Types of Boats for Inland Waterways and Canals

There are many types of boats for inland waterways and canals – for cruising the canals on day trips, holidays and living aboard. If you’re thinking of buying or renting a boat for use on the UK’s inland waterways, then think about what you need from it: start with the number of people you need it to accommodate, what you’ll be using it for and where you want to use it.

Types of boats for inland waterways: narrowboats

This type of boat is traditionally associated with canals and, as the name suggests has a long, narrow shape. The standard width for a narrowboat is 6 feet 10 inches, so it can access the whole of the UK inland waterways system. (The sizes are quoted in imperial measurements due to the historic nature of canal boat design.)

A narrowboat can vary in length from 20 to 70 feet. A boat length of 30 to 40 feet is usually ample for weekend or holiday cruising, and 50 feet or more is ideal for extended cruising or living aboard.

Narrowboats no longer than 57 feet can access the whole the UK canal network, due to the maximum length of locks in some areas. However, restrictions only apply to a small number of canals. For instance, Leeds & Liverpool canal restricts boats to 62 feet long and the Calder & Hebble canal restricts boats to 60 feet long. Tight bends are harder to navigate in longer boats, but this can be overcome with the right training and practice so shouldn’t necessarily put you off.

Types of narrowboat design

The main types of boat design are determined by the shape of the stern, or the back of the boat.

  1. Traditional stern – this traditional design derives from the original use of narrowboats for transporting various types of goods along inland waterways. It only has a small rear deck area (two to three feet long), just enough room for the helm. This means that there is more space inside the cabin. The engine bay is boxed inside the cabin, close to the rear doors. You may prefer the solitude and tranquillity that this option offers as well as the additional cabin space.
  2. Cruiser stern – this has a larger rear deck area (four to eight feet long) surrounded by a taff rail. The engine bay is outside the cabin, boxed in underneath the deck. The cruiser stern style provides a more sociable open outside space meaning that the helm can be accompanied by two to three people. A weatherproof curtain can be stretched from the taff rail to the deck to give a form of enclosure to protect you from the wind.
  3. Semi-traditional stern – as the name suggests, this is a hybrid of the traditional and cruiser types of stern. It has a larger area outside than the traditional stern, but it is enclosed by sides which continue the line of the cabin. There are often seats for two to three people and the engine bay is once again outside the cabin. The semi-traditional stern offers a more secure outside area with doors and sides, so can be a safer option if you’re cruising with children or a dog.

Types of boat for inland waterways: widebeams

Widebeams are generally ten to twelve feet wide and offer more living and storage space. Widebeams are popular for full-time living aboard and the extra width gives greater flexibility and layout options. For instance, some furniture can be free standing instead of built-in.

Canals vary in size across the UK – there is no standard width or depth, and bridges vary in height. While some canals and inland waterways cannot be easily navigated by widebeams, there are four main areas in the UK where widebeam cruising is perfectly possible. These are: London & the South East, East Anglia, Severn Waterways and the Trent & North area.

Widebeam boats have the same types of stern as narrowboats, i.e. traditional, cruiser and semi-traditional stern types.

Types of boats for inland waterways: motor cruisers

Again, there are many types of motor cruisers sailed on inland waterways from luxury yachts to traditional cruisers. The size, style and specification will all affect the price and where they can be sailed. An important consideration is the shape of the hull. Flat bottom boats are ideal for sailing on inland waterways because of the potential for shallow water.

Types of boats for inland waterways: livaboard boats

Many types of inland waterways boats are suitable for living aboard. It will just depend on the amount of living and storage space you need and whether you intend to have a permanent mooring or cruise the waterways. Yachts, motor cruisers, narrowboats, widebeams and converted tugs have all provided homes for people. Converted barges (both English and Dutch styles) can vary from 40 to 120 feet long with beams of 10 to 16 feet.

Currently, the cost of a boat licence is determined by the length of the boat. In addition, mooring fees are usually determined by boat length, but some may be priced according to boat area. Moorings in some areas are scarce and it can be harder to find moorings for bigger boats.

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