Learn about life afloat the easy way

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.


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Fifteen Reasons Why Living On A Narrowboat Is A Bad Idea: Part 2

Warning! Living on a narrowboat may be harder than you think. Here are more reasons for NOT living afloat

This is the concluding part of the post I recently published highlighting the many aspects of living afloat which aspiring narrowboat owners may not fully appreciate. In part one I discussed the real cost of living on a narrowboat, mooring availability, living and storage space considerations and personal fitness.

Providing part one hasn’t sunk your boating plans, today’s post addresses exposure to the elements, a steep learning curve, the dangers you face as a boat owner, the challenge of keeping your home warm and condensation free, organisational issues and the dreaded narrowboat toilet. If you think you can deal with that lot, you’ll want to know how to deal with post and parcels. And then, if you’re still keen, you may want to join me on a Discovery Day. You’ll be able to ask all the many questions your research has reaised so far. And you have the pleasure of taking my home for a spin on Warwickshire’s wonderful waterways.

Anyway, on with the post. I hope that you find the information useful.

Exposure To The Elements

Do you enjoy being outdoors in all weather? If not, you possibly won’t enjoy living afloat. 

For a start, you’re out in the open when you’re at the helm. A few narrowboats have a wheelhouse. Many more have pram covers, rear deck covers. Neither is practical or enjoyable to use when cruising. The easiest and arguably safest way to helm your boat is from a back deck open to the elements. 

I’ve been asked a few times if I postpone my cruise if there’s rain forecast. They’re raindrops, not bullets. Cruising in the rain, even heavy rain, isn’t necessarily unpleasant. In fact, once I’m wearing my bomb-proof Guy Cotten trawler man’s waterproofs I’m quite happy to cruise in torrential rain all day. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.

The wind is a different matter. Relatively shallow draughted, flat-bottomed boats with high sides are difficult to control in anything more than a moderate breeze. Wheelhouses and pram covers add even more wind resistance and challenge.

Even boats equipped with powerful bow thrusters struggle on windy days. The solution is to postpone your cruise until the wind subsides, or take advantage of the prevailing breeze. That’s where a helm open to the elements is beneficial. If you can feel the wind, you know what it’s going to do to your boat. If you hide from the weather behind canvas or wood, judging wind speed and direction can be much more difficult.

Your utilities force you outside too. You need to replenish your coal or log supply, change gas cylinders, refill your water tank and empty your toilet cassette or pump out holding tank. If you’re a continuous cruiser, especially in one of CRT’s mooring hotspots, you’re obliged to move your boat every fourteen days to comply with regulations. Unless the weather is considered dangerous, you’ve got to cruise. Unless you enjoy the elements, these forced cruises can quickly become an unpleasant chore.

A continuous cruiser once told me that he used to dread “moving day”, especially in heavy rain. He treated his bimonthly cruises as unpleasant work for many years. Then his view changed. He realised that hire boaters pay vast sums for the privilege of doing what he detested. He decided to treat his moving day as a holiday. He dressed for the weather and transformed an unpleasant chore into a mini vacation.

How’s your sense of smell? There are many treats and torments for your nose on the inland waterways; fresh-cut hay, blossom in the spring and cut grass from CRT contractors once in a blue moon towpath trimming. Those are the pleasant experiences providing pollen doesn’t knock you for six. How about the reek of rotting vegetation as you pole your home off a shallow mudbank? Or, joy of joys, the heady aroma of a drowned critter’s carcass, a half-submerged mine filled with nauseating gas, waiting to explode at the touch of a narrowboat bow?

One of my few disenchanted Discovery Day guests gagged when we nudged the bloated corpse of an unlucky sheep. He told me that, in the unlikely event that he moved afloat, he would insist on steering from an enclosed wheelhouse. 

Some narrowboat owners insist on even more extreme measures.

A boatbuilder told me that he had one hoity-toity lady customer who insisted that he install air conditioning on her narrowboat. He informed her that the installation wouldn’t be a problem, but the unit would cause power management issues. “I don’t care,” she told him. “I can’t stand the canal smells, so I need air conditioning.”

If you don’t enjoy the great outdoors, its weather and its odours, don’t buy a narrowboat.

Living On A Narrowboat Can Be A Dangerous Lifestyle For Careless Boaters

Rain slicked steel, moss-covered stone, drink driving and ignorance of the risks involved increase your chances of serious injury. I’ve lost count of the number of accidents I’ve seen on our little three lock flight here at Calcutt Boats. 

I’ve witnessed many more on my travels.

