If you would like to enjoy a boat-based vacation but don’t know how to sail, or are unfamiliar with the finer details of nautical navigation, take heart: there’s probably a riverboat adventure waiting for you in Europe. Here you can enjoy a fun charter vacation on a bareboat river cruise that will make you the captain of your own vessel, but without needing much yachting knowledge and with little more complexity than what's involved with renting an RV on land.
Where to Go
There are riverboat charter companies in many countries that allow you to enjoy beautiful countryside vistas, explore castles or vineyards, or mosey from pub to pub in good comfort and relative safety. For example, outfits like Le Boat offer multiple bases in Ireland, Germany, Italy, France, England, and other European countries. You pick the base location and length of time, and you’ll then receive a sample itinerary and local knowledge briefing so you can explore like a pro.
The Weather Factor
Simply put, the weather will play less of a factor on a riverboat than on a sailing charter. Sure, you will need to pick a good season to enjoy the surroundings and also be aware of rain, which can cause flooding or strong currents. However, there's little need to be concerned about the wind and its strength and direction, primarily because you'll be in protected waters, but also because there are no sails to power.
Keeping it Padded
The first thing you’ll notice about drive-yourself riverboats is that they’re padded with about a million fenders. Unlike on other boats, however, these fenders are never taken in and serve to cushion you in case a locking maneuver is less than perfect. They may look silly, but they’re very functional and everyone on the river is wearing them. That said, do not fear the locks you'll encounter because they can be a fun way to interact with other boaters who may be locking-through with you. Additionally, the local lock keeper can tell you what’s nearby and where to get a great meal. Your first lock will be the last one that will seem intimidating, I promise.
Unlike in many sailing adventures, dragging anchors and nightly anchor watches are not a part of river boating. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a chartered riverboat anchored. Mostly, you’ll be tying up to city docks that offer restrooms/showers, freshwater hook-ups, and in some cases, even laundry facilities. In some parts of the world, such as on the Canal de Burgogne in northwestern France, you may be given a set of two metal stakes in lieu of an anchor. You pull up to the bank, jump ashore, pound the stakes into the bank with a hammer and then tie off to them. Et voilà, you’ve anchored.
Large charter sailboats can get quite complicated with the amount of onboard equipment that they carry, such as multiple battery banks, generators, winches, water makers, etc. But if you’re not mechanically inclined, don’t despair. Riverboat companies don’t expect you to do so much as one oil check on a diesel engine. In fact, they won’t even tell you where the engine is. And if you do have a breakdown, it’s usually easy for the charter company to determine where you are and send a mechanic by car within an hour or two. It’s no muss, no fuss, easy-peasy boating.
So maybe you don’t know how to read a chart, turn on a charplotter, or use a VHF radio. No worries, because riverboats don’t really have any of this. You’ll be given a “chart book” filled with pages that look almost cartoon-like. You meander up or down the river with towns, tourist sites, and even estimated travel times clearly marked for you. You won’t have to plot a course or even understand what the heck latitude and longitude are.
This is a plus for anyone who is tethered to work or for any kids who can't exist without connectivity. On a riverboat, you’ll be tied to shore most every night, often in towns where pubs, coffee shops, and hotel lobbies offer wireless Internet for the price of a drink or dinner. You’ll never feel isolated, unless you want to.
Don’t fear the charter. There’s much exploring to be done and you don’t even have to tell your friends and family how easy it is to be the captain.