A Different Kind of Boating

Story and Photos by Doug Switzer, Moto/ology Publisher

While vacationing in England, we took a stroll along the canals in the High Peak District to check out some very narrowboats.

England’s Peak District has some of the loftiest elevations in the UK and I found it curious that it also has an amazing network of canals running all over it. Now, anyone who is vaguely familiar with the British Isles and the history of that area, will be aware that from the earliest times a constantly evolving and growing network of canals covers the landscape. Originally devised as an easy and economical way to move goods, these canals were constructed over the past half-millennia, came into their own during the industrial revolution and most have survived in one capacity or another to this day. Although they are now rarely used for transporting commodities and freight, cruising them in specialized “narrowboats” has become a favourite holiday pastime for many Britons and visiting tourists.

While we were there visiting, we had the pleasure of spending some time taking leisurely strolls along the canal banks and checking out the variety of the many specialized craft on the water in the Whaley Bridge area of the “High Peak”.

As mentioned earlier, the long, slender canal boats or “narrowboats” on the canal network started out as a fairly thrifty and convenient way to move bulk goods around the country and were established before the advent of decent roads or the implementation of the railway system. An interesting aspect of narrowboating is the colourful “folk art” often seen on the boats. No one really seems to know where this tradition came from, perhaps it was some sort of means to brighten up an otherwise dismal existence on the original, scruffy steam-powered working vessels of the industrial revolution. Many canal boat operators found themselves not only working on the boats, but also had to live on them as well because the pay wasn’t usually enough to cover the costs of the boat and a fixed family home on shore. This led to a depressing life for some families that became tied to their boats 24/7. Brightly coloured designs definitely would have spruced things up! It has been suggested that the practice came from the shared itinerant lifestyles of the Romani who also were known for colourful paintings on their wagons and caravans, but there is no solid evidence to confirm this.

Originally, the boats were pulled by horses that were walked along the shore while tethered to the craft with long leads. Later, someone had the bright idea to stick a motor in their boat and make the vessel self-contained and self-powered. This caught on and with the advent of steam power, small steam engines became the preferred form of thrust, later to be supplanted by the superior and easier-to-operate internal combustion motors.

These days there are still many older inboard-style engines providing the motivation on these craft, but the variety is interesting with some being gas (petrol), others being diesel and we even saw some incredibly large boats supposedly being powered by very small, more modern outboard motors. I didn’t actually see any of these things moving under their own power and it struck me that a 70-something foot-long unwieldy behemoth would be an incredible handful with only a 9-hp Johnson on the back!

The most common type of powerplant presently used in narrowboats is a marine-spec. diesel usually of around 1.5 to 2 litre displacement and around 60 hp or less. These engines are generally reliable, easy to maintain and preferred over gasoline (petrol) engines due to their safer fuel. As the focus on greener technologies becomes more popular, so too does the use of electric and diesel-electric hybrid engines. Pure electric engines, although wonderfully quiet and efficient, still lack the convenience of an established infrastructure for battery charging, although this problem may be overcome in the not-to-distant future.

After doing a bit of research, it also seems that 20 to 50 hp outboard motors may be gaining in popularity due to the reliability and ease of operation of these modern units.

At any rate, there are predominantly three styles of narrowboats: the “traditional stern” or “trads” with a smaller, open steering/tiller area in the rear of the boat, a “cruiser stern” which sports a larger and sometimes semi-enclosed rear steering area and a “centre-cockpit” configuration which places the control and steering station in the middle of the boat affording better all-round visibility and handling of the vessel. There are many variations and mutations of these configurations, but these are the basic three that are most commonly seen. Originally the boats were made from wood and followed traditional ship-building techniques of the time. These days, they are usually fabricated from steel and feature a mostly welded method of construction.

By definition (and due to the size limitations of the canals and locks themselves) narrowboats are approximately 6 feet, 10 inches wide enabling their passage through the normal 7-foot wide original, standard locks. It was noted that some boats are just over the 7-foot limit and these have difficulties navigating some parts of the canal system, especially areas where silt and bank overgrowth further restrict the canal width. What narrowboats lack in width, they can make up in length, with some craft pushing the just over 70-foot length limit of the canal system’s locks.

Another modern aid to handling a long, narrowboat is the inclusion of bow-thrusters in most of the newer craft. These have proven to make entry and exits to locks and maneuvering in mooring areas much easier and less stressful.

A lot of the boats we came across in our exploring looked to be quite comfortable and were kept up to a high standard, reportedly because these were units that were being rented out to vacationers for cruising the waterways. This has become another popular activity along the canals and there are several agents and individuals that can set you up for a narrowboating holiday.

While we saw many well-kept and obviously well-used boats there were also a sizable number that appeared neglected and looked as though they hadn’t turned over a prop in quite a while. We were told this is due to narrowboating being popular with retirees and some of these people had either moved on or passed on and the boats had become an overlooked part of an estate that still needed to be settled. This is indeed a sad situation but one that is a sombre sign of our times.

The present-day narrowboats provide a relaxing and gentle means of transport through the heart of Britain and are quite popular as holiday rentals and even permanent homes for some.

Laid-back, cozy and cute, narrowboats definitely provide a different kind of boating, however, if you’re into waterskiing or setting water speed records, they’re probably not your cup of tea!


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