The Cost of Owning a Narrowboat.
“A boat is a hole in the water into which you throw money.”
We all know that boating can be expensive, but where does it all go? Tony Jones crunches the numbers.
Aspiring boaters often ask about the financial aspects of boating. Despite my stock response being “An arm and a leg and your first born child!” it is a difficult question to answer given the enormous variety of boats and boaters and the various different types of waterways. I asked a handful of boaters to keep track of their boating related spending for a whole year, listing everything from the mandatory licence fee, right down to the last fire-lighter, windlass and emergency repair bill. Here is a summary.
The Big Three
Most canals and rivers in the UK are managed by either British Waterways or the Environment Agency and can be navigated upon purchasing a Gold Licence. A handful of navigable waterways are managed by other organisations and so not covered by the Gold licence, a list of which can be found below. A Standard Licence covers all of the canals and rivers specifically managed by BW, covering a choice of either England and Wales or Scottish waterways. This licence is sufficient for vast majority of boaters, and any occasional forays outside its range can be covered by short term licences from the appropriate authority. (See below for example costs.) Boaters who are happy to restrict their cruises to just BW owned rivers can buy a Rivers Only Licence and these cost less than the others listed above.
The length of your boat is used to calculate the cost of the licence (the beam width is not a factor here) with discounts applying for prompt payment and a surcharge of £150 if payment is received late. For more information visit http://www.britishwaterways.co.uk/licence-it, but here are a few examples.
- Nb The Watchman is 50 feet long and has a 12 month England and Wales Standard Licence. This would cost £669.60, but was discounted for prompt payment to £602.64
- Nb Aldebaran is 60 feet long and has a 12 month Gold Licence costing £1043.00 paid in full in advance.
Box Out: Visitors Licence fees (50 foot narrowboat)
- 1 Day on the Thames – £26.00 (Note – Length & Beam are considered.)
- 3 Days on the Basingstoke Canal – £27.15
- 1 Week on the River Wey – £56.00 (Lock tolls included.)
- Cruise the length of the Manchester Ship Canal – £128.00 (Conditions apply. Call for details.)
Box Out – Other licensing agencies (Non BW/EA)
|The Basingstoke CanalRiver Wey
The Norfolk & Suffolk Broads
Bridgewater Canal (Manchester)
Manchester Ship Canal
|Basingstoke Canal Authority – Tel: 01252 370073The National Trust – Tel: 01483 561389
Avon Navigation Trust – Tel: 01386 552517
The Broads Authority – Tel: 01603 610734
Bridgwater Canal Company Ltd – 0161 629 8266 (For visits over 7 days)
Harbour Master’s Department – Tel: 0151 327 1461
Boat Safety Certificate
Boats are tested for safety by qualified inspectors every four years and compliant craft are issued a boat safety certificate. The test points are identical for all boats irrespective of size or type and so these variables will not affect the cost to any great degree.
David Tucker is the Membership Secretary for the Association of Boat Safety Examiners. He said “The safety examination is a very black and white affair and so quite easy to budget for. Although the cost of the test is not fixed, most inspectors will charge around £150 which will cover the examination and the issue of the certificate. Most fail points can be remedied with minimal financial cost and a couple of man hours, although non-compliant gas cookers are sometimes more easily replaced than repaired. Some examiners may make an additional charge if a second visit is required following a fail, particularly if they have any distance to travel.”
Like all insurances the price is dependent on risk and the amount of cover required. Rod Daniel of Craftinsure shed a little light on the dark art of boat insurance: “The value and age of the boat are key premium factors rather than the length or beam width. Others factors to consider include where the boat is based and any additional cover you might require for boat contents. If you live aboard you can expect to pay more. Although live-aboard boats are less likely to be left unattended for long periods, increased use and the value of items on board do tend to add to the risk. “
Avoiding tidal waterways and opting for a higher excess can reduce your insurance costs but price is not the only consideration. The current financial climate may encourage boaters to cut costs, but it is important to ensure your insurance provides adequate cover. Some insurers will ask for a survey if your boat is over 20 years old. This can add £400 to your insurance expenditure once crane/dry dock costs are included, although this survey will usually be valid for insurance for five years.
