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Between Trips

Fitting a Mini Heki Skylight to a Hymer Motorhome (or how not to!)

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Me looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roof Me looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roof

We’ve been hanging our noses over a new Mini Heki skylight for Zagan, our 2001 Hymer B544 motorhome, for months. The standard skylight in the kitchen area was the candidate to be replaced, as it had become opaque with age, and only lifts up a few centimetres by design. On our wanderings we’d seen these new style Heki skylights bright and wide open, and during the heat of summer had fancied the addition breeze wafting about our wagon’s cooking space.

The standard skylight on our Hymer B544. It works fine, but lets in little air and light.The standard skylight on our Hymer B544. It works fine, but lets in little air and light. The top of the skylight - close to the satellite dish as it happens...The top of the standard skylight – close to the satellite dish as it happens… The underside of the skylight with the flyscreen in place.The dark underside of the standard skylight (with the flyscreen in place).

So, when we met up with a mate doing a self-build panel van conversion, who happened to have a spare Heki Mini, we were propelled into action. A quick bit of research revealed there are four variants of this particular skylight (all fit an aperture 400mm by 400mm):

  1. With permanent (forced) ventilation, and roof thickness 25 to 32mm
  2. With permanent (forced) ventilation, and roof thickness 43 to 60mm
  3. Without permanent ventilation, and roof thickness 25 to 32mm
  4. Without permanent ventilation, and roof thickness 43 to 60mm – this is the one our mate had

The first two, with permanent ventilation, are for caravans. They let air in even when closed, so would whistle during driving which, in turn, would drive us mad. The latter two are for motorhomes. After quickly checking the van’s roof thickness (about 50mm) and the size of the current skylight (400mm by 400mm), we picked up the skylight for the bargain price of £75 (they’re usually about £100 with postage from Amazon).

The Seitz Heki Mini Skylight UnpackedThe Seitz Heki Mini Skylight Unpacked

At this point I should note we (I) cocked up, resulting in some ‘fun’ during fitting, as the skylight didn’t, erm, fit. Measuring the roof and the aperture size with the existing skylight in place was a bad, bad idea. I really should have done more research, as the roof thickness is actually 30mm, which meant I’d got the wrong variant of the Heki, whoops. What I couldn’t have known though, or at least probably wouldn’t have discovered unless I’d really looked, is that the standard skylight opening is actually 390mm by 390mm, with small semi-circular cuts made to accommodate the 400mm-wide fittings. So we had a skylight which was both too deep and too wide…

Lifting off the old skylight housingLifting off the old skylight housing The existing aperture before cleaning up all the existing mastic.The existing aperture before cleaning up all the existing mastic. And it's 39cm across, so the Heki doesn't fit.And it’s 39cm across, so the Heki doesn’t fit.

From a previous job fitting a solar panel to Dave, our old Hymer B544, I already knew about Sikaflex, one of the ‘standard’ makes of adhesives folks use to stick stuff to the roofs of motorhomes and caravans. Checking some self-build videos, I got a tube of Sikaflex 221, which glues the the skylight to the roof, creating an elastic seal to keep water out. I was also aware of the fact Sikaflex is horrible stuff to work with if you get it anywhere it shouldn’t be (and best not breathed in or got on skin), so was careful to wear gloves and not let it get on stuff (other than Ju’s shorts, which had to be binned).

Daftly choosing a timeslot starting about 2pm, the hottest part of a hot sunny day, I removed the underside of the old skylight, then got up on the roof and used flexible knives to cut under the adhesive for the existing skylight. After going around all sides a couple of times, the top part could be lifted away (shown above). Another 30 minutes with blades, cloths and fine sandpaper removed the rest of the sealant and keyed the surface ready for new adhesive. At this point we realised the hole was too small, shook fists at the sky, borrowed a jigsaw from a friend and a power supply from a friendly bloke at the storage yard and, gulping a bit, cut a 1cm piece of roof out from two sides, so the new skylight fit with a spare 1mm or so as per the instructions.

