Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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Getting Afloat

There are lots of ways to start boating. Many people have their first boating experience on a hire boat or trip boat. Pleasure trips on rivers and canals are common throughout the waterway system and provide a comparatively cheap way to experience the joys of cruising. Hiring a boat for a few days, or a week or two, enables the beginner to try his hand at steering mooring, and working locks. Having had hands-on experience of boating many hirers return to boating holidays year after year.

The structure of this page is as follows:-

Buying a boat

If you decide you want to continue boating but no longer wished to hire there are several options available. These are: -


There are now several schemes which enable participants to have holidays on narrowboats and river boats. Canaltime and Shakespeare Classic Line are just two of the company's offering timeshare.

Share boats

Share Boat schemes enable several people to own part of one boat. The owners of the boat are then allocated weeks during the year when they can use the boat. Some of these schemes are operated by share boat companies others are just groups of people who own a single boat. Web sites of the various share boat and timeshare groups can be seen on my link pages.

A boat of your own

When buying a boat of your own there are a number of questions to be asked, such as: -

Cruising or live aboard?

If you are intend to live aboard you will need a boat that is suitable for winter living and which has systems for the provision of electricity and hot water that do not rely on running the engine frequently. If a boat is used for cruising then hot water and battery charging can be provided as a by-product of engine use. The provision of electricity on a boat is one of first questions to be addressed. In addition to the normal battery system charged from the engine many boats have a 240 volt system. 240 volt power can be provided by several means: -

Heating is another important consideration. Many narrowboats have stoves which burn wood, Coal or diesel. Some stoves provide back boilers to heat water and run central heating system. Alternatively gas or diesel boilers can be installed to power central heating systems.

Boat toilets are a subject of much discussion. On UK inland waterways sewage waste cannot be discharged into the water and must be held aboard for disposal at a sanitary station. Many boats have toilets with cassette holding tanks which can be removed for disposal at a sanitary station. Another common system is to have a holding tank built into the boat which can be emptied at a pump out station.

The water supply for boats is usually held in a tank of steel, stainless steel or plastic and is supplied to the taps by means of an electric pump. However, when choosing a permanent mooring the proximity of a water supply and sewage disposal point must be considered.


On British Waterways navigations short term mooring places are provided, normally free, for cruising boaters. The maximum stay on a short-term mooring is normally 14 days, so if you intend to leave your boat moored somewhere for longer than this you will need to pay for a mooring. Moorings in marinas or bank side are available both from British Waterways and privately. Charges vary depending on facilities, location and market conditions.

New or second-hand

If you are a first-time boat buyer it may be best to buy a second-hand boat before buying new. It is said that it is only after you have spent some time living on a boat that you can really know what you want. There is a lot of truth in this as boat design is a matter of compromise between at the things you want and the space available. The best compromise is very much a personal choice.

When buying new there is a wide choice of boat builders and boat fitters ready to meet your requirements. The construction of narrowboats is still largely carried out to customer specification and even where builders offer standard designs there is usually scope to incorporate a customers own requirements. There are two basic operations, the building of the steel hull and the fitting out of the boat's interior. Some companies will do both of these operations and others only one. Boat fitters who mainly deal with the interior of the boat and final paintwork will usually arrange for a steel hull to be built for you and often have a preferred hull builder that they usually work with.

How much can you spend?

If money is no object then this is a question you need not consider but for most people a budget for a new boat is essential. The first step is to look at the market for a new or second-hand boat. Have for a look at the prices in the waterways magazines. Visit some of the boat shows where boat builders and fitters exhibit or attend some of the open days that builders occasionally hold. If you want a new boat but find the price of a finished craft too much you might consider fitting the boat out yourself. Many boat builders will deliver part built boats for customers to complete. A sail away boat, as the name implies, has an engine fitted so that it can be driven away but the interior unfinished. It is also possible to buy a boat part fitted with the installation and lining out and done but the rest of the fitting left for the customer to complete.

What size should it be?

The answer to this will depend upon which waterways you will be using the boat. If the craft is confined to a river or broad canal then a width of up to 14 ft will be possible. On the narrow canals of the Midlands the width of boats is confined to 7 ft with a length of around 70 ft. On the broad canals of the north of England boats 14 ft wide can navigate but there length is confined to between 57 and 62 ft. If you want a boat that will go almost anywhere then it needs to be 6 ft 10 inches wide and 57 ft long. Some boats longer than 57 ft can manage to navigate the broad canals, such as the Calder and Hebble and the Huddersfield Broad Canal, but the passage often involves the removal of fenders and/or negotiating locks in reverse.

What features do you require?

This simple question requires an answer of considerable length. It is of course a matter of personal choice and a subject which requires much research if you are to get the best solution. I will just mention a few headings for further consideration: -

Before you start cruising

There are a number of matters to be settled, and bills to be paid, before you can start cruising.

Boat licences

Nearly every waterway requires craft using it to be licensed. Licence payments are usually based upon boat size. British Waterways is responsible for them majority of the canal system and for some river navigations, details of their licence charges can be found on their web site, see my Links pages for details. The Environment Agency is responsible for the River Thames, River Nene, the Great Ouse, the River Welland, River Glen and the Medway. The River Wey, Basingstoke Canal, Upper and Lower Avon and some other waterways have separate licensing authorities.


Casual moorings while cruising are often included in licence fee although landowners may charge separate fees for mooring on their land. For longer term mooring you will need to arrange with a marina or landowner to allocate a berth. Moorings are usually charged on the length of the boat.


Navigation authorities require boats to be insured. There are several companies who specialise in inland boat insurance, those with web sites are listed on my links pages.

Boat safety standards

There is a requirement for all boats over four years old to be certified under the Boat Safety scheme. The scheme covers engine, electrical, gas, ventilation, fire and other boat safety aspects. Boats need to be inspected every four years by a registered Boat Safety Examiner.


There are a number of routine maintenance tasks that need to be understood. The details of these will vary from boat to boat but in general terms they entail checking engine oil and water, turning the stern gland greaser, clearing the prop through the weed hatch and routine oil changes.

Boating skills

Before setting off you may need to acquire some new knowledge concerning boat handling and procedures for using the waterways. Some of this information is available from books and on this web site (see Introducing Canal Boating) but there are also recognised boat handling courses which many find very useful.

Other information sources

Boat Builders on the web

There are many boat builders and boat fitters on the web so its a good place to start looking around. You will find them all in a separate category listed in my Links pages. You will also find some helpful information on many of the Personal Links pages. Here people tell their experiences of designing and ordering boats and of do-it-yourself boat fitting.

Launching Lorna-Ann

My own (one and only) experience of boat buying is told in the article Launching Lorna-Ann which was published in Waterways World September 1994, so it's a bit out of date now.

Related Books


Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Home Introduction Waterways List Waterways Map Links Books DVD Articles Photo Gallery
Features Contact me Glossary Boats Events List History Local Waterways Help Photo List