Frequently Asked Questions

Last updated on 07 July 2019

What’s your name and what’s your background?
I’m David Johns. I’m 50 and used to work as a local TV news reporter for ITV in the south east of England. After 13 years of doing this and working in radio, I decided to chuck it all in and buy a narrowboat to cruise around the canals on.

Why do you eat so many cheese sandwiches – and what’s in them?
Because I love cheese … I use the strongest cheddar I can get (preferably Pilgrim’s Choice Extra Mature or Cathedral City et al), with some tomato, maybe some cucumber slices and nothing else. To be clear, the “recipe” is buttered bread, with ingredients as just described, and that’s it.

I absolutely loathe mayo or any similar gunge, and I don’t like salt, pepper or suchlike either. At a push, I will eat pickle in it as well but it’s not something I add by default.

And no, the sandwich is not grilled, that seems to be an American thing. If we toast a sandwich in the UK, it is then explicitly referred to as a “toasted sandwich” or “toastie”. The “sandwich” default is un-heated in any way.

How long is your boat, who built it and when?
It’s 55 feet 11 inches and was built in 2000. The shell (hull) was built by G&J Reeves and the interior fit-out was by Millburn Boats.

How much did you pay for your boat?
The boat was advertised at just under £50,000 and I paid less than that after haggling and after the survey showed some work needed doing.

What’s your boat’s name?
It’s called Wreyland, a name the prior owners gave it, but I just refer to it as the boat.

Can you change the boat’s name and how?
You can call a narrowboat wherever you want, pretty much, and rename it as often as you like (superstition holds that you should do this with the boat out of the water but I don’t believe in all that nonsense).

As long as you inform the Canal and River Trust so they can reissue your licence, you’re OK. The name must be displayed on the side of the boat as well, but it’s on the licence so as long as you’re showing that you’re probably OK.

The boat name does not have to be unique.

Can I visit your boat?
No. This is my home and I’d be very uncomfortable having random strangers off the internet coming around. I’m quite introverted in real life and wouldn’t enjoy it.

What does it cost to live aboard a canal boat?
There are a huge number of variables which mean there is no simple answer to “what does it cost?” Please make a cup of tea, get comfortable and take a look at my Vlog 66, Vlog 67 and Vlog 68 plus the more recent Vlog 213, all of which go into the costs in excruciating detail.

Do you pay council tax?
Boats on official residential moorings pay council tax as they are classed as residences. Boats that move around do not since they are not resident in any council area. Boaters do pay an annual fee to the Canal and River Trust which covers provision of waste disposal services etc.

Where does the “grey” water from the sink and shower go?
Unlike your sewage, which has to be stored in one form or another until you get to an emptying point, grey water goes straight back into the canal. It’s therefore important to use wildlife-friendly washing products so as not to poison the fish, ducks, swans and other canal animals.

A lot of people seem to get very irate about the grey water situation and I suppose in an ideal world, if we started again from scratch, we’d be likely to use grey water tanks and have to pump them out. But no boats have them and there are no disposal facilities for grey water, so it’s not going to change.

The abundance of fish and wildlife on the canals suggests it really isn’t an issue!

Those canals look very narrow, are they one-way?
Very, very few bits of the canal network are so narrow that you can only get one boat through. Usually – though it may not look like it! – there’s enough space to two to pass albeit carefully. So no, the canals are two-way for 99% of the time.

Where does the water come from to supply the canals?
A variety of sources: rain, rivers, boreholes, reservoirs (see the Canal and River Trust’s graphic, below). The CRT has an excellent page explaining it all too, at https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/specialist-teams/managing-our-water/day-to-day

How did the boats of old go through tunnels without a towpath?
When boats were horse-drawn and there was no towpath in a tunnel (because to build one would require a wider tunnel which would cost more), the boats would be legged through; a plank of wood laid across the bows, two men lying flat on it and walking the boat with their legs out to reach the walls of the tunnel.

