Canal Boat Use & Design. From Traditional To Modern

what is a canal boat

Although originally designed in Britain to carry freight the canal boat is becoming a popular pastime for recreational use.  There are two types of canal boat both with similar designs and applications but that have very distinct differences.

The Basics Of The Canal Boat

A canal boat is a vessel designed to navigate shallow canals and rivers.

The first canal boats, called narrowboats, were built in Britain to navigate very narrow, shallow canals.

Most European and American canal boats tend to be wider and larger than traditional narrowboats.

What a canal boat is used for

The canal boat started its life in Britain, where it is still to this day called a narrowboat, so called because the boat is designed to navigate narrow man-made canals.

Because British canals are narrow man-made stretches of water they tend to be straight and shallow in depth.

Therefore, the narrowboat was designed to be narrow enough in width, just 7 foot, so it could comfortably fit between the edges of the canal.

Creating the space needed for carrying cargo was made up by making the boat very long.

As canals in Britain are very shallow a narrowboat has been designed to have a very shallow draft, provided by its flat bottom, so it can avoid snagging on obstacles on the canal bottom.

Because US and European canal boats tend to navigate larger bodies of water they are often wider and bigger than their British counterparts.

In some cases a USA canal boat may bear only a slight resemblance to a European canal boat and almost no resemblance at all to a British narrowboat.

UK narrowboat
UK narrowboat


Canal boat USA
A much wider canal boat in the USA

Narrowboats are not as popular in the USA as larger canal boats but they do have their enthusiasts in part due to Americans vacationing in the UK and Ireland and “having-a-go” at this type of boating.

The unique design of the Narrowboat and how it’s used

You have have heard of the narrowboat, sometimes called a narrow boat outside of Europe.

But, what is a narrowboat?

The original narrowboats were the workhorses of the water.

They were a cheap and efficient way to haul freight from town to town via the narrow man-made canals.

One person would stay on the boat to steer it while another would guide one or two horses, tethered to the boat, along an adjoining towpath.

Modern narrowboats have diesel engines and are almost exclusively used for recreational pursuits.

Narrowboats come in three distinct styles:

  1. Traditional stern
  2. Cruiser stern
  3. Semi-traditional stern

Let’s take a look at these.

Traditional stern narrowboat

Traditional narrowboats were steered via a tiller at the back of the boat and modern traditional-styled narrowboats continue this tradition.

The tiller is very close to the hatch and rear doors.

The area is usually small and its close proximity of the rear of the boat can offer the driver some protection from the elements, but not a lot.

Cruiser stern narrowboat

Tiller steeringCruiser sterns are much larger areas at the rear of the boat.

Steering from a cruiser stern, like a traditional stern, requires that you stay at the rear of the boat.

However, unlike the traditional stern, this is a large open area that offers no protection from the elements at all because the tiller is placed well back from the hatch and rear doors.

The pay-off for more space (so more people to stand and socialize) is less protection from the wind and rain.

This is fine in the warm summer months but with no protection from the rain or wind it can be somewhat challenging in colder weather especially in Britain.

A cruiser stern is designed to be larger so that more than one person can occupy the space making it much more sociable than a traditional stern.

Semi-traditional stern narrowboat

A semi-traditional stern is designed to incorporate the best of both the aforementioned stern designs.

It is larger than a traditional stern, thus allowing more than one person to occupy the space, while it offers much more protection from the weather.

horse drawn canal boat
Canal boat being pulled by horse on towpath

Other types of canal boat design and use

Not all canal boats are narrowboats. American and many European canal boats are much wider than their UK counterparts making them unsuitable for narrow British canals.

These larger canal boats can not be called narrowboats, as a narrowboat must have no more than a 7ft beam.

People who use the term interchangeably have failed to identify the differences in craft.

Likewise, if you look at some online sales pages for canal boats you will often find small vessels that are not even flat-bottomed and ones that more resemble small yachts than canal boats.

These are not canal boats.

You can identify a canal boat easily as it will be fairly long and somewhat narrow compared to its length and will have a flat bottom hull design with a shallow draft.

The most popular type of flat bottom canal boat is undoubtedly the narrowboat, but not all flat bottom canal boats originated in England.

Not every canal boat is a narrowboat

What is the difference between a canal boat and a narrowboat?

A narrowboat is most definitely a canal boat.

However, a canal boat isn’t necessarily a narrowboat.

As I mentioned previously narrowboats were initially designed to navigate narrow shallow canals in Britain.

