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Narrowboat meeting supermodel.

A Narrowboat is a kind of boat distinguished from any other form of marine transport because, no matter what the width of any other craft on the same stretch of water is, the narrowboat is always narrower. Narrowboats are constructed according to the system of Narrowography, of metaphysical retard whose property is that, at need, any of its physical dimensions can be curled up so as to be very small indeed. On meeting another boat, a narrowboat automatically selects the appropriate local spatial dimension, and it then becomes narrower in that dimension.

Before 1980 it was thought that the Lorenz-Fitzgerald contraction was the cause of this phenomenon, until it was pointed out that what appeared to be a red shift was in fact just the red paint that indicated the back end. String Theory accounted for the dimensional variation of narrowboats before anybody noticed the error, so that was all right.

Narrowboats are required to avoid at all times being on the same water as a rowing eight, to avoid the risk of rotation about the long axis. This is because, faced with an Eight, the narrowboat attempts to become narrower. This causes it to topple over. As it topples, the narrowest dimension continues to shift to be approximately horizontal. This does not violate the conservation laws because the rotational energy is actually supplied by the Inherent Improbability Drive (see below).

Narrowboats and Narrow Boats[edit]

Memorise this distinction and you will be the life and soul of the party wherever river and canal boaters meet. Or at least you will provide them with passing amusement as they throw you head first into the stinking, Weil's disease infested water.

Operational definition[edit]

For everyday purposes, a narrowboat is defined as "A waterborne craft of maximum beam 2.1i metres and LOA not exceeding 21.5M, with a displacement hull and armament not exceeding a single turret with not more than two 130mm cannon and not more than two torpedo tubes firing conventional torpedos." A narrowboat with more than two torpedo tubes, or with nuclear torpedos, is reclassified as a barge and is not allowed on the Grand Union canal, the Llangollen, or the Thames above Lechlade.

Plan view


Narrowboats are owned and operated, in England, exclusively by retired marine engineers who have higher degrees in both Obsolete Engineering and Theoretical Catastrophics. This particular combination of skills is almost essential to be able to keep the damned things working. Members of the public who lack these qualifications - i.e. 99.9995% of the human race - are occasionally allowed to hire narrowboats from qualified owners, for vast sums of money. It has been discovered that, provided these hirers are completely drunk at all times, they are able to overcome the inherent improbabilities and just drive around bumping into things and apologising to bollards. Physicists explain this by drawing on very large whiteboards and using upside down triangles a lot, while ordering lots of pizza and occasionally muttering "w00t".

Engineering principles[edit]

Narrowboats are powered by the Inherent Improbability drive, which (entirely coincidentally) resembles in unimportant aspects the engine off of some piece of farm machinery built in the Depression by unemployed mime artists. A brief look into the engine room of a narrowboat by a normal engineer will typically result in the comment "It's almost impossible that that fucking thing could ever work", and that is an adequate summary of the operating principle, which is that for any inherently flawed proposal to succeed, it must have less than a one in a million chance (Lex Blockbusterensis). It is necessary that hoses appear to be falling off, that pieces of metal hang around without apparent function, and that moving parts lurch erratically and go "clonk" or "ding" from time to time. The Feynman Diagram actually originated as an attempt to explain how to thread the governor cable of a Gardner engine from the Morse control to the lever, but it turned out that it was more readily applicable to quantum mechanics, which was understood by a lot more people.

A new engine awaiting installation

Operating fundamentals[edit]

If it ever becomes merely improbable that a narrowboat engine should work, it instantly stops.

The exception to this is the traditional Kelvin engine, which even when in perfect restored order with every part highly polished, is so inherently improbable that it continues to work despite being maintained with obsessive care. Kelvin engine ownership is widely recognised in substance abuse research as the most addictive and destructive addiction of all, worse even than an addiction to crack cocaine, tobacco, or My Little Pony. For a description of an addiction to Kelvin engines, see here.(Not safe for work): [1]

Inherently improbable

Historical note[edit]

It is not actually clear whether the designer of the Kelvin engine intended a steam engine, a petrol engine, a twin tub washing machine or a four-seater Jacuzzi with surprise Geyser effect, and even the engineering drawings do not give a clue to the answer.

Heating and Ventilation[edit]

The correct (and indeed only socially approved) method of heating a narrowboat is a wood burning stove, though coal is permitted in the Midlands and other treeless wastelands of the British Isles. Tradition requires that the entire heat output, along with choking fumes, should emerge from a rusted pipe just in front of the driver, thus minimising the risk that they will be able to see to navigate.

The total ineffectiveness of this means of heating has resulted in many attempts to provide concealed heating systems that will not be noticed by narrowboat purists, thus avoiding opprobium. Many of these involve the use of inflammable, heavier than air gas which, in the event of a leak, collects in the large metal hull until ignited by a stray spark from a woodburning stove. The solution to this minor, if invariably fatal, difficulty is ventilation. Unfortunately the provision of ventilation means that large amounts of cold air sweep through the cabin, completely undoing any heating effect.

