Six Reasons why I want to Live on a Boat
There’s something special about water
I’m not talking about the fact that it just happens to exist in all three states, solid, liquid and gas on the same planet, or that it’s vital to life on Earth and makes up about 60% of our body weight. I’m talking about a deep sense of peace when I’m floating on, swimming in or walking by open waters.
I know 101 ways to get across town, but for some reason I always gravitate down to the river or the canal and follow it, even if it’s not the most direct route to work. When I want to think deeply, I sometimes go up a high hill, but more often than not I go for a walk by the river. When I want to think for more than one day I usually go to the sea and follow the coast. Where do you go?
Think of your last few summer holidays. Did you see the sea, lakes or rivers? Which were the most memorable places?
If you’re in a building, take a look around you for any paintings, photos, or postcards of landscapes. Not objects or people, just landscapes. How many of them include water? Do you think it’s navigable in a large boat? How about a small rowboat, or a punt? Next time you visit someone’s house have another look.
As a piano tuner I go to a different person’s house everyday – at least two thirds of the landscapes focus on water. Mountains are the other favourite. I thought perhaps I had some kind of water connection because I was born by Chichester Harbour, but working in London and Oxfordshire has proved that I’m not the only one. Perhaps because Britain’s an island? What is everyone’s obsession with rivers, lakes and seas?
One reader, Issagro, commented below that perhaps it’s because we spend the first few months of our lives floating around inside our mothers, and retain a subconscious affinity for a fluid environment.
But what is it about water that makes it so beautiful and moves me so deeply? Being the skeptic that I am, for the purposes of this article I shall ignore the possibility of some spiritual connection to open water and look for practical reasons why it seems so special.
The first I can think of is obviously the way that water interacts with light. The way that sunlight can shine through water and give it deep blues and greens, but at the same time sparkle off ripples on the surface or reflect features on the shore when calm. Moonlight on rippling water is equally breathtaking. And sailors who have been becalmed mid-ocean tell tales of moonless nights surrounded by light – a million stars from above, reflected on the surface below, combined with a million little lights from luminescent plankton and jellyfish in the water.
Water’s always flat when at rest, so it puts everything else into perspective. It’s the lowest point in a valley, or a whole continent, and everything else goes up from there. Ben Macdui and Ben Nevis in Scotland are mountains of similar height – Ben Macdui is right in the middle of Scotland, Ben Nevis is on the west coast. Ben Nevis is so much more impressive because it starts from sea level, whereas the bottom of Ben Macdui is already at five hundred meters. Hills by the sea can look like mountains, and create the most striking scenery like the fjords of Norway and Patagonia. Even trees, buildings and other objects seem more pronounced, and get reflected in still waters.
The vestibular system of our ears is not enough for us to balance, we also rely on our visual system, but is the ground flat? Water always rests perpendicular to our planet’s gravitational force, so maybe when I spend time there it resets my orientation. It’s a reference point. That’s why I go and walk by the sea to reset my life.
Go to the middle of Asia, Africa, and Australia and you’ll find some vast deserts – you won’t find many people. Most people in the world live near the sea, and those that don’t nearly all live by a river or a lake. No doubt this is mostly for very practical reasons.
Humankind are not alone in their love and need of water, as the highest concentration of wildlife can also be found there. Even the beasts of the great plains will eventually come down to the river to drink. I can sit by the river for hours and never get bored, watching all the different birds and animals squabbling and going about their business, and the odd carp jumping out of the water for a tasty bug.
The capitalist human prefers to live on land where he can have a big house, industry and offices conveniently connected to mains electricity, water, sewerage and gas systems. He can travel at 60mph in a motor car and build an airport to travel at 600mph. All these things ensure that he maximises the amount of time he can dedicate to making money. He also succeeds in convincing non-capitalist people that they can’t live without these conveniences, so he can take their money too. All these engines, mines and construction sites make the land very busy and noisy, and our planet suffers greatly.
But even in central London, climb down to the River Thames foreshore and you’ll find relative peace. The engines and sirens become more distant, and it seems as though you’ve temporarily escaped the buzz of city life. Nonetheless you’re still right in the middle of it and you can jump back into the fray whenever you’ve gathered your thoughts again.
I experience this by following the towpath along a river or canal – I love the feeling when the river goes under a road bridge which has a traffic jam on it. I wonder what compels them all to sit there in frustration twice per day, three hundred days per year, at such a great cost to their pockets and to the environment. I feel like I’m leisurely walking through the zoo and looking into a cage as I pass by. I wonder if there are different sub-species of human. Poor humans. I sigh, shake my head, then cycle under the bridge and continue along the peaceful river with a secret smile.
