Form Over Function: The Pros and Cons Of Pretty Narrowboat Ownership
Everyone tells me that I own a beautiful floating home. Orient is sixty-two feet and twenty-two tonnes of gorgeously crafted steel. If that isn’t enough, there’s a beguiling vintage Lister two-stroke engine to turn the head of every middle-aged man on the cut. Because of the deep draught, Orient sits pleasingly low in the water, and her four tall stainless steel chimneys give her a unique and rather sexy appearance.
As you can tell, I’m deeply in love with the old girl.
But a beautiful boat isn’t necessarily a practical boat. Mine isn’t. I struggle to keep up with narrowboats equipped with more powerful engines. I ground regularly on all but the deepest canals, and I have less living space than a similar length modern boat. The simple process of stopping a craft equipped with a vintage engine and antiquated controls requires so much concentration on Orient that my ears bleed. Despite being a pretty boat, my home is impractical in many ways.
If you’re considering buying a boat like Orient you need to know what’s in store for you. I hope that the following helps you make the right decision.
A narrowboat’s draught is the distance from the waterline to the deepest part of the boat. That’s the skeg, a horizontal steel bar which is welded between the boat’s base plate and the bottom of the rudder post. Most narrowboats draught is between eighteen and twenty-four inches. Orient sits three feet in the water.
Most narrowboats have about 6’ 4” of headroom. So a shallow draught boat will be higher out of the water than a narrowboat with a deep draught. There are pros and cons to different depths. A shallow draught boat can cruise many canals inaccessible to those sitting deep in the water. The disadvantage is that with more ‘sail’ above the water and less stability beneath it, shallow narrowboats are more challenging to control on windy days.
Controlling Orient in blustery conditions isn’t a problem. On the other hand, running aground is a constant worry. I get stuck regularly. The most recent grounding was last Tuesday.
I was pootling along at my average granny-with-Zimmer-frame walking pace when a boat raced up behind me. Any boat achieving 4 mph is racing in my book. Anyway, the guy at the helm looked like he was late for a meeting with a funeral director. He grimaced at me like a bulldog chewing a wasp and hopped impatiently from one sandaled foot to the other.
I cruised for another mile before I came to a long enough stretch for him to overtake. Etiquette demanded that I find somewhere safe for him to pass. Then I was obliged to move over to the right and reduce my speed to tickover so that he could overtake without pushing waves of muddy water over towpath dog walkers.
I was annoyed when the boat sailed by without the owner acknowledging me at all. I was even more frustrated when I immediately grounded immovably on an offside mudflat.
I reversed gently, then aggressively when being kind to my engine didn’t work. I didn’t move an inch, so I thrust my pole into the stony canal bed and heaved with all my might—still nothing. The only thing which accelerated over the next fifteen minutes was my heart rate. And then the cavalry arrived.
Many boat owners are scathing about the use of bow thrusters. The ‘girly-buttons’ as bow thrusters are sometimes known are just something else to go wrong and another set of batteries to maintain and replace. But they’re handy on windy days.
The lady at the helm of my rescuing boat used her bow thruster to good effect, nosing gently towards my stern so that her husband could take Orient’s stern rope. Their engine, aided by my pole and Orient’s twenty-one gee-gees, gently pulled Orient into the central channel’s deeper water. I was free to slide through the canal’s muddy bottom until I grounded again. Happy days!
The vast majority of narrowboats use something called a Morse control for both throttle control and gear selection. It’s a steel or plastic leaver about six inches long. If you want to move your boat forward, you push the Morse control forward. The further you push it, the faster you go. If you need to do what passes for an emergency stop on a narrowboat, you bring the lever back to the idle position – usually at 12 o’clock – pause briefly and then pull towards you.
Then there are the ridiculously unwieldy traditional controls like I have on Orient. There are a brass wheel and a handled rod attached to the rear hatch frame. Spinning the wheel determines the engine speed and pushing or pulling the rod switches between forward and reverse gears.
Helming a boat with these controls requires three hands; one for the tiller, one for the speed wheel and a third for the gear selector. As most boaters only have two, unless they’re from Norfolk, the tiller has to be ignored during critical manoeuvres.
Stopping on England’s canals on a boat equipped with these controls and with a deep draught is an exercise in frustration. Emergency stops are out of the question, so I have to anticipate and prepare for problems around and through every blind bend and bridge hole.
Despite my best efforts, I sometimes have to try to stop suddenly. I turn my speed wheel half a dozen times to decrease the engine speed to idle and pull the gear selector rod backwards 37cm. Not 36cm or 38cm because the engine would still be in gear. The location is exact and unmarked. Then I pause again briefly before pulling the lever back another 2cm to engage reverse. The final step is to spin the speed wheel clockwise half a dozen times and pray that there’s enough water under Orient’s big bottom to allow the boat to stop. Many supertankers stop more quickly than Orient. My traditional controls are a right royal pain in the arse. Especially when I try to go backwards.
