Keeping the home fires burning

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Remember back when boat life was all new (actually, it still kind of is) and I talked to you about heating on the boat?  Well back then I was firmly of the opinion that the wood / coal burning stove that came with the boat was too much of a pain in the ass to be a viable, full-time, winter-worthy source of heat for the boat.  In brief, my concerns were:
  1. Coal fires are hard to get lit and burning properly.
  2. Storing a reasonable amount of fuel on the boat would be difficult.
  3. Keeping the fire going properly takes too much time and effort.
  4. It wouldn’t stay lit well enough to ensure a comfortable return home late at night in January, or a comfortable waking the next morning.
Well I am happy to report that I was WRONG ON ALL COUNTS.  Totally, completely wrong. And I will now happily explain to you in detail exactly how wrong I was.

1. Coal is hard to light

Actually on point number one I was kinda right, except it turns out that (as was patiently explained by several people with coal fire experience) you really do learn quite quickly how to get the thing going properly.  Within about four days of getting back on the boat, I’d pretty much cracked it.  In part, I'd been being a bit cheap with the amount of fuel I was using when I set the fire.  And I did a bit of Googling (of course) to pick up some tips.  So here’s my method:
  • Make a single layer of coals on the grate.  I use about 8 pieces for this - four across and 2 deep.  Don’t cheap out.  Position this layer at the back of the firebox.  This was a key breakthrough for me - I had been building the fire in the middle of the grate, meaning that there was a tendency for fuel added on the top to fall off the back.  Now I shove it all up against the back and it’s fine.  Amazing how such a small thing can be such a game-changer.
  • Add 4-6 small pieces of that kind of firestarter that looks and smells like white styrofoam soaked in gasoline.  (In fact, I suppose it could well be white styrofoam soaked in gasoline.  I don’t care.  It works.)
  • (Somewhat optional)  Add several sheets of newspaper twisted into relatively tight bundles.
  • Add a generous layer of dry kindling, again keeping to the back of the firebox.
  • Add another layer coal - at least 6 pieces.
  • Add more dry kindling on top of that.
  • Open the dampers all the way.
  • Light ‘er up!
If all goes according to plan, the kindling lights very quickly and surrounds the coal with lovely hot fire, while also drawing hot air up through the bottom layer of coal which becomes the base of the fire.  It doesn’t take long for things to get going, at which point you can close up the dampers some and let it just tick over.

Ticking over!

2. Fuel for the stove is a pain to store

I've got what's called a "multi-fuel stove", meaning that it can burn wood or coal or a combination thereof.  I’ve elected to burn coal exclusively.  I’m not interested in faffing around with any of that foraged-on-the-towpath-piled-on-the-roof firewood crap.  It might be free but it's messy and bulky and wet.  I even buy pre-cut bags of dry kindling, because I’m posh/lazy like that.  Oh sure, if I’ve got scrap wood hanging around that’s an appropriate size to fit in the firebox, I’ll chuck it in.  But in terms of Heat Output vs. Volume of Storage, coal is king. (Sadly, though, the coal I buy is NOT mined in the UK because the UK’s last working coal mine closed in December. )

I burn processed smokeless coal (as required by local laws) that comes in consistently-shaped blobs that look like giant BBQ briquettes.  It comes in 25kg bags, and I can comfortably store six bags outside on the bow deck and still have access to the hatch that reveals the water tank and ample storage space next to the tank below for two 20-litre jerry cans of back-up diesel, 3 extra bags of kindling and a few packs of highly compressed wood logs that are also not bad but burn with more smoke than coal so hence are not great on days when you're driving the boat because then you spend the whole time standing there with smoke blowing in your face.

(Aside:  I struggle a bit with figuring out the right verb to use when describing moving the boat.  "Driving" feels odd, but it's really not "sailing".  "Navigating" is sorta ok, but it implies there's a lot of decision making about which way to go which is totally NOT the case on a canal because you generally have a choice of only two directions, one of which is backwards. Suggestions on more appropriate phraseology welcome.)

Coal storage
Six bags of coal, tidily stowed.  Normally it's even covered up by a couple of discreet black bin liners held in place by the magic of magnets!  The water tank is under that centre cover.

Based my experience in January, which had some reasonably cold spells, I’m burning up to about two bags of coal a week.  At £14/bag, that’s more than £100/month, but that will decrease steadily as the weather warms.  One 25kg bag sits inside the cabin just near the back door so it’s easy to refill the coal scuttle, and that sits next to the stove.  (Aside:  I’ve got a freakin’ COAL SCUTTLE!  And I actually use it every day!  How Dickensian is that?!)  I use Homefire brand, as recommended by my mate Dave at the boatyard (based on the fact that 90% of the boats who moor there use it) and when I switched to Homefire from the Supertherm I’d been ignorantly buying before, things were noticeably better, especially as regards points three and four, below.

