Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. I like to remind myself of that every time I mess up. Which is often.
I’d like to start by saying that up until this point in my life I’d lived in more “traditional” homes, connected to all mains services (and paying a hefty price for the convenience) so what happened next in my carefree life on the ocean waves was due solely to inexperience. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I woke up one bright sunny day a couple of weeks after moving on board and was surprised at what came out of the tap when I went to fill the kettle: nothing. The water tank was empty. I know this shouldn’t have been a surprise but it hadn’t occurred to me that things would actually run out if you weren’t connected to the mains, my whole life I’d just turned on a tap and water would come out. No problem, I’d run the boat down to the water point and fill up, I didn’t have to leave until about 1pm as I was on a late shift. Now moving a boat isn’t quite the same as jumping in your car to nip down to the shops. First you have to stow things away that might get broken (with the vibration from the engine, movement on the water and, erm, hitting the bank too hard, which is why I already knew all about things getting broken) so plates, cups, glasses etc have to be put in cupboards and those cupboards secured. Next are engine preparations which vary from boat to boat but for mine were something like: unlock engine room, turn on sea cock (for engine cooling), pump some grease into the stern tube, switch on engine electrics, hold down pre-heaters for 30 seconds, push engine start switch and… nothing. After two weeks of running lights at night, pumping water to the taps & shower, watching a bit of TV etc there wasn’t enough power in the battery to start the 2.2 litre diesel engine that would propel me smoothly to the water point to get my early morning cup of tea. So, switch off engine electrics, then the boat electrics, then the sea cock, connect the battery charger and fire up the generator for a few hours in order to get enough charge in the battery to start the engine. By which time it was 1pm and I had to go to work, so no time to get the boat to the water point. I hadn’t gone thirsty as I just walked there with an old milk container while the battery was charging but it showed me that life not connected to mains services was going to take some thought and some planning ahead if I wanted to avoid running out of water, gas or electricity and to be free from the sort of “cascade failure” I’d just experienced. Of course this type of thinking ahead and careful planning is as relevant to our preps at home as it is to living an “alternative” lifestyle so I guess this slight upset in my day taught me a valuable lesson for life post-boating.
Nowadays the electricity situation would be far easier to manage, with LED lighting and solar panels meaning that a small boat could be pretty much self sufficient. Add on a small wind generator and you could probably have an uninterrupted supply for careful use year round. Other things available nowadays that we didn’t have 25 years ago include 12 volt compressor fridges, LCD TVs, 12 volt DVD players, laptop computers connected to the internet via the mobile phone network and, of course, mobile phones that actually work efficiently. So even if you demand all the “necessities” of modern life you can still have them on a boat, although you’d need a pretty good battery and charging system to keep everything running.
For me though, living off grid on a narrowboat is more about NOT needing all those attention seeking, mind numbing gadgets (although a mobile phone could be a lifesaver). Waking up to the gentle rocking of the water, ducks and swans swimming past the windows, the sun arcing across the sky as the day progresses, the slow changing of the seasons… living in a confined space meant for me that as soon as the weather permitted I’d be out on deck for as many hours as possible: there wasn’t that conscious decision you make to go and sit out in the garden, living on my boat the back deck was just a natural extension of my living area and those five years were spent closer to nature than any other part of my life. All the comforts of home but with the natural world knocking on the back door, which was left open as often as possible. You can also be as sociable or as unsociable as you like: when I wanted some solitude I’d just go off and moor somewhere quiet, when I wanted company I’d moor in a busier area. At the marina where I spent the first summer on board there were anglers who were always pleased to chat. After the marina closed I based myself on British Waterways moorings and there was always someone to pass the time of day with, other boaters coming and going, workmen who were only too happy to stop what they should have been doing and have a cup of tea, and of course the community that made up the other permanent residents on the water.
So my life on board continued happily, summer turned to autumn, and then winter set in exposing a far more serious flaw in my preparations than having to walk to the water point before I could get a cup of tea…
More to come in Pt 3