"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Chalky: A Guide to Living Aboad

Toby Roworth

Jul 9, 2018

For almost 4 years I've lived on a 30' narrowboat. I did this to make a small step onto the property ladder, rather than paying rent to some guy for the privildge of owning more houses than I do.
This post looks at the ups and down of living on a boat in the UK, from the cold winter mornings to the leisurely summer cruises. The short version is "the good bits are really good, and the bad bits are really bad"

Person Profile


In theory, anyone can live on a boat. However, the follwoing traits are really helpful:
If you're miles off these, it could be living on a boat isn't the lifestyle for you.

Mooring


A seemingly popular topic in national news at the moment is mooring. There are two types of boaters - those with a home mooring, and those without.
A home mooring you can stay on all year round (subject to any restrictions in the terms). You usually get proper rings or bollards to moor up to, maybe even utilities like water and electrical hookups. A residential mooring can even give you a postal address (something I'll come to later).
The benefit of this is being able to live in the same place all the time, not having to do the same journey three times to move a car, and people knowing where you are. The downsides tend to involve cost, and it's not as exciting a way of boating.
Without a home mooring, you become what's known as a "continuous cruiser". This means you have to be navigating to canal/river system in a poorly-defined manner. AT the very least, this will involve moving every two weeks, and covering a minimum of 20 miles per year. This, when done proeprly, is real man's boating. However, from what I've seen, many CCers tend to do it just to avoid the home mooring fee, and would happily move between two bridges all year if the terms allowed. However, I also know people who really do this properly, and have a great time at it.
The benefits of this are a sense of freedom, getting to know other boaters as tyou travel around, and not having to pay a mooring fee. The downsides are having to move around all the time, and being under greater scrutiny from the Canal & River Trust (CRT).
I would suggest starting out with a home mooring - you can still more around like a CCer, but you also have somewhere to call home. This especially applies if you work in a fixed location, and/or in a job that leaves you just wanting to crash at the weekends. For a freelancer who works from home, you might fond CCing ok, as you location doesn't really matter.
There are numerous guides around to choosing a mooring, but I'd suggest avoiding residential moorings at big marinas, as they can get expensive. If you can claim to live somewhere on land, or regularly take your boat out on longer trips, a pied-a-terre or leisure mooring may be much more cost effective.
On that note, being able to keep a fixed address is very useful - I, legally, lived at my Dad's, and got all official corespondance sent there. Having a family memmber, or trusted friend, to do this for you makes opening bank accounts, voting, and tax much easier.
However, you can vote in an area you regularly moor using a "Decleration of Local Connection". This is a form used by homeless persons, travellers, persons livings in mental institutions, and boaters - collectively people woithout a fixed address. The form is easy enough to obtain and fill in, but at the polling station it can create confusion. In my polling station, at least, they sort people by address, so the first thing they ask when you walk in is what your address is, to which the response is "I don't have one". They will then get confused, especially if you're the first non-addressee of the day, but will eventually find you at the bottom of the list, with the other boaters. The second time I went to vote a bit later, and as I walked down the guy shouted "he's one of the boats", a cry that then echoed around the polling station as everyone wished to announce my nauticality! I really hope they don't do that for mental patients...

Internet


The most common question I get asked is about how I get internet access. 4G (or 4G LTE or 4G+ or 4GEE), is good enough for most usage, including Netflix. I get this in two ways - on my phone, I have a hefty data contract with 3 - when I purchased this, it was about £20 a month for unlimited data. Tethering is limited to 12 GB, which doesn't get me that far.
I also have a 4G data contract with EE, which is good up to 60 GB per month. I started out with 15 GB, which was really tight, especially in months with multiple live F1 races, so I often had to switch to thethering toward the end of the month. Over the years I managed to get my limit increased to 30 GB and then 60 GB, and thanks to some haggling, actually got this at a reasonable price. I'm currently paying between £20 and £25 for that 60 GB, which I don't get anywhere near exceeding.
That data contract runs on an EE Osprey, which is a small wireless router with build-in 4G connection. As this runs on 5V, it's easy to use on a boat. The router is very short on features, but does the job I need it to. I'd avoid using dongles, as the modern boat has multiple devices trying to connect to the internet.
Internet usage is one of the places to be frugal - I got that 15/30 GB to stretch by turning down the quality on Netflix and YouTube. Running Netflix on low quality isn't that noticable in the grand scheme of things, and saves a hell of a lot of data. Once I had my limit increased, I could watch slect programs in HD, such as The Grand Tour - when I felt the cinematography warranted it, I'd treat myself, but for binge-watching Friends or similar, it really didn't matter.

