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Driving a narrowboat - how difficult?


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Hi all. I've owned a little 20ft Norman GRP with a somewhat overpowered 30hp Mariner for a few years, and after living on it for a couple of weeks at a time cruising the Thames, I decided I'd like to live aboard. It's been moored in Brentford in a marina so I've got experience on the Thames from Limehouse to Oxford and the Wey but never been on a canal. 

 

Found a solid 50' R&D Fab hulled narrowboat in Nottingham, and subject to survey I'd like to put in an offer and drive it down to a mooring in Greenford in two stints to get around the winter stoppages on the Grand Union, around 2 weeks travel time assuming 7hr days I reckon. However, the most experience I've got driving narrowboats is when I stayed for a bit on a friend's horribly underpowered one...a 40' thing with a knackered 10hp outboard which had very little control! What's the learning curve like going from little GRP boat to narrowboat? I'll have someone with me from Leighton Buzzard onwards to help run the locks.

 

Fully aware that it's an unknown boat and it's a long way to go, but I'm pretty confident in being able to fix stuff. It's got what seems to be the standard (recently serviced) 1.8 BMC, which I know my way around pretty well when it's in car form, and I happen to have a spare long block in storage. I'll probably bring a few spares just in case...alternator, starter, belts, filters, hose clips, glow plugs etc. Always owned 30yr+ old cars/motorbikes through choice as I somewhat perversely enjoy the constant maintenance and tweaking, just sold off my Land Rover after restoring it.

Edited by cheesegas
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The amount of control you have is directly linked to the number of watchers. 

No watchers = perfect control. 

Plenty of watchers = no control. 

Tiller steering is different to wheel steering, but you will soon get the hang of it. 

 

Bod

  • Greenie 2
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Thanks for the reassurance! Sounds good.

 

The Mariner outboard was a standard short-shaft thing from the mid 80s, no adder rudder so I'm used to putting on the power to make it think about changing direction. Glad to hear a tiller's easier.

 

This narrowboat's got a Hurth mechanical gearbox, done a bit of research and it doesn't seem to be the most liked piece of kit. Is this widely true? Don't mind rebuilding it as parts seem to still be available, but access to pull it out looks pretty unpleasant!

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1 minute ago, cheesegas said:

Thanks for the reassurance! Sounds good.

 

The Mariner outboard was a standard short-shaft thing from the mid 80s, no adder rudder so I'm used to putting on the power to make it think about changing direction. Glad to hear a tiller's easier.

 

This narrowboat's got a Hurth mechanical gearbox, done a bit of research and it doesn't seem to be the most liked piece of kit. Is this widely true? Don't mind rebuilding it as parts seem to still be available, but access to pull it out looks pretty unpleasant!

Not the best of boxes and clunky but if its working ok they do the job well enough.

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Yes, unless you have fitted a rudder to the OB then power off = virtually no directional control. With a  narrowboat you still have some control - bit different in reverse, don't expect to drag the back to where you want it to be like with an outboard. Until you get to know the boat assume the stern in reverse will go where it wants t.

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1 minute ago, mrsmelly said:

Not the best of boxes and clunky but if its working ok they do the job well enough.

Thanks. Seems to be working well, no clunks and I don't think the plates are slipping...but my experience with inboard marine gearboxes is zero, so not much to go on!

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Steering is a doddle, even a "related person of unspecified gender" has mastered it and you should see the state of the nearside of my poor little car, driving is a lot harder!

 

Stopping is another matter, you 'aint got no brakes! Yes I know you can throw it into reverse but the prop 'aint shaped to go that way add to add insult to injury no propwash over the rudder means almost no steering. 15tons(ish) of boat has a lot of inertia.

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I’d say steering a narrowboat is easier. The pros being that everything happens much more slowly than with a light grp cruiser, so it doesn’t “get away from you”. The cons being that everything happens much more slowly so even though you know you are going to crash in 5 seconds time, there is nothing you can do about it!

 

Much easier when it’s windy.

 

Yes as others have said, no significant steering effect in reverse especially if you are still going forwards.

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On a Norman 20 and having recently sold my tin slug,the narrowboat is a doddle to steer going forward,but in reverse the stern goes more or less where you point it but the bow follows the breeze.

I actually prefer my Norman to my last narrowboat,because of it's low cost,although I found spending a week on it a bit of a trial.

My narrowboat had a Hurth gearbox (BMC 1500) and it was no bother.It has a poor reputation for durability I think because it was known as the dollar an hour gearbox.At the time it cost $1000 and was reckoned to last 1000 hours.

