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.


Find out more
1

A Case Study Of Liveaboard Narrowboat HOBO

Annie is a freelance writer. John is a farmer. Annie works from her boat. John has to commute to work… by light aircraft. He makes me feel quite embarrassed about my daily three minute journey to my “office” {{{0}}}

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

I’m Annie, and John lives aboard with me some of the time, when he’s not farming in the Fens or in South Africa.

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

John and Annie at the helm

John and Annie at the helm

Following the death of a loved one in 2006, I needed a new focus to fill the void that this loss created. As I’d hit 50 the year before, it seemed like a now or never moment. I’ve always loved the water and had a romantic fascination for narrowboats; bright paintwork, colourful people and the lifestyle in general. Originally it was to be a project; something to renovate, somewhere to go of an evening or weekend and during holidays, something to look forward to. The boat I eventually fell for, however, was in tip top condition, freshly blacked and painted, inside all well fitted out and ready to move onto, so I bit the bullet and did just that.

My focus then shifted to getting the boat to the mooring of my choice, an hour away by road but two weeks cruising. I’d never driven a boat before so saw this as a good time to learn. My niece put me in touch with a boatie colleague of hers who agreed to help me with this journey. We had a brilliant adventure and I learned a lot (very quickly) and by the time we reached the marina, where I would live very happily for the next four years, I could handle the boat fairly competently. Lorna and I are still firm friends to this day.

Whilst my time in the marina was good, I hankered for the cruising life but didn’t want to go it alone. Getting together with John, a kindred spirit, made this possible and we cruise as much as we can while we continue to work. I now have a winter mooring on the Stort in Hertfordshire from where we strike out in the summer months to explore different waterways. John commutes to and from the farm by light aircraft (his first love) and I remain on a riverbank somewhere, while he is away, and work from home. At the end of his working week he flies back and off we tootle some more. It’s a great life and works wonderfully well for us. But that’s another story…..

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

Fotheringhay - a favourite spot

Fotheringhay - a favourite spot

HOBO. When I bought her she had just been painted but not signwritten in case the new owner wanted to change the name. When I found out what she was called, I liked it, decided to keep it and set the signwriter to work…

What is your boat style and length

47ft trad

How long have you been a narrowboat owner?

6 years

How did you finance your boat?

Friends and family begged me not to sell my house in case the new lifestyle didn’t suit me, so I extended the mortgage to cover the purchase of the boat, additional equipment I wanted to add and rented out the property. I’ve since sold up so she’s all mine now.

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

Up until I met John it was pretty much 24/7/365 but for the last couple of years I have spent three months, during our winter, in South Africa with him.

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

Freelance writer.

What do you like least about narrowboat life?

Paddington Basin - HOBO in the City

Paddington Basin - HOBO in the City

Dropping things in the water. To date: specs, sunglasses, shopping, coat, cap, lock handle, boathook and two chimney caps – one of these as a result of taking avoiding action, ending up in a tree, when a seriously unaware boater was heading straight for us. We get some things back, especially if magnetic or floating – John once dived in to retrieve a chimney that was (not very well) stowed on the roof and knocked off by a rope when we were struggling to get alongside to moor in high wind…in the early days. I am very careful with my phone, keys and suchlike…still.

What do you like most about narrowboat life?

That’s a toughie, I love it all, but the short answer is the feeling of being more in control of my own destiny.

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

The gas locker. Who ever thought that lowering a full (heavy) cylinder into a hole in the sharp end was a good idea? I know gas storage on a trad isn’t easy but we are working on an alternative…

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

I shop for England before we go, stocking up on tins, packets, tea, coffee, booze, emergency milk, part-baked bread, loo rolls and so on, as much as space will allow. We buy fresh on the water or from farms where we can and actively seek out family butchers, greengrocers, bakers etc in the towns and villages en route – by cycle or on foot. But we always top up when we see a supermarket with a mooring.

How do you do your washing when you are cruising?

I bought a second hand Zanussi Studioline washing machine three years back. It’s not full size (though it will take a full set of bed linen), fits neatly into the bathroom, does a great job and is still going strong. I have a twirly drier which we attach to the tiller when moored if the weather is suitable, otherwise it’s on a clothes horse in the bathroom (or in front of the fire, if lit, when we are in bed).

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

Thetford Porta Potti. Despite thinking this would be the first thing I would change when I first moved aboard, I lived with it a while and decided it was perfectly fine. As it’s just me a lot of the time it will go almost a week, is free to empty and really not that bad. I’ve since acquired a spare (just in case..) when my brother upgraded his caravan toilet to a cassette.

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

3 dongle. Generally very good, pretty much anywhere, but there are odd spots with dodgy signal of course.

What is your favourite canal or section of canal?

