Comparing A Hire Boat With A Live Aboard Narrowboat

I’m back from the dead with my first blog post since May last year.

Dear reader, I love writing to you, but I haven’t had the time. I had so many Discovery Day enquiries last year that I could only accommodate half of them. So I worked four days a week at the marina and then the other three hosting experience days. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t fit them all in.

My exhausting seven workday regime last year had a purpose, though. I had several expensive items to remove from Orient’s dwindling to-do list, and I wanted enough of a financial buffer to allow me to feel comfortable severing my ties to Calcutt Boats.

I’ve worked at the marina maintaining the company’s extensive grounds on and off for twelve years. Although I enjoyed the workplace banter, camaraderie and the hard graft, recovery after physically demanding days proved increasingly painful. So I made the emotionally tricky but sensible decision last April to resign in December.

That’s it; I’m now free to explore the inland waterways and pamper my little boat to the point of obsession.

Even though I fell in love with Orient the instant I stepped on board, I realised that I had many improvements, alterations and repairs to make before she looked her best.

I began by taking the old girl out of the water to black her bottom and then did the job again six months later, thanks to a maiden voyage through paint-stripping ice. I had additional anodes fitted, purchased a set of four look-at-me stainless steel chimneys, repainted the roof, most of the cabin sides, the front and back decks and the boatman’s cabin bilge.

I tackled the bilge painting over Christmas. To add a little spice to The Big Day, I discarded my Christmas dinner for one, slipped into my overalls and painted half a tonne of bilge ballast. Who says I don’t know how to enjoy myself?

Orient's painted ballast bars

I replaced my dead domestic battery bank, upgraded the electrical system, added a 645-watt solar array, fitted a saloon table with bench seating, replaced my front doors and rear hatch, renewed my fenders, installed a composting toilet – thank you, CRT, for your latest waste disposal directive – upgraded to a commercial boat safety scheme certificate, replaced my aged cratch cover, switched to stainless steel roof vents, replaced my Squirrel stove and flue and, the last job in 2021, fitted new chunky brass portholes.

When I say that *I* made all of these improvements and alterations, I’m telling a little white lie. I have a comprehensively stocked toolbox, filled with stuff I know how to use in theory but not practice. While I’m hopeless at DIY, I’ve raised the skill of looking lost to an art form. I find that asking for help while demonstrating incompetence works very well, as does having good people to call on. I have Calcutt’s Jason Robin to thank for much of Orient’s beautification and Dave Reynolds and his lovely wife, Alex, for my electrics. I don’t know what I would have done without such competent friends and workmates.

Fifteen brass portholes ready for fitting

So I parked my mower and hung up my strimmer for the last time on Wednesday 22nd December, pushed my big-bottomed baby through Locks marina’s shallow mud into one of their covered docks, used the Christmas break to do something meaningful with my time and anticipated a new life filled with adventure.

Because I needed a rest after watching all of that hard work, I decided to treat myself.

A freshly installed porthole

My retirement gift to me is a six-week tour on the network’s northern section in a hire boat. I wanted to hire a boat somewhere on the Leeds Liverpool canal but couldn’t find a company prepared to rent to solo boaters. Cheshire Cats Narrowboats would, though, so their 48′ Angel of the North is my home until 13th February.

Why hire a boat when I own one? Good question.

Orient is an undeniably pretty boat. I can turn the head of many a middle-aged man on the cut. It’s not what I want, but I’ll take all the attention I can get these days. Sadly, there’s more to narrowboating than a craft’s sweeping lines or a vintage engine’s mesmerising beat. One of the most critical considerations on England’s muddy ditches is a narrowboat’s draught. That’s where my old girl falls flat on her aged bottom.

Cruising with a big-bottomed boat is difficult on some canals and impossible on others. Orient’s maiden voyage from Tattenhall marina near Chester to Napton Junction was hard work. I ploughed through canal beds thick with fallen leaves, ground over rocks and often failed to moor closer to canal banks than three or four feet.

I tried to explore Warwickshire’s South Oxford canal last January after heavy rain raised the water level enough – I thought – to ease Orient’s passage. I was wrong.