Pic of stove open and ready to be rekindled (Oooh... I actually was LITERALLY re-kindling!  Words are fun!).  The kettle can be glimpsed on top of the stove, with the door handle and pile of kindling on the floor.  The black box is my ashcan (repurposed metal bread bin) and in the back you can see the full coal scuttle with tongs hanging from it.

3. Keeping the fire going is a pain

Nope.  It’s just not.  Unlike wood (especially softwood), coal burns for a long time once it’s going.  The kindling (and newspaper, if any) disappear quite quickly and you’re left with a nice red hot pile of coals, as pictured above.  These will burn quite happily for hours, requiring you simply to add a half-dozen or so more to the top of the fire as you remember.  Every three hours is probably plenty.  Dial in the dampers correctly and it's remarkably simple.

4. Coming home to a cold boat is miserable

Well that would indeed be miserable, but it just doesn’t happen.  (Full disclosure: Actually it did happen once.  And it was miserable.  It was a day or two after I'd got back and I didn't have the knack of the coal yet.  And I got back late after a Hash run.  And it was cold.  But because it was late I just went straight to bed, reasoning that body heat would do the job, along with a generous amount of bedding and some socks.  A couple of hours later I was awake again, hungry and frozen, and standing at the stove boiling the kettle and toasting an English muffin and filling up the hot water bottle I got for Christmas.  As evidenced by this succession of text messages between me and Karen, starting with hubris and ending with me in a toque and sweatpants.)

Screenshot 2016-01-31 15.44.05
At least I can admit when I'm wrong.  And Wendy: THANK YOU FOR THE HOT WATER BOTTLE.

Anyway... now that I have things figured out it's totally fine.  On very cold nights, I add about 12 coals to the fire before going to bed and have been rewarded with a very comfortable temperature the next morning.  And by comfortable I mean around 16-20 degrees celsius.  Not “relatively comfortable for a giant barely insulated tin can sitting in cold water" but properly, normally first world 21st century comfortable.  In fact, I’m confident that this boat is the warmest place I’ve lived in London.  Often in the evening if I’m not paying attention and don’t get the dampers set right the temperature can get up past 26 degrees.  And the best thing is that in the morning once you knock out the ash and clean out the grate there are still enough hot coals that you can just pile on some more kindling and coal and the heat is enough to light the kindling directly and get it all roaring again.  I’ve had the same fire lit for about two weeks now.  It’s immensely satisfying.

Oh, and if I’m out during the day the same thing applies.  There’s enough warmth left in what’s burning to give it the same kindling + coal treatment when I get home and it’s no big deal.

So yeah, I’m pretty happy with my little stove.  It provides a consistent, comfortable dry heat (great for drying laundry!), though there are few small annoying points.  First of all 25kg bags of coal are heavy.  Not impossibly heavy, but heavy enough that I have to think carefully about how I’m lifting and where I put my feet and such, and I’m no weedy weakling.  I can imagine that some people might find it a bit too much.  Also you do have to actually go buy the coal.  So far I’ve been close enough to different boatyards to get it there, but I’m getting closer to central London now, where there are fewer such locations.  Luckily, there are a few independent guys who ply the inland waterways on big barges loaded with coal, gas canisters and other useful supplies, so perhaps the next time I’m running low I’ll flag one down.

And coal is very very dirty.  I’ve now dug up a pair of heavy black rubber gloves I use when refilling the coal scuttle (Again: Eeeeeee! Coal scuttle!) but whenever I deal with coal it’s inevitable that I get some kind of stray black smudge somewhere on a knuckle or sleeve or knee.  Also, due to coal’s utter blackness, and the blackness of the inside of the coal scuttle (!) it can be a pain in the ass to actually dig around with my little tongs and grasp a particular black lump inside a long black tube.  And then there’s the small game of coal Jenga to be played when placing every piece onto a burning fire.  The coals are kind of rounded and hence prone to rolling around so I do feel like I spend a fair bit of time balancing coals on top of each other over and over again to get them to stay where they’re put.  They also shift around as they burn, meaning that every once in a while you hear a clattering noise that means something has shifted and it’s time for another round of Jenga.

On balance though, these are small and very manageable faults because a red hot coal fire is genuinely lovely thing.  It keeps a kettle full of water warm all day long for quick cups of tea or coffee or small amounts of washing up.  And makes an excellent plate warmer for your morning egg. And when the rain is pattering on the roof and there's nothing to do but open a book and pour a glass of wine and relax it is not miles away from perfect.

