Canals & Waterways FAQ

WARNING: some items on this page may be ancient history, since the page has not been updated since 2001!

Compiled by:
Dave Green
FAQ Manager
Nb Willy No-Name
[email protected]

from postings to the canals mailing list/uk.rec.waterways newsgroup.

This FAQ page has been collated by Dave Green, the FAQ Manager, from contributions made by members of the waterways internet group. It is provided to assist those who are interested in waterway matters. It should be noted, however, that the information has been contributed freely and in good faith and that the owner of the web site, the FAQ Manager and contributors do not accept responsibility for any loss or injury which may follow from the use of information contained here. Readers must make their own judgement and, if they choose to use any of the information given here, do so entirely at their own risk.

1. As a new user of UK inland waterways, I would like information on the appropriate protocol I should follow so as not to upset anyone.

2. We have never been boating before but are considering a one week holiday on the canals. Do you think this would be suitable for a fairly young family (children of 5, 7 and 10 years old) and could you recommend a suitable route or waterway please?

3. Can you give me information please on the Boat Safety Scheme?

4. I keep seeing reference to something called a GIG in the newsgroup/mailing list. What is this please?

5. I am an experienced boater but am contemplating a trip for the first time on the River Severn. I will be travelling from Stourport to Gloucester Docks. What advice can you give?

6. I am considering purchasing a boat for use on the inland waterways. I would be grateful for any information on the running costs I am likely to incur.

7. I would like to go boating single handed in a narrowboat on the inland waterways. Is this a practical proposition please?

8. What are the maximum dimensions for a boat that is capable of travelling the entire network of connected waterways in England and Wales?

9. What deck and roof top equipment do you recommend should be carried on a narrowboat to assist safe and efficient operation?

10. What information can you give on specific areas and waterways?

11. Do you know of any web sites dealing with boating in France and French waterways?

12. What circular cruises can you recommend for either a one week or a two week holiday?

13. What is the quality of the water in canals? Can I swim in it?

14. What advice can you give concerning handling cruisers and narrowboats on inland waterways in windy conditions?

15. What are the requirements for fishing on canals?

16. Can you suggest an area of the canal system that would be a suitable learning ground for a novice boater? I would imagine that the area would need to contain locks and bridges that would give the novice a fair chance to develop the skills and experience to take on the other areas of the waterways. Is there an area that can provide this and the canalside pubs etc which are an important part of the canal experience?

17. What advice can you give on taking an inland waterways boat on the Thames tideway between Teddington and Limehouse?

18. In case an emergency arises whilst I am boating, what do I need to know in respect of calling the emergency services?

19. How should I moor my boat? In particular, I would like to avoid being disturbed by the wash of passing craft?

20. What is the best way of travelling through Manchester safely when doing the Cheshire ring given the problems on the Ashton flight? Where are the best places to stop?

21. Can you give any information on cruising the BCN and the Stourport Ring - I have heard that there are some difficult areas.


Question: As a new user of UK inland waterways, I would like information on the appropriate protocol I should follow so as not to upset anyone.


Keep within the speed limit. In particular do not cruise at a speed which causes a breaking wash to appear at the edge of the waterway.

Moor considerately. In particular do not moor close to a lock, bridge or bend so that your boat is likely to cause an obstruction. Do not moor at a water point or at a sanitary station except to use the facilities there and do not moor on the non-towpath side unless you have permission. Observe and comply with any notices which are displayed in relation to mooring. Do not moor with your lines across the towpath. Popular mooring sites fill up early - do not moor alongside another boat unless you have permission but do not be afraid to ask for permission if all the bankside spaces are taken.

Share locks with other boats if the lock is large enough to allow this. If you are approaching a lock and another boat is coming in the opposite direction then the order of using the lock is determined by the state of the lock. Eg if you are going downhill and the lock is empty or nearly empty then the approaching boat will use it first even if you actually arrive at the lock before him. Offer help to others but do not be offended if it is politely refused - some people appreciate help whilst others prefer to operate the facilities themselves.

When passing a boat travelling in the opposite direction, keep to the right of centre so that you pass left side to left side. Be aware that deep draughted boats may need to keep to the centre of the channel - in this case move well to the right and slow right down. Also deep draughted boats need to keep to the outside of bends where there is deeper water - be prepared for this possibility as you approach sharp bends.

Slow right down when passing moored boats but not to so slow a speed that you lose steerage way.

