Sing, don’t whistle

A rough looking boater asked me this week, “so what do you waterways chaplains actually do?”

“Well”, I replied, thinking of the various things from assisting with benefit claims to helping them through locks, “amongst other things we lock people up”. He looked pretty concerned until we both realised the ambiguity in my response.

Apart from passing the time of day on the tow path the boat has been getting a bit more TLC, not that it will notice. A wise sage said to me if it is not broken then leave it alone. However some things do need a bit of attention even when you really don’t want to do it. In this case it involved a bit of up-cycling and dress making to get started.

Having treated the drinking water tank for rust about three years ago I thought I would have quick check to see that it was OK. Most of it looked a bit rusty, but it seemed to be infested with big brown snails. They had rust brown trails and curly shells. If you popped them they oozed rusty liquid which drifted down into the water, the clouds of brown spreading like a fog through the water.

So I decided it did need looking at. Now this is not just a simple job of a touch of paint, more like climbing inside the boot of a car, closing the lid then trying to paint all surfaces without getting paint on yourself.

The hatch is a 16inch square that I can just squeeze through. It is too shallow to turn round and too short to roll over in, plus it has sharp corners of angle iron to jab into your head and elbows, so a bit confined.

Having washed and dried it, two coats of rust converter went on easily enough. But having had enough of squirming around I decided to get a quote for a flexible plastic tank liner rather than paint it. £830 for a big plastic bag, you must be joking!

So how do you paint the inside of a boot without gassing yourself? I found an old rucksack that had been discarded, stitched in a pair of goggles and a ventaxia pipeline. Connected the pipe to a bilge fan, zipped it around my neck and voila! a respirator that looked like a bank robber’s disguise.


As long as the pipeline was not tangled there was not even the whiff of paint. In fact it was almost cozy in the tank, although cramped. At one stage I found myself singing and what a sound box a steel tank makes. Carefully making sure I did not paint my self into a corner I finished up lying in the unpainted patch under the hatch. That was a mistake! As the tank is less than 18 inches high, it should have been obvious that it would be impossible to lie directly under the hatch and then be able to sit upright to get ones head out. It was a sort of one man game of Twister with a board of wet paint.


Following 2 coats of red oxide paint then 3 coats of bitumen for potable water tanks the job is done. I have two resolutions, I am never getting in that tank again and I really will not be drinking that water.


Why not drink it? A little bit of dirt won’t do any harm but the tank is under the front deck. The hatch is in the deck. One walks on the deck. One walks on the tow path. On the tow path dogs walk, and do other things. The filling hose lives on the deck. Spiders and earwigs live on the deck and like crawling into things. The filling hose goes on the tow path taps. Others use their hoses for flushing toilet tanks. If that is not enough, the taste of bitumen will last for several tanks, so no, I won’t be drinking from it.

And as for whistling, you can sing with a vapour mask, goggles and respirator, but a whistle is silent. At least there were no witnesses otherwise it may have looked like trying to blow a kiss to my paintwork.

On painting the roof

Now the job is nearly complete I can reflect on what I have learnt about painting the steel roof of a narrow boat. I am sure there must be lots of other things that I am not aware of, that I will become aware of as time passes, but for now here is a bullet pointed list.


Do not:

Do not work with your wallet in your pocket or be prepared to do and instant belly flop on the towpath to catch it as it gradually sinks into the murky depths.

Do not believe the claims for any mechanised paint stripping/sanding tools. If it’s serious enough to cut through the old hard gloss then it will also cut up the softer steel. Cup brushes, knotted wheels, flap wheels , overlapping discs don’t do it. A sharp one inch chisel is what one needs and about 300,000 scrapings to get the paint off 13 square metres of roof.

Do not believe that the wind blowing tree debris onto the roof is also strong enough to blow away the sanding dust, wear a properly fitting mask or suffer from a tight chest for several days.

Do not lean the extension cable reel up against the part of the generator marked “Warning, hot exhaust”


Do not blow insects or tree debris off the bit you are about to paint, they will end up on the bit that you just painted, no matter which way you blow them.

Don’t bother telling yourself not to knock over the thinners you have just put on top of the solar panel, that is just asking for that prophecy to be fulfilled.


Always work away from the power cords not towards them or risk the sander catching and trying to wind up the cord, as well as winding up yourself.

If you must get a generator make sure you are going to be able to get it onto the boat, by yourself.

a 42 kg generator

Always keep a salvage magnet on board to retrieve the hand tools when you fumble their safety wrist strap knocking them overboard.

When taking off ones shoes to get on the roof, stay well away from the edge or at least one of them will end up treading water down the gap.

Try to get real, physical colour charts rather than relying on a computer image and description. “Light Admiralty Grey BS381 697” .. Light -yes, Admiralty ? Grey .. no, more baby powdery blue greenish. Oh well, it looks OK under the motorway bridge.


Always check with your fingers whether you have just re-coated a part of the roof before walking on it with woolly white socks.

Always start off by using masking tape rather than part way through once you have already wound yourself up by getting paint where is shouldn’t be. Otherwise the job will take longer and there will be remedial work to do.

Ensure you have ear plugs if you intend to try to sleep under an eight lane motorway, enjoy 3 am to 4 am, it’s the only sleep you will get.

Enjoy whatever company turns up, as long as it stays off the roof.


And seriously

A motorway bridge does make quite a wind tunnel resulting is paint drying as it is being applied and debris blowing onto the roof. It did keep the sun and rain off.

With the quick drying paint it was worth having thinners and a brush to lay off the paint as it skinned quickly.

The matt applied with a roller produced a rough and uneven finish. For me this happens to be much better than the previous gloss because it will give me better grip for walking on without having the dirt holding capacity of a sand impregnated finish.

I should have thinned the primer and used two coats to reduce the roughness that was due to it drying too quickly.

I bought more than enough paint, therefore I will be going for a third top coat and will have some left for patching with the same baby powdery blue greenish shade. Rust treatment was Vactan, zinc oxide primer, top coat (also a anti rust primer and top) was Combi color from Rawlins, mixed to order and delivered next day, great service.