Me looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roofMe looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roof

By this point we’d also realised the roof was only actually 30mm thick. The instructions called for small plastic pillars on the lower section to be trimmed to the correct height (4mm in our case), and when we did this we found all the screws we had were too long. Another trip back home and we cut them all down to the correct size with an angle grinder, easy job but took another hour by the time we’d supped a brew! Back at the van, popping a thick bead of Sikaflex along the groove on the underside of the Heki, we made sure we had the lower part of the skylight facing forwards, and dropped it in place. Back underneath we screwed the lower part of the frame in place, placed screws at opposite corners to avoid pushing the sealant out too far on any one side.

Marking the plastic pillars ready for shortening with a hacksawMarking the plastic pillars ready for shortening with a hacksaw Applying the SikaflexApplying the Sikaflex The upper part of the skylight dropped into placeThe upper part of the skylight dropped into place, with the hinge at the front With the lower section screwed on, the skylight couldn't openWith the lower section screwed on, the skylight couldn’t open

Back on the roof the sealant looked good, just pushed out from the base of the skylight all the way around. At this point though, we realised it couldn’t actually open. Goddammiiitt!!! The lower part was made for a thicker roof, so was covering the grooves the handle needed to run through. A bit fed up, we retreated home for a few days to let the sealant go off. Back up there today, we (I) trimmed a couple of V-shapes from the lower section, refitted it and slotted the flyscreen/sun shield section in place using the little metal clips provided.

Two v-shaped sections removed a few days after installation lets the skylight open, huzzah!Two v-shaped sections removed a few days after installation lets the skylight open, huzzah!

One final issue: the satellite dish stops the skylight being fully opened. Resolution: put up with it. If we lift the dish a few cm the skylight opens fully, so not a huge issue, and we still have the other two opening settings available to us, one of which has a locking mechanism to stop the skylight flipping open in the wind. The Heki lets in a ton of light compared with the old one, and we’re pleased with the final fitting. Lesson re-learned, once again: measure properly, and do more research!

The final result - the Heki Mini in place and workingThe final result – the Heki Mini in place and working. Took MUCH longer than expected, but only because I cocked up! All in all, well worth the effort.

Cheers, Jay

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Between Trips

Publishing a Book Has Never Been Easier Folks

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Using Word to Write the Book Manuscript Using Word to Write the Book Manuscript

We’re currently working on self-publishing our fifth book through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) system. This post gives a brief overview of how we’ve done it and, should you want to, how you can do it too.

One of our books – Motorhome Morocco – available worldwide through Amazon

If you’ve a burning desire to publish a book, I’ve good news for you – it’s never been as easy, in all of history, than it is now to get your book out to a worldwide audience. Even if you want to create a printed book (as opposed to only publishing in eBook format), you don’t need to buy an ISBN, pay for a print run, store and sell the books, package or post them. And no, you don’t need to persuade a publisher to accept your book either. Amazon will take care of all of this for you.

A proof copy of The Motorhome Touring Handbook – to be published through Amazon in September (or maybe October – the editing’s a big job!)

Yes, you will need to put in the work to write the book content, and I won’t kid you, it is hard graft. A common question we get when we mention book writing is whether it’s financially worth it. We usually answer by saying this: if you’re going to do it, do it more for the fun than the money. If you happen to hit on a big seller, fantastic, but our experience is we sell a few hundred books, maybe a thousand over time for our most popular ones, and we really couldn’t make anything like a decent living writing books. The level of work involved in book writing is just too high.

Using self-publishing has one big downside: Amazon take a fairly big cut in return for doing all the logistical stuff for you. To make more money, you’d need to use a more traditional print run process, but that involves much more risk, which isn’t something we’re personally interested in.

