Paul Smith

Author Archives: 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.


A negative View Of Life On A Narrowboat

I’ve met thousands of current and aspiring boat owners over the last ten years. The people, like the boats they own, come in all shapes and sizes. They have varying outlooks on life in general and living on the inland waterways in particular. Some are content with very little. Others have all the bells and whistles of a home on dry land but are far removed from contentment or happiness… like this lady I met a few years ago.

An unhappy customer phoned Calcutt to complain about the Hurricane heater the company had recently installed in the engine bay of her cruiser stern boat. ‘Your diesel heater is rubbish,’ she lamented. ‘I wish I had chosen something better. Still, I’m stuck with it now, so I want you to come as soon as possible to get it working!’

Our heating engineer was unable to drive, so I offered to chauffeur him for the day. We arrived at Braunston marina on a beautiful November morning. The bright sun chased away the earning morning chill and highlighted the vivid oranges, reds and browns of the tumbling autumn leaves. It was, I thought, a glorious day to be alive.

Not everyone agreed.

I had the dubious pleasure of chatting to the lady owner while our engineer squirmed through the engine bay clutter towards the misbehaving Hurricane heater.

‘What a stunning day,’ I enthused, gesturing at the falling leaves. ‘Stunning?’ she fumed. ‘What’s stunning about that lot landing on my roof? I’ll have to spend the rest of the day on my knees sweeping them all off, and that’s no easy task at my age!’ The unhappy lady was in her late forties and more than capable of ten minutes light brushing, providing someone could help hoist her onto her roof.

I thought I would try a different approach.

‘Did you enjoy your summer?’ I asked, hopefully. ‘No, I didn’t!’, she fumed. ‘How boaters stay cool living inside a sardine tin is beyond me. I couldn’t sleep at night with all the doors closed. I suffered from heat exhaustion for months!’

I knew what she meant, but there was an easy solution. If she left her front and back doors open at night, the through breeze would provide some welcome relief on hot nights. I shared my wisdom with her.

‘Are you mad?’ she raged. ‘Do you want me to be robbed while I sleep, or maybe attacked by a sex-starved dog walker?’ I suspected that the amorous dog walker would need to be a braver man than me, but I sensibly kept that thought to myself.

I tried again. ‘Why don’t you moor under trees then? There’s plenty of oak, ash and willow to shade you from the sun. ‘Don’t be daft!’ she sneered. Do you think I want to spend all day cleaning bird shit off my roof? That’s even more of a pain to clean than the leaves!’ She swatted a falling oak leaf out of her path and waddled to the back of her boat to harangue our poor engineer.

She seemed disappointed when she discovered that he has ‘fixed’ her heater. A mop handle she had jammed into a small space beside the Hurricane had flicked a toggle switch to the off position. The engineer began to helpfully point our the danger of cramming so much rubbish around working machinery. I left before the storm hit.

Some people see a world filled with opportunity while others only consider the problems they face. Much I as I love the lifestyle I have to agree that living afloat on England’s inland waterways isn’t always gin and tonics on shady towpaths without a care in the world. Boaters face challenges like people in all other walks of life. How they deal with them determines whether they enjoy life afloat. The unhappy lady boater I spoke to was very much in the glass-half-empty camp.

I thought about the horrible hurricane hag a few weeks ago when I had an issue with Orient. I considered what she would think about my boat and the way I live. Orient isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but this old girl is the love of my life. Even though she’s sometimes difficult, she responds well to regular tender loving care. I’m infatuated by her and hope that our short relationship lasts for the rest of my days.

On the flip side of the coin, I suspect that our angry and reluctant lady boat owner would have this to say about my pride and joy. I think that she would have said something like this.

Confined Space

I live in a shoebox. There’s not enough room to swing a cat. Not that I have a cat or any other pets for that matter. Actually, I don’t like cats or dogs. They make far too much mess, need too much attention and a ridiculous amount of attention.

Even if I wanted animals, there just isn’t enough room for them or anything else in this tiny living space. Before I bought this horrible boat, I was told that sixty-two feet would give me more than enough space. Who were they kidding? There’s less living space in this whole boat than I used to have in just one room in my old house. Oh, how I wish I was back there now, with different neighbours, of course. I couldn’t stand any of them.

There’s no room on board to keep any of my possessions either. None of my furniture fitted the boat, so I had to throw it all out. I can’t keep a fraction of the things I used to have. There’s no room for my party dresses, shoes or handbags. In fact, because my electrics won’t allow me to use an iron, I can’t wear anything remotely smart these days.

Because of that, I don’t go to fancy clubs, restaurants or bars any more. I don’t go to weddings or upscale birthday parties either. In fact, I don’t actually go anywhere at all. I stay on my own in my little metal tube and remember when my life was a little more bearable.

Space wasting captain's chairs in Orient's saloon

Space wasting captain’s chairs in Orient’s saloon

Condensation Issues

Life was so much more comfortable in my centrally heated and double glazed house. I didn’t have rivers of condensation running down my windows and rotting my window frames there. Life was so much easier. If I want to cure my condensation problems these days, I have to make sure that my tiny home is heated and ventilated all the time. I pay a fortune for coal for my stove and then need to ventilate the boat to let all the moisture and the heat out.

People tell me that open-plan boats are easier to heat and control condensation. I wish I knew that before I bought Orient. There are four bulkheads in the boat. Four of them! The heat from my Squirrel stove struggles to get past my little galley. That leaves half of my home unheated. OK. I have a Kabola diesel boiler in the middle of the boat and another stove in the cabin at the back, but maintaining one stove is hard enough. I’m certainly not going to spend my days running between three of them.

This lifestyle is madness!

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

Transport Problems

Live the dream, they said. Make the most of your narrowboat lifestyle by travelling continuously around the inland waterways network. That’s all well and good, but the reality isn’t quite so attractive. Keeping my car nearby as I cruised was a nightmare. Walking back to my vehicle from a new mooring was out of the question and riding a bike along England’s muddy towpath was asking for trouble.

I sold my car, so I don’t have any transport these days. I sometimes have to trudge miles with bags of heavy shopping. My weekly shopping trips can sometimes take most of the day.

How’s that for a relaxing lifestyle?

Heating Issues

Heating my home is exhausting. My fuel is packaged in 25kg bags, that’s 55lb in old money – about twenty-eight bags of sugar. I’m going to put my back out one of these days hauling my cumbersome fuel bags on and off my boat. And the coal makes such a mess. Most of the bags have holes in them. After they’ve released a stream of black slurry onto my hardwood floor, I have to spend valuable time cleaning up the mess.

I should have found a boat with a better heating system. Oh, how I miss the ease of a centrally heated house!

High Maintenace Costs

I can’t count the number of pound notes I’ve thrown at this old crate. Everywhere I look, there are things which need replacing or repairing. Where will it all end?

I’ve had to replace rotting chimneys, pain the roof, paint the front and back decks, renew my failed battery bank, fit new doors, a new hatch and a new bench seat and table to replace my space-wasting captain’s chairs. The list goes on and on. Every time I manage to put a few bob in the bank, I have to take it out again to throw at my old boat. It drives me mad!

I was told that living afloat was a cheap lifestyle. That’s what I wanted. I struggled to maintain my old house on my paltry pension. Now I have to fork out a similar amount for my boat and have to endure the additional hardship which goes with it.

Utility Exhaustion

Don’t get me started on utilities. Everything’s hard work. I have to carry ridiculously heavy bags of coal from the boatyard to my boat, hump it over the side and then find somewhere to store it. Gas is just as unwieldy and cumbersome. And with that, I have to balance on a slippery steel bow trying to lower a ridiculously heavy bottle of gas into a tiny space. The hard work is going to kill me.

And then there’s my shit to deal with. Not my miserable life, but my actual shit. I have to carry it around with me like a pet lap dog (only it weighs much more than a dog. I must watch my diet)

Not only is my waste a risk to my physical wellbeing, but it’s also a risk to my mental health. Can you imagine mentally topping up the number of wees and poos you have and deciding when you have to take their combined mass for a walk? And that the place you have to take them to is somewhere that no one in their right mind would want to go? Do you know how many middle-aged men live on the cut who don’t know the first thing about personal hygiene? Did you know that the average male liveaboard boater only uses his cassette toilet for solids? So, when the cassette is full to overflowing, he as to do the shake of shame and splatter the walls of the filthy Elsan point outhouses with excrement.

I’m surprised that the physical and mental strain of this demanding and unpleasant lifestyle hasn’t finished me off. I don’t think I can take much more.

Changing a gas bottle is exhausting

Changing a gas bottle is exhausting

A Restricted View

I moor close to houses sometimes hoping to feel a connection with life on dry land. I like to look out of my portholes and try to remember when I was warm and comfortable.

Not that I can see out of my windows. Why on Earth the builder fitted twelve-inch portholes instead of standard rectangular windows is beyond me. I’ve been told that all Steve Hudson boats have portholes. Well, if you ask me, if he fitted proper windows in his craft, he would have sold a lot more of them. And why place them so high up on the cabin wall?

OK. I know that the boat draught has something to do with it, but what’s the point in having windows that owners can’t see out of? And why fit windows which don’t open? Fixed glazing just adds to my condensation issues. I don’t understand the design at all.

There's no chance to see the view through my portholes

There’s no chance to see the view through my portholes

Claustrophobic Bedrooms

I have two bedrooms on my boat. Neither of them is fit to call a bedroom at all. The main bed has a minute six feet by four feet mattress jammed across the width of the boat. I’m not a particularly big woman, but I can’t lay straight when I sleep. There’s no chance of any romance in my life when only one person can sleep on the bed diagonally.

Not only is the main bedroom claustrophobic, but it’s stuffy too. Because I’m a curvy girl, I tend to overheat at night. A small bedroom with tiny windows which don’t open is the last thing I want.

And I have to make up my bed every morning too. I need to make a Herculean effort to try to fold the mattress upwards so that I can lock the lower part of the bed base upright. Sometimes I just don’t have the strength, so I leave my bed down. The problem then is that I can’t get from the central part of the boat to my engine room or boatman’s cabin. I have to climb over my bed like a monkey to squeeze through the open stable door into my engine room.

I’ve been told that I could make my life easier by replacing my mattress with a bespoke two-piece version. But the quote I had made me cry. Eleven hundred pounds! If they think I’m paying that much, they’re sadly mistaken. I guess I have to resign myself to a painful life of narrowboat mountaineering.

Cross beds are only suitable for small people

Cross beds are only suitable for small people

Wasted Engineroom Space

I wasn’t keen on buying a boat with a midships engine room. Still, everything else was almost acceptable, so I bit the bullet and purchased Orient anyway.

What a mistake!

There’s little enough living space on a narrowboat without having to sacrifice a good chunk of it to house an ancient engine. Not only is it as old as Noah, but it’s as weak as a kitten and twice the work. Most boats of this length have a 42hp engine in them. What am I lumbered with? Just 21hp. This old tub couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding. I don’t know why all narrowboats aren’t fitted with modern engines.

The old Lister limits my canal network range too. I can’t cruise on rivers with a strong current, or tidal flow and rivers are often links to canals which I would like to visit. Buying a boat with a vintage engine was a real mistake because it’s hopelessly underpowered and smokes like a Victorian mill owner’s chimney.

What possessed me to buy a boat with an exhaust on the roof which throws out a massive amount of smoke at head level? Cruising into a headwind is a nightmare. I am shrouded in thick choking smoke. I feel nauseous after the shortest of journeys.

I really need to get rid of this engine and gets something modern instead one which doesn’t have such impossibly complicated controls.

Did you know that to handle a boat with an antiquated speed wheel and gear selection rod you need three arms? What’s the point in building a craft which can only be steered by people from Norfolk?

Orient is a nightmare to handle. Because of the boat’s deep draught, old controls and woefully inadequate engine, cruising anywhere is an accident waiting to happen. So I don’t go out very often and, when I do, I keep my trips as short as possible.

Seven feet of valuable cabin space taken by the engine room

Seven feet of valuable cabin space taken by the engine room

Unpleasant Noise

I don’t sleep very well these days. It’s all because of this cursed boat. I’ve told you about the problems I have with the main bedroom. In a futile search for a good night’s sleep, I sometimes resort to my boatman’s cabin bed and the smallest sleeping space on Orient. I have to jam myself so hard into the cabin corner. I’m surprised that I don’t have a pointed head. Mind you, there no chance of getting a decent night’s sleep even if I had enough space to stretch out.

Life afloat is a boisterous affair. When the wind blows hard – which seems to be most of the time since I made the mistake of moving afloat – my nights are troubled by the howling wind and the constant and annoying slap of waves against my metal bottom. At least the wind, waves and rain drown out the racket made by the ducks, geese and swans. It’s no wonder that I wake with a headache most of the time!

Click on the file below and you’ll hear the racket I had to endure when storm Dennis hit Orient.

Water Heating Issues

After a cramped night in a hot bedroom, I’m unpleasantly sticky when wake. I would like to be able to freshen up by taking a long shower. But I live afloat so luxurious showers are out of the question. In fact, showering at all is difficult.

That’s another problem with my stinking old engine. Modern engines generate enough heat to provide plenty of hot water, but this old Lister. It produces more smoke than heat. The only way I have of heating water is to light my Kabola diesel boiler. However, the lighting process is a long-winded and dirty affair, so I avoid it at all costs. I could heat my water by plugging into a marina supply, but then I would need to find the money to stay for a night or two. The reality is that I’m forced to boil a kettle if I want a shower. I have to mix the boiling water with cold in a little chemical sprayer, haul it into the shower cubicle and hope that I can wash before I exhaust my five-litre limit.

I have to boil a kettle for dishwashing too. I’m not living the comfortable lifestyle I hoped when I emptied my bank account into this boat.

My life afloat is one of unpleasant extremes. I have to work very hard to achieve everything I took for granted when I lived in my house. Some boaters seem to enjoy this strange lifestyle. They tell me that I should have done some research before moving afloat. I couldn’t be bothered. All I wanted was somewhere cheap to live. It seemed apparent to me that living in a little boat was going to cost less than maintaining a house. How was I expected to know all about licenses, mooring fees and maintenance? Life is so unfair.

I guess I’m stuck with this boat now. I can’t afford to get on the housing ladder. I wish I could turn back time and move back into my house. Maybe not that particular house, and definitely not the same neighbours. A different location would help too. Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps I wasn’t that happy in my old life. But anything is better than this!

Life on board Orient doesn’t sound particularly appealing from this lady’s point of view. Would you want to invest tens of thousands of pounds into a narrowboat after reading her account?

Probably not.

I’ll publish another post next week, this time written from my point of view. I’m halfway through my eleventh year afloat now and still loving the lifestyle, so I can promise you a much more optimistic opinion.

Discovery Day Update

I can’t really complain about my circumstances during Lockdown 2.0. I’m faring better than most. I have a cosy home with a beautiful view and, more importantly, I’m far, far away from mainstream society and any real risk of contracting Covid-19. Still, I had a full Discovery Day diary for November. I’ve refunded those who wanted their money back (I stand by my unconditional guarantee) and rescheduled most of the other aspiring narrowboat owners.

In addition to the rescheduled bookings, a surge of interest from customers interested in living on England’s inland waterways has quickly filled my diary. I have just one date remaining in December before I take a two-month break.

I’ll be cruising the inland waterways throughout January and February rather than working at the marina during the week and hosting Discovery Day cruises each weekend. My diary’s open again from March 2021 but the free dates are going quickly. 

If you are thinking about living afloat and want to join me for a day of helmsman training and a warts-and-all view of life on a narrowboat, please secure your day as soon as you can. I can promise you a fascinating, eventful and thoroughly enjoyable day out. 

You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here and see and book available dates here.


Useful Information

Common Narrowboat Newbie Mistakes And How To Avoid Them Part 2

The seasons are changing. We’ve swapped comfortable chairs under shady canal-side willows to even more comfortable seats in front of glowing coals. Aspiring narrowboat owners often ask me to name my favourite season. I wish they wouldn’t. I don’t have a clue.

I adore quiet winter canals with their stark landscapes and plentiful moorings. I enjoy the riot of colour from springtime hedgerows and the marinas’ slow awakening after their deep winter sleep. I love a summer waterway bursting with life, the sounds of happy chatter, the quacking of squabbling geese and the screech of steel on steel of narrowboats grinding along metal-clad banks. And I’m in awe of Mother Nature when she shows us her autumn coat. I would like a little less rain, but I guess I have to take the rough with the smooth.

I’ve moved a little further forward with my home’s refurbishment. In addition to stainless steel chimneys and fairleads, I now have stainless steel roof vents too. They’re quite expensive, but they’ll allow me to keep my roof looking its best with minimal effort. 

Orient's roof is looking better

Orient’s roof is looking better

I’ve had the front roof section painted too. The back section looks pretty good in the photo as well, but that’s because it’s been battered by torrential rain for the last twenty-four hours. The next big decision for me to make is whether to add a solar array.

Form over function, pretty or practical. That’s the question. I’ll be out cruising for two months this winter. Do I spoil Orient’s sexy lines to make electricity generation a little easier, or keep the roof as it is and resign myself to prolonged engine running sessions on otherwise tranquil moorings?

Jason adds the last few drops of Craftmaster Raddle Grey

Jason adds the last few drops of Craftmaster Raddle Grey

While I’m deciding what to do, I need to take my engine into consideration. If I moor close to other boaters, I’m likely to get complaints. My Lister JP2 is eighty-four years old and a little smokey. 

