Narrowboat 101: All You Need to Know

With the current housing market as unpredictable as it is, many are looking to alternatives to housing in order to both save money and live differently.

Narrowboats can be seen steadily cruising around the canals of the UK and can be good bases for both work and to live on. If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and pondering living on the water, you must ensure you’ve brushed up on your boating knowledge and have researched the costs of owning and running a boat.

So what should you be asking yourself if you’re thinking of buying a narrowboat?

  • Do I need a licence to drive a narrowboat?

In order to not only drive but also own a narrowboat, you must have purchased and passed the test for a narrowboat licence. These are available from the Canal & River Trust and come in various levels of use, from a short-term visitor for shorter journeys to those who may wish to use the boat for business purposes.

Depending on where you want to travel can affect the cost as well, so you must decide as well if you’d want to use rivers-only or get cover for both rivers and canals.

Before you can even think about buying a narrowboat, you must ensure your vessel has both a narrowboat insurance policy and for the vehicle to have passed a Boat Safety Certificate (essentially the equivalent of an MOT on a car) before you’ll be allowed to be issued a licence to use the waterways in the UK.

  • What will I be using the boat for?

The size of your vessel is worth thinking about depending on the amount of time you want to spend on the boat. Narrowboats are not cheap, so it can be worth considering about if you will be using the boat as an occasional holiday destination, much like a static caravan, or whether you’d like to make it a more permanent residence.

  • How big a boat do I want?

Narrowboats live up to their name in that they are no more than 7 feet wide and can be up to 70 feet long. There are a number of different types of narrowboat with varying levels of deck space, including cruisers and semi-traditional, whereas maintaining the external look of a traditional narrowboat will have a lot more living space inside.

  • Where is the boat going to be based?

There are two options you have here; cruise the canals or base yourself using a permanent mooring in a marina.

Continuous cruising will allow you to explore more of the UK’s waterways at your leisure, but at times when you have to stop and moor for the night, you’ll be expected to pay mooring fees, especially at marinas.

If you’re looking to base yourself at a marina, you’ll have other costs to think about, including marina fees, the cost of utilities such as water and electricity and even council tax.

  • How much does a narrowboat cost?

Narrowboats are not cheap, they are usually charged by the size that they are, so if you want to buy the vessel new, it’ll cost approximately £1000 per foot in length. Older vessels might be a more financially-viable option if you’re starting out but bear in mind that older narrowboats can be more prone to breakdowns and may need repairs made to them on a more regular basis.

Second-hand narrowboats are usually a cheaper option depending on what you’re looking for, so it’s best to do your research and give the boat a thorough check before you commit to purchase.

  • Do I need a mortgage for my boat?

While you don’t necessarily need a mortgage for owning a boat, depending on where you base the boat can affect the cost of mooring. Marinas will usually charge on a per annum basis, and these fees can be paid to the harbourmaster of wherever you want to moor the boat.

However, if you’re on the move, you’ll have to pay daily mooring fees depending on where you stop, which can be anything from a private mooring to a stop in a marina.

  • Do I need insurance for my boat?

Insurance is placed on the boat itself and helps protect your narrowboat from claims by third parties, much like a car insurance quote, and is usually paid on a per annum basis.

When searching for a narrowboat insurance policy, keep in mind that you’ll have to cover both your hull and your engine against damage and breakdown. If you’re looking at living aboard the boat, contents cover for your possessions is also essential to have.

Contents cover for a narrowboat works in much in the same way that a house insurance policy will help to cover the contents of your home against theft or damage by third parties, this is recommended when you’re first starting out.

  • What about fuel?

To run your boat, you will need both fuel to run the engine and electricity to run the onboard generator. Both are available at mooring sites, and the prices are subject to change – especially the price of diesel – which is required to run an older vessel.

Onboard batteries will help you to run appliances on board the narrowboat, and these can be charged when you moor for the evening. Onboard generators and heaters can be powered using onboard coal or wood-burning stoves and fuel for which can be bought in bulk and stored in your vessel.

Because narrowboats run at a more leisurely pace, fuel use will depend on how far you travel each day, so it can be worth thinking about whether you’d want to be a cruiser or base yourself more permanently at a marina.

  • How much to maintain?

This can be the most expensive part of narrowboat ownership, especially if you plump for an older craft. Every part of the narrowboat – from the hull to the engine to the chimney atop the boat – must be maintained to ensure that you don’t get that sinking feeling.

On-board toilets will need to be pumped out, at a cost of course, and there are also the costs of maintaining the hull and rust-proofing certain parts of the boat at annual times to keep it running effectively.

Owning and maintaining a narrowboat is not cheap, but if you take the time to do your research into all aspects of ownership and ensure that you budget accordingly, you can give yourself a good chance of success if you’re thinking of changing your lifestyle for a more placid and gentle life on the water.