Love or loathe DIY, if you want to turn your husk of a boat into a home and you’re on a tight budget, there’s no way of avoiding it. In the third of a series of features chartering aspiring narrowboaters Emma and Saxon’s dream to pursue a more flexible, freer life on the UK’s canals, we take a look at the nuts and bolts of doing it yourself.
Picture your future home suspended in the air by a crane, your treasured investment hanging in the balance. In January 2016, this scenario became a reality for Emma Davies and her fiancé Saxon Bullock, who filmed their brand new 20 ton narrowboat as it was lowered onto the back of a trailer in Redhill Marina, Nottinghamshire. “Seeing it dangling mid-air was so scary!” Emma tells me. As the trailer reversed into the River Soar and the boat grazed the water, slowly settling on its surface, relief washed over the couple – followed by excitement and trepidation for what lay ahead.
Of course, what ensued wasn’t straightforward. “In order to begin fitting out our boat, we first had to transport it thirteen miles to Colwick Marina on the River Trent, closer to our rented flat.” Saxon explains. However, there was a snag – the starter battery was missing. “Without it, we were going nowhere,” Emma sighs. Fortunately, their boat builder Tyler Wilson was able to arrange a swift replacement, but the mystery of what happened to the original battery has never been solved – Emma and Saxon can’t dismiss the possibility that it was stolen from the boat builder’s yard.
It wasn’t long before the boat delivered yet another surprise – when Saxon uploaded the video of its launch to their YouTube Channel, traffic soared. “The channel began when we embarked on our first narrowboat holiday in the summer of 2015,” Saxon says. “I’d done a Media Production degree back in the nineties, but hadn’t used those skills for years. Now, with an SD camera and editing software available to me, I reckoned it would be a fun challenge to document our journey. We filmed a rough, shambolic account of our week away and a handful more videos in which we discussed the boat’s progress and visited the builder’s yard – we really only thought they would be of interest to friends and family.” But something unpredictable was happening – “The more videos we shared, the more attention we received from viewers whose names we didn’t recognise, and when we posted the clip of the boat’s arrival, our subscribers doubled, to over 1000. I thought – where are all these people coming from? It’s freaking me out! Maybe I need to make these videos a tad more professional!”
“Our channel was attracting subscribers from all over the world,” Emma says. “It seemed that many of them were watching vicariously because it was their dream to live on a narrowboat too.” The couple decided on a new approach for subsequent uploads, incorporating a clearer structure, music and significantly more editing. “The audience was evidently there – we wanted to document the fit out of our boat in a way that would engage them.”
With the boat moored safely in Colwick, the real work could begin. Known as a sailaway, their craft was little more than a waterproof shell, requiring significant transformation to make it liveable. “There are so many complicated DIY processes involved in turning a bare sailaway into a home, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed,” Emma says. Thankfully, her dad – a boating enthusiast and dab hand at DIY – lives a stone’s throw from Colwick Marina and was willing show them to ropes.
The spring and summer of 2016 proved staggeringly busy as Emma and Saxon strove to master numerous skills. “Having the boat was fantastic, but nothing could have prepared us for the impact of going from zero to sixty in terms of DIY,” Saxon says. “Everywhere there were jobs to be done, elements of the process that need sorting. If we’d thought about it too much, we’d have ended up panicking our heads off, so we tried to take things one step at a time.”
Pressing jobs included laying floor insulation, fitting electrics, installing plumbing, finalising the internal configuration of the boat and painting it externally, all of which Emma and Saxon have charted through videos and posts on their blog, which accompanies their YouTube Channel.
Shaping the Shell
“We’d put a huge amount of thought into our ideal internal layout before we’d even ordered the boat,” Emma says. “Some things weren’t negotiable, such as placing the stove on the port side, to reduce risk of the chimney being knocked off by passing trees on the starboard side.” However, many aspects were customisable, and climbing aboard the boat armed with rolls of masking tape proved exciting – at last they were enable to mark out the living areas they had long envisaged, tweaking the finer details in sympathy with the build.
“Saxon and I are both bed people, so a 4ft bed common in many narrowboats wasn’t going to suit our needs,” she says. “This was one of the reasons why we opted for an enclosed bow, with a bed across its full width. Also, if we needed to get up in the night, this meant we wouldn’t be clambering over each other – we could simply slide off the end.”