A London Sunday

Sunday, January 24, 2016

I've got lots of things to say about being on the boat, full time, in January, when winter finally seems to have arrived in the UK (this after a Christmas when, apparently, afternoon walks were had in short sleeves).

This is what greeted me one morning last week.  Winter!

Yep, lots to report, but not today.  I'll just say this about boat life - now that I'm living on the boat full time, it's the first time since I arrived in London that I'm living alone.  In many ways this is lovely.  All the usual things apply - no one to leave dirty dishes in the sink, no one monopolising the washing machine, no one's incompatible taste in music filling my ears.  But the downside is that if there's no one else around it's very easy to turn into a complete hermit, especially when the days are short and the skies are grey and one's motivation to leave the tiny cozy cocoon that is the boat and make the lengthy trek from a far-flung mooring to somewhere more like civilisation ebbs away with every minute.  I even moored for ten days about 50 steps from a quite credible canal-side pub and I never darkened their door.  So after spending the better part of a week doing nothing but boat-related things, I decided last Sunday that I needed to force myself to get back out into the world.

Spoiled for choice, I eventually decided it was time to visit one of London's biggies - the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Billing itself as "the world’s leading museum of art and design", the V&A (as it is universally known) is a sort of cross between a museum and a gallery. Founded in 1851, it’s located in the charmingly named “Albertopolis” area of London more mundanely known as South Kensington.  The “Albertopolis” moniker comes from Prince Albert of course, and is an area jammed with the sort of cultural institutions that Albert was associated with.  The heavy hitters in the area are the V&A, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial, along with a laundry list of slightly more obscure but still impressive spots like Imperial College, the Royal College of Art, the Royal College of Music, and the Royal Geographical Society.  For a chilly Sunday afternoon it was perfect, especially because the South Kensington tube station decants directly into a tunnel that leads right into the lower level of the V&A.  Very friendly.

And as with any of these mega-attractions in London - especially ones with free admission - my strategy is usually to pick one or two rooms to concentrate on, rather than trying to cover the whole place.  After all, what's the point of going to the effort of living in the city if I can't treat its wold-class attractions as a sort of come-and-go tea of fabulousness?

Here’s the inner courtyard of the V&A, for a bit o’ the ambience.

I donated £1 for a map of the premises and scanned it quickly to decide on where I’d concentrate my efforts.  Well actually that’s a lie.  First I scanned it quickly to decide on how to get the the café, because the other thing that happens when you’re a boat hermit is the amount of time you spend sitting in nice cafés with free wifi drops dramatically.  So first things first, I hit the café and took advantage of the free wifi and had a nice cup of coffee.  Then I ventured forth and decided to concentrate first on the Japan Room.

As I said, the V&A is a museum of art and design, which means it hits a nice sweet spot for me.  It's got beautiful things to look at, but it's more than just a gallery.  It's got more than just paintings and sculpture - it also celebrates the design and manufacture of everyday items as art.  So for someone who might like to look at things that are both beautiful AND useful, and even learn a bit about how they're made in the bargain, it was perfect.

For example, these items in the Japan Room.  That jewellery box in the back is inlaid with little bits of mother-of-pearl in a way that makes it look like a city skyline at night.  And the one on the right is a traditional lacquer box but the modern maker has covered it with those flowing shapes made out of polished acrylic.  Love it.

I also took a turn through the Jewellery Room, which was small but utterly crammed with beautiful things and where I took the opportunity to pick my "Museum Game" piece.  Astute Go Stay Work Play readers who migrated here from Go See Run Eat Drink might recall that I like to make things interesting when visiting a gallery by imagining which single piece from the collection I'd take home with me.  Or as I so eloquently put it back in Paris in September of 2009:
I like to wander around and think about what piece I would take home with me if the management of the Musée were to approach and say something like, “Madame, you are clearly not an average tourist, as evidenced by the fact that you have lingered for more than 4.2 seconds in front of this painting. Thank you also for not simply approaching, reading the tag, taking a digital photo of yourself with the painting, and then moving on to repeat this process with each piece in the room. Please, it would give us great pleasure to present you with a small memento of your visit. Perhaps this Monet? Mais non, we insist.”
So I picked out a lovely diamond, sapphire and emerald bracelet from the 1920s collection which was hopelessly hard to photograph but trust me, it was nice.  And I waited around for someone to approach me to check how I'd like to have the piece wrapped and where I could pick it up as I was leaving, but they must have been on lunch (slackers), so I moved on through the section on decorative ironwork.  It was satisfyingly full of real practical things like gates and fences and benches, and also clarified for anyone who wanted to read, the difference between wrought iron and cast iron.  (Obviously, cast iron is, err, cast.  Wrought iron is heated and worked by hand with hammers and anvils and sweaty people slaving over hot forges.)

