The real cost of boating

Published: Saturday, 15 April 2017

DURING 2012 we published the following article based on the actual cost of operating a 54ft narrowboat under the then British Waterways, to acquaint would-be buyers with the actual cost per year of owning and operating a narrowboat:

The huge majority of narrowboatworld readers are of course boaters, but I am aware there are also those interested in taking up boating—who will have no doubt perused the many 'buying a narrowboat' articles that appear in the magazines, writes the Editor.

For those articles churned out in the Spring of every year, are to my mind often backed by little experience, especially of the real cost, and lead to many taking up boating, then experiencing the shock of the unprepared for continuing expenses, resulting in a boat soon again for sale. Borne out by the same boats that keep again and again appearing over the years at the local sales jetty.

The real cost

So here is the actual cost of keeping a narrowboat on the waterways, with our own boat as an example, one that is used for two holidays a year and a single day a week throughout most of the year. The present boat is now nine years old, of an age that is popular with first time buyers, coming in at a reasonable price. The photograph is of us climbing the 'Wolverhampton 21' in the boat.

This feature relates solely to narrowboats, and does not include permanent living.  It gives no advice whatsoever on purchasing a narrowboat, only on the cost of its operation.

One thing I have been told, and alas, found out to be true only too often is that oft quoted phrase: Boating can be described as a bottomless hole in the water you keep pouring money into. And no truer word...

Expensive—very expensive

No matter what the various organisations and writers would have you believe, narrowboating is expensive—very expensive.   So I shall start with the basic cost.  Not a dreamed-up scenario, but the actual basic—and alas, compulsory—cost of keeping a narrowboat in a marina, that is normally the new buyer's choice.

There are three compulsory charges—the boat licence, mooring fee and insurance cost. The licence cost shown includes the reduction for prompt payment. The mooring charge is based on a standard British Waterways marina offering most of the facilities. The insurance is for standard cover.  Every one of these charges arises annually and regrettably must be paid in advance.  You can of course choose to pay quarterly or half yearly, but the added costs are really exorbitant, with their being designed to get you to pay for a full year.  And remember the cost is every year—and of course increasing.

The three totals per year in 2012 not including the 'extras'      

  • 45ft narrowboat £2,770.      
  • 50ft narrowboat £3,029.
  • 55ft narrowboat £3,315.
  • 60ft narrowboat £3,570.

Even if the boat is never moved, these payments have to be made, and there are extra expenses.  Every four years it has to have an 'MOT'—a Boat Safety Certificate.  Having had new boats our Boat Safety Certificate has been nominal, just under £100,  but I learn of boaters paying over a thousand pounds, especially with a second-hand boat that has not been well looked after. So it depends on the boat's condition and the work required to make it safe enough to pass the test.


I have learnt that most boaters tend to use their boats at holiday times, taking one or two fairly long holidays in the summer.  Most use them very little, if at all in the winter.

Taking for example our own narrowboat, these are the further costs over a four year period.  It has required blacking twice, costing a total of £335 including materials. It was painted once rather cheaply at the marina for £2,000, (not included) that lasted just three years.  The next time it cost £4,130 to have it done professionally. But even then, with it painted in the winter in a plastic 'tent' rust came through the roof after a few years, so this year it has to be done again! We have had to replace both the water pump and shower pump, totalling £114.  We purchased three 'cheap' leisure batteries locally at £210 that only lasted three years, and this year renewed all four with better quality batteries at a cost of £362, but they have a four years guarantee.

More expense

The two control cables broke costing, with installation, £116. Pump-outs over the four  years came to £92, whilst the cost of diesel, used for both propulsion and heating totalled £758.  We use a Mikuni diesel water heater that with repairs and a maker's overhaul cost quite an amount during four years, but as many boats rely on a solid fuel stove, I have not included this cost in the total.

Yet a grand total of £6,117—working out at an extra £1,500 a year.  Of course you can save the big expense of repainting your boat or even blacking the hull, but rusting away in the water, when you come to sell, it will obviously bring in much less than the cost of repainting...

Many other costs

There are many other costs that go into that 'hole', for we replaced ropes and fenders, deck covering, anti-rust treatment, a television and aerial for the swap-over to digital and other sundries, all adding to that total.  Of course there is the cost of servicing the engine—new oil, new filters, new 'fan' belts.  That 'extra £1,500 a year plus' becomes very plus!  Oh yes, the cost of the Boat Safety Certificate.

And even more so when the cost of gas and marina electricity is added.  In fact I have added it all, and it equates to an extra £1,723.

Last week we discovered that two engine mountings required renewing. Did I forget to mention? Like all too many things on a narrowboat they have a limited life...

So even more into that bottomless hole.

So I think that newcomers will by now have the picture, so before you rush in to buy to fulfil your dream of owning a narrowboat—think!

April 2017

As stated, the above article appeared in narrowboatworld five years ago. Alas that 'professional' painting was done during winter in a plastic 'tent', resulting is rust coming through the roof after just a few years. It is being repainted again this year. Those expensive batteries with the four years guarantee lasted exactly four years. Needless to say there have been further maintenance costs. The Chanelglaze windows were of poor quality (two just would not stay closed) so are being replaced.

The three costs of boat licence, mooring fee and insurance this year have risen by 27% in comparison to five years ago. The further costs of replacements and repairs have of course also risen—considerably. Much more that the average of £1,500 a year.

So before you buy, you really must think.  I have noticed no few new narrowboats appear in our marina then before too long, on the sales jetty. Someone who clearly did not think.

Nowadays, new supposedly 'knowledgeable' web sites are springing up, giving false information about the purchase and operation of a narrowboat, either through not having the knowledge or attempting to get people to commit to what really can by a foolhardy decision should their finances be limited.

But worse, is selling to those who have not even 'tried before you buy' by first hiring a narrowboat.  And that is the best advice I can give—always try it first.

Tom Crossley