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.
The most essential piece of kit for you as a helmsman is this length of rope, fastened in the right place and always to hand.
I currently moor, and work, at Calcutt Boats on the Grand Union canal close to Napton Junction. There are 2,500 narrowboats moored within a ten-mile radius. The network’s busiest lock flight at Hillmorton is four hours cruise away. The scenery is stunning, and you can be heading in five different directions within a few hours. It’s tremendously popular with narrowboat owners, and with holiday hirers too.
Black Prince, Napton Narrowboats and Kate Boats are all within spitting distance of Calcutt. Added to Calcutt Boats’ dozen hire boats, there are one hundred craft available for hire within a tiny area. Most new hirers start their cruises on a Saturday. Summer Saturdays on the Calcutt flight of three locks are pandemonium, especially at the top of the Calcutt flight of three locks.
That’s where the inexperienced crews from both Black Prince and Napton Narrowboats often converge. And where they meet the equally clueless Calcutt Boats hirers coming up from the company wharf beneath the top lock. The descending crews are nervous because they’re approaching their first lock and petrified because this is the first time they’ve had to stop their unwieldy floating home.
A narrowboat just sixty feet long can be the temporary home for as many as eight holidaymakers. At this point in the cruise, seven of them will flow from the boat onto the towpath like lemmings. Some will leap from the bow and some from the stern and then, like opposing tug of war teams, they’ll haul on the boat’s mooring lines for all they’re worth. At the same time, the poor sod they’ve left at the helm will be revving the Morse control with one hand and aimlessly waving his tiller from side to side with the other. That’s what happens when you’re inexperienced and aren’t working as part of a team.
Sometimes, a couple pulls up on a boat behind them and shows the newbie crew how it’s done. The man at the helm – it’s nearly always a man at the helm on a flight of locks – pulls slowly to the side. His wife steps off and, without a backward glance, walks casually past the screaming hire boat crew. The man on the private boat steps off too. He holds his secret weapon, the bit of kit which enables him to handle his boat easily on his own. That’s despite his craft being even longer than the hire boaters charge.
His secret weapon is, of course, a centre line.
A quick note on knots. I use a lighterman’s hitch on a lock landing. It secures the boat in seconds and is perfect for lock landing bollards. You can see how to tie a lighterman’s hitch here.
You cannot handle a narrowboat effectively without a centre line and, as the name implies, your line should be tied to the centre of your boat roof. I’ve seen some ropes which aren’t secured to the boat centre, often because of the boat design. A non-central centre line is better than nothing, but life is much easier if it’s fixed to the middle of your craft.
If your rope is secured to your craft’s midpoint, and if the line reaches you at the helm, you have total control.
The length of your centre line is critical too. It must be accessible to you at the helm if it’s going to be of any use. Some boaters like a long line, one which will reach past the stern. Long ropes are useful if you need to step off the back of your boat onto solid ground and then pull your craft sideways so that it’s parallel with the bank. Boaters visiting Calcutt Boats’ wharf sometimes need to do this if, for example, they want to empty their pump out toilet tanks. Reversing and pulling the boat around is much easier than coming at a concrete wall bow first and trying to judge the distance from the boat’s helm sixty or seventy feet away.
A long centre line is a double-edged sword. It’s handy if you need to step off the back of a boat, but you need to watch it like a hawk. If the line falls from your roof, it will drop into the water and head like a guided missile for your propeller. Fouling your prop in this way can be frightening, inconvenient and very expensive.
I’ve done it once. One of my Discovery Day guests actually let it slip off the roof, but it was my fault for not noticing.
The rope, draped over the end of my boat pole, fouled the propeller and instantly pulled taught. It tightened so quickly that it flipped the pole ten feet in the air. The bang of the engine stopping was followed almost immediately by the crash of the pole landing on the roof, narrowly missing one of my guests.
I was lucky. The sudden strain on the drive shaft can tear the engine from its mounting and cause extensive damage. Even though the engine wasn’t damaged, I was. On a cold February day, I had to lay face down on my back deck for half an hour with my arm up to my shoulder in icy canal water. I had to feel blindly through my weed hatch to remove a dozen iron-tight bands of 12mm rope from the propeller. I came away from the ordeal with a ruined polo shirt, a forearm rubbed raw from the abrasive weed hatch surround, and a healthy respect for centre line etiquette.
Please learn from my mistake. Watch your centre line like a hawk if its long enough to reach the back of your boat. And wear a cheap top if you need to dive down your weed hatch. Here’s a forum post with more information about centre line length.
Centre lines are not for decoration. If you leave one coiled prettily on your boat roof, you might as well throw it away. And if you have rope snagging obstacles on your roof – chimneys, poles, planks, boat hooks, wheelbarrows, potted plants etc. – make sure that you have two centre lines, one running down each side of your boat. You don’t want to step off your boat with your rope to realise that the line is caught on the wrong side of an expensive chimney. You then pull on your rope and lose your stack, or drop your line and say goodbye to your boat. Neither option is desirable, so you need to make sure that your centre lines are obstruction-free before you need to use them.
There you go. You can’t handle a narrowboat effectively without a centre line, which is a bit of a problem if you have a pram cover on your boat. You can read about that particular problem here.
I have a love-hate relationship with pram covers.
I love to hate them.
In case you’re not familiar with the term, a pram cover is canvass over a steel or aluminium frame. It’s often used to protect the rear deck of a cruiser or semi-traditional stern narrowboat. I don’t think that cruisers stern boats are as practical as traditional stern craft for living aboard, but that’s a highly subjective point of view. In the interest of balance, here’s a forum post written by a liveaboard boater who adores pram covers.
Anyway, from a boat handling point of view, I think pram covers stink. That’s another subjective point of view but bear with me. I think I can justify my dislike.
I have to handle different narrowboats every day. Boats are dragged onto Calcutt Boats slipway most days, swapped with a freshly blacked boat. The painted boat has to one returned to its mooring, carefully of course, because it’s hull is sporting a flawless coating of bitumen.
Marinas are notoriously tricky for boat handling. Flat bottomed narrowboats with acres of cabin sides don’t make the task easy. Even in the slightest breeze, they skate over the water like a toy plastic duck. Add a pram cover, and you compound your problems.
