Canal boat holiday guide for beginners – EVERYTHING you need to know

Canal boat holiday guide for beginners – EVERYTHING you need to know

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.

Askrigg narrowboat from Anglo Welsh, bond class

Bond class narrowboat, Askrigg

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.

Coming out from a tunnel on the Llangollen Canal

Coming out from a tunnel

Small bridges

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.

Swing bridge

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.

Canal swing bridge on the Llangollen Canal

Canal swing bridge


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.


The view from up high in a lock on the Llangollen Canal

Navigating a lock on the Llangollen Canal


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.

Pump out

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.

Have fun

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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Our 10 tips for visiting York with children

Our 10 tips for visiting York with children

Learn from our mistakes! Read our advice for families before you head to York plus check out the best ways to get there

 *Plan your City Walls walk

The medieval walls  encircle the city of York. As they are elevated they are the best way to see the city and you can walk along them for free. There are two miles in total but there are only certain places you can get on and off. There are also steep drops in some places so hold hands with any little ones. They are open from 8am until dusk.

York city walls and daffodils

York city walls

*Always walk

The city centre is fairly compact and we found that walking is definitely the best way to get around. Driving is slow and parking is expensive, buses are infrequent without many city centre stops.

*The York Minster

York Minster may be one of the world’s most magnificent cathedrals but children may quickly get bored somewhere like this. So make sure you get given a treasure hunt there to keep them occupied. Ours loved it. However some of the clues are really hard, ask the Minster guides for help otherwise it will take ages!

*Book, book, book for Dig and York’s Chocolate Story

If you want to do these popular attractions then book in advance. Dig allows children to be archaeologists and shows them artefacts found beneath the streets of York from Roman, Viking, Victorian and medieval times. For the full Dig archeological experience, book ahead at busy times or you will only be allowed to look around a small part of the building.

York's Chocolate Story exterior

York’s Chocolate Story exterior

York’s Chocolate Story takes you on a tour of the city’s chocolate-making history. It’s great but only takes 25 people every 15 minutes so gets very busy. Again, book ahead.

*Jorvik Viking Centre

This is built on the site of amazing archaeology finds and incudes a ride and then a display. When we went there was a huge queue so we recommend you go early or late in the day. Once you are inside there is a small excavation room where you will queue again for the ride back into Viking York. This queue won’t be more than around 10 minutes.

*National Railway Museum

There is free entry to the National Railway Museum but you pay extra for rides you might want to do once inside such as a steam ride and a miniature train ride. To save time, buy tickets for those in the entrance hall, that is quicker and they take cards as well as cash. Also the best route starts with the Great Hall first.

Trains at the National Railway Museum

National Railway Museum


This famous shopping street was the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films. The bottom, southern end of the narrow, medieval street is the place for fans to head with four or five shops dedicated to the popular wizard including The Shop That Must Not Be Named.

The SHop that must not be Named at Shambles in York


*River Cruise

Save your legs and cut down on walking by starting your boat ride with York City Cruises at Lendal Bridge near York Minster but getting off at the King’s Staith stop which is closer to the very centre of the city.

City Cruise York - a boat on a tour on the River Ouse

City Cruises York on the River Ouse

*York Pass

If you are visiting more than three attractions, you will save time and money with a York Pass – the city’s official sightseeing card. You can buy one, two, three or six-day passes with entry included to 40 attractions (20 of them inside York’s city walls). One-day passes for adults cost £40 and £28 for children. If you are visiting one or two attractions it probably won’t be worth buying a pass.

*Park and Ride

If you are a day visitor then using one of York’s seven park and ride sites is the easiest way into the city centre and your children get a free bus ride too. There are six sites around the edge of the city.

How to get to York?

By car – It is 20 minutes from the M1 and M62 motorways. There are six park and ride sites around the city to leave your vehicle.

By train – York is on the East Coast mainline, two hours from London.

By coach – There is a direct service with National Express from many cities.

By air – The nearest airports are Leeds, Bradford and Doncaster. There is also a direct rail link from Manchester Airport.

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