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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2016 02 28 Newsletter – Narrowboat Heating Costs

That’s it. My last working week is over. At 4pm on Thursday I washed my last paint brush, put my sander away, and said goodbye to the staff at Calcutt Boats at a short impromptu cake tasting party organised by Cynthia in their reception area.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last two months improving my painting and boat preparation skills, all thanks to those at Calcutt Boats more experienced than me. I’ve enjoyed the companionship, tea break banter and occasional tantrum, but I can’t honestly say that I will miss wearing a dust mask for most of the day.

The worst of the winter weather should be behind us now, not that it’s been particularly cold compared with previous years. The canal has frozen for five days in total. We’ve been moored on the canal for most of that time. The cold weather hasn’t really inconvenienced us at all, but the continuous rain has been a little painful.

The towpath and our front deck has begun to dry out now thanks to a little warmth in the sun. I really look forward to not wearing waterproof boots. Cynthia and I have become so accustomed to wearing them all of the time that we even wore them to a restaurant once.

Six winters afloat is enough. Living on a narrowboat over the winter doesn’t have to be cold or uncomfortable. Providing your boat is properly heated and insulated it should be at least as warm as most bricks and mortar homes. Life afloat isn’t uncomfortable in the winter, it’s just a little boring and laborious.

The weather is too cold or too wet to sit outside comfortably so we spend much of our time scurrying to and from our three hundred square feet of living space. On days out off the boat, we nervously study weather reports hoping for a break in the rain and perpetual cloud. On days out on the canals, we hope for ice free water and a route not blocked by stoppages.

Winter is a time for watching the days slowly pass as spring and the new cruising season draw ever closer.

I had a wonderful time on the waterways last year. By the time I finished work for Calcutt Boats at the beginning of April, and then said goodbye to the last of my discovery day guests seventeen days later, spring had sprung and all was well with the world.

I started with a mostly enjoyable and leisurely cruise of the Warwick Ring. The few parts I didn’t enjoy were at least memorable. Pushing the boat through a sea of plastic around Camp Hill locks wasn’t much fun. Nor was stopping every ten minutes to remove sodden items of clothing from the propeller. The most unpleasant part of the trip was through nearby Garrison locks, using an anti vandal key to release the paddles as I watched a group of very unsavoury characters downing cans of Special Brew for breakfast and then staggering to relieve themselves in a lockside fire damaged building.

I discovered some wonderful open spaces on our Warwick Ring trip; Kingsbury Water Park, somewhat spoiled by the motorway dissecting it, four hundred acres of tranquil ancient woodland on the outskirts of Hopwas village, and then twenty six glorious square miles of forest and heath at Cannock Chase.

In June we headed south down the Oxford canal onto the Thames. Every day was an adventure. I helped paramedics load a poor lady suffering a suspected heart attack into a waiting air ambulance at Sommerton Deep lock, narrowly avoided serious damage to the boat in a Thames lock after my centre line caught immovably on a bollard as the water rose swiftly under the boat, chased a one tonne bullock off the boat’s rear deck at Lechlade, was stung repeatedly by a swarm of angry wasps after hammering a mooring pin through their nest, and hid on the boat after confidently pushing a very large cow away from the boat until I realised that the dangly bits between its legs were testicles, not udders.

In August I headed north on the longest trip of the year; three hundred and five miles and two hundred and forty six locks to Llangollen and back to Calcutt Boats. What an adventure!

I witnessed the only anti social behaviour of the year at Westport lake to the north of Stoke on Trent. I was woken at 5am on an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning by shouting and swearing. A group of drunken idiots, no doubt staggering home after a lively Saturday night, worked their way down our row of moored boats removing planks, poles, life rings and bikes to throw in the canal. They removed items from four boats and untied the ropes on two of them. They left me alone. probably because they would have needed to step on my boat to reach my pole and plank and to untie my ropes.

I had the pleasure of negotiating the very low roofed 3km Harecastle tunnel with its bright orange water, and the endless but picturesque flight of locks on Heartbreak Hill which followed.

The route along the Shropshire Union Middlewich Branch was stunning, as was my cruise to the Llangollen canal’s western terminus six miles past Pontcysyllte aqueduct. The 1,000 feet long bridge stands one hundred and seventy feet above the raging river Dee. Taking a twenty tonne narrowboat over the valley along a seven feet wide steel trough is an unforgettable experience.

My return journey along the Shropshire Union canal with its high embankments and steep cuttings was fascinating and a wonderful finale to my season’s cruising, all  1,753 miles and 948 locks.

