Justina Hart blog image showing inside of boat

Author Afloat: one year on

The story so far: a freelance writer and editor for 20+ years, I jumped ship in April 2015 from bricks and mortar to live on a historic narrowboat – currently permanently moored in a busy marina in greenest Staffordshire.

At 4am on 24 March 2015 I began life as an author afloat. That night I moved from living in a two-bedroom flat in a castellated, eighteenth-century building, complete with my own gargoyle and turrets, to dwelling in a nineteenth-century coal-pulling butty barge (restored in 2007). To say it was a bit of a shift is an understatement.

Let me tell you about some of the ways in which life has changed for me over the past year … But please don’t assume that all people living on boats feel these things: some are no doubt very personal to me and to our unusual boat.

Top 6 differences I’ve discovered in life afloat

1. A falling away of the desire to be, do and have pretty well anything I don’t have already
Within three weeks of moving in I suddenly felt very content with my lot. I remember thinking, ‘It might be nice to have a dishwasher or a garden’ – things I’ve never had except in my childhood – ‘or to travel to Venice or Cuba, but I don’t need to have or do any of these.’ All angst and desire fell away and a lovely feeling of freedom emanated from this. I felt absolutely content with the simplicity of my new life. A year on I’m starting to want new things and experiences again, but this is based still on knowing that I don’t need any of them to be happy. They’re add-ons not necessities.

2. A closer relationship with the weather and more weather altogether
From a narrowboat’s windows you generally look out and up at the weather, which gives the impression there’s more of it. We’re almost in the weather. Sometimes I think that living on our boat is like a glamped up version of glamping. This means that my experience of the English summer weather in 2015 was that it was sunnier and better on the whole than most people said it was (if you recall, most people said it was ‘rubbish’). This is because I was aware of every one of those sunshiney days. The reverse is also true – I’ve seen more bad weather than you, and didn’t sleep well for months during the many storms.

3. Less screen time and less over-work
Here’s a slightly alarming diary entry from 2014 before I moved in, when I recorded my chap saying to me, ‘Anyone who works from 10.00am to 2.00am without many breaks will feel fuggy and ill.’ Those working hours were occasionally mine, and that was in a year when I’d suffered a bad case of burn-out and was meant to be recovering from it. In spite of all the good things that happened that year – such as starting my online Writing Club on top of doing full-time client contracts, thus necessitating long hours, I came to the end of that year and felt that I’d lived it from behind my laptop screen. Since I moved to the boat, though, when 5.00pm rolls round and my chap gets home from work, I have to down tools. Unless I sit in my car with my mobile wifi unit, which I’ve tried once, or go to the late-closing Waitrose cafe, there’s really nowhere to go. I’m happier for it.

Nineteenth-century folly

4. An easier accommodation to living without much space, to the extent that I’ve hardly noticed it

One friend who loves narrowboats decided when looking for alternative living spaces not to live on one because it would feel like ‘living in a coffin’. She warned that I’d feel relief on moving in but entrapment after four or five months. My chap said something quite different before I moved in, ‘It’s weird but you’ll find that the longer you live here the bigger it gets’. Before jumping ship to the boat (have I made that pun before?) I’d lived for five years on my own in a capacious flat. Since moving to the boat, I’ve never experienced it as small – although it’s not grown in size either. And I’ve never felt trapped.

5. An easier adjustment to living on a boat all round

I had no idea before living here whether I’d like it or not. I guessed that I’d feel disquieted for a few weeks or months then would love it, like I used to feel when backpacking; at other times I thought that I’d love it to start with, but then it would pall. To help with the decision, one friend suggested I take a holiday on the boat for a week. Although a good idea, I knew this wouldn’t help me because I wouldn’t be there ‘for real’. I had to wait till the timing felt right, then pack up all my belongings and make the leap. As time’s gone on, I’ve loved it more. In fact, I think I’d like to explore living in other unusual spaces one day. Perhaps this is only the beginning of a bigger adventure.

6. A greater ability to do what I really want to with my life
Living on a boat isn’t as cheap as you’d think, especially if you pay rent in a marina as we do. But living costs are cheaper sharing a boat with someone else than living in a big flat all on my own. I moved in thinking – yay, I can now only do work that I like, and be truly free at last to do my own writing in the way I’ve wanted for 20-odd years. Four months on with not so much trickling in, I had to backtrack. Yet over the course of a year, I have been able to spend more time on my own writing than ever before, do more projects I love, and take on more of the commercial writing I enjoy.

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