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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A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part One

October and the tail end of the hire boat season are almost upon us. Colder and wetter days keep many aspiring boat owners indoors. They remember balmy summer days strolling beneath weeping willows watching brightly painted narrowboats chug slowly along a thin ribbon of sparkling water. They remember the joy of spotting pairs of majestic swans leading flotillas of ungainly signets. And the lucky few who hired boats for summer holidays smile at the memory of the good-natured boat yard banter at the beginning of their idyllic breaks afloat.

They browse wistfully through the narrowboat sales listings on popular boating sites like Apolloduck and think about the life they could have. If only.

…If only I didn’t have to work…

…If only I didn’t have to… (insert excuse here)…

And arguably the most challenging barrier to overcome for many aspiring narrowboat owners.

…If only I had enough money in the bank.

A cash shortage may be all that’s standing between you and your boating dreams, your hope for a less stressful and more tranquil way of life. Especially where buying your boat is concerned.

Rather than sabotaging a potentially happy future, search for the solutions rather than the problems. I talk from personal experience, although I needed constant coaching from one of life’s greatest optimists when I purchased my last two boats.

Let me give you some examples of creative narrowboat purchasing from my own experience.

I moved onto my first narrowboat on 2nd April 2010, my fiftieth birthday. I wasn’t interested in boating back then. The neglected boat, James No 194, was in a terrible state. The tired old girl had paint hanging in ribbons from the plywood cabin, and the engine room and aft cabin were inches underwater. I didn’t care. I was licking my wounds after saying goodbye to the business I had worked so hard to grow for fifteen years. My business failure was followed a few short months later by the demise of my twenty-year marriage.

The old boat was all I could afford. I paid a peppercorn rent to the owner, Roger Preen, my boss at the marina, and promised to do all I could to help prevent the boat’s further decline.

I instantly fell in love with the boating lifestyle in general and James in particular. Although I could never quite get my head around calling a boat a man’s name and then referring to it as “she”.

After renting James for eighteen months, I wanted to return my home to its former glory. Despite peeling paint and gunnels hidden under a thick layer of crunchy rust and a roof which leaked like a sieve, she was beautiful inside. James had a cabin fitted with gorgeous fitted pine furniture and, at the stern, a classic Mercedes engine waited to push the boat gently along England’s connected canals and rivers.

But I wasn’t prepared to invest any money into my home unless I owned it. Even though James hadn’t moved from her mooring in over a decade. Roger’s wife, Rosemary, often used the old girl to entertain her fellow artists. She was emotionally attached to the boat, so she was reluctant to part with James.

I managed to eventually persuade her that the boat would be better off with me. I told her that James needed to be pampered, painted and polished regularly rather than used for occasional summertime parties.

When Rosemary reluctantly agreed to sell, I dropped my bombshell.

I worked at the marina at the time, helping maintain the company’s beautiful and expansive grounds. The work was as enjoyable as the pay was awful. I supplemented my income with products I sold on my fledgeling boating website. I had no savings and very little disposable income. I couldn’t afford to buy a takeaway meal, let alone a boat.

I couldn’t afford the boat, but I had nothing to lose by asking.

My brief conversation about the purchase went something like this;

“Thank you for agreeing to sell James to me. I know that you’ll love what I plan to do with her. There’s just one little problem. I don’t have any money. Will you allow me time to pay for your lovely boat?”

The answer from my boss both surprised and delighted me. “Here’s the deal,” he offered immediately. “You can pay me what you want when you want. I don’t mind how little or how much you pay me each month. Take as long as you want, but you can’t stop working for me until you’ve paid for the boat.”

How’s that for a win-win deal? I worked hard to keep the marina looking good. As far as I was concerned, and I still feel the same way, Calcutt Boats has two of the prettiest marinas on the network. Working there was a pleasure. My boss recognised that and was happy to lock me into working a few years at the marina. I was delighted with the outcome. I think he was too.

Three years passed before I could pay my final instalment. By that time, I had also invested a substantial sum into the boat’s refurbishment. I couldn’t have switched to a floating lifestyle without Roger’s generous assistance. I repaid his kindness by resigning as soon as I made the final payment so that I could cruise the network full time. I’m not proud of myself.

