It will not have escaped your notice that there are four seasons in the year. Each can be utterly delightful on a canal boat – or can be misery, if you’re not prepared. Let’s start with the obvious one:
Winter brings many obvious things: cold, rain, maybe snow, wind, drizzle, dampness, mud and a general feeling of impending doom. It may be tempting therefore to assume that winter on a boat is a perishingly awful three-month zone of shivering and hoping for everything to be over.
As long as your boat is suitably equipped with insulation and heating (and most steel canal boats are – but fibreglass cruisers tend not to be) then winter can be magical aboard. By and large most narrowboaters claim to be too hot once their wood-burning stoves are roaring away, and end up throwing open the doors and windows.
It doesn’t have to be a wood-burner of course, there are diesel stoves as an alternative which have the brilliant advantage of producing no dust but they don’t quite have that same glowing look as a traditional cast-iron stove with coals in it.
There are also house-style water-filled central heating systems where a diesel burner somewhere in the engine room pushes hot water around pipes to radiators throughout the boat. Again, not as pretty and comforting as a log burner (and they can be noisy as the combustion process is oddly loud) but they work well and it feels like you’re in a house.
As regards insulation, modern narrowboats and widebeams almost always use sprayed foam which is the most efficient type, though the amount is tiny compared to what you’d get in a house – but there really isn’t the space in a boat to take up loads with thick insulation.
Older boats may have polystyrene sheets which can come loose and end up with condensation being trapped behind them, gently rusting the boat from the inside out. You’ll find potentially similar issues on boats which people have restored as a project using sheets of polyisocyanurate (Celotex and Kingspan, found in most DIY stores) though the condensation can be mitigated if whoever does the work ensures a waterproof ‘skin’ is attached over the top of the insulation so that no moist air from inside the boat can get through to the metalwork.
With the boat warm and cosy, it can be cold outside but you’ll be snug and even enjoying the sound of the rain hammering down on the roof.
The downsides of winter are more to do with logistics than the weather. A lot of maintenance work is undertaken by the Canal & River Trust during winter so there are often closures on stretches of the network, sometimes for weeks or even months. These are listed on the CRT’s website though sometimes the notices can be inaccurate.
The towpaths can get horrendously muddy which can make for a filthy boat as well as somewhat dangerous conditions as you struggle back to the boat with bags of shopping.
Bad weather can make moving on every few days a far less attractive prospect although the upside is that most short-term mooring spaces are temporarily converted to 14 days during winter. If the weather gets really bad, for example if the canal freezes over, you will probably get dispensation from the CRT not to move on. They do understand that if it’s not possible or would be unreasonable to move then you don’t have to.
The bigger issue with the canal frozen is that you won’t be able to take the boat to a water point to refill your tank, or to a toilet disposal point. Even if you did get there, you’d likely find the facilities frozen up. Weather forecasting and a bit of forward planning is critical in the colder days.
For many boaters, stopping entirely over winter is a preferred option. Since general towpath mooring remains limited to 14 days, the options are either to pay for space in a marina for a few months (the benefits being full facilities as well as shore power to connect to when there’s little sunshine to use with solar panels); to buy temporary mooring space from a landowner along the canal – and such moorings may or may not come with any facilities; or to pay for an official winter towpath mooring from the CRT, which are charged according to their location and what facilities are on offer.
Not everyone with a canal boat lives aboard of course and in that case there is a degree of ‘winterisation’ that is prudent to perform on your boat, mostly in case of cold weather. It is advisable to drain down the water system for example so that nothing can freeze in the pipes leading to bursts when it thaws.
Engines and heating radiators should be checked to ensure they have a suitable quantity of antifreeze mixture for any anticipated low temperatures.
If the boat will be left unattended then items on the roof are best secured or stored in case they blow off in storm conditions; likewise the fastenings for canopies and covers should be checked.
Fibreglass boats may not fare well in winter if the canal freezes, doubly so if a confident narrowboater decides to cruise past, smashing the ice as they go; this can push the ice sheet into moored boats which potentially scores the blacking from steel boats and (worst case) could crack the hull of a GRP cruiser. A lot of fibreglass craft get winched out of the water and stored ashore over winter for that reason.
Spring and autumn
Without a doubt these are the best seasons for cruising in my not so humble opinion. The weather’s mostly fine and the canals look stunning either with new life forming in Spring or the leaves turning golden brown in autumn. There are fewer boats around than in the peak summer holiday season as well, provided you avoid the school breaks. It won’t usually be too cold or wet; this is peak canal enjoyment.
The only trouble with autumn is that leaves will get wrapped around your propeller with frustrating regularity and you’ll feel the boat becoming more sluggish. It’s quite bizarre how well jammed up your prop can become from something as trivial as a leaf. Generally, if you give the engine a brief but vigorous burst of reverse thrust, this will clear the leaves and you can continue until more leaves block it again 100 yards further along.
Both a blessing and a curse, summertime should bring the best weather and long glorious days either cruising along or sitting on the back deck sipping a nice gin and tonic or whatever your favourite tipple is.
The downside is that more boats are generally about which can lead to long waits at locks, especially on busy flights. Occasionally you might even see tempers flaring though this is thankfully rare.
You will find many more novice boaters around which is great inasmuch as it increases interest in the canals but can be less great if they can’t get the hang of steering; crashes into moored boats are not unknown and thanks to too many idiotic programmes on television labelling canal boating as “a contact sport”, such crashes are often laughed off by the instigator much to the annoyance of those on the receiving end.
Truly sweltering summer days are rare in the UK but when they happen, your steel canal boat is going to turn into an oven. Beware if you have pets aboard – they can bake and suffer just as they would in a car. With air conditioning an expensive luxury that’s really not needed year-round, boats tend only to offer the option of opening all the doors and windows, and mooring in the shade.
 They need to have dispensation from the CRT to do this and will have to pay the CRT a fee
 The CRT claim these are priced in line with the market but in reality they tend to have worse facilities than a berth of the same price in a marina. The upside is they will be on the canal rather than jammed in side by side which is typical of marina berths.