Some insurance quotes examples (Courtesy of Craftinsure.com)
|Boat||60’ x 12’ Wide-beam||57’ semi trad Narrowboat||30’ cruiser stern Narrowboat||25’ GRP River Cruiser|
|Approximate Quote||£458.00 pa||£175.00 pa||£115.00 pa||£110.00 pa|
|(All quotes assume no previous claims, zero no claims bonus and £150.00 excess.)|
Moorings costs are dependent on geography, facilities and the size of your boat. Moorings with facilities such as mains electricity, local pump-out/Elsan or laundry will cost more than a basic on-line mooring, as will moorings in picturesque or convenient locations. Most marinas will also charge different fees if moored alone or abreast another boat and some also differentiate between frequent and infrequent usage.
- Airedale Boat Club near Bingley sits on the Leeds Liverpool canal. A 50 foot narrowboat on a breasted narrow-beam mooring costs £14.00 per foot per annum. (£700.00 per year.) ABC has electricity supply and water is available from a BW tap on the towpath opposite. Pump-out and Elsan disposal are a short walk away. The club is run as a not for profit organisation and boat owners meet regularly to do maintenance chores around the site to keep mooring fees low. Membership costs £7.50 per year.
- Online moorings with limited facilities are a prolific and relatively cheap mooring option. An offside mooring to accommodate a 40’ boat at Cowley South near Uxbridge on the Grand Union went at tender for £1271 per annum earlier this year. Apart from the provision of mooring rings and gated access, this mooring site has no additional facilities although water and pump-out/Elsan are both within 15 minutes cruising time.
- Apsley Marina can be found on the Grand Union Canal near Hemel Hempstead and was opened in 2003. Facilities include metered electricity, water points, showers, pump-out and Elsan and a laundry facility too. Nestling amongst a modern apartment block complex, a residential mooring here will cost £5412.00 per annum.
- Part of the Ting Dene group, Pyrford is a fine example of a modern commercial marina with extensive facilities and an on-site engineer. The River Wey is owned and maintained by the National Trust and boats moored here enjoy a stunningly beautiful setting, however the Trust does not allow residential moorings anywhere on the river. Facilities include metered electricity, water point, pump-out and Elsan, toilets and shower block, dry docking and diesel. At £66.94 per foot pet annum a 72 foot boat on a standard mooring would cost £4819.68, with an option to pay by monthly direct debit at additional cost.
- Engineers Wharf can be found on the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal in London on a 26 mile lock free section of the London canal network and is a good example of a top of the range premium mooring. Matthew Bannister, BW’s West London moorings co-coordinator said “Whilst location is an important factor I believe the range of facilities at Engineers Wharf is an equally attractive feature. The land required to build such extensive and attractive facilities is in short supply in the capital and so there is a high demand for moorings such as those at Engineers Wharf.”
Facilities at Engineers Wharf include:
|• Secure serviced pontoon moorings.• Offline basin location offering 20 narrowboat
• Private berth holders’ toilets and showers.
|• Five conveniently spaced pump-out facilities.• Up to 32amp electrical supply.
• Dedicated undercover storage area.
• Excellent access to London’s waterways.
A residential mooring here was recently won by tender at a price of £9250.00 per annum. It is important to remember that residential moorings are subject to Council Tax charges.
Utilities costs will vary with usage and a live-aboard boater will obviously spend more than a weekend and holidays cruiser. Mains supply costs for electricity are cheaper than domestic house charges as most marinas will purchase electricity in bulk. Marinas cannot charge a premium to their customers as they are not regulated energy suppliers, so this discount is passed on to us down the line.
Water provision is included in the licence fee and so there is no extra expense here, although some boaters use filtration systems or water purification tablets at a small additional cost.
Gas bottles come in several sizes with the larger ones offering better value, but most boat gas lockers seem to accommodate the 13Kg canisters. In addition to the gas used for cooking, some boats have gas powered instantaneous water heaters. These increase consumption considerably, though most boaters consider this a small price for instant hot water.
Tony – Nb The Watchman “I often work from my boat and so I have quite a high usage, particularly electricity to charge my laptop and phone.)
- Gas: (gas boiler & cooker) – 12 x 13kg canisters @ £24.00 = £288.00 per annum.
- Electric: (240v appliances: fridge, laptop, CD player, mobile phone charger.) = £180 per annum.
Becky – Nb Summer Wine. “I rarely cook aboard so my gas usage is quite low.”
- Gas: (Cooker.) = £21.40 pa
- Electric: (240v appliances: fridge, microwave, mobile phone charger, television, hair-dryer, portable electric heater.) = £70.00 pa via token fed mains electricity meter.
Lindsay – Nb Cerian “We always make a point of switching off the boiler pilot light. You’d be surprised how much gas can be saved this way. I find the gas powered fridge is more cost effective than an electrical one too.”