The pram cover increases wind resistance. What’s more, because you’re protected from the elements, you can’t feel the wind on your face. Knowing where the wind is coming from is essential. You always want to do any delicate manoeuvring into the wind and not against it. With a pram cover protecting you from the great outdoors, you don’t have a clue what’s happening outside. In fact, quite often, you can’t see where you’re going either.
Moving a marina narrowboat fitted with a pram cover spoils my day. I know it’s not a third-world problem, but I live in paradise. Insignificant issues are all I have.
Many aspiring narrowboat owners are seduced by the thought of weather-protected cruising. “Oh, how much fun,” they think, “cruising at a warm and dry helm on a rainy day!” No standing out in the elements enduring, or enjoying, fickle nature. It’s narrowboat ownership without getting cold and wet. And it’s narrowboat cruising often filled with stress. Consider this fictitious but realistic example.
The day begins well enough. You start your engine and reverse off your mooring. Then you head for the marina entrance with a smile on your face. You’re cocooned from the elements and feel smug as you pass a poor bloke at the helm of a trad stern boat, his legs bowed under the weight of his waterlogged jacket. You’re delighted you don’t have to get THAT close to nature.
You stand under a rainproof canvas cover fitted with plastic windows. With cold rain on the outside and warm bodies and a piping hot engine inside, you have the perfect recipe for condensation. Your enjoyable cruise now becomes a constant battle to keep your view ahead mist free. You give up eventually, roll down your opaque window and let the rain in.
“Things aren’t too bad,” you reason, “I’m still protected from the nasty wet stuff falling from above.” That’s fine until you reach your first low bridge.
Your pram hood shudders and compresses as it catches the bridge arch. Under a hail of dislodged mortar, you leave the bridge behind with only your pride damaged. You were lucky this time, but what about the next bridge, and the one after that? A carefree cruise in the rain has become a wet day of worry.
You’re moving slowly, debating whether to try lowering your hood to avoid potential damage when you hear the angry tooting of a narrowboat horn behind you. You peer through the haze of condensation covering your rear window and see the bow of a boat an arm’s length from your stern. You hear an angry shout from the back of the following boat and see a figure frantically waving for you to move over.
Now that you’re out of the way, the inconvenienced boat surges past. The helmsman shouts as he passes. “What’s the matter with you?” he demands angrily. “I’ve been trying to pass you for a mile. Can’t you see out of that thing?” He waves dismissively at your stern cover and speeds ahead shaking his head. You begin to think that two thousand pounds for a rear deck cover perhaps wasn’t the best use of your hard-earned cash.
Your confidence in your new all-weather cruising companion sinks even further at your journey’s midpoint. You’ve reached the junction where you plan to turn your boat before heading back to base. You’ve done enough cruising to realise the importance of working with the wind. It’s a breezy day, and you know that you need to turn into the wind. You’ll lose control of your boat if you turn against it. Before you had your pram cover fitted, you could feel any air movement on your face. Now you can’t. The cover blocks the wind and any chance of knowing which way to go. There are no visible trees to give you an indication so, knowing that you and a fifty, fifty chance of getting it right, you turn to the left… and get blown straight into a reed bank.
With the aid of your pole and a mooring rope thrown to a passing dog walker, you manage to get your boat around and then head sadly back to your mooring. That’s where your last pram cover problem awaits you.
Before you had your pram cover fitted, you had a time tested routine for coming onto your marina mooring. The prevailing wind pushed your starboard side away from the often slippery wooden finger pier. To prevent crashing into the boat moored on your port side, you were used to steering your boat inches away from the wooden walkway. You grabbed your centre line and stepped carefully off your rear deck. Then you could hold your craft out of harm’s way while your crew secured your mooring lines. Life isn’t quite so easy now that you have a pram cover in the way.
You realise to your dismay that your centre lines are now beyond reach. Your pram cover now occupies the space where the centre lines would usually terminate. Now the only way to reach your centre line is to sidle along your gunnel like a tightrope walker over a wet and muddy safety net. The manoeuvre is made more difficult by the vertical pram cover side. There are no handholds, and the cover pushes you back over the water. Rather than step off with your centre line, you are forced to jump off the boat without it and then hope that you can dash along the pier to grab the rope off your boat roof. It’s not a bad plan, but you fail.
Your boat bumps gently against the pier, and you step off. Before you can reach your line, a gust blows your boat out of reach and into your neighbour’s boat, the aptly named Too Shiny For Cruising. As usual, your neighbour is leaning over his gunwale, touching up waterline scratches with an artist’s paintbrush. Twenty tonnes of steel crashing sideways into his pride and joy does not please him. Today has not been a good day.
Even though my view is subjective, many narrowboat owners feel the same. Some of the narrowboats sold at Calcutt Boats are fitted with pram covers. Their new owners often cruise the canals close to Calcutt Boats for months after moving on board. Most set off on their maiden voyages with the pram covers intact. Some are taken off after a few short weeks. I was recently given the job of moving one such boat.
A lady phoned Calcutt Boats with some tragic news. Her estranged husband purchased a narrowboat on brokerage there earlier in the year. The police called to tell her that the man had died. He’d apparently fallen off his boat and drowned. She wanted Calcutt Boats to move both his craft and car and store them at the marina.
I was asked to bring the boat back from its canalside mooring four miles away on the combined Grand Union and Oxford canal close to Braunston Junction. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the day. Much as I enjoy taking a boat for a cruise, and getting paid for it, the untimely demise of another inland waterways boater dampened my enthusiasm. As did the memory of the times I had moved this boat earlier in the year.
Fortunately, I didn’t have the pram cover problems to deal with. The owner clearly didn’t think much of rear deck covers either. The canvas panels lay in a sodden pile on the boat roof, and the aluminium frame was folded as flat as it would go. It wasn’t flat enough to be out of harm’s way, but folded and flexible was better than fixed and in my way. My two-hour cruise back to Calcutt in light rain was far more pleasant than it would have been if I had been encased in canvas.