When passing anglers, maintain a slow to moderate speed and proceed down the centre of the navigation channel unless you are asked to do otherwise but do not risk running aground - you are the skipper and make your own decisions.

Never throw litter in the water or on the ground. If you have a dog please carry the necessary materials to clean up after it.

Do not run engines or generators in such a way that they are likely to be an annoyance to others.

Do not steer if you have been drinking alcohol. Supervise children carefully. Do not allow anyone to hang their limbs over the side of the boat. Be watchful for low bridges if anyone is on the roof of the boat. Do not boat after dark until you are experienced and unless this is allowed by the boat owner.

Check if there are any local arrangements for the manner in which locks and moveable bridges have to be left. Most canal locks (but not all) should be left with all gates and paddles closed. Most moveable bridges should be left as you found them.

Have due consideration for the environment - particularly the flora and fauna.



Question: We have never been boating before but are considering a one week holiday on the canals. Do you think this would be suitable for a fairly young family (children of 5, 7 and 10 years old) and could you recommend a suitable route or waterway please?


Boating is an ideal family holiday provided that you take a number of common sense precautions. The mix of countryside, city centre and industrial landscape can make a fascinating and unforgettable holiday.

If you can't swim then wear a life jacket. No-one considers this to be "sissy". Certainly they should be worn by the two younger children whether they can swim or not.

Insist on safety first. No-one should have their limbs outside the profile of the boat when it is moving or in a lock. They should not jump off the bows of the boat unless it is COMPLETELY stationary.

Try to get the children involved in running the boat and working the locks. Give them an opportunity to run around away from the canal but do not allow running on the locksides or near the canal. They can walk from lock to lock where the locks are close together or from one bridge to another. Take lots of board and card games, colouring books etc. Why not get them to write up a log of the journey. I-spy is a good game to use (birds, animals, waterway structures etc.)

Don't try to be over ambitious with your cruising plans - allow lots of time to visit places near to the canal. This is a holiday to unwind - not to see how many miles or locks you can do in a week. Think about what you are doing and do not hesitate to ask for help or advice from more experienced crews.

Do take appropriate clothing - it can rain and be cold at any time of the year.

As for routes, well as Hilda Ogden once said "The world's your lobster!!". But for an easy introduction you could try the lovely Caldon canal which starts near Stoke-on-Trent, or start from near Coventry and explore the lockless Ashby Canal with the possibility of a trip to the famous canal village of Braunston or try the southern Grand Union - you could include a trip along the Paddington Arm to Little Venice and then go along the Regents Canal through London Zoo. Check out other parts of George's web site for more ideas or peruse the hire company brochures.

For specific advice when you made your provisional plans, feel free to post a question to the waterways Internet group.

Have a great time....see you on the cut


Question: Can you give me information please on the Boat Safety Scheme?


Many questions relating to the Boat Safety Scheme are answered on Andy Clarke's web site. The official Boat Safety Scheme site describes the safety Standards a boat must comply with in order to obtain a navigation licence.


Question: I keep seeing reference to something called a GIG in the newsgroup/mailing list. What is this please?


GIG stands for Great Internet Get-together. There have been annual GIGs so far, at Ansty on the North Oxford, Hopwas on the Coventry, Normanton-on-Soar on the Soar (now part of the Grand Union system) and at Stafford. They are great fun and people attend by boat, car or on foot and many camp on the site if they aren't aboard boats. GIGs are *not* boat rallies so while some things are organised, mostly they're just an opportunity to meet up and party. Everyone involved in the internet group is welcome.

For information on the next GIG, just monitor the mailing list or newsgroup or post a question.


Question: I am an experienced boater but am contemplating a trip for the first time on the River Severn. I will be travelling from Stourport to Gloucester Docks. What advice can you give?


The following is written from the perspective of a narrowboater.

Most of the river Severn is straightforward given normal summer levels. It does, however, rise quite rapidly during heavy rain and you should be prepared for fast flows. You should be particularly aware if there has been heavy rain in the previous week in the Welsh hills. This can have more effect on river levels than local rainfall.

Mooring can be a problem at busy periods, as there is little available apart from the occasional marina or public landing stage. Be prepared to double up, and don't refuse anyone asking to come alongside.

The locks are very large, but are well provided with plastic-coated lines running from top to bottom in grooves on the walls. A centre line passed around these back to the steerer's position will allow the boat to be controlled single handed, or by someone sitting on the roof. All locks are operated by keepers. Tie up on the side they suggest.

Beware of the large trip boats around Stourport, which seem to buzz around at high speed with little regard for other users.

