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

Warning! Living on a narrowboat may be harder than you think. Here’s what you need to know before taking the plunge

Summer is a dangerous time of the year for aspiring boat owners. Gaily painted narrowboat sirens lure novice liveaboard boaters onto the rocks of poorly researched decisions. Towpaths up and down the network are littered with shattered dreams. Unhappy boat owners scowl at passing traffic like bulldogs chewing wasps. These recent liveaboard narrowboat owners are not a happy bunch. The reality of life afloat is a far cry from the gin-swilling snapshot glimpsed on a sunny summer’s day.

They could have saved a great deal of heartache before plundering their pension pot. These new boat owners sell all that they own. They empty their bank account into narrowboats floating close to the silty bed on one of England’s inland waterways and leap aboard for a life of relaxed hedonism. 

And then reality sets in.

I’m sure that you, as a prudent chap or chapess, have researched the lifestyle thoroughly. I’m sure that you know all about the physical, logistical and emotional challenges you’ll face living in a muddy ditch with no fixed address. I bet you’ve invested long hours trawling the internet to make sure that this odd lifestyle will suit you and your spouse/partner/companion/dog/cat/goldfish. But just in case you haven’t researched living on a narrowboat yet, here are a few reasons you might not want to turn your rose-tinted dream into cold and muddy reality.

  1. The lifestyle costs far more than you think
  2. Limited residential mooring availability
  3. Limited living space
  4. Little storage space
  5. You need to be fitter and more flexible than you do living in a house
  6. Living afloat requires some hard physical work
  7. More exposure to potential accidents
  8. Exposure to the elements
  9. It’s easy to feel lonely on the inland waterways
  10. There’s a steep learning curve to living afloat
  11. Keeping all of your floating home warm is a challenge
  12. You to be organised
  13. You have to get far closer to bodily waste than you do in a house
  14. Condensation can sap your will to live if you don’t understand how to prevent it
  15. If you adopt a nomadic continuous cruising lifestyle, receiving post and renewing documents can be a challenge
  16. If you overcome all of the above, you’ll run the risk of enjoying life far too much. And driving your landlubber friends, family and work colleagues mad as you regale them with tales from the cut.

Perceived Low-Cost Accommodation

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard or read about people wanting to live afloat to save money. If that’s your plan, forget it. You won’t be happy. Life on a narrowboat is for those who want to get away from modern-day society and live closer to nature than they would in their bricks and mortar fortress.

The destination for many is London, where house purchase costs and rent are eye-wateringly expensive. Yes, you can buy a narrowboat for a fraction of the purchase price of the smallest London flat. And, yes, your living costs could be less too. That’s IF you ignore your licensing and boat maintenance obligations and CRT’s continuous cruising guidelines if you don’t want to pay for a residential mooring.

Living on a narrowboat can be a low-cost lifestyle, but so can living in a cardboard box in the doorway of a high street shop. Neither would be a happy or healthy way to live. If you want to live comfortably and ensure that your floating home lasts you for many years, you need to budget as much as you would for a small family home.

You’ll find the most detailed breakdown of narrowboat running costs on or off the internet in my Narrowbudget Gold package here.

Residential Mooring Availability

When you license your boat, you have to declare your home mooring, the place where you pay to park your boat. If you don’t, you are in the ‘boat without a home mooring’ category. You are a continuous cruiser and, as such, you are obliged to observe CRT’s constant cruising guidelines.

CRT will email, text or phone you to remind you of your obligations. Continuous cruisers are obliged to move their boats on a progressive journey along the waterways throughout the year. The guidelines are suitable for those who don’t want or need to stay in one place for work, schooling or medical needs. Many owners of boats without a home mooring are watched closely by CRT’s enforcement team. Boat owners move their craft from A to B and back to A again. They are supposed to move from A to B to C to D.

One of the many problems with the system is the lack of clear rules. The distance an owner must move his boat each year is vague. Liveaboard boaters are often at loggerheads with the authorities. In extreme cases, CRT will refuse to relicense boats which haven’t moved enough. Then, if the craft is unlicensed, CRT can begin proceedings to have it removed from the waterways network.

Because of house purchase and rental costs, London’s waterways are overcrowded. So much that touring boaters often struggle to find a place to moor. Having to breast up to another liveaboard boater isn’t unusual. Finding somewhere to empty your cassette toilet is a challenge and living a stress-free life is nigh on impossible.

The simple logistics of complying with CRT’s continuous cruising guidelines is an immense challenge. Many London boaters have mooring “buddies”, fellow boaters moored elsewhere on London’s waterways. In an attempt at compliance, they swap moorings every couple of weeks, sometimes leaving a boating pal to guard “their” mooring until their buddy arrives. Touring narrowboat owners are in for a bit of a shock if they try to moor in one of these guarded spots.

Comply with CRT’s continuous guidelines or secure a residential mooring before you move afloat. You’ll have problems if you don’t, and more of the stress that you tried to leave behind.

Narrowboat Experience Days

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

Limited Living And Storage Space

At sixty two feet, Orient gives me more living space than many narrowboats. Still, “more living space” is relative. My cabin is roughly fifty feet long and six feet wide. Three hundred square feet to contain all that I own and provide me with barely enough room to swing a tiny cat.

If you’re thinking about living on a narrowboat, don’t be seduced by a broker’s terminology. He might write something like, “this is a spacious boat which is perfect for full-time living.” 

Rubbish!

What he should tell you is that the boat in question appears to be spacious because it has little or no fitted furniture. If you think you can use your house furniture, forget it. Nothing will fit. To maximise a narrowboat’s limited storage space, you need a cabin filled with fitted furniture.

