THE SHEER availability of the Internet is resulting in an interest in the waterways that has never before been experienced, with literally thousands of people being introduced to our world of waterways for the very first time, through this medium.
From the hundreds of emails we have received from such people, all over the world, asking what really are very simple questions, we realise that there are many people who wish to learn about our canals, rivers and narrowboating, and perhaps either hire or own a narrowboat, but do not know anything about it.
This page, we hope in some way, rectifies this.
IN BRITAIN there are now well over 2,000 miles of navigable canals and rivers, which boats can cruise. These canals and rivers cover most of the country, both England, Wales and Scotland, with virtually all of those in England interconnected.
The canals make up most of this, and built some 200 years ago are either narrow or broad.
The narrow canals can only take boats up to 6' 10" wide in their locks, hence the name narrowboat, and these canals make up the majority of the waterways, particularly in the Midlands. The bridges too have restricted width on the narrow canals.
The broad canals have locks of twice the width, or over, allowing either wider boats or two narrowboats to pass through side by side.
The navigable rivers too have locks, which serve the purpose of giving depth for navigation. Major rivers, such as the Thames, Severn and Trent however, have much wider locks than canals, allowing even larger boats.
The length of the boats accommodated—particularly on the canals—varies though there is a maximum of 70 feet on most waterways.
IT IS the locks that restrict the width of boats that can use the canals. A lock is basically a chamber that holds water and accommodates the boats to either lower on raise them to a lower or higher level. A lock is therefore needed to follow the level of the ground.
Locks are quite simple things, with boats going into the lock then the crew closing the gate(s) behind the boat.
If the lock is lowering the level of the canal, it is simply a matter of letting the water out of the other end until the same level is reached, then opening the gate(s) to proceed on the lower level.
If the level is up, it is just a matter of letting water in the lock from the higher level, until again, the water in the lock is level with that above, then proceeding on the higher level.
The water is regulated by sluices which are operated by simple handles, known as windlasses, carried on the boat.
The locks on the canal system are many and varied, but all work on the same principle. Staircase locks are when a number of locks are connected, but with these there is usually a lock keeper at hand to guide you through.
THERE are two distinct types of boats on the waterways, the narrowboat, constructed nowadays of steel, and measuring up to 70 feet long and cruisers, of varying widths and lengths constructed of plastic.
On the canals it is more usual to find narrowboats with a sprinkling of narrow cruisers, whilst on the rivers, particularly the major ones, cruisers are more prominent.
Narrowboats, though all around 6' 10" wide, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Mostly though these steer from the rear with a tiller, but even these have a variety of designs.
A normal layout would include space for clothes, toilet and shower compartment, galley, saloon and bedroom, for a 'medium' sized narrowboat. Full sized boats would include extra rooms, whilst smaller ones would have a combined saloon and bedroom.
Equipment and facilities
NARROWBOATS are very well equipped, with normally full cooking facilities, usually with a gas oven, grill and rings. Hot and cold water is also normal with a full size sink and drainer. A refrigerator, either gas or electric, with a freezer compartment is also usual.
A shower can also be expected with sometimes a drying cupboard.
The toilet in a well equipped boat would be a proper flush basin with a sealed holding tank, which is pumped out at a later date. The tanks are usually designed to accommodate two people for over a week, but there are pump-out facilities throughout the system should it become essential to be emptied. This is a clean operation, usually undertaken by marina staff.
The other method is the Porta-Potti type, as used in caravans, and needs physically emptying at the facilities that are also provided on the waterways, though these now seem to be getting less and less.
The boats are designed with all manner of sleeping facilities, very often now with fixed double beds in a separate bedroom.
A saloon provides a lounging area, sometimes with fixed seating which can be made into a bed and sometimes with normal moveable seating. Television and radio is possible.
Power for lighting is provided by batteries, which are charged by the engine's alternator, with the better engines having two alternators, allowing a bank of high capacity batteries for powering such as a refrigerator, television, etc.
Though the water pumps and refrigerators are 12 volts, working direct from the batteries, a inverter can be installed which provides mains power from the battery supply for a television, radio, etc.
There are various methods of heating narrowboats. Either a stove, with or without a back boiler, a gas powered heater or a diesel powered heater. The latter two are the most popular on hire boats for people using them in the cold weather.
There seems to be strong feelings about boat heating, with some people liking the open fire of a stove whilst others prefer the convenience of a heater to heat radiators. there are also diesel fired stoves.
This means that a narrowboat can be entirely self contained whilst cruising, with the batteries being charged enough during the day to provide the power needed whilst moored for the night.
