Canal cruising

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Scraping Paint
Oct 23, 2007
Not trawlers per se, but there are similarities.* Slow boats, economical to run,*neat scenery, comfortable on-board accomodations.* I thought I'd post these shots*to encourage anyone who hasn't had a chance to to do this to try it out sometime.

My wife and I have been doing this in England and Wales*since 1990, sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with friends.* If you like boating and want to visit the UK (or France, Belgium, Germany, etc.) this is a great way to combine both interests.* And, like trawlering, it's a great way to meet interesting people you otherwise might not have a chance to meet.

The aerial shot (which I did not take) is of the famous Pontcysyllte aqueduct that carries the Llangollen Canal over the river Dee in Wales.* The aqueduct was completed in 1805 and is the longest and highest aqueduct in England.* It consists of a cast iron trough on top of stone masonry, and is still in use today.* Going across it is a little like flying, as on the non-towpath side all that's between you and the air is the couple of inches of*200-year-old*cast iron.

For anyone interested, the boat in most of these photos is 60 feet long, 6 feet, ten inches wide, draws about 2-1/2 feet, is all steel, has 6 feet 6 inches of headroom in the center,*and is powered by a large Lister 3-cylinder, air-cooled diesel.

-- Edited by Marin at 16:54, 2007-10-30


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Marin, that looks like great fun!* What are the approx. costs?* Bareboat or captained?

Almost all the canal boats in the UK (called "narrowboats" for obvious reasons) are bareboat. The first time you hire a boat the hireboat company will give you instruction on operating the boat as well as operating a lock, as all but a handful of the locks on the system are operated manually by the boater. But it's all based on logic and is pretty simple to pick up. There can be a lot of locks, by the way. On most of the cruises we have taken we have had to operate between 120 and 230 locks, some of which might be the same ones on the way back.

On the Continent, there are more captained or crewed boats for hire (the canals on the Continent are wider as are the boats). However, bareboat hiring on the French, Belgian, etc. canals is very popular. We have not done any canals on the Continent yet.

Narrowboat hire costs are not unlike chartering a boat in the US. The rates are on a bell curve with the highest rates being in the summer season, July and August. Hire rates will vary just like charter rates in the US, depending on the boat, the company, and the location. But I would estimate that today the cost of a typical 60' narrowboat in May would be about US$1,200 a week. There are cheaper boats and more expensive boats. As in chartering a trawler, you tend to get what you pay for. The hire cost includes fuel, not that you use much, and you are reimbursed for the Calor gas (propane) and pumpout costs you incur during your cruise. We have always hired the boat for two to three weeks.

Recreational narrowboats vary in length from about 35 feet to 70 feet. The maximum allowable boat length is 70 feet as most of the locks are about 72 feet by 7 feet.

The recreational boats of today are all descendants of the working narrowboats of the past. The working boats were often run by husband and wife teams who lived and raised their families in the boatman's cabin in the stern of a working boat. The boat we have been using on past trips, while having the amenities of a recreational boat, was built with the traditional boatman's cabin and engine room in the rear of the boat. Most hire boats today have the engine under the aft deck and there is no traditional boatman's cabin in the stern.

It's a slow holiday--- maximum allowed speed is about 4 mph or until your wake starts to break on shore. So you're going about walking speed. I forget how many miles of canals there are in the UK, but it's several thousand miles. Most of the UK canals were built between the late 1700s and mid 1800s.

One of these photos shows a semi-restored working boat that we passed on a trip, probably dating from the 1930s. Narrowboats were originally horse-drawn, but they began experimenting with engines in the very late 1800s. The other two shots are of the boatman's cabin in the boat we use. I took the aft-looking photo standing in the doorway to the engine room that's forward of the boatman's cabin. The boatman's whole family would live in this cabin, which has all sorts of clever fold-down bunks, tables, etc.


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Marin, thanks for the details.* I just emailed the topic to my wife.* Hope she'll want to do it as much as I want to!

Any suggestions on rental companies?

I would suggest taking a look at this website for starters . I haven't looked at it for a long time, but it should contain all sorts of information about canalboating, information about the most popular canal routes, as well as links to a number of the hireboat firms.

The first thing to do is to figure out how long you want to cruise (I strongly recommend two weeks at least, as one is not enough in my opinion to get into the rhythm).

Then figure out where you want to cruise. I tend to think of the UK canal system as three sections, southern, middle, and northern. The southern section are the canals in the region between London and Birmingham and points west. The middle section are the canals in and around Birmingham. The northern section is the region between Birmingham and Leeds.

We have always cruised the northern half of the system as we like the more varied and hilly terrain in that area. So the canals we have done are the Trent & Mersey, the Macclesfield, the Staffordshire & Worchester (Staffs & Worcs), the Shropshire Union, the Llangollen, the Bridgewater, the Peak Forest, the Caldon, and the Leeds & Liverpool. There are popular out-and-back routes like the Llangollen, and "ring" routes, the two most popular up north being the Cheshire Ring and the Four Counties Ring. These are all names you'll see on the websites.