The river can be quite shallow in parts. The Nicholson guide gives good advice as to which side of the river to use, and in general there is adequate signposting of the more major obstacles.

The Lower River

Below Tewkesbury the river can be tidal around spring tides. When the tide goes above the weir at Gloucester, the falling tide can be quite fast and there will probably be a lot of floating debris in the river. It is well worth seeking advice from the lock keepers at Gloucester or Tewkesbury as to the best time to depart.

After leaving Tewkesbury lock, the downriver stretch is mostly wide and remote. The main flow separates at the Upper Parting about three miles above Gloucester, with the navigable channel going to the left (east). Beyond here the channel becomes quite narrow, with practically nowhere to tie up in an emergency. Even with low water levels, a current of several knots can be expected. A good anchor is strongly recommended with an adequate length of chain and rope. It must be available for rapid deployment from the upstream end of the boat in case of loss of power or debris round the prop.

It is not a good thing to meet a large commercial boat going the other way below the Parting. Many of the bends are effectively blind and narrow. It is advisable to enquire of the lock keeper when going onto the lower river if any large traffic is expected, and to avoid if at all possible meeting it on this stretch.

Gloucester Lock is situated on a bend in the river, with the lock directly in front of the oncoming boat and the stream going to the right. The current sweeps across the entrance to the lock, so approaching at too low a speed and too far to the right will mean missing the gates altogether.

The stern line should be made ready for use well before the lock is reached.

As soon as the lock entrance is visible, unless the gates are open and you have the green light, tie up from the stern at one of the chains on the quay as far back from the lock as possible. This will involve pulling in to the left hand bank as soon as the straight stretch of river is reached, putting the engine into near full power reverse, and looping the stern line around one of the chains and quickly tying off to the stern dolly. I prefer to keep a shortish (3 m or so) length of 15 mm line available, one end tied to the dolly and the other with a spliced loop ready to slip back over it. Reduce engine speed and let the boat drop back onto the stern line.

Be very, very careful not to let the stern line foul the prop or you will be in big trouble. The weir is not far from the lock!

As soon as the gates are open and you have the green light, take tension off the stern line by applying reverse power. Holding back in reverse will generally let the bows swing out into the current. (If you just go straight off in forward gear, suction will hold the boat to the wall and you will lose much paint!). As soon as the bows are out, go into forward gear and keep close to the left hand wall - about 2 m out. If there is much current running, point the bows of your boat at the left-hand gate post and the current will swing them enough to take you into the lock. You will need to apply some engine power and swing the tiller to the left to keep the boat going into the lock on a straight line. As soon as most of the boat is in, hold back hard to avoid hitting the front gates.

The lock keeper at Gloucester lock will lower a hook to take bow and stern lines around the lockside bollards and back to the crew. As Gloucester lock is very deep, you will need long lines - 12 m will suffice. Try to tie up well back from the front gates, as the rising water is very turbulent, but note the road bridge going over the rear of the lock - the air draught under the bridge is not sufficient to clear a anything much higher than a dinghy.

Gloucester Lock can be contracted on 01452 318007, and Tewkesbury (Upper Lode) on 01684 293138. Both locks listen on VHF channel 74.


Question: I am considering purchasing a boat for use on the inland waterways. I would be grateful for any information on the running costs I am likely to incur.


The costs will depend on whether your boat will be permanently located on the water (or in a boatyard) or whether you buy a small cruiser, dinghy or canoe which you can keep at home. For an unpowered boat, costs will be very low and will be made up of licenses and insurance only. For a trailable small cruiser powered by a petrol outboard, the following will give you an indication (March 1999):

Comprehensive insurance: GBP120 BW annual license GBP209 (or Thames GBP103 or 30 day license in France FRF484 or 1 month license in Ireland IEP10) Petrol (small outboard) GBP2-6 per day depending on cruising time Gas: GBP1 per day (water heating and cooking) Use of slipways: Varies from free to about GBP15 each way. Boatyard slipways are likely to be more expensive than those operated by local authorities or navigation authorities but may supply other services such as car and trailer parking.

Now for a boat permanently left on the water:

To a certain extent it depends on the sort of boating you intend to do. The following relates to non-liveaboard cruising.

