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I'm a 34 year old who lives on a boat in the canals of England. It was the least expensive way to buy a home and allows me to lead an extraordinary life.

Jordan Pandy   

I'm a 34 year old who lives on a boat in the canals of England. It was the least expensive way to buy a home and allows me to lead an extraordinary life.
  • Elizabeth Earle is a freelance author and illustrator in England who lives on a 70-foot narrowboat.
  • Because she doesn't have a steady income, she was unable to qualify for a mortgage.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Elizabeth Earle, 34, about her experience living on a 70-foot narrowboat from the 1920s in the English countryside since April 2022. Earle is an author and illustrator from Warwickshire, England. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Living on a boat was an absolute accident.

In 2017 while I was living in Australia, I'd been in contact with these two American brothers and they'd been living on a sailboat traveling the world the past 10 years creating content and putting it out there. They would occasionally look for a crew and they asked me if I'd like to sail with them from South Africa to Brazil. I agreed.

I thought, I could do that. I'm going to live on a boat. I bought a hurricane-destroyed sailboat in the Caribbean with my bank overdraft. I think it came to £8,000 and I only had half of it so I had to sell everything I owned. I moved to the Caribbean, renovated this boat, and adopted a street dog who hated sailing.

I had to make a choice of selling the boat and keeping the dog, or getting rid of the dog and carrying on with this worldwide trip. I chose the dog.

I managed to renovate the boat to a certain point to resell her, cut my losses, returned to England and then I fell in love with canal boats. I bought a shell of a boat for £3,800, once again using my bank overdraft, and renovated her for two years and then lived on her for a year and sold her for £22,500.

I spent a lot of money on her. I made a lot of mistakes with some cowboy builders, so really the money that I made out of her is probably the money that I put into her renovation and the mistakes.

None of the money was wasted, it still went back into my pocket and went towards what is now a beautiful 70-foot, 1920s boat. Now I've got a piece of canal history.

I bought her from my friend and paid £35,000 in total. Her official name is Malvern, but I nicknamed her Maggie because it's far more friendly.

Why I chose to live on a boat instead of paying a mortgage

I think the mortgage process favors people who have a stable job, a guaranteed wage from an employer, or if you are in a partnership with someone or married. It does not favor the solo, self-employed, slightly hungover, 30-something artist from the Midlands.

You usually have to show proof of an income over a certain amount of years, and then you save up a deposit of about 10% or 20% to apply for a mortgage. Bob's your uncle. But this is why there's a stereotypical view of the starving artist. The price for a house in England is a bit ridiculous at the moment.

Even if you're able to save £200 a month, how on earth are you going to save £20,000 towards a mortgage? It feels so unattainable compared to how our parents did it. So more and more young people look at alternative ways to live, whether in boats, vans, or sailboats.

I know it sounds really ridiculous, but as long as I can survive through this month, the possibilities are endless.

I don't have a mortgage, but I still have monthly expenses to pay

There are several things you need to live the boat life.

You can either choose to be in a marina, or you can live on The Cut — that's what we nicknamed the canal. That's what I do. You have to move every two weeks, but you live for free. You don't have to pay any rent, you don't have to pay anything. It's a harder way of life but it forces you to travel. It forces you to see more of the country.

A big expense will be your canal and river trust license, which for me is £650 every six months. On top of that I pay £350 quarterly for my diesel. I have diesel to run my engine and that tops off my batteries. And on top of that is coal for the fireplace. A bag of coal for me is about £8 a bag, and it lasts me two and a half days.

I also pay about £100 a year for third-party insurance on my boat. If I smash into another boat, they're covered. If my boat sinks, I'm not covered.

Life on a boat is much more exciting than any ordinary life

One of my favorite things about living on a boat is that I can just be cruising somewhere and find a nice pub along The Cut. As soon as you tie up, you step off and you are meeting all these people from the boating community and it just feels so very wholesome. You go in and it's like you have main character energy at all times.

I just want to lead an extraordinary life and if the opportunity comes to find an extraordinary place to live, whether it's a lighthouse, or a castle, or a blacksmith's forge for another story, then that would be exciting to me.

But something has to come with making my story even better. My story won't be better by getting a two-bedroom flat or a three-bedroom semi-detached house in the country.

It's like with exes. You split with someone and you have to get with someone better, haven't you? You can't go with someone that was worse than your ex.

I think your living experience should be like a love story and you should want better for yourself. Whether in your job or your living environment. I'm always looking for something better and if I do find something better than Maggie, like a giant pirate ship somewhere or a castle, then that would be great.

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