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Things to know before you liveaboard a canal boat!

  • That everyone dreams of living on a boat. Whenever I have mentioned that I lived on a boat, a surprising amount of people would admit to me, quietly as if it was some dark secret, that they’ve always harboured the same ambition. Many similar questions might then follow – and this list will answer a few of them. But know you will be literally living the dream. It’s not for everyone but it’s a wonderful experience and we can help you decide if it is for you!
  • How to use a wood burning stove. All boaters know the experience of returning to a cold boat after a wintery weekend away. However, it is also often the only place you will find people sitting with the doors wide open when it’s snowing outside. Lots of boats also have central gas heating or back boilers but there is nothing quite like a wood burner. Get the wood burner going and the boat can be very toasty indeed! Morso Squirrels are especially nice, but they all have adjustable air vents to change the air flow and all of them are slightly different. You can actually get into a rhythm where you can keep it going, without touching it, for most of a full day, and then spend 10 minutes tending to it. You can invest in a convection fan that will blow the heat through the boat as it gets warm. Keep it on low and the heat will flood the boat for hours.
  • How to cope with the cold. Sometimes a cold night or a cold and wet boat move is unavoidable, particularly when you’re still getting used to life aboard and going through your first winter. I once discovered my cooking oil had frozen and had a WhatsApp group of fellow (new) boaters we called “I now live in a fridge”. But modern clothing is incredible. Invest in a good quality down jacket with a high fill power. Get some nice Merino wool base layers, or fleece layers. Own a nice gore tex jacket to keep you dry if you need to move the boat in the rain. Get the fire going so it’s ready and the boat is nice and warm when you stop. The secret to staying warm is layering and these high quality layers can transform your experience when you do need them.
  • The summer is glorious. The winter is fabulous in its own way but there’s a reason people pay a small fortune to rent a week on a canal boat in the summer. When you liveaboard you feel like all the world is your garden and as though you’re fully in touch with nature. The natural light that reflects of the canal and in through the windows is like nothing else. Friends will want to visit to help you move.
  • Moving the boat. Yes, you need to move it every couple of weeks. You need to be on a continuous journey. Some people live on moorings but they can miss out on the freedom and the adventure as a result.
  • Getting supplies. You’ll quickly discover the diesel boats. There will be a few of them, covering a wide area. We have been doing this long enough that we can point you in the right direction. Give them a bit of notice and they’ll come by and fill you up with diesel and fit new gas bottles. Get into the rhythm and you’ll never run out. You do not want to run out – gas usually ensures you can keep your food cold in the fridge, and on some boats helps keep the boat or your water warm.
  • Water. The diesel boats can’t fill up your water. You’ll need to potter along to a sanitary station. Allow a couple of hours to fill the water tank; a small price to pay for warm showers and running water. Read a book or have a coffee while it’s filling. How long it lasts depends on how much you use and how big your tank is. Two people usually get about 6-8 weeks. To make it last longer, narrowboats usually forego dishwashers and washing machines – but you’ll soon get used to that.
  • Waste. There are two options. Pump outs – where the diesel boat comes along and connects a pipe that empties your tank, or cassettes. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. Most long term boaters have heard horror stories about pump out toilets getting blocked, overfilling, or smelling and happily get used to cassettes – you have a couple of spares and sequence it to align with your water filling schedule. It is the least fun job but you get used to it surprisingly quickly. The most important thing is that you think ahead and don’t fill up.
  • The 8am to 8pm rule. You might notice if you walk along a canal that often boats will sit there running their engines. They might be charging their batteries or heating up their hot water via the engine. But you shouldn’t run it outside these hours. A lot of boats also have solar panels and maybe even gas water heaters, so there are other options, but it’s worth being aware.
  • Toasters and hair straighteners. Your leisure batteries (separate to the starter batteries) will run most electrical appliances, but not anything with an element. You can still make toast but with a clever contraption that sits on your gas cooking hobs. If you’re using mains power through an inverter you also should get in the habit of turning it off when you’re not using it. Radiators will need to be gas, oil or heated via the back boiler.
  • Checking the engine. Breakdowns can happen but we do expect everyone to carry out simple checks to make sure they are infrequent. We have been running for long enough that we have seen and found ways to maintain everything. You’ll need to check oil and water levels regularly, and know how to clear the weed hatch. We will talk you through it on the handover.
  • How sociable it can be. In both the summer and the winter, your friends will love to come and help you move. But you’ll also meet a wonderfully diverse and creative group of people. You might moor up two-abreast, tieing on to a new neighbour, get chatting to the boats around you while you’re sitting on the roof or outside. Maybe you will get to know people while you’re moving through locks together or topping up supplies. Maybe you arrive in a new neighborhood and want to know where the best canal side pubs or laundromats are. The boating community is wonderfully friendly and sociable – advice is never more than a few boat widths away.

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