Do you need a licence to drive a narrowboat?
Incredibly – and unfortunately – no. You can just rock up at a hire firm or brokerage, pay your money and head off down the canal with no experience, test or licence whatsoever. It’s fairly foolish to do so though, so most people will either try it out with friends who’ve done it before, pay for narrowboat experience days, or even go on a one or two day RYA Inland Waterways helmsman’s course.

Why do you steer from the back, not the front?
Because with 40, 50 (indeed up to 72) feet of solid steel boat, you really need to stand at the back to see what it’s doing when you manoeuvre it; bear in mind they pivot in the middle so when you turn left, the back goes right and vice versa) – not seeing what the back is doing could end up with you bashing a lot of moored boats on these narrow canals.

Can you recommend a hire company for us to use?
Unfortunately I cannot as I have never used any of the rental companies myself so I can’t in good conscience recommend any. Your best bet is to phone a few, get a feel for what they offer, and ask around on the canal forums to see which ones people who’ve used them recommend. I have put together a (short) list with links of some of the best known hire firms but this does not constitute a recommendation: click here to see the list

What about a route, can you recommend one for us when hiring?Again, alas no. I haven’t done enough of the canals to be able to happily recommend somewhere; also everyone’s requirements are different.

Plus hirers tend to do one of the standard circular routes so they end up back where they’ve started, whereas I’ve just dawdled my way on the various canals as I’ve seen fit so my experience isn’t similar to a hirer.

Most hirers want to know about site-seeing places and which pubs to visit and on that front I’m a dead loss as well as I just don’t go to them. I only tend to visit pubs if I’m with friends and as I have no friends…

Honestly the best advice you’ll get will be if you phone a handful of the hire firms, who have years of experience and know their local routes like the back of their hand. They can advise you of everything and answer any query about good routes for hirers.

Just google “uk canal boat hire” or have a look at places like Black Prince, Kate Boats and so on

Can you drive a narrowboat in the dark?
Technically you can but I don’t. It could disturb other boaters or I could bang into things, even with the bow light on. You do sometimes get boats going past in the dark though. Hireboaters are not allowed to usually, under the terms of their hire.

Why don’t you use a cordless drill to operate the paddle gear?
For several reasons. Firstly, it’s unlikely a cordless drill would have sufficient power; a lot of the mechanisms can be very stiff indeed hence needing a decent length of handle on the windlass to get the appropriate leverage. Secondly, without some kind of clutch mechanism, the drill would crunch the paddle gear into the end stop and ultimately this would cause wear on it, which costs the CRT money to repair or maintain. Thirdly, it’s not uncommon to drop a windlass into the canal by accident and it would be a very expensive mistake to do that with a cordless drill!

Why don’t you get all-solar narrowboats?
It sounds great, for sure. A narrowboat needs only 1-2kW to move along (once it has begun moving) thus a 20kWh battery pack could sustain 5-10 hours travel (presuming standard lead-acid tech ie 50% drawdown before recharge) and presuming the battery is not used for anything else aboard (though in reality most electric-focused boats use it for domestic purposes as well so the battery and solar system has to support that too)

However, solar is not so reliable in the UK. There are not that many truly sunny days here and no matter what solar proponents say, if it’s cloudy, the resulting power is less than optimal. Only in peak summertime are you likely to approach the solar panels’ maximum output and even then only when the sun is high.

In spring and autumn, any solar is very variable and in winter it’s negligible plus the hours of daylight are much shorter too and the angle of the sun much lower (It’s not always possible to angle the panels at the sun and even so, the other factors mean the resulting power will be far less than in summer).

On an average 57 foot narrowboat you have space for about 2.3kW of solar. That’s calculated as 40 feet / 12m usable roof length at absolute max, assuming you don’t store anything else up there (which most boaters do) and that you don’t want to get on the roof during lock maneouvres (which again most boaters do) x about 1.6m width which you don’t want to overhang else the panels may get shredded when you go through some bridge holes or tunnels.

Using high output 400W LG Neon solar panels (1m x 2m dimensions), you’ll get 6 panels max = 2.4kW maximum theoretical output. So you’d need an hour of optimal sunshine to provide 1-2 hours of propulsion. Thus at the height of summer, the panels might provide sufficient motive power as it was used but none to recharge the batteries as well.

