The lure of life on a London boat

Spend time with people who live on boats, and they start to reveal their peculiar obsessions. In winter, they compare brands of smokeless coal and post dispatches on Facebook on the joys of chopping firewood by hand. In summer, they swap advice about how to get rid of ants humanely.

London’s “boaters” — as they are known — love to remark on how crowded the waterways are compared with two, 10 or 20 years ago (the timeline begins whenever they moved off land). Towpath crime rates and the gender politics behind feminine names for vessels are dependable subjects. Then there is the great lavatory debate: are compost loos really odourless? What is the best way to help the process along? Coffee grounds, sawdust or peat?

To outsiders, life on boats appears to be tedious and hard work — a recourse for people with an affinity for power tools and activist-types with quixotic ideas about green living. Yet with an estimated 15,000 people in the UK living on boats, there must be advantages.

In London, the number of registered houseboats has more than doubled since 2012 to almost 5,000 now, according to the Canal River Trust and the Inland Waterways Association, which also predict growth of 35-52 per cent by 2022. Many new boaters have been priced out of the capital’s housing market on to the waterways. But there is a subset of people who have made an informed choice — and they have no intention of returning to land.

The Chapman-Andrews’ boat © Brian Doherty/FT

Anna Chapman-Andrews, who works in marketing, first considered boat life 20 years ago, when she was a student at University College London. She had a job painting children’s faces at London Zoo and her walk to work took her past the boats on Regent’s Canal. “It felt like a cut in time,” she says, “a way to see through into this completely different way of life that people are oblivious to and almost cannot see.”

She persuaded a friend to buy a narrowboat with her — their parents agreed to help with costs when they worked out what a boat would save their offspring in rent. They found a mooring in King’s Cross in north London and bought the first boat they saw for £21,500 — a reduction of £4,500 agreed when the engine would not start on first attempt.

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“It was ex-charter, in pretty bad condition. It was five different shades of brown formica, lino carpet,” Chapman-Andrews says. “But we were students, we wanted the cheapest boat we could stay alive in.” A few years later they sold it with the mooring for £52,000.

Today, Chapman-Andrews lives on a Dutch barge with her husband, Jonathan, and two small children, on a salubrious stretch of the Thames next to Kew Gardens. You step aboard into the wheelhouse, which also serves as her pottery workshop. Down a short flight of stairs, the belly of the boat is unexpectedly large. Once the cargo hold, it has been converted into an open-plan kitchen and sitting room.

The old ironwood ceiling boards now make up the floor and light streams through skylights. At the heart is a large multi-fuel stove with a back-boiler system to heat the radiators.

The couple used a broker to find the boat in the Netherlands in 2013. They paid €144,000, a post-financial crisis era price; for four years it had languished in a Friesland backwater.

They chose the boat because it did not need major improvements beyond replacing the water tanks, tinkering with the engine and a paint job. The exterior has yet to be finished. “We were getting through our list of things to do and then we had kids,” says Chapman-Andrews.

When they first brought the boat to the UK, the best mooring they could find was next to an industrial estate, in Barking in east London. One of the biggest challenges for boaters in London is securing a mooring. The couple found the Kew spot by asking everyone they knew if they had heard of anything going. After six months they managed to talk their way in.

Even so, their long-term future as floating residents of the smart west London suburb, where the average house price is around £1m, at times feels tenuous. “We basically have a very expensive vehicle in a parking space that’s managed by somebody else, who could do whatever they wanted whenever they want,” she says. “It’s a hard way to live; it’s harder than a house, no question.”

Yet for Chapman-Andrews, the benefits more than justify the effort. “There’s something very centering about being on the water. I like actually just looking at it,” she says. “I saw a seal this afternoon.”

Newer London boaters often start on a “continuous cruiser” licence — considerably cheaper than a permanent mooring. In Chelsea Harbour, for example, mooring a 50ft-long vessel costs about £10,000 a year.

Under the terms of the licence, the boat must not remain in any one spot for more than two weeks and there are rules governing the pattern of cruising and the distance travelled. Another difference is that boats on moorings are “plugged in” to power and water while cruisers adapt to life off-grid.

It was the prospect of a “simpler life”, one in which you physically buy the fuel to heat your home, generate your own power and carefully track your water use, that appealed to Katie Cooper and Paul Golynia. “It feels slightly feral, closer to nature, a more normal way of living, weirdly, even though I didn’t grow up like that — I grew up in a normal house,” says Cooper.

The couple had discussed buying a boat and “window-shopped” along the canals. Then in 2015 their landlord announced he was selling the house they were sharing in Deptford.

How to buy a boat to live on

Boats are usually sold either through brokerships or privately through ads placed online. Apollo Duck is the most popular website.

There are options for most budgets. At the lower end, £35,000 can buy a used narrowboat in reasonable shape. A boat on a popular permanent mooring in London could be £300,000.

“Sailaways” are welded to the buyer’s specifications and then either sold as a shell, lined or lined and fitted, with a price range of £16,000 for a 45-foot narrowboat shell to £130,000 for a fully fitted 65ft-long widebeam.

For buyers of used boats, an out-of-water survey is advisable. Offers should be subject to survey as the price can be (and often is) renegotiated based on the results.

Boats need to have a valid Boat Safety Certificate before they can be insured. In turn, insurance is needed to apply for a licence. All boats that use the waterways are required to display a licence plate issued by the Canal & River Trust.