Your biggest single expense will probably be your home mooring. This depends on (a) the size of your boat (b) the facilities of the mooring (c) the popularity of the location and (d) whether it's a commercial mooring or a club. To quote some figures, a survey carried out recently (March1999) by Canal and Riverboat magazine indicated prices ranging from 30 to 60 pence per foot per week for privately operated moorings on the canal system. Moorings operated by boat clubs or farmers "end of field" moorings are likely to be cheaper. Moorings on rivers (particularly the Thames) are likely to be substantially more expensive. Moorings with planning permission for residential use can also be much more expensive, especially if they provide hook-ups for water, electricity and 'phones.

One can license a boat with BW as "permanently cruising" which removes the need to have a home mooring, but then one is limited, in theory, to never stopping anywhere more than 14 days. A lot of people who do this actually pay for a winter mooring each year. But BW are talking of changing this system and introducing some form of "intensive use" license.

If you use your boat for cruising away from your home base, you can moor at most places on the canals for up to 14 days without charge. Certainly no one pays for overnight moorings (it's different on rivers like the Thames). If you are weekending and need to leave the boat somewhere between trips, then it is often possible to find towpath moorings in villages that will be safe, and once again you would only expect to pay if you were staying there for an extended time. Or you can pay to put your boat in a marina or boat-yard. Prices vary quite a bit for this.

The next main cost is your license. For British Waterways (covering nearly all the canals and quite a few of the rivers) the cost is about GBP400 a year for a 48ft cruising boat and about GBP490 for a 60 foot boat. Houseboats and multi-user boats pay more. Outside the BW system, the Environment Agency (the Thames, Great Ouse, Nene & Medway) and various smaller navigation authorities have their own scales of charges. BW charges are based on boat length whereas the EA license fee is based on length multiplied by beam.

Insurance - Premiums depend on the value of the boat but a member of the group with full no claims bonus is paying about GBP 200 per year for fully comprehensive insurance including contents cover. It's well worth going to a company with specialist experience of canal boats as you are almost certain to get a substantially lower premium than from a marine insurance company more used to dealing with sea-going craft. Much cheaper insurance is available restricted to third party cover only.

Fuel costs are surprisingly small. Most boats can cruise all day on 2 or 3 gallons of diesel. Since this is currently not subject to excise duty, it's price ranges from about 60 pence to GBP1.30 per gallon.

Maintenance costs depend on how much of it you can do for yourself. One thing you will need to pay for is taking the boat out of the water every so often to paint the undersides. How often this is necessary depends on the construction of the boat. Steel narrowboats need their bottoms blacking every 2 - 3 years. Even if you are happy to do the work yourself you wll still need to pay to hire a dry dock, or have the boat slipped or craned out. If you are going to pay a firm to do the whole job for you (docking, cleaning down & repainting) then the going rate in the London area seems to be about UKP 10 per foot length of boat including slipping and paint costs. In addition, you should be aware of the possibility of unplanned costs when something needs repair.

You need a boat safety certificate, which has to be renewed every four years. If the boat you buy already has one, then the renewal cost should be negligible although the technical requirements of the scheme change from time to time. Also, beware if you change any of the equipment (especially anything to do with fuel, gas or electricity) because the new stuff must comply with the regulations. The old equipment may have been exempt from some of the requirements. If you're looking at a boat with a view to buying it, then be very wary if it does not have a certificate already, as bringing a boat into compliance that was not originally built that way can be very expensive - which may well be why the boat is for sale.

For a cruising boat where gas is used just for cooking and hot water, a 13kg gas bottle seems to last for ages. The cost of pump-outs if you have a toilet holding tank is likely to be more significant. A 60 gallon tank might be expected to be OK for about 30 person/days depending on your intake of curries! Pump outs cost between nothing if you carry your own kit through GBP5 to use a self service pump to about GBP10-12 for a boat yard operated pump out.

If you live aboard a boat then the cost of keeping a coal burning stove burning continuously is likely to be around GBP15 per week - about GBP9 per week for a diesel stove.

You may want to bear in mind the loss of interest that your money would have earnt if you had not bought a boat (or interest on a loan if you borrow money to buy it).

Further information on costs is contained in "The New Inland Boat Owners Book" published by Waterways World (try sending an e-mail to [email protected] )


Question: I would like to go boating single handed in a narrowboat on the inland waterways. Is this a practical proposition please?


Yes it is. Most things are likely to take longer - you need to take your time and plan what you are about to do. One contributor even suggested that women might be better at it than men because " have a general tendency to rely on brawn because they can but women are more used to not being strong enough to do things that way so look at problems with more of an eye to doing something the simple way."

