What is this narrowboat life?

What is this narrowboat life?


I said I’d have a go at the How and Why of narrowboat life. This is a bit of that.

I discovered narrowboats when living in London in the 1990s. Wandering around Maida Vale and Camden, the canal is just there. I’ve always enjoyed, no, loved, anything to do with boats. I grew up sailing dinghies in the ocean, and seem to fall in love with any boat or yacht I can get my hands on.

Back a couple of years, I got to try out narrowboating for about six months over winter. And I loved it.

Narrowboating – living aboard, is a very Elemental way to live. By that I mean — close to the elements: Water, Air, Fire, Earth. Hot and cold are close. Off grid. A walk to the car if you even have one close. Birds: ducks, geese, swans everywhere. The canals are rich with life and often seem like nature corridors through urban places.

As a life, it is less safe (in the way that my home is afloat, and like any boat, could sink), and more engaged. It is less easy to hide in a nice warm house and binge Netflix. There’s more agency here. That sometimes looks like logistics (ie. carrying stuff from place to place) but that’s not so bad for somebody who works in front of a laptop. I need that physical stuff.

Now, let’s talk about Engineering. I’m an Engineer. I like making things and solving engineering problems: Electrics, mechanical stuff, batteries, engines, solar panels — all materials I like to work with. Boats are great for this stuff. There’s always something that needs work or a problem to solve.

Adventure. I need some adventure in my life. What’s around the next bend in the canal? Where will I stop for the night? Like hiking, but I’m taking my home with me. I like maps, mapping, finding places, exploring.

Yes, adventure, but not in an Indiana Jones kind of way. The pace of things here on the canals is slow. Narrowboats move slowly (about walking pace). Locks take time to fill and empty. Filling with water takes time. Opening and closing lock gates is a constant lesson in applying energy carefully. Moving a 57foot many-ton steel boat needs to be done with patience and care.

I like this life. It sure isn’t for everyone. For me, it is just right.

Truths for Now


As truth lies bleeding on the floor
the greedy grasp evermore

I sense disquiet in my friends, in me:
What to believe? what to do?

Silence, disbelief, despair, and then:
Feet flat on the earth
Standing Strong in life
With hearty common sense
These are my truths for now:

  • Most people mean well;
  • Conspiracies are hard to organise; and even harder to keep secret
  • Others may be careless, less often cruel
  • I’d rather talk than turn away in silence
  • I trust my instincts, my body, my heart

And here is my weakness:
I believe all will be well.
What if it isn’t this time?

Um 2021


I’ve been trying to write something; some sort of retrospective of 2021. I’m struggling with it. So when I work out what I want to say, I’ll put that here. In the meantime, here are some things to be getting on with – giving some hints on where my thinking has been so far:

Pleasure as the engine of being

Pleasure as the engine of being


What if we put our own pleasure higher up the list – instead of at the end of the long days of work, or as a reward for toil? Julia Paulette Hollenbery asks, and elegantly and practically answers this in her new book “The Healing Power of Pleasure: Seven Medicines for Rediscovering the Innate Joy of Being”.

This is a poetic and kind book made from a life of learning and experience. It brings together science, spiritual tradition, embodiment and philosophy — many many references and ideas, into a pleasure and body-centered way of being.

It was a joyful read for me. As I read, I enjoyed feeling the connections come together — practices I knew, ideas I believed, ways I’d learned to help myself — converging into something bigger. Pleasure as a birthright, a force, a way into my body, a way into relationships, a way to see the world.

Julia starts with Mess — the way we are in the world around us, right now, then proceeds through the seven “medicines” we can use to shift ourselves and our world in the direction of pleasure. Each “medicine” can be seen as an antidote for the crazy disconnected way we all seem to live . There are practical exercises for each medicine to bring home the ideas, maybe to adopt as personal practices for bringing out the pleasure in life.

I like this book a lot. It champions our right to pleasure. It gives practical ways in. It does this in a gentle, inspiring and poetic way. It reminds me of all those wise things I ought to remember about how to enjoyably take care of me.

The Healing Power of Pleasure is available here or ask for it in your bookshop.

In the beginning


I moved to live on a narrowboat full time from late March 2021. That involved packing up a house-load of things — some had to go, some to a storage container, and a few things onto the boat.