Carelessness, ignorance and alcohol are the main culprits. Party loving novice hirers in locks frighten me. I’ve seen foolishness bordering on insanity. This example takes some beating though.

On a hot summer’s day several years ago, I passed a scruffy hire boat crewed by drunken men. They entered Calcutt Top lock as I left. All waved beer bottles at passing boaters, swapping good-natured banter and insults.

I watched as a guy standing on the hire boat’s bow handed his bottle of Bud to a mate, stripped off to his boxers and dived into the canal in front of his moving boat. He surfaced laughing and thrashing, grabbed either side of the bow fender and swung his feet onto the deck. The guy at the helm, for a laugh, thrust the Morse control forward and charged into the empty lock towards the unyielding downstream gate. The water baby was still doing his best impression of a hundred and eighty-pound skin and bone fender.

Twenty feet away from killing his cruising buddy, the novice helmsman threw his ten-tonne boat into reverse. He stopped his craft TWO FEET away from the gate. A few seconds delay putting the boat into reverse, a slightly less powerful engine or a shallower lock could have resulted in a fatality. None the wiser, the crew opened another half dozen beer bottles and carried on cruising. 

Isn’t that scary?

But you don’t have to be drunk to hurt yourself on the inland waterways. A Calcutt Boats moorer cruising solo slipped off his boat into the frigid water of a February lock. Too weak and cold to climb out of danger, he clung to his rudder, screaming for help for fifteen minutes before someone heard him. He was so cold that neither the Calcutt first aiders nor the ambulance crew could raise his body temperature. He needed hospital treatment for that.

Another experienced but careless lady boater broke her collar bone. She stepped off her boat on a lock landing, as she had done a thousand times before, tripped over a raised paving stone and fell onto a lock landing bollard. That was the end of her summer cruise.

Young men competing with each other create risk too. Who can jump the furthest from a moving narrowboat gunnel onto a mud-slicked towpath, long jump a narrow lock or raise the quickest paddle? It’s a game many males like to play.

One careless hire boater raised a paddle in a blur of spinning windlass. The young man lost his grip on the windlass handle when the paddle reached its high point. With his face inches from the paddle gear, the windlass, still attached to the rapidly descending paddle and spinning like a propeller, caught him in the mouth. He arrived back at base with a stitched lip and a few fewer teeth than he would have liked.

Most boaters have fallen into the canal network’s murky waters more than once. Happily, most damage nothing more than their pride. I’ve been in four times in ten years. Each dip was down to carelessness. My first was a spectacular backward summersault into the frozen marina when the centre line knot unravelled on the boat I was pulling in. 

Canal bathing in January is not pleasant.

I’ve been for a dip in the summer too. I was working on our wharf one sunny summer’s day selling coal, gas and diesel to passing boaters. One narrowboat approached onto our wharf bow first and far too fast. A handful of feet away from an unpleasant collision with unyielding concrete, I signalled the owner to reverse. He did that quickly as well. As I leaned over the water to grab his bow line, the boat shot backwards. I dived headfirst into three feet of muddy water, much to the amusement of everyone watching. 

Fellow boaters are more likely to reach for a camera than a life ring. 

Make sure that you know what you’re facing before you move afloat. Join a boat owning friend for a cruise or two, take an RYA helmsman course or join me for a Discovery Day. Act like a boy scout and be prepared.

Warning: Familiarity breeds contempt. You’re going to end up in the cut at some stage of your boating career. Embrace the experience. Just make sure that you have a change of clothes handy.

There’s A Steep Learning Curve For New Narrowboat Owners

I was incredibly naive when I moved afloat. My old floating home’s sole purpose was accommodation. I had little interest in narrowboats as such and no plans to use mine for cruising. I expected my transition to be no more complicated than moving from one house to another. 

The reality was mind-numbingly confusing.

I had electricity, water and gas on tap throughout my fifty years living in houses. I warmed my living space by flicking a switch. I didn’t have to think about anything running out. As long as someone continued to pay the bills, life was effortless.

All of that changed on the first day of my life afloat. 

I didn’t move my new home off its mooring at all during my first year afloat. The thought of threading twenty tonnes of steel through narrow lock entrances filled me with dread. The Oxford Canal is nearby. It offers a scenic cruise between Napton and Braunston junctions and challenges at each blind bend and narrow bridge hole. With no formal training to help me, I found the experience quite stressful. Especially when my classic Mercedes engine failed to start six miles from the marina.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons that day. 

