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Discover the Answer to the Often Asked Question, “Is A Narrowboat Cold In Winter?”

One of the most frequently asked questions during the colder months is, “Is a narrowboat cold in winter?” The standard response from boat owners is a laugh, a smile and the assurance that the craft is toasty warm. That’s not always the case, though. Here’s what you need to know to keep you warm in winter.

Several factors dictate whether you shiver your way through a winter’s evening or strip off to your boxer shorts and throw all the doors open to let the heat out.

Cabin Insulation

I have been living onboard James, pictured on its mooring at Calcutt Boats Meadows marina in early February 2012, for two years. My first winter was a baptism of fire. It was the coldest winter for 100 years. The canal and the marina were immobilised by four inches of ice from the last week of November 2010 to the first week of January 2011. One night I recorded a rather chilly minus eighteen outside. It was so cold that I woke up the following morning to discover a quarter an inch of frost covering the engine room pine cladding next to my bedroom. The temperature in the bedroom was just above freezing. There was a spell when the daytime maximum was minus six. It was a cold, cold winter, so severe that I was forced to dress like an Eskimo inside my home.

The following winter, the winter of 2011/2012, has been much more pleasant.

Why?

Two reasons. The winter has been relatively mild compared with last year and, more importantly, I have made some improvements to my home. James, at thirty-five, is quite an old girl. The original cabin sides and roof were Masonite, an oil-treated ply with four seams between the cabin’s five ply roof sheets. The seams, at some point in the boat’s history, had begun to leak, so they had been sealed with duct tape. The remedy didn’t work, so the gaps allowed water into the cabin during heavy showers. The water would find its way through the roof and then trickle along the inside of the internal cladding. Then it would find a weak point to drip through into the cabin. When I heard the sound of rain drumming on the roof, I would gather together a collection of pots and pans to place carefully under the drips.

Not all of the water found its way into the cabin. Much of it lay on the underside of my beautiful pirana pine, slowly discolouring and staining the grain. To a lesser extent, the cabin sides let in water too. The prevailing south-westerly meant that wind and the rain scoured the port (left) side of the boat. Where the neglected paintwork peeled along the ply joins, the water found its way in.

In November last year, I had the opportunity to ship James off to a local boat builder to have the cabin sides and roof and the front and back doors overplated. While they were doing the work, I asked them to sandwich insulation between the old Masonite and the new steel. I used one-inch polystyrene for most of the surface area and Rockwool for the sections where the guys were welding. Rather than saving a few pounds by using the cheaper polystyrene, I should have used spray foam on all surfaces as it is a more effective insulator.

The additional insulation has made a significant difference, as has the fact that the roof and cabin sides are no longer holding water for much of the time. The boat, with the same heating inside, is both warmer and less damp.

Heating Systems

James has a solid fuel stove with a back boiler installed right at the front of the boat. The back boiler feeds three radiators along the starboard side. The furthest radiator is forty feet away in the main bedroom. The system struggles to push heat down to the far end. I can’t find out the make of the stove, but I understand that it’s as old as the hills – as old as James anyway – and it isn’t very efficient.

I know several liveaboards who swear by Morso Squirrel stoves. I’ve heard stories of coal that will carry on burning for up to two days if the fire is “damped down” (has the airflow reduced, so the fuel smoulders). The longest I can achieve with the stove on James is about twelve hours.

Rather than a solid fuel stove, I could install a diesel heating system. I could then have the convenience of waking to a warm boat, but I (a) can’t afford to at the moment and (b) don’t like a lot of them because of the noise. Some (particularly the Hurricane diesel heating system we sell so successfully at Calcutt Boats) are very noisy. The Hurricane sounds like a hurricane. There is a boat moored on the opposite side of the marina from me that has one fitted. I can hear it from James.

The diesel Bubble stove is very quiet. A friend has one. His boat was very cosy when I visited with hardly a sound from the stove.

Draughts

There’s no point filling a bucket with water if it’s full of holes. The same applies to pumping heat into your boat. Draughts can very quickly make the cabin feel cold. The new steel front, rear and side doors on James weren’t a perfect fit. I’ve added ply panels to the doors’ inside faces to insulate them a little, but there’s still a bit of a draught. I’ve fitted draught excluder around the front and rear doors and the centre doors and hatches. There’s still a draught from the centre door hatch on the weather side so it can be a bit chilly there when there’s a stiff breeze.