I can’t think of a more enjoyable way of exploring England and Wales at a leisurely pace in the summer months than on a sedate narrowboat cruise. When you’re running at your top cruising speed and walkers overtake you on the towpath, you know you’re travelling at the right pace to appreciate the sights and sounds around you.

There are an unlimited number of peaceful moorings with far reaching views and very few boats to share them with. There are currently 35,000 narrowboats on the inland waterways sharing over 2,000 miles of connected rivers and canals. Ninety per cent of them are on marina or online moorings at any one time so, once you’re off the beaten track, you can cruise for hours without seeing another moving boat.

It’s a wonderful lifestyle for the warmer months, but the English winters are so miserable. Not as miserable as the Vermont winters Cynthia has endured for the last decade though. She’s struggling to come to terms with blossom on our English trees in February. In Vermont, she has to wait until late April before nature shrugs off its cold white coat.

We’re both fed up with winter, so from now on we will be sunbirds. We’ve committed to buying a motorhome before the end of this year. Cynthia has a house in Vermont. Selling it will make buying a motorhome much easier, but we think we can scrape enough pennies together between now and October to buy something which will suit us well enough.

We’ll spend the rest of the year researching and saving as we cruise, and then when the thermometer begins its journey south, so will we. We’ll find somewhere secure for the boat over the winter, probably somewhere out of the water. Did you know that you can request a license refund for any time your boat is removed from CRT maintained waterways? After we’ve put the boat to bed we’ll swap water for wheels and head for Spain’s balmy south coast. That’s the plan and one I’ll share with you as it develops over the coming months.

In the meantime, back to the frigid waterways.

We moved the boat very briefly on Saturday to top up our diesel tank. We were moored just above Calcutt Top lock facing towards Napton junction. We needed to drop down one lock to reach the diesel point on Calcutt Boats’ wharf. Turning the boat round was too much like hard work so we went down backwards. This maneuver caused a little confusion. The single lady boater waiting to come up through the lock wore a very puzzled expression as we emerged from the lock stern first, squeezed past her, and then swung onto the wharf.

With a full diesel tank and a laptop full of data, we headed back up through the lock to our towpath mooring where I started to write the section below about the cost of heating our boat.

Narrowboat Heating Costs

I had a diesel central heating system fitted in November 2015. The only heat source until then was my thirty nine year old solid fuel stove. It did a passable job of heating the front of the boat, but my office space, the bathroom and the bedroom were always a little less than comfortable.

The stove fed three radiators down the boat’s port side. The gravity fed system wasn’t very effective. I understand that they never are. One radiator at the far end of the boat from the stove is the most efficient configuration. With my three radiators, by the time the stove’s hot water trickled forty feet to the back of the boat, it was lukewarm at best.

I had the three existing radiators removed, the stove’s back boiler disconnected, three replacement radiators fitted on the starboard side, and a large double radiator fitted under my office desk. All of the new radiators were connected to a Webasto Thermotop C diesel burner.

I chose the Webasto because it is relatively quiet and much smaller than the Hurricane heater sold by Calcutt Boats. The downside is that, because it is so compact, servicing costs more than the easily accessible Hurricane. There are other diesel central heating systems available but these were the only two I considered seriously.

As with many boats, our Webasto draws fuel from the same tank as our engine. Because both engine and heater draw from the same tank, determining either the heating or the propulsion system usage can be quite difficult.

Because my heating system has only been fitted recently, and because I am, as Cynthia lovingly describes me, anal retentive, I know that over the last year my engine has used an average of 1.4 litres an hour. Because I know how much fuel my engine uses, I can easily calculate how much fuel is now being used by the heating system. Because I have also recorded the number of hours we have had the central heating turned on each day this month, I can also calculate the system’s hourly consumption.

I added 162.4 litres to my diesel tank yesterday. I ran the engine for 36 hours for battery charging in February plus a further seven hours on a discovery day. The engine ran for a total of 43 hours at 1.4 litres per hour, so the engine used 60.2 litres. The rest, 102.2 litres, was used for heating. During the same period, we had our diesel heating running for 179 hours. We usually have it running for two hours in the morning and then a further four hours in the evening. The average fuel consumption per hour during this period has been 0.57 litres.

If you have diesel central heating, please let me know how much diesel your system uses. I think our usage will be higher than most. Our polystyrene insulation is not as effective as spray foam, so our home requires more heat than many modern boats. I also feel the cold more because of what I do. I spend many hours sitting motionless in my office space as I type, so unless the diesel heating is on I get cold very quickly.