Don't know what engines they were coupled to,but it's likely they were bigger than a BMC 1500,and perhaps going balls out towing water skiers.4mph on a canal is unlikely to overstress it.

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Don't listen to the nay Sayers, reversing a narrowboat is just an art to be learnt. They will all reverse, some better than others. There is a certain speed and amount of power at which you have control if you are careful to watch the bow and compensate for the prop walk which pulls the stern off line if you overdo the tiller angle. Little and often around the straight ahead position is the way.  A big tyre or a length of heavy chain hanging off the bow will assist in keeping it in the middle.

 

If the Hurth gives up, rather than rebuild it, consider replacement with a better PRM mechanical or small hydraulic for about the same cost.

  • Greenie 1
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R&D built decent hull's, if it has a good prop it should handle well, and not too bad in reverse. Tiller steering is so simple once you've played a little,  I doubt you will have problems from that point of view.

Enjoy!

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Remember that a narrowboat pivots somewhere near it's middle.

When the bow goes left the stern goes to the right and vice versa.

 

I don't drive (took a test once 30 odd years ago. Failed and didn't bother again)

Brother in law had a go at steering our boat and gave up after 5 minutes saying "I don't know how you can steer one of these things but can't drive a car"!

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Amazing, thanks all! From what I've read, R&D hulls seem to be pretty good but this one's been sitting in a marina on shore power without a galvanic isolator for a couple of years so it'll be interesting what the survey comes back with. 

 

Noted on the control in reverse, I'm very used to popping it into reverse and scooting backwards in whichever direction the engine's pointing. The weight difference is considerable too, which I think will take some getting used to...I can pretty easily push the front end of the Norman with a bargepole and one hand.

 

Thanks for the advice on the gearbox too, I'll bear it in mind and keep my eyes open for a PRM on eBay etc. 

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Push the tiller right when you want to go left.

Push the tiller left when you want to go right.

Keep it central to go straight.

Waggle it about like crazy when you are about to hit something!!.👍

 

Edited by Leggers do it lying down
misspelling
  • Greenie 1
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What a refreshing thread! After reading the title, I was expecting the usual "I've never been on a boat, but it thought it might be a cheap way to live so I just spent everything I have on a narrowboat  sight unseen on ebay. I have no skills, but how hard can it be? Anyway, I once had a go on a friend's moped - will I be able to drive it?". 

Not a bit of it: it's a handy sounding guy with a fair bit of boaty experience, doing a bit of further research before taking the plunge! Well I'll go to the foot of our stairs! Nice one, Cheesy! :)

 

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2 hours ago, Ex Brummie said:

With a much longer length in front of you, any deviation from straight is noticeable much sooner than in a shorter boat.

Didn't even think of that, thanks! With canals being quite a bit narrower than most of the Thames, I guess it'll be noticeable there too.

 

 

1 hour ago, Sea Dog said:

What a refreshing thread! After reading the title, I was expecting the usual "I've never been on a boat, but it thought it might be a cheap way to live so I just spent everything I have on a narrowboat  sight unseen on ebay. I have no skills, but how hard can it be? Anyway, I once had a go on a friend's moped - will I be able to drive it?". 

Not a bit of it: it's a handy sounding guy with a fair bit of boaty experience, doing a bit of further research before taking the plunge! Well I'll go to the foot of our stairs! Nice one, Cheesy! :)

 

Thanks. Yeah, I know all too well how much constant maintenance the mechanical bits of an old vehicle need, let alone when it's surrounded by water like in a boat... Not too great at carpentry but the whilst the interior is very dated, it's functional. Hopefully I'll be able to help out on this forum with electrical and engine stuff to return the favour! 

 

 

Also, the initial survey came back this morning, I'll post a photo when it comes in. Despite being surveyed and blacked less than a year ago, it's hit something very, very solid just under the water, putting a small but very deep gouge in the chine at the bow below the waterline, almost holing it. The surrounding plates aren't distorted and the interior cladding is easy enough to pull off according to the surveyor so I'm probably going to offer a lower price, hopefully close the sale with it still out the water and weld in a new plate. 

 

Couldn't easily see the gouge from the inside of course. Lesson to get a hull survey at minimum! Rest of it is solid with very little loss in thickness, the anodes seem to have done their job despite the lack of a galvanic isolator.

Edited by cheesegas
Didn't finish a sentence...
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