One final noteworthy point about my journey; if you want to enjoy quiet cruising, don’t try it on a boat fitted with a Barrus Shanks engine. At tickover, the engine sounds like an enthusiastically rattled bucket of bolts, only not quite as pleasant.
Even on a dull day, the scenery was magnificent. Sheep flecked the shoulder of a nearby hill like woolly dandruff. A buzzard circled lazily overhead, and adolescent swans effortlessly kept as I negotiated the canal’s many blind bends. I’m sure that the natural waterway sounds would have calmed me if I could have heard them over the rattling engine. I was forced to cruise at slightly less than the speed of light to avoid the annoying tickover rattle. Nature lovers, choose your engines carefully… And think long and hard about fitting a pram cover.
I took my first boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads in May 1953, when I was 9¾ and did not return for another boating holiday on the Broads until July 2009. My extreme tardiness in returning should not be taken, in any way, as a slight to the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads for it was this holiday that introduced me, and my family, to the joys of boating. In 1957 and 1961 we explored the Thames and in 1963 we took the first of many canal holidays. During the following 46 years I explored our waterways system, 15 of these on our own narrowboat, which we sold in 2009. Our first boating holiday after this was back to the Broads.
The broads, from which the whole area takes its name, are a number of lakes, which were at one time thought to be natural features but are now known to mainly be the result of medieval peat digging. Most of these broads are connected by a system of rivers and canals giving a cruising area of about 125 miles with no locks. In the north the main river is the Bure, into which the rivers Ant, Thurne and other waterways run. In the south the main rivers are the Yare and Waveney. The rivers of the north and south are both united and divided by Great Yarmouth, where the River Bure meets the River Yare, uniting the two river systems, although here navigation is restricted by the need to time a passage to and from Great Yarmouth according to the state of the tide. Unless you plan well ahead you may find you need to make this passage at the crack of dawn or shortly before dusk. Although the whole of the Broads can be affected by tides this is not normally noticeable until a mile or two from Great Yarmouth. As we only had a week on the Broads we confined our cruising to the northern rivers, cuts and broads.
We picked up the boat at Wroxham, the place where my family had rented a bungalow with a rowing boat and a motor launch back in the fifties. Wroxham can claim to be the capital of the Broads as it has more hire boat companies than anywhere else. It also boasts the “largest village store in the world”, Roy’s of Wroxham, which is in fact a department store that would be the envy of most small towns, plus a large supermarket and other retail outlets. We decided that for our first afternoon of cruising we would go just over three miles up the Bure to the head of navigation at Coltishall. The man from the boatyard steered us under the low Wroxham Bridge and then left us to familiarise ourselves with the boat. I must say that it took me longer than I had expected to get used to the wheel steering of a light cruiser again after many years of narrow boating.
The river winds its way through wooded banks but as it approaches Coltishall the view opens out and soon we see a broad strip of mown grass with a long length of moorings and beyond them the welcoming sight of two of the village pubs, The Rising Sun and The King’s Head. From here the Upper Bure (or Aylesham) Navigation once ran 9½ miles and 5 locks using the course of the upper Bure River plus a mile of cut to Aylesham Basin. This was authorised by an Act of 1773, work started in 1774 and it opened in October 1779 but was abandoned in 1928. The attractive village is up the hill from the moorings and has a few shops, another pub and a thatched church.
The next day we came back down river to Wroxham and stopped to wait for a pilot to take us under the bridge. The boatyard had asked us to do that and they soon sent someone to steer the boat through. The Broads has very few bridges and most of them have a reasonable amount of headroom, Wroxham has only 2.34 metres (7ft 8ins) at the centre and Potter Heigham a foot less, but more of that later. We continued down the river until we got to Wroxham Broad, here there is a choice of route, either to continue down the river or to go onto the Broad and return to the river at the other end, which is what we did.
Wroxham was the first of many broads we saw on this trip. They are great favourites with the sailing fraternity as they give plenty of room for manoeuvre, especially when tacking to make progress against the wind. This particular broad seemed very popular with motor boaters too, many it seems take this detour as a change from the river route and we found ourselves in a procession of boats making for the exit at the far end. Beyond Horning we stopped at moorings at Cockshoot Dyke for lunch. This was an example of the many moorings that are provided on the Broads, usually with wooden decking and wooden mooring posts, steel rings or both. We were always able to find a purpose built mooring, which was just as well as we were not equipped with mooring spikes or a hammer.
After lunch we went down the Bure to the mouth of the Ant, then up the River Ant to Stalham. This trip includes crossing Barton Broad, which forms part of the navigation. Not all of the broad is of navigable depth so motorboats must keep between the red and white capped wooden piles that mark the channel on this and many other broads. To reach Stalham one must turn off the Ant onto Stalham Dyke. As we approached Stalham we met a whole armada of slow moving cruisers that made the river resemble rush hour on a busy motorway. At first we were puzzled by the presence of all these various craft near the end of the navigation but we soon found that the end of the dyke is a mass of cuts housing several boat hire companies and concluded that this was the Saturday afternoon rush of hirers setting off. Stalham is also the home to the Museum of the Broads. The busy town is across the main road and up the hill.
Before leaving the Ant we went to Wayford Bridge, past picturesque Hunsett Windmill and the junction with the derelict North Walsham and Dilham Canal, and down the narrow channel to Dilham. On our way back down the Ant we also made our way up Lime Kiln Dyke, which is a turning off Barton Broad. A good map is essential for finding these small exits from large broads as unless you have a good general idea of where the exit is located it is not easy to find them. At the end of the Dyke is the village of Neatishead, where the Old Saddlery restaurant provided an excellent Sunday lunch.
Having returned to the River Bure it is less than three miles down river to the River Thurne junction, our next river system to explore. We stopped that evening at Ludham Staithe on Womack Water (£3 mooring fee). The village has a good pub and shops. Our next port of call, Potter Heigham, is much more a holiday village than a typical traditional Norfolk village; it also has a low bridge that hire boats are forbidden to pass without a pilot. We paid our £10 return fee and made our way up to West Somerton. The highlight of this journey is the passage through the edge of Martham Broad, which is managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust as a nature reserve.
