Blog from the Boat

March 2012:CSI Part 2 (The Hair Story continued) Canalside Curries and Larking about on a Thames barge

14 March 2012 | London, as ever
Urban Boater
Morning has broken da-di-da-di-dah! What a beautiful day, it feels like bloody summer I'm so impressed!

It's not even mid-March yet and Urban Boater has been very busy out and about, and not out and about. We just get everywhere!

Around our way on the canal there seems to be a lot of good, bad and ugly energy at the moment.

From the buzz (a tiny bit sad?!) caused by the filming of a B & Q advert where our neighbour's boat, 'Carlotta', bedecked and bejewelled with flowers completely covering the roof of the boat was used in the background of an ad they were filming (and Urban Boater made 50 quid just moving out of the way for the advert...we really must get in the way of film locations more often) to the distressing news about Gemma McCluskie's murder after her body was found in the lock at Broadway Market.

First, the cheerful news from our stretch of the towpath. The boat 'Carlotta', a wide-beam perhaps about 50-60ft long was used in the advert which was filmed at the start of the month.

Carlotta be-flowered
I hasten to add in Mackerel Sky's defence that we were asked too by the location manager if we would be interested in allowing our boat to be used (for a reported 500 quid just to move your boat up and down the canal for an afternoon, er, let me think?) but definitely the better boat won the day as the crews arrived to deck every surface with plants real and artificial, to make the boat look like a floating carnival-it really looked beautiful!

I wish my camera did it justice as I took a photo of the flowers as dusk came and I was busy getting diesel off Dominique, who anyone on a boat in London would probably know, he's a French guy, improbably rogue-ishly dashing despite being covered head to toe with oil that seems to permanently stain him (is he like this at the start of the day I wonder?)

At least I think he's French, he swears at the canal, "This canal is so full of shit!" and wears a stripey top. No onions or beret though, so he might not be French.

* * *

So that was the first bit of excitement. Then Mackerel Sky helped the Met with a murder investigation.

So, you remember the start of the hair story in February's edition right? Well, we found hair round our propeller, human hair, told the police but didn't actually take it to the station in the end, forgot about it, hair what hair? Course you remember!

So that had happened and we thought nothing more of it, until Victoria, the very nice British Waterways boat checker, popped round stopped by and waved (Victoria bikes about rain or shine to check the locations of all the boats (ie checks that we're not all taking the piss too much by not moving on).

After being told off in the nicest possible way for mooring against some scaffolding of a building site last week (I KNEW it was a bad idea but did Bob listen?! Helpful advice, what did I tell you) Victoria said,

"Did you hear about the body in the canal?"

"What body?" (At this point it's raining and I'm descending rapidly into a week of what I have called dysentry so I'm trying to politely curtail the conversation, lovely as Victoria is. thanks for your concern guys, the illness wasn't that bad...Ok, it was).

"Yeah, yesterday they found a torso in the lock at Broadway Market. Just a torso"

"Oh my gosh! That is terrible, that's awful! Do they know anything else?"

"That's all they've found, they think it might be an Eastenders actress"

"An Eastenders actress? Who?" (Suddenly, the hair, Eastenders-which actress could it be?-and the unsolved mystery come into my mind).

"Ooh you know that's quite weird Victoria, 'cause the other night, well the other week (suddenly the importance of precise dates comes into my mind, we are dealing with a crime here, timing is everything) we found a load of hair wrapped round our propeller. It was definitely human hair, we did tell the Police".

Which is not really a lie is it? They just never got the hair.

"Oh you should probably tell them again about that. Yeah, they'll want to know."

So, obviously we didn't tell them, that's just the way we are, you know by now! Anyway what were we to say, "Oh hello. We found some human hair under our boat and you told us to bring it in but actually then we threw it away. Sorry." We thought if they want to know about it, they'll get in touch. At a decent time of day.

That night, in the throes of the storm going on in my bowels, crouching foetal-position in the bed when there's a knock on the door, and then windows of the boat until they reach our bedroom window.

"Fuck! Who's that!" I say in my near-delirious state, "Bob! Bob! Someone just knocked, what if it's that gang? Quick! Do something!"

