Learn about life afloat the easy way

Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.

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Yearly Archives: 2012

Narrowboat Solar Power

By Tim Davis

Before we start exploring all the ins and outs of solar power, an introductory paragraph to “set the scene“ as it were.

Firstly a bit about me and my involvement in solar energy; I have been a live aboard boater for 12 years now and during that time have worked exclusively in the boat building and maintenance industry.

My role has always been all the technical side of boat building; things like engine fitting, heating and plumbing, gas and of course one of the biggest jobs on a boat, wiring and electrics, in fact anything that’s not wood work. My wood working colleagues often joked than no one knew what Tim did as all his work was covered up with lovely wood!

Narrowboat Solar Panels

It was around 4 years ago I first got involved in fitting of solar panels for a customer. It was a very impressive system but also hugely expensive which largely made it prohibitive for most boaters at the time, as although it undoubtedly worked very well the payback time would have been many years with too greater upfront cost to make it practical.

Two years later and I was planning an extended cruise around the system and decided to re visit solar and see if I could build a system for my boat as I was getting fed up with running either the engine or generator for a couple of hours each day when I wanted to sit somewhere for a week or two and the pain of having to turn the fridge off if I wanted to leave the boat for a day or two. After a lot of research I came up with the system I have now and found many boater friends became interested it how good it was.

As my main objective was to come up with a system that gave me the MOST output for the LEAST cost I had “accidentally” created a product that other boaters might want. Within a short space of time it turned into my current business “Onboard Solar” a complete service supplying and fitting of complete solar packages AND helping people reduce their energy draw on the boat!

So what do solar panels actually do?

Well, it’s really quite simple, they act as a battery charger – and that’s it! Many of you will have built in chargers that you switch on when plugged into a marina shore supply (Luxury!). The panels effectively do the same thing, but the power comes from the sun. They don’t have anything like the same output as a mains charger though – not even on a relatively large solar installation so one myth to quickly dispel is you can fit solar and then expect an abundant supply of power as you would when plugged in. A solar system effectively trickle charges your domestic batteries during the day. Most boats have one piece of equipment that is on all the time and they want to keep going every day – can you guess what it is? The TV? No! it’s the fridge of course! Most boats sensibly have a 12V fridge and this can be kept running comfortably through the spring and summer/early autumn by a modest solar system – indeed I left my boat tied up for a week in the summer and left the fridge ON oh yes! Remember though the solar system charges the batteries which the fridge then runs from.

So a solar system is designed to keep your basic 12V needs up and running while you sit on the cut in a lovely place somewhere for a few days (or perhaps as many of my customers do have a linear mooring with no power). They won’t run heavy duty mains appliances like washing machines (you still need to run the engine and use the inverter for that) and you WILL still have to be as careful as ever with your power but you WONT have to run your engine anywhere near as often – AND you can leave the boat for a day or two and not worry.

Solar Power ControllerI also encourage boaters to adopt power saving technologies such as LED lighting (fantastic these days and amazing – you can have around 10 LEDs on for the power of one halogen bulb – oh and we sell them too!). The thing is you can spend a relatively large amount on solar and it will work very well IF you think about minimising your draw and continuing (as we all do) to be careful with your power.

There are other tricks too like running laptops through power converters rather than using the big inverter – please feel free to contact me for further details on all of these “asides”

How do they work?

Good news folks – you don’t need to know! It’s all quite boring talking about silicon atoms, photons and electrons! (email me if you do want to know)  In short, you shine the sun on a panel and it outputs low voltage DC electricity (just what we need on a boat eh?). That it! However what you DO need to know is that as the sun changes brightness the voltage varies enormously and often way above the charge rate a battery likes to have so you have to use a regulator between the panels and the batteries. These have a side advantage that there is a digital display on them giving you info such as battery voltage, charge rate in amps and amount of charge in amp hours – all quite handy to know! Surprisingly, many boats don’t have any way of telling what’s in the battery. There are actually different types of regulator as well which I will come back to later.

I’m thinking of buying a solar package – what size? How many panels?

Well this is tricky to answer as it’s the old “how long is a piece of string thing“. Be very careful here though as you could spend a couple of hundred pounds on say an 80W system that only gives you 2 or 3 amps which is just not quite enough and you will still need to run the engine often.

However from experience I can tell you that for most boats that are what I like to call “12V” based. That is to say you have a 12V fridge and have done your best to minimise your power draw so a 200W system is a good start.

In my packages (remember the mantra of MAXIMUM power for MINIMUM outlay?) I discovered that 100W panels offer the best price per watt, whilst still being of a manageable size. Therefore to achieve bigger output one simply has multiple 100W panels – thus a 200W system would have 2 panels etc.

