Richard Stabbins begins an occasional series on the joys and heartbreaks of living on a boat in the middle of a big city.
It’s early evening on the canal towpath and I’m almost home. My hands are frozen and even getting my bike lock open had me yelping expletives. I cut a dishevelled figure on the dark stretch between Broadway Market and Victoria Park, dimly lit by LED lights of neighbouring boats. Hopping onto the bow of my floating home, crouching my way through the front door, my first thought is: “I’m so glad I’ve got a dog!”. Bruno is an excitable 30kg hound, a blessing in himself. I had stocked the stove that morning with a generous heap of coal to keep him warm. It made me love him even more. It’s been 1 degree all day and, boaters returning to a frozen tin box usually despair for an hour or more at the lack of heating that we can monitor from an app on our phone. Praise be, though – I have a hound!
That contentment does not last long. Backpack stowed away in its spot between front steps and cupboard (every boater knows, space is at the key), I set to washing last night’s dishes. I turn on the taps, hear the boiler kick in, and then that splattering sound that every boat-dweller hates to hear: the water tank is empty! I slump down on to my couch made of old pallets and recycled cushions. The serenity of a warm night with dinner and a book is replaced by the knowledge that I must cruise to the nearest waterpoint. Bruno looks on from his bed with eyes that know what’s coming. At least the batteries are full and I’ve got diesel – a (hopefully) short trip like this will use very little fuel.
First things first, I check the weather forecast on my phone. I know it’s cold, but that’s not the biggest factor – it’s the wind. Google says I’ve got two hours before wind speeds really pick up, so that’s my window to get fuel and safely find a mooring spot elsewhere. It wasn’t long ago that I had been awoken at 05:00 by a fellow boater shouting for help. Wind speeds had suddenly hit eighty-plus mph and several boats had come free from their makeshift moorings (their pegs had been dislodged as there are no mooring rings available in that part of Haggerston). One boat had swung around and was resting horizontally across the canal, blocking anything coming through. Four of usin our pyjamas fought the wind and just about managed to heave in the barge Other boats were tied up to the balcony railings of canalised flats. Ropes stretched across the towpath at neck height like deadly rubber bands – a measure taken temporarily to regain some calm and order.
That feeling of …