There are a great many forms of inland watercraft, from butties to tugs and canoes to barges and GRP cruisers. But the most iconic, and to my mind the most desirable, is the narrowboat (see also Narrowboat or barge? Canal boats explained). This can immediately be distinguished from the various other forms of inland craft by the shape from which it takes its name. It tends to be a long, narrow, flat-bottomed, inland vessel, built from steel and designed to carry heavy loads in shallow waters at low speeds with great efficiency. Of course, once upon a time, these craft were used to ferry heavy, bulky items like coal from mines to metal foundries and industrial centres but today, they represent an ever more popular form of recreational boating.
If you're thinking of buying a narrowboat, then you need to understand more about what you are looking at.
Size really does matter
A purist will tell you that in order to be classed as a narrowboat, the beam must be no more than seven feet. The reason for this is that a craft of any greater width will struggle to navigate the inland network’s narrower locks and bridges. Most ‘modern’ recreational narrowboats therefore tend to come with a standard beam of around six feet, ten inches.
To muddy the waters, however, there are also plenty of wide-beam ‘narrowboats’ around (how’s that for an absurd oxymoron!). These boats tend to measure around ten feet in the beam and while the extra internal space can feel like a major bonus for regular boaters, it does result in rather inelegant looks and substantially limited cruising grounds.
For most if us then, an authentic (narrow) narrowboat is the way to go - and happily, the length is considerably less crucial than the width so if you want more internal space (as well as the ability to cruise extensively), this is the way to get it. It is popularly suggested that a boat of 57 feet in length is the maximum you can buy if you want to navigate the entire system but in truth, the vast bulk of the network was built with 70-footers in mind, so you should not be put off by these longer craft with their more spacious and versatile living arrangements.
The different types of stern
There are three basic types of narrowboat for you to consider and they are denoted by the nature of the stern configuration…
(1) The cruiser stern has a long, uncluttered aft deck, enabling lots of people to gather around the tiller for extended spells of sociable cruising. This is why they are so often used by hire companies for short-term holiday rentals. However, that big aft deck leaves the engine compartment vulnerable to potential water ingress from rainfall and it also reduces the internal space (which is always at a premium).
(2) The traditional (or ‘trad’) stern is the opposite of the cruiser in that it offers only minimal external aft space, with room for just two at the tiller. Some trad craft have the engine set beneath the floor of the aft cabin, while the older style vessels house the engine in a dedicated room amidships. But in both cases, you get a very attractive craft with a well-sheltered engine and lots of internal space - which is why they remain the most popular craft with the liveaboard brigade.
(3) The semi-traditional (or ‘semi-trad’) stern is halfway between the cruiser and the traditional craft. It looks like a trad (which is a style people very much enjoy) and yet its aft deck extends inside the external structure, enabling several people to congregate around the driving position while the boat is underway.
The finer features
When you’ve found a boat of the right size, age, style, configuration and price (with plenty of positive, documented maintenance history) it’s time to take a look on board. So prepare yourself to see past the decorative plates, brass mementos and lacework doilies and concentrate instead on the following…
Look for a good-sized permanent double bed, plus as many convertible bunks and/or doubles as you think you will require. Also, look for a dedicated galley with a propane (or diesel) cooker to help reduce your dependency on a shore hook up if you intend to cruise. And while you’re in the galley, make sure there are plenty of work surfaces and storage spaces.
The lounge will come either with free-standing furniture or built in units - and for most purposes, the latter is preferable, making better use of available space, generating extra storage and often dividing the area into more distinct sections with a dining table, a settee, a breakfast bar and even a mini-office.
Crucially, most of us want a narrowboat to feel more like a moving home than a rudimentary campsite - so look for a good, modern pump-out loo with a sizeable holding tank. On my own boat, a simple and affordable 20-minute pump-out each month gives me toilet facilities virtually indistinguishable from those in a house - and that’s still something no cassette toilet can match.
Similarly, whatever your budget, you have a right to expect ambient warmth and plenty of hot water - and in that respect, you have plenty of options. Whether you favour a woodburner with a back boiler, a calorifier, diesel heaters, electric radiators, a propane boiler or a combination of all of the above will be determined by your intended usage.
In addition to a modern, intelligent, professionally fitted electrics system and low-energy 12v appliances, look for double-glazing to help minimise condensation and improve warmth and security. It is a genuine asset and would cost hundreds of pounds to retro-fit.
And finally, don’t ignore the outside spaces. Are there canvases for the aft deck so you can cruise in comfort? And is there a cratch on the bow deck? This is basically a fitted canvas cover over a hardwood frame with a forward window. It tends to contain a pair of bench seats and a table and it creates a space that is useful not just for storage but also as an additional room. You could easily spend in excess of £3,000 having these items professionally fitted, so if you want them, put them straight on the ‘must-have’ list.
The prudent purchaser
While we all know that tuition, insurance and safety equipment are vital budgetary concerns, lots of us forget to consider where we will keep a new boat? And yet this is vital because unless you choose a life of ‘Continuous Cruising’ you either need to buy one that comes with a mooring or (more likely) find a mooring in a place you want to be and then look for a boat that matches your criteria. If you choose the latter method, just make sure you have enough time to drive the boat to its new location without the winter lock closures and maintenance getting in your way - or else you may have to pay for an overland relocation on the back of a lorry.
Also, check for a Boat Safety Certificate and relevant canal and river licences. British Waterways controls the majority of the network but various river stretches come under the jurisdiction of the Environment Agency, so your boat will need the right documentation for your chosen area.
Finally, if you’re not confident about inspecting a boat yourself, get a qualified surveyor to take a look. It might cost a few hundred pounds but it buys you peace of mind and it often enables you to save some money by haggling from a position of greater authority.
Cruising Britain’s canals on a narrowboat is extremely special, but don’t get excited and rush into a purchase. There are always thousands of narrowboats for sale in the UK, so arrange some viewings, hire a couple of rental craft and work out exactly what size, configuration, layout and features you need. When the right boat comes along (as it inevitably will), be prepared to haggle hard because there is usually a deal to be done.
Rugby Boats (buying advice)
Whilton Marina (buying advice)
Yacht Designers and Surveyors Association (registered marine surveyors)
Royal Yachting Association (training)
British Waterways (licensing and advice)
Environment Agency (licensing and advice)
Alex Smith is an ex-Naval officer, with extensive experience as a marine journalist, boat tester and magazine editor. Having raced as a Pilot in the National Thundercat Series and as a Navigator in the inaugural Red Sea RIB Rally, he has now settled in the West Country, where he lives and works as a specialist marine writer and photographer from his narrowboat in Bath.