I lived afloat on my 62’ narrowboat James No 194 for six and a half wonderful years. Many boat owners will tell you with a wry smile that B.O.A.T. is an acronym. It stands for Bung In Another Thousand. It’s true that boat ownership can be expensive, but how do the costs compare with a motorhome?
I’ve listed and broken down our costs for a three month period for each. Both are the costs for living on board full time. In both boat and motorhome we spent a fair amount of time cruising or touring rather than sitting in one spot for weeks or months on end. In case you’re unfamiliar with either my boat or our motorhome, here’s a little about each.
James No 194 was a very comfortable and superbly equipped boat for living on board off grid. The craft was 62’ long, weighed twenty tonnes and had a fifty feet long cabin.
There was a solid fuel stove burning coal briquettes and a backup central heating system which used diesel. Electrical power on board was stored in 4 x 160ah AGM batteries. There was another separate 110ah lead acid battery reserved exclusively for starting the engine. When the engine was running, a 70 amp alternator charged both the starter and the leisure battery bank.
A very efficient 300 watt solar array also charged both battery banks. The solar array would provide all of our electrical power in the summer months. We rarely had to resort to starting the engine to charge the batteries. During the winter, if we weren’t cruising, we would need to run the engine for an hour or two each day.
The boat was powered by a forty year old 42hp Mercedes OM636 which used an average of 1.37 litres per hour.
Over the three months we cruised 482 miles and passed through 253 locks.
Our new home is a Hymer B754. It’s 30’ long including the bike rack and weighs between five and five and a half tonnes.
Both water and central heating is provided a gas powered blown air system. Cooking is also on gas.
We don’t quite have the electrics right in the motorhome yet. There are just two 100ah leisure batteries, plus a separate starter battery powered by the engine alternator or a single 100 amp solar panel. We can’t keep the batteries topped up using solar and alternator unless we travel for at least a couple of hours a day. As our 2.9 JTD FIAT engine burns fifteen litres an hour, we use a petrol generator rather than the engine to keep the batteries topped up.
Other motorhome owners have written to me to suggest that we shouldn’t be using so much power. To be honest, I don’t see how we can use any less. We both spend two or three hours on most days on either MacBook and iPad. My MacBook is also used for an hour or two each evening to watch DVDs from our library of British sitcoms.
Apart from that, all of our lights are LEDs and only necessary lights are turned on in the evening. We have a 12v charger for the MacBook which has two USB ports which we can also use to charge our iPhones and Cynthia’s iPad.
Although the sun shines most of the time here in the south of France, it isn’t strong enough over the winter to generate enough power via our single solar panel. We are considering adding another one or two solar panels and an extra leisure battery.
Narrowboat Expenses October to December 2015
Mooring fees are arguably the largest ongoing expense on the inland waterways. If you plan to travel continuously, you don’t need a fixed mooring. However, you might want the luxury of having a “home” to return to when you’ve had enough of travelling, or during the winter months when the weather’s too cold or miserable to cruise in, when ice stops any movement on the canals at all, or when sections of the network are closed for winter maintenance.
You will need a regular mooring if you plan to live on your boat and travel to and from work. Most advertised moorings are leisure moorings. You will want a residential mooring. You can live on a residential mooring, but not a leisure mooring. Good residential moorings are hard to find. They also cost more than leisure moorings.
Because I worked at Calcutt Boats, I was able to live on my boat there. Calcutt Boats do not offer residential moorings. My leisure mooring was £2,600 a year. A residential mooring is likely to be more than this, but the cost depends on facilities and location. Pro rata, the cost from October to December for my mooring was £650.
Both the engine and the Webasto central heating system ran on diesel. The Webasto was used as a secondary heat source in addition to the coal burning solid fuel stove. Last winter was fairly mild, so the central heating system was generally only on for a two or three hours each morning.
The engine used an average of 1.37 litres per hour. I’m not sure about the Webasto, but I think it used about 0.3 litres per hour once it was up to temperature.
