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The travels of narrow boat Racundra

Why do people own narrow boats?

 As we travel around the country we have seen a huge number of narrow boats, and more recently a good number of wide beam narrow boats. Who owns them and what do they do with them?

One thing is for sure, they are not all out on the canals travelling the length and breadth of the country. Thank goodness, as even a small percentage would cause total gridlock. We have experienced a busy canal at Llangollen on Easter weekend. On the other hand we have experienced days when we have seen only one or two other boats on the move all day.

A number of the boats we have seen look like they are never used, and never visited. They are in varying states of decay, sometimes with weeds growing out of untended nooks and crannies. I guess this is bound to happen as owners lose interest, or become infirm, and boats deteriorate beyond the point of sale.

However, some boats that seem to be in this category have the power to surprise. Suddenly, a head appears and you realise that the boat has a permanent resident. An ageing hippy (and they are getting pretty old these days), a drop out, a social misfit, a loner – usually a man. I doubt the boat goes anywhere, it simply provides a less regulated home for these guys who choose to eschew the trappings of our modern lives. I have some sympathy with their decision.

Then there are the water “gypsies”. These are the travellers of the waterways world. They are the equivalent of the traveller communities that we see on the roads of the country. They often set up encampments, growing organically as extra floating craft become attached to the nucleus. I imagine they stay put until they are moved on by the authorities before re-establishing themselves elsewhere.

Perhaps a more civilised (who’s to say?) version of the water gypsy are the “continuous cruisers” (CC’ers). These people play the game by the rules, obeying the instructions and never stopping for more than 14 days in the same place.

Some of these have sold their homes and are sometimes more, sometimes less, committed to spending the rest of their days aboard. Some keep a “pied a terre”, a foot in the housing market, or a nest egg that will allow them one day to return to terra firma. Some are only cruising for a fixed period. We have met people who say that they have lived on their boat for 12 years, but you still get the impression that they take it a year at a time. Some of them cruise for say 6 months a year and return to their homes for the winter months. Many of them pay for a mooring all year round even though they are away more than they are there.

There are a number of boats that operate on a commercial basis. At popular attractions, such as the Pontyscllte aqueduct, there are specially constructed tourist boats with large windows that take fare paying passengers for short trips. Glyn and the boys were excited to see a wedding boat coming past one evening complete with bride and groom. We travelled in company with a hotel boat for a couple of days – he could carry two pairs of guests full board. We have seen a number of boats selling their wares: cheese & chutney, tiller pins, painted wares, rope fenders, wool, coal, wood and gas. There are floating restaurants and boats that sell tea, coffee and cakes. We haven’t seen them yet but there are still 600 tonne industrial barges carrying sand and gravel.

Of course, a very large percentage of the boats that you see moving on the canals are hire boats. There is a steadily increasing number of hire companies offering boats of widely varying standards. And the people that hire boats have widely ranging levels of experience. Some people hire for several weeks every year, sometimes in the same place, more often in different parts of the country. Some people hire for a weekend, perhaps for some special event – like the lads on the Llangollen celebrating 30th birthdays. There are quite a few day boats – usually short narrow boats that can carry 8 or 10. Watch out for hire boats as often they are driven by people with no experience, and not too much concern about bumps to the boat. It isn’t (all) their fault, we all had to start somewhere!

An alternative to hiring each year, is the boat share. Here a group of people buy a boat between them, sharing the cost of purchase and the costs of maintenance. In return they are guaranteed a number of weeks each year. The boat is usually based in one place, but the group can decide to move periodically to open up access to other cruising areas. There can be 10 or 12 owners sharing, who each get say 3 weeks a year. A rota manages who gets first choice and remaining weeks are available after everyone has had their guaranteed weeks. A member of the group can sell his share when he has had enough. Some companies provide a managed scheme, where they take on the maintenance and repairs, and manage the ownership.

However, I suspect that the majority of boats don’t fall into any of the above categories. These boats are owned by private owners and spend most of their days tied up at a long term mooring on a waterway, or in a marina.

Even so, a number of these boats are lived on. In some parts of the country, the cost of housing is so great that living on a boat is a viable alternative. Certainly, there was a white van man who returned each night to a boat at the marina where we bought our boat. We saw a boat advertised for sale by a student based in London who had been living on his boat. A narrowboat does make a very comfortable and affordable home. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, but with a working engine still has the option.

Many more of these moored boats are kept and maintained ready for occasional excursions ranging from day trips to several weeks. Usually the owners live nearby so they can pop down whenever the fancy takes or the weather looks good. These are the boats that suddenly appear on sunny days and bank holidays. Some of these boats are owned by what our engineer called polishers. Their owners visit at weekends and polish, keeping the boat spick and span, and sometimes they venture out on to the local canals.

Finally, there are the “static caravans”. Rarely moving anywhere these boats are used as a base for a holiday in just the same way that people will use a static caravan at a caravan park. These boats will be moored at marinas with plenty of facilities and access to suitable destinations for day trips and entertainment. The advantage over a static caravan is that it is not so static and when you tire of one location you can always move yourself to another.

I don’t think that I had really appreciated this huge variation in people’s usage when we decided to buy a boat. I guess that I only had one thing in mind – to travel and see as much of Britain’s canal system as I could – but already that is changing. Now I want to see as much of Britain as I can from the canal system, and now that Racundra is our home

we are giving more consideration to living on the boat rather than travelling in the boat. Most of the CC’ers that we have met (and I classify ourselves as CC’ers) allow considerably more time to cruise a canal than I have been doing so that there is more time for exploring the surrounding areas. I’m still not ready to spend weeks on the Montgomery Canal say, but I do wish we had decided to have 13 days on the Lancaster rather than 7.

I haven’t yet met anyone doing what we are doing. We have bought a boat intending to cruise continuously for 6 months and then to sell our boat again. Will we be able to part with her?

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