We occasionally get inquiries from British narrow boat owners who would like to spend one or more seasons on the Irish waterways. If you’re thinking of doing that, we’d like to welcome you, assure you that it can be (and has been) done and offer you some information about what to expect.
You will need to check the dimensions of our waterways: see Waterways Ireland . In particular, note that locks on the Grand Canal (which runs from Dublin to the Shannon) accommodate boats only up to 61′ (18.5m). Locks on the Royal Canal, which takes a more northerly route from Dublin to the Shannon, are longer (75′, 22.9m) but it has not yet been completely restored.
Registration and charges
See separate page dedicated to registration requirements.
This article was kindly contributed by David Warren, who survived several years on Irish waters!
There are quite a few narrow boats based in Ireland, most of them locally owned but there are some English owners who are either retired and living on their boats, or enjoying extended vacations, who have taken their boats to the Irish waterways.
The formalities are fairly minimal and most English-based insurers will extend cover to the Irish Inland waterways at no extra cost. It may be necessary to take out cover whilst the boat is in transit. The license for the Grand Canal and the River Barrow can be dealt with on arrival at Lowtown Lock.
For those using propane gas, the bottle fitting is different and an adapter can be obtained from Lowtown Marine, whilst English Calor bottles can be exchanged at Michael’s shop in Roberstown and at most other Calor stockists. Although nearly every village shop stocks bottled butane gas, propane stockists are not very plentiful and it is as well to have three bottles and replenish whenever possible.
It is a good idea to bring over your favorite engine oil and filters and if possible to clean the diesel tanks, especially if the boat is a few years old. Gas oil is readily obtainable and tankers will deliver 50 gallons without any difficulty.
Once away from the canal, the waterways are much bigger than anything in England and it is essential to have and wear lifejackets, and a mobile phone or even a VHF radio is a good safety item, and you should have an adequate anchor. The boating community is very helpful and you should join the IWAI and attend a rally or two.
Narrow boats are basically very simple to transport across the Irish Sea: being flat bottomed and only 6′ 10″ wide they sit inside the width of the lorry trailer. The usual road trailer is 40′ long and for boats over about 44′ it is necessary to use an extending or trombone type trailer, which many hauliers have. Maximum length for use on the Grand Canal and the R.Barrow is 61′.
The transport costs depend on whether the boat is driver-accompanied all the way, ie the same driver and tractor unit crossing on the ferry with the boat and delivering it to the launching point, or using a haulier who collects and delivers the boat to the ferry and has another unit to pick up the boat from the ferry and take to the launching point.
The second option is much cheaper and there are Irish-based hauliers who have taken a lot of boats over this way. The ferry route used is Liverpool-Dublin and in the case of my boat it was loaded at Napton in Warwickshire at around 10.00am and was in the Grand Canal at Sallins by 2.00pm the next day.
Sallins is a good place to launch the boat, as the road is right alongside the canal and there is room for the crane to operate. The crane operator is fairly local. The other place is at Lowtown but this is often congested and it is necessary to check with Lowtown Marine.
Before loading in the UK the boat should be pressure-washed to remove any possibility of aquatic bodies being imported. There is a serious problem with zebra mussels in some parts of the Irish waterways and it seems that it might be a good idea to use antifouling against the zebra mussel, although most narrow-boat hulls have been painted with bitumen for many years and it may not be possible to apply antifouling.
At many moorings, and especially on the Shannon during the main season, it is normal to raft up to other boats and a good supply of fenders is essential, old tires being very good.
A new but basically familiar world is just across the water for English boat owners and if our experience is anything to go by a great time awaits.
You will need mooring pins and a lock key. Locks on the Shannon, Bann and Erne are keeper-operated; on the Shannon-Erne Waterway, you use a smart card and push buttons. On the canals and the Barrow, the keepers will often operate the locks for you but, as each of them is in charge of several locks, they won’t always be able to do so. Furthermore, in winter, the keepers work only ten hours a week. Anyway, you may prefer to operate the locks yourself where possible.
