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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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Narrowboat Expenses For January 2019

This is the first of an ongoing series of posts detailing my narrowboat expenses. Each post will break down my monthly costs for the previous month, the same month three years earlier and a third set of figures for three years before that. I will publish each post in the middle of the month. You will always have access to the narrowboat running expenditure no more than a month old and you’ll be able to compare it with data which spans six years. You’ll be able to use this information to estimate the likely cost of buying and maintaining your own floating home.

Calculating accurate costs for the boat you intend to purchase is difficult. There are so many variables that the best you can hope for is a good idea of the expenses involved and the nature of the variables you need to consider. With that in mind, I have explained the difference in the two boats’ systems, style and design below.

About The Boats

The data spans my two different periods living afloat on England’s inland waterways. I lived on board my first boat, James No 194, from April 2010 until October 2016. I moved off the cut then until December 2018. My wife, Cynthia, and I explored Europe for twenty six months in a 2003 Hymer motorhome. We enjoyed two winters languishing on France’s Mediterranean coast and much of the summer months cruising the vast Dutch waterways network. Much as we enjoyed our European adventures we missed England and the English canal network too much.

We returned to the UK mid December 2018 and purchased our second narrowboat from Ash Boats at Tattenhall marina. Our new floating home is Orient, a 62′ Steve Hudson traditional stern narrowboat.

What you pay to maintain and run your narrowboat will be determined  by many factors including the boat length, layout, heating system(s), insulation, complexity, your ability and desire to maintain and repair your home, and by your boat use and lifestyle.

The boats we have lived on are similar. Here they are in detail.

James No 194

Type: Our first boat was a 62′ Norton Canes traditional stern narrowboat. She was constructed in 1977 with a steel hull and a oil treated ply cabin. I over plated the wooden cabin with steel in November 2011. The boat had polystyrene insulation, typical in a boat built in the seventies and not very efficient. I sandwiched another layer of polystyrene between the original cabin and the new steel. In hindsight, and what a wonderful gift that is, I should have used spray foam instead.

Year of Construction: 1977

Length: 62′

Width: 6’ 10”

Draught: 2’6” 

Building Material: Steel hull with an oil treated ply cabin. The cabin was eventually over plated with 4mm steel. While the new cabin weatherproofed the boat and didn’t neccesitate disturbing the boat’s beautiful internal pine cladding, the extra weight increased the boat draught and raised its centre of gravity. The result was a rather wobbly boat.

Insulation: Polystyrene

Heating: Initially, a Torgem (or was it Torglow?) multi fuel stove at the front of the cabin which gravity fed three radiators along the starboard side. I eventually removed the stove’s back boiler and had a Webasto Thermotop C diesel central heating system installed to heat the back end of the boat. Solid fuel stoves can’t adequately heat a boat divided into two or more rooms.

Engine: Mercedes OM636. This was an extremely reliable if slightly smokey engine. It clocked up 6,173 hours over forty years. People who knew what they were talking about told me that the engine should run for ten times as long without any problems.

Engine Power: 42 horsepower 

Fuel consumption: 1.97 litres per hour – Most narrowboat engines use between one and one and a half litres of diesel per hour. James was a thirsty girl

Diesel tank size: 300 litres – A large tank by narrowboat standards, but a baby compared with Orient’s whopper.

Batteries: 1 engine starter, 4 x 160ah AGM batteries in the domestic bank. I began my boat life with just one 110ah leisure battery. I quickly doubled the capacity and then doubled it again a year or two later. Soon after that I realised the mistake I made. If you need to add to a battery bank, replace the whole bank. If you don’t, the oldest battery in the bank will fail and drag the rest with it. 

Inverter:1600 watt Sterling pure sine. More than enough for onboard use.

Generator: A 2KW Kipor suitcase generator. It cost half as much as a similar specification Honda. That’s because it weighed much more, made more noise and wasn’t as reliable. I rarely used it.

Battery monitor: Smartgauge. 

Solar power: 3 x 100w panels mounted on a tilting bracket, and an MPPT controller. Supplied and fitted by Tim Davis of Onboard Solar. These three panels allowed me to stay as long as I wanted on a summer mooring without having to run the engine for battery charging. I ran my engine for an hour a day in the winter months to supplement the panels’ reduced output.

Water heating: Three options; via the engine when cruising, through the calorifier’s immersion heater when attached to a mains supply and, initially, using a wall mounted on demand gas heater. The gas heater failed catastrophically when I was in the shower, resulting in a cloud of super heated steam rather than hot water from the shower head. I removed the gas heater immediately. 

Cooking: A four ring gas hob, grill and oven.

Orient

Type: Steve Hudson traditional with an engine room and boatman’s cabin. The boat has bulkheads between the galley and the bathroom, the bathroom and the bedroom, the bedroom and the engine room and the engine room and the boatman’s cabin. More bulkheads means greater difficulty pushing heat through the boat from a single multi fuel stove. 

Year of Construction: 1996 hull construction, 2002 sale and owner fit out. 

Length: 61’ 6”

Width: 6’ 10”

Draught: 3’ 0” 

Building Material: Steel

Insulation: Spray foam

Heating: Morso Squirrel in the main cabin, Premiere range in the boatman’s cabin and a Kabola boiler for hot water and for heating a towel rain in the bathroom and radiators in the engine room and main bedroom.

Engine: Lister JP2M – It’s a thing of beauty, housed in its own engine room and visible to all through port and starboard side doors. The downside is that it takes up a huge amount of space, weighs as much as a small car and is the reason towpath users often find me bent double in a darkened room furiously polishing my pistons.

