“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” — Kenneth Grahame
This famous quote from “The Wind in the Willows” conjures images of lazy summer days, willow trees tickling the surface of the fresh water, and birds singing all around. A romantic picture I know, but one that resonates with boaters around the globe. There is a magical quality about spending time on the water, be it sea, river or canal.
What’s it like to own a narrowboat? As their name suggests, they’re long and thin, awkward to maneuver and slow. So what is it about narrowboats that capture the small child in us all? (And not just the Brits! The number of Americans and Canadians I’ve met on English waterways is staggering.) Well, it’s all about giving the nod to the past. Britain is steeped in tradition, especially when it comes to our industrial heritage.
So if narrowboats have captured your inner child, you may have a few more questions about living on one.
And more practically, how much do narrowboats cost?
Types of Narrowboats
While there are many variations on a theme, there are three basic styles of narrowboats. And each narrowboat style all comes down to the stern:
The Traditional Stern
This is the smallest available stern. It usually gives a two to three-foot deck area, allowing for more interior living space. Older narrowboat models with a traditional stern typically have a “Boatman’s Cabin.”
Because canal boats were all about the carrying of goods, families that lived and worked on the canals became confined to vessel’s back end. Here they ate, washed and slept in a space no longer than 10 ft and 6 ft 10-inches in width.
Having this traditional stern type means the engine’s housed inside the boat.
The Cruiser Stern
Cruiser sterns are more modern inventions. Designed to be a more sociable space, cruiser sterns offer 5 to 7 feet of deck, which makes them popular with leisure boaters and liveaboards alike.
I like to think of them as a decked area for sunny days. It does give you options, especially in better weather, because the problem with traditional sterns is there’s nowhere to sit outside.
Again, the engine’s located exterior of the boat and accessed via hatch.
You’ll find most narrowboat hire companies to use cruiser stern boats.
The Semi-Traditional Stern
Semi-traditional sterns are an amalgamation of Traditional and Cruiser sterns, allowing space and seating in an extended area outside the boat. Meanwhile, the person steering still has a space more akin to traditional stern narrowboats. It means less cabin area, but the engine’s located exterior of the boat with hatch access.
In principle, there are two narrowboat layouts, which generally follow a theme of the bedroom’s location:
These boats have the bedroom at the rear, much like the “Boatman’s Cabin” we talked about earlier.
These boats have a rear galley and a front bedroom.
With advantages and disadvantages to both layouts, it comes down to personal preference. Some liveaboards like the galley at the rear, making it easier to access the stern. Others like the idea that the saloon has a well-deck that acts as a patio for those long English summers (who am I kidding!).
It also depends on which way you enter the narrowboat. Some enter via bow, so with reverse layouts, this means climbing aboard and walking through a bedroom. Whereas accessing the boat from the stern will mean entering through the galley.
Again, it all comes down to preference.
Narrowboats come in many different lengths, although there are more common sizes due to the lengths of the locks on the network. In general, vessels over 70 ft long will struggle to fit.
The most popular sizes are:
- 50 ft: This is a “go anywhere” size and great for beginners.
- 57 ft: Other than a few hundred yards on the Little Ouse River, this is deemed an acceptable length to navigate the entire network of canals. Anything more substantial is subject to lock size-restrictions.
- 60 ft: Should still allow extensive coverage, but you’ll have to accept size limitations.
- 65 ft: This length makes it possible to have a second bedroom onboard.
- 70 ft: This allows loads more room. It’s a compromise between traveling the network or better space onboard.
What size you decide breaks down to taste and where you’ll travel. The boat’s size and its accessibility to cruise the canal network aren’t determined by canal width, but the length and breadth of the lock. It’s the reason why I can’t take my widebeam boat on certain parts of the canal network.
Okay, now it’s time to talk money!
Your Budget: Second-Hand Vs. Brand New
The sky’s the limit! You can spend hundreds of thousands on a brand new boat with bells and whistles. If you can afford it and that’s what you want, why not?
But in the real world, where money isn’t quite so plentiful, what are the best ways of getting the most for your cash?
There are pros and cons to each.
Buying brand new ensures you get the boat you want and you’ll be the first to own it. But boy, you’ll pay the price. This is an option I looked at, but in the end, I decided that depreciation was a significant concern for me. And that’s the downside of buying brand new, Once you set off, just as in a car, the value of your boat dramatically drops.
As an example of depreciation, the boat I bought would have set me back £180,000 ($235,000) brand new. So I decided to go second-hand and saved £70,000 (over $91,000). I think it was a wise decision. It wasn’t the exact boat I wanted, but I didn’t have to take the hit on depreciation.