It seems smaller panels and larger panels do not have this economy on cost. This gives the system a nice modular approach and means with forward planning you can add another panel at a later date easily. A 200W system will give a charge rate, using the standard controller, of around 12 amps on a good midsummer day. That’s 12 amps continuously going into the batteries all day long while the sun shines. The fridge draws about 4 amps when the compressor is running so there is plenty left over to charge the batteries as well ready for the evening when you want to use the power for lighting and the TV.

On a dull winter’s day like this late November (more rain!) I was seeing 1.7 amps off mine, OK, not much but it is still a charge. Over last weekend we had some of that lovely unbroken winter sun all day on Sunday and I tilted my panels into the low sun and saw 5 amps. So the motto here is you need to have enough watts to make it worthwhile and you can never have too much. It’s then down to your budget. And, yes, sadly there WILL be days especially in the winter where you will need to run that engine still.

So what types of panels are best? Are stick on ones any good?

Another very often asked question. There are different types of panel available; the two common types seen are the rigid panel type, usually glass coated and in an aluminium frame, and the flexible type which sit flush on the roof and look great!

However beware – I did a lot of investigation in my research and came up with this: Do I want a panel that looks great and really enhances the look of the boat, or do I want one that works better AND is much lower cost?

Joking aside, the issues are as follows.

1. Panels work best when aimed directly at the sun – there is no scope for tilting the stick on panels into the sun.
2. The light transfer capability of the gel coating on the sticky panels as opposed to glass on the rigid panels doesn’t work as well.
3. Panels like to stay a cool as possible, when hot they output less – we all know how hot the roof gets in the summer, imagine how hot a stick on panel would get!

So the system I chose for my boat is as follows: I use 100W panels. I, as many of my customers do, have 2 of them. They are the rigid frame type with aluminium surround. They are mounted on tilting brackets (see photo). These are A shaped brackets 8” high mounted at each end of the panel. These brackets have several great advantages.

1. You can easily tilt the panels into the sun – this can make a difference of plus 60%
2. As they are above the roof on the brackets they keep really cool.
3. Having them on the brackets mean they can be installed on the centre line of the boat as they ride beautifully over the top of any mushroom vents, are easy to get round and actually look quite smart.
4. They are very easy to clean under with no rust or dirt traps and of course easy when you want to repaint the roof.
5. The final advantage is without doubt the MOST important. The stick on panels are about twice the price of the system I have just described.

As an aside, I was worried. I have a lovely vintage style BCN tug all in proper livery and I didn’t want to spoil it with solar panels, but I did want the power so I was very nervous, but you know what? A few weeks in I was used to them and people who always say admiring things about the boat when I’m in a lock still do and often actually complement the panels so it was not a big deal in the end! “Fusing technology with tradition” is what the marketing department would call it!

So what’s all this watts/amps/volts stuff?

Again it’s not critical to know any of this but it helps to understand what’s going on. Voltage is your store of power – like a water tank. Solar Panel BracketsFully charged batteries sit at 12.6 volts. Amps is the flow of current to a consumer such as the fridge or lights – like the flow of water in a pipe – it is critical as the more amps you draw the quicker the batteries go flat, the more you put in the quicker they get charged. Your shore power charger might be 50 amps or more so you can see that 200W of solar with an average of say 8A output is quite small. Watts is the actual power that a consumer uses so your 12V telly say might be 120W. From this you can easily work out how many amps it uses by dividing it by the volts (12) – that example tells me it’s drawing 10amps.

Solar panels are also all sized in watts because they are a power source. So 200W divided by 12 = around 16 amps right? So hang on, why don’t you get 16A out of a 200W system then? It’s all down to the regulator/controller. The standard one works by actually lowering the voltage of the panels down to an acceptable charge rate (maximum of 14.4 volts) in doing so it introduces loss as the extra volts are simply wasted. (My panels generate 21 volts in full sun for example). To overcome this I have a new regulator called an MPPT controller – it stands for Maximum Power Point Tracking and means just that – it allows the panels to run at their full voltage with no wastage and uses that to drive a more sophisticated charger (like a mains powered charger) within the controller. I have seen the full 16amps off of a 200W system using the new controller so it definitely works!

So what’s the deal with Onboard Solar?

The first thing I like to do is get an idea of what you are running on your boat and the size of the battery bank, together we look at any scope for trimming down power then I can recommend the right size system – my take on this is if you are going to spend a few hundred pounds on a solar system – you want to get the very best return. Though generally 12V based narrow boats start with 200W. Some wide beams with 230V fridge and freezer run through an always on large inverter require 400W or more just to keep up with the load.

In both cases I now encourage use of the new MPPT controller as it does make a difference. I then supply and fit everything – keeping cables and fittings as tidy as possible, then of course show you what‘s what – though you will be pleased to hear it all self manages!.  It takes a couple of hours and removes the headache and drama of drilling holes in your own boat because you have to get that right first time!

