I moved onto my first narrowboat on a cold and frosty morning in April 2010. I knew nothing about the boats or the liveaboard lifestyle. The way everything worked or, as was more often the case, the way things didn't work, was a mystery to me. It all differed so much from the life I was used to in my luxurious bricks and mortar home.
Unlike you, I didn't make a conscious decision to buy a boat. It was a bit of an accident really, forced on me by the need to quickly find somewhere to live when my marriage failed. My marriage failed partly because my business failed, so I was in a mess both financially and emotionally.
I moved onto a semi-derelict boat at the marina where I had started working part-time a few months earlier. I didn't particularly want to move onto a boat, but it was somewhere cheap for me to stay while I sorted my life out.
Five years later I was still on the same boat, although you wouldn't recognise it. I needed to spend an enormous amount of money to get it from its dilapidated state to a very comfortable floating home. Not only was the boat very comfortable to live on but it was also very well equipped to stay for weeks or months at a time “off grid”, which was an essential requirement if I wanted to spend any amount of time from the marina where I lived and worked.
During my first half decade afloat I learned an enormous amount about these boats. While I learned, I also shared the knowledge on my website. I became a bit obsessed with it really. I invested over 6,000 hours creating more than 7,000 posts and pages, and wrote a collection of guides and developed a narrowboat budget calculator which is available on the site as “Narrowbudget Gold”.
The package has proven very popular indeed. Almost every day I receive emails thanking me for the volume of information it contains. Sometimes I think there's too much information.
I was having a drink with friend and fellow boater Allan Izatt a few years ago. He purchased my Narrowbudget Gold package before he moved onto his boat twelve months earlier. He told me that, although the information had proven invaluable while he was making his plans, he wished that there had been some sort of hands-on advice available, practical as well as theoretical assistance to help him make sense of everything.
The result of both our conversation and useful feedback from hundreds of subscribers to my weekly newsletter was a real-life, hands-on, “discovery day” on board my own narrowboat James No 194.
I hosted these hugely popular events for two and a half glorious years. I welcomed hundreds of aspiring narrowboat owners on board, as well as existing narrowboat owners who wanted to hone their helmsmanship skills. I had fun. They learned and had fun. Everyone was happy, so I can't really understand why I sold my lovely narrowboat in October 2016.
Anyway, I enjoyed a fascinating two years. Cynthia, my American wife, and I drove twenty-seven thousand miles through eleven European countries. We wintered in the south of France and then drove north to the endless Dutch waterways network for the summer months. We discovered the many differences between English waterways cruising on a narrowboat and living afloat on a "posh" Dutch Linssen yacht on the vast network of canals, rivers and lakes in the Netherlands. Our most significant discovery was how much we missed the UK canal network's shallow and muddy ditches and the funny looking boats on them. Craft often owned by weird and wonderful folk who want to live close to nature. We decided to rejoin them.
We're delighted to be back. Back to living on the canals and back to offering experience days. This time on a different boat. She's a beauty.
Orient is just six inches shorter than my old Norton Canes boat. She's much younger than James No 194 but doesn't look it. Orient is based on an authentic canal working boat complete with a midship engine room, a 1936 Lister engine, a beautiful boatman's cabin, and two tonnes of hardwood flooring. Probably the most significant difference between the two boats is the steering. James' engine room sported a Morse control, a simple lever with a push-pull button for gear selection and throttle control. Orient is more traditional than James in that respect. She has a brass handle for gear selection and a speed wheel for determining the throttle. Orient offers the opportunity to enjoy an authentic boat handling experience. You'll enjoy the novelty of using these controls but you'll probably want a Morse control on your own boat. I'll explain the differences during your time with me.
