Canal Boating - What It's Like

Cruising - in the U.K.

[Image]Pleasant scene. This is a vacation that's definitely not for everyone. If you like to spend your vacation at the beach, or playing endless rounds of tennis or golf, or dashing from one sight to another, this may not be for you. But if cruising along a narrow waterway at 3-4 miles per hour sounds appealing to you, perhaps you should read on.

Canals are typically winding, following the contours of the land. Scenery is as varied as the countryside. (Some urban canal is available too if you want it.)

Occasionally you'll encounter a tunnel or an aqueduct. Much more frequently you'll be interrupted by the need to operate locks or moveable bridges. Here you'll often meet interesting people from other boats, and you'll help each other through the locks. [I've met a lot of women while operating locks. Since this can sometimes require a bit of strength, I wondered why. So I finally asked one of them. She told me that English men didn't trust their women with the boat.]

Guidebooks indicate the locations of frequent pubs, towns, and shopping districts.

For operating the boat yourself, some agility is required. You need to be able to get on and off the boat, and at least one crew member must be able to operate locks and bridges. If you are insufficiently agile, or just like to be pampered, you could take a hotel boat instead. Or cruise on mainland European waterways, where lock keepers do most of the work.

[Image]Pleasant scene. Steering is accomplished by a tiller in the rear of the boat (see second photo), and speed is controlled by a throttle lever. It's easy. Canal boat hire firms provide the (minimal) training that you'll need to operate the boat, the locks, and the bridges before sending you on your way.

A towpath runs along one side of a canal. (This, in early days, was used by the horses that towed the boats.) You can moor anywhere along the towpath side. Typically you pound a couple of stakes into the ground with a small sledge hammer and tie the boat to them. There are also occasional mooring points which have rings or posts you can tie up to. Mooring is free.

A river navigation typically does NOT have a towpath. On these you may moor only a designated points, and you may have to pay a mooring fee.

Every other day or so you'll have to find a "water point" and refill the boat's tanks with fresh water. But you won't need to worry about fuel. The boat's fuel tank with ordinarily hold more than enough for a two week's holiday.

You'll need to provide your own breakfast but frequent pubs can supply your other meals. This is definitely part of the pleasure of canal boating.

You'll need real boat shoes, not rubber boots (wellies). Boat shoes are designed to grip on wet decks, and you will have wet decks. (This is the U.K., remember?) Rubber boots are slippery; I learned the hard way. Eyeglass wearers, particularly those who will be involved in operating the locks, are well advised to use a device to prevent the loss of said glasses.

Another boating rule. Never stand with one foot on the boat and one on the shore.

A downside is the noise of the diesel engine, which is the worst for the steerer. Those in the front of the boat will hardly notice. Water-cooled engines, fluid drives, and insulated engine compartments are supposed to help.

Some hire firms offer videos of canal cruising on their boats. But USA residents should note that these will generally NOT be playable on their DVD player or VCR.

The Boat

Because the locks on many U.K. canals are only 7 feet wide, you will need a "narrowboat" to travel them. Wider boats can be used in the U.K. on river navigations, wide canals, and the Norfolk Broads, and on most European canals.

Canal boats mostly have most of the modern conveniences: wc, showers, kitchens, TV's, heating, etc.. Missing are usually microwave ovens, but some boats do have them. On most boats you will not be able to use your hair dryer.

Telephones are always missing. But they can come in handy for all the obvious reasons. UK residents that have cellular phones should bring them; everyone else should look at my advice page on Short Term Mobile Phone Options - UK/Europe.

Ordinarily the dinette in a boat can be converted to a double berth. But you might enjoy your holiday more with a slightly longer boat with a extra double berth. It saves the work of making up the bed every night and unmaking it every morning. So if you need a boat for, say, four passengers, get one for six. Permanent double berths are not yet common, but very convenient.

Non-smoking boats? Scarce. The websites of the large UK hire firms don't mention them, but some small firms have them.

Pets- some firms don't allow them, some do, and some do only on particular boats. Also, an extra fee (of varying size between firms) may apply.

Fishing from your boat? All about fishing (from the Waterways FAQ).

Camcorder charging on a boat can be tricky. Boat power is usually 12 volts like that in a car. I've jury rigged a device that connects a 12 volt boat power plug to a cigarette lighter like that found in a car. My charger then plugs into the lighter. Surely commercial solutions must have appeared since I first made my device in 1985. WARNING! Any such connection must be approved by the boatyard, as damage to the boat's electrical system is a possibility.


For more information, see UK Waterways Information for First-Timers.
[Photos: 1. On Staffs. & Worcs. Canal, north of Dunsley Tunnel. 2. Believe to be leaving second lock from the bottom of the Atherstone Flight on the Coventry Canal.]
Link to main canals page.
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Text and photos Copyright © 1995-2010 by George Pearson.
This Page Last Modified: Sunday, 15-Aug-10 2:00 pm EDT