And that brings me to the next con about buying second-hand:
If you decide on a second-hand boat, you’re going to need to compromise. There’s no getting away from this.
Okay, so what’s wrong with compromise? By saving a large pile of money, I made my boat the vessel I always wanted, and without the depreciation.
It’s important to manage your expectations when talking about money, so let’s break the costs into price bands. A sort of “What to expect for your money”.
And speaking of what to expect, Apollo Duck is a great website for second-hand boats. You’ll find the largest available selection of used narrowboats and canal craft anywhere.
Up to £30,000 ($40,000) — For this sort of money you’ll probably get a smaller boat (remember we talked about sizes?), so something 50 ft or less, and in need of TLC. Don’t expect luxury and all mod-cons here. It’ll be more like the basics, and it’s possible it’ll be a project boat. I recommended a reputable marine surveyor before committing financially.
Up to £50,000 ($65,000) — Now we’re getting somewhere and can expect a little more. For this budget, expect a larger vessel, possibly with two berths and maybe a cruiser stern. It’ll almost certainly have more home comforts, such as a pump-out toilet, an immersion heater for the water and central heating.
Up to £100,000 ($130,500) — With this kind of budget, expect the very best. Again, you might get a cruiser stern, possibly even bow thrusters, and a more considerable water and fuel tank. It’s quite possible to find a new boat for this budget too.
It’ll have the latest kitchen units with a built-in cooker. Many boats in this price range also have built-in fridges and freezers. The inverter will probably be more substantial, meaning it’s robust at onboard power management.
Expect a bigger engine as well. Smaller boats don’t need as much propulsion, but the bigger the boat, the more significant the motor. Very handy for cruising tidal rivers.
Built to Order
Every boat builder offers this service. The advantage of this custom route, much like buying brand new, is that you’re the first person to use the facilities, to start the engine and to sleep in the boat. All of these firsts come at a cost. Think of a new boat in the same way you do a new car: They depreciate very quickly!
And especially if you’ve custom designed the boat to exacting tastes. Remember, not everyone wants their shower enclosure tiled in sparkly purple, but that’s fine if you keep the boat for years to come. Selling it, however, might be problematic. But you can worry about this dilemma if the time comes.
You’ll still get your money’s worth out of owning it, and the depreciation won’t matter so much.
When designing your boat, pretty much anything goes. If you want a wine cooler built into the galley floor, that’s fine. You might want a widescreen TV and the latest mood lighting. Again, for the custom-built narrowboat, it’s all possible.
Five Popular Narrowboat Builders
The company started in 2003, and have since produced nearly 300 finished vessels. Elton Moss has become one of the most respected names in the industry and has made a name for themselves by creating spectacular narrowboats.
Based in Cheshire, this award-winning boat builder is a firm favorite.
Polish-based Aqualine Marine is one of the most prestigious boat builders in the industry. They make quality narrow and widebeam boats that make real statements on waterways. Aqualine is known for workmanship and attention to detail, but all this excellence comes at a price. They produce some of the highest value boats on the waterways today.
Based near the famous racecourse at Aintree, this boat builder has produced narrowboats since 2010. This family-run business has built quite a following of canal boat enthusiasts and has become synonymous with quality and good design.
This Polish-based company started in 2007 has gone from strength to strength. Polish welders are famed for their skill, so their hulls are incredibly reliable and excellent quality. With their distinctive styling, you cannot fail to spot a Viking boat.
With 30-years experience in the boat building industry, this Liverpool-based manufacturer has a reputation for building diverse, quality boats. They’re one of the most popular UK boat builders and have a large customer base.
It all comes down to budget and compromise. Cruising the UK waterways doesn’t have to be costly. For a limited outlay, it’s possible to get a watertight, functioning craft to keep you moving for years to come.
But how much comfort are you used to? These narrowboats are extensions of our homes. In some cases, people buy them to live aboard. So, creature comforts are much more critical, especially if, like me, you desire a permanent life on the water.
I refuse to give up home comforts to live like a hermit, eking out an existence on the edges of society. On the contrary, I want the best I can get, while still impacting the planet less and having a more eco-friendly way of life.
It’s possible to achieve this, and all without breaking the bank.
Mark Weir lives on a canal boat in the heart of England, with his wife, Julie, and his grumpy dog, Eric. Mark likes to travel the waterways in his wide-beam barge, filming his exploits as he travels. Julie paints the wildlife, and Eric likes to bark, mostly.