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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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The Life Of An Occasional Continuous Cruiser

I’m not a big fan of Christmas. I see people buying masses of presents they can’t afford to give to extended family members they often don’t like. I’m being cynical of course, and these comments aren’t directed at my distant family.

I always remember Christmas during my early married life as a stressful affair. My lawyer wife and I worked our fingers to the bone before the festive break to make sure that we had a few relaxing days free. And then when we should have been able to relax, we sat for hours on congested motorways making sure that we visited all the members of our far-flung family. We were often exhausted after our ‘relaxing’ Christmas break.

I much prefer the tranquillity I feel at Christmas these days.

I don’t have any work pressure now. I am a lowly groundsman tasked with the intellectually and emotionally undemanding job of keeping forty landscaped marina acres looking pretty. My job is almost as low in stress as it is in pay. But over the years I’ve realised that it’s the quality rather than the quantity of life which counts. I live in a gorgeous floating home moored on a pretty marina in tranquil rural Warwickshire. 

I don’t have a fancy car – I don’t have a car at all – or enjoy (endure) expensive foreign holidays. I don’t need either. All that I want and need is here at the marina. And to make my life even more comfortable, those kindly people at my local Sainsbury store bring me fresh food every week. And the good folk at Amazon provide me with everything else.

My groundsman job pays just enough to cover my boating bills, so I have another income source; this website. I sell a few guides bundled into my Narrowbudget Gold package, and I host frequent experience and helmsman training days. I don’t earn much, but I make enough to live a comfortable, balanced, healthy and serene lifestyle. I’m happy. 

Shouldn’t happiness be everyone’s life goal?

Christmas, as is usual these days, was a low key and inexpensive event. A handful of boaters who live and work at the marina gathered at a canalside mooring on Christmas Day morning for mulled wine and port-injected mince pies. As is often the way with such gatherings, we supplemented the wine with other alcoholic treats; damson vodka, blackberry vodka and sloe gin. Two outdoor hours on an English winter’s day was enough for us. I then joined three workmates for a turkey dinner and a couple of games of dominoes. Oh, how we live life to the full in our little boating community.

We planned an afternoon New Year’s Eve barbecue too. Thanks to Boris and his tier four restrictions we decided to cancel the last gathering of the year. The silver lining to that dark cloud was that I could begin my winter cruise.

I’ve been limited to a fortnight away from work in recent years. I love winters on our waterways, chugging through a crisp landscape with the range beneath my feet enveloping me in welcome heat. Much as I enjoy the experience, I planned to leave my boat behind this year.

My parents and my brother live in Australia. As my last visit was in 2012, I thought, and they agreed, that another trip was long overdue. The Australian government had other ideas. Earlier last year, entry into Australia was permitted provided that travellers quarantined for fourteen days at a location chosen by the authorities. The quarantine accommodation fee was $3,000. I didn’t fancy paying that kind of money for imprisonment in a hotel room for half a month. Not that that’s a consideration now. Australia has closed its borders.

Because I planned an extended trip down under, I arranged to have two months off work. Once I discovered I couldn’t travel overseas, I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. I decided to enjoy a sixty-day break on the waterways network instead.

I had grand cruising plans. They’ve changed now, again thanks to tier four. I don’t know where I can reasonably expect to travel, so I will try to relax instead. 

I’m off to a good start.

I managed four miles on New Year’s Eve before a beguiling mooring on a deserted stretch of canal gently brought me to a stop. I’m still there now.

A smidgeon of ice to deter Orient's progress

A smidgeon of ice to deter Orient’s progress

I thought I knew this part of the canal network well. After all, I’ve cruised the route between Napton and Braunston junctions hundreds of times on my experience days. I now realise that I don’t know the area well at all.

I’ve discovered footpaths near the canal I didn’t know existed. There’s an unlisted road through the abandoned medieval village of Wolfhampcote, and rough paths along the beds of two railways closed down in the 1960s. What a treat. 

Wofhampcote church looking good after 1,000 years

Wofhampcote church looking good after 1,000 years

So I’ve walked, and I’ve written, and I’ve worried – a little – about further restrictions. But, mostly, I’ve relaxed into the lifestyle of an occasional continuous cruiser. That meant switching to continuous cruiser conservation mode from day one.

Muddy towpath walking near Flecknoe

Muddy towpath walking near Flecknoe

Life in a marina is easy. Even if you run out of electricity, heating fuel, gas, water or diesel, a top-up is always close at hand. Resupply is not quite so simple at this time of the year when a sudden cold snap can lock you into a remote mooring in a heartbeat.