I purchased James No 194 using an informal hire purchase agreement

I purchased James No 194 using an informal hire purchase agreement

You might wonder how this helps you. Surely, you’ll argue, people and situations like this are unique?

Arrangements like this, or their potential, are far more common than you might expect.

Here’s another example.

My wife, Cynthia, and I sold our respective homes in 2016, my boat and her house in Arlington, Vermont and crossed the English Channel for a life of leisure on the continent. We toured far and wide in our Hymer motorhome, from the north coast of Denmark in the north down to Spain’s southernmost tip.

But much as we enjoyed our travels we both missed boating.

The Netherlands’ vast network of connected canals, rivers and lakes enchanted us. We toured extensively through the Dutch landscape of low fields, working windmills and nodding tulips. The more time we spent parked close to waterways filled with bobbing boats, the more we wanted to join them.

We had enough money between us to purchase a classic Dutch motor cruiser. Then we spent much of our remaining savings on improvements and essential repairs. Julisa was a quality boat but, with its wooden top and canvas roof, she wasn’t suitable for anything other than summer cruising. After a few short weeks back on the water we talked about buying a bigger boat, a craft better suited to three or four season cruising and maybe, just maybe, a boat suitable for living on permanently.

Dutch motor cruiser, Julisa. The only boat I've purchased outright.

Dutch motor cruiser, Julisa. The only boat I’ve purchased outright.

We found what we thought was the perfect boat moored at a small boat club on the outskirts of Antwerp. We loved everything but the name. Dik Trom was the Dutch answer to England’s Billy Bunter; a fat boy, sorry, calorically challenged young man, renowned for his greed. Dik Trom was also famous for riding a donkey backwards. Given that I had a backwards approach to DIY, I felt an immediate connection with the boat.

Our new floating home, a 1984 Linssen motor cruiser, suited its name perfectly. She was short and fat and ate as much as possible. I was used to my Mercedes engine, pushing my narrowboat slowly along a series of muddy ditches. The thirty-eight horsepower engine consumed a modest litre an hour. Dik Trom, with nearly three times as many horses under the bonnet, used three and a half litres an hour to surge through Holland’s deep and extensive waterways. She was an expensive girl to please.

Dik Trom’s owner, Walter, was a kindly and retired pilot who lost the mobility needed to climb aboard his boat. Dik Trom had already been for sale for two years, priced far too ambitiously at €63,000 (£55,000). The boat’s asking price was too much for us. Most of our money was tied up in our German motorhome and our Dutch motor cruiser. But we wanted Dik Trom, so we needed to find a creative solution, one which would allow the boat without me having a nervous breakdown.

I don’t feel comfortable with an empty bank account. I worry and fret If I don’t have a financial safety net. Ever since the UK’s Revenue and Customs department forced me and my failing business into bankruptcy in 2008, money shortage has terrified me.

Cynthia, on the other hand, was always the eternal optimist. “What’s the worst that can happen?” she would often ask. She was trying to reassure me but asking me something like that is looking for trouble. I have a vivid imagination, especially where doom and gloom is concerned. I pictured unforeseen medical emergencies; Cynthia losing her pension, dwindling interest in my website and anything I offered for sale. I imagined a country which didn’t want to employ me under any circumstances. I worried about doggy disasters requiring expensive surgery, homelessness and poverty, and the pair of us wandering the streets of Europe without a penny between us.

I was so far out of my comfort zone that I had trouble breathing.

But Cynthia was as persuasive as I am easy to persuade. “You have skills,” she reassured me. “You’ll have no problem earning money if you set your mind to it.” Yeah, right. I owned and managed small businesses for most of my life. I was fifty-seven with no employment history and no skills likely to persuade a potential employer to hire me. I wasn’t keen on exploring that route.

“You’re a talented photographer,” she assured me. “You can easily earn money by selling your work online.” I didn’t consider myself talented, nor did I think that selling anything online was easy especially photographs. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of websites offering millions of pictures uploaded by both amateur and professional photographers. Few of them attracted buyers. Professional photographers using the latest and most expensive digital cameras invested an extraordinary amount of time and effort for little financial return. My photos were reasonably well composed, but my handheld iPhone camera pictures didn’t have the pin-sharp clarity necessary to encourage potential buyers to part with their hard-earned cash.