And that led past the gigantic and gorgeously restored Hereford Screen, and thence on to a few cases of utterly charming novelty biscuit tins.

Because it was Sunday, and chilly, much of the building was quite crowded.  So imagine my delight when, en route to the Theatre Room, I was directed through the almost completely empty, dim and quiet Room 94 - Tapestries.  It's dim in order to preserve the hangings, and it's empty and quiet because people are stupid and don't go there.  Their loss.

Most of the room was dominated by giant original medieval tapestries, but I liked this one best - "The Forest" designed by William Morris and Philip Webb and woven in 1887.

And then it was the Theatre Room, which I thought it would be nice to visit to make me feel a bit smug and superior (in fairness, never a stretch for me).  I was rewarded with some sketches ad renderings by designers whose names I recognised and with a lovely model of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where I did a few days of work back in 2010, which made me feel very much like I was in a secret club.

The Drury Lane model, complete with tiny little men working on the fly floor.

By this time the museum was starting to close up and I'd spent much more time than anticipated.  I left feeling quite content with the world and not quite ready to return to my little floating tin can, so I decided to make a dash for Grosvenor Square to take in the last night of Lumiere London, the first ever outdoor festival of lights in the city.  There were displays all over the city, but I was intent on visiting the closest one, a Grosvenor Square.

Which involved a walk down Brompton Road, still all lit up for the season.  My route even led through Hyde Park which is still, gratifyingly, lit with gaslight.  Honestly, how great is this city?

Grosvenor Square is a lovely Georgian spot probably best known as the home to the architecturally jarring 1960s bunker that is the American embassy.  I imagine the Americans may have got a bit twitchy having a few thousand people parade around on what amounts to their front lawn, in the dark, but they managed to keep their gun emplacements suitably camouflaged.  There were four displays in the area, three of which were blogworthy.

"Brothers and Sisters"by Ron Haselden.
A collection of LED ropelight faces based on children's sketches

"Lightbench" byBernd Spiecker
A series of internally lit park benches that slowly changed colour.

And this - best of all!  "Aquarium" by Benedetto Bufalino and Benoit Deseille.  It's an actual red phone box full of real fish!  Fish in a phonebooth!  Fantastic.

And then, just because I could, I decided to walk a little bit further and make my way to Westminster Abbey for one last Lumiere display.  The facade of the abbey was turned into an amazing multi-coloured feast by a couple of high-power projectors.  The whole thing was done so skilfully it really looked like someone had got out their paint brushes and given the place a facelift.

"The Light of The Spirit" by Patrice Warrener

By this time it was respectably late and I was chilly and ready for my supper so I wandered over to Westminster tube station and home to the boat, feeling pleased to have reconnected with my city and also very very very pleased that the coal stove was still warm when I got there.

Hockey Day in Canada

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I'm back in London, back on the boat, and back to what might laughingly be described as my "normal life". (Who am I kidding?  If the last year is any indication, my normal life involves a large suitcase, a foreign city and a challenging production schedule.  Certainly not any kind of extended time in London!) However, before I pack my bags again or dive into the next boat project (troubleshooting a leaky cooling system for those who are keeping score...) I want to tell you about my New Year's activities.

But first, a gratuitous picture of winter splendour in Saskatoon, taken while on a Christmas Eve run. Excellent hoarfrost that day!

My sister and family live on a sort of charmed cul-de-sac that is improbably well-equipped with excellent neighbours, kids, friendly dogs, running paths, and not-too-far-distant coffee shops. I had a great visit with them that bookended my vacation, and allowed me to sleep in a lot, hang out with my niece, and do a bunch of the kind of shopping that works best when you've got access to a car, a lot of Boxing Day sales and a primary bank account in a currency with an absurdly favourable exchange rate.  (It's like everything is half price!)  The other thing I got to do is participate in their third annual Cul-de-Sac New Year's Day Road Hockey Tournament.

