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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Living Afloat Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

We were boating, and then we weren’t, and now we are again, this time, we hope, for the rest of the year.

Last week we began our cruise under difficult circumstances. Cynthia, for the first time in many years, visited a conventional general practitioner in Leiden to try to resolve an ongoing and painful infection.

The solution was to put her on a course of antibiotics. Cynthia’s body reacted instantly and violently to the unaccustomed medicine. Within hours, an unsightly rash covered her entire body, every bone ached, and she felt physically sick.

Abandoning our cruising plans, we raced 20km back to Leiden in Julisa, swapped boat for motorhome, and then drove 130km south east to Eindhoven close to the Belgian border. The clinic, Essaidi, was recommended by the cancer clinic in Germany where Cynthia spend a month in April.

On Tuesday, she had an hour’s treatment of aqua tilis. It’s a revolutionary treatment done nowhere else in the world. We booked her on for four more sessions later in the week, returned to Leiden to swap some essential stuff from the boat to the Hymer to allow us to stay away for a few days, then returned to Eindhoven.

With the thermometer hitting thirty four degrees centigrade, we were lucky to find a parking spot on the clinic grounds in a grove of lofty cedar. The downside was that, with the Hymer’s solar panel completely hidden from the sun, we had to conserve our electricity on one of the best electricity generation days of the year.

Hiding from the sun near the Belgian border

Hiding from the sun near the Belgian border

Cynthia felt a little better after the treatment, but she has been warned that the allergy may take three weeks to disappear. Aching bones combined with the rigours of having to move our belongings back from the Hymer to the boat again yesterday has just about finished her off.

Moored on our own private island

Moored on our own private island

She can’t help being bed ridden, but her absence yesterday caused a few logistical problems.

I still haven’t mastered single handed boating in a cruiser with an immaculately painted white hull. In a

A network of lakes for us to explore

A network of lakes for us to explore

narrowboat, it’s simple. You step off your rear deck, centre line in hand, and pull your steel tube towards the towpath. Even though the centre line is attached to the middle of the boat, either the bow or the stern usually reaches the bank first but, if you’re like most narrowboat owners, you don’t care. Your black painted hull is bomb proof. The thick steel is further strengthened by raised rubbing strakes. You’re not going to do any damage, but even if you do, a scuff doesn’t stand out against the black.

As I’ve now learned, a cruiser with its canopy acting like a sail, pushing the boat ahead of it thanks to a following wind, is an unwieldy beast.

Mooring on my own is further complicated by the door we had fitted for the dogs on the boat’s port side. Because that’s the only side the dogs can get off, we have to moor port side to the bank regardless of what either the current or the wind is doing.

This is a very long winded way of saying that I’m now mourning the loss of my once pristine paintwork. I’m sure that there will be plenty more scrapes and scuffs before the season ends, but the first cut is the deepest.

The saving grace is our location.

We’re moored on the Oude Kooi, the Old Cage, an island on a network of lakes 7km north east of our Leiden base. I think the island belongs to an exclusive Dutch boating club, but as the signs on the island’s manicured moorings are all written in an incomprehensible language, I’m not entirely sure.

We arrived last night. It’s delightfully peaceful after the Leiden city centre location we’ve become accustomed to over the last month or so. A pair of buzzards breed on the island, there are kingfishers galore, but very few mosquitoes thanks to a large colony of bats introduced to keep the bugs away.

That’s just about it for this week because I’ve been working on other narrowboat content. As I mentioned last week, I’m in the process of developing an interactive and very comprehensive course for aspiring narrowboat owners.

There’s now a huge amount of information on this site. Perhaps too much for anyone new to boating. Where do they start? How do they work through content without missing important information? How do they make sure that they remember important information in posts they’ve read?

The new course will be a mix of written articles, audio and video files, and interactive quizzes and surveys. One of the course’s first sections takes a look at the possible downside to living afloat.

I published an article on the site in 2012 by live aboard boater Pauline Roberts. Her rant about the lifestyle produced an avalanche of comments from other live aboard boaters. Pauline raised some excellent points. Life afloat isn’t all about sipping wine from an easy chair on a sun drenched canal bank. There are many issues to consider.

