Living aboard: tips, advice, and I-wish-I’d-known-that-before…

Things to think about really seriously before you move aboard

Lots of people are considering living aboard because of the housing market, and other reasons of course, but the cost of renting is quite a significant factor for lots of people. However, boating isn’t without issues. There are several things to consider before you take the plunge- here are the ones I think have the biggest impact:

a) Space: You won’t have anything like as much space as you’re used to. Get rid of all but the essentials (this is an ongoing struggle for us). You won’t be able to invite people over for a meal or to stay, unless it’s a sunny day or unless you have a very specific setup/a BIG boat.

b) Effort: living aboard is more effort. You have to fill the water tank regularly, which impacts on how you use water. You have to consider what happens to your waste when you use the toilet, in a way you don’t have to when you live on shore. Power is another thing to think about. Do you like films? How much power does your flat-screen TV draw- how long can your batteries sustain it? Do you iron your clothes, or straighten your hair? TVs and things that heat up are the biggest drain on batteries. It’s also more work if you have lots of stuff, because the cramped space means it’s harder to access things (again, I speak from experience!). You have to stoop or crouch more often, you have to balance along the gunwhales, you have to learn knots and still be willing to boat even in poor weather. You’ll have to walk from your car to the boat, and get anything you need aboard that way, too (see ‘essential kit- trolleys’). Living aboard is a step up from camping; but it’s much harder than living in a house.

c) Maintenance and money. Be prepared to save less than you think you will living aboard, and have less spare time, because there’s always something that needs doing. From routine things like treating rust patches as they pop up, to unseen disasters like your water tank leaking all along the length of your boat… and the bigger routine costs, like blacking, surveying (older vessels), painting, and licencing and/or mooring fees.

c) Spiders. They will live with you, they will make a mess, and they will try to take over. There seems to be no way of stopping them doing this relentlessly from March to October.


Other stuff

  1. Toilets- the whats, whys and wherefores of that most essential piece of kit…
  2. Other essential kit to have on your boat

1. Toilets

Not the most polite-society topic of conversation, but a common one among the boating community. This is because, as with any off-grid living setup, you can’t just go, flush, and forget about what you’ve done 🙂

There are three main types of loo found on boats, and each of them have significant advantages and disadvantages over the others. When I was boat-hunting I didn’t know enough about either cassette or pump-out (which are the commonest by far) to make the type of loo a deal-breaker for me. If you’re weighing up life on board, this might help you to make up your mind either way.

  • Pump-out toilet: This is where you have a loo that looks quite like a normal one (well, mine did, anyway). It is connected to your water supply and works in a similar way to a mains toilet, in that the waste is flushed through. It goes into a holding tank (usually sited under the main fixed double bed!) which you then have to empty every so often (depending on how many people are using it, how often, and the size of your tank). Ours is a macerator loo, which breaks up the paper and *ahem* solid items so that they fit through the quite narrow pipes. It has three flush functions- ’empty’, where no water is used; ‘eco’ and ‘normal’. ‘Normal’ is the most effective but uses the most water (filling the tank faster, too) and the most battery power (for the macerator).
    • Pros:
      • Only needs emptying monthly or so, probably- if you’re using it full time
      • As near to ‘normal’ as you can get, so easy for visitors to cope with
      • Looks tidy
    • Cons:
      • Pump-outs cost £15 a time. We had a machine and a hose on the boat when I bought it, so we could do it ourselves, but I shied away from that, thinking that quite frankly a mistake using that kit could be very unpleasant for an awful lot of people!
      • Moving the boat to the pump-out isn’t always convenient and you have to block out time to do it. It might be tricky during winter, when it’s windy and difficult to manoeuvre the boat.
      • You’re dependent upon facilities being available and functioning.
      • When full, or if the macerator is blocked or a valve loose, it can be smelly. I keep a scented candle in the toilet for times like these…
  • Cassette toilet: most people have two cassettes, which are containers to collect everything that goes into your loo. You have one in place and one ready to swap in when the first one is full. You have to empty the full cassette into an Elsan point and they generally fill up within a couple of days. The toilet itself looks a little strange to people unfamiliar with the Porta Potti sort of kit, and you flush it with a handle on the side.
    • Pros:
      • No space used for a tank
      • Free to empty
      • You don’t have to move the boat to empty it (though you have to carry the cassette which could be heavy)
      • You’re not storing your waste onboard- some people hate the thought of that.
    • Cons:
      • Needs emptying every couple of days.
      • Needs access to functioning Elsan point.
      • Can get smelly when full.
      • Uses a lot of chemicals.
  • Composting toilet: This one probably raises the most eyebrows among mainstream thinkers, but it’s the one I’ve opted for (and am VERY excited about). Basically you have to separate the liquids from the solids, which promotes a different kind of bacterial breakdown which doesn’t smell. We will have two buckets for solid waste and two bottles for liquids. Solids are mixed with a drying material, like sawdust or wood-ash (but not ash from coal or anthracite because these are toxic to the composting organisms). The separator directs each product into the correct place and you then empty accordingly. The liquids are straightforward- as long as you respect the rules about distance from a waterway (>10m) you can pour under the hedge and dilute heavily. Solids stay in the (lidded) bucket for several months, after which they are broken down and reduced in volume by about half. Then you add it to a compost heap and some short time later, you have compost. I imagine most people would use it as a soil enricher around their non-edible plants.
    • Pros:
      • No reliance on any external facilities- you are in control of the waste throughout the process
      • No chemicals used
      • No water wasted (using potable water, as we do, to flush sewage seems very extravagant)
      • Almost zero cost (I buy hamster bedding but anyone sawing logs or with access to sawdust can get that free, too)
      • Potential to produce decent compost for my pots and all for free!
    • Cons:
      • We can fill our bucket more quickly than we banked on if we over-use sawdust. (Ideally, the rotation will work in terms of decomposition so I’ll be at the point of emptying bucket 1 by the time bucket 2 is full.)
      • The labour involved in making the compost heap and using the compost!
      • When we’re full-time on the boat, the bucket lasts around a fortnight to three weeks. We are using family cloth to reduce the additional mass in the bucket so another con is the laundry needed for that. (I soak in Milton, then wash at 60 degrees, just like I used to do when Boat Girl was in cloth nappies.)

