So you want to live on a narrowboat. Good for you. But before you spend your hard earned pennies, you need to think very carefully about the boat you intend to buy. Living on board full time is very different from a two week break away from work and your home on dry land. Answer the following questions honestly before you commit to a lifestyle that may just not be for you.
I’m sure that you’ve at least spent a holiday week or two on a narrowboat but how do you think you’ll cope on the boat full time? Will the never-ending chore of topping up your coal, wood, gas and water in all weather begin to get you down once the honeymoon period is over? Are you prepared to move your toilet or your boat to a waste disposal point in rain, ice and snow? If you don’t have a long term residential moorings will the legal requirement to move every fourteen days get you down? You know yourself better than anyone else. Be honest with yourself.
Do you want to cruise permanently along the canal system to explore all two thousand plus miles or do you want to moor in a fixed position and not move at all? The longest narrowboat you can buy is around seventy feet. Seventy feet is great for space but if you want to explore all of the system on your boat, you need something a little smaller. The shortest lock on the network is Salterhebble Middle Lock on the Calder and Hebble Navigation at 56 feet. However, the lock is 14’2″ wide so you can shoehorn a 60′ boat into it. Sixty feet then is the maximum boat length for you if you want to travel everywhere on the system.
Think about this very carefully. British Waterways who control most of the waterway system are very strict about a narrowboat owner’s status on the waterway. You must have a home mooring when you apply for your Waterways license. There are two exceptions allowed. The first is if your boat is removed from the water. It’s their equivalent of the DVLA’s SORN status. The other exception is if you are going to continually cruise the network. You still need a license but not a home base, but you must comply with their criteria for continuous cruising criteria. If you still need to travel to work continuous cruising status is not for you.
There are three different types of mooring; online, offline and marina. An online mooring is on the canal bank. An offline mooring is off the canal but not in a marina. A marina is a purpose built basin with a range of facilities to cater for your boating needs. There’s a of the narrowboat friendly marinas in England and Wales on this site. You need to think carefully before choosing a marina. Please read before considering one.
Many narrowboat owners – even the most enthusiastic cruise-nearly-ll-year-round boaters – like a break from life on the cut. They keep a home on dry land for such occasions and for the majority of their possessions that simply won’t fit on the boat. They also retain a postal address. Boaters with no home on dry land have to rely on relatives to receive their post and have to either sell possessions that won’t fit on the boat or put them into paid storage.
Are you going to begin this adventure on your own or do you intend to share your life afloat with your significant other? Have you ever spent a significant amount of time in a small space with them? Depending on the style of narrowboat you buy even on the longest 70′ boats you will be constantly sharing a living space no more than 60′ long an 6′ wide. That space has to accommodate both you and your partner, all of your clothes and possessions and maybe even a dog or two. Can you live comfortably like that?
There are three main styles of narrowboat. The traditional or trad, cruiser and semi trad. Each has a slightly different rear end. The traditional stern offers more covered living space but very little space at the rear to stand and steer. The narrowboat below left has a traditional stern. Astralis, the narrowboat on the right, has a semi traditional stern. Although they look very similar, you can see a cover over the visible portion of the boat. This is protecting the “walled” standing space at the rear.
Cruiser stern narrowboats have an open plan rear deck. They were developed for hire fleets so that there is space for hirers to socialise while they travel. The narrowboat below has a cruiser stern. Most narrowboat owners who spend most or all of their time on board choose a boat with a traditional stern.
Talking of comfort, which of life’s luxuries can’t you do without? You can have satelite television, electric kettles, hairdryers, microwaves, washing machines and dryers… but they all come at a price.
If you are going to be permanently moored in a marina you shouldn’t have a problem if you have access to a mains power supply (and your boat is fitted with a connection for mains power). However, when you leave your mooring and your mooring power supply you will have to rely on your boat’s electrical system. By default, your boat will have a 12v power supply which is sufficient for low power lighting and very little else. If you want to power any other electrical items, you will need to fit an inverter.
An inverter uses the boat’s engine to create electricity which is stored in a bank of batteries near the engine. The more power you need for your appliances, the bigger the inverter and battery bank requirement.
Do you relish the prospect of days spent oily to the elbow and alone with your engine? If you don’t, a classic maintenance intensive engine is not for you. Make sure that the boat you choose has a reliable engine that can be serviced at most of the hundreds of boat yards throughout the system.
Some narrowboats are “raw water cooled”. They draw water from the canal through the engine and then out of the exhaust. On occasion you will need to clear blockages from the filter. Raw water cooled engines are in the minority but check before you buy.
Many new narrowboat owners would like to make changes to their boat or to sell their boat and buy another of a different length or style. Selling a boat these days can be a lengthy affair. There are several thousand for sale at any one time. There are nearly 1,000 for sale on this web site alone. By thinking carefully about your own answers to the questions above, you can avoid a costly and inconvenient mistake when you buy your first boat.
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Paul, a question for you – and don’t laugh. What are the odds that narrowboats exist, or can be built, with a stern-mounted steering wheel for those of us with back problems after standing in the typical tiller-steering position for hours on end?
We understand the design and handling reasons for a tiller and enjoy aiming down that long roof into a turn or a lock, but the steering stance can play havoc with a tricky disc in the back. One solution is for my husband to always steer while I do the locks, but we prefer to share the chores. We do quite a lot of physically demanding activity, but mine requires some adaptation at times.
We believe some barges have wheels, but haven’t yet found them on narrowboats. Is that because there aren’t any? Maybe it would be a violation of the narrowboat building/steering tradition . . .
Thanks for any advice – other than the suggestion to pick another mode of transportation!
(apologies for the double post!)
What are the odds that such a boat exists? Pretty good actually. There are all sorts of wierd and wonderful narrowboats on the cut. In fact, I saw a narrowboat yesterday (Strawberry Fields was the name) in Swanley Bridge marina which was modelled on a Dutch barge. It had a centre cockpit complete with a steering wheel. I’ve had a look on Apolloduck for you. There are two narrowboats listed with steering wheels, but again they are in a centre cockpit rather than at the rear as you want.
I think the only way you are going to get what you want is by having a boat built to your requirements, or by finding a boat that otherwise suits you and ask a narrowboat builder to modify it for you. Fernwood are very accommodating with odd designs. They built a concept narrowboat called Whitefield. You can see it on their website. The owner, like you, didn’t want a traditional tiller. He wanted a raised padded bench at the rear and a joystick to steer the boat. I believe that the boat cost him £250,000 and that it’s now for sale for less than half that.
Good luck with your search. Let me know how you get on.
Click here to get a FREE copy of “Living On A Narrowboat:101 Essential Narrowboat Articles”
Good evening, Paul.
Thank you for this. As always, you’ve given exactly the information we needed. We’re a bit more practical than the Whitefield owners and designers – to say nothing of less affluent. That boat is a wonder, but takes the fun and challenge out of living aboard, don’t you think? Might as well stay a landlubber if you need all the bells and whistles of home. However, the opportunity to retrofit an existing boat with a wheel or joystick in the stern intrigues us, so we’ll keep researching that idea.
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