A Positive View Of Life On A Narrowboat
My last post was written from the point of view of an unhappy lady boater. I imagined what this sourpuss – she’s based on a miserable liveaboard boater I met a few years ago – would have said if she lived on Orient. In this post, I’ll tell you what I think about my floating home. Neither opinion is necessarily right but, for me, a positive outlook makes life so much more enjoyable. I hope you agree.
The negative post about life on Orient is here. Comparing the two might be of use to you.
Cost-Effective Living Space
Ah, I love my cosy home. When I lived in a house, I used to waste so much space. The more room you have, the harder you have to work to keep that space in good order. Mainstream society tells you that the bigger, the better. A big house and a fancy car are badges of honour, proof that you are successful. That’s total bollocks. All it means is that you have to work harder and harder just to stay in one place.
I love my little house on the water, and I own it free and clear. I don’t have to work hard to earn bundles of money because I don’t need to pay high bills to maintain my lifestyle. I may not have a fraction of space I coveted in my luxurious house, but I have all that I need and, more importantly, I have peace of mind.
I still can’t understand why I thought I needed such a big house. I had more space in my lounge than I have now in all of my floating home. And that lounge was used for nothing more than a snatched break between onerous home and work obligations. Three hundred square feet for a three-piece suite and television. What was the point in that?
I know where I’m better off – on the water being buffeted at night by wind and soothed by rain dancing on the steel roof an arm’s length above my bed. I enjoy untroubled nights without the energy-sapping worry of my previous work-spend-work lifestyle.
I have to admit that potential condensation problems worried me during my early years afloat. But there’s always a solution to any problem if you focus on a positive outcome. I learned about condensation’s Holy Trinity; heating, ventilation and insulation. I discovered that I could keep damp at bay if I ventilated and heated my home correctly and made sure that everything was adequately insulated.
So, rather than close down the back of my boat to conserve heat, and shut all of the windows there in a futile attempt to prevent heat loss, I focussed on heating the stern properly. As soon as I installed a central heating system and double glazed my windows, I said goodbye to condensation.
That was on my old boat, James. I haven’t really had any condensation problems with Orient. For a start, instead of acres of cold glass, I have a dozen small portholes. My Houdini hatch was my only real problem. It neatly framed my meal preparation workspace. Cooking there with three or four rings burning produced a heavy rain which diluted my sauces and high spirits.
The solution was to fix a Perspex panel the Houdini hatch frame. I now enjoy shower free cooking and a healthier cooking environment.
Bye, bye, condensation. There’s no place for you on Orient.
Free From Transport
Apart from the Hymer motorhome I used to explore Europe I haven’t owned a vehicle since 2013. I’ve been offered two free cars during that time. I’ve politely refused both of them because the vehicles may have been free, but maintaining, taxing and insuring them wasn’t.
For my, car ownership is an opportunity to drive to places I don’t really want to visit to buy things I don’t really need. Car ownership shackled me to unnecessary debt. I almost lost my senses recently and considered saddling myself with three years of wasteful debt for a car with a dashboard that had more computing power than my iPhone. I reasoned that I worked hard enough to justify the expense. And then I realised that the monthly fees would cost more than my boat license and mooring fees.
I don’t need a car. If I’m on my marina mooring, I can have everything I need delivered to me. Overcoming the logistics of dragging a car around with me when I’m on the move is too much like hard work, as is the stress of wondering what’s happening to it parked in a remote canal-side lay-by while I’m cruising the cut.
There have been several occasions over the last half-decade when I’ve needed a car. So I’ve rented one from a company keen to demonstrate excellent customer service by collecting me from my boat. The car hire cost was a small fraction of the outlay for a car of my own.
I don’t miss driving. I have the dubious pleasure every blue moon of pretending that I’m part of mainstream society. I take one of our company vehicles on roads congested with bad-tempered drivers engulfed in clouds of toxic fumes. The best part of my driving experience is returning to my rural haven and thanking my lucky stars that I don’t own a car.
Ah, the joy of a solid fuel stove. There’s nothing better than watching my fire’s flickering flames on a stormy night with a glass of wine in my hand. I’m seduced by nature while I listen to the wind and rain. It’s better than television and far less expensive.
Some boaters complain about the physical strain involved in stove maintenance. Poppycock! That’s what I say. Sure, coal bags are heavy, but they provide welcome exercise. Boaters are generally a fitter and healthier bunch than those living in houses with all of their utilities on tap.
And, apart from the aesthetics, there’s a practical benefit to running a solid fuel stove. Moist cabin air is drawn into the fire and expelled from the boat. My cabin humidity is usually under 50%. Condensation doesn’t have a chance!
Some boaters complain that coal is a dirty fuel, but it doesn’t have to be. I have two heavy-duty plastic storage boxes on my front deck. I empty my coal bags into these boxes rather than drag then through my boat. And I clean my boat regularly to remove the dust some people moan about.
For me, there’s no competition between a soulless central heating system and an atmospheric coal-burning stove. The stove wins every time.