Taking the Candle Dyke turning off the Thurne leads through two more broads and to the entrance to Meadow Dyke, leading to Horsey Mere. We took this route to Horsey Mere Staithe, where we paid our second and last mooring fee (£5) but in return got the most beautiful mooring of the holiday, the Horsey Windpump and the rows of moored sailings boats invoking the timeless spirit of the Broads.
There were more delights and contrasts to come, from the narrow channel of Waxham Cut, with a restricted turning space at the end, to the wide expanses of Hickling Broad, where the breeze created some rough water even on a pleasant summers day. We went down the Bure as far as Acle Bridge and explored South Walsham and Malthouse broads as well as stopping at the delightful and popular village of Horning. Stopping here can be difficult as moorings on the village side of the river are restricted, there are moorings on the opposite side but no bridge to get across. Perhaps this explains why so many boats on the broads trail a tender in their wake.
So what has changed on the Broads in the last 56 years? Wroxham and some of the other waterside villages have more riverside homes and most of the old wooden bungalows that were once so common have disappeared. There are more marina style boatyards, more hire boats and many more purpose built moorings. Perhaps more important is what has stayed the same; the tranquil backwaters, wildlife, the variety of scenery, the windmills and the sailing craft – all the things that first attracted the Victorians to this part of the world.
The thought of narrowboat ownership conjures images of long and lazy days gently cruising the tranquil connected waterways of the English and Welsh canal and river network, stopping when and where you want to enjoy a day or more sitting quietly on the towpath or river bank in the warm summer sun, enjoying a delicious boat-cooked meal and a glass or two of wine.
It’s true, narrowboat ownership can lead to an idyllic lifestyle but, contrary to many aspiring narrowboat owners’ expectations, it’s not a particularly cheap one. The ongoing costs are comparable to running a small family home.
There are a huge number of narrowboats for sale at any one time with over 1,000 on the popular Apolloduck web site alone. The choice and price range is both staggering and bewildering. A narrowboat can cost as little as £10,000 for a project craft to more than £150,000 for new boat built to your own specification.
The initial purchase price isn’t all you have to consider when buying a boat. Getting an out of water survey to check the integrity of the hull is absolutely essential, as is ensuring that you keep something in reserve for the inevitable post purchase remedial work. A narrowboat may have been on brokerage for a year or more. Battery banks often need replacing and there’s often rust to treat and paint to touch up, especially on boats at the lower end of the market. All of the on board equipment needs checking before the sale is completed as most boats are sold “as seen”.
Once you’ve parted with a substantial amount of cash for the boat, you’ll have to part with much more to keep your boat both legal and in good condition.
Your largest ongoing expense is likely to be your mooring fees. Unless you plan to continuously cruise the canal network, ensuring that you move on at least every fourteen days, you are obliged by the Canal & River Trust’s licensing regulations to declare a home mooring, somewhere you keep your boat when you aren’t cruising. A marina mooring will cost you in excess of £2,000 a year in most of the country but the cost will rise the closer you are to London where you can pay up to £10,000 every year for the pleasure of parking your boat.
Your next largest expense will be your license. Your narrowboat license is determined by the length of your boat and ranges from £700 a year for a 40′ boat up to £1,000 for the longest 70′ narrowboats on the canal network. In addition to your license, you will also need a BSS certificate, a boat MOT and insurance.
Although there are one or two wooden narrowboats on the waterways, most have steel hulls and steel cabins. The steel needs to be protected to prevent rust which means that every two or three years you have to take your boat out of the water to paint the hull and every seven to ten years have the cabin professionally painted if you aren’t going to do the work yourself. Professional cabin painting can cost in excess of £100 per foot.
Narrowboats need regular maintenance. In addition to regular engine servicing, you’ll find that normal household items need far more care than their dry land equivalent as your floating home is often subject to intense vibration and regular knocks and shakes from content with canal and river banks and concrete or brick lock walls.
Utilities on board can be costly, especially off grid electrical generation. Most boats use propane for cooking which is reasonably economical but beware if your new boat only has gas powered central heating. Propane gas is one of the most expensive ways to keep your boat warm and the gas produces a wet heat which aids condensation. If you are considering living on board, a solid fuel stove is the most reliable and one of the most economical forms of heating for your boat.
You’ll probably want to use your boat to cruise the network rather than keep it in one spot as a static floating home. Your diesel engine will probably consume somewhere between one and one and a half litres per hour so, at an average cruising speed of just over two miles an hour your boat will use as much diesel as a large four wheel drive car. Unlike the car though, you can live in your boat in comfort.
Many boat owners will tell you, only partly in jest, that B.O.A.T. is an acronym. It stands for Bring Out Another Thousand. Living afloat can be an enormously enjoyable but not particularly cheap lifestyle but buying a narrowboat for recreational cruising is a very expensive hobby.
Paul Smith has been living in his own floating home for the last five years, moored in the idyllic setting of Calcutt Boats’ Meadows marina where he has worked at the marina by day and blogged about life afloat by night. He’s produced a free guide for anyone thinking of buying a narrowboat, particularly those buying one with a view to living afloat full time. You can download the guide here.
UK houseboats come in several forms; craft that can negotiate oceans, coastal waters, rivers and of course the traditional canal network narrowboats or, as they are sometimes called, canal boats.
This article concentrates on the charming and gentle way of life that you can experience living on narrowboats.
Narrowboats have earned their name because they are just that… narrow. The canal system in the UK was developed at the height of the industrial revolution. To keep costs as low as possible, the new waterways were reduced to the minimum practical dimensions. The canals just allowed two boats to pass in opposite directions. The locks – the increases and decreases in gradient along the route – were often built just over seven feet wide which meant that the maximum practical width for the boats passing through them was, and still is, just 6′ 10″. An average adult can lay with feet touching one side and hands touching the other.
Today there are very few working boats on the canal system. It’s now usually cheaper and far faster to transport goods by road. However, there are now more narrowboats using the canal network for leisure than there ever where for commercial purposes. An increasing number of narrowboat owners are now living on their boats full time. I am one of them.
