So, you have just bought yourself a rigid or inflatable kayak and you can’t wait to get out there on the water. You may even have a favourite place to go where you have hired a kayak before. Here’s the bad news. Now you have your own kayak, you can’t simply paddle away as there are some strict rules to follow.
Waterways in the UK are managed by different associations, so you need to plan ahead before you go out on them. Don’t worry, the guidance isn’t too complicated and once you know the rules you can make sure you abide by them and get the correct permissions.
If you are wondering “do I need a licence to kayak in the UK?” We’ve put together a handy guide to help you get started:
Do I need a licence to kayak on the sea?
The good news is that you don’t need a licence to kayak on the sea in UK waters. But that doesn’t mean you can go kayaking just anywhere in the sea. For your own and others’ safety, there are some exclusion zones and danger areas that are out of bounds.
To check out whether you can kayak in a specific area you will need to look at an up-to-date terrestrial map or maritime chart. You can find these charts alongside the latest notices online here
What areas should you avoid?
Danger areas and exclusion zones are generally zoned with yellow buoys. These will include shipping lanes, commercial docks and waste disposal areas. Military areas that are used for disposal or firing ranges will also be marked and obviously should be avoided.
Other areas that are off-limits for kayaking will be nuclear power plants, nature reserves and privately owned areas such as private beaches, fish farms and oyster beds.
Do I need a licence to kayak on inland waterways?
Getting access to non-tidal waters is very different to kayaking on the ocean. In addition, England & Wales have very different systems to Scotland and the rest of Europe because waterways are usually privately owned and managed. This means that there is seldom any access to inland waterways in England and Wales without the permission of the owner.
A Waterways Licence
To gain legitimate access to most waterways in England and Wales you will need a Waterways licence. You can get one direct from the Canal and River Trust or through the British Canoeing Association. This latter includes membership of the association for extra benefits such as insurance and special offers.
You don’t need to pass any kind of kayaking test and once you have the licence you get a physical and digital card to carry as proof.
The licence will cover you for paddling on the 4,500km of waterways that require a licence such as those operated by The Canal and River Trust Environment Agency and other maintained waterways such as the Norfolk Broads. You can check whether a particular waterway is covered on the British canoeing website. Some areas such as The Lake District have their own launch or licence fees for some waters.
The income from waterway licences is used to clean, repair and maintain the waterways in the UK keeping them in good condition and helping to look after the environment.
There are also options to obtain a day licence for a particular region directly from the Canal and River Trust Environment Agency or local agencies, but this isn’t a cost-effective option if you want to take your kayak out regularly.
Right to roam in Scotland
If you want to kayak in Scotland, you will benefit from the Scottish “right to roam” that gives you free access to all the Scottish waterways. Scottish Kayakers may still opt to join the Scottish Canoe Association to get good information and liability insurance. Kayakers in Northern Ireland can get information from Canoe NI regarding access to their waterways.
Search the local area for guidance
Waterway rules can be confusing as some waters do not require a licence and others are not covered by the Waterways licence. You do need to be careful with some of the local rules and regulations, so it is always worth checking before you go.
For example, Chichester harbour where I live is not an inland waterway but requires vessels up to 3m to pay harbour dues. You can get away with not paying, but if you plan to use the harbour regularly the harbour master will probably catch up with you at some point.
How much is a kayak licence in the UK?
The cost of a kayak licence will depend on where you buy your licence from and which part of the UK you want to paddle on. Canoe association memberships offer good value as they include the relevant waterways licence as well as insurance and other benefits. For details on what waterways are covered it is worth checking out the individual websites.
British Canoeing Annual Membership includes a waterways licence for England and Wales for £45 and covers you for most waterways in the UK for residents in England.
Canoe Wales Annual Membership includes a waterways licence for England and Wales for £45 and covers you for most waterways in the UK for residents in Wales.
Scottish Canoe Association annual membership from £26 for residents of Scotland (No licence required for Scottish waterways).
Canoe NI annual membership from £18 for residents of Northern Ireland. (No licence required).
Canal & River Trust Licence costs £51 annually for all UK residents.
Broads National Park Licence costs £36.47 annually for all UK residents.
For waterways not covered by these licences, individual charges may be made by local owners and agencies.
About the author
Watersports Pro is managed by Ollie, who has been in the industry since 2007. A paddleboard and advanced windsurfing instructor, Ollie has travelled the world teaching these sports.
Now based on the South Coast of England, he shares his experience and knowledge on watersportspro.co.uk.