Meet Beryl Ybarra, who lives full-time aboard her boat, the Anagram, on the canals of northern Wales and western England. The top photo shows how her boat's interior resembles a country cottage. The lower photo shows her Welsh border collie, Vicki, and the path that runs along the canal where I met Beryl in the summer of 2009. Slightly visible in the photo are her grandchildren -- Tom, 15; Caroline, 12; and George, 8 -- who were spending a couple of weeks aboard their grandmother's 55-foot-long, 7-foot-wide boat.
Beryl, 66, found herself at a crossroads a few years ago. Her husband, with whom she had operated a commercial art and framing business, died 11 years ago after a long illness. Two years after that, she was battling cancer, a battle that she won. She came out of the hospital and decided to do something different. She sold her home in Wales and bought a boat.
She said she spent the first three years just traveling, going as far as her hometown of Liverpool, but mostly staying in Wales, where she has lived since 1980. The Llangollen Canal (see item on canal boat vacations at bottom of blog for more on this canal) is her "home canal."
She can get her boat through the manually-operated locks by herself. "The most was 21 in one day," she recalled. There's an organization called "Tiller Girls" of single women who live aboard the narrowboats. They often travel together and help each other with the locks. Although Beryl said she isn't a formal member, "it gives a feeling of security."
"There's quite a community on the canals. That's Mike and Hazel on the blue boat," she said, pointing to a boat tied up near hers. "Mike works at a boat hire company. They each have a car and move them to wherever the boat is."
After three years of canal travel, she started working as a private nurse, mostly short-term home care. "I'd work three weeks, then be off four weeks," she said. For getting around on land, she has a van that's been converted into a motor home. It's parked at a marina when she's on the boat. Having just retired from nursing, Beryl was planning to return to the picture-framing business. She has bought a second boat, this one 30 feet long, that she will tow behind her boat. She'll use it as a studio work space. It will have an engine ("and a loo," she was quick to add) and she'll be able to use it independent of Anagram, her main boat.
So this isn't a real retirement. Who needs to retire from a life of floating at four miles an hour? (That's the top speed. Most boats actually go one or two miles an hour, but there's room on the canals to pass these slowpokes.)
How much do these boats cost? Prices for a new narrowboat can approach 100,000 U.S. dollars, but used ones can be found for a third of that. Here are two of many places that sell these boats: http://www.narrowboat-for-sale.co.uk/ and http://www.boatstogo.co.uk/tm/used-boat-sales-122.html.
What are the expenses? Mainly, it's diesel fuel. But the engines are very small and use little fuel. Beryl said she usually goes only about six miles a week anyway. The boat hulls are made of very thick steel, so there's little maintenance other than paint. Water is free along the canals. Beryl's boat has solar panels, so she seldom has to use the engine to generate electricity. Heat in winter on her boat is provided by small stoves that burn something akin to charcoal but produce almost no ash. Some boats have radiator-heating that requires fuel.
Is Beryl happy with her lifestyle? "I wouldn't go back to a house -- no way," she said. "On boats we call them 'bricks.' I wouldn't go back to bricks."