Knowing your average consumption of each utility is essential. I have a cassette toilet and three cassettes. Each cassette lasts me four days, so I’m OK for nearly two weeks. A 13kg propane cylinder lasts me two months. I have two onboard so no problem there. My 750-litre water tank will last me two months if I’m careful. That’s not an issue. I have enough fresh food on board to last ten days, plus another fortnight if I dine on rice, pasta and corned beef. I won’t starve, nor will I freeze. A 25kg bag of coal briquettes will last three days if I’m careful, wrap up and don’t mind suffering a cold back end.

Learn How To Handle A Narrowboat On A Craft Fully Equipped For Off-Grid Living

Join me on beautiful Orient for a beguiling cruise through Warwickshire's rolling hills. Learn all you need to know about living afloat on England's inland waterways

I’m beginning to think that I’m a bit of a wimp. I hear or read about so many liveaboard narrowboat owners discussing their efficient heating systems at this time of the year. “It’s so hot on my boat that I have to open my front doors to let some of the heat out,” is a common theme. “My cabin gets so hot I have to strip down to my underpants,” boasted a rotund septuagenarian. Perish the thought.

I watched a video produced by a popular vlogger last night. He recorded his morning routine, demonstrating the comfort of onboard life. He stirred the dying embers of a cooling stove halfheartedly before zooming in on his mercury thermometer. It read twenty-five degrees. I’m not surprised given how close it was to the stove. Still, he seemed very comfortable with his cabin temperature. But was he showing an accurate picture of life on a narrowboat during the cooler months? I don’t know.

In the spirit of providing an honest and accurate account of winter life afloat, let me share some facts and figures with you. I’ll try not to bore you to tears with them.

Everyone’s different. One boater’s comfort is another’s misery. Despite working outdoors nearly every day all year round, I don’t particularly appreciate feeling cold. That’s not a problem when I’m working physically hard. I generate enough heat to keep me toasty warm all day. But when I’m sitting motionless tapping away at my MacBook keyboard for hours on end, 23°C is a comfortable temperature for me. And at this time of the year, I find that quite challenging to achieve.

Orient is a tricky boat to heat, as was my first narrowboat, James. Both are relatively old boats. James was built in 1977 and Orient eighteen years later in 1995. Typical of boats their age, they both have polystyrene insulation. Polystyrene isn’t as good an insulator as modern spray foam. It can crumble and leave cold spots. It also provides a fascinating adventure playground for mice as I discovered to my dismay last year.

My poor little Squirrel tries hard to keep me warm

My poor little Squirrel tries hard to keep me warm

Multiple internal bulkheads also added to my heating difficulty on both boats. Orient is particularly challenging. I have doorways 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. The heat from my Morso Squirrel at the front of the boat can’t reach further than halfway down my little home.

If I want a decent temperature throughout the boat, I need stoves burning at both ends. My Squirrel isn’t a problem. I empty the ash pan in the morning and fill the stove with coal briquettes. Before I climb into bed at night, I fill it again and reduce the airflow. 

Easy.

The Premiere range in the rear cabin is another story. It’s a pig to keep going without constant attention. The firebox is the problem. It’s so small that I have to add briquettes throughout the day. Keeping the stove burning all night is beyond me.

Unless I’m cruising and have the range at my feet all day, constantly fiddling with it is a bit of a pain. So, on multi-day moorings, closing off the boat section beyond my bedroom and relying on one stove is the more practical option. That’s what I’m doing at the moment—one bag every three days to heat half a boat.

The weather has been a little chilly recently with sub-zero lows and barely-above-zero highs. The thermometer dropped to -2°C last night. At 11.30 am the temperature’s still below freezing. But there’s no wind, which makes a big difference.

Because I’m more than a little anal, I have four thermometers on Orient; one in the saloon, another in my bedroom, a third at the rear in the boatman’s cabin and another on my front deck protected by a cratch cover. Here are the readings from 9 am today.

Orient's early morning thermometer

Orient’s early morning thermometer

13.4°C – saloon

10.6°C – main bedroom

2.4°C – boatman’s cabin

4.1°C – front deck

I don’t find this saloon temperature comfortable at all. I dash out of bed an hour before I want to get up to add coal to the stove and open it up. By the time climb out of bed the second time, the stove’s glowing but hasn’t made much difference to the cabin temperature. Boiling a kettle for my morning coffee and then leaving the ring burning has more of an impact.