A Discovery Day is your chance to learn how to handle a 61' 6" narrowboat. If you can manage a boat of this length, you can handle any narrowboat. You'll steer it along the the picturesque waterway through impossibly narrow bridge holes. Your journey will take you to the historic waterways village of Braunston. Then you'll reverse the boat in a more or less straight line, do a three-point turn and moor securely against the bank using piling hooks, chains or pins. You'll learn the best knots to use and all you need to know about etiquette on the cut and generally gain enough confidence with narrowboat handling to take one out on your own, with or without a crew. During your twelve mile cruise you'll gain both experience and confidence. You'll be ready for the grande finale; three descending locks in the Calcutt flight, an about face in Calcutt Boats' marina entrance and then an ascent of the same flight. Going up and down in a lock require different techniques. You'll be familar with both by the time we tie up for the final time.
Boat handling is only part of the day though. Steering your boat is the easy bit. Choosing the right craft is far more difficult. You need to consider the overall boat length and the impact your choice has on the waterways you can use. You'll need to understand why your floating home's draft will determine how enjoyable your cruising is, which stern to choose to suit the craft's purpose, the pros and cons of both bow and rear deck covers. You need to know how to balance onboard electrics to determine which home appliances you can use on board, and which ones you should definitely stay away from. You need to understand the pros and cons of the different types of toilet suitable for narrowboats. The subject is favourite on the towpath. You don't want to feel left out. You need to know how to avoid condensation, which solid fuel stoves and central heating systems to choose and which fuels work best with them. You'll want to discover the best telephony and broadband solutions and onboard television. And critically, the importance of built-in storage and why you should avoid “open plan” live aboard narrowboats. And you can ask me any other boating questions you want answering. The day is yours.
Then there's choosing a mooring. Finding the right mooring for your boat is arguably as important as your choice of boat. You'll meet me on my own mooring at one of the most beautiful marinas in the UK. I'll talk to your about different types of mooring, the importance of access, location, proximity to busy roads, access to your own vehicle, facilities you'll need and facilities you'll want, hidden charges to look out for and restrictions to avoid. You may be able to avoid taking on a permanent mooring at all, but you'll have to be sure of your facts.
I've seen hundreds of new boat owners here at the marina soon after they've parted with a substantial sum for their own boat. Often they could have avoided some very costly mistakes by going on a discovery day.
I don't mess about. I know how hard you've had to work to earn your money. I want you to have complete confidence when you spend it. I expect you to thoroughly enjoy your day out with me. Everyone does. However if, in the unlikely event that you aren't thrilled in every way with the service I've offered before, during or after your Discovery Day, please let me know. I will refund everything you've paid in full and without hesitation. This is a cast iron guarantee.
A couple arrived at Calcutt Boats to get some remedial work done, quite a bit of remedial work done, after they purchased their 60' long live aboard narrowboat. One of the first questions I ask new boat owners when I meet them is how much boating experience they had before they made their purchase.
The answer, which once would have shocked me but which now I almost expect, is that they hadn't set foot on board a narrowboat before they parted with just over £40,000. I once stood slack jawed on the back deck of a brand new £120,000 bespoke narrowboat with the new owner. He appeared a little nervous as I moved the boat into the middle of a large marina and offered him the tiller. "Can you show me how to steer?" he implored. "This is the first time I've ever stood on a narrowboat!"
Some aspects of living on board their floating home came as quite a shock to the Calcutt couple. The first was that they couldn't get any electrical appliances to work on the boat. Just a quick glance by one of our fitters was all that was needed to identify the problem.
When they viewed the boat it had been connected to the national grid via a shore line. The boat was fine when it was on a mooring with a handy electricity supply but no good for them to use to continuously cruise the network. Their bank of five large leisure batteries were completely flat.
The solution was easy enough, but it came at a price. They wanted to be able to use some pretty heavy duty appliances so they needed to have a generator fitted in the boat. They didn't want the generator running all of the time so they had to have the existing batteries replaced. They also needed 3KW inverter and a better alternator. They didn't get much change from £7,000.
Their expenses didn't stop there though.