Pauline’s original article is here. If you haven’t seen it already, please read it and the comments made by other boaters at the time. My own comments are below, so don’t forget to come back here when you’ve finished with Pauline.

Pauline may well enjoy her life afloat, but she doesn’t really give that impression, does she? To balance her point of view, I’ve addressed the issues she’s raised below. So that you can easily switch between Pauline’s article and my comments, my comments refer to the numbering on Pauline’s paragraphs (If you’re reading this on the web site rather than in the course itself, there aren’t any number on Pauline’s paragraphs, so you’ll just have to count them yourself).

2. Cold Boats While I agree that a narrowboat’s floor can be cold in the winter, I’ve never had to resort to wearing thick leather boots in the boat. The bottom of a narrowboat is anywhere between 5mm and 15mm thick. Steel bearers sit on top of the base plate. Marine ply is fitted on top of the bearers to form the boat’s floor. The floor is usually no more than 10cm above the icy canal beneath. Because heat rises, the heat from your stove moves away from the cold well close to the floor. Unless your narrowboat floor is insulated (most aren’t) this area will be decidedly chilly in the winter months. My very effective solution is to wear Croc shoes as indoor slippers, and to always sit with my feet raised on our bench seating. No cold feet!

The number of clothing layers you need in the winter will depend on how well insulated your boat is. Mine was an old boat built using polystyrene insulation, which is generally considered the poorest of the insulators used on boats. Most narrowboats these days are insulated using spray foam. It’s not unusual to walk along a towpath on a cold winter’s day to see narrowboats with their front doors open to let the heat out. A friend of mine, Russ, used to sit in his boat in the winter with the front doors open wearing just a pair of boxer shorts. It wasn’t a pretty sight!

3. Cold Spots Again, I agree, but the cold spots can be reduced or even eliminated. When I first moved on board, my bedroom at the back of the boat was freezing, literally. As I mentioned in my introduction, my first winter on board, which I think is when Pauline wrote this article, the weather was the coldest on record. On a number of occasions I woke to frost on the bulkhead behind my head. My freezing bedroom was cause not only by the cold weather outside, but by the boat’s poor insulation, and inadequate heating.

My boat had a wooden top, which had perished in a number of places. I over plated the wooden cabin with steel, added more insulation between the old and the new cabins, and added a secondary heating system, a Webasto Thermotop C, to supplement my solid fuel stove at the front of the boat. My first winter was my last cold winter on board.

Draughts around hatches are due to poor fitting. The hatches can be modified to eliminate any draughts.

4. Toilets It’s true that living afloat you have a  much more intimate relationship with the processed remains of last night’s dinner, but it doesn’t have to be a problem. Watching the weather is important when you live afloat, as is making sure that you pick somewhere which can service all your needs if the weather closes in. Cassette toilets, or Porta Pottis, need emptying every two or three days. There are a number of other options open to you, all of which are discussed in detail in the toilets section.

5. Dog Muck You’ll find it everywhere, not just on canal towpaths. The solution is simply to keep your eyes open. I always carry a small coal shovel on board. Regardless of the culprit, when I arrive at a mooring, before I do anything else, I search the area thoroughly for unwanted piles of poo, scoop them up and flick them under the towpath hedge. The whole process takes just a couple of minutes. After that, I can relax on a clean and fragrant mooring without having to worry about unnecessary shoe or boat floor cleaning. It’s common sense really.

6. Water Forward planning Pauline, forward planning! If you need a residential mooring for school or work purposes, choose one which has a water supply. A mooring without a water supply can be a real pain in the backside. I spoke to a live aboard boater Jane Fletcher recently about her ‘idyllic’ farm mooring. The site was wonderful, miles from the nearest busy road, away from airport flight paths or railway lines, and in a very pretty part of rural Leicestershire. The two major problems were that the mooring had neither electricity nor water. Jane had to work for a living. Sometimes after a long day at the office, she had to return to the boat and endure an hour’s cruise to fill her water tank. All well and good on a balmy summer evening, but not so much fun in the dark on a cold winter night.

