How many boats are on the British canals?

People often ask me whether the number of boats on the system is increasing and whether it’s getting crowded.

According to the CRT’s boat licensing statistics, there has been an increase but it’s a lot more gradual than the current levels of interest in narrowboating might suggest. So in the year 2022-2023, boats recorded on CRT waters increased by just 1.9%, up from 35,146 to 35,814.

(The figure includes boats kept in private marinas where a CRT licence is not required provided that the boat does not actually venture out. Such marinas are a bit of an archaic hangover as all newly-built ones now pay a fee to the CRT to connect to the canals, and the boaters are required to have a suitable licence).

Not all of these are people living aboard full-time of course; only a small fraction of boaters consider their craft their permanent home. In the 2022 Boaters Census Survey, 74.3% of respondents have a home mooring. Of these, 76.6% are leisure boaters and 23.4% live aboard.

Not all continuous cruisers (those without a home mooring) are necessarily living aboard, though the majority likely do as it’s quite a hard task to keep a boat constantly on the move when you live elsewhere.

In fact, the Boaters Survey makes interesting reading if you’re into statistics and charts and graphs and so on though disappointingly, some demographic information which was provided in prior annual surveys, such as age profiles, doesn’t appear to be collected anymore. Rather oddly to my mind, single folk apparently represent just 0.3% of boaters. This seems low.

It’s worth mentioning London here as a special case in all things narrowboaty. First of all, it’s absolutely rammed with liveaboards, most of whom don’t have dedicated moorings but roam the limited canals and end up mooring two or three abreast due to the shortage of spaces and the exorbitant cost of permanent moorings.

In 2012, the number of boats registered in London was 2,326. By 2018 it had risen to 4,098 yet the amount of space on the water there remains the same.

This congestion is in no small part down to the utterly absurd prices of conventional housing in the Capital, which extends even to rentals let alone purchases. At the time of writing (January 2024), the cheapest studios flats listed on within three miles of central London that didn’t have any catches like a crazily short lease etc, were on at around £170,000 and every one was absolutely tiny. The buyers would have more space on a narrowboat than in those places.

With decent second-hand boats available from maybe £50k-£60k and project boats much less, it’s no wonder the younger home buyer is turning to the water. Sadly, the dream isn’t quite as idyllic for all kinds of reasons including the costs which are never quite as low as people expect as well as competition for limited facilities such as water and waste points.