OK, these are the tools we’re currently using to publish The Motorhome Touring Handbook, all of which are free except for Word and Powerpoint, which are part of Microsoft Office:

  • An Amazon KDP Account (from kdp.amazon.com) used to publish the book on Amazon’s various world-wide web sites – Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and so on. 
  • Microsoft Word (from www.microsoft.com) – we’re using this to write the manuscript which you then upload to KDP.
  • Microsoft PowerPoint (from www.microsoft.com) – we’re using this to do some basic graphics editing – overlaying captions on maps and so on.
  • GIMP (from www.gimp.org) – while you can create your book cover within KDP (which doesn’t need any special tools), we want more control over the layout so are using this free graphics editor.
  • Microsoft Paint (comes with Windows 10) – we’re using this to do basic photo editing – cropping and resizing them for example.

Amazon’s KDP dashboard – used for publishing and managing your books (kdp.amazon.com) Using Microsoft Word for Writing a KDP Book ManuscriptUsing Microsoft Word for Writing a KDP Book Manuscript

Kindle eBook Publishing

With Amazon KDP, you can publish both Kindle eBooks (which can be read on all sorts of devices, not just Kindles) and printed books. We usually create both formats for each of our books, but you can just publish in one format if you like.

After publishing the paper version, it takes us a few more days effort to get a book into eBook format. Things like page numbers and an index work well in print, but make no sense in a Kindle eBook, so have to be stripped out. Kindle eBooks generally sell for less than paper copies, and even though there are no print costs, Amazon still charge a fee to send the book out to buyers, which depends on the download size of the book. This fee can be significant, and we find we generally make less money on eBooks than print ones.

The Book Writing Process

OK, while the process of publishing a book is as easy as it’s ever been, it still takes some effort! By far the hardest part of the process is, of course, writing the book. It’s taken us about 9 months to get this latest book (almost) ready to publish, although it is over 200 pages long, so fairly big. Nope, we weren’t sat there every day for 8 hours, more like 2 or 3 hours a day at most, and for some months we didn’t do anything on the book. The point is unless you sit down and commit to a long piece of work, it can take quite some time to finish the job. This is where our effort will have gone:

  • Working out the specific topic we wanted to talk about – this took a few weeks and evolved all the way through the writing and editing process (not ideal – best to work out your specific topic from the start!).
  • Looking at the competition and deciding if we could add something new – part of the above point.
  • Deciding how to structure the book – this was again an iterative process – we started writing it and changed the structure until it felt right.
  • Researching areas where we didn’t have first-hand knowledge – this took a few weeks on-and-off. We used a good range of websites and books for this.
  • Working through thousands of photos to choose suitable ones for the book, and editing the ones we chose to use in Microsoft Paint, this took about a week.
  • Drafting the manuscript – this took a few months of on-and-off effort. We did this in Word, finally saving as a PDF ready for upload.
  • Editing the manuscript – this took about 2 or 3 weeks.
  • Creating a cover image – took maybe 3 days.
  • Uploading a draft manuscript and cover to KDP and buying an author proof print copy – takes a few hours to upload (which we did several times), and then a week or so for the review copy to arrive which is sold at print cost price plus delivery.
  • Proof reading and copy editing the printed copy – currently underway – this will take a few weeks for both of us.
  • Editing the manuscript and cover again, and re-proofing them – probably 2 or 3 days.
  • Uploading them to KDP again and publishing it – another day or two.
  • Promoting the book through this blog, sending news briefs to magazines and websites, perhaps running a competition for free copies and so on. This will be a few weeks effort over time.

Using Word for Manuscript Writing

To upload a book to KDP ready for publishing, it needs to be in Adobe PDF format. You can use any editing tool you like to create the PDF, but we’ve opted to use Microsoft Word, mainly as we already have a copy of Office 2016, and we know how to use it. Creating a PDF from Word 2016 is just a case of choosing ‘Save as PDF’.