- Gas: (Gas powered refrigerator, water heater and central heating.) = £72.00 pa.
- Electric: £30.00 pa via token fed mains electricity meter.
The vast majority of boats use a multi-fuel stove for heat. The debate rages continually over which coal is best so boaters are usually partisan and eager to compare costs and performance. Many will endeavour to find a timber yard or similar source for free or cheap kindling. Whilst fallen deadwood can be found on and around the towpath one should consider the impact this has on local wildlife. Many types of insect use rotting deadwood as either food or habitat and so plundering this natural resource for your fire is frowned upon by naturalists as intensive harvesting can quickly lay waste to an area.
Some boats make the most of the heat produced by their stove to provide hot water and to heat radiators by utilizing a back burner system. This is an efficient way to get “free” hot water during winter time, but lighting the stove is not practical during summer.
Diesel fueled heaters another option. There are several types to choose from but most are fed from the same diesel tank as the boat’s engine making running costs difficult to obtain. Once installed most diesel stoves have very low maintenance costs, but some types of diesel fueled heaters will require regular servicing. Jason Kay of BK Marine Systems specializes in servicing Eberspacher and Webasto diesel fueled heaters and was keen to address their reliability issue. “The units have a two year warranty from new and I wouldn’t expect them to need any attention at all in this time. After a few years of use I advise that people get a routine service done every couple of years at least, and possibly yearly in high usage applications such as live-aboard boats. More frequent problems are likely due to poor installation or poor quality fuels. A standard service kit plus labour will usually not break the £200.00 mark.”
Coal and Kindling Usage – Case Studies
Debbie and her family live aboard their boat and have access to free seasoned deadwood through her work. = £140 pa.
Becky stays aboard her narrowboat Summer Wine near her workplace during the week. = £284.30 pa
Mike and his family use their boat Aldebaran for weekends and extended cruises and enjoy cruising during the winter. = £90 pa.
Only for Boaters
Diesel fuel expenditure has been difficult to assess as usage and prices vary so widely. Although many kept a log of the fuel they purchased, few (including me) keep records of engine running hours. Also, as these figures pre-date the recent diesel tax overhaul the actual spend amounts would not be representative for today’s boaters and so have been omitted.
Lyndsay – NbCerian 141 litres diesel. (132 engine hours.)
Becky – Nb Summer Wine = 219 litres diesel. (220 hours)
The main factors governing pump-out costs are frequency (of boat use) and volume (of your black water tank). Many boaters negate this cost by utilizing cassette type toilets as these are free to empty at Elsan sanitary disposal points. Both pump out and cassette owners will utilise odour neutralising solutions but this cost is negligible, totaling approximately £20 per annum. Replacements, spares and repairs are listed in the maintenance section of this article and are thankfully rare.
Lyndsay – Nb Cerian – 2 x pump outs @ £15.00 = £30.00 pa (“We have a huge black water tank!”)
Tony – Nb The Watchman – 10 x pump outs @ £12.50 = £125.00 pa
Becky – Nb Summer Wine – 8 x pump-outs @ £10 – £12.50 = £90 pa
How long is a piece of string? Maintaining one’s boat is a major expenditure and the costs incurred here can vary enormously. Not only is the age and condition of your boat a factor but the prices charged by companies providing services can differ hugely too.
Some maintenance issues creep up slowly whilst breakdowns can come from nowhere and require immediate attention. Whilst it is difficult to know what’s around the corner, there are some constants to bear in mind when budgeting for boat maintenance such as replacement batteries, water pumps and stern gland packing. These consumable and high workload items will invariably go wrong at the most inconvenient moment and so budgeting for them makes lots of sense. Leisure batteries can cost anything from £70 and a new water pump will set you back around £100. Overhauling a stern gland will cost less than a tenner but is a greasy, time consuming job
Engine servicing is usually carried out yearly with a view to avoiding breakdown expenses later. A basic service, changing oil, filters, coolant and spark plugs will cost around £150.00 and a more thorough going over to take account of glow plugs and valves can set you back over £250.00. It may be worth learning to service your engine yourself, not only to save on labour costs but also to nurture your relationship with your boat – the cost of replacing the consumable filters and fluids comes in at around £80. If you have an older engine you may want to keep a small pot of extra cash to make available for small repairs that become apparent at this time.