High Maintenance Costs
I didn’t buy a boat because it offers low-cost accommodation. I decided on this way of life because I want to live close to nature. And I want to enjoy the lifestyle in comfort. I have a beautiful home, and I do all that I can to keep my boat in the very best condition. I live a comfortable life, and I don’t mind spending a few pounds to keep my floating home looking as good as it can. In that regard, I’m similar to many house proud land dwellers.
Is keeping a narrowboat expensive? Sure it is if you’re going to keep one as an extravagant toy. But if you want one as your primary home, then the cost is comparable to that of a small family house. I’m OK with that. The enormous advantage that I have as a narrowboat owner is that I can move my home to any location I choose on the network’s rivers and canals.
I’ve met many first-time narrowboat owners who look like rabbits caught in car headlights when they’re presented with yet another unexpected bill. You’re a very lucky boater if you don’t have to do any maintenance or remedial work or make alterations to your new floating home.
The boat’s battery bank often needs replacing. Tim Davis from Onboard Solar advises anyone who has purchased a second-hand boat to replace the battery bank regardless of its apparent condition. You don’t know how old the batteries are or whether the bank has been added to. The accepted wisdom is to replace ALL of your domestic bank’s batteries at the same time to prevent the oldest battery dragging the rest down when it fails.
Over the last two years, I’ve replaced my batteries, added a new charger and monitor, renewed my cratch cover, replaced my three old chimneys and engine exhaust with shiny and low maintenance stainless steel, added a 645W solar array, had an L shaped bench seating and table area constructed, replaced my front doors and back hatch and repainted my front and rear decks.
My maintenance and modification programme has cost me a small fortune, mainly because I have the DIY skills of a four-year-old girl. It’s a heavy cross I have to bear and a financial burden not suffered by those able to wield manly tools.
For me, living afloat has nothing to do with cheap housing. I live closer to nature and further away than most to the stresses and strains of modern-day life. My life is as comfortable as it is stress-free and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Discover Life Afloat
Fed up with mainstream life? Learn all about a simpler and more relaxing lifestyle on England's inland waterways. Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat
Our unhappy lady boater in my last post complained about many aspects of living afloat, including the effort required to manage her utilities. I prefer to think of it as welcome exercise. Life on a narrowboat is far more physically taxing than it is in a house. You have to accept and embrace that aspect of the lifestyle. Suppose you fail to manage your modest water supply when you’re out on the cut. In that case, you might have to endure an evening without the wet stuff and then face several hours cruising before you can fill your tank. If your stove or central heating system runs out of fuel, you’re likely to get very cold before you can obtain some more. You need to be organised.
Checking coal, gas, kindling, firelighters, water and sewage levels is second nature these days. And hauling coal bags and gas cylinders weighing half a petite woman on and off my floating house keeps me fit. As does walking to the nearest supermarket when I’m out on the cut to collect my groceries.
Single-handed boating is fantastic exercise too. I stood at the helm for 1,000 hours in 2015 and negotiated 946 locks. I finished the year as fit as a fiddle and as well-conditioned as I would have been working on my demanding daily grounds maintenance tasks back at Calcutt Boats.
Living afloat and cruising regularly is a very satisfying way of keeping fit.
I try to see the positive side of every challenge. Take Orient’s windows, for example.
I have small portholes which are much smaller than conventional boat windows. And I’m delighted with them. I can’t see out of them very well, but people can’t see in either. Portholes are ideal if you value your privacy and want to keep prying eyes away from your valuable trinkets. The other advantage is that a smaller glass surface means less condensation. I had picture windows in my last boat. I was forever mopping up rivers of condensation from the bottom of the window frames. I don’t have nearly so much of a problem with my little circular glass windows.
Having portholes which don’t open frustrates me sometimes. Still, one significant advantage is that I don’t need to suffer the gale which blew through the gaps in my last narrowboat’s top hoppers. I may not be able to ventilate my boat as much as I want, but the flip side of the coin is that I don’t have unwanted and heat sapping ventilation on windy winter days.
I didn’t like Orient’s main bedroom when I first moved on board. The room has a cross bed. In case you’re not familiar with the term, a cross bed is at right angles to the length of the boat. Because a narrowboat is, well, narrow, the maximum cross bed length is six feet. To facilitate a passageway through the bedroom during the day, the bottom two feet of the bed base is hinged. As the original mattress was heavily sprung, I needed a team of bodybuilders to help bend the mattress before locking it upright. I was so exhausted by that little exercise each morning I was ready for bed again.
The solution was to invest in a bespoke two-piece mattress. Switching the bedroom to its daytime configuration now takes a few seconds of gentle exercise.
My boatman’s cabin has an even smaller cross bed. I can just about lie on my back if I wedge my feet and head into opposite corners. Despite the limited space, I love sleeping there during the warmer months.
I can have as much fresh air as I want in my stern bedroom. On a sultry summer’s night, I slide back my hatch, fold my rear doors open and drift off with a view of the stars or the overhanging branches of canal-side trees. It’s a magical experience for me, but some boaters worry about me.
I was moored at a popular spot on a scorching day earlier this year. The location was far from the nearest road, or any housing and the only people around were the boaters moored either side of me. A safe spot, I thought, to slip off to the land of nod and dream sweet dreams of gentle cruising and friendly canal-side banter over glasses of velvety reds. A lady on a boat behind me didn’t sleep quite so well.
