Ten things we have learnt from six months living on a narrowboat

Last year was my first year retired, and due to pandemic restrictions we only started our narrowboat trip in June, meaning we travelled for around three months. This year has been much more what we originally planned – over six months travelling the canals and rivers of England in narrowboat Thuis. This week we finally moored up for the winter, in an excellent marina near Chester. So what have we learnt?

  1. A narrowboat is a small space to live in but it works. For the two of us and our two dogs there is enough space for everything we need – a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining area, dogs crate and lounge.
  2. Hot is worse than cold. In cold weather we simply turn on the stove or the boiler and the small airspace warms up pretty quickly. In the worst of the heatwaves, the tin can became pretty unbearable by about 4pm.
  3. There is no rush. Despite having so much time, my temptation is always to push on to the next place to see, the next milestone to conquer. Next year we plan to slow down even more, and spend more time in the places we visit.
  4. I love my solar. Last winter we had 525w of panels installed, and it has meant that we have not had to run the engine to charge the batteries when we are moored up. Sorry to Mandy that I became a little obsessed by the app on my phone that monitors the charging and battery status.
  5. Experienced boaters still scratch the paintwork. We have been narrowboating on holidays for 36 years, but some things can’t be avoided – narrow lock gates, fallen trees across the canal, drunk day boaters with no clue. There are shiny narrowboaters, and people who actually use their boats. We are the latter.
  6. I am not as introspective as I thought. Outside of work, I have always thought myself shy and avoid talking to people whenever possible. But on the cut (by the canal) I will talk to anyone and everyone. Not sure why – maybe because I never need see them again!
  7. I love my wife. You can imagine that during six months in a confined space there are times we irritate each other, but there is noone I would rather be with. She is a great boater, a great coach and a great companion. She has made this summer for me.
  8. I don’t need lots of stuff to be happy. I have a house full of things I have gathered over the years. But I have been equally happy on the boat with a few clothes, a working fridge & cooker, and reasonable internet.
  9. Things break. The saying that boat stands for “bung on another thousand” does have some validity. This year we had to fix some dodgy electrics, a failed webasto boiler, bubbled up paint on the roof, the waste tank monitor, a diesel cap, some bolts, a leaking floor panel, and more. This winter we are replacing the kitchen and the boat covers. On the other hand there are many expenses we don’t have. For instance it is not so easy to order things off Amazon that we don’t really need, because there is nowhere to deliver to.
  10. I am not sure we will ever be year round liveaboards. The winter is just too muddy when you have dogs, and at the end of six months I am ready to live in a house again for a while. But I can already feel that in a month or two I will be itching to get back on board for our next adventure.

Have you ever lived on a boat or in a caravan or motor home? What was it like for you?

The five kinds of narrowboaters

Cruising the canals of England, I have come to the conclusion that there are five kinds of narrowboaters. Of course this is stereotyping. Everyone is different, and one of the things I love about this life is meeting the many people and finding out about their lives. But sometimes stereotypes are useful, so here we go.