Comfort was a key consideration, with space allocated for a Japanese soak tub and a washing machine. An office nook for self-employed proofreader Saxon was also essential, with a separate space for fellow freelancer Emma to work in the kitchenette. A sofa opposite the stove would provide a third seating area. “We chose this to give us a great toasty spot in the colder months, with maximum lounging possibilities,” Emma says.
At 6ft 2 ½, Saxon was well aware that once the flooring and interior ceiling were fitted, only three inches of headroom would remain. “I grew up in a Cornish cottage, so thankfully I wasn’t fazed,” he laughs.
When it came to wiring the boat, the couple knew that thorough preparation was vital. “There was so much information available online, but gathering accurate, up-to-date guidance was a challenge,” Emma says. “In an ideal world, it would have been great to get a professional in to do the wiring for us, but this wasn’t an option, due to the expense,” Saxon adds. Cue months of scouring websites for formulas and doing calculations. “I was lost in a world of numbers,” Emma says, referring to the time she spent working on what Saxon named The Spreadsheet of Doom. “If you’ve ever seen the movie A Beautiful Mind, it was a bit like that,” he explains. However, thanks to their considerable research, the practical task of installing the electrics took just one week.
Watching paint dry has never been the most thrilling concept, but imagine the laborious task of having to cover a 60ft craft with no fewer than two coats of primer, two of undercoat and two of topcoat. “Not only that, but you’re supposed to sand the entire surface between each coat!” Saxon says. To try their patience further, the pair found themselves at the mercy of unpredictable weather. “We were grateful to leave the bitterly cold winter behind,” Emma says. “But just because it was growing warmer and staying light for longer, this didn’t always grant us optimal painting conditions.” If it wasn’t raining, it was often too hot. “It turned out that painting a metal craft in blazing sunlight was impossible,” she adds. “I’d never painted anything outdoors before, so I hadn’t appreciated how much quicker things would dry,” Saxon says. “Attempting to apply the thin primer on windy days was a nightmare – it blew everywhere.”
A more enjoyable aspect of painting has been choosing a colour scheme. “At the moment, we’re leaning towards rustic red, black and ivory for the topcoat, but this may evolve as we progress,” Emma tells me. “A classic black bow seemed the obvious choice at first, but this means our bedroom will get really hot in summer. As yet, we’re undecided.”
One facet of the boat’s identity, however, has been firmly in place since the early planning stages – its name. “There were a lot of boats called Dragonfly and Kingfisher, but we wanted something a bit different,” Emma says. “On the other hand, we didn’t want to go too obscure,” Saxon counters. “I have an unusual name myself and I end up having to explain it to virtually everyone I meet at some point – I wanted a name for the boat which didn’t invite too many questions.” Saxon mentions a boat’s name which he describes as seared into his brain – “Lord Byron’s Maggot. What on earth is that all about?!”
Then came the multitude of pun-inspired names. “We saw one boat called The Wee Blewitt and another named Weary Tired,” Saxon says. “Bless you, have fun with your puns, but they’re not for us. We questioned how weird to go, how personal. We wanted a name that expressed something about us and our love of Sci-Fi.” For a while, they contemplated using the artificially intelligent ships in Iain Banks’ Culture novels as inspiration. “Their names were epic, but upon reflection, we might have struggled to fit Anticipation of a New Lover’s Arrival on the side of the boat! We toyed with Mostly Harmless as a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference, but we couldn’t ignore the slight hint of malice – come aboard my boat, it’s fine … mostly!” Saxon jokes.
That was when Zero Gravity came into play. “Not only is it a spacey reference, it works as a metaphor for freedom and floating,” Emma says. “It has a nice sound to it and both of us could picture the name written on the side of our boat.” From this point, everything flowed, with Saxon inspired to set up the blog and call it Adventures in Zero Gravity.
By autumn 2016, Emma and Saxon’s DIY endeavours were taking shape, and subscription to their YouTube Channel was continuing to grow, with a mix of curious would-be boaters and more seasoned explorers keen to share their insight, opinions and encouragement. Now, with a spotlight on their plans, it felt more imperative than ever to forge ahead, but little did they know, a significant setback lay around the bend …