Rupert Holmes and Jonathan Mosse look at boats, seamanship skills, planning and destinations in their guide to inland boating in the UK

There are as many different styles and eras of boats suitable for inland boating as there are seagoing vessels – and a lot of them overlap between the two disciplines, writes Rupert Holmes.

Indeed, a sizeable proportion of boats based on rivers with easy access to the sea, such as the Thames above Teddington lock, or the Lee Navigation in east London, have powerful engines that allow them to achieve planing speeds in open water.

However, those further inland will tend to have smaller units that are more economical to run but will still deliver hull speed in nearly any conditions.

An early decision will be whether to opt for a wide beam vessel or a narrow beam one able to navigate the UK’s narrow canals with a lock width of 6ft 10in.

However, these canals are only a small section of the inland boating network, and a narrow beam boat has significantly less space.

By contrast, many wide-beam river and canal cruisers have far more accommodation than any sailing boat of a similar length.

Freeman 22 or 26

Over 26 years John Freeman, a decades-long caravan builder, built 6,000 river and canal cruisers, starting with the Freeman 23 in 1957.

At a time when production boatbuilding in fibreglass was in its infancy, Freeman transferred techniques learnt from the caravan side of the business with such success he stopped making caravans just three years later.

A woman sitting on the front of a boat

The Freeman 22 has a bright interior, thanks to large windows. Credit: Freespirit Transport/Alamy

This boat, along with the slightly later Freeman 26, has since become a classic.

Large windows help create a bright interior, which includes a small toilet compartment, double vee-berth forward, compact galley and four-person dining area that converts to a double berth.

With a good cockpit shelter, the outside space can also double as an extra saloon area.

A Mkll version, with full headroom throughout and a distinctive stepped sheerline, followed in 1964 and continued in production until 1970.

A variety of motors were fitted, mostly marinised car petrol engines including side valve units from the Ford Anglia in early boats, while some later boats had Perkins 4.107 diesels as used in London taxis.

Spares are still readily available for many.

The simple shaft drive won’t suffer from the expensive problems that can be experienced with the outdrives that became popular in the 1970s.

Prices for the Freeman 22, which had a 6.7m/ 22ft 0in LOA and 2.3m/7ft 6in beam range from £7-10,000.

More information at:

Princess 32

Another classic yet capable design, dating from 1970 with more than 1,200 built, the Princess 32’s roots are in Project 31, built by Marine Projects in Plymouth, which also built Moody and Sigma sailing yachts, and was the first design to be branded Princess.

A key selling point was the large aft cockpit with a semi-enclosed wheelhouse forward, which provides a big entertaining area with a degree of shelter.

Below decks, the semi-open plan layout has loads of natural light. There’s a large double forecabin, a saloon with a settee to starboard and a dinette dining area to port that converts to a second double berth.

There are also reasonable galley and toilet/shower facilities.

At one time the extensive use of Formica joinery on some boats would have appeared very dated, but today it adds a degree of retro chic.

Boats with twin diesel engines and shaft drives are the best bet for reliability and lower running costs.

Original engines varied in power from twin Perkins 4.107 47hp diesels up to twin 140hp petrols, giving cruising speeds from 8 to more than 20 knots.

Lower-powered boats are both less expensive to maintain and ideal as river cruisers where speed is limited, yet are still powerful enough for forays into coastal waters.

Updated boats with recent engines and outdrives may fetch upwards of £25,000, but the bulk of well-maintained boats change hands for around £15-18,000.

The Princess 32 was 9.75m/32ft 0in LOA with a beam of 3.02m/9ft 11in.

More information at

Viking 22

Most of the big builders of river, canal and estuary cruisers of the 1970s and 1980s are no longer in business, which partly reflects a big decline in sales from the early 1990s onwards.

Viking is one of the few names that has survived and continues to produce a range of sub-30ft craft, when others have moved into other larger vessels.

A couple on a motor boat

The Viking 22 is powered by a single outboard engine, making them economic to run. Credit: Keith J Smith/Alamy

The Viking 22, with an LOA of 6.6m/21ft 7in, originated in the early 1990s and has enjoyed a long production run.

The use of outboard engines – single 20-35hp four-stroke units are popular and economical to run at displacement speeds – makes for more space inside than might be expected on such a small boat.

