.: Navigating

Piloting a narrow boat appears fairly easy to those walking on the towpath, and can be if some simple rules are followed, however, it is remarkably easy to annoy other boaters or sink in a lock if care is not taken! This will be useful if you are considering renting a narrowboat or going on a narrow boat holiday......

Update: 12-12-2012, 4:39pm

Going in a straight line

Not as easy as it sounds this one, the usual mistake is to overcorrect and we constantly 'rowing' the tiller. The trick is simple, don't try to steer the boat, AIM for a point in the distance, and try to keep the boat lined up with it. A narrow boat responds slowly to rudder movements, especially at low speeds or low engine revs, so when going straight, little movements and patience.


The only way to stop a narrow boat is to put it into reverse, and use the power of the engine to work against the forward motion of the boat. This means that you need to plan ahead, and slow down before stopping, so you don't over rev the engine.


Going to fast will quickly get you hated on the canal. As a rule of thumb, if your going about as fast as walkers on the towpath, that's about maximum. A wave behind the boat is not acceptable, (ripples are ok) and slow right down to a crawl to pass moored boats. You will be surprised how happy people are to see someone travelling at the right speed.

Swing bridges

These are hydraulically operated, and fairly tedious, your normal lock key is used to wind the bridge up, and it takes a while. You will need to moor up first, (on the same side as the hinge of the bridge) wind it up, and navigate through. Take care as you do, as the bridge wont open fully, so overhangs a little - so keep slow and to the far side. Once through you must close it, unless another boat is coming - as the locals who use the bridge wont have a lock key to close it. Rule is, if traffic is waiting - 3 boats and close for traffic.

Small bridges

Bridges are where you will most likely lose paint or chimneys!, the trick is to line up the boat on approach, guide the nose into the opening, and steer the front half of the boat through, once your front half is in, look down and steer the back, so you don't touch the sides. Personally I often put my hand up to push off from the bridges arch if i get to close. The curve of the arch is often deceptive and can catch the side of the boat..


Most tunnels are only big enough for one way traffic, and the guideline in busy times is three one way then three the other. You have to be sure the tunnel is clear before you go, so look through it, or send someone ahead, if your unlucky and its busy, your single handed and you cant see the other end, simply wait for another boat to go and follow them through.

In the tunnel, you will find navigation requires you complete attention, the tunnel is narrow, and once you get stuck to the side you will most likely scrape the whole way through. Concentrate on keeping the front in the middle, and then guide the back away from the walls if you come too close.

There are two types of tunnel - those with towpath and those without. In the ones with a towpath, keep your nose to that side.

Any current flow will in the canal will be felt in a tunnel, and you wont be able to keep the boat straight, don't worry, let it crab, just angle the nose to the highest section, if possible.


A 40ft craft will turn in a 40ft wide canal, as long as its deep enough...... however, the length of your boat and the width of the canal are difficult to judge, the canal looks wider than it is and your boat looks shorter! If in doubt, turn slowly and if your too long or there is a shallow bit, you can back off and try elsewhere. The method of turning is easy, stay mid canal, slow down so your just moving, put the tiller hard over and give a burst of power. This will make the boat go forward a little but will swing the back around, once the boat is more than half way round, give a little power in reverse to bring the nose off the opposite bank, and repeat as required.

Summary - mid canal, slow, tiller full over, small bursts of power, once half way round, reverse a bit and repeat.

Tips - nose into the turning spot not reverse as it will often be shallow and foul your propeller if you go backwards. Not too much power, as you can over rev the engine, don't worry about the front touching the far bank.


Lets look at the worst case scenario - you need to park in a space in a line of boats and your single handed. You can just 'get close' jump off and pull it in........ but the best way is to come in slow, very slow, and direct the nose to the spot you want it. You are looking to come to a stop with the nose in the right place but the back half way out in the canal. Once you have achieved this, point the tiller at the bank you are trying to moor to and give a little power - very little. The back of the boat will be driven to the bank by the propeller, with little or no forward motion.

Tips - when coming in slow, the rudder is deeply ineffective, there are two ways to deal with this, - steer way in advance and wait for her to respond, or 'row' the tiller. To 'row' you sharply pull the tiller to the way you want to go, then move smoothly to centre line and repeat. the rush of water created by the 'paddle' effect of the fast moving tiller pushes the boat the way you want it.

How to Moor

To moor securely, you will need something secure to tie to. Never ever run a rope across the towpath, always tie to the rings or armco sides. Mooring pins are ok, but must be hammered in angled away from the boat so they don't pull out.

Never moor from your top rope - a passing craft can create enough of a wave to pull you over. Tie front and back, and have the ropes tight..

Where to moor

You have the normal British waterways mooring spots, which are ok, and have rings to tie to etc, but that's obvious. 'other' mooring spots are available too, look for evidence of string around the armco on pilings showing where people have tied up before. You can get away with a lot so long as you follow these rules

Where - Not across a water point, don't obstruct the canal, don't stop in someone else's permanent mooring, even if there not there, don't moor where it says 'no mooring' or 'private land', don't moor in the tie up spots for the locks.

What to do - don't let you dog run anywhere except the towpath - if you moor offside and let your dog run in farmers field you will get yelled at, don't EVER leave rubbish, and if there is any where you stop, pick it up or you will be blamed. If there is any danger of fire, don't have a barbecue.

Surprisingly, if you get to somewhere you need to stop and its busy, its ok to moor against another boat for a while so long as you follow the correct etiquette - 'ask for permission, give reason why' - i.e. - ' can i moor against you? I'm waiting to get to the water' When doing this it is bad form then to scratch half his paint off.


Personally i am terrible. I will moor wherever i feel is nice, I will tuck myself away in the edges of winding holes (turning circles), I will moor overnight at locks, moor on the offside....... but that's just me. I get yelled at a lot, but as I travel single handed people are usually kinder to you. The common one is loads of cursing because I blocking the lock tie up points, (this then wakes me), I emerge, and while still cursing me the crew of the other boat will realize, pass through the lock, and set it for me to motor straight in.


British waterways key

These are purchased from the British waterways website or sometimes chandlery. They are extremely useful, they open BW facilities, Locks that have a 'lock' and pretty much all and everything BW lets you use - if in doubt, try your BW key, if it fits your allowed to use it!.

Stopping for boats to pass

This is a tricky one, if you come up to a narrow bit and someone else is coming then you need to decide who stops...... In theory, its whoever is furthest away. Anyway, stopping your boat will make it slew across the canal, and as you will have very little space to correct it, this needs to be avoided. The best solution is to turn towards the side, then reverse to stop yourself - again you are 'planting the nose' and steering the back. You can manoeuver the back easily, the prow is the problem. So, nose in, reverse, then as the