I open the curtains and two blokes are outside, silhouetted against the street lamp above the canal, "It;s the Police madam. We'd like to ask you some questions."

Obviously I have watched too many crime programmes as my next words, the suspicious mind of an urban boater that is untied regularly, "How do we know that you're really the Police?" Huh? Huh? I feel proud of myself (Bob later tells me he was really impressed at me asking this, "Aww thanks Bob!" I say, feeling the flush of self-satisfaction and that yes, that-was-rather-good-wasn't-it?).

Anyway, Bob goes outside to speak to them. They want to know about the hair, when, where did we find it, no, they're not cross that we threw it away. First thing tomorrow they're going to bring divers to check under the boat to see if there's any hair left.

The next day the Police had ruled it out as it didn't fit the right time frame..It begs the question though doesn't it: Whose hair was wrapped round our propeller? Or, perhaps it was a wig after all.

And that's the end of Mackerel Sky's small part in the very sad tale of poor Gemma McCluskie's murder.

* * *

So, as I said, it's only mid-March and already all this has happened.
Bob and his friend Owen are both chefs and they have decided to forge ahead with their Canalside Curries together (it's yet to be Christened properly yet) and this past weekend went really well after the washout that was last Sunday.

Go down the canal and find them serving from our boat Mackerel Sky or from Owen's back deck-you can't miss his boat it has the wagon-like canvas covers. Curry, salad and a creamy thirst-quenching lassi for a fiver-you can't beat it!

I might add to this entry if we actually ever get round to putting topsoil into our raised roof beds! I say 'we', you know I mean Bob.

Catch you later!

February 2012: Crime Scene Investigations, TV and Boat Breakages

02 January 2012 | London Regent's Canal
Urban Boater
Nothing to do with Mackerel Sky but what a sky.
What happened in February apart from Valentine's day and a touch of SAD? Mackerel Sky only got caught up, quite literally, in the murky depths of a murder investigation.

Apart from that, a lot of things on our boat have broken:
-The inverter (so our plugs aren't working)

-The switch for the hot water pump (so to have a bath Bob has to hold the switch down, down? I think that's what he does, for me)

-The light pull in the bathroom (enthusiastically pulled out of its socket by a friend) which sounds easy to mend but as with all boat things, just takes TIME and it feels kind of nice and funny that a candle-lit bath is done not out of choice.

-The toilet (don't ask)

-What else? Oh generally other bits and bobs, the paint work on the boat looking shabby (you can see the steel braces showing through the wood, wheres that paint tin?)..a typical boat palaver. Do I sound jaded at all?!

All in all, some important things that were broken in addition to the cold weather and need for constant wood or coal supplies means a hard month best forgotten. It is at this time of the year where's you reach the end of your tether with boat life (unless you've reached that point where you're sitting cosy in front of the stove of an evening) but just as you reach that point, Spring happens.

So, now for the creepy bit of February's notes from the boat.

I'll try to set the atmosphere with some creative license. One night with the wind howling, the rain pouring and the candles (in the bathroom) lit, the television lit up the room in lurid colours as Bob and I ventured (I say I, what I mean is that Bob does all the hard work and I make the tea, make some helpful comments telling Bob how to drive the boat and then return to the arduous task of watching Eastenders) down the canal to fill up our water tank.

This is a god-awful weekly task that makes you not want to live on a boat sometimes-especially if you're in the shower, lathered up with soap when the water runs out and your 5 miles from the filling up point.

So, the wind was howling, the rain pouring (not technically true I admit...) and joy of joys, the engine stops.

"Bob! Bob! What's going on?! You've stopped in front of a building and the signal's gone!"

I shout from my cushioned throne, I mean, sofa. Some minutes pass..something is trapped round the propeller, "Oh not %^&ing again!" I helpfully offer.

An episode later, some channel hopping and a decision to settle on Panorama or something and Bob comes in saying that there is hair wrapped round the propeller.

"Hair? What, hair? Are you sure it's not a wig Bob?"

"Come and see it."

"No Bob I hate hair please don't make me come and see it!" (suddenly Panorama becomes very interesting)

"Oh go on, there's a massive clump around the propeller."