Most boaters recommend a centre line which should be attached to the centre of the roof of the boat, long enough to reach back to the steering position. When mooring, bring the boat in at an angle to the bank with the bows up to the back, then gently drive the stern in. Put the gearbox into neutral, and step ashore with the centre line and, if there is nothing to tie to, a mooring pin and hammer. Secure the centre line, then get the bow and stern lines properly set, and then think about putting some springs out. (a second set of lines at a different angle such that one bow rope (and one stern rope) prevents the boat moving forward and the second prevents it moving aft). Consider carefully where you are going to moor. Things to take into account include the direction and strength of the wind (it may tend to blow the boat away from the bank) and the depth of water. Here is one contributor's method of single handed lock working:

Locking up.

  1. Tie the boat up with the nose in against the lower gate, and a tight line off the roof to the bollard below the gate, if any. If no bollard, tie the line to the gate itself. (roof lines are handy when solo boating. My roof line is long enough to extend from the middle of the boat roof to the floor of the stern deck. I keep it neatly coiled next to the back hatch for easy access)
  2. If you need to let water out of the lock, the flow of the water will cause your boat to go down and forward against the gate. When this happens, be sure the nose of the boat doesn't catch on a plank of the gate. A good bow fender is recommended.
  3. When the lock is empty, open the gate, untie the boat, and navigate it in. Climb up the ladder. In a double lock, like on the grand Union canal, one ladder is near the rear of the lock, the other is usually toward the front. Keep your boat to the REAR of the lock when locking up. Less turbulence. Keep the engine in neutral.
  4. Take the line with you when you climb up the ladder, even in a single lock. You never know when you may need to pull your boat back from the front gate if the fender or nose gets caught under it. Always have control of the boat at hand.
  5. Close the bottom gate and paddles, and open the top paddles. In a double lock, open the ground paddle on the side your boat is on first, then the gate paddle when the gate paddle is covered with water, then cross the gate and do the other side in the same order. The pressure of the water will keep your boat tight to your side in a double lock. It doesn't matter in a single lock, but I follow the same procedure just to keep the discipline of it anyway.
  6. When the lock is full, open the gate and exit by navigating. Moor up just above the lock at the BW bollard or ring. (if any....;( not always there) Close the gates and paddles and go on your way.

Locking down.

  1. Tie up to the ring or bollard with your topline. If its a double wide lock, nose the front of the boat into the opposite angle of the far lock gate, and use your stern line to secure the boat across the canal to the bollard on your side.
  2. Fill the lock.
  3. Untie the boat, and pull back to allow for opening the gate. Open gate.
  4. Enter the lock, and take a turn with the topline around a bollard. ALWAYS keep the boat well to the front gate when locking down, because you are unable to control it due to the turbulence and the sill can break your rudder, or even sink the boat. Some people keep the boat in forward gear tickover. Never go down without control of the line. I take a turn round the bollard, open one paddle, and then let the boat go slowly down, holding the line against the bollard to keep it in place I use cotton lines for my top line, NOT nylon. A cotton line will break under the weight of the boat if things go wrong, a nylon line will break the boat attachment weld. Also, cotton, though more expensive is kinder to the hands, doesn't shred your skin, and can be washed and bleached nice and clean at the laundry. (Put them in a nylon net bag or they will tangle and harm the washer during the spin cycle)
  5. Open the bottom paddle on your side first, then the opposite. Keep your eye on the boat, making sure it is forward to the gate and not getting caught in the gate, and not drifting back towards the sill. Again, keeping the boat in forward gear at tickover will assist here, but some people dislike the boat being in gear when they are not aboard.
  6. When the lock is empty, open the gate and bowhaul the boat slightly forward to secure the gate open.
  7. With the line on your arm, climb down the ladder carefully. It will be wet and slimy. I wear rubber soled shoes with a heel and deep tread to get good purchase on the ladder. I try to climb down to the gunwale rather than the roof, it's safer, though muddier. Walk back to the counter, and navigate out.
  8. Tie up below the lock, and walk back up to close the paddles and gates

Special Situations:

Stuck gate...not broken, just too hard to move.

  1. Be sure the level is correct. Open or close the paddles as appropriate
  2. Tie the bow line to the front of gate when going down, and gently reverse the boat to pull the gate open. GENTLY, or you may pull the gate off its pins. BW would probably hate that.
  3. Going up, untie the boat, GENTLY nose up to the gate until you are touching it, and slowly and carefully push the gate open with the boat. A gentle nudge is sufficient, or else the gates will slam against the walls and bang back onto your boat.