Pauline claimed that her tank took an hour to fill. She must have had a large tank which she allowed to practically run dry. Little and often is the key, especially if the forecast is for freezing nights and sub zero days. Again, I think that Pauline wrote her article following the awful winter of 2010. While she was melting snow for water, I had a plentiful supply available from a tap close to my boat. Yes, the tap froze solid once or twice, but a kettle or two of boiling water soon sorted that out.

Living afloat isn’t as easy as living in a bricks and mortar home, but it is not as difficult as Pauline would have you believe.

7. Personal Hygiene Poppycock! There’s no need to go without when you live on a boat. My boat’s tank was tiny compared to most. Most narrowboats’ water tanks hold 700-1,000 litres. I had 350 litres to play with. Even so, if I was on my own, I could comfortably make that last a month. That’s an average of just ten litres a day. which was plenty to accommodate all my hygiene needs. I used a seven litre Hozelock portable shower which was wonderful. A very thorough shower would use just five litres. There is absolutely no need to ration yourself to half a kettle for washing yourself. What a ridiculous notion.

Taking of ridiculous, there’s absolutely no need to have discoloured hands. Yes, coal burning stoves produce a little soot. Daily dusting sorts that problem out. Going down the engine ‘ole? (referred by most normal boaters as an engine bay) Wear a pair of disposable gloves and some overalls. Pauline make the operation sound like a full day in a coal mine!

8. Space Living space can be an issue, but surely you don’t move on to a narrowboat if you aren’t comfortable with small spaces? You will have to downsize and dispose of most of your material possessions. So what? You don’t need it.

Making up a folding bed every day simply isn’t necessary unless you have a very small boat. Personally, the last thing I would want to do at the end of the day is mess about making a bed. I had a 4′ wide 6’4″ long small double bed, permanently made up and fixed in place. The more you want on your boat, the longer or, heaven forbid, wider it has to be. Life afloat is all about compromise, but, for me, a fixed bed was a must.

9. Privacy If you moor in busy locations, especially locations popular with tourists, you have to accept a little unwanted attention. If you don’t want it, move or, if you want a really radical solution, close your curtains on the towpath side. That’ll stop them!

10. Postal Address Having your post delivered can be a problem. You can eliminate much of your post by going digital. Opening bank accounts can be a problem, so you can either do as much as you can before you move afloat, or try to persuade friends or family to receive your post for you. Make sure that they are aware that benefits can be affected if someone else appears to be living with them though.

11. Emergency Services Forward planning again. If you’re going to pick a mooring miles from anywhere, for God’s sake, know where you are! Pauline’s talking about boaters on static online moorings, so I assume that the moorers in question have been there for a while. Locations on the canal network are easy to pinpoint by bridge numbers or names. Rather than a vague ‘moored beside a field near a farmhouse close to Fenny Compton’, which isn’t going to help any emergency services operator, something like ‘I’m moored 400m south of bridge 37 on the Grand Union canal in a red boat with a blue roof and the name James No 194 on the side’ is going to be much more helpful. You will of course have checked that you have a phone signal, or an internet signal through which you can make WiFi calls, before you choose your mooring.

12. Signals All true, but not as bad as Pauline would have you believe. I always used a mobile dongle from Three. Using their earlier versions, I had to mount the dongle inside a plastic bag on a four feet long wooden pole fixed to my boat roof. The signal strength was boosted in later models, so all I had to do was use a magnetic clamp fitted with double sided adhesive tape to keep it glued to my ‘office’ window. During thousands of miles of network cruising, the device only failed me twice; one when moored at the Crick Boat Show next to dozens of other boaters who were trying to lock onto the same signal, and once when I moored in a deep cutting on the Shropshire Union canal.

Carrier signal strength varies tremendously on the cut. I had a  phone contact with Three. I terminated my contract after two years of constant frustration. EE’s service was much better, especially as I could make calls via WiFi if I had an internet connection but no phone signal. I made many of my calls via Skype.

As far as television is concerned, reception can be hit and miss, but what’s the problem? I see many boat owners who moor at idyllic locations but only leave the safety of their boats long enough to align their satellite dishes. Forget the telly. You’ve escaped society, so don’t keep tuning into depressing news to remind yourself of it. Pull the plug on the evil eye and go for a walk instead.