Why a narrowboat? I’ve been wanting try the narrowboating life for 20 something years. I had a taste for about six months over the winter of 2019-2020 and even with the cold of winter and a beautiful but not ideal boat, I was hooked on this life. I’ll dig into the Why of Narrowboating in a separate note.

Sometimes things work out the way you want them to. I spent most of 2020 and early 2021 looking for the right boat. That mostly meant browsing Apollo Duck and the boat broker websites and falling (temporarily) in love with boats that sold to somebody else before I was prepared to buy. Narrowboats have become very popular during COVID times, prices are up and the supply of boats for sale was and continues to be very limited.

Finally ready to buy, the right boat showed up and as the barriers to owning her dropped away smoothly, I ended up falling in love with, and then actually buying the narrowboat Caparina from ABNB.

That’s the beginning of the story. I’ll write more of the Why and How in later posts.

From the cushion to the world


Mediation. That’s a thing you do where you sit cross-legged, straighten your back, and clear your mind. Well yes, that’s the idea we start with.

I remember starting out meditating, and it was hard to see beyond that. Hidden behind that structure of sitting there was a real aim — this thing we do in meditation we want to happen in our daily lives. Over time new ideas are revealed… I can meditate while walking, I can meditate lying flat on my back on my bed, at the bus stop, on the bus.

That concentration of form and approach is needed at the beginning. Once we get it a bit, we can keep that awareness, mindfulness, and take it more into daily life. And this idea is neither radical nor that interesting — this is moving from conscious incompetence through conscious competence to unconscious competence.

Okay, so the point of writing this is to explain a bit where I’ve gone with coaching. The metaphor above holds true, it seems to me. I started out in that “let’s sit down and do an hours coaching” and I’m now much more in the “How do I take this coaching behaviour into my normal day job, where I’m a somewhat technical senior manager working with a lot of people?” kind of direction.

So what am I taking from my coaching into my day-to-day work? Some thoughts:

  1. There are many opportunities for high-quality 1:1 talks with people, especially working virtually. We don’t have to try and find private spaces in a busy office. This helps.
  2. Good open questions really matter. It is easy to get stuck in confirmatory questions – they are useful for building a shared idea, but don’t get to where people really are. Good questions are an invitation to get the full story, the full experience, not to just get something that confirms that we’re all “okay”. Good open questions take time and space. I have to be able to handle the answers, hold that space. Good senior management is all about holding the space anyway.
  3. My position matters. In all my interactions, on a video call, in person, whatever, I need to hold you in high regard, I need to see you and want you to grow, become, succeed. Basically these are Carl Rogers’ Core Conditions: empathy, authenticity, unconditional positive regard. Straight from coaching.
  4. I need to see and hold the bigger picture. Beyond the tasks, we are all beautifully flawed humans, doing what we can given what we’ve got. Business is a vast collaborative multi-player game. It is a team sport. I want to “win” and have fun doing it — with others. I try and share this view with others.

How to end a lockdown, together


This untidy end to lockdown has caught me.

I’m upset about a lost opportunity for an actual ending, a ritual. Endings matter.

It seems like events got a bit out of the hands of our government here in the UK, and the opportunity — at a nation-wide scale — for us to feel something together was lost.

The “we’re all in this together” frayed into “us and them” over lockdown breaks and the whole lockdown then started to decay as an idea that people could get behind. Governing isn’t easy, I’m sure, but I think this loss of an ethical leadership on the rules allowed the lockdown to fray at the edges without the chance for any sort of useful ending.

Endings matter. Being in sync with others matter. And holding the current situation matters.

Imagine this had happened: we’re getting to the point where lockdown is relaxed. A special government briefing is held to announce relaxing lockdown conditions according to the new threat number. At that briefing, whoever is presenting for the government speaks carefully with gratitude to all of us about how well we’ve handled lockdown.

This spokesperson proceeds:

“Here in government, along with our experts, we’ve had to make minute-to-minute decisions as this virus arrived and as we went into lockdown. Looking back, we got some things wrong. We did our best. Together, we’ve got this to a good place for now.”

“We need to keep working together .. so here’s how we go on from this. Remember that these nine weeks have been hard, harder on others than ourselves, and we don’t want to go back there and lose more lives. By working together we’ll keep lowering that curve.”