Please note that this is one person's locking method - there are others. Also the technique may need to be modified depending on the locks. In time, you will develop a technique which suits you. Be particularly careful when tying up at the bottom of wide locks - the turbulence as the lock empties can be considerable. Keep an eye out for what other people are doing - if they are opening paddles too quickly for your liking then ask them to stop. Remember, take your time and think out what you are going to do. It's not as difficult as it sounds.

Swing or lift bridges can be a real problem. With some it may be possible to open them manually from the tow path side and then wedge them up with a boat shaft. Where this is not possible you should nose gently up to bridge, climb off the bow onto the bridge, fasten the end of the front line to the bridge and then open the bridge. In an ideal world, the boat will stay where it is whilst the bridge swings, taking up slack in the line haul the boat through the bridge gap, putting the front line back aboard and refastening to the other side of the bridge using the stern line. Close the bridge, haul back boat, board and set off. There are two problems with all this. Firstly the wind. If the boat is being blown on to the bridge at any time it makes it near to impossible to continue safely. In these circumstances you could request that a passer by operate the bridge. Secondly, like all single handed stuff, slow, thoughtful, careful and efficient are the watchwords. You may find this *very* difficult to maintain in front of numerous irate motorists.

One of the regular contributors to the group is Chris Deuchar who has recently published a small book with much useful advice including that which is applicable to single handed boating. E-mail him for details at [email protected]


Question: What are the maximum dimensions for a boat that is capable of travelling the entire network of connected waterways in England and Wales?


Beam: approximately 7ft (2.15m). Modern narrow boats are generally built to 6ft 10in (2.10m) beam, but former working boats built with a beam of 7ft (or 7ft 0.5in) regularly travel the entire narrow canal system. There are a small number of tight locks on several canals (including the Chesterfield and the Llangollen) where these craft have a tight squeeze, especially if they are deep draft and 7ft wide right down to the bottom of the hull.

Length: 60ft (18.46m) plus or minus a few inches depending on the shape of the hull. Several waterways have maximum dimensions quoted that are below 60ft (eg 57ft (17.54m) for the Calder and Hebble Navigation) but these are all broad beam waterways capable of taking craft up to about 14ft (4.31m) wide, the maximum dimension quoted is for broad beam craft, and it is possible for a single narrowboat slightly longer than this to pass through the locks by 'going diagonally'

The only waterways not capable of passing a 60ft narrowboat are the Welches Dam / Horseways route across the Middle Level (which is only navigable on a few dates per year and is paralleled by the alternative Well Creek route which can take 60ft craft) and the new lock giving access for boats to the last half mile or so of the navigable length of the Little Ouse River in Brandon. Both of these have a length limit of about 40ft (10.26m).

Draft: Former working craft drawing up to about 3ft (0.92m) regularly navigate all of the main system, but experience some difficulties on a few waterways including the Llangollen, River Wey above Guildford and parts of the BCN. A boat drawing up to about 2ft 6in (0.77m) should have no serious problems in most places on the system although boats over 2ft (0.62m) may have difficulty in some parts of the fenland waterways (but not on the main routes).

Air Draft: On the narrow waterways, the greatest air draft is probably about 5ft 10in (1.79m), and on the broad waterways 6ft 10in (2.10m) but this depends significantly on the profile of the vessel's superstructure. A craft with this air draft over the whole of the maximum beam would not pass through many routes. Low bridges are a problem on some fenland waterways with one on Castle Dyke being as low as 5ft 2in (1.59m)

It may help to know that the connected waterways can be divided into three regional networks which accept craft wider than narrowboats, but which are connected only by narrow canals. These are based on the following watersheds:

1. Thames and Severn. The maximum beam to use all the broad waterways in this region (including the Thames & Severn canal when it is restored) is 12ft 6in (3.85m). The currently unnavigable Wey & Arun canal has locks only about 11ft 8in (3.59m) wide.

2. Nene and Great Ouse. The maximum beam to use all the broad waterways in this region is 10ft 1in (3.10m).

3. Mersey and Humber. The maximum beam to use all the broad waterways in this region is approximately 12ft 4in (pinch points on the Market Harborough arm and the Wirral line).


Question: What deck and roof top equipment do you recommend should be carried on a narrowboat to assist safe and efficient operation?


