2016 05 29 Newsletter – An Analysis Of A Well Specified Live Aboard Narrowboat

We visited Crick yesterday for day one of the inland waterway’s major boat show. We thought that we would beat the crowds by arriving early. The crowds had the same idea, so the final half mile crawl took us half an hour.

The Crick Boat Show is renowned for rain, quagmire parking and hot toddies rather than cool drinks. Yesterday, the weather was wonderful. The sun shone brightly from an azure sky on thousands of happy boaters.

Cynthia and I were window shopping. We can’t afford a new boat but when, if, Cynthia’s Vermont house sells, we have toyed with the idea of changing to a floating home with a boatman’s cabin.

Cynthia lived on her own for twenty five years. Sharing her life in a confined space with someone, me, who often needs peace and quiet to concentrate on work, someone who can often be accurately described as somewhat antisocial, has been a challenge.

We thought that a boatman’s cabin, separated from the front of the boat by the engine room, would give one of us a secluded work space or somewhere to retire to for a little privacy.

The problem we face, apart from being not being able to afford a quality boat of this design, is that boatman’s cabins don’t appear to be very popular with boat builders, especially boat builders at this year’s show.

Only two boats of this design were on display in the show’s boat builder section. One of them, an immaculate R W Davis tug fronted seventy footer, belonged to Crick marina’s harbour master so was off limits to the general public. The other looked as though it had been painted by a hyperactive child who had swallowed a couple of LSD tablets.

None of the other show boats appealed to us. Many of them were wide beam. All of the wide beam boats had long queues in front of them. Long queues of aspiring boat owners focussed on the extra space afforded by a wide beam and not the restricted cruising. If you’re considering purchasing a wide beam, you need to read this newsletter first.

By mid afternoon the show lost its appeal. We both craved the marina’s tranquility after five hours of crowds and noise. Back on our mooring, when we climbed onto our front deck and stepped down into the cabin I looked the length of the boat and once more realised how lucky I was to find a boat so well designed for living on.

I’ve invested a great deal of money in improving the boat over the last six years, but the basic design is still the same. Apart from having a boatman’s cabin, there’s very little I would change. I’m not even completely sold on the boatman’s cabin.

A boatman’s cabin is at the rear of the boat, immediately in front of the helmsman on the small rear deck. The engine is forward of the boatman’s cabin in its own room. Traditional boats have very little in their engine rooms other than the engine, buffed to shiny perfection, and visible to the envious world outside through open side hatches.

My own engine is hidden beneath sound proofed deck boards. The rest of the engine room provides ample storage space for tools, boating accessories, outdoor clothing and all the paraphernalia which boaters want and need. I wouldn’t have half as much storage space on a boat with a boatman’s cabin.

Other than this one niggle with the boat’s design, everything else is just about perfect as far as I’m concerned. At the start of my discovery days, I walk guests through the boat explaining the design and features and their pros and cons.

Here’s an abridged version of the tour starting at the bow.

Bow Locker

Most traditional stern narrowboats have a bow locker which is used to store propane gas. My own bow locker is large enough to store two 13kg bottles. Most narrowboats use gas for cooking. Some also use gas for water heating and for central heating.

Cynthia is a keen chef. She often cooks three times a day. One 13kg cylinder costing about £27 used solely for cooking will last us 1.5 to 2.0 months. I used to also heat my water using gas. Then I had to change my gas every three weeks.

Some boats use gas as their primary heat source. Many ex hire boats have gas central heating systems. Gas central heating is very expensive. A 13kg cylinder costing £27 will last no more than three days if used in the winter to heat your boat. And if the system has open gas heaters, they will pump moisture laden air into the cabin causing condensation problems.

The bow locker is used for water storage on some boats. The water tank is simply partitioned steel painted with bitumen. The problem with these bow locker tanks is that they need repainting periodically to protect the steel. Repainting the bow locker is a filthy job carried out in a very small space. It’s not something you want to consider if you’re claustrophobic.

Front Deck

The boat’s front deck is behind the bow locker. Most boats have a well deck which you step over the hull side to get on. The exception are tug fronted boats which have a long flat deck with no protective sides.

Plenty of dry storage space for your outdoor gear

Plenty of dry storage space for your outdoor gear

There are some very sexy tug style narrowboats in production, including one of my personal favourites, the Northwich Trader style built by R W Davis. They look wonderful, but they aren’t the most efficient design if you plan to spend extended periods on board.

