Have you ever noticed those strange-looking boats when you’ve been walking along a towpath – the ones that look like giant orange plastic shoes? These distinctive craft are former oil rig lifeboats, built for 90 men and designed to drop into the North Sea from a great height in an emergency, but have since been repurposed for the rather more leisurely life of the canals, almost always capturing the attention of passers-by in the process.
Most of these lifeboats arrived on the canals via Alan Johnston. He began selling oil rig lifeboats from his boatyard near Aberdeen 25 years ago. “I started selling them to the Netherlands,” says Johnston. “I used to cut the tops off – if you’ve been to Amsterdam, you’ll have seen them there on the canals. Then I started to think about keeping the tops on and offering them to the UK public as floating homes. It took off from there.”
The big appeal of the lifeboat is how versatile they are. While some of Alan’s lifeboats have barely changed on the outside – still bright orange, cartoonishly round and lacking very much in the way of windows – others have been beautifully converted for canal life, with new portholes and paint jobs transforming the fibreglass exterior. The space is unconventional, but for owners it’s a floating home as good as any other.
Navvies Ark, a former lifeboat sometimes seen on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, has been given a wooden-effect paint job that looks unnervingly like wooden panelling, while the interior has all the usual mod cons – kitchen, fridge, small double bed, shower – plus a deer’s head on the walls. It has since become one of the most photographed boats on the network. Others boast wet rooms, wood-burning stoves, eye-catching paintwork and, in the case of one often seen around Hackney, rooftop decking.
As with all boats, the main requirement is to optimise the internal space available. The interior of a lifeboat is a little more awkward to deal with than a conventional narrow boat, but the space is certainly there. Although there are variations, most boats are around 10m long by 3.5m wide and were built to accommodate up to 90 people. “It’s a big lump of boat once all the internals are stripped out,” says Johnston.
The conversion can be messy work. Most boats arrive as a shell, slicked with oil and dirt. The owner has to clean this out then install all the necessary facilities – including electricity, water and gas for cooking and heating. The next challenge is the fit-out, which means dealing with the bulbous shape and ensuring sufficient windows are installed. Once that’s complete, you have a boat as snug and habitable as any other – albeit with a more unorthodox appearance and history.
The conversion of life boats also brings environmental benefits. Before Johnston began recycling the crafts, they tended to be scrapped by the big oil rig operators. “They used to just go to waste,” he says. “Some still put them in landfill. I said ‘Why are you doing this? It’ll cost you to scrap it but I’ll give you some money and the boat will have a new life.’” Few lifeboats have ever been used for their original purpose while some have never been to sea at all, having been replaced by newer models or commissioned for oil rigs that never got built. In some ways, they are the floating equivalent of the huge container crates now used for pop-up shops and restaurants all over the UK.
Lifeboats were built with bench seating, straps and harnesses. Because they were designed to be dropped from oil rig platforms, they are submersible and therefore watertight and fully enclosed. Johnston thinks this works in their favour. “What you are buying is a totally unsinkable boat,” he says. “It’s also double insulated and has an almost brand new engine because lifeboats barely do anything. It’s fibreglass, which doesn’t rot or rust. When you have a fibreglass boat you have it for life. The bottom needs to be treated like every other boat but you don’t have to get it re-plated or the rust ground off.”
But what about the orange colour? “Well, a lot of people seem to put them straight on the canal as they are and, as you can see for yourself, a big orange thing sticks out a mile,” Johnston admits. “But look at it this way, if it was painted green or black it would be a different boat altogether. I did one a month or two ago with a black hull and light blue top and it looked a completely different vessel.” For many owners, however, the paint job isn’t the priority, with their focus devoted to the interior.
So, whether you like the luminous colour or not, keep an eye out for these distinctive submarines on the nation’s waterways in the coming years.
If we have inspired you to think about getting a lifeboat be sure to check out the engine first as these crafts weren’t designed to navigate the canals. We just wanted to offer a friendly word of advice as boats which aren’t intended to move need a mooring and it’s important to get this before buying one to live on.
Lifeboat living: FAQs
What are the dimensions of a converted lifeboat?
Lifeboats – or to give them their official name, Survival Craft – come in a variety of shapes and sizes. One has been sighted in London that is circular, with a 4m diameter. In general, they are between 24 feet (7.3m) and 34.4 feet (10.5m) in length, with a width of between 9 (2.75m) and 11.4 feet (3.5m), making them wider than a standard narrowboat.
How big are they inside?
The interior height is generally between 6.5 foot (2m) and 7.7 foot (2.4m).
How much do they weigh?
They can weigh between 4.5 and 10 tons.
What kind of engine do they have?
As the craft are produced by a variety of manufacturers, they also do not have a standard engine: popular engine types include Lister, Mitsubishi, Ford, Perkins, Sabb and Bukh.
What about the electrics?
They have 12v wiring but will need to be adapted for 240v fitted.