As with van life in America, a lot of people think of narrowboating in the UK as a cheap and practical way to enjoy a slow paced and relaxing life. However, a lot of them jump into narrowboating without fully understanding what it entails. This article hopes to lay the costs of living on a narrowboat out clearly for all to see! Is it cheaper to live on a narrowboat? Let’s find out!!
Disclaimer: These figures are designed to act as rough estimates. There are many factors that go into the cost of canal boat living, some are fixed for everyone but many are variable. Therefore, it’s impossible to quote figures that suit everyone 🙂
What are the costs of Narrowboat Life?
This article will be based on a narrowboater that is continuous cruising. That means they are not staying in marinas for any great length of time and are ‘authentically navigating’ the canals. You can’t just go up and down the same stretch of canal all year, you need to be travelling all around nomad style 🙂
These are all the main costs you will have to bear as a narrowboater continuous cruising:
Any narrowboat/ canal boat will need a licence in order to operate in any way within canals in the United Kingdom. The licence fees gathered will be used by the navigation authority to maintain and provide facilities (such as water and waste points) along the canal routes.
If you are not sure which licence you need, there is an excellent search facility on the Inland Waterways Association website that will help a lot. It lists all areas with rivers and canals in the United Kingdom, along with the associated navigation authority. Very useful stuff.
For this article we are going to look at the CRT (Canal and River Trust) licence, as they operate 96 of the canals and rivers in the UK and are thus the licence that most canal boaters need to get 🙂
The price of your licence with them depends on the length of your narrowboat. This makes sense, as the longer your canal boat is the more ‘real estate’ it is using on the canals.
Why don’t we base this on a typical boat length of 50 to 54 foot? For a boat of this length you will pay a yearly fee of just under £950. £900 if you ‘pay promptly’ 🙂
Boat Safety Certificate
You won’t be able to get the above-mentioned canal and river licences if your boat doesn’t have a Boat Safety Certificate from the Boat Safety Scheme. Think of this the same as when you do a MOT for your car. This is a certificate that tells everyone that your canal boat is maintained well enough to operate safely on the canals.
The only real exception is when you have just bought a brand new boat. Some navigation authorities will accept a Declaration of Conformity (DoC) from your boat builder instead of the boat safety certificate.
This safety certificate needs to be updated every four years. To find an inspector near you, there is a handy dandy search tool on the website of the Boat Safety Scheme. Expect to pay around £200 for this certificate.
The amount of fuel you use will depend widely on how much you cruise and the size of your boat. It is hard to quote a ‘one size that fits all’ figure. Canal boats use red diesel, which is a cheaper form of diesel also used by farmers 🙂 Every little helps, right!
As a general rule of thumb, I would say expect diesel costs of around £50-90 a month when you are actively cruising.
Boat Heating Fuel
This is the cost of the fuel you use to heat your boat (not navigate it). For starters, if you have a gas fired central heating system be warned! These are very expensive and would eat through a whole bottle of gas in a week. Unless you have money to burn, you might want to lay off the gas central heating and only use it in emergencies.
Most narrowboaters use some kind of coal or wood burning stove to heat their boat. Dependant upon where you are in the UK, a bag of logs would be around £5 and the coal around £10. In most use cases, expect a monthly cost of around £40-50. Of course, more of this is used in winter! The UK can be cold!
Some people use diesel fired central heating systems on their canal boats too. Although not as expensive as gas fired central heating, it will still cost you around £90-100 a month in diesel if used as the main source of heat. Depending on your budget, you might want to use this only in emergencies too!
You need to keep your boat’s engine well looked after and serviced in order for a smooth and reliable lifetime of cruising!
If you are technically minded enough to do this yourself, you will save a lot of money. You would only have to pay for fluids and filters in that case, which would cost no more than £40 a month. A single service at a boatyard would cost around £250 a time, so much more expensive.
If you are paying someone else to service your boat, make sure to read your boats’s engine manual and get exact timescales for when these services are needed. If you are doing it yourself, you can do more regular minor services.
This is another thing required by the Canal and River Trust in order to grant a licence, so there is no way around this one. Also, if you do have an accident or somehow destroy all your onboard belongings, you want some kind of recourse 🙂 So insurance is a worthwhile (and required) cost for anyone living on their boat.
