Learn about life afloat the easy way

Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.


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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.

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Paul Smith
 

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.