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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 06 05 Newsletter – An Analysis Of A Well Specified Live Aboard Narrowboat Part 2

A few flies appeared in the bathroom on Friday. After a year of dealing with our composting toilet I recognised the signs. The solids tank needed emptying immediately. Bone tired after a long discovery day, I dug out my dedicated toilet cleaning tools from the cupboard beneath the bathroom sink, and my stainless steel Spear and Jackson spade from under the bench seating opposite the stove, trudged into the copse near my mooring, and attacked the rock hard clay until I had a hole deep enough to accommodate two our two month accumulation of poo.

The whole process takes an hour. It’s painless, smellless and chemical free. After emptying the odorless solids, I spent half an hour scrubbing the toilet and solids and liquids containers. Oh, the glamour of Friday night afloat!

And that was pretty much the highlight of my boating week. Cynthia has been away for seven days now. Yesterday she flew from Malaga to Marseilles where she was met by her Provence host. She loves her self contained pool-side accommodation close to a plentiful supply of high quality organic food. It’s not boating, but it’s not a bad compromise.

On Friday I began my June run of discovery days. I wore trousers and a couple of fleeces on Friday and Saturday but today we have been blessed with a cloudless sky and a blazing sun. The English summer has finally arrived.

My discovery day route to and from Braunston is very busy this time of the year. The hire season is in full swing and many of the 2,000 boats moored within a ten mile radius have been released from their marina prisons. The waterways are alive with the sound of happy boaters. It’s a wonderful place to be.

Following on from last week’s article on the pros and cons of my own boat, here’s the concluding post. I hope you find it useful. The first article is in last week’s newsletter here. It detailed the design and equipment in the bow locker, on the front deck and inside the boat in the saloon and dining areas, and the galley. This week’s concluding  post begins with our bijous utility room.

Utility area

When I first moved on board six years ago, this area wasn’t used at all. When I moved on board, the area couldn’t be used for anything other than collecting rainwater. Two warped ply boards were the boat’s only protection from regular rain. Torrents of water had entered the boat around the poor fitting boards, soaking both bulkheads and flooring beneath.

I resolved the water ingress problem when I had the cabin overplated a year and a half after moving on board, but then I had to deal with the water damage. The steps beneath both port and starboard hatches were beyond repair. I threw them both out and then had sections of the bulkheads either side of the side doors replaced. I also had the rotted marine ply beneath both hatches renewed.

Now this small space on both sides of the boat is warm and dry. With both sets of steps removed, there was enough space to fit an Amazon  self assembly storage unit and a twelve bottle wine rack on the starboard side, and our cheap and cheerful twin tub washing machine on the port side.

The washing machine is perfect for off grid living. The more popular narrowboat washing machines such as the Candy and Zanussi compacts use much more power. Ten times as much in fact. They will use 1600 watts or more. Our twin tub, £99 from Neat Ideas on Amazon, uses 120w on the wash cycle and 180w on the spin cycle.

The downside is that is manual operation. The timer’s maximum is fifteen minutes so it needs resetting twice to achieve a forty five minute wash. The laundry then has to be hauled out of the wash tub and crammed into the spin tub.

We have to wash, drain, refill and rinse the clothes twice, again manually, before transferring everything to the spin tub. The whole process is a bit of a pain, but is preferable to dragging our washing to the nearest town launderette.

Drying our washing is no problem at all, even for our bed linen. We simply hang the spun washing on rails in the utility area either side of the central walkway. The cabin is always warm so everything is dry within twenty four hours.

Second Bedroom/Office Area

My office space. My Three MiFi dongle is stuck to the window

My office space. My Three MiFi dongle is stuck to the window

The original owner had three children. This was their sleeping space. There were two bunks on the starboard side and another opposite.They haven’t been used as bunks in the last half decade. In fact, I’ve thrown the mattresses out as the only function they performed was as very effective dust traps. The lowest of the double bunks is used for storing our larger items; two small rucksacks for day hikes and my old 70l multi day hill walking sack which I now use for weekly grocery shops when we are away from the marina.

The single bunk on the port side is a very comfortable office space. There’s plenty of room for my laptop, a printer/copier/scanner/teasmade, files, and a coffee maker and grinder. Cynthia has even managed to shoehorn her much beloved Vitamix blender onto the desk. It’s a necessary evil which she uses regularly to make smoothies and soups. Fortunately she doesn’t have to use it for more than a few minutes at a time. It makes enough noise to make my ears bleed and, for some reason which escapes me, freezes my MacBook’s trackpad when it’s running.