You will have a little controller that gives you useful info about the charge rate and more usefully the battery voltage so this time of the year you can look and see if your batteries are not getting enough charge so you know when it’s time to run the engine! Optionally I also supply power management panels. These show you the amps that you are drawing as well as the amps going in and keep a count up of amp hours used/charged.

So say at night you are drawing 6 amps for the television and some lights, every 10 minutes you will use 1 amp hour. In the morning once the solar kicks in these amp hours get counted back in again (or when the engine or charger is on) so it’s a fuel gauge for your batteries.

What sort of budget do I need?

Cost is currently £625 all inclusive for supply/fit of the 200W and £1,050 for the 400W system with an extra £150 for the MPPT upgrade. (300w or greater than 400W also available)

So in summary then, solar panels act as a charger to keep your basic 12V  needs up and running allowing you to sit anywhere for days at a time without having to worry. It is a great thrill to use power of an evening, get up on a bright spring or summer morning and see your batteries under charge at 13.5 volts instead of way down and thinking “ok better start the engine up”

What about payback?

This is a tricky one, because it depends how you measure it, financially most customers agree about a year IF you spend a lot of time out and about or especially if you are a live aboard on a mooring with no power – this is a real win situation. If you are in a marina then there is not a huge benefit as the main charger “takes over”. I do have a couple of customers in marinas who have opted for 400W systems (to increase the charge rate) and they no longer plug in and are thus saving the huge cost of marina electricity standing charges etc. However the payback of NOT running that engine every morning just to keep the batteries charged is huge – real convenience.

My final word is a quote from a customer and good friend of mine. We were sitting by his boat and having rather nice Gin and Tonics crammed full of ice from his 12V fridge/freezer on a lovely summer evening on the North Oxford canal. As he passed me the drink he gestured towards his solar panels on the roof and said – “there you go, Tim – ice cubes made from the sun!“  Brilliant!

I hope this brief article has helped to explain something of what the solar energy applied to boats is all about.  There are many pictures and lots of info on my web site www.onboardsolar.co.uk or please feel free to email me tim@onboardsolar.co.uk or call me on 07810 885734.

Useful Information

Narrowboat TV Aerial: The Perfect Choice For Your Boat

If you’ve read through the posts on this site, you’ll know by now that I don’t think much of television. In my opinion it’s a waste of reading time, it’s a waste of time that could otherwise be spent enjoying the beautiful countryside that surrounds me and it’s a waste of what little electricity it uses. It kills conversation and deadens the brain. It makes vegetables of all who submit to its malign influence.

You may be surprised to hear then that I’ve just joined the legions of couch potatoes up and down the land.

I’ve had a television for a year or so but, until very recently, I haven’t used it as one. It’s sole purpose was to play the occasional DVD when I felt the need. Unfortunately (or fortunately as I happen to think most of the time), these days it’s not just my needs I have to consider. There are two of us now. Four, if you include two spaniels.

Sally has been living on James with me for quite a while now. She’s not complained about the lack of television on the boat and because I’m male and quite dense sometimes, I didn’t once wonder what she might do to entertain herself during the endless hours each week when I’m working on the site.

The penny finally dropped and I realised that I was being unfair. I have a television, a Logic 22″ HD ready make-your-tea-in-the-moring affair. All I needed was an aerial to go with it.

Ugly traditional narrowboat aerial

I don’t like traditional boat TV aerials. The reason I don’t like them is because they tend not to be boat TV aerials. It’s not unusual to see a full size house aerial strapped to the side of the boat and towering above all around it. We have one or two around the marina which haven’t been fixed to the boat terribly well. At this time of the year (late autumn) when there’s plenty of gusty wind about, it’s not unusual to see an escaped aerial dangling over the side of the boat.

We have televisions fitted in all the boats in the hire fleet at Calcutt. They have slightly more elegant aerials fixed to the roof. They can be quickly changed from receiving to travelling mode to prevent them from being ripped off the roof after making contact with any one of many low bridges around here. They’re still ugly.

At the beginning of the 2012 season one of the boats was fitted with a relatively cheap and very different looking aerial. It’s a small

SLX Gold Digidome Narrowboat Aerial

white plastic dome that sits on the roof. The aerial looks much better than the traditional scaffolding affair, doesn’t have to be bolted to the side of the boat every time you want to use it, and isn’t going to catch overhanging branches or low bridges as you cruise. It’s altogether a better bit of kit. It’s the Digidome SLX Gold.

I fitted one to James a fortnight ago. Actually, I didn’t. Russ, my boat’s guardian angel and all round narrowboat expert, fitted it for me. He told me it was a simple job, and for most normal males I suppose it was, but it involved cutting a but out of the bracket so the aerial would sit flat on the roof. Fitting the aerial, plus the modification took Russ all of fifteen minutes.

What a difference it’s made to life in our cosy little boat. The television now picks up over one hundred rubbish broadcasting channels. We have more mind numbing tedium on tap than we can ever hope to watch, and all with a crystal clear reception thanks to Digidome. I’m just off to watch a bit of Jeremy Kyle!