“The next time you see somebody out and about, keeping their distance, give them a smile, acknowledge them. Know that we lowered this curve and saved lives together.”

That would do it. We’ve marked the moment, and made a sign, an action, that we can use in remembrance of working together.

This would leave us all with something shared as we move forward and help to leave us with a grateful narrative for the past. The government didn’t do it this way, but you can do it yourself, with friends and family:

  • Tell the story of your lockdown, your frustrations and gratitude, your fear, your sorrow, your loss, your joy.
  • Tell those stories to each other.
  • Mark the change to being less locked down — with others.
  • Move forward together. Use your smile to thank others.
Leading is not being the expert

Leading is not being the expert


I was at Schumacher College at Dartington in Spring 2019 — at a few days of course called “Exploration of Eldering”. We talked a lot about the role of the Elder in our societies and how to be an elder. There was a lot to learn. One thing really stood out, something that I use almost daily within teams and leadership.

We have a common idea of the leader being the one person, the decision-maker, the one with the knowledge and expertise. That makes for good stories for the movies but isn’t the way things best or often work in actual life. Good leaders need to be good at leading, not necessarily subject experts or best at everything.

As a leader, I need to hold a group, show vulnerability, listen, take advice, tell stories, discuss, and make decisions. I might have the expertise but I don’t have to use it, and I think it tends to work better when I don’t.

As an elder, or leader, I’m holding a group or situation. I might tell stories from the past about how this sort of issue has been resolved in the past, I might talk about what I don’t know or need to understand. I’ll listen to opinions and help diverse voices to be heard.

Holding, telling stories, listening. These are the key things I’m doing. I’m listening to experts around me and together we’re planing our actions. The group is doing something and can be meaningful to the participants. Showcasing my expert knowledge — if indeed I have any — will break this working ground. Letting others show their expertise or try out their ideas allows them the chance to develop and grow.

In practical day-to-day things, I may know how stuff works but allow others to do things. Again this is developing others. Projecting it-will-all-be-ok is useful, but solving all the problems, less so. Playing the fool can relieve tension too – it can be great in an interview situation to take the pressure off the candidate. Being more fun and just slightly less bureaucratic-professional can relax and mitigate for power, allowing people to shine through fear or nerves.

Listening, holding, stories, and being warm. That’s enough.

Responding to 2016


I’ve been thinking out how to respond to this basket of ills called 2016. I guess I can accept that people (celebrities, actors) will die. The hard bit to accept is the rise of #brexit and Trump and what appears to be this shift to the right, towards nationalism, populism and fascism. I’m pretty dismayed about all of this — starting really from the election of John Howard’s conservative government in Australia in 1996. My view was that the future was supposed to be kind, compassionate and generous and that all of us working together over time would help lift all humans out of poverty and degradation.

So, I’m disappointed for the future that I felt was my right in some way.

But how to respond to this? What to do? It feels like the old tools of protest, strike and ideological war just aren’t going to work any more. Nor are the tooling of well-argued arguments, experts or facts.

I’m thinking I’m going to need to do a few things myself, locally, amongst my own community. Maybe you might join in among your community?

Engage more broadly – It is easy enough to live in my metro-elite liberal bubble, but I’m not hearing anything from a lot of fellow citizens that are very angry, possibly struggling to survive and thrive. So, I’m going to open more conversations with people who are not like me, who I’d normally not speak to. And listen. Listen. Not try and argue what I think is right. I want to understand a bit more broadly how it is for people. Different people. I’ll have to be a bit fearless to do this. Small steps first.

Improve the local environment – My local authority in the UK is struggling to make ends meet. I want to help out and improve my local community by turning the ‘pick up a bit of litter’ into a proper habit – to tidy up near where I live and where I commute on foot to and from work. I’ve usually got a plastic shopping bag somewhere in my backpack. I’m going to put it to good use when there is a lot of trash around.

Look for good news and share it – On social media, I’m going to be looking for and sharing positive stories rather than the negative and shocking ones. For amongst all this shift to the right, there are so many wonderful people doing wonderful things. And sharing these stories with each other keeps some hope alive. And watching every frame of the #brexit or Trump train-wreck really doesn’t help my mind.

So, this is my small something, my tiny response to 2016. I hope this helps me and I hope it helps you.

Happy 2017. May it bring many positive surprises for you.

Originally published in a facebook post.