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Lesson No 1 – Engines don’t like sitting unused on a static mooring for months or years on end. My Mercedes OM636 ran for just half an hour in three years before my maiden voyage to Braunston. Most of the hoses had perished, and the fuel filter was blocked solid.

After weathering the embarrassment of being towed back to base, I had all the engine hoses replaced. It’s a shame I didn’t do the same with the gearbox. I lost all of my gearbox oil through a cracked hose on my second cruise. I managed to limp home without assistance on that occasion. As soon as I returned, I scheduled a complete engine overhaul. Engines need as much TLC as people.

Lesson No 2 – Narrowboats travel very slowly. My maiden cruise six miles from Calcutt Boats to Braunston took two and a half hours. Walking back to the marina to collect my car took an hour less. Don’t expect to get very far on your narrowboat cruises.

My trial by fire continued. My boat electricity worked at the marina. I expected it to work when I cruised as well. That was when I was introduced to the mysterious relationships between chargers, inverters and split battery banks. It was all very confusing.

I had to carefully manage my water supply. My first boat had a tiny 350-litre water tank, enough for thirty-five minutes in the shower or five baths at house dwelling consumption levels. Not that I had a bath. There’s no room for one on a narrowboat. 

I regularly ran out of water, twice at the terribly soapy stage of taking a shower. Braving an icy north-easterly wearing little more than bubble bath wasn’t the most pleasant way to fill an empty water tank, but it had to be done.

I have a much bigger tank these days, and I’m far more careful with my water. My 750-litre tank lasts me for two months. And, no, I don’t smell like a tramp.

There’s so much to learn when you move afloat that pre-purchase familiarisation is essential. You can’t research what you don’t know, so try to spend some time with a liveaboard boat owner before you commit to a narrowboat lifestyle. What? Don’t you have any narrowboat-owning friends? No problem. You can join me on a Discovery Day cruise.

Keeping All Of Your Floating Home Warm Is A Challenge

Yes, you CAN have a warm and cosy cabin during the cold winter months, but you’ll need to work hard to get there.

I love my boat. I don’t want to live anywhere else. The lifestyle is perfect for me, but keeping my boat warm is hard work. It’s five degrees outside at the moment and blowing a gale. It’s 20°C at the front of the cabin by my fire. It’s a comfortable temperature to sit and work. Twenty feet away in the main bedroom, the temperature drops to 16°C. I sleep in the boatman’s cabin at the back of the boat. It’s 12°C there now, which is relatively warm. The prevailing wind usually blows from the stern and often lowers my bedroom temperature to 7°C. That’s coat, hat and scarf temperature for most people. 

Boaters who tell you that their cabin is warm throughout are being economical with the truth, or they have a tiny and open cabin or a central heating system. Many narrowboat central heating systems aren’t designed for running twenty-four hours a day. Multi-fuel stoves are, but they aren’t suitable for regulating the cabin temperature throughout.

A multi-fuel stove is a narrowboat owner’s most reliable heat source. Once they’ve mastered the skill of keeping them alight, using the right fuel and keeping the flue debris free. There’s SO much to learn.

Organisation Is Your New Best Friend

Living on a narrowboat can be a nightmare if you don’t plan ahead. Water tanks often don’t have gauges. You need to devise a system for establishing how much liquid is in the large steel tank under your front deck and how quickly you’re using your remaining supply. It’s not so much of a problem if you’re on a marina mooring, but life out on the cut is more challenging. You need to know the location of your nearest water point and, in the winter, whether an icy canal is going to prevent you from reaching it.

The same applies to your diesel tank. Not many narrowboats have fuel gauges. If there’s a straight drop from the filler cap into your tank, you can use a dipstick. Ladies, the dipstick I’m talking about is not your husband. It’s a slender length of wood marked at intervals.

Some narrowboats have diesel heating systems so, if you don’t want to dress like an Eskimo inside your cabin, you need to make sure that you have plenty of fuel. The good news is that, if your diesel central heating system has been fitted correctly, you’ll run out of heating fuel before propulsion diesel. 

Managing your electricity supply is one of the more challenging aspects of living afloat. Off-grid electricity is costly and time-consuming to generate. Life is less stressful if you learn to manage with less rather than installing large battery banks which are a challenge to charge. Poorly organised battery charging regimes kill battery banks quickly. You need to be disciplined enough to manage your power supply efficiently, or dig deep and replace your battery bank regularly.