"No really please I can't, you know I hate hair off heads, it's the only thing I can't stand, please."

Some cutting sounds, expletives and credits later and Bob comes in with the hair asking me to look at it. He burned a bit and that unmistakably foul smell of burning human hair filled the air.

"Oh God, Bob, we have to take it to the Police". Which Bob promptly did, but they were shut (yes, shut, it's only 9pm!) and he is told a crime reference number and to bring it in tomorrow.

Well, obviously Bob works and I, well, I feel a bit sheepish about this part of the story but I am a busy girl! I mess around doing Urban Boater every day and on the day I should have done my civic duty and taken said hair to the station I was meeting Thames 21, meeting a friend, getting some of those £5 black pumps that are de rigeur around this way (well they were 'in, like, 2009') and most importantly I was umming and ahhing over which bagel to get from Brick Lane at least two days before I went down there (I chose a rather disappointing tuna).

So you can see I had I had my day planned and I wasn't about to let a bag of wet, manky hair ruin it.

The hair miraculously disappeared from the back deck and the story just became our little dinner-party/back deck/boater gossip anecdote. And so we forgot about the grissly finding under the boat until on into March to find out what happened.

On a happy note, Urban Boater is almost ready to proudly present the fruits of Bob's labour in the form of Canalside Curries! Bob did a couple of trial goes on a Sunday and we met some lovely, interesting and encouraging people along the towpath and everyone said they loved the food which is great.

The plan is to grow the business until we have a bigger take-away boat and then eventually a floating cafe...that's the dream anyway.

I'm fed of regressing into the dirge of February when this March weather is so beautiful and Spring-like.

So, let's write February off and go onwards onwards into the exciting month of March where Urban Boater got involved in the present Regent's Canal Murder Mystery, read about our midnight Met Police visit ("But how can we really know you are the police?") pot planting (we're almost there) and B & Q's flower power on a boat.

January 2012: Hopes, Regrets, Let's call the whole thing off

01 January 2012 | Regent's Canal, London, England
Urban Boater
So Happy New Year one and all, 2012 is going to be the year of the Urban Boater!We'll be updating the blog monthly showing what shenanigans, DIY, gardening and general stuff we've got up to on our Regent's Canal adventure...

This month we've decided to beautify our roof. It has been cluttered with solar panels, the wind turbine and piles of wood that we burn on the stoves-this heats the boat and water on the Rayburn that we cook on as well so we need a constant supply-usually taken from skips around our manor in East London or by builders (a kind of mutual benefit) that seem to be working on, demolishing or modernising everything in site along the Regents Canal.

I understand that more homes need to be built (though invariably it's only the comfortably -off that can afford a nice canalside pad) it is quite sad really that the old warehouse buildings are being knocked down for carbon copies of flats. Near our old mooring on the Orsman Road stretch of the canal there must be about 5 developments, so great, people living there will stare out of their windows at a mirror-image of their own flat, over a be-shadowed bit of canal. I'm not a NIMBY(Canal), I just feel like we're losing a bit of old industrial London once these places are built.

Rant over. So it's January, the time of psuedo-fitness in gymnasia, resolutions failing and melancholy. I decided my resolution was to 'carry on regardless' but we did decide that Ol' Mackerel Sky needs to get a 'roof-lift'. So Bob has been making lovely flower (my request) and vegetable troughs from old palettes to go along the roof. We're actually crap gardeners, inside and outside.

All the plants we buy for inside the boat die pretty quickly no matter how many encouraging actions we take (like watering, longing looks, lamentations) so I'm hoping the outdoor veg and flower crew will represent this 2012.

Any one who knows me and Bob knows that I'm the near-useless foreman that has a bright idea of how to go about making stuff, like troughs, and Bob has his own inimitable theories and methods. But hey, they look bloody good and I've been allowed to paint them red so they'll add a bit of colour to our very navy boat that looks a bit boring (our old incarnation of Mackerel Sky was really Rastafarian-gold, red and green and was really jolly but then we went a bit grown-up when we extended and repainted her).

Anyone that has painted their own boat knows how expensive the paint is so I guess it's worth buying one colour in bulk and then doing more decorative bits and bobs on any other stuff on show (I'm such an aesthete, I know).