Total for all diesel £375
The boat’s primary heating was the solid fuel stove. I didn’t use wood in the stove. It just wasn’t an efficient fuel. The Canal & River Trust, the canal network’s governing body, often have to fell trees as part of their ongoing maintenance programme. They log the trees and leave them for passing boaters. Unfortunately, freshly cut ash or oak needs to dry for two years before the moisture has reduced enough for the wood to be used as an effective fuel.
Coal briquettes are a much better fuel. They are readily available at boatyards along the network and are relatively cheap. My stove was on twenty four hours a day from mid October until April. A 25kg bag would last me about two and a half days.
Narrowboats use propane rather than butane gas because it freezes at a lower temperature. The gas is stored in uninsulated external steel lockers so the cylinders are exposed to sub zero nights and days during the winter months.
If it’s only used for cooking, gas lasts a long time. Cynthia probably spent three or four hours a day cooking, but a single 13kg cylinder would last about two and a half months. Beware though if you are thinking about buying a boat with gas heating as a primary heat source. I used 38kg (74.48 litres) of propane in ten days when I stayed on a Calcutt Boats’ hire boat while my own boat was out of the water to have some major work done.
Maintenance and Repair
I have always been hopeless with home maintenance. I can’t do the simplest things without something falling apart or failing to work. I decided a long time ago to leave this kind of work to the professionals. Consequently, my repairs and maintenance expenditure is much higher than someone who is more “hands on”.
My expenditure during this three month period is also high because I had two major alterations made to the boat.
I had a diesel central heating system installed. A solid fuel stove was the boat’s main heat source, but the stove was at the front of the fifty feet long cabin. Consequently the back of the boat was decidedly chilly in the winter. Our bedroom was at the back of the boat. This was the coldest section, but not the biggest problem. We simply used a heavy duty duvet on cold winter nights.
The real problem was my office. I would sit there for up to ten hours at a time typing. Wiggling my fingers wasn’t a very effective way to generate body heat so I was often quite cold.
I had four radiators installed and a Webesto diesel burner installed. The largest of the radiators was fitted under my office desk. The office was very cosy after that.
Central heating system installation £1,311
The second major maintenance expense was converting the engine’s cooling system from raw water to keel cooled.
I had no end of problems with the original raw water system. The water outlet failed twice, which rapidly filled the engine bay with canal water was still being pumped in to the boat. The result would have been catastrophic if I had been on a river without anywhere convenient to moor and turn off the engine. Fortunately I was on a canal at the time, but in the five minutes before the system failure and turning the engine off, the engine bilge filled with 200-300 litres of canal water.
The wet exhaust system was also very noisy. Normal conversation at the helm was impossible because of the loud hissing as water was expelled from the exhaust. Walkers on the towpath could hear my boat several hundred metres before I arrived.
Changing from raw water to keel cooling involved having a steel tank the same size as a very large domestic radiator constructed on the outside of the hull beneath the waterline next to the engine.
I also had a hospital silencer fitted at the same time. The engine was whisper quiet after that.
I also had some bespoke joinery done. Cynthia needed somewhere handy to store here herbs and spices. A beautiful and elaborate sapele spice rack cost £240.
I bought three ludicrously expensive Mercedes belts, some weed hatch tape, five litres of oil for the thirsty engine and a replacement stainless steel chimney cap to replace the one lost to an overhanging willow.
Total repairs and maintenance £3,319.69
Waterways Breakdown Membership
I’m not capable of fixing anything myself, so I have to pay people to do it for me. Breakdown cover is essential for people like me. There is only one breakdown service on the inland waterways. It’s provided by River Canal Rescue. I had mixed feelings about their service. Their office administration let them down. They lost my details twice and failed to record an agreed service date on another occasion. However, the service from their engineers was first class.