Every aspect of your life needs careful consideration when you’re off-grid. Where can you buy food? Where’s the next sewage disposal point, the nearest rubbish disposal bins and where on Earth do you get critical medical supplies when you’re out on the cut? Let’s face it, if you’re a typical narrowboat owner, you’ve reached the stage where bits of you are beginning to drop off or stop working. Easy access to doctors and dentists can be crucial. 

Life for car-owning continuous cruisers can be a nightmare. You can’t park your car outside your house, so you need to find somewhere convenient near your temporary mooring. Then you move your boat and leave your car behind. You cruise for a few miles, moor for the night and walk or cycle back for your car, hoping that it’s still in one piece. Cars parked on bridge lay-bys are easy targets for thieves.

If you like to fly by the seat of your pants, living on a narrowboat is probably not for you.

The Dreaded Narrowboat Toilet

Flush and forget. That’s what you do in a house. Your poor little poo doesn’t get any attention at all. It’s deposited in a bowl and washed far, far away with an unlimited supply of mains water.

You can forget all that on a narrowboat. You need to get up close and personal with the processed remains of previous meals. A pump-out toilet is best for you if the sight of a little faecal matter turns your stomach. But even then your tank has to be pumped out every few weeks. And that is an unusual first-time experience. It’s a challenging half-hour for those with a keen sense of smell. However, you won’t suffer as much as those poor boaters with cassette toilets.

Let’s face it, a cassette toilet is nothing more than a fancy bucket topped with a toilet seat. Most cassette designs, mine included, require the user to bend down perilously close to the toilet bowl to open the flap to the cassette. So, while you have your nose in your toilet bowl, you flip aside a thin plastic plate separating you from twenty litres of decaying waste. It’s enough to make a strong man weep.

That’s the easy part. Once you’ve made your deposits you have to transfer them to the national sewage system. Carrying a 20kg poo pot through your homes narrow walkways is a challenge. Especially once you realise that lifting it by the built-in handle is likely to result in a stream of waste decorating your lovely clean floor.

The really unpleasant part is next. You have to take your precious parcel to an Elsan point for disposal. This is often a bowl around a pipe to the sewer topped by a stainless steel grid. The grid is a highly effective toilet tissue collector, a fetid collection which responsible boaters will wash away with the Elsan hose. But not all boaters are capable and considerate human beings. You may experience the joy of using an Elsan point after a boat owner who shouldn’t be allowed out in public without a carer.

How are you feeling? If this section makes you want to lie on a soft bed in a darkened room until nausea passes, narrowboat life probably isn’t for you.

Condensation: The Bane Of A Boater’s Life

Mouldy fabric, damp paper, stained woodwork, ceiling drips and window runs. Condensation can cause misery, expense and ill health. 

Heating, ventilation and insulation are the Holy Trinity of condensation free boats. Get the balance right, and you can say goodbye to damp dresses, mouldy mattresses and unpleasant undies.

I suffered terribly from condensation during my first year afloat. My bedroom at the stern was so damp it was almost wet. It was an environment more suitable for pike and perch than people. However, I virtually eliminated damp from my back bedroom by making a few simple changes. 

Remember what I said earlier about heating the back of your boat? That was one of the primary reasons I had condensation in my bedroom. In an attempt at conserving the heat at the front of my floating home, I kept my bedroom door closed. Because the bedroom was then unheated, I closed my bedroom windows to try to keep my sleeping space a little warmer. All I did was create the perfect climate for condensation.

I put an electric heater in my bedroom in the early days and opened the windows. The condensation disappeared. I installed a diesel central heating system a few years later so I could heat the back of the boat when I cruised.

You can always cure your condensation problem if you have the time, energy and money. Or you could live in a properly insulated house with central heating and save yourself the inconvenience.

I had condensation problems again two boats and eight years later. Cynthia and I purchased a high-end Linssen motor yacht for four-season Dutch waterways cruising.

I didn’t take into consideration the piss-poor insulation fitted on boats in Holland. The Dutch are fair-weather sailors. Equipping craft for winter living is not high on their list of priorities.

The Linssen’s blown air heating system didn’t provide enough heat to keep us warm. Even then, the slight temperature difference between our cabin and the frigid Dutch winter air produced rivers of condensation on our cabin walls and ceiling.

Towards the end of our stay in Holland, we had to live in our galley area. We draped a blanket draped over the companionway to conserve heat, and dreamed of a life in a narrowboat.

Orient, my fourth boat and second narrowboat, is condensation free. However, the boatman’s cabin is a little damp. I have a Premiere range in there, but keeping two stoves on the go is a pain in the arse, especially when one of them has a tiny fire box. 

