Piloting a 60-foot long, 6-foot wide Narrowboat along England’s Trent and Mersey Canal: Part 1


Scenic reflection shot along Trent and Mercy Canal

Operating a narrowboat along Britain’s scenic Trent and Mersey Canal became a bucket list item for us as soon as we learned about the possibility.

To call me a boat person would be a very serious misnomer. Backpacker definitely— that’s where my true passion lies. It gets me into the wilderness. But boating, as a general rule, is something I’ve done little of. There are exceptions.

Peggy and I have boated up the Amazon, rafted down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and kayaked in numerous places throughout North America. I’ve canoed across the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska and down the Sacramento River of California. Peggy and I have even cruised the Mediterranean and crossed the Atlantic. And I’ve tried my hand at fishing for marlin off the coast of Mexico. Mainly, I see boats like I do bicycles, however: as a way of getting me to places I want to see. Bicycling or boating as sports in themselves have little appeal to me.

Our boat, the Amazon Clipper, docked for the evening deep in the rainforest on the Rio Negro River, Brazil.

Peggy and I enter the infamous Lava Falls on the Colorado River, a perfect ten… that’s 10 as in rapids don’t get any more serious. Shortly after that the boat, our boatman Steve, Peggy and I disappeared under the water. Happily, we resurfaced. (Photo by Don Green)

Sea Kayak Adventure kayaks roped together in small inlet on Hanson Island. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

I took this photo of our kayaks off of Vancouver Island while we were at lunch. The kayaks were roped together so they wouldn’t run away.

Given my mixed feelings about boating, I found myself surprised that I enjoyed piloting a narrow-boat along England’s Trent and Mersey Canal. There was something about making the 60-foot long, 6-foot wide boat go where it was supposed to, including into boat-wide locks, that I found both challenging and gratifying. It helped that we were only traveling 3-4 miles per hour (4.8-6.4 k)! Peggy and I had invited her sister Jane and brother-in-law Jim along with us on the 2011 adventure. While Jim and I took turns at the helm, Peggy and Jane operated the locks.

Instructions for piloting the boat and working the locks were provided when we arrived. Peggy reminded me that we had less than an hour of instruction before being turned loose with out 60-foot long, several ton vessel. I can only imagine how experienced boat people along the Trent and Mersey Canal view newbies coming out of the marina. Peggy and Jane’s lesson on operating the locks was more like 15 minutes! But we did have instruction sheets.

What it looks like from the helm of a narrowboat

This is what our boat looked like from the helm. Let’s just say that I was more than a little nervous when I took my first turn.

Jim researching our Trent and Mercey Canal trip

Jim, who never admits to being nervous about anything, studied the manual, or maybe he was reviewing our trip.

Piloting narrowboat under bridge on Trent and Mercy Canal

The challenges we would face included maneuvering our 60-foot vessel around sharp corners under low bridges…

Piloting boat into lock on Trent and Mercy Canal

And piloting the boat into narrow locks, some of which were hardly wider than the boat. In fact, the width of the locks was the reason for creating the narrowboats. It was even more challenging when you had to slip into a lock of this width with another narrowboat while pretending to know what you were doing!

Narrowboat in lock on Trent and Mercy Canal

Fortunately, being perfectly straight wasn’t necessarily required when we had the lock all to ourselves! Water flowing in will raise our boat to the level of the upstream canal.

Peggy works lock gates on Trent and Mercy Canal

While we were mastering entering and exiting the locks, Peggy and Jane were mastering opening and closing them. Fortunately, some helpful veterans were present the first time our companions were faced with the chore.

Jane Hagedorn works lock gates on Trent and Mercy Canal

Piloting around boat on Trent and Mercy Canal

Passing other boats could be challenging when the canal was particularly narrow.

Piloting past moored boats while metting another boat on Trent and Mercy Canal

Now, picture meeting another boat when both sides of the canal are filled with moored narrowboats!

Mooring narrow boat

Another skill we had to master was mooring the boats when we stopped for the night or at a local attraction— such as a pub. Camping was free along the Trent and Mersey Canal.

Peggy doing dishes in our tiny galley

We lived on the boat, which came with a small galley, sitting room, and bathroom.

Single bed on a narrowboat

While the master bedroom had a small double bed, the other beds were barely wide enough to sleep on.

The Sawley Marina is located close to Nottingham and borders on the shires of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. (Being close to Nottingham took me back to my childhood days and tales of Robin Hood.) Our objective was to follow the Trent and Mersey Canal to Burton upon Trent and return, a short distance of 34 miles (54.7k). The literature said we could make the trip in a leisurely three days. We chose a more leisurely six. How else could we check out all of the pubs and fine English ale along the way?

Enjoying pub along Trent and Mercy Canal

Jim, Jane and I enjoy one of the several pubs along the Canal while Peggy took the photo.

In addition to piloting the boat and checking out the pubs, there was a generous dose of bucolic beauty to enjoy along the way— as one might expect in Britain’s Midlands. Graceful swans, lots of ducks, and lazy cattle provided entertainment while walks through small villages and the larger town of Burton upon Trent gave us breaks from boating.

