A choice has to be made between a narrowboat - that is a boat with a maximum beam, (overall width), of 6’10 (2.10m approx) and a wide beam boat suitable for the wider waterways. Between 2000 and 3000 miles of waterway, canal and river are available to you as older waterways are brought back into use and plans for new waterways brought forward. New links make it easier to travel from the canal system to the navigable rivers and a good overall map will give you an idea of the extent of the system. The “snapshot” of the waterways history which follows will help to explain the mix of broad and narrow waterways and make it easier to choose a suitable boat.
Early canals worked around the country
Locks are used to raise or lower boats between levels - in effect to take boats “up and down the hills”. Since water is drained from a higher pound (the section between locks) and has to be replaced every time a lock is used, early canal engineers often chose routes which remained on the same level for as long as possible.
In many places they were able to work around the contours of the land and so avoid the costs of lock building and minimise the problems of water supply to the highest, or summit, levels. For us the result is a delightful legacy of “contour” canals, which connect major industrial centres, but often wind around the rural countryside between.
The development of the “narrow” boat
Early Canal engineers chose to build locks which were 7’0 (2.13m approx) wide and would accept the typical 72ft (21.9m approx) working boat of the day. These boats fitted snugly into the locks as you will see from the photographs on these pages, and soon became known as “narrowboats”, which is the term for a boat of 6’10 beam (2.10m approx) we use today. River cruisers are also available to 6’10” beam, in typical, rather different, river styles.
Clearly to navigate the entire system you will require a boat which can pass through all the locks, including the narrow locks of these extensive early canals. In a narrowboat you may cruise from London and the South-East, by way of the Grand Union Canal and then by the narrow system of canals in the Midlands and North West, to the great trans-Pennine route of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal - and so to Skipton on the Yorkshire moors. You might explore into the South-West by way of the River Thames and the Kennet & Avon Canal, with its links by way of the River Avon to Bath and Bristol. You may also explore the Anglian Waterways, or the Northern rivers. narrowboat.
What is a sensible maximum length?
Many locks on the narrow network are capable of taking a boat up to 70 - 72ft in length, but some locks are shorter, particularly on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, and there are some tight corners here and there on the system. Perhaps a length of 58 - 60 feet (17.62 - 18.22m) would be about right for anyone intending to cruise the whole system - certainly your builder will be able to advise you.
The “broad” waterways
In the later years of canal development and with improved engineering and water pumping techniques, waterways were developed in which a lock would now accept a pair of narrowboats breasted-up side by side. These broad canals were in effect the motorways of their day. For example, much of the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham is built to the broad standard and its engineers did not hesitate to work over (or through!) steep hills, regularly putting in long flights of wide locks or tunnels where they were needed. Working across the face of the country these later waterways were much more direct than their narrow counterparts.
Wide beam boats
Wide beam boats are available, which have a big ship feel. These are often referred to as Dutch style boats, but typically English designs are now usual. Hardly anybody now uses the term “barge” except for Dutch Barges and the sailing barges of the Thames and East Coast. If you feel that you want to cruise only on the broad waterways particularly on the major rivers, or plan to cruise extensively on Continental waterways, then you might consider a wide-beam boat. Although unable to use the narrow locks – and some of the lower bridges and tunnels – wide beam craft provide greater accommodation.
Boatbuilders of the CBA
CBA members build narrowboats in both traditional and modern styles which are explained in the next chapter, and a number also build wide-beam boats suitable to the broader waterways. Most of the boats intended for the canals are built in either steel or aluminium. There are also trailable boats both broad and narrow in aluminium, and glassfibre, though many of the wide beam craft are more suitable to the deeper water and wider locks of the river systems.
Several builders will provide you with a shell, probably with an engine ready fitted - a “sailaway” - so that you can fit out the interior to your own design and in your own time, or take it to a specialised fitter.
Others provide a finished boat to a very high standard, drawing on a lot of experience with owners up and down the system. In the following pages we have provided a guide to the different styles available, to the costs of ownership, both for cruising and residential owners, and hopefully answered many of your questions.
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