Tug fronted boats often have a bed under the deck which you can reach either by crawling into a claustrophobic space, or which you pull out into the saloon area. The large open front deck is perfect for hot summer evenings, but not much good use on cooler days. Unfortunately, in England, we have plenty of cooler days when the front deck space is wasted.

An open well deck fitted with bench seating is a pleasant place to sit on summer cruises, but it isn’t very practical for live aboard boaters where storage space is all important. A triangular glassed frame, a cratch board, can be fitted between the bow and the well deck with a board running from the top of the cratch board to the front of the cabin roof. A vinyl or canvas cover can then be fitted over this to provide a substantial additional dry storage area on the front deck.

This area is very useful during winter months, especially if you have a dog or two. The front deck offers a dry area to remove your outdoor clothing, clean off muddy boots and muddy paws, and a useful storage space for your dirty footwear, coal supply, kindling, ash bucket and hose.

Keeping your hose out of the elements on cold winter nights is very important. Many live aboard boats have hoses stored on their cabin roof. Trying to remove accumulated ice from a hose left out on a sub zero night is a tedious process. My hose, protected under the cratch cover on my front deck was usable on every day of the particularly cold winter of 2010/11 when double digit sub zero nights were common.

Water tank

Most narrowboats have their water tanks under the front deck. Most have a capacity of 700-1,000 litres. The 350 litre tank on our boat is tiny, but Cynthia and I can still make it last ten days. We wash dishes three times a day and shower every other day using our Hozelock Porta Shower. I recently saw an R W David boat for sale with a massive 1,700 litre tank which would last Cynthia and I nearly two months.

Internal Storage Space

All my reference books and DVDs are easily accessible

All my reference books and DVDs are easily accessible

I have handled hundreds of boats during my half decade working at Calcutt Boats. I always compare the boats I move with my own boat. Many are more expensive, are newer, have better paintwork or sleeker lines, but very, very few have as much storage space as I have on board.

When you are viewing potential boats, especially if you are going to be living on board full time, always mentally move on board with all of your prized possessions and think about where you are going to store them. Think about all the things you own; your furniture, ornaments, framed pictures, items you have stored in your loft, your shed and your garage, your toys and tools, your cooking utensils, cutlery and crockery, clothing, shoes, boots, makeup and medicines. Everything you want to keep either has to go on to the boat with you or into an expensive storage container. How much of it can you fit on the boat you’re looking at?

James has a huge amount of storage space. I think that there are forty seven different cupboards, shelves, drawers or wardrobes. I am very lucky.

On the forward bulkhead on either side of my front doors I have built in cupboards and shelves. The shelving is used for DVD and book storage. If you’re a book lover, you are going to struggle to find enough suitable space to store or display them all. I have several hundred books on my Kindle. I only have about thirty printed books. All of them are reference material; English trees, flowers and birds and my collection of Pearson canal guides plus a range of Ordnance Survey maps I use for hiking footpaths close to the canals I cruise.

I store coal, kindling and firelighters on the shelving close to my Torglow multifuel stove. I decant each

My coal is stored in leakproof boxes close to the stove

My coal is stored in leakproof boxes close to the stove

25kg bag of coal briquettes into two sturdy plastic boxes. The coal bags often have small holes in them. In wet weather, rain water finds its way into the bags and then dumps black slurry onto my boat floor or furniture if I bring the bags inside. Decanting the briquettes into plastic boxes saves any mess.

Each 25kg bag lasts me about three days in the winter when the stove is on twenty four hours a day.

Many boaters only burn wood that they find on the towpath. It’s not a very efficient fuel. Logs have to have a moisture content of less than 20% if they are to burn properly. Fresh cut oak is about 50% water. Ash is slightly less. The cut logs take up to two years to season, so any logs burned before that are too wet. More energy is used to evaporate the water than to produce heat. The wet logs burn at a low temperature creating flue clogging tar which increases the likelihood of flue fires and reduces the stove’s effectiveness. Boats which routinely burn unseasoned logs often have a dark brown stain running from the chimney collar down the cabin side.

Even if you manage to find seasoned wood, you can’t carry enough of it on the boat with you. I burn two tonnes of coal briquettes each year. I would need to carry four tonnes of wood with me, two tonnes ready to burn and two tonnes seasoning. I would need to tow a second boat to heat the first one.

Saloon Area

I have L shaped seating opposite the stove. You will often see boats advertised as Spacious open plan, ideal for living on board. No they aren’t. They look spacious because there is no fitted furniture and therefore nowhere for you to store anything. These boats might have a couple of leather captain’s chairs in the saloon area. They’re usually very comfortable, but you can’t store anything under or behind them.

