In the second of a series of features exploring Emma and Saxon’s journey to live a freer, more eco-friendly lifestyle on a narrowboat, they get to grips with the costs of their proposed new venture, experience their first taste of life on the UK’s canals and commit to a decision which will change their lives.
Pursuing the Dream
Sick of paying over-inflated rent on their Manchester flat, a fresh life on a narrowboat beckoned for Emma Davies and her fiancé Saxon Bullock. By 2014, the couple had made up their minds to pursue their vision, but a multitude of unanswered questions stood between this fledgling aspiration and making it a reality.
“We’d started exploring Manchester’s canals,” Saxon says. “I’d lived in the city for six years, yet I’d never really ventured along its towpaths before.” “Manchester is so busy, loud and overwhelming,” Emma adds, “but as we walked by the water, suddenly it was incredibly quiet and tranquil.” Saxon describes the canal paths as, “a separate world that threads between everything in the city.” The allure of this alternative world was undeniable, but Emma and Saxon realised that before they embarked on their plan, they needed to nail down the costs.
How Much Does it Really Cost?
“We already knew that residential mooring fees were around £300 a month,” Emma says. However, as continuous cruisers, moving on every two weeks, these fees wouldn’t apply and nor would council tax. “We wanted to live on a boat, not in a marina,” Saxon adds. “The attraction for us was that we could go anywhere, at any time.”
“We were looking at £1000 a year for a boat licence, upwards of £300 per year for insurance and an additional charge every few years to haul the boat out of the water to paint its underside,” Emma says. Referred to as blacking, this practice is crucial to prevent rusting.
Day-to-day running costs were minimal, including £30 every three months for a gas bottle and £10 for a bag of coal. “In winter, we calculated that we’d need two bags per week,” Emma says. “However, in summer, we’d be free of this expense, plus it’s possible to scavenge a lot of wood from the towpath – some people are able to do without coal altogether. I’m hoping we can be fairly eco-minded and mostly use wood. Through installing solar panels on the boat’s roof we’ll get free electricity and water is included in the boat licence, with water points all along the canals.” Diesel costs 70p to £1 per litre, which translates to one hour’s travel, or approximately three miles. “You only need to travel a few miles every couple of weeks to comply with the licence terms, so diesel might cost as little as £2-3 per fortnight. It really depends on how far you want to travel!”
Then, of course, there was the cost of the boat itself …
Image Credit: Flickr, Jim McConnell
Exploring the Options
There were three options – a brand new, fitted out boat, a second hand boat or a shell, otherwise known as a sailaway. With fully fitted narrowboats commanding six figure fees, option one was immediately ruled out.
“We went to the Crick Boat Show, visited several marinas and did endless research online,” Emma tells me. “We worked out that if we scraped together all our savings we’d have 20k, which would enable us to buy a second hand narrowboat outright at the very bottom end of the price bracket.” But, after checking out a large number of pre-used boats, they decided against this. “Pretty much the only ones we saw that we could even remotely imagine ourselves living comfortably on were well over 50k,” Saxon says. The cheapest boat they viewed stands out in Emma’s memory – “We nicknamed it the ‘death boat’ – the floor was so spongy and creaky!”
“With old boats, you inherit all the choices from its previous owners,” Saxon says. “By the time we’d gutted one and spent money renovating it to suit our needs, we realised we’d be better off buying a sailaway, which costs between 20k and 50k.”
For that price, Emma says, “you get a fully functioning boat with an engine, a hull, doors and windows. Inside, there’s spray foam insulation, ballasts and batons you can use to attach walls.” Making the boat liveable would be a challenging project, but a lot appealed about starting from scratch. “As freelancers, it’s vital that we both have an area to work in. Most pre-built boats aren’t conducive to this layout – they’re designed for retired people.”
Make Sure You’re Connected
You might think that remote working goes hand in hand with a nomadic life on a narrowboat. To an extent this is true, but two key considerations were playing on Saxon’s mind – firstly, access to postal services. “As a proofreader, I receive and submit my manuscripts by post,” he says. “Post-forwarding setups aren’t quite as straightforward as I’d imagined, but the way that publishing’s going, there’s a certain amount I can do electronically instead.” Which of course leads to the second issue – a reliable Wi-Fi connection. “Initially, we thought we’d have to budget for costly satellite Internet, but 4G is so good now,” Emma says. “With a wireless hotspot device, it’s possible to get a good signal in most areas. If we go down the route of getting 50GB of data per month, we should be able to stream a bit of Netflix too!”
Image Credit: Flickr, Neil Washbrook
In at the Deep End
With their plan coming together, Emma and Saxon decided it was time to test the waters with a weeklong boating holiday on the Macclesfield and Peak Forest canals. Besides a fleeting attempt to steer a small narrowboat, they were complete novices. Emma describes the nerve-wracking moment when she realised how much responsibility lay in their hands. “We thought we would at least have someone spend ten minutes with us, showing us the ropes. But no, it was just: this is how you switch it on, this is how it steers, go!”
“Because of the way the rudder operates, you steer from behind, in a different direction from the one you actually want to go in,” Saxon says. “The minute it starts getting close, you have to steer back to other way to straighten it out. The trip was a steep learning curve, with intense, eight hour days – it wasn’t the most relaxing of holidays!”
In spite of this, their taster of a life on the canals spurred them on, and by August 2015, a loan provided by Emma’s dad put them in an invaluable position – finally, they were ready to place their order for a sailaway.
Sailaway, Sailaway, Sailaway …
Emma and Saxon by no means selected the cheapest option, but the one they felt would be most cost-effective. “It was important to us to choose a boat builder with a strong reputation, because a quality boat will retain its value for far longer,” Emma says. After much investigation, they commissioned a sailaway from Tyler Wilson in Sheffield. “The guys really impressed us,” says Saxon. “They were solid, reliable and really knew what they were talking about.”
“One thing we were acutely aware of is that there’s no real insurance for people having a boat built and companies can go bust and take your money with them,” Emma tells me. “Tyler Wilson, however, only required a £500 deposit upfront and the remainder on completion – they were far less of a risk.”
So, with a concrete commitment to the boat, Emma and Saxon eagerly awaited its completion. In the meantime, there was no sitting back – what skills must they master to transform their shell into a home? How many of their belongings would they need to part with in order not to sink the boat? And, with myriad possibilities, how the heck would they settle on a name for their craft?