I’ve asked Braunston based Tony Redshaw Vintage Diesels to see what they can do. Paul Redshaw plans to visit me in November to change the injectors. If that doesn’t work, I’ll need to take Orient to his Braunston workshop for a decoke.

I’m enjoying a rare day off today. Today’s Discovery Day guest lives in Iraq. The country’s been locked down again, so he had to cancel. So I’ve sat in my cosy cabin throwing an occasional handful of coal briquettes on my fire and composed this post for you.

This is the second and concluding part about common narrowboat newbie mistakes. I’ve gained a little more material over the last fortnight as novice boaters have thrown themselves into the three locks on the Calcutt flight like lemmings over a cliff.

I hope that recounting their tales of woe will help you avoid making the same mistakes. But if you do, please let me know. I’m always looking for new stuff to write about.

Fending off with body parts, boat hooks or poles

Don’t use yourself as a human fender. It’s a painful and dangerous way to protect your paintwork. 

I see novice boaters doing this regularly during the hectic summer months. I’ve seen little old ladies with arms like sticks trying to push tonnes of steel away from slippery lock walls. I’ve watched indestructible teenagers thrusting feet from rain-slicked bows towards low bridge arches and novice boaters holding boat hooks like lances to fend off approaching boats.

Narrowboats are built like tanks, they have reinforced steel stems, protective rubbing strakes along either side and heavy-duty bow and stern fenders. And, if all else fails, there are teams of fitters and welders available at many boatyards with many years of boat repair experience between them. A damaged narrowboat is much easier to repair than a broken boater. Unfortunately, boaters break with alarming regularity. 

Prevention is better than cure. Invest in some kind of training before you set sail. And, if all else fails, don’t use your body as a flesh and bone buffer.

The Folly Of Adhering To A Rigid Timetable

The anxious diner in the section above caused unnecessary stress for herself and other boaters by trying to stick to a deadline. Timetables, deadlines and inland waterways cruising don’t work well together.

We’ve had many holiday hirers hell-bent on achieving goals. A few have asked me for advice. “We’ll leave here at 4 pm, reach there at 6 pm, moor for the night, set off at first light, reach this lock flight by 8 am and finish it in time for a late breakfast. Then we’ll…” I stop them there and suggest that, if they want a relaxing canal break, they set loose objectives and not treat their break like a military expedition.

Unexpected delays are part of the boating experience. You can be delayed by a fouled propeller, fallen trees, lock queues and damage, grounding on shallow canals and a host of other hindrances for which you can’t plan.

 Crew Communication

The helmsman peers into the far distance at the tiny figure of his wife standing on the boat’s bow. She offers him advice in a conversational tone which he is unable to hear above the engine’s roar beneath his feet. She repeats her instruction half a dozen times, but her bewildered husband can’t understand a word she says. The lady has a bright idea. She waves her arms like a broken windmill and shouts a little louder. The novice helmsman, still clueless, shakes his head, pushes his Morse control firmly forward and slams his hire boat into the protruding base of an old stone bridge. 

This is a less than perfect start to a week’s gentle cruising on England’s tranquil canals.

I’ve witnessed many accidents and potential tragedies caused by ineffective communication and poor teamwork. England’s muddy ditches are wolves in sheep’s clothing and danger lurks around every blind bend, narrow bridge hole and pretty lock. 

And inside narrowboats’ cosy cabin too.

One of the joys of inland waterways cruising is to stand in your galley watching the world float serenely by as you make a hot drink, snack or evening meal. Unfortunately, many novice hirers are blissfully unaware of the risk they face carrying scalding liquid and sharp knives inside a twenty-tonne steel tube being guided around hairpin bends by inexperienced helmsmen.

Do you know how often I see hire boats crash into other craft or concrete banks? At least once on every single Discovery Day cruise throughout a typical summer. And with the pandemic raging and more people holidaying in England, this year has been crazy busy on the waterways.

You must agree on an effective system of communication with your crew at all times. Back in the happy days when I shared my living space, I used a pair of Motorola two way radios. Despite their relatively high cost, the radios were worth every penny.

Helmsman Training & Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat on a 12-mile, 6-lock cruise through stunning Warwickshire countryside and learn all you need to know about the live aboard lifestyle

Hard knocks are inevitable for even the most seasoned crews. Cynthia spent much of her time inside during her final months, often in the galley preparing lunch or our evening meal. She kept a radio within reach at all times. I was able to give her enough warning of an impending bump. I am convinced that these warnings prevented many accidents.

Crew communication is equally essential when stopping and starting a cruise and, most importantly, when negotiating locks.

Waiting at Calcutt Top lock

Waiting at Calcutt Top lock

In the last two weeks alone three people have fallen from their boats in the Calcutt flight, two of them in two different locks at the same time. Better communication would have saved two of them from an impromptu dip and one from a concussion and a hospital visit.

The first, a fortnight ago, fell into the lock ahead of me on one of my Discovery Day cruises. I heard a scream, made sure that my boat was safe as it dropped down Calcutt Middle lock and sprinted as fast as my wobbly old legs would carry me along the towpath to the bottom lock.

Boats jockey for position on the Calcutt flight

Boats jockey for position on the Calcutt flight

A half-submerged man hung on a slippery chain in the empty lock. A dog walker – I don’t think he had any boating experience – had already climbed down the lock ladder onto the man’s deserted cruiser stern and was about to thrust the Morse control forward to try to move the stern closer to the drowning man. 


You DO NOT want a thrashing propeller anywhere near anyone in the water. Anyway, I shut the engine down, threw a life ring close enough for the frightened man to reach and dragged the man and his ring to the boat.

I checked to make sure that the elderly boater had injured nothing more than his pride and then ran back to my boat and straight into an argument. The crews of two narrowboats which had come out of the Calcutt Top lock stood by my stern. One, a bad-tempered lady who reminded me of an elderly bulldog chewing wasps, scolded me for hogging the lock she wanted to use. I explained the situation. Do you know what she said? “Why didn’t you take your boat out of the lock before you ran off?” Jesus Christ, woman. I could only assume that she’d recently finished a light lunch of ground glass and hemlock.

Then, last weekend, we had the Calcutt synchronised lock diving team out in force. One guy, out for a test drive with the owner of a boat he hoped to buy, fell off the lock escape ladder into the water. As our wharf staff fished him out, they heard a scream from the top lock.

“Don’t sit or stand within the tiller arc,” narrowboat hirers are told before they begin their cruise. Cruiser stern hire boats often have gas lockers with arse sized lids either side of the tiller, seats are often too much of a temptation. A lady in the top lock on one of two hire boats descending the flight succumbed. The boat in the lock with them surged out of the empty lock. The wash pushed the boat backwards. The rudder was forced against the exposed cill and folded to one side. So did the tiller. The lady was forced back off her seat, over the rail, off the boat and onto the concrete cill.

The poor woman hit the concrete head first. Her husband jumped overboard to save his wife and left his elderly and stone deaf father in charge of the boat. Our wharf staff reached the lock just as the father was trying to reverse the hire boat towards the stranded couple. Shouting instructions at him didn’t work, so one of them climbed down into the lock, over the hire boat roof and onto its back deck. The father, oblivious to all of the attempted communication with him, nearly had a heart attack when thirteen stones of Calcutt employee and his steel capped boots bounced onto the back deck and took control of the boat.

All of these stories have happy endings. The non-swimming solo boater purchased a life vest, the test driver bought his boat and the hard-headed hirer survived her painful introduction to a lock cill. 

Not all narrowboat accidents end so well.

Locks offer the greatest navigational challenge and more chance of an accident than cruising placid canals. Clear communication and attention to detail are critical to a successful lock flight passage.

Ascend Locks Carefully

When your boat is in an ascending lock, fill the chamber carefully. If you open the lock paddles too quickly, the resulting surge will smash your boat into the lock walls. At best, you’ll rattle your craft enough to knock things over in the cabin. However, an unexpected current in a lock can prove fatal.

Through a combination of inexperience, poor communication and lost concentration, a novice lady hirer lost her life in a South Oxford lock a few years ago. The sudden surge of water from a quickly raised paddle initially pushed her boat towards the downstream gate. It then hurtled towards the upstream gate like an arrow from a bow. She panicked, reacted too slowly and as her craft bounced off the upstream gate she slammed the boat into reverse. The hire boat shot backwards at full speed into the downstream gate again. As the stern bounced off the gate, the lady was catapulted over the back of the boat into the water. The craft, still hard in reverse shot backwards again and pinned her under the boat and its thrashing propeller. 

This tale is as rare as it is tragic. But please learn from it. Do not let water into the lock quickly and don’t let others control your lock.

Young male holiday hirers like to compete. They make me nervous. If I ever see a pair of strapping young lads marching along the towpath towards me, I watch them like a hawk. If YOUR boat is in a lock, YOU control the water flow. It’s your lock to manage. Many boaters will offer to help at busy locks. Accept their assistance by all means, but only on your terms.

Safe lock negotiation is all about communication, with your crew, the crew of the boat in the lock with you, and the crews of other boats waiting nearby. You’re in control so watch everyone like a hawk. The etiquette is that boaters who want to help you should look to you for advice. If they’re experienced, they will know the importance of a carefully managed water flow. If they are inexperienced or in a hurry, their ‘help’ may not be in your best interest. Don’t be bullied into doing things their way.

A domineering lady boater built like a brick outhouse tried to intimidate my novice crew last weekend. Following my suggestion, one had half-raised an upstream paddle as we ascended Calcutt Top lock. “You don’t need to do that,” she assured him as she swung her windlass in circles impatiently. “Raise it all the way. You’ll be fine.”

I stopped him before he followed her instruction. She glared at me and complained that I was wasting her time. She was late for her dinner appointment at a nearby pub. I was going to make her late.

That wasn’t my concern. My boat is my home. It’s a beautiful home which doesn’t deserve to be abused in a lock so that an impatient boater can shave a couple of minutes off her journey. Anyway, the chamber was full by the time she stumbled off her soapbox. Cruising the inland waterways is not a race. Don’t let others force you into going faster than you want.

One End Up, One End Down

A common mistake made by novice boaters is to try to negotiate a lock with the paddles raised at both ends. The lock then becomes a fast-flowing link for canal water from one pound to another—much to the dismay of Calcutt’s band of excitable engineers in days gone by.

Calcutt Boats’ wharf, office and engineering workshops are close to the offside between Calcutt Top sand Middle lock. Our first indication of paddle positioning problems used to be screams of anguish from our engineering workshop. The water gushing through the top lock would spill over the banks of the small pound and race tsunami style down a steep slope towards our diesel dowsed engineers.

The pound floods just as much these days but since the company installed a raised concrete lip along our wharf edge, the towpath floods now instead of our workshops.

Paddles behind a boat should always be closed. Always. Check to make sure before you open the paddles in front of your craft. And always use the correct paddle and gate opening process.

There’s usually a leak or two in a lock gate, sometimes enough of a leak to seal a gate again after you think it’s ready to open. Always open a paddle and leave it open until you’ve opened the gate. Once a gate is open, you can drop the paddle. Remember; paddle, gate, paddle. Always in that order.

Man Overboard

Do not, under any circumstances, reverse a boat close to anyone in the water. Flesh and bone is no match for a rapidly spinning bronze propeller. Don’t throw a life ring at your wet crew mate either. If you hit them with the hard and heavy ring you’re likely to do more harm than good. Throw a ring or a rope near and not at them. If they’ve fallen into a canal rather than a lock, they can probably stand up. Ask them to try.

Carrying an escape ladder on board is a good idea. However, you need someone on board to deploy the ladder for you. Roof-mounted escape ladders are pointless for solo boaters. Narrowboats are notoriously difficult to climb onto from the water. Consider a rope ladder which can be deployed from the water or steps cut into your rudder if you cruise on your own.


England’s inland waterways network offers a fascinating choice for increasingly popular staycations or an idyllic ‘back garden’ for nature lovers who want and can commit to living afloat. However, thorough preparation is essential for both your safety and your happiness. Treat the waterways and the boats which use them with respect and you can join our happy band of waterways wanderers. Social distancing is easier to do than not, but there’s plenty of company for those who want it.

Despite being half way through my eleventh year afloat I still sometimes make silly mistakes. First time hirers and buyers are really up against it. If you’re considering booking a holiday narrowboat or buying one for recreational cruising or as a full time home make sure that you get some professional tuition first. Ask a seasoned boater to take you out, take an RYA hemslan course or, better still, join me for a Discovery Day cruise.

Discovery Day Update

The madness is almost over for another year. After the busiest couple of months I’ve experienced on the inland waterways over the last decade, more and more narrowboats have returned to their leisure moorings.

The seasons have changed. The summer’s relentless heat has been replaced by wind, rain and a dazzling display of autumn foliage. Every season has its own beauty. This time of the year is more about appreciating a cosy cabin than lazing under a hot sun. My Squirrel coals are glowing as I write this and plan my winter break.

My generous marina employers have agreed that their business will survive without me for a couple of months. With an extended stay with my parents in Australia increasingly unlikely this winter, I expect that I’ll be cruising the waterways. I’ll be away from Christmas until the beginning of March so, if you want a taste of life on a narrowboat during the cooler months, make sure that you book a date soon. You can find out more about my Discovery Day cruises here and prices and availability here.

Discovery Day Guest Nina Harries Takes A Break From International Gigging To Experience Life In The Slow Lane

I’m planning to buy my first liveaboard boat, but I was simply overwhelmed by how much there is to learn about, not to mention navigating the cut and locks by myself! I was already a big fan of Paul’s blog, as it’s so beginner-friendly and covers so many aspects of life afloat, that when i saw he was offering discovery days in person, I jumped at the chance!

“Paul sent me all the info I needed, with clear directions and instructions as to how to find him and his lovely boat! He even asked for a specific overview of what I wanted to discuss and where I had got to in my narrowboat plans so he could tailor the day to best fit my level of experience/ignorance!”

“I had an awesome day, we were lucky with the weather and I got to see some beautiful canal ways that I hadn’t explored yet. Paul was so helpful, clear and provided me with so much useful information about the interior and exterior workings of a boat, the factors to consider when living afloat, and also proper cruising and mooring etiquette, which is SO important. He was also really calm and encouraging with the more scary parts of steering, especially going under low bridges and pulling into tight moorings & narrow locks.

“I would 100% recommend a discovery day with Paul on the Orient, to anyone considering living afloat. He shares with you the genuine experience, with all the pros and cons, the problem solving, navigating and all-important canal way etiquette. Also if you’re looking to purchase a boat, he is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to SO many things, including potential hazards to look out for (both inside the boat and out), certain design aspects to be cautious of and why, and the important day to day life factors to consider such as pets, transport, cruising, engine maintenance, safety on board, awareness of your surroundings and potential hazards, licensing, heating and power systems. He’s a great guy, super helpful and funny, and will even translate that long, boring and confusing hull survey for you if you ask nicely.”

Nina Harries enjoying a Discovery Day cruise

Nina Harries enjoying a Discovery Day cruise

Useful Information

Common Narrowboat Newbie Mistakes And How To Avoid Them

I wanted to send you an email weeks ago. My mind was willing, but my body weak. Life and the insidious ravages of time on my old bones thwarted my plans. I’ve been too busy, tired and obsessed with earning a crust to add any new posts to my website.

I’m sorry.

I consider myself lucky. I’ve watched this wretched pandemic destroy livelihoods and lives from the safety and comfort of my idyllic mooring in rural Warwickshire. I’m grateful that I’ve still been able to earn a crust at the marina. I’m blessed that the social distancing restrictions haven’t had much of an impact on my day-to-day life. Not much of an effect, but enough to stop me from writing to you.

My employers, the Preen family, here at Calcutt Boats have bent over backwards to support their staff during the lockdown. They kept me on, allowed me to earn a crust, keep the wolf from the door and my bank manager’s fetid breath from my neck. But mine is a lifestyle job, perfect for living a simple, stress-free and undemanding lifestyle. But not so good for creating enough of a disposable income for me to lavish on my floating home.

So, for the three months I couldn’t trade on a closed canal network I lived frugally, investing wisely in good food and not so sensibly on too much drink. Then, when the waterways opened for business again, I committed to five working days for the marina and two for my boating business at the weekend.

Although the surge in Discovery Day bookings recently has helped my bank balance, I haven’t had any time to invest in Orient’s maintenance regime. Fortunately, a very capable marina workmate has stepped into the breach. He’s spending a day a week on Orient, tackling the jobs which I can’t or don’t have time to do.

The first was, I thought, some simple rust treatment around my Squirrel flue collar. Jason wanted to remove the collar so that he could do a thorough job. I felt that removing the collar would be a waste of time. One of my few virtues is that I’m prepared to defer to people who are clearly more talented than me.

Removing the collar revealed a six-inch length of rotten steel flue pipe. And closer examination identified a small flue hole inside my cabin. Jason’s thoroughness saved me from possible carbon monoxide poisoning and a collapsed flue.

Orient's damaged flue surround

Orient’s damaged flue surround

A narrowboat stove without a flue isn't much use

A narrowboat stove without a flue isn’t much use

Jason also discovered that the ‘professionals’ who installed the flue collar had done an abysmal job. They positioned one of the collar bolts too close to a bearer and then screwed it finger tight. Consequently, the fitting has been loose on one side for the last eighteen months. It has allowed flue gases to condense into tar which as trickled along the starboard side of my roof and down the cabin side. With the collar now appropriately fitted I’ve been able to clean off the tar and return my paintwork to its former glory – which isn’t terribly glorious.

