Living on a houseboat – why I took the plunge as a young woman

living on a houseboat interior

I was never cut out for the truly nomadic life that I thought I’d love; I travel for a living and assumed I’d drift from place to place, rent free, my possessions in one bag, having adventures. What actually happened was an exercise in stress and suitcase-dragging. Yes, the life had its moments of beauty but there is a huge difference between backpacking across the world, taking casual jobs here and there, and wheeling a thirty kilo suitcase from job to job – one so full of outfits on loan that I didn’t dare leave it anywhere! I was a professional model (see some of my tips on alternative modelling on Mookychick) so leaving the case behind wasn’t an option and I soon realised it’s easier to be carefree if you’re carrying nothing you care about.

I woke up one morning in the twilight period between Christmas and New Year and said “I’m going to buy a boat.” By the end of January I had bought the first boat I saw. By April I moved onboard and five days later I rushed her back to the boatyard as there was a hole in the hull. Folks, get a hull inspection if you’re buying a boat…

living on a houseboat interior view 1 big

Interior view of Roswell’s houseboat. See full view

After spending almost a month out of the water attaching a new hull, fervently cleaning the inside, sanding the decks and painting the outside to look less Rosie and Jim and more me, I finally moved in ‘officially’ in June 2014 and now live at a marina just outside London.

I’m often asked if having a boat had always been an ambition of mine. The truth is that it never crossed my mind until that morning in December. As I’m self employed and therefore unlikely to be granted a mortgage, it seemed a perfect alternative to renting. Boats are cheaper to buy and heat than houses and once I owned mine, she would be a saleable asset if things really went tits-up. I also had no idea where in the world I wanted to live but I had been homeless for two years and was getting desperate for a place that was mine. If I didn’t like the location, the solution would be simple: move the boat.

Being a pirate seems to be a talking point and the same questions often come up. How do I shower, wash up, manage the loo, cope with so little space… in short, how do I live? Well, here are the things you might want to know- and some things you really didn’t.

Living on a houseboat – the basics

How did I get my boat?

I googled “narrowboat for sale”. Seriously. Then I bought the first one I saw.

A less ‘guerilla’ way of doing things is to look on Apollo Duck for UK houseboats, check house-hunting websites and call your local marinas as they often help to advertise boats for sale.

Do I move around or stay put?

I mostly stay put. Everybody needs a water source, a power source and a place for their waste to go. In a house, that comes in the form of taps, light switches and the loo. When you live on a boat, all three are things you must consciously decide how best to source!

No matter your situation or boat, these are the absolute basics and the solution depends on how you want to live:

1) Get a continuous cruising license

This means you can move your home anywhere you want to – including marinas, where you’d pay an overnight fee just as you would on a campsite. It’s a very freeing lifestyle but you need a generator or solar panels for power, a nearby water source for topping your water tank up, and a place to empty your loo. You also have to move on every two weeks at least. The precise distance varies but you need a good range of movement (travelling from A to B, B to C, C to A rather than A to B and back.)

It’s not for everyone but if you can choose to cruise, you’ll have no marina rent to pay, freedom of movement and some of the best countryside views around!

2) You can live at a marina

I get regular post from my sponsors that has to reach me, my job needs a reliable internet connection and I like to have my own little jetty garden. With all this in mind, cruising isn’t for me, as romantic and peaceful as it sounds. I live at a marina (for a yearly mooring fee – like rent). It has water taps aplenty to fill my tank from (tank water’s for showering and dishwashing and I fill giant bottles from the same tap for drinking water). I also benefit from an electric hookup and a sanitary station for everybody’s least favourite task (loo emptying).

How do I shower, charge my phone and stay warm?

It’s actually really simple!

To shower (yes, I have a shower. And a toilet. And a fridge. And a cooker), I simply turn the boiler on, flick a switch to pump the water out so my bathroom doesn’t flood, then turn the shower on. Easy!

My electric hookup stays on 24/7 so my fridge, lights and plug sockets work at all times. I do have a freezer but it’s more like an icy matchbox so it contains one emergency soup and that’s it.

To stay warm even when the canal freezes over (which it does in winter), I have a radiator in my bedroom, worship the mighty hot water bottle and – as you’ll see from my pictures – I have a little wood burning stove. In winter, I usually only suffer for the first ten minutes of the day while I get it lit. It took me ages to learn to do this so if you also have stove issues, check my blog for an upcoming guide on how to work your stove.

