Our 14 most important tips for first time canal boaters
You don’t need a license or even any training to ‘drive’ a narrowboat but it can be a daunting experience to take the helm of such a long vessel for the first time.
Boat hire companies should tell you the basics before you set off but the more you know, the less stressed you’ll be to enjoy your holiday.
We recently took our two children on our first canal boat holiday and made plenty of mistakes!
Here’s what we wished we had known – read our full guide for novice canal boat users.
And if you are taking children don’t miss: Our 10 top tips for taking children on a canal boat holiday
Which side of the canal to travel in your boat
Navigate along the middle of the canal where the water should be deeper but when passing another moving boat, stay on the RIGHT – remember it is the opposite side to road travel in the UK.
The speed limit is 4mph, walkers will overtake you. Slow down when passing moored boats, other moving boats, when going around corners and approaching tunnels. If you make a breaking wash behind you, you are going too fast.
How to stop
You use reverse to slow down and to stop a narrowboat. Small thrusts on the throttle and then back to neutral will slow the boat down quickly and smoothly.
Right of way
When approaching a bridge or a tunnel with room for only one boat, the craft nearest has the right of way. When waiting, stop and keep to the right.
Give way to non-powered craft like canoes and rowing boats.
The tiller is at the back of the boat. Move the tiller in the opposite direction to the way you want to go – pushing it right sends the boat left and left sends it right. It can be hard to remember this when you are panicking!
Try to always think ahead as a canal boat can be slow to react to a turn, especially at low revs when you will have less control. The turn will continue after you want it to if you don’t centre the tiller before the turn is completed.
Also be aware that as the boat turns in the middle, the front might be okay but the rear may hit something. To move the back of the boat (the stern), push the tiller the way you want the rear to go.
If you are in danger of hitting something put the throttle in reverse to slow down or stop.
How to park/moor a narrowboat
You can park where you like as long as it does not create an obstruction such as just before a lock, near to a bridge, on a corner or at a water point.
Approach slowly and when you are parallel with the side, use reverse gear. Get close enough so that a passenger can step off safely with a rope.
Look for mooring points with rings in the ground as these are the simplest to use. Otherwise you can use a mooring pin/metal stake which you hammer into the ground. Make sure you hammer the mooring pin right into the ground or it may be pulled free by the weight of the boat.
Tie the boat at the front and back, I asked our instructor to show me twice how to tie the ropes to ensure I got it right and was very glad I had.
Keep the rope tight – if it is loose, the boat will bang against the side when other boats pass or can come away altogether if not knotted properly.
How to turn your canal boat around
If you need to turn your narrowboat around, there are turning places every few miles called winding holes or swinging areas.
These are wider parts of the canal, marked on maps that you can plan for in advance.
When you are turning, keep the propeller and rudder away from shallow water and debris. Aim to put the bow/front of the boat into the winding hole, reverse and then go forwards and away in the other direction.
Look out for the wind or current causing difficulties and if necessary, someone can step on to the towpath and use a rope to help.
The wind once prevented us from making a turn and a friendly man on the side asked us to throw him a rope so he could help out. He said it had happened to several boats before us which made me feel better!
Listen and look out for boats already heading towards you through the tunnel if it is too narrow for two boats.
If the way is clear, put on your headlights and sound the horn before entering the tunnel. Turn the internal lights on too.
Make sure nobody is on the roof or the side of the boat.
When heading towards a small bridge, the space to navigate through can appear alarmingly narrow.
Do your best to line up the boat as you approach, get the front end into position and under the bridge. Then steer the back through. You may hit the sides but it shouldn’t do any harm at a slow speed.
You use a lock key to wind the bridge up, it can seem as if it is not fully open if it hangs a little over so be careful when navigating underneath it.
Close the bridge behind you unless there is another boat waiting to use it.
A lock is used to raise or lower a boat to the level of the water ahead.
They can be pretty daunting the first time you use them as there is a lot to think about.
There is usually a queue of boats so wait your turn and don’t be afraid to ask someone to help you. We did and having expert reassurance from seasoned boaters made the lock experience more relaxing.
Remember, if you are going up, the lock needs to be empty first and if you are coming down, the lock has to be full.
One person needs to get off the boat before the lock, armed with a lock key called a windlass. They slowly and carefully open and close the gates and the paddles which let the water in and out, in the correct order.
The person at the helm has to steer the boat into the lock and keep it as far forward as possible as there is a ledge/cill at the back which the boat can get caught on – look out for the cill marker to show you where it is.
Filling up water is simple but there aren’t that many places to do it. Boat hire companies recommend you fill up every day, we found that wasn’t essential but every other day is a must.
You can stop at a water point (marked on the map and signposted) and operate the tap using the Yale key your boat hire company should have given you.
You connect one end of the boat’s hose pipe to the tap and insert the other end into the hole of the boat’s water tank.
We were told the water can be drunk but we had taken bottled water.
Canal boats have chemical toilets which hold the waste in a tank on board.
We did not need to empty ours but check with your hire company how to at a pump-out point if you are staying on the boat long enough to need to do so.
Work together – we naturally found which jobs we were best at and got much better at mooring and doing all the necessary checks.
Take it in turns to steer and relax and make sure you enjoy the slow pace of life, the surroundings, the friendliness of people you pass and have fun.
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