I need to repaint just about everything. I suspect that the current cabin paintwork is at least ten years old. The rails, bow and rear deck are showing a lot of wear and tear. Getting on top of the paintwork is going to take a few months at only one day a week. Especially if I carry on ruining all of Jason’s hard work.

Orient's freshly painted bow

Orient’s freshly painted bow

I was delighted with the bow repainting he did last week. Four days later – far too little time to allow the paint to harden – I took Orient out for two weekend Discovery Day cruises. Half hour moored on the cut and half a dozen inconsiderate boaters racing past was too much for the soft paint. The area will need painting again. This time I’ll keep the area rope free for a couple of weeks.

I’ve changed my fairleads too. The old ones were dull brass sitting on bubbling rust patches. The areas are now rust-free and home to new stainless steel fairleads – with stainless steel screws – to match my forest of stainless steel chimneys. Orient is my home, my pride and my joy, so she’s worth all the hard work. Especially when someone else is doing it.

My Discovery Day cruises have kept me out of trouble every weekend, and given me something to write about today. I live and work on one of the busiest sections of the inland waterways. The Hillmorton flight of three tandem locks is said to be one of the most used on the network. That’s no surprise given that there are 2,500 boats moored within a ten-mile radius, a couple of hundred hire boats plying the waterways in this area and an unrivalled choice of routes.

Narrowboat hire companies are doing very well at the moment. Most of them have most of their boats out most of the time. That means that I meet many novice crews on my cruises every day I’m out. And on EVERY cruise we witness mistakes, incidents and accidents. I pulled a boater out of Calcutt Bottom lock last week. He hadn’t quite reached the drowning stage, but he was close to panic and clutched a lock chain as though his life depended on it. His life did depend on holding the chain because he couldn’t swim.

Most of the incidents I witness result from insufficient knowledge. The holiday hirers are not at fault. They’re often given the keys to a twenty-tonne boat with very little or zero training. Imagine yourself in the same situation as fictitious holiday hirer Harold.

The time-starved instructor hands a set of keys to Harold, the happy hirer and races through his clipboard checklist. “Turn that key to start the engine, pull that knob to stop it, turn this dial to run your central heating and press that button if you want to run mains appliances. How do you steer the boat? That’s easy. If you want to steer one way, push the tiller – yes, the brass bar you’re holding – in the opposite direction. Oh, and don’t forget to drive like a foreigner and stay on the right.”

With the comprehensive handover out of the way, the smiling instructor gives Harold a reassuring virtual pat on the back and wishes him a happy holiday.

And so begins Harold’s baptism of fire, his first day at the helm of a flat bottomed boat as long and unwieldy as an articulated lorry. And if Harold’s hired from one of the dozen companies based within a handful of miles of my base near Napton junction, he’ll bump into many of the hundred-plus other hirers negotiating the blind bends and bridge holes holidaying on Warwickshire’s contour canals.

You can recognise many first time hirers by their startled looks, similar to that of rabbits caught in car headlights. The learning curve to inland waterways boating is steep. These holidaymakers, many of them future boat owners, don’t have a clue what to do. They learn from their mistakes and, as there are so many of them on short breaks, they’re still making mistakes on their last day.

Cruising on England’s inland waterways is an enjoyable and relaxing pastime once you’ve mastered the basics. Even the most professional narrowboat hire companies can’t tell you a fraction of what you need to know during their necessarily brief handovers. You have to learn from your own mistakes.

At least narrowboat hirers are given some tuition. Most first time buyers are entirely clueless when they attempt their maiden voyages. They learn through trial and error, often building on bad techniques and well-meaning but inappropriate advice. “Wrap your centre line around your waist,” is the most dangerous advice I’ve heard offered to novice boaters. Are they mad? Imagine a flat bottomed and high sided twenty-tonne boat being pushed away from the bank by a lively breeze. The most likely result is a rope wrapped boater plucked from the towpath for an unexpected dip.

You’ll be offered plenty of tips and tricks when you begin your waterways journey. Your job is to sort the wheat from the chaff. All I’ve written below is a distillation of my experiences over the last decade. I’ve cruised thousands of mile, handled hundreds of narrowboats and made enough cock-ups to keep my fellow boaters laughing for weeks. I hope that the following advice helps to keep you safe and mostly free from ridicule. If you plan to hire a boat for a short break, don’t let the inevitable newbie cock-ups put you off. Persevere and you’ll soon reach a point where handling a narrowboat is as intuitive as driving a car, but with much more enjoyment and fewer insurance claims.


Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about life on England's inland waterways

Casting Off

Let’s start at the beginning. You CANNOT steer a narrowboat from its bankside mooring into the canal centre. A narrowboat pivots on its midpoint, usually where the centre line is attached. If the bow is to go to the right, the stern must come to the left. Clearly, the stern can’t do that if it’s already against a bank. The solution is simple. The helmsman or one of his crew must push the boat’s bow off the side. This simple technique allows the helmsman to steer in a straight line to the canal centre.

The alternative method, and it’s a strategy often chosen by newbie boaters, is to grind their craft along concrete banks until a curve launches the boats into open water. Unsurprisingly, this second technique removes many layers of protective hull paint quite quickly.

Mooring Lines Are Not For Cruising

Remember the bit about a narrowboat pivoting on its centre? This is often a novice boater’s first frustration.

Calcutt Boats’ wharf is between Calcutt Top and Middle locks. My mooring is close to Calcutt Bottom lock. I watch boats arriving at the flight often while I work and play. Kate Boats are a half-hour cruise from the bottom lock, Napton Narrowboats and Black Prince at Wigram’s Turn ten minutes from the top lock and the three businesses have 80 – 100 hire boats between them. The Calcutt flight is where many new hirers stop their craft for the first time. Or fail to control their boat for the first time.

On a smaller boat, often crewed by a couple, the stopping routines are often similar. The man – it’s nearly always the man at the helm – throws his lump of steel at the towpath, sometimes but not always stopping before he hits it, and jettisons his poor wife and her bow line. She tumbles onto the towpath pulling the bow line as though her life depends on it. Drawing in the bow pushes the stern away from the bank. So the husband rams the Morse control against its stop to bring the stern back to the bank. This manoeuvre pulls the bow and his wife away from the bank. The tug of war and the ensuing argument continues until the couple divorces, and the boat runs out of fuel. It’s not a happy start to their holiday.

Larger hire boats have up to ten people on board, ten people who don’t understand the need to work as a team. Their boats slam to a halt in a mess of exhaust smoke and boiling water. Three or four people leap from the front deck with the bow line. A similar number tumble onto the towpath from the stern. The helmsman largely ignores everything his crew is doing and tries to alter the boat’s position with the engine. This crew of ten finally subdues the lively narrowboat, but the process hasn’t been easy.

River techniques are slightly different but, on canals and in their locks, stern and bow lines are only used for mooring.

The correct technique is for the helmsman to glide serenely in tickover at a shallow angle towards the bank. And then, as he touches, he applies the gentlest of bursts in reverse before stepping calmly onto the towpath holding his centre line. Then he holds his boat gently against the side while his poor wife tries to unravel the mysterious workings of a canal lock.

How To Hold A Line Attached To Your Boat

Do not EVER wrap a bow, stern or centre line around any part of your body. In a battle between you, a lively breeze and a twenty-tonne boat, you’re going to lose—every time.

If a rope’s chaffing your hands, don’t wrap it around your arm or waist. Don’t wrap it around your fingers to get a better grip. You’re risking rope burns at best. And if your boat is blown by the wind away from the bank and you’re doing your impression of a human cotton reel you’ll be whisked off your feet into the canal’s murky depths. OK. The channel’s likely to be less than four feet deep, but that’s more than enough water to drown you.

If you want to rest your hands when you’re pulling your boat in, run the line behind your back, hold the rope with both hands and sit or lean on it. If the boat pulls away from you and there’s no one available to lend a hand, let it go. The narrowboat will live. You may not.

This a worst-case scenario, of course. You’re unlikely to begin your boating career alone or on a day so windy that you need to abandon ship. And there are techniques you can use to eliminate any serious problems.

You can read part two of this post here.

Discovery Day Update

A LOT of people are interested in living afloat now. The ability for many to work from home, wherever that home may be, has encouraged more aspiring boaters than ever to consider living on England’s inland waterways network. 

If you are considering following suit, I urge you to book a day with me. I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, but I’m constantly told how much knowledge I share during the course of a Discovery Day and how calm I am with total strangers at the helm of my floating home. You can find out more about my Discovery service here.

Ray Appleton and her partner Darren on a Discovery Day

Ray Appleton and her partner Darren on a Discovery Day

“We’re now ready to sell our home to start living aboard a narrowboat. We booked our discovery day with Paul to learn how to travel the canal, how to work locks and, most importantly, to confirm that it is the life we want. The day spent on Orient was fabulous! Paul was friendly, relaxed, and knew his subject.  He answered all our queries regarding living aboard. 

We would definitely recommend a discovery day for anyone who is contemplating living full-time on a narrowboat.  At the end of the day, having faced some tricky situations, we were steered in the right direction and feel confident that we can now go it alone.”

Ray Appleton

You can read further details and check available dates here.

Useful Information

Form Over Function: The Pros and Cons Of Pretty Narrowboat Ownership

Everyone tells me that I own a beautiful floating home. Orient is sixty-two feet and twenty-two tonnes of gorgeously crafted steel. If that isn’t enough, there’s a beguiling vintage Lister two-stroke engine to turn the head of every middle-aged man on the cut. Because of the deep draught, Orient sits pleasingly low in the water, and her four tall stainless steel chimneys give her a unique and rather sexy appearance.

As you can tell, I’m deeply in love with the old girl.

But a beautiful boat isn’t necessarily a practical boat. Mine isn’t. I struggle to keep up with narrowboats equipped with more powerful engines. I ground regularly on all but the deepest canals, and I have less living space than a similar length modern boat. The simple process of stopping a craft equipped with a vintage engine and antiquated controls requires so much concentration on Orient that my ears bleed. Despite being a pretty boat, my home is impractical in many ways.

If you’re considering buying a boat like Orient you need to know what’s in store for you. I hope that the following helps you make the right decision.


A narrowboat’s draught is the distance from the waterline to the deepest part of the boat. That’s the skeg, a horizontal steel bar which is welded between the boat’s base plate and the bottom of the rudder post. Most narrowboats draught is between eighteen and twenty-four inches. Orient sits three feet in the water.

Most narrowboats have about 6’ 4” of headroom. So a shallow draught boat will be higher out of the water than a narrowboat with a deep draught. There are pros and cons to different depths. A shallow draught boat can cruise many canals inaccessible to those sitting deep in the water. The disadvantage is that with more ‘sail’ above the water and less stability beneath it, shallow narrowboats are more challenging to control on windy days.

Controlling Orient in blustery conditions isn’t a problem. On the other hand, running aground is a constant worry. I get stuck regularly. The most recent grounding was last Tuesday.

I was pootling along at my average granny-with-Zimmer-frame walking pace when a boat raced up behind me. Any boat achieving 4 mph is racing in my book. Anyway, the guy at the helm looked like he was late for a meeting with a funeral director. He grimaced at me like a bulldog chewing a wasp and hopped impatiently from one sandaled foot to the other.

I cruised for another mile before I came to a long enough stretch for him to overtake. Etiquette demanded that I find somewhere safe for him to pass. Then I was obliged to move over to the right and reduce my speed to tickover so that he could overtake without pushing waves of muddy water over towpath dog walkers.

I was annoyed when the boat sailed by without the owner acknowledging me at all. I was even more frustrated when I immediately grounded immovably on an offside mudflat.

I reversed gently, then aggressively when being kind to my engine didn’t work. I didn’t move an inch, so I thrust my pole into the stony canal bed and heaved with all my might—still nothing. The only thing which accelerated over the next fifteen minutes was my heart rate. And then the cavalry arrived.

Many boat owners are scathing about the use of bow thrusters. The ‘girly-buttons’ as bow thrusters are sometimes known are just something else to go wrong and another set of batteries to maintain and replace. But they’re handy on windy days.

The lady at the helm of my rescuing boat used her bow thruster to good effect, nosing gently towards my stern so that her husband could take Orient’s stern rope. Their engine, aided by my pole and Orient’s twenty-one gee-gees, gently pulled Orient into the central channel’s deeper water. I was free to slide through the canal’s muddy bottom until I grounded again. Happy days!

Traditional Controls

The vast majority of narrowboats use something called a Morse control for both throttle control and gear selection. It’s a steel or plastic leaver about six inches long. If you want to move your boat forward, you push the Morse control forward. The further you push it, the faster you go. If you need to do what passes for an emergency stop on a narrowboat, you bring the lever back to the idle position – usually at 12 o’clock – pause briefly and then pull towards you.


Then there are the ridiculously unwieldy traditional controls like I have on Orient. There are a brass wheel and a handled rod attached to the rear hatch frame. Spinning the wheel determines the engine speed and pushing or pulling the rod switches between forward and reverse gears.

Traditional narrowboat controls

Traditional narrowboat controls

Helming a boat with these controls requires three hands; one for the tiller, one for the speed wheel and a third for the gear selector. As most boaters only have two, unless they’re from Norfolk, the tiller has to be ignored during critical manoeuvres.

Stopping on England’s canals on a boat equipped with these controls and with a deep draught is an exercise in frustration. Emergency stops are out of the question, so I have to anticipate and prepare for problems around and through every blind bend and bridge hole.

Despite my best efforts, I sometimes have to try to stop suddenly. I turn my speed wheel half a dozen times to decrease the engine speed to idle and pull the gear selector rod backwards 37cm. Not 36cm or 38cm because the engine would still be in gear. The location is exact and unmarked. Then I pause again briefly before pulling the lever back another 2cm to engage reverse. The final step is to spin the speed wheel clockwise half a dozen times and pray that there’s enough water under Orient’s big bottom to allow the boat to stop. Many supertankers stop more quickly than Orient. My traditional controls are a right royal pain in the arse. Especially when I try to go backwards.

Engine Power

Most narrowboats the size of Orient are equipped with 40-45 hp engines. My boat’s beautiful Lister JP2M dwarfs most modern engines but, despite its impressive bulk the vintage two-stroke only has 21 hp at its disposal. Incidentally, a horse trying very hard can produce 15 hp, and a human can manage 5 hp. So Orient’s engine can produce as much power as a five-legged horse pulling out all the stops.

That’s more than enough power to push my home’s twenty-two tonnes along a series of narrow muddy ditches. But the engine is woefully inadequate for river currents or tidal flow.

I would like to cruise the tranquil waters of the Lancaster canal. I can’t get there on Orient. Boats have to use the Ribble link to get onto the Lancaster canal which necessitates sustaining 6 mph for an hour. I can’t manage that. Orient’s deep draught also prevents me from cruising the Lancaster canal.

Orient is built for plodding rather than racing. I often struggle to keep up with friends who claim they are cruising at a moderate speed. Many owners of modern boats tailgate me as I travel, unhappy with my sedate pace. I move over for them whenever I can to let them pass. I try to be pleasant, but helping other boaters sometimes bites me in the arse, like Tuesday’s grounding.

Rooftop Exhaust

A modern engined narrowboat has an exhaust low down on the hull behind or to one side of the rear deck. Exhaust fumes are whisked far, far away from the helmsman and his crew. They sail serenely through the landscape enveloped in the heady aroma of cowpats and rotting wildlife. Cruising is such a joy.

And then there are the poor buggers with midships engine rooms and rooftop exhaust stacks.

I am a smart fellow. When I emptied my bank account to buy three stainless steel chimneys and an engine exhaust, I debated long and hard about their length. And then I chose an exhaust which terminated at nose height.

The exhaust stack sits on the port side twelve feet in front of me. When I’m cruising into the wind, I travel through a world filled with post-apocalyptic smog. And no matter what direction I go, I always appear to be sailing into a headwind. I hear oncoming boaters greet me, but I’m never sure who or where they are.

You probably realise that I’m exaggerating a little. However, if you can’t stand an occasional exhaust fume cloud, don’t buy a narrowboat with a vintage engine and rooftop exhaust.


Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat

Stove Dust and Dirt And A Forest Of Steel

I favour the traditional narrowboat heat source, a solid fuel stove. I have two stoves actually. I have a Morso Squirrel multi-fuel stove at the front of the boat and a Premiere range in my boatman’s cabin. There are no moving parts to fail, so coal and wood-burning stoves offer boaters the reliability they need during the winter months. But solid fuel stoves aren’t perfect.

Coal briquettes are available everywhere on the inland waterways. Finding a regular fuel supply isn’t an issue but getting it back to your boat is hard work. Briquettes are usually sold in 25 kg (55lb) bags. That’s twenty-six bags of sugar, two corgis or half a small wife, which is a great deal of extra weight to throw about. That’s the coal, not the tiny wife.

I have used between sixty and eighty bags of coal each year since April 2010. That’s one and a half to two tonnes of the stuff. All of it had to be ferried from supplier to boat, lifted on board and transferred from leaking bags into a coal scuttle or water-tight storage box. Despite welcoming physical exercise, bending double under the low cratch board on my little front deck holding a heavy weight soon became a painful chore.

