Messing About In Boats

Saxon here – this post originally appeared on in June 2014. I’m reposting here as this is the best way of explaining how exactly we got to the point where we started thinking “Hey, why don’t we go live on a narrowboat?” Hope you enjoy it…

Major life decisions often arrive through very unexpected directions.

Emma and I have been living together for three years now – we’re both freelance, neither of us earn a great deal of money, and we’ve both known for a while that the likelihood of us being ever able to own a house is not high. We’re freelancers, so if we were to get a mortgage, we’d need a 40% deposit, and considering how ridiculous house prices are at the moment, we’d be talking somewhere in the region of £50,000 if we wanted to own somewhere that wasn’t either tiny or in need of a terrifying amount of work. That would take us a long time. Owning somewhere has always felt like an odd, nebulous concept for me – I don’t like renting and find moving tremendously stressful (thanks to a variety of house/flatsharing adventures in my twenties) but my life hasn’t really given me other options so I basically figured I’d have to put up with it. For Emma it’s different – she owned a house for a while, and then after her break-up was catapulted back into the rental world, and the aftershocks of that get to her a lot.

It hasn’t helped that my MA Creative Writing course means we have to stay in Manchester until about September next year, and that we can’t afford to move anywhere nicer. The flat we’re in at the moment isn’t bad, and does have plenty of plus-points, but we’ve been here long enough that the minus-points (the lack of direct sunlight, the distance from the shops) are getting very repetitive. I’m pretty good at putting my head down and shouldering through difficult times, sometimes to my detriment, but it’s been harder for Emma, and at the start of this year she ended up very depressed about our situation, and looking into ways of ‘getting off the grid’ and living in a more self-sufficient way.

When she first mentioned the friend of hers who lives on a narrowboat, I took it in, but it was one of the many possibilities, hypotheses and general dreams she was throwing around. “It’d be awesome to live on a boat,” she said, and it sounded like the working definition of one of those things other people did. Hell, I didn’t even know that much about canal boats (Emma knows a little – she went on a few canal trips on her grandfather’s cruiser when she was younger). She then mentioned the concept of ‘continuous cruising’ – that if you buy the right licence (for about £800), you don’t have to pay for a boat mooring as long as you keep moving every two weeks (and as long as it’s a definite journey of progression, not just going back and forth between two points). And then she mentioned that a wide-beam canal boat that was 10ft wide and 60ft long would (if we could get ourselves to a point where we could afford one) actually have as much space in it as our current flat.


That gave me pause for thought – at least, for a moment. Yes, it’s true that we’re both freelancers so we’re not technically tied to any one place, but it really didn’t seem workable. And it was way too much of a leap. Plus, my work as a proofreader is pretty much dependant on having a postal address. And then there was the internet, which neither of us would be able to function without.

Game over.

Or so I thought.

You see, the idea wouldn’t go away. One of the downsides of the apartment block we live in is that one of our neighbours got into a deeply unpleasant shouting match with us on the day we moved in, thanks to us comitting the cardinal sin of parking our moving van in the wrong place for too long. (It was one of those situations where even apologising straight up didn’t help – they just wanted to argue and complain, and then things spiralled…) Thankfully, we’ve never had any trouble with them since, but much of the first year here was tense (they haven’t moved out, sadly), and it’s frustrating that there’s always the chance of running into them in the corridor, even if it’s just for a moment. And of course, even if we owned a house, we wouldn’t be able to choose our neighbours. We’d have to cope with the situation as best we could.

That was the first penny that dropped – that if we lived on a boat (and I knew at that stage it was a very big ‘if’), we wouldn’t have to worry about neighbours that much. If we didn’t like an area, or the people, we could just start the engine and go somewhere else. The idea of not being limited by where we are – that was extremely seductive. That, and the idea of being quite that close to wildlife. I bounce between being a city person and a country person, but I grew up in the country, and there’s a lot about the idea of being able to lurk around rivers and canals that appeals. Hell, there’s something about just walking next to a large body of water that I find instinctively relaxing.

There was also the fact that once you’re past the intimidating set-up costs, the day-to-day cost of living on a canal boat is surprisingly small. It varies, of course, and there are certain costs you can’t avoid relating to the upkeep of the boat, but we were suddenly looking at our general living costs reducing by a factor of over 70%, if we went ahead and did it. Given that we’ve been surviving on a small amount of money for a while, being able to do that in a situation where after a certain amount of time we’d be able to save significant amounts of money was… tempting. Even if it meant taking up a life with its fair shair of downsides, inconveniences and lack of certain luxuries it’s easy to take for granted, the temptation was there. Plus, being in a situation where massive chunks of money weren’t simply going into the landlord’s pocket? Being in a situation where we’re only beholden to ourselves, where we own the place we live, even if it’s a relatively small boat? Again: temptation.

