With house prices and rents on the rise in London, many people are turning away from land to pursue a home on the water.
One of those people is 34-year-old actor Claira Watson Parr, who has lived for more than two years aboard Bobbie’s Girl, originally an Esturay Barge that she now cruises continuously around the capital’s waterways, with the River Lea her favourite spot.
Here she reveals what it’s like to turn your back on the land and take to the water.
Why did you decide to live on a boat?
I decided to live on a boat as I was fed up of paying crazy London rents and there was no hope of me owning property in London. As an actor it’s really important to maintain a good work life balance and be able to conserve my money if I hit a quiet spell. I had a few friends who already lived on the waterways, I used to help them move their boats and started spending more and more time on the water until I was ready to take the plunge myself. Many boaters are creatives looking for an alternative way to live in this crazy city of ours.
How did you go about buying one?
I spent about six months researching what kind of boat I wanted. It’s really important to figure out how you want to use the space. Then there’s the practical side of things – how you want to heat your boat and water, how you want to charge your batteries. There’s a lot to think about and there are so many options. I talked to a lot of people, friends and online forums are invaluable when it comes to learning the ropes.
What was it like when you first moved in?
It was very much a baptism of fire. I was also moving it down from the north so I had to get to grips with everything all at once. I’m a pretty together person but there were a lot of tears those first couple of days. I had a friend help me for the first day and then I was on my own. It was make or break and thank goodness I didn’t break it.
That’s the constant fear when you’re not fully to grips with your vessel. You don’t want to damage/sink your home but then again you don’t want to lose control and damage anyone else’s either. You learn quickly though and things do go wrong, a lot. But that just makes you learn all the quicker. I redid all of my interior, I taught myself how to plumb, I installed a kitchen, I made cushions, replaced window glass and fitted new water pumps. There’s really nothing you can’t do yourself with a bit of internet research and friendly advice. The engine, however, I leave to the professionals.
What are the differences to living on land?
If you cruise like me you have to move every two weeks and cover a certain distance each year. I really enjoy this because it allows me to discover different parts of London and meet lots of new people. The community is very strong and friendly on the water. The main difference is water, electricity and the loo. You have a water tank which you need to refill from water points along the canal and river. The size of your tank defines how often this needs to happen, in my case about once a month. Electricity is finite so you have to figure out how many batteries will work for you for the things you want to power. Things like toasters, curling irons and hairdryers are a no-go area as they draw too much power too quickly. I thought I’d miss them but I don’t. I have four leisure batteries and two large solar panels, which for two thirds of the year provide me with enough power to use lights, charge phones and laptops free. In the deepest darkest winter months I may need to run the engine occasionally to charge the batteries up but you have gauges to let you know when this needs to be done. Also every time you move the engine charges the batteries as well.
Lastly, the loo. After considering all the options I decided to go for a composting loo. The other main options are a chemical toilet and a pump out loo. The chemical toilet needs to be emptied down a Elsan (big drain point with a hose that connects to the sewers that are located along the canal). These use a lot of chemicals, which I didn’t really want to do and stink something awful when you empty them. The pump out is the least labour intensive options as you just have what looks like a normal loo with a tank that you empty every few weeks. The downside with this is that you have to pay every time you want to empty it and once it’s full, it’s full and you have to move your boat to a pump out station. With a composting one there are no nasty chemicals involved and I take a biodegradable bin bag to the bin every month. No mess, no smell, no fuss. But it’s each to their own really.
Maintenance wise there is more to do than in a house, keeping an eye on your battery and water levels, marking sure you replace your gas canisters when they run out, in winter keeping an eye on your fuel levels for the stove and of course making sure you have enough diesel but this all becomes second nature once you’re up and running. Don’t get me wrong though, it is hard to get a handle on your boat. Having to move in the pouring rain or heavy winds, learning the art of keeping your stove lit 24 hours in the winter so you don’t wake up frozen. Trial and error is a big part of living on a boat and it’s not for the faint hearted.
Are there mooring rules? Are you only allowed to stay in one place for a set amount of time?
The mooring rules for a continuous cruiser mean you have to move every two weeks out of your kilometre area (there are online maps showing you the markers). You have to pay the Canals And River Trust for a license that is dependant on your boat size. Their wardens will keep an eye on your movements and if you don’t move often enough or far enough you can have your license revoked, which means you’re left with a boat you can’t put in the water. If you have a permanent mooring that’s a different kettle of fish. You don’t have to move and you’re hooked up to electricity and water so you don’t have to worry about that. However the mooring fees can often be astronomical, even as much as renting without the cost of the boat.
What’s are the best and worst things about living in a boat?
The worst thing about living on a boat is probably walking back down dark towpaths at night on your own and feeling worried about the security of your boat. Sadly central London can sometimes be as dangerous for crime as the outskirts. I’ve had people jump onto my boat in the night and, luckily, switching on the lights has been enough to scare them off but it can be frightening. You do toughen up though and moor with friends and a large proportion of the time you don’t even think about it. However, especially as a woman you do have to keep a check on these things, not be stupid and keep your friends on speed dial.
What advice would you have for someone who is thinking about buying a boat?
Do your research and be prepared to learn as you go. Also not being too hard on yourself is a big thing. You’re never going to know everything and as long as you ask for advice and learn as you go people are very willing to help. If you last on the water for six months then you’re one of us, but remember, we were all new once and know exactly what you’re going through. Also really think about the size of boat you want if you’re going to cruise. It’s all well and good wanting a huge wide beam but can you cruise that safely through the Islington tunnel? The waterways are busier than ever before so you might want to think about buying a boat you can moor easily too. Finding a mooring spot in central London is pretty easy for a 30ft narrow boat but not so simple for a 60ft widebeam. You have to move it as well as live in it. It’s a great life, the city, the countryside, the friends and cruising but it is hard work too.
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