Liveaboard: dream’s sinking in troubled waters


Liveaboard - Credit: Archant

With a banging headache (duck through those bow doors) and a litany of laundry challenges, downbeat David Johns may just be going under

Oh the joy of washing day with a twin tub

Oh the joy of washing day with a twin tub - Credit: Archant

You’d think after nearly three years of narrowboat ownership that I’d be used to ducking slightly on exiting through the bow doors and not cracking the top of my skull on the very solid metal that forms the frame. But apparently not. To my neighbours, the cry of some very rude words must by now be the common code for “David’s leaving his boat”.

Every time I do it, I swear it’ll be the last. That I’ll learn, finally, that the door is not quite high enough to just step through with nary a care. Yet, so many times even this most basic of tasks – walking through a door without injury – seems to elude me.

It’s at times like this, I confess, that I sometimes give in to the crime of wondering what on earth I’m doing living on a boat and why don’t I just be like normal people and have a house?

With the Crick Show been and gone once again there will have been a hoard of eager potential boaters flocking to its fields, hoovering up every snippet of boating goodness they can find in anticipation of getting onto the water.

The fuel boat at Buckby Locks

The fuel boat at Buckby Locks - Credit: Archant

Worried by their novice enthusiasm unsullied by dirty reality, and with my latest attempt at going outdoors still ringing on my cranium, this month I thought I’d present some Reasons Why Being On A Narrowboat Is Actually Quite Annoying. Yes, I am a bit grumpy today, thank you.

1. Narrow boats

Proud mum on the school run

Proud mum on the school run - Credit: Archant

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The clue is in the name but I need to highlight the general crampedness of everything. Long and thin accommodation I do not mind in theory but ducking and diving all the time so as not to clang my noggin on some pointy extrusion can get wearing.

Add the chaos when you need to store anything on the boat that isn’t normally there and you have a minefield of things to trip over or step around. Going from one end to the other is like a military assault course sometimes.

Why are so few boats designed with a utility room? No wonder the well deck becomes a post-apocalyptic nightmare of abandoned stuff. I want my well deck to be a tidy place of happiness and Zen-like calm for watching the ducklings, not a scene from a Channel 4 documentary about compulsive hoarders. Sadly, this utopian vision is far from the practical reality.

A glorious day for a canalside stroll so it's not all bad

A glorious day for a canalside stroll so it's not all bad - Credit: Archant

2. The state of my pants

And socks. And T-shirts. This is the laundry issue. Unless you’re lucky enough to live on a boat that has, or has space for, a conventional washing machine (not to mention the suitable batteries, inverter or genset to power it), your options are limited in the clean clothes stakes.

I bought one of those popular, £90 twin-tub plastic jobbies you see on eBay and touted on the forums as being ‘just the job’ but truly they are dreadful. Such a pain first loading up the washer, filling it with lukewarm water and soap, waiting for it to jiggle the clothes – which doesn’t work properly unless the thing is only half-filled with garments anyway – then draining, hoiking all the stuff out into the spinner, then waiting while that does its thing, then giving it another rinse, then another spin ... oh hang on a minute, I’m now due to go into a retirement home the length of time this is taking. Then there’s the unreliability. Mine had just a handful of washes under its belt before it started leaking and while I’ve been typing this article has tripped out the shoreline (not reassuring when I need to put my hands into the tub full of water) then given up spinning entirely after making a nasty grinding noise.

I hate it and it’s about to get disposed of at the local tip. Or with a lump hammer. Maybe both.

Laundrettes you say? Sure there are quite a few of them about, if you can bear to lug a huge bag of smellies through town. Then you’ll need a load of pound coins. Most crucially of all, I don’t think their machines do a very good job. In fact at the laundry nearest to me, I swear their machines barely put any water in, presumably in some cost-saving measure. So no, laundrettes are not the answer.

3. Bed time

Saucy! Not that. I have a fixed double but making it up with clean sheets is an exercise in yogic flexibility. Three of the four sides are rammed tight against wooden bulkheads/cupboards/sidewalls making access to the mattress corners unbelievably infuriating.

Squat on the bed, haul the spring-loaded mattress back and leap upon it as if trying to overpower a particularly vigorous escaped alligator and if you’re lucky you’ll manage to throw the noose – I mean, sheet corner – around it. One down and only minor injuries. Three more to go.

The situation isn’t even helped by the bed pulling out sideways a few inches; now there’s a slim chasm in which I can perch with one foot whilst simultaneously poking my hands under like a demented gynaecologist to tuck the sheet in.

Fortunately I’m a chap so the sheets are only changed every few months (when they get really crusty) but the awkwardness of doing so is enough to extend this time for as long as possible.

4. Flies

One of the great joys of the canals is the sheer variety of wildlife living there. Irritatingly, this extends to the not-so-pleasant critters too. Bees, wasps, horseflies, house flies, mosquitoes, miscellaneous unknown flying pests ... as soon as the weather turns half decent and you fling open the bow doors (being careful not to bang your head), in will storm a plague of tiny devils, seemingly unable or unwilling to find their way back out again despite the doors still being as wide and easy to get through as they were when the fly arrived.

Come night time, they’ll flutter round your light fixtures and, worse, wait until you’ve gone to bed then buzz you as you try to snooze, the worst being the mozzies with their screachy little “zzzzzz” right above your ear.

As a man generally in agreement with the Buddhist ideal of not taking any life, this means a whole lot of capturing things in upturned glasses and throwing them out in the dead of night, usually in the dark so they don’t come straight back again upon seeing the light. This often also leads to banging my head, for which see point one.

5. General terror

Is the boat about to sink? How bad is the rust under the waterline? Will the engine keep working? Has my fuel got diesel bug? Will the boat be burgled if I leave it for more than five minutes? Where are the safe places to moor overnight?

Is all of humanity doomed?

Maybe it’s time to see a counsellor but these fears are uppermost in my mind most days from dawn to dusk. I’m sure I recall reading that living afloat is supposed to relax, calm and soothe the fevered brain yet, I assure you, there is no terror quite as great as wondering every morning whether your shower drain is secretly leaking water into the bilge.

Now it’s time to take stock and remind myself of all the joy in boating. I’ll go for a nice towpath stroll and maybe plan the counterpoint to this catalogue of angst.

To see if I’ve calmed down, perhaps follow me on Twitter: @CruisingTheCut or watch my boating videos at