Becoming self sufficient is something that’s at the heart of Shedlandia, and part of that carries over from the time Andrew spent living on a boat. This is the first in a series of articles looking at Andrew’s experiences of buying, renovating, and living on a boat.
In the early months of 2013, I decided to find a new place to live. The commute from my current home was taking too long, and I wanted to be more in control and self sufficient than my current location allowed. More than that, I wanted a place that I could call my own. I looked though the usual property listings, but couldn’t find anywhere that I could afford. With a limited income and no savings there was no chance that I would ever get a mortgage, and even modest rentals in bad areas were pushing my budget to the limit. I’d never really liked the idea of rental properties, anyway. The restrictions about what you can and can’t do to the internal structure and decoration of a rental property goes against my inner hacktivist. The words “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it” are always echoing inside my head and when it comes to property; if I can’t alter it, it isn’t my home.
I thought about all the alternatives to conventional housing, but they were all still outside my price range. A motor home or a caravan was impractical because I don’t drive, and even a tiny self built house would be too expensive once I factored in the cost of land and getting planning permission. A boat was a nice idea, but as canals had become more popular, the price of a boat still presented a significant obstacle. There was also the social aspect of becoming a boatie. I started wondering what my friends and family would think if I suddenly decided to announce my departure from the brick and mortar society and move into an off-grid ‘alternative’ home on the water.
“After the adrenaline rush associated with large purchases had worn off, I started to take stock of the situation. I’d just taken more money than I actually owned and sent it remotely to person I’d never met, to buy a boat that I’d never seen from a place I’d never been to.”
It turns out that I needn’t have worried about that at all. One night in early February, I was sitting with my dad in front of the TV. I was thinking about my housing predicament, and wasn’t really paying any attention to the programme he was watching. Out of the blue, my dad looked across at me and said “You know, you should think about living on a boat. It’s better than paying rent for something that you’ll never own. At least if you had a boat, you’d have something at the end of it when you’d finished paying for it.”
So began the initially disheartening search for a boat. I knew that I could secure a small loan from the bank, and I did so as soon as I could. I kept the money in my account in case a really good deal came along and I could leap into action. The problem was that no really good deals did come along. I searched the newspapers, the boating magazines, local brokers and boatyards, and even ebay. I spent hours looking though adverts for boats that were either too expensive, too long, too short, or too far gone to be useful. I organized my web browser to open the classified adverts and search automatically every time I started it up. I wrote a script in Python that notified me when a new boat was added to the listings of the major dealers. I waited for weeks for something suitable to come along.
Just as I was giving up hope, I spotted an advert on ebay. I didn’t find it through my automatic search program, or in my auto-opening browser tabs. I was looking on ebay at near midnight, and saw a new boat listed. It was rusty, but it was about the right length and the right price. It obviously needed work, but it ticked nearly all of the boxes for what I was looking for. The “buy it now” button loomed in front of me, but I choked. This was a big purchase for me. Could I really buy it sight unseen, and risk everything? No, I couldn’t. I should wait for morning and talk it over with someone in the warm light of day. Then I saw that someone had made an offer, and I panicked. I clicked the button, and I became the owner of more than just a boat. I owned a new home.
After the adrenaline rush associated with large purchases had worn off, I started to take stock of the situation. I’d just taken more money than I actually owned and sent it remotely to person I’d never met, to buy a boat that I’d never seen from a place I’d never actually been to. This was quite possibly the second most frightening and/or stupid thing that I’d ever done during the witching hour while wearing nothing but my underpants and a fedora. I had to get more information to settle the panic that I was starting to feel. I sent the seller a message, and when he didn’t reply in 30 seconds, I did what anyone else would do and decided to stalk him via social media. I found him on twitter, we eventually corresponded via Ebay and Facebook, and after several congenial chats we decided that neither of us was a serial killer planning an elaborate trap so we should probably exchange the keys and paperwork.
Cut to the day of the meeting. There were a few inches of snow on the ground, and there was a bitterly cold wind. It was late afternoon, and the light was fading fast. I had my brother with me for moral and technical support. We arrived at the marina in his car. The footbridge leading to the mooring was one big sheet of ice, and we slid, stumbled, and skidded our way down to find the boat and it’s former owner. The engine didn’t work. The battery plates were buckled. The deck was rotten. There were holes in the side of the hull. The windows leaked. The inside was bare plywood that was rotten in places, and there were plants growing out of the stairs. It was everything I was looking for, and it was the start of an adventure.