They have a width no greater than 7ft and range in length from 30ft to 72ft.

Canals in the USA and parts of Europe tend to be much wider than those found in Britain and so non-British canal boats often tend be much wider and have slightly different designs from the traditional narrowboat.

Modern canal boats come in a range of sizes and widths. Canal barges can be as long as 290ft and have a beam exceeding 35ft.

Have a look at the images below of canal boats used for tours in the USA, Denmark and the UK.

When you compare them you will see both the similarities and the differences between a traditional narrowboat and the other canal boat types.

Augusta canal boat tour
Augusta canal boat tour in Georgia


Canal boat tour Copenhagen
Canal boat tour in Copenhagen


Narrowboat canal boat in UK
Narrowboat on canal in UK

Some canal boats are called barges or river boats

A canal boat is sometimes called a narrowboat or a barge and occasionally a river boat.

However, these terms are not altogether accurate.

A narrowboat is a specific type of canal boat native to Britain and a barge is usually a large commercial freight carrier, though recreational barges do exist.

A narrowboat is a long and narrow flat-bottomed vessel that has been designed to fit into very narrow channels along the British canal system.

A barge is a large flat-bottomed, usually commercial, vessel designed to navigate large shallow canals and rivers.

Larger and wider flat-bottomed vessels that navigate larger canals in Europe and the USA are unsuitable for navigating British canals.

These vessels are not narrowboats but they are still canal boats.

As I already stated above, a narrowboat is a canal boat but a canal boat is not necessarily a narrowboat.

For further explanation about the differences between a traditional narrowboat and other types of canal boats see this section above.

The difference between a barge and a canal boat

A barge is a very large flat-bottomed vessel. In the UK any canal boat wider than 7ft (the standard width of a narrowboat), is considered a barge.

This means some USA canal boats would be called barges in the UK.

Barges are also used in shallow rivers as well as canals.

They can be seen navigating rivers such as The Thames in London, England and along the length of the Mississippi in the USA.

Very large barges are also almost exclusively used to transport freight and passengers while canal boats are almost always recreational vessels.

You can live on a canal boat year-round

Many people in Europe, especially in the UK, live on canal boats.

In parts of Europe people live on barges while in the UK people live on narrowboats.

Setting up home on a canal boat is becoming very popular especially in the UK where it is becoming more difficult for first-time-home-buyers to get a mortgage.

Although it may seem the smart way to become a homeowner setting up house on a boat does not come without its disadvantages and it can carry some nasty hidden costs.

Buying a canal boat to live on is often the only option open to buyers in the UK due to ridiculously high house prices and a reluctance of British banks to approve mortgage applications.

However, although a 40ft narrowboat can be purchased for less than £15,000 ($20,000), which may seem like a huge saving when compared to the average house cost in the UK of £200,000+ ($260,000), the costs don’t stop there.

As a boat is not covered under UK mortgage agreements the only way to finance the purchase is either through full payment or a personal loan.

Unfortunately, personal loans can cost up to 10 times more in interest payments than a mortgage – ouch!

Although a canal boat offers the ability to move around, having a permanent job doesn’t.

Therefore most people will have to pay the hefty mooring costs associated with keeping a canal boat in one place.

This can equate to thousands of dollars per year.

In the UK prime mooring locations in big cities such as London are not readily available, having a 5-year waiting list.

When you are lucky enough to get a spot it will come with a monthly charge of £1000+ ($1,300).

Then you have the added costs of amenity charges, like plug-in electricity, and septic services. These costs do not include any permits and boat insurance you may need.

All these costs add up.

Although the numbers may be different in different countries there are similar costs associated with living on the water regardless of which part of the world you live in.

Of course if you are mobile and have the ability to move your boat then the costs will be considerably lower but this option is not available to most people.

A canal barge
A large canal barge

Canal boat holidays – narrowboat loan excursions

Vacations on canal boats are popular throughout Europe and Canada.

Narrowboat vacations are extremely popular in both the UK and Ireland.

Boats that can accommodate up to 12 people are regularly seen traversing the canals of the British Isles.

With a top speed of 4 mph narrowboat holidays are not for people in a hurry.

During a fine British summer it is not uncommon to see a canal boat full of people sipping on beer and eating barbeques as they slowly move up the canal.

The canal boat experience is like no other.

Although mostly enjoyed by the British and Irish, UK and Irish narrowboat vacations are open to anyone and USA residents who have tried this quaintly British pastime usually get hooked and go back for more.

Some people even love them so much they get one shipped back home.

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