At any other time, you’d have to let the panels charge the batteries for longer such that in spring and autumn it could easily take several hours to recharge for an hour’s worth of movement.

Without an additional (conventional) generator therefore, pure solar on a canal narrowboat is only suited for weekend breaks and day boats but not constantly cruising liveaboards.

How do you deal with all the mosquitoes on the canals?
There really aren’t that many. I get buzzed by one or two a year. I presume the climate here just isn’t warm enough for great clouds of them that you might find in other countries. We do get lots of houseflies and occasional wasps etc but they’re just the normal summertime pests.

Will you film a shopping trip for us please?
It’s likely not something I’ll do because if I’m going shopping I don’t want to lug the camcorder along as well as the bags of food. Plus the supermarkets often react badly to people filming in them. And really, they look just like every other supermarket I’ve ever been into (!!) just aisles with food on shelves. I prefer to keep the channel focused on narrowboats and canals rather than “life in Britain” as there are other channels that do that. Cheers

Do you need a TV licence on a boat?
This is a more complicated subject than you might imagine. Lorna (aka London Boat Girl) has done a comprehensive video about it, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79df3e_z6sg

What happens if you overstay on a mooring?
The CRT have towpath rangers who patrol and note down boat licence numbers and dates; they will issue an overstay notice requiring you to move if you hang around too long. If you still refuse then eventually legal proceedings begin with the CRT having the contractual right to remove your boat from the water.

What’s the narrowboat forum you mention sometimes in your videos?
The forum I gained most of my info from is canalworld.net. It’s got loads of very expert people who chip in but the only thing you have to watch is that sometimes the discussions veer (quickly) wildly off on a tangent, which is unhelpful, or occasionally descend into vitriolic arguments. If you can wade your way through that occasional treacle, it’s good stuff.

How fast can you go on the canals?
Asking “how fast” is to miss the point of narrowboating. The canals are all about slowing down to a crawl, enjoying the sights and sounds of nature around you and taking a substantial time out from the world outside. That said, the canal limit is 4mph – but really, that’s too fast. Most boats go along at 2-3mph, except some hire boats which are typically trying to get around a set cruising ring in a very short time such as a week.

Also, when you are going past moored boats, it is required (and polite) to slow to an absolute crawl, generally at engine tickover or just over, so that you don’t rock them or pull their mooring pins out – this really does happen when boats go zooming past with no regard for anyone else.

There are no “speed police” or radar traps on the canals however; it’s more the ire of other boaters that you will incur though I’m sure if a CRT officer saw you zooming along they’d note your boat registration number (which is required to be clearly visible) and send you a suitable letter.

How deep are the canals?
Not very; they only needed to be dug deep enough to float a barge full of tonnes of cargo, any deeper was wasted effort. Bear in mind the canals are entirely man-made and were quite literally dug out by teams of thousands of men a couple of hundred years ago, using pickaxes and shovels. Typically, a canal might be maybe 4-5 feet deep in the middle (the canal bed tends to slope upwards slightly at the edges)

Why are the canals so disgustingly filthy?
They’re really not; it’s just silt. Unlike rivers there’s virtually no current in the canals except for whenever a lock is emptied, and with the canals being so shallow and having a lot of trees on the bank, there’s an awful lot of silt lying at the bottom. This gets stirred up each time a boat goes by and then hangs in the water so it looks dirty.

The CRT do dredge parts of the canals occasionally but it’s an expensive business so sadly there isn’t enough dredging done.

Why don’t boaters greet each other when they pass?
They DO! You just don’t see it on my videos. Consider two, 57-foot-long boats coming from opposite directions. The steerers will wave and say hello when they pass each other, that is when the back of one boat passes the back of the other. By that point the camera on my boat’s bow is 50 feet further forward so it’s missed it.

What’s your fuel consumption?
I’ve never measured it but narrowboats typically drink 1-1.5 ltr/hour. My tank is 62 gallons (282 litres) and I just tend to refill it when I remember, after a few weeks cruising.