Mooring

I moor James at the western end of the marina. The prevailing wind is south-westerly. Calcutt Boats lays in a wind “corridor” – the old working boatmen used to refer to the pound below Calcutt Bottom Lock as “windy corner” – so there’s usually a stiff breeze. The boat then is buffeted by the wind daily. On the few occasions when there is little or no wind, James feels very much warmer. Of course, the breeze always finds the draughts.

When people ask me if a narrowboat is cold in winter, I should say… “Well, it depends on the heating system you use, how well insulated your boat is, whether you have any draughts, and what the weather is like”. But I won’t. I’ll smile and assure them that I’m toasty warm. And this morning, as I write this, with an outside temperature of minus five but no wind, and the coal fire roaring, I am toasty warm.

DISCOVER WINTER AFLOAT ON A BESPOKE EXPERIENCE DAY

Try before you buy. Join me on a day filled with fun and adventure on Warwickshire’s beautiful rural canals. Enjoy a twelve mile, six lock contour canal cruise. Learn how to handle a 62′ narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat on England’s inland waterways. Experience the joy of living in a fully equipped, off-grid floating home.

Fast forward seven and a half years to November 2019…

I wrote the above post in February 2012 after living afloat for nearly two years. I sold James No 194 in October 2016 following six and a half happy years afloat. I didn’t sell because I was disenchanted with the lifestyle. I loved living afloat, and all that living afloat entailed. But I had an ill wife. Cynthia suspected that she didn’t have many years left in her.  I enthusiastically agreed to her suggestion that we tour Europe by motorhome in the winter and by boat in the summer. We sold our respective homes to fund our travels.

We owned two boats during our stay in Holland; a classic steel-hulled motor cruiser with a mahogany cabin and an all-steel Linssen motor yacht. We stayed on both during cold autumn and spring periods. Then we moved back to England and my current narrowboat, Orient, in December 2018. Let me tell you this: English narrowboats are superbly insulated compared with any Dutch motor cruisers. Narrowboat insulation is in a different league, and most narrowboats have heating systems designed for constant use. My abiding memory of our last Dutch boat is the bone-chilling cold and unhealthy, soul-destroying damp.

Rereading my old post, I think that I can improve on the information I gave you then.

Life on James was usually warm enough at the front of the boat. The problem I had was pushing warm air towards the stern. Because of my stove’s double-skinned top plate, a stovetop fan wouldn’t work. These fans are perfect for off-grid living. They use the temperature difference between their bottom and top plate to generate free electricity to power the fan. My solution wasn’t as off-grid friendly. I had a 12V fan fitted on the ceiling close to the stove. With it running, I could push enough heat to the back of the boat, to my bedroom, to raise the temperature by a couple of degrees. Useful, but not great.

Orient is better insulated than James and a saloon stove suitable for powering an Ecofan. Still, the new boat has a similar design to my Norton Canes boat. An open plan boat is relatively easy to heat. Orient, like James, has bulkheads separating the galley, bathroom, main bedroom, engine room and the boatman’s cabin. Each partition restricts airflow.

Orient’s saloon is heated by a Morso Squirrel stove. There’s another solid fuel stove, a Premiere range, in the boatman’s cabin at the back of the boat and a Kubola diesel boiler in the bathroom. The Kabola heats water for my calorifier, my hot water tank, and also powers radiators in the main bedroom and the engine room, and a bathroom towel rail. I have three heat sources, but, most of the time, I use one.

I don’t use the Kabola boiler because I don’t like to waste fuel, water or money. I need hot water twice a day for dishwashing and showering, so I use a kettle for dishwashing and a kettle and a Hozelock Porta Shower for the keeping myself clean. I don’t need working radiators either. The main bedroom is only used for storage, there’s no need to heat the engine room. And I can’t be bothered to light the boiler for towel rail heating when I’m in the shower.

The boatman’s cabin range doesn’t see much use either. It’s a pain to manage during the day. Because the firebox is small, keeping the stove going throughout the day requires dropping half a dozen coal briquettes in every couple of hours. It’s a nuisance to top up when I’m away from the boat during the day, and my sleeping space is uncomfortably warm if I let stove coal burn too far into the evening. Keeping things simple is the cheapest and most efficient solution. The range stays cold unless I’m cruising on chilly days.

