Many people today own their own canal boat - you can travel through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and be pretty much your own boss, without worrying about a set schedule, route or mealtimes.

© Richard / Adobe Stock

Boating holidays

Using a canal boat for holiday and leisure purposes is the waterways' equivalent of hitting the wide-open road in your camper van. If you don't have your own canal boat, you can hire one for a holiday, as most boats are very easy to handle.

You don't need a special licence to steer a boat for up to 12 people and even if you have little or no previous experience, a quick lesson on how to control and steer is usually enough to take a simple canal trip.

Transporting coal

As well as holidays on the water, canal boats are traditionally used for transporting various commercial goods, such as coal. Domestic coal distribution depends on canal boats, which account for around 20% of solid fuel transportation.

In the UK today, there are around 2,000 miles of canals, most of them situated in England and Wales. They include stretches of water in the narrower canal network, where vessels that can carry up to 25 tons can pass to the nation's major shipping canals. Coal deliveries by boat cover both the retail and wholesale solid fuels' markets.

One of the UK's busiest regions when it comes to commercial canal boats covers the West Midlands. The boats travel to Northwich, Gloucester and Oxford. Other coal barges travel through Cheshire, Northamptonshire, the Thames Valley, London and the South East of England.

Horse-drawn boats

Canal boats today rely heavily on hydraulics to keep them operational. However, in the early years, they required horse-power - literally. In the early era of canal travel, which began in around 1740, the boats were pulled by horses, mules, ponies or donkeys.

From the 18th century until the early to mid-20th century, many companies all over the UK built and operated wooden narrow-boats. Freight had to be transported over long distances and the horses were worked hard. They would walk along the canal towpath, harnessed to the boat.

A member of the crew would lead the horse - in the early years, this was often a child's job. Usually a Shire or another big breed would be fed on-the-move with a nose-bag to keep its strength up for the arduous journey.

Family life

It was a tough life for boatmen and their families. Initially, it was a man's job and the boatman would be away from home for long periods of time, living on the waterways and leaving his wife and children living on the land.

However, this was no longer economically viable when competition from the railroads left barge-operators struggling for business. The boatman could no longer afford to keep a cottage for his family back home, so they would all live on the barge full-time to save money. Only the man received a wage, although his family acted as unpaid crew-members.

Part of the boat, at the rear, became the living quarters, known as the "boatman’s cabin". It was a compact area, featuring sparse furniture, a stove, cooking utensils and a kettle. It was a hard life for a large family, who would be working long days, but they had no choice, other than to make the most of the small amount of living space available.

In the 19th century, it was usual to paint castles and roses on the outside of the narrowboats. This was a design often found on the cabin doors, the water-barrels and the outside of the barge. No-one knows the origins of this practice, which began to decline in the 20th century, when the use of canals for commercial purposes waned.

Steam engines

In the late 19th century, barges powered by steam engines were introduced by some operators. As one of the UK's largest fleets of horse-drawn boats, Fellows, Morton and Clayton Ltd launched a fleet of steam-powered boats in 1886, that were used mainly for long trips between London, Leicester, Birmingham and Nottingham, on some of the most gruelling schedules for the bargemen, who had to work day and night to keep to their strict and exhausting timetable.

As steam and then diesel began to replace the horse-drawn barges in the 20th century, operators realised they could move heavier cargoes using less staff. A new practice emerged of having the main barge pull a second unpowered boat, known as a "butty boat".

Even though the "butty" didn't need power, someone still had to steer it while it was being towed. The driver, or butty boatman, had to lengthen or shorten the towline as required, ensuring his boat didn't run into the main barge, while keeping it steady.

The two boats were roped side-by-side on wide canals, which made them easier to steer, particularly when passing through the locks - known as "breasting up" the barges. This set-up enabled them to carry twice as much cargo and was useful for larger families, who had two cabins to live in.

Despite the advent of steam and diesel-powered boats, some horse-drawn boats were still being used in the 1960s for the commercial transportation of goods. In some regions, they are still used today for passenger pleasure cruises.

Hydraulic applications

On the whole, hydraulics have taken over to power canal boats. There are many different applications for hydraulic systems, including roof-lifting hydraulic systems to help if there's a tight squeeze under a bridge and systems to manoeuvre the vessel to move heavy loads - winches for lifting and towing heavy cargo, etc.

Hydraulic-powered thrusters can greatly improve the handling of the boat, acting as a secondary jet or a propeller on board the vessel. As well as thrusters, joystick controls ensure easier steering - various different types of joystick controls are powered by hydraulics.

Power steering on canal boats is similar to the way in which cars are steered, using a wheel to control the direction. Boats are slower to respond due to moving through water, so power steering quickens the steering wheel's response time.

Phoenix Hydraulics offers various hydraulic solutions for hydraulics, including a complete range of components and services. As one of the UK’s largest independents, we have more than 70,000 products in stock, available for immediate delivery.

Please contact us for further information.