Hints for hiring: a beginners guide to hiring a narrow boat

There are a lot of very nice boats around, run by efficient professional boat yards. Unfortunately there are also some very old and rough ones, run by people who just want to take your money. It's not always easy to find the good ones - what they don't say in the brochure is as important as what they do. Here are some key points to consider as you choose your boat and plan your holiday.

The route
  • Think about where you want to be, and hire a boat near there. 30 miles is a long way at 3 miles an hour.
  • Consider how much crew you have - parts of the canal system have virtually no locks, and other areas have an enormous number of them. There are plenty of areas in between the two extremes.
  • Rivers can be tricky and unpredictable in very wet weather, consider sticking to canals for your first trip.
  • In your planning, a rough rule-of-thumb is about 3 miles or 3 locks per hour. Make sure you allow for visits to places of interest, and stopping for meals. Your first narrowboat holiday doesn't not have to be an endurance test - for you, or your crew! We like to do about 45 hours a week in the summer 30 in winter
  • For online help with planning, see Nick Atty's excellent Canal Planner.
The boat
  • When choosing the size of boat, you will probably be more comfortable if you don't fill it to the advertised capacity. You will need 'living' and storage space as well as sleeping space - think how it will be if you have a wet day.
  • If you want a modern boat, or a quiet engine, look for the words in the brochure - if it's there, they won't keep it quiet. Recently built boats will usually give the year they were commisioned. The highest-occupancy boats (above 8) are often the oldest. Water-cooled engines tend to be quieter than air-cooled.
  • The 'Key' system only tells you about the gadgets on a boat - whether there is a toaster or a bread bin or carpets, etc. It won't tell you anything about the quality of the boat itself.
  • Book directly with an operator, rather than through a 3rd party. You can then arrange to look at the boat and get a feel for what they are like as a company.
  • If you think you have found a likely boat, try to see the actual one for yourself. There can be a lot of variation within a fleet or class. Look at the state of the paintwork and the upholstery. Is there enough storage space for your group? Look at the engine area - is it reasonably neat and clean? Ask them to start the engine for you, so you can hear how it sounds.
  • If you can not go to see it, call (or email) the operator and ask some questions. Note their attitude to customers - are they helpful? Proud of their boat? Or are you a nuisance?
  • Slow right down to tickover if you are passing moored boats - the drag from your boat can loosten their mooring pegs.
  • The crew of different boats at a lock often help each other through - it makes things easier for everyone.
  • If the lock is set against you and you see another boat approaching from the other direction, open the gates for them and help them through. Don't 'steal' the lock to go through first.