If you're thinking of buying a canalside home with a view to owning a boat for the first time, it's all the more important to find out exactly what you're getting into, before you make two of the biggest purchases of your life.
If you are especially nervous about boating for the first time, why not book a relaxed boating holiday with a skipper? This provides an excellent opportunity to ease into boat life gently, and to pick the skipper’s brains!
Don't buy a boat without hiring one first!
There is no substitute for hands on experience. Hire a boat for at least a week, or possibly two. Ideally you should experience boating in the summer and in the winter. The reality may be everything you hoped for, or it may be very different from your dream.
Take a course
I strongly recommend that novices should take an RYA Helmsman’s inland waterways course before buying a boat. That being said, I've seen a few experienced boaters who could learn a thing or two from a course too! You can search for available courses on the RYA Website. Some of these courses span several days and include a night or two sleeping on the boat!
Check out the boaters on Social Media
I strongly advise subscribing to YouTube and following some narrowboating channels. There are literally hundreds to choose from, depending on your particular interests. Three of my favourites are Jo and Vic, a young and quirky couple with a baby on Holly the Cafe Boat, Fran and Rich, who enjoy the natural pleasures of rambling, foraging and weaving on Floating Our Boat, and David Johns, a superb journalist offering cruising videos, maintenance, documentaries and more on Cruising the Cut. Some YouTube narrowboaters have successfully transitioned their footage to television, such as Robbie Cumming. You will also find many boaters on Instagram and Twitter, including the legend that is Boating David. If you intend to be a solo boater, it is well worth following these three chaps, as you will quickly get a feel for the pains and pleasures of solo boating.
Watch the Canal & River Trust's Boater's Handbook videos
I recommend watching the YouTube videos on the Boater’s Handbook playlist from the Canal and River Trust, which includes lots of advice including an excellent description of How a Lock Works from a boater’s perspective. For more resources, the Trust have an excellent page for those who are new to boating.
Take your time over choosing a boat
There are over 34,000 boats on Canal & River Trust waters. Good places to find boats for sale are marinas which may have private sales and with brokerages, and the Apollo Duck website. You will also find listings in canal magazines and newspapers. Many are advertised on Facebook. Most boat builders advertise in canal magazines. It is also a good idea to visit a boat show where there are show boats to explore. The biggest of these is the famous Crick Boat Show which is held annually in Crick.
Let’s clear up the terminology up before a boater glares at you or grimaces at you smugly for getting it wrong – it will happen!
- Narrowboats are usually between 6′ 10″ and 7 feet wide. They are designed to navigate narrow canals, and can cruse on the majority of inland waterways. When you see tv programmes like “Celebrities go Barging” they are in a narrowboat, not a barge! I’m afraid experienced narrowboaters often cringe and shout at the telly during those programmes!
- Widebeams are extra wide versions of narowboats. They come in various widths up to about 14 feet. They cannot cruise on narrow waterways and will not fit in narrow locks. They do provide lots of interior space, but you may find that narrowboaters look down on you. This is not snobbery – widebeams can cause damage to the canal bed, and often cause obstructions. You can find out more about the pros and cons of widebeams on the CRT website.
- Barges are commercial narrowboats or widebeams. They normally have some sort of cargo hold.
- Dutch barges are traditional flat-bottomed cargo boats which often have a higher wheelhouse to the rear (the stern). They come in various widths from Dutch barge style narrowboats up to monsters of about 20 feet. They may be commercial or leisure boats. They are often used as houseboats.
- Butties are normally unpowered boats designed to be pulled by a narrowboat or tug. You must give way to a butty as it can’t stop!
Get a survey
Buy your boat with caution, especially is buying privately, and ALWAYS GET AN INDEPENDENT SURVEY from a qualified marine surveyor. The main marine surveyors’ associations are the International Institute of Marine Surveying and the Yacht Designers and Surveyors Association. Other official qualifications are the IMarEST, the Dip.MarSur, the ABSSE, and the IEng. Remember the most important aspects are the hull and the engine. Don’t be swayed by a pretty fit-out. A survey will probably cost between £400 and £700, plus any craneage or dry docking charges to take the boat out of the water. Trust me, it’s money well spent.
I also recommend that you attend the survey. A good surveyor will teach you many useful things during the process, which adds considerably to the value of the survey.
How much does a boat cost?
The cost of narrowboats went up astronomically during the covid pandemic and is taking a while to settle. As a rough guide, if you see a boat under £25k, with a few exceptions, you may have major cause for concern. From £25k to £60k there will be a wide range of acceptable boats available, but some, especially at the lower end, may require works to bring them up to standard. From £60k to £100k you should be getting a decent and reliable boat. At the bottom end of that bracket the boat may be a few years old, a bit jaded, and need some attention, but at top end you’ll even find some basic new boats.
Decent new boats (other than tiny boats and fibreglass boats) will generally cost over £100k, and the sky’s the limit thereafter! You may have to wait a year or more for a building slot, and this too has forced up the price of a second hand boat. You may even see second hand boats more expensive than their brand new counterparts! The big advantage of a new build, though, is that you can specify every detail and adaptation to your own taste.
All boats using inland canals and rivers must be licenced, and that includes both powered and unpowered vessels of any size, from a paddleboard to a barge. Boat licences are issued by the respective waterway’s authority. You can learn about boat licenses on the Canal & River trust website.
In addition to the boat licence, you will probably require a permanent mooring on the water. Mooring fees depend on size and location, and are payable either to the respective waterway’s authority, or to the marina or boat club. Each mooring has a specific status,
- Leisure use (you cannot live aboard),
- Business or Commercial use,
- Residential use.
- Some moorings may have part-residential status with some limitations (similar to static holiday caravans).
There are some exceptions to the requirement to pay for a permanent mooring:
- if you cruise continually,
- if you own a freehold mooring space within your curtilage,
- if your property is on a river and has riparian rights,
- or if your boat is an unpowered, portable tender to a larger vessel.
You can find out about licencing a mooring against your the bank at your property on the End of Garden Moorings page.
Click here to read about mooring against your privately owned canalside land.
If you do not have a permanent mooring, by default you will be subject to the continuous cruising terms and conditions.
I hope you found these pointers helpful!