In the southern region the terrain is flatter, but the canals go to some popular places like Straford-Upon-Avon and so on. We have not done any canals in this area. the two most popular canals in this region are the Oxford and the Grand Union.

Once you read the descriptions and decide what area or canals you would like to cruise, then you can look for a hireboat company. There are quite a few of them, and virtually every canal or popular route will have at least two or three companies located on them.

The company we have used from the begining has been sold and I'm told their operation has gone downhill fast, which is too bad. We may be going again in the next year or so, and if we do, we will probably hire a boat from Andersen Boats in Middlewich, the same town we've been hiring in all these years. Website is

There are websites-- and the one I listed at the top of this post should be one of them--- that list the hireboat companies on each route or canal with links to them. They all have websites now with detailed boat descriptions, prices, etc. So you can do a lot of comparison shopping on-line.

-- Edited by Marin at 18:09, 2007-10-30


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One more post on this topic and then I'll shut up. The boatmen and their wives who operated and lived on the working boats took great pride in their boat's appearance. They kept them very clean, or as clean as you could when your cargos were coal, cement, lime, steel, gravel, you-name-it. The boats were there homes and most boating families took as much pride in their home's appearance as any land dweller

The attached photo is of a restored un-powered boat called a "butty." In effect, it's a horsedrawn boat, which had a very different stern arrangement than a powered boat or "motor."

Narrowboats were often worked in pairs with the husband operating the horsedrawn boat and the wife working the towed boat. This did not change when the boats became motorized, but there was no need for a motor in the towed boat--- the butty--- so it retained it's horseboat stern configuration. This is actually what the working boats would have looked like in their heyday--- scrubbed and polished. All the exterior painting is traditional as is all the brasswork. The painted cans on the cabin top are called "Buckby cans" and held the drinking water for the boat. Even the position of the mop is traditional--- mophead forward, mop handle thorugh the handle of a Buckby can.

The tiller in the boat in the photo is in it's "moored" position. It was pulled out of the rudder and turned upside down like this so the curve went up and provided more headroom for people getting in and out of the boat.* The narrowboat families may not have had teak to varnish, but they more than made up for it by the amount of brass they had to polish


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I wanna go!!!!!!!!!!!!
*** ** Believe me, you need to go. My wife and I went with Marin and Ruth about four years ago (their last, and fifth or sixth trip.) That is the only way to experience the English countryside. I am still amazed that we haven't bought a narrowboat. You cruise a few miles at three knots, and tie up for lunch at the local pub. Cruise two or three more miles, and tie up for dinner at the local pub. The history (several hundred year old farms, churches, whatever), half timber buildings, etc. will leave you questioning our own respect for our history. We knock down twenty year old buildings. The unspoiled history of the English countryside is something that everyone should experience at least once. I hope to go again. It is truly worth whatever the cost.
Alright, I lied. Since there seems to be some interest, here's one more post with some other photos I took on some of our earlier trips (we've made six so far).

For the shots with the horse in the foreground, the boat going under the high road bridge, and the boat going over the low aqueduct over the river Sow, I got off and found my photo spot while Ruth ran the boat through the place where I wanted the photo and then backed up and did it again and again until I was happy with the shot. Needless to say she was pretty peeved at me as these boats are a bit tricky to back up. But she did a great job.

The canals were the railroads of their era. As such they went across aqueducts over rivers and valleys and through tunnels under unavoidable hills as you can see in the shot in my first post. Some of the tunnels are quite long. They are unlit and were dug (by hand of course) just wide and high enough to accomodate a boat. Most of them took three to eight years to complete.

Before the advent of motors, the boats were legged through the tunnels by men who made their living doing this. They would lie on top of the load and aft cabin and walk the boat through the tunnels by literally walking on the tunnel walls while the horse was led over the hill to the other end of the tunnel. The longest tunnel we've been through, the Harcastle, takes almost an hour to get through, during which time you are in almost total darkness (the boats have headlights for this purpose) with the wet, dripping roof about an inch above your head or lower. Ruth and I have been through the Harcastle Tunnel several times, the last time with Carey and his wife. Carey did a much better job steering in the dark than I did.

The shot in the basin is at Stourport.* Larger seagoing vessels would come up the River Stour which is just beyond the building on the left, then through a set of large locks into the basins where cargos would be transferred to and from the narrowboats coming down from inland industrial centers.

The boat we had for this eariler trip is a more typical recreational narrowboat---* if I recall correctly it's 55 feet long.* The engine was under the aft deck instead of being in the old-style, traditional engine room.

-- Edited by Marin at 01:56, 2007-10-31

-- Edited by Marin at 02:06, 2007-10-31
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