The beginner's guide to canal boats, narrowboats, and Dutch barges
This guide covers the range of steel built craft that are available to cruise on the inland waterways of Great Britain and Europe, including narrowboats, wide beam boats (fat narrowboats) and Dutch barges. Most narrowboats available today take their inspiration from the original working boats used on the narrow canals in Great Britain in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and are normally 6 feet 10 inches wide to allow safe passage through locks and narrow bridges. They tend to range in length from 30 feet up to 70 feet and usually come with one of three stern styles by which they can be distinguished.
As the name suggests, the "Trad Stern" style is based on the look of a traditional working boat and has a small unguarded rear deck or "counter" behind the rear doors.
Advantages of the Trad Stern
The Trad Stern gives the boat a more traditional look and maximises interior space for a given boat length (a useful feature when considering a boat to live on). When cruising the helmsman can stand inside the rear cabin giving some extra protection from the elements.
Disadvantages of the Trad Stern
Less useful outside space, passengers will need to use the 'well deck' in the bow of the boat. It is therefore a less sociable layout when cruising.
The modern trad versus the traditional trad
The Trad Stern style can be further subdivided into "Modern Trad" and "Traditional Trad". In the Modern Trad, the engine is located beneath the floor at the rear of the boat, just inside the rear doors. This leads to reduced head room at the back of the boat. The rear trad area usually has a head room of 5ft 4in as opposed to a typical head room of 6ft 4in in the rest of the boat. The "Traditional Trad" has the engine (usually a vintage or replica vintage engine) situated in a separate engine room forward of the rear cabin. The rear cabin is then usually fitted out in the style of a traditional Boatman's cabin with a stove, lots of useful storage and a Boatman's bed. It is common for the paneling and doors in the Boatman's cabin to be decorated in a traditional style using roses and castles.
The "Cruiser Stern" narrowboat has a much larger rear deck, taking its inspiration from cabin cruiser style boats, which is typically 8ft in length. This is generally protected by a taff rail that can incorporate bench seating. The boats controls are provided on a control tower mounted on the rear deck and the engine is located beneath the rear deck.
Advantages of the Cruiser Stern
The larger rear deck provides more social open space when out cruising or for sitting outside in fine weather.
Disadvantages of the Cruiser Stern
Reduced interior cabin space for a given length of boat. The location of the controls of the rear open deck mean that the helmsman is very exposed to the elements. As the engine is located beneath the rear deck, there is increased opportunity for rainwater to collect in the engine bilge.
The "Semi-Trad" narrowboat is something of a hybrid style between the Cruiser Stern and the Trad Stern, allowing the more social benefits of a cruiser whilst retaining the style of the trad. There is a longer rear deck like a cruiser stern but most of it is protected by extended cabin sides, leaving a small rear deck to give the appearance of a trad stern. There are normally lockers within the extended cabin sides to provide storage and seating and the engine is located beneath the deck in this area.
Advantages of the Semi-Trad
More external space for socializing whilst retaining the external appearance of a trad. The addition of external rear doors at the back of the enclosed semi trad area provides extra security for retaining small children and pets whilst out cruising.
Disadvantages of the Semi-Trad
Same internal space restrictions for the overall boat length as a cruiser stern. As the engine is located beneath the rear deck, there is increased opportunity for rainwater to collect in the engine bilge.
This is a wide beam version of a narrowboat and comes in the same variety of stern types; mostly cruiser, but also trad, or semi-trad. They normally range in width from 10ft up to 12ft.
Advantages of a Wide Beam Boat
Much more interior space for use as a liveaboard, mean they feel more like a floating apartment.
Disadvantages of a Wide Beam Boat
The extra width means they cannot be cruised on narrower parts of the canal network.
Dutch Barges are vintage iron or steel boats built in the Netherlands for carrying cargo and subsequently converted for pleasure or residential use. Modern replica Dutch barges are also available.
Advantages of the Dutch Barge
A design classic, nothing else quite has the style. Vee-bottomed boats can be cruised in coastal waters.
Disadvantages of the Dutch Barge
The shape of hull means less useable living space than a "fat narrowboat". It is generally large so can be restrictive for cruising.
Additional Boat Types
Tugs have long covered fore decks, they are normally "Traditional" style trad boats with engine rooms and Boatman's Cabins
Dutch Barge Style Narrowboats
These narrowboats have wheelhouses either at the stern or in the middle of the boat and are steered by wheel rather than a tiller arm.
A butty is an engineless narrowboat designed to be towed behind a partner boat