Guide to a life afloat without any sinking feelings
Life on the inland waterways can be blissful but it isn’t all plain sailing, says Tony Jones, who has written an essential guide to living aboard. Sharon Dale reports.
THE Rosie and Jim- style boat with smoke puffing from the wood burner, flower pots perched on the roof and bicycle strapped to the side has sparked a thousand day dreams.
Landlubbers look longingly from the towpath and think how wonderful it would be to live life in the slow lanes of the inland waterways.
Some try it and reap the rewards, while others regret the decision, which is why Tony Jones has written his book The Liveaboard Guide.
Tony, whose main base is near Bingley’s Five Rise Locks aboard his 50ft narrowboat The Watchman, took the plunge into the still, murky waters of the canal system seven years ago knowing nothing about boating.
“I’m a reptile expert and I’d just come back from a job setting up a zoo in the Canaries. I had a chunk of money and my lifestyle was itinerant so I bought a narrow boat even though I’d never even been on one. Luckily, I had a friend who knew a lot more than me and he helped me choose The Watchman,” says Tony.
He was perfectly suited to life afloat, others aren’t so fortunate. They miss their hot baths and they can’t cope with the confined space or the hard work.
“Moving aboard is becoming more popular because of the economy and because modern life is more stressful, but you have to be the right kind of person,” says Tony, 40.
“You have to be easy going, able to do without mod cons and you can’t be a consumer because there’s nowhere to put anything much. So if you have lots of clothes and a big telly it might not be for you. A lot of people who live aboard are single. They aren’t sad or lonely. They just like their own space.”
Another thing boat people have in common is “dirty fingernails”. It is a recurring phrase in Tony’s book, which is a must-read for anyone considering this way of life. It is full of tips, case studies and photographs as well as great advice.
Rule number one is that you must not be afraid to get your hands filthy. There are many mucky jobs on a boat and it is a labour-intensive existence, from emptying toilet waste to weeding the prop.
Also, you may think you are escaping from the rat race, but you are not. Rats love waterways and so you must be careful to wash your hands after contact with the canal so you don’t contract Weil’s disease.
“It’s not all rolling countryside and the easy life. Living aboard can be very hard work, complicated and frustrating.
“You can run out of gas, your boat can get iced in, there’s no dustbin just outside your door and there is a lot of maintenance,” says Tony, a freelance writer, who shares his experience of everything from buying a boat and the cost of living aboard to installing the internet and the best boat loos.
The costs are not insubstantial and start with the boat.
You will see adverts for boats costing £8,000 but they will need restoring and they won’t have facilities so unless you are an excellent DIY’ER, you are better buying something from £25,000 to £30,000 upwards.
“A lot of people buy a bad boat and fail. If you don’t have basic facilities like a shower you’ll end up hating it,” says Tony.
Average annual running costs vary but Tony’s add up to about £4,000 a year.
A waterways licence costs from £700, insurance is about £150, gas from a bottle and electricity from hook up or batteries charged by the engine is about £10 a week. Heat is usually from a multi-fuel stove that costs about £5 a week to run. Then there is diesel for the boat. A boat safety certificate is required every four years for £150 and there is always maintenance and repairs, ranging from water pump breakdowns, which are common, to replacement batteries and bottom blacking the boat every four years in a dry dock.
One of the most challenging aspects of life afloat is moorings. Residential moorings are expensive and they vary from £5,000 to £10,000 per annum. They are few and far between and you’ll also pay council tax on them. The result is a lot of ducking and diving and some “continual cruising” from one free visitor mooring to another.
The most common scenario is selling yourself as a “high usage boater” to a marina or boat yard that tolerates discreet live-aboards, though they cannot officially recognise them for planning reasons.
Average costs for this kind of mooring vary from £700 a year at a boat club up to £5,000 for a swanky marina and for this you can expect a tap, and pump out and Elsan disposal. The government, which sees boat dwelling as part of the solution to the housing shortage, has introduced new guidelines to make it easier to get residential planning permission for marinas.
“This should make marinas more commercially viable, but what would be awful is if you got the equivalent of floating park homes,” says Tony.
He prefers the freedom of being able to travel up and down the waterways whenever he likes, which is one of the many pleasures of live-aboards.
“I like the freedom, the wildlife, the scenery and the kookiness of it all. But one of the best things about living on a boat is the boating community. The people are brilliant. It’s a community culture that has almost disappeared from land-based living.
@You get to know one another because you all share the same facilities like the bins and the pumps and the locks, so you have to interact.
“Everyone helps each other and a good example of that is when I first got my boat. I sailed off and realised my tap wasn’t working. I stopped and asked for advice from someone on a nearby boat. He told me there were two water tanks and I needed to fill the second.
@I filled it, had a cup of tea and realised I was stood in six inches of water. I thought I was sinking and screamed like a girl. The same man calmed me down, told me the tank had burst and then spent the whole weekend fixing it for me.
“He wouldn’t even let me buy him a beer after. He told me that’s the way it works and that when he needed help there would be someone there for him. Basically, everyone helps each other. That really is the greatest thing about living on a boat.”
Tony and his dog Puck live on which is moored close to Bingley’s Five Rise Locks. The 50ft narrowboat is cosy inside but there is no room for clutter. Tony says you need to be the right kind of person and able to put up with dirty jobs to live on board.
NOT FOR EVERYONE: