a 55lb thrust electric out board and a home made bracket to boot. 

dawn treader with emergency rigPHOTO: DAWN TREADER WITH EMERGENCY RIG

OK what does it take to move a boat? Take a rope and tie a loop in it, put the loop over the top of the scales and pull. The Dawncraft will move at about 10lb. Now move faster and watch the scales go down as you encounter drag or water resistance, now halve this speed because your battery won’t last five minutes pushing this load at this speed, and you have propulsion all be it at snail's pace. On the bright side half the passengers are happy as the engine has stopped and they hated the noise. The other half have done the usual “ nothing to do with me” got off and walked home. Leaving just oneself and an unswerving faith and dream. 

Get home we did slowly and with strange effects from the wind as we were close to losing steerage – usually defined as the speed required across the rudder to make it effective but in this case to avoid being the equivalent of a polystyrene slab with no control. This little motor cost a few hundred quid and has saved me too often so really worth buying for any one considering boating as a hobby. Remembering that in its simplest form a boat needs a watertight hull and engine and ability to steer left and right. 

By the following weekend I was a proud owner of a well used Honda 8 pull start out board, with the ingenuity that comes from a youth playing with Meccano a simple steering mechanism was used off the old Z drive - we were mobile again all be it with a ton of now unwanted scrap metal in the original engine bay and a defunct cooling system of dubious age and quality. 

Several trips were made to Avon cliff and people happy with the new quiet out board. I was happy with its new turn of speed, remembering the diesel engine drove the Z drive at almost half its recommended revs, although it had the pulling power of a Thames tug anything over 3 knots and the kettle fell off the cooker with the vibration and conversation was impossible. Indeed there was no point in watching the wild life as most of that was alerted well in advance of us arriving.

It was late Sunday afternoon and I was just about to leave for home, the boat tucked up on its moorings at the top of the Somerset coal canal, handy for the loo and the café, when I heard running water. My first instinct was the road drain from the A36 above and I walked up to it to listen, but the noise was 25 foot away at the back of the boat the lower rubbing strakes being well under water. We were sinking and fast. For any one new to boating and buying an old boat pay the extra insurance and get covered for sinking, even if it means a full survey which would have alerted me to everything I found and possibly stopped me buying it (though actually I doubt it - I had an unswerving dream that could justify any unforeseen event!) 

Somewhere in my distant past I had training in just such an event and the first thing is don’t panic, start the bilge pump and assess. I even started the old engine for the first time in six weeks and used its now disconnected cooling water intake to pump said water. The rule of thumb for bilges is they are not added storage and should be free of dirt and gubbings that can block a pump. The water kept rising. 

Now it’s time to panic for no other reason than a panicking man with a bucket can shift more water than any pump built and I shifted gallons and quickly. A side ways jet of water showed that the fitting had finally given out, a deft whack with the nearest heavy object to hand, the lock windlass finished the job properly, the time team bung still hanging in the locker was whacked hard into the offending hole and the water reduced to a trickle. Another decent whack reduced it to a seep. 

holes in hull of Dawn Treaderrust on Dawn Treader

rotten timber onboard Dawn TreaderThe engine smoked and grunted as its cooling water ran out and the bilge pump spluttered to a halt sucking in a ton of dirt that I neglected to remove, being busy with the outboard. But we were still afloat – ish . The next day after work I arrived with tools, generator, underwater setting compound, glass fibre, and set about drying, sanding & cleaning the area around the intake. Six matt coatings were applied and a crayon mark left at the height of any water in the bilge. It seemed to have worked. 

Nick Shepphard of Bristol boats saved the day, the idea was to completely rebuild the transom, take the engine out and Z drive off and have the out board on the back. I will save the journey down the river Avon flowing fast after dark for another time. Although we couldn’t get the boat out several planks of wood and a land rover towed its stern up the slipway enough to work on it. The following really needs to be seen by any one considering buying a 40 year old boat. Basically the rear or transom is made of an external panel of glassfibre and an internal panel. Sandwiched between this is marine ply. The bolts and the hole for the Z drive go through this with a rubber gasket. None of which after 40 years was really attached to anything. Z drives had an ability to be wound up out the water, excellent for cleaning props off but this gear mechanism required a further 4 inch hole and with the weight of the diesel which it wasn’t designed for, 2 inches of this was below the water line. I used to blame the Jabsco pump for the water in the engine bay as it would drip from the shaft, what I didn’t realise was that the Z drive would flex the transom every now and then and water would gush in, mainly because I couldn’t see past such a tight fitting engine. We could have sunk at any moment. Nick said that when they lifted the old engine which was apparently almost too heavy for their gear the rear of the boat came up 4 inches out the water.

Any how the result is a water tight old tub from the bottom up. Sadly it still leaks from the top down but that’s another article. A professionally built transom with paper work and photos for insurance, no intakes below water line and her name cut in half which everyone remarks on but I haven’t got round to fixing because I am still doing the inferior interior. 

Oh and a second hand Honda 8 pull start that requires no batteries to start it but like myself is getting on a bit and has off days but it was cheap.

Oh yes sorry the Z drive, that managed to sheer the bevel gear clean off and bent the input shaft. It was sold for parts. 

Someone got a cheap bargain! 

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