And then there’s the dust. A solid fuel stove produces acres of gritty film. Daily dusting is a necessity on a coal-burning boat. So if you see me wearing an apron and a pair of marigold rubber gloves, I’m cleaning. I don’t have any secret fetishes.

A boat equipped with a solid fuel stove needs a decent chimney to help the fuel burn correctly. I replaced my single chimney every eighteen months on my first narrowboat, James No 194. Constant use throughout the year rotted them until they fell apart.

I discovered a long term solution in 2014.

I invested in a bomb-proof chimney from the Stainless Steel Chimney Company and never looked back. The company’s products are works of art and expensive, but they are eternally durable. A quick scrub with soapy water and a kitchen scourer has them looking brand new in minutes.

A striking stainless steel chimney on Orient

A striking stainless steel chimney on Orient

The slight problem, and it’s a problem entirely of my own making, is that they substantially increase my air draught. And because I’m a poser through and through I want to keep my chimneys upright as I cruise. That’s no problem on a route I know, but I’m quite nervous going through bridge holes I don’t know. And through tunnels.

I have to be sensible in enclosed spaces. The two starboard chimneys are too close to tunnel walls to take any chances. I need to stop somewhere before tackling a tunnel to remove those two and store them on my front deck. And then put them back as soon as I leave a tunnel so that I can carry on posing. I am a victim of pride.

Poor Sleeping Arrangements Courtesy Of The Engine Room

Narrowboat ownership is all about compromise. A shorter boat costs less to maintain and moor and allows access to more of the inland waterways network. However, the shorter the cabin, the less living space you have at your disposal. Especially if you generously give your engine a room of its own. My Lister’s bedroom is seven feet long, so that’s seven fewer feet for me to use as living space. My sleeping spaces have suffered because of the lost area.

I can’t remember how many berths Orient’s broker advertised in the original listing. I’m pretty sure that he forgot to mention that the main bedroom cross bed was only suitable for pygmy children. And that those children would feel claustrophobic if they tried to sleep on the boatman’s cabin cross bed.

Orient's tiny main bedroom sleeps just one bear

Orient’s tiny main bedroom sleeps just one bear

Both beds are unsuitable for a single adult and impossible for a couple. At 5’10” tall and with a wiry build, I’m much smaller than many narrowboat owners. Even so, I can’t lay straight on the bed in the main bedroom without risking breaking my toes under the gunnels. There’s slightly less room on the cross bed in my boatman’s cabin. But I sleep there because the cabin has better ventilation than the main bedroom.

I have eleven 11” sealed portholes. The only fresh air available in the bedroom is via one tiny mushroom vent. So, in addition to the problems I face sleeping on a small bed, I find the space extremely claustrophobic.

I leave my boatman’s cabin rear doors and hatch open at night, often in the winter but always on dry summer nights. I may have to sleep like an embryo, but at least I have a beautiful view of the stars.

Sleeping with wide-open doors is something that many boat owners are uncomfortable doing. My rear cabin thermometer peaked at 35°C on Friday. The temperature hadn’t dropped much by the time I climbed into my tiny bed. I left my engine room side doors, and my rear hatch and doors wide open all night.

‘My husband thinks you’re mad,’ a lady on the boat moored behind me confided. She said he insisted on keeping their boat locked up tight even on the warmest nights. He worried about nighttime attacks and being keelhauled by Warwickshire’s feral youth. I told her that I wasn’t at all concerned and pointed through my galley side hatch.’ The gadgets in there will keep any intruder at bay,’ I told her, puffing up my chest a little. She looked puzzled.’ So, you’re going to whisk an intruder to death?’ It was then that I realised I was pointing towards a drawer filled with baking equipment and not my rack of razor-sharp Global kitchen knives.

I’m not as brave as she thinks. Over the last ten years, I’ve moored out in the countryside for hundreds of nights. There’s rarely a soul on the towpath after dark. Sometimes a befuddled boater will stumble past, returning home after a hard night’s entertainment. He’s more interested in keeping out of the canal than breaking into my boat.

Piston Polishing Purgatory

I’m not an engineer or an enthusiast who likes engine tinkering. The appeal of an exposed engine in its own room with double doors on both sides is, for me, the opportunity to show off.

Posing is a problem if your pistons aren’t polished to perfection. If I’m cruising, I like to fling my engine room doors open and show the world what I’ve got. If I want to maximise the impact I have to make sure that every copper pipe and each brass housing, knob and switch is shining brightly.

There’s enough buffing to keep me entertained in the engine room for hours, but I need to spread my love throughout my home. I have brass rails above and below each of my eleven postholes, converted Great Western Railway wall lights, brass rails on cupboard tops and shelf edging and then an Aladin’s cave of shiny trinkets in my boatman’s cabin. There’s a copper kettle, a brass tiller and tiller pins, horse brasses, more rails and a brass bugle instead of an electric horn.

Polishing can become an obsession. I’m relieved to admit that the craze hasn’t overcome me yet. So please forgive a little dull brass if you see me on the cut. You’ll recognise me quickly enough. I’m the one cruising in a cloud of smoke, moving slower than drying paint, bent double from endless nights sleeping curled like an unborn baby. And smiling idiotically at everyone I pass. Because, despite my peculiar boat’s many failings, I am thrilled to call Orient my home.

Discovery Day Update

Even the dark cloud of our current pandemic has had a silver lining for some. It has for me. The recent worldwide turmoil has forced many people to consider whether their current lifestyle is right for them. And with the recent surge in remote working, more and more homeowners are considering living and possibly working afloat.

I’ve experienced a surge in Discovery Day interest and a full calendar for August. If you’re thinking about living a more tranquil lifestyle and want to know what it entails, you can find out more about my Discovery Day service here. I think that my training and experience day cruises offer excellent value for money. But don’t take my word for it. Bret Alexander joined me for a day last month. Here’s what he had to say…

“I’m still at the mostly theoretical stage – where the imagination is well ahead of the realities. The discovery day is part of my effort to focus more on the realities and get answers to the 100 questions I have swirling around in my head – from someone who’s clearly got an extensive amount of experience.

The day itself was pretty much ideal for me – and ticked all the boxes. So just being on the boat for a day and being about to ask all those questions I’ve been wondering – made the experience well worthwhile. The result is – that I feel that my rough plans are realistic – and I’m not missing anything major. Obviously the two holidays I have lined up will also help – but they will answer a different set of questions.

My biggest worry was damaging your boat – something I think I managed to avoid. I think if it was my boat I’d have been more relaxed about that!

I can’t think of anything that I’d add – or change. I didn’t have any questions that I thought I’d missed – as I think we covered all the main topics.

Your Discovery Day is a great opportunity to have a reality check, on a beautiful boat – with someone that has extensive experience. I can’t think of any other way you can have that. Renting a boat will tell you a lot about what it’s like being on a narrowboat – but it won’t put it into any context and answer all the questions you’ll have – and will be a lot more expensive.

I think doing a day like this first – is an excellent way to clarify if this something that you might want to take further. It certainly has for me.”

Click here to find out more about my Discovery Day service.



Useful Information

Life After Lockdown And Why Social Distancing Can Be Fun

I wrote my last blog post at the beginning of March, shortly before the world closed down to slow the spread of Covid-19. The last three months have been a traumatic time for many as they lost freedom, livelihoods and lives. Please accept my sympathy and condolences if you have suffered financial hardship or the loss of a loved one. We live in a time of uncertainty, frustration and unrest, hoping that the ‘new normal’ will be normal enough to allow the global economy and the world’s population to flourish. But not everyone has found the last three months taxing.

I haven’t written anything for the site recently for two reasons. Firstly, with the canal network locked down and the majority of boats confined to marina moorings, I haven’t had anything exciting or constructive to document. Secondly and, more importantly, I haven’t felt comfortable writing about my circumstances.

My blog post notification email goes out to 5,000 inland waterways enthusiasts. Some are statistically likely to have lost a family member to coronavirus or know someone who has. My intention is not to make light of this devastating pandemic or the damage done to the economy by worldwide restrictions on trade and personal movement. Recovery from the virus and the attempts to control it will take many years. But life for some hasn’t been bad at all.

The pandemic has inconvenienced me rather than caused me hardship. Like most waterways services, my Discovery Day familiarisation and training cruises had to stop in March. I missed but didn’t need the income from these days. I missed the company of people like you more than money. I managed during the lockdown’s dark days because I had another financial string to my bow. Thanks to the ever generous and considerate Preen family who own and control Calcutt Boats, I continued to work maintaining the company’s beautiful forty acres.

Rather than struggle during these last few months, I have thrived. Forgive me for saying this if you are struggling with financial or physical loss or a feeling of isolation or depression, but England’s national lockdown has bracketed one of the happiest periods of my life.

Boaters are a peculiar bunch. They are both gregarious and insular, as happy to party with new friends as they are to spend extended periods alone. Alone but not lonely. I am one of those fortunate people.

Calcutt Boats furloughed most employees but retained a skeleton staff to maintain the sprawling site. My job has been to keep forty acres of spring growth in check. Several of those acres are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Three meadows filled with more varieties of wildflowers than half a dozen naked boaters can count on their exposed extremities. We have a lot of different wildflowers here and most of them are at their colourful best at this time of the year.

More wildflowers than you can shake a stick at

More wildflowers than you can shake a stick at

My days have involved gentle mowing and trimming on a private estate in a beautiful corner of rural Warwickshire, often under a cloudless and quiet blue sky. Another lockdown bonus, for me, has been the absence of noisy aircraft roaring to and from Birmingham and East Midlands airports. The planes have been replaced by circling buzzards, honking geese and the occasional hawk. A red kite with its distinctive forked tail graced us with its presence one afternoon. I feel blessed to live here.

Keeping the shower block frontage tidy

Keeping the shower block frontage tidy

With the site closed to boat owners in the lockdown’s early weeks, our abundant wildlife became increasingly bold. A fox pack regularly sprinkled our lawn with half-chewed bones, timid muntjac deer flitted through the shadows of our seven-acre wood, and berry-filled badger droppings littered the marina banks. Our rabbits did what rabbits do, untroubled by meddlesome people. Bobbing white tails filled the woodland fringes at dusk prompting excited yapping from lead-restrained pooches.

Food for the soul on a working day at Calcutt Boats

Food for the soul on a working day at Calcutt Boats

Life has changed for me recently. But, unlike the restricted lives of much of our country’s population, my life has changed for the better. 

Those of us still working at the marina also live here. We’ve worked together and rarely left the site. I’ve made just three brief visits to our local village store in the last three months. Being anti-social most of the time has its advantages. Self-isolation is a natural state. 

We’ve worked together, so we’ve socialised together too. I’m sure that some would argue that we’ve been breaking the lockdown guidelines. However, when I see media coverage of protesters standing shoulder to shoulder or thousands of half-naked sun worshipers wedged together on crowded beaches, quite frankly I don’t give a shit.

So we’ve barbecued, drunk to excess, argued, debated and bonded in equal measures. We’ve read and watched reports about society unravelling across the world, and we’ve thanked our collective lucky stars that we live and work on England’s inland waterways network. And we’ve concluded that we’ll be welcoming many more to our happy little band in the coming months.

One of our barbecue night's posh revellers

One of our barbecue night’s more sophisticated revellers

Cheese and wine (followed by port and whisky)

Cheese and wine (followed by port and whisky)

An approaching storm puts an end to our after work drinking

An approaching storm puts an end to our after work drinking

One of the few positive developments to come out of this global mess has been the realisation that there are millions of people worldwide who don’t need to return to full-time work in a distant office. 

Working from home, wherever that home may be, will be the new normal for an increasing number of people. In my immediate circle, two fortunate boaters have told me how their lives have changed for the better. One is a project manager for a new factory somewhere in troubled Trump land. The other is a mental health nurse. Both can now perform most of their duties remotely, all but eliminating tedious travel, and work while they cruise. They are both very happy bunnies.

A day out on the cut during lockdown

A day out on the cut during lockdown

Living on a narrowboat offers a unique opportunity to explore much of England and parts of Wales at a relaxed pace far away from the stresses and strains of modern-day life. And a well-appointed narrowboat costs much less than the smallest brick and mortar homes. 

I read an article in The Telegraph recently which reported that the cheapest property in London in 2015 was a studio flat in Clapham. You didn’t get much of a home for your hard-earned cash—a claustrophobic space without a view, garden or any sense of tranquillity. However, the seventy-five thousand pounds needed to buy the Clapham float will buy you a stunning narrowboat. Orient, my pride and joy, cost less than that and is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and comfortable floating living spaces you could wish to call your home.

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Living afloat isn’t for everyone. I’ve written extensively about the downsides of living on a narrowboat. The most recent post is here. However, in light of the worldwide pandemic, living on England’s inland waterways is an increasingly attractive and viable proposition for many.

Social distancing is easy for liveaboard boat owners. Most narrowboat owners moor at least a boat length apart. Towpaths are rarely crowded so avoiding strangers is easy. I’ve read some angry posts on Facebook written by outraged boaters driven to distraction by towpath users. They’re apoplectic at the sight of walkers, joggers and cyclists passing less than two metres from their steel-clad cabins. Why? The virus can’t penetrate metal. The canals and their towpaths offer a safe and aesthetically pleasing playground far away from crowded pubs, streets, parks and beaches.

The playground was filled with the sound of merriment yesterday when the government lifted holiday accommodation restrictions. Hire boat owners through the network have been working flat out to prepare for the late start to this year’s season.

Here at Calcutt Boats, that meant making quite a few changes. There’s a one-way system for both the wharf and the chandlery, more cleaners on hand for changeover days, PPE for wharf staff and video tuition for new hirers. But the hard work has been worthwhile. The office phones are continually ringing as holiday-deprived families book a boat for a few days in paradise. The wharf feels alive once more and echoes with the sounds of happy boater banter.

I’ve been busy with my little boating operation too. If you’re new to this site you may not know about my Discovery Day service for aspiring narrowboat owners. You can discover more about my experience days here and check availability here.

I haven’t hosted training days on Orient since early March, but I’ve joined several new narrowboat owners for training days on boats they’ve recently purchased but haven’t had the confidence to use.

Discovery Day guest Jane Doran on the Bucky flight

Discovery Day guest Jane Doran on the Bucky flight

The last of these away day training trips was yesterday. I joined Graham and Maureen on their cosy floating home, September Star, for a cruise on the first day of the coronavirus boating season.

We enjoyed an enchanting cruise on a thin and twisting ribbon of sparkling water between Napton and Braunston junctions. Maureen and Graham grinned like Cheshire cats throughout, supremely happy to have achieved their narrowboat ownership goal.

We passed two dozen hire boat on our travels, crewed by mainly happy holidaymakers. Some looked as though they would have been happier moored immoveably to a grassy bank. Threading twenty tonnes of steel through boat width gaps using a brass bar anchored to a platform sixty feet behind the boat’s bow takes a little practice. 

Taking a hire boat down the Calcutt flight

Taking a hire boat down the Calcutt flight

Thanks to Covid-19 precautions, practice for novice narrowboat hirers is now in short supply. “If you want the front of the boat to turn to the right, push the tiller to the left”. That’s all the advice many hire boat company instructors offer before unleashing their quaking charges. This unavoidable response to social distancing requirements means that many novice hire boat crews will be even more unprepared for narrowboat handling than ever before.

The wind buffeted 65′ September Star throughout the day. As we dropped through the Calcutt flight, the breeze strengthened. Calcutt Boats’ marina entrance is a challenge in windy conditions. The weeping willows either side of the narrow opening give boaters a reliable indication of wind speed and direction. The trees looked like Bobby Charlton caught in a wind tunnel as we left the bottom lock. My heart sank, and I was thankful that I stood at the helm of a boat with a powerful engine.

I live on a beautiful boat. The soothing thump of my vintage two-cylinder Lister JP2 turns heads wherever I cruise. But my engine is better equipped for posing than practical boating. Orient’s modest 21hp isn’t enough to get me out of trouble when I need a burst of power. And because of the boat’s deep draught, reversing on shallow canals and marinas is an exercise in frustration. I would have struggled to push Orient through the marina entrance’s howling wind yesterday.

Function over form won the day. September Star’s classic 1.8l BMC pushed us through the narrow gap without a moment’s hesitation. Power without posing. There’s more to life on the cut than owning a pretty boat.

I’ve had a day off today. It hasn’t been a very productive one. I can hear passing boats from my mooring close to both the marina entrance and Calcutt Bottom lock. The wind is blowing even harder than yesterday, so I’ve heard an endless surge of narrowboat engines as helmsmen and women fought a losing battle against the buffeting breeze. The stretch of canal beneath Calcutt Bottom lock was called ‘Windy Corner’ by the old working boatmen for good reason. 

My day followed a predictable pattern. I heard the roar of a narrowboat engine and a windblown curse, so I closed my laptop, climbed out of my boat and watched the action. A frustrated boater pushed his bow from the towpath towards the canal centre. The wind blew it back again. He repeated the exercise half a dozen times before climbing wearily onto his stern, ramming his throttle forward and grinding along the concrete canal siding until he reached a stand of trees and respite from the wind. As soon as the hapless boater careened around the first bend, I returned to my work until the next helmsman announced himself. Ah, the simple joys of living afloat!

I gave up gongoozling for a spell to help a couple of friends through the flight. Here’s a friendly warning for you. Boating is an addiction. Many boat owners moored near a flight of locks set out on a canalside walk equipped with a windlass. They can’t help themselves. Boating is fun, and lock passages offer an opportunity to talk to people who share a passion for the great outdoors. Buy a boat, and you’ll probably join this happy band.