The maximum headroom is 1.8m (5ft 11in), there’s space for an athwartships double berth aft under the cockpit sole, while the forward saloon area, ahead of the toilet/shower compartment and galley converts to a second double.

A wide version was offered with a beam of 2.35m/7ft 7in.

Prices are between £14-22,000.

More information at:

Broom 30

The cockpit layouts of smallish motor boats make it easy to create an extra room with canvas covers, meaning they often have far more space than a sailing boat of similar size.

The aft cabin version of Broom’s Ocean 30 took this concept one stage further, with the entire length of the boat used for accommodation, including a central wheelhouse/saloon above the engine(s) and a cockpit area, or even flybridge (pictured), above the spacious aft cabin.

A boat with a flybridge moored by grass on the UK inland boating network

The flybridge on the Broom 30 meant it came with more accommodation than many other similar-sized boats

It therefore provides an impressive amount of accommodation for a 30ft boat, even by today’s standards.

The Broom 30 has an LOA of 9.15m/30ft 0in and a beam of 3.15m/10ft 4in. Prices range from £20-30,000.

Broom Boats is no longer a production boatbuilder, but remains in business in Norfolk as a boat yard and hire fleet operator.

More details at:

Hampton Safari 25

Bridges on a surprisingly large chunk of Britain’s navigable rivers and canal network have enough air draught for wheelhouses and in some cases even flybridge boats.

However, some are very restricted in this respect, which led to some innovative solutions.

The Safari 25 (LOA 7.62m/25ft 0in) uses almost all of the boat’s length for accommodation, except a vestigial aft cockpit which has just enough space for two people.

However, the roof over the saloon and forward helm station slides aft, turning this into an outdoor area in fine weather.

The generous 2.90m/9ft 6in beam creates a surprisingly spacious boat with large galley, toilet, shower and aft cabin spaces.

Prices range from £13-18,000.

More details at:

Princess 30DS

This hugely successful design for Princess was the result of the firm’s first collaboration with designer Bernard Olesinski, a partnership that continues today.

Accommodation is flexible and spacious, with an upper saloon in the enclosed wheelhouse, a lower saloon with a dining table that converts to a second double berth opposite the galley, and a large forecabin.

A small white motorboat with fenders

A spacious and flexible interior layout made the Princess 30DS desirable. Credit: Philip Dubois/Alamy

There’s also a large aft cockpit, though a downside is the lack of a separate second sleeping cabin.

Most boats sold for use on inland waterways have smaller economical twin or single diesels.

The 30DS, which has an LOA of 9.15m/30ft 0in and a 3.35m/11ft 0in beam was launched in 1980.

Moores of Wroxham bought the tooling at the end of the 1980s and went on to build boats throughout the 1990s.

Prices range from £28-35,000.

More information at

Seamanship skills for inland boating

Rupert Holmes explains waterway and river boating skills

Skills needed for boating inland are similar to those required for coastal sailing, but some situations can catch out even experienced seafarers.

Perhaps the biggest of these is common to almost all single screw motor vessels, which handle very differently to a yacht under power.

Boat passing on a canal

Don’t assume inland waters are safer than coastal; much of the inland waterway network is rural and help may not come. Credit: Andrew Holt/Getty

The combination of a much smaller rudder, and the lack of a keel for the boat to easily pivot around, means steering is only effective when the engine is in gear and the propeller is therefore pushing water past the rudder.

This effect is particularly pronounced on narrowboats, which by their very nature are also very heavy and have a huge amount of inertia.

Note that when they turn the stern still moves in the opposite direction to the bow.

Therefore when turning to starboard, for instance, you still need to allow space for the stern to swing to port.


There are situations in which speed needs to be limited, so sometimes it may not be possible to leave the engine in gear, even at idling speed.

The trick is to slip it into neutral when travelling in a straight line, then back into gear when you need more steering response.

If you need to use a lot of reverse power to slow down, prop-walk may swing the stern markedly in one direction or the other.

If necessary, short bursts of forward power, with the helm hard over, can get the boat back on track.

Fortunately, many locations are relatively sheltered, so the effect of wind on the hull and superstructure is, generally, not great.

But it’s important to keep an eye open for more exposed places such as at the end of an embankment, a line of trees or when crossing an aqueduct.

On the canal network especially there’s a strong expectation that you’ll not leave enough wash to even minimally rock moored boats.

