It’s been difficult.
As the end of summer passed we were concerned about how to survive our first winter aboard our new, lovely, but distinctly unfinished home. I’d been lucky with work and when the contract finished my wife and I discussed how best to invest the money I’d saved. At this point in the year it was still warm with mild nights but autumn had definitely arrived. I spiralled off dreaming about bathrooms, proper woodburning stoves, kitchens, electric lighting throughout and all sorts of other grand ideas that average homes are supposed to have. However despite finding ourselves with a reasonable sum to invest it was clear that I’d have to choose one thing from the list. For some reason I chose plumbing, this was based on a concern that if our standpipe water supply froze we’d be in trouble. Decision made, I gave myself three weeks to complete something that if I was thinking clearer I should have realised was nearly impossible. I knew very little about boat plumbing indeed. Undaunted I set about planning our water storage tanks and the whole bathroom thing, and before too long had splashed the cash I’d earned on ten sheets of 18mm ply, tanks from Tek Tanks, and all sorts of goodies from LeeSanitation.
Doing nothing but working on the boat for the whole of October started really well, since the first step was all about framing out the areas. Two weeks in we already had the shell of a large bathroom and, on the other side of the boat the carcase of a huge airing cupboard/wardrobe thingy. Contained within these structures were the first pair of large fresh water tanks. So far so good.
Then I began plumbing, I was already exhausted, having expended my energy firstly on working 72 hour weeks, and secondly on a huge amount of woodwork in a very short space of time. And the plumbing just wouldn’t go. The pace of working suddenly slowed from rocket speed to something akin to crawling through soup. All I was trying to do was fit the basic boat specific stuff, the water and waste tanks and the associated pipes, hoses and skin fittings. Regular domestic plumbing is annotated in greek, but boat plumbing seemed to be written in martian. And our boat is old, could I find parts to fit our existing valves and skin fittings? No, I could not.
Fighting the opening salvoes of what was to become yet another personal meltdown I struggled in vain to get the thing to work, repeatedly coming up against obstacles that seemed progressively more insurmountable and more expensive to get around. The job suddenly ran massively over budget as I frantically ordered parts that I hadn’t realised I’d need, then when they arrived half of them were the wrong size anyway due to the whole greek/martian/english mistranslation thing. The job then ground to snails pace as I succumbed to a sort of cabin feverish derangement. Squandering the last few days I’d allotted myself in self loathing, I hated the boat, hated myself and was becoming petrified of the fear that I’d spent the last seven years building a very expensive white elephant and was now subjecting my new wife to an impossibly difficult lifestyle which she’d soon tire of and quite understandably leave me...
I was placing myself under an insane amount of pressure, I didn’t want to let Becky down, and considered that if i couldn’t do this one thing (get the bloody toilet and a tap to work) the winter would become impossibly tough and i would have failed in my mission to build us a home. What a Wally. I felt that I’d made a huge mistake, in the end I became my own worst enemy and the whole project came to a definite halt.
As a result of my panicked overspend we found ourselves short of the money that we’d need simply to get us through Novembers debt repayment obligations. Desperate to get the financial wolf from the door, we embarked on a serious round of scrapping stuff. We gathered together the copper and bronze objects on the boat that were stashed since the launch (broken portholes, heat exchangers, couple of duff motors and a few bits of pipe) and weighed them in. It was a drop in the ocean, but an encouraging start nevertheless. Inspired, that night we combed our way through the cluttered interior of our vessel and gathered items we thought we could do without (several deckchairs, a domestic fridge and so on) and set off to the local boot sale the next morning. We were on our way to beginning to afford the loan repayments and mooring fees for the coming month.
Then we endured a sort of perfect storm of stuff going wrong. Amongst other things both cars broke down, one refused to stop and the other refused to go. The one that refused to go did so permanently and had to be delivered to the big car park in the sky. I couldn’t find work, and in any case was too wound up with stress to be anything like a decent advert for my skills. Then the night time temperature dropped like a stone. Becky’s business was (and still is) being hit hard by adverse weather and economic climate. Our friend Paula found herself back in hospital again, which meant her four kids, who are brilliant and very independent were nevertheless in need of someone to look after them and ensure they didn’t accidentally burn the house down or something. So after a phone call to the RAC to rescue the stricken brakeless car, Becky was at Paula’s in the warm and I was on a train to Edinburgh to do a short job with my friend Mark.
And then Becky’s grandma suffered a major stroke and died the following day, thankfully her family largely managed to make it to her bedside in time.
Around this time I began to realise I was experiencing a severe depressive episode, probably the worst i have ever gone through. Bloody hell, timing. Visiting the doctor was a supreme challenge, as I’ve struggled with this without treatment for many years, but I am glad I did.
We had to make a trip to Inverness for the funeral and on our return the weather was no better, so in the end Becky and I had little choice, we locked the door on our new home/torture chamber and went to stay at Paula’s house. She was unfortunately taken back into hospital. We, on the other hand, needed looking after ourselves. With our remaining car out of action B had no way to get the fifty odd miles to and from work, I basically couldn’t be trusted to be left on my own, and living conditions at home were becoming grim in any case.
The ‘enforced romance’ of home life conducted by candle light within a four foot radius of a tiny, woefully inadequate little woodburner with nowhere to wash or wash up in the freezing cold semi darkness had taken its toll. We couldn’t carry on. So staying in a fully functional house with Paula’s family worked out to be an incredibly welcome resource swap. We stayed there for several weeks, feeding the family and making sure they got collected from after school activities and did their homework until Paula was released from hospital and for some time after, it was humbling, but very life affirming to be welcomed almost as members of the family every evening.
One night Becky arrived to find me serving supper to the horde and announced ‘I’ve got us another stove’. It turned out that one of her clients owned a multifuel stove that she’d decided not to use in her own house renovation and was offering it for sale. On closer inspection it turned out to be brand new and a deal was struck whereby Becky would give lessons to the value of the stove as payment.
Luckily I managed to pull my finger out of my arse for long enough to get a lucky run of handyman work, and we both worked and saved as hard as we could. A couple of weeks before christmas we had paid the bills and could just about afford to fix and MOT the car and order the flue parts for this new stove. Despite being ‘budget’ they were not cheap. So we started commuting back home every evening and last saturday evening after loads of work and heartache, and a little welding on the funnel top conducted after dark in the rain, our new stove was lit for the first time. The difference is simply astonishing, once we’d done opening every available hatch and porthole to air the stink produced by the high temperature paint as it cured the levels of warmth on board have shot up to sensible domestic levels. With both stoves lit (but neither firing particularly hard) we’ve discovered it’s easily possible to walk around most of our home wearing nothing but underpants if necessary, while outside the climate is clear, and cold. A first experiment with crappy garage coal has delighted me because this morning the embers were still glowing.
All of a sudden we’ve gone from huddling around the forward stove in coats and hats, to occupying the entire vessel. Ok, so the plumbing still isn’t finished, and most light is still candle light but it feels so domestic that in spite of being forced to cancel christmas (see above) it came anyway. The day before Christmas eve we were able to obtain a massively reduced tree that’s far too big, and after a bit of a struggle getting it down the stairs; nail it to the engine room floor opposite our sofa and the new stove. Then we could do what ‘normal’ people do; stuff ourselves and fall asleep on the sofa. What a massive relief.