My seating isn’t the most comfortable in the world but it’s far more practical and useful for live aboard boat owners. Under the seating opposite my stove I have two folding chairs for al fresco dining, an anchor, chain and rope, a vacuum cleaner and accessories and some bulky engine spares, all stored neatly out of the way. I don’t know where I could store these items neatly without the space under my saloon seating.

Dining Area

A comfortable space to share a meal

A comfortable space to share a meal

Living on a narrowboat is all about compromise. The more you want on your boat, the longer your boat needs to be. Cynthia and I could get by without a dedicated dining area and have a boat six feet shorter, but we don’t want to.

We rarely watch television. We haven’t watched it once this year so far. Cynthia enjoys cooking. I enjoy eating what she cooks. We like to sit at a table in comfort while we eat.

We have a Pullman dinette with more storage under the bench seating. There are four drawers on the outside which we use for storing crockery and cookware. There isn’t much storage space in the galley so this space is very important to us. I’ll correct that, this space is very important to Cynthia. I’m not entirely sure what’s in there, but rummaging through these drawers keeps her happy for hours.

There is more storage space under the dinette seats on the port side, accessed by lifting the seat cushions off. We use this space for items we don’t use very often such as seasonal clothing or bedding.


Our galley is smaller than those on many narrowboats, but it’s big enough to cook any meal providing we are well organised. The cooker isn’t quite full size, so we have to check the size of baking trays and oven dishes carefully before buying them.

A small galley, but large enough to cook any meal

A small galley, but large enough to cook any meal

Our fridge is opposite the cooker. A similar capacity 230v fridge from a high street store would cost about £150. Our 12v fridge costs £550, but it’s worth every penny. The fridge is the biggest electrical consumer on board most narrowboats. If we were to save money and purchase a 230v fridge we would have to run it through an inverter. We don’t want to do that for two reasons.

The inverter is in the engine room close to our bank of four 160ah AGM batteries. The inverter is

We've used the bulkhead space above the fridge for Cynthia's spices

We’ve used the bulkhead space above the fridge for Cynthia’s spices

mounted on the cabin side two feet from the bulkhead which separates the engine room from our bedroom. The inverter drones when it it is under load so if we had a 230v fridge running through it through the night we would have to listen to the inverter rather than the natural sounds we enjoy so much.

The inverter also consumes power so the boat would need to generate more power with a 230v fridge on board. I’m not sure exactly how much power my new Sunshine inverter, but it’s much less than the Sterling inverter that preceded it. Now that I’ve switched to the Sunshine model I can run on solar power only for many days without running the engine. I was out on a discovery day on Friday but, apart from that, I’ve been on my marina mooring for the last two weeks. I haven’t needed to run the engine to charge my battery bank once, nor have I needed to plug into the shore supply.

That’s it for part one. Next week I’ll run through my utility area, office, bathroom, bedroom and engine room. Until then, I hope you have a wonderful week.

Discovery Day Dates

The weather’s picking up, more and more boat owners are brushing off a winter’s worth of cobwebs, and I’m just a week away from my June run of discovery days. I still have two dates available for exclusive singles and couples on 8th & 9th June. I’m offering a late booking 25% discount on both dates so you’ll save £62.25 on a couple’s day and £49.75 if you’re single and want to have both me and my boat to yourself for a ten hour journey of discovery through beautiful Warwickshire countryside.

You can find out more about my discovery day service here. If you would like to book one of the two remaining dates click on the appropriate link below.

Discovery Day for two people – Normal price £249 discounted to £186.75 with the code below.

Discovery Day for an exclusive single – £199 discounted to £149.25 with the code below.

Click on one of the links above to go to the appropriate calendar. Add your details to the calendar. You will receive an email directing you to the payment page. Enter the code below to receive your discount. Please note that the code is case sensitive, so type it exactly as it is written below.


I hope to welcome you on board soon.

Can YOU Help Maintain This Site?

I wrote about the ongoing and often crippling costs of maintaining this site in the last two newsletters. My total annual outgoings just to maintain the site and pay for the software to send out my weekly newsletters is over £5,000. It’s a cost I simply can’t afford any more.

I just about cover my day to day running costs through my Narrowbudget Gold package and my discovery day service, but there’s very little left to put towards the site. I’ll be returning to work at Calcutt Boats for all of May to help top up my dwindling bank balance. I’ll enjoy the working around the two beautiful marinas, but finding time to run the site and work a forty five hour week will be a struggle.

