Winter Cruising in the UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Winter Cruising in the UK

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A narrow boat in a canal in winter

Cruising? Yes, cruising. As in 'floating around on a boat'. A narrowboat to be precise, on the inland waterways of England and Wales. If you don't know a great deal about the extensive canals and navigable rivers, this book might be a good place to start.

Contrary to popular myth, the canals do not cease to exist between October and April. If your only experience has been during the summer months, you may be pleasantly surprised by several aspects of winter cruising. Often yours is the only boat moving around, which means no queues for locks!

The scenery is bleakly beautiful and although there aren't many plants around, this is more than compensated for by the fact that birds and animals are much more in evidence; there is less foliage to hide them and fewer boats to scare them away.

The people you meet along the way are invariably friendlier - the 'hardy boater' is a breed apart and the sense of 'us against the elements' makes for a unique kind of Dunkirk spirit (let's not forget the role small boats played in that too: helping to evacuate 300,000 stranded soldiers using all manner of little boats which were not designed to do cross-channel ferry services!)

If you own your own boat it makes sense to get as much use out of it as possible; the licence fees still have to be paid whether you use your boat for two weeks or 22.

If you aren't lucky enough to own a boat, the obvious thing to do is hire one. Not all hire craft are available out of season, but those that do rent out at this time of year will probably be pleased to offer you a boat at short notice and for a flexible period of time. However, a booking may only be made on the basis that if the weather proves unsuitable it may be cancelled - it's not in anybody's interests to have the boat 'iced-up' miles away from its base.

'Unsuitable' means there's thick ice, force nine gales, severe blizzards and the like, but judging from past experience, the really bleak weather is in January and February, rather than around Christmas. So, hopefully, you can experience the joys of a watery winter wonderland followed by a canalside pub with a roaring log fire. The young 'uns can amuse themselves making real Christmas decorations from real holly, ivy and fir cones... maybe you might even be lucky and find mistletoe. Do be aware that holly and mistletoe berries are poisonous though.

So: Christmas afloat is feasible and great fun but there are some practicalities to consider.


These are occasional closures of parts of the canal network for maintenance work. Not surpringly, most of these take place during winter, the theory being that British Waterways Board (BWB) needs half the year to maintain the system for the other half of the year. However, the stoppage programme is publicised well in advance and armed with a detailed waterways map and common sense, the intrepid cruiser will always find a route somehow.

The Route

Bearing in mind the above, don't be too ambitious. Daylight hours are short and it's best to leave plenty of leeway so that if a blizzard descends, you can sit it out without worrying. Working through flights of locks will keep everyone jolly cosy - except the poor steerer! Some canals such as the Ashby, in the Midlands, are lock-free if you prefer a more leisurely time.


It is usually possible to cruise until the ice is about 4cm thick, but even if you own an ice-breaker, be aware of the damage ice can do to other boats - especially small fibreglass cruisers - and slow down even more than usual when passing moored craft.


Beware of the pump-out toilet! If your holding tank has a limited capacity and canalside pubs are few and far between, you may have an unpleasant surprise when you discover boatyards have packed away their pump-out equipment for the winter. The boat may develop a sinister list toward the bathroom side. However, BWB sanitary stations will be accessible, so a 'bucket and chuck it' system is advisable as back-up. Obviously, male crew members should be encouraged to use the equipment available to them, it certainly won't harm the wildlife unless they aim directly onto a passing water vole or heron.


The water fill-up points should be open, but apparently some are locked to prevent burst pipes. So, fill up at every available opportunity. This is an excellent excuse to moor outside a pub and besides, whilst you are drinking beer, you are saving on water consumption.

Keeping Warm

A curse on all ye softies! If you have a choice, go for a traditional style of boat - the steerer stands snugly at the back end with engine and maybe chimney to keep them warm and doors closed behind them. Don't worry about the rest of the crew, they are either working the locks or inside making hot cocoa or standing next to the...

Solid fuel stove

Highly recommended! You are guaranteed never to be cold so long as the little beast is constantly fed, usually on free fuel. You'll find plenty of fallen branches in winter and if they are too large you can get extra free heat by chopping them into chunks of a burnable size. The all-round heating provided by these delightful beasts does much to offset the chilly sides of a steel narrowboat sitting in freezing water!

Gas heating

If you are on a hire boat, you probably don't have the option of the above; most will have either a central heating system or 'catalytic' gas heaters. These are very efficient once you have got them to light in the first place! Make sure ventilators are not covered up, no matter how cold it might be and check with the hire company whether it is safe to leave heaters on low overnight.

If temperatures drop very low, there is a possibility that butane gas bottles (the blue ones) may start to freeze up. Propane (the orange ones) canisters are usually okay. The answer to this is to take a thermos flask with you, filling it the night before with boiling water then pouring it over the sides of the bottle on a cold and frosty morning.

Extra layers

A pair of chickens? No - a set of duvets or blankets to supplement the summer weight bedding provided by the hire company. Obviously, assume arctic conditions when setting off for a winter cruise and remember.... thermal underwear can't be detected from the outside! Try to avoid wearing wellies; if you do fall in, they will fill with water alarmingly quickly and drag you down. While we're on this subject...

Slippery surfaces

Be extra-careful when moving about outside the boat; icy gunwhales can be treacherous and falling in is both unpleasant and possibly dangerous in winter. Sprained ankles are no fun either, so keep a large container of salt for sprinkling on the gangplank. Be extra careful when operating locks, which even under normal circumstances are potentially very dangerous places. When working a narrow lock single-handed, it's tempting to jump across the gate to the other side; this is usually fine in summer (assuming you are sure of your jumping abilities!) but in winter is not advised. Even if it takes longer, walk around rather than skidding into a lock full of icy water.

Kids, obviously, are a different matter. They should wear lifejackets and be watched like hawks, and be told 'if you fall in, make your way to the front of the boat, NOT the back - we don't need minced child thank you!'

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