Considering how much British people pay for car insurance, it is actually quite surprising how cheap canal boat insurance can be (must be the lack of ‘boy racers’ on the canals!!). Typically, expect to pay around £200-300 a year, give or take a bob or two 🙂
Bear in mind, if you want to insure belongings in your boat worth over £1000, these are often specified individually on your insurance. If you have a number of these items, it could push the cost up to the higher end of the bracket.
Phone and Internet
When out cruising the canals, most people would like to be connected to their loved ones and/ or entertainment. The best way to do this is through a mobile 3G/4G/5G internet connection. If you want details on the ins and outs of getting good internet on your boat, we have a full article all about that on this very website.
If you are a light internet user (basic email and web surfing) you could probably get away with a contract with less mobile data per month for around £30 a month. However, if you are a heavy internet user (decent amounts of Netflix streaming for example), you would be looking at paying more like £50-60 a month for this service.
Toilet Pump Outs
Some people love pump out toilets, as they allow you to go for several weeks without the need for emptying the ‘waste’ from your boat. However, the downside is that you often need to pay around £20 each time you pump out your boats toilet tank. This is because marinas will charge you for this service, as will the Canal River Trust by using a token system at their pump out points.
How about other toilet types?
If you have a cassette toilet, this is pretty much cost free. You would just have to pay for any additives you want to add to your cassette to help it smell nicer 🙂
A composting toilet would probably cost you around £10 a month in materials to compost with, depending on the type of material you use.
If you need a guide to canal boat toilets, we have one HERE.
Engine & Mechanical/Hull Repairs
Of course, this is impossible to quantify exactly as it is very much dependent on the type of problem you have. Cost of engine parts, for example, will vary wildly.
To give you a rough figure, we are going to take out the cost of the parts and just give you an idea of the labour involved.
Bates Boatyard in Surrey is currently quoting hourly labour rates as follows. General Labour would be £35/hour, whereas anything involving welding, fabrication, joinery & construction would be slightly higher at £45/hour. If you are lucky, your issue will be a simple job taking one hour plus cost of parts. If you are unlucky and need a complex engine rebuild, you could be looking at multiple hours!!
A lot of new narrowboaters forget about this aspect of owning a narrowboat. Usually, they have at least taken a passing interest in the potential cost of engine repairs (for example). But domestic repairs are often forgotten about 🙂
By domestic repairs, I mean repairs that are needed to the live-aboard appliances and facilities on your boat. Did you know that a 12volt fridge could run you £500? Parts for these fridges are harder to come by and more expensive than regular home fridges too!
A whale gulper (the pump for your grey water) is often around the £130 mark! So don’t forget about potential domestic repairs on your boat!
Blacking is the process of painting your canal boats hull with bitumen paint (on the outside of course). This will stop your hull from rusting due to the constant contact with water.
Usually, only the sides of the boat are blacked. Most people believe that the bottom of your boat is often being ‘brushed’ by the canal floor and shouldn’t be blacked. Also, the lack of oxygen down there means that rust is unlikely to form, anyway.
Just to get the boat out of the water and into a dry dock would cost you anything from £250-400. And the cost of renting space in a dry dock varies a lot. £700-1000 for a week would be my best guesstimate 🙂
In terms of the actual blacking, exact costs will vary depending where you are in the UK, but for reference we will use the current pricing of Whilton Marina in Daventry, Northamptonshire.
Blacking costs are calculated by the length of your canal boat. Whilton would charge you from £750 for a narrowboat up to 50 foot. This goes up to just over £1000 for any boats 66 foot or longer.
Another associated cost could be anodes. These are attached to narrowboat hulls to prevent rusting. You would pay around £150 a pair fitted for these.
What haven’t we included?
We haven’t included in this list the cost of entertainment, food and drink. The figures for this vary widely from person to person. We all like different quality food, some go out more than others, etc. etc. This is a very personal figure that you need to work out for yourself.
All I will say is that continuous cruising is generally better on your pocket. If you are moored up permanently in one spot all year around expect to spend more. This is because you will know the area well and will be much more likely to spend on a curry from the local curry house or a few pints down the local. When you are continuously cruising, you probably won’t know as much about the area you moored up in and will be more likely to stay in 🙂 And many mooring spots are in the middle of nowhere, anyway!!
What’s your experience?
That’s all from us, but if we have any experienced boaters reading that would like to chime in, that would be great. Feel free to let us know your experiences of running costs of your canal boats in the comments section below 🙂