Most narrowboats the size of Orient are equipped with 40-45 hp engines. My boat’s beautiful Lister JP2M dwarfs most modern engines but, despite its impressive bulk the vintage two-stroke only has 21 hp at its disposal. Incidentally, a horse trying very hard can produce 15 hp, and a human can manage 5 hp. So Orient’s engine can produce as much power as a five-legged horse pulling out all the stops.
That’s more than enough power to push my home’s twenty-two tonnes along a series of narrow muddy ditches. But the engine is woefully inadequate for river currents or tidal flow.
I would like to cruise the tranquil waters of the Lancaster canal. I can’t get there on Orient. Boats have to use the Ribble link to get onto the Lancaster canal which necessitates sustaining 6 mph for an hour. I can’t manage that. Orient’s deep draught also prevents me from cruising the Lancaster canal.
Orient is built for plodding rather than racing. I often struggle to keep up with friends who claim they are cruising at a moderate speed. Many owners of modern boats tailgate me as I travel, unhappy with my sedate pace. I move over for them whenever I can to let them pass. I try to be pleasant, but helping other boaters sometimes bites me in the arse, like Tuesday’s grounding.
A modern engined narrowboat has an exhaust low down on the hull behind or to one side of the rear deck. Exhaust fumes are whisked far, far away from the helmsman and his crew. They sail serenely through the landscape enveloped in the heady aroma of cowpats and rotting wildlife. Cruising is such a joy.
And then there are the poor buggers with midships engine rooms and rooftop exhaust stacks.
I am a smart fellow. When I emptied my bank account to buy three stainless steel chimneys and an engine exhaust, I debated long and hard about their length. And then I chose an exhaust which terminated at nose height.
The exhaust stack sits on the port side twelve feet in front of me. When I’m cruising into the wind, I travel through a world filled with post-apocalyptic smog. And no matter what direction I go, I always appear to be sailing into a headwind. I hear oncoming boaters greet me, but I’m never sure who or where they are.
You probably realise that I’m exaggerating a little. However, if you can’t stand an occasional exhaust fume cloud, don’t buy a narrowboat with a vintage engine and rooftop exhaust.
Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about living afloat
Stove Dust and Dirt And A Forest Of Steel
I favour the traditional narrowboat heat source, a solid fuel stove. I have two stoves actually. I have a Morso Squirrel multi-fuel stove at the front of the boat and a Premiere range in my boatman’s cabin. There are no moving parts to fail, so coal and wood-burning stoves offer boaters the reliability they need during the winter months. But solid fuel stoves aren’t perfect.
Coal briquettes are available everywhere on the inland waterways. Finding a regular fuel supply isn’t an issue but getting it back to your boat is hard work. Briquettes are usually sold in 25 kg (55lb) bags. That’s twenty-six bags of sugar, two corgis or half a small wife, which is a great deal of extra weight to throw about. That’s the coal, not the tiny wife.
I have used between sixty and eighty bags of coal each year since April 2010. That’s one and a half to two tonnes of the stuff. All of it had to be ferried from supplier to boat, lifted on board and transferred from leaking bags into a coal scuttle or water-tight storage box. Despite welcoming physical exercise, bending double under the low cratch board on my little front deck holding a heavy weight soon became a painful chore.
And then there’s the dust. A solid fuel stove produces acres of gritty film. Daily dusting is a necessity on a coal-burning boat. So if you see me wearing an apron and a pair of marigold rubber gloves, I’m cleaning. I don’t have any secret fetishes.
A boat equipped with a solid fuel stove needs a decent chimney to help the fuel burn correctly. I replaced my single chimney every eighteen months on my first narrowboat, James No 194. Constant use throughout the year rotted them until they fell apart.
I discovered a long term solution in 2014.
I invested in a bomb-proof chimney from the Stainless Steel Chimney Company and never looked back. The company’s products are works of art and expensive, but they are eternally durable. A quick scrub with soapy water and a kitchen scourer has them looking brand new in minutes.
The slight problem, and it’s a problem entirely of my own making, is that they substantially increase my air draught. And because I’m a poser through and through I want to keep my chimneys upright as I cruise. That’s no problem on a route I know, but I’m quite nervous going through bridge holes I don’t know. And through tunnels.
I have to be sensible in enclosed spaces. The two starboard chimneys are too close to tunnel walls to take any chances. I need to stop somewhere before tackling a tunnel to remove those two and store them on my front deck. And then put them back as soon as I leave a tunnel so that I can carry on posing. I am a victim of pride.
Poor Sleeping Arrangements Courtesy Of The Engine Room
Narrowboat ownership is all about compromise. A shorter boat costs less to maintain and moor and allows access to more of the inland waterways network. However, the shorter the cabin, the less living space you have at your disposal. Especially if you generously give your engine a room of its own. My Lister’s bedroom is seven feet long, so that’s seven fewer feet for me to use as living space. My sleeping spaces have suffered because of the lost area.
I can’t remember how many berths Orient’s broker advertised in the original listing. I’m pretty sure that he forgot to mention that the main bedroom cross bed was only suitable for pygmy children. And that those children would feel claustrophobic if they tried to sleep on the boatman’s cabin cross bed.
