Continuous Cruisers: How To Constantly Cruise The Canal Network

Continuous cruiser Peter Earley emailed me after reading Pauline Roberts article about living on a narrowboat. Peter wrote the following article for the Residential Boat Owner’s Association about four years ago. He though it would be a good counter argument for what many consider unneccessary pessimism in Pauline’s article. {{{0}}}

A little background information about Peter…

“After a good friend died back in 2002 just after realising his dream of owning his own boatyard, Jeannette and I decided that we wanted to realise our ambition of living permanently on water and cruising the canals. We ran a company in Southampton involved with vehicle electrics and someone expressed an interest in buying it so we sold up. We had years of canal experience, first hiring then shared ownership so made the rounds of boat builders and settled on Sabre in Manchester to build ‘Joanie M’. We wanted a unique name. We looked at ‘Joan’ after Jeannettes mum but there were about 6 already. There were 3 or 4 Joanies so we settled on ‘Joanie M’, the M being for Maurice, my father in law.

Joanie M was launched in June 2007 near Worsley on the Bridgewater. She is 58ft long and gas free with a 7 kVa generator built into the engine bay. We have 2 diesel tanks totalling 400 litres and a water tank of about 200 gallons. 4 x 135 aHr leisure batteries and 2 x 45W solar panels.

Jeannette is 64 and I am 65. We have been married 45 years.”

Joining The Ranks Of The Continuous Cruisers

So, you want to join the ranks of that hardy band, Continuous Cruisers? You do realise that besides having to endure all that British weather may throw at us you will also be reviled by half of the canal population as a free loader despite canal living being no cheaper than living on the bank. Not for us the easy existence in a Marina with access to electricity and other essentials.

Narrowboat Joannie M

Narrowboat Joannie M

Actually, you’ll be joining a very select group. According to the 2007 accounts of British Waterways there are only 2175 license holders registered as Continuous Cruisers so that makes us very much a minority interest. It’s a pity that we don’t get as much interest or money as some other minority groups. After all, the road travellers in their coaches and caravans have their own parliamentary spokesman.

As a genuine CCer, there is one rule with which you have to abide. You should only stay in one ‘area’ for no more than 14 days. ‘Area’ is not really defined but is generally accepted to be a parish and you still have to take notice of any local mooring conditions such as time limits. Of course, there are always exceptions to this such as being taken ill, mechanical breakdown, and the like but you should always try and get permission from BW before overstaying. As you cruise the system you might think you’re the only one obeying the rules as the outskirts of many towns and cities are marked by ‘illegally’ moored boats together with their attendant detritus and parked cars. You, of course, won’t have a car and, probably no job either.

You will also have to keep a log of your journeys to prove that you have been cruising continuously. Not that anyone ever asks to look at it! However, it is useful to know whether the ice is earlier or later than last year, when you saw the first cygnet born and to prove your fuel usage when claiming other than the ‘standard’ 40/60 split on fuel duty.

Every year there are stories of people with no previous experience selling their house, buying a boat and sailing off into the sunset, or at least to Birmingham. This is just plain daft. Even if you’ve had a few summer holidays on the canals this won’t prepare you for conditions in February. We thought we were experienced, 20 years of hiring then 8 years of shared ownership meant there wasn’t a month in the year when we hadn’t cruised. Even so, it has been a steep learning curve.

When deciding on your boat there are a number of decisions to be made that will be difficult to unmake later. When you get together with other boaters inevitably you will end up talking about toilets. These divide into pump-out and cassette. Pump-out has the advantage of looking like a normal toilet and it will last at least a couple of weeks between emptying. Indeed, some people manage to make their tank last for 3 months or more. They must make a lot of use of shore facilities such as pubs or keep their legs crossed a lot. Emptying them however will cost. Anything up to ?18 or so a time. Emptying a cassette on the other hand is usually free but a full one is heavy and will need doing every couple of days. So, you pays your money and take your choice. Oh, and whichever system you decide on, at some time it will block!