Useful Information

Introducing Your New Narrowboat Budgeting Software

The application is almost ready for release. I know you’re going to love it. It’ll remove all the mystery from planning your great escape. You’ll be able to see at a glance whether you can afford to buy and maintain your dream narrowboat or whether you need to rethink your options. The application will work equally as well for you if you want to buy your boat for living on full time or just for leisure cruising during your weekends and holidays.

All that’s left to do is to test it in the real world. Maybe you can help me do that. I’ll explain what I’m looking for at the end of this post.

Here’s how the application works.

You’ll be progress through a number of different categories entering information as you go before arriving at the summary section which will show you in a number of different ways whether buying and maintaining a narrowboat is a realistic option for you. The first data entry category is…

Capital and Income

Narrowboat Budgeting Software - Capital and Income

Narrowboat Budgeting Software – Capital and Income

You need to be able to buy your boat, and you need to be able to pay for the associated monthly costs. In this section you can add the amount of capital you have available to buy the boat and what regular monthly income you expect to receive in the future.

Car Details

Narrowboat Budget Software - Car Details

Narrowboat Budget Software – Car Details

Expenditure for your car is possibly not something that you’ve considered when you’ve thought about living a life on the waterways. The fact is that most liveaboard narrowboat owners have a car or two. Even some of those who cruise constantly throughout the network have a car. They cruise for a day, moor the boat, get a bike off the roof then, pedal back to the day’s starting point to collect their car. Whatever you plan to do with you boat, you can still do it and keep your car close at hand, but can you afford to?

Use this section to add all of the outgoings for your car or cars. You’ll be able to see on one of the summary pages exactly how much you have to pay for the luxury of motorised transport.

Boat Details

Narrowboat Budget Software - Boat Details

Narrowboat Budget Software – Boat Details

You can add your initial investment here; the cost of your boat, any remedial work required, out of water survey cost and, if you need to get your new boat moved from one part of the country to another, the cost of transporting it by road

You can also begin to enter your ongoing expenses starting with monthly repayments if you’ve had to take out a loan to fund all or part of the cost of your boat. In this section you can also add the cost of your four yearly BSS certificate, waterways license and boat insurance.

Mooring Costs


Narrowboat Budgeting Software - Mooring Details

Narrowboat Budgeting Software – Mooring Details

Unless you plan to cruise the network continuously, you will need either a leisure or a residential mooring. Even if you are a continuous cruiser, you may wish to secure a temporary mooring during the winter months or if you want to leave your boat for a while when you go on holiday. In this section you can cater for both eventualities.


Narrowboat budget software - Diesel

Narrowboat budget software – Diesel

This was a really interesting area to try to quantify. Many boats use diesel for both heating and propulsion. More often than not the fuel for both is drawn from the same tank. In order to determine how much diesel you need you have to know how much diesel your engine uses per hour, how many hours you will have the engine running, the cost of propulsion diesel, the cost of heating diesel and how much fuel your heating system is likely to use. You can add all the variations here and use the information that will be available separately to determine the most accurate figures to use.


Narrowboat Budget Software - Utilities

Narrowboat Budget Software – Utilities

This is the section to enter the cost of heating your boat if you’re going to have a solid fuel stove (I sincerely hope you do otherwise you’ll miss out on one of the real pleasures of living on a narrowboat and you’ll put yourself at risk of freezing in the winter if you’re gong to depend on a mechanical central heating system). You can also add the cost of your gas for cooking and maybe for heating your boat to.

You can also add the cost of communicating when you’re on the boat either by phone or via the internet. Finally, there’s an opportunity to add both TV license and council tax. Again, I’ll provide separate notes to let you know if you need to include these two expenses.

Repairs and Maintenance

Narrowboat Budget Software - Repairs and Maintenance

Narrowboat Budget Software – Repairs and Maintenance

In order to protect your boat’s steelwork, you need to ensure that both top and bottom are painted often enough to prevent rust. In this section you can determine how often you want the painting to be done, whether you intend to do the work yourself or let the professionals do it for you and how much you expect it to cost. Again, the application notes will steer you in the right direction.

You can add other elements of repair and maintenance here too; cratch and rear deck cover replacements and cabin interior and engine repair and maintenance jobs too.


Narrowboat Budget Software - Net Income

Narrowboat Budget Software – Net Income


Here’s where all of your hard work pays off. You can now see whether you can afford to buy and maintain your boat based on the information you’ve added in the preceding pages. The annual net income chart shows all of your income by category and all of your expenses, also by category. The grand total at the bottom deducts your total expenses from your total income. If there’s a negative figure here, you can’t afford to maintain your boat.