Boarding plank - As long as you can reasonably handle. A "plank" based on a short aluminium ladder with a piece of ply fixed to it will be lighter in weight than a solid wood plank

A long shaft - 12 to 16 feet long - again, as long as you can comfortably handle

A short shaft - preferably with a "double hook" fitting at the end which is unlikely to damage anything it is pushed against. A fitting which is a combined hook and spike can also be used although care should be taken not to damage lock beams or other boats with it.

Approved life ring - required by regulations although other methods of people recovery may be more effective. Should be kept within reach of the steerer.

If you have a very long boat then you may want to double up on the above equipment and carry one set at each end of the boat. In general, for safety and efficiency reasons, it is best to keep the roof as uncluttered as possible.

Windlasses - at least two to fit the locks on the waterways you propose to cruise.

Mooring lines - Bow and stern lines of about 10 metre (33ft.) length. If you are cruising rivers then a set of lines of at least twice this length should also be carried. It is a good idea to carry a second set of lines so that you can set "springs" to prevent fore and aft movement of the boat if it is on a busy waterway. One subscriber suggested lines should be twice the length of the boat but others thought that this was likely to be unwieldy for most canal boats.

For river cruising you will also need a suitable anchor with an appropriate length of chain and rope or chain alone. The size of anchor should be sufficient to hold the weight of the boat but must be capable of being man-handled by all active adult crew members.

Centre line(s) - Again probably about 10 metres in length and fixed to a fitting on the roof near the centre of the boat.


Question: What information can you give on specific areas and waterways?


The following internet waterways group contributors can help with information on the areas shown. You can also post a specific request for information to uk.rec.waterways . There is a good chance that someone will be able to help.

For the London area try Mike Stevens ( [email protected] ). Mike's web site has a section on facilities for boaters visiting London )

For the Stoke-on-Trent area try Catriona and Alan Flaherty [email protected] )

For the Trent and Mersey, Shropshire Union and Llangollen try Wallace Venable ( [email protected] )

For the Northamptonshhire section of the Grand Union (including the stretches from Cosgrove to Braunston and Norton Junction to Welford try Bruce Peckett ( [email protected] )

For the Lee and Stort try Adrian ( [email protected] )

For the BCN try Kevin Maslin ( [email protected] )

For the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal and the River Severn from Gloucester to Stourport try John Sangwin ( [email protected] )

There is a separate newsgroup for the fens - uk.rec.waterways.fens


Question: What is the quality of the water in canals? Can I swim in it?



The material in this FAQ has been compiled from available sources on the world wide web for your guidance. To the best of the compilers knowledge it is factually correct but, as with all the waterways FAQs, the compiler, the FAQ manager and any contributors can not be held responsible for any errors or omissions. If you remain concerned about this subject then you should seek further advice from relevant medical and public health authorities

Swimming in canals managed by British Waterways is prohibited by the BW Byelaws. Furthermore, there are known, if slight, risks of infection from a number of water borne bacteria and virii and the general recommendation from public health bodies is to avoid swimming in rivers and lakes if possible

That said, many waterway users have been in the water, both accidentally (!) and deliberately (to clear the propeller blades), and have not suffered any ill effects.



Leptospirosis (commonly, but mistakenly, called Weils disease which is actually the much rarer acute form of the disease) should always be born in mind when indulging in any activity associated with water including canals, rivers and lakes but, especially on the canals, this need only be to the extent of being aware of the symptoms and seeking medical advice if you show any signs of the disease. It is virtually unheard of on the canal system and there are fewer than 30 reported instances a year in England and Wales of which around 8 or 9 per year are attributed to water related leisure activities (of which 3 are canoeists).

Bearing in mind that millions of people participate in such activities and that many more work underground, on rivers, canals and lakes, construction sites etc. etc., these figures put the risk of contracting Leptospirosis into perspective. It is a very rare disease.

(There is no information on how many of the reported infections were contracted abroad)

The infection is caused by the Leptospira bacterium and is spread primarily by the urine of infected animals. Although both domesticated and wild animals can spread the disease, the most common carrier is rats. Infection is endemic in the rat population and areas where rats live should be considered high risk and precautions taken (see below) if contact with the water cannot be avoided.

The symptoms of Leptospirosis are as follows:

The usual symptom is a flu like illness that clears within 2 to 3 weeks. Symptoms normally develop between 2 and 12 days after exposure to the causal organism. There may be fever, severe headaches, back pains and sensitivity to light. Mis-diagnosis can include flu, migraine and meningitis amongst others.

