underfall yardI’m new to boats. Two months ago my partner and I got our hands on a lovely but neglected narrowboat. In my investigations into what boat life would be like, I was daunted by the constant repairs that boats demand. But this has been one of the best parts – it’s meant a change in lifestyle to ‘making do and mending’, and getting creative with re-use. There is a lot we can all learn from Bristol’s boat-dwellers, makers and fixers.

old tools at underfallUp until this point, my concept of ‘reclaiming and reusing’ materials was limited to trendy urban ‘up-cycling’ – where fairly useful things become stylish accessories. Boaters, on the other hand, will use rubbish to meet their most basic needs of shelter, warmth, staying afloat, not getting electrocuted etc. Here are some examples:

  • A beer can becomes a cover for a flue pipe so you can have heat in the winter
  • An old gas canister made into a stove
  • A broken ladder made into a gang-plank with some scrap aluminium

So the first thing I think we can all learn from Boaters is how to see the value in seemingly useless things. Not just in their ability to be turned into ashtrays or wallets or shoe-racks, but to realise that our lives can actually be supported by bits of rubbish if need be.

With our boat in the state it was in (dubbed ‘the Crusty Chrysalis’) everyone had an opinion on how something could be bodged, and could produce some evidence of how they’d elegantly avoided buying something new on their own boat.

“You gotta be a bit cute with things mind, on a boat”, I was advised by Peter from Oldbury as our boats bashed together in the swirling waters of a lock on the Kennet & Avon. He proceeded to show me  how he’d woven together strips of inner tube to fix his engine and control.

While Glen, from Dorset told me how he had swung by his local go-carting place to get their knackered tyres, used with old climbing rope as side fenders to preserve the hull.

To give you an extreme example: Before buying the boat, we went to get it checked out with the owner, Joe. Among other things, the surveyor predicted that we would inhale black smoke and die if the exhaust was not immediately replaced. Always suspicious of shelling out for new parts, after five minutes Joe presented us, beaming, with a ‘mended’ exhaust involving a bent paper clip and an empty strepsil packet, and we were on our way.

Now, I’m not saying that this was an ok long-term replacement (it really, really wasn’t), or recommending that anyone attempt to fix a life-threatening problem using detritus, but you’ve got to admire the creativity. I’m convinced that Joe is one of many undiscovered geniuses who have turned thrifty boat-bodging into an art-form-cum-competitive sport.

Joe was somewhat legendary in the marina because of his persistence at re-use. These kinds of stories have great milage at the pub. They’re more valuable to boaters than land lubbers because you’re always thinking about how you can manage to stay afloat, especially if you’re miles from a chandlery or have an old banger like ours. The lesson from our boat DIY holiday was clear: The more of an artful bodger you can be, the more rounds will be bought and the more friends you’ll have. Not to mention the more rounds you’ll be able to afford to buy.

copper conducterRe-use on waterways is not just to do with saving money or even for environmental reasons; it’s because (whether we realise it or not) sharing and re-using knowledge has social value – it makes you a great neighbour, friend, or lock-sharing companion. Not to mention it’s really satisfying.

But I don’t see a reason why we can’t practice this more regularly on dry land as well; with homes, bikes, clothes, gardens and more. Sure, people do it – but boat-life takes artful-bodging anecdotes to a whole new level – meeting basic needs as well as sharing knowledge and skills with each other.

I wanted to be involved in the Sharing Communities project to help create spaces in which we meet one another, hear each others’ stories of artful bodges and encounter each others’ creativity.

Since my trip I’ve been meeting Bristol’s own boat dwellers, menders and cruisers to find even more imaginative re-purposing of all kinds of items. We’ll be showcasing these at the Underfall Yard in September and October.

Come get inspired by the imaginative re-use here in Bristol, and meet others who love to tinker, bodge and mend! Boaters and landlubbers alike, see what tips you can pick up.

By Isobel Tarr

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