Very important is your bed as you’re going to spend rather a lot of time in it. In a hire boat the bed always runs fore and aft. You may have noticed that it is only 4 feet wide and that you are always digging your elbows and knees into your partners back. The one who draws the short straw to sleep on the inside also has the risk of sudden shock on accidentally touching the cold side of the boat. But, if you don’t mind the narrowness it has the great advantage of being permanently made up. Of course, you can always have an extension to one side to give you the luxury of a king size but you’ve then lost all the advantages. The cross bed, on the other hand, gives you the king size but can be a bit uncomfortable if you are taller than 5 foot 10. Climbing over the bed though keeps you fit and it also means that whoever sleeps on the kitchen side always gets to make the morning cuppa!

Everything on a boat is a bit of a compromise but you will need as much storage as is humanly possible. You cut down on your cooking utensils, convert all your CDs to MP3, stick all the family photos on your hard drive, stick the wellies in that tiny space at the back but it’s the clothes that take up the space. That great idea, the vacuum bag, must have been made with boaters in mind. Not only does it enable you to pack your spare clothes into a tiny space but it keeps them dry at the same time. You will come to accept the scourge of condensation in time!

When living in a house we took central heating for granted. We assumed we could do this on the boat despite the cost of diesel. A big mistake. Those heating systems generally fitted to boats are not suitable for residential use and, furthermore, any warranty won’t usually cover this use. There are some systems on the market designed for 24 hour use but they are not small and, given the pressures on space in a liveaboard, may not fit. Being children of the 60’s, well 50’s actually, we’ve never really had coal fires at home so thought we could do without one on board. From our experience with the shared ownership boat we found them to be dusty and the heat could sometimes be unbearable. Our first winter found the diesel heating expiring from over use on the coldest week of the year so we bit the bullet and had a multi-fuel stove fitted. The boat is now as warm as toast but guess what, it’s dusty and the heat can sometimes be unbearable. Still, we can always open the front doors!

You will be living in close proximity with your partner in a space not much longer than 50 feet. This inevitably will lead to the occasional argument. Make sure your boat has at least one door that can be closed with a satisfying slam!

Once on board permanently, you will be a person of no fixed abode. This is not acceptable in today’s Britain where the first piece of information you are always asked is your postcode. To have a credit card, a bank account and a British Waterways licence you will need a permanent address on shore. This is why you have children. They’ve used your home as a convenience for years, it’s your turn now. Make sure you get a new passport and driving licence showing this address so you can then apply for the National Bus Pass from the local Council. All your post can go there for your children to deal with. Most of it will be rubbish anyway but the important stuff can always be scanned and e-mailed to you. If it is something that you need to sign then the Royal Mail Poste Restante system works very well but is one of the places that you need to prove who you are so don’t forget to take that nice new driving licence.

Another item that seems to generate much hostility amongst some other boaters is the washing machine. Complaints about hogging the water point being the usual complaint. It might be that these people don’t wash their clothes too often but to rely on launderettes is a no-brainer. First you have to find one, it’s usually a long walk with a heavy bag of washing, you need an inexhaustible supply of ?1 coins and when you get the washing out you find the previous user had washed his overalls after creosoting the fence. So go for an on-board machine if you have the space. Be careful of washer/dryers though as they can use an inordinate amount of water in the drying process.

Having mentioned water, don’t pass a water point without filling up. You may have a tank that would keep a family of five going for a fortnight but, if you do pass a water point, you can bet your life that the next one will have six boats waiting or will not be working. This is even more important during the winter months when you can go to bed on a mildish night to wake to ? inch of ice.

