Buying A Narrowboat: Tools, Equipment and Security

Following the fun you had buying a narrowboat, you now need the right tools and equipment and learn how to stay safe on your maiden voyage

This post continues from last week’s Buying a Narrowboat: Pre Purchase Tips and Recommendations. The post covered pre-purchase considerations and the importance of discovering all you can about your boat before you move on board.

With the purchase stress behind you, consider the practicality of life afloat and the tools and equipment you’ll need to maintain your new home and help you with your cruising. 

Here’s a post I wrote a few years ago about tools…

Buying A Narrowboat – Equipment

In addition to these tools, you want to ensure that you have the right boating equipment. Here are the essential items I have with me when I cruise and the reasons why…

Hose and hose reel – I tried several different hose types before settling on my current hose. I owned two of the flat blue versions on white reels you often see in chandlers. They were rubbish. The reels fell apart within days, and after a couple of month of dragging the hose through water point gravel, they swelled until they would no longer fit on the broken reel. I moved on to the standard Hozelock hoses and reels after that, and they didn’t fare much better. The entry-level hose kinks so quickly that unfortunate boaters spend more time straightening weak plastic than pushing water through them.

I now have a Hozelock maxi plus anti-kink hose. It’s marvellous. The hose and reel have served me faultlessly since October 2013. That’s three years service on James No 194, two years alternating between motorhome and boat on our European tour, and a year on Orient. At £20.49 for the hose, it’s fair to say that I’ve had value for money.

A dog poo spade You might think that it’s not much use to you if you don’t have a dog, but bear with me. In my dog-owning days, We didn’t collect our dogs’ mess in plastic bags because we then had to carry the waste around with us. And when we did finally find a bin for it, it ended up as landfill forever preserved in plastic. Instead, we used a spade, a small coal shovel, to flick the poo out of the way where it couldn’t be stood on, usually in a hedge, where it decomposed within days.

Even though I’m now dogless, I have kept my spade. Landing on an idyllic mooring in the middle of nowhere and stepping on a pile of fetid faeces is a frustrating affair. 

Garden shears – Otherwise perfect moorings are often quite frustrating to use when the bankside grass is too long. Five minutes with the shears soon sorts the grass out.

Folding chairs and table – Mine are from Midland Chandlers. I can sit and enjoy my evening meal on the towpath or just watch the world go by at a snail’s pace.

Windlasses (two on a rack in the boatman’s cabin and two more in a bow locker) – I used to have two on board and a partner who didn’t know how to tie knots. She dropped a windless into the canal. “No problem,” I told her, “Tie a length of paracord to the recovery magnet and fish it out.” She returned a few minutes later with a wet length of cord and no magnet.

I fished out my spare windlass as we approached a flight of ten locks. I stopped to make a coffee halfway up the flight and, cup and windlass in hand tried to negotiate a narrow lock walkway. My second windlass joined the fishes, so I had the dubious pleasure of negotiating five locks with a pair of mole grips. There are far easier exercises for strengthening my wrists, so I carry enough windlasses with me these days to stock a small chandlery. 

Mooring Chains – If you can find a canal bank strengthened using Armco style rails, mooring chains are the most straightforward and secure tools for keeping your boat in one place. Some boaters prefer piling hooks, but I don’t think that they are as safe as chains.

Tip: If you are a solo boater, carry at least three chains with you. You’ll want a spare, and to use as an extra hand on windy days. If your boat is being pushed away from the bank, you can use a chain to secure your centre line while you anchor your bow and stern mooring lines.

Mooring Stakes – A metal pin driven three feet into the ground might sound like a secure anchor point, but it isn’t. Especially during periods of constant rain. That’s pretty much all of the time in England. Still, if there are no convenient rails, it’s the only game in town. Like your mooring chains, carry a spare.

Lump hammer – To give you a little exercise at the end of the day, knocking pins into rock hard ground. Carry a spare.

A recovery magnet – It’s worth its weight in gold. My Maxi-grab magnet has roughly the same diameter as a two pence piece. It’s about the length of a box of matches and can lift an impressive fifty pounds. I have used it to retrieve several windlasses, mooring hooks, shackles and, on two occasions, my main bunch of keys.

A reel of paracord – It’s great for securing my recovery magnet when I go fishing. And it’s useful for temporary washing lines, shoelaces, belts and dog leads.