Boat Purchase Chart

Narrowboat Budget Software - Boat Purchase

Narrowboat Budget Software – Boat Purchase

On the Capital and Boat pages you enter the savings that you want to invest in your boat plus the details of a loan if you intend to take one out. The Boat Purchase section displays whether your savings and/or loan are sufficient to cover the price of your new boat, any remedial work required, the cost of having an out of water survey done and transportation if you need it.

If you don’t have enough for your initial expenses, the Remaining Capital line will display a negative amount. Here’s an opportunity to return to the preceding pages and fine tune your entries.

The budgeting application is almost ready for release but before I make it available to download, I need four or five site visitors to thoroughly test it for me. I want to make sure that it’s easy to use and that all of the calculations are correct. If you would like to take it for a spin, please let me know. Tell me what stage you are at with your plans. Are you a narrowboat owner already? Do you just want to get your hands on the application to confirm what you already know, to see whether the Dashboard reflects your current expenditure? Fantastic! I would love to send you a copy. On the other hand, if you are in the very early stages of considering life on a narrowboat, I would love to hear from you too. I want to make sure that the process of adding data to the various categories is a simple task even if you aren’t familiar with narrowboat at all.

Whatever your circumstances, please get in touch, tell me what your situation is and why you want to test the application. Maybe you can help me put the finishing touches to a really useful narrowboat budgeting tool. Please hurry though if you’re interested in helping with the trial. I’m only looking for a maximum of five testers.

Useful Information

Narrowboat Safety

Yesterday was the first day of the autumn with a below zero overnight low. There was a light frost on the grass next to the boat and a bitterly cold wind racing across the marina. It wasn’t really the best day of the year for me to take an involuntary dip in the marina.

I’m addicted to my smart phone. I love it, I really do. It’s a Samsung S2. It does everything for me apart from make the tea when I get up in the morning. I’m sure it can. I just haven’t worked out how to set it up yet.

I use my phone all the time to check my emails. That’s what I was doing yesterday morning while I was waiting for the dogs to jump onto the boat. I was walking along the pier reading a particularly interesting message not watching what I was doing when I stepped off the pier.

One leg plummeted into the water while the other stayed on the walkway. I stretched parts of me that I didn’t know could be stretched and flung out my arms to stop myself disappearing into the water completely. Unfortunately my phone was still in my hand at the time. I prevented a plunge into the icy depths but my phone flew out of my hand, into the water of course.

I stripped off to the waist as quickly as I could, lay on the pier and reached into the water where I could see my phone resting on the marina bottom. It was further away than I thought so I took a deep breath, put my head under the water and reached a little further. I still couldn’t reach so I wriggled my legs a little closer to the water and stretched my arm as far as I could. Unfortunately, I reached a little too far.

My legs slipped off the pier completely as I executed a perfect and stately dive into the mud through the weeds, grabbing my phone as I passed, before laying half naked on the marina bottom under the boat’s bow.

It’s not a view of the boat I ever expected to see. I pushed off against the mud with my feet and shot out of the water like a guided missile. In seconds I was back on the pier soaking wet and freezing cold but otherwise unharmed, which is more than I could say for my phone.

As you can see, it’s not very well at all. The screen is smashed beyond repair and the phone has a definite bend in the middle. Because of the protective case, very little water ended up inside but the blow it received has finished it off. I made a careless and expensive mistake. The replacement cost of the phone is about ?250 and then I’ve all the hassle of setting up a new one but I consider myself very lucky.

I consider myself very fit, but I’m not as young as I used to be. I fell with some force, and I fell into the water. I could have hurt more than my pride and suffered more than the inconvenience of having to find a new phone.

There’s always potential for accidents when you combine water, wood and steel, cold and wet weather and climbing on and off boats. Boaters are always falling off their boats. Falling off a boat into the water isn’t a problem in itself; falling off the boat – or onto the boat – and hitting something hard or something with moving parts can often have disastrous consequences.

I think all of our wharf staff have fallen into the cut at some stage. When this happens the only injury is to their pride. However, slipping on a wet or icy surface when working on a boat is another kettle of fish. A boat roof can be very slippery. Many have a non slip surface, a top coat of paint mixed with grit, which makes them much easier to walk on. Slipping on the roof and landing in its flat surface isn’t normally too much of a problem, but slipping off a boat roof can really hurt.

As a narrowboat owner you probably won’t be skipping from roof to roof as our wharf staff do when we’re preparing the hire fleet, but you may well step on and off the roof when your boat is in a lock. Be careful. Not only is your boat roof likely to be slippery during cold or wet weather, but so is the side of the lock. There are ladders fixed to the lock wall so you don’t have to step on and off the roof but you need to be equally careful with these. They are usually fixed only a few inches away from the wall so there’s little room to place your feet on the rungs.

Gunnels are also the source of many slips. The gunnel is the horizontal ledge that runs around the boat above the hull and below the cabin. Gunnels vary in width from almost nothing to four or five inches. A non slip coating is applied to the gunnel on some but not all boats. You need to make sure that you have two hands anchored to the roof rail or top of the cabin if you’re going to walk along the side of the boat. There have been two or three occasions in the last couple of months when we’ve had to fish wet boat owners out of the cut at our wharf. Some of them make a regular habit of it.