As much as I wanted to move aboard and start fixing things up right away, there were a few obstacles that needed to be removed first. Firstly, I didn’t have a mooring to take the boat to. Secondly, the winter bit down hard on England that year and the urban waterscape was almost entirely unnavigable. The bad weather continued for quite some time, and moving a boat through ice is a potentially dangerous business. I was also exceptionally busy at work, and most of the free time I had was wasted trying to get to the boat before night fell. Even when the snow turned to rain and the canal thawed, it was still going to be a difficult task to move the boat with a broken engine and no battery power. Luckily, my brother came to the rescue and arranged to tow the boat to a more accessible location where I would have access to some tools and electricity.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t accompany him on the first trip because of work commitments, and I was forced to sit at a desk doing mind numbing calculations while my brother took a turn around the wharf aboard my future home. On the day of the move he arrived at the moorings with a tug boat, and set about casting off the lines that had held my boat to the bank. Like a true waterways professional, his friend grabbed a towing line and attached it to the tug. The Copperfield was set freed from the bollards, and began to ease her way out of the moorings. At the last second, my brother hopped onto the rear deck and took hold of the tiller. With a wave of his hand, the tug boat throttled her engine. My brother took a step forward, straightened the rudder, and disappeared from view with surprising velocity. On reflection, I really should have stressed the point that the back deck was rotten when he agreed to move the boat. But if I had told him, the sport of bilge hole spelunking might never have been invented, and I wouldn’t have almost pulled a muscle from laughing when he told me what had happened. A short journey later and my new home was moored up again with shore power, workshop facilities, and a man shaped hole in the back deck.
The next weekend, I arrived at the boat with my parents and my brother. We were mob handed, gloved, and be-goggled. Our mission was to clear out all of the the superfluous fittings from the boat. Rubble sacks filled up with alarming speed, and the air was so thick with dust and mould that we had to stop and get masks before we could carry on. Mildewed bedding and a sodden mattress were hauled out of the front door, which promptly fell off it’s hinges. The bed frame went down next, with the sheets of good plywood and planking sorted into neat piles for reuse and for disposal. Any shelves and cupboards were stripped out and stored at the bow for refitting at a later date. The rotten wood was stripped out, and the kitchen work surfaces were removed. The sink and cooker were disconnected, and the whole boat was cleaned through; first with a heavy duty vacuum cleaner and then with scrubbing brushes, bleach, and a steam cleaner. The end result was as close to the proverbial clean slate as it was possible to get without removing plumbing and electrical wiring.
I knew that the electrical wiring would have to be tackled properly at some point in the future, but my initial thoughts were getting the boat close to liveable in as short a time as I could. The boat had been wired so that the engine and interior power were on separate batteries, which isn’t unusual for a narrowboat, and it’s a good wiring plan because it means that it’s not possible to accidentally run the engine battery flat by leaving something switched on inside the boat. However, I replaced the separate banks of broken batteries with a single large starter battery that connected the engine power and the internal circuits together. It wasn’t ideal, but it did allow me to get something working quickly, and meant that I could switch lights on when the daylight faded.
Every hour on the boat brought another challenge, and every problem got added to the list and solved in order of importance. In the space of a few days, bare wooden floors and walls were covered in lino and carpet. A folding bed came in. The front door was patched up with tape, and I started to make a replacement in the workshop at home. The water pump was reconnected. Two kitchen cabinets were purchased and assembled, and then the gods of eBay smiled upon me once more. I found a local supplier with very cheap sheets of beech faced 16mm MDF. I eventually used this wood throughout the boat, but to begin with I used it to build a new kitchen. Dad found some cupboard doors for the kitchen cabinets. Things were looking up, and the boat was almost in a liveable state. I finally got to spend a night aboard, and I didn’t mind that the bed was uncomfortable and I was almost frozen. Sleeping on board meant that I’d claimed my spot. It was going to work out fine, even if there was still a lot to do.