So having looked at canals and their history, let's look at canal boats, and how the design has evolved during the last 200 years. Now before we start, let me clarify one term which causes more upset and discussion than any other in the canal boat industry, and that's the word canal narrowboat, or narrow-boat, or even narrow boat. So which is the correct term and which should you use? This will depend on the type of boat your are considering - I will try to explain. If you are referring to an original canal boat built in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, then the term narrow boat is correct. In other words the original working boats designed for transporting goods throughout the canal network. Today's modern boats designed with different materials and for either liveaboard or pleasure use, are now referred to as narrowboats, all one word. This simple distinction is a quick way to identify whether one is referring to a modern boat ( canal narrowboats), based on the original design, or an original example ( narrow boat). Finally and just as importantly, never refer to a narrow boat as a barge or a longboat, which may cause offence to the owner - you have been warned!!
The early canal narrow boats were very different to today's more comfortable and modern replica narrowboats, but all have one thing in common - they are all less than 7 ft in width ( or 2.13 metres ), an absolute necessity in order to navigate the narrow canals originally designed by James Brindley, who designed his locks chambers to this dimension, which others then followed. Modern narrowboats are generally designed to a maximum of 6ft 10 ins in order to ensure that the boat can navigate through the narrowest of canals, which over time often become narrower due to silting and subsidence. Narrow boats are always flat bottomed which distinguishes them from barges which are usually designed with rounded or vee shaped hulls. The maximum length for a narrow boat is 72 ft which again is based on Brindley's original designs, but there are many canals which have much smaller locks, and before you go and order or buy your boat it is well worth checking whether you will be able to navigate the proposed canals - I will cover this is more detail when we look at buying your canal boat ( whether new or used ).
The first canal narrow boats were designed for business, not for pleasure. Generally made of wood, they were designed to carry cargo and little else, so that home comforts were kept to a minimum, both in term of space and size. Virtually the entire deck of the narrow boat was used for storage of cargo ( along with the hold) and at the stern was the boatman's cabin, a tiny box like affair usually holding a small bunk bed, a chair, table, and ofcourse a stove. Rarely more than ten feet in length, and with only just enough headroom to stand up, these tiny cabins forced their designers and owners to be creative and ingenious with the space available. Bunk beds became seats, and cupboards folded downwards to become tables - this very tiny space was used to the full. In order to make the most of these spaces, the interiors were often embellished with brightly painted panels inset into the interior woodwork, which subsequently led to the fashion for painting the entire boat in bright colours, both inside and out.
Whilst canal narrow boats were the workhorses of the Industrial Revolution, they were also part of it, and as diesel and steam became adopted as a cheaper more efficient power source, the tow horse was gradually resigned to history. With powerful engines came the opportunity for boats to tow a second boat, often called a butty, allowing cabins to be enlarged which in turn allowed families to live and work aboard, bringing fathers and husbands back into the family. With family life came curtains, carpets and rugs, and larger cabins, along with other home comforts, until the narrow boat more closely resembled those designs we recognise today.
Modern canal boat design draws heavily on the best of narrow boat traditions, and as a result most modern narrowboats will have the option of three stern types, namely traditional, semi-traditional and cruiser. The traditional or "trad" design is based on the original working boats from where it gets its name. The cabin superstructure is taken as far aft as possible, leaving a small deck area between 1m and 1.25m for the helmsman to steer, whilst the area has no guard rail to allow the crew to jump on and off the boat very quickly. Needless to say, with the propeller only inches away, accidents were common. In bad weather the helmsman could steer from the relative comfort of the rear doors often standing on the coal box for warmth from the stove.
The semi-traditional ( or semi-trad) looks very similar to the trad, but is in fact very different. It is generally much longer ( 2m to 6 m) and often includes bench seating which include a superstructure proving protection to both the helmsman and passengers alike. The stern is usually rounded with the engine mounted under the deck and accessible by lifting a section of decking. As with the trad, the stern is generally unguarded.
Finally the cruiser stern draws on both the above and has become the de-facto standard for cruising canal boats. The aft space is open, and generally around 2m in length, with a guard rail. The stern can be either round or square, but the latter can be more difficult to manoeuvre particularly in reverse.
Now that we have a basic knowledge of canal narrowboats and their design history, how do we go about choosing a canal boat to buy and what are the important factors we need to consider. Let's start by looking at some of the key things to consider before rushing off with our cheque book.
Marinablu International Ltd is an Introducer Appointed Representative of Pantaenius UK Ltd who are authorised and regulated by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) - narrowboat