She pounced on me as soon as I stepped off Orient. “Thank GOD you’re safe,” she shrieked, wringing her hands in concern. “Fred and I were worried that something had happened to you. Weren’t we Fred? Fred, Fred, are you listening? Tell this man we’re worried about him!” Fred carried on polishing his mushrooms, maintaining his distance and his dignity.
I asked her why she was worried. She pointed cautiously at my open rear hatch as though it was going to bite her. “You left the back of your boat open. Anyone could have walked in when you were asleep. Weren’t you worried about being attacked?” She hopped from one foot to the other like a cat on a hot tin roof and continued her hand ringing. I didn’t know who or what she thought was going to attack me; an inquisitive cygnet, a thieving magpie or maybe a frisky rabbit?
The highly-strung lady quizzed me at length about my sleeping habits and advised me to batten down my hatches every night. She wore me down a lot and frightened me a little.
I saw stars and trees, she saw assailants and thieves. I can feel the beginning of a poem coming on!
Anyway, I survived to tell the tale and, despite her misgivings, I’ll continue with my dangerous sleeping habits in rural Warwickshire.
The Joy Of A Midships Engine Room
I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly fond of Orient’s exposed engine when I first viewed my new home. Like many, I worried about the wasted space, exhaust smoke in my cabin and the close proximity to many thrashing parts. What I didn’t understand at the time was the love a man can feel for an inanimate object.
And it is love. I adore my Lister JP2M. If you’ve been out with me for a day or seen one of these vintage gems in action, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Even polishing the Lister’s many brass and copper components brings me joy. But that’s nothing compared to the pleasure I get from cruising the cut listening to the engine’s mesmerising beat. Orient turns the heads of many middle-aged men as I travel. That’s not necessarily what I want, but I’ll take any attention I can get at this stage of my life.
On a practical note, my Lister is exceptionally fuel-efficient. Rather than the 1.0 – 1.5 litres per hour used by most modern engines, my old girl uses 0.7 litres. Easy on the eye, easy on the ear and cheap to maintain. What more can I ask of the lady in my life?
Lulled To Sleep By Natural Sounds
I’m not a city person. The urban clamour of people and traffic distresses me. On the rare occasion when I dip into mainstream society these days, I can’t wait to return to the peace and tranquillity of my floating home and the natural sounds which surround it.
As I snuggle under the duvet on my cosy bed, thin steel sheets are all that separate me from the water and wildlife around me. I am at my happiest when storms rage outside. I listen to waves lapping gently against my hull, wind howling and rain bouncing off my roof. I’m warm and dry inside my steel cave. The feeling is worth more to me than an imposing house, a flashy car or an overflowing bank account. It’s a simple pleasure, and it’s free.
The Advantages Of Careful Water Management
I don’t have hot water on my boat. I don’t want it. Here’s why.
Orient has a 750-litre potable water tank, which is about average for a largish narrowboat. Many boat owners with a similar-sized tank will refill it at least once a week. By not having hot water on board and carefully managing what I use I can make my supply last for two months.
Many narrowboats have three different ways of heating water; as a by-product of running the engine, via a central heating system or by using an immersion heater. I can either use an immersion heater or a Kabola diesel boiler to supply me with hot water. I can’t use my engine because it runs so slowly it doesn’t get hot.
Still, I have two hot water solutions but use neither. I don’t like wasting water by running cold water down my sink to get at the hot stuff. I don’t like paying marina electricity prices to use the immersion heater, and I don’t want to waste diesel using the Kabola boiler to supply a few litres of hot water a day.
I boil a couple of kettles of water for my once a day dishwashing session and I heat a single kettle for my shower. Rather than waste 60+ litres for a conventional hosing down, my Hozelock Porta Shower does an excellent job with just four litres. And I’ll tell you a secret which I don’t want you to share with anyone else. I don’t shower every day.
I use scented body wipes for my dirty days. I’m clean enough to keep the flies at bay, so I’m happy, happier still that my cruising and mooring isn’t dictated by water resupply problems.
There you go, my last negative post balanced by positivity today. And I remain eternally optimistic about my lifestyle. I can’t see myself ever living in a house again. I would have to get a proper job to earn money to maintain it. I like to think that my current life is similar to that of the proverbial Mexican fisherman.
Discovery Day Update
Our government isn’t making earning a living particularly easy at the moment, but they have allowed me to see a glimmer of light at the end of this dark and worrying tunnel.
Because my Discovery Day cruises include both training and education I am allowed to trade, despite Warwickshire being in tier 3. And, as people are allowed to stay away from home for the night for training and education, Wigrams B & B will remain open for my Discovery Day guests.
That’s good news if you already have a date booked with me in December. If you haven’t booked yet and want to experience a thoroughly enjoyable, educational and instructional day out on the cut, you’d better get your skates on. There’s just one date remaining in December before I begin my two-month winter cruise.
Lots of aspiring narrowboat owners have sensibly planned in advance so there are only four dates left in March. Click here to learn more about my Discovery Day service and here if you want to see and book available dates.