As most of us get older we need to take various medications to make life easier. We are lucky in that the Doctor we have been registered for years continues to keep us on her list despite knowing we no longer live in her area. At first we took our repeat prescription forms to a local Doctor, registered as a temporary patient, and eventually received a new prescription. However, no two Doctors seemed to be the same. Sometimes we would receive enough for 2 months, on others just 2 weeks. Sometimes we were subjected to the third degree, on others we saw no one but a receptionist. Eventually we started posting the prescription form to a friend with a stamped addressed envelope for wherever we expect to be in the next fortnight, he drops it in to our Doctor, collects the new form and pops it in the post. There will be times when you become unwell and need to visit a local Doctor. This is easy. You have a form to fill in as a temporary patient for which you will need the dreaded postcode. I use the one of the nearest pub or supermarket. You will be asked if you are staying for longer than 14 days. (Not the same 14 days as British Waterways surely!) This is where you need to lie and say yes. Otherwise, you will only get enough medication to last until you are out of that Doctors area and are someone else’s problem.

You’ve made all your preparations and are afloat so now you need to make some plans. Plans! I here you say. We’re free agents. We’ll go where the wind, actually diesel power, takes us. If only it were so. Firstly all your friends and relatives will want to visit and see what it is that made you loose your senses but they would rather travel to France rather than find their way to Macclesfield. You’ll need to feed them so easy access to Tescos or Sainsburys is necessary as is plenty of booze to calm you down when they’ve gone. There’s the BW stoppage list to take into account and you need to consider winter whilst you can still move. It is no good being miles from the nearest water tap when the canal freezes over. Not that you can guarantee the tap will work when you do get to it. So, some forward planning is required even if it is somewhat loose. You will make a pact before you start that you are not going to cruise if it is raining or blowing a gale. You can forget that. Having made a plan that you didn’t want in the first place, you can bet it will rain every day when you just have to move

Boats are complicated things and will go wrong, usually at the worst possible time. Besides our heating breaking down, our generator failed a few days before Christmas 2007. ‘So what’, you might say but on a gas-free boat it was a bit awkward. Of course, you’re a DIY expert so you will have a full tool kit and all the spares your limited storage space and your partner will allow. At the very least I recommend you should be able to carry out your own engine service. If you think you can rely upon boatyards for any repairs then think again. You are used to phoning the garage, booking your car in for a service on a particular day and it being done that day. Just as we cruise the canals at a leisurely pace so do boatyards work. You must remember that the parts used on your boat might not be that common. Next time you are in the Chandlers just see how many different water and bilge pumps there are.

It won’t be long before you’re obsessed with your battery power, sticking your voltmeter into a socket at every opportunity to see the state of charge. After a while power conservation becomes second nature so then you can obsess about how much water you are using. Whatever appliances you choose you need to look at their power consumption. There are some quite low power mains units that won’t deplete your batteries too much but you must always remember, a 1000w toaster will pull 90 amps from your batteries if only for a shortish period. Batteries are only a storage medium. There is only so much you can get out of them before damaging them irreparably. The more power you use the longer you need to run your engine or generator the next day to fill it back up.

You will also get used to the morning ‘wipe down’. Condensation is a big problem on a boat. The amount varies from boat to boat and depends on the outside temperature and humidity. Cooking generates a lot, both from steam and from the gas used. The bathroom is another culprit but the biggest offender is us. And, whilst we keep breathing, there is nothing we can do about it. When we stop breathing the problem will go away, permanently! Plenty of ventilation will help as will a decent heating system and a bit of double glazing but a bit of extra insulation only seems to push the problem to a different part of the boat. So get wiping.

Getting about on shore can sometimes be a problem. Without your own car you either have to walk, cycle, bus, taxi, train or hire car. You will quickly realise that pedestrians and public transport come very low in most Councils priorities. Pedestrian routes to most supermarket and retail park entrances are obviously placed by architects who never actually walk anywhere. Most of these places have well worn paths through the flower beds and over the fences where pedestrians have taken the shortest route. Pavements that suddenly end only to start again on the opposite side of a busy road are all too common and pedestrian crossings are timed for the convenience of the motorist, not poor you waiting in the rain.

