Canal boating is one of the most famous tourist activities in the UK. However, usually the boat comes with a pilot, and it may be expensive to travel with many people.

Is it as easy to rent a canal boat as it is to rent a car in the UK? Where can I rent a boat and which license will they accept?

  • 3
    Are you asking about the canal boats that navigate, say the canals in Birmingham? Or the sea-worthy boats like those in the Estuary? Or just an hour's rental in the Lake District? The question may be too broad...
    – Gayot Fow
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 18:12
  • Canal boating is a famous tourist attraction? I'm from the UK, and I went canal boating once with 3 friends. Everyone else I know thinks I'm strange to have gone on a canal boating holiday... No pilot required, no license required (though they may want proof of ID, e.g. a passport).
    – AndyT
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 8:45
  • 1
    @AndyT Judging from the traffic jams on the Kennet and Avon Canal it's rather popular.
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 9:56

2 Answers 2


The main agencies are Blakes and Hoseasons, although most of the individual boatyards are now on the internet, and you might get a better deal if you contact them directly. Google 'boatyard' plus the region or the name of the waterway that you're interested in.

You are allowed to drive the boat yourself and you don't need any kind of permit. If you haven't driven one before, the boatyard will give you a quick lesson when you pick up the boat - it's very easy.

Some of the boatyards don't allow all-male or all-female adult groups (i.e. no stag/hen parties).

This answer is for the UK's inland waterways, i.e. canals, lakes and smallish rivers. The boatyards don't allow you to take this kind of boat on large rivers (such as the lower reaches of the Thames) or out to sea.

Insurance is usually included in the price of rental. Fuel is often extra. If you're having the boat for more than about a week then you may need to pay to have the sewage/waste-water tank pumped out (there are lots of boatyards that provide this service). Mooring is sometimes free (e.g. at the side of a field) and sometimes you have to pay (e.g. at the side of a pub).

  • 1
    I once helped somebody sail a narrow boat across the Wash (which is the "10-mile square cutout" at the top of the "bulge" in the east coast of England) Taking account of the tides and the channels through the mud-banks, that's about a 15-mile sea trip from one river mouth to another. That wasn't a trip for beginners. Having a maximum speed of 5mph relative to the current when the current is flowing at 10mph relative to the river banks, and you meet a 3000 ton cargo ship coming the other way, focuses the mind somewhat!
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 3:38
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    Oh yeah, it's totally possible, but most of the hiring boatyards (or more precisely probably, their insurers) won't allow you to do it. If you own the boat it's a different matter. For proper offshore sailing try Sunsail, but there you do have to have some training (or take one of their skippers).
    – A E
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 10:54
  • Waterways.org.uk is for Britain only. Waterways Ireland is a cross-boarder body serving the whole island of Ireland.
    – TRiG
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 17:24

If you specifically mean a holiday on a canal narrow-boat, you need to do some research into your planned route. You can get advice, maps, etc, from the hire company.

Bear in mind that the maximum legal speed is 4 miles per hour, and most hire boats will not exceed that my much even if you disregard the law. Also, you need to allow time for going through locks, which is one of the "most fun" parts of the experience of course. At busy times in summer you might be waiting in a "traffic jam" of boats at a lock for a long time (i.e. an hour or so).

If you are over-ambitious about the distance of your planned trip, you may have real problems. You can't "turn round and head back home" any time you want, because for much of the time your boat will be longer than the width of the canal! In some parts of the canal system, travelling 10 miles in a day would be good progress. There are horror stories of people travelling all night in reverse, to get back to base on time. Don't go there!

Canal boats typically sleep 4, 6, or 8 people depending on the size (length) of the boat. If you have unused berths, obviously the cost per person will be higher. The practical minimum number of experienced people to handle a boat is 2, but that's hard work, and a minimum of 4 "beginners" (not counting children younger than teenagers) is better.

The boats were designed to carry 20 or 30 tons of bulk cargo like coal. The hulls are steel, not fiberglass. Don't be scared of damaging them - they bounce off most things pretty well ;-) If you get into real trouble, somebody from the hiring company will come and sort you out.

Final tip: if you can, take some bikes on board. You can save time if somebody bikes up the tow-path to the next lock, sets it up ready for the boat to go straight into it, and the boat doesn't have to wait while you close the lock gates behind you, etc. Bikes are also useful for short trips away from the canal to shops, pubs, and such like. If your is group big enough, some people can take a day exploring the local countryside on bikes and meet up with the boat again in the evening.

  • 1
    I don't have any experience with AngloWelsh, but given the maximum size of a "standard" narrow boat that can go anywhere on the canal system is 70 feet long by 7 feet wide, there's a practical limit to how many sardines you want to pack in the can at night (and during the day, if the weather turns bad and sitting on the boat roof doesn't have much appeal) The biggest group I've travelled with is 8 in a 70ft boat, and that was big enough for me. (There are also smaller boats, down to about 40 ft length)
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 3:25

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