Narrowboaters can thus be divided into two classes: summer only, and candidates for involvement in a major explosion.

Sleeping arrangements[edit]

Many narrowboats have the berths (sleeping spaces) arranged lengthways. That way, if the thing rocks during the night, the occupant is liable to fall out. The traditional arrangement is in fact sideways, with a flap or movable portion which is moved out of the way during the daytime to permit passage. There is a simple reason for this. Narrowboats do not pitch much end to end, and so the person on top is much less liable to roll off during sexual intercourse. On the other hand a modicum of side to side rocking is quite pleasant. Since the main function of narrowboats is to provide a romantic environment to facilitate sexual intercourse, this question of berth orientation assumes considerable importance.

For stag and hen parties, lengthwise berthing is considered preferable because it makes it easier to roll over and be sick on the floor, while reducing the chances of falling out during the frequent end on collisions with other boats.


One question which is often asked is "What do you do about the poo?" There are several legal, and one illegal, solutions. The illegal solution is just to dump the stuff through a hole, preferably off deck and below water level. In this case it is essential to have some sort of valve arrangement, otherwise there is a risk of what is technically known as "re-entry" followed by loss of buoyancy. It is also a good idea not to do it when anybody is in the vicinity. The penalty for dumping poo in the water is so horrible that it cannot be described here except to note that the liquid they give what is left of you to drink at bedtime in the dungeon looks like, but is not, chocolate.

The three legal solutions are:

  1. Store the stuff in a big tank under the loo, then pump it out periodically. In deluxe versions, the tank is under the bed and the sludge is pumped there. This creates real fun when the pump, or the tank, needs cleaning out.
  2. Use a Porta-Potti, AKA Elsan. Stinky.
  3. Go on shore.

There is in fact a fourth solution which is clean, odourless and easy to operate (since many Americans use it in their hunting lodges, it must be). It allegedly produces only fine crumbly material suitable for putting on rhubarb (although in a recent survey, 100% of narrowboaters said they used custard). But this solution is expensive, requires extensive engineering ability to implement, and therefore hardly anybody in this country knows about it except life members of the Thomas Crapper Society. Which you aren't, so don't bother asking.

Tests of manhood[edit]

There are two narrowboat-poo-related tests of manhood that must be undergone by those who wish to become fully qualified marine engineers. The basic test is to empty out and flush a full poo tank using only British Waterways equipment, without ending up with brown boots. The advanced test is to walk half a mile with a full Porta-Potti while keeping boots pristine, and then to empty the contents into a "suitable" British Waterways facility. The examinee gains bonus marks for knowing the three main indicators that a poo-emptying site is "maintained" by BW : a) It is no longer located as shown in the most recent version of any waterway guide (except where such location is immediately adjacent to a pub terrace - see "Shroppie Fly: Why not to eat outside" and "Canalside dining at Audlem: What exactly IS in those buckets that people keep carrying past my table?") ; b) The door is locked by some means other than the BW key supplied to boaters, or has a spring so strong that it is impossible after unlocking the door to keep it open while turning to pick up the poo container ; c) The light is either too dim to guarantee the correct alignment of poo-spout with poo-receiver-rim, or is on a timer set to exactly one half of the shortest interval necessary to empty the smallest commercially-available poo container. Note on heading: MANhood is technically correct because any woman achieving even the simpler of these tasks would instantly be made an honorary man under the Marine Engineering Code, Chapter LXVII Sect. 198.23., to avoid the seven years' bad luck that would attend upon having a woman on board who could change a fuel injector or would volunteer to steer a narrowboat into a lock while "there are people watching".


Until 2007, there was no risk that you would find yourself on the same water as a politician, and therefore liable to be accidentally shot by Special Branch. With the change of Government this is no longer as true as it was, and a new fashion for taking holidays in the UK means that you should give a wide berth to any narrowboat accompanied by a flotilla of assault craft full of men talking to their lapels and armed with submachine guns.

However, climate change has created the new benefit that, if you live on a narrowboat anywhere near the Severn, you can get insurance and even expect to keep your feet dry in a British Summer. Even if you may wake up one morning in Gloucester High Street.


Narrowboats can be found on long open tanks of water called canals. These were introduced in the 18th Century by a group of Biblical literalists, as a means oif proving that God could make boats float uphill. When they discovered that the New Testament lacked information crucial to the actual construction of locks, and that as a result the promised transport revolution was in postponed until the Rapture, they left for America, inventing Creationism on the way.

Back home it was then discovered that the abandoned network of canals could, be used for disposing of three-piece-suites, Morris Minors and bodies. They continued in this way until rendered obsolete by landfill sites and cemeteries.

