Van life

The refit is almost complete. It is time to move back aboard. It is time to move out of the campervan.

Yes, for the past six months, I have been living in a Ford Transit.

This was the logical choice. Obviously, I had to move off Samsara – the cabin being torn apart to get at the chainplates, the central hatch and whatnot.

I did consider renting a room, but how much would that cost? Besides, how boring is renting a room? How depressing!

But a camper van… now that could be fun – and I would have wheels into the bargain.

The more I thought about it, the more of a brilliant idea it seemed: I could do a tour of the children at their northern universities, I could visit friends – including the old school chum in Scotland I hadn’t seen since we were both 19 and hitchhiked to the South of France…

And so, for six months, I lived in a space even smaller than the boat – 2.9m by 1.8m and with headroom of just 1.4m to be exact – but then, didn’t I once spend weeks at a time in an 18footer?

And it was fun. 

For one thing, I became a part of that little-known undercurrent of 21st century culture: vanlife.

This is what happens to people who fall out of the bottom of society, hand back the keys to their grotty flat and take to the road where they blossom and flourish (there’s a film about it – look up Nomadland).

I joined the VanlifeUK Facebook group – which turned out to be full of advice on the error codes of Chinese heaters and where to find a water tap. Then there is an app called Park4Night which tells you the nearest place you can stop without getting moved on by the police and provides useful information about the scenery, the local pub and whether you will be troubled in the middle of the night by doggers trying to peer through your curtains.

I chose a Transit over an out-and-out motorhome. Purist vanlifers would not be seen dead in an AutoSleeper deluxe. With a van, parking overnight on a residential street, you might be mistaken for a tradesman. It’s called “stealth camping”. Maybe I should have invested in a bit of signwriting rather than the go-faster stripes it came with.

On the very first night, parked off the road in the middle of nowhere on the way back from the dealer in Derby, there was an enormous crash on the side. Honestly, I thought someone had run into me. 

It was only the local farmer going home late on his quad-bike and probably resenting someone being tucked up without a care in the world.

Another time, somewhere in the wilds of Cambridgeshire, a polite tap on the door: I was cooking dinner and looked out to find two uniformed men and a van emblazoned with “Security”. With the utmost courtesy, they explained they were contracted by the local parish council to break up travellers’ encampments.

Commenting only on the delicious smell of frying onions which wafted from my sliding door, they agreed: “We can see you are a mature gentleman. You’re not going to cause any trouble, so we will wish you a pleasant evening and ask you to move on in the morning.”

I assured them I would – just as I assured the churchwarden in Yorkshire that I was only in the car park at ten o’clock in the morning because I had flattened the engine battery trying to charge my laptop. The AA would be along directly.

Reading about it now makes me think that, actually, it was all a bit more interesting than I remember. The original plan had been to write a book about it: Old Man in a Van – I think I may have the first chapter tucked away in the microchips somewhere.

But in fact, life in just over seven cubic metres soon became fairly mundane because I was not constantly on the move, seeing new places, meeting new people. In fact, I stayed for most of the time in the marina, parked right next to Samsara and plugged into her electricity supply at night (she hogged it during the day to run the dehumidifier).

Also, I had to get out before eight in the morning to avoid being blocked in by the boatyard staff with their travel lift, tractor and trailer, JCB and so on – quite apart from the possibility of them plonking a 50footer across my exit. I’m sure they did it deliberately – although maybe living in a space somewhat smaller than a Devil’s Island prison cell might have sparked a bit of paranoia. 

One way and another, the more I think about it, the more interesting it seems. Maybe there’s a book in it after all.

Meanwhile, if you fancy sampling vanlife, I can recommend it – and, if you like small boats, there’s the ideal vehicle on eBay just at the moment:

2 Responses to Van life

  • When I was building the toilet for my boat (yes, I had to build it because the so-called composting heads offered comercially are too big and too expensive), I visited several of these van web sites and Youtube channels to do my research as most of them have a desiccating head in one form or another. Its amazing how self sufficient these people try to be, hats off to them, living a lifestyle not too different from us cruisers. I hope you didn’t mention that cruising on a sailboat you could a lot farther and a lot more fun. The anchorages are already over populated 🙂

  • I had a lovely lady, a Spanish physiatrist, who worked with me on rebuilding my boat. Her dream was to own a van, and so she did, she owned two of them. Now I understand there is a van culture. Good luck with the rest of your boat projects, they never seem to end.

