It’s not easy being green – unless that is, you live on a boat

In the first of a series of four blogs Clare Kendall examines the interactions between the boat dweller and the substance that keeps them afloat.....

My friend Andy doesn't give a damn about the environment. Global warming is of no concern, he doesn't even recycle. However, it’s impossible for me, (a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist), to take the moral high ground, as without even trying, his carbon footprint is a fraction of mine. How is this possible?

He lives on a boat.

A survey in 2004 showed that over 15,000 people in the UK were living on boats. Almost a decade later and our seemingly endless recession has forced many hundreds more onto the waterways of Britain and Ireland.

Much has been written in the national press about the economies afforded by living afloat. Couples, especially in London, unable to get onto the property ladder are opting for boats instead. What isn't written about so often is just how much easier it is to live a ‘green’ lifestyle.

In this, the first of four blogs, I will be explaining why.

Let’s start with an obvious subject, water.

Water is actually free for boat users. Boat owners pay the Canal Trust (previously British Waterways) an annual license fee, a little like a community tax, and included in that payment is water. If you live in a marina your water usage is covered by the mooring fee.

You might imagine that this leads to an unbridled use of water by boat dwellers yet, perversely, the opposite is true.

A typical single person living in a house or flat uses an average of 66,000 litres of water per year. My friend Andy gets through just four and a half thousand.

Every boat has a water tank (varying in capacity depending on the size of the boat). This can easily be refilled at one of the plentiful water points along the canal or river, however, it means that water becomes a finite resource, even if only in the short term. The boat dweller is therefore much more aware of water wastage and has a very real incentive to use as little as possible, the cost being counted more in terms of time and inconvenience than in money.

This is particularly true for my friend Andy, and others like him, who are what is known as continuous cruisers (cc’ers). Under the Canal Trust license terms narrow boat owners are only allowed to moor in one place for 14 nights after which they must move on. Andy therefore spends his life in a state of permanent but gentle travel and doesn’t want to be filling up with water every other day.

Ann and Gerald Walmsley, (61 and 65), have been living on their narrow boat, The Hampshire Rose, for the last six years.

They winter for five months in a marina and then spend the remaining seven cruising, (or ‘on the cut’ in canal speak). Even taking into consideration the months spent on a permanent mooring, they still only use 6,000 litres of water per year. This is nearly a twelfth of the average 110,000 used by an equivalent couple in a house or flat.

“Truth is we did run out sometimes in the early days,” says Gerald. “It took a bit of getting used to. But it’s amazing how little water you really need when it comes down to it. My wife and I shower on alternate days. We never leave the taps running for any time at all, even when washing hands. When I shower I wet myself, soap up and then rinse. We wouldn’t wash up a single item of crockery but wait until there’s enough to fill a bowl.

“It sounds very frugal but our lives are no worse for it. Living on a boat, your supply is finite so usage is defined by need only. It’s about adjusting your daily routine. It’s just down to habit really.”

Neither do boat owners need so many resources spent on removing waste water, as grey water from washing machines, washing-up bowls and showers can be safely emptied into the canal.

Chris Williamson, 47, a science teacher, lives on a Dutch barge, at present, permanently moored on the Thames near Swindon. He has taken water economy one step further.

“I pump water from the canal and filter it,” he explains, ” It goes through a four stage filtering process, then I add chlorine tablets and finally a carbon filter.

“It took a while to get the chlorine dosage right but it now means I am now completely independent with regards to water.”

Chris admits he is sceptical about the impact of man on climate change but even so is passionate about greener living.

“One of the things which drew me to boat living in the first place was because it was so much easier to live a less impactful life-style. I find the wholesale greed of our society absolutely abhorrent, particularly our ‘throwaway’ culture. Maybe it’s because I work with children but I believe resources should be saved for future generations not just consumed just so that a few people at the top can get rich. Our planet has finite resources, I don’t think we should just use them up as quickly as possible just because we can.”

Despite his water independent status Chris uses less than 5000 litres a year.

And of course, boat dwellers don’t have gardens to water. According to utility companies water usage can rise by as much as 20% during a hot summer.

 “Not that you miss the garden,” says Andy. “I have the biggest garden in the land!

“And I don’t have to cut the grass.”

Readers will be glad to hear that Andy is not only recycling now but lobbying for better canalside recycling facilities.

Clare Kendall is a multi award-winning photojournalist based in Wiltshire. Her work focuses heavily on ecotourism, environmental and social justice issues. For more visit:

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