I have a very comfortable office chair in front of my desk. As I often sit here for eight to ten hours at a time, the £80 spent on it was a worthwhile investment.

Much of my work time is spent online, so a reliable internet connection is very important to me. I use a MiFi dongle from Three. Three appears to offer the best mobile broadband cover for the inland waterways. The majority of boaters questioned for the case study section of the site said that Three was their preferred internet service provider.

My Three service costs £17 a month on a two year contract for 15gb. That’s more than enough for all day browsing and email, but not sufficient for media streaming. I watch occasional programmes on BBC iPlayer, but at roughly one gigabyte an hour I can’t afford to watch much.

Three’s coverage is very good indeed. During nine months last year cruising over 1,700 miles I only failed to connect to the internet on three occasions. One of them was at the Crick Boat Show when I was hemmed in by dozens of other boats, some of them probably trying to access the same signal.


Our Hozelock Porta Shower. Three litres is more than enough for a shower

Our Hozelock Porta Shower. Three litres is more than enough for a shower

If you spent long enough talking to a live aboard boat owner, the subject of narrowboat toilets is bound to come up. They will always wax lyrical about the difference between cassette and pump out toilets, but rarely mention the third alternative, the composting toilet.

I endured a cassette toilet for five years. I didn’t like it at all. A cassette toilet offers more flexibility than a pump out toilet with regard to emptying the waste, but because the waste container is no larger than twenty litres, it needs emptying every day or two.

The cassette toilet emptying – Elsan – points are often few and far between. Our cruises were often dictated by the availability of Elsan points along our route. We could have increased our capacity by keeping one or two spare cassettes on board, but storing twenty litres of festering waste in the bottom of the wardrobe didn’t appeal to us.

We weren’t surprised to reach an Elsan point to find it out of commission. CRT work hard to keep them all operational, but they block quite easily to yellow and black tape across the Elsan point entrance isn’t unusual.

We often visited Elsan points which were very unpleasant to use. Not everyone who deposits their waste cleans up afterwards. I didn’t particularly enjoy emptying a container of my own fetid sludge. I certainly didn’t want to do it while wading in someone else’s.

I rarely used our cassette for anything other than having a wee. I suppose it was a psychological issue, but I found the process distasteful. We usually saved our solids for canalside pubs, cafe’s or restaurants, or for our frequent visits to the larger supermarkets. Consequently, spending a penny usually involved spending a great deal more.

We couldn’t really waltz into a small pub or cafe just to use the loo, so a daily toilet stop often included coffee and cake. I calculated that we were spending up to £200 each month on canalside toilet stops.

I switched to an Airhead composting toilet in May 2015. I researched composting toilets thoroughly first. Composting toilets of old were bulky and ineffective affairs. The waste was deposited in a single tank. In England’s wet and cool climate, the slurry didn’t dry so couldn’t compost.

Airhead compact composting toilet. The installation has saved us a fortune on canal-side toilet stops

Airhead compact composting toilet. The installation has saved us a fortune on canal-side toilet stops

Our current toilet is one of a new breed of eco friendly loos. It’s cleverly designed so that the solids and liquids are separated. A man has to “go girlie” to make it work. Sitting down to have a wee took a bit of getting used to, but the extra effort is worth it.

The liquids container needs emptying most days. It’s a quick and easy job to unclip it, carry the container outside and empty it in the nearest hedge. There are no chemicals involved so this method of disposal is EA approved. Before it’s clipped back in place we add a spoonful of sugar to stop the container from smelling. We also regularly clean it out with a mixture of hot water, white vinegar and a handful of gravel to scour the sides.

The solids container can easily last the two of us for two months. We bag and dispose of our toilet tissue daily so there’s no paper bulk to fill the container. Emptying the solids container takes about an hour. I dig a hole in a nearby copse or field, empty the clay-like and odourless waste into it, then carefully refill the hole ensuring that any grass sods are carefully replaced. This method of disposal is also EA approved. You’re supposed to ask the landowner’s permission, but I’ve never been able to find a landowner to ask and you can’t tell that I’ve been there anyway, so no harm done.

The toilet cost £850 to buy and £150 to install. It was money very well spent. We are now completely self sufficient as far as waste management is concerned. There are no expensive and environmentally unfriendly chemicals to buy and there’s no need to plan our cruise around toilet emptying stops.

Another cruise planning consideration used to be our water supply. We have a tiny onboard tank. At 350 litres, it’s less than half the size of those found on most narrowboats. We use most of our water for washing dishes. Cynthia spends much of her time in the galley, so there are always plenty of pots and pans to clean.