They had bought the boat after simply walking through it on a beautiful summer's day on a mooring in a marina. They hadn't taken the boat out for a test drive. In fact, they hadn't even asked for the engine to be started.
If they had taken the boat out for a short cruise they would have discovered that (A) the starter battery needed replacing, (B) the boat handled terribly and (C) the drive shaft was squealing like a stuck pig. The repairs cost them another £1,500.
If they had come out with me on a Discovery Day before they started looking seriously at boats to buy, they wouldn't have made the mistakes which cost them so much money. They probably wouldn't have purchased that particular boat at all.
The on board electrics would have been a deal breaker for them but there were so many other aspects of living afloat which didn't suit them.
The husband had a bad back so found bending and lifting both difficult and painful, which was a bit of a problem in the winter with so much coal to lift in and out of the boat, and equally heavy gas cylinders to lift in and out of a difficult to reach bow locker.
Considering the practicalities of living afloat, and gaining the knowledge needed to avoid making a costly mistake like this unfortunate couple, is an important part of the Discovery Day.
You'll spend a full day, ten hours, with me on board my 61'6" Steve Hudson narrowboat. It's completely different to the last boat I used to host my Discovery Days. That craft was barely habitable when I moved on board with my single rucksack on a spring morning April 2010. It was a very steep learning curve but living and working at a well staffed marina with experienced fitters and engineers, there were plenty of people to steer me in the right direction. I was very happy with my boat eventually. It was very well equipped both as a static home and as a long term cruiser. The new boat, Orient, is very well specified from day one. It's not yet perfect. I still need to make a number of improvements before we're completely self sufficient. I'll tell you what they are when I walk through the boat with you.
You will be able to compare this boat with the features, facilities and equipment you have on your list for the boat you hope to buy. This part of the day alone will help you to avoid many expensive mistakes made by new narrowboat owners who don't do enough research.
I'm not one to blow my own trumpet, but you probably don't know me from Adam. Maybe you don't know Adam either. You may be a newsletter subscriber and know a little about me. You may not. In case you don't I'll just say this; My wife, Cynthia, tells me that I'm not as confident as I should be in many aspects of my life. But she also says that when I talk about the canals, the people on them and the funny long boats so many call home that I change completely. I am passionate about the waterways. I love life afloat in general and narrowboats on England's inland waterways in particular. More importantly for you, I appear to have a natural ability to painlessly share my knowledge and skills with aspiring boat owners. I have received literally hundreds of glowing Discovery Day testimonials since I welcomed my first guest on board on 3rd July 2014. They have all been overwhelmingly positive.
I'm English so I'm not comfortable telling you how good I am. I'll leave it to these three guests below. If you want to bore yourself senseless and read all my testimonials. all you have to do is ask.
Somewhere on the canal network
"We both wanted to slow down and bit and get out of the rat race. We had built up a fair bit of equity in our house and were considering downsizing to a cottage or enjoying the liveaboard lifestyle. Attending the Discovery Day enabled us to decide that life on a narrow boat was definitely for us.
The day was brilliant. The best anniversary present I've had in 24 years!! After a tour of Narrowboat James 194 we got to try every aspect of Helmsmanship. Despite the very poor weather we had lots of fun chatting with Paul and learning how to be polite and friendly (and dare I say it semi competent) boaters.
We would definitely recommend a Discovery Day to anyone considering the liveaboard lifestyle to prevent expensive mistakes. Just the advice alone was worth the cost of the day and we had the added bonus of getting to 'play' with Paul's home. Thank you Paul. It's a day we will remember for a long time!"
(Deanna and her husband, Rob, enjoyed their time out with me so much that they bought my first boat, James No 194, from me when I temporarily moved overseas in October 2016.)