How do you turn around?
There are turning points, known as “winding holes” (“wind” as in the breeze, not as in winding a clock) every few miles although not all of them are big enough to turn the longest boats in (sizes are usually marked on the canal guides though)

Which guide books do you use?
I use Nicholson’s Guides because some of those were on the boat when I bought it so I’m used to them. They’re not great but I still prefer them to the main alternative which is Pearson’s, although many boaters swear by those guides. Just a matter of personal preference.

You can also use apps or online guides such as canalplan.eu (ideal for route planning rather than a map) or opencanalmap which has all the CRT facilities marked etc albeit in a rather tiny font that you can’t seem to enlarge.

Why are you driving on the right when you drive cars on the left in the UK?
Apparently international maritime convention is for driving on the right. I’ve also heard it said that most people are right-handed thus their right hand is on the tiller so they stand on the left hand side of the boat; therefore when passing another boat coming towards you, both skippers will be on the side that’s nearest to the oncoming boat.

A recent comment on my vlogs also explained that the steering board on ships of old would be on the right (hence the term “starboard” for right) and boats would put into port on the left (hence the term “port” for left hand side). In order to avoid damage to the rudder, boats would pass port side to port side.

Can you take a narrowboat to sea?
People have done taken narrowboats across the English Channel but it requires extensive preparation and some alterations to make them seaworthy as well as a calm day and nerves of steel. They’re really not designed for water that’s not totally flat calm, and typically have holes in the hull (eg for sink waste outlets or engine cooling vents) just a few inches above the waterline so any waves could easily flood the boat. Hence it’s not generally advised!

Can you cruise the canals at night?
Not if you’re hiring but it’s unwise generally even if you own the boat. You can’t see where you’re going too well despite the tunnel light on the bow and – depending on how late it is – the noise of your engine might annoy other boaters as you pass and householders alongside the canal. That said, I have certainly had boats come past me in the pitch black – rather them than me.

Why don’t you have / fit a bow thruster / “trolling motor”?
Although many (generally newer) narrowboats have bow thrusters, it would be near impossible to fit one onto my boat without some major, and expensive, surgery. The water tank under my well deck is huge and takes up the space where a thruster would go (plus the thruster would need its own battery and new charging wires run throughout the length of the boat from the engine room). So it’s not a retrofit option but I wouldn’t object to one on another boat.

That said, there are very few occasions when a bow thruster would really be needed. All the navigations on the canal, even the tight corners can be easily turned by using the tiller, as can most maneouvres such as mooring. A thruster could come in handy for tight spots in some marinas but generally it’s not a necessary item but a luxury so it’s not on my “must have” list.

Portable electric “trolling motors” are often suggested in the comments on my YouTube videos but I’ve never seen a narrowboat with one; I think it would be a bit ugly and awkward to have one mounted on the bow plus it could cause an obstruction in the locks (potentially getting caught on the gates etc)

Why don’t you have an electric engine?
You do find some hybrid boats on the canal (see vlog 69 I did about just such a craft) and electric running certainly is appealing especially when the boat’s just sitting in a lock but it seems a bit of an odd system with the massive battery bank and a diesel generator just to gain a bit of electric movement.

Unfortunately there’s no charging infrastructure on (most of) the canals so yes you’d also need a generator of some sort even if that’s just the engine – standalone diesel gennys are ridiculously expensive – and a massive battery bank which is expensive, weighty and requires maintenance. Solar would make little difference – even a 1kW – 1.5kW array (which would take up valuable roof space that you often need to walk on and store stuff on) would only give decent output in summer and still then not much in terms of engine powering for a typical 10kW motor even if it uses less than full power for actually moving along.

There are no mains electricity points along the canal network other than in marinas (though I one of the Welsh canals has power points for a fleet of electric hire boats – see vlog 169 – but this is unusual). So hybrid solutions are the only reasonable option.

Some day boats can get away with it though because they can return to a fixed point to recharge from the mains each night – see vlog 168

Why don’t you have a generator?
I’d love a dedicated diesel generator (ideally in a silenced enclosure) but they’re fantastically expensive — many thousands of pounds even for little ones. Petrol gennys are much cheaper, a couple of hundred quid, but you have all the issues of storing petrol safely on board (it being extremely flammable of course) and of accessing it since most wharfs and marinas don’t sell it so you have to trek along a road to the nearest garage with a canister in hand.