13. Vandalism and Antisocial Behaviour I’m sure that you know an area near you which isn’t pretty and where you wouldn’t like to walk alone at night. The canal network is the same. There are rough areas, even a few place which could almost be classed as ‘no go’ but they’re easy enough to find out about and stay away from.

There’s no argument, rural canal towpaths, devoid of street lighting, are often pitch black at night. That’s why you always have a torch or two and spare batteries on board. Are you likely to be attacked as soon as you step outside your boat, or have everything you own stolen if you leave it unattended for a moment? No, of course not. However, the same rules apply on the canals as off them. You do what’s sensible. You take precautions. If an area is renowned for anti social behaviour, stay away. If you have to use the canal to move your boat from A to B, start your journey at the crack of dawn before those with single digit IQs have surfaced from drink and drug induced unconsciousness.

14. Shopping For Christ’s sake Pauline, stop moaning! Tesco is actually very good at delivering to boaters. When you place an order with them online, there’s a comments section to allow you to give the driver instructions. He’s not going to deliver to you unless he can park reasonably close to you, but unless your boat has a broken engine, you can always move to somewhere where he can park his van.

Supermarkets aren’t always close to the canal you’re on, but they’re usually close enough. Try to remain positive. Living afloat can be a very healthy lifestyle. I treated shopping as welcome exercise. My supermarket shopping was usually done with my 70l rucksack, which always included an unhealthy treat as a reward for carrying my weekly shopping home.

If you don’t like to walk, get a bike, a car, or a taxi. It’s not a problem as long as you have a ‘glass half full’ attitude.

15. Towpaths Motorbikes roaring down towpaths is back to anti social behaviour again. Yes, it happens in some urban areas, but not as much as some would have you believe. Find out where the problem areas are and stay away from them, especially if you need to stay on a residential mooring long term.

Towpaths can make boating miserable in the winter months. For me, it has always been one of the most unpleasant aspects of living afloat, especially with dogs on board. Wellington boots are my default winter footwear. I don’t have to worry about wiping them down. It’s just a case of swapping them for my indoor footwear. Dog paws need wiping though, which is a bit of a pain if you need to take them for a middle of the night loo break.

Having a boat with a cratch cover, a waterproof cover over the front deck, is an enormous help. You have somewhere protected from the weather to deal with dog cleaning and footwear swapping. Try as I might though, I struggled to keep my front deck mud free during the winter months.

16. Car Ownership Once again, if you have to have a car for work purposes, make sure you have somewhere safe to park it before you take on a mooring. If you are lucky enough to be able to cruise continuously, you can do without. If you plan ahead, you can usually moor your boat close enough to the places you want to visit, or close enough to public transport. And if you really must have a car for a special occasion, Enterprise is a great company to use. Their rates are reasonable, and  they’ll often come to your boat to collect you.

17. Boat Maintenance and the Weed Hatch UK Canals are shallow, very shallow. Cruising in water just thirty inches deep isn’t unusual. The boat’s flat bottom drags along the canal bottom, then flicks whatever it’s disturbed into the propeller. Debris in urban canals is common. Cruise along an inner city canal, and you can usually expect a few stops to remove the offending articles. You’ll find an in depth explanation of weed hatch procedure later on.

Getting a mooring line wrapped around the propeller is a schoolboy error, an error which I’ve made just once. I was lucky. My punishment was an hour with my right arm up to my shoulder in ice cold water trying to remove several yards of iron bar taut rope from the propeller. I was lucky because a mooring line around the prop can sometimes cause extensive damage to the engine.

Reasonably new batteries not holding a charge are often the result of a poor charging regime, a regime made difficult if the boat doesn’t have a battery monitor. With care, lead acid batteries will still only last about three years. Batteries are a consumable and must be included on your budget.

Weeks of scrounging water because of a broken water pump Pauline? Nearly all boatyards and marinas stock water pumps. You could have had it replaced on the day it broke.

You only run your fridge in warm weather when you are travelling? You clearly don’t have an adequate electrical system (as is indicated by the exhausted battery bank). There is no need to make life so difficult for yourself. A little research is all it takes.

