Practical boatlife (part one)

Sophie from Unicorn Designs has some small people who are very interested in boat life. I thought that a few more of you might also be interested, so I’m answering their questions here!

WARNING, there’s a fair bit of poo-talk, but that’s very normal for liveaboard types. Get a bunch of boat ppl together and we talk about our toilets all night.

How does the toilet work – and where does all the poo go?

There are three different toilet options – and I have probably the least common. Anyway, they are;

  1. A blackwater holding tank, usually with a macerator which chews everything (liquids, solids, paper) up into a stinky sludge. If you have one of these on the marina where I live, when your tank’s getting full you call Andy, the marina manager and general all-round amazing person, and he potters along in a little boat with a big tank on it, and pumps out your stinky sludge into his tank, and then pumps the tank out down into the big waste drain.Good points – you don’t have to empty it all that often, and you don’t usually have to get up close to your stinky sludge.
    Bad points – when a blockage happens it’s RANK – and someone flushing something they shouldn’t means blockage. And the sludge is pretty stinky – you usually end up adding chemicals to the tank to stop it getting too bad.
  2. A cassette toilet, which is a little portapotty with a removable box at the bottom for collecting the wee and poo. There’s a little water reservoir which you flush from (but flushes use much, much less water than a regular toilet). When your toilet gets full you detatch the box at the bottom and pour it into the waste drain. I have one of these tucked away for emergencies – it’s what I used until I got my own toilet installed.Good points – lovely and simple! There’s not much that can go wrong.
    Bad points – you need to empty it every three or four days (although most boats will have a spare cassette for emergencies), and you need to use chemicals to stop it getting stinky.
  3. A compost toilet. (This is what I have! It is the best!) It’s designed so that when you sit on it wee is funnelled one way and into a little tank, and poo is collected in a big bucket, along with any paper you’re using. (Stand-up weeing types must aim carefully.) Most of the stinky stink is avoided because just poo, or just wee, is not nearly as stenchy as the two mixed together can be. My toilet also has a little fan (solar powered from a little panel on my roof) that helps keep the smell away. I have a 25litre tank (and a spare for emergencies) which I usually empty once a week. I put it in a wheelbarrow and cart it over to the big waste drain. The big buckets of poo need to be emptied every few months. I have a hot composter on the deck (it’s insulated, so the contents get really hot which kills off all the nasties) and I empty it in there. All the other compost goes in there too. And once a year I harvest the bottom third and use it to grow my flowers.
    Good points – the most environmentally friendly, as you don’t need chemicals to de-stink it, it uses no water, and you get lovely tasty compost for your plants.

    Bad points – you need to heft about a tank of wee every week, and a bucket of poo every few months. Guests need instructions on what to do, and it’s probably the version that squeamish people like least.


There is a fourth version, which is a sea-toilet that just flushes straight out into the water, but those aren’t generally allowed on rivers or canals or marinas. Our boat came with one, and I had to cut it out before we could install the compost one.


Boats have batteries – big ones, like car batteries – that power 12volt or 24volt electricity systems. (I have 24v, but smaller boats like narrowboats usually have 12v.) I also have a mains hookup, which uses the regular electricity you have in your house. That electricity right now keeps my batteries fully charged – but if I was heading off out on an adventure the engine would keep the batteries charged when it was running, and I might also have solar panels or a wind turbine.

On my boat, the overhead lights all use the 24v, and I can also charge little things like phones from it. Most of the other things use the mains electricity – although I don’t use a lot! I have a couple of silver-making things that need to be plugged in – my pendant motor and my barrel-polisher, for example – and I have a laptop, and an electric blanket for when it’s cold, and (several!) radios, but I don’t have a TV or playstation or anything like that. (Most of the boats near me do have TVs, though – sometimes they even have satellite dishes!)

Is it scary in a storm

It is a little bit, sometimes, especially when there’s just me and the cats on the boat! I’m in a marina, tucked up with other boats, but I still rock around quite a bit when the wind’s blowing hard, and it can be very noisy. And where I am – down the Thames from London – it can get very windy!

But one of the best things about living here is all the lovely boat-neighbours. Everyone pitches in to help out if there’s a problem, so if it gets too scary I know that I have lots of people around. And it can be really nice, when it’s stormy outside, to be tucked up below decks with a lovely big fire burning in the stove and the cats snoozing in front of it, and the radio burbling away, and a big mug of tea and my knitting.

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