The standard lock key has a hole 1.25″ square. However, locks in and near some towns have shrouded spindles, intended to make them more difficult for vandals to operate, and they need a special key with a sleeve, with an aperture 1.25″ square, that will fit over the spindle. That key will also operate the ordinary locks, so it’s the one to buy: it will be available from the Lowtown lockkeeper, who can also supply a canal permit.
Some locks near Dublin are padlocked when not in use. Contact the keeper before attempting passage: phone numbers are in the canal guides
The bye-laws on most Irish waterways ban the discharge of sewage. However, the bye-laws are not enforced and the infrastructure for dealing with effluent is poor. There are, at present, few pump-outs and many of them do not work. It is therefore advisable to ensure that any holding-tank can be bypassed.
Furthermore, there are few sluicing facilities for portable toilets; it is usually necessary to empty down a conventional toilet on shore.
Our canals and the Barrow are less busy, and consequently less developed for tourism and leisure, than British canals. There are fewer waterside pubs providing meals and there are no marinas: mooring along the bank is the norm. There is only one boatyard, at Lowtown, and diesel is officially available in relatively few places. The only showers are at the Lord Bagenal pub at Leighlinbridge on the Barrow. Water is available in many places shown on the Guides, but you may need a variety of hose fittings.
That may sound discouraging, but in practice all your needs can be met with a little planning and with advice and information from local boaters. The Shannon and Erne are much better developed, with far more facilities, but of course they get far more boats: the charm of the canals and the Barrow is that you can actually get away from it all.
David Warren also wrote about tackling the large Irish lakes on a narrowboat.
Well, not quite at sea, but the first view of Lough Ree certainly seems like it. After some 30 years boating on the English waterways, including tidal passages on the Trent, Thames and Yorkshire Ouse, we were finally able to explore pastures new. In 1998 we hired from Celtic, and so enjoyed the Barrow that we decided to bring our own boat over. In June 1999, our narrowboat Thor was put into the Grand Canal at Sallins and reached Shannon Harbour just before the rally.
Afterwards we went via Clonmacnoise to Athlone, tying up on the floating moorings. Ahead lay the crossing of L Ree, about which we heard many tales of epic crossings and near-death experiences, as well as being warned to watch out for box waves, against which we would have no chance.
Most of these tales were told in the pub. The problem was what to believe, as the experts differed greatly in their descriptions of the lake, which ranged from 40 miles long to over 15 miles wide. One private boat-owner told my wife that it was over 40 miles to Lanesborough and that you could not see the shore at all. As I had been trying to calm her fears, this was not helpful.
After a couple of days at Athlone, we went to Hodson Bay and spent an uncomfortable afternoon outside the wall, with wash from passing speedboats throwing us about, but they eventually went home. An Irish narrowboat owner recommended waiting for a calm early morning, when there was often a settled period, to set off from Hodson Bay.
The weather had been warm and sunny for a few days but we had already seen how quickly things could change in Ireland so, when the sun woke me early next morning, I decided to get going. Ignorance is bliss: as soon as we cleared the bay and turned north, we ran into choppy water and a north-easterly wind.
Our boat is 50′ long, draws 2′ 6″ and weighs 18 tonnes. It was soon evident that she was just ploughing into the waves and hardly pitching at all. With the wind almost dead ahead there was no rolling, which is the real problem with flat-bottom boats. The trusty Lister engine kept on popping away and, once we had adjusted to the sheer size of the lough and sorted out the buoys, my confidence began to grow.
Narrowboats have a low freeboard: our eyeline is about 7′-8′ above the surface, so some of the buoys are rather hard to spot. The other problem is that, in choppy water, the drain holes for the gas locker and the forward cockpit, only a few inches above the waterline, tend to let water in faster than it drains out. I had been thinking about designing one-way flaps to overcome this problem, until it occurred to me that simple wooden bungs would solve it.