I stayed for three nights on a remote and tranquil mooring close to Priors Hardwick. I woke each morning to a more pronounced list. Finally, the tilting cabin threw me out of bed and slid my coffee cup off my kitchen worktop on the fourth morning. I knew I had to move.

The three-mile cruise to reach a winding hole and four-mile return leg took ten hours of backbreaking effort. I slipped along the muddy bottom for a few hundred metres, grounded, tried and failed to reverse off and then resigned myself to another exhausting session pushing twenty-two tonnes off high mudflats with a wooden pole. I hated the canal network in general and Orient in particular when I finished.

Orient’s deep draught causes me anxiety and takes the edge off cruises on unknown canals. So I decided to invest my hard-earned pennies in a temporary holiday home better suited to shallow waterways. But would it be as comfortable as my beautiful boat?

Discover Life Afloat

Discover all you need to know about living on England's inland waterways during a day on my beautiful narrowboat, Orient. You'll helm my boat on a 12-mile, 6-lock route through beautiful rural Warwickshire. During the day we'll discuss the designs, features, fitting and equipment necessary to live a comfortable and tranquil life afloat.

You may think about buying an ex hire boat as a floating home. You might even consider following the advice given on many forums and Facebook groups and hire a narrowboat before you buy one. Hiring a narrowboat, many think, allows you to experience living afloat. But does it?

Here’s what I think. Apart from two years messing about in motorhomes and boats in Europe, I’ve lived on narrowboats since April 2010. Most of that time has been on two boats fully equipped for living off-grid. However, I have lived and cruised on hire boats half a dozen times over the last decade.

Companies design and equip hire boats for hosting lots of people for a week or two during the spring, autumn and summer. Even though most private boats accommodate fewer people than hire boats, they are similarly designed and equipped for occasional use. However, narrowboats used as homes have more robust heating systems and enhanced electrical systems if used for off-grid living.

Most hire boats are therefore poorly equipped for extended winter stays. I’ve had that confirmed quite painfully over the last two weeks. Is there a cure for frostbite?

I have three different heat sources on Orient; a Morso multi-fuel stove in the saloon, a Kabola diesel boiler in the middle of the boat and a Premiere range in my boatman’s cabin. Even though Orient’s polystyrene isn’t as efficient an insulator as the spray foam you find on modern boats, Orient’s saloon Squirrel provides enough heat to keep me warm on the coldest of days.

A comfortable living room temperature is about 20°C. I like the room slightly warmer if I plan to sit in front of my MacBook screen for hours on end.

I don’t use the Kabola boiler, but it will heat three radiators in the middle of the boat and Orient’s calorifier, its hot water tank. I rarely use the back cabin range either. Still, I have the option to waft hot air up my trouser leg on a cold winter’s day cruise. I’ve passed boaters on cruiser sterns during many of my winter cruises. They’re usually swaddled like Mitchellin men and still look cold. I now know how they feel.

Angel of the North, my six-week holiday hire, is a cold winter home, so chilly that I’ve given the boat a more appropriate name. She’s now called ‘The Fridge’.

The boat’s sole heat source is an Eberspacher diesel heater. I don’t know how much power the heater draws from the boats small 3 x 110 ah lead acid leisure bank, but it’s too much to allow overnight use. Because of that, as my extremities can testify, the unheated narrowboat chills very quickly.

I ordered an Amazon room thermometer after I’d been on the boat for a couple of days. I knew the cabin was uncomfortably cold, but, being a martyr to the cause, I wanted to know precisely how much I suffered.

The thermometer showed 2.1°C when I woke the following morning. That’s a comfortable temperature for refrigerated sausage storage, although mine didn’t seem to like it.

I turned the Eberspacher on and climbed into bed for another hour. Fortunately, the 13.5 tog duvet made bedtime bearable. Unfortunately, the thermometer only climbed just two degrees over the next hour, so I ate breakfast wearing two fleeces and a rabbit-skin hat. It wasn’t a good look, but it’s one which I’ve adopted on many mornings since then.

I can increase the cabin temperature a little by lighting a gas hob ring or two. The problem with that is the moisture created by burning gas. I can have a warm and wet cabin or a cold and dry one. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

Here’s one final problem with the Eberspacher. Even when the heater’s running correctly, it can’t get the cabin as warm as I want.

