Historic narrowboat – copyright Justina Hart 2016

Author Afloat: living the dream

Here’s a dream I wrote down in January under a list of medium-term goals’: ‘Be location independent for a year or more – e.g. narrowboat on the canal plus warmer climes in winter’. There’s a more specific note from a list of goals for 2016 also written this January: ‘Trial moving the boat out of the marina to the canal for a week in spring with a possible plan of travelling south while living and writing/working on the canal network, then spending one to two months in warmer climes in the winter using money saved.’ Phew: that’s quite a plan.

Clearly, this shows that I love sitting by a fire at the turn of the year and dreaming up exotic plans, and that freedom is important to me. It doesn’t say anything about actually achieving them. But what was spooky was earlier this month stumbling across a note from 2002 that says the same thing (that’s 14 whole years ago): ‘Generate income to become a full-time author and then work nine months on and take three months off’ (‘full-time author’ meant making a living writing only what I want, since I’ve always been a full-time writer.)

Should I feel joyed that I’m so consistent, or despondent that I’ve done little to really edge close to that dream for much of this near decade and a half? I don’t blame myself: as a freelancer, it can be hard to lift your head from a nose-to-the-ground cycle of ‘Where’s the next commission/payment coming from?’ It can be tough to stick to grandiose plans because it requires faith that your income will match up.

But, but, but I am edging closer now in 2016, even if with the rain pattering down outside, it doesn’t feel like it. I’m sitting typing this on my laptop in the boat at the end of May while still living in the marina but without having done that trial week. I’m working on getting that novel finished and out into the world. I’m not there yet.

On the other side of the balance, my chap and I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to mend the boat’s engine, which is rather crucial to the whole (ad)venture. The boat has been immoveable for some years, but a couple of Sundays ago we did get her going enough to make it out of our berth and just onto the canal, although even the cygnets swam faster. We moored up, sat in deck chairs on the front of the boat, shared a melted Magnum (the fridge uses the wrong electrical system for cruising), enjoyed a view of cow parsley through the windows, then cruised back again. In fine weather it was delicious.

I’m being hard on myself. Writing this makes me realise that my dream is only a bit of elbow grease, funds for a new engine and 200 metres away. We’re focusing on getting our two sizeable battery banks sorted. Ours is possibly the only 160-year-old electric- and solar-powered boat on the English waterways, so it comes with its own idiosyncrasies. To cruise full-time, we’d also need to buy or sort out a few bits and bobs, such as:

  • a 12-volt different fridge for cruising
  • a second back-up loo
  • some metal stakes for tying the boat up (I don’t know the technical name)
  • a waterways map or three
  • a lesson in basic boat handling skills, as I’ve never properly been out on the water (ahem)

Achieving this almost-within-reach dream has come about in an unexpected way, and doesn’t at all fit what I envisaged. I imagined back in 2002 that I’d be making a nice income from writing regular novels and other books, and would be able to take a chunk of regular time off each year. Back then I didn’t know that books can be erratic, malleable creatures, rather like gods made up of half of one beast and half of another, and that they can take an indeterminate amount of time to write. I didn’t know that I’d still be doing a lot of writing for clients. I assumed I’d be based in a house.

Getting there in this haphazard and long-way-round fashion has taught me that you can achieve your dreams creatively and on a shoestring. The last recession forced my chap (as others) from life on land and onto the water (he considered a retired Routemaster bus or a plane but a boat won out). Yet in the marina with all its lovely facilities, we’re still paying a considerable amount in rent. On the canal network it’s more affordable, meaning that we’d both be free to do our creative work most of the time.

I never expected to live on a narrowboat and had never even set foot on one until my chap bought his in 2010. Invited to live here, I baulked at it until a bad case of burn-out forced me to reassess and seek to de-stress. A year on, I’m still surprised to look out of the window and see ducks not tarmac.

It’s easy to romanticise from this vantage point what it might be like being out on the network travelling rather than living in one place in a marina, in what some live-aboards term a ‘floating flat’. It would be more difficult to deal with emptying the loo, for instance. With fewer creature comforts the winters would be harsher. But I’m forgetting that in my dream I’m not even here for part of the winter. I need to ramp up my dream.

Justina Hart in paradise. Copyright Justina Hart 2016.I’ve been travelling in my mind’s eye for this one to three months away per year to an amorphous, unnamed land of paradisiacal perfection that boasts an intriguing culture. But thinking about it, I’d start by reading blogs by lone female travellers. Ceaseless moving has never interested me but I like the idea of living in one place and picking up the language and culture. I’d rent a house with good wifi in a beautiful place (the mind conjures up a tropical forest near to a sea) and use that as a base. I’d like to run my writing club and other courses remotely, but above all, I’d like to take time off – it’s time on, isn’t it? – to refresh.

Down the line, I long to do writing projects in far-flung parts of the world; to be invited to the Ubud or Tokyo book festivals to read my work – or the International Edible Book Festival (wherever that may be). And I have a long-held dream of spending a year to eighteen months living for two to three months each in six cities around the world, and writing about and photographing the experience.

So we’ll start by mending the engine and doing that trial week before midsummer. Fingers crossed that I like it, as I’ve never been one for a plan B. It does feel risky. What if I hate it? What if I feel cooped up without a room of my own in which to write? What if we leave the marina, our berth is rented out and we can’t come back? We’ll have to push the boat out and find out.


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