A couple of months ago a couple were reversing their narrowboat was reversing onto the wharf so that the owners could top up their diesel. The lady was steering; the man was standing on the gunnel reaching for a neighbouring boat so that he could tie up to it. He reached too far, slipped and disappeared under the water. The lady was totally unfased by it all. She heard the splash (didn’t even look in his direction), immediately put the boat in neutral in case the man came anywhere near the propeller, shook her head and groaned, “Not again! Not a-bloody-GAIN!” She later explained that he likes to go for a swim at least once every time they go for a cruise.

Slips and falls on either your boat or mooring are just some of the areas where you need to be careful. There are many more and they’re all covered in the excellent Boaters’ Handbook. You can download a copy for free from the Canal and River web site.


I don’t want you to think that serious injury lurks around every corner, but I do want you to where there’s potential for you to harm yourself. Read The Boaters’ Handbook, take it all in and enjoy your next trip out.


Useful Information

Not Everyone Enjoys Living On A Narrowboat

Is life really so bad Natasha?

I came across the article below yesterday. It was published recently in the online version of the Uxbridge Gazette. It’s a new blog by reluctant narrowboat liveaboard Natasha Gorbert-Hopkins. What do you think of her take on life on a narrowboat?

Life, warts and all, on a canal narrowboat in Uxbridge

Oct 3 2012 by Natasha Gorbert-Hopkins, Uxbridge Gazette

natasha gorbert-hopkins

LIFE on the canal in Uxbridge – a dream for some, definitely not the lifestyle choice of others – is brought to life in our new blog, The Narrow View, by boat dweller Natasha Gorbert-Hopkins.

SAY the word ‘boater’ and most people think of Rosie and Jim, old men with beards and folk festivals. If they think of anything at all, that is – living on a narrowboat (the long, narrow boats that ply the canals of Britain) is hardly the most common or widely known lifestyle choice.

As a 22 year old female, I’m not really your typical boat-dweller. I’m not really the most enthusiastic boater either: my parents decided to turn to the waterways when I was just a twinkle in their eyes, and – except for a three year stint at university – I’ve been more or less forced to live on them ever since.

Nevertheless, home for me has always been on the Grand Union Canal, in the stretch between Cowley Lock and Uxbridge Lock.

The towpaths, the trees, the neighbours are as familiar to me as I’m sure roads and estates and front gardens are to people who live in houses.

The canal was where my mum brought a chubby-faced baby version of me home from the hospital, the background to my childhood games, the waters that I stared gloomily into in fits of teenage angst.

Until the age of eight, I shared a boat with my parents; when my father moved out, he didn’t stray far, moving on to a narrowboat 10 minutes down the canal. At the age of 16, the fleet expanded further and I moved into my own boat, aptly named Freedom.

This was my beloved home for the next six years, until only a few months ago, when it was sold and I had to – dramatically, tearfully – move out, and begin sharing my father’s 62ft long, 6ft wide narrowboat.

That might sound like a lot of room. It is not.

My cries of: “Oh no, I have to live in a cupboard!” were probably heard reverberating down the canal for days afterwards. If I was 10, I would have been excited that I finally had something in common with Harry Potter, but unfortunately I’m 22 and can say for sure that my Hogwarts letter is not in the post.

Sharing such a small space with my dad, at an age when, let’s face it, I really should have moved out, has been challenging. Don’t get me wrong, there are positive aspects to living on a boat. There are also a whole host of negatives.

I will try to provide a balanced, realistic and insightful look into narrowboat life: I’ll try to cover some of my FAQs – How do you get water? Do you have electricity? – as well as some aspects that landlubbers (we don’t really call you that) might not have considered.

Next time: The difficulties of tall boyfriends, the complications of no electricity, attacks by swans, and the infamous – the dreaded – chemical toilets.

Grand Union Uxbridge Aerial View

Grand Union Uxbridge Aerial View

What do you think of that then? Has the article put you off living afloat? I certainly hope that it hasn’t.

Natasha has lived all of her life on a narrowboat. It’s all that she’s known. She appears to have been on a static mooring for all of her twenty-something years, and static, as far as I’m concerned, in one of the worst places in England to live on a narrowboat. The Grand Union canal runs through Uxbridge on the west side of Greater London. She lives on the stretch between Cowley Lock and Uxbridge lock. The caal there is in a densely populated area just a stone’s throw from the infamous M25.

One of the great advantages of living on a narrowboat is your ability to get away from the noise and polution of city life. Natasha lives within half a mile of one of the busiest roads in Europe with an estimated 196,000 vehicles using the section near Heathrow airport, which is very close to Uxbridge, every day. Uxbridge is also within the Greater London sprawl with its population of 8,000,000 hyper-active and highly stressed souls. Why on Earth would you choose to live on a narrowboat there?

