See inside Wags on Water - a floating holiday home for dogs at Ipswich Waterfront
PUBLISHED: 14:25 12 July 2020 | UPDATED: 15:25 14 July 2020
Yvette Hart runs a holiday home for dogs on her barge, Yaffle, moored in Ipswich marina
It sounds barking mad – a dogs’ boarding houseboat. But Yvette Hart has turned her home, the barge Yaffle, into a successful, unique getaway for adventurous hounds, called Wags on Water.
Yvette set up Wags on Water officially in 2018, but it started around 2016 when she began looking after friends’ dogs and fostering rescue dogs on the barge Yaffle. She got her licence to homeboard dogs in September 2019.
“It all started when a good friend suggested I start boarding dogs onboard as a part time job to help pay the expense of renovating Yaffle,” she says. “I’d looked after his Labrador and I was being approached by other people, through word of mouth. Extra dogs onboard became the norm.”
Having dog visitors proved a welcome break for Yvette, from working on the barge. Initially she registered with a third party platform to ensure she was insured and had backup should things go wrong, but enquiries were few and far between.
Then the passing of new animal welfare regulations in November 2018 forced her to make a big decision. “Either I stopped homeboarding dogs or I had to take the step of becoming official, which was quite a scary prospect. At that point we didn’t even have a name. I was just known as ‘that dog lady on the big boat’.
“I needn’t have worried though, as the licensing officer from the local authority was so helpful. In spite of many people doubting it was possible, my barge passed the inspection and I received my licence.”
Yvette set up a Facebook page and Wags on Water was launched.
“People message me and I invite them to a ‘meet and greet’. Prior to Covid 19 we would have the family and their dog come aboard. People would walk through the bow door and be surprised at how big Yaffle is. We would have a chat and a cuppa, and the dog would have a good sniff about.
“We would then ask the family to leave their dog with us for a couple of hours so we could assess whether they suited life on the water. Most dogs adapt quickly but a few don’t. If things go well we may have a couple of longer visits before the dog comes for a holiday on the barge.”
A maximum of three canine guests stay on board at any one time, and normally it’s only two. Yvette keeps the operation small so she can provide a high quality experience.
“The visiting dogs become part of the barge’s extended crew,” she says. “After 30 days on water the dogs earn their parade bandanas.”
At the moment Yvette uses her weekends and annual leave to accommodate visiting dogs, but she would love to be able to make Wags on Water her full time occupation.
“The dogs we have staying range from Labradors to chihuahuas to greyhounds. They adapt quickly to life on board and learn the routine from my own dogs. I’m told our regulars get super excited as soon as they turn the corner by the Steamboat Tavern (the local pub). As soon as they’re through the security gate they run to go up the dog gangway onto Yaffle.”
Yvette tells how once two cairns had been staying for two weeks and when it was time to leave they jumped out of their owner’s car window and ran back to the barge.
“They didn’t want to go home! With two dogs of my own it can get cosy on the sofa at times, so we end up on the floor – but we love it. Most weekends and through the summer, we’re busy meeting new friends. It’s a unique setting for homeboarding dogs, and with bookings into 2021, the future – even with the challenges of Covid 19 – looks rosy.”
Yvette bought Yaffle in 2013 in a delapidated state. “I was heading for 50 and I guess I had a mid-life crisis. I sold a lovely three-bedroom cottage and brought 30 tons of rusting steel instead.”
Yaffle, a 70ft, widebeam river barge, started life in 1979 in Worcestershire as a hotel barge on the river Avon. After a 20-year career she was left in a boatyard, sad and unloved for seven years when she was rescued and converted to a house boat.
“I found her online,” says Yvette. “She was the 38th out of 42 boats I looked at. By then she was in need of help, but I had a good feeling about her. She seemed an honest barge, with all her scars showing, so I bought her.”
Yaffle was transported from Wellingborough on a huge lorry. The first winter Yvette lived onboard with her springer spaniel, Mr Blue. She had no heating – “That was really tough!” – and for the next four years she worked all hours to make the barge liveable, doing the majority of the work herself.
“In 2017, Lexi, a cocker spaniel joined our little crew, and work on the interior was finally completed in 2018, when my partner Jerry moved onboard. That summer Yaffle got her current paint job – I decided to recreate the riverbank on her sides. Yaffle now looks the way I wanted but it’s been hard work.”
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But it’s all been worthwhile as far as Yvette is concerned and she loves life afloat.
“I love that even though we’re moored in an urban area there is nature all around us. We have otters, seals, kingfishers and so many fish and birds seen daily. I love the changes the seasons bring. And it’s lovely to sit in the bow with the dogs and watch the world go by.
“When you live on the water you become more aware of subtle weather changes and you think ahead more. We have a lovely community here and I consider the marina owners as friends. We all help each other in a way that no longer happens on land.
“I’m often invaded by Chester, the lovable retriever who lives two boats down. He just lets himself in.
“Life on the pontoon is very different to my life in a house and I can’t believe how lucky I am to have found Yaffle.”
Not that it’s been all plain sailing.
“The first year onboard was awful,” says Yvette. “So many things didn’t work, including the heating. I watched my bank account haemorrhage as I discovered how expensive renovating an old barge can be.
“I developed a stubborn chest infection and was exhausted most of the time. A real low point was being covered in poo – and it wasn’t mine – when my first attempt to pump out the toilet tank went badly wrong. Some people told me to move out but I refused.”
In 2017, Yvette slipped two discs in her neck when she was sanding the deck head, resulting in spinal surgery.
“But as the saying goes ‘you have to break eggs to make an omelette’,” she says, showing indomitable spirit. “Yaffle hasn’t broken me even though it’s not been easy.
“I have made some lovely friends, learnt lots of new skills, saved a lovely barge and succeeded in achieving my dream of living on a barge, as well as combining my love of dogs, the simple life and water. Would I want to live on land again? No. I love being a pirate too much!”
A dog’s life on board
Yvette has invested a considerable amount to make Yaffle dog-friendly.
The rear deck is enclosed by steel fences and two access gates and covered by a shade sail. There is a purpose built dogs’ gangplank at the rear and two dog flaps allow access to the rear deck where there is a platform for the dogs to lay on and an Astro turf patch they like to sunbathe on. There are beneficial herbs and grasses in planters for the dogs to nibble at (and a few cats have helped themselves too). There are toys, extra beds, leads and life jackets for the dogs.
Inside, Yvette can separate the dogs at feeding times and bed times using two corridor gates. The visiting dogs choose where they sleep and he says it’s not unusual to have a guest dog sleeping in the main cabin with them.
“No area is off limits and we put a lot of effort into replicating the guest dogs’ home routine. We leave the barge several times a day for toilet walks and have two main walks a day.
“We use the wag wagon to access walks in the local area, so we may go to Rendlesham Forest one day, Felixstowe the next. We cram in lots of adventures including going out in the dinghy up the River Orwell and encouraging dogs to swim. We work on any training needs identified by the owners and have good success with socialising scared dogs.
“We also foster dogs for people facing homelessness, fleeing domestic violence and for a Greek dog rescue. The barge is a calm environment filled with patience and love. We love our extended crew and they love us.
“We sign off letters to our clients as Captain Yvette, Bosun Jerry, First Mate Sir Bob and New Crew Ember. So yes, we are a bit quirky – certainly a unique dogboarding setting.”