Narrowboats are nearly all powered by diesel engines, and use 'red' diesel which not attracts various taxes depending if used for propulsion or heating.
Canal & River Trust
THE MAIN authority controlling the waterways and their usage is Canal & River Trust (CaRT), that 'took over' from British Waterways during 2012.
It is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the waterways under its jurisdiction, and also responsible for licensing boats.
It publishes many handbooks concerning the operation of the waterways, as well as many guides and maps, that are invaluable to beginners.
Some rivers, including the non tidal Thames and Nene are controlled by the Environment Agency, which undertakes its own licensing and operation.
BY FAR the best way to experience the waterways is to hire a narrowboat for a cruise. There are many hire companies situated on virtually all the waterways, and these companies usually give instruction on how to handle the boat and work the locks.
Usually the boats are very well equipped, with all the needed utensils and bedding as well as fuel both for the engine, cooking and heating.
The cost of hire varies on the time of the year and the length of the boat, and thus its accommodation, with the individual web sites or brochures giving the cost.
All hire companies provide information and plans of the layout of their boats, and from these it will be seen what would be a comfortable size of boat to hire. Do not make the all too usual mistake of booking a boat larger than what you really need.
A very large boat will be difficult to manœuvre and turning points will be restricted.
THOUGH canals do not usually flood, rivers do, and many canals use rivers both as part of the waterway and as feeders, which can and do cause flooding.
River navigations have to be treated with care in times of heavy rain, but now depth boards have been included at river locks showing when it is safe—or not—to proceed.
IT IS not such a good idea to hire a boat for cruising in the winter, owing to the many stoppages, necessary for the upkeep of the system, unless you are fully aware which passage is available over your chosen route.
Boat Safety Scheme
The Boat Safety Scheme is the method used by the participating Navigation Authorities to minimise the risks that boats may present to third party users of the waterways. Boats over four years old (and every four years thereafter) have to be examined and issued with a certificate before they can be licenced.
Although some controversy still persists, the scheme does provide a sensible framework aimed at minimising the risks which can lead to fire, explosion and pollution. While many believe that their Boat Safety Scheme Certificate (BSSC) is valid for four years, the reality is that the BSSC ‘has a maximum validity period of four years'. While this may appear to be splitting hairs, owners (and prospective owners ) should read the terms and conditions on the rear of the BSSC which clearly state that alterations/modifications to the craft may invalidate the certificate.
If you are purchasing a boat, it is essential to check that its BSSC actually reflects the configuration of the boat for sale. If, for example, the boat has had a galley re-fit or any of its LPG appliances changed/upgraded since its last examination, it is highly likely that the certificate will not be valid (which will have insurance implications). Accordingly, prospective purchasers should request the surveyor conducting their pre-purchase survey to establish the validity of any certificate and, should the need arise, they should budget for the eventuality that a new BSSC may be required to bring the boat into compliance before the purchase is completed.
The spiralling costs
SINCE this page was first included, the cost of narrowboating has increased, and during 2008/9 it has increased dramatically, and looks like doing even further over the coming years.
The mooring charge for a 55 feet boat in a marina can be expected to be over £2,000 a year, double that of around five years ago. In city centres it will be much more.
A year's licence is for this length of boat is now over £600. Then there is insurance.
Every four years is a Boat Safety Scheme, examination, which besides its cost, the result of complying can be anything from a few pound to hundreds. Or even thousands with an older boat.
Further dramatic increase in costs is due to CaRT having its government grant cut by millions of pounds, causing great increases to boaters in costs.
THIS little bit of advice is not for you regular boaters, but for the many new visitors to the site, who perhaps are all excited at the prospect of their very first venture onto the waterways for a summer holiday.
'So everything sorted? All the literature well read? Can't wait to go? Oh yes, cruising the canals and rivers looks a doddle, with absolutely nothing to worry about, for you are well prepared and you know that every conceivable mod con will be provided on the boat.
Just one word of warning, my friends, it could well be ruined by a lack of just one thing—tuition. So my advice to you is to make sure that the people you are hiring from give tuition, especially at a lock.
Though there is no great difficulty in mastering the control of a narrowboat, and mooring is mostly a matter of practice, locks are not.
Simple though it may seem, I have seen many a hire boat in difficulty, and this site has published a photograph of one hung up in a lock. But worse than that, people have been killed in locks through crews either not knowing or not bothering what they were doing.
So ask your hire company if they give lock tuition, and if either: "Oh, you'll be alright." or "We show you how it's done on a model." is the answer—then go elsewhere.
