Narrowboats moored for a while at Hopwas, Coventry Canal (John Carver)

It's a hot topic.

If you don't have a home mooring, you're committed to cruising continuously through the waterways system. In fact, when you sign your licence agreement with Canal and River Trust, then if you don't have a home mooring you make a legally binding commitment to be continuous cruising.

Continuously cruising - a bit of background

When the waterways law was changed in 1995, it stopped short of forcing (the relatively few) boaters without a home mooring to get one, but it also insisted that they had to be genuinely moving about - you couldn't just sit in the same place all year round.

This allowed boaters to continue their lifestyle and, by expecting them to keep moving (as most did), it also preserved that lifestyle. In our view, it's generally a good law for boaters. It could be a lot worse.

What does continuously cruising mean?

There are three things to bear in mind if you're continuously cruising on Canal and River Trust waterways - i.e. most of the canals and some rivers (the rules may be different elsewhere).

  1. Moving often. If you're moored somewhere on the towpath then you can stay there for 14 days without charge before having to move on, unless there's a sign telling you to move sooner (designated Visitor Moorings may be limited to 7 days, 24 hours etc.).
  2. Moving far enough each time. You have to move to the next place - not just 100 yards.
  3. Cruising range over the licence period. You also need to be on a progressive journey covering a reasonable distance - you can't just flit between your two favourite spots all year round.

How far must I move?

The law says that when you move on you have to move to at least the next 'place'. But where's the next place? Is it five yards along? Is it the next city? Is it France?

An average dispensation of common sense says that the next place is not five yards away and it's not France either. The same ration of common sense says that it's usually about a couple of miles away. Roughly. Alright - maybe a bit less, maybe a bit more.

It doesn't need to be more complicated than that. But alas, it is. Some boaters want to know exactly what the 'next place' is supposed to mean, and a few are willing to go to court over it.

The Canal and River Trust has finally relented and issued guidance on what it thinks continuously cruising means in practice. (More on this in a minute.) Sure, you can challenge it in the courts if you like, but the guidance is pretty sensible really and if we all tag along with it, everyone will be sharing the waterways pretty well.

If in any doubt, then each section of waterway is split into numbered sections. If your boat is, say, in 'GU105' (Grand Union section 105) the next time the computer has its beady eye on you just make sure you're somewhere else. A map of the CRT's kilometre lengths is freely available to use and a great way to ensure you are in a new 'place' each time.

And whatever the law has to say, it's also respectful of other boaters to keep moving on, especially in popular areas. 

How do they even know where you are?

'They' walk or cycle the towpath weekly - sometimes more often - noting down every boat number. It's good work if you can get it.

All those numbers go into a big computer somewhere.

So they know where you are pretty much all the time. So does the CIA, by the way.

When can I go back?

So, once you've moved on, you can't go straight back to whatever mooring spot you were at last and then ping-pong between the two - that's cheating. You need to keep going on a progressive journey. That means a progressive journey through our green and pleasant land.

In theory, you CAN get to the 'end' of your journey, turn round and go back to the spot you were at last, but then you'll have to keep going. If you do just shuffle between the same few mooring places in the same area, the Canal and River Trust are likely to target you for not being on a 'bona fide journey'.

There's no fixed 'no return' period for a mooring spot on the towpath, we just reckon it's a good rule of thumb not to go back to the same place for about three months after you've left it. That's ok, though - there's a world out there with plenty of other places to moor.

What kind of journey is 'bona fide'?

There's no hard-and-fast rule.

In London, the Canal and River Trust is just about happy to allow boaters to turn around after 20 miles and start heading back, but this is a minimum. So, a cruising range between Greenford in the west and Springfield Park in the east just about scrapes in as a 'bona fide' journey, as long as you move far enough each time you leave a mooring. But why chance it? Travel further to be on the safe side.

This is what CRT says about continuously cruising anywhere in the country: 

It is very unlikely that someone would be able to satisfy us that they have been genuinely cruising if their range of movement is less than 15-20 miles over the period of their licence. In most cases we would expect it to be greater than this.

And what happens if you don't play ball?

In the 10th month of your licence, someone or other at CRT looks at your cruising pattern since the licence began. If it doesn't look rosy then you'll be put on a six month probationary licence, which is your big chance to try harder. If you redeem yourself then after the six months are up you'll be back on a 12-month licence with no hard feelings. But if you don't change your ways then your licence will only be renewed if you take a home mooring. If you don't then your boat can be taken off the water - it's called a Section 8 and it's not pretty.

But probably you'll have had an email or a text long before all this to let you know that you're not abiding by the rules and please if you don't mind would you kindly do so from now on etc.

Please share...

Moving on is half the enjoyment of living on a boat. It's also part of the deal if you don't have a home mooring. If you're thinking of keeping your boat in the same spot on the towpath close to the station, supermarket or a favourite pub, then please just don’t buy a boat. It's not about whether you can get away with it - it's just not cool to deny other boaters a turn there as well. A spirit of sharing the canal is part of our culture.

The letter of the law is vague but its spirit is clear: we have a right to live aboard a boat and to stay in one place on the towpath for 14 days before moving on as part of a bona fide journey. The spirit of the law is basically good! The last thing we need is new legislation that effectively outlaws our way of life, so please be a good boater!