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The Boat Project

We've been living on boats in London for the past six years and love the lifestyle - the proximity to water, the community, and the creative process of transforming the boats we take on. It is seriously hard work and there's never a weekend where there's nothing to do, but if it suits your personality then it's an amazing way to live.

Our current boat is a 1948 textile barge that used to carry fabrics along the Leeds - Liverpool canal for the Bradford Dyer's Association. We bought her in the autumn of 2017 and midway through the previous owner's refit of the interior, so she was just a basic pine cladded shed inside with basic electrics and a small kitchen and bathroom. Her deck had only been painted with primer, so rust spots were coming through. Essentially liveable but also a blank sheet for us to do what we wanted with.

We sailed her from near Manchester along the canal for three days towards Liverpool where she would be lifted out of the water and transported to Gravesend by lorry. It rained pretty solidly for three days and we had to squeeze through hundreds of tiny bridges and open and close dozens of locks along the way, but it was an amazingly peaceful journey in some ways. It was so slow and quiet floating along the canal through autumnal countryside, and you couldn't hurry - only accept the snail's pace progress.

The first task when we had got her safely to London was to decide on the layout. Space is particularly precious in boat life and we love hosting, so we took down the pine walls that added some tiny cabins in the back of the boat, opening up a big saloon where we would build an open plan kitchen and living area. Moving towards the front of the boat, we would keep the corridor down the centre, with the bathroom in the middle on the right, turning the old kitchen on the left into a spare bedroom, and eventually opening up the two front cabins into one master bedroom.

Before moving anything from our old boat in we started with the painting in the main room. We had to clean everything down with white spirit, paint every one of the thousands of knots in the pine walls twice, protect everything with sheets and spray the walls several times with white paint.

The ply floor needed replacing, so we found a second hand solid oak floor for sale in Clapham which would cover more than our main kitchen area. we lived with piles of oak planks for weeks while they acclimatised to the moisture levels in the boat (though this still didn't completely keep the floor flat once laid). A few days of our Christmas holidays were spent levelling the oak beams to get a flat surface, and then laying out the planks which were at various sizes having already been cut for another layout - it was a bit of a puzzle to get everything lined up, slotted together and screwed into place. We also left a section of planks free so that the bilge could be checked when needed.

Another nuance of boat life is that nothing is a normal size, pretty much everything has to be made to measure around strange angles. I bought off-cuts of harlequin fabric on eBay and made curtains for the windows and a floor length velvet curtain to block the draft from around the hatch. We hung the curtains from copper pipes cut and bent to fit.

Next up was the mammoth task of building and fitting the kitchen. Left over oak boards were screwed and glued together, the cracks filled with wood filler and copper dust, sanded back to flat clean surfaces and oiled.

We built shaker-style cupboard doors from pine frames and plywood backs, which we painted bright turquoise/teal.

Most of our summer in 2018 was spent stripping back the deck and re-painting - an insane amount of work. Tackling it in sections, angle grinders with wire brush heads strip off the rust and old primer over days and days of work.

We then cleaned down meticulously with jet washers and brushes to remove every speck of dust that we could, before drying off with towels, wiping down again with white spirit, and painting. After the first coat of marine primer, we sanded back very lightly, repeated the cleaning down, and re-coated in primer.

After the two primer coats, three top coats were applied, with the same sanding back and cleaning process each time. Maddeningly slow, but better to do a decent job once than have to come back to it too soon. We think the work took around 70 days of labour, so be prepared when taking on something this big...

Editing the living area and ripping out the bathroom was next on our list. Robin built and plumbed in a radiator from copper pipes joined and soldered together, and connected to our log burner to heat the water supply to it.

We built a cupboard to house the water tank with space for hanging coats underneath, and used dove great tiles around the log burner.

The bathroom had to be completely ripped out and walls shifted slightly to fit into the new layout. We adjusted the pipe layout and built a cradle for our Japanese style deep soaking tub to provide support from multiple points and ensure it would drain properly but not have uneven water distribution (the boat tilts towards the stern).

We reconstructed the walls, starting with a supporting frame. Wede board was put up for waterproof tiling, before tiles were measured and cut to size with a tile cutter. A surround was built from mahogany salvaged from an old boat, and varnished as the surfaces around the bath. Templates created from pine planks for the unique shapes of the walls and multi-height ceiling, and then ply cut, slotted into shape and painted with a white gloss paint. The bath and shower were plumbed in, drawers built from ply with ash fronts for beneath the sink. The surface around the sink we cut from a sapele wood off-cut from a local timber merchant, and coated with epoxy. A marine toilet was plumbed in, and a floor cut from think ply and then laid over with vinyl click floorboards.

The boat has been an incredible if sometimes stressful project so far. The captain is a perfectionist and doesn't allow any corners to be cut, and we have upcycled everything we could, re-upholstered old furniture, built the kitchen from scratch and learnt to tile. It's tough but nice to have physical work alongside our office jobs in some ways, and great to have reason to learn new skills. We owe a lot to youtube tutorials and just giving things a go.

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