Learning to live without

New boaters Emma and Joe share the ups and downs of their first year on the water, from practical challenges and adapting to small space living to those ‘pinch me’ moments.

Illustration by Matt Lincoln

Words by Nick Herrmann

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“This morning I heard bubbles under the boat and I was like, ‘Oh my god we’re sinking, there’s water coming in, there’s water coming in!’” Emma laughs. “I live in fear of sinking, don’t I?” Joe nods, “I have dreams about it.”

After a six-month trip across Mexico, North America and Canada, Emma and Joe decided to buy a houseboat, leaving behind the spacious flat they rented in the centre of Bath where Emma works at a bookstore called Mr B’s.

As I step aboard their boat, my first impression is how cosy it is: they’ve done a lot of work to turn it into a home. It doesn’t feel like a boat – Joe jokes that it’s more of a ‘long chalet’. A log stove fills the space with a heavy warmth. Custom shelves squirrel away the books Emma brings home from work. There’s a sizeable kitchen where chef Joe hones his skills. A cupboard has been transformed into a shared workspace – a nook just big enough for a desk and chair.

Everything has its place. Emma explains the need for creativity in a compact space: “You’ve got to utilise every bit of it. It’s one thing I really love: small space living. You just don’t need a great big house. It’s amazing what you learn to live without.”

In town, they were on autopilot, stuck in routines of work and TV. “We came back from travelling and things were the same,” says Emma. “We’d gone back to this life that actually we weren’t happy in.” A houseboat offered an escape – a sense of freedom, simplicity and adventure.

Joe had always wanted to live on a boat, but had no experience. Emma spent her childhood walking by the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, but her only boat experience was aged eight when her family hired one for the day and her grandfather crashed it into the bank. Acquiring a houseboat, and getting it to Bath, was tricky. “We spent months searching,” Emma says. “We literally went up and down the country.”

“Miles and miles,” says Joe, his voice distant. Most of the boats were in disrepair. Eventually, they found a suitable one in Hackney and the seller brought it to Reading. “We barely had any time with her,” says Emma. Joe laughs. “We were on the boat for 20 minutes, and then she said, ‘OK, bye.’”

Immediately, they had to navigate a lock, then over a hundred more in the space of a week. At one point their propeller came off, then the whole engine started to come loose. “By the end of the journey,” says Emma, “We were like: that’s it, I’m stuck here because I’m not doing that again.” They both laugh. “Now it’s a bit like what they say about childbirth. You know: how they say you just forget the pain?”

Emma and Joe are roughly my age, early 30s. I wanted to talk to them because something about their decision strikes me as generational. We inherited a different world from the one our parents were given. Our systems are set up for previous generations, many of whom tended to remain in one career, or at least working for the same company, all their lives. They often had better salaries and greater access affordable housing. They stayed put.

Those opportunities are no longer available, giving millennials a more nomadic mindset. I ask Emma and Joe if they think their houseboat is part of the zeitgeist – a reaction against a prescribed live-to-work ethos that’s no longer valid. Emma agrees there are commonalities: “I watched my dad work six days a week for the whole of my childhood. That is definitely factored in to the life that I want. I don’t want to be paying off a mortgage, I don’t want to be a slave to working all the time.” She looks at Joe. “We were just miserable doing it, weren’t we?”

They’ve learned a lot, and they’re still learning. Right now, the bilge pump isn’t working (“basically the most important part of your boat,” Emma tells us, “it can be the number-one cause of your boat sinking”) but there’s a community around them always happy to help. They’ve spoken to more boaters than they ever did neighbors.

I ask if boat life is more stressful than living in a house. Emma shrugs. “There are things that go wrong, but if you buy a house things go wrong. I feel really chilled out living on the water. We have evenings where we’re just feeding the swans out of the hatch. It’s idyllic. We definitely have these ‘pinch me’ moments.” I ask if it’s fulfilled their expectations – if it’s everything they hoped for when they needed a change. “I’m happy,” says Joe, without hesitation. “Absolutely.”

I step onto land, my torch beam dancing on the towpath. The titanium waters of the Kennet & Avon ripple as we make our way back to Bath. The city clings to the hills, lights trembling and clustered together as if afraid of the dark. Younger generations are said to have fewer options: shorter job placements, lower salaries, higher house prices. But maybe these limitations don’t have to be disadvantages. Maybe they’re enabling us to live more creatively, more openly – giving us the space to listen to our dreams, and the courage to cast off and make them happen.

Posted on 22/11/2019