Also, I did a little looking, and it turns out that satellite internet is a thing, and can pull off some fairly decent data speeds if you have the right kit. It isn’t exactly fiber-optic speed and I won’t be watching a massive amount of streaming video, but it’s enough for us to be able to do what we need. Plus, it turns out that there are options for postage – there are post forwarding services especially designed for continuous cruisers, plus there’s the ‘post restante’ services where a large number of post offices will let you have stuff delivered to them. Even some marinas will let you do that – and while there’ll be complications and problems, these discoveries shifted the needle closer to the ‘Not Entirely Impossible’ level.

So, we started talking. Seriously. Just in a theorising, hypothetical way, but we sat down and discussed possible ways of doing it. We also started going for walks around the canals in Manchester, places I’d never really explored before, and it turns out there’s a whole other world tucked away from sight, a world that’s surprisingly peaceful (even if it does have a few scuzzier areas as well – the joys of built-up metropolitan areas). We started looking at canal boats parked in marinas, in a slightly-more-serious way.

And, slowly but surely, the idea became real.

We still haven’t hit a point where we’ve thought “No, there’s no way we can do this.” There are some serious mountains to climb, and some things we really need practice at – research is great, yet practical experience beats it – but we have a plan, and we’re approaching this in the frame of mind that this is something which is actually happening. On the budget we’re on, which is not huge, we’re going to have to start on a narrowboat, which means (a) not much room so some serious life-downsizing will be happening, and (b) we will be able to go anywhere – the entire canal network will be open to us.

This map of the canal network will give you an idea of exactly how many places that is, and part of what’s seriously appealing about this concept is that we would be able to have so many choices and so many places to explore. I’ve always had a certain level of wanderlust – there’s something immensely satisfying about just choosing a direction and seeing where it takes you – and I really like the concept of making that my life.

Plus, if we can make this work, we can get ourselves to a point where we’re debt free. It will take years – we’re already theorising that once we’re on a narrowboat, we’d probably have to stay on one for about five years to make it completely worth our while, and that’s a hell of a commitment. But I’ve got various responsibilities and things I need to pay back that I’ve never really been able to because I’m functioning on such a small income (and because, honestly, I chose a really difficult path in life that I knew only had a small chance of netting me BIG MONEY.) Living on a boat should make this work – we’ll be living much smaller, but we’ll be able to make the money we’re earning stretch a lot further. Going for a holiday – an actual, let’s-go-somewhere-sunny holiday – will not be an impossibility.

And, because we’re planners, and it’s hard to stop a snowball gaining momentum once it’s tumbling down a mountainside, we’ve got some long term ideas as well. Once our debts are paid off (including the debts we’ll probably have to take on in order to make the boat happen), we’re going to start serious saving. Because yes, we could build up enough money to finally be able to buy a house somewhere, if the housing market doesn’t somehow continue its ridiculous upward swing. But the idea we like at the moment is that if we save enough money, we could upgrade to a bigger boat. Either a wide-beam canal boat (which can be 10-12 feet wide, which makes a massive difference from the 7ft width of a narrowboat), or an actual Dutch barge – and the advantage of a Dutch barge is that if you get the right type, they’re seaworthy, which would mean that while we’d be limited to certain canals on the UK network, we’d be able to go to Europe and explore the canals there. The amount of places we could explore would exponentially increase, and I like the sound of this.

Are there downsides? Hell yes, there are downsides and issues and lots to learn about. I’ve certainly discovered more about plumbing and toilets in the last few months than I ever wanted to know, and aspects of living on a boat are going to take a *lot* of getting used to. This is not a lifestyle that’s for everyone, and while there’s a certain “This sounds fantastic, we have to find a way of making this work!” attitude to us right now, we are also realising that this isn’t something we’ve done before. That kind of change is scary as hell, and I’m sure when this actually happens, I’ll be bouncing between insane excitement and soul-crushing dread that I’ll suddenly be thinking “Oh God, I’ve made a huge mistake.”