Let me tell you of my own experience, many, many moons ago, when I first started boating. It was at Pitstone Wharf on the Grand Union Canal when my friend and I booked a boat for a few days, not even knowing what we were getting.
A 50 feet narrowboat was awaiting us. Oh, God, look at the length of it, it's massive. But the fella in charge was unperturbed, showed me how to start the engine then gave me the tiller, accompanying me just a few yards out of the boatyard.
Then together with my friend he walked to the first of the Seabrook Locks, showing us both what to do. We were obviously not up to his standard, so he walked to the next lock and did it all again.
We had a very good holiday—in fact were hooked!
The next time was a week on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal with a boat from Snaygill. Even though we told Chris Shave that we had done it all before, he set us off with the instruction to wait at Holme Bridge Lock the following morning to have instruction.
That is the sort of service you need if you want a carefree holiday. Believe me, nothing else will do'.
Owning a boat
IF YOU are interested in owning a narrowboat, the main cost is of course, the boat itself.
Though there is always a tendency to get the largest possible, this is not such a good idea, for not only does a large boat take more handling. particularly for beginners, there is an increased cost of mooring, licence and insurance, all of which depend on the length of the boat.
Narrowboats are by no mean cheap, for built of steel, with a great deal of time having to be spent on fitting out, makes them expensive. Prices vary enormously, depending on the builder and the boat's equipment and fittings. Plenty of secondhand boats are available. It is obviously all a matter of personal choice.
Keeping a boat
THE main cost of keeping a boat is the mooring charge, which various from canal side with virtually no facilities to a marina with full services.
Another charge is the licence, which allows you to cruise the canals and rivers. CaRT issue the licence which covers most of the waterways, though some rivers, like the Thames, as previously mentioned, come under the jurisdiction of the Environment Agency.
Insurance is the least of the costs, with comprehensive insurance covering loss of the boat and third party damage.
But do not forget running costs, which not only means servicing and repairs but also 'blacking' the hull from time to time to stop rust.
THERE are various limitations when cruising, the main being a speed limit of four miles per hour.
Though mooring can be virtually anywhere on the towpath side of the canal, there are a few limitations, such as at lock moorings, under bridges and on bends, etc.
Hire companies will not allow cruising at night, and it is not sensible to operate locks in the dark.
THE following has been included as a result of some of the questions we have received:
You do not need any qualifications to own or cruise a narrowboat.
A licence is not needed to' drive' a narrowboat or cruiser.
You do not have to cruise in your boat if you do not want to, for you can use it at its mooring as an occasional holiday home if you wish.
Many marinas supply electricity, with sockets on the mooring piers so that mains equipment can be used and batteries be charged.
A narrowboat can be your permanent home, as some marinas have residential moorings, with all facilities. Some canal side moorings also provide for residential boaters, but with less facilities. However, you may have to pay council tax, which may be included in the mooring charge.
Water can be obtained usually without charge from filling points along all the canals, at marinas and boatyards, and boats can usually carry around 100 gallons or more in a tank.
The huge majority of narrowboats are powered by diesel engines, the fuel being readily obtainable at boatyards and marinas along the waterways. With the engine being so slow running, boating is fairly economical on fuel.
Cooking and some forms of heating uses gas, which is in bottles, obtainable at marinas, etc. along the waterway.
If the boat is not needed it can be safely left during the winter months providing the drinking water system is drained and the engine has anti freeze in its cooling system.
Length restrictions of narrowboats on canals is controlled by the locks, and though most will accommodate the maximum length of 70 feet, many, particularly the northern canals, will not.
Though a maximum of 60 feet is stated, on some canals, including the major Leeds & Liverpool Canal, we have seen a 58 feet boat having difficulty with these locks.
The Huddersfield Broad Canal is another that can only accommodate shorter boats.
You are not allowed to hire out a privately owned boat unless licenced to do so, appropriate insurance has been obtained and special Boat Safety Scheme regulations have been met.
There are no tolls levied for either cruising the rivers and canals or passing through locks under CaRT's jurisdiction. The privately owned Avon does attract a toll.
Many maps are available showing both the entire canal system or individual waterways. The most common showing the individual waterways is Nicholson's, which in book form, published in eight versions, covering the entire system. However, though its general canal mapping is most reliable, the accompanying information is not, and very often years out of date, being transferred from one issue to another with little modification.
There are other similar publications, including Geo, with the maps of the individual waterways in a different form.
The initials that seem to confuse first timers to the waterway scene are CaRT Canal & River Trust; EA Environment Agency; BSS Boat Safety Scheme; NABO National Association of Boat Owners; IWA Inland Waterways Association; plus many canals such as K&A Kennet & Avon.