Lanesborough’s power-station chimney was visible for most of the crossing and I could see the smoke rising vertically and then being blown over towards the west. For the first couple of hours the wind was fairly steady, but slowly the vertical part of the smoke was getting smaller. However, soon the widest part of the lake was behind us, and the tension lifted when we realised that the remainder of the crossing was between headlands and that the waves were unlikely to get any worse.
Tying up above the bridge was very satisfying after a 3.25-hour crossing and my wife finally relaxed. We now had much more confidence in the boat’s ability, although truthfully we had had ideal circumstances for the trip.
Later in the summer, after we had met various wind and wave conditions up to L Erne, we were caught out by a northwest wind on L Key, which seemed fairly modest until we got out into the open lake and found sizeable waves on our right bow. The distance to Rockingham did not look too far so I decided against turning around. Waves were breaking over the foredeck and when we turned to go behind the island the boat certainly rolled. It was the day of the re-enactment of the battle of the Curlews; when we walked round to the park, waves were breaking over the foreshore wall. A young man in a Seamaster, who had followed us from Clarendon Lock, said he kept waiting for us to turn back but, as we did not, he kept going too: he thought we must know what we were doing.
On the way back down we came across L Ree on a showery day with a southeasterly Force 4. It was manageable but quite choppy where the lake opened up. The rain made locating buoys difficult: being out in the open, the binoculars soon misted up, as did my glasses for reading the chart.
The most noticeable difference on Irish waters is the sheer size of the lakes and the changeable nature of the weather. Going into or with the wind, narrowboats will handle the waves very well, but with wind on the quarter they can roll. All moveable objects should be taken out of the engine room or space. Carry a spare fuel filter and locate the necessary spanners in case, after years of calm-water boating, the sludge in the bottom of your tank suddenly decides to move. Good binoculars are essential and lifejackets really must be worn.
Study the direction of the proposed crossing and listen to weather forecasts, including the shipping forecast (Shannon) to get an idea of wind direction and speed, as well as looking at treetops, smoke and other wind indicators. It is often calmer in the early morning and late evening, although there is then the danger of being out in the dark. There is no substitute for experience and local knowledge, but careful planning and, above all, the patience to wait for better conditions will make life more comfortable all round.
Our worst experience was caused by a speeding cruiser on L Forbes, making a wake of at least 3′ while waving cans of beer at us from his flying bridge. I quickly turned into the wake and shouted at my wife to hold on whilst we reared up and down, going bows under the second wave. This idiot had left a visible trail of stirred-up mud right across the lake.
The biggest, and most exposed, lakes on the connected waterways system are Lough Ree and Lough Derg (on the Shannon) and Lower Lough Erne. Lough Neagh is even bigger but can be accessed only by road or via the Lower Bann from the north coast. As David says, it is vital that you attempt to cross these lakes only in favourable weather conditions.
See separate list of all the Irish boat-transporters we know of. Their inclusion does not mean that we endorse their services: we simply list them for information.
You may be aware that, in Ireland, a “half” of beer is called a “glass” and that you can choose between white and red lemonade. Our waterways terminology also differs from yours in some respects. Here are some Irish canal terms.
Double locks count as one. We have no larger flights of locks and no tunnels.
One important difference between Irish and British locks is that most Irish locks on the canals and the Barrow do not have ladders. Furthermore, they can be quite deep. And in some cases it is not possible to rope a boat in or out of the chambers because there are bridges immediately below the locks.
That makes single-handed boaters reliant on the lockkeepers, except for those brave enough to climb the lock-gates: a practice that is not recommended. And note that lockkeepers work limited hours in winter, so their services may not be available when you need them. It is usually possible to get through, but patience may be required.
Where possible, we have included guidance on where to get the various publications. The IWAI shop is now on-line..
If there is anything we haven’t covered here, you are welcome to use the contact form here on our website.