Is it possible that one day I’ll look back at this and go “What was I thinking?” Maybe. But I’ve rebooted my life twice now – once when I moved to London in 1995, and again when I moved to Manchester in 2008 – and this time, I wouldn’t be doing it alone. Plus, I’d rather know that we tried it and it didn’t work out, than stay trapped in the same situation, hoping that something will come along to make life better, when often it doesn’t. Often, you’ve got to find a way to make it happen.

We’ve been onboard plenty of narrowboats in the last three months, especially thanks to Crick Boat Show in late May, and various visits to marinas. We’ve seen beautifully designed, cleverly fitted-out boats that make a brilliant use of maximising the available space on a narrowboat. We’ve also seen some frighteningly tatty boats that often display horribly 1970s decor and furnishings, often look glum and depressing, and are sometimes borderline dangerous (including one which was in such a state we nicknamed it ‘Death Boat’ while we were onboard). It’s helping to get an idea of what we want, what we can afford and what’s actually acheivable, and Emma has been engaged in playing with various design programs to maximise what we can actually fit on our ‘ideal’ boat.

So. The plan:

We’re staying in Manchester until my course is finished. Once I get past May 2015, I’ll be working on my dissertation, and I haven’t completely ruled out the idea of leaving Manchester a little earlier if I feel like I can cope with it… but this course is important to me, and I don’t want to risk messing up my most important project if I can at all avoid it. The dissertation hand-in is at the beginning of September, so the latest I’d like to be out of Manchester is the end of September 2015. That’d also be my 7th anniversary of arriving in Manchester, so there’s a nice bit of synchronicity.

The plan is that we will move to Nottingham for about six months or so. Emma’s family is based in Nottingham, it’s cheaper to rent there than in Manchester, and it’ll give us a nice base from which to start the major prep work. Because, as long as we can make the budget work, what we want to do is start from scratch on a boat. Buying a second-hand boat and doing it up is a possibility, and we’re not ruling it out, but there would be major compromises in doing it that way – we’re developing a clear idea of what we want, and if we’re going to be living on this boat, we’d like to get as close to what we want as is possible.

(One of the biggest stepping stones is the simple fact that I won’t be able to take that much stuff on the boat, which is going to involve downsizing a LOT. This is another advantage to the two year plan, and not moving until mid-2015 – it gives me the time to do this right. And while some of this downsizing is going to be difficult (especially not being able to buy new physical books or comics unless I can really, really justify it), a lot of it is making me realise exactly how much stuff I have, and exactly how much stuff I don’t use. We are budgeting for some long-term storage if we need it, but even so we’ll need to keep it as small as possible, and I will be whittling my book and comic collections all the way down to the stuff that’s really important. Some of it I’ll miss, but I don’t want the stuff I own to end up owning me. I love having things – especially physical books, and physical comic books – but I don’t want them to be a burden, and I don’t want them to prevent me from following the life I want to live.)

We’re taking the harder route: the plan is to buy a ‘sailaway’, essentially a hull with insulation and an engine in it, and fit it out ourselves. This is going to require LOTS of work, alongside learning about carpentry, getting advice, trying stuff out. Emma has more experience at this kind of thing than I do, but we both know this is going to be a hell of a lot of work, hence the six months in Nottingham. (We’re also doing it that way because we don’t really want to start life on the boat heading into winter – life can be tricky on a boat in winter, especially if it drops below freezing, and we’d rather have a bit of acclimatisation before tackling the bigger problems).

If everything goes according to plan, and hopefully it will, by April 2016 we’ll have our own boat, and by around May/June 2016, we’ll be on our way.

Are there things that could go wrong?


Will I have to make compromises?

Oh yes.

Am I letting that stop me?

Hell no.

There will be ups and downs, I’m willing to live with that. But there’s been too many times over the last few years where I’ve let my lack of self-confidence stop me from doing things, or where I’ve judged myself according to what others think (or, more often, what I think they’ll think). I may never get exactly the kind of life I want from trying to be a writer. There may be a lot more disappointment on my way. But, considering I’m only a couple of months from being 40 years old (*sobs at the vanishing of youth*), I want to try and find ways of making my life as interesting and varied as possible. And if I need to remix my life so I can do that on a limited budget, then that’s what I’ll do. I’ve got a wonderful companion in Emma, and we’ve got somewhere we want to go, so we’re going.

Either way, you’ll be hearing more about this on the blog.

Big changes are coming.


And we feel pretty good about them right now…