How I rebuilt my life... and now live on a 45ft old tugboat
- Credit: Gregg Brown
As her marriage crumbled, Claudia Myatt bid goodbye to the ‘yummy mummy’ years and swapped dry land for a life afloat in Suffolk
Claudia Myatt’s remembering the dark days when she had a bit of a meltdown. “The upshot of that was I packed all my belongings into my rusty little Fiat” and left the marital home with precious little. She “gibbered under a duvet for six months”, courtesy of a friend, and cleaned floors for a living. She was well into her 50s, and home, marriage, self-belief and confidence had gone in one fell swoop. “The cracks had been appearing for years and I just fell down one.”
A fresh start was needed. She returned to Suffolk, where she knew people and felt she could live cheaply on the water. Claudia bought a small boat and came here in 2012, wobbly but determined. “Even in your darkest hour you get this little voice saying ‘This is your opportunity… You can take the safe road or the new, exciting, road. You’ll have to be braver taking the new road, but it will be worth it.’ I knew this was my chance to find out where I should be.”
If all you’ve ever known is bricks and mortar, and you have clothes and “stuff” tumbling out of cupboards and drawers, a glimpse of Claudia’s world might provoke the tremors. Home is a 105-year-old ex-tugboat 45 feet long and 12ft 6in wide. Maximum.
In winter, when darkness comes early and brings the cold, her world shrinks to the galley – the living room-cum-kitchen – and its wood-burner. Cosy, but compact.
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I look at the gas stove with its two burners and oven. There’s one food cupboard and a little fridge. “It’s a girl fridge: wine, chocolate and yoghurt!” laughs the illustrator who will be 60 in the autumn and is living a life free of the fripperies most of us consider essential. “I have two saucepans, and a frying pan and a pressure cooker. That’s all you need.
“If you only have a few possessions, it really makes you value the ones you’ve got. If you were only allowed 100 possessions, I’d know exactly what they’d be. I think most people don’t.”
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At the back of Else, as the boat’s known, is Claudia’s even-tinier bedroom. I manage to knock a hook off the wall and marvel about the minimal space for clothes. “Me and the other girls living on boats, we have a rule. If you like nice clothes and buy something new, something else has to go!”
So: how did she get here?
Claudia’s father was a meteorologist attached to the RAF. The pattern of life: usually three years in the UK, then three overseas (such as Singapore when she was nine). “I quite liked it as a child because I was shy and it meant I could start again somewhere fresh. ‘Next time, I’ll be more confident.’” Did it work? “No! I’m getting the hang of it now...”
When she was 12 her dad worked at RAF Wattisham. Claudia went to grammar school in Stowmarket, where her art tutor was John Constable, a relative of the great Suffolk painter. She loved art, but it was considered too frivolous a pursuit for pupils earmarked for university. Her father liked it, though. She remembers him making little sketchbooks in Singapore, from old weather charts torn up and clipped together.
“He was partially deaf. My mother was a huge social animal. She was always having parties. My father hated smalltalk, he couldn’t hear half of it, didn’t like the theatrical crowd she mixed with, so he used to sit in the corner and draw.” Did they get on? “No, they divorced when I was 16!
“My father told me to draw. I said ‘How do you do that?’ And he said ‘Draw every day.’ And, of course, I didn’t!”
She went to university in Southampton, read French, “and hated it”. Jacked it in after two years and drifted through jobs (barmaid, secretarial etc). “I took a long time to work out who I was and what I wanted. I think I’m a ‘second half of life’ person.”
By now flatsharing in the London area, she started drawing again. Claudia painted miniatures and taught herself about watercolours.
Sailing was discovered after she and a group of friends hired a boat for a week, “despite knowing nothing about sailing more than could be gleaned from Swallows & Amazons.
“Lousy weather, but we thought this was thrilling. It sowed the seeds, really. Which is odd, because I’m unsuitable for sailing. I get horribly seasick, am easily scared, I hate being cold and I absolutely hate being wet! I ought to take up knitting, but I don’t! It’s uncomfortable to do but more uncomfortable not to do.”
Little wonder she began to draw vessels – and, in her 30s, bought a boat and sailed around the coast: selling pictures and going to music festivals. (“Midlife crisis number one!”)
So what does Claudia like about sailing? “Good question. It’s that moment of silence when the engine goes off and you’re still moving. Suddenly the tiller comes alive and there’s that feeling of being connected to the boat, the sea, the wind, and everything comes into harmony.”
She pottered about in the early 1990s. Her 24ft cutter was based at Melton, near Woodbridge, for a couple of years, though she was away, sailing, during the summers, “in search of inspiration and money”.
Then: more change. In London she met a chap who had just been sailing in Greenland with Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world. Claudia fell pregnant, they married, and she entered “my being-grown-up phase, where you’ve got a Volvo and sit on committees and you’re a mum”.
Did she do that? “I was cruiser captain of The Royal Burnham Yacht Club, darling!” she laughs as we sip tea in her wheelhouse. “I was a very yummy mummy! Lived at Burnham-on-Crouch, in a house, and had a lovely life for 15 years or so.”
Her husband lost his job in the City when their son James was about 12, in the mid 2000s, and the couple decided to move to Pembrokeshire to run a B&B and creative art courses.