ETA- three weeks into composting loo ownership I can confirm that it doesn’t smell, it’s easy to clean, and so far I see no reason to regret my choice. In addition, ours looks very swish on the outside and has a glittery interior. It’s like being a unicorn!

A composting loo fit for a unicorn to use

When I first started looking at boats, I’d often have driven a long way and need the loo and on the tow path, having no other option, I would simply ask (as you do) the boat owner if I could use theirs. I had no idea that it was such a no-no, or why! Hopefully you will be better informed than me and understand why boaters are reluctant to let other people use their loo 😉

Toilet is from Kildwick Crafts and I can 100% recommend them. Colin and Maria are also very happy to answer any questions, and very knowledgeable and experienced as well.


2. Kit to have on the boat

  • A trolley. You can get some great collapsible ones which are nonetheless very sturdy- friends on NB Ripple got theirs for £30 from Aldi, because the box was dented, but most of them come in at around £80-100 in camping shops. I got mine at Attwoolls- its official name is “Alf” but for some reason Boat Girl and I call it Jeremy Trolley. (No, we don’t usually name our inanimate objects.) It’s a real necessity. What’s a short walk when you’re empty-handed can feel like a Very Long Way when you’re carrying gas bottles, logs, shopping, or other heavy items.
  • A bike. You need to go back and get the car (or go back and get the boat) when you move, so a bike is useful for longer distances or time pressures. Lots of people have folding ones, but mine’s a mountain bike from Halfords because I thought that would be more useful on the towpath. Getting it in the car can be a struggle but it does go in, and it’s totally worth having.
  • Boots. You can generally count on it being ten degrees colder on the water, and while flip-flops are fine in the summer, a good pair of boots are indispensable for wet or cool weather. My current pair are DM Triumphs that I was given years ago, and rarely wore; they’ve come into their own. I also have some Dublin River Boots which are as waterproof as wellies, and which are good for long grass and mud. I’ve had loads of wellies, but the only pair which lasted more than a few months were my Croc ones and the disadvantage to them was the lack of grippiness in mud. Most wellies seem to split on the ankle or foot seam (invisibly, and you only find out when you’re wading through a stream or a puddle and your foot is suddenly soggy…) after only a few wears, so until the boots I have stop being waterproof I won’t buy more wellies.
  • A fire pit. You can get a ‘proper’ one or use a metal container, but it’s lovely to have for parties and barbecues, for keeping warm, toasting marshmallows, and creating ambience 🙂
  • Solar panels. I would totally advise anyone to get a set. Ours are built into a roofbox, following the principle of anything on the boat having a dual purpose, and even in cloudy weather they keep the batteries topped up (and I have a 240V fridge, still). They struggle once we get to the end of October, but from March to September they’re brilliant, and I only run the engine to heat the water.

    Our solar panels (at probably their least effective time of the year) on their roof box. We have 2x 100W panels which top up the four leisure batteries.