For my UK readers a short explanation may be needed.  Road hockey is, of course, hockey played on the road.  It’s most often played by kids on residential streets.  If you’re lucky, someone has actual hockey nets that get set up.  If not, any bit of stray equipment or clothing marks the goals at either end of a very loosely defined playing area.  Usually a ball - often a dead tennis ball - is used instead of a puck, since the road surface is not an ideal environment for optimum puck movement.  And because there’s no proper ice, it’s all running, no skating. At the start of play teams are chosen, sometimes by having all players throw their hockey sticks into a pile and then having two team captains pick sticks (and, by extension, the player who owns the stick) on the assumption that this sort of randomises the process.  Players come and go as dictated by inclination, outdoor light levels, and whether on not one is called home for supper or bedtime.  The most common cry heard is “Car!” indicating to all involved that they have to clear the road (and any nets, discarded mitts, unused equipment, unconscious companions, etc…) to allow a car to pass through the playing area before starting up again. Road Hockey is as Canadian as a moose soaked in maple syrup wearing a mountie hat and eating a Tim Horton’s donut while muttering “Cold enough for ya?".

But back to New Year’s Day, 2106.  Considering that the main impediment to a smooth-flowing road hockey game is the periodic interruption of play by through-traffic, astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will of course realise that a cul-de-sac is a perfect venue for a good game. And with the family house located at the end of the cul-de-sac, providing an anchor and a place to set up the food (and the beer cooler), it’s not hard to see why this little annual event is in its third year.

This is the first time I’ve been around to participate, and I was keen to contribute to the experience.  I’m not sure how the idea came about, but I ended up running with the idea of painting lines on the packed snow covering the road so we could have a really upmarket playing surface.  (Again, for the less hockey-savvy reader: a regulation hockey ice surface is marked with a thick red line at centre, a blue off-side line on each side, and goal lines at each end.)  So while others were engaged in getting the fire pit and the food ready, my niece and I implemented what might have been the fanciest road hockey marks in the history of the game, including a red line, blue lines, corner marks, goal lines and, of course, an appropriately branded face off dot at centre.

The triumphant road marking team.  I was particularly pleased with the face off circle.  Next year we'll be seeking some sponsorship to up the game a bit.
 (Overhead scoreboard pending zoning permission.)  
(Contact for sponsorship opportunities.)

People gradually filtered in on foot, pulling sleds full of kids and sticks and goalie equipment. Others made several trips ferrying in a couple of proper nets.  And still others contributed food and a particularly pleasant “adult hot chocolate additive” that tasted suspiciously like peppermint schnapps.  And of course there was beer.  Because when you live in Canada and it's January, the world is your beer cooler.  In fact, I take back what I said about the maple moose above.  There is nothing more Canadian than a two-four of beers stuck in a snowbank.

Teams were picked, and play commenced with a ceremonial first face off.

Despite being the owner of several good Montreal Canadiens hockey sweaters, I didn't think to pack one with me, so happily accepted a vintage red Winnipeg Grasshoppers from about 1983. Perfect.  Teams were a pretty good mix of adults and kids, with team size ranging from four to about nine players on each side, which was a bit squishy at times on a small playing surface but somehow it just worked.  People came and went and we played each game until one team got up to five goals.  The weather was very cooperative, and it was sunny and clear and reasonably warm for most of the day.  I played three games and managed not to break anything, though I did end up taking one fall that reminded me pretty quickly that I'm in my mid-forties and haven't played in about five years and wasn't wearing any equipment. (And I did feel it the next day...) In between games there was time to chat and catch your breath and visit the concession stand.

And just like a real hockey game - the food stand was busiest between periods.  The hotdogs were the top pick, though there was also very nice chili and homemade buns (thanks Mom!)

We played three or four games in total, with adults and kids mixing together remarkably well. Grown-ups went after each other in good fun, and made sure the kids got every chance to shine as well.  Some people sat on the sidelines content to watch, we had a couple of shoot-outs, and were even witness to one really good temper tantrum to round out the day.  (To be fair, the kid had a good point.  Of course you can't take a rebound on a penalty shot.  On the other hand, it wasn't exactly the Stanley Cup Final, and I think perhaps someone might have been up a bit too late the night before...)  

IMG_1947 (1)
A piece of the action

The view from the Deluxe Corporate Box (A.K.A. Upstairs Bedroom)
(Naming rights available for 2017)

Play continued until about suppertime, when most of the people with small kids wandered off. That left a few people (and one dog) around the fire until past dark, and long after I'd given up and retreated for a nap and a hot shower.


And here’s another one of those things that makes me stop and consider what a lucky and very odd life I have.  On December 8th I was sitting with friends around an open fire in the desert, surrounded by camels and sand, chatting and enjoying good company.  On New Year’s Day I was sitting with friends around an open fire in the snow, surrounded by suburbia and hockey sticks, and enjoying more good company.  Lucky me.

IMG_2007 (1)
Cul-de-Sac New Year's Day Road Hockey 2016!