For first timers

Published: Monday, 13 April 2009

The Internet

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.

The waterways

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.

The locks

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.

The boats

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.