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The Joys (and Realities) of Downsizing and Living on a Canal Boat

Imagine sipping a gin and tonic surrounded by nature, quacking ducks and the gentle gurgle of water lapping against your boat.

Have you ever felt the tension drain when you’re near water? And the smartest way to a waterside view is by living on a canal boat.

Liveaboard lifestyle, especially on a canal boat, makes you appear interesting and maybe even a bit quirky. People are always curious about your liveaboard lifestyle. After all, why would someone choose to give up most of their belongings and live on a boat?

Well, I believe mental wellbeing and nature are linked. So when I wanted to rid myself of a stressful real estate job, I decided to follow my passion and write. But I also needed the perfect environment to be close to nature, with a change of scenery when I got bored. In addition, it was important to me to create less impact on the planet’s resources.

This is what led me to living on a canal boat here in the UK. But while canal boating is typically a European liveaboard option, there are also canals in America in places like New York, Buffalo, Cleveland and Indiana. (Not to mention numerous other places to live aboard in the United States.) Stateside, however, liveaboard choose sailboats, catamarans and houseboats. There are even liveaboard trawlers.

Want to know more? I’ll give you a flavor of my canal boat liveaboard lifestyle and the practical realities to consider.

The Joys (and Realities) of Downsizing and Living on a Canal Boat

The Cost of Living on a Canal Boat

While waterside properties are expensive, I can still have a waterfront view for a fraction of the cost.

The cost was a huge factor in giving up bricks and mortar for life on the water. If I wanted the lifestyle, I needed to make drastic changes.

Fun fact: It costs over $25,000 annually to run the average UK household, which includes bills, utilities and keeping the car fueled. (I could go on, but you get the picture.) Now, let’s compare it to the cost of living on a canal boat.

My canal boat’s yearly running costs are around $9,300, creating savings of $15,700. Imagine the freedom that reduction could bring.

Here are my most significant expenses:

  • Canal license: My boat is a 65 ft × 11 ft wide beam, so I pay a higher amount at $1,300.
  • Fuel: It depends on how much you travel. With a 95-gallon tank, my yearly diesel costs are about $1,000.
  • Blacking: This is a thick bitumen coating applied to the steel hull’s underside, which protects against corrosion while in the water. Every three years, it needs to be reapplied, costing $1,200.
  • Boat Lift: To apply the blacking (and for any other reason you might need to lift a boat), expect to add another $1,000.
  • Marina fees: The average yearly marina fee is $8,000.

There are other costs, for example, like gas for cooking and boat safety certificates. But the whole lot tops out at an annual average of $17,300.

Wait! That’s not cheap.

But here’s where the costs dramatically drop: In the UK, a canal license allows continuous cruising, which means you have no home mooring. Instead, you can travel a minimum of 34 kilometers/21 miles a year on the canals.

It’s called bona fide travel. Moorings are readily available on the canal side and you can stay (for free) for two weeks at a time.

living on a canal boat

Heating on a Canal Boat

It gets cold living on a canal boat, right? Wrong!

living on a canal boat

I have a Webasto 9kW diesel-fired central heating system (Check Price on Amazon), which heats three double radiators and rips through the cold in thirty minutes. In addition, I have a Morso Squirrel multi-fuel burner, adding a cozy glow and keeping the temperature at a steady 24°C/75°F. I even have hot water, heated by the engine when I’m cruising, and an immersion heater on the control panel for when plugged into the mains.

What makes this heat retention possible? Insulation is key.

Modern canal boats are sprayed with a Polyurethane (PU) foam to stop condensation and retain heat.

I moved onboard in late November 2017 at the start of the coldest winter for ten years in the UK. We had the “Beast from the East” twice with temperatures plummeted to minus -8°C/17°F. I consider it a baptism of fire into the boating world. Okay, readers in North America will be choking on their burgers at this pathetic temperature, but here the winters aren’t as harsh.

The point is, I stayed warm.

Managing Power on a Canal Boat

A wise man once told me, “You never sort your power issues on a boat; you learn to manage them better.” He was right.

