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.
Most of the mail you receive at home may be a nuisance – bills, junk mail, reminder notices for eye tests, hearing tests, doctor and hospital appointments etc – but at least you can throw it away when you don’t want it. But how do you deal with this necessary evil when you’re living afloat or cruising for extended periods?
If you are living afloat and moored at a marina, there’s a chance that the marina will agree to accept post on your behalf. Of course, if you’re moored on the cut this isn’t an option. In this situation, you can ask a friend or relative to accept mail on your behalf. Of course this won’t help you if you’re cruising or moored far from the address where your post is.
If the post is important to you and you don’t mind whoever has received it reading the contents, you can ask them to scan the letters and then email them to you as attachments to emails. If you would rather keep the contents of the envelopes for your eyes only you can use a Post Office service called Post Restante (French: Post Remaining). Simply pick a post office on your route, call them to make sure that they run the service, then ask whoever is holding your post to send it on to that address.
The final option is to use a mail forwarding service. Boatmail is such a service. They will hold your mail, forward it to a post office or an other address you nominate or scan and email your post to you. They will even allow you to type a letter on your boat and email it to them where they will print and mail it for you. They will also provide you with a UK postal address for occasions when a PO box isn’t acceptable (e.g. opening bank accounts)
So there you go. There’s no need to go without your junk mail ever again!
Living on a narrowboat draws you closer to nature and the pleasures of a simple uncluttered life. Unfortunately the simple life also brings you closer to your toilet and its contents. It’s one of the few unpleasant aspects of life on board but you soon get used to it. Here are a few tips to make sure that emptying your toilet tank goes according to plan.
There are two types of toilet on a narrowboat. The cassette toilet (often referred to as a “Porta Potti”) and the “pump out” toilet.
The cassette toilet has a conventional toilet bowl where you sit or stand to deliver your waste and a removable container beneath the toilet which collects the waste. With this type of toilet you simply keep an eye on the level of the waste in the container and then remove it to empty the contents in a dedicated disposal point either by the side of the canal or in a marina or boatyard which offers waste disposal.
The pump out toilet is more like a conventional house toilet. The liquid and solid toilet waste is stored in a large (sealed) holding tank on your boat which requires emptying every two to three weeks depending on how much you use it.
Most marinas offer a pump out facility and will charge from about ?10 for a self-service pump out to ?15 or more for a pump out by one of their staff.
The process is straightforward but must be adhered to. A hose attached to a powerful pump is attached to draw the waste out. A hose is also attached either to an external rinse point or directly into the toilet bowl if there is no external point. The rinse water is introduced to help swill out the holding tank but MUST NOT be turned on until the waste removal hose has started drawing out the waste. If your tank is full to start with and you turn on the rinse hose before the pumping out has started, you will flood your boat with waste. You have been warned!
There is a sight glass on the pump out head hose which allows you to check whether waste is still being drawn out of your boat. As the hose draws the waste out faster than the rinse water goes in, you will eventually see through the glass that the liquid has ceased flowing. At this point you turn off the flow on the waste hose but leave the rinse water to flow into the holding tank for a few minutes. If you rock your boat gently at this stage you will swill the rinse water around the holding tank. Turn the flow on the waste hose back on and check the sight glass. If the liquid is clear the tank is clean(ish) and you have finished. If the liquid is still dark, repeat the rinse process several times.
The whole process should take no longer than 10-20 minutes depending on the volume in the tank. You’ll soon get used to it. Just remember to wash your hands when you’ve finished!
A narrowboat is likely to be the single most expensive purchase you will ever make after your house. It may even become your new house and cost you in excess of £100,000. Your purchase is not something you should rush into. I know you can’t wait to cruise through tranquil countryside, stop for a pint or two at some of the many picturesque canal-side pubs and moor for the night where there’s a spectacular view to greet you in the morning but you need to take your time.
There are many, many aspects of the purchase to consider before you look at your first boat.
Once you have answered the above questions, you will have a pretty good idea what to look for. Visit Appolloduck There are a huge number of narrowboats for sale on the web site (1,085 at the last count). Use this to get a general feel for price and style. After you’ve browsed through this vast selection a few times, you’ll have a clearer idea of what you want and how much it’s likely to cost. Now it’s time to get up close and personal with some real live narrowboats.