I have temperature and humidity sensors throughout Orient’s cabin. The humidity in my saloon near my Squirrel stove is 32%. Ideally, it should be close to 50% for optimal health. In the unheated boatman’s cabin the humidity is currently 63%. It’s a shame I can’t push some of the moisture towards the bow. 

Living afloat is all about finding the balance. And, if you can’t find a happy medium, making do with what you’ve got.

Receiving Post, Parcels and Deliveries

“How does the postman find you?”, one gongoozler asked. “Does your boat have a letterbox?” enquired another. He doesn’t, and no, I don’t.

I don’t need an address for letters these days. In our digital age, you can manage most of your life online. I have digital banking, insurance, licensing and taxation. I don’t need anything else sending by letter. I am a regular Amazon customer, but the retailer doesn’t need my address. They just need a delivery address. A pub, shop or post office will do. Sometimes a postcode is all I need. 

I can get supermarket shopping delivered to me while I cruise. Sainsbury’s delivery service works very well for me. If I’m on the cut, I add driver delivery instructions to my order. I find the postcode of a house or a pub close to the nearest canal bridge and ask the driver to ring me as soon as he arrives. On the rare occasion that I haven’t had a phone signal, I’ve had to wait for an hour near the delivery address. I prayed that the homeowner didn’t report a suspicious character loitering at the end of his drive.

If the address I’ve given is a pub, I force myself to sit at the bar and have a couple of pints while I’m waiting.

This is another occasion when a liveaboard boater has to be both organised and flexible. 

Do You Still Fancy Living On A Narrowboat?

There you go, the downside of living afloat. How do you feel about the lifestyle now?

I have one final treat for you, a rant from liveaboard boater Pauline Roberts. Pauline claimed that she enjoyed living afloat. You wouldn’t think so from her description of life on England’s inland waterways. You can read her post here. To achieve a balanced view, please read the two posts linked at the bottom of Pauline’s account.

Did you find these two posts useful? If you did, please take a second or two to add a star rating below.

Discovery Day Update

The recent high winds have been a challenge, but I decided to take the bull by its horns and take two aspiring narrowboat owners on a Discovery Day cruise last Sunday.

The Met Office issued a yellow wind warning from midday Saturday for twenty four hours. I decided, sensibly as it turns out, to climb Calcutt’s three lock flight on Saturday morning to escape the worst of the wind. I’m glad I did.

I pair of novice hirers shared the locks with me on my ascent. One of them, a golfing enthusiast, carried one of the sturdiest umbrellas I’ve ever seen. “You need to be careful with that,” I warned him as their boat nosed out of the top lock. “The forecast is for gusts approaching 40mph.”

He looked at me smugly and boasted that his expensive brolly was bomb proof. “I’ve had this umbrella for years and it’s still as good as new!”

The gods of you-shouldn’t-have-said-that were listening. A squall hit us seconds later. Orient listed twenty degrees to port and raced sideways across the empty lock. My home remained pinned immoveably to the lock wall until the sqaull passed. My golf mad lockmate wasn’t quite so lucky. He was right. His brolly was very strong, so strong that it lifted him off his feet. Rather than carry on with his impression of a balding Mary Poppins he let go. His brolly shot into the air like a bright blue rocket and was last seen flying high over Warwickshire’s rolling farmland.

The wind had died down a little by the following morning. My guest, Ady and Tim, enjoyed the challenge of negoriating a wind blown canal on our cruise to Braunston and a tranquil canal on our return. I had yet another pleasant and stimulating day on the cut. Ady and Tim left full of enthusiasm and plans for a boating future. 

Here’s what they said about their day with me.

Discovery Day guests Tim & Ady Henderson

Discovery Day guests Tim & Ady Henderson

“We do not have any boating experience at all.  Both of us wanted to see if we could live onboard a boat for two to three years before we retired.  Our plan once retired to travel the canal throughout the UK.

A great way to spend a day, very relaxing, informative and very hands-on.  The day covered everything we needed to know to get us started on our canal adventure. Brilliant experience if you are considering living on board.

I have already recommended you to friends and family. Regardless of future plans, I would do this discovery day again in a heartbeat.  A wonderful introduction to boating, very hands-on, safe and clear instruction, easy to find, and a beautiful boat.  Highly recommend this experience.”

Tim & Ady Henderson, Devon

If you’re ready to take your narrowboat research to the next level, join me on a Discovery Day cruise. I’m Coronavirus free, as are the waterways around me. Save yourself, live on England’s inland waterways network!

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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.