The Story of Mackerel Sky and Urban Boater's life on the sublime and squalid Regent's Canal in London

31 December 1969 | London
Urban Boater
Hello All! I thought I should put some background about us, Mackerel Sky and life on the boat.My name is Holly, I live on the Regent's Canal with my partner Bob, our son and our cat Rodney on our boat, 'Mackerel Sky'.

Anyone that has walked along the Regents' Canal has probably seen one of us, either me struggling to lift the pushchair onto the back deck, Rodney darting or falling off the boat to explore or catch mice, or Bob (or occasionally me if I have to) chopping up wood.

Our boat, Mackerel Sky, has had an eventful life and this is the story of how we came to make her our home.

I come from quite a boat-orientated family. My father ran a boat yard in Totnes in Devon and knows a lot of people in the industry, so when I told him Bob and I were looking for a canal boat (after only knowing each other a couple of months) he let me know of one after he'd had lunch with a boat surveyor mate who knew of a boat going.

Esther, a 40ft Springer that had sunk currently being pumped out in Cowley in Uxbridge, West London.

My unnerving optimism and naivity led me to utter the words, "Great Dad! Let's go and see the boat!" So we went and blimey, the boat was damp and smelly, as damp as a sponge.

Used as a floating caravan holiday boat, she had sunk because after a week of heavy rain and tight ropes the boat had been pulled below the water line and water had poured into the rusty and decrepid gas locker, sinking the boat. The story goes something like that anyway.

So, we put in a sealed bid to buy the boat and got it for £3,200. This is a question we get asked a lot: "How much was your boat?"


"How much?!"

" Wow, that's really cheap, I'm going to get a canal boat!"

"Yeah, but..."

So we had bought 'Esther', gutted the inside so only a wood burning stove remained and had to go a couple of miles to the Highline Yachting Boat Yard along the Slough Arm of the Grand Union Canal. A reasonable, easy journey for the experienced boater.
Part of the bathroom today

But we weren't (and still are not) experienced boaters. On a cold, dark and windy day we left the safety of our mooring spot not before doing a couple of comedy turns-literally - our boat swiveling on the windy canal water looming and leering like a drunkard towards the parked boats on either side.

Yes. I admit I did do a bit of screaming. Mostly shouting things like, "Bob! Bob! Mind the $£@*ing boats!" of course inciting terror in the faces of the surrounding boat owners. Finally managing to go reasonably straight we had to do a right-angled turn down the Slough Arm.

With deft skill and unerring confidence we managed to drive into the side of a bridge (a dented scar the boat still bears) before limping slowly into the Arm (anyone who knows this part of the waterway could, I hope, but somehow I doubt it, empathise).

Needless to say the rest of the journey was conducted in silence, I had taken charge of the boat and we drifted from one side of the canal like a tin can across the surface. I think I was frozen to the tiller until the engine conked out on the wrong side of the canal from the boat yard just as the light was failing.

So, the hull my novice understanding, the surveyor basically uses a hammer to determine the thickness of the steel of the hull. Our surveyor's hammer went through the hull at several places. Verdict: the whole hull needed to be replated with new steel (Remember the "Yeah, well..." bit of our response to how cheap the boat seemed to be).

I remember the chat with the boat yard manager in his office, to our question, "Can it be saved?" He replied with a wry smile, "Well, any boat can be saved, it's a case of money". We laughed nervously.

Thousands of pounds from the bank of Mum and Dad (props to them all) a complete re-plate of the hull and months later (months of hauling all sorts of bits and bobs to the boat yard via public transport) the boat was canal-worthy again and we decided we wanted to make her as green as possible.

Bob used to work for an organisation called Shoreditch Trust, and they agreed to sponsor our boat as an experiment in urban off-grid living aboard.

We devised a list of equipment that would allow the boat to function seasonally and as off-grid as possible: A wind turbine, solar panels, a water solar panel for summer, a wood-burning Rayburn to cook and heat water in winter and last but not least, the famous Swedish composting toilet that seems to break quite often...the less said the better.