Electricity

The other common question is about electricity - where do I get it from, how much does it cost etc.
Virtually all boats run off 12 V batteries, usually lead acid, like in a car. This means you don't get mains voltage by default. It actually turns out that you can run a lot off 12 V, and can live fine without mains for the main part.
Car phone chargers let you run any device that uses USB power, and can charge phones. You can also get USB-C chargers for laptops and newer phones - I've specifially bought laptops that can charge off USB and USB-C since living aboad. Many Chromebooks charge like this and, if you're that way inclined, that latest MacBooks also charge on USB-C. I'd recommend Belkin's chargers, as they will warranty up to £1500 of equipment against device failure. I'd strongly advise against cheap USB-C chargers, as when they go wrong they might fry your device or, worse, burn down your boat.
12 V lighting is readily available, and is best bought as LED strip - this can be cut to length, and run straight off the 12 V battery (via a suitable fuse, or course). They draw little current, and run down to about 8 volts, so as your battery gets flat, you can still still see your way around. (If your battery is regularly getting down to 8V though, you have a problem).
12 V fridges are also available. They're expensive (if you buy a proper one like a Waeco or Webasso), but living without a fridge is difficult. Also, avoid car fridges, as they draw all the current in the world, and don't actually get that cold. My fridge is probably my biggest power draw, and is only very small - a 30 l drawer. I tend to turn it off in the winter, and just leave milk in the engine room, which is often below 5 °C anyway.
For music, 12 V car audio systems are well-proven. The amps will power bookshelf speakers just as easily as a car speaker, if you want something a little more high-fidelity and homely. FOr the input, a car stereo will work, although a Chromecast Audio, or bluetooth thing, might be more discreet.
Beyond the above devices, there isn't much that is needed. I watch TV/video on my laptop, but 12 V TVs are available. Mains TVs are also doable, if you have a decent source of mains.
My 12 V batteries (of which I have three for domestic use, totaling 360 Ah, and one for engine starting) are mainly charged by 2 solar panels, each rated at 100 W. This is enough to keep the batteriest charged in the summer, but between October and March I need a little more juice to keep them going.
To supplement the solar panels, and provid mains power, I have a 1000 W generator. This is enough to run my washing machine, and any other little mains devices I need to run. This also feeds my inverter/charger, which charges that batteries at about 30 A. As the generator isn't allowed to be run bwteen 8PM and 8AM, carefuly planning is needed to ensure mains is available when needed.

The inverter/charger can also provide mains off the 12 V batteries, which fills in the gaps when I don't run the generator, or what it's sunny enough that it doesn't deplete the batteries. It's a Victron unit, so is pretty decent - it was a hefty investment, but definitely worth it. They do a range of sizes, but the 800 VA was enough for me.
One thing to consider is that lead acid batteries wear out over time. You can expect to replace them every year or two, and they'll be the best part of £100 each. It's not worth buying expensive ones, and the chances are you'll wreck them just as quickly by running the fridge too long, or getting carried away with the inverter - buy cheap, and budget to replace after two years. When the batteries start to fail, if you're frugal, you'll get more out of them, but if you can afford it, just replace them - I didn't and regret how often I woke up and the lights didn't work.
The last point on electricity is that you need to learn to use less of it - don't leave all the lights on, charge your phone in the car or at work etc, turn the fridge down when there's no food in it. Getting back to a boat with dead batteries is not fun!

