Inland waterways and categorisation of waters
Details for owners, operators and Masters of vessels on inland waters, including categorisation, application, safety requirements and best practice.
The UK has over 4,000 miles of inland waterways. Construction requirements and levels of safety equipment that must be carried on vessels in the UK depend on the nature of the waters in which the vessel operates. There are no national construction requirements for private pleasure vessels.
Inland waters are categorised as A, B, C or D. This includes canals, non-tidal rivers, tidal rivers, large, deep lakes and lochs, and estuaries. Inland water categorisation policy and processes are dealt with by the Navigation Safety Branch (NSB) of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). These categories are defined and listed in Merchant Shipping Notice (MSN) 1776.
This guide explains what inland waters are, how they are categorised, how to apply for categorisation of waters, safety requirements for vessels operating on inland waters, and best practice to adopt. It is aimed at owners, operators and Masters of vessels operating in all inland waters categories.
Inland waters and how they are categorised
‘Inland waters’ includes any area of water not categorised as ‘sea’ - eg canals, tidal and non-tidal rivers, lakes, and some estuarial waters (an arm of sea that extends inland to meet the mouth of a river).
Inland waters are classified as one of four categories:
- Category A - narrow rivers and canals where the depth of water is generally less than 1.5 metres
- Category B - wider rivers and canals where the depth of water is generally 1.5 metres or more and where the significant wave height could not be expected to exceed 0.6 metres at any time
- Category C - tidal rivers, estuaries and large, deep lakes and lochs where the significant wave height could not be expected to exceed 1.2 metres at any time
- Category D - tidal rivers and estuaries where the significant wave height could not be expected to exceed 2 metres at any time
These categorisations determine the waters not regarded as ‘sea’ for the purposes of most Merchant Shipping legislation, except that, for marine pollution legislation, ‘sea’ normally includes any estuaries or arms of the sea, and therefore tidal Category C, and Category D, waters.
Water categorisation policy and processes are dealt with by MCA.
Applications for categorisation of waters
Inland waters are not regarded as ‘sea’ for the purposes of Merchant Shipping legislation and vessels operating in categorised waters have different construction and equipment standards. Because of this, it is important that the area you conduct your business in is correctly categorised.
You can make a request for the categorisation - or re-categorisation - of a defined area of water as long as you hold an interest in the area requested.
Water categorisation matters are co-ordinated by the Hydrography, Meteorology and Ports Branch of the MCA. Applications for categorisation - or re-categorisation - are considered by the Limits Committee, working with regard to the opinion of the local Marine Office.
If you intend to apply, you should seek advice about categorisation of a particular stretch of water from your local Marine Office. You can find contact details for your local MCA Marine Office on the MCA website.
Categorising or re-categorising an area of water
Applications for categorisation or requests to change an existing categorisation may be made by any person or organisation with an interest and need to be fully supported and accompanied by the following information as appropriate:
- chart of location
- recent sounding charts
- levels of vessel movement
- types of vessel using the area
- physical description of the area
- details of significant wave heights
- predominant wind chart for the area
- general rationale to support the application
- supporting letter from the local Harbour/Navigation Authority
Evidence as to how the significant wave height has been established has to be provided. This information should, ideally, include evidence that the significant wave height at a representative point or points within the proposed area, does not, at any time, exceed the maximum limit specified in the definition of the proposed category. That is:
- Category B - up to 0.6 metres
- Category C - up to 1.2 metres
- Category D - up to 2.0 metres
This evidence could, for example, be based upon information derived from a mathematical model of the geographic area that has been validated by wave height observations from a wave rider buoy or seabed pressure sensor. Other evidence may be accepted if considered suitable by the Limits Committee of Focal Point Group 2.
For an application for a winter or summer seasonal area, measurements should represent the period of worst weather. For all-year-round applications, measurements should represent the worst winter conditions.