British Waterways Key – for the locking plates on the water points, the waterways owned Elsan points, showers and toilets and for some lift and swing bridges.

Water Conservation (Handcuff) Key – Interfering with the canal network’s water levels is a fulfilling pastime for society’s maladjusted youth. CRT secure many urban locks to spoil their fun. You may trap yourself for the night on a less than pleasant mooring if you don’t have a key with you.

Anchor, Chain & Rope – I don’t need an anchor for most of my cruises, but when I’m cruising the network full time, an anchor will be essential. 

Life Jackets – I have two similar to the ones worn by CART employees.

Weed Hatch Tools – A sharp knife with a serrated blade, bolt croppers and mole grips for removing obstacles from the propeller. Items of clothing, plastic bags, fishing line and rope are the usual offenders. Still, you would be amazed at what you can jam around your propeller with a little effort. I’ve listened to war stories about battles with sofas, bed frames, bicycles and car tyres. My most unpleasant experience was half an hour down the weed hatch getting far too close to the rotting carcass of a fragrant badger.

Tools – More often than not, my tools are still wrapped in their original packaging. I’m not the network’s most practical boater. They include screwdrivers, spanners, a socket set, Stanley knife, pliers, electric drill and bits, Allen keys, hacksaw, wood saw and my favourite and most often used tool, a hammer.

Torches – We have two of them, one kept in the engine room and another in a cupboard near the front doors

A military-grade green laser pen – What’s to like about Canada geese or the noise they make? By all accounts, they don’t taste pleasant either. A quick flash over the water is enough to scare them off. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys peace and quiet.

Roof furniture – Pole, plank and boat hook, and also a children’s fishing net for those little things which frequently blow into the water.

Incidentally, you have Hobson’s choice with your plank. You can grit the painted wood to give it a non-slip surface and spend most of your time trying to get it clean, or you can keep it grit-free and risk life and limb each time you use it.

Coal or logs, kindling and firelighters – Some boaters carry ten or more bags of coal on their cabin roof during the winter months. Each to their own but I would rather reduce the chance of rust forming under wet coal bags and store my coal on my front deck. At a push, there’s enough room for a three week supply.

Narrowboat Experience Days

Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discovery all you need to know about living afloat

Carbon monoxide and smoke alarms – Carbon monoxide and smoke can kill. Fit one of each close to every heat source and in bedroom areas too. 

Stovetop Fan – The original, and probably most popular, is the Ecofan. They use the heat from the stove to power a fan to push heat further into the cabin. There are many brands available now for a fraction of the Ecofan price. They’re cheaper, but are they as durable? I don’t know.

A spare 13kg gas cylinder – Most narrowboats use propane gas for cooking. Living on board full time, cooking daily and using gas for water heating too, a bottle costing £35 will last me for two months. 

Oil and grease – Spare engine and gearbox oil 

Extra waterproof grease for the stern gland greaser – Turning down your greaser at the end of each cruising session is essential. The greaser is a brass syringe which forces grease between the stern gland packing and the propeller shaft. This helps prevent canal water from entering the engine bay along the prop shaft. 

A fuel tank dipstick – On my first narrowboat, I used a four feet length of dowel which I marked at the full, half and quarter levels. I don’t have a straight drop into Orient’s tank. I use a spreadsheet instead of a piece of wood. By recording my engine hours and the number of litres I add to my tank, I can calculate my fuel consumption and my remaining fuel.

Rope – A bow line, stern line and two centre ropes, plus a spare stored in the engine room. All present and in good condition.

Maps – The two most popular guides are Nicholson’s and Pearsons’s. I favour Pearson’s simply because they are the ones I’ve always used. Nicholson guides are equally comprehensive. They are essential for finding water points, turning areas, estimated journey times and quiet mooring spots away from housing, roads and railways.

A Compass – I don’t need one to find out where I’m going, but it’s useful to know where the sun is going to end up in the evening. I try to find a mooring which is open to the west so I know I can bask in the evening sun.

A pair of binoculars – There’s plenty to see when cruising, but it’s often not close enough to examine in detail. Binoculars allow us to get much more intimate. However, that can be a double-edged sword. I know of a middle-aged guy with a fondness for lady’s underwear and open curtains. You have been warned.

