Welcome back to Canal Boat UK. Today I want to try and give you an insight into the different boats you may find on the British canals, and the pros and cons of each. Hopefully, this will give you a better idea which canal boat will suit your situation best. Be aware that this is my opinion, and other people might have differing views! Here’s my ultimate widebeam vs narrowboat vs river cruiser roundup 🙂
There are general things that are good and bad about all canal boat living, so won’t be mentioned as a pro or con for a specific boat type. Yes, we all like the slow (and cheaper) lifestyle canal living and cruising brings. Yes, we all hate dealing with toilet emptying! These are things that are true across all canal boats 🙂
What is a WideBeam Boat?
A wide beam is a type of canal boat that looks like a traditional narrowboat but is wider. The beam width of a wide beam is at least 2.16 metres or 7 foot 1 inch. They usually have a steel hull and come with either a traditional or cruiser stern the same as a regular narrowboat. These are used by leisure cruisers or liveaboard owners.
Pros of a Widebeam
Yes, this is an obvious one, but a wide beam offers much more space than a regular narrowboat. If you are trying to house a larger family or just value your ability to house your extended family on board for special events, the wide beam would be the ideal setup for you.
The feeling you get from a well designed Widebeam interior is more along the lines of a small flat/apartment, something most other canal boats can’t offer.
If you feel cramped or claustrophobic on a regular boat, the larger spaces and passageways on a widebeam boat would help this no end.
Fittings More Like on Land
There are things some people may miss from living on land that you can get back on a widebeam boat. Things like a full size galley, more in line with a kitchen in a small flat. Full size beds, meaning you will never feel cramped if you live on board with a partner. When buying furniture for a widebeam, you don’t always have to buy something boat specific, as often the regular furniture will fit.
A widebeam gives you more space to hold gatherings and maybe even the odd party of two. Inviting people over is a much more comfortable experience than on smaller canal boats.
However, it is also more social for the crew on board too. On a narrowboat, for example, it would be hard for two people to comfortably ‘hang-out’ together in the kitchen. On a widebeam this is more than possible, meaning if you live on board with a partner there are many more opportunities to enjoy each other’s company 🙂
A regular size canal boat has a tendency to rock from side to side easily. When someone gets on and off of a narrowboat, for example, anyone else on board can tell. When people move around inside, or when another boat coasts past, rocking is a thing you need to get used to. Not so much on a widebeam, the wider hull making rocking much less noticeable.
When living on a widebeam, you feel much more like you are living on land. Storage on a regular canal boat is often very limited, but a widebeam not so much. You can have full size cupboards, pantries and whatever else takes your fancy storage wise.
This also extends to the tanks on board. A widebeam often has a larger water and petrol tank, meaning you can often go for longer without having to empty or fill them up 🙂 Depending on the amount of people living on board.
More Solar Capacity
The much larger roof of a widebeam can be great for extra storage, but if you are serious about solar power, a widebeam can house many more solar panels than a regular narrowboat. Yes, the boat is bigger and will need more power too, but you will still have much more available capacity. Even if you don’t want to fill the roof with solar panels, it also means that whatever panels you have on your widebeam’s roof can be put out of the way, meaning they are not in the way of anyone walking up there.
Cons’s of a Widebeam
Harder to Clean
One of the great things about moving onto a boat is the fact it is much easier to clean than a house or flat. Much less space to dust and hoover. This is not so much the case with a widebeam, meaning that cleaning will be playing a slightly larger part in your boat life. I don’t feel like the difference is massive, but still feel it could be a factor for some.
More Expensive to Run
A bigger boat takes more power to run and therefore a larger spend on fuel. Even with ample solar panels, you may find you have to run your widebeams engine more than you would like just to charge your batteries.
Also, blacking (taking the boat out of water and painting the hull with bitumen paint)or transporting your boat on a lorry is all going to cost you more in a widebeam!