As for the friend who thought that he could do without a weed hatch, I think that’s called natural selection. Cruising without a weed hatch in place is pure stupidity. The weed hatch sits directly above the boat’s propeller. If the weed hatch is removed while the boat is moving, canal water from the spinning propeller is pushed through the weed hatch into the engine bay which, as you’ve just read, sinks the boat.

Damp can be an issue, but you can do an awful lot to reduce and eliminate it by both heating and ventilating the cabin correctly. Even then, storing books in the bilge is just asking for trouble.

18. Wildlife on Board The wildest life I’ve ever had on board was a one tonne bullock trying to climb into my engine room to snack on a basket of flowers I had removed from my front deck. Apart from that, no snakes, rats or mice. Interesting to note that Pauline said she wouldn’t be able to find the snake in all the clutter on board her boat. Keeping a boat clean and in a good state of repair helps keep vermin away. It’s a shame the same tactic doesn’t work with cows.

19. Boating Costs As far as I’m concerned, if you want to live to a reasonable standard, living on a narrowboat costs no less than living in a modest three bedroom semi detached house. The cost of diesel isn’t as big an issue as Pauline suggests. Most narrowboats use between 1.0 and 1.5 litres and hour. In 2015, five years after Pauline wrote her article, I cruised the network extensively. I covered nearly 2,000 miles, including 950 locks. I really cruised too fast and too far. I should have slowed down to appreciate the many wonderful places I flashed by each day. Even so, I only spent £1,138 on diesel, an average of £21.90 a week, which worked out at £1.13 for each hour I stood at the tiller moving my floating home around the system. That’s not a bad price to pay, is it?

You can find out all the actual costs of living afloat here.

20. Falling In Going for an unscheduled dip isn’t the problem, it’s what you hit on the way, and how you manage to get out which counts. I like to think that I’m pretty fit and healthy, but that wouldn’t help me if I injured myself as I fell or, worse, knocked myself unconscious on the way in. I’ve seen both happen.

Even if you don’t damage yourself entering the canal or river you fall in, you have to consider how you would get out. A narrowboat is very difficult to climb back onto without the aid of a crew member and a ladder.

Most slips and falls are caused by carelessness. I’ve fallen in four times in the last six years, but three of them were when I was working at the marina. The only time I fell in out of work was when I foolishly walked along a pier while I read my emails on my phone. It was a silly thing to do, and it cost me the price of a new smartphone.

Steel boats, water, ice and moss and lichen covered locks are a potentially lethal combination. Take care though, and your boating career should be a happy one.

That’s my response to the valid points which Pauline raised. You can subscribe to her point of view, shelve your boating plans and remain in the dubious safety of your bricks and mortar home, or you can use Pauline’s text, my response, and the comments of time served live aboard boaters to educate yourself and ensure that you avoid making many fundamental mistakes.

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I enjoy writing newsletters which, I am often told, are very useful to anyone considering living an alternative lifestyle either afloat on the English or Dutch waterways, or leading a nomadic life on the road in the tiny living space offered by a motorhome. The downside is that adding content to the site, maintaining it, and answering dozens of emails each week takes a considerable amount of time. I invest up to twenty hours every week on the site and, over the course of the year, many hundreds of pounds. I can’t afford the investment in either time or money without a little help. If you are in the fortunate position to be able to afford a small financial subscription or one off donation to help with the site’s running costs, please click on this link to find out more. If you are one of the generous souls who already support the site, thank you!

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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.

Comments
  • Alan Cranford Sunday,25 June, 2017 at 10:08 pm

    One of the very best newsletters you have produced! I started your newsletter for my typical 10 minute read… and watching the NASCAR race on the other computer at the same time…. now about two hours in… after reading Pauline’s post and the one from the other guy…YOUR “common sense” approach wins out yet again! I recently completed you FREE 5-day course…. and think it will add some “Gold” clients for you…. plain common sense advice tied to proven narrow boat knowledge wins out! Thanks!!!

     
    • Paul Smith Monday,26 June, 2017 at 6:11 am

      Thank you for your positive comments Alan. I hope that other site users found the posts useful too.

       
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