The reality of life aboard a canal boat

Every day when I woke up on the boat, I counted my blessings for having this lifestyle, and the circumstances in my life which enabled me to choose it as I wished. It is a joy to bob about gently listening to the wildlife chirruping, and cruise along in the sunshine. However…

There are chores and tasks that have to be undertaken on a boat that you simply don’t have to consider when living in a house. For a start, if you want to move the boat (or just use the engine to generate electricity or hot water, which many boaters do use it for) then you’re going to need to get some basic mechanical checks under your belt.

These are not complicated but are essential for the smooth running of your narrowboat life and include checking the oil level, coolant, belt tension and the stern greaser if your boat has one.

Then you also need to keep supplies management in mind by which I mean, have you got enough food and domestic supplies on board? Whilst the canals are never that far from civilisation, trekking back several miles from the nearest shop when you need a pint of milk or some bread can be quite annoying especially if it’s raining and muddy and … (you get the gist). At 3mph, what would take ten minutes in a car could take half a day on the boat.

As you travel along you’ll need to keep a constant eye on what you’ve got, what you need, and how far it is to the next suitable place to moor and re-stock. Some major supermarkets are handily located right next to the canal in urban areas and can easily be reached whereas in more remote areas your options might be limited to an expensive local village store with a small range of essentials.

Trolleys, bicycles, rented cars and even supermarket delivery services can be made use of to solving this end but the point remains that it’s something you need to keep on top of rather more than you would when ashore.

It should be obvious that other than when they’re on a suitable mooring, boats have to carry all their water, gas, and electricity supplies along with them as you go. Hence they’re equipped with large tanks for water, cylinders for gas, and batteries for electricity.

The water will supply everything on board from showers to washing up and even drinking if you’re not bothered about ingesting tank water (some folk either install filters or have separate containers for drinking water. I kept a 5 litre plastic jug for this plus I’m happy to boil the tank water for tea) and it will need topping up every few days, depending on how large the tank is, how many people are aboard, and how many long showers you like to take.

Refilling the water can be done, for free, at any of the water points scattered across the canal network. The Canal & River Trust has a map online showing where all the services are located and the many boater’s guidebooks such as those from Nicholson and Pearson also show where the taps are.

Many of these points have very poor water pressure and the boat’s tank will likely be large so you may end up stopped for an hour or more but like everything boaty, it’s best to treat this as part of the slowed-down “canal time” experience.

Incidentally, although it’s rare to find a bath on board simply because they consume a huge amount of water, it’s not impossible though they also tend to be half-baths due to space restraints.

Finding the next water point must then also be worked into your route planning so that you don’t run out; bear in mind that if you were to break down and unable to move, you’d be stuck with whatever you had aboard at that point so it’s best to ensure you top up any supplies long before the point where you’d run dry.

Gas tends to be the “Calor” type which means you don’t technically own the cylinder itself but rent it from Calor and swap out the entire cylinder when it’s empty for a new full one. Your old one gets sent back and refilled and then gets sold to someone else and so on.

You’ll find most marinas and wharves sell gas as a regular part of their daily business so just pull in and ask as and when you need it. Or, there are dedicated fuel supply boats which typically trawl up and down a set route of the canal, selling gas, diesel, coal and other miscellaneous supplies.

These can be cheaper than the marinas and will appreciate your business. Unfortunately, some fuel boats seem to go out of business with alarming regularity so it’s best to find them online and give them a call first to see where they are and if they’re still trading.

How much gas you’ll use depends on how much cooking you do and whether the gas is also used for heating (such systems seem to use a lot, according to everyone I’ve ever known who’s had one). On my boat, the gas was purely for cooking – and I don’t really cook, just heat stuff up – and I got through one 13kg cylinder every six months though I do boil the kettle for tea an awful lot.

As for electricity, that’s such a big topic I’ve devoted a lot of pages to it later but it suffices here to say that everything in the boat that uses electricity, from the water pumps to the lights, to the TV, radio, fridge etc, has to get that power from the battery bank and this will be relatively limited compared to the limitless power from the National Grid when you’re at home.

Boaters soon become very adept at managing their consumption and monitoring their batteries … but I digress. Much more on that in the other pages on this website. For the moment, just bear it in mind as another aspect of boating life that you have to be aware of constantly.

Other supplies you might need to take on board include bags of coal in winter, if you have a suitable stove. Again, these can be bought from any marina or wharf or fuel boat.

Let us also briefly mention toilets here – grit your teeth, this is one of the more unpleasant jobs a boater needs to deal with but deal with it you must! Whatever type you have (and there are several), it will have a tank of some sort for the waste and this is going to need emptying so once again you are required to keep an eye on the map of where such disposal points are located and how close you are to needing to use one.

Finally, in this list of Things That Are More Convoluted On A Boat That You Might Not Have Considered, is laundry. Some boats have washing machines but an awful lot don’t and if yours is one of those then trips to a public laundry are going to be inevitable.

Whilst in many ways this is a good idea – the machines at a laundromat are often large and the dryers very substantial too – there is a cost involved but more than that, you’re going to have to lug a large bag of your stinky underpants along the towpath and through the town or village to wherever the laundry is located. Then back again later, whereupon Murphy’s Law says it will rain as you go.