The evening view from my front deck

The evening view from my front deck

I’m making the most of my lazy windlass-waving Sunday. It’s the last I’ll have for a while. I’ve received a steady stream of enquiries and bookings for my Discovery Day service over the last couple of weeks. My diary is filling for the remainder of the boating season.

The sun sets on another fabulous day

The sun sets on another fabulous day

I’m looking forward to welcoming the first of those guests into my home next Saturday. Despite having cruised between Napton and Braunston junctions at least three hundred times, I’m looking forward to two more enchanting experiences next weekend. I’ll listen to the dreams and plans of four more narrowboat enthusiasts and hope that I’ll help them in some small way to move towards a more tranquil lifestyle. If you’re an aspiring narrowboat owner maybe, one day, I’ll have the pleasure of your company too.

Useful Information

Fifteen Reasons Why Living On A Narrowboat Is A Bad Idea: Part 2

Warning! Living on a narrowboat may be harder than you think. Here are more reasons for NOT living afloat

This is the concluding part of the post I recently published highlighting the many aspects of living afloat which aspiring narrowboat owners may not fully appreciate. In part one I discussed the real cost of living on a narrowboat, mooring availability, living and storage space considerations and personal fitness.

Providing part one hasn’t sunk your boating plans, today’s post addresses exposure to the elements, a steep learning curve, the dangers you face as a boat owner, the challenge of keeping your home warm and condensation free, organisational issues and the dreaded narrowboat toilet. If you think you can deal with that lot, you’ll want to know how to deal with post and parcels. And then, if you’re still keen, you may want to join me on a Discovery Day. You’ll be able to ask all the many questions your research has reaised so far. And you have the pleasure of taking my home for a spin on Warwickshire’s wonderful waterways.

Anyway, on with the post. I hope that you find the information useful.

Exposure To The Elements

Do you enjoy being outdoors in all weather? If not, you possibly won’t enjoy living afloat. 

For a start, you’re out in the open when you’re at the helm. A few narrowboats have a wheelhouse. Many more have pram covers, rear deck covers. Neither is practical or enjoyable to use when cruising. The easiest and arguably safest way to helm your boat is from a back deck open to the elements. 

I’ve been asked a few times if I postpone my cruise if there’s rain forecast. They’re raindrops, not bullets. Cruising in the rain, even heavy rain, isn’t necessarily unpleasant. In fact, once I’m wearing my bomb-proof Guy Cotten trawler man’s waterproofs I’m quite happy to cruise in torrential rain all day. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.

The wind is a different matter. Relatively shallow draughted, flat-bottomed boats with high sides are difficult to control in anything more than a moderate breeze. Wheelhouses and pram covers add even more wind resistance and challenge.

Even boats equipped with powerful bow thrusters struggle on windy days. The solution is to postpone your cruise until the wind subsides, or take advantage of the prevailing breeze. That’s where a helm open to the elements is beneficial. If you can feel the wind, you know what it’s going to do to your boat. If you hide from the weather behind canvas or wood, judging wind speed and direction can be much more difficult.

Your utilities force you outside too. You need to replenish your coal or log supply, change gas cylinders, refill your water tank and empty your toilet cassette or pump out holding tank. If you’re a continuous cruiser, especially in one of CRT’s mooring hotspots, you’re obliged to move your boat every fourteen days to comply with regulations. Unless the weather is considered dangerous, you’ve got to cruise. Unless you enjoy the elements, these forced cruises can quickly become an unpleasant chore.

A continuous cruiser once told me that he used to dread “moving day”, especially in heavy rain. He treated his bimonthly cruises as unpleasant work for many years. Then his view changed. He realised that hire boaters pay vast sums for the privilege of doing what he detested. He decided to treat his moving day as a holiday. He dressed for the weather and transformed an unpleasant chore into a mini vacation.

How’s your sense of smell? There are many treats and torments for your nose on the inland waterways; fresh-cut hay, blossom in the spring and cut grass from CRT contractors once in a blue moon towpath trimming. Those are the pleasant experiences providing pollen doesn’t knock you for six. How about the reek of rotting vegetation as you pole your home off a shallow mudbank? Or, joy of joys, the heady aroma of a drowned critter’s carcass, a half-submerged mine filled with nauseating gas, waiting to explode at the touch of a narrowboat bow?

One of my few disenchanted Discovery Day guests gagged when we nudged the bloated corpse of an unlucky sheep. He told me that, in the unlikely event that he moved afloat, he would insist on steering from an enclosed wheelhouse. 

Some narrowboat owners insist on even more extreme measures.

A boatbuilder told me that he had one hoity-toity lady customer who insisted that he install air conditioning on her narrowboat. He informed her that the installation wouldn’t be a problem, but the unit would cause power management issues. “I don’t care,” she told him. “I can’t stand the canal smells, so I need air conditioning.”

If you don’t enjoy the great outdoors, its weather and its odours, don’t buy a narrowboat.

Living On A Narrowboat Can Be A Dangerous Lifestyle For Careless Boaters

Rain slicked steel, moss-covered stone, drink driving and ignorance of the risks involved increase your chances of serious injury. I’ve lost count of the number of accidents I’ve seen on our little three lock flight here at Calcutt Boats. 

I’ve witnessed many more on my travels.

Carelessness, ignorance and alcohol are the main culprits. Party loving novice hirers in locks frighten me. I’ve seen foolishness bordering on insanity. This example takes some beating though.

On a hot summer’s day several years ago, I passed a scruffy hire boat crewed by drunken men. They entered Calcutt Top lock as I left. All waved beer bottles at passing boaters, swapping good-natured banter and insults.

I watched as a guy standing on the hire boat’s bow handed his bottle of Bud to a mate, stripped off to his boxers and dived into the canal in front of his moving boat. He surfaced laughing and thrashing, grabbed either side of the bow fender and swung his feet onto the deck. The guy at the helm, for a laugh, thrust the Morse control forward and charged into the empty lock towards the unyielding downstream gate. The water baby was still doing his best impression of a hundred and eighty-pound skin and bone fender.

Twenty feet away from killing his cruising buddy, the novice helmsman threw his ten-tonne boat into reverse. He stopped his craft TWO FEET away from the gate. A few seconds delay putting the boat into reverse, a slightly less powerful engine or a shallower lock could have resulted in a fatality. None the wiser, the crew opened another half dozen beer bottles and carried on cruising. 

Isn’t that scary?

But you don’t have to be drunk to hurt yourself on the inland waterways. A Calcutt Boats moorer cruising solo slipped off his boat into the frigid water of a February lock. Too weak and cold to climb out of danger, he clung to his rudder, screaming for help for fifteen minutes before someone heard him. He was so cold that neither the Calcutt first aiders nor the ambulance crew could raise his body temperature. He needed hospital treatment for that.

Another experienced but careless lady boater broke her collar bone. She stepped off her boat on a lock landing, as she had done a thousand times before, tripped over a raised paving stone and fell onto a lock landing bollard. That was the end of her summer cruise.

Young men competing with each other create risk too. Who can jump the furthest from a moving narrowboat gunnel onto a mud-slicked towpath, long jump a narrow lock or raise the quickest paddle? It’s a game many males like to play.

One careless hire boater raised a paddle in a blur of spinning windlass. The young man lost his grip on the windlass handle when the paddle reached its high point. With his face inches from the paddle gear, the windlass, still attached to the rapidly descending paddle and spinning like a propeller, caught him in the mouth. He arrived back at base with a stitched lip and a few fewer teeth than he would have liked.

Most boaters have fallen into the canal network’s murky waters more than once. Happily, most damage nothing more than their pride. I’ve been in four times in ten years. Each dip was down to carelessness. My first was a spectacular backward summersault into the frozen marina when the centre line knot unravelled on the boat I was pulling in. 

Canal bathing in January is not pleasant.

I’ve been for a dip in the summer too. I was working on our wharf one sunny summer’s day selling coal, gas and diesel to passing boaters. One narrowboat approached onto our wharf bow first and far too fast. A handful of feet away from an unpleasant collision with unyielding concrete, I signalled the owner to reverse. He did that quickly as well. As I leaned over the water to grab his bow line, the boat shot backwards. I dived headfirst into three feet of muddy water, much to the amusement of everyone watching. 

Fellow boaters are more likely to reach for a camera than a life ring. 

Make sure that you know what you’re facing before you move afloat. Join a boat owning friend for a cruise or two, take an RYA helmsman course or join me for a Discovery Day. Act like a boy scout and be prepared.

Warning: Familiarity breeds contempt. You’re going to end up in the cut at some stage of your boating career. Embrace the experience. Just make sure that you have a change of clothes handy.

There’s A Steep Learning Curve For New Narrowboat Owners

I was incredibly naive when I moved afloat. My old floating home’s sole purpose was accommodation. I had little interest in narrowboats as such and no plans to use mine for cruising. I expected my transition to be no more complicated than moving from one house to another. 

The reality was mind-numbingly confusing.

I had electricity, water and gas on tap throughout my fifty years living in houses. I warmed my living space by flicking a switch. I didn’t have to think about anything running out. As long as someone continued to pay the bills, life was effortless.

All of that changed on the first day of my life afloat. 

I didn’t move my new home off its mooring at all during my first year afloat. The thought of threading twenty tonnes of steel through narrow lock entrances filled me with dread. The Oxford Canal is nearby. It offers a scenic cruise between Napton and Braunston junctions and challenges at each blind bend and narrow bridge hole. With no formal training to help me, I found the experience quite stressful. Especially when my classic Mercedes engine failed to start six miles from the marina.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons that day. 

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Lesson No 1 – Engines don’t like sitting unused on a static mooring for months or years on end. My Mercedes OM636 ran for just half an hour in three years before my maiden voyage to Braunston. Most of the hoses had perished, and the fuel filter was blocked solid.

After weathering the embarrassment of being towed back to base, I had all the engine hoses replaced. It’s a shame I didn’t do the same with the gearbox. I lost all of my gearbox oil through a cracked hose on my second cruise. I managed to limp home without assistance on that occasion. As soon as I returned, I scheduled a complete engine overhaul. Engines need as much TLC as people.

Lesson No 2 – Narrowboats travel very slowly. My maiden cruise six miles from Calcutt Boats to Braunston took two and a half hours. Walking back to the marina to collect my car took an hour less. Don’t expect to get very far on your narrowboat cruises.

My trial by fire continued. My boat electricity worked at the marina. I expected it to work when I cruised as well. That was when I was introduced to the mysterious relationships between chargers, inverters and split battery banks. It was all very confusing.

I had to carefully manage my water supply. My first boat had a tiny 350-litre water tank, enough for thirty-five minutes in the shower or five baths at house dwelling consumption levels. Not that I had a bath. There’s no room for one on a narrowboat. 

I regularly ran out of water, twice at the terribly soapy stage of taking a shower. Braving an icy north-easterly wearing little more than bubble bath wasn’t the most pleasant way to fill an empty water tank, but it had to be done.

I have a much bigger tank these days, and I’m far more careful with my water. My 750-litre tank lasts me for two months. And, no, I don’t smell like a tramp.

There’s so much to learn when you move afloat that pre-purchase familiarisation is essential. You can’t research what you don’t know, so try to spend some time with a liveaboard boat owner before you commit to a narrowboat lifestyle. What? Don’t you have any narrowboat-owning friends? No problem. You can join me on a Discovery Day cruise.

Keeping All Of Your Floating Home Warm Is A Challenge

Yes, you CAN have a warm and cosy cabin during the cold winter months, but you’ll need to work hard to get there.

I love my boat. I don’t want to live anywhere else. The lifestyle is perfect for me, but keeping my boat warm is hard work. It’s five degrees outside at the moment and blowing a gale. It’s 20°C at the front of the cabin by my fire. It’s a comfortable temperature to sit and work. Twenty feet away in the main bedroom, the temperature drops to 16°C. I sleep in the boatman’s cabin at the back of the boat. It’s 12°C there now, which is relatively warm. The prevailing wind usually blows from the stern and often lowers my bedroom temperature to 7°C. That’s coat, hat and scarf temperature for most people. 

Boaters who tell you that their cabin is warm throughout are being economical with the truth, or they have a tiny and open cabin or a central heating system. Many narrowboat central heating systems aren’t designed for running twenty-four hours a day. Multi-fuel stoves are, but they aren’t suitable for regulating the cabin temperature throughout.

A multi-fuel stove is a narrowboat owner’s most reliable heat source. Once they’ve mastered the skill of keeping them alight, using the right fuel and keeping the flue debris free. There’s SO much to learn.

Organisation Is Your New Best Friend

Living on a narrowboat can be a nightmare if you don’t plan ahead. Water tanks often don’t have gauges. You need to devise a system for establishing how much liquid is in the large steel tank under your front deck and how quickly you’re using your remaining supply. It’s not so much of a problem if you’re on a marina mooring, but life out on the cut is more challenging. You need to know the location of your nearest water point and, in the winter, whether an icy canal is going to prevent you from reaching it.

The same applies to your diesel tank. Not many narrowboats have fuel gauges. If there’s a straight drop from the filler cap into your tank, you can use a dipstick. Ladies, the dipstick I’m talking about is not your husband. It’s a slender length of wood marked at intervals.

Some narrowboats have diesel heating systems so, if you don’t want to dress like an Eskimo inside your cabin, you need to make sure that you have plenty of fuel. The good news is that, if your diesel central heating system has been fitted correctly, you’ll run out of heating fuel before propulsion diesel. 

Managing your electricity supply is one of the more challenging aspects of living afloat. Off-grid electricity is costly and time-consuming to generate. Life is less stressful if you learn to manage with less rather than installing large battery banks which are a challenge to charge. Poorly organised battery charging regimes kill battery banks quickly. You need to be disciplined enough to manage your power supply efficiently, or dig deep and replace your battery bank regularly.

Every aspect of your life needs careful consideration when you’re off-grid. Where can you buy food? Where’s the next sewage disposal point, the nearest rubbish disposal bins and where on Earth do you get critical medical supplies when you’re out on the cut? Let’s face it, if you’re a typical narrowboat owner, you’ve reached the stage where bits of you are beginning to drop off or stop working. Easy access to doctors and dentists can be crucial. 

Life for car-owning continuous cruisers can be a nightmare. You can’t park your car outside your house, so you need to find somewhere convenient near your temporary mooring. Then you move your boat and leave your car behind. You cruise for a few miles, moor for the night and walk or cycle back for your car, hoping that it’s still in one piece. Cars parked on bridge lay-bys are easy targets for thieves.

If you like to fly by the seat of your pants, living on a narrowboat is probably not for you.

The Dreaded Narrowboat Toilet

Flush and forget. That’s what you do in a house. Your poor little poo doesn’t get any attention at all. It’s deposited in a bowl and washed far, far away with an unlimited supply of mains water.

You can forget all that on a narrowboat. You need to get up close and personal with the processed remains of previous meals. A pump-out toilet is best for you if the sight of a little faecal matter turns your stomach. But even then your tank has to be pumped out every few weeks. And that is an unusual first-time experience. It’s a challenging half-hour for those with a keen sense of smell. However, you won’t suffer as much as those poor boaters with cassette toilets.

Let’s face it, a cassette toilet is nothing more than a fancy bucket topped with a toilet seat. Most cassette designs, mine included, require the user to bend down perilously close to the toilet bowl to open the flap to the cassette. So, while you have your nose in your toilet bowl, you flip aside a thin plastic plate separating you from twenty litres of decaying waste. It’s enough to make a strong man weep.

That’s the easy part. Once you’ve made your deposits you have to transfer them to the national sewage system. Carrying a 20kg poo pot through your homes narrow walkways is a challenge. Especially once you realise that lifting it by the built-in handle is likely to result in a stream of waste decorating your lovely clean floor.

The really unpleasant part is next. You have to take your precious parcel to an Elsan point for disposal. This is often a bowl around a pipe to the sewer topped by a stainless steel grid. The grid is a highly effective toilet tissue collector, a fetid collection which responsible boaters will wash away with the Elsan hose. But not all boaters are capable and considerate human beings. You may experience the joy of using an Elsan point after a boat owner who shouldn’t be allowed out in public without a carer.

How are you feeling? If this section makes you want to lie on a soft bed in a darkened room until nausea passes, narrowboat life probably isn’t for you.

Condensation: The Bane Of A Boater’s Life

Mouldy fabric, damp paper, stained woodwork, ceiling drips and window runs. Condensation can cause misery, expense and ill health. 

Heating, ventilation and insulation are the Holy Trinity of condensation free boats. Get the balance right, and you can say goodbye to damp dresses, mouldy mattresses and unpleasant undies.

I suffered terribly from condensation during my first year afloat. My bedroom at the stern was so damp it was almost wet. It was an environment more suitable for pike and perch than people. However, I virtually eliminated damp from my back bedroom by making a few simple changes. 

Remember what I said earlier about heating the back of your boat? That was one of the primary reasons I had condensation in my bedroom. In an attempt at conserving the heat at the front of my floating home, I kept my bedroom door closed. Because the bedroom was then unheated, I closed my bedroom windows to try to keep my sleeping space a little warmer. All I did was create the perfect climate for condensation.

I put an electric heater in my bedroom in the early days and opened the windows. The condensation disappeared. I installed a diesel central heating system a few years later so I could heat the back of the boat when I cruised.