Your widebeam’s steel hull is gradually thinning over time due to oxidisation,and eventually may have to be re-plated or over plated. This can get expensive.
This has to be the biggest con for most people. The British canal network was originally used many years ago for some rather large working boats, so you would have thought that widebeams would have no issues on the UK canals. But the problem is that a lot of the canal network went sark for quite a while from its industrial decline until when it was reinvigorated and reopened for the leisure market. What we ended up with were quite a few parts of the canals that had become quite a bit thinner and harder to navigate for larger boats.
This means that you need to plan ahead for any canal trip you wish to do on a widebeam, not just to make sure the canal can take the size of your boat, but also the locks. I would recommend going onto forums to find other widebeam boaters that can offer advice. I also found THIS map that should give anyone wanting to own a widebeam a good starting point. Oh, Aqualine have a good map too 🙂
There are also turning areas on the canal network called winding holes, these can also be harder for widebeams to use in some areas. When a canal starts to get overgrown, the widebeam is the first canal boat to start finding it hard to navigate. These are all things to consider when owning and crusing a widebeam boat.
Hard to Find Good Interior Design
With all the extra space a widebeam boat brings, you can also see some inefficiency in interior design. When someone is not forced into such a tight space like a narrowboat, they often stop coming up with those ingenious space saving designs. Make sure this is not the case for any widebeam you buy. Yes, there is more space, but it is still not as much as a regular house and could benefit from efficient use of space.
Can Get a Bad Rap on the Canals
When two boats are finding it hard to navigate past each other, if one of them is a widebeam boat they are far more likely to get snarky comments blaming the whole situation on them. Unfortunately, having a wider boat makes you an easy target for abuse or negativity from certain quarters of the boating community. You may need a thicker skin to cruise a widebeam on the canals 🙂
Moorings Harder to Find
As a widebeam you are going to find that there are less available moorings for you to use than if you were on a narrowboat. Again, meaning you need to plan ahead when cruising. Most marinas are made with narrowboats in mind you see 🙂
How Much is the Typical Widebeam?
Of course, this is somewhat variable, but I will attempt to give you an idea by showing you a boat that Rugby Boats are selling. The widebeam in the video below was a 2012 widebeam that was selling for £120000.
What is a Narrowboat?
A narrowboat is a canal boat built to fit the locks and sometimes narrow canals of the UK. They used to help fuel the industrial revolution, but are now used for leisure cruising and as floating homes. Narrowboats are typically under 7 feet wide and the longest you see is 72 feet. Otherwise, getting around the full UK canal network could be tricky 🙂 Narrowboats have a steel hull, and come in traditional, semi-traditional and cruiser stern layouts at the back.
Pro’s of a Narrowboat
Some of the smartest interior designs I have ever seen have been inside a narrowboat. When you are forced into such a small space, you will see innovation being used to provide relief and make the boat feel bigger. It always amazes me how big and cosy some narrowboats feel inside. Truly the Tardis of the canals 🙂
A narrowboat has a good balance of roof space for solar panels and a relatively compact and cosy interior that can be heated quickly. Diesel engines are widely used and more efficient and use cheaper red diesel, whilst still giving you the opportunity of installing a calorifier to heat water. All this means your energy costs will probably be lower than a widebeam or a similarly sized river cruiser.
A narrowboat gives you the freedom to navigate the UK canal network easily, without as much worry about size. You only have to think more about ease of navigation if you have a narrowboat over 58 foot in length. A 58 foot or below narrowboat length allows you to literally cover the whole canal network.
Turning at winding holes it easy. When the canals get overgrown, it has to get pretty bad before your boat will struggle to pass. There are a number of long and thin tunnels on the network too. Can you imagine meeting a boat halfway whilst on a widebeam? This is a much simpler situation to deal with on a narrowboat 🙂
Modern narrowboat interior design has given me some of the best ‘wow’ moments I have ever had. People are making interiors that are dealing with the compact space intelligently whilst looking incredibly warming and homey. Frankly, some of the best boat interiors I have ever seen have been on a narrowboat.