Washing our dirty little bodies uses very little water thanks to the most useful device I’ve purchased for the boat in the last six years. Our Hozelock Porta Shower is perfect for water conscious boat owners. The large plastic bottle hold seven litres. You pressurise it with a hand pump and then use a shower head on a 2m hose to wash with.

One kettle full of boiling water and another of cold is all that we need to have a very enjoyable and thorough shower. According to the UK Waterwise website, an average shower uses sixty two litres. I usually use just three litres per shower. Cynthia, if she’s washing her hair, uses five litres.

Our half size water tank will last us ten days with careful management. However, if we plan to use the washing machine, we always make sure that we top up our tank. An average load washed once and rinsed twice will use close to a hundred litres.


On to another room with lots of storage space. Our bedroom has a decent sized wardrobe and six voluminous drawers under the bed. Our calorifier is also fitted under the bed. The calorifier is the boat’s hot water tank. The water in it is heated in three different ways. If we are plugged into the national grid via our shore line, we can use the calorifier’s 1KW heater. When we are cruising, hot water from the engine fills the tank, and thirdly, when our Webasto Thermotop C diesel central heating system is on, the diesel burner heats the 55 litres in the tank as well as three radiators down the starboard side and one on the port side under my desk.

Smartgauge battery monitor showing the leisure bank at 100% after a day's cruise

Smartgauge battery monitor showing the leisure bank at 100% after a day’s cruise

The bedroom used to be quite a cold and damp place, very cold and damp when I first moved on board. There were three radiators attached to the stove’s back boiler running down the starboard side. The gravity fed back boiler wasn’t very efficient. By the time the hot stove water trickled fifty feet back to the tiny single radiator in the bedroom it was lukewarm at best.  A more effective solution to heating the back of the boat was to install a 12v ceiling fan close to the stove in line with the central passageway. When used, the fan increased the temperature in our bedroom by six or seven degrees.

I used to have problems with condensation in the bedroom. In the early days I closed the bathroom doors to conserve heat in the front of the boat which meant that the bedroom was much, much colder than the rest of the boat. Once I adopted the habit of keeping the bathroom doors open all the time, using the ceiling fan to push warm air back to the bedroom, and lined poorly insulated hull side under the gunnel next to the bed, the condensation disappeared.

I have a Smartgauge battery monitor installed in the bedroom in the bulkhead between the bedroom and the engine room. It’s an essential tool for regularly monitoring the battery bank’s state of charge.

Your batteries are expensive consumables. When I moved on board in April 2010 I had just one 110ah lead acid domestic battery and a similar sized starter battery. I immediately doubled the size of my domestic bank to two 110ah lead acid batteries. The increase wasn’t enough. Within a couple of years I had four 135ah batteries in the domestic bank. I upgraded again at the beginning of last year to four 160ah AGM batteries. The new battery bank gives me more than enough power for full time off grid living. At £200 each they aren’t cheap, so I do what I can to extend their life.

Your boat batteries don’t like deep cycling so if you don’t charge them until your boat lights dim, you will have to change them far quicker than if you keep them topped up. The problem is that you don’t know whether they are fully charged unless you have a battery monitor. You have to guess their capacity which means that you’ll either let them run down too low, or waste valuable diesel running your engine to charge them when they are already fully charged.

At the push of a button, my Smartgauge monitor tells me what I need to know. The monitor is just above my bed. I check it at least twice a day, usually in the evening before bed and then again in the morning.

My battery bank is charged either by the engine, or by my 300w solar array. In the summer, the solar panels provide me with all the power I need. When I’m in the marina I don’t plug in to the national grid.  I don’t need to. Before I started my current run of discovery days, the solar panels kept my batteries charged for two weeks. They had dropped to 80% after a series of wet and dull days, but I was very happy with two week’s free electricity.

Engine room

The engine room houses my engine. It didn’t house it very well when I first moved on board. There was a coffin shaped box covering it which was a pig to remove to get at the engine. I removed it and had a steel frame fitted around the engine, then paid £1,200 to have the frame encased by insulated deck boards. The result was a safe, aesthetically pleasing and relatively quiet engine room with plenty of dry and secure storage space.

Living on a narrowboat is all about compromise. A traditional stern narrowboat like mine gives you plenty of internal storage space and somewhere warm to stand on a cold winter’s day. The downside is that there isn’t a huge amount of space for guests to stand with the helmsman when cruising. Semi traditional and cruiser stern boats have far more space for social cruising, but you lose all of the secure storage space.