This often involves slowing down considerably from the already low 4mph speed limit.

Narrowboats are generally too long to turn around on most stretches of canal.

Still, periodically you should find so-called winding holes, where there’s enough space to steer the bows into the bank then use engine power, with the helm held right over to drive the stern around until the boat is roughly facing the intended new direction of travel.

It’s easy to assume inland waterways are automatically safer than coastal waters, but that’s frequently not the case.

In many cases instincts, skills and basic equipment needed at sea will stand you in good stead: it’s still possible to fall overboard or get trapped between two boats, and medical emergencies remain a possibility.

Much of the UK’s inland waterways network is in rural areas, well away from roads, so it can take time for emergency services to reach a casualty.

Locks and weirs

While locks are fundamentally simple to operate, they also present a danger with the potential for a situation to escalate rapidly.

The Canal & River Trust, which is responsible for canals in England and Wales, along with some navigable rivers, has clear safety guidance online including lock operating procedures.

A weir on part of the UK inland boating network

Currents can sweep boats towards a weir; stay close to the bank and leave plenty of room to turn around. Credit: GmbH/Alamy

When heading downstream on rivers it’s important to be aware of weirs, especially when water levels are high.

The current tends to sweep boats towards a weir and it’s easy to reach a point where there’s no room to turn around.

Therefore when approaching a weir stay close to the bank with the lock, where you’ll be in safe water, with a much weaker stream that will run massively more slowly.

On rivers, it’s also important to carry an anchor and rode, that’ll keep you safe in the event of engine failure or a fouled propeller.

Planning for the inland waterways

Jonathan Mosse examines what’s needed to plan a cruise inland

Fitting out my narrowboat on the river Tamar, seven miles above Plymouth, took me two years to complete – an operation that became somehow protracted by a ‘need’ to run in my new engine, punching big tides and visiting the delights of the entire navigable length of the river!

During this time, it became almost commonplace for partners of my adjacent sea-going boaters to sidle up to me, when their other half was otherwise engaged, explaining that all this navigation, the long passages and stormy seas were becoming altogether too much and how nice it would be to simply ditch crawl from pub to pub.

Boat work finished, I reversed the river journey to be craned back onto a lorry and scuttled north to a more conventional habitat, leaving behind a handful of sailors, their curiosity now piqued into sampling the delights of my world.

Their starting point is a short-term licence, in most cases from the Canal & River Trust ( – supported by the all-important British Waterways key, which gives access to facilities and the mechanisms of lift bridges.

This key is readily available on Amazon, ebay and the like.

Just as important is a windlass and, in many cases, an anti-vandal key, again available via the internet.

Next, an appropriate inland waterways guide for their intended cruising area such as the Collins Nicholson Waterways Guides or Pearson’s Canal Companions.

The digital equivalents, including CanalPlan and River Canal Rescue’s WaterNav app are also helpful.

Choosing your route

Your chosen navigation could be either a ‘narrow canal’, which would be unlikely given its 2m gauge, or a ‘wide canal’ with locks able to accommodate a greater beam.

Length to fit in locks will vary from 17m in the north-east to 27m; these lengths are based on the size of sailing keel craft which transported cargo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Guide books will provide details of the so-called keel size of routes, supported by information on the Canal & River Trust website, which has details about how to plan your route.

A mooring spike used for inland boating

A mooring spike is to canal craft what an anchor is for seagoing boats. Credit: Jonathan Mosse

If you’re on a sailing yacht, you may need to remove or lower your mast if you can, if your route takes you through tunnels or under bridges.

There are well over a dozen navigation authorities looking after different inland waterways, although the Canal & River Trust dominates.

Most guides provide details on the navigation authority, the differing charges, infrastructure, protocols and levels of maintenance.

Common to navigating all managed waterways is the lock/mile concept in planning your progress: in one hour you will travel a maximum of four miles (less in the case of poor dredging and/or a deep-draughted boat) and for each lock negotiated you will need to deduct a mile travelled.

That’s always assuming that stoppages, usually caused by infrastructure issues, don’t get in the way.

These can be found at


The bane of nearly every sailor’s life on a canal is their raw water cooling system and lack of easy access to the propeller.

Weed growth is getting worse and its smaller variants will inevitably soon start to block cooling water inlets, which will need constant monitoring.