Claudia was trying to get more commercial work, too, and embarked on a contract with the Royal Yachting Association to produce a series of children’s books.
It was after James went to university that she had the little meltdown and came back east.
There were a few ups and downs in Suffolk, initially, but a brilliant friend offered an interest-free £25,000 loan to buy Else. The old flat-bottomed tug, with its big six-cylinder diesel engine and riveted-iron hull, used to pull buoys and cargoes along the Maas. Now she was lying in Devon, in a bit of a state.
Claudia got her for £20,000. It was a gamble, but Else left for Suffolk in the dying days of 2013. That first winter was grim. “I had no running water, no shower, anything.” She’d traipse to a friend’s house with a towel over her arm.
Claudia took Else to a yard, handed over £3,000 and instructions to carry out repairs in order of priority, “and stop when I run out of money”.
The vessel’s been rewired and the plumbing sorted. The shower works. As does the engine. Claudia’s even sailed her to Holland. “But I did break down. The gearbox failed. The repairs cost £3,000…”
Few regrets, though. There’s a great community. “When you live in a house, there’s always that front door and it feels ‘closed’. But on a boat, in summer, your life expands. This whole river’s my living room. We have barbecues on the quayside with the other barge people, and people sailing up and down wave.
“In winter, it shrinks and shrinks and shrinks, and then it becomes harder than a house and I look enviously at people in their cosy little cottages. It shrinks to that room. I can’t use the wheelhouse because it’s too cold. The contrast between summer and winter is absolutely stark. The winter can be beautiful, though, because you’ve got the light on the water and all the migrating birds.”
It seems she’s found her place.
“I always sleep well on a boat. You feel the river looks after you. You’re aware of the noises. There are certain noises that happen at certain states of tide, depending where the rudder is on the shingle. She goes clunk/grawnch as she settles.
“Then there’s a point where the tide comes in and the suction of the boat keeps her down, and then she pops. She heaves herself up with a rattle and a clank of steering chains.”
Claudia has radio, a laptop and CDs. She doesn’t miss the worry of myriad other household appliances going wrong. “Not having a television is brilliant. I write more songs and play a lot of music. I love folk music.”
Sounds like she’s staying… “Yes, definitely. Financially, there’s no other option. Pensions are shot to bits. I can support myself day to day, but I can’t accumulate anything.
“I think what I’d do, if I could afford it, is get a slightly bigger barge that’s all on a level – something more spacious and comfortable. A proper ‘old ladies’ boat’, maybe! Who knows? I’m settled to this.”
Outgoings are less than on land: about £2,000 for mooring fees, for instance, plus a bit for power and insurance, and some for “keeping my rust-bucket car alive”. (It’s passing its MoT as we speak!)
As a marine illustrator, she spends her time drawing, painting, or writing, or teaching other people. Her work appears in magazines, and her cheerful art is on the walls of her studio at Waldringfield Boatyard.
What if she had a free choice? A return to a regular house? “Only if it were close to the water! Put it this way: if it were a choice between a house away from the water and a boat on water, it’s got to be a boat, regardless of discomfort. It’s where you belong… the rhythm of the tides… I find houses a bit static, really, and also a bit of a trap.”
Claudia sips her now-cold drink. “I just think life’s about a lot more than money. Quality of life is found in a lot of subtle areas. It’s in who you spend time with, moments of appreciation, playing music with friends – all the things that don’t cost anything.
“It’s about being settled in yourself and what you want. And it’s about not having envy. People compare themselves to people who are better off, and that’s a bad idea. If I were in different circumstances, I’d be a different person. And I’d rather be me. If being me has led me to this, that’s fine.”
‘We can all draw - honestly!’
Claudia struck lucky this winter when she spent nearly six weeks as resident art tutor on a P&O cruise ship, on its Barbados to Sydney leg. No pay, but board and lodgings (obviously!) and decent tips.
It also sparked a good idea. Passengers were fascinated by her sketchbook diary: a personal mix of drawings and a few words.
When she got back, nursing 5am jetlag, she thought it would make a good book of tips and inspiration, from use of colour to drawing people. It’s something she could sell here and on future cruises.
Keeping a Sketchbook Diary is out now (at £10, plus P&P, via www.claudiamyatt.co.uk).
Claudia believes firmly that we can all draw in a sketchbook diary, and should keep one. “Drawing is no different to any other learned skill, like writing, or playing a musical instrument. The more you do, the better you get.”
Sketching, she says, “deepens appreciation, sharpens observation, helps you to engage fully with the moment. It stops you making assumptions about what you are seeing and helps you to slow down and spend time with your surroundings.
“To draw something, you have to look at it as if you have never seen it before, because you are aiming to record what is actually there, not what you assume you are seeing – there is a big difference.
“Even the act of trying to draw connects you to an experience in a way that is memorable and intense.”
At times like this, we should keep technology at bay. “Don’t get your camera out when there’s a glorious sunset or a shoal of dolphins; don’t put another layer of electronics between you and your experience. Sketch it.”
She adds: “What matters is that you draw with passion and enthusiasm, enjoy the journey, and that will keep you at it.”