You can always cure your condensation problem if you have the time, energy and money. Or you could live in a properly insulated house with central heating and save yourself the inconvenience.

I had condensation problems again two boats and eight years later. Cynthia and I purchased a high-end Linssen motor yacht for four-season Dutch waterways cruising.

I didn’t take into consideration the piss-poor insulation fitted on boats in Holland. The Dutch are fair-weather sailors. Equipping craft for winter living is not high on their list of priorities.

The Linssen’s blown air heating system didn’t provide enough heat to keep us warm. Even then, the slight temperature difference between our cabin and the frigid Dutch winter air produced rivers of condensation on our cabin walls and ceiling.

Towards the end of our stay in Holland, we had to live in our galley area. We draped a blanket draped over the companionway to conserve heat, and dreamed of a life in a narrowboat.

Orient, my fourth boat and second narrowboat, is condensation free. However, the boatman’s cabin is a little damp. I have a Premiere range in there, but keeping two stoves on the go is a pain in the arse, especially when one of them has a tiny fire box. 

I have temperature and humidity sensors throughout Orient’s cabin. The humidity in my saloon near my Squirrel stove is 32%. Ideally, it should be close to 50% for optimal health. In the unheated boatman’s cabin the humidity is currently 63%. It’s a shame I can’t push some of the moisture towards the bow. 

Living afloat is all about finding the balance. And, if you can’t find a happy medium, making do with what you’ve got.

Receiving Post, Parcels and Deliveries

“How does the postman find you?”, one gongoozler asked. “Does your boat have a letterbox?” enquired another. He doesn’t, and no, I don’t.

I don’t need an address for letters these days. In our digital age, you can manage most of your life online. I have digital banking, insurance, licensing and taxation. I don’t need anything else sending by letter. I am a regular Amazon customer, but the retailer doesn’t need my address. They just need a delivery address. A pub, shop or post office will do. Sometimes a postcode is all I need. 

I can get supermarket shopping delivered to me while I cruise. Sainsbury’s delivery service works very well for me. If I’m on the cut, I add driver delivery instructions to my order. I find the postcode of a house or a pub close to the nearest canal bridge and ask the driver to ring me as soon as he arrives. On the rare occasion that I haven’t had a phone signal, I’ve had to wait for an hour near the delivery address. I prayed that the homeowner didn’t report a suspicious character loitering at the end of his drive.

If the address I’ve given is a pub, I force myself to sit at the bar and have a couple of pints while I’m waiting.

This is another occasion when a liveaboard boater has to be both organised and flexible. 

Do You Still Fancy Living On A Narrowboat?

There you go, the downside of living afloat. How do you feel about the lifestyle now?

I have one final treat for you, a rant from liveaboard boater Pauline Roberts. Pauline claimed that she enjoyed living afloat. You wouldn’t think so from her description of life on England’s inland waterways. You can read her post here. To achieve a balanced view, please read the two posts linked at the bottom of Pauline’s account.

Did you find these two posts useful? If you did, please take a second or two to add a star rating below.

Discovery Day Update

The recent high winds have been a challenge, but I decided to take the bull by its horns and take two aspiring narrowboat owners on a Discovery Day cruise last Sunday.

The Met Office issued a yellow wind warning from midday Saturday for twenty four hours. I decided, sensibly as it turns out, to climb Calcutt’s three lock flight on Saturday morning to escape the worst of the wind. I’m glad I did.

I pair of novice hirers shared the locks with me on my ascent. One of them, a golfing enthusiast, carried one of the sturdiest umbrellas I’ve ever seen. “You need to be careful with that,” I warned him as their boat nosed out of the top lock. “The forecast is for gusts approaching 40mph.”

He looked at me smugly and boasted that his expensive brolly was bomb proof. “I’ve had this umbrella for years and it’s still as good as new!”

The gods of you-shouldn’t-have-said-that were listening. A squall hit us seconds later. Orient listed twenty degrees to port and raced sideways across the empty lock. My home remained pinned immoveably to the lock wall until the sqaull passed. My golf mad lockmate wasn’t quite so lucky. He was right. His brolly was very strong, so strong that it lifted him off his feet. Rather than carry on with his impression of a balding Mary Poppins he let go. His brolly shot into the air like a bright blue rocket and was last seen flying high over Warwickshire’s rolling farmland.

The wind had died down a little by the following morning. My guest, Ady and Tim, enjoyed the challenge of negoriating a wind blown canal on our cruise to Braunston and a tranquil canal on our return. I had yet another pleasant and stimulating day on the cut. Ady and Tim left full of enthusiasm and plans for a boating future. 

Here’s what they said about their day with me.

Discovery Day guests Tim & Ady Henderson

Discovery Day guests Tim & Ady Henderson

“We do not have any boating experience at all.  Both of us wanted to see if we could live onboard a boat for two to three years before we retired.  Our plan once retired to travel the canal throughout the UK.

A great way to spend a day, very relaxing, informative and very hands-on.  The day covered everything we needed to know to get us started on our canal adventure. Brilliant experience if you are considering living on board.

I have already recommended you to friends and family. Regardless of future plans, I would do this discovery day again in a heartbeat.  A wonderful introduction to boating, very hands-on, safe and clear instruction, easy to find, and a beautiful boat.  Highly recommend this experience.”

Tim & Ady Henderson, Devon

If you’re ready to take your narrowboat research to the next level, join me on a Discovery Day cruise. I’m Coronavirus free, as are the waterways around me. Save yourself, live on England’s inland waterways network!

Useful Information

Fifteen Reasons Why Living On A Narrowboat Is A Bad Idea

Warning! Living on a narrowboat may be harder than you think. Here’s what you need to know before taking the plunge

Summer is a dangerous time of the year for aspiring boat owners. Gaily painted narrowboat sirens lure novice liveaboard boaters onto the rocks of poorly researched decisions. Towpaths up and down the network are littered with shattered dreams. Unhappy boat owners scowl at passing traffic like bulldogs chewing wasps. These recent liveaboard narrowboat owners are not a happy bunch. The reality of life afloat is a far cry from the gin-swilling snapshot glimpsed on a sunny summer’s day.

They could have saved a great deal of heartache before plundering their pension pot. These new boat owners sell all that they own. They empty their bank account into narrowboats floating close to the silty bed on one of England’s inland waterways and leap aboard for a life of relaxed hedonism. 

And then reality sets in.

I’m sure that you, as a prudent chap or chapess, have researched the lifestyle thoroughly. I’m sure that you know all about the physical, logistical and emotional challenges you’ll face living in a muddy ditch with no fixed address. I bet you’ve invested long hours trawling the internet to make sure that this odd lifestyle will suit you and your spouse/partner/companion/dog/cat/goldfish. But just in case you haven’t researched living on a narrowboat yet, here are a few reasons you might not want to turn your rose-tinted dream into cold and muddy reality.

  1. The lifestyle costs far more than you think
  2. Limited residential mooring availability
  3. Limited living space
  4. Little storage space
  5. You need to be fitter and more flexible than you do living in a house
  6. Living afloat requires some hard physical work
  7. More exposure to potential accidents
  8. Exposure to the elements
  9. It’s easy to feel lonely on the inland waterways
  10. There’s a steep learning curve to living afloat
  11. Keeping all of your floating home warm is a challenge
  12. You to be organised
  13. You have to get far closer to bodily waste than you do in a house
  14. Condensation can sap your will to live if you don’t understand how to prevent it
  15. If you adopt a nomadic continuous cruising lifestyle, receiving post and renewing documents can be a challenge
  16. If you overcome all of the above, you’ll run the risk of enjoying life far too much. And driving your landlubber friends, family and work colleagues mad as you regale them with tales from the cut.

Perceived Low-Cost Accommodation

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard or read about people wanting to live afloat to save money. If that’s your plan, forget it. You won’t be happy. Life on a narrowboat is for those who want to get away from modern-day society and live closer to nature than they would in their bricks and mortar fortress.

The destination for many is London, where house purchase costs and rent are eye-wateringly expensive. Yes, you can buy a narrowboat for a fraction of the purchase price of the smallest London flat. And, yes, your living costs could be less too. That’s IF you ignore your licensing and boat maintenance obligations and CRT’s continuous cruising guidelines if you don’t want to pay for a residential mooring.

Living on a narrowboat can be a low-cost lifestyle, but so can living in a cardboard box in the doorway of a high street shop. Neither would be a happy or healthy way to live. If you want to live comfortably and ensure that your floating home lasts you for many years, you need to budget as much as you would for a small family home.

You’ll find the most detailed breakdown of narrowboat running costs on or off the internet in my Narrowbudget Gold package here.

Residential Mooring Availability

When you license your boat, you have to declare your home mooring, the place where you pay to park your boat. If you don’t, you are in the ‘boat without a home mooring’ category. You are a continuous cruiser and, as such, you are obliged to observe CRT’s constant cruising guidelines.

CRT will email, text or phone you to remind you of your obligations. Continuous cruisers are obliged to move their boats on a progressive journey along the waterways throughout the year. The guidelines are suitable for those who don’t want or need to stay in one place for work, schooling or medical needs. Many owners of boats without a home mooring are watched closely by CRT’s enforcement team. Boat owners move their craft from A to B and back to A again. They are supposed to move from A to B to C to D.

One of the many problems with the system is the lack of clear rules. The distance an owner must move his boat each year is vague. Liveaboard boaters are often at loggerheads with the authorities. In extreme cases, CRT will refuse to relicense boats which haven’t moved enough. Then, if the craft is unlicensed, CRT can begin proceedings to have it removed from the waterways network.

Because of house purchase and rental costs, London’s waterways are overcrowded. So much that touring boaters often struggle to find a place to moor. Having to breast up to another liveaboard boater isn’t unusual. Finding somewhere to empty your cassette toilet is a challenge and living a stress-free life is nigh on impossible.

The simple logistics of complying with CRT’s continuous cruising guidelines is an immense challenge. Many London boaters have mooring “buddies”, fellow boaters moored elsewhere on London’s waterways. In an attempt at compliance, they swap moorings every couple of weeks, sometimes leaving a boating pal to guard “their” mooring until their buddy arrives. Touring narrowboat owners are in for a bit of a shock if they try to moor in one of these guarded spots.

Comply with CRT’s continuous guidelines or secure a residential mooring before you move afloat. You’ll have problems if you don’t, and more of the stress that you tried to leave behind.

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Limited Living And Storage Space

At sixty two feet, Orient gives me more living space than many narrowboats. Still, “more living space” is relative. My cabin is roughly fifty feet long and six feet wide. Three hundred square feet to contain all that I own and provide me with barely enough room to swing a tiny cat.

If you’re thinking about living on a narrowboat, don’t be seduced by a broker’s terminology. He might write something like, “this is a spacious boat which is perfect for full-time living.” 


What he should tell you is that the boat in question appears to be spacious because it has little or no fitted furniture. If you think you can use your house furniture, forget it. Nothing will fit. To maximise a narrowboat’s limited storage space, you need a cabin filled with fitted furniture.

One of my daily tasks at the marina is boat moving. I have to walk through the boat’s living space looking for keys and switches. It’s a welcome opportunity to compare other narrowboats with Orient. 

Not many of these boats have adequate storage space for liveaboard boat owners.

If you’ve reached the boat viewing stage of your grand narrowboat plan, make sure that you check storage space carefully. Mentally move your possessions onto the boat. Where are you going to store the years of accumulated tat which fits easily into your house? Where will you put the contents of your loft, cellar, garage and garden shed? Where will you store your best set of bone china crockery, your food processor and all the other rarely used kitchen gadgets? What about your tool filled garage complete with a couple of motorbikes? Where will that lot go?

The painful truth is that, even in the most accommodating narrowboat, you won’t have space for much at all. You have to learn to live with less than you did in your spacious house. Much less.

Hanging space is at a premium. You’ll have one tiny wardrobe at best, space for no more than a couple of dozen items. And, ladies, your extensive shoe collection will have to go. You’ll be reduced to wellies, walking boots, summer trainers or Crocs and a pair of heels for those rare occasions when the towpath is dry enough to support them.

Personal Fitness

You need to be much more robust to live afloat than you do in a house. The simplest of tasks take more effort, more time and require more strength than many people are either used to or enjoy.

I offer a Discovery Day service for aspiring narrowboat owners. Most want to live afloat. The day is structured to give as much of an insight into liveaboard life as possible. Their day begins in a small car park at Napton reservoir, following a grassy footpath around the western edge of the twenty-acre lake. They walk along a canalside path to Calcutt Top lock and cross the upstream gate. And then negotiate a hundred metres of muddy towpath to reach Orient’s Discovery Day mooring.

This ten minute start to a boating day has caused a few problems. One generously proportioned lady suggested that the distance she had to walk was unreasonable, all five hundred and fifty metres of it. If you think that a quarter of a mile walk on a level path is too taxing, living afloat is not for you.

The next challenge for many is using a narrowboat walkway topping an oak gate to cross a lock. If the lock is empty, there’s a ten feet drop to a concrete platform drenched by a frothing torrent gushing from the leaky gates. The crossing is a little disconcerting for anyone who fears heights.

The final pre-cruise challenge is getting onto my boat. 

Like many narrowboats, especially liveaboard boats, I have a canvas cover, a cratch cover, over my front deck. It provides me with some useful additional storage space and a wet-weather changing area which prevents too much cabin heat escaping on a windy day. This arrangement requires a degree of flexibility when getting on and off the boat. I have to simultaneously duck under the cratch cover roof and step two feet over the hull side. It’s second nature to seasoned boaters. However, many aspiring narrowboat owners don’t have the flexibility forced upon them by life on the cut.

More than a few of my guests have struggled to negotiate this initial hurdle. Some have needed to use their hands to lift reluctant legs over the hull. My front deck is the least difficult of my two cabin entry points. The back cabin access requires eel-like flexibility.

The hatch is twenty-one inches (54cm) wide with an eighteen inch (45cm) step down into my boatman’s cabin. Getting in from the rear is further complicated by old fashioned controls. My speed wheel throttle control and gear selector handle are fixed to the cabin roof in the hatch space. The best technique is to back in, bend double and step down eighteen inches onto a wooden step/storage box.

Many of my guests grunt, groan and curse as they tackle this manoeuvre. The good news is that constant repetition increases flexibility. Stick with it, and before long you’ll be jumping onto a boat as enthusiastically as a seasoned sailer offered a double rum ration.

Everything about liveaboard life requires more effort. Even the simplest of tasks like walking the length of your floating home requires flexibility, especially on a boat like Orient. The cabin is filled with fitted furniture which narrows the walkways. My engine room is a challenge for many. The doorway from my main bedroom to the engine room is 5’ 0” (152cm) high and 1’5” (44cm) wide. A typical house doorway is roughly 6’6” tall and 2’6” wide. 

I’ve had a few big blokes join me on my training cruises. One, a broad-shouldered giant of a man standing 6’6” tall, wedged himself immovably in the engine room doorway, much to the amusement of his dainty wife.

At 5’10” tall, I’m not the largest person in the world. Even so, I have to walk like an Egyptian to get from the saloon to my boatman’s cabin. And, because I’ve reached a certain age, my forehead bears the scars of many forgotten doorway ducks.

Managing your utilities is hard work, especially if you have a multi-fuel stove. Bags of coal weigh 55lb (25kg) and need manhandling (person handling these days?) inside the boat two or three times a week during the winter months. Gas cylinders are a similar weight. You have the additional challenge with your propane of dragging the heavy bottle onto a rain-slicked bow and then lowering it through an impossibly narrow hatch into its tiny gas locker. Changing the connection requires a degree of flexibility usually only seen on stage.

Even shopping requires a gym-like workout. If you adopt the life of a continuous cruiser, you might not own a car. Taking one with you on your travels requires so much effort that many boaters don’t bother. So you have to walk to the shops, armed with a cavernous rucksack and grim determination. A successful shopping trip is an event worth celebrating. 

Living afloat, especially if you’re a continuous cruiser, forces you to exercise and achieve a degree of flexibility. If you treat all of your daily physical chores as welcome exercise, you’ll enjoy your liveaboard experience. Couch potatoes, you have been warned!

I’ll finish this list next week in part two, and treat you to the unhappy scribblings of a disenchanted boater. (Spoiler alert: Some of us actually enjoy this lifestyle.)

Useful Information

Buying A Narrowboat: Tools, Equipment and Security

Following the fun you had buying a narrowboat, you now need the right tools and equipment and learn how to stay safe on your maiden voyage

This post continues from last week’s Buying a Narrowboat: Pre Purchase Tips and Recommendations. The post covered pre-purchase considerations and the importance of discovering all you can about your boat before you move on board.

With the purchase stress behind you, consider the practicality of life afloat and the tools and equipment you’ll need to maintain your new home and help you with your cruising. 

Here’s a post I wrote a few years ago about tools…

Buying A Narrowboat – Equipment

In addition to these tools, you want to ensure that you have the right boating equipment. Here are the essential items I have with me when I cruise and the reasons why…

Hose and hose reel – I tried several different hose types before settling on my current hose. I owned two of the flat blue versions on white reels you often see in chandlers. They were rubbish. The reels fell apart within days, and after a couple of month of dragging the hose through water point gravel, they swelled until they would no longer fit on the broken reel. I moved on to the standard Hozelock hoses and reels after that, and they didn’t fare much better. The entry-level hose kinks so quickly that unfortunate boaters spend more time straightening weak plastic than pushing water through them.