Why don’t you steer from the front, in a covered wheelhouse?
I don’t know of any narrowboats that steer from the front though there are some old, shorter, ones that had a wheelhouse slightly back from the middle. The trouble is that with a 50+ foot, 15 tonne boat, you really need to see what it’s doing as you maneouvre it, rather than have it all happening behind you. Bear in mind the boats pivot in the middle so as you turn, the back end is going out…

Why don’t you put maps in your videos?
I’m not convinced that if I show a map with a location marked it would necessarily help anyone who didn’t already know where it was to know where I was. And even if I zoomed in from above it doesn’t really tell you anything useful about the place.

Instead I include plenty of place names so that the viewer can look them up on Google maps and then zoom in/out, scroll around and get a much better sense of the geography than I could ever show on a video map. Plus I have recently (vlog 139 onwards) taken to adding specific Google Map links to my start and end points for each video.

Is it cold in winter?
No! An unheated boat in winter – even in Spring or Autumn – would be cold but that’s precisely why narrowboats have heating installed. Many, possibly most, have multi-fuel stoves which burn coal or wood and they will keep a boat so toasty you’ll have the windows open in mid-winter!

Other boats have diesel or gas-fired radiator central heating systems just like in a house. And you can get diesel stove as well. There is no need to be cold on a narrowboat.

Have a look at Vlog 74 which is all about heating on narrowboats.

Do the canals ever flood?
It has been known to happen but generally only in severe weather and often when a nearby river or stream overflows into the canal rather than the canal itself overfilling. A couple of years ago there was extensive winter damage on some of the northern canals due to flooding which even raised up boats onto the towpath and left them there once the waters receeded. A lot of damage had to be rectified both to boats and the canal infrastructure afterwards.

Why don’t you fit a wind turbine?
They’re quite costly, apparently make a lot of vibration noise throughout the boat, and don’t generate a huge amount of power. They need a really decent (and constant) strong wind to even start generating, let alone creating their rated output. Apart from a few high spots around the canal network, we just don’t get the kind of breeze these things need.

Plus they have to be put up and down each time you travel. In short, not really worth the effort according to most sources I’ve read. Have a look at this video from Slim Potatohead where he experiments with one on his caravan (travel trailer): https://youtu.be/ZvXwqMWbt1c?t=122

How do you / Why don’t you paint the baseplate of the boat?
This is a source of much debate, a bit like what type of boat toilet is best. Many boaters do not paint the bottom at all! The argument is partly that most rust occurs at the waterline (true) because that’s where you get the highest mix of water and oxygen, and partly that the baseplate is (usually) 10mm thick so it can withstand many, many years before it’s rusted to a point where you’d worry about it. Also, due to the shallowness of much of the canal network, any blacking on the baseplate would be quickly scraped off in many areas.

That said many boaters disagree entirely with these arguents and do paint the baseplate – how often is down to their enthusiasm for the task and / or the depth of their wallet.

How do you get post and what about registering for a doctor?
Your mail can go to a friend’s or family member’s address plus there are postal redirection services you can sign up for that will either scan and email your letters to you or forward them to a location of your choice, which you can update as you move around the canals. If you have a permanent mooring on a wharf or in a marina, you can often have post sent there though it depends on the contract terms.

As for doctors, dentists etc, just stay signed up to your usual one and go in to any local surgery on a “visiting” basis if you need to; they don’t need to know you’re on a boat. Just say you were visiting and felt ill or needed a checkup or whatever. If you’re permanently in one location or have a base mooring, register somewhere near there and whenever you go back to the mooring you can get your teeth checked or whatever.

Jasmin from This Narrowboat Adventure has done an excellent video about a new phone app which you can use to get services from a local GP wherever you are on the network. Click here to watch it.

As for voting, you can vote by post or by proxy and (I’m told) either declare an affiliation with a particular area of the country and vote there, or if you still own a bricks-and-mortar home, you vote wherever it is. See Lorna’s (London Boat Girl) video about voting here.