Visit a broker to view your first selection of narrowboats. Why? There are several very good reasons. Firstly, a good narrowboat brokerage will have a wide selection of narrowboats. You’ll be able to see the difference between traditional. semi-traditional and cruiser stern narrowboats and the trade off between living and cruising space, different lengths and varying equipment levels. The staff at the brokerage will also be able to answer just about any question you throw at them. They’re used to dealing with potential customers who are new to narrowboating so don’t be afraid to ask them anything that you’re now sure about. Here’s a comprehensive list of narrowboat brokers in the UK. Whilton marina is one of the largest narrowboat brokers in the country. Here’s an interesting article detailing how their business operates. Please be aware that there are some who have reservations about the way Whilton marina operate. Please see the comment on the Whilton marina page on this site.
When you inspect a boat you’re interested in, here are a few things you should check. You can either do so visually while you are looking around the boat or by asked the broker or owner by phone if you have a long way to travel.
Spend some time just sitting in a boat that you like the look of and picture yourself living in it. The staff at Calcutt Boats are more than happy to let you spend as much time as you like on board. I suppose that the thinking behind this is that the longer you spend on board, the more likely you are to buy the boat.
Have a look in cupboards and hatches. Particularly look for hatches through the floor into the bilge. Look for water there and be wary if you find any water in the bottom of the boat other than a little around the engine that may have seeped in through the deck boards if they are exposed to the elements.
Ask the engine to be started from cold for you. Often the best way of doing this at a boatsales broker is by turning up unannounced. If the engine has been well maintained, it should start without a problem.
If it still looks good, put in a offer to buy subject to an out of water survey when a surveyor will be able to check the integrity of the hull for you. Always offer less than the asking price. Remember that there are a huge number of narrowboats for sale at any one time. There are an estimated 32,000 – 34,000 narrowboats on the system and on Appolloduck alone in excess of 1,000 for sale at any one time. You have a lot of bargaining power. Good luck with your search.
A leisure mooring is for mooring your boat when you aren’t using it. The mooring may have all the facilities you need to live on board (electricity, water and sewage disposal) but you aren’t allowed to live there. You are allowed to visit and you are usually allowed to stay on board for days or even weeks. The duration of your visits will be determined by your particular marina. Unless you have an arrangement with your marina, you can’t use your mooring as a postal address.
A residential mooring requires planning permission. Your marina has to satisfy the local council that they have adequate sewage and waste disposal facilities to accommodate residential moorings. You can stay as long as you like on your residential mooring. It is your home and, as such, you can use it as your postal address. And because a residential mooring is classed as a home, you have to pay council tax.
You won’t need to get a residential mooring for occasional visits. Residential moorings are only needed if you’re going to live on the boat full time. Every marina should allow you to visit your boat on an occasional basis. Just how flexible the arrangement is depends upon the individual marina. Staying on board some nights during the week and sometimes at the weekend shouldn’t be a problem but if you started to stay on board every week night, you might be on a sticky wicket.
Even though your marina mooring may not be classed as residential, your marina may allow you to stay on board for a considerable period of the year, but this luxury may come at a price. Some marinas charge for “high usage” which could cost you as much as ?500 on top of your usual annual mooring fees.
Check the terms an conditions for each marina before you commit yourself.
If you’ve ever considered living on a narrowboat, you’ve probably imagined lazy days cruising gently down a tranquil waterway under a cloudless blue sky, evenings on the tow path with chilled wine and barbecued food and tranquil nights lulled to sleep by the gentle sound of the countryside through open windows. Of course narrowboat life can be like this in the summer, but as we all know too well from painful experience, a British summer can be far too short and very unpredictable.
So what is it really like to live on a narrowboat when the weather’s not so good? What’s it like in the winter when there’s ice and snow and Arctic winds to contend with?
Last year (2010) ended with one of the coldest spells on record. From the last week in November until the first week of January, the canal system was at a standstill. With up to six inches of ice on many waterways, many boaters were stuck for more than a month. I was one of the lucky ones but life wasn’t particularly comfortable.
