Narrowboats of the UK


Verified Member
May 24, 2004
baton rouge, la
Here in south Louisiana we are boat people. We have lots of boats – from small ones you can carry in your pickup truck or on top of your car to the big ones you could stock up with beer and groceries and go all the way to Managua. We have lots of water here and lots of fish and crawfish and lots of Cajuns – it all makes for the greatest package you could imagine. Take a ride, catch some fish, eat like kings.

Not so much in England and the rest of the UK. Boating is different. They have their narrowboats – narrow as hell, too. The big ones may be as long as 70 feet but they are all less than 7 feet wide and they zip around the island at three to four miles per hour through canals, some of which I could have jumped across forty years ago with a running start. Well, maybe seventy years ago. Slick-looking craft they are, with very low silhouettes and painted carefully in bright colors. Woodwork and brightwork are neat and well maintained on most narrowboats. If you don’t have one of your own you can rent one for a day or a week or a month of cruising. They are not for going any place in particular, just for being on the water and chilling out slowly.

But not everyone takes that approach. There are people who get a narrowboat and make permanent voyages among the canals – just slipping along more or less forever. Running four hours each day they can log as much as eighty to one hundred miles in a week. Man, that’s moving! A few Brits actually live onboard, perhaps selling their digs on the land and learning to live in about three hundred square feet of interior space. Not unlike the RVs, I suppose. Looking around the little one-bedroom condo where I live it’s evident that there isn’t one single thing I could take with me on a narrowboat. Depending on the price range, they are finished up inside like a condo, but everything is in a row. Think about closets, laundry, kitchen, shelves and cabinets, beds and the bathroom. Unlike the RVs, they can’t just pull off the road at mealtime and buy lunch. The narrowboaters are clannish to some extent, knowing their neighbors and recognizing the other boats on the canal, swapping information on current conditions and the many facilities on the water where they can do their shopping and access the necessary services for their boats.

So, you have a narrowboat and you have learned how to run it. Mostly you just need to know the laws that apply to cruisers – there isn’t much to operating the boat. You stand on the back deck with your hand on the tiller. Push it left and the boat goes right and vice versa. Steering errors are small and generally forgiven. All you can do is rub the side of the canal or someone else’s narrowboat. No harm, no foul at three miles an hour, and both hulls are coated protectively in anticipation. You are not making a wake, heaven forbid, no danger of rocking a boat tied to the bank.

The canals, themselves, are maybe more interesting than the narrowboats. Many of them are hundreds of years old and designed for commerce, with towpaths along the bank for the draft horses pulling the boat and its cargo. Not quite as old, our country had canals and towpaths for the same reason; the famous old Erie canal in upstate New York, for instance. In England, the towpaths have outlasted the horses and are still used – many being hard-surfaced for walking or jogging. There are many tunnels in the canals where they cross the roads topside. The width of the tunnels is what limits the width of the boat. (Nobody makes narrowboats more than six feet ten inches wide, even today.) You could lead the horse across the road and pole the boat through the tunnel and meet up on the far side. Think about this. My lady and I have a narrowboat and we are cruising this canal. Physical exercise is impossible onboard, so I will put her ashore and I will steer the boat while she walks, and we can chat as we go and after a while we will switch places.

There are more than 2200 miles of navigable canals available to boaters, and differences in water levels will be encountered and are managed by lots of locks, sometimes several in a series to handle the steps needed. As noted, some of the narrowboats may be as long as 70 feet, but be aware that not all the locks are available to those. Fifty feet is the maximum in many locks. And not all the roads are crossed by tunnels either. In England there are some aqueducts that carry the water and the boats across, high above the road. That’s spooky, and I can’t help thinking about the can opener railroad crossing in Durham, S.C.

The scenery along the canals varies widely. There are passages through forests, perhaps with willow trees hanging over the water, quiet and shady. In other places there could be livestock, cows or sheep or horses, grazing right up to the edge of the water. In some areas the bank might be lined with other narrowboats, tied to the land and not cruising today. If you live and work in town, and your boat is only for cruising, you might have a permanent mooring if you can afford it, in a lagoon of boats. Otherwise, the law allows you to tie up for as long as two weeks in one place. Presumably, if anyone is checking, you must untie and move along to another spot. The water is not very deep, as little as two and a half feet in some places, and a lot of it is polluted. I didn’t find any indication that the narrowboaters are also fishermen – or if they are they don’t eat the fish. Most of the boaters will eventually have to turn around and go home. To do that you must keep going until you find a spot, natural or dug, wide enough to turn your narrowboat around – but it will take a while to do it.

I will attach a link below where you can shop for a used narrowboat. The Brits talk funny, but they call a spade a spade and don’t try to market pre-owned boats. They are just used. For some, you will find a price listed. Keep in mind that a U.S. dollar is worth about 77 cents of a pound sterling.

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