Water, Laundry and Sewage


Boats have a water tank - in narrowboats, this is usually at the front. I found my tank would last a month, until I got the washing machiine, after which is lasted two-three weeks. Once it runs out, you can't have a shower, wash your hands, or even cook if you want pasta, or have run out of plates. Again, being frugal with the water helps here, and is preferable to being halfway through a shower and having the water run out.
Laundry is difficult - it needs mains power, and a fair amount of water. I used to do it on Brunel's campus by getting a friend who was still a student to let me in - I also got dinner out of the deal (which, looking back, seemed quite one-sided). I then got a friend, who was short on money, to do it, and payed them per load. After a while, I got gifted a twin-tub washing machine. This consists of a washing tub and a spinner, and does a pretty good job of washing clothes. They take less water and power than an automatic machine, but need some help to rinse the clothes, and move them from washer to spinner - this took me about two hours per week, but was easier than going to a laundrette.
No talk of living aboard is complete without mentioning the toilet. There are two types of boat toilet - the caravan style, which is basically a container to hold your effluent that you then empty into an Elsan point, and a pump out, where once in a while you get the waste pumped out at a special place, or by a special boat.
Although the pump out sounds more desirable, they get emptied less regularly, so can start to smell. They also can't be emptied if the canal freezes, which could lead to disaster. The bucket-and-chuck-it types are a little more unpleasant, but I found they came with their advantages. After a couple of times, I didn't really think about emptying them - you just get used to the smell, or learn to hold your breath.
I found my toilet would take between two and three weeks to fill. This meant every two weeks I'd take my boat a mile down the canal to the Elsan point for an emptying. This also coincided with the need to top up the water tank, the water point being next to the Elsan point, and also let me dispose of my rubbish, also nearby.
Although at times this was a hassle, especially if the weather wasn't so good, it was often a good excuse the take the boat out for a ride, and invite friends over for a boat trip, some beers and the traditional bacon sandwich. In summer, I could do this after work, and the canal looks great in the evening sun.

Heating


Finally, heating - of food, water, and air.
I have a small gas cooker, with gas oven. This is one thing I'd change is I started again. I bought a marine cooker, because it had battery ignition. However, the ignition wasn't great, and I ended up using a clicker most of the time. I could've got a standard oven, which wouldn't have taken up any more space, and would've given me more rings, and an oven big enough to fit a whole pizza in. In the winter, when the stove is on, I'd also cook casaroles in a cast iron cassarole dish - brisket cooked over a fire for four days is amazing.
Water is heated by a small gas boiler. This heats water perfectly for the shower, washing up and laundry. The boiler and cooker run off a propane cylinder that lives in the front of the boat. I carry a spare, as the gas alwasys runs out at the worst possible moment. I find a 13 kg cylinder will last three-four months, easily, and cost about £30, meaning my annual gas bill is about £100. When getting a new gas system installed, make sure to choose propane, not butane, as butane doesn't work so well in cold weather.
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The cabin itself is heated by a solid fuel stove, whcih I mostly burn coal on. Everyone sees a fire as a romantic addition to a room but, when it's your sole form of heating, it becomes much more of a love-hate relationship. Coming in late at night from the pub, and needing to start a fire to prevent hypothermia sucks. It can take about 15 minutes to get the fire going (I've now got this closer to 5 most days), and it can take a couple of hours to actually heat the boat up.
Coal is nice as a fuel, as it will "stay in" until the morning, if the fire is left just right and you buy the good stuff. However, a bit of wood at the start is helpful, as it creates a lot of heat very quickly. Inevitably, it will go out some nights, leading to waking up cold and then needing to get out of bed into an even colder room and get dressed. This is a big downside to boating.
You can also buy diesel heaters, which can be set on timers to have the room hot for when you get home, or wake up. If I started again, I'd probably get one for that exact reason. However, they use diesel very quickly, so can be expensive to run, and expensive to buy. I'd still pair a diesel heater with a stove, and just use it to get the room warm whilst the fire gets going.

Round Up


On the whole, I loved living on a boat, and will probably continue to do so when I move back to the UK. I'd like to upgrade to a boat with a bit more space - 45' would be nice, to get a separate bedroom and a study/workshop.
Being able to drive your house around is a lot of fun, and can be used for interesting holidays. Saying that, If I only want to take a week off, I have to choose between going up toward Aylesbury, or going around London, which isn't that much choice.
Living afloat also lets you sit in the sun by the water, G&T in hand, watching the birds and boats go by.
It's not without it's downsides though - running out of utilities normal people get from a pipe, emptying the toilet, and living in a confined space all take their toll.