Water and intense cold don’t get on well. Water freezes and, on a boat, when it does there are all kinds of problems. Unfortunately because the waterways that narrowboats use don’t have flowing water they freeze quite easily. If you are on your boat when a canal freezes you can…
In many respects I am very fortunate. My marina is beautiful in the summer and can be stunning in the winter. The photograph on the left was taken on a morning after an overnight freezing fog. The daytime high was well below zero so the frost covered grass, reeds and trees transformed the site into a winter wonderland.
I am also lucky because, no matter how low the temperature drops, I still have access to running water. Even though the taps on the pontoons are turned off to prevent the pipes under the walkways from freezing, all moorers have access to any one of half dozen or so protected below ground taps. This year I read reports by many residents of other marinas who had to carry heavy containers of water to their boats when all nearby taps froze. The reports stated that they “managed OK”.
Personally, I don’t want to “manage OK”. I’ve enough to do without having to find and fill numerous (clean) containers, lug them back to the boat and pour them carefully into the water tank. I live on my own. I don’t consider that I use an excessive amount of water. I shower every day but each shower takes less than two minutes and I cook and wash up daily. Even so, I go through a full tank of water every ten days. My tank takes 20-25 minutes to fill using a hose with the tap on full blast. For me, the tap and hose option wins every time.
Because I live on a marina I have access to the main road and a car parking space 20m from my boat. We didn’t have a huge amount of snow here in Warwickshire but 5-6 inches was enough to immobilise boaters on moorings with poor road access. There are many narrowboats on the nearby canals moored close to canal bridges. These bridges are often on minor back roads which are very difficult to use in bad weather. Boaters on these moorings struggled to resupply.
Many boaters tell me that their boat is as warm as toast inside regardless of the weather. That’s not the case with me. I was cold in December. James is an old boat. Built in 1975 with a composite top she’s seen better days. When I moved on board last April, she had been empty and unloved for a number of years. She was very damp and leaked through the roof in heavy rain, the side doors were a poor fit and the insulation was practically none existent. Little has changed. I have to work hard to stay warm.
I have two Coldwatcher 500w heaters and a 700w oil filled radiator. These are on all the time at this time of the year and are just enough to keep the boat from freezing but don’t provide much in the way of heat. I also run a dehumidifier in the back cabin (my bedroom) to keep the damp at bay.
Real heat is provided by my solid fuel stove. It’s situated about four feet from the double doors to the front deck and feeds radiators at the rear of the boat in the second bedroom/study area, bathroom and rear bedroom. Because the stove’s back boiler has to provide hot water for the radiators, the stove doesn’t throw out an enormous amount of heat. However, at the moment it’s minus three outside but very cosy near the stove. It’s not quite as warm at the rear of the boat where I work. so I have to wear an extra fleece and a hat while I’m sat still working. No problem.
There are numerous solid fuels available. They all have slightly different characteristics. I use Pureheat. It’s a manufactured smokeless fuel and is the best I’ve tried. It stays alight for longer than other fuels (handy when I’m away from the boat for the night), burns hotter and creates less mess. The cost for a 25kg bag from my marina chandlery is ?13.50. It’s just ?9.50 from my local coal boat.
The coal boat passes by the marina roughly every four weeks. It couldn’t when the canal froze so the owners hired a van to keep their customers supplied. Bless them!
Water can be very destructive. When it freezes it damages pumps and pipes and tanks. When water melts it floods. There are more than a handful of boat owners this winter in our marinas alone who are currently facing costly repair bills because they didn’t “winterise” their boats. If you live on board all the time, you don’t need to do this. If you leave your boat for extended periods and have on board heating attached to a reliable power supply you don’t need to bother either. But if you are going to leave your boat in very cold weather without any heating, you really are asking for trouble.
Winterising a boat is quick and easy (and common sense). The purpose of the exercise is to prevent water from freezing and rupturing whatever it’s in. So that means emptying some of the water from the main tank, turning the main stop cock off, then opening taps and shower attachments to allow water in the pipes to run out. If you have an “on demand” water heater you will need to drain that too. You will also need to drain your engine water too (Can’t help you with that one. I’m a bit of a dummy when it comes to engines).