In addition to wave heights you should also consider other factors such as the:
- strength of any tidal stream
- effect of the prevailing wind against the tidal stream which can shorten the sea - giving rise to steeper waves which are more liable to break
- height of banks at the water’s edge and the degree of shelter that may be found in bad weather
- effect of any surrounding high land which may give rise to sudden and unpredictable wind shifts and strengths
- fetch of the wind - especially in long, straight estuaries with a low lying hinterland
- effect of underwater banks on the tidal streams
- effect of shifting underwater sand banks which result in changing navigational channels
- relevant local phenomena - eg a bore
Consideration of applications
The NSB co-ordinates the categorisation of a defined area of water which is listed in MSN 1776 (M). You can download MSN 1776 (M) on the categorisation of waters from the MCA website (PDF, 679KB). The MCA will consider any request for the categorisation of new or for changes in the existing categorisation of areas. For a successful application the following process needs to be followed, to avoid unnecessary delays.
Once the application is complete, all supporting documents are sent to the local Marine Office for the attention of the Surveyor-in-Charge (SIC) or Area Operations Manager (AOM). Find contact details for your local Marine Office on the MCA website.
The SIC or AOM will consult with the nearest Coastguard Station and the District Safety Committee or Small Passenger Ship Steering Group as appropriate. They may want further clarification and revert back to the applicant. Once content with the application they will revert with comments / recommendations to the NSB.
NSB will review the application within 28 days and if considered appropriate will submit the application to the Limits Committee of Focal Point Group 2 for consideration and ratification.
Safety requirements for boats to operate on inland waters
If you operate a vessel commercially on inland waters, you must comply with construction regulations and standards for safety equipment to be carried onboard.
Inland water passenger ships that were not new at April 2010 are covered by several sets of regulations and guidance - your local MCA Marine Office can provide you with advice about these. A ‘passenger ship’ is a vessel that carries more than 12 passengers. You can find contact details for your local MCA Marine Office on the MCA website.
The Safety Code for Passenger Ships Operating Solely in UK Categorised Waters provides the technical requirements for new passenger vessels, from April 2010. The Code also contains safety requirements with which the ship must comply in order to secure a Passenger Ship Safety Certificate. A ‘passenger ship’ is a vessel that carries more than 12 passengers.
You can download the Safety Code for Passenger Ships Operating Solely in UK Categorised Waters from the MCA website (PDF, 1.67MB). For further information, please contact your local MCA Marine Office.
The European Commission Directive 2006/87/EC (as amended) on Technical Requirements for Inland Waterways Vessels lays down the technical requirements for inland waterway vessels.
Vessels that operate only on UK inland waterways will be exempt from the Directive, provided they comply with applicable UK technical and safety requirements. However, vessels that operate on the Community waterways of European Union Member States in mainland Europe will be subject to the technical requirements laid down in the Directive. Vessel owners or operators who wish to operate their vessels on those waterways will need to get in touch with the relevant waterway authorities in the country concerned, in order to obtain a Community Inland Navigation certificate.
The Code for the Design, Construction and Operation of Hire Boats is a national code of safe practice for boats let for hire on inland waterways. It applies to vessels for not more than 12 people without a skipper or crew for sport or pleasure (excluding pleasure vessels as defined in the Merchant Shipping (Vessels in Commercial Use for Sport or Pleasure) Regulations 1998). The Code covers:
- risk assessment
- technical standards
- operational standards
- change control
- record keeping
For vessels carrying no more than 12 passengers on inland waters, see the section in this guide on the ‘Inland Waters Small Passenger Boat Code’.
Registration and licensing for vessels operating on inland waters
Vessels operating on inland waters must be registered and hold a licence.
British Waterways and the Environment Agency are the two major navigation authorities in charge of inland rivers, canals, estuaries and harbours in the UK.
All craft wishing to cruise on the inland waterways network must be registered with the appropriate region of British Waterways or the Environment Agency. Failure to do so may result in prosecution and a fine.
Every type of pleasure craft must be registered and licensed, including motor cruisers, sailing cruisers, narrow boats, open vessels such as canoes or rowing boats, and houseboats. A variety of different licences are available, from annual licences to visitor licences.
You should contact the Environment Agency or British Waterways to find out what the registration and licence arrangements are for your area.
