ILLUSTRATIONS BY ELLIE STEINER
FROM LAND TO THE RIVERBANK
I moved into my first proper home two summers ago: a yellow 45 foot cruiser stern narrowboat called Idler. Previously I’d rented with friends usually for periods of about six months. I recall these living situations as being in a constant state of flux. Little did I know that my first ‘stable’ place would be anything but that.
When you live on a boat you’re constantly on the move and while that might seem like happy carefree living, the congestion of boats in London often makes it a chore. Saying that Londoners live on top of each other feels perhaps most relevant to a boater, who is forced to double-moor and clamber onto other people’s boats. We are somehow always unwillingly part of the public space. I’m very aware that when I sleep my bed is right next to, almost part of, the pavement. Within months I’d scaled the London canals from Tottenham to Victoria Park to Islington to Camden to Kensal Green. I’ve lived in many neighbourhoods but belong to none. It’s funny that I can now empathise with every urban car-owner: where the fuck do I find a parking spot?!
...AND WE’RE NOT MOVING!
Initially, it felt light, airy and fun to have such constant mobility: to decide at any given time to uproot. I’ve learned it’s freeing until it suddenly isn’t, for instance when my engine cut in the middle of the Thames River during a holiday cruise and I got swept up for half and hour in the wrong direction. I’ve been stuck with a broken engine for weeks, rendering me unable to get running water or gas to cook. I’ve splurged on take-aways and been sparse with showers. I’ve even found primal joy boiling water in a cooking pot to bathe.
Last autumn, I decided to travel up the Grand Union Canal, the same route working narrowboats took in the 19th and 20th Century to carry cargo from London to cities like Birmingham and Manchester, only to find out some locks and bridges close in the winter. All the freedoms I’ve associated with boating have temporarily vanished. These days I’m in an involuntary hibernation period, dependent on the cycle of the seasons.
A BALANCING ACT
When I first moved onto Idler, I had a constant fear of drowning. I’d always look out the window panicky to see if I was level with my surroundings, checking that the boat wasn’t drastically tipping backwards. I spent sleepless nights listening for the sounds of drips, gushes, gurgles: is it my imagination or am I slowly but surely sinking into the depths of the Regent’s canal? I once had a nightmare where I woke up underwater with me and my belongings floating, comically suspended...
The reason for my concern is the incredible weight of the engine, located in an engine bay in the back that regularly floods when it rains. This worry led me one stormy night to get up, throw on a rain jacket, grab a bucket, climb into the bay and painstakingly shovel out water. When I told this to a fellow boater, she found it outrageously funny, “The boat doesn’t usually sink after one night of rain. If you’ve got a working bilge pump, don’t worry about it.”
Boats are like seesaws. If there’s too much weight on the port side or starboard side, in the bow or in the stern, the boat tips. Water is filled in a tank in the front whilst the engine, leisure batteries and oven (all heavy!) are located in the back. The first time I ran out of water I genuinely thought the boat was sliding into the canal. At the time I barely owned any furniture and was too scared to buy anything heavy. When I eventually did, I debated furiously where to put it. Never before have I measured my life in such quantifiable terms. I was (and am still) very aware that if the boat goes down, I could lose everything in a single go.
Last summer, I had Idler lifted out of the water for a survey. For such a sturdy, bulky object, seeing her dangle in the air by a crane supported only by straps, I acknowledged how fragile she really was.
The hull is the bottom of the boat: its steel shell. I learned that a narrowboat’s base is only 8mm thick and as it sits in water 24/7, so much constantly eats away at it. In addition, boats rust from the inside out. I was told that while there was nothing wrong with the hull, it would need to be over-plated (patched up) in a couple of years. I regret not paying more attention to it at the time. It proved to me no matter its size or age, a boat’s structural foundation is always susceptible to damage. It definitely threatens the stability of our floating homes.
Whenever I’m driving, I find it astonishing that tiny propellers can push forward such large things. The mechanics of it all still amazes me. For those who truly understand their boats, who can approximate its size and weight, navigating the canals isn’t hard. Still to this day, I’m not a great driver and worse still at mooring. I try to get Idler roughly to my destination, slow down, panic, leap with a rope onto the mainland and pull it, using my entire body weight to yank it to a stop. I know, I will break my back one day. It just shows that a gliding boat is effortless to handle: pulling and dragging one is a whole other issue.
Working the locks is easily my favourite part of boating. Locks are gates that push about bodies of water, allowing your home ascend or descend the countryside. I’ve come to see them as water stairways. In a world where I am constantly online, the manual work of boating is fun, especially getting to work historic wooden constructions built more than a hundred years ago. They’re like museum artefacts that I for some reason have permission to use.
There are many different types of people on the canals. Out here on the Grand Union, I’ve met many older boaters who are divorced or burdened by health problems. They’ve found refuge, condolence even on the waters usually with a dog or two. “The river is full of broken people,” I once heard in passing, and this resonates with some of the folks I’ve met. As a lifestyle choice, boating doesn’t always seem to be all that breezy.
I recently met a young man who had been homeless until he’d decided to reclaim a sunken boat. I’d passed several whilst cruising and always felt a sense of remorse. Boaters always talk about boats like they’re people. The previous owners who sold me Idler told me smiling that they really felt I would be able to look after her. I’ve started to see Idler like a family member as much as a home or vehicle. Therefore to see one sitting at the bottom of the canal, dejected and broken, is sad. But boats are, so to speak, reclaimed and for him to spend days shovelling water out to bring her back up to the surface of the water is uplifting: he wasn’t just trying to find a home, he was giving her a second chance in life.
There’s more than just sunken boats at the bottom of the canals. Several times I’ve passed families who magnet-fish: they attach magnets to the end of fishing rods to collect metallic objects from the bottom which they try to sell. I once had to jump in the water to push Idler out of the mud and felt so many things with my feet, probably able to slice my soles wide open. It’s astonishing to me that there are a plethora of things just lying at the bottom of these rivers forgotten for decades, centuries even.
Ellie Steiner is a screenwriter and artist based in and around London. She writes short and feature scripts and watches a wide range of films.