Alice Elgie reports…
IT WAS 2007 when Mark Ellis Bowes first had an epiphany about how to release himself from the rat race and an employer who was running him into the ground.
Embarking on a first boating holiday as crew for his partner Andy’s retired parents, a seed was planted that there might be another way.
He told me: “The people we met on the canal that freezing Easter week were so welcoming and helpful, accepting us as a gay couple without any awkwardness. It was a way of life that appealed and all of a sudden the whole idea of slogging my guts out working in a traditional sense until retirement and then moving aboard seemed way too far off.”
But, as with any spark of a dream, there then followed a time of consideration about how to make it happen sooner rather than later and this is when thoughts began to take shape about a hotel boat. Mark continued: “I genuinely thought I’d invented the idea of a hotel boat, not knowing they’d been around for years!” Once the idea was hatched it then took the couple nine years to save up before they made it on to the water.
Their chosen narrowboat was a 57ft four-berth, semi-trad lined sailaway named Ellis, designed from scratch by Mark with two separate sleeping areas as far away from each other as possible to create greater privacy. “It took me from November 2016 to June 2017, while also working full time, to get the boat completed and we finally moved aboard full time in August 2017.”
Narrowboat Ellis isn’t technically a hotel boat though, but instead more a ‘liveaboard experience’.
Mark elaborated a little more: “I see it as a way for folks who don’t want to hire a boat themselves but are also not looking for the full ‘hotel’ experience.
“For me, it’s about sharing the adventure of new routes and punters need to be on board with the fact I’m not sophisticated or well organised so sometimes it’s a bit chaotic as we explore together!”
Mark now runs this venture alone since splitting with Andy: “We went our separate ways at the end of July 2019 with three months of bookings left to go.
“It was a terrifying prospect having to ‘fly solo’, never having single-handed for more than a few hours before!”
This baptism of fire was exacerbated by Mark’s auxiliary alternator packing up, along with damage to his skeg. However, the owner of Pennine Cruisers in Skipton came to his rescue: “He sorted out the skeg with only a handshake as payment!” A lovely reminder of how folks and businesses can be very supportive of boaters in peril.
Mark’s vision for offering people the chance to go on a boating holiday as equals certainly seems to be working well. His 2024 cruising schedule is filling up fast, despite he himself admitting his style might not be for everyone: “Think of me as the Basil Fawlty of hotel boats!
“I’m not very good at being subordinate so folks have to ‘get’ me or it won’t work for them. I even have a T-shirt that says: ‘Remember this is a liveaboard experience, not a hotel boat!’”
It seems lots of people do get him though as he’s taken all kinds of folk on trips along the canals, rating Australians, Canadians and Americans as having the best spirit for adventure. However it’s not just the people he meets that make it, as Mark also cites simplicity, community, freedom, diversity and acceptance as other reasons he’s fallen in love with life on the waterways.
“I also like being in control of my own environment and being responsible for my own shelter and provisioning and I love the fact that wherever I go I bump into people I’ve met before and even if we don’t know each other’s names, we can still have a drink, chat and share stories about our adventures time and time again.”
Life seems a far cry from the rat race. Instead of a boss grinding him down, Mark now says he doesn’t really see life on narrowboat Ellis as a business at all: “It’s just a way of life, and a way to finance my life without having to do things I don’t want to. So long as I earn enough in the summer months to get through the winter, that’s all I need.”
Well, what more can a person ask for!