A boat stuck in weeds on a UK waterway

Make sure you can clear weed before it blocks engine inlets. Credit: Jonathan Mosse

Otherwise, it’s very much a go-anywhere/stop-anywhere for a maximum of 14 days, unless otherwise stated at honeypot sites.

One of the many joys is hunkering down in the middle of nowhere, with just wall-to-wall nature for company.

However, one thing your typical inland boater seems to be worse at than mooring their boat is their inability to slow down sufficiently when passing other moored vessels.

A nappy mooring pin used for mooring a boat while inland boating

A mooring nappy pin. Credit: Jonathan Mosse

Nor should sailors travel under the misapprehension that nappy pins are purely the domain of the babe-in-arms.

On the inland waterways, alongside mooring spikes, they are indispensable in mooring to steel, bankside piling and well worth acquiring as many an attractive, rural mooring seems to have been piled.

Inland boating destinations in the UK

Jonathan Mosse suggests some superb inland destinations

Boats going up the Crinan Canal

Crinan Canal, the world’s prettiest shortcut, connecting Ardrishaig with the Sound of Jura. Credit: Jonathan Mosse

Many people reading this article will be used to coastal cruising, so I’ll be looking at how to plan passages on UK inland waterways from the sea.

An essential tool for the planning stage onwards is the Nicholson Inland Waterways Map of Great Britain, published by HarperCollins.

It covers the entire network of canal and river navigation in England, Scotland and Wales, listing information such as waterway dimensions, distances, and relevant contact numbers.

As well as narrow and broad canals, and navigable rivers, it also lists tidal river navigations and waterways currently under construction.

Best places to cruise

Scotland provides three excellent opportunities in the form of the nine-mile Crinan Canal, known as the world’s prettiest shortcut, the Caledonian Canal – 60 miles of unadulterated beauty from Fort William to Inverness – and the Forth & Clyde Canal, providing a connection between the two eponymous firths – weed and the sometimes shaky state of its infrastructure permitting.

Working down the East Coast, the Humber gives access to the rivers Trent and Ouse. In the right boat, the former could take you as far as Market Harborough, south of Leicester and also westwards to Burton upon Trent.

Certainly, most vessels will penetrate as far as Nottingham.

Inland boating: a boat motoring along a river

The Lancaster Canal connects to the national waterway network via the Ribble Link. Credit: Barrie Harwood/Alamy

The Ouse will see you to York and beyond and, via the Aire & Calder Navigation, to Rotherham, Wakefield and Leeds.

There are two wide-beam canals – in the form of the Rochdale and the Leeds & Liverpool – crossing the Pennines beyond Wakefield and Leeds respectively, so Manchester and Liverpool become possible goals.

From the Wash there is further access to Nottingham via the river Witham, to the Fenland complex of waterways and navigable drains, and as far west as Northampton via the river Nene.

Further down the coast, the rivers Ant, Thurne, Yare, and Waveney form the spine of The Broads, which can be accessed from Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

These navigations should not be overlooked for their access to wild, remote beauty and big, unfettered inland skies.

East and west

Neither the river Thames nor the Medway will need any introduction to East Coast cruisers, but it’s worth highlighting the possibility of realistically reaching the limit of their navigation: Lechlade and Tonbridge respectively.

a man wearing a blue tshirt

Jonathan Mosse started his boating career in sailing dinghies and home-built kayaks, dodging between the two until he discovered the Ocean Youth Club and their beautiful Bristol pilot cutters. Transitioning to the inland waterways, he has been writing waterway guides and magazine articles for 35 years, living aboard a narrowboat for almost as long.

A study of the Nicholson map will show many relatively short tidal inlets detailed in the south-east extremity of Britain and west as far as the Exeter Ship Canal which, although short, is worth a visit as it is one of the oldest canals in the country, dating from 1566.

The Severn provides access to Stourbridge (above Worcester) and the beautiful Warwickshire Avon to Stratford, while the river Mersey offers alternative access to Manchester and the delightful river Weaver, the former via either the Bridgewater Canal or Manchester Ship Canal.

Completing this romp around the coastally-connected inland waterways system leaves us finally with the Lancaster Canal, one of England’s few coastal canals which is connected to the national waterway network via the Ribble Link – but you do need to make sure your boat can cope with the 0.9m/3ft draught.

The river Ribble also connects to the 127-mile Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

Continues below…

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