I quickly dismissed the idea too, so Cynthia tried a different line of attack.

“You are a gifted writer,” she told me. “You can earn money from your scribbling.” Was she serious? Writing blog posts for narrowboat enthusiasts hardly put me in the same league as J.K. Rowling. I earned a little from the site’s guides and packages. But the longer I stayed in Europe far away from England’s muddy ditches, the less I made. My income potential would probably be higher in a French burger bar.

My most realistic opportunity to earn some cash was to apply for a position at one of Holland’s many boatyards, boat clubs or marinas. Despite having the practical skills of a three-year-old, at least I could work hard. I reasoned that, with tens of thousands of boats using The Netherlands’ vast waterways network, boatyard employers must need someone to do their grunt work.

Then I would have the language barrier to overcome — something else to worry me. But my endless money concerns were slowly being eclipsed by a desire to return to life on the water.

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t… you’re right!”

Cynthia eventually persuaded me to think positively and imagine that I could find paid employment. She encouraged me to step far outside my comfort zone, walk a boat buying tightrope without a financial safety net and empty my bank account. “Everything will be all right in the end,” she assured me.

I managed to find employment at the prestigious marina where we had collected Julisa. The company needed someone to apply antifouling systems to an endless procession of expensive yachts. It wasn’t employment which gladdened by heart, but it would help with the bills if we were to buy another boat.

Even with a bridging loan from Cynthia’s bank, we were still €15,000 short, so we asked the broker to arrange a meeting with owner Walter.

Walter was a kind and compassionate man. He had lived on or near the water for most of his working life. Walter was passionate about boats and boating and loved his Linssen yacht. We met Walter for coffee in his canalside clubhouse. He talked about his frustration now that he lacked the mobility or energy to maintain his beautiful boat properly. “A boat should be cherished and treated with respect,” he sighed. “I can’t do that any more. She needs to go to someone who will look after her.”

Dik Trom's owner agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and give us time to pay the €5,000 balance

Dik Trom’s owner agreed to reduce the asking price by €10,000 and give us time to pay the €5,000 balance

That was our opportunity. I showed Walter photographs of James throughout her five-year restoration project and photos of the work we had done on Julisa. I convinced Walter that Dik Trom would be in good hands. I talked enthusiastically about the jobs I would tackle immediately. I planned to renew the antifouling, paint the hull and superstructure, varnish any exposed woodwork and tackle a long list of minor repairs. Much as he was encouraged by my enthusiasm, Cynthia enchanted him with her warmth and compassion. Before we left Walter, he had agreed to…

Read A Creative Solution to Narrowboat Finance Part 2…

Discovery Day Update

I continue to work during the week for Calcutt Boats and at the weekend for myself. I host experience and helmsmanship training days on my 62′ narrowboat, Orient. Here’s what a recent guest had to say…

“(I) Wanted to learn about steering canal boats and using locks as (I) wanted to buy and live on a boat and be able to safely move it without recking or sinking it within minutes of purchase!! I also wanted some tips about living on a boat from someone who actually does it….not just a broker who is keen to sell me a boat….

(My Discovery Day was) well above expectations. Yes, I wanted it very ‘hands on’ with the boat and got lots of practical experience which is exactly what i needed! Also, lots of guidance given about what to do and the theory side. I came back feeling confident I could handle boat now in most situations. You were also great company and very patient. It would also be good to additionally learn how to move swing bridges and ‘the other type’ but I guess none on that stretch of canal. I think i do need to do a bit more knot tying experience but I guess that is a days course on it’s own and the phone app you suggested looks great!  

Yes, (I would) definitely (recommend your day to others). I have already done so and told them it is great value for money! The location is also beautiful and the boat stunning.” Jackie Tonks, 

I’m grateful for Jackie’s kind words. Her feedback is similar to hundreds of testimonials that I’ve received over the past half decade. I haven’t shared the  comments with you to show off (although it’s nice that I can), but to emphasise that, if you want to increase your chances of enjoying your time afloat and purchasing a problem free boat, you will be in very good hands. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here. I hope that you can join me on an idyllic and instructive day out on the cut.

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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.

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