The only way I will be able to keep the site’s 9,000 posts and pages online in the future will be through voluntary subscriptions. These subscriptions will be just that; voluntary. If you can’t afford to pay, or you simply don’t want to pay, the wealth of information that’s taken me, and a host of experienced boaters on the forum, six years to write will still be there for you completely free of charge.

Over the last two weeks I’ve asked for voluntary subscriptions. Some very kind site users have already agreed to help, but I need many more if I am to keep the site running. I can’t maintain it any other way.

If you have been following this blog for any length of time, I’m sure that you realise the time and effort which goes into it. I receive dozens of emails every week from aspiring boaters asking for advice. I answer every one of them as quickly and comprehensively as possible. You may have sent an email or two to me yourself.

I enjoy helping others move closer to the life I enjoy so much every day. I don’t ask or expect payment for this service. It’s a labour of love. Paying bills each month is not such a pleasant experience. Please help me continue to help others by subscribing to the site. The subscription form is here.

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For the price of a cup of coffee or a pint each month you can help keep a very useful inland waterways resource online. You can subscribe here.

Cynthia Says—

Off to Spain–

I have just finished tying up most of the loose last minute ends to all the bits and pieces necessary to depart this afternoon.  It will certainly be a tearful departure as I have to tear myself away from Tasha and my beloved Paul and our narrowboat life of tranquility.

This past week I became close with the male swan (I have named him Stanley), and I have enjoyed feeding him and petting him.  Yesterday morning we got a real surprise as we heard the tap-tap-tapping on the hull.  Not only had Stanley shown up—he brought the whole family!  I named his wife Celia, and the four signets are Roberta, Rosie, Ralph and Rebel.  Rebel got stuck on the opposite side of the boat.  Whilst I was feeding the others on the dock side, he was trying to get down the side of the boat between the barge dock and James.  I heard this flurry of activity and looked down to see him struggling to join the rest of his family.  I have always wanted to feel one of these exquisitely soft little souls and low and behold I got my wish as he let me scoop him up in my hand.  He didn’t even give me a fight, he seemed to like being held.  I then released him to return to the others.  What a joyous way to begin our day!

We then packed our things after breakfast and headed to Crick for the much-coveted boat show.  Tasha was a trouper—there were many dogs there and she fit right in.  This was her first time in such a crowd and she handled it well.  We were very proud of her.

It was fun to see the boats, but I have to admit these new boats don’t hold much charm for me—I prefer the more traditional older boats that look like boats.  So many of the new ones remind me of new condominiums on the market–especially the wide-body versions of which there were quite a few.

We made our way through the vendors and then found a place that could make us some bespoke savoury crepes with spinach and goat cheese.  After finding a nice spot on the grass to sit down we enjoyed our lunch followed by a little lie down.  We both decided we had seen enough and off we headed to the car.  On the way we stopped at a booth where a new non-toxic bitumen product was being sold.  After a nice discussion with the representative Mike, we walked away with a couple of containers.  I know Paul will let you know what we think of the product.

On the way home I reminded Paul we needed to stop at the Napton PO so I could get a couple of last minute items.  I then casually mentioned I was sorry I hadn’t had time to visit the water buffalo nearby.  So dear Paul parked the car at the Folly and away we strolled down the towpath, enjoying the sights along the way.  Such a nice sideline taking this little trip!  Made the day extra special….

When we returned Paul drove me over to see a couple of interesting boats that ended up being absent from their slips.  I casually asked him about the island and he asked if I wanted to go there.  So back to the boat where I popped the potatoes in the oven to bake and off we went for a stroll around the island.  What a lovely place!  I thoroughly enjoyed this little side trip as well.  And just before we departed the dock to return to our mooring, there came Stanley and family again!  We fed them a bit more then cast off and headed for home base so we could have our dinner.

Paul was most kind in setting up the front deck so that we could enjoy our meal al fresco.  It was beautiful and the perfect setting for our last supper.

I shall report back to let you know how my time in Spain is going, and then next Saturday I will be off to Provence to stay with my friends.

Stay tuned for next weeks’ adventure-reporting!

P.S. I know I am repeating myself, but I want to say a HUGE Thank You to those new voluntary site subscribers who showed up this week–keep it up!


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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

Please Help Keep This Site Online

If you enjoy reading these posts, if you find the masses of information on this site and my new motorhome site, rvblog.co.uk both useful and entertaining, please help keep it available for those who both want and need it. There are eight years of painstakingly written and researched information on hundreds of posts and pages on the two sites. They may be lost forever if I can't find a way to maintain them. Click on the button below to find out more.

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Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.