Con’s of a Narrowboat
Taking your boat out of the water to black with bitumen paint every few years is a bit of a pain, and can get quite costly over time. Also, older steel hulls may need re-plating or overplating as they degrade, something that is also expensive to fix. A lot of a narrowboats value is in the hull, so make sure you buy a good one at the start. This will give you a lot less headaches in the long run.
A Bit Rocky
Living on a narrowboat, you will need to get used to a steady rocking motion in your life. When moored up, a narrowboat is not the most stable boat. Anytime someone gets on or off the boat or another boat passes you will get rocked gently like a baby 🙂 Don’t get me wrong, you will get used to it in no time, but just be aware it’s a thing. If you have never stepped foot on a narrowboat, maybe take a short trip on a rented one before you go all in and buy one 🙂
How much is the typical narrowboat?
The boat below was also on sale at Rugby Boats, it is 2 foot longer than the widebeam and was on sale for £75000. This boat was also built in 2012, the same year as the widebeam detailed above. This is all in an attempt to show you equivalents. Of course, there could be differences in interior fit out, but it is just to give you an idea.
What is a River Cruiser?
A river cruiser is a boat type that, as the name suggests, were originally designed to cruise the inland rivers. As this website is all about canal boats, we will focus on those river cruisers that are designed to go on the canal network. River cruisers often look more like traditional boats that would go on the ocean and are usually made out of fibreglass.
Pro’s of a River Cruiser
A river cruiser is much lighter than a mammoth 15 tonne narrowboat, so it is much more maneuverable. You can start, stop and change direction a lot faster. You don’t always need winding holes to turn either.
Rust No More
As a river cruiser’s hull is usually a mess of fibreglass and resin, you won’t be getting any rust here. This takes away one of the major problems that narrowboaters usually have!
Light and Airy
A river cruiser has much bigger and widespread windows than a narrowboat, making the interior seem more light and airy.
Cheaper to Buy and Run
A steel canal boat will cost a lot more than a similar size river cruiser, simply because of the materials used. You will see some really expensive river cruisers, but these will be too wide and high for canals. The types of river cruisers people usually use on the canals are older designs, such as the Freeman range. If you are interested in these types of boats, I would highly recommend the YouTube channel below.
Even more modern river cruisers, like the Viking range, are relatively cheap when compared with narrowboats.
They also cost less on the whole to run and maintain. Hull maintenance is much cheaper with river cruisers, for a start. Instead of the expensive blacking procedures of narrowboats, you just need the cheaper anti-fouling procedure done to protect your glass fibre against osmosis.
River cruisers are also much lighter, with a v-shaped hull that cuts through water more efficiently. This can be another factor that makes some river cruisers cheaper to run.
Clearly, this is highly debatable. Some people love the traditional look of a narrowboat. But for a lot new to canal boating, a river cruiser looks more like they would expect from a boat. Some of the more expensive river cruiser can look more like an expensive ocean-going yacht, which some people might like.
A lot of river cruisers are also able to do some cruising in coastal waters around the UK. This makes it a much more flexible option when trying to navigate around. Although, make sure you have checked your particular river cruiser to make sure this is the case before trying it. Not all river cruisers are made equal 🙂
Con’s of a River Cruiser
Steel is a pretty robust material, meaning that a well looked after narrowboat can last a very long time. You can’t say the same for river cruisers, being made of fibreglass. When well looked after they can last 30-40 years, but you are not dealing with such a bulletproof hull as a narrowboat. Crash a river cruiser badly and you could cause permanent damage that is very hard to fix too.
Some people think that you don’t need to do any regular maintenance to a river cruiser’s hull like you do with blacking a narrowboat, but they are wrong. Fibreglass can suffer with osmosis over time, causing water to permeate the gel outer coating and cause damage to the hull. You should take your river cruiser out of the water regularly to get it checked for this and treatments done to any blisters that may have formed.
