Poet and rogue guest contributor Erin Fornoff writes about the intimacy, the freedom and the commitment of a life – and a relationship – on a boat.
Our home floats. It is fifty-five feet long from stern to bow, narrow enough that I can stand in the centre and touch both side walls with the tips of my fingers. When I wash the dishes, sometimes a pair of swans comes to peck on my window. It is the first home and the most expensive thing I have ever bought.
When I walk through a room, my partner has to step aside to let me pass. Our boat is so small that when he is on the toilet I can see the whites of his eyes. Boaters joke that they talk about toilets more than any humans on the planet. I can say, without hesitation, this is true. Boats tend to either have compost toilets, a waste tank which requires a monthly pump out, or a ‘cassette’ toilet with small portable tanks.
Ours is a cassette. We trade out two plastic receptacles the size of carry on suitcases, dragging them down the towpath to suction them clean. When we were deciding what kind of boat to buy, toilets were a key sticking point. I wanted – not unreasonably – to be able to use the toilet with the gusto and abandon I had enjoyed in my years living in Harold’s Cross. He though we could save money and hassle by honing our usage and getting the less expensive kind.
An extract: ‘Let’s get the cheaper one. We can just save our shits up for the office,’ he said.
‘That is not how my body works.’
‘It’s just a matter of discipline, you know?’ he said.
‘God as my witness,’ I said slowly, looking him right in the eye. ‘I am shitting on that boat.’
This was all a level of intimacy I had not anticipated. I feared commitment, in part because I was afraid if someone saw my unvarnished baggage, they would leave. I never imagined the person I love would literally carry my shit in a plastic suitcase and empty it clean. My home weighs sixteen tonnes, and sits in about four feet of water on the Grand Canal in Sallins, Kildare, a thirty minute train ride from Dublin.
At full throttle it can cover a fierce five miles an hour. There is a community of roughly sixty boats on a small stretch bisected by a busy commuter road, two pubs and a couple of restaurants, not that any of them are open. I had always loved the idea of living on a narrowboat, the bohemian sensibility, the bright colours, the freedom to move. I’ll confess to the vanity of loving being part of a good story, of being interesting. In England the joke is that ‘the ravers left the field and moved onto the canal,’ and in Ireland there is definitely a similar counter-culture vibe, though the community is smaller, canals wilder, and the habit of living aboard has not caught on quite so much.
And I liked the idea of impermanence. A home that moves isn’t quite the same commitment as one with a fixed address. It felt safer, somehow. The line of boaters is a small town that dissolves and re-forms as boats move. It is the kind of community where I’d offhandedly mention to a neighbour that something is wrong with my air filter, and the next day a man I had never met shows up at my boat to help me fix it. It is the kind of local neighbourhood community I was never able to cultivate in Dublin, where I couldn’t pick my neighbours out of a line up.
The daily presence, the shared interest, the pooled expertise and resources – I know who is good at engines, who just had a bad fall, who misses their children, who has a green thumb, who is always up for a drink. It’s a pick and mix of different types of people from all over Ireland and beyond, and all interesting – artists, DJs, people who are genius at growing bonsai or telling stories or go into the woods to dig pit fire pottery kilns. They make me want to write glorious odes to capable people who smell vaguely of diesel and damp.
Canals in Ireland were built primarily to carry Guinness and other cargo to the west of Ireland. The three main arteries – the Grand, to the south of Dublin, the Royal, to the north, meet in Grand Canal basin in Dublin and stretch to the
Shannon. Around Dublin, the main communities of Grand Canal boaters live along the train line in Kildare – Hazelhatch, Sallins, and further out in Lowtown.
The locks, which allow boats to go up and down in elevation, operate using the same technology – sometimes even the same mechanisms – for the past 250 years. The narrowboats are the same old design as well, and are slim enough to pass each other on the narrow, hand-dug canal. They are designed to travel through the locks in pairs.
Our boat is functionally off the grid – our water is heated by the running of the engine, and the batteries which operate lights are powered by solar and engine energy. We carry out all trash and recycling and every two weeks empty our toilet waste in two plastic tanks. Twice a month, we move the boat, unscrew a cap, and wait an hour while a hose fills a tank from the canal-side tap. We watch our battery level drop as we charge laptops and burn electric lights. We have reduced our costs to food, phone bills, and occasional diesel – no gas, no water, no electricity bills.
These tasks can be a pain in the ass, but they definitely emphasise our cost on the world – I’m deeply conscious of how much water I use, how much trash I produce, how I absolutely luxuriate in unnecessary electricity. There is work in the daily life being on the boat – but more and more, as I’m on it, I realise that life should be work in this way. If you have to find a place to put all your trash, you produce less trash, avoiding items with excessive packaging.
If you have a finite amount of electricity, you focus on activities that don’t require any, using pen and paper versus writing on a laptop. If your water runs out every week, you start taking shorter showers (full disclosure: this usually just means fewer showers). It gets you closer to the work of life, and so much more aware of how when waste gets magicked away, it isn’t really gone.
My boyfriend and I decided to move in together, and discovered that the idea of living on a boat was a fantasy we had each had independently. I was scared of buying a boat – not only had I never had a mortgage, I had never even had a lease, or bought anything more expensive than a second-hand truck from a guy I went to high school with. The housing crisis in Dublin has long been a dark cloud over the future of people my age – I doubt I could even qualify for a mortgage, much less live anywhere near the neighbourhood I had made home in the city. A lease always felt too much like commitment. Spending €40,000 on a sixteen tonne machine that might sink to the bottom of the canal. Terrifying.
I was equally terrified of moving in with someone. Before this boat, not only had I never lived with a partner, I had never really had a proper boyfriend. I put my 10,000 hours into honing a virtuoso skill in falling for people who didn’t really like me that much in return. If you’re scared of commitment in general, this is a dynamite strategy to avoid facing it! Now, faced with a person flagrantly open and ready to be in a relationship with me, I found myself panicking.
Not only were we in a serious relationship, but moving in together. Not only were we moving in together, we were buying a place to move in together. Not only were we buying a place to move in together, we were moving in together on a 300 square foot floating tube. Not only were we moving in together on a 300 square foot living space, we would move onto it a few short weeks before a months-long lock down brought unrelenting togetherness.
I’m so glad we like each other so much.
The project of this boat has also become the project of our life on it. This has been the joy of these past few months. It is a task of sculpting days to suit one another, to do the daily work, even if it smells, to keep afloat. Commitment is different when you can untie and move on a whim. It is a daily choice to stay. I’m realising more and more this is true for all relationships, even though with foundations sunk into hard ground. Living on a boat is a daily project, but it’s our project – and that is the best bit.
God as my witness, my love, I am shitting on that boat.
Erin Fornoff is an American-born poet and writer who has performed across Ireland, the US and the UK. She is currently working on a spoken word show set to a live score and polishing her first novel.
Except where indicated, all images courtesy of Erin Fornoff.