postheadericon 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.

1 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.

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

If you are going onto a river, you will need an anchor and sufficient rope and chain for its use.

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)
How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

2 Make sure you have cast off all wires: electrical connections, phone connections, TV aerial connections.

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

3 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). 4 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.

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

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).

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

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).

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)
How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

5 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.

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

6 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).

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

7 Move the tiller slightly towards the 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). 8 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

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

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).

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

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.)

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

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.

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)
How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

9 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). 10 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. 11 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.

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

12 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.

How to Control a Canal Boat (Narrowboat)

13 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.

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