We still have our solid fuel stove on twenty four hours a day at this time of the year but, because of the stove’s poor design, I can’t use an Ecofan to push heat towards the back of the boat. I also had the stove’s back boiler disabled when I had the Webasto heating system installed so the stove doesn’t heat the radiators.

Yesterday’s diesel cost me £0.56 per litre. We’re using the diesel heating for roughly six hours every day, so our daily diesel heating cost is 6 hours x 0.57 litres per hour x £0.56 per litre = £3.36. Our cost for a thirty day month is £100.80.

We’re burning two bags of coal a week at the moment at a cost of £10.75 a bag. Our daily coal cost is £3.07, which is £92.10 for a thirty day month.

Our total heating cost at this time of the year is just under £200. It’s a considerable amount to pay to heat just three hundred square feet of living space but, considering our home is sitting two feet six inches deep in almost freezing water, it’s not a bad price to pay for a warm and cozy home.

Living afloat can cost far more than you might expect. Our heating bill is more than some people pay to keep their bricks and mortar home warm. Of course you don’t necessarily need to pay this much.

You can buy a smaller or a more modern and therefore better insulated boat. You can also do what many live aboard boaters do and simply endure a slightly cooler boat. We’re all different. The way Cynthia and I live is probably not the same way you would choose.

All I can do is give you an idea of the costs based on my own specific circumstances. My Narrowbudget Gold package details my expenditure for a full year including mooring fees, diesel heating and propulsion costs, coal, gas, electric, telephone and broadband, council tax ( I don’t need to pay it), toilet emptying, painting and blacking, battery replacement, cratch cover repairs and/or replacement, and general boat and engine repairs.

All the information you need is there, so you can make an informed decision based on your own particular circumstances. Because everyone’s circumstances are different, I created a browser based narrowboat budget calculator which allows you to create and save an unlimited number of different scenarios and even add your own expense categories.

You may not want or be ready to live afloat full time, so the budget calculator allows you to also add your house expenses in addition to those of your boat. The application’s summary page allows you to easily and quickly determine whether you can afford the lifestyle or whether you can afford to keep a boat for occasional recreational cruising.

The package also includes nearly two dozen case studies. A diverse group of live aboard boaters tell you how they cope with life on board and both positive and negative aspects of inland waterways boating in general and life afloat in particular.

All of the information you need to determine the cost of the lifestyle is in the package. I hope that my accounts from this year’s cruises will encourage you to transform research into reality.

You can find out more about my Narrowbudget Gold package here

Cynthia says—-

Wild life…
One of the things I love most living here is the fact that there are birds singing wherever one goes.  I am so used to Vermont winters where there is virtually no bird life, and none of the subsequent beautiful song and chatter.  I miss it greatly, and now I no longer have to be concerned.  As soon as I step outside I am greeted by these two footed beauties as they flit about and surround me with their melodious songs.  All of this makes our daily walks extra pleasurable.
I often walk Tasha around the reservoir that is opposite us here on the canal.  Tasha being a hound is more interested in the smells on the ground than the beauty of all these colourful birds or what they produce vocally, but each to his own!  The reservoir is always full of a multitude of ducks of many kinds who converge and quack amongst themselves and enjoy the water and soaking up the warmth of the sun.
Living on the canal I have been witness to many bird activities, the most memorable instance being a few weeks ago when the canal was frozen over.  I was walking Tasha and spotted a pair of snow white swans doing their best to ford their way through the ice.  It was so amazing to watch this and to hear the ping of the ice as it broke.  The swan in the lead would forge ahead for a few minutes breaking the ice then rest before beginning again.  Quite the feat, as the ice was nearly an inch thick!  I was lucky enough to record this as a video on my iPhone.
Speaking of swans, there is a single swan who looks so sad that we see from time to time.  I feel badly for him as he seems lonely without his mate who met her demise some time before my arrival.  Tasha is quite taken with this swan, but doesn’t venture too close as she has been hissed at and warned to keep her distance.
There was a young swan who appeared at the front of the boat a couple of weeks ago and I was actually able to feed it without being nipped at!  I haven’t seen this one since that day but hope it will return.  It is always an event to witness these big birds take to the air—a lot like watching a C5A cargo transport plane slowly amble down the runway before an ever-so-slow take off.
I have noticed the past few weeks that there is one black bird with the bright yellow beak who comes to our kitchen window nearly every morning.  He (or she) seems to enjoy watching me and I am curious as to what he is thinking.  I look forward to his appearance every day.
There is also a pair of mallards who show up at the kitchen window from time to time.  I love to break off a few crumbs of bread and feed them!  These are my local friends who bring me a lot of joy.
As I was getting into the car earlier today for an errand, I felt something whoosh past me into the car, and low and behold, it was a robin!  The poor thing was frantic and couldn’t find its way out.  I opened the door to the boot and finally she/he was able to return to freedom.  And something extraordinary happened on Thursday as Paul made his way to Reception here at Calcutt.  A bird landed on his shoulder and stayed with him for a couple of minutes then departed as he neared the building.
I know there are many superstitions and stories around birds showing up in different ways in our lives.  I believe that the Italians think if a bird hits a window on their house that someone has died.  I would be interested to know if anyone who is reading this has bird stories they would like to share.  I would be very interested to hear these.
As we make our way ever closer to spring and summer it will be a joy to see what other kinds of birds and wildlife show up.  I am excited anticipating learning more about the birds in this awesome countryside.
PS. When I was driving down the lane last week to the marina I spotted my first fox in a field!  Hope to see more of these….