Bottom blacking is a less frequent maintenance cost that most boaters execute every four years. Prices ranged from £8 to £12 per foot for a full service job including getting the boat out of the water (with a crane or dry dock) to preparation and re-blacking. Those with more time and patience may plump for a DIY blacking process. You’ll need to get the boat out of the water and back at a cost of approximately £200.00 and materials will cost around £100. You may also want to hire equipment such as a pressure washer too.
Whilst the boat is out of the water it is advisable to check sacrificial anodes and replace them if necessary. Purchase and fitting for 4 anodes will cost around £150.00 – £200.00. A hull survey to check the integrity of your steel bottom plate is also an option at this time, particularly if your boat is approaching the age when insurance companies will require one.
Box-Out - Blacking
Hire boat companies will usually black their fleet of boats yearly as opposed to the recommended 3-4 years for private craft. Often they will be happy to claw back some of the costs they incur when hiring a crane by blacking your boat at the same time. This is particularly true if several boats pre-book for blacking at the same time and a bulk discount can sometimes be negotiated. Contact hire companies late in the season and give plenty of notice and it may be possible to cut this cost.
Maintenance costs – Case Studies.
Becky on Nb Summer Wine – Total £839.88
|2 x Chimney coolie hat||£18.00|
|2 x light fittings||£9.98|
|Fabric & Foam||£216.90|
|Woodwork for bed/settee||£95.00|
Lindsay on Nb Cerian – Total £63.57
Bilge Pump £20.00
Air Filter £3.50
Steel Wool £3.99
Sarah on Nb Debonair – Total £1723.99
|Electrical works (Inc batteries & Charger)||£525.00|
|Gas pipes/test nipple/labour||£50.00|
|Gas locker treated/painted||£40.00|
|Weed-hatch gasket seal||£40.00|
|Oak front cratch boards||£300.00|
|Fire rope, gland grease & fire blacking||£17.00|
|New kitchen taps||£15.00|
|2 oak shelves||£100.00|
|1 oak work surface||£150.00|
|Fire extinguishers (x3)||£105.00|
For the purposes of this article I have concentrated on information from professional boat painters as DIY jobs vary widely in their costs and competency.
Oxon Boat Painting Company was recently featured in the Channel 5 program Hotel Inspector and I spoke to Chris Weston, one of the business owners. He said “We offer a complete service starting with a thorough preparation, regardless of the current paint condition, being sure to deal with any rust issues – preparation is paramount! From there the customer’s specification of panels and coach-lines is applied with a minimum of seven coats and the full process will cost £100 per foot.
An optional extra, but one we strongly recommend, is the option to remove the windows as this allows us to deal with any potential rust issues lurking beneath the frame that could become apparent at a later date. (Cost: £120 – £360) Similarly we offer barber’s pole and harlequin work which, depending on the detail and workload can cost £100 – £500.”
Sign writing is an entirely different discipline. Eight pound per letter seems to be the going rate but this can add up if your boat has a long name or includes other text as well. Some painters will quote an all in price of anything from £250 – £400 if the sign writing is to be done at the same time as the paint job.
Boating breakdown cover is usually a sensible precaution, particularly for those new to boating and so it is a cost I always quote to the uninitiated when the question of expenditure arises. The cost will depend on the level of cover required and can range from £80.00 to £160.00 a year with the ever popular River Canal Rescue.
Surfing the net from your boat is easy nowadays due to 3G mobile technology. Contract deals which include the cost of the USB mobile dongle start at around £10 per month, or if you don’t mind paying for the dongle then a pay-as-you-go deal may suit you better. Top up vouchers start at around £10 for 1GB of data and are valid for 30 days. Some marinas offer a wireless internet service at hugely varying costs; I’ve paid as little as £5 per month and as much as £15 per month. It is worth remembering that both services have their downsides, 3G mobile internet relies on the strength of a signal which is variable in different parts of the waterways network, whilst marina based wireless services only work whilst you are moored in your marina.’
Box-Out Other Random costs
BW facilities key – £6.00
Anti-vandal (handcuff) key – £5.00
Windlass – £15.00
Key Float – £3.00
Sea Magnet – £30.00
Tiller Pin – £10.00
Clearly there is no single answer to the question “how much does it cost” – there are such an abundance of variables to navigate that boating expenditure can vary wildly. This article couldn’t possibly be a conclusive list costs, I’m sure some readers will be paying more and hopefully some will have found fantastic bargains and be paying much less for the products and services I have listed. Boaters seem to be a particularly prudent, resourceful and frugal bunch, but it is worth remembering that ‘price’ is not always the most important factor when making a purchase of any kind, and that ‘value’ should always be a consideration too.
Published Waterways World – November 2009