Alternative Living - Narrowboat

Is Narrowboat Living For You? - Episode 1

Onboard the Narrowboat

Welcome to the first in a short three-part series about what it’s like living on a narrowboat. In this series, I will be covering many aspects of boat life, including what’s involved in running a narrowboat day-to-day, some of the most common challenges and how much it costs. I hope this overview will provide you with enough basic information to ascertain if boat life is a cost-effective and therefore viable option for you if you’re looking for ways to live a simpler. Cheaper and more fulfilling lifestyle.

As part of my own experimentation with minimal alternative living, I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity recently to spend a week living aboard a fifty-four foot narrowboat on the Sharpness canal set in the beautiful countryside of Gloucestershire. A week is not nearly long enough to assess all the ins and outs of a particular lifestyle choice of course but it’s enough time to test the water so to speak, pardon the pun, and to decide if it’s something worth exploring in more detail, which for me it most definitely was. More on that in a future episode.

I was lucky enough not to have to go to the expense and trouble of hiring a and learning the ropes myself. I had a significant leg up on that front in that my brother has been restoring, building and living on a traditional 1987 built narrowboat for the last five years or so. I thought it was high time I spent a week actually living on it in real-world scenarios rather than just a day's pleasurable cruising in order to get a good understanding of what it’s like day-to-day living on a boat so that I could gauge if it would be a way of life I would consider myself in future.

As I have already mentioned the boat is fifty-four foot in length while being a little wider at 7 ft than the traditional 6ft 10-inch standard. The reason why the boat is a little wider than normal remains a mystery but the extra few inches of additional space all round is a welcome advantage nonetheless.

My brother has restored the boat from scratch and whilst he has retained some of the original cabinetry, worktops and features, many have been reworked to suit his own requirements. The rest of the interior, including cladding, windows, beds, wardrobes and complete fitted bathroom and shower have been rebuilt from scratch.

Narrowboat Interior
Narrowboat Bedroom

As you can see the boat is extremely comfortable with everything you need to live and travel long term, including a full-size cooker, fridge freezer and even a washing machine, plumbed in at the front of the boat. Even on the convertible roll out sofa bed that’s been modified with deep memory foam,I was extremely comfortable and slept very well for the duration of my stay. The bed was very similar in comfort to my campervan’s bed and I would be more than happy if this were my only full-time slumber arrangement.

As you may deduce from the pictures, we were fortunate enough to have had a glorious week of hot sunny weather, in fact, we could not have asked for better, with temperatures hitting a comfortable twenty-five degrees centigrade during the day. This is even more remarkable given that’s it’s late September and we’re in the U.K. With the sun slowly setting by about 6.30-7.00PM at this time of year the extended summers warm sunny days quickly give way to mildly chilly evenings with nighttime temperatures dipping down to between six and ten degrees centigrade outside the boat and about twelve to sixteen degrees inside. The falling temperatures, however, are quickly staved off by firing up the large multi-fuel wood burner stove fitted in the saloon area. The stove also powers a full radiator system for when it’s really cold.

Cooking also provides a valuable heating source in the same way that it does in my camper van. Twenty minutes of cooking in a small space very quickly takes the edge off of those colder nights meaning that we only had to fire up the burner once on the entire trip, and then it was only a very small affair which just gave a nice warm glow and “top-up” heat for a few hours before bed.

Whilst the weather was, of course, welcome I could not help thinking that a day or two of mixed weather would have provided a little more of a realistic edge to boating life rather than the idyllic rose-tinted view I experienced. I took it like a man and managed to soldier on and live with the issue nonetheless with the time aboard providing a very good overview of the day to day tasks, duties and maintenance required in owning and living in a floating canal home.

So what about those day-to-day duties then? Well, to be honest, they are very similar to that of living out of a campervan van. Sweeping, hovering and cleaning in a small space even a space that’s fifty-four foot is an ongoing affair, as is ensuring that you always have sufficient water, food and fuel supplies not to mention the evacuation and cleaning of your toilet and greywater systems.

As with a van, planned and unplanned maintenance is all part of life or the road or the water in this case. Even with fine fettling and regular judicious maintenance on my brother’s part we still had an issue with the throttle and gear controller alongside a loose engine mounting bolt on the second day out on the water, although both were quickly rectified with a little head-scratching, a small selection of everyday tools, a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits. Regardless of your chosen alternative living arrangements, knowing how to maintain your transport and accommodation is pretty much essential if you want to be as independent and self-sufficient as possible not to mention cost-effective.

Living On A Narrowboat

A boat, however, does have some additional elements to consider from a maintenance and cost perspective. As a boat sits in water it needs constant protection from the elements, everyday wear and tear, and of course the scourge of the boater’s life, rust. This is accomplished by blacking the bottom of the boat, a process that involves having the boat pulled from the water and moored at a dry dock a bitumen compound is applied to the entire hull of the boat. This time-consuming process can be costly with prices including the dry dock hire running to several thousand. A boat will also need to be painted every ten years or so, again a lengthy process than if done professionally can cost in excess of eight to ten thousand pounds depending on the size and condition of your boat. Looked after. well maintained paintwork not only looks better, but it will also last longer and keeps repainting costs down as it significantly reduces the amount of preparation work required to apply fresh paint. Something to keep in mind.

So what about the day-to-day costs of running a narrowboat. Well for starters there is the small matter of your canal license fee which may cost up to five hundred pounds per annum. Then there’s boat insurance which, depending on the size, age and usage of your boat might cost another couple of hundred pounds per year. Then there is the question of engine and system servicing, again anywhere between two and five hundred pounds per annum are quite normal costs. Then there are gas costs for cooking and hot water, costing perhaps another forty pounds per month and then heating in the winter with coal costs coming in at another forty pounds per month. This is outside of any additional costs resulting from unplanned maintenance that may occur. Then there are maintenance fees for annual gas and electrical inspections and boat safety certification to consider, again allow a couple of hundred pounds a year for that. Remember these are just your basic running costs, you still need to eat and put diesel in the tank and may need to factor in a little extra for Toilet emptying facilities as some privately owned elsan points charge for the privilege albeit only a couple of pounds per visit.

Finally of course there is the question of mooring fees and this is where it starts to get a little complex for the uninitiated and that’s the topic I will be covering in the next episode.

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