How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)
No "driver's licence" is required to control a narrowboat in Britain. However, most people find it difficult without some training - narrowboats are heavy, and slow to turn (and slow down) and they steer rather like a car in reverse.
Boat hire companies will take a novice through the basics. However, pre-reading (and a reference guide for practising) will help to avoid the "helpless and stressed" feeling that unprepared hirers often report for the first few hours. A new owner who has never controlled a narrowboat before will usually want some proper training (perhaps RYA-recognised) to protect their investment from themselves. All boat users owe others the courtesy of reasonable care.
Check that your equipment is sufficient for your journey.
- If you are going to be going through any locks then you will need a windlass, as well as anti-vandal and/or waterway authority keys to use some locks depending on the area.
- If you are going onto a river, you will need an anchor and sufficient rope and chain for its use.
Make sure you have cast off all wires:electrical connections, phone connections, TV aerial connections.
On the single lever control, disengage the gearbox.Open the throttle slightly, close the pressure relief valve (diesel engines), turn the key to on and check for voltage, ignition lights etc, turn the key to preheat for around half a minute (diesel engines), turn the key further (against the spring) to run the starter. If the engine does not start (or if you are uncertain about the procedure) then consult your boat manual. When the engine starts, leave it a few seconds, then return the throttle to idle (tickover).
When the engine is running smoothly, look around for dangers and untie the boat.
- In still water, ask the crew to untie the stern rope first (stern = back) then the bow rope (bow = front). The reason you cast off the bow rope last is that with the stern untied, you can still control it with the tiller and engine.
- If there is a current, untie the downstream end first (the current will keep the boat safely against the bank, until the other end is untied).
- If there is no wind or current, and the rest of the crew are asleep or doing the washing up: tie a centre rope, untie everything else, untie the centre rope, and step back on board at the tiller. A centre rope gives you full control of the boat (ie it can't drift out front or stern) provided there is no wind or current).
With the single lever control in the neutral position, re-engage the gearbox.Remaining in neutral, push the stern away from the bank. Many canals are shallower at the sides, and debris accumulates between your boat and the bank: so to keep rubbish and rocks away from your propeller, it is best to have the prop in deeper water before it starts turning. Also, the boat pivots near the middle, so unless the stern is clear of the bank, you will not be able to swing the bow out (and therefore the stern in) as you move forwards.
With the stern well clear of the bank, slowly and calmly move the throttle to its lowest forward setting (or just move the throttle a touch forward until you feel the gearbox engage, then move back to tickover).
Move the tiller slightlytowardsthe bank.The tiller controls the position of the back of the boat, so this moves stern towards the bank, and the bow pivots out slightly towards the centre of the canal. Without speeding up, use small tiller corrections (tiller left, bow right) to get the whole boat to the centre of the canal and pointing straight forward. (At these low revs, the tiller is slow to respond, so "small adjustments, wait, correct" all slowly and gently).
At low speed (perhaps very first forward "notch"), get used to using frequent small corrections (quickly "killed") maintain the boat in a forward straight line.
- Stand dead centre, and use the front of the boat like a sight along the canal
- Make a small correction as soon as the front of the boat drifts off the centre of the canal, and hold it until the boat responds. (ie if the front drifts right, move the tiller a small distance right until you feel some resistance, then hold it there).
- As soon as the boat starts to swing back, centre the tiller. The bow will continue back for a short while. Hopefully, by the time it stops, it will be pointing straight down the canal (if not, a smaller correction may be needed). (Do not delay the centering of the tiller until the bow is pointing in the right direction, by the the time the bow stops swinging, it will be pointing the OTHER wrong way.)
- To move the tiller too far, or to delay re-centering it, results in a series of wider and wider curves which only stop when you hit the bank.