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The Cooker


It’s a bit of a beast, the new cooker. This was always going to be a major part of the big refit: A decent cooker. A cooker that wouldn’t break down – and since this is a boat for life, it had to be a cooker for life.

If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you will have seen regular rants about marine cookers – I’ve tried them all: The ancient brass Taylors, an alcohol affair that took my eyebrows off. I had two venerable Flavell Vanessas from the 70s (in beige, of course). I had a very shiny, all stainless steel thing that wasn’t stainless at all.

And on Samsara, I’ve been going through cookers like Wet Wipes at a birthday party for three-year-olds. 

When the second Vanessa broke free of its fastenings jumping off a wave a week from The Lizard, I didn’t turn a hair. I had already blamed it for the gas leak and the consequent disastrous experiments with Nutella salad in place of hot food. As soon as I docked at Pendennis, it was going in the marina skip. Already, I had selected its replacement from the Force4 catalogue: All stainless steel this time and with a heroic, salty name – The Neptune 4000. It had flame-failure devices. It had a thermostatic oven. It was the real deal.

It lasted fourteen months. The right-hand flame-failure device packed up. It was going rusty. I sent it back under the guarantee, and Force4 replaced it (I forgot about having to pay a gas fitter £100 to connect the new one).

That lasted eighteen months. The right-hand flame-failure device packed up, and it was going rusty…

There was something wrong here, surely. But when you think about it, boatbuilders are working to a budget – a budget that assumes that even their keenest customer is going to be using the product at weekends only for six months of the year – apart from a two-week cruise in August. So the cooker is only going to be in use for 62 days a year (38 if you assume they eat ashore on Saturday night). 

I was using mine almost ten times as much.

So to be fair, my dead cookers had really had a lifespan of 15 years.

Never mind, Samsara was coming up to her 50th birthday. All sorts of things were going rusty. But then I anchored off the Island of Santa Luzia in the Cape Verdes and went ashore just because the book said the island was uninhabited. Don’t you find there is something about uninhabited islands which just cries out for someone to go and inhabit them – even if just for an afternoon?

In fact, I found that it hadn’t always been this way. There was evidence of stone walls poking out of the barren red earth.

When I got back to the beach, I found Santa Luzia had two inhabitants: Ruffian, the big Westerly, had turned up, and Iain swam ashore to invite me to dinner. I remember taking a spare oar, reasoning that if I broke one, I would end up in Panama.

More than that, I remember the cooker. Fiona showed it off like a 1950s TV advert. It was so good they had imported it from their last boat. 

Their last boat? It looked brand new.

“It always looks brand new. It doesn’t get rusty because it’s made of absolutely the best materials money can buy.”

  • You mean it doesn’t go wrong? The flame-failure devices don’t pack up after a year?

“It’s never gone wrong.”

I determined that I was going to have one of these cookers. It was called a GN Espace. I made a note in my phone.

I started researching GN Espace. I went to see them at the Southampton Boat Show. I asked the price.

Right, OK, so it was never going to break down. I would be a cooker for life (you took it with you when you changed boats). It was seriously expensive. I was used to cookers costing £600. This thing was £2,400! 

Also, it weighed 27kg! Even the little knob that locks the pan rack could do double duty on an emergency lead line.

I bought it, of course. This winter’s refit has been so extensive that £2,400 is a mere detail (new standing rigging, new running rigging, new furling gear, chainplates, sails – and don’t even get me started on the Lewmar bill.)

The new cooker is substantially bigger than the old – I think the idea is that I will be able to roast a Christmas dinner for six down among the Abacos. In fact, the oven is going to be used for stowing small electronic items ready for the lightning strike. If ever I light it, I shall be serving roasted microchips.

Anyway, I managed to lift it onto its mountings – having had to demolish the locker behind it in order to give it room to swing. It’s just as well I won’t be taking it out again (Samsara being my last boat, and therefore, everything having to last another 47 years.)

There is only one tiny little fly that needs fishing out of the ointment: When I went to collect the thing from the bijou trading estate somewhere in Hertfordshire, I found them busy developing the new electric version.

Of course! In ten years’ time, we’ll all be running electric boats (and I can’t wait).

I’ve just done the maths: Ten years divided by the eighteen-month life-cycle for the Neptune means buying at least six new cookers. Add another £600 for the gas engineers to fit them, and you still save nearly £2,000 with the GN.

Besides, think of the fun I shall have showing it off…

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