Building their own boat, they realised, would allow them to have more control over their lives. “I am super-practical,” says Golynia, who works in theatre as a set builder (Cooper is an actor). “I’d walk along the towpath and think: that looks lovely, but I bet it’s really hard work. For me, it had to tick all the boxes. It had to make financial sense.”

They budgeted £60,000 and booked three months off work in order to build a boat from scratch. The only thing they had not planned to do themselves was cutting and welding the shell — boats start as flat, steel plates that are cut and welded to form the hull, sides and roof. That requires special tools.

But when they arrived at the boatyard near the date of delivery, poised to begin putting in the plumbing and electrics, they found that their hull was still mostly unjoined steel plates. Boatyards, they learnt the hard way, have a relaxed approach to deadlines.

Paul Golynia and Katie Cooper built their own boat © Brian Doherty/FT

“We went for a long walk around a reservoir,” Cooper says. “It was a ‘something needs to happen, we’re in trouble here’ kind of walk.”

Golynia offered his labour for free at the yard to speed things along. They lived in Airbnbs and relatives’ spare rooms, anxious the whole time. They had returned to work, and for five weeks Cooper’s job as an actor took her to Australia for a tour. Meanwhile, Golynia put in 14-hour days at the yard. When Cooper returned, Golynia met her at the airport. “The first thing I thought was: Gandalf,” she says. Golynia had lost two stone.

The hardship seems distant today, from the saloon of their 60ft-long widebeam (so-called because the width, or beam, is double that of more traditional narrowboats). The decor is decidedly un-boaty, with a faintly industrial open-plan kitchen and breakfast bar, a smart tiled bathroom and a piano.

As well as a stove, the couple installed underfloor heating and a full-sized bath. In the end, they overspent by £10,000. The boat has since been valued at £130,000 but the money is secondary.

“I go and sit on the back with a beer and think: wow, I’ve seen this come from nothing,” says Golynia. “I’ve seen this covered in dust — I cried in that corner and cut myself over there. Now I sit and think: it’s a home. Now we live here.”

In the bedroom, Cooper points to exposed wires. “It’s still not finished,” she says. Another trait common to boaters is their inclination to tinker with things, to continually improve. When your home is part machine, part project that you can adapt to your ever-changing needs, it never feels complete.

Pamela Burrell © Brian Doherty/FT

This compulsion does not seem to fade with time. “I’ve got this wonderful vision of how it’s going to be when it’s all done,” says Pamela Burrell, a boater in her seventies. “But it’s like a workshop — we always have something to do. It never stops.”

Burrell and her husband, Edward, have lived on boats for 40 years. They first met on a mooring on Ducks Walk in Richmond in west London. At the time, Burrell lived on a small ship with a wooden hull that had been built in the 1930s.

“Edward was my neighbour; he used to come and fix things for me,” she says. “He actually sunk it once, inadvertently.” After spending 28 years on board a Dutch barge, the couple sold it in 2017 to free up capital for their retirement and their next project: a floating house.

Interior of Burrell’s boat © Brian Doherty/FT

In the late 1980s, they acquired a large plot with 72ft of Thames riverfront near Hampton in a sealed-envelope bid. Their new home rests on what will one day be the vegetable plot. Although there is no engine, the house has a hull, which Edward filled with concrete.

The rectangular structure on top is a simple metal frame clad in Canadian cedarwood. Inside is a living room with a small terrace, a full-sized kitchen, bathroom and a “captain’s cabin” at the back. There is underfloor heating in the bedroom, an instant boiling water tap and a porthole in the shower. Edward estimates the total cost of the build will be about £25,000, excluding his labour. The plan is to lower the house on to the water in the spring.

After three years on land, both are eager to get back on the river. “Maybe there’s a bit of traveller in everybody who likes living on the water,” Burrell says. “It’s the feeling that we could move and go somewhere else, that it’s always an option. And the movement of the water itself is lovely. You hardly feel it, but it’s there, indefinitely.”

Water way to live

Amsterdam: Waterbuurt West

Built in the late 2000s, Waterbuurt West is now an expanding neighbourhood of 93 floating houses in Amsterdam, with another 55 to follow in 2020, says co-developer Monteflore, writes Alex Howlett. There are no mooring costs and the land is leased by the City of Amsterdam for 50 years. House prices range from €425,000 to €600,000 — compared with the €517,000 average house price in Amsterdam, according to the Dutch Association of Real Estate Agents, NVM.

New York: 79th Street Boat Basin

Most marinas in New York don’t officially allow liveaboards. However, 79th Street Boat Basin on the Upper West Side does accept 52 permanent residents. It is the most popular marina in the city and in the past Frank Sinatra and Mario Puzo both docked their boats there. For liveaboards, mooring costs $3,000 for the summer (May 1 to October 31) and $2,625 for the winter (November 1 to April 30).

79th Street Boat Basin © Alamy

Hong Kong: Discovery Bay

Until recently, living on the yachts in Discovery Bay marina on Lantau island was a way around the high price of homes in Hong Kong. This backfired last August when the owners of the bay gave residents only four months to relocate (later extended by another three months) for long-term renovation. With few other marinas in reach, many residents have been forced to sell their boats at a fraction of the price they paid for them.

Sausalito: Robinson’s Bay

More than 400 homes float on the water of Robinson’s Bay in Sausalito, California. In December 2018, a three-bedroom renovated houseboat went on the market for $1.45m with Rachelle Dorris, not including the cost of mooring. This is a far cry from the bay’s 1960s countercultural origins, when homes were built from the remnants of shipbuilding parts.

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