Using Word to Write the Book ManuscriptUsing Word to Write the Book Manuscript

Here are some tips from our experience of using Word for KDP book writing:

  • We use Word’s built-in styles for headings (Heading 1, Heading 2, and so on) then we can automatically build the table of contents, massively simplifying this part of the book.
  • The same goes for the index if you choose to use one – you can pop in index references throughout the book which quickly builds the index at the back for you.
  • Check in KDP for the print page sizes available, choose one, then set your page sizes to be the same in Word.
  • Grab some books from around you and look at things like copyright statements, where page numbers are positioned, how the table of contents is formatted, how the text in a paragraph flows between pages and so on. This will give some ideas on how you might want your book to look.
  • If you choose to publish your book in colour, Amazon makes every page colour, not just a chosen few. This significantly increases the print cost, so we make ours greyscale to avoid the book being too expensive to buy. However, we find we can pop colour photos in the books and Amazon takes care of changing them to greyscale. We use author proof copies to check the photos look OK in the final book.
  • Remember to update your table of contents, index and any ‘see xxxxx on page xxx’ cross references (press Ctrl-A to select the whole book, then press Shift F9 to update the field). This will update all the page numbers to be correct.
  • If more than one of you is creating the content, use Word’s review tools so you can see the changes each of you have made.
  • Use revision numbers in the Word filename, so you know you’re working on the latest version.
  • We use the KDP ‘No Bleed’ option, and avoid placing images or text at the very edge of the pages. Each page has a margin around it instead, like in most print books.
  • Check the PDF very carefully after creating it, not just for spelling or grammatical errors, but for layout issues, page numbers in the table of contents and index being wrong, image captions being incorrect and so on. 

Automatic Table of Contents in Word using Heading StylesAutomatic table of contents in Word using heading styles

Copy Editing and Proof Reading

Ideally all of us ‘independent publishers’ would hire professional copy editors and proof readers to get the best possible result:

  • Copy editors work to ensure the book has a logical flow to it, is precise, fit for purpose, not repetitive and accurate.
  • Proof readers check the book for spelling and grammatical errors. They might also look for consistency in the way a book’s been formatted (all website addresses being in italics, for example).

However, these professionals are unsurprisingly expensive to use. Unless you can sell thousands of books, by paying hundreds of pounds out for editing and proof reading you can easily see any profit dwindling to nothing/losing money. The other option is to get a friend to do it, but it’s no small job and feels wrong to be asking mates to ‘work’ for hours or days for you for free/small change. Our approach as a couple has been to proof and copy edit each other’s work, and to accept that we won’t be 100% perfect, but we will still get a good product out there.

Creating a Cover Image in Gimp

You can use the cover builder tool in KDP to create your image, you don’t need to use Gimp (or Photoshop or other image editors). The reason we used Gimp is to enable us to have more control over where text and images are placed. Here are a few tips on cover images:

  • Gimp is powerful, and free (download it here), but isn’t the easiest tool to use. For example, you need to highlight the correct layer, and then select the ‘Move’ tool to move text or an image on that layer. More often than not you’ll move the wrong part of the image or text… It was a bit frustrating for us at first!
  • To work out the overall size of the cover image, and how big the front and back covers and spine should be, use the cover size tool available through KDP. Do this when you know how many pages your final book will be, as the spine size will change otherwise.
  • Leave space on the rear cover for the barcode, which KDP automatically adds to the bottom right. The ISBN is allocated to you by KDP too, there is no need to buy one.

The draft cover of next book - The Motorhome Touring handbookThe draft cover of our next book in Gimp

Selling Books through KDP

Once your book is live on KDP, apart from promoting it you don’t need to do anything! Amazon will make your book available on their various websites, and people will be able to order the book and pay Amazon for it. Amazon will print the books as they are ordered and ship them for you, or send the book to the buyer’s Kindle. Later on you’ll be able to see reviews on Amazon, to get feedback on your work.

You’ll be able to use the KDP dashboard to see how many books have been bought, and how much royalty is due to you. Amazon will pay out your royalties on a monthly basis direct to your bank account. Remember you’ll need to declare the income to the tax man – we complete personal tax returns each year and include our book sales revenue on them.

Getting More Information

For more detailed information on setting up a KDP account and publishing a book, have a look at Amazon’s JumpStart.

Step-by-step book publishing advice on Amazon’s JumpStart Website

Our Books on Amazon

And finally, here are all of our books available on Amazon.

Cheers, Jay

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Between Trips

Climbing the Hump, Again, 1 Week to Go Folks

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Running Club

Running Club

It strikes me from time to time just what an odd life we live.