Breathe in! The corridor today
So that was that, we thought as we got used to living on the canal outside one of Shoreditch Trust's restaurant's 'The Waterhouse', situated opposite Kingsland Basin and the CHUG crew.

I had just finished my MA in Broadcast Journalism, was working for a production company in Old Street and then discovered I was pregnant. Hence, the need for more space.

But unlike most normal people that would just buy a bigger boat, we decided to go for the more dramatic and drastic option of getting the boat enlarged by 25ft to create a 65 ft boat. Entailing a dissecting and dismembering of the boat just in front of where the boat prow begins to narrow to a point (I get all these terms mixed up, at the front of the boat) we could then have two bedrooms and a bathroom- a luxury after our 'open-plan' living beforehand.

We went to a different boat yard this time, Uxbridge boat centre. November 2010: "Oh it'll take three weeks",

"Really? That seems amazingly fast, are you sure it'll only take that long?"


"Cool, ok that's great. Er, how much?"


Six months later...well, you know there had been all that snow hadn't there? Plus, a welder quitting, one other being sacked, delays in deliveries of windows (see picture below) the Arab know, these things stop a boat yard from running to schedule, don't they?

Six months of hospitality at my grandparents' house and Bob and Rodney the cat staying at Bob's sister's house. Six months of begging, stealing and borrowing, painting, joinering, plumbering and wiring and the boat was 'finished', to a point. It had got to the point where I had shouted to anyone who could still be bothered to listen to our boatyard rantics, "I don't give a f*** if the water or walls aren't in- what do you mean bulkheads?!- We'll just do it ourselves."


Anyone that has experienced the logistics of house building or renovating can empathise with the constant worry and negotiation of deliveries and workmen will usually embark on a lot of work themselves once they've reached a point of either desperation/despondency that 'NO ONE CARES!' or just wanting to get the hell on with it (and hope that this will kind of rub off on other skilled people working on the boat or at least give them a laugh that we're having having a go). We even played the 'baby card' to try to speed up the process.

It was a very expensive process, as ever, a lot more than we had anticipated and yet again, we have to thank the Bank of Bob's Mum and Dad for helping us to realize the project. Boat products are often really expensive. Just add the word 'Marine' onto any piece of equipment from a humble screw to a shower pump and immediately extra 0s are added to the price.

Our bath, for instance, is smaller the ordinary bath as you can see in the photo (it's from Germany since you ask) but the price was high because it's quite unusual for anyone to actually want a hobbit-sized bath. We used having a child as an excuse to get one but I love a good bath every couple of days...water saving measures (read 'a small water tank that was for a 40ft boat now serving three people') don't allow us to wash everyday.

A bit of the son and heir's room
We now have the original 30ft of indoor space that we used to live in as our living room, then a narrow (narrow as in 45cm wide above the gunwhales) with a bathroom, our son's room and our bedroom. There are two wood-burning stoves in the living area and we have one in our room that keeps us warm at night, if it stays alight, which fires invariably don't do they?

So, that's about it, up to date. We love living on the boat, when it's cosy and tidy and the stoves are lit it's lovely. I never understand why so many people ask 'Is it cold?' , who would willingly live in a cold environment?! Like every home, it's cold if not heating/stoves have been on but it soon warms up. If it's rainy and windy you can hear the rain on the roof and the creak of the mooring ropes and in summer, nothing beats sitting on the back deck, glass of wine and watching the world go by.

It can be hard work. Anyone who tells you not is either living on a all-singing and dancing beauty of a mod-con boat (usually a new wide-beam that are double the width of the humble 6"12 wide narrow boat) or is a part-time boater (there seem to be loads of uninhabited boats along the towpath).

Or they just love with a passion mending things, general DIY when you're not sure what is actually broken, looking for and chopping wood, getting dirty looking for tools in the gas locker, having your boat untied, messing about with engines, having to go and get water, finding mysterious leaks...the list goes on.

It's a good life though, and all the Urban Boaters around the world would say that despite the challenges, once you live on the water, it's hard to go back to dry land.

Check out our monthly blog, Notes from the Boat, for a diary of our boat life month by month.
Vessel Name: Mackerel Sky
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