Which Are The Best Narrowboat Stern Types For Living Afloat?
Life on a narrowboat is all about compromise. Different narrowboat stern types offer pros and cons depending on your preferred cruising and living style, so here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision.
Your floating home’s stern design, its back end, can have a considerable impact on your day to day life. One design offers you more secure living and storage space, another gives you plenty of space for cruising companions and the third is a hybrid of both. Here’s what you need to know about narrowboat sterns.
Traditional “Trad” Narrowboat Stern Types
That’s what I have on Orient. The cabin sides and roof extend almost to the back of the hull, leaving a small platform for the helmsman to stand with one or two close friends. Without risking life and limb by standing on narrow and often slippery gunnels, there isn’t much room to stand without each other’s way.
Cruiser Narrowboat Stern Types
You see these sterns on most hire boats. The boat’s cabin sides and roof are six to ten feet shorter than the hull, leaving an open deck for groups to stand and obscure the steerer’s view. Sorry, for groups to gather and socialise.
Semi-Trad Narrowboat Stern Types
This is a cross between cruiser and traditional stern boats. The boat’s cabin sides extend as far back as a traditional stern, but the cabin roof ends in the same place as a cruiser stern craft.
So what’s the big deal? Does the rear deck design make much of a difference if you’re living afloat?
Yes, it can. An enormous difference, pleasure or pain, secure or not, hot or cold, convenient or pain in the arse. I think that a traditional stern narrowboat offers you far more liveaboard practicality than either a cruiser or semi-traditional design.
Practical Living Space
Stem to stern, Orient is 61’6”. Only 47’ 2” is enclosed cabin space. The rest of the boat length is taken up by the bow locker and the front and rear deck. Given that my interior cabin width is 5’10” and that a cruiser stern rear deck can be 8’ longer than those on a trad stern boat, I would lose up to forty square feet of living space. This wouldn’t be a large enough area to worry about in a house. Still, on a narrowboat, you’re looking at an extra bedroom, office, hobby room or living area. It’s a big deal if you live afloat.
Note: Narrowboats, like Orient, with midships rooms housing vintage engines cost you more living space. My boatman’s cabin and engine room use fifteen feet of cabin space. My effective living space is therefore reduced to thirty-two feet.
Secure Storage Space
A traditional stern narrowboat usually has an engine room with the engine hidden behind soundproofed boards, which gives you plenty of secure storage space. I don’t have as much room for storing tools on Orient. My boat has a vintage engine displayed for all to see in its own midships room. There are double doors on both the port and the starboard side which are usually open during the summer months. The boat’s two-cylinder Lister JP2 is so slow running that it doesn’t produce much heat. The only reason for these doors is so that a proud boat owner can show off his pride and joy, buffed to gleaming perfection.
I am one such owner, ridiculously proud and emotionally attached to an inanimate object. I think I need to get out more.
I had the more popular traditional stern engine room on my first narrowboat, James No 194. With the boat’s Mercedes engine boxed in, I had ample storage space for a large amount of gear. You can see it all in this post’s photograph.
You lose all of that safe storage space with a cruiser stern and, to a slightly lesser degree, with a semi-traditional stern.
The engine is in a bay beneath your feet, protected by deck boards constructed from marine ply. The engine bay is rarely secured. Some cruiser stern owners use the engine bay space for storage. It’s a decision born of necessity, but stacking things around the engine is asking for trouble. I know from personal experience.
I accompanied one of our engineers on a call out a few years ago on a call out for a Hurricane heating system. We had a phone call from the owners of a boat with one installed. They weren’t at all happy. A month after having the heater fitted, it stopped working.
Given that you usually turn your heater on when you’re cold, the caller suggested that he and his wife were close to death’s door. The heating system was rubbish, he said. Not fit for purpose, he claimed. He threatened legal action, jumped up and down a bit and demanded an immediate visit to get this rubbish bit of kit working.
Calcutt’s fitter took longer introducing himself than he did “fixing” the problem. Here’s a tip for you if you buy a cruiser stern boat. Don’t store your deck mop in the engine bay with the wooden handle resting on your heater’s on/off switch. The decision can have embarrassing repercussions, especially if you’ve done a bit of macho chest-beating before the cause of your unhappiness is discovered.
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Dry Engine Bay
Another benefit of having an enclosed engine bay in a traditional stern boat is being able to keep the weather out.
Cruiser and semi-traditional stern engine bays are covered by marine ply deck boards. These wooden sheets are supported by C shaped steel channel. The channel usually has several drain holes to collect any rainwater which finds its way through the boards. During a typical English season, any season, there’s enough rain to keep the drain holes fully employed.
The problem with these narrow diameter drainage holes is that they block easily. Falling leaves and mud carried on board by boater boots slips between the board joins into the channel. Once the drains are blocked or restricted, rainwater cascades over the channel sides into the engine bay.
Time passes, the wooden deck boards decay, the gap between them widens, allowing more debris into the channel and more water into the engine bay. There are several cruiser stern narrowboat owners here at the marina who phone our office regularly during the winter months to ask staff to check for water ingress.
Engine bay water ingress isn’t a problem if your bilge pump is working. If your battery bank dies, your shore supply trips or fails, or your bilge pump gives up the ghost, you have a potential problem if you don’t check your engine bay regularly.