So, there you go. Heating narrowboats is not always an easy affair. I’m sure that with some modern, open plan and well-insulated boats, you can wave a swan vesta about and have the cabin toasty for days. Orient is not one of them.

I may be lacking in the heating department, but I’m up there with the best of them where power generation is concerned.

In anticipation of my current two-month stint off-grid, I had a 645w solar array fitted by Tim Davis of Onboard Solar last November. Despite fully understanding solar power benefits for off-grid liveaboard boaters, I’ve delayed the installation until now.

It’s a case of form over function. I think, and many agree, that Orient is a beautiful boat. I didn’t want to add a trio of boxy panels and ruin her good looks. Tim Davis has fitted solar systems to 2,000+ narrowboats, including many craft similar to mine. He assured me that I would soon forget about the aesthetics when an endless supply of free electricity mollycoddled my battery banks. 

Do you know what? Tim was right.

The three panels lay low on their brackets parallel with Orient’s roof most of the time. I’ve tilted them towards the sun on my static mooring over the last four days. Even though Orient looked better without them, I don’t think they completely ruin my boat’s fine lines.

Solar power is a game-changer for liveaboard narrowboat owners.

Tim fitted a 300w solar array on James for me in 2013. Although I was marina based for much of the time, I spent all of 2015 out on the cut. Three hundred watts provided me with all the power I wanted during the spring, summer and autumn months and helped a little during our dark and dismal winters. Solar technology has improved since then.

I am delighted with my new array’s winter performance. The three Victron panels have generated at least three amps even on cloudy days. Today, that one winter day when the sun shines, I am in awe. My input peaked at twenty glorious amps. Twenty. In the middle of an English winter. That’s amazing.

That’s one reason why I haven’t moved very far on this cruise: that, and the new restrictions. I’ve managed four miles in as many days. My intention was always to adopt a more relaxed approach to cruising on this trip. I clocked up nearly 2,000 miles and negotiated 950 locks in 2015 and missed many tranquil moorings and idyllic villages along the way. I finished the year with badges of honour, an armful of ten-hour cruising days and total exhaustion. 

I vowed to treat myself better on this trip. Still, I was ever mindful of my need to generate electricity. And if my solar array needed supplementing with input from my engine’s alternator, I didn’t want to waste my precious diesel tethered to a static mooring.

I don’t know how the next few weeks will pan out. The weather is always an unknown quantity. A week locked into a remote mooring by ice won’t cause me a problem. Still, I’ll be keeping a close eye on weather forecasts and government restriction bulletins, all from the comfort of my peaceful floating home.

Discovery Day Update

Event manager Martin Webster joined me last Monday for my final Discovery Day cruise of the year. Despite our chilly day out, the experience confirmed Martin’s passion for the inland waterways and his desire to live afloat. He wrote this rather eloquent review for me.

“Icy winds and frosty locks had threatened otherwise, but it was the smell that made my day: the antique coal-burning stove in the boatman’s cabin that transported me (at no more than 4mph) back to my Grandma’s old kitchen range and the safe warmth of childhood. I grabbed on to that feeling as I grabbed on to the cleats atop the cabin roof with my spare hand and drank in the reassuring calmness of someone who had made all the mistakes before me and was determined that I wouldn’t repeat them.

Paul’s walk-through of the boat, from weird weed-killing shower to useless bed-design and the shiny-proud copper-piped glory of a classic Lister engine showed just how much he loves and respects his custodianship of a unique vessel.

So when his voice raises just a decibel or two, and he says ‘I think you should be making the turn about NOW’ you do it and revel in the inch-perfect lines that he has prompted.

When he tells you that it’s called a rubbing strake and he wants you to rub his beloved along the side of the lock, you do it, knowing that his investment in your success is so much greater than yours.

When he illustrates, every time he is preserving your future safety, with a self-deprecating tale of his disasters or the salutary lessons of others, you listen, because you recognise the value of hard-won experience.

I started the day a complete novice but by some miracle felt very confident that I had learnt the right amount of humility as I went slowly into the night, past the rows of slow-smoking boat chimneys lined up in anticipation of adventures to come. I’m glad I made the cut.

If you are seriously considering living afloat, I urge you to join me for a Discovery Day cruise in 2021. Now, more than ever before, our beautiful waterways offer a welcome respite from the mayhem of modern-day life. You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here.

 

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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.