A handful of cases develop jaundice (the Weils disease variant). About 15% of Weils victims die, patients who do not develop jaundice almost invariably recover without long term ill effects

If you develop these, or similar, symptoms within a month of possible contact with the Leptospirosis bacteria, seek advice from your doctor and make sure you tell him/her that you suspect Leptospirosis. Given the low incidence of the disease, your doctor is unlikely to give the possibility serious consideration otherwise, even assuming he/she actually knows about the illness at all!

IMPORTANT: If you develop jaundice, whether or not accompanied by the other symptoms above, after exposure to possible infection - seek medical treatment IMMEDIATELY. Weils disease, whilst extremely rare, is a very serious illness and prompt treatment is vital - one document suggested bypassing the doctor and going straight to your local casualty department as the necessary antibiotics are usually only available to hospital doctors


Cover any cuts and abrasions with waterproof plasters Always wear stout footwear if you do have to enter the water Avoid entering the water in suspect areas where rats may live Avoid putting your head under the water if possible Shower or wash thoroughly as soon as possible after immersion



Both these diseases are caused by variants of the Salmonella bacterium

Typhoid and Para-typhoid are contracted when people eat food or drink water that has been infected with Salmonella Typhi or Salmonella Para-typhi (as if you couldn't guess!).

The symptoms of Typhoid are a sudden and sustained fever, severe headache, nausea and severe loss of appetite. Sometimes, victims develop a hoarse cough, constipation or diarrhoea. Untreated, as many as 10% of victims die. With proper treatment, 99% of patients recover fully

Paratyphoid fever shows similar symptoms, but tends to be milder and with far fewer fatalities

Typhoid and para-typhoid are transmitted by food and water contaminated by the faeces and urine of patients and carriers. Polluted water is the most common source of typhoid. There are, on average, around 110 reported cases of Para-typhoid and 180 cases of Typhoid a year in England and Wales (again, there is no information on how many of the reported infections were contracted abroad)

Note 1: I have found no evidence that typhoid and para-typhoid can be contracted by skin contact - all indications are that the bacterium must be ingested

Note 2: The presence of Typhoid and Para-typhoid is closely linked with the presence of untreated or poorly treated sewage. There is very little chance of this situation occurring on the canal system (indeed, some years ago a sewage spill caused the total closure of the Grand Union Canal between Knowle and Camp Hill) although correspondents have reported a history of para-typhoid infections on the River Thames in the past. (Apparently, by the time drinking water is extracted from the Thames for use in London it has already passed through seven sets of kidneys!)


Avoid swallowing untreated water It would be sensible to also follow the precautions listed above for Leptospirosis

As with Leptospirosis, seek medical attention and advice your doctor of the possibility of infection if you develop any of the symptoms



Cholera and Poliomyelitis are now considered to be third world diseases and therefore are not dealt with here in detail. Information on both is widely available on the web.

Whilst not a water borne disease, anyone engaged in outdoor pursuits should ensure that their Tetanus vaccination is up to date


In most places it is extremely good. The canals wouldn't support the fish and wildlife that they do if it wasn't. Nor, for that matter, would the use of the canals for water transfer be a serious possibility if there was significant pollution of canal water.

There have been major initiatives to improve the water quality of Britain's rivers in recent years and this has led to significant improvements in water quality by the reduction of industrial discharges and improved sewage systems. This campaign has been so successful that salmon have returned to many rivers, including the Thames, where they have not been seen for generations

There are a few locations where the underlying deep silt on the canal bed is contaminated with waste from former canal side industries but that doesn't pose a serious health risk to boaters because uncontaminated layers of silt have been laid down over many years since the practice of allowing toxic waste to be discharged into the canals stopped - or the industries concerned ceased trading!

The water in the canals will usually appear to be discoloured and "dirty" - this is simply sediment stirred up by passing boats and doesn't mean the water is foul (in fact, it means it's well aerated and there's lots for the fish to eat!)

In urban areas, there is likely to be a certain amount of rubbish around although a lot of effort has been made in many areas to tackle this problem (the Coventry, for instance, is almost pristine nowadays compared to what it used to be like)

Like an iceberg, not all of the rubbish will be visible so if you do have to go in in order to clear the blade (as canal boaters call the propeller) then you should be aware of the danger to your lower extremities from sharp objects such as stones, glass and metal that may be present. There is also the danger (as is the case in any watercourse) of becoming entangled with larger objects or water weed


Question: Do you know of any web sites dealing with boating in France and French waterways?


A group member has provided a comprehensive list of urls.

Last Modified: 31-Jan-01