Once you think you have the hang of steering at the slowest speed, then allow yourself a little more power.Don't go beyond the speed at which you can correct swings or go round corners comfortably, or stop if a boat comes round the bend ahead. Don't go beyond the speed for a comfortable leisurely cruise. Above all, do not create a breaking wash (erodes the canal bank, and fills the canal with silt) and do not break the speed limit for where you are (4 mph (6.4 km/h) on British canals).
Keep to the centre of the canal, except to avoid moored boats, or to get to a position to see around a bend or obstacle, or to pass a boat.
If a boat comes the other way, both boats should move gently about four feet to the right to keep the other boat on their left.There is no need to move out of the way at great speed, and no need to crash into the trees in an attempt to get away. All that is required is to move positively (so the other boat can see that you are moving the right way) and to ensure that as you pass, you keep a foot or two of water between you. The boat nearest the towpath should keep close to it (unless the bottom is obviously shallow there) to allow the other boat to keep off the other bank (and away from overhanging trees). Do not slow down too much, or steering will become less positive - and do not get too close, or the boats can get sucked together.
To moor, first slow down to a constant slow speed.Aim the towards the bank at about 30 degrees. When 5 or 6 feet (1.5 or 1.8 m) away from the bank, gently steer away, so that the boat continues approaching the bank but is gradually straightening up.
When nearly parallel, gently engage reverse gear.With luck (and then with practice!) the boat comes to a complete stop perfectly parallel to the bank with only a few inches between the boat and the bank. Tie up securely.
QuestionHow do I moor up between two boats?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerAssuming there is actually enough room, and being careful to stem the current (by putting your front end in the direction from which the current is coming), I'd recommend using a spring line on the dock side of the vessel to keep you from moving ahead while you apply a small amount of power with your tiller pointing toward the dock. A spring line is any line that leads in a direction along the side of the vessel, not straight out like a bow or stern line.Thanks!
QuestionIs there a book for waterways?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerRYA Inland Waterways Handbook - A must-read for anyone wanting to take a boat out on the UK inland waterways. It covers the syllabus of the RYA inland helmsman course, and has many very good illustrations (how to and why) covering all aspects of canal and river navigation.Thanks!
How does a canal move?
- Share the tiller. Make sure everyone has a go at being the tillerman - even quite young children, if supervised carefully, can learn quickly to keep a boat in a straight line.
- Pick a boat that is big enough. Your boat IS your holiday. Beds that need to be set up at night and folded up each day can be annoying after a couple of days (especially for the people sleeping in them). Beds packed too tightly together mean too little privacy, and increasing tension. Areas that cannot be partitioned off mean that adults can't sit up talking after the kids have gone to bed. One toilet between six people is not enough, especially because it won't be accessible from all night cabins. A small percentage increase in price, can bring a large bonus in comfort.
- On a canal, you can usually moor anywhere on the towpath side of the canal - but do not moor in special places reserved for special functions : lock moorings are only for boats waiting for a lock ; water points are only for boats filling their water tank ; "winding holes" (turning points, including the canal bank opposite and near the "hole") are only for boats in the process of turning round (and NEVER for mooring).
- Be pleasant to anglers and pedestrians (you don't know which of them will see your boat that night when they are on the way home from the pub ...). All boaters rely on the good will of local people - don't spoil it for other boaters.
- Don't pick a boat that is too big. Provided there are enough permanent beds, and enough privacy at night, and enough loos then the boat will be comfortable; any extra space just makes the boat longer and more expensive, not more enjoyable. A shorter boat is easier to steer, stop, and moor: and much lighter to control in a lock - especially for a small group or a couple.
- Going out in peak season may be busy, and on the most popular canals there will be queues at locks - but a busy lockside is a great place to meet other boaters for a friendly chat and useful advice.
- Having a crew makes the whole experience so much easier and so much more fun! Most canal boat hire companies in the UK will not rent a boat to a lone person.