I now have a Hozelock maxi plus anti-kink hose. It’s marvellous. The hose and reel have served me faultlessly since October 2013. That’s three years service on James No 194, two years alternating between motorhome and boat on our European tour, and a year on Orient. At £20.49 for the hose, it’s fair to say that I’ve had value for money.

A dog poo spade You might think that it’s not much use to you if you don’t have a dog, but bear with me. In my dog-owning days, We didn’t collect our dogs’ mess in plastic bags because we then had to carry the waste around with us. And when we did finally find a bin for it, it ended up as landfill forever preserved in plastic. Instead, we used a spade, a small coal shovel, to flick the poo out of the way where it couldn’t be stood on, usually in a hedge, where it decomposed within days.

Even though I’m now dogless, I have kept my spade. Landing on an idyllic mooring in the middle of nowhere and stepping on a pile of fetid faeces is a frustrating affair. 

Garden shears – Otherwise perfect moorings are often quite frustrating to use when the bankside grass is too long. Five minutes with the shears soon sorts the grass out.

Folding chairs and table – Mine are from Midland Chandlers. I can sit and enjoy my evening meal on the towpath or just watch the world go by at a snail’s pace.

Windlasses (two on a rack in the boatman’s cabin and two more in a bow locker) – I used to have two on board and a partner who didn’t know how to tie knots. She dropped a windless into the canal. “No problem,” I told her, “Tie a length of paracord to the recovery magnet and fish it out.” She returned a few minutes later with a wet length of cord and no magnet.

I fished out my spare windlass as we approached a flight of ten locks. I stopped to make a coffee halfway up the flight and, cup and windlass in hand tried to negotiate a narrow lock walkway. My second windlass joined the fishes, so I had the dubious pleasure of negotiating five locks with a pair of mole grips. There are far easier exercises for strengthening my wrists, so I carry enough windlasses with me these days to stock a small chandlery. 

Mooring Chains – If you can find a canal bank strengthened using Armco style rails, mooring chains are the most straightforward and secure tools for keeping your boat in one place. Some boaters prefer piling hooks, but I don’t think that they are as safe as chains.

Tip: If you are a solo boater, carry at least three chains with you. You’ll want a spare, and to use as an extra hand on windy days. If your boat is being pushed away from the bank, you can use a chain to secure your centre line while you anchor your bow and stern mooring lines.

Mooring Stakes – A metal pin driven three feet into the ground might sound like a secure anchor point, but it isn’t. Especially during periods of constant rain. That’s pretty much all of the time in England. Still, if there are no convenient rails, it’s the only game in town. Like your mooring chains, carry a spare.

Lump hammer – To give you a little exercise at the end of the day, knocking pins into rock hard ground. Carry a spare.

A recovery magnet – It’s worth its weight in gold. My Maxi-grab magnet has roughly the same diameter as a two pence piece. It’s about the length of a box of matches and can lift an impressive fifty pounds. I have used it to retrieve several windlasses, mooring hooks, shackles and, on two occasions, my main bunch of keys.

A reel of paracord – It’s great for securing my recovery magnet when I go fishing. And it’s useful for temporary washing lines, shoelaces, belts and dog leads.

British Waterways Key – for the locking plates on the water points, the waterways owned Elsan points, showers and toilets and for some lift and swing bridges.

Water Conservation (Handcuff) Key – Interfering with the canal network’s water levels is a fulfilling pastime for society’s maladjusted youth. CRT secure many urban locks to spoil their fun. You may trap yourself for the night on a less than pleasant mooring if you don’t have a key with you.

Anchor, Chain & Rope – I don’t need an anchor for most of my cruises, but when I’m cruising the network full time, an anchor will be essential. 

Life Jackets – I have two similar to the ones worn by CART employees.

Weed Hatch Tools – A sharp knife with a serrated blade, bolt croppers and mole grips for removing obstacles from the propeller. Items of clothing, plastic bags, fishing line and rope are the usual offenders. Still, you would be amazed at what you can jam around your propeller with a little effort. I’ve listened to war stories about battles with sofas, bed frames, bicycles and car tyres. My most unpleasant experience was half an hour down the weed hatch getting far too close to the rotting carcass of a fragrant badger.

Tools – More often than not, my tools are still wrapped in their original packaging. I’m not the network’s most practical boater. They include screwdrivers, spanners, a socket set, Stanley knife, pliers, electric drill and bits, Allen keys, hacksaw, wood saw and my favourite and most often used tool, a hammer.

Torches – We have two of them, one kept in the engine room and another in a cupboard near the front doors

A military-grade green laser pen – What’s to like about Canada geese or the noise they make? By all accounts, they don’t taste pleasant either. A quick flash over the water is enough to scare them off. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys peace and quiet.

Roof furniture – Pole, plank and boat hook, and also a children’s fishing net for those little things which frequently blow into the water.

Incidentally, you have Hobson’s choice with your plank. You can grit the painted wood to give it a non-slip surface and spend most of your time trying to get it clean, or you can keep it grit-free and risk life and limb each time you use it.

Coal or logs, kindling and firelighters – Some boaters carry ten or more bags of coal on their cabin roof during the winter months. Each to their own but I would rather reduce the chance of rust forming under wet coal bags and store my coal on my front deck. At a push, there’s enough room for a three week supply.

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Carbon monoxide and smoke alarms – Carbon monoxide and smoke can kill. Fit one of each close to every heat source and in bedroom areas too. 

Stovetop Fan – The original, and probably most popular, is the Ecofan. They use the heat from the stove to power a fan to push heat further into the cabin. There are many brands available now for a fraction of the Ecofan price. They’re cheaper, but are they as durable? I don’t know.

A spare 13kg gas cylinder – Most narrowboats use propane gas for cooking. Living on board full time, cooking daily and using gas for water heating too, a bottle costing £35 will last me for two months. 

Oil and grease – Spare engine and gearbox oil 

Extra waterproof grease for the stern gland greaser – Turning down your greaser at the end of each cruising session is essential. The greaser is a brass syringe which forces grease between the stern gland packing and the propeller shaft. This helps prevent canal water from entering the engine bay along the prop shaft. 

A fuel tank dipstick – On my first narrowboat, I used a four feet length of dowel which I marked at the full, half and quarter levels. I don’t have a straight drop into Orient’s tank. I use a spreadsheet instead of a piece of wood. By recording my engine hours and the number of litres I add to my tank, I can calculate my fuel consumption and my remaining fuel.

Rope – A bow line, stern line and two centre ropes, plus a spare stored in the engine room. All present and in good condition.

Maps – The two most popular guides are Nicholson’s and Pearsons’s. I favour Pearson’s simply because they are the ones I’ve always used. Nicholson guides are equally comprehensive. They are essential for finding water points, turning areas, estimated journey times and quiet mooring spots away from housing, roads and railways.

A Compass – I don’t need one to find out where I’m going, but it’s useful to know where the sun is going to end up in the evening. I try to find a mooring which is open to the west so I know I can bask in the evening sun.

A pair of binoculars – There’s plenty to see when cruising, but it’s often not close enough to examine in detail. Binoculars allow us to get much more intimate. However, that can be a double-edged sword. I know of a middle-aged guy with a fondness for lady’s underwear and open curtains. You have been warned.

Waterproofs – I have a totally bombproof jacket and trousers from Guy Cotten. They are designed for use by deep-sea fishermen and are 100% waterproof but not breathable. They’re perfect for standing immobile in the pouring rain. However, they’re not very good if you’re generating heat negotiating locks. You very quickly get as wet through sweat building up inside the waterproofs as you would from the rain.

Rubber boots – The towpath can get very muddy. Wellies are both comfortable and easy to clean. I prefer Muck Boots for their comfort and heat retention.

Sun hats and sunglasses – I send a list of things to bring to my Discovery Day guests. Sunglasses are on the list. It’s an item often ignored by people who join me in the winter. They realise their folly if we cruise west into a low sun on our return journey from Braunston. 

Gloves – You’ll need them if you do any cold-weather cruising on a cruiser stern boat. Regular trad stern boats are a little better. I don’t bother now I have Orient’s boatman’s cabin range to keep me warm,

Fleece hats and tops. Mine are made by Swazi. They’re warm, durable and have a cute little logo. 

Reference books – Being able to identify flora and fauna will enhance your experience. Collins pocket guides are useful.

Emergency food – Fresh food availability can be limited in many rural areas, so I carry tinned and dried food as a backup. A tin of pilchards, a couple of dried chillies and some rice make a tasty and straightforward meal. I carry enough tinned and dried food to last me a week.

A sense of adventure and a degree of anticipation and flexibility – You never know what’s around the corner. You may want or need to stop for a while. Plans are good, but they need to be flexible. Rigid schedules can be a disaster on the waterways.

Buying A Narrowboat – Security

You’re now ready for your new adventure. There’s one last area I haven’t addressed. Security. I’ve lived afloat now for ten years. I’ve cruised thousands of miles and enjoyed hundreds of night on a wide variety of canal-side moorings. I haven’t experienced a single problem, so you don’t have to worry too much about anti-social behaviour on your travels. But it does happen, and you need to know how to reduce the risk to you or your boat. Here’s a forum thread with lots of useful advice…

Here’s a quick list of my most useful tips

  • Prevention is better than cure. Moor away from potential trouble spots. If you have to cruise through problem areas, do so at times when people aren’t likely to be about. Avoid them at weekends, during school holidays or the middle of the day, especially if the weather is good.
  • Don’t fight fire with fire. Avoid confrontation with aggressive people. Always remember that if you want to make a hasty exit, you’re going to escape at two miles an hour. Unless your assailant is using a Zimmer frame, you’re not going to outrun them. Don’t carry weapons. A camera is far more effective.

I met a pair of unsavoury characters at a lock in Birmingham. I had read reports about boaters experiencing problems with thieves at locks in the north. With the boat owner sixty feet away at the helm, they would jump onto the bow and run into the cabin through the open front doors. They would grab whatever they could and sprint away before anyone could respond.

With that in mind, I locked my front doors and closed my cratch cover as I approached the flight. Still, I didn’t like the way these two were acting. I left the helm and walked towards them at the bow. Both were big lads. One walked towards me with his fists clenched. I didn’t need the sixth sense I developed during my pub management days to spot a potential problem. The feeling of menace was tangible.

With both men facing me, I pulled out my iPhone, opened the camera app and took a photo. I told them I was creating a photo album of all the canal-side people I met on my cruise. I asked if they could stand together so I could take a better snap. The leader glanced at his mate, and the pair walked away from the canal without a word. A confrontational approach could have ended badly.

  • Moor far away from bridges and public places. The further you moor away from people, the safer you are.
  • If a spot doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts. Move on. Early morning starts work for me. I often finish eight hour cruising days by mid-afternoon. I have plenty of time to choose a 
  • If you leave your boat at night, close the curtains on the towpath side, leave a light on and maybe some music. I have an old iPod with a hundred song playlist. I connect it to a Bose speaker and set it to a volume which can be heard outside.
  • Don’t advertise your absence with padlocks on your doors. Use door locks which aren’t obvious. If you have a cratch cover, don’t have one with windows which allow would-be thieves to see what you have on your front deck, a padlock on the front door or give them a view of the boat’s interior through your front door glass.

I hope that the information I’ve provided in the last two posts eases your transition to a water based lifestyle. Despite the occasional challenges boaters face, like today’s storm Ciara, life on England’s inland waterways can be a tranquil and peaceful affair if you get it right.

I hope that all of your boating dreams come true. Maybe we’ll meet on an idyllic towpath mooring one day to share tales from the cut and a drink or two. I hope so.

Useful Information

Buying a Narrowboat: Pre Purchase Tips and Recommendations

If you are considering buying a narrowboat, don’t part with your hard earned cash before you read this post

There’s a steep learning curve to life on the cut, steepest when you are buying a narrowboat and over your first few days on board. Apart from emptying your bank account and the physical challenge of cramming your life into a tiny home, you have to master a boat filled with unfamiliar systems and equipment. 

And then there are the day-to-day logistics you face living on the water, especially if you plan to adopt and off-grid lifestyle. Moving house is one of life’s most stressful experiences. Learning to live in a completely different way doesn’t help.

I hope that the following suggestions aid your transition. My 10th living afloat anniversary is two months away. I’ve bought four boats, sold three and refurbished one of them. Using the wonderful gift of hindsight, I can help you avoid making expensive mistakes. Please read this post in conjunction with An Essential Checklist Before You Consider Buying A Narrowboat.

Buying a Narrowboat: Boat Safety Scheme Certificates and Surveys

You shouldn’t consider buying a narrowboat without having a survey done. The owner may have a recent survey report to show you. If it’s more than a couple of years old, or if you don’t feel you can trust the seller, have another done. You’ll have to pay £600 – £800 including the boat lift out fee, but the report will confirm that you have a sound boat, or alert you to potentially expensive problems. 

The same applies to your narrowboat’s Boat Safety Scheme certificate.

Get a BSS examination done as part of the purchase deal if you can, and have the seller rectify any problems. Either that or ask the seller to reduce the asking price by the estimated cost of the rectification work.

A BSS examination is the waterways equivalent of your car’s MOT. The emphasis is on safety. YOUR safety. And because your safety is on the line, you shouldn’t necessarily trust an existing BSS certificate. 

Let me give you an example from personal experience.

When I viewed Orient for the first time in October 2018, I thought I had found my perfect boat. After all, this wasn’t my first experience buying a narrowboat.

Orient on brokerage at Tattenhall marina

Orient on brokerage at Tattenhall marina

Apart from minor signs of neglect I couldn’t find fault. It’s just as well that I’m not a BSS examiner because there was plenty wrong. A friend of mine, Russ Fincham, a first-class BSS examiner who has forgotten more than I could ever hope to know about narrowboats, agreed to come with me on my second viewing.

He identified faults which would cost thousands of pounds to rectify. Two of the defects, a poorly sited bow thruster motor and a cracked stove, could have had catastrophic consequences. 

The stove crack probably appeared after Orient’s last BSS exam in 2017. However, the bow thruster looked as though it was part of the original construction. A recess in the gas locker base housed the bow thruster motor. Cabling to its two batteries in a front deck locker allowed escaping gas to fill the cabin bilge rather than drain into the canal. Despite the potential to turn Orient into a 62’ floating bomb, the boat had passed four previous exams.

A current boat safety certificate doesn’t always guarantee that your boat is safe. Schedule another examination when you buy your boat, and make sure the examiner has a good reputation. Ask someone impartial for recommendations. Canalworld Discussion Forum is a useful source.

Russ’s advice allowed me to negotiate an immediate £2,500 price reduction. His insistence that I had another BSS exam done after the remedial work was complete would have saved me more money and a lot of hassle.

I didn’t follow his advice. I was more concerned about Cynthia’s deteriorating health than saving a few quid.

I had a commercial BSS examination seven months later when I upgraded to a Roving Trader license. Even though it’s a slightly stricter exam than the standard certificate requirements, most of the fifteen failures still applied. 

The rectification work cost me £1,200. Finding money was the easy part. Getting someone to do the job took three attempts over five months. 

Getting an expert to assess the boat for me saved me £2,500 and possibly prevented a nasty accident. Even though I had two years remaining on my BSS certificate, negotiating the inclusion of a new examination when I bought the boat would have saved me another £1,200 and a great deal of frustration.

Buying a Narrowboat: Familiarisation

You should try to find out as much as possible about your new boat before your first day on board. Bombard your surveyor, boat safety examiner and broker with questions. They’re usually happy to help.

Unless you’re fortunate, buying a narrowboat and making it your home can be a bewildering experience. Every narrowboat is unique and very few come with manuals. You’ll be pushing and pulling unknown knobs, switches and levers for weeks. If possible, ask the previous owner to show you the ropes but, If the boat’s been on brokerage, that’s probably not possible. The guys selling and examining your new home may be able to answer basic questions, but everything else is up to you.

If your boat has a modern engine, that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about too much. You need to check oil and water before you start the engine and that’s about it. You probably have a keel cooled model, but you need to be a little more careful with raw water cooling systems.

Keel cooled engines circulate water through a skin tank, a tank attached to the boat’s hull. Raw water cooling draws canal water through a heat exchanger and then return water to the canal via a wet exhaust.

How do you know what type you have?

Ask the broker or the owner if you’re buying privately. If you’re buying through a broker and he doesn’t know, you’ll need to slip into your overalls and investigate.

Check your engine exhaust. It’s either close to the waterline at the stern or the side of the boat near the engine. If all you see is a little smoke, your engine is probably keel cooled. Either that, or it’s raw water cooled and has the gate valve closed. Some owners close the water inlet as a sensible precaution when the engine isn’t running. 

The raw water cooling system on my first boat failed twice during cruises. Fortunately, I was able to moor quickly and stop the engine. Even so, the water level in the engine room bilge rose six inches in a few minutes. My raw water system always worried me and made a noise like a steam train. Switching to a keel cooling system saved both my hearing and my heart.

There’s an essential post-cruise habit you need to adopt. You probably have a stern gland greaser on your boat which helps prevent canal water from entering your engine bay via the propeller shaft. If you don’t want to drown your engine and take your battery bank for a swim, tighten your stern gland greaser at the end of every cruise.

You can read more about using and refilling your greaser here.

