Do not be fooled into thinking that once you’ve bought your boat, you can just launch it and sail merrily off into the sunset without further compulsory costs. Regardless of which waterway you’re on, there will be some type of annual licence fee payable.
A boat on most canals will be paying that fee to the Canal & River Trust. Elsewhere the authority may be the Environment Agency or even another body entirely. Check who operates the water course on which you wish to place your boat before you buy and, especially if you want to live aboard, check that this is even permitted.
CRT licences have a multitude of cost options and change every year so it would be foolhardy to try to list them here but as a guide, my 56-foot boat cost me around £990 a year in 2021.
The CRT and EA do jointly offer a “Gold Licence” which covers you for all their combined waterways but it only runs January to December with no provision for pro-rata charging if you want to start later in the year.
In return for your fiscal offering, you are granted the right to place your boat on the waterways on condition of using it responsibly and complying with certain conditions. You also gain the benefit of the many waste dump facilities dotted around the network as well as the use of water supply taps and Elsan points for dumping cassette toilet waste. A handful of CRT pump-out stations for toilet waste are also provided though many boaters will pop into a marina for this as the CRT ones seem to be somewhat temperamental from the reports I’ve seen.
There used to be some showering facilities around the network too and whilst they may still exist, the CRT seems now to regard them as an unnecessary expense to maintain, which is unfortunate.
CRT rules state you must display your boat name, index number and licence on both sides of the craft so that their towpath rangers (yes, they really do exist! Hi Ho Silver!) can easily note them down and check against the database of registered boats.
Cynics would suggest they don’t do much about many boats that fail to licence or display but that’s an argument to have down the pub some time.
In attempting to evade the licence fee, people have come up with various suggestions over time such as “I will never move from the marina so I shouldn’t have to pay” to “nobody can own the water so I shouldn’t have to pay” and so on.
For the first of those, it doesn’t matter whether you use the boat or not; apart from a tiny number of historic boatyards whose access to the canal pre-dates the modern system, if you’re on the water, the licence is required. Indeed, most marinas will check you have one because their own connection to the canals is conditional upon them doing so.
For the second, the water ownership is not at issue but rather your use of it as supplied and maintained by the navigation authority and it is that supply that you’re paying for (despite very low water levels quite often in some parts of the network! This is a topic that can raise much ire amongst boaters)