The “chuck-it bucket” guide to toilet facilities on a houseboat

Depending on your boat, you have two toilet options:

1) A large tank that you connect to a pumping-out station at a marina when it’s full. Just like an enormous toilet flush! This costs a small fee but is the best option if you are cruising as you don’t have to do it as often as…

2) The portapotty. This is the most convenient if you live at a marina and it’s free. If you’ve ever been in a caravan, it’s just like the toilets there; a loo-shaped box with a flush. When your box is nearly full, you disconnect it from the seat part, push a lever to seal its contents inside, put it on a little trolley or wheelbarrow and take it to the sanitary station, where you tip it into a drain while holding it at arms reach. Every marina has a sanitary station and in my experience they rank on a scale of ‘well-run campsite’ to ‘Trainspotting‘. Pray that your marina has the former – if so, the task is far less gross than it may sound.

A word of caution: I promise that the moment somebody attractive arrives at the marina, you’ll be right in the middle of emptying your loo.

When I tell people all of the above, most fall into two camps: the ones who shudder and tell me they don’t know how I do it, and the ones who say they could cope with all of that and want to know more…

Is living on a boat really cheaper than living in a house?

Yes and no. In England, you can buy a dilapidated falling-apart rustbucket for about ten thousand pounds, sometimes less. The work it will take to make her watertight and keep her afloat and insured could cost another ten thousand, depending on just how much work is needed.

A brand spanking new houseboat with all the mod-cons can sell for at least a hundred thousand pounds, though most pre-owned ones sell at around thirty thousand. Some have washing machines, tumble driers and hidden storage units that open at the touch of a button.

Even without considering the cost of buying your boat, you have to have a boat license if she’s to go in the water (just like paying car tax), then consider marina or cruising fees and insurance on top of that, and marina fees change dramatically depending on where you want to live! Central London is, of course, extortionate. I live in a reasonably priced area but the next marina downstream charges triple the fees I pay!

All things considered, yes, a boat is usually cheaper than a house – but not always.

What about safety?

Every boat needs a safety certificate which gets renewed every four years. That checks that the gas is working, you have ventilation, adequate fire extinguishers and other bits and pieces that make your boat as safe as can be. As I found out the hard way, a good way to make sure your boat won’t immediately sink is to get a hull inspection! Hull thickness varies from boat to boat. Older ones can get away with thinner hulls because the metal used was better quality back then. Newer boats need a bit extra. An expert will tell you if yours is okay – and beware if it isn’t, as a new hull can set you back by thousands. Believe me. I know…

What about personal safety as opposed to houseboat safety? Marinas are generally kept under lock and key, not to mention the unofficial neighbourhood watch! I’ve never felt unsafe here. I’m not sure how I’d feel moored at the riverside but even then, most boaters tend to moor near each other and my riverside neighbours assure me that the community keeps an eye out for each other.

Do I get seasick?

Let me clear up the motion sickness thing once and for all; no, you will not get seasick. I’m in a sheltered area so at the worst, I feel her sway a bit in the wind. Even in the strongest gusts, there is no buffeting or rocking from side to side so hanging out on a boat is not a ‘Bring Your Own Bucket’ situation. On windy days, it’s actually the ropes creaking that I notice more, though I have become used to it over time and can tell the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘person stepping on board’ noises.

How do I cope with the space issue?

Boats come in ‘widebeam’ or ‘narrowbeam’. Mine’s a narrowbeam, which means she is traditional-looking, as wide as my outstretched arms and anyone over 5’9 risks concussion from the ceiling. Widebeams are about twice the width of narrowbeams and usually higher too, but boats vary dramatically inside, so everybody copes differently.  Most people I’ve met either live in a very Spartan minimalist way, or cram every nook and cranny with exciting trinkets! I like to think I’ve found a happy medium, though I tend towards the ‘nook and cranny’ approach. To me, if everything has a place then nothing can get cluttered but of course as I write this, there are five giant bags of miscellaneous stuff at my feet that I have the best intentions of sorting out… but maybe tomorrow.

Next week’s piece is all about living with and decorating a tiny space so you can have a look inside my boat!