Winter cruising can be a bone-chillingly cold affair if you’re not careful. Cruiser stern boats are the coldest. You stand still for hours on end, open to the elements, slowly freezing and waiting for the ordeal to end. Traditional stern narrowboats offer more protection than cruiser sterns. And, if they are equipped with a back cabin range like Orient, they can turn an unpleasant winter cruise into a truly tranquil experience.

I brought Orient south from Tattenhall marina in February. I cruised for two weeks through a frozen landscape. I needed to reach the Farmer’s Bridge flight of locks in Birmingham city centre before they closed for essential repairs. I had to use Orient as an icebreaker to crash through increasingly thick ice for three days. I ground to a halt on an urban Birmingham backwater. The ice was too thick. I was stuck on a frozen waterway with swans marching over the ice in front of me.

Cynthia’s hand appeared in the hatchway, holding an insulated pot filled with stew. I slowed my engine to idle, opened the steaming container and enjoyed ten minutes of pure bliss. The heat from my Premiere range swirled around my legs as I wolfed down a pint of hot meat and potatoes. I was comfortably warm and sublimely happy to be standing at the helm of my new home. The same journey on a cruiser stern boat would be a far less pleasant experience.

Because my sole heat source most of the time is the saloon stove, the temperature drops significantly as I move further away from the bow. I have temperature sensors throughout Orient.  As last night was chilly, I noted the readings this morning at 8 am.

Saloon: 13°C

Bedroom: 10°C

Boatman’s cabin (where I sleep): 7°C

Front deck (it’s protected by a canvas cratch cover and is heated slightly by the heat lost through my cabin front doors’ two single glazed windows): 1°C

Outside -2°C

Now, I don’t know about you, but thirteen degrees is far too chilly for me to sit still typing for hours on end. My first job of the day at this time of the year is to increase the cabin temperature. I throw a log or coal onto the fire, riddle the grate, empty the ash pan, open both stove vents and make a coffee.

The stove takes an hour to bring the cabin to a bearable temperature. Now, at 11.30 am, the temperatures are…

Saloon: 23°C

Bedroom: 15°C

Boatman’s cabin: 13°C

Front deck: 8°C

Outside: 3°C

Although the saloon area is warm enough for me to sit and work comfortably for hours on end, the back of the boat is distinctly chilly. If I wanted to, I could double my workload, increase my daily fuel expense and turn the boatman’s cabin into a furnace. But there’s no point with only me on board.

Orient’s stern remains cold unless I’m cruising. I have neither the time nor the energy to keep it warm.

I could, possibly, modify the diesel Kabola heating system to heat all of my home. The big challenge would be finding somewhere in the boatman’s cabin for a radiator. There’s no empty wall space to fit one. The room is filled with fitted furniture, so there’s no free wall space larger than a dinner plate.

I’m not going to waste any time worrying about that little problem. Solid fuel stoves are dirty and time-consuming to maintain. They need a regular supply of heavy fuel and daily ash pan emptying and glass polishing. However, sitting in front of a silent stove watching flickering flames dance across burning coals is very comforting on a cold winter’s night.

Is a Narrowboat Cold in Winter?

There you go. If you’re asked is a narrowboat is cold in winter, you could give a detailed reply. You could wax lyrical about insulation, draughts, differing heating types and efficiency. You won’t, though. You’ll smile serenely and assure the enquirer that your steel home, half-submerged in frigid water, is as warm as toast.

Can I use wood I find by the canal for heating?

Yes, you can but it's not a good idea. The wood will probably be unseasoned which means that its water content will be higher than 20%. Fresh cut oak is usually 50% water, ash slightly lower at 40%. Burning unseasoned wood will mean less heat and more chance of a blocked flue, flue fires and a dirty brown stain down your cabin side.

Will my stove get all of the boat warm?

No. The back of your boat will be much cooler than the front, especially if you don't have an open plan boat. If you want all of your boat the same temperature, consider a central heating option.

What's the cheapest way of heating my boat?

Coal briquettes. I use them on my 62' narrowboat. Keeping my cabin at 20°C costs £3-£4 a day at December 2019 prices.

Which is the best insulation?

Spray foam. It's the standard insulation on most modern narrowboats. Pre 1990 boats are more likely to have polystyrene insulation which can crumble and leave cold spots.

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Summary
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.