Traveling on your own vessel is an ideal way to visit Europe and experience the culture and customs of life in many countries. Cities, villages and countryside are often very accessible by natural or man-made waterways. Cruisers can travel at their own speed and on their own route, stopping almost anywhere to spend a night or a week. You can bring your own affordable hotel right into the center of many major cities, or find a secluded anchorage amidst peaceful surroundings. If you will use your vessel for only part of the year, you will be able to find marinas and boatyards that will provide safe storage (as well as maintenance or restoration) at a reasonable cost.
We can offer some basic questions to help narrow down the many choices that will have to be made. The answers will come from your own planning and research, helped by our articles on vessels and waterways and your research in other recommended publications.
Where do you want to cruise?
Most people will have a special interest in a specific area of Europe. France has a vast network of canals and is well known as a prime country for canal cruising. The adjacent countries of Belgium, Netherlands and Germany are all linked directly with France; the choice of vessel can be similar for this region. A number of readers have contacted EuroCanals with questions regarding the United Kingdom; in England, many attractive canals are extremely narrow, thus the Narrowboat is prevalent there, while in Ireland and Scotland a river cruiser will be more appropriate.
Do you want to cruise in a concentrated area or would you like to range further, say to the Mediterranean in the winter and north to the Baltic in the summer? In the latter case, a vessel capable of safely sailing in open water is needed, while still being of suitable draft and height to easily negotiate the canals and locks.
Do you intend to live aboard year-round?
If so, consider whether you will be in colder areas and will need heat onboard and ice-free docking. Many foreign boat-owners will use the vessel for only part of the year, making their needs different from the full-time liveaboard. What will the weather extremes be while you are onboard the vessel?
What accommodations are needed for yourself, your family and guests?
Give careful thought to sleeping and toilet facilities for those that will be aboard all of the time, as well as for occasional guests. Many boats that are advertised as “sleeps 6” means two double cabins with a toilet for each, while the fifth and sixth passengers will have to sleep on a converted dinette and will not have a private toilet. Plan your normal and maximum expected passenger load and decide what you will need regarding beds, toilets and shower/bath facilities.
How physically fit are you?
While just about everyone can be sufficiently fit to cruise in Europe, the choice of vessel depends on the capability of the crew to handle it in all conditions. Cruising inland waterways is not arduous as compared to open-water sailing but a day or two of many close-together hand-operated locks can be exhausting for some. So choose areas and specific canals that minimize the frequency of locks, or that offer automatic locks.
Also consider whether you will look for a “fixer-upper” or a vessel ready for use. Will you be able to handle the physical work involved, or will you pay a boatyard to complete it for you?
Are you a sailor or a motorboater?
Sailboats are fine on the open seas and lakes, however an auxiliary motor will be needed on the canals and in most cases the mast will need to be unstepped or removed from the boat for shipment by land. Draft is also a consideration if the boat has a keel that may be too deep for many canals. Extended cruising on inland waterways is best done on a motorboat. But that doesn’t mean that sailboats are totally excluded, just that proper planning needs to be done. In the Netherlands a Standmastroute is available and is clearly marked on the ANWB planning chart; it allows traveling the entire north-south length of the country with the mast stepped (there are bridges, but they are all lifting type and overhead wires are kept high.) There are similar open canals in Norway and Sweden that can be traveled by sailboat, with idyllic lakes for sailing between the canalised sections.
If it’s to be a motorboat, should it be a barge or a conventional motorboat? And what material, steel, wood or fiberglass?
An easy answer to this question relates to speed; due to speed limits and traffic, all vessels will have to travel at essentially the same (slow) speed, so a fast motorboat is of no advantage, unless the inland travel is only for the purpose of getting to open seas where higher speeds can be used. The other answers will be based on the need for space, handling of the vessel by the crew, the degree of restoration work involved and the aesthetics of the look of the vessel. Read books and articles about materials and equipment and discuss these questions with the professionals that you meet while searching for a vessel.
The primary question, of course, is how big the vessel should be. The answer is related to several of the other questions above and depends on the waterways to be traveled. For instance, a specific answer to this question for French canals is a maximum length of 38.5 meters, width of 5 meters, height of 2.7 meters and draft of 1.2 meters. But this would prevent travel on some Dutch canals with narrow locks and occasional fixed bridges. So you will need to do the research and decide where you want to go, and then select a suitably sized vessel.
What is your budget?
There are three categories of costs to consider: 1) Purchase of a vessel, 2) Maintenance and restoration of the vessel and 3) Waterways fees and live-aboard expenses. These will affect not only your choice of the size and type of vessel, but also the area that will be selected for cruising.
Will you search through a broker or for-sale-by-owner advertisements?
Probably a combination of both; a preliminary search can be done on the Internet or in various magazines published in Europe. This will turn up vessels of interest that are advertised for sale by both brokers and private owners. During a personal visit, even driving along certain waterways will often result in finding something of the desired type.
So, a lot of questions and only a few answers so far. Find the resources that will help lead you to the needed information and begin to put together a written and mental package that will lead you to a suitable choice. To get started, take a look at the EuroCanals Guides.
And regarding the question "Do I need a skipper's license?" refer to this very thorough website:
These privately-owned vessels are moored at Chaumont, France. They are traveling south on the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne (canal between Champagne and Burgundy regions) which at this point is the canalized upper Marne river. The boats range from an 8-meter sailboat (hidden behind a larger sailboat, both with masts unstepped) to a 38-meter péniche (red, a converted commercial barge) and five Dutch motorboats.