Boats can be dangerous places at the best of times. There are ropes to trip you up, narrow steps up and narrow steps down, gunwales to slip off and water to fall into. Add a touch of ice and you’ve a recipe for disaster. Be careful.
I returned a boat to its marina mooring yesterday. I took Stuart, one of our younger members of staff, along for the ride. As we approached the pontoon, he nimbly hopped from the boat’s front deck onto the pontoon… did a spectacular backward somersault and landed on his head. Fortunately for Stuart he has quite a thick head so there was no damage done (only joking Stuart). But his slip on the ice could have had a very different outcome.
Stuart was uninjured (apart from his pride). We had a very different outcome two years ago on a sunny summer’s day. A hirer slipped off the back of one of our boats. The boat surfaces were dry and ice free – unusual for an English summer – but she still slipped. She slipped and fell into the canal as the boat was reversing. The propeller caught her leg, severing a major artery. Thanks to immediate first aid from one of our staff and an air ambulance she made a full recovery. But it was a full year before she could walk properly again. Boats can be dangerous at any time of the year. In the winter with ice, snow and rain, you need to be extra careful.
Unfortunately, when you live on a narrowboat, you have to pay a little more attention to human waste management than you would perhaps like. It’s not so much of a problem most of the year if you have a pump out toilette but you can get caught short in very cold weather. Your toilet or the contents of your holding tank aren’t likely to freeze, but the water around your boat is.
If your boat is iced in, you can’t get to a pump out station to empty your holding tank. If you don’t have an alternative, you’re stuck without an on board toilet until the ice melts. If you live at a marina, inconvenient as it might be, you can use their facilities. If you’re moored on the cut, you have a problem. Many full time narrowboaters also have a cassette toilet on board as well as the main pump out toilet.
Many narrowboat owners cruise through the winter. In fact, some prefer to cruise off-season. There are fewer boats about (no queues at the locks) and the scenery can be stunning. There are two problems with winter cruising though. One is ice and the other is stoppages. Stoppages are the closure of sections of the canal for essential winter maintenance. You can find a full list here.
A single heavy overnight frost has little impact on the water in the canal. Continuous sharp frosts and sub-zero days though can cause a build up of inches thick ice. Towards the end of December 2010 we had over four inch thick ice on the canal above Calcutt Top lock. Anything over half an inch and you’re engine will be working overtime. An inch or more and there’s a risk of tearing a hole in your boat. (One of the Grand Union canal coal boats is currently out of service due to over vigorous ice breaking). More than two inches on the canal and you’re stuck until mother nature decides to let you go.
In my previous life as a stressed out business owner, I attended may training days. On one them I was introduced to the concept of the six P’s… Proper Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance. This applies to every area of your life including narrowboating. Although the six-week period from the end of November 2010 to the beginning of January 2011 was particularly chilly, you can expect every winter to be cold enough to freeze water.
Make sure you are prepared. If you are cruising, ensure that you know where the stoppages are and pay attention to short and medium term weather forecasts. Stock up on your winter supplies. Carry a little extra coal, top up your diesel tanks, develop a tinned food reserve and invest in a cassette toilet and, when all else fails, buy a case of mulled wine and a few good books for those cosy nights in by your roaring fire.
So you want to live on a narrowboat. Good for you. But before you spend your hard earned pennies, you need to think very carefully about the boat you intend to buy. Living on board full time is very different from a two week break away from work and your home on dry land. Answer the following questions honestly before you commit to a lifestyle that may just not be for you.
I’m sure that you’ve at least spent a holiday week or two on a narrowboat but how do you think you’ll cope on the boat full time? Will the never-ending chore of topping up your coal, wood, gas and water in all weather begin to get you down once the honeymoon period is over? Are you prepared to move your toilet or your boat to a waste disposal point in rain, ice and snow? If you don’t have a long term residential moorings will the legal requirement to move every fourteen days get you down? You know yourself better than anyone else. Be honest with yourself.