- Watch your speed! Going past moored boats at speed causes them to rock and may damage them and annoy their occupants. Please stick to the following speeds (revs given for diesel narrowboat)
- Near moored boats = 2 mph (3.2 km/h) strolling speed/tickover/1000 revs (absolute max, better if slower, MUST be slower in shallow or narrow water).
- Normal canal cruising speed = 3 mph (4.8 km/h)/walking speed/1200 revs.
- Fastest canal cruising = 4 mph (6.4 km/h)/fast walking speed/1500 revs (speed limit on British Canals, engine too noisy for relaxed long-term cruising, make sure wash is not breaking on bank.
- (The fastest river speed in the UK is 8 mph (13 km/h) - some have lower limits)
- Be considerate and cheerful to other boat users. Many live on the canal, so you are visiting their home: be friendly and you will be welcomed into the community with open arms. Plan your schedule so you have time to say hello, or hold back at a bridge hole when a boat is coming the other way, or wait for an oncoming boat to use a lock set against you : if you haven't got time to be considerate, it'syourfault.
- Narrowboats are extremely heavy - that are made of steel, not fibreglass. The lack of friction in water disguises this: when stationary, a boat is easily (if slowly) moved by a constant, gentle pull on a rope or a push from a hand. However, once speed has built up, the weight and lack of friction can be deadly. A narrowboat cannot be stopped at once (even by the powerful engine at the back). Above all, do not get any part of your body between a narrowboat and something else - it will NOT stop the boat from hitting something. Children need to be told this many times - but even adults have trouble grasping it. A body lounging on top of a boat will be mangled as the boat goes through a low bridge (they all are) ; a leg dangling over the side WILL be crushed where the towpath side moves inwards as the canal narrows under a bridge ; an arm held out to prevent the boat hitting a lock side will get broken. A Narrowboat is tough: most collisions will not hurt it much (however embarrassing for the person steering) - and any collision that would damage it even slightly cannot be prevented by interposing a fragile human body part.
- People with disabilities will finds some aspects of boating a challenge, but boats adapted for wheelchair users are available (in small number at present, in Britain).
- Young persons must wear buoyancy aids, weak swimmers are advised to, and all boaters should consider it. For adults, manually-inflatable ones are better than nothing, but people have drowned in locks after knocking themselves out before being able to inflate their jacket.
- Never go out in fast water. Locks on rivers have a guide showing the height (and therefore speed) of the water, don't go out onto the river if the guide is "in the red".
- Locks can be very dangerous. At a lock keep a special eye on children and pets, whether on or off the boat. Only open paddles very slowly at first, watching the effect they have on the boat. Stay by the paddle gear all the time, watching the boat: be prepared to close paddles quickly if the force of the water starts causing problems to an ascending boat, or if a descending boat gets caught on something. NEVER EVER tie a rope from a boat going down a lock (and if holding one, check all the time that it isn't caught on something).
- Don't let children walk/run along the gunwale; in fact its not advisable for most adults either: its much safer to walk through the boat.
- Beware of the wind. Even a stiff breeze pushing on the side of a 60 foot (18.3 m) narrowboat can make it unmanageable and risky. A strong wind will make it definitely dangerous.
- Be careful where you moor up overnight. In some areas, boaters may be seen as intrusive outsiders flaunting expensive possessions. Even in "nice" suburbs, towpaths near pubs can be through-routes for "apres-boozers" on the way home: "high-spirited" youths can make loud comments in passing (not usually meant to threaten, but unsettling to some) or even think it a huge joke to untie your boat (annoying, but rarely dangerous, on a canal). If unsure (after a few days, you will get a "feel" for safe areas) moor where groups of other boaters do. If nervous, moor in a marina (typical charge £5 for overnight mooring) or out in the country.
Things You'll Need
(In the UK, all these are provided, where necessary, by boat hire companies.)
Windlass (for locks)
Anchor with rope and chain (for river)
A crew is a must for employers or first-time owners.
Video: 1. Basic Speed Control and Steering.
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