My narrowboat, James, is a very comfortable compact home. At 62′, James is a good length for a houseboat. James is a traditional design which means that nearly all of the length is under cover. The entrance is via a stern hatch directly into the engine room. A door leads to the aft cabin (my bedroom) with a fixed double bed. Next is the small bathroom, followed by a further bedroom/study. Next is a small lobby where I store my wine and where I can access the narrowboat’s exterior via hatches either side. Finally there is the kitchen and living area.
Life on my UK houseboat is a joy. I can do just about everything you can do in your house but probably not quite as quickly or easily. But the location more than makes up for that and, if I get fed up with the view, I can always move my house!
The day begins at 06:15. I have a routine. Because my gas kettle takes a while to boil, I fill the kettle, turn on the gas and jump in the shower. Actually it’s a 4′ long shallow bath with a shower attachment but it does the job. By the time I’ve showered, dried myself and dressed, the kettle has boiled.
At this time of year, I don’t have to worry too much about overnight and early morning heating. In the winter I have to make sure that my coal stove lasts the night and is rekindled first thing in the morning. In late April with fairly mild nights and warm days, I can get away with turning on the electric fire for an hour while I have breakfast and prepare for work.
After breakfast, I empty the ash from the stove if it’s been used, say hello to the ducks, geese and swans outside the boat. I’m off to work at 08:00 but I don’t have to worry about commuting. I work in the marina where I moor so it’s a three minute walk through woodland to start the day.
My lunch break is for half an hour at 13:00. I come home for a sandwich, cup of coffee and a quick read of my book laying on the narrowboat roof in the sunshine then another three minute commute for the afternoon session.
Work finishes at 17:30. At 17:33 after a grueling commute I’m back at home for the evening. It’s back on the roof for another coffee and more reading before my domestic chores begin while there’s still some warmth in the sun.
I must remember to make my daily checks; gas, electricity, water, kindling and coal. All can run out. Some can’t be replenished until the following day if I run out after the shops have closed.
There’s a gauge in my living area to indicate the level of water in my tank. I can top up my tank anytime but I like to do it in the light (and when it’s not raining). Gas isn’t really a problem. I have one cylinder in use and always keep a full one spare. Electricity isn’t too bad either. I’m plugged into a meter controlled mains supply. I top it up by inserting a pre payment card available at the marina shop. If I run out of electricity my lights will still work because they are powered by the boat batteries. Their charge will last until I can get to the shop. Coal and kindling is more of a problem.
On a cold winter’s night, there’s no finer feeling than sitting in front of a roaring stove. Coal is very difficult to light though so if I don’t have kindling or fire lighters, I can forget the fire. I won’t die if I run out of coal. I still have my little electric fire. The electric fire doesn’t work off the batteries though so if I run out of coal AND electricity it’s very cold in the boat. I just have to go to bed early.
There’s one other check I have to make – the toilet. There are two narrowboat toilet systems; one has a large waste holding tank which can last for two to three weeks. The other is commonly known as a Portapotti. A Portapotti is actually a brand name and is a type of cassette toilet. It has a small removable waste box directly under the toilet bowl. It must be carried off the boat and emptied at a disposal point every four to five days. I have a Porta Potti. The waste disposal disgusted me at first but the toilet waste cassette is very well sealed so there’s little smell and no mess. It’s a small price to pay for living on board.
After my chores I have my evening meal. The boat’s kitchen is as well equipped as any dry land home so I can cook what I like. At this time of the year though it’s usually a salad, some fruit and a glass or two of red wine.
After dinner, I sit down at my laptop for an hour or two’s browsing or work on my web site. Connecting to the internet is quite straight forward but requires a little exercise. I connect via a USB dongle. The signal within the boat is poor so I have to feed the lead through a window then climb onto the roof to pull it to the highest point on the boat. When it’s there I can surf and download at speeds that don’t frustrate me too much.
To rest my eyes, I just have to look up from my work, look out of the window and watch the wildlife on the marina. Tonight, the geese seem to have upset one of the swans. He’s chasing them across the water. They are faster than him but he has them worried.
At 22:30 I finish browsing, turn off my laptop, climb onto the roof to retrieve my dongle, and read for half an hour before bed. I don’t watch television. I can’t. I don’t have one. There are plenty of narrowboats on the marina with televisions but they use long aerials to ensure that they receive a reasonable signal. I don’t want the expense or the unsightly aerial and I’m really quite happy with my books.
After a hard day’s work, a glass or two of wine, the gentle rocking of the boat, the sound of the wind or the rain on the windows and the sound of the wildlife, getting to sleep is no problem nor is staying asleep before another gentle day tomorrow.
The information below has been kindly provided by liveaboard narrowboat owner Allan Cazely. It’s additional information on the subject which many narrowboat owners are obsessed with. I wrote briefly about the subject in this post several years ago.
Composting v Other Types of Toilet
I have read a couple of issues regarding fitting out of a wide beam boat. One issue took on board the always popular subject of toilets. In this case a Composting Toilet was chosen I would like to expand on Composting Toilets, as I have had one, (Self Installed), on my boat since it met the water over 8-years ago. They are not as attractive and simple as one would be led to believe! They are excellent when you learn about them. In the first couple of years, I struggled with my Canadian “Envirolet” and nearly decided on changing it for something else. However, today, I wouldn’t change it to a different type of toilet, as it is so flexible and to date, never so overfull that it cannot be used. From this angle, it beats all other toilet methods –
Holding Tanks – Gravity Type Toilet
Holding tanks have to be emptied as soon as they are full, The “Dump Through” type that depends on gravity, where the bowl sits over one end of the tank in the loo, whilst the other end is usually under the double bed, is quite popular. However, when the tank is full, the bowl will not empty and your loo cannot be used until the tank is emptied.
Vacu-Flush Electric Toilets
If you have a Vacu-Flush type of toilet, it is possible to carry on using it when the tank indicator shows full, overfilling the holding tank. This has shed loads of problems, if this happens. The effluent then goes up the vent pipe, as it can only go in that direction, and then the effluent then exits through the fine gauze, (That stops the flies getting in). This then becomes blocked and the tank will pressurise!