Can Hill Locks
  1. The day boaters. This is usually a group who have hired a short boat for the day, and crammed on as many people as they can. Often celebrating a birthday or an event, there is usually a lot of beer and wine consumed, often music, and very little understanding of how to steer a boat, or the rules of the canal. They career from side to side and we try to stay out of their way.
  2. The hire boaters. This is usually a family or friends, who have hired a boat for a few days or for a week or fortnight. Sometimes they also are newbies or sometimes they have had many narrowboat holidays and understand it as well as us. Usually they are keen to learn, and we love to talk to them, to hear what they have been up to and where they are going. Often they are on a mission, perhaps a canal ring to complete, or a place to get to, and they will cruise for eight or more hours a day. Our one complaint about hire boaters is that most of them go too fast, especially past moored boats, sending them rocking in their moorings.
  3. The marina moorers. These are people who keep their boat in a marina and rarely move it. Instead the boat is treated more like a static caravan – somewhere to visit for a holiday, and an occasional trip out. We have a lot of empathy with these people because before I retired, this is exactly what we did, with our boat moored at the Kelpies in Scotland. Marina moorers often form quite a community with other boaters in the marina, and when visitors like us join them, we usually find them welcoming. Bit of a waste of a boat though.
  4. The continuous cruisers who cruise. This is us. The rules of our licence are that we must keep moving every couple of weeks, but in practice, we are on a proper adventure and spend most days moving on to find new places to visit. There are surprisingly few boats doing this, but we get to meet them, and often see them again, on a different canal, later in the year. The problem with this group is that we can be narrowboating snobs. Because we move such a lot, we like to think we are expert boaters, and can be critical of others, especially hire boaters.
  5. The continuous cruisers who don’t cruise. These people have continuous cruising licences, rather than ones for a marina or official long term mooring, but in practice they stay put. I do have sympathy for these people. Often they have very little money, and perhaps children in schools, so can’t move all the time like us. They live in fear of the Canal & River Trust police, who check that boats are moving every two weeks. My only complaint is when they sit on the visitor mornings in the centre of towns, which are meant to be restricted to one or two days.

There are other subgroups I have missed, such as the stag and hen do weekenders, the honeymooners, the people who move boats for a living. Despite any grumbles, we all rub along just fine. And one of the benefits of narrowboating is that if you don’t like the people you are moored next to, then you can just move on. It’s not a bad life.

Why do things always break down on a narrowboat?

Back on the boat. Back to problems. When you live on a narrowboat, there are always problems. Always something to fix, always something not quite right. And at the start of a season this is even more true. We have had a lot of work done on the boat over winter and there are snags with the new equipment. And the old equipment has had a winter of frosts and no love, so is playing up.

I am writing this early in the morning after a difficult night when our 240v electricity stopped working, and our water pump would not turn off. The diesel heater will now not come on, and the engine will not start. My fancy new inverter/charger bluetooth app says that the batteries are fine, but the “low battery” light is on and the 240v system will not work. We can’t use the toilet or the taps while the pump is off. Aaaaaargh!

We had planned to set off from the marina this morning, but that won’t be happening till we get fixed. This is where we have to change our attitude back to living on a narrowboat. If we don’t move today, it does not matter. We are retired. We have time. And everything will get fixed. I should count my blessings that we are still in the marina where there are engineers, and we can get work done. And it will be a learning experience. I will find out what broke so that next time I may be able to fix it myself.

And it is a lovely morning. The sun is bright, and the mist is rising off the water. I think it is going to be a wonderful day.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel, or is that a narrowboat coming towards you?

I have been walking through a couple of canal tunnels this week. Some of the most exciting and scary times on a narrowboat are travelling through tunnels. Most canal tunnels have very little space around the boat profile. This is deliberate because when the canals were designed, the boats were pulled by horses, and the horses would not go through tunnels, so the boats were “legged” through by two strong men, lying on either side of the barge roof and using their legs to “walk” along the tunnel. These days we have engines and we have to steer 50-60 foot long boats through the tunnel with often less than a foot space on either side.

Falkirk Tunnel

There are two keys to success. Don’t be overconfident and don’t panic. Fluid mechanics give us a big advantage because the water being pushed either side of the boat as you travel through the tunnel, gives pressure to keep the boat away from the walls. But if you are overconfident and drive too fast, or if you panic and over-react to each boat movement, then before you know it, you are bouncing the boat off the walls side to side.

I wonder of there is an analogy. Here in the UK the Covid numbers have fallen right back. Deaths and hospitalisations are very low, since so many of the population are now vaccinated. Society is reopening, with shops, bars, gyms, cinemas now back or soon to be back. In a month or so we will be nearly normal. There is talk about Coronavirus treatment in pills taken at home next winter. It really feels that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

But two things could get in the way. One would be overconfidence. If we relax the rules too fast, give up on social distancing, refuse to self isolate, then it will be back. The other would be to panic. There are some horrible new variants out there, but the science is working and we can steer our way through this perilous tunnel.

Have wonderful weekend. Let me know hat you think.