"Searching the internet I came across Paul's Discovery Day web site for all aspects of living on a canal boat. I thought, "Wow, that would be ideal for me even though I've been living on a canal boat for 18 months but no experience in cruising the cut"..so i booked a Discovery Day with Paul to gain some experience in cruising. With Paul's experience my confidence grew during the day. Now I'm ready to to cruise the canals.
My son and me had a brilliant Discovery Day. Paul answered all questions regarding living aboard and full instruction cruising the canals. We came away at the end of the day with a lot more experience and confidence.
My Discovery Day showed me a different way of life living aboard. Paul was there to answer any questions regarding all aspects of living aboard and instruction with cruising the cut. I would recommend Paul's Discovery Day who is thinking about buying a canal boat."
Kingswinford, West Midland
Pudsey, West Yorkshire
"I have always had an interest in boats and boating – mainly sailing and canoeing so far. When my divorce started, the idea of living on board seemed so much more appealing than living in a flat in the suburbs of Leeds and Bradford. Despite needing to keep costs to a minimum, I wasn’t naïve enough to think it would be a cheaper option, but the idea of downsizing; getting rid of clutter; having a smaller footprint/imprint on the environment and living on water and closer to nature has a great appeal. I booked the discovery day, to find answers to many questions about costs and various practical issues. The helmsmanship side of things was more of a bonus!
The day was fantastic! Despite being a little nervous beforehand, I really enjoyed all aspects of the day. A lovely cruise through beautiful countryside with very relaxing and stress-free instruction from Paul. The amount of information was great, although it was really up to me to think of the right questions to ask, so it is definitely worth putting some thought into what you need to know beforehand.
I would thoroughly recommend the discovery day. Apart from being a great day afloat, it was hugely informative and put my mind at ease over a lot of issues that I couldn’t get straight, clear answers to over the internet."
A unique experience day designed to teach you how to handle a narrowboat and answer all the burning questions you have about all aspects of life afloat including...
...The Practicalities Of Living Afloat...
...And, Last But Not Least, A Fun Day Out
Even on the coldest and wettest days my guests have told me how much they've enjoyed themselves. Boaters are kindred spirits. They have a sense of fun and adventure. Your day with me will be spent in a relaxing atmosphere on board an extremely comfortable narrowboat cruising along one of the network's most beautiful contour canals. You'll be a million miles away from the stress and strain of the "real" world. What's not to like?
I urge you to act now. I love the inland waterways. I've loved every minute since my first night onboard in April 2010. I wouldn't change any of it, but not everyone feels the same as me. Not everyone understands how much the lifestyle costs and the reality of living a nomadic off-grid lifestyle.
Years of experience, mistakes, disasters and triumphs helped me create a truly unique experience for aspiring boaters. Hundreds of guests since my first Discovery Day back in 2014 have helped me hone and tweak the service into its current form. Here are a few more comments from delighted Discovery Day guests.
With two and half years before I can pick up my work pension, a break up of my marriage, kids now independent and need for downsizing, now seems like the time to plan what I've often dreamed about over the years.
Living on the cut seems to fit in very well with my lifestyle. I like the outdoors, love boating, independence and getting back to nature.
Having not spent any length of time with live aboard boaters, the Discovery Day was was really just an opportunity to pick up the vibes that go with life on the inland waterways. I needed to do this before committing myself further in the discovery process. Easier to nip things in the bud now if it didn't appeal before my imagination runs away with itself!
It was a very enjoyable day. I particularly enjoyed the warm welcome of coming in out of the cold to sit in the heat of a toasty, warm cabin. That sold me the lifestyle straight away. It also confirmed that I definitely need a solid fuel stove as primary heat. I know it means hard work lugging coal etc., but what better way to get some outdoor exercise. I'm also now sold on composting toilets! I never imagined I'd spend the following week viewing endless YouTube videos of people's loos!
The helming and boat handling were great experience. By the end of the day I had got over the intimidation of controlling 60 feet and 20 tons of metal. A very worthwhile 10 hours and it has confirmed that I'll continue along this pathway.
