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Getting a boat for the first time

Are you considering buying a boat? Our helpful guide explains all about different types of boats so you can choose the craft that's right for you.

Crick Boat Show

Our waterways are home to a huge variety of boats and it's important that you choose the right craft for you.

Where do you want to cruise?

Our canals and rivers have evolved over the past 200 years and not all locks and bridges are the same size. You'll need to ensure your boat is the right size for the places you want to go and what you want to do with your boat. Will you be using your boat as a weekend hideaway, for family holidays, extended boating adventures or perhaps even as a floating home?

Narrow or wide beam?

Much of your decision will be based on one main factor: narrow or wide beam.

Types of boat to consider:


A steel narrowboat can cruise almost any waterway and are the most popular and common type of craft found on our waters. They are generally 6ft 10in (2.1m) wide and can be up to 72ft long but they are not so well suited for tidal rivers. The canals and rivers of Yorkshire have shorter locks, so if you want to explore this area, your boat ideally should be no longer than 56ft.

Cabin cruiser

Cabin cruisers can be built of glass-reinforced plastic (GRP), wood or steel and they can be either narrowbeam or broadbeam. You can pick up a small GRP boat for not much money, so they are a good choice for a first boat, or if you are on a tight budget. At the other end of the scale are luxurious high-powered craft suitable for tidal and estuary cruising.

Trailable boat

A trailable boat, often built of fibreglass or aluminium, can be towed behind your car on its trailer and launched in any navigation around Britain where there is a suitable slipway. These smaller boats are ideal for exploring waterways all around the country, even the waterways not directly connected to the rest of the network.

A typical cabin cruiser at Consall Forge, Caldon Canal

Buying a new steel boat?

Most of these boats are built to order. Many builders are recognised for a particular type of boat: some build very traditionally, others may use unusual materials or craft techniques. There is a wide range of fit-outs, enough to suit every budget.

Almost all such boats are hand-crafted, and take many weeks or even months to complete. You'll have a choice of layout, colour scheme, fixtures and fittings. By specifying every detail, you can get the boat of your dreams.

You should inspect several builders' work before making your decision, perhaps by visiting a boat show. Discuss your requirements in detail with your chosen builder, and agree a delivery date and price. Be prepared to visit the builder at regular intervals during the work.

Some boat-builders are now offering 'standard models' that you can buy from stock. These are often good-value craft, without all the refinements of the most expensive bespoke boats, but sure to stand you in good stead for many years' boating. You can always add more luxurious features later. Boat shows such as the Crick Boat Show are good places to see examples of these craft.

There are many design options to choose from, but the most important decision is the stern (the back of the boat). There are three main types:

  • 'Traditional' sterns, where the cabin extends all the way back to the steering position. “Trad” boats also have a separate engine room taking up part of the cabin space.
  • 'Cruiser' sterns have an open space in front of the steering position and the engine is normally found under the stern deck.
  • 'Semi-traditional' sterns have an enclosed space, which looks traditional but still gives your crew limited space to stand. The engine is often tucked away partially under the small stern deck.

Increasing in popularity are large wide beam steel craft. Whilst they provide much more spacious accommodation than a narrowboat, they can be much harder and slower work to cruise when there are lots of locks, especially if you are cruising single handed. Wider craft also have a much more limited cruising range as they cannot navigate on our narrow canals.

Mooring spaces can be harder to come by for wider beam craft. Whilst out cruising you will need to carefully consider the width your boat extends out into the navigation and whether or not you are creating a navigation hazard by obstructing sight lines or forcing passing craft into offside shallows. Many long term moorings charge a premium for wider craft and there are often long waiting lists for suitable berths, particularly if the craft is going to be used as a floating home. Budget wise you will need to factor in higher licence fees and long-term moorings fees compared to a narrowboat.

Buying a river cruiser

River cruisers are usually made from 'GRP' fibreglass moulds, and available in standard configurations, just like a car. You could be afloat within days of buying your new boat.

You will often have a choice of engine type and accessories. Many builders offer a 'family' of cruisers in different sizes, so you can choose one that fits your budget and your family.

Doing it yourself

Not everyone wants to buy a ready-to-use boat. If you are a DIY enthusiast, you might prefer to buy a partly-built narrowboat which you complete and fit out yourself.

You can buy a narrowboat shell, comprising of the steelwork and nothing more. It will generally be painted in primer, with bearers (supports) fitted for the chosen engine. The stern tube, propeller and window openings will be in place. 'Sailaway' boats are similar, but with the engine already fitted. Whatever option you choose, you will still need to find either hardstanding, a boatyard or mooring whilst you fit it out for ready cruising.

Last Edited: 27 July 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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