Direction sign on Trent and Mercy Canal

A sign takes us onto the Canal proper.

Scenic flowering tree and mustard along the Trent and Mercy Canal

There was considerable beauty along the canal and traveling at three miles per hour, we had plenty of time to enjoy it.

Scenic view with flowering tree along Trent and Mercy Canal

Since it was May, everything seemed to be in bloom.

Building along Trent and Mercy Canal

Numerous buildings along the way added interest and color.

Bridge number 11 on the Trent and Mercey Canal

Bridges also provided variety. Each one seemed different. Numbers on the bridges told us where we were.

Bridge number 13 on the Trent and Mercy Canal

The bridges also added to the beauty.

Fishing on Trent and Mercy Canal

This one included guys fishing. Check out the length of the poles!

Scenic view from under bridge on Trent and Mercy Canal

Coming out from under a bridge.

Swan and reflection on Trent and Mercy Canal

Swans, ducks and other birds provided entertainment. I liked the reflection here.

Swan nesting on Trent and Mercey Canal


Swan chows down on Trent and Mercy Canal

And chowing down!

Mallard hen and chicks on Trent and Mercy Canal

I’ll conclude today with this mallard hen and her chicks.

I will be posting more photos of our narrow-boat tour on Thursday. Saturday I will return to blogging my book on MisAdventures with a story of how I hired our family pets to protect me from the fearsome ghosts that lived next to our house when I was a child.

41 thoughts on “Piloting a 60-foot long, 6-foot wide Narrowboat along England’s Trent and Mersey Canal: Part 1

  1. Very interesting. Not being backpackers, perhaps it has a stronger appeal to me than to the more vigorous. One can rent a “barge” on the Erie Canal as well, something I have contemplated.

    • I saw the Erie Canal offer, Ray. It would be a kick! My great, great grandfather lived in Oswego when they built the Erie Canal through the area and Peggy and I walked along a section of the canal when I was doing genealogical research in the town. –Curt

  2. Brings back memories of my own narrow boat holidays, Curt. You have a sharp eye for a good shot. Always amazed me how relaxing chugging along at 4mph was and how sickeningly fast it felt to drive home afterwards!

  3. What a fabulous adventure. This has been on my bucket list for a while – it sounds so idyllic. Wonderful photos that convince me even more that Don and I should do this one day.

    • We had cousins who had recommended it to us, Alison. I think it was one of the best recommendations we have ever had. Having another couple along made operating the locks easier. It certainly was a unique way to explore. Thanks. –Curt

  4. I’d take this over backpacking any day. I have friends who went down to Panama last year to help a couple lock through the Canal there. What an experience that would have been. We don’t have anything so dramatic here, but there are floodgates at the Brazos River and locks on the Colorado where they intersect with the Intracoastal. If you’re traveling the ICW and the locks are closed, you may have some time off while you wait for them to reopen.

    I love the bridges. I’d be happy just to visit one bridge after another — maybe even fish for a while.

    • Having to operate the locks on your own, adds a bit to the experience! But it did mean no waiting unless there was a line up.
      Hard to compare backpacking with canal boating, except you are moving slowly with both. I do get that you are more of a boat person, Linda. 🙂
      I loved the personality of the different bridges as well, especially since so many of our modern bridges are cookie-cutter in style. It’s one reason that I am so enamored with older bridges in America. –Curt

  5. First, I was thinking that the shot of the two of you entering Lava Falls put you in the intrepid class, but then seeing the four of you take on navigating that canal cinched it. 😀

    • The canal was a piece of cake in comparison! Except, of course, we were responsible on the canal. All we had to do in lava falls was hang on for dear life and hope we came out messy-side up. (Messy-side up, if you aren’t familiar with the term, Gunta, is right side up with all of your gear, etc.) –Curt

  6. Brave indeed! Have never tried canal boating even though a canal goes along our property — not good at going anywhere slowly 😀 My siblings hired a boat and called in to our place for a party. Their motto was ‘If you say it while holding a rope, you’re forgiven’.

  7. It was indeed a wonderful trip never to be forgotten – your travel account and photos bring it all back. Thank you!

    • Yes it was, Jane. I enjoyed reliving it, as did Peggy. I went back and reread my original post. I can’t believe I only wrote one blog at the time. It was worth several! It was a neat adventure for the four of us. Thanks. –Curt

  8. That looks really interesting. I tend to be either in a canoe/kayak or on a sailboat – not much time with motorboats of any description, but this looks like a fun trip, sort of a floating RV.

    • A floating RV works… or as Gunta points out, a gypsy wagon given the personalization of the boats. While kayak touring is my favorite mode of water travel (or it could be a canoe) due to the similarity with backpacking, I’ve often fantasized it would be fun to live on a houseboat. Peggy and I explored North America in a 22 foot van/motorhome and the space factor is similar to the narrowboat. I like the gypsy life-style. –Curt

  9. We’ve been whitewater rafting several times but in nothing like those Lava Falls. And now, I’m pretty sure you couldn’t get me in a boat going through that. What pretty scenery in England! We live in a gorgeous world!

  10. Pingback: Life on the Trent and Mersey Canal… A Narrow Boat Tour in England | Wandering through Time and Place

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