The hard work now begins in downsizing, straightening out the finances and then the enjoyable part of finding the right boat.
"Firstly I'd like to say thank you so much for a fantastic discovery day yesterday.
We thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the whole experience of being on your lovely boat,
the scenery, your company and the way you manage to pass on so much knowledge in such an informal way. We had so much fun whilst learning so much. I hope your two month travelling is all you want it to be and good luck for the future.
We are hoping to buy a boat in the near future, possibly a sail away with additions to allow us to do all the finishing touches ourselves as our business is Interiors so we would like to personalise the boat to suit us. Then when we retire in approximately three years’ time we aim to sell our cottage and buy an apartment with a view to spending six months through the summer living on the boat and the rest on dry land. That's the plan so we'll see how things go in the foreseeable future.
The reason for booking the discovery day was to hear from someone who has experienced living on a boat and learn some of that knowledge. We have spoken to several people who live on boats and they nearly always say it's great you'll never regret it, but we felt we needed more information that that and to spend time on a boat that is not a holiday hire boat. Also to see if your boat layout/length would suit us.
We loved every aspect of the day, the informal imparting of your experience/knowledge.
The amount of information you gave was brilliant, I think you answered every query that we had and don't feel that you needed to add anything to the day. When I first read that the day started at 8am and finished at 6pm I wondered if that was too long a day but it wasn't at all, and the day flew by.
We would definitely recommend a discovery day with you to anyone else considering life afloat. I can't imagine a better way to learn so much in such a fun informal way."
Jan & Allan Webster
Penny and I have been considering a life on the canals for going on 8 years as it seemed such a fantastic way of life but there were always questions as to how we would manage in such a small space, along with the other inconveniences that living aboard bring. However, we feel that the way of life by far tops the inconveniences and so we decided that we should sell our house early next year and take the plunge.(I hope not literally!!!) We obviously needed advice and guidance, of which quite a bit came from the Paul's forum, but there is nothing like practically doing and seeing what needs to be done and to get the feel of what living on a boat would be like and that is why we booked a Helmsman course with Paul.
The day was very good, the weather fantastic and the instructions and information from Paul was excellent. He was very understanding and encouraging when we steered off course-which was frequent.
Penny and I had many questions that needed answering and things that we had to know that can only be done practically and these were answered in a very positive way and we can't thank Paul enough for the fantastic day that we spent with him. It is money well spent and we would definitely recommend it to any novices like us who need the practical questions answered that a forum cannot do
Colin & Penny Ashby
Just imagine what life could be like a year from now, maybe even in just a few short months...
You walk along a grassy towpath enjoying the peace and quiet as you watch mallards and coots squabbling in the shallows. A grey heron floats effortlessly into the air as you approach, and then resumes its waterside vigil on the muddy bank opposite your boat. Your boat. Your floating home, your haven from the stresses and strains of your former hectic life.
Your home rocks gently in the wash from a passing narrowboat. The smiling helmsman waves as he passes. You return his enthusiastic greeting, marvelling at the friendliness of the boating community and how different they are from people in the area where you used to live.
You climb onto your front deck, and step down into your cosy saloon complete with its coal burning stove. The stove is cold now. There's no need for it in these benign summer months. As you watch water reflections dancing across your pine clad cabin roof, you remember the joy of sitting in front of the stove in cold winter days, watching the coal's flickering flames as the wind howled outside and rain rattled against the windows.
The lifestyle brings you a sense of peace you always craved.
I live that life. I've shown it to hundreds of aspiring narrowboat owners on my Discovery Days. Most of them fell in love with inland waterways boating as soon as they stepped on board. Sadly, some, during their time with me, discovered that the the lifestyle wasn't for them. That was good too. They learned this lesson before they invested tens of thousands of pounds in a lifestyle they didn't want.
You can discover everything you need to know about life afloat, before making a life changing decision you may regret.