In severe cases, the tank can split and the boat ends up floating in effluent. This is a rare occurrence but can happen. If the tank is pressurised, there is then the problem of emptying the tank. As soon as one takes the screw caps tops off the discharge pipe, (Or the water flush a smaller pipe outlet), the effluent shoots into the air just like a burst main water pipe. I have experienced this syndrome with my friend’s boat on the last pump out. The fountain of effluent lasted about 4-minutes and was quite spectacular! I was covered in the stuff and as soon as possible I had a bath and a complete replacement of everything I was wearing, plus washing my hair about 3- times, before I felt clean again. The old clothes went straight into the washing machine for; first a rinse and spin, then a full wash program.
Cassette Toilets Types
Cassette types of toilet need to be emptied about every 3 or 4 days. With extra cassettes, visits to the sani-stations can be extended
So now you have to decide on your preference of loo types.
Composting Types of Toilet
These are invariably an “All-in One” Unit, usually free standing, like the Cassette types. There are basically 2 types of composting loos put into boats. The earlier types had one holding area for solids and liquid and depended on the liquids evaporating, leaving the solids to decompose.
In the UK, the relative humidity is too high and evaporation fails to take place. In almost all cases, this is the cause of ongoing problems that cannot be solved. People try and heat the casing to encourage evaporation, but it is rarely successful. This is my personal experience with my Envirolet. (This had a 220-vac heating element). This needs my engine to be run all day long to cope with the energy used – OK if you are hooked up to a land supply – Still expensive to run though!
In the last few years, modified composting toilets have appeared on the market. These have 2-compatrtments, one for the solids, and one for the fluid effluent. This is usually successful in this Country and doesn’t need additional (Expensive) energy. These toilets are still simple and uncomplicated. The only difference being that the bowl is so designed that urine is filtered in a funnel into a removable tank. Urine is sterile and can easily be disposed of, almost anywhere. In the case of my “Envirolet”, I modified an existing removable bowl and modified it to separate the liquid and solids.
The solids stay in my toilet, as before, and the “Rake” and “Spreader” bar handles are used just the same. I was able to use a flexible polythene pipe, of suitable diameter, to pass through the front of the box, into a 5-litre substantial canister and this is easily emptied. It can be screw topped and put one side for later disposal (Sani-station or suitable field).
Since making this modification to my boat, I have found my toilet easy to maintain and easy to empty. All the solids are dry and friable with absolutely no unpleasant aromas. Now that I have learned from experience, any fly infestation, (Yes, it does happen in hot weather sometimes), Can be dealt with easily and quickly.
If one wants a summary and personal opinion, I would think that a composting toilet is more popular with male boaters, than female boaters. The main reason being that one can see the solids at the point of use, when the bowl flap is opened and some females would not like the thought of emptying the composted, dry mass. I need to “Service” my boat about three time per year. This suits me fine. I do empty my fluid waste probably on a weekly basis. That’s simple and quick. My toilet doesn’t cost me any emptying costs, unlike pump-outs, either.
It has the convenience of only emptying the solids 3 or 4 times a year and unlike cassette types, I do not have to find a Sani-station either The later types of 2-part composting toilets start at around £500 upwards.
Oh, what a life! Seven days a week of gentle relaxation watching the world go by as you sip a never-ending supply of gin and tonics from the comfort of your luxurious floating home. That’s the dream but not quite the reality.
Finding A Place To Moor
On dry land it’s easy. The home you buy is fixed at the location you bought it. Unless you’ve bought a mobile home, there’s no problem finding a place to put it. In fact, a major factor in the buying process was probably your house’s location. It’s not so easy with a narrowboat.
Whether you intend to use your new narrowboat for occasional cruising or as a full time home, the question of where you are going to moor it is something you need to consider BEFORE you make the purchase.
Unfortunately for you, you can’t moor long term at the first pleasant spot you see on the canal bank. British Waterways – who control the vast majority of the canal network – have very strict regulations controlling both duration and purpose of narrowboat moorings. You have to find a dedicated mooring either on the cut or in a marina. Residential moorings in ANY location are very hard to come by.
In your house, you don’t have to think about your utilities. Providing you pay your bills, everything is on tap. You press a light switch and the light comes on; you turn on a tap and you get a rush of hot and cold water; you turn a dial and your gas hob lights. You don’t have to worry about them running out.
On your narrowboat it’s totally different. Your gas supply is in bottles weighing 50lb or more. Coal for your stove comes in dirty bags weighing just as much. Your electricity has to be generated by your boat’s engine and stored in batteries or, if you moor in a marina, is supplied from a pre payment point next to your boat. You water comes from an on board tank which must be filled by you at least once a week.
What goes in must come out! At some stage you will have to remove your sewage from your boat. If you have a “Porta Potti” toilet with a removable cartridge beneath or behind the bowl, you will need to remove the cartridge and empty the contents at the nearest Elsan disposal point. If your toilet has a large holding tank, you will need to take your boat to the nearest boatyard or marina to have the toilet pumped out. You can expect to pay £10-£20 for each pump out.
Heating Your Boat
Modern boats should have good quality insulation to prevent heat loss in the winter and overheating in the summer. Modern heating systems are quite efficient and can be run at any time of the day or night but heating your boat and heating the water on your boat whatever its age usually requires a degree of thought.
Many boats rely on solid fuel stoves for heating. Solid fuel in the form of coal or wood is difficult to light so you have to ensure that you have a good supply of newspaper and kindling or firelighters to hand. Solid fuel is also dirty. Your stove and the flooring around your stove must be cleaned on a regular basis.
You will want to be able to receive letters by post (and you will need to receive bills too). You need to use a phone, and you will probably want to access the internet and your email. And you possibly want to watch television. All of these methods of communication are just a little more difficult when living on a narrowboat.
Narrowboat marinas and canal-side moorings are often remote from TV and mobile telephone transmitters. And, of course, you are unlikely to be on your postman’s regular route.
There is always a solution though. You can buy a laptop “dongle” to give you access to the internet. You can ask friends or family or the marina where you moor to accept post for you. You WILL be able to receive a mobile phone signal… but you may have to change network provider (and you may have to make your calls with your head out of the window). You can watch television. You can even receive satellite signals providing you fit your boat with an aerial and a correctly aligned dish for satellite signals.
