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The Canal Boat Experience

Have you ever thought about living on a boat? The canal boat life as experienced by the Brits on their narrowboats was the topic of a recent New York Times article. The English canal system started out as manmade connections between cities and towns on existing bodies of water that allowed through traffic for raw materials and finished goods, the boats towed by teams of horses alongside the water on towpaths. When the roads and rail system caught up and got to be efficient enough to take over, the canals were abandoned and ultimately turned over to volunteers who maintained them for recreational use.
Today vacationers try canal boating and people who have felt the financial pressures of lost jobs as well as the extremely high cost of London real estate have made narrowboat living a very popular way to save money on housing. With the advent during the pandemic lockdowns of remote work, narrowboat residents who worked in London could time their stops in the city for times they needed to work in the office.
Buying an old narrowboat, getting rid of the furniture and possessions that marry us to our apartments and houses, for the move to a boat is a freeing experience the new boaters say. The choices of boats are what are on the used boat market when people start their search. Some boats are very old and need rehabbing.

Size matters when buying a narrowboat. Although the common length is anywhere between 30 and 70 feet, the beam has to be 7 feet or less. The biggest demand for used narrowboats is the 50 or 57-foot boats. There are 60 footers, 65 footers and 70 footers, but only those up to 57 feet can navigate through the narrow canals and the lock system. The bigger boats are for people who need the space and comfort offered by the bigger boats and are willing to live on the boat without traveling through the canals. To find a used narrowboat:
If you order a custom built boat from one of the five most popular builders in England you’ll get a quality, distinctively styled boat but it will cost you accordingly. Costs could range from over $100,000 to about $300,000 but it would have the kitchen/galley of your dreams, a layout that’s best for you, perhaps a bigger engine and larger fuel and water tanks.
A smaller (50 foot or less) used boat can cost as little as $40,000 but may need a little help. Here’s where your surveyor makes the difference. A good surveyor can keep you from buying a mistake by telling you what needs to be fixed or replaced so you don’t fall in love with the layout or something about the boat you really like when he knows what it will cost to put it in the kind of condition where it’s not going to be a financial drain and encourages you to look at the whole picture.
Olivia Slack and Rob Wainwright bought their 56 foot one bedroom Shoestring with cash down and personal loans, which are short term and high rate. The English banks don’t give boat loans. Narrowboats can be found all over Europe, but other countries offer a chance to have a beamier boat such as the barges in Holland.
The freedom that comes with downsizing and divesting possessions until you reach the amount of stuff that will fit in a 50 x 7 foot space is sometimes tempered by reality when new narrowboat owners realize they are now in charge of their own repairs – mechanical, plumbing, heating, leaks, top and bottom, and sewage disposal. A distinct advantage to mooring at a marina is that help to fix things is often available and sewage pumpout can be taken care of. When everything works the way it should, you have electricity, running water, wifi and pumpout.
If you do not pay for a mooring (which is hard to come by – there’s a five-year waiting list in London) you are limited to how long you can stay in one place – 14 days or less, depending on where you are located. Moorings cost about $1300 a month before adding what they call amenities – electric, fresh water, septic services).
The 2,000 miles of waterway in England and Wales are managed by the Canal and River Trust. They are the people who issue the boating licenses and set the rules. Enforcement of the rules has become a problem. Local homeowners who pay taxes resent the noise and pollution of the lineup of three abreast narrowboats. They also object to the narrowboat owners not policing themselves and getting rid of people in tents along the towpaths next to the boats. These seem to be homeless people and no one wants to take them on. Newly appointed rangers who should be taking care of the problem seem less like enforcers and more in the nature of encouraging everyone to follow the rules, not overstaying their time limits and being sympathetic.
The legitimate boat people have expenses beyond buying their boats. They have to insure their boats and license them every year. Add the cost of fuel to run the boat and hauling it every two years to apply blacking; a thick coating that protects the steel hull from corrosion while in the water.
Unless you provide a permanent address that a mooring at a marina gives you, your license allows for continuous cruising which means you have no home mooring and must travel at least 21 miles a year on the canals and stay a limited number of days with each move. The cost of your license depends on the length of your boat for a 12-month period. There are additional licenses – a Gold License in case you want to travel on the Thames, and another license in case you plan to do business on your boat. Narrowboats are insulated with polystyrene sprayed on the inside and they are fueled by diesel. Without a generator, which most narrowboats don’t have, air conditioning is not practical. Carbon monoxide poisoning has killed a few narrowboaters and there is currently a requirement that all narrowboats have a carbon monoxide alarm installed.
If the thought of living on a canal in a foreign country appeals to you but unlike a friend who told me he could live in a closet, you could see yourself in a more substantial boat than something only 7 foot wide, consider the Dutch barge –they can be up to 20 feet wide, which is the average width of a townhouse in New York City. The Dutch barge is flat bottomed and offers significantly more floor space with their 18 to 20 foot beams. If you live on the water in Holland you can take the inland waterway through Belgium to southern France. If you wanted to keep moving you could continue to Russia, the Ukraine and the Black Sea.
The downside of living on a boat in Holland is that you must be there to protect it on occasions when exuberant crowds from parades and football games jump up on boat roofs to get a better view of the parade and enough people with enough weight will go through the roof.
If you want to try living and traveling on a narrowboat you can do that without leaving the US. In the late 1970s the Wiles family from the Erie Canal area tried narrowboating in England, liked it and brought back the best parts of it, having larger, more comfortable boats built that they rent for cruises on the Erie Canal. The New York State Canal System has always offered free docking at almost every lock and town. Once you pay for a lock pass you can spend every night free all summer. Some come with wifi access and bathrooms and showers. To find out about Lake Erie rentals:
The canal boat experience has offered a different way of life, something like taking a recreational vehicle across the country where the travel itself becomes part of the enjoyment instead of delays and rudeness on the road. Over and over the new boaters spoke about feeling they did the right thing and thought they had more control over their lives along with the sense of freedom that came with their new living style.