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Robbie Cumming

Solo boating, living aboard and holding down a job on the move are never easy.  Robbie Cumming describes the unique challenges of filming BBC Four’s Canal Boat Diaries and his coping strategies

Robbie Cumming onboard his boat - Naughty Lass

Being a continuous cruiser who has a TV show doesn’t make my liveaboard life much different to most others. I still need to do the usual stuff, such as eat, sleep, moor up, empty my toilet, get water and go to the pub. That said, there are some elements of my work life that have transformed the way I travel around the system.


I’m constantly being asked ‘where are you off to?’ and the answer is usually ‘that way’ or ‘wherever they’ll have me’. But, really, I’m bound as anyone else is to the demands of a job, and so I travel – or wait – for wherever the pre-planned route for my next TV series takes me. But as I wait I still need to get about. That’s where my trusty pick-up truck comes in handy. Whether I’m picking up fuel from the coal merchants, fetching DIY bits and bobs or simply chucking my laundry in the back to go off and do a wash, it’s proven invaluable. 

It’s impractical to rely on buses and trains, so a vehicle is extra useful, particularly when I’m moored somewhere remote. And when I do move my boat, I obviously need to go back and get my truck. Most boaters with cars will be familiar with this ‘leapfrogging’ method – boating followed by walking or cycling back. Sometimes there’s a convenient railway station near enough to both my current mooring and destination, but that doesn’t happen often. I’m also lucky to have continuously cruising friends in different parts of the country, and we sometimes help each other out with lifts to pick up each other’s cars when we can. But on filming days I usually have company – my producer Stuart Woodman and drone operator Phil Fearnley. When they’re travelling with me we can cover far greater distances. Filming days can sometimes stretch beyond ten hours, so a lift back to pick up the truck is always appreciated.

Commonwealth Games signs



Continuous cruising often requires several planets to align. The factor which most dictates my movement is my water tank. While it can last up to a fortnight if I’m frugal, it can easily empty in a week if I have visitors – such as my filming buddies. That means almost every boat journey needs to take in a tap en route.  Then we come to the toilet. I have a pump-out loo which will invariably time itself badly and need emptying when it is most inconvenient. Canal & River Trust and marina-owned pump-out machines can be temperamental, and don’t get me started on those paper pump-out cards…

Filming for Canal Boat Diaries will often require me to moor in a location which relates to the next day’s filming plans. I need to be ready to set off without delay, sometimes near a notoriously busy, important part of the network. I need road access for Stu and Phil, and adequate towpath space to launch the drone safely – although, occasionally, it has been launched from the boat itself. My filming colleagues are completely occupied with making the programme, which means I need to be more focused on keeping the water tank full and the toilet emptied, not to mention ensuring we have sufficient supplies of gas and coal during the colder months.

Robbie makes breakfast onboard

The bright side

Of course, it’s not all problems and hardships. Living aboard has helped me to become a more confident, resilient and resourceful person. I’ve come to accept that liveaboard life requires me to step outside of my comfort zone. I’ve learned to be more independent and able to deal with the inevitable curveballs this lifestyle throws at me. I’m mentally tougher than I was and able to roll with the punches a little more. I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride when I overcome hurdles that might have stopped me in my tracks before I became a boater. 

The best gift from making Canal Boat Diaries is something Stu says a lot: “When it goes wrong, it makes good telly.” That means when I do encounter a major problem, I don’t go in with the usual catastrophic, “Oh God, it’s all gone wrong”. Nowadays I have a little chuckle as I look out the corner of my eye to see Stu and Phil rubbing their hands together because they know they’ve got something good for the show.


This is an extract of the full feature which appears in the July 2023 issue of Waterways World click here to read it all.