CodeTalk interview - living and working on a narrowboat

| 4 min read

I was honoured to be a guest again on CodeTalk, this time on the topic of living & working on my narrowboat. The primary format for CodeTalk is audio (podcast), and there's also a video from the actual interview recording. But I'd also made some notes so here's a text version too.

First, what is a narrowboat, how long have you been on one, and where are you right now?

Well the key word is in the name. It's a boat that's narrow. Technically speaking, it has a narrow beam, "beam" being the term for the widest point of a boat or ship. A narrow beam boat is one where the beam is between 6'10" and 7'.

All the measurements that one speaks about in narrowboating and canal contexts are in old fashioned units. Distance, when calculating canal routes, is measured in miles and furlongs!

By the way, folks might have heard of "wide beam" boats, which hopefully makes more sense now that we have that context of what a narrow beam boat is - in other words, a wide beam boat is one that's wider than 7', typically 10' or even 12'.

Both wide and narrow beam canal boats are flat bottomed and typically between 40 and 70 feet long, and are designed to be used on the canal systems in the UK.

The restriction on width does come from the width of the canals themselves, in parts, but more critically from the width of the locks. Many wide beam canal boats are only able to traverse parts of the canal network.

The locks are where there's also a length restriction of course (between the top and bottom gates of a lock). My narrowboat is 57' feet long, which means I can use any lock on the network, i.e. my passage is not restricted and I can travel the entire canal network.

I've been living and working aboard since late spring last year, and I'm currently on the western stretch of the Leeds & Liverpool canal, somewhere between Ormskirk and Liverpool.

You're home-office based, what does that mean on a narrowboat?

Actually there's not much difference between being home-office based in a house, and in a narrowboat. I have my desk area, and work from there. I do all my work as a Developer Advocate from here, and broadcast my live streams from here too.

I guess the only difference is that when I have to travel for work, for example to go to deliver a CodeJam, or to attend or speak at an event, I like to make sure my narrowboat is safe, so rather than leave it just moored up somewhere on the canal, I have to plan ahead and work out a short stay in a marina, which means calling them up to inquire about availability, but more importantly working out the route and how long it will take to get there.

The speed of a narrowboat is only around 4 miles an hour - walking pace, more or less. And as a single-hander, going through locks and passing through swing bridges, both of which you have to operate yourself, can each take anywhere between 15 and 30 mins.

How are you connected - can you talk me through the setup?

I have a data plan with a mobile provider here in the UK. It's an "all you can eat" plan, which means I don't have to worry, and the coverage around the country is decent - that's a consideration given the fact that much of the canal network winds through beautiful countryside as well as towns and cities.

So for my gateway, i.e. the device that sits between my local area network on the narrowboat, and the wide area network of the Internet, I have a 4G router, which takes a micro SIM card. It's just like a router you'd have for ADSL or fibre broadband, except that the WAN comes in over the cellular network rather than a copper or fibre cable connection.

But the killer component is my external antenna, which is a small box about the size of a hardback book, mounted on the roof of my narrowboat. This is connected to my router, and really boosts the signal, giving me perfectly usable upload and download speeds pretty much wherever I am.

The external antenna supports the 4G frequencies and also the 5G frequencies; it's actually just the router itself that is limited to 4G. There are routers that support 5G but they're still prohibitively expensive at the moment. But you can get great speeds from 4G, in the tens of megabits up as well as down, sometimes. I wrote a blog post on the setup here that folks might be interested in: Working from a narrowboat - Internet connectivity. It's actually part of a series of posts, so if you want to find out more, and have a look at the internal layout and so on, there's more to read.

Has there been anything in your land-based working life that you haven't been able to do?

Not really. I think on the whole, my life is simple, and I like it that way. I guess the one thing is related to what I mentioned before; I can't just suddenly decide to take off and go somewhere for a few days, where I'd otherwise just lock up the house and go.

While some folks do leave their narrowboats locked up on the side of the canal, I prefer an additional level of peace of mind by keeping it in a marina while I'm away.

I'm in a marina right now in fact. I arrived here the other day, in readiness for my travels next week to Germany to deliver a couple of CodeJams in the Frankfurt area.

What's next, where's next?

Well when I'm back from this next trip, I'll be leaving the marina and heading first east, back towards Burscough Bridge, and then turning left to go north on the Rufford branch of the Leeds & Liverpool canal. After that I'm going to start heading south, first back along the Bridgewater canal, and then on to the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union canal, via a section on the Trent & Mersey canal. To give you an idea of scale, I plan to get to the Shropshire Union canal by summer this year.

Everything moves at a different pace on the canal :-)