A bit like a widebeam, river cruisers come in all shapes and sizes. Some that are purely used for rivers can actually get quite big, but these won’t fit on the canals. Make sure that you buy a river cruiser that’s size is suited to the UK canal network. If you have something on the limit of what will fit, make sure to research any routes you plan to take to make sure your boat’s size won’t be a problem.
When buying a river cruiser for use on the canals, be aware that some canal tunnels are somewhat low. Make sure that your boat will fit through. Sometimes, you may have to lower the windscreen to get through. It terms of length, they need to fit the locks on any route you wish to take.
Not as Comfortable
This is a matter of opinion, but the type of river cruisers that fit on a canal don’t usually have as big of a usuable space as a narrowboat. The bigger ones also have a lot of fixed and built in furniture, a bit like a yacht, taking away the flexibility of having your own furniture. I would relate most river cruisers interiors more to that of a caravan than the home style comforts of a narrowboat. Again, this is just my own opinion.
Most river cruisers use petrol in their engines. Petrol is harder to get on the canals than the red diesel that most other boats are using. It is also more expensive and, when you consider that petrol engines aren’t as efficient as diesel, it increases your running costs somewhat. Even though river cruisers are often much lighter, this isn’t always enough to offset the cost.
Yes, you can get heaters on a river cruiser, but in general they aren’t as cosy and easy to warm up as a typical narrowboat. You can insulate your boat heavily to help improve this, but they aren’t as good for all year round living in the UK. It gets pretty cold!
River cruisers often have ‘funny’ shaped roofs when you compare with other canal boats. This makes adding solar panels a trickier operation, and you won’t have the real estate for them that you would on a narrowboat.
Headroom in river cruisers, unlike narrowboats, is usually not the best. Standing up straight in a river cruiser is not a given.
How much is the typical canal based river cruiser?
I can’t really give an exact comparison with the river cruiser, as the type of river cruisers used on canals are usually older. The one below is a prime example, and only costs £23500. The more expensive river boats you see are the bigger ones that wouldn’t fit on the canals. Be aware that this boat is the same width as a widebeam.
Which Canal Boat is Best for You?
This is a very hard question to answer and is down to personal choice. The first thing you should do is look at the pros and cons I have listed above and see which combination suits you best. Try to visit and look around multiple examples of each canal boat type in person too.
Having said all of this, I will try to give you some situations below where I would recommend a certain type of canal boat.
This is when I would buy a….
If you have tried a narrowboat and miss your land based house too much. Before you give up on boat life altogether, try a widebeam first. Yes, they have downsides, but if it gets you on the canals, it will be worth it. If you have a big family and need more space, I would think about a longer narrowboat before I go wide personally.
If you are planning to be moored up in a marina most of the time, a widebeam might also make sense in this situation if you like your space.
If you need more insight into widebeam living, I would highly recommend the Youtube channel Weir on the Move below.
I would say this should be the default canal boat for everyone 🙂 You can buy them in all kinds of lengths and styles to suit whatever need you have. They can navigate the canal network with ease. For most people, look at a narrowboat first.
If you are a casual boater that uses the boat as a holiday home, and you like the more boat like looks, then a river cruiser would be for you. If you plan to do some coastal water cruising, then a river cruiser would be perfect. Finally, if you are on a really low budget, you could find a river cruiser much cheaper than a narrowboat. I also refer to Aussie Boater here, an awesome guy that started out on a £2000 river cruiser that he has renovated himself. He used this to live on full time and cruise the canals. You can see his Youtube channel below:
At the time of writing, he is now talking about upgrading to a narrowboat. He has shown it is possible to live on a river cruiser on the cheap, and he has some great advice for doing so.
I am sure all of you have your own opinions as to which canal boat is best to get 🙂 Feel free to comment and let us know below.