Pioneering electric boats hire scheme expansion potential after Falkirk Wheel pilot extended to the Kelpies – Scottish Canals
Electric boat hire could be expanded across Scotland’s canals after the success of trial schemes at the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies.
Scottish Canals is to consider deploying them at more locations across its network, The Scotsman has learned. Larger vessels are also being assessed.
In what’s believed to be the only scheme of its kind in Scotland, visitors can hire three-person boats to cruise the Forth & Clyde Canal.
They offer an introduction to boating on inland waterways for those not yet ready to take the plunge and charter a narrowboat for a canal holiday.
The initial trial at the Falkirk Wheel – the world’s only rotating boat lift – started in September last year and was expanded to the Kelpies for last month’s school holiday week. The world’s largest equine sculptures are back to pre-Covid levels of popularity, attracting 700,000 visitors a year.
Scottish Canals is now looking at the potential for adding larger boats that can accommodate six to eight people, complete with a picnic table, similar to those operating on the River Thames near Hampton Court Palace in London. Their bigger size is seen as being more attractive to families.
Boats could also be based on other parts of Scottish Canals’ network, such as Winchburgh on the Union Canal, and on the Caledonian Canal between Fort William and Inverness.
The body said its three boats had been used by hundreds of people and fully booked at weekends. The Falkirk Wheel attracts 450,000 visitors a year.
They can be hired there for 90 minutes for £37.50, and sailed up to two miles west as far as Bonnybridge and one mile east to the canal's lock 16 in Falkirk.
During the Kelpies trial, using a single boat, hirers could sail 300m between the canal basin beside the sculptures and lock three, adjacent to the car park. All the boats may be temporarily switched there during maintenance work at the Falkirk Wheel between November and March.
That would add a further draw to the site near the eastern end of the canal in Grangemouth, which already offers guided tours inside the sculptures. A new section of waterway, the Queen Elizabeth II Canal, was opened nearby by the monarch in 2017.
No previous boating experience is necessary for the electric craft, with users given a life jacket, shown how to operate the boat and given a safety briefing before setting off. Hirers must be over 18, but children can operate the controls under supervision.
The boats are limited to 4mph, with the throttle on their outboard motors controlled by twisting the tiller in either direction to go forwards or backwards.
Ross McMillan, head of destinations at Scottish Canals, said: “The feedback has been terrific from everyone who has been on them. You can get the backdrop of the Kelpies for some fantastic photos.
"It’s really good that you can take out a couple of family members and tour up and back yourself without having to rely on one of our staff.
"We will be running them right the way through the winter, weather dependent. Provided there is no ice on the canal and the weather is favourable, the boats will be available for hire.”
Mr McMillan said Scottish Canals was now considering other locations. He said: "We could also look at the likes of Winchburgh and other options across the Central Belt canals – the Forth & Clyde and the Union – and possibly on the Caledonian Canal as well”, including near Fort Augustus.
"We might also look at larger boats to gauge customer feedback.”
Scottish Canals activities assistant Rebecca Brown, who is among the team showing people how to use the boats, said even complete novices soon master the controls. She said: “You find that people are a bit iffy at the start – they put the power on too much or don’t put it on enough.
"But when they come back from their trip and we ask them how it went, they say they got the hang of it – it just took a couple of tries.
"It’s quite hard at the start to get used to it, but it’s just like [learning] anything, like riding a bike.
"If you want your child to have a go, as long as they are over the age of five and they know what they are doing, you can let them have a wee shot.”
Ms Brown, who is based at the Falkirk Wheel, said: "This is completely different from any other job I have had. Previous ones have been in retail or hospitality and this is a mixture of both. I have always loved the outdoors, so getting a job doing what I love is completely better than the jobs I did before.
"There is nothing that could make me happier – coming to work happy and leaving happy.”
The Electric Boat Association, which “champions the interests of electric boat owners”, urged Scottish Canals to trial larger vessels.
Secretary Tim Knox said: “It would be useful if they could do more and be brave with their choice of boats. These ones are tiny, almost apologetic. The [larger] ones in London are much better.”
Jenny Gilruth, who launched the pilot last year while transport minister, said: “This new venture responds to the growing appetite for more sustainable tourism experiences and adds to the many eco-friendly ways that people can already enjoy Scotland’s canals.”
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