Now you’re asking… We tend to spend more time on rivers than canals, though have done the GU from Welford (Leics line) to London, Regents and Hertford. We’ve cruised the Great Ouse, Cam, Little Ouse, Middle Levels, Nene, Lee, Stort, Wey and the Thames so far – all of which we loved for different reasons. If pushed to choose just one, it would have to be the Thames as was only last year and fresh in the memory. It was a great adventure, especially the tidal section; seeing the city sights, going under Tower Bridge and passing the Houses of Parliament etc, but the whole river is beautiful.

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

A Victron 2kw inverter, its own bank of 4 batteries and extra 100amp alternator for 240 volt, 2 leisure batteries for 12 volt, plus starter battery. We don’t use a great deal of 240; mainly the fridge and washing machine (use this while on the move as 2kw isn’t quite enough but cost of 3kw inverter so much more and this method works fine). Plus a tiny bit of tele, I Pod, computer, phone charging etc.
Pumps work off the 12 volt, as do the lights, which are now converted to LED so pulling a lot less out of the batteries.

We can be static for 2/3 days without running the engine but prefer to top up each day.

We are researching wind and solar power for the future and it seems that solar is more productive (and doesn’t require a huge mast that needs to be removed for cruising) but the jury is still out.

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

Do your research. Look at lots of boats (I looked at many over a four month period) you’ll get to know what you want – or more likely what you DONT want – type of stern, layout, old/new, a project or move straight on. Same as a house in that respect; indeed the top end can cost as much as a house. Consider how you will use the boat – static in a marina or lots of cruising – it makes a difference. Check out different moorings, noting access, facilities etc and bear in mind that the elements will have much more of an impact on your life.
Read up on it. There’s lots of info on the web; sites like this one and many more.

Talk, or more importantly listen, to people already living the life. You may already know or, as you trawl around boatyards and marinas in search of your ideal, get to know someone living aboard. Look inside their homes and see how they live, imagine if or how it could work for you and ask lots of questions. Most of us are ferociously proud of our particular set-up and will gladly pass on knowledge, hints, tips, pitfalls and so on. Learn from their experience/mistakes.

Ask them about the costs of mooring, licensing and maintenance; it will probably be quite an eye-opener. Life aboard isn’t necessarily a cheap option, unless you want to live very frugally and, whilst you can save on light and heat, maintenance is essential and can be costly, especially if you ignore it. It’s a harsh environment: metal will rust, wood will rot and mechanical things will break down. Fact.
It helps if you are a hands on sort of person, prepared to work on the boat yourself or know someone who is and can.

When you find something you like the look/feel of, take a liveaboard friend to see it with you; they will soon spot how “sound” it is and how ready to live on. They’ll know if you’ll need to spend major money on equipment. Have the seller take you all for a chug on the water – your “advisor” will know what to look and listen for. Or, at the very least, have them give you a list of questions to ask and things to look out for. Older boats should have a full hull survey done.

Be prepared to lose lots of stuff before you move on board – transporting the contents of a 3 bedroom house onto a boat to sort at a later date won’t work. Let it go, you don’t need it all. (I found 26 sets of chopsticks when going through my kitchen before my move). Hello? It’s hard but essential and, in my case, very liberating. It’s also an ongoing task.

Above all, be honest with yourself and your other half. It’s a big step, which may be difficult to reverse, and not everyone’s cup of tea.
And if you do go ahead with it – let life aboard evolve. That’s the best bit of advice I was ever given – and it’s still evolving six years down the line.

How warm is your narrowboat in the winter?

HOBO - Toasty on the coldest winter's day

HOBO - Toasty on the coldest winter's day

My Morso Squirrel Stove keeps Hobo’s 47ft nice and toasty and is going 24/7 during the winter months. We call the chair closest to the fire the hot seat and do, on occasions, have to throw open the doors because it’s too hot. When I lived on a marina my neighbours used to joke that the paint on the outside was blistering through the heat but I am getting better at regulating it now!

The stove is near the front doors so naturally my bedroom at the back of the boat is cooler but that’s mostly fine by me. Even though I now escape to sunnier climes for the worst of our winter, I have spent many on board; some where the river has iced up and temperatures have plummeted to those of the Arctic. I have been known to plug in in a halogen heater in the bedroom, for dressing and undressing, in these conditions but I’ve never had to bundle up in layers of clothing to keep warm inside the boat. Honest – and I hate to be cold.

The floor does get cold though, being beneath the water line, but my Ugg boots soon sort this out.

I actually miss my lovely snug cocoon while I’m away…really!

Annie writes a very entertaining blog. You can read it 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 web site.

 

Useful Information
Entertainment
Summary
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.

Comments
  • joejones24 Wednesday,13 June, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Thanks a great article.

     
  • Post a comment
    You must be logged in to comment. Log in