For a type of boat that’s really quite limited in what you can do, and which has the same basic elements such as bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and so on, there are a truly remarkable number of variations on the theme of narrowboat. Wide narrowboats tend to have less variation, oddly, but I’ll describe those shortly. Fibreglass cruisers seem all to follow much the same pattern as well.
Focusing purely on narrowboats for a moment, let’s start with the exterior. You can have various types of stern (the back end); different bow designs (the front); different deck areas, and all manner of aesthetic considerations.
The most obvious differentiator between narrowboats is at the back. You will find there are traditional (“trad”) sterns, semi-trad, cruiser or even nowadays semi-cruisers.
A trad is where the cabin metalwork extends almost all the way to the back, leaving just a small semi-circular area underneath the tiller open to the elements. Two steel doors in the rear panel open into the back cabin. There’ll be a hatch which slides open in the roof as well, to give easier access to the cabin as well as somewhere to stand when steering.
A semi-trad looks like a trad when viewed from the side but peer over the edge and you’ll see the cabin roof has vanished, leaving an open cockpit area usually with seating so you can have guests with you as you chug along. There will usually be lockers under the seats which often contain boat paraphernalia or sometimes the gas cylinders.
Cruiser sterns are entirely open at the back with no cabin side, leaving a wide flat area on which to stand or put chairs out when moored. Sometimes there are lockers built on to the floor and often there are railings either half way round or even fully round the area so as to stop people falling off the boat.
Semi-cruiser is the newest adaptation to hit the market. As its name implies, it takes the open-plan style of a cruiser stern but adds the sit-on side lockers from the semi-trad so you get an open-feeling back end but with lots of seating and storage.
Which of these suits your needs depends on what you’re looking for. A couple who rarely have guests might find a trad stern is fine. Equally some people want trads precisely because it looks more traditional than the more modern leisure layouts.
The downside is the distinct lack of deck space for guests when cruising, or for sitting out of an evening, though there’s always the towpath and you may have a front well deck instead.
My boat had a trad stern and although I rarely had other people aboard, I wish I’d bought a small cruiser stern now. You’re supposed to steer standing in front of the tiller rather than to the side for safety reasons and on a trad that means you’re standing in the hatchway. With even one other guest joining you, it’s an intimate affair to say the least, squished up against each other. Anyone else who’s aboard will need to be inside, up front or on the roof which carries its own problems.
Switching to the front of the boat, the pointy end can come in various styles too, from shapely “Josher” styles which have an upward-pointing swoop to the bow as well as an elongated s-shaped curve in the metalwork, to more basic but functional bows which sweep straight out from the front stem before curving back as they reach the width of the hull.
Bows are generally a matter of aesthetics and personal preference rather than any functional difference although any locker in the bow may be constricted by a more sophisticated shape so perhaps that’s something to bear in mind.
Also on the aesthetic line are details such as rivets (sometimes real on an old boat, sometimes fake on a modern copy, to give it that traditional look)
I have a bee in my bonnet about the bow locker being used for gas bottle storage, which is quite common. It is a regulation of the safety certification that gas lockers have openings to the outside at the base of the locker, so that any escaped propane – which is heavier than air and will therefore sink to the bottom of the locker – can escape safely to the outside rather than build up and present an explosion risk.
On my own boat however, the bow was not very tall which meant the bottom of the gas locker was only just above the waterline, so those escape holes were likewise pretty much level with the water. Inevitably, this meant lots of water splashing into the locker which, over several years, rusted the bottom of the locker.
I spent a lot of time scraping out rust, treating the metal and repainting it but even so the rust started to emerge again. This is obviously a safety issue because if the locker bottom gets any holes, any escaped propane would sink into the bilge of the boat and accumulate whilst I would be entirely unaware (except that I’m paranoid about this so did check it occasionally with a portable gas sniffer)
Plus any water splashing in would also disappear down those holes and into the bilges, rusting the metalwork from the inside out, potentially rising up enough to soak the floor and, in extremis, fill the boat such that it sinks.
My point is that I have vowed never again to have a boat which puts the gas locker in the bow unless it’s constructed such that the gas vent holes are well above the waterline.
Most boats with semi-trad sterns, along with some cruiser types, have the gas locker on the back deck, often doing double-duty as a seat for passengers, and this seems always to be much higher up that the bow locker, so the threat of water ingress is much lower.
I’m probably over-cautious as there are many boats with gas lockers in the bow that don’t get water in them, it just requires the locker to have been built with this consideration in mind which on mine it apparently wasn’t.
The final exterior type to note is the “tug” deck, where a boat has a long flat open deck at the bow at gunwale height, instead of an enclosed well deck. Often such decks have massive water tanks beneath them, or are used as vast storage lockers, or in some cases actually have a double bed underneath them, accessed from the front cabin. This provides a vast bed area at the expense of head height. Not for claustrophobes!
Tugs often look nice and traditional and have a visual appeal but you need to weigh up if the loss of enclosed cabin space is worth the look for your particular needs.
For some reason (probably because they’re mostly used as floating apartments), widebeam ‘narrowboats’ don’t tend to have much variation; they’ll usually have a large open cruiser stern, usually with seats across the back. The stern is the main social area of the boat.
At the bow there’ll be a well deck area, accessed from the master bedroom which is almost universally at the front of the boat, so the well deck becomes more a private balcony to the bedroom rather than a gathering space for guests.
Between bow and stern will be a fairly slab-sided cabin area, divided internally into the usual eating / sleeping spaces.
I’ve never seen a tug deck widebeam and don’t ever expect to; wide narrowboats are usually bought and fitted out as floating homes rather than for their heritage appeal.
On the other hand, boats of wide beam that are not “wide narrowboats” can have all kinds of variation that it would be impossible to generalise here, since the layout would depend on the original craft that was converted.
Finally fibreglass cabin cruisers almost universally look like you’d expect a boat to look if you asked a 5-year-old child to draw one: a pointy front end, a cabin, a cockpit and then the back with an outboard motor (usually) on it. Inboard engines seem to be rare on cruisers.