RCR Gold Membership £209
Total narrowboat expenditure from October to December 2015 = £4,245.69
Motorhome Expenses October to December 2016
This isn’t something we’ve used yet, but it’s an expense that we will incur every year, so I thought I would throw it in to the mix. We’ll be exploring Europe’s warmer countries during the winter months, then returning to the Netherlands – for now – to put the Hymer to bed and prepare our boat for some serious summer cruising.
The marina at Eastermar is where we’ll keep both boat and bus. Six months secure, undercover storage for the Hymer is going to cost us a very reasonable €350.
Considering the vehicle’s weight, the Hymer’s fuel consumption is pretty good, which is just as well considering the mileage we’ve done.
We’ve travelled a little further in three months in the motorhome than we did in three months in the boat, but we’re getting better at driving fewer miles. In October I drive from the UK to the Netherlands to collect Cynthia, then we raced around the Dutch countryside for a few weeks before whizzing through Belgium into northern France. The total for the month was 1,933 miles. In November, we drove the length of France exclusively on narrow country D roads then, in a moment of madness, decided to use the faster toll roads to reach Malaga as quickly as possible. We clocked up another 1,680 miles in November.
We began to slow down in December. After what we considered a fairly unpleasant and very brief stay in Spain, we raced back to France along the wallet draining AP-7 coastal toll road, breathed a sigh of relief, and entered a more leisurely stage of our motorhome adventure. We covered 1,406 miles in December, but eight hundred and twenty eight of those were over the first three days of the month on our journey back to France. Over the rest of the month we averaged just eighteen miles a day.
5,019 miles at a cost of £0.19 per mile
Repairs and Maintenance
Our repairs and maintenance total hasn’t been too bad considering my inability to fix anything. We began in October with an MOT and headlight bulb replacement. The same headlight failed again just two weeks later. We had the cause identified and the bulb replaced again. The headlight has been fine since then.
At the same time the headlight failed, the digital odometer and tripmeter also failed. The fuel gauge developed a mind of its own at the same time. Resolving this issue will probably involve a return visit to the UK to a specialist in Preston towards the end of this year. We’re expecting the bill to be about £500
The next issue was an ongoing problem with the starter battery. The positive lead disconnected itself from the battery on four different occasions. We called the AA out twice in Devon, and then two different garages in France via our Saga breakdown cover. The cause was finally identified and resolved by a very clever French mechanic with a welder.
The final problem of the year was the galley tap which fell apart. Fitting a replacement cost £122.
The final major item of expenditure in this category probably shouldn’t be there at all, but I didn’t know where else to put it.
I drove through a supermarket car washing area, not noticing on the way out that I had caught the lance and hose on my wing mirror. The rubber hose stretched a long, long way before the lance slipped off my mirror bracket and launched itself like a rocket at the car wash frame. Replacing the broken lance and lance stand cost me £360.02.
I won’t be driving through any more car washes.
France spoils motorhome owners. Many towns and villages provide dedicated and often fully serviced overnight parking areas for motorhomes. There is a charge to use them in very popular or busy areas, but they are often free of charge. These facilities are called “aires”
We began our motorhome life in the Netherlands. The Netherlands doesn’t have any aires, but it does have plenty of campsites. Campsites are far more expensive to stay on than aires.
During our first few weeks while we were finding our feet we stayed at camp sites. The sites cost an average of £20 a night. When we reached France we mainly stayed at aires. When we flew down to Spain and back at the end of November and the beginning of December we were disappointed to find that, although there are a few aires in Spain, there are only a fraction of the number that France has, and they all charge a fee. Many of the Spanish aires also had gates which were closed at night. Closed gates in Spain actually made us feel less secure than no gates in France.
Half of December’s total was spent on Spanish aires on our way back to France. In the last month, we’ve only stayed five nights on aires with charges. The latest, a five minute walk from beautiful Peyriac-de-Mer’s town centre charges just €5 (£4.26) a night. The potable water tap doesn’t have a thread on it so I have to use a 10l jerrycan to top up our tank, there’s nowhere to dispose of grey water other than on the grass, and the black water disposal point is under a manhole cover in the road, but we love it. We can be in the sleepy town centre, next to a bird filled lagoon, or on a mountain trail within five minutes and, because the facilities require a little more work than other aires, we pretty much have the site to ourselves. We are the only motorhome here at the moment on a site which will comfortably hold twenty.
