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.
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 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 guage 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 Portaloo. A Portaloo 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 Portaloo. The waste disposal disgusted me at first but the Portaloo tanks are 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 straightforward 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.
To knot or not to knot… that is the question! Do you know the difference between an albright and a woggle or an alpine butterfly and a west country whipping? Probably not. The good news is that you don’t need to. As a traveller of the inland waterways there are really only two knots you need to know, but you really do need to know them. Let me give you an example of what can happen when you don’t.
When I was seventeen (I know, I must have a very good memory – three male friends and I drove to somewhere near Great Yarmouth to the start of our week long narrowboat holiday. After half and hour’s instructiion we were allowed out on the Norfolk broads on our own.
By five o’clock we thought we had travelled far enough so “parked” our new toy along a canal bank near a likely looking pub. Six hours later and a little the worse for wear, we staggered through the driving rain through the pub garden back to where we were sure the boat was moored.
It wasn’t there!
Of course we weren’t thinking straight so after a brief panic and a longer shouting match we raced up and down the bank searching for our new home. After ten minutes we found the boat. Actually “found the boat” isn’t quite right. We hadn’t lost it at all. The idiot responsible for tying the stern mooring line (me) hadn’t done a very good job so the boat had swung one hundred and eighty degrees downstream and had come to rest alongside another narrowboat. Of course it was very difficult to see it in the driving rain.
If I had known either of the two most useful narrowboat knots we would have been spared the heartache all those years ago. Of course, my experience resulted in nothing more that a minor irritation but there have been countless cases of boats drifting away from their moorings because of poor knot tying… sometimes with disasterous consequences. Fortunately for you, it’s now very easy to learn these knots.
The two essential narrowboat knots are “the round turn and two half hitches” and “the cleat hitch”. The former is shorn on the left. The latter is below. The one on the left is for attaching your mooring rope to a post or a ring and the cleat hitch. The cleat hitch, strangely enough, secures a rope to a cleat. As you will invariably tie your narrowboat to or from a post, cleat or mooring ring these two knots will keep you out of trouble.
You can probably work out how to tie the knots just by looking at the diagrams but, to make life even easier for you, there’s a marvelous website which demonstrates how to tie every knot you’ve ever heard of . In fact, there are 120 knots listed. All of them are animated and very clear and easy to understand. It’s a great site… and it’s free.
Update 9th March 2014
I wrote this post just over four years ago. It was one of the first on the fledgling site. Since then I’ve often been approached with offers of new information to add to the site. About a month ago I realised that site subscriber Colin Jarman was the author of two books about boating knots. I asked him if he would like to write an article for the site describing the best knots for narrowboat owners. He kindly agreed. Here it is….
We handle ropes and lines most frequently on a narrowboat when mooring or getting underway. Mooring lines have to be fastened securely to stop your boat wandering off on a cruise of her own, yet they need to be easy to cast off and clear away when you want to leave your berth.
This means you need to know a few good knots that will hold securely until you want to undo them and that will then be easy to release, even under load. I emphasise that bit – even under load. If, say, the water is draining from a lock and there’s tension in your lines, but you can’t free them, because the knots have worked too tight … well, you get the picture.
The commonest ‘fixing points’ for mooring lines are bollards beside a lock, mooring stakes in the bank, a ring in a lock wall and a dolly or T-stud (cleat) on the deck. The knots I would recommend to cover these situations are the Round Turn and Two Half Hitches, the Lighterman’s hitch and the Cleat Hitch. You should know how to tie a Bowline too, because it forms a useful loop in the end of a rope, but it’s not the best knot for mooring purposes, because it’s hard to undo when under load and to lift it off a bollard means gaining some slack in the whole line so that the loop can be lifted up and off – not something you can do under load. If you need a loop, though, or need to join two lines together, a bowline (or a pair of bowlines with their loops interlinked in a Bowline Bend) can’t be beaten.
ROUND TURN AND TWO HALF HITCHES – bollard, spike (stake), dolly, ring
This is a long name for a simple way of fastening a line to a ring, a mooring stake, a dolly or a bollard. The name is also a perfect description of the parts of the knot. Begin by passing the end of the line round the bollard, dolly, mooring stake or through the ring so that it comes back towards you. Now take it round again so that it again comes back at you and completely encloses the object in a full ‘round turn’. Next pass the (working) end across the (standing part of) the line and wrap it round, poking the working end through between itself and the round turn. That’s the first half hitch. Take the working end on round the standing part, tuck it through between itself and the first half hitch and you’ve formed the second half hitch, completing the whole ‘round turn and two half hitches’.
Pull everything tight and it will hold as long as you want. Importantly though, it will also be easy to undo even while the boat is pulling hard on it. Just pull the end back through the two half hitches and either unwind the round turn or hang on to the working end of the line and surge it round the bollard (or whatever it’s round) and control the boat. If you try to stop a moving narrowboat by just holding the end of a mooring line you will soon find yourself swimming in the canal, but take a round turn on (ideally) a bollard and the friction of the rope round the bollard will help you to slow her down and hold her.
LIGHTERMAN’S HITCH – bollard, dolly
It’s much harder to describe the lighterman’s hitch than it is to tie it, but here goes. Use it for securing a mooring line to a bollard or dolly – if the rope is thin and the dolly tall, otherwise go back to a round turn and two half hitches.
Take a full round turn on the bollard, then pass a loop (bight) of the free (working) end of the line under the standing part, up and drop it over the head of the bollard or dolly. Drop a second loop of the working part over the bollard, then pass a third loop under the standing part, up and over the head of the bollard. That’s it. Job done. No ‘tying’, nothing to jam, just a round turn and three loops. It will hold securely and to undo it, just life each loop off until you are again holding the boat with a full round turn on the bollard.
CLEAT HITCH – T-stud
Like the Lighterman’s Hitch, this avoids any ‘tying’. Take a full round turn on the upright ‘neck’ of the T-stud with the working end of the line. That gives you immediate control, because you can surge the line around the neck of the stud to control the boat. To secure the line, next cross the working part over the T and pass it under one horn. Cross over the top again and pass the line under the other horn. Now take a fresh round turn on the neck of the stud and that’s it. The line is secure, but can be undone under load, just by unwinding the line to the first round turn.
The easy way to remember this round, cross, round pattern is with the word OXO. For a round turn (O), then cross, under one horn, cross and under the other in an X pattern, and finish with a round turn (O). If you are worried about security with a slippery rope, put two XXs on – think of kissing the missus, is one kiss enough?
Follow the links on each of the knots to see an animated demonstration of how to tie them or see demonstrations of other knots not listed here on my YouTube channel.