Lack Of Space
A narrowboat is just 6’10” wide and no more than 70’ long (no more than 60’ long if you want to explore all of the canal network). Even on the longest narrowboat, once you have allowed for the foredeck and engine room, you probably have no more than 55’ of living space.
You have to fit all of your worldly possessions into this space. You will have to say goodbye to your three piece suite, wardrobes, chests of drawers, super-size television and music system and the contents of your shed and garage. You simply won’t have room for them all.
You will have to get used to FAR smaller rooms on your boat. You will get used to using every last nook and cranny to hide things. You will have cupboards under your bed, under all of your seating, in your gas locker, your engine room and your foredeck.
Your boat probably won’t have a washing machine. You won’t have the space and, even if you do, you won’t like the power it uses. You will probably have to rely on a local laundry service either in a marina or the nearest town.
It’s quite a list of downsides for you to consider. Living on a narrowboat isn’t for everyone. You have to accept that you will work a little harder to achieve what you take for granted on dry land. Things take a little bit longer. But that’s OK. Life at a slower pace is more relaxing, more rewarding and more enjoyable. Rather than watch mind numbing late night television, you can turn in a little earlier than you would normally and listen to the natural sounds around you; the gentle patter of rain on your roof, the lapping of water against the side of your boat, owls hooting and ducks quacking. Unfortunately, it’s so relaxing you won’t be able to stay awake long enough to enjoy it.
It’s just as important to have a fire safety system in place on a narrowboat as it is in your home, and a fire detector can mean the difference between life and death if an accident does happen. Those in charge of a narrowboat are encouraged to regularly maintain their fire safety systems to ensure that they are offering the utmost protection. It can be all too easy to underestimate the importance of fire safety on a boat, but many fatalities have resulted by not having the right infrastructure in place. Even though they do tend to be fewer fires on water than on land, this does not mean that you do not need a smoke detector on your boat.
Smoke Detectors Save Lives
What makes on-boat smoke alarms even more important is the fact that it can take firefighters longer to arrive at the scene. This is largely due to the fact that boats tend to be located in remote or rural areas, giving the fire more time to spread and destroy everything in sight. If those on a boat are made aware of a fire as soon as it starts to burn, they may be able to put it out themselves with an extinguisher or will at least have more time to escape the boat if this is not an option. Those residing or staying on a narrowboat are urged to constantly be aware of their geographical location so that fire rescue teams can reach them if a fire does strike.
Narrowboat Smoke Alarms: As Important as Domestic Smoke Alarms
It’s important to devise a fire safety plan as soon as you get on board, and ensure that everyone staying on the boat is aware of the steps that they should take if a fire does occur. Smoke alarms need to be tested at least once a month, and the batteries should never be removed unless they have stopped working. Many people do have a tendency to ‘borrow’ batteries from items such as fire alarms before forgetting to replace them when they have finished with them – with obvious risks being involved. Cooking should never be left unattended when on a boat, and it’s also advised that alcohol is consumed responsibly to reduce the chances of accidents occurring.
Put a Procedure in Place with Hard Wired Smoke Alarms
Smoke detectors do not need to be expensive, but the difference that they can make is worth its weight in gold. You can never have too many smoke alarms, and if your narrowboat is particularly large, it may be an idea to install two or three detectors. Some people even choose to install detectors inside bedrooms too to ensure that deep sleepers can be alerted to a fire alarm. A fire can change, destroy or even end lives within minutes, and it’s not just the obvious dangers of the flames that you need to worry about, but the poisonous components of a fire such as carbon monoxide too. Whether it’s hard wired mains smoke detectors or wireless smoke alarms you’re looking for, never let your narrowboat be without a robust fire safety system.
Here are my bang up to date expenses for my own liveaboard narrowboat James. Not all narrowboat owners will incur the costs that I do. Many of the costs below will apply though so if you’re considering buying your own narrowboat, you need to be aware of the costs. You may wonder why I have included costs for items and services that aren’t directly related to running a narrowboat. They’re included because they are typical lifestyle costs that you may well incur. You can discount them if you want, but just bear them in mind.
Electricity: Each mooring has a 230v electrical supply which is charged at 20p per unit and topped up cards available from our reception. I generally buy 3 x £10 electricity cards at a time. I bought cards twice this month @ £30 a time. Once on 2nd and then again on 20th – £60
Gas:Back to the normal single cylinder purchase this month after having to buy two last month after forgetting to buy one in December – £22.95
Coal: I get a better deal if I buy ten bags at a time. Ten 25kg bags of Pureheat last me about a month. I bought ten last month then another ten this month on 4th. I then bought a pack of 10 softwood heat logs on 20th. I keep a pack of the heat logs on standby in a dry cupboard inside the boat. If they get wet, they expand to twice their normal size and are impossible to light. They’re very handy for providing a quick burst of heat if it’s particularly cold when we get up in the morning like this morning. It’s particularly cold this morning. I’m writing this on 12th March 2013. The overnight low was minus four but with a strong north easterly wind, the wind chill brought it down to minus ten. The temperature in the warmest part of the boat – at the front near the stove – was down to eighteen degrees, thirteen degrees in my “office” half way down the boat, and a rather chilly six degrees in the bedroom right at the back of the boat. At times like this I wish I had central heating. I also bought a 10kg sample bag of Ecofire Oak Nuggets. Waterways World oublished the results of their stove fuel test in the March 2013 edition of the magazine. Here’s what I thought of them. – £126.63
Mooring: Mooring costs £2,300 a year – £191.66
Maintenance & Repairs: There were no repairs as such this month but I record sundry boat expenses here. This month we bought quite a few bits and pieces for the boat;
A bottle of One Chem for the cassette toilet. Added to the flush water and waste tank, it keeps the toilet smelling fresh. I’ve tried quite a few of the popular brands. One Chem suits us best – £8.49
A boat cleaning brush. It’s one of those fancy affairs with a Hozelock connection at one end so that you can enjoy a constant flow of water through the brush. Unfortunately the connection leaks, so all I enjoyed was a constant flow of water down my leg as I cleaned the boat. I went to a great deal of trouble painting James in April 2012. I’m doing all that I can to make sure that the paintwork stays in good condition. – £20.78
Bullet Polish. After I’ve cleaned the boat, I can further protect the paintwork with a good quality wax. Bullet polish’s main ingredient is Carnauba wax which is widely acknowledged as the best wax to use to protect your boat. Mindland Chandlers were offering two for just… £25
Hozelock connectors and a broom handle – The hose that we used to fill the water tank had given up the ghost. I think it was less than a year old. It was one of those very convenient flat hoses on a reel that is very easy to store. It was a waste of money to be honest. The cheap plastic reel fell apart after half a dozen uses. The hose itself developed dozens of pinprick holes along its full length which made fulling the tank a wet and unpleasant affair. We were given a 30m Hozelock hose. The Hozelock connections were for either end.
