Choosing the right canal boat

Buying a canal boat is a major financial decision. If you haven’t had a canal boat before it can be a steep learning curve because there are so many variations of canal boat design, layout and equipment, and of course condition, to choose from. These are just some of your choices;

  • Boat design – want a narrowboat, wide beam, tug style, dutch barge, fibreglass cruiser?
  • Boat layout – saloon at front, bedroom front, open plan galley, corridors, engine room?
  • Materials – steel cabin and hull, fibreglass cabin and hull, windows or portholes, roof hatch?
  • Equipment – solar panels, inverter for 240 volts, washing machine, coffee maker, air con?
  • Engine – diesel engine, hybrid electric, bow thrusters, outboard, vintage engine?
  • Services – wood burning stove, central heating system, calorifier for hot water, composting toilet?

A few things to consider

Boat designNarrowboats – The most common type of canal boat, just under 7 foot wide to fit most canal locks and bridges, usually steel hull and cabin with windows and/or portholes. 50 to 60 foot is a popular ‘go most places’ size for a leisure narrowboat but may be up to 72 foot long.
Normally short lower front deck, some have no front deck.
Rear deck either; Traditional – a short rear ‘counter’ of around two to three feet with limited standing room for the steerer, Cruiser – between four to eight foot rear deck with more space and often somewhere to sit and shelter for the steerer and families, Semi-trad(itional) – a compromise of the two, looking similar to traditional but with the space and seating of a cruiser.
Wide beam boats – Over 7 foot beam so limited to certain broad canals or rivers, roomy for comfortable living afloat but more difficult to cruise and mooring and licences more expensive.
Tug style – narrowboat with longer raised front deck, traditional stern, portholes not windows.
Inspection launch – bespoke build,  river launch type hulls and large hardwood framed windows.
Fibreglass cruisers – can be narrow or wider beam, usually under 35 feet, often used on rivers.

Do your homework

If you do some research, it’s going to make the purchase process less fraught. Check out websites, magazines, marinas, brokerages, builders and fitters plus organisations such as Canal and River Trust, and the Inland Waterways Association.

Talk to other boaters, ask why they chose their boat and what they like (and dislike) about it!

Boat layout – Standard narrowboat layout has front lounge, galley usually open plan then corridors with toilet/shower and bedrooms off and possibly full width bedroom, then steps to stern deck. Reverse layout has front bedroom(s) , shower/toilet central then lounge and galley at stern. Ex hire narrowboats will usually have corridors and subdivided areas. Wide beam layouts more house-like.

Materials – All steel hull and cabins are best to avoid leaks above and below the water! Steel hulls are better suited to the bumps and bangs of canal life than fibreglass hulls. Old fibreglass cruisers can be very cheap but often lack proper insulation, ventilation and heating.

Equipment level – Older boats may only have 12 volt electricity on board, so no washing machines, microwaves or coffee makers! Most newer boats will be able to plug into mains power when on a suitable mooring. Better equipped modern boats will have sophisticated power supply systems with roof solar panels, inverters, generator and battery banks able to run mains equipment at all times.

Usage – If you are buying a canal boat to use for longer periods or as your permanent home see our Buying a Liveaboard Canal Boat.

New build or used boat? See our Buying a new or used canal boat with helpful advice.

Condition – If you’re buying a used boat its condition is going to be vitally important, unless of course you want to ‘fix it up’! Equally when buying a new boat you need to make sure you are getting what you have paid for. See our Buying a New or Used Canal Boat for things to look for. In both cases the most sensible advice is to get expert opinion, usually by having a marine survey done before you buy. There is a list of Marine Surveyors in the Contacts section of Canal Junction. There are various types of ‘in water’ and ‘out of water’ surveys which start from a cost of about a few hundred pounds.

Canal Bridge

EnginesDiesel engines with closed circuit water cooling have become standard on narrowboats and wide beams. Modern engines are much quieter than older air cooled engines. Engines are usually equipped with hydraulic gearboxes and sophisticated power management systems to ensure onboard batteries are charged efficiently.
Petrol engines are considered too dangerous for inboard use but many smaller cruisers will have petrol outboards.
But for environmental reasons electric canal boats must be the future, especially when electricity comes from renewable sources. The considerable weight of multiple batteries is not a problem for canal craft, actually reducing ballast requirements. Fully electric cruising would require hundreds of overnight mains charging stations around the network. Hybrid boats with diesel generators charging batteries to power electric propulsion are already afloat, promising quieter cruising and more efficient performance. However they are still burning diesel, even if it is the more ecologically friendly HVO (see our Fuel on Canals page). Solar panels help charge batteries but currently their efficiency – given the British weather – is not enough for daily cruising.

Heating and hot water – the majority of boats are heated by a solid fuel stove or gas/diesel powered central heating radiators or warm air heating. Solid fuel stoves can run also radiators and provide hot water via a back boiler. Calorifiers only work when the engine is being run, solid fuel stoves can give quick local heating. Hot water is usually provided either by instant gas/diesel heating systems or a calorifier, a water storage heater linked to the engine cooling system or back boiler.

Toilets – Pump-out toilets need a fixed holding tank and contents are removed at a pump-out station, costs are about £15-£20 per pump-out. Cassette toilets have a small bottom tank which contains the waste whilst the top half houses the freshwater flushing mechanism and seat. Carrying spare cassettes reduces the frequency with which you have to visit sanitary stations for emptying, usually free of charge. Composting toilets have become popular but make sure you have somewhere to safely dispose of the compost because sanitary stations and waste disposal sites don’t have facilities.

Thanks to Towergate Insurance for some of the information on this page.

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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