I think that choice is probably the issue with Natasha. She couldn’t choose to live elsewhere when she was a child. She had to live with her parents, or at least with her mother, during her formative years. From a child’s point of view, I can imagine that there are few advantages to living on a narrowboat.

Space is of course an issue. Space is what teenagers crave, and there’s very little of it on a narrowboat. That’s why you see precious few families living on narrowboats. Ocasionally, very ocasionally, you will come across a couple with one or two very small children on a narrowboat, but the majority of liveaboards are single or couples.

Natasha enjoyed a spell on her own boat but now, at the age of twenty two, she’s moved onto her father’s narrowboat. You can almost feel her frustration as she writes her article. I can’t wait to see what she has in next week’s installment. She promises to try to “provide a balanced, realistic and insightful look into narrowboat lifeShe needs to try harder on the balanced bit as far as I’m concerned.


Useful Information

A Case Study Of Liveaboard Mischief

I love life on a narrowboat but there are those who prefer the extra three or four feet in width that a widebeam offers. Paul and Allayne Roper fall into that category. Here’s what they think of life afloat… and how Allayne’s cancer affects their way of life.

Who are you? (and your significant other and, of course, your dog if you have one)

We are Paul and Allayne Roper and have two cats Pandi and Phoenix – our family.

Tell me a little about yourself and why you decided to live a life afloat

My husband wanted a change of lifestyle and his love is the sea and always wanted at some point to live near the sea again. A friend of ours heard about Paul’s interest and as he lives on a narrow boat, he asked us down to view his and it all took off from there. We do not regret our life on our wide beam one bit.

Allayne on wide beam Mischief

What is your boat called and why did you decide on that name?

Our boat’s name is Mischief. It was already named but we felt that this summed us quite admirably and the cats too, being such adorable mischievous fellows.

Do you have a permanent mooring?

Yes we do have a permanent mooring. We were not up for continual cruising as this would not be helpful for my husband’s work or my own. Having a permanent mooring, wherever you are in the country you at least know the mooring is yours. Fees vary from marina to marina but it’s where you want to be that counts in the end and what you can afford.

What is your boat style and length

Our boat is 60 ft long and 11 ft wide.

How long have you been a boat owner?

We have been on our boat for just over a year now and my husband took to it like a duck to water.

How did you finance your boat?

The selling of the house helped finance the purchase of the boat and left us with money over to help with the survey, blackening of the base of the boat so it worked out well for us.

How much time do you spend on your boat each year?

We live on the boat all the time 24/7, with the exception when we go away on short breaks or vacation.

Are you still working? (If so, what do you do?)

Unfortunately not at the moment, as I have been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the breast, spine and liver. My husband works, as he is self-employed.

What do you like least about widebeam life?

Knowing how best to stop the spiders taking up home everywhere you look!!

What do you like most about widebeam life?

The peace, lifestyle, and where we are moored. Both my husband and I have never slept so well since we moved on board our boat. Life is what you make of it, be it on land on water and ours at the moment is good indeed,

If you could change just one thing about your boat, what would it be?

Moving the stove from where it was position to near the kitchen so when the eco fan is in motion, it circulates the heat more fully around the boat.

When you are cruising how do you resupply (How do you get to the supermarket without a car)?

We are lucky where we live as there is a mooring on the river for Tesco’s and if needed you can moor you boat by the bank and walk through.

How do you do your washing when you are cruising?

We have a washing machine on board the boat if it was necessary to do washing, otherwise, we would go to a launderette or wait until we got home to use the facilities in the marina.

What type of toilet do you have on board and are you happy with it?

We have a normal toilet on board our boat with its own tank which resides under the wardrobes in our bedroom. We usually have to do a pump out every 6 weeks. We also have a portable chemical toilet for winter use if we are unable to move to do a pump out.

How do you connect to the internet when you are on your boat and are you happy with the service you receive?

We initially used a fob to connect to the internet but this was not always brilliant as we are in a steel boat so reception was not always consistent. As we now have a landline, we have broadband now which is great and is like being in our old house.

What is your favourite canal or section of canal?

We have not travelled too far at the moment, being novices to the water but down to Henley-on-Thames is a nice journey, through Sonning and all. We do have in mind to travel further but with my cancer, it is difficult.

How do you generate electricity when you are cruising and how much do you use?

We have batteries that are charged when we are cruising. However, when we are moored up, we are connected to our own source of electricity and pay for that on a monthly basis and we have been surprised how little we use since moving on the boat,

How warm is your boat in the winter?

We have both, diesel central heating and a multi fuel stove burner which burns both coal and logs. Once you get the understanding of how your stove works, its is brilliant in keeping your boat sweet and cosy.

What advice can you offer someone considering living on a boat?

