Volunteering is a great way to get a feel for the waterways near you either before or after you buy a boat. Most navigation authorities, including the Canal and River Trust and the Scottish Waterways Trust, as well as the IWA, invite volunteers to help with anything from helping boaters through a lock and towpath tidy-ups to canal restoration work.
Many local boating clubs also look for a helping hand. There are loads of community narrowboat associations and there's bound to be one near you. Some, like the Pirate Castle in Camden, regularly need crew willing to help them out for a day’s boating. It's a perfect way to get out on a boat and give something to the local community if you don’t mind committing to a few days' enjoyable work.
Most boaters also do Facebook, where you can find most of the local info and events going on near you. Apart from the best canalside pub to buy a Sunday lunch and have a chat, boaters also run events to protect the waterways they cruise on. Just search a social media site and add the word boater or name of the canal.
Then there are a motley clutch of organisations representing boaters or different groups among boaters (yes, the canal has its own politcs too). The biggest is the Inland Waterways Association, which pioneered the restoration of the waterways system. Then there's the National Association of Boat Owners, the Residential Boat Owners Association, and the Association of Continuous Cruisers.