There was then a brief investigation into their viability as commercial transport arteries. However, it did not take long to realise that canals were unsuitable for the rapid movement of either railway trains or articulated lorries (although research into the hydrostatic properties of shopping trolleys continues to this day in many town centres).

Finally, canals were turned over to leisure and scientific use.

- Narrowboats with loud, slow, English engines steadily transport lonely, oily, silent men between morris dances ; ones with loud, fast, Japanese engines erratically carry gregarious Lynx-smelling teenagers between pubs ; and static narrowboats (see "static caravans") apparently without engines sit in marinas and are occupied at weekends by people wielding tins of Brasso.

- A more useful purpose is served by physics experiments looking at the hydrostatic properties of baler twine, tramps' trousers and traffic cones, and chemical studies into the solubility of shopping trolleys.

Hazards to navigation[edit]

Other drivers[edit]

The principal hazard of navigation per se is other drivers. (The person holding the stick at the back is correctly called the "driver", not "skipper", "captain", "helmsman" or indeed any other terms suggestive of nautical activity. This thing is basically a farm cart with a wet bottom, powered by an inherently improbable propulsive means.) Other drivers are always wrong. They do not know the rule of navigation (Do not hit things). They do not know the horn signals:

One blast - You are a tosser

Two blasts - So is your friend

Three blasts - I am screwing your mom

Four blasts - I am drunk

Five blasts - I am too drunk to count up to 4

Six Blasts - Please pass on opposite side, as I am emptying my toilet.

and they do not know Port from Starbucks.

Arsing about[edit]

Arsing about is in fact a highly technical term (and just telling you this could get me into trouble with the Environment Agency.) On a normal narrowboat, the only means of propulsion and control are the engine (the oily, smelly, noisy thing apart from hubby) and the rudder (or tail fluke). Both of these are at the blunt, or arse, end of a boat, so anyone with any sense (or any left over after deciding to buy a narrowboat) who wishes to turn round a narrowboat does so by leaving the pointy end stationary, and then (on the cry of "arse about face") rotating the blunt end in a half-circle.

From time to time the uninstructed forget to "arse about" usually owing to excessive exposure to ethanol. They then attempt to turn round by moving the sharp end while keeping the blunt end stationary. As there is no power at the sharp end this does not work. A theoretical exception could be made for a narrowboat with a bow thruster (a "Shinyboat"), but as these never leave the marina, no-one has ever seen one turn round.

By normal British reverse logic, the term "arsing about", has come to mean to engage in a tedious and ultimately pointless exercise, rather than to do things properly. Of course, this might just be an extra-urban myth. Or it might be an insightful revelation about etymology.

This is Uncyclopedia; we report, you decide. Or (especially if you are a Merkin) please feel free just to swallow this tale without involving any brain activity at all, like all the other stories that the tour guides bet each other they can get you to report in your trip blog. And did you know that "Eeh by Gum!" is a tyke expression of extreme surprise derived from the Roman name for York ? (Actually, that one IS true.)

Legal hazards - Kate Bush[edit]

When a weir on her property collapsed owing to lack of maintenance, lawyers for the singer attempted to prevent British Waterways from gaining access to the site without paying "compensation". This was unsuccessful. However, the author of this piece did learn something from this. He had always thought that Kate Bush was an American. Dear Americans, apologies are due. (In fact Americans who hire narrowboats are almost invariably nice, kind, helpful and friendly people who never need horn signals directed at them as above. And some of them are lawyers.)

Physical hazards - locks[edit]

The principal hazard of canals is a structure called a "Lock". This is a big box with a pair of doors at each end, between two sections of canal at different levels. When all four doors are opened, all the water runs out of the higher section into the lower one, carrying the boat safely right through the lock.

As "safely" is complely the wrong word to use in the last paragraph, locks are now there purely for decorative purposes and now have long wooden benches sticking out of each gate. These benches have an interesting history. Isengard Republic Brunel, the more contrary brother of the more famous Isembard Kingdom, provided in his will a trust fund to manufacture them. In his youth he had constantly complained of the lack of places to have open air sex, and these backless and extremely strong benches were designed to be ideal for the purpose.

Getting round locks[edit]

When a narrowboat needs to travel from one section of canal to another, it is a simple matter of craning it out of the water onto an articulated lorry and then craning it back into the water again. To this end, British Waterways maintain a convenient network of large articulated lorries and special "RS" cranes, paid for by an annual licence fee.

If as a hirer you come up to a lock and wish to proceed beyond it, simply dial 112 on your mobile phone, ask the operator for "BW lock assistance", and when connected, simply tell the BW lock technician to "get your RS in gear". Unless you are Kate Bush, in which case you can dial a a special premium rate line based in Tuvalu, where there are no charging limits.

See also[edit]