Having successfully obtained your bus pass you will then be introduced to that great work of fiction, the bus timetable! You will meet some wonderful people and listen to the life history of not a few and that is just the drivers. Take pity on them, having to charge around the country at breakneck speeds to meet unrealistic timetables in aged vehicles that belong to a third world country. The oldest we’ve travelled on was 21 years old! You will also find that large tracts of England are completely cut-off in the evenings and at weekends. Even in a town the size of Bedford, the last bus from the town centre to the marina we were moored in was at 6.15pm and there was no Sunday service at all despite there being a large leisure complex next door.

To keep in contact with your family and friends, there is the mobile phone. It is one of the wonders of the modern age that it is possible to talk with astronauts on the moon but try to get a signal on your phone on the summit level of the Kennet & Avon! If you can, make sure your partners phone is on a different network to yours. That way you have a fighting chance that one of your phones will work. Of course, internet access is the same. You get used to slow connection speeds after a while but it can be very frustrating when you are trying to pay your credit card before the due date. Many CCers make use of home shopping for foodstuffs. It is not something we have used but I understand that Tescos is the most accommodating. Provided you can give them the dreaded postcode they will deliver direct to the boat.

Talking of the internet, there are a number of canal related forums which can offer you some good advice. However, be careful what you say. Threads on these forums often get ‘hijacked’ by people with their own axe to grind. Ask an innocent question about generators, for instance, will bring a tirade from others who see living afloat as some sort of green crusade and that we should all be reading by candlelight, washing our clothes in the cut and scavenging the hedgerows for fuel. Just remember that it is your life and you can live it how you wish providing BW let you.

In the winter you can cruise for days without seeing another moving boat but in the summer it will be completely different. Every lock will have a queue of hirers who will ask the inevitable questions. Do you live on board? How long have you done it? Doesn’t it get cold in the winter? A few similar questions before the big one. How much did your boat cost?

So welcome to the club and if you pass a boat called ‘Joanie M’, slowly of course, give us wave. We’ll always wave back.

About The Author → Working at and living on a narrowboat at one of the most beautiful marinas in the UK; Calcutt Boats’ Meadows marina on the Grand Union canal near Napton Junction
  • Narrowboatwife Wednesday,28 March, 2012, 1:21 pm

    I’ve read this before and think it’s a brilliant article covering lots of useful info. I’ve lived on board for 12 years. I think this article gives a good summary of the things you’ll have to think of :-)

  • amershammary Sunday,1 April, 2012, 7:31 pm

    As a newbie I found this article very interesting with lots of good advise. If I see your boat I will deffinately give you a wave and will probably have loads of questions to ask !

  • Pengalanty Sunday,1 April, 2012, 10:03 pm

    I would like to add a couple of points to items mentioned in the excellent article. I do not agree that condensation is a problem in a well designed boat, so read on> > > >

    Firstly CONDENSATION –
    When I ordered my windows for “Pengalanty” they were considered very large for a normal narrowboat (48″ W x 24 rounded on all corners and full hopper design) The full hopper is not very good for summer ventilation though. Because I had in my mind the problem of security in mind when placing my order with CHANNELGLAZE, of Birmingham (I can recommend them as first class in attention to detail, customer service and stunning finish to the end product. I would choose them again without doubt!

    WINDOW INSULATION
    It was “Channelglaze” that introduced me to a German glazing medium. It is 12mm thick, Polycarbonate with a glass-hard finish to both sides, enabling one to clean them just like glass. Like all good things, they were expensive and increased the cost substantially.

    However, the benefits are enormous!

    *Absolutely* – NO CONDENSATION

    The Polycarbonate has a Higher insulation factor than double glazing (I have a lovely warm boat and it stays warm for a longer period than any other boat I have known
    Very high security too, (My main concern at the time), as the medium cannot be broken even with a sledge hammer! I understand that this is used in bullet-proof protection screens in banks etc. The window fixings are the weakest point without modification

    In the bathroom, bedroom, and back cabins, I have porthole style (Top-Opening) windows. These are just 4mm toughened glass and occasionally, have some condensation but the inner (Built in) water channel catches this and discharges it outside the boat, part of the special aluminium extrusion that Channelglaze have exclusively made for them (Their own design, I believe)