Ju and I took part in a club trail race a few days ago, which I really enjoyed. Two decades ago I could run a half marathon in under 76 minutes, which isn’t anything special, but I doubt I’ll be running that kind of time again, not in this life. The sensation of being in among other runners though, struggling past someone about as fast as me, and having them come back at me, really got the juices flowing. It was only a 4.6 mile race, and I came about half way down the 450-strong field, but it’s fired me up for more races in the future. Huuuaaarrrggghhh!!! 🙂

At the end of the race I stood with one of the club’s other runners and mentioned we’d be away for three months so would miss some of the club’s spring and summer races. I didn’t want the club to think we’d just dropped them. He asked what I was doing and I told him we were going travelling. This (almost) always elicits the same response among those who don’t know our self-engineered-weirdo-lives: “how?”. I’ve given up going on about financial independence, which bores and confuses folks equally, so I just said I’m a contractor. “Huh, how the other half live eh?” was the response. Coming from a heavily working class background, I’ve never thought of myself as ‘the other half’! I guess that’s what I am now? I just nodded and walked back up the trail with him.

Anyway, I digress, sorry. The hump, that’s what I should be writing about.

‘The hump’ is the term we’ve come up with to describe the stuff you have to get over in order to get out. Taking off for months or even years of travel is a romantic notion when you’re fed up with work, and are sat in the pub shooting the breeze. It’s also a romantic notion once you’re on the ferry, your packed motorhome below deck, and are peering off across the sea to adventure, new friends, wine, mountains and beaches which await. In between, is the hump.

We’ve done our best to set up our lives to enable us to simply head off whenever we want to, and come back and slot back into life at home, just like that. Zagan has an all-year reserved storage spot a mile away. We share the house with tenants who accept we come and go. Letting agents make sure any problems with the houses and shop are nailed quickly. But even without the temptation of a work contract, the hump still won’t go away.

I’m not after sympathy here by the way – that would be nuts – I’m just after trying to tell anyone gearing up for a long tour who’s finding it hard work that it’s entirely normal, as far as we can tell, to feel that way. In addition to the problems of renting out or selling a house, buying a motorhome, taking the kids out of school and so on, ‘the hump’ is also the mental challenge of stepping away from a safe, entrenched life.

Life at home is easy. We have friends here we can go for a beer with in one of several great local pubs (The Stag: we’re going to miss you). Our families are a short drive away. We know where the doctors and dentists are. Everyone speaks English. We have use of a washing machine and an oven. The toilet empties itself and the shower supplies never-ending water. We’re in a running club who organise lots of events. We have a safe, flat bed each night which doesn’t bounce around in the wind. Saying goodbye to loved ones, is hard. This will be my 7th multi-month trip now (some weren’t in a motorhome), which I know is a massive privilege but it never seems to get any easier.

We’re a week away from the ferry. The Tunnel is by far Ju’s favourite but was so much more expensive we just couldn’t justify it. Fingers crossed for flat seas. While I’ve been hammering away at a keyboard slowly pulling together a book, Ju’s been sorting all the stuff that needs sorting: scanning up-to-date documents, buying travel insurance, buying Internet with Legs cards, updating our park4night and campercontact apps, updating our packing list and using it to check we have everything. And a hundred other things which I pretend don’t need doing but know do.

Dog medication the humpWe may need a bigger van for all of Charlie’s medication!

Our worldly possessions, such that they are, are gradually making their way into the van. We coughed up for an AeroPress coffee maker, to clean up the job of making a decent brew of a morning, a replacement Camping Chair for the one I finally broke last year, and a copy of the Overlanders’ Handbook to scare myself witless with. Other than a few replacement clothes, and half a ton of various Charlie dog medicines, we’re travelling with much the same stuff as we had last time out.

So, where are we going? Answer: dunno. Honestly, we don’t yet know. The only fixed point is the Zermatt Half Marathon on 7 July in Switzerland, which I’m running with Phil (who was also responsible for getting us around the Marrakech half last year). Croatia will be lovely in the spring, and is tempting but for the fact we want to keep Charlie fairly cool, and it can get hot down there as we once found out. I guess we’ll just play it by ear.