The river and even the canal is a long line of quiet tranquillity traversing some of the most built up areas in the country. Because the old town centres normally grew up by the river or by the sea millennia ago, on a boat I can get the best and most historical perspective on a place.
Just look at the waters in London, Cardiff, Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Marseilles, Barcelona, Lisbon, Rome, Venice, Athens, Istanbul, Cairo, Dubai, Muscat, Bombay, Dhaka, Rangoon, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Manila, Sydney, Auckland, Hawaii, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Miami, Havana, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires… pretty much any famous settlement and you’ll see what I mean. Even the easiest way to Timbuktu is along the great Niger River.
It wasn’t always so peaceful – two hundred years ago the rivers and harbours were teaming with boats. Barges, lighters, little skiffs and huge battleships jostled with each other to go about their business; none of them had an engine. But although it’s sad how things have changed, thinking selfishly I was indeed fortunate to be born in the age of the motor car, when busy people ignore the river completely, and leave it all to me.
A bike ride along the River Thames says it all – the greatest waterway of the greatest boating nation in history is almost completely devoid of traffic. Quite a few boats moored up, but none of them moving. And no traffic lights, busy junctions, dangerous drivers or articulated lorries – just a few locks.
What could be so convenient about having half a ton of boat to lug around everywhere I go, at a top speed of only five miles per hour? Well that’s not convenient, especially if I’m in a hurry, so I will continue to question this until I get a boat.
However there are also inconveniences about not having a boat and being homeless as I am now. For example, every wet or chilly evening that I’m not working I have to cycle to a warm place to hang out like a library. When it closes I cycle around until I spot a suitable place to sleep. It’s better than commuting back to a flat and paying rent, but wouldn’t it be nice to know that I can always glide back down to the river and hop in my warm, insulated boat where I can hang out, read, use the Internet, then just slouch down and sleep as well.
Which is another point, I currently rely on my smartphone and don’t like carrying a laptop – it would be nice to have a proper computer in a boat, with a large screen and full size keyboard. Monitors are getting very energy efficient, and there will soon be 3D HD glasses to use instead of monitors that consume less than half a watt of power. My smartphone has a 1.4 GHz processor, a large bright AMOLED screen and runs on only three watts! I could power all my computing off a small solar panel. And of course, have a warm, dry place to sit and use it all, or just read a book.
A boat can carry an incredible amount of weight and still glide effortlessly through the water. This is why before lorries and trains, we relied on canals to transport heavy goods. I could carry a supply of water and cheap food bought in bulk, and some cooking equipment. At the moment, being homeless, I can’t be bothered to carry so much weight so I end up buying a lot of food ready prepared and don’t cook much. For this reason living on a boat could work out much cheaper than being homeless. If I buy oats in bulk, I can heat a meal for ten pence. I would also like to try cooking Canadian geese, rabbits and grey squirrels, which are freely available, and I think this kind of food preparation would be easier on a boat.
And who says I ever need to be in a hurry? Since I’ve become homeless I’ve also weeded out some other responsibilities in life, and have relaxed my pace of work because I’m not desperate for money any more. I used to try and squeeze several piano tunings into one day, but now I limit to one job per day so that I can do it more thoroughly, have time to meet my clients and enjoy a more leisurely cycle route. Fortunately my most of my clients aren’t in a desperate hurry for the piano tuner to come, so I could just let them know when I’m in the area, moor my boat up nearby then walk or cycle to their house. Most of my work is near the river Thames or the canals in Oxford and London.
When I used to rent a flat, I was tired of rushing everywhere at sixty miles per hour originally in a motor car, then later on buses and trains, so now I’ve put my foot down and do not leave a town until I’ve tuned all the pianos there, then cycle a scenic route to the next place. I feel much less stressed. Living on a boat would slow the pace even further. The most important thing is not to make any appointments anywhere until I actually arrive. This way I won’t ever have to resort to drastic measures like starting an engine. After all, it’s only in the last two hundred years since we started polluting our atmosphere in a major way, that we’ve been able to travel any more than fifteen miles per hour.
I have to give a very vague reply to enquiries for work, like “I’ll be there in a few weeks” – I accept that I might loose up to half of my business, but I don’t care because I no longer have any expenses. Interestingly enough, I actually have even more work now than when I used to rush around all the time. I can do a more thorough job on each piano that I service because I don’t have to hurry to another appointment. It’s more efficient to stick around in one place until all the jobs are done, and I get some extra recommendations purely because people appreciate my lifestyle.
