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8 Things to Know Before Living on a Boat

Updated on February 13, 2016

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Living on a boat is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to live - cutting out waste and living in harmony with nature.

The UK waterways date back to the early 1800's. They played a key role in fuelling the industrial revolution and were still used commercially all the way through to 1962. Now the UK canals are mainly used by tourists and liveaboards.


How to Stay Warm

Depending on the time of year, when you tell others that you live on a boat people either think that it must be idyllic or - more commonly - ask how you could possibly stay warm. The reality is that there are a number of different systems that you can use onboard to make this easier than you might think.

Most boats have wood burning stoves - and you don't want to live on one that doesn't. But they're all different and they need a bit of practise to nail. The one thing that amazed me though is just how long you can keep a fire going without touching it. If you get it warm enough and stock it high enough, it's perfectly possible to keep the boat toasty hot for over 16 hours without touching it again. Now that's a skill worth learning!

When it's starting to die out, spend a minute tending to it and it'll keep going again. Make sure you stock up well with coal (and experiment with the different types - excel is my favourite). You could go through a 10kg bag a week if you run it constantly, as well as a few bags of logs. But it's worth it!

I have a solid wood burning stove in which I burn logs and coal non-stop through the winter months, and I also have diesel central heating which I can turn on through a timer or a flick of a switch if I need an extra boost of heat. Some boats also heat the water from the fire using a back boiler - though I manage perfectly well without this.

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Running Hot Water

Different boats work differently. I like to use a calorifier which uses the engine heat to heat up the water (it's efficient) but you can also use gas water heaters like you may have seen in some old kitchens.

The gas version would give you on demand hot water - which can be wonderful, but a gas bottle can set you back £25 a time.

In my experience, you can expect to run through a gas bottle a fortnight if you're using gas to heat water - and even quicker if you're also using it for a heating system (depending on the weather). I use gas just for my cooker and my fridge and it tends to last me 5-6 weeks a bottle.

Mains Power Sockets

You can run most mains appliances on any boat which has an 'inverter' and some decent leisure batteries (like you'd find in a camper van or boat). I have a TV and a washing machine. I can run anything apart from a hair dryer, and a toaster (though I use a grill top one).

Living on a boat makes you so aware of how much electricity you're using - it quickly becomes second nature to have no more lights on than you need and to use devices sparingly.

My inverter allows anything up to 600W. You can get 1000W inverters but they're likely to drain your batteries much quicker. I also have some solar panels to keep them charged up.

It's good practise to only use the inverter sparingly when you're actually using it (e.g. while watching television) and to make use of car cigarette socket adapters to change smaller items like your phone. Batteries can be expensive and if you don't charge them well enough they can quickly die.


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Maintaining the Engine and Hull

It's good practise to run the engine for an hour or so every couple of days - doing so keeps the batteries topped up (for your lighting and water pumps) and (if you have a calorifier) can keep your water warm.

It's also important to check the water levels, and oil levels, every few days (after about 10 hours of running the engine). Failing to do so can lead to costly bills. Depending on the layout of the boat, you might find the engine is housed inside a room at the back of the boat or hidden under the decking. All boats are a bit different, but it's soon learnt.

The engine can't run between 8pm and 8am. Common courtesy to those around means it's not the done thing to keep it going late at night. The same goes with electricity generators.

As for the hull - every boat needs a 'Boat Safety Certificate' to be legal on the water and it's a good idea to get a survey to see how the hull is doing every couple of years, a bit like an MOT or healthcheck. Steel hulls can be 6mm or 12mm thick. They can corrode over time, and to keep them in good shape you will need to ensure there are 'anodes' fitted and the hull is 'blacked' regularly. Marinas and dry docks are all over the canal network.

How to Cruise and Moor Up!

You won't get far before you encounter a lock. These wonderful inventions (of leonardo da vinci) are the life and soul of a canal trip. You can't climb a hill without them. They take about 15-20 minutes to journey through and it's easier if you have a friend to help out. Still - boating was never a quick way to get around; it's tranquil, peaceful and historical instead.

Typically, one side of the canal network is privately owned (perhaps catering for private residential moorings and marinas, or just back gardens), while the other side runs along the towpath (named after the horses that pulled boats before engines came to dominate). You can moor up most places along the public side, using pins / stakes, chains and hoops. In cities, mooring spots tend to be designated by signs and it's not uncommon to moor up two abreast. The key thing to learn is the round turn and two half hitches. With that you'll be able to cope with anything.

Stocking up

The canals are served by 'diesel boats' - they come and go and aren't always where you expect them to be, but they do make life an awful lot easier.

You need to find out (perhaps from your neighbours) who the nearest ones are and get hold of their phone numbers. Then, every few weeks you want to arrange a delivery. This requires working out a rhythm (how big is your diesel tank? do you have space of 2 or 3 gas cannisters? how much are you running the fire?) and everyone's experience will be different.

You don't want to run out and you do want to keep things topped up - it's good practise to constantly fill up your diesel tank, and to keep a spare gas canister as well as a few bags of wood, coal and kindlng handy

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Filling up with water and emptying waste.

At various points along the canal side you'll find CRT run water and sanitation points. Some of these also have laundry. Filling up water involves a hose and the length it lasts depends on how big your tank is and how often you shower.

Emptying the toilet is the least fun job on a boat and there are two different options. One involves 'cassette' toilets (which are incredibly flexible; never break, but need emptying every 2 weeks or so. You can keep spares and rotate them around, but the job is not at all pleasant. Many boaters find they prefer them in the long term, but they're definitely not enjoyable.

The other option is a holding tank - which is what you'd have used if you have ever been on a canal holiday. Here a tank is built in to the boat itself; they can last for much longer (5 weeks or so) and are much more pleasant to use. However, they can sometimes get blocked or smell and take up valuable storage space on the boat (often under a bed). They also cost about £15 a time to empty, but you might find some diesel boats are able to do it for you.

What about laundry?

While my boat has a washing machine, I try to avoid using it - mainly because it can use up a lot of my water. Instead, I make use of laundrettes that run the sides of the canals and are never more than a few minutes walk away. It takes a bit of planning but many collect, offer good value for money, and enable you to use your living area without worrying about hanging up wet laundry to dry!

Before I moved on, I made a point of setting up a quick google map with all the journey times to the places I'd need to travel to by public transport as well as where local supermarkets, gyms and laundrettes were - it saved me no end of time!

Why not give it a go?

All in all, I'd recommend it - even if just for a season. There are plenty of ways to try out the canals. Most people opt for a short holiday using one of the many hire companies willing to let you a boat for around £1000 per week. Others dive straight in and buy their own boat, which can set them back anything from £20k for an old, leaky wooden topped vessel through to £200k for a wider, luxury boat with a mooring. As a half way house, I'd recommend checking out Escape the Rat Race who offer boats by the month so that you can get a feel for the lifestyle without making the initial leap.

Whether you try it for a holiday or for the longer term, if you have the chance don't miss out on Britain's fabulous canals.

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