All applications for vessel licences must be accompanied by a valid Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) certificate, except for privately owned open boats and vessels carrying MCA certification. Every vessel must display its current valid navigation certificate and registration number at all times. For rivers and canals not controlled by the British Waterways or the Environment Agency, you should seek advice from whoever controls the navigation and their licensing requirements. You can find a list of Navigational Authorities on the MCA website.
For more information, also see the guides on how to apply for, upgrade or renew a Boatmasters’ Licence, Vessel classification and certification, and standards for the construction and maintenance of inland waterway vessels.
Alcohol and entertainment licensing
The Licensing Act 2003 applies the alcohol and entertainment licensing regime to vessels on which alcohol is sold, or entertainment takes place. You can find information on alcohol and entertainment licensing on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) website.
The Inland Waters Small Passenger Boat Code
The Inland Waters Small Passenger Boat Code is a best practice guide for vessels carrying no more than 12 passengers on inland waters designed to ensure safety, technical and competency standards are met.
This includes trip boats, hotel boats and water taxis operating in harbour areas, estuaries, lakes, rivers and canals.
The Code lays down benchmark safety standards and is intended to be applied on the basis of risk and the operators’ experience. It is non-mandatory and provides advice to operators, navigation authorities and licensing authorities.
When operating a boat on inland waters, you should always consider any:
- area of operation, and any possible weather conditions
- availability of dedicated emergency rescue
- operations wholly within sight of the supervising body
- seasonal operations only - eg between 1 April and 31 October
- vessels operating in close proximity to one another
- provision or wearing of additional individual personal survival equipment
- enhanced communications between vessels
- nature of the sport or pleasure activity
- safety of any vessel - by design, test and experience
- ratio of suitably trained crew to other persons onboard
- enhanced provisions for distress alert and rescue
- means provided for ‘dry’ evacuation from a vessel in emergency situations
The Small Passenger Boat Code covers a wide array of information, but in particular covers all of the following:
- machinery - such as diesel, petrol, steam, LPG or electronically powered engines
- electrics - eg electrical installations and how to reduce the risk of electric shocks
- steering gears - how the vessel should be provided with an effective means of steering
- bilge pumping and drainage - how powered or hand-operated bilge pumping must be adequate for the size of the vessel
- stability - for specific types of vessels, such as motor vessels, inflatable boats, sailing vessels and sailing multihull vessels
- freeboards - for motor vessels in all inland water categories, and inflatable boats
- life-saving and fire-fighting appliances
- navigation equipment - covering navigation lights, shapes and sound signals
- safety briefings - of staff and any passengers
Access the Inland Waterways Small Passenger Boat Code.
Further information on inland waters
The MCA is an Executive Agency of the Department for Transport, and responsible throughout the UK for implementing the government’s maritime safety policy. Inland water categorisation policy and processes are dealt with by NSB of the MCA. In addition to providing information on inland waters the MCA is also committed to improving marine safety, protecting the marine environment and preventing the loss of life at sea and on inland waters. You can find information about the MCA on the MCA website.
The Association of Inland Navigation Authorities (AINA) represents those organisations which operate and manage navigable inland waterways in the UK. Find information on the work and services of AINA on the AINA website.
British Waterways is the Navigation Authority in charge of many canals and rivers, in the UK. British Waterways Scotland is the equivalent agency, in charge of canals and rivers in Scotland. Find information on the work and services of the Canal and River Trust on the Canal and River Trust website.
The BSS (Boat Safety Scheme) is jointly owned by British Waterways and the Environment Agency. This scheme is designed to minimise the risk of fires and explosions on boats by specifying a set of requirements they must meet to obtain a navigational licence. It also publishes guidance to enhance personal health and safety on privately owned boats. Find information on the work and services of BSS on the BSS website.
The National Water Safety Forum (NWSF) is a ‘one-stop shop’ for water safety advice. It aims to be is to be an open and accessible source of information for members, water safety professionals and members of the public who are interested. Find information on the NWSF on the NWSF website.
MCA Navigational Safety Branch
023 8032 9437