Boating for the Sometimes Image Conscious – or, I can’t be the only one who gets annoyed when I break a nail

All boaters are boaty. But some boaters are more boaty than others.

The precise constitution of boatiness is often under fierce debate by the online canal community; “Oh you’ve been on your boat 10 years? Well I’ve been on mine 11 and a half!”

“11 and a half? I’ve been on 50 years!”

“50 years? Is that all? I came sailing out of my mother’s womb on a one-foot traditional working boat!”

"Who are you calling unboaty??"

“Who are you calling unboaty??”

Or, “Leaving lock paddles up is most unboaty.”

“Agreed, I always put lock paddles down everywhere I go unless instructed not to by a small laminated CRT notice.”

“You just do them everywhere you go? I frequently walk from one end of London to the other putting every single lock paddle down unless instructed not to by a small laminated CRT notice.”

“Just London? I once walked the length and breadth of the UK carrying my narrowboat on my back and putting down every single paddle on every lock even when people were in the middle of using them. And then I swam to the Netherlands and did the same thing. Unless instructed not to by a small laminated CRT notice, of course.”

You get the point.



However, the one thing that seems to be deemed the most unboaty of all is daintiness, or the appearance of not being willing to get your hands dirty. This is fair enough, boating is a fairly ‘get stuck in’ way of life and you can only be so dainty when you’re emptying your poo into a hole. The problem I have is that there seems to be a need to display this dogged ruggedness at all times, to prove that you’ve been the most covered in your own poo out of all of the boaters or that you’ve inhaled so much coal dust your very internal organs are made of diamonds.

This seems particularly to apply to lady boaters, who have to go even further to prove that they’re not too ladylike to mop up an overflowing cassette with their best dress once in a while because who needs clothes!? Strong, independent lady boaters are often celebrated in the community but there’s a vague feeling that (for some people) the ideal ‘strong lady boater’ is a woman who is not bothered about makeup and nice clothes and other frivolous things like that, the sort of lady who can easily heft five cassettes up to the elsan on her pinky and not give a damn about how many nails she breaks on the way.

I once read a comment on a canal forum from a gentleman boater deriding a young female whom he had overheard on the towpath wistfully dreaming of life on a boat. “But what if you broke a nail, dear?” he had snidely remarked (over the internet of course, not to her face).

Well you know what, old men of the internet? Sometimes breaking a nail is really annoying.



It’s especially annoying when good nails can be part of your job.

Just to clarify, my job title isn’t Professionally Vain (I’m only at amateur level). It’s just that I work as an actress, and commercial castings often specify good hands and nails. They also specify other things like, ‘Not covered in coal dust’ or ‘Preferably no remains of own excrement on clothes’ so I often have to disembark from my vessel looking reasonably well put together. And it’s not just for my job either, some days I just want to look all right.

The sad thing is, on these days I feel ashamed. I feel embarrassed to be seen climbing carefully off my boat in heels, or shuffling around the sides of the boat trying not to get my outfit dirty. “Look at the unboaty one!” I expect to hear from all around. “She should not live on a boat if she wants to wear heels and makeup sometimes!”

"Whatever you're doing there, those are not the right shoes to be doing it in!"

“Whatever you’re doing there, those are not the right shoes to be doing it in!”

Sali Hughes made the ‘Feminism and Beauty’ argument far better than I ever could so you should read that instead. I’d just like to stand up for those of us who want to live on a boat but also look nice on some days, so here are my top tips on…

Boating for the Sometimes Image Conscious

1) Hands and Nails – Since I’ve talked about breaking nails so much, I’ll start with that. I knew that we’d be cold on the boat so my nails would probably get dry and break easily (as they do most winters) but I didn’t anticipate things like a hot stove burning the tip off my nail or the damaging effect of constantly handling cold, wet ropes. Here I am guilty of not taking my own advice because my nails are currently crap but, if you do happen to be a hand model moving on to a boat, I would recommend wearing gloves at all times and investing in a hardcore hand cream.

2) Hair – One thing I did not foresee about moving onto a boat was having to give up my hairdryer because it drains our battery too much. I replaced it with a low wattage travel hairdryer but that only dries and does nothing to stop my hair and fringe turning into the sort of voluminous, un-styled bob that should only be seen on a page boy from the Dark Ages.

It's astonishing how rarely I get sent for 'medieval child' castings.

It’s astonishing how rarely I get sent for ‘medieval child’ castings.

If you want your boaty hair to blow sleek and beautiful in the wind as you cruise round the canals, I recommend getting a smoothing leave-in cream to tame your locks because your travel hairdryer certainly ain’t gonna do it. I also just found out you can get wireless travel straighteners too so will be purchasing some of those ASAP.

3) Skin – It’s only been recently brought to my attention that burning certain types of cheaper coal might cause your skin to break out. I’m not sure I’ve experienced this but I do know that coal dust gets everywhere and that touching your face with coaly hands probably won’t be great for the complexion. Make sure you have a meticulous cleansing routine to get the Industrial Revolution off your face before you go to bed.

4) Clothes – Some girls have Winter and Summer wardrobes. I have Clothes and Crap Boat Clothes. I underestimated how deliciously filthy I’d get clambering over the boat and scaling lock ladders so now I keep some clothes set aside for general boating and other, cleaner garments set aside for auditions and non-boating activities where people understand less why you’re covered in moss.

5) General Hygiene – When water usage is so restricted, long luxurious showers are pretty much off-limits. I highly recommend that you MAXIMISE YOUR SHOWER TIME. You often have to run the water a little before it heats up so use that time to do a bit of washing up and then you’ll be stepping into a nice, hot shower. Leave conditioner to soak in while you shave your legs. Hire a professional leg shaver to do it for you while you shampoo. Whatever you need to do. It’s also wise to accept that you’ll probably be showering less than you might in a house so baby wipes and dry shampoo are an absolute must.

That’s all I can think of for the time being but feel free to get in touch with tips if you’re a SIC (Sometimes Image Conscious) boater too. And remember, it doesn’t matter what you look like. If you want to wear makeup, fine. If you don’t that’s fine too. Do whatever makes you feel the most comfortable and happy but for God’s sake don’t forget to put lock paddles down (unless instructed not to by a small laminated CRT notice).


4 thoughts on “Boating for the Sometimes Image Conscious – or, I can’t be the only one who gets annoyed when I break a nail

  1. I’ve found that long hair is actually lower maintenance than short when you can’t wash it every day – gravity helps keep it in check and I can put it up in a neat bun or plait if I’m sort on time.

    Amy (Six and a half years afloat! :P)

  2. Yep! I’m older than you, but I’ve never seen why I had to look a certain way. I wear dresses and skirts. The smirks I’ve had in my life, when stepping off a boat in a smart skirt & heels, or the double-takes when I said I lived afloat, and people look me up and down thinking, where are the trousers and baggy top?! I once got a hairdryer that – supposedly – ran off a boat battery, it would’ve been quicker to dry my hair by having mice breathe on it! 🙂 And whatever your job, people expect you to look somewhat normal, not oil-stained and smelling of bilge water. It must be great to live on a boat and not have to have a job, but most of us don’t have a private income! 🙂

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