My Squirrel keeps my cabin 20°C warmer than the outside temperature, even when I turn it down to its lowest setting. I can increase that difference to 30°C if I open both vents. When it’s working flat out, the Eberspacher will produce a maximum 15°C difference between inside and outside. Unfortunately, the heater’s not powerful enough, and it’s expensive to run; at least it is on this hire boat.

The Fridge’s Eberspacher is perfect for eliminating spring and autumn chills but hopelessly inadequate for winter warming, as is the battery bank.

With five 135ah AGM batteries, Orient has an average battery bank for a liveaboard boat. Because I have a battery monitor attached to my leisure bank, I can check their state of charge and ensure they don’t drop too low. Deep discharges shorten the battery bank’s life and lead to situations where you don’t have the power you need, as I discovered on my first night onboard The Fridge.

Orient’s larger capacity battery bank – 675 ah compared with 330 ah on my hire boat – doesn’t need to work very hard. It powers my 12v cabin lights, pumps, fridge, and 240v appliances via my inverter. This larger bank also has power coming in from my solar array, even during the coldest, darkest months of the year. The hire boat’s little bank has to work much harder.

In addition to similar lights, pumps, refrigeration and 240v appliances, The Fridge’s batteries also have to cope with the Eberspacher’s electrical requirements. And that’s where it struggles.

I’ve discovered that I need to run the hire boat’s engine for at least six hours every day to keep the heater running. I tried fewer hours, but the heater died in the evening after the 8 pm engine running curfew. So on those nights, I retired to my warm bed at 8.30 pm to worry about the amount of diesel I was using.

Orient’s vintage Lister JP2M uses just over half a litre an hour. At this time of the year, I need to run the engine for no more than an hour a day for battery charging to supplement my poor winter solar array input. Compare that to at least six hours a day on my hire boat on a modern engine twice the fuel consumption. I suspect that I’m using about ten litres of diesel a day to run both the hire boat’s engine and heater. If that’s the case, I’ll use as much fuel on a six-week hire boat holiday as I did on Orient all of last year.

Now please don’t understand me; I’m not criticising this particular hire boat. I would have hired the only craft in the Cheshire Cats fleet with a multi-fuel stove if it had been available. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t, so this boat was the best alternative.

It’s a dream to handle, especially on shallow canals. I suspect the draught is closer to two feet than Orient’s three. Even so, on some of the Trent & Mersey canal’s northern stretches, I’ve sometimes hit bottom.

The boat’s Nanni engine is good too. It starts the first time on the coldest mornings and runs all day without complaint. I can’t ask for more than that.

Apart from the cabin temperature, it’s comfortable and well equipped. Of course, it’s not as comfortable as a boat designed as a primary home, but you don’t expect that from a craft used to accommodate people who spend more of their time enjoying outside cruising than inside living. And that’s the point I’m trying to make.

Follow popular advice by all means. Book a winter holiday on a narrowboat to gain an insight into life on a narrowboat. But realise this: Companies don’t design hire boats to accommodate one or two people in comfort all year round. If you choose wisely, your liveaboard home will have better power generation and storage capabilities, a better, quieter, more reliable heating system with lower running costs than a hire boat, and far more comfort. Much as I enjoy my northern adventure, I can’t wait to get back to Orient’s cosy cabin.

I’ve told you about my temporary home. I’ll let you know where I’ve been in it in the next post.

One of Orient's ridiculously loud chimneys

Discovery Day Update

Now that I no longer have a job to tie me to my Warwickshire base, I’ve decided that I want to spend as much time as possible exploring new waterways. But I will continue to host Discovery Day cruises.

Rather than make dates available every weekend like I did last year, I’ll cruise for a couple of months and then return to base for a month’s intensive training and experience day bookings. 

My ‘season’ begins this year in March and extends until the end of April. Then I’m off again until July. There are currently nine dates left in March and six in April. I expect most of those to go before the end of February so, if you want to join me for a thoroughly enjoyable and highly informative day cruising through beautiful Warwickshire you can see and book dates here. And if you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, you can read about my Discovery Day service here.


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Paul Smith

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