Buying a Narrowboat: Engine Maintenance and Pre Cruise Checks

You’ll probably need someone to show you the ropes if you take on a boat with a vintage engine like Orient’s green beast. It’s a Lister JP2M, an eighty-three-year-old lass with a mesmerising voice and the ability to turn the heads of a disturbing number of middle-aged men. 

Find out as much as you can about your engine before you move on board

Find out as much as you can about your engine before you move on board

Even though the Lister isn’t difficult to maintain, there are more pre-start checks than with a modern engine. I have to transfer fuel with a hand pump from the main five hundred litre tank to a thirty-litre day tank, make sure that the points are greased and oiled correctly and that there’s enough header tank water: nothing complicated or time-consuming, but all-important. 

Starting your engine can be a challenge. The boat should have a mains supply. If not, the boat’s battery master switches should be off. You’ll need to turn the engine battery master switch on before you can start the engine. Make sure you know the master switch location. They should be labelled but often aren’t.

If you don’t know your way around old engines, get someone to show you the ropes. I use Primrose Engineering. Owner, Richard Powell, has been in the trade for four decades. And he’s a nice guy too. I highly recommend his services if you have a vintage engine.

Another option is a one-to-one service with River Canal Rescue (RCR). They’re the waterways equivalent of the AA, an essential service for boat owners like me who don’t know one end of a spanner from the other.

One of the company’s senior engineers, Kerry, showed me how to service my first narrowboat’s Mercedes engine. He had the patience of a saint and asked questions before he began to establish my proficiency. Kerry realised that he was dealing with a middle-aged man with the mechanical ability of a four-year-old girl. He explained every process slowly and clearly and instilled enough confidence in me to tackle routine services. As the recommended service interval for my engine was 250 hours, and I could accumulate a thousand running hours a year, Kerry’s instruction saved me a fortune.

OK. So you know enough about your engine. The next step is to take the old girl out for a cruise. Make sure you have all the boating equipment you need before you go. You don’t want to be stuck on a three feet deep canal without all the appropriate gear. All right, failing to prepare for a canal cruise isn’t going to kill you, but your maiden voyage will be much more pleasant if you know what you’re doing.

The first step is to get some training and to make sure that the tuition is from someone who knows what he’s doing. I’ve witnessed many new boat owners offering dubious advice to fellow narrowboat buyers. It’s easy to begin your boating career with the wrong information. Get help and practical hands-on tuition from professionals. It’s an essential ingredient to your boating confidence, competence and happiness.

Many companies offer RYA accredited inland waterways training. Willow Wren near Calcutt provides one and two-day courses. They are an excellent source of both information and training. 

If you want to learn how to handle a narrowboat in a relaxed and indescribably lovely classroom and learn all about liveaboard narrowboat equipment, systems and design, you can spend a day with me. I guide guests on a twelve-mile six lock cruise through rural Warwickshire. 

Join me or take an RYA course. Choose whichever suits you best, but get some professional training before you untie your mooring lines for the first time.

Assuming you’ve successfully transformed buying a narrowboat from a whistful dream into exciting reality, you need to overcome the day-to-day logistics of life afloat.

Your first job is lighting a fire. 

Experience Life Afloat

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover life afloat on a 12 mile, six lock cruise through rural Warwickshire

Buying a Narrowboat – Lighting Your First Fire

If you buy your boat in the winter, your priority should be heating your home. A steel boat submerged two or three feet in icy canal water can be brutally cold. Mechanical heating systems are easier to manage but not as reliable as a simple multi-fuel stove.

The above Cruising The Cut video describes the fire lighting process correctly, but a little more information will make your first attempt bombproof.

Before you light your fire for the first time make sure that (A) your ash pan is empty and (B) your flue is clear and (C) you’ve removed your chimney cap if you have one.

Narrowboats are often offered for sale because the owner has lost interest in boating or is no longer able to cope with the physical demands. Consequently, always check your onboard equipment to make sure that it’s working correctly. You should have checked everything when you had your survey done. You did have a survey, didn’t you?

If you purchased or surveyed your boat on a blazing hot day, lighting a fire was probably way down on your list of priorities, but make sure that you check it before you light the stove for the first time.

Before your first lighting, make sure that you have all the following equipment and supplies.

  • Matches or a lighter (and spares)
  • Firelighters – The Zip firelighter used int he video work very well. Beware eco-friendly firelighters. I’ve tried a few different types over the years. Most are great for the environment because if they’re hard to light, they can’t cause any pollution. Give me paraffin-based firelighters any day.
  • Kindling – During the winter months, your stove will probably be alight 24/7. But during the spring and autumn months when you don’t want your fire blazing all day, you’ll need plenty of kindling for daily fire lighting. If you don’t want to buy kindling, you can use twigs. During wet periods the stuff laying on the ground will be damp and a pain to light. The lower dead branches of woodland trees work very well.
  • Coal briquettes – They’re available from many boatyards and chandlers or your local coal boat. Buy briquettes rather than solid coal-like anthracite. It’s a pig to light, but once it’s going, it will provide more heat than the centre of the sun and melt you and your boat. Please note that wood will not burn well unless you season it.
  • A companion set – You’ll want a small shovel or tongues for briquette handling, a poker for prodding your burning fire or scraping out ash, and a brush of some kind for cleaning up the mess you make.
  • A stovetop fan – I have an original Ecofan. They’re expensive compared to many other models, but they’re well-engineered and stand the test of time.
  • Coal storage – I like my boat neat and tidy. I have a copper coal scuttle beside the fire and a large plastic storage box under the cratch cover on the front deck. Coal sacks usually have a hole or two in them. If you bring the bag into your boat, you’re probably going to have to mop up a trail of liquid coal dust. I decant my coal into the deck coal box and fill my scuttle from there.
  • A clean flue – The flue is the pipe running from your stove to your cabin roof. The collar is the fitting on your roof holding the pipe in place. Your chimney should fit snuggly onto the collar. Your flue needs sweeping a couple of times a year to allow your stove to draw enough air to burn properly. A restricted airflow, at best, means a poor burn and little heat. At worst, a blocked flue can fill your boat with suffocating smoke in the middle of the night. If you don’t have a working smoke alarm, it’s curtains for you and your life afloat.
  • A working smoke alarm – Need I say more? Just make sure that you have one by your stove(s) and in your bedroom. A working smoke alarm probably saved my life earlier this year.

Here’s a short clip of my stove this morning, burning the last of my stock of seasoned elm. I keep the glass spotlessly clean by rubbing it daily with a damp kitchen towel dipped in cold stove ash.

Pretty, isn’t it?

I’ll give you a few more tips next week to help make buying a narrowboat a less stressful experience.

Help Fellow Boaters 

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Useful Information

Which Are The Best Narrowboat Stern Types For Living Afloat?

Life on a narrowboat is all about compromise. Different narrowboat stern types offer pros and cons depending on your preferred cruising and living style, so here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision.

Your floating home’s stern design, its back end, can have a considerable impact on your day to day life. One design offers you more secure living and storage space, another gives you plenty of space for cruising companions and the third is a hybrid of both. Here’s what you need to know about narrowboat sterns.

Traditional “Trad” Narrowboat Stern Types

That’s what I have on Orient. The cabin sides and roof extend almost to the back of the hull, leaving a small platform for the helmsman to stand with one or two close friends. Without risking life and limb by standing on narrow and often slippery gunnels, there isn’t much room to stand without each other’s way.

Narrowboat stern types - Traditional

Narrowboat stern types – Traditional

Cruiser Narrowboat Stern Types

You see these sterns on most hire boats. The boat’s cabin sides and roof are six to ten feet shorter than the hull, leaving an open deck for groups to stand and obscure the steerer’s view. Sorry, for groups to gather and socialise.

Narrowboat stern types - Cruiser stern

Narrowboat stern types – Cruiser stern

Narrowboat stern types - Cruiser stern with pram cover

Narrowboat stern types – Cruiser stern with pram cover

Semi-Trad Narrowboat Stern Types

This is a cross between cruiser and traditional stern boats. The boat’s cabin sides extend as far back as a traditional stern, but the cabin roof ends in the same place as a cruiser stern craft.

Narrowboat stern types - Semi traditional

Narrowboat stern types – Semi traditional

So what’s the big deal? Does the rear deck design make much of a difference if you’re living afloat?

Yes, it can. An enormous difference, pleasure or pain, secure or not, hot or cold, convenient or pain in the arse. I think that a traditional stern narrowboat offers you far more liveaboard practicality than either a cruiser or semi-traditional design.

Here’s why.

Practical Living Space

Stem to stern, Orient is 61’6”. Only 47’ 2” is enclosed cabin space. The rest of the boat length is taken up by the bow locker and the front and rear deck. Given that my interior cabin width is 5’10” and that a cruiser stern rear deck can be 8’ longer than those on a trad stern boat, I would lose up to forty square feet of living space. This wouldn’t be a large enough area to worry about in a house. Still, on a narrowboat, you’re looking at an extra bedroom, office, hobby room or living area. It’s a big deal if you live afloat.

Note: Narrowboats, like Orient, with midships rooms housing vintage engines cost you more living space. My boatman’s cabin and engine room use fifteen feet of cabin space. My effective living space is therefore reduced to thirty-two feet.

Secure Storage Space

A traditional stern narrowboat usually has an engine room with the engine hidden behind soundproofed boards, which gives you plenty of secure storage space. I don’t have as much room for storing tools on Orient. My boat has a vintage engine displayed for all to see in its own midships room. There are double doors on both the port and the starboard side which are usually open during the summer months. The boat’s two-cylinder Lister JP2 is so slow running that it doesn’t produce much heat. The only reason for these doors is so that a proud boat owner can show off his pride and joy, buffed to gleaming perfection. 

I am one such owner, ridiculously proud and emotionally attached to an inanimate object. I think I need to get out more.

I had the more popular traditional stern engine room on my first narrowboat, James No 194. With the boat’s Mercedes engine boxed in, I had ample storage space for a large amount of gear. You can see it all in this post’s photograph.

You lose all of that safe storage space with a cruiser stern and, to a slightly lesser degree, with a semi-traditional stern.

The engine is in a bay beneath your feet, protected by deck boards constructed from marine ply. The engine bay is rarely secured. Some cruiser stern owners use the engine bay space for storage. It’s a decision born of necessity, but stacking things around the engine is asking for trouble. I know from personal experience.

I accompanied one of our engineers on a call out a few years ago on a call out for a Hurricane heating system. We had a phone call from the owners of a boat with one installed. They weren’t at all happy. A month after having the heater fitted, it stopped working.

Given that you usually turn your heater on when you’re cold, the caller suggested that he and his wife were close to death’s door. The heating system was rubbish, he said. Not fit for purpose, he claimed. He threatened legal action, jumped up and down a bit and demanded an immediate visit to get this rubbish bit of kit working.

Calcutt’s fitter took longer introducing himself than he did “fixing” the problem. Here’s a tip for you if you buy a cruiser stern boat. Don’t store your deck mop in the engine bay with the wooden handle resting on your heater’s on/off switch. The decision can have embarrassing repercussions, especially if you’ve done a bit of macho chest-beating before the cause of your unhappiness is discovered.

Find out all you need to know about stern types (and everything else about living afloat) on a bespoke Discovery Day cruise

You need to thoroughly research life afloat before investing in a narrowboat home. A Discovery Day cruise offers you a unique taste of life on England's inland waterways, and an opportunity to learn narrowboat helmsmanship. 

Dry Engine Bay

Another benefit of having an enclosed engine bay in a traditional stern boat is being able to keep the weather out.

Cruiser and semi-traditional stern engine bays are covered by marine ply deck boards. These wooden sheets are supported by C shaped steel channel. The channel usually has several drain holes to collect any rainwater which finds its way through the boards. During a typical English season, any season, there’s enough rain to keep the drain holes fully employed.

The problem with these narrow diameter drainage holes is that they block easily. Falling leaves and mud carried on board by boater boots slips between the board joins into the channel. Once the drains are blocked or restricted, rainwater cascades over the channel sides into the engine bay.

Time passes, the wooden deck boards decay, the gap between them widens, allowing more debris into the channel and more water into the engine bay. There are several cruiser stern narrowboat owners here at the marina who phone our office regularly during the winter months to ask staff to check for water ingress.

Engine bay water ingress isn’t a problem if your bilge pump is working. If your battery bank dies, your shore supply trips or fails, or your bilge pump gives up the ghost, you have a potential problem if you don’t check your engine bay regularly.

We rescued an almost sunken cruiser stern narrowboat a few years back. One of our fitters noticed that the stern was low in the water. We discovered an engine bay half-filled with rainwater and a craft just a day or two from taking a shallow dive four feet to the marina bottom.

The brave fitter started the engine, sidestepped the water plume from an underwater spinning flywheel and aimed for our slipway. Despite rocking alarmingly, the water-logged boat made our slipway narrowboat trolley without sinking. The owner received a bill for our rescue work and a recommendation to replace his badly worn deck boards.

You can reduce or eliminate engine bay water ingress by regularly checking and clearing drain hoes and replacing boards. But that won’t help if you need to work on your engine. And it certainly won’t help you if you’re paying someone else to do the work for you.

There’s much gnashing of teeth and toys thrown out of prams here at Calcutt if the engineers are forced to service the engine of a cruiser stern boat on a wet day. I spoke to one self-employed vintage engine expert recently who point blank refuses to work on engines open to the elements. Crouching in a cold engine bay on a wet day trying to grip the tools with numb fingers is no fun at all.

Cruising Warmth

Cold weather boating on a cruiser stern narrowboat is an unpleasant experience. I’ve been closer to hyperthermia on summer trips aboard cruiser stern narrowboats than I have on nine-hour winter cruises on my traditional stern narrowboat.

Nine years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a Calcutt Boats built Clipper south on the Oxford canal to a trade show on the mighty Thames. Clippers are fifty-foot cruiser stern boats and, like all other cruiser stern narrowboats, standing motionless at the helm for hours on end can be a painful experience, even during summer months.

On one bitterly cold summer’s day, the second of four long cruising days, I suffered mild hyperthermia. I didn’t own a decent set of waterproofs at the time. Soaked by half an hour’s heavy rain, chilled to the bone and shivering violently, I had to stop for a while to recover. I lit the stove, filled it with coal briquettes and sat as close as I could until my wet jacket steamed. Early afternoon in mid-July and I was forced to sit in front of a blazing fire until I regained feeling in my hands.

That was not a fun boating experience.

A cruiser stern offers zero weather protection. You stand in an open space far removed from your heated cabin. The wind swirls around your legs and slowly freezes you from the feet up. I have passed hundreds of cruiser stern narrowboats moving during the winter months. The poor souls at the helm look like modern-day mummies, wrapped from head to foot in all that they own. With faces covered in scarves, hoods and hats, they twitch a frigid head in icy greeting as they pass. Winter cruising doesn’t have to be that unpleasant.

It doesn’t have to be unpleasant at all.

A traditional stern narrowboat protects you from the elements. You can stand inside your cabin with your upper body in your open hatch space like a tank commander (but with much less chance of being blown to bits). Your cabin will shield your lower body from icy winds and heat from your running engine will warm your feet and legs.

Orient’s engine sits in its own room, too far away and too slow running to offer me any heat. Other than the warm and fluffy feeling I get inside when I listen to its mesmerising beat. But I don’t mind, I have something much better to keep me warm.

Boats like mine don’t suit everyone. Having an engine in its own room mean that you have lest usable living space. But you also get a boatman’s cabin, usually with a second solid fuel stove, a range, to heat your boat’s stern.

I cruised south from Tattenhall marina to Calcutt Boats in February last year. The journey took eleven days, three of them through increasingly thick ice. My 21hp Lister struggled to push me along the frozen canals. I encountered the thickest ice as I forged my way towards Birmingham from Wolverhampton. I ground to a halt beneath the Factory flight in Tipton.

Even with my trusty two-cylinder engine using most of its horses, I failed to break through. Stuck in a glistening white field and with heat rising from the range beneath me, I stopped for lunch. Cynthia handed me an insulated mug of stew. I enjoyed an alfresco meal in a frozen landscape, warm as toast and very, very happy.

Cruising Convenience

There’s more to pleasant cruising than keeping warm. Once you become proficient at the helm, a narrowboat journey is all about watching the world slip ever so slowly by. Canal guides help you pinpoint your location and provide you with information about the landmarks around you. Binoculars give you a better view of passing wildlife, a camera helps capture enduring memories and food and drink sustain you as you cruise. Having somewhere convenient to put your cruising accessories adds to your cruising pleasure.

With a traditional stern narrowboat, your cabin roof and hatch provide you with an accessible table for your gear. You can reach it all without fuss and without taking your eye off the watery road. Narrowboat tillers don’t like to be left on their own, much like your car’s steering wheel. The few seconds to reach a cruiser stern’s distant roof is all that’s needed for your wilful boat to abandon its route and head for bramble banks and low hanging willows.

Narrowboat Stern Types Summary

Horses for courses, each to their own. Plenty of liveaboard narrowboat owners live full and happy lives on cruiser stern craft. They enjoy the additional back of boat space, and they can accommodate half a dozen of their best friends on summer season adventures. And welcome the challenge of trying to see over their bobbing heads as guests obstruct the helmsman’s view.

My point of view is subjective. I like what I’ve got and consider trad stern narrowboats the most practical for life on the cut. You may decide otherwise, but now at least you fully understand the pros and cons of different sterns.

Useful Information