A homeless man who stole a canal boat and caused £4,000 damage has been spared prison.

Steven Swadling 26, was caught when a boat lover spotted him painting the narrow boat after a plea from its desperate owner was posted on the internet.

Swadling had made off with the recently renovated blue boat when it was moored at Springwell Lock, Rickmansworth. He had been sleeping rough nearby between the end of March and beginning of April.

St Albans Crown Court heard yesterday that the boat, Bodkin, had been stolen on April 7.

Its owner, a part time teacher, said in a witness statement: “I was devastated the boat was stolen. I had just finished doing it up. I spent a lot of money doing it up.”

Swadling, who claimed that the boat appeared “abandoned” had moved out of his mother’s home after he was pursued by criminals over stolen scrap metal.

He damaged the boat’s engine, ruined its paintwork and also threw the victim’s personal belongings away to try and cover his tracks.

However, he was arrested when a passer-by noticed the boat matched the description of one posted missing on Canal World website.

Swadling was confronted by the witness who called police. He was traced by his finger prints after making off.

Swadling pleaded guilty to theft and failing to appear in court.

He has previous convictions for motoring offences going back to when he was a juvenile.

Victoria Morgan, defending said in mitigation the background to the offence was Swadling’s homelessness.

He had, she said, found himself living in the woods in a tent and saw the boat while out walking and assumed it had been abandoned.

Swadling had been remanded in custody for 22 days after failing to appear in court.

He had not been to prison before and was anxious about his mother’s ailing health, said Miss Morgan.

Passing sentence Recorder Rouse said: “You did not simply steal possessions you took the boat as well.

“You were in the business of changing its identity when you were interrupted by an eagle-eyed member of the public.”

In the “unusual circumstances” Recorder Rouse imposed a 12-month community order.

He added: “You took a narrow boat because you needed somewhere to live.

“I accept you were driven to leave your home and take drastic measures to get accommodation.

“That does not condone what you did, but goes some way to explain it.”

Swadling was ordered to pay just £500 compensation because of a lack of means.

He will be on a three-month curfew and must attend 16 sessions of a structured supervision programme.