The broom handle was to provide two hanging rails in the middle of the boat next to the side hatches. Sally uses them to hang damp clothes after they’ve been washed. They’re usually dry within 24 hours.
Hozelock connectors and broom handle – £12.08
LED light and adaptor – I’m slowly replacing all of the 12v lights on board. There are eighteen of them. The LED lights are brighter than the old bulbs, use very little electricity and have a very, very long life, 50,000 hours I think. Just to put that into perspective the lights I use most often, above my laptop, are on for two hours in the morning and three in the evening. At that rate the new lights will last for 10,000 days or 27.39 years! Although they’re expensive at £8.50 for each light and adaptor, I think they’re a good investment. I bought just one this month – £8.50
I bought a torch in February. It’s an essential bit of kit for a boater. My last torch was a bit of a disappointment. If I turned it on at night and held it very close to my wrist, I could sometimes see my watch. It was useless. The new torch is superb. It’s incredibly bright and its range is stunning. It can easily light up the island 50m away in the centre of the marina (which is great for identifying the Canada geese before scaring them off with a – harmless – laser). The torch came with rechargeable batteries and charger. – £20.99
Ecofan – They use the heat from the stove to power the fan blade, they’re horribly expensive but they do a great job of moving the stove’s heat into the rest of the boat. I’ve really noticed a difference – £78.50
Rain hat (also knows politically incorrectly as a Coolie or Chinese hat) and two doormats – The rain hat sits on top of your chimney to keep rain, and leaves if you’re moored under a tree, out of the chimney. This is my fourth in three years. The first two disappeared in high winds. The third was screwed to the chimney and lasted over a year before it finally rusted through earlier in February.
The rubber backed door mats are to be used in the continuing battle against mud on paws. We’ve put one on the bench seat on the front deck and another just inside the front doors. They work very well in reducing the amount of dirty liquid on the dogs’ paws when they come into the boat.
Rain hat and two door mats – £33.13
The rest of the sundry purchases in February were Sally continuing making the boat into a very comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home. I’m not naturally and untidy person but Sally is very tidy and very organised. She bought a pen and magazine tidy for my office area, a “snake” draught excluder to go under the door from the bedroom to the engine room, oven gloves and a tea/coffee/sugar jar set for the galley a very posh red kettle for the gas hob (Is it wrong to think that our new kettle – pictured – is very, very attractive? It’s almost a shame to put water in it) and, my favourite purchase this month, a Breville 1kw sandwich toaster. We both love toasted cheese and onion sandwiches… or rather, we did before we bought the sandwich toaster. After having them for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a few days, they’ve lost a little of their appeal.
Sally’s sundry purchases – £104.43
Total maintenance and repairs for February – £311.90
Total boat expenses for February – £713.14
Other expenses for February…
Of course, the boat expenditure is only a part of the cost of life on the boat. Here’s what we spent on our day to day expenses in February.
Internet: I’m still using the excellent 15GB per month mobile broadband service from Three – £19.80
Telephone (Mobile): Sally and I both have mobiles on contract and Sally has an iPad, also on contract. I’ve also included the cost of our Skype to landline/mobile calls – £133.15
Laundery: Calcutt Boats as two washing machines and a dryer for moorers’ use. We only use the washing machines. Sally hangs the damp washing inside the boat. It’s dry within 24 hours. The washing machines take tokens which we buy at reception. Each token costs £1 and keeps the washing machines going for 45 minutes. – £20
Groceries: We eat well but not extravagantly. The total includes £23.95 for wine £324.67
Eating out: We enjoy a coffee in a cafe and the occasional meal out. In February we dined out on just two occasions; once at an all your can eat Sunday lunch buffet in a very good Thai restaurant in Banbury and one visit to Costa Coffee for a coffee and a slice of cake – £45.20
Entertainment: I love to read. I love my Kindle. It’s so easy to finish a book, use my laptop to browse through the Kindle books on Amazon, click a button and open my new book within a minute or two. I don’t read as much as I would like because of the time I spend adding content to this site. However, I still get through three or four books a month. I overdid my reading in February with five books downloaded – £25.03
Car: A low cost month for motoring. Forty pounds for fuel and the rest to add Sally to my policy – £54.19
Clothing: I’m still trying to spend as little as possible on clothing but I needed a new fleece work shirt and yet another pair of wellies. I bought a good pair of wellies in January for £35 but by mid February one of them had split. I was given the choice of either sending them back to Dunlop for a possible refund or biting the bullet and buying another pair at the discounted price of £24. I chose the latter- £46.29
My total none-boat-related living costs for February were £668.33 bringing my overall total for January to £1,381.47. It’s the calm before the storm. In March we’re fitting solar panels and new flooring. God help us,and our bank account!
This is an example of the monthly expenses detailed in my guide Living on a Narrowboat: The REAL Cost of a Life Afloat. If you’re seriously considering buying a narrowboat to live on it’s an essential read. Some of the costs listed in this article are optional. You may be able to live on less than we do, but many of the costs that apply to us will also apply to you too. Many potential boat owners mistakenly think that a narrowboat floating home is a low cost alternative to bricks and mortar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Please read the guide before you make a very expensive mistake.