Boat burglaries

Allan Campbell Boat Burgler

I wrote about boat burglaries a couple of weeks ago. Here’s more on the same subject. I’ve copied an email sent out by CRT below about a convicted boat thief. If you see this guy, please do us all a favour and give the police a call.

“Hi folks just getting this out to as many people as I can. It would be great if we can catch him between us

This person Allan Campbell is strongly suspected of committing at least some of the recent spate of canal boat burglaries.

He did commit many in our area the last time he was out and about and now Lincs Police are looking for him

If anyone sees him please contact your local police on 101 asap not forgetting to explain exactly where you are.”

Useful Information

Discovery Day And Narrowboat Helmsmanship Training

If you’re new to this site you might not know about the service I launched in June 2014. I host narrowboat experience days on board my own 62′ long narrowboat James No 194. The ten hour days are a combination of discussion about the pros and cons of living on board, narrowboat designs and the best equipment for live aboard boaters, and a six to eight hour helmsmanship training cruise along the Oxford and/or Grand Union Canals.

I run my discovery days roughly on the first ten days or so of April, June August, October and December.  I realised this morning that I hadn’t added all of my dates for the first half of the year. All the dates for April and June are there now. If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day next year you can do so by viewing the diary here. You may want to stay locally the night before, the night after or both, in which case I highly recommend this B & B. It’s a five minute stroll from the mooring where I begin my discovery days.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendee Peter Martin who kindly produced a short video of his discovery day experience for me to use on my site. The video is below followed by his comments.

“With two and half years before I can pick up my work pension, a break up of my marriage, kids now independent and need for downsizing, now seems like the time to plan what I’ve often dreamed about over the years.

Living on the cut seems to fit in very well with my lifestyle. I like the outdoors, love boating, independence and getting back to nature.

Having not spent any length of time with live aboard boaters, the Discovery Day was was really just an opportunity to pick up the vibes that go with life on the inland waterways. I needed to do this before committing myself further in the discovery process. Easier to nip things in the bud now if it didn’t appeal before my imagination runs away with itself!

It was a very enjoyable day. I particularly enjoyed the warm welcome of coming in out of the cold to sit in the heat of a toasty, warm cabin. That sold me the lifestyle straight away. It also confirmed that I definitely need a solid fuel stove as primary heat. I know it means hard work lugging coal etc., but what better way to get some outdoor exercise.  I’m also now sold on composting toilets! I never imagined I’d spend the following  week viewing endless YouTube videos of people’s loos!

The helming and boat handling were great experience. By the end of the day I had got over the intimidation of  controlling  60 feet and 20 tons of metal.  A very worthwhile 10 hours and it has confirmed that I’ll continue along this pathway.

The hard work now begins in downsizing, straightening out the finances and then the enjoyable part of finding the right boat.”

You can find out more about my discovery days and availability here.

I Need Some Help!

Each time I write a newsletter, I tick another subject off the list of things which those new to boating have told me that they want to read about. The hardest part of the process isn’t the writing itself, it’s constantly thinking of new content for each issue. The trouble is, I don’t know what you want to read. I think I keep the newsletters reasonably interesting but I don’t know for sure. That’s where I need your help.

Can you let me know what you would like to read in the future? Are there any areas of narrowboat life you don’t think I’ve covered enough or areas which I’ve missed completely? Please let me know what you want to read about. Thanks for your help.

Useful Information
Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.