Can you fish in the canals and do you eat them?
You can fish if you have the appropriate licences – local angling groups tend to have the rights to each stretch of canal so talk to them. All fish must be returned to the canal alive except non-native species which must not be returned. Don’t eat them, you’ll likely give yourself something nasty from the water.

See https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/fishing/angling-strategies/fishing-faqs for the CRT’s Fishing Questions page.

Will you ever be visiting <location>?
People often ask if I’ll be going up a particular canal at any time. I really have very few fixed plans – such is the joy of the narrowboating life – so I’ll tell you now: “I don’t know”!

What video gear do you use?
See my “gear” page!

Why don’t you get a drone?
This is where I get a large amount of egg firmly on my face. You see up until now I have argued vehemently against drones, on the basis that a) they’re noisy and disturb the peace of the canals; b) they’re very expensive especially once you’ve bought the spare batteries, propellors and liability insurance; c) there are restrictions on where and how you can fly; and d) it’s too easy to get carried away with drone footage even if it isn’t very good or doesn’t add much to a video.

I still maintain much of that is true but against my better judgement, as of August 2019, I have now bought one. Yes, I know… but hear me out: firstly it’s a “Parrot Anafi“, a drone that is reputedly substantially quieter than other more popular models – indeed this is the one feature that keeps cropping up in reviews, so I feel less bad about flying it over the canals.

Secondly it’s much cheaper, even with the accessories, than the drones by DJI plus I got it when it was on sale so it’s just about justifiable for my budget.

I don’t intend to use it often – trying to fly while also steering the boat would be ridiculous and stupid so it’ll only get sent up for special occasions, when the footage will add something substantial to the story.

Oh! So you could look round corners with the drone then?
Not really. It would not be wise to operate the boat and a drone single-handed, your attention would either be on one or the other and that would not be safe. The drone is required to be in visual range and control at all times, in the UK regulations.

If you stop the boat to operate the drone (which would also necessitate bringing it to the side of the canal so as to be out of the way in case of further boats passing) then by the time you’ve brought the drone back and landed it and set off again, the situation ahead may have changed anyway.

Plus there are so many blind corners and twisty bits on most of the canals, you’d never get anywhere for always stopping. And the drone batteries don’t last that long either so you’d be forever changing them.

Using a drone to look ahead when single handed would just be way more hassle than it’s worth since you can either just toot your horn and proceed with caution, or you’re really bothered, pull the boat in and run along to see what’s coming (which would still be quicker and easier than using a drone)

If you had crew aboard who could operate the boat while you do the drone, then it would make more sense but for me it’s not realistic.

How do you make money?
I film and edit corporate videos. I don’t do a huge amount of it, the whole plan of going on the boat was to kick back and, frankly, be a bit lazy while I have a mid-life crisis and take stock of things.

I also earn a bit of money from YouTube every time someone watches the ads that occasionally play (and only the ads – I get nothing for views of my video itself unless you happen to be a member of YouTube Premium, in which case they divvy up your monthly fee amongst every creator you watched that month according to how much of each creator’s videos you watched).

I don’t get anything if the viewer presses “Skip” on the adverts so if you like my videos, I’d be grateful if you could grit your teeth and try to let at least some of the advert run!

The sums are tiny; it’s a fraction of a penny for each ad that gets watched so for a typical video which will have taken me several hours at least to film, script, edit and upload, I might – in total – earn a fiver after it’s had 10,000 views or so!

This website has ads on it from Google; that also earns a few pounds each month. Links from my videos to Amazon with an affiliate code in them mean I get a small commission if someone buys anything (yes, anything, not just the product that was linked to) after going to the site from clicking on my link.

I also have a Patreon page for really dedicated viewers – yes, there are some! – who actually want to pay me money, typically $2 – $5 a month – to support me in making more Vlogs.

And finally, I opened an online merchandise store selling branded mugs, hats, t-shirts and suchlike; I really should push this more but I don’t want to become one of those channels that’s always trying to flog stuff to its viewers.

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