Staying warm in the winter freeze on a houseboat

houseboats at West Mersea Image copyright BBC/Laurence Cawley
Image caption Slippery walkways, biting winds and plumbing can all present issues for those living on houseboats

They sit at the margins of land and sea. But while many houseboats are kept for occasional use, some are home to a hardy breed of year-round residents. As winter temperatures bite, what can these hull-dwellers teach the rest of us about staying warm?

Metal walls + lots of windows = cold in winter. Surely?

Yet when it comes to houseboats, this seemingly obvious property equation falls flat on its face.

So how do they stay warm in their metal homes?

Well, while the catchphrase for bricks and mortar homes is "location, location, location", the secret to a cosy winter houseboat is "insulation, insulation, insulation".

Maureen Phillips and her husband John live on a converted 90ft (30m) Humber keel barge once used for transporting animal feed.

In converting the boat, which replaced a previous vessel in West Mersea, they used a highly insulating spray foam throughout.

Mrs Phillips said the foam used not only insulated but also prevented condensation.

"And we've got proper central heating and you get a lot of solar gain through the windows," she said.

"If you have a sunny day in the winter it can be really warm up here.

"But it can be two or three degrees colder downstairs."

Image copyright BBC /Laurence Cawley
Image caption Houseboat owner Maureen Phillips says living at the meeting point of land and water is "not for everybody"

Outside on deck, the Phillips have toughened safety glass shields which keep biting winds at bay.

Snowfall around the Phillips' houseboat 'Mojo' does not settle for long because of the salt in the marshes and the water. Of course, that does not mean the wooden walkways and metal deck do not ice up and become treacherous.

But Mrs Phillips described winters on the boat as "great" and said the view of the marshes from her boat were "very pretty".

In the middle of the vessel, below deck, is a second living room (the main one being on the first floor).

"We wanted somewhere in the winter where we could hole up and be cosy in the evenings," she said.

This need to create a "nest" in a houseboat is not uncommon, says Alan Wildman, chairman of the Residential Boat Owners Association.

"How we stay warm is a question we often get asked," he said. "The main challenges of living on a boat relate to the supply of utilities.

"Our sewage waste, for example, goes into a holding tank. In itself, it is not a problem, but it is a chore, especially in winter."

The main difference between houseboats and brick built houses, he said, is about the personal responsibility taken by the owners.

"Living on a boat, you tend to take personal responsibility for everything from your water to supply, to power generation to effluent.

"We don't waste water or electricity, for example.

"And on many narrow boats, you have a solid fuel stove. The reward is a very warm home.

"I think people living on boats become far more aware of the resources they use.

"We live in a marina and in winter we can get frozen in. Outside it can get get muddy and slippery and we just have to be very, very careful."

Image copyright BBC/Laurence Cawley
Image caption Alan Wildman says houseboat owners take personal responsibility for utilities

He added: "The biggest thing we come up against are people who see what we do on a sunny day and assume it is like living in a house, but on water.

"It isn't. Yes, it is romantic, but you really have to want to do it and commit to it,"

Mrs Phillips, who in May started offering up part of the boat for bed and breakfast customers, agrees.

"This is not the sort of place where you can just call out a plumber," she said. "It is not your normal type of home, and it isn't everybody's ideal choice."

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