- October £179.25
- November £72.16
- December £77.72
Total campsite and aire fees for three months £329.13
I know that you aren’t supposed to stay overnight at motorway service stations, but I was tired and didn’t see any signs telling me I couldn’t. Unfortunately, because I was travelling, I didn’t have access to my post.
Over a month had elapsed before we reached Malaga and a waiting bag of letters kindly forwarded by Calcutt Boats. The fine was originally £60 for prompt settlement. The charge rose to £100 for less than prompt settlement and then £140 once the authorities had instructed debt collectors.
I have learned my lesson and promise not to do it again.
I used the Channel Tunnel seven times in the last five months of 2016, but only made one return trip between October and December. The tunnel is very quick and easy to use, but it can be expensive if you get it wrong. The costs mount up even more if you have a pet or two with you.
At the end of October I needed to nip back to the UK to arrange travel insurance for Cynthia and I. I managed to get a good deal on a one day return, but then had to pay £18 per dog each way. Half of the total below is for Tasha and Florence, which is a shame because I couldn’t take Tasha with me. I couldn’t take Cynthia either. Cynthia wasn’t allowed into the UK because of visa restrictions, and Tasha couldn’t enter because of an error on her pet passport, although the French authorities had already allowed her back into the UK twice on the same passport.
Please note that waiting until the last minute to book a channel tunnel crossing can be ruinously expensive. I made that mistake once and paid nearly twice the rate I paid when booking several weeks in advance
In the Hymer, gas is used for central heating, water heating and cooking. We spent £600 having a Gaslow system fitted back in March. We knew that we were going to spend a considerable time on the continent, and knew that exchanging Calor gas bottles would be impossible. The Gaslow system allows us to use fuel stations LPG pumps to top up our gas tanks pretty much as you would fill your car with either petrol or diesel. You need a set of adaptors to use LPG pumps on the continent. These were provided with the initial installation. Another advantage is the price. A 13kg (25.48 litres) propane cylinder costs about £27 in the UK so it’s roughly £1.06 a litre. LPG pump prices in Spain and France have ranged between £0.51 and £0.65 a litre. The Gaslow system has saved us a fortune and enabled us to fill our tanks easily. There are plenty of LPG stations around. We use this excellent site to find out where they are.
Wherever possible we avoid paying tolls. We paid one toll to use a tunnel in the Netherlands. During two months in France we haven’t used any toll roads at all. In fact, we’ve used quieter D roads wherever possible. We’ve had a few interesting moments in the mountains, but the views and the villages we’ve passed through have been wonderful.
We drove from France down to the south of Spain and back at the beginning of December. We needed to reach Malaga for an appointment so used the AP-7 toll road to ensure we made the appointment. After a couple of days in Malaga and a stolen bike, we decided to return to France as quickly as possible. We used the AP-7 again.
We have a Honda EU20i suitcase generator we use for battery charging and to power the blender Cynthia uses to prepare her daily cancer remedy
We stayed a couple of nights on a sea front car park in the Netherlands. The fee was a bargain for overnight parking next to an expansive beach.
Our TomTom decided on a particularly scenic route for us in the Netherlands, which involved a half hour wait for a five minute river crossing on a car ferry.
Make what you will of these figures. They’re the actual amounts spent over a three month period for both motorhome and narrowboat. I hope that they are of some use to you if you are considering either lifestyle.
I have already compiled an extensive resource for anyone considering living afloat. It’s my Narrowbudget Gold package. There are three digital guides totalling five hundred pages. All of my expenditure for a complete year is included in one of the guides and as a sample work sheet in a bespoke narrowboat budget calculator.