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
“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!