One of my daily tasks at the marina is boat moving. I have to walk through the boat’s living space looking for keys and switches. It’s a welcome opportunity to compare other narrowboats with Orient. 

Not many of these boats have adequate storage space for liveaboard boat owners.

If you’ve reached the boat viewing stage of your grand narrowboat plan, make sure that you check storage space carefully. Mentally move your possessions onto the boat. Where are you going to store the years of accumulated tat which fits easily into your house? Where will you put the contents of your loft, cellar, garage and garden shed? Where will you store your best set of bone china crockery, your food processor and all the other rarely used kitchen gadgets? What about your tool filled garage complete with a couple of motorbikes? Where will that lot go?

The painful truth is that, even in the most accommodating narrowboat, you won’t have space for much at all. You have to learn to live with less than you did in your spacious house. Much less.

Hanging space is at a premium. You’ll have one tiny wardrobe at best, space for no more than a couple of dozen items. And, ladies, your extensive shoe collection will have to go. You’ll be reduced to wellies, walking boots, summer trainers or Crocs and a pair of heels for those rare occasions when the towpath is dry enough to support them.

Personal Fitness

You need to be much more robust to live afloat than you do in a house. The simplest of tasks take more effort, more time and require more strength than many people are either used to or enjoy.

I offer a Discovery Day service for aspiring narrowboat owners. Most want to live afloat. The day is structured to give as much of an insight into liveaboard life as possible. Their day begins in a small car park at Napton reservoir, following a grassy footpath around the western edge of the twenty-acre lake. They walk along a canalside path to Calcutt Top lock and cross the upstream gate. And then negotiate a hundred metres of muddy towpath to reach Orient’s Discovery Day mooring.

This ten minute start to a boating day has caused a few problems. One generously proportioned lady suggested that the distance she had to walk was unreasonable, all five hundred and fifty metres of it. If you think that a quarter of a mile walk on a level path is too taxing, living afloat is not for you.

The next challenge for many is using a narrowboat walkway topping an oak gate to cross a lock. If the lock is empty, there’s a ten feet drop to a concrete platform drenched by a frothing torrent gushing from the leaky gates. The crossing is a little disconcerting for anyone who fears heights.

The final pre-cruise challenge is getting onto my boat. 

Like many narrowboats, especially liveaboard boats, I have a canvas cover, a cratch cover, over my front deck. It provides me with some useful additional storage space and a wet-weather changing area which prevents too much cabin heat escaping on a windy day. This arrangement requires a degree of flexibility when getting on and off the boat. I have to simultaneously duck under the cratch cover roof and step two feet over the hull side. It’s second nature to seasoned boaters. However, many aspiring narrowboat owners don’t have the flexibility forced upon them by life on the cut.

More than a few of my guests have struggled to negotiate this initial hurdle. Some have needed to use their hands to lift reluctant legs over the hull. My front deck is the least difficult of my two cabin entry points. The back cabin access requires eel-like flexibility.

The hatch is twenty-one inches (54cm) wide with an eighteen inch (45cm) step down into my boatman’s cabin. Getting in from the rear is further complicated by old fashioned controls. My speed wheel throttle control and gear selector handle are fixed to the cabin roof in the hatch space. The best technique is to back in, bend double and step down eighteen inches onto a wooden step/storage box.

Many of my guests grunt, groan and curse as they tackle this manoeuvre. The good news is that constant repetition increases flexibility. Stick with it, and before long you’ll be jumping onto a boat as enthusiastically as a seasoned sailer offered a double rum ration.

Everything about liveaboard life requires more effort. Even the simplest of tasks like walking the length of your floating home requires flexibility, especially on a boat like Orient. The cabin is filled with fitted furniture which narrows the walkways. My engine room is a challenge for many. The doorway from my main bedroom to the engine room is 5’ 0” (152cm) high and 1’5” (44cm) wide. A typical house doorway is roughly 6’6” tall and 2’6” wide. 

I’ve had a few big blokes join me on my training cruises. One, a broad-shouldered giant of a man standing 6’6” tall, wedged himself immovably in the engine room doorway, much to the amusement of his dainty wife.

At 5’10” tall, I’m not the largest person in the world. Even so, I have to walk like an Egyptian to get from the saloon to my boatman’s cabin. And, because I’ve reached a certain age, my forehead bears the scars of many forgotten doorway ducks.

Managing your utilities is hard work, especially if you have a multi-fuel stove. Bags of coal weigh 55lb (25kg) and need manhandling (person handling these days?) inside the boat two or three times a week during the winter months. Gas cylinders are a similar weight. You have the additional challenge with your propane of dragging the heavy bottle onto a rain-slicked bow and then lowering it through an impossibly narrow hatch into its tiny gas locker. Changing the connection requires a degree of flexibility usually only seen on stage.

Even shopping requires a gym-like workout. If you adopt the life of a continuous cruiser, you might not own a car. Taking one with you on your travels requires so much effort that many boaters don’t bother. So you have to walk to the shops, armed with a cavernous rucksack and grim determination. A successful shopping trip is an event worth celebrating. 

Living afloat, especially if you’re a continuous cruiser, forces you to exercise and achieve a degree of flexibility. If you treat all of your daily physical chores as welcome exercise, you’ll enjoy your liveaboard experience. Couch potatoes, you have been warned!

I’ll finish this list next week in part two, and treat you to the unhappy scribblings of a disenchanted boater. (Spoiler alert: Some of us actually enjoy this lifestyle.)

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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.