Is Boat Life Right For You?

Is Boat Life Right For You?

Narrowboat life comes hand in hand with slow living – it literally is an incredibly slow means to travel anywhere, but it also encourages you to look at life with a more meaningful approach. Daily activities become rituals, everyday moments are acknowledged and appreciated. If you’re wondering whether this lifestyle is for you? Hopefully, we can help!

There’s so much to love about this way of life. For us, it has been three years and we’re not ready to give it up… but it’s not all plain sailing. Here are our five most treasured positives, and our five most significant compromises for living a tiny life on the water. If you can live with the compromises, then it could be the right path for you!  


#1 Living With Wildlife

Watching wildlife go about their day is always a moment to treasure, and living on the water means we get these moments throughout each day. The summer months are undoubtedly the best for this – watching ducklings and baby moorhens grow from their first day out of the nest to full-sized adults feels like an incredible privilege. We lean over the side of the boat and feed them oats from our hands. On morning walks, saying good morning to the pair of swans that share our stretch of canal is just as normal as greeting a neighbour.  Kingfishers dipping and diving ahead of our boat as we cruise is magical; hoping we’ll glimpse that sparkling flash of blue just once more. Possibly the most treasured moment of all came late at night. Whilst we were sitting on the bow, we watched two deer who are normally mooching in the field opposite go for a dip; they swim past our boat as we sat quietly stunned in awe. If that’s not done it for you already…read on.

#2 The Boating Community

Before moving onto Flora, we had lived in quite a few different towns and cities where we knew the occasional neighbour, but joining the boatlife movement has made us see the true meaning of community. Before we settled at our permanent mooring spot, we were continuous cruisers and we travelled around the UK canals. Everywhere we went, friendly faces greeted us. We’ve knocked on boats to borrow tools, been given a mooring line to replace our fraying one, had a shower in another boat when ours was down before joining the couple for dinner. Now we have a permanent spot – and it’s exactly the same. We share power tools, our neighbour mows our patch of towpath, people have offered to look after Tilly if we want a day out without her. The community of boaters is something rather special which we treasure. It’s about being part of an alternative way of life together, and holding each other up.

#3 Living With The Seasons

There’s something about living on the water which links you to the changing of the seasons. We feel and move in time with the seasons, shifting from summer to autumn to winter to spring. Our lifestyle adapts to the environment outside and this makes us value the cycle of the seasons like we never have before. Summer – it’s about spending as much time outside as possible with a heightened knowledge that just around the corner is: Autumn – the greenery starts to die back and the nights are drawing in, candles are lit earlier and the murmurs begin of who will be first to light their stove which remains alight until we’re through the: Winter – it’s wet and cold outside but there’s a glorious morning mist that lingers on the water and inside it is the cosy season, but give it a month and you can’t help to count down the days until: Spring – where the birds reemerge and we too spend more time outdoors, and the world feels lighter once again getting ready to fully thrive in the: Summer.

#4 Consumption Awareness

When you live in a small space you naturally have to question whether that item you want to buy is a necessity – and if it is, is something going to have to go to make room for it? There’s not a garage or loft or spare room to hide stuff in – there’s simply no space for useless stuff. Food wrapping, delivery packaging, empty bottles…they’ve all got to live onboard until you’re near boaters’ bins to dispose of it. Pre-boat life, we were always aware of how much pointless packaging items come in – but the boat makes you even more attune with it. We buy less and less food that comes in plastic packaging, we opt for refill shops where we can, and we are always aware that the waste we do have is only going to end up in landfill – and that deters us from buying things we don’t need.

#5 Lower Living Costs / Financial Freedom

This is highly debated in various narrowboat social media groups and forums. But – for us – despite the costs of boat upkeep, living off-grid is cheaper than living in a house. We have a monthly outgoing for our canal license, and a monthly outgoing for our permanent mooring spot, and these total way less than any rent we’ve ever had to pay. We get our electricity for free from the sun. Depending on whether you go electric or not, there is gas to pay for, oh, and winter fuel to keep warm – but it’s not akin to household bills.


#1 The Toilet

One of boaters’ favourite questions: what toilet do you have? Compost aka “separator”, pump-out, or cassette; there is no faultless option. We’ve been ‘lucky’ enough to experience all three – and have found the compost loo to be the one that works best for us. But whichever option you go for – either way, it will be far removed from your typical household toilet. You can’t just flush and forget; physical emptying is a must no matter what.

#2 The Rain

Soggy towpaths. Dripping clothes. Wet dog. The rain is probably the worst of all the weather on the boat, and living in Britain means we get more than our fair share. Some boats have a cover over either the bow or stern entrance which would make a great coat/welly/dog-drying drop-off zone….but we never have had the luxury. Instead, wet weather means muddy paws on the sofa and coats dripping through on their way to hang above the bath. It’s a big compromise you might not realise until you’re living it.

#3 Instant Hot Water

We now see “normal” household provisions – like hot water when you want it – a complete luxury. There are a few different options for hot water depending on what set-up your boat has and some will give you instant hot water with the right kit – but on Flora, we have to turn on the engine to heat the water or we heat water in a pan on the stove or gas hob. It’s not the perfect set-up but does make us appreciate the energy that goes into providing hot water.

#4 That “Boaty” Smell

In the summer, boats tend to lose their earthy, rustic, and smokey scent as the doors and windows are constantly open. But as we enter the winter months, the woodburner kicks in, and most engines run regularly. This scent of smoke and engine has a knack of lingering on our clothes and we only realise we too have this “boaty” aroma when we mingle in the non-boating community.

#5 Window gazers

We have opted for a boat with large open windows to keep the light coming inside – but with large windows comes a compromise! Ourselves included, people love to stare in as they walk past on the towpath so you’ve got to be prepared to be glimpsed by a passerby if your curtains are left open. We normally keep the canal side curtains open most of the time – and when we hear a boat approaching, we know to duck if we’re not decent…but it’s the paddleboards that take us by surprise, and they’re at perfect eye level!

Jack Miles
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