Our trad stern engine room. Where would you put all of this on a cruiser stern boat?

Our trad stern engine room. Where would you put all of this on a cruiser stern boat?

I have a huge amount of stuff stored in my engine room; oils, polish, grease, mooring gear, hats for summer and winter, waterproofs, gloves, jackets of different thicknesses, binoculars, camera, tools – some of which I know how to use – and my Kipor suitcase generator.

All of this secure storage space would be lost if I had a cruiser or semi traditional stern.

The engine room is also home to my bank of five batteries, Webasto diesel heater, 2KW inverter, battery charger, and an MPPT controller for my three 100w solar panels.

There’s a great deal packed neatly into my engine room. I’m very happy with it, apart from the access from the engine room into the cabin. Unless you are whippet thin like Cynthia and I you can’t squeeze yourself through the tight gap by the side of the engine and through the narrow door into the bedroom beyond.

My diesel tank is across the back of the boat. It’s huge. My engine uses an average of 1.37 litres an hour so, in theory, I could cruise for two hundred and fifty five hours or for eight hours a day, seven days a week for a month, before I ran out of fuel. I don’t have a fuel gauge but I keep a record of my engine hours on a spreadsheet which calculates fuel used and fuel remaining.

That’s my boat from stem to stern. The refurbishment of this tired old boat has taken me six years. It’s all done now. We’re both completely happy with it… apart from slightly draughty windows, the roof which needs repainting, the cabin sides which need touching up, the engine which is a little smokey, a mysterious leak in my keel tank or the pipes attached to it and an annoying engine rattle at 1,000rpm. I think I’ll leave those jobs until next year.

Discovery Day Dates

I still have two dates available for exclusive singles and couples on 8th & 9th June. The forecast for both days is twenty two degrees and sunny. Here’s a wonderful chance to enjoy and idyllic day on the cut. 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—-

Reporting from Spain—

My plane arrived without incident Sunday evening 29 May at 7:00pm.  I was whisked away to my apartment via taxi and met by a member of the clinic.  I had a good nights sleep and set off the next morning for the Budwig Center which was a five minute walk from my apartment.  Shortly after 9:00am I commenced my treatments and then all of a sudden……it was Friday evening!

I came here to balance myself in body and spirit and certainly accomplished that in various ways.  Since moving across the pond I had sort of let my diet slip a bit, and oftentimes found myself in a tizzy dealing with the stress of changing my life in many directions.  I needed re-grounding, and finding peace and a sense of belonging in my new home across the pond.

Now that I feel comfortable driving I have a lot more freedom.  I have been away from home a week now and I can honestly say how much I miss it—especially Paul and Tasha—and of course my new-found swan family!  I will not be able to return until the end of next month or early August and that will be difficult.  There is much to accomplish between now and then—a lot of good exciting stuff!

Two days ago I heard from my realtor back in Vermont that my house was officially on the market and a showing was scheduled for today.  I am pleased with this good start, as this next three months are the top months to sell houses in New England.

Since I have been living in this big apartment for the past week it is funny what a different perspective one has after living on a narrowboat.  You’d think I would love all the extra room wouldn’t you?  But to be honest I miss the coziness of the boat and being able to glance outside at any moment and witness a wealth of activity amongst the wildlife.  Somehow that trumps looking out the window and seeing lines of drying laundry!

I do have to say the weather has been perfect.  The sunshine and the quality of the air here is magnificent.  I can’t get enough of it!  I am so happy we will be heading south for this coming winter so we can enjoy it for a longer stretch of time.

Last night was my final night here, and one of the lady’s and her friend at the clinic invited me to go to the beach with them.  I am so glad I said yes—we sat on the beach watching the world go by and dipping our feet into the Mediterranean.  It felt wonderful.

We explored a park on the way back and witnessed a lot of interesting flora and fauna.  When we returned we went to my friends’ apartment and had a quick dinner.

Tomorrow morning finds me pulling myself out of bed at 3:00am to get ready for my taxi ride to the airport and flight to Marseille.  I will be picked up there by my friends and we will make our way to their B and B in the small Provence town of Sarrians.

The saga continues…..stayed tuned for next week when I report on my new home until departing on 17 June for Calais where I will finally become reunited with my beloved Paul and dear Tasha.  I can’t wait, and in the meantime I shall immerse myself in the French country life and soak it all up.  It will be nice to reacquaint myself with the French language.

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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.

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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 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.