Waterproofs – I have a totally bombproof jacket and trousers from Guy Cotten. They are designed for use by deep-sea fishermen and are 100% waterproof but not breathable. They’re perfect for standing immobile in the pouring rain. However, they’re not very good if you’re generating heat negotiating locks. You very quickly get as wet through sweat building up inside the waterproofs as you would from the rain.

Rubber boots – The towpath can get very muddy. Wellies are both comfortable and easy to clean. I prefer Muck Boots for their comfort and heat retention.

Sun hats and sunglasses – I send a list of things to bring to my Discovery Day guests. Sunglasses are on the list. It’s an item often ignored by people who join me in the winter. They realise their folly if we cruise west into a low sun on our return journey from Braunston. 

Gloves – You’ll need them if you do any cold-weather cruising on a cruiser stern boat. Regular trad stern boats are a little better. I don’t bother now I have Orient’s boatman’s cabin range to keep me warm,

Fleece hats and tops. Mine are made by Swazi. They’re warm, durable and have a cute little logo. 

Reference books – Being able to identify flora and fauna will enhance your experience. Collins pocket guides are useful.

Emergency food – Fresh food availability can be limited in many rural areas, so I carry tinned and dried food as a backup. A tin of pilchards, a couple of dried chillies and some rice make a tasty and straightforward meal. I carry enough tinned and dried food to last me a week.

A sense of adventure and a degree of anticipation and flexibility – You never know what’s around the corner. You may want or need to stop for a while. Plans are good, but they need to be flexible. Rigid schedules can be a disaster on the waterways.

Buying A Narrowboat – Security

You’re now ready for your new adventure. There’s one last area I haven’t addressed. Security. I’ve lived afloat now for ten years. I’ve cruised thousands of miles and enjoyed hundreds of night on a wide variety of canal-side moorings. I haven’t experienced a single problem, so you don’t have to worry too much about anti-social behaviour on your travels. But it does happen, and you need to know how to reduce the risk to you or your boat. Here’s a forum thread with lots of useful advice…

Here’s a quick list of my most useful tips

  • Prevention is better than cure. Moor away from potential trouble spots. If you have to cruise through problem areas, do so at times when people aren’t likely to be about. Avoid them at weekends, during school holidays or the middle of the day, especially if the weather is good.
  • Don’t fight fire with fire. Avoid confrontation with aggressive people. Always remember that if you want to make a hasty exit, you’re going to escape at two miles an hour. Unless your assailant is using a Zimmer frame, you’re not going to outrun them. Don’t carry weapons. A camera is far more effective.

I met a pair of unsavoury characters at a lock in Birmingham. I had read reports about boaters experiencing problems with thieves at locks in the north. With the boat owner sixty feet away at the helm, they would jump onto the bow and run into the cabin through the open front doors. They would grab whatever they could and sprint away before anyone could respond.

With that in mind, I locked my front doors and closed my cratch cover as I approached the flight. Still, I didn’t like the way these two were acting. I left the helm and walked towards them at the bow. Both were big lads. One walked towards me with his fists clenched. I didn’t need the sixth sense I developed during my pub management days to spot a potential problem. The feeling of menace was tangible.

With both men facing me, I pulled out my iPhone, opened the camera app and took a photo. I told them I was creating a photo album of all the canal-side people I met on my cruise. I asked if they could stand together so I could take a better snap. The leader glanced at his mate, and the pair walked away from the canal without a word. A confrontational approach could have ended badly.

  • Moor far away from bridges and public places. The further you moor away from people, the safer you are.
  • If a spot doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts. Move on. Early morning starts work for me. I often finish eight hour cruising days by mid-afternoon. I have plenty of time to choose a 
  • If you leave your boat at night, close the curtains on the towpath side, leave a light on and maybe some music. I have an old iPod with a hundred song playlist. I connect it to a Bose speaker and set it to a volume which can be heard outside.
  • Don’t advertise your absence with padlocks on your doors. Use door locks which aren’t obvious. If you have a cratch cover, don’t have one with windows which allow would-be thieves to see what you have on your front deck, a padlock on the front door or give them a view of the boat’s interior through your front door glass.

I hope that the information I’ve provided in the last two posts eases your transition to a water based lifestyle. Despite the occasional challenges boaters face, like today’s storm Ciara, life on England’s inland waterways can be a tranquil and peaceful affair if you get it right.

I hope that all of your boating dreams come true. Maybe we’ll meet on an idyllic towpath mooring one day to share tales from the cut and a drink or two. I hope so.

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Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.