We rescued an almost sunken cruiser stern narrowboat a few years back. One of our fitters noticed that the stern was low in the water. We discovered an engine bay half-filled with rainwater and a craft just a day or two from taking a shallow dive four feet to the marina bottom.
The brave fitter started the engine, sidestepped the water plume from an underwater spinning flywheel and aimed for our slipway. Despite rocking alarmingly, the water-logged boat made our slipway narrowboat trolley without sinking. The owner received a bill for our rescue work and a recommendation to replace his badly worn deck boards.
You can reduce or eliminate engine bay water ingress by regularly checking and clearing drain hoes and replacing boards. But that won’t help if you need to work on your engine. And it certainly won’t help you if you’re paying someone else to do the work for you.
There’s much gnashing of teeth and toys thrown out of prams here at Calcutt if the engineers are forced to service the engine of a cruiser stern boat on a wet day. I spoke to one self-employed vintage engine expert recently who point blank refuses to work on engines open to the elements. Crouching in a cold engine bay on a wet day trying to grip the tools with numb fingers is no fun at all.
Cold weather boating on a cruiser stern narrowboat is an unpleasant experience. I’ve been closer to hyperthermia on summer trips aboard cruiser stern narrowboats than I have on nine-hour winter cruises on my traditional stern narrowboat.
Nine years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a Calcutt Boats built Clipper south on the Oxford canal to a trade show on the mighty Thames. Clippers are fifty-foot cruiser stern boats and, like all other cruiser stern narrowboats, standing motionless at the helm for hours on end can be a painful experience, even during summer months.
On one bitterly cold summer’s day, the second of four long cruising days, I suffered mild hyperthermia. I didn’t own a decent set of waterproofs at the time. Soaked by half an hour’s heavy rain, chilled to the bone and shivering violently, I had to stop for a while to recover. I lit the stove, filled it with coal briquettes and sat as close as I could until my wet jacket steamed. Early afternoon in mid-July and I was forced to sit in front of a blazing fire until I regained feeling in my hands.
That was not a fun boating experience.
A cruiser stern offers zero weather protection. You stand in an open space far removed from your heated cabin. The wind swirls around your legs and slowly freezes you from the feet up. I have passed hundreds of cruiser stern narrowboats moving during the winter months. The poor souls at the helm look like modern-day mummies, wrapped from head to foot in all that they own. With faces covered in scarves, hoods and hats, they twitch a frigid head in icy greeting as they pass. Winter cruising doesn’t have to be that unpleasant.
It doesn’t have to be unpleasant at all.
A traditional stern narrowboat protects you from the elements. You can stand inside your cabin with your upper body in your open hatch space like a tank commander (but with much less chance of being blown to bits). Your cabin will shield your lower body from icy winds and heat from your running engine will warm your feet and legs.
Orient’s engine sits in its own room, too far away and too slow running to offer me any heat. Other than the warm and fluffy feeling I get inside when I listen to its mesmerising beat. But I don’t mind, I have something much better to keep me warm.
Boats like mine don’t suit everyone. Having an engine in its own room mean that you have lest usable living space. But you also get a boatman’s cabin, usually with a second solid fuel stove, a range, to heat your boat’s stern.
I cruised south from Tattenhall marina to Calcutt Boats in February last year. The journey took eleven days, three of them through increasingly thick ice. My 21hp Lister struggled to push me along the frozen canals. I encountered the thickest ice as I forged my way towards Birmingham from Wolverhampton. I ground to a halt beneath the Factory flight in Tipton.
Even with my trusty two-cylinder engine using most of its horses, I failed to break through. Stuck in a glistening white field and with heat rising from the range beneath me, I stopped for lunch. Cynthia handed me an insulated mug of stew. I enjoyed an alfresco meal in a frozen landscape, warm as toast and very, very happy.
There’s more to pleasant cruising than keeping warm. Once you become proficient at the helm, a narrowboat journey is all about watching the world slip ever so slowly by. Canal guides help you pinpoint your location and provide you with information about the landmarks around you. Binoculars give you a better view of passing wildlife, a camera helps capture enduring memories and food and drink sustain you as you cruise. Having somewhere convenient to put your cruising accessories adds to your cruising pleasure.
With a traditional stern narrowboat, your cabin roof and hatch provide you with an accessible table for your gear. You can reach it all without fuss and without taking your eye off the watery road. Narrowboat tillers don’t like to be left on their own, much like your car’s steering wheel. The few seconds to reach a cruiser stern’s distant roof is all that’s needed for your wilful boat to abandon its route and head for bramble banks and low hanging willows.
Narrowboat Stern Types Summary
Horses for courses, each to their own. Plenty of liveaboard narrowboat owners live full and happy lives on cruiser stern craft. They enjoy the additional back of boat space, and they can accommodate half a dozen of their best friends on summer season adventures. And welcome the challenge of trying to see over their bobbing heads as guests obstruct the helmsman’s view.
My point of view is subjective. I like what I’ve got and consider trad stern narrowboats the most practical for life on the cut. You may decide otherwise, but now at least you fully understand the pros and cons of different sterns.