We’ve got a final (for the next 3 months at least) get-together with mates on Thursday. Ju’s then off to watch our friend Sue run her first Marathon in London on Sunday (good luck Sue!). I’m on ‘lug stuff up to the van’ and wash the car (loaned from my parents-in-law) duty. We’ll then head south on Monday morning and stay at the Canterbury aire. The ferry’s then about midday on Tuesday, and with that we’ll be over the hump and back on the continent.

What happens after that is anyone’s guess. 🙂

Cheers, Jay

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Between Trips

Should We Stay, or Should We Go?

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Back in 2011 when we published a video of Charlie going through the ultimate dog dilemma, I never thought we would be in a similar situation, but that is what happened to us last week. If you haven’t seen the video of Charlie, you can watch it below, and see his mind whirring as he tries to decide if he should keep hold of his new favourite stick, which he’d just carried back to the van, or put it down and eat a treat.

[embedded content]

Granted, we didn’t quite have sticks in our mouths, but we were very, very tempted by a big, juicy treat – Jay was offered a six month contract. Jay’s background is in IT Project Management, which is a lucrative business to be in. When we returned to the UK last July he took on a three month contract, which turned into four months, but that’s the nature of what he does, contracts frequently get extended. He probably could still be on his umpteenth contract extension, but we decided in December that enough was enough. I wanted my happy hubby back, and while he was at work I was tip-toeing around a stressed-out, grumpy man who was experiencing chest pains and, of all things numb hands at night.

Since finishing his contact Jay has struggled to find something to fill his time and give him a sense of fulfilment. Neither of us felt ready to hit the road again, in fact it was starting to feel like something we were doing due to our inability to think of anything else. When the contract offer came along, it sent us into a bit of a tailspin. At first I was dead against it, I only needed to read some old blog posts, or look at photos on my phone of a countdown we drew up to the end of his last contract, to remember how it made us feel. Jay on the other hand was curious, he asked for more information, and as we thought it would result in a decent chunk of money – enough to fund more than a year of our current lifestyle.

We retreated to our favourite place to discuss future life plans, and after several pints in the local we were leaning towards staying, earning the money and ring-fencing it for adventures further afield once Charlie is no longer with us (as he doesn’t understand aeroplanes!). Prices were sought for flights to Australia, overlanding across Africa and all sorts of other adventures on our bucket lists. I don’t think this helped, as we ended up blowing the whole thing up into much more than it should have been. Instead of a question about the next six months, it became a decision about the rest of our lives, our attitudes to money and our work ethics. For nearly a week we swung from staying, to going, back to staying. Positive and negative lists were drawn up as we spun round and around, often finding that we were opposite sides of the decision.

Our current financial situation gives us freedom, we can work if we want, or choose not to. If we don’t work, we have enough money coming in to cover our bills and day to day living expenses, but not much else. More money would enable us to do more adventurous trips as I mentioned above, but one thing we realised when we were striving for financial freedom is that you can never have enough. “I just need to stay in my job for another year”, or “I only need another £x00k in the bank”, is something we often hear from people wanting financial independence, and usually it’s an arbitrary figure or timescale with no numbers behind it. It’s very, very hard to turn off the pipe of money that comes from having a job, I believe it’s the final ‘hump’ that you need to get over before you get financial freedom, and stopping it from being switched back on was equally as hard.

Eventually we decided, at the same time, that health and happiness are more important and the contract was turned down. Before we could change our minds, again, we booked the ferry – and opted for a non-changeable ticket.

dog pet passportCharlie is ready to go

So, on the 24th of April we’re off, back to Plan A and some sunshine. Zagan has been washed and is now being slowly repacked ahead of a shakedown to make sure everything has survived the cold winter – he’s not used to those. I suspect I know what Charlie’s choice would have been if he had a say in us staying or going – he loves a beach – but at least we now have a little insight into what he was going through in his dog dilemma.

Ju x

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