Unlike a house—and this is the first downside of living on a boat—power is finite. It only lasts as long as batteries hold a charge. And if you live in a house and are thinking of living on a canal boat, this does seem like a downside. But what if I said you probably use too much power? What if I said, like me, you’re probably wasteful when it comes to electricity and other resources.

Living on a canal boat teaches one to be more considerate about power consumption. Do I need to leave the TV on standby? Can the fridge be turned to its lowest setting to save energy? Are my lights LED? Remember, I wanted to have less impact on the planet and it’s these small considerations that make a huge difference when managing power on a canal boat.

living on a canal boat

By running a 70HP Yanmar engine (Check Price on Amazon), I charge my three Victron 220amp/hr batteries, which provides all the electricity. Solar panels are also an energy-conserving option.

It’s hard truth time. You’ll become a slave to the dials and meters. During the first six months on board, I checked the voltmeter, wastewater meter and freshwater meter twenty times daily. The dials and meters controlled me, restricting when I switched on the TV or the washing machine. But then you’ll learn to relax. As long as the voltmeter reads 12.15v in the morning, it’s okay.

living on a canal boat

My Victron batteries are AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) deep cycle batteries, so I needn’t have worried. I can discharge to eighty percent, unlike standard lead-acid batteries that shouldn’t drain below fifty percent.

I also have a Victron 3000W inverter charger (Check Price on Amazon), which manages power and enables me to run the fridge and other appliances.

Getting Rid of Waste on a Canal Boat

“Put enough monkeys in a room with a typewriter and eventually they’ll produce Shakespeare.” You’ve heard of the “Infinite Monkey Theorem,” right?

Well, if you put enough canal boaters in a room, they’ll eventually talk about toilets. That’s the “Infinite Canal Boater Theorem.”

The least attractive aspect of living on a canal boat is disposing of human waste. For ease of use, composting toilets are the way to go.

I have a Vetus electric pump-out toilet with a 335-liter holding tank located under the bed. Under the bed! (I can hear screams of disgust.)

But the tank doesn’t smell and I never handle the waste! Instead, by mooring canal side near a pump-out facility, I simply plug it in and the machine does the rest. While completely hands-free, it does highlight a reality of the canal boat liveaboard lifestyle.

living on a canal boat

Cooking Meals on a Canal Boat

Some people ask me how I cook on a boat, and my answer is: “Same as you.”

I have a four-burner gas hob and gas oven. I even have an extractor fan above the hob. I have two 13-kg propane gas bottles stored in a gas locker at the front of the boat, safely away from danger.

The two gas bottles cost $76 and last up to five months. It’s nothing compared to fuel cost.

Drinking Water on a Canal Boat

Water is the elixir of life. We all need it. But how is it managed on a canal boat?

It’s simple: Take a long hose (preferably one of food-grade quality), screw onto a tap and turn on. There are freshwater taps along canal sides and inside marinas. My canal boat carries a 190-gallon tank, which lasts almost a month between refills.

Storage Space for Stuff

When I decided to move onto a boat, I had to downsize from a four-bedroom, three-story house. Can you imagine the stuff sold or given away? But guess what? It’s like shedding old skin. I didn’t need all that materialistic junk anyway. And I still don’t.

Boats are designed by people who know how to squeeze maximum value from minimum space, which is what they’ve done with my boat. Trust me—storage is not an issue. There are many ingenious ways boaters maximize a boat’s storage space.

Still Interested in Living on a Canal Boat?

There are everyday challenges you have to face when living on a canal boat. Perhaps you decide you’re too comfortable in your home to make the change. I hope not.

For all the romance that drew me to this lifestyle, living on a canal boat does require a degree of practicality. I have to accept the limitations to what a canal boat can offer. Space, limited water, removing waste products, maintenance, security, limited power; these are just the things that come to mind quickly. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. We have one life and it’s about what we want to do, not what I have to do to pay the bills.

Relax and soak up the sunshine as the memory of the rat-race gently melts away.

Would I recommend it? Wholeheartedly.

Now, where’s my gin and tonic?