Engine Power: 21 horsepower – It’s about half the power of engines you find in many modern narrowboats of a similar length. However, working boats carrying forty tonne loads and towing a similarly laden butty used engines similar to this. If they were good enough for working boatmen, they’re good enough for me.

Fuel consumption: 0.97 litres per hour – Most narrowboat engines use between one and one and a half litres of diesel per hour. Orient’s fuel consumption came as a pleasant surprise.

Diesel tank size: 500l – This is an enormous tank for a narrowboat, twice the size of many boats, four times the size of some. It feeds the engine, the generator and the Kabola boiler

Batteries: 1 engine starter, 1 generator 1 starter, 5 x 130AGM batteries in the domestic bank – There were thirteen batteries on board when we bought the boat; one engine starter, one generator starter, two for the bow thruster, seven in the domestic bank and two connected to nothing at all under the engine room floor. Twelve of the thirteen wouldn’t hold a charge.

Inverter: 3,000W Sterling – Overkill as far as I’m concerned. A more powerful inverter increases the temptation to use power hungry devices which quickly drain the battery bank. The key to a happy off grid life is using less power, not equipping your boat with expensive kit so that you can use more.

Generator: Lombardini 15LD 315 5KW  – What a useful tool this would be if it worked. It doesn’t. It didn’t work when we viewed the boat. We had it serviced. The Lombardini worked perfectly for a while MORE HERE

Battery monitor: Sterling PMP1

Solar power: None

Water heating: If we’re connected to a shore line, or during the brief period we could use the onboard generator, we could turn on the calorifier’s immersion heater. The immersion heater would quickly drain the battery bank so we can’t use it if we’re powering the boat through the inverter. The most cost effective method is via the Kabola diesel boiler. That’s when it’s working. A clogged burner pot was initially to blame. After I replaced that with a ruinously expensive new part the boiler worked perfectly for a day. The latest problem is likely to be a blocked fuel filter or line. Orient’s slow revving Lister doesn’t get hot enough to heat water.

Cooking: A gas hob and oven in the galley plus limited cooking on the Premiere range in the boatman’s cabin.

Boat Use And Lifestyle

I didn’t know anything about narrowboats when I stepped aboard my first floating home nearly nine years ago. I didn’t know how to handle my long, thin boat either, which was just as well really. James No 194 wasn’t in any condition to take out on the cut. The once beautiful boat had been languishing on a marina mooring for ten years. Everything on board needed servicing, refurbishing, repairing or replacing. I didn’t earn much so the boats beautification took five long years.

Apart from the occasional nerve wracking cruise around the marina, my boat was nothing more than a floating flat for the first three years. The forty year old Mercedes engine remained cold for most of that time. A clogged fuel filter brought the engine to an embarrassing stop six miles from home on my first cruise. One of the marina fitters used a hire boat to tow me back to base. A split gearbox hose put a stop to my second cruising attempt. I pretty much gave up after that until I could afford to have the engine’s perishables replaced and attend to some dangerous faults in the engine room.

I ran the engine for less than fifty hours in my first thirty three months on board. The boat’s condition and my confidence and competence improved dramatically in 2014. I recorded a slightly more respectable three hundred and seventy four engine hours in 2014. In 2015, I swapped my job at the marina for the life of a continuous cruiser. I clocked up 1,134 hours at the tiller that year and lived off grid for all of it. I kept a mooring at Calcutt Boats but didn’t use it. I stayed on the cut all winter, living completely off grid. In fact, I used my shore line to connect the the national grid for just one day in the whole year.

My life changed completely in 2016. I met my wife Cynthia in the autumn of 2015. We both adored the live aboard lifestyle but we agreed that a few months away from the mud and damp of English canal winters would do us both the world of good. We bought a second hand Hymer motorhome to take us to France’s Mediterranean coast then, after battling bureaucracy for a few months and failing to secure the visa Cynthia needed to stay long term in the UK, we decided to sell my narrowboat and tour Europe full time.

The following twenty six months were filled with excitement, adventure and non stop travel. We drove thirty thousand miles through eleven countries, stopping each summer in Holland to explore the Netherland’s vast waterways network in our Dutch Linssen yacht. Much as we enjoyed immersing ourselves in new cultures and experiences we missed the English canals. I missed them most.

We returned to England in December 2018, driving north from Dover to Tattenhall marina near Chester and onto Orient, or new home. 

After six weeks and one abandoned attempt to cruise south to Calcutt Boats we waved a fond farewell to the good folk of Tattenhall and endured an eventful two week trip during to coldest two weeks of the year. Orient kept us warm and dry and performed magnificently during three days of inadvisable ice breaking. The hull I blacked three weeks before our journey south needed blacking again by the time we reached Napton Junction.

I spent far, far too much during our time away and then invested even more in Orient’s purchase. I had an opportunity to return to work at Calcutt Boats, helping to maintain the business’s one hundred and ten acres of glorious Warwickshire countryside. I’ve been working full time at the marina since February 2019, escaping on high days and holidays for a few days cruising.

Marina life doesn’t suit everyone. I don’t think it would suit me if I moored anywhere else. I don’t like the idea of looking through any of Orient’s dozen portholes and seeing another boat moored an arm’s length away. Fortunately, I don’t have to. Orient has a unique mooring, tied to to rusty thirty five foot long dump barge in a little use corner of Lock’s marina, the elder of Calcutt’s two marinas. 

I have the best of both worlds. I have a marina mooring with expansive views, including the antics of novice boaters arriving at Calcutt Bottom lock for the first time.

Read on to discover the actual and detailed expenses for January 2013, January 2016 and January 2019. I’m often asked by aspiring boaters how much the cost of boating increases over the years. If you’re one of them, here’s the information you’ve been looking for.

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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.