Both beds are unsuitable for a single adult and impossible for a couple. At 5’10” tall and with a wiry build, I’m much smaller than many narrowboat owners. Even so, I can’t lay straight on the bed in the main bedroom without risking breaking my toes under the gunnels. There’s slightly less room on the cross bed in my boatman’s cabin. But I sleep there because the cabin has better ventilation than the main bedroom.
I have eleven 11” sealed portholes. The only fresh air available in the bedroom is via one tiny mushroom vent. So, in addition to the problems I face sleeping on a small bed, I find the space extremely claustrophobic.
I leave my boatman’s cabin rear doors and hatch open at night, often in the winter but always on dry summer nights. I may have to sleep like an embryo, but at least I have a beautiful view of the stars.
Sleeping with wide-open doors is something that many boat owners are uncomfortable doing. My rear cabin thermometer peaked at 35°C on Friday. The temperature hadn’t dropped much by the time I climbed into my tiny bed. I left my engine room side doors, and my rear hatch and doors wide open all night.
‘My husband thinks you’re mad,’ a lady on the boat moored behind me confided. She said he insisted on keeping their boat locked up tight even on the warmest nights. He worried about nighttime attacks and being keelhauled by Warwickshire’s feral youth. I told her that I wasn’t at all concerned and pointed through my galley side hatch.’ The gadgets in there will keep any intruder at bay,’ I told her, puffing up my chest a little. She looked puzzled.’ So, you’re going to whisk an intruder to death?’ It was then that I realised I was pointing towards a drawer filled with baking equipment and not my rack of razor-sharp Global kitchen knives.
I’m not as brave as she thinks. Over the last ten years, I’ve moored out in the countryside for hundreds of nights. There’s rarely a soul on the towpath after dark. Sometimes a befuddled boater will stumble past, returning home after a hard night’s entertainment. He’s more interested in keeping out of the canal than breaking into my boat.
Piston Polishing Purgatory
I’m not an engineer or an enthusiast who likes engine tinkering. The appeal of an exposed engine in its own room with double doors on both sides is, for me, the opportunity to show off.
Posing is a problem if your pistons aren’t polished to perfection. If I’m cruising, I like to fling my engine room doors open and show the world what I’ve got. If I want to maximise the impact I have to make sure that every copper pipe and each brass housing, knob and switch is shining brightly.
There’s enough buffing to keep me entertained in the engine room for hours, but I need to spread my love throughout my home. I have brass rails above and below each of my eleven postholes, converted Great Western Railway wall lights, brass rails on cupboard tops and shelf edging and then an Aladin’s cave of shiny trinkets in my boatman’s cabin. There’s a copper kettle, a brass tiller and tiller pins, horse brasses, more rails and a brass bugle instead of an electric horn.
Polishing can become an obsession. I’m relieved to admit that the craze hasn’t overcome me yet. So please forgive a little dull brass if you see me on the cut. You’ll recognise me quickly enough. I’m the one cruising in a cloud of smoke, moving slower than drying paint, bent double from endless nights sleeping curled like an unborn baby. And smiling idiotically at everyone I pass. Because, despite my peculiar boat’s many failings, I am thrilled to call Orient my home.
Discovery Day Update
Even the dark cloud of our current pandemic has had a silver lining for some. It has for me. The recent worldwide turmoil has forced many people to consider whether their current lifestyle is right for them. And with the recent surge in remote working, more and more homeowners are considering living and possibly working afloat.
I’ve experienced a surge in Discovery Day interest and a full calendar for August. If you’re thinking about living a more tranquil lifestyle and want to know what it entails, you can find out more about my Discovery Day service here. I think that my training and experience day cruises offer excellent value for money. But don’t take my word for it. Bret Alexander joined me for a day last month. Here’s what he had to say…
“I’m still at the mostly theoretical stage – where the imagination is well ahead of the realities. The discovery day is part of my effort to focus more on the realities and get answers to the 100 questions I have swirling around in my head – from someone who’s clearly got an extensive amount of experience.
The day itself was pretty much ideal for me – and ticked all the boxes. So just being on the boat for a day and being about to ask all those questions I’ve been wondering – made the experience well worthwhile. The result is – that I feel that my rough plans are realistic – and I’m not missing anything major. Obviously the two holidays I have lined up will also help – but they will answer a different set of questions.
My biggest worry was damaging your boat – something I think I managed to avoid. I think if it was my boat I’d have been more relaxed about that!
I can’t think of anything that I’d add – or change. I didn’t have any questions that I thought I’d missed – as I think we covered all the main topics.
Your Discovery Day is a great opportunity to have a reality check, on a beautiful boat – with someone that has extensive experience. I can’t think of any other way you can have that. Renting a boat will tell you a lot about what it’s like being on a narrowboat – but it won’t put it into any context and answer all the questions you’ll have – and will be a lot more expensive.
I think doing a day like this first – is an excellent way to clarify if this something that you might want to take further. It certainly has for me.”