Do you want to cruise permanently along the canal system to explore all two thousand plus miles or do you want to moor in a fixed position and not move at all? The longest narrowboat you can buy is around seventy feet. Seventy feet is great for space but if you want to explore all of the system on your boat, you need something a little smaller. The shortest lock on the network is Salterhebble Middle Lock on the Calder and Hebble Navigation at 56 feet. However, the lock is 14’2″ wide so you can shoehorn a 60′ boat into it. Sixty feet then is the maximum boat length for you if you want to travel everywhere on the system.
Think about this very carefully. British Waterways who control most of the waterway system are very strict about a narrowboat owner’s status on the waterway. You must have a home mooring when you apply for your Waterways license. There are two exceptions allowed. The first is if your boat is removed from the water. It’s their equivalent of the DVLA’s SORN status. The other exception is if you are going to continually cruise the network. You still need a license but not a home base, but you must comply with their criteria for continuous cruising criteria. If you still need to travel to work continuous cruising status is not for you.
There are three different types of mooring; online, offline and marina. An online mooring is on the canal bank. An offline mooring is off the canal but not in a marina. A marina is a purpose built basin with a range of facilities to cater for your boating needs. There’s a full list of the narrowboat friendly marinas in England and Wales on this site. You need to think carefully before choosing a marina. Please read this article before considering one.
Many narrowboat owners – even the most enthusiastic cruise-nearly-ll-year-round boaters – like a break from life on the cut. They keep a home on dry land for such occasions and for the majority of their possessions that simply won’t fit on the boat. They also retain a postal address. Boaters with no home on dry land have to rely on relatives to receive their post and have to either sell possessions that won’t fit on the boat or put them into paid storage.
Are you going to begin this adventure on your own or do you intend to share your life afloat with your significant other? Have you ever spent a significant amount of time in a small space with them? Depending on the style of narrowboat you buy even on the longest 70′ boats you will be constantly sharing a living space no more than 60′ long an 6′ wide. That space has to accommodate both you and your partner, all of your clothes and possessions and maybe even a dog or two. Can you live comfortably like that?
There are three main styles of narrowboat. The traditional or trad, cruiser and semi trad. Each has a slightly different rear end. The traditional stern offers more covered living space but very little space at the rear to stand and steer. The narrowboat below left has a traditional stern. Astralis, the narrowboat on the right, has a semi traditional stern. Although they look very similar, you can see a cover over the visible portion of the boat. This is protecting the “walled” standing space at the rear.
Cruiser stern narrowboats have an open plan rear deck. They were developed for hire fleets so that there is space for hirers to socialise while they travel. The narrowboat below has a cruiser stern. Most narrowboat owners who spend most or all of their time on board choose a boat with a traditional stern.
Talking of comfort, which of life’s luxuries can’t you do without? You can have satelite television, electric kettles, hairdryers, microwaves, washing machines and dryers… but they all come at a price.
If you are going to be permanently moored in a marina you shouldn’t have a problem if you have access to a mains power supply (and your boat is fitted with a connection for mains power). However, when you leave your mooring and your mooring power supply you will have to rely on your boat’s electrical system. By default, your boat will have a 12v power supply which is sufficient for low power lighting and very little else. If you want to power any other electrical items, you will need to fit an inverter.
An inverter uses the boat’s engine to create electricity which is stored in a bank of batteries near the engine. The more power you need for your appliances, the bigger the inverter and battery bank requirement.
Do you relish the prospect of days spent oily to the elbow and alone with your engine? If you don’t, a classic maintenance intensive engine is not for you. Make sure that the boat you choose has a reliable engine that can be serviced at most of the hundreds of boat yards throughout the system.
Some narrowboats are “raw water cooled”. They draw water from the canal through the engine and then out of the exhaust. On occasion you will need to clear blockages from the filter. Raw water cooled engines are in the minority but check before you buy.
Many new narrowboat owners would like to make changes to their boat or to sell their boat and buy another of a different length or style. Selling a boat these days can be a lengthy affair. There are several thousand for sale at any one time. There are nearly 1,000 for sale on this web site alone. By thinking carefully about your own answers to the questions above, you can avoid a costly and inconvenient mistake when you buy your first boat.
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.
This article was written for narrowboat owners but whether you own a seagoing yacht, a barge, a cruiser or a narrowboat, you still need somewhere to moor. Many, if not all of the following Continue reading