Visit the Crick Boat Show for a one on one with all the information Crick has to offer. Search the web, talk to friends and visit as many boats as you can to get an idea of what you really want from your boat. You need to view narrow boats, wide beams, barges and cruisers to find out what is really for you. You will know when you go on board if it feels home to you or not. We went for a wide beam because we enjoy the extra space. Buy a 2nd hand boat first to see what you like and dislike about it before thinking about buying a new boat.

You can find out more about Paul and Allayne’s life afloat here

Are you one of the lucky few who lives the dream on board your own narrowboat full time? Would you like to share your experience with some of the thousands of potential floating home owners who visit this site? If you can spare the time to answer a few simple questions, I would love to hear from you. Just let me know so I can email the questions to you. I’ll create a post like the one above complete with a link back to your own blog or website.


Useful Information

A Case Study Of Liveaboard The Mothership

Here’s another case study of a couple living in harmony together… on separate boats. John and Lowrie offer an outstanding example of what you can do if you can’t find a decent residential mooring. In this case they built one of their own.

Who are you? (and your significant other and, of course, your dog if you have one)

John and Lowri Keyes, Goldie the Ridgeback hound.

Tell me a little about yourself and why you decided to live a life afloat

I purchased my ship in 2001, because it was the only form of housing I could afford at the time for myself and my two children that would enable us to live in Oxford, and because I had always wished to return to the life afloat since my first job after leaving school, living and working aboard a 50’ prawn trawler in the Isle of Man for a year 1975/’76. My wife bought her 30’ Springer in 2003 whilst studying for her PHD, again because of the affordable housing matter. We met whilst fixing our boats up at Castlemill Boatyard, Jericho.

What is your boat called and why did you decide on that name?

The Mothership and Xophtyk

Do you have a permanent mooring?

The Mothership on a residential mooring on the Thames

The Mothership on a residential mooring on the Thames

Yes. September 2004 we arrived at a piece of waste ground and sometime allotment on a backwater of the Thames, because of the pressures being brought to bear on the above mentioned and now derelict boatyard by the then owner, BWB. In December 2005 we obtained planning permission to create this residential boat marina from the local Council, most kindly assisted by the Environment Agency.

What is your boat style and length

70’ narrowbeam Barry Jenkins “Icebreaker”, 30’ Springer.

How long have you been a narrowboat owner?

11 years and 9 years respectively

How did you finance your boat?

Ancillary Relief, loan

How much time do you spend on your boat each year?

All the time

Are you still working? (If so, what do you do?)

Carpenter and landscape designer, Scientist

What do you like least about narrowboat life?


What do you like most about narrowboat life?


If you could change just one thing about your boat, what would it be?


When you are cruising how do you resupply (How do you get to the supermarket without a car)?


How do you do your washing when you are cruising?


What type of toilet do you have on board and are you happy with it?

Compost. Yes.

How do you connect to the internet when you are on your boat and are you happy with the service you receive?

Magmount aerial on steel roof groundplane attached to USB wireless dongle. Service is now adequate except in really wet weather, notwithstanding a passionate dislike for Orange and all their works!

What is your favourite canal or section of canal?

Many, but I would say the woodland stretch by Kirtlington Quarry on the South Oxford, but generally we prefer the River Thames all the way from Lechlade to Limehouse Ship Lock.

How do you generate electricity when you are cruising and how much do you use?

Small amount from PV powering completely separate system that runs the water filtration and delivery plant, rest is by means of small modern diesel generator. I have never got around to measuring KWH/Litre performance, but a Master’s Degree final year student carried out a study on the carbon footprints of our boat and others in 2005, revealed that centrally generated mains hook-up is considerably greener than making one’s own electricity from fossil fuels. IE a smokey 33Hp Lister TS111 driving an automotive alternator through an old-fashioned voltage regulator is not a satisfactory way to create domestic power, unless you happen also to be using your engine for propulsion, and be cruising along all the time. Constantly cruising is not compatible with going out to work in one place – but fine if you are retired or possessed of a job that pays you to work from home wherever it might be..

How warm is your narrowboat in the winter?


What advice can you offer someone considering living on a narrowboat?

It is a major commitment, like marriage, and accordingly I would counsel any prospective boater to look well beyond the initial romantic attraction to the practical nuts and bolts, as well as the politics. Do not buy a cheap boat and expect to be able to do it up whilst living on it, and trying to earn a living at the same time.

Consider the politics. The politics of a liveaboards’ experience of whatever waterways or other authority their patch might be managed by will be as much of a determining factor in the quality of life afloat on the inland waterways, as all the enabling technologies put together.

Are you one of the lucky few who lives the dream on board your own narrowboat full time? Would you like to share your experience with some of the thousands of potential floating home owners who visit this site? If you can spare the time to answer a few simple questions, I would love to hear from you. Just let me know so I can email the questions to you. I’ll create a post like the one above complete with a link back to your own blog or website.


Useful Information