The potential clients that I lost were probably not worth having anyway – they’re often the type who want you to come immediately, are difficult to schedule around, and not relaxed or friendly when you show up. Sometimes they don’t even make you a cup of tea! Terrible.
If it’s for an event or a concert, even worse – I have to tune the piano in a frantic hurry just before the show starts, which is impossible because everyone’s shuffling chairs around and doing sound-checks. “But I tuned a piano in the Wembley Arena for so and so famous pianist!” So what, I had an incredibly stressful afternoon for just two hours’ pay. No thanks, keep your money and give me the slow life.
I remember the first time I told my aunt that I was considering living on a boat, she remarked: “But isn’t it so inconvenient…you’ve got to travel miles up a muddy towpath to get to the shop.” Well that might be true if you have a massive boat, but I know a hundred places to moor a small boat up right next to a supermarket or in the town centre.
So if I can escape from the capitalist life that’s ruled by a tight schedule, having half a ton of boat that only goes at five miles per hour is not so inconvenient, after all.
Being homeless I can often find a spot to sleep where I’m out of view, but there’s always a small risk of encountering some idiot. There’s a much greater risk of theft and assault in many developing countries that I’d like to visit. I often look enviously at islands on the river, thinking if I could make my bed there, nobody would disturb me.
A boat is not just more secure because I can lock it, but because of where I can moor it. If I don’t feel safe, when I want to sleep I can just push off from the towpath and anchor in a quiet corner or moor to an island, where no landlubber can reach me unless they want to go for a really cold swim.
For personal belongings, homelessness is perhaps more secure than the boating life. All my possessions are in one bag on my back, and go with me everywhere. I’m concerned that if I have a boat I’ll accumulate possessions and invest in hi-tech equipment then worry about my boat being broken into when I’m away from it. I suppose this can be controlled by not buying an expensive boat or equipment.
On the other hand, it would be nice to be able to run around without a bag. I have to take it everywhere now, and sometimes I want to run or swim so I have to hide it in a bush, along with my wallet and smartphone. It would feel better to lock it up in a boat.
My knees keep complaining – I’ve felt discomfort, sometimes pain over the last ten years. I think it’s related to cycling and other stresses. This is a major reason for not wanting to explore the world on a bicycle. Of course I should get some more specialists to examine the cause, perhaps I could adjust my riding position or something. However doctors will often tell you that your knees have a limited lifetime mileage – that paratroopers and marathon runners eventually exceed it and can no longer enjoy the same activities. To spend my whole life walking or cycling might be asking for trouble.
The most efficient cycling shoes have cleats that clip into the peddles and are very bad for walking let alone running. The best hiking boots aren’t suitable for running. I can’t afford to carry more than one pair of shoes when lightweight cycle touring, and they stay on my feet.
Even if I want to stick with human-powered propulsion, I could use a lot more of my upper body, which is under-worked, to propel a boat. For example punting and sculling. I can walk, run, and cycle as little or as much as I like by keeping a folding bicycle on board. I can also keep running footwear, hiking boots, and cycling shoes with cleats all on board.
With the right kind of boat I could travel around the whole world without buying a single ticket, and explore the most remote corners of the Earth. No ferry service across that bay? No flights to that isolated island? No problem, I’ll just weigh anchor and sail there, at my own leisurely pace.
Of course with my limited experience I’ve no intention to get a boat and head straight out to sea. Rivers, canals, estuaries and eventually the British coastline is all I can think of for the time being. But a few more years experience, an upgraded boat, and who knows – the infinite freedom appeals to me.
And many more…
..but these are just a few of the reasons that spring to mind as to why I want to try living on a boat. I’m not in a hurry and I don’t want to feel under pressure to get a boat – in fact I don’t want any boat in the near future. My current lifestyle, cycle touring and sleeping rough, is really minimalist and really fun. If I invest a lot of money and time in customising my floating home, it may be difficult to give it away and go back to homelessness – the last thing I want to do is to get all perfectly set up in my boat then think: “Oh, but what if? What if life could be even more simple than this?”
I’ve read about some people who’ve tried it all and now swear by the boating life, but the majority have never tried living with nothing – they were either born on boats or gave up their house for a boat. Consequently they often have a big boat and a lot of possessions. Me being me, I want to explore some extremes of minimalism, and find out the best lifestyle for myself. If I do end up in a boat, you can be sure it’ll only just be big enough for my needs. So just the bare essentials for a while longer, then we’ll see…