    CENTRAL HEATING
    I purchased a corner “Drip Feed” Bubble stove. This is diesel fired and is very simple. It feeds 3 radiators and I have never found it necessary to fit a fanned heater (Connected to the water C/H system). It is still in it’s box, as supplied by Eberspatcher (I think that’s the German spelling?) This is extremely efficient and keeps the humidity levels inside low, whatever the conditions outside in the Winter. I believe this is the main reason I do not suffer from condensation. My fresh air ventilation is also my own design and I have vents (One each side) of the front entrance doors in the bulkhead. The ventilation ducts are below the floor level and I have the 12″ x 4″ ducts down each side of the boat – full length – and I have fitted vents where necessary. This way, I never suffer a cold draught anywhere inside the boat. This may not seem important in the summer but it is sheer luxury to have a warm boat without a cold draught in the winter. I also have adjustable roof mushroom vents and can control these too. However, they cannot be completely closed. I admit to stuffing underwear in the bathroom vent when I have a “Jaccuzzi” bath though!

    ENGINE POSITION
    My engine is sited in the back cabin, to one side and as close to the inner bulkhead as possible (Boxed in). This acts like a gigantic storage heater and is a bonus! My Calorifier (H/W cylinder to non-boaters) is a vertical one and sits on top of a substantial shelf above the engine – another plus for keeping the warmth within the living area of the boat

    However, as one knows, if you have pluses, like the ones mentioned, they also come with disadvantages! It is more difficult to service my engine. Replacing the oil has to be done carefully, replacing drive belts to alternators and the like means removing panels etc., and to wire the large Domestic alternator is a sheer nightmare, as one has to do this by “feel” and/or mirrors and takes 10 x as long to repair a simple replacement job! However, on balance, I think I have the best and obtained the best return for diesel used as the engine keeps the boat lovely and dry. The back cabin makes a wonderful drying room when cruising!

    CONCLUSION
    Should anyone be thinking of designing their own boat, it is not so easy to do. However, if some or all of the above can be incorporated, you should have a cosy boat, whatever the elements throw at you from outside, (I am sure that Paul will confirm this as he has visited) “Pengalanty”.

  • Wiggins Monday,2 April, 2012, 3:03 am

    I like the “make sure you have one door to slam in case of argument” comment, which is why I am never sure about living in a studio – must have sulking space…

  • monique Monday,2 April, 2012, 8:05 pm

    Thank you for an informative and well written article which was a pleasure to read! Thanks also to ‘Pengalanty’ for your useful comments.

  • stuart Thursday,5 April, 2012, 12:00 am

    Very interesting reading. Enjoying this site imensely already,thanks to all the contributors.

  • Swilks Wednesday,11 April, 2012, 9:59 am

    My husband and I both read this article and found it very funny and despite the blatant honesty we are still looking forward to joining the Ccers at some point in the future. We hope to give you a wave and no doubt discuss the loos.

  • Essgeebee Wednesday,11 April, 2012, 11:30 am

    Not a CCer or even a boater yet but find this site very interesting. Since retiring, we’ve considered CCing for over a year – but may never take the plunge. There seem so many changes we’d have to make from everyday ‘house’ life that we might need a boat 100ft long with several ‘slamming’ doors if we are to survive! Thank you for a great article. Like so many others, it gives us invaluable information on real life on the cut rather than overly romanticised notions. One thing I couldn’t do again is the stress of conflict with ‘neighbours’ and I was surprised to read about the potential for that on boats.

  • UT Archers Monday,30 April, 2012, 5:11 pm

    Great article. We had our boat built with CCing in mind but, typically, work got in the way and we have to be patient now and wait until the blasted contract finishes ! Ah well, at least we spend as much time as we can aboard and doing as much cruising as poss. Please to report that, so far, not much condensation (a stove is brilliant for cutting this problem down), our washing machine (yes you heard right) is a god-send and the pump-out toilet lasts for around a month without having to resort to other means ! Oh and, couldn’t agree more with your observation of bumper-hires and their questions :)