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Wow you live on a boat! That must be lovely

January 20, 2013

This weekend, after a series of mishaps, bad luck, and petty-minded bureaucracy, I posed the following challenge on my Facebook page: “If anyone can give me a good reason to live on a boat, they can have my boat.”

The replies I received were split between two camps: those who thought living on a boat must be absolutely lovely; and those who had actually done it.

My friend Derek said “There are two good days when you have a boat – the day you buy it and the day you sell it!” – and this from a man who has a brand new made-to-measure no expense spared fibreglass motor cruiser, as opposed to a 107 year old leaky-from-all-ends steel Dutch barge that you can actually watch rust.

The fact is, living on a boat isn’t easy. It’s fun, it’s different, it’s sometimes romantic and adventurous – but there are no easy days. In the winter you worry about the engine seizing, having no water for weeks because the standpipes are frozen, and breathing in so much coal dust you could set off the carbon monoxide alarm by exhaling too heavily. In the summer you feel obliged to go everywhere by boat, and thus have to set off for a relaxing pub lunch at seven in the morning. Friends with small children must be bundled into oversized lifejackets and yelled at not to touch anything every nanosecond. Stray teenagers like to use the roof as a parkbench/dustbin/public toilet, sometimes all at the same time. And, throughout the year, everything condensates.

But all of this can be coped with. The problem we are currently experiencing is the 60 square metres of water that the boat floats upon. We don’t own it, and every day it’s subject to change – upon the whim of the current landowner, council or governing body. Regulations change, opinions differ, someone gets out of bed the wrong side and suddenly we’re homeless. Unless you’re lucky – and rich – enough to own the piece of land, and thus water, upon or next to which your boat resides, your life as a liveaboard is insecure and uncertain, and the actions of a few can dictate the consequences for the many. This winter we were moved on from the mooring we had settled ourselves into – and spent money on making homely – because the minority were causing trouble. We are now forced to pay double the amount for a less hospitable and inconvenient berth, during a hard winter where no other options are available. The ‘romantic’ vision of the carefree wandering nomad, where Johnny Depp sits on the front deck whittling crap out of wood and looking pretty, doesn’t really apply.

The angry locals, incensed at both the Godless hussy making chocolate and the long-haired pikie intent on robbing them, are however, very real, and the indignation and narrow-mindedness through which some people view boat-dwellers as a community is sometimes quite shocking. “You don’t pay council tax do you?” was a question I was greeted with as I emerged from my boat one day last week. “Good morning,” was my reply.

I can’t entirely blame them. Throughout history ‘gypsies’ of various guises have been held in contempt, suspicion and derision, their name dragged through the mud, cast under the same banner as freeloaders, thieves and general ne’er do wells. Programmes such as ‘My big fat gypsy wedding’ serve only to strengthen the stereotype and heighten the fear, so that the NIMBYs are well aware of and fully prepared for the consequences of a new ‘traveller’ appearing in their midst. We live off benefits, cause trouble, cost the tax payer money, don’t contribute to society, and are not to be trusted.

We also have children, cars, mortgages, recycling bins, pets, responsible jobs, ill parents, hopes, fears, and dreams. And the possibility that, depending upon their mood, or pressure applied from an increasingly frightened council, we might not have a home to go to next week. So whilst living on a boat is lovely, it’s not quite the romantic, easy life you may envisage when walking past the narrowboats with their merrily smoking chimneys on a winter’s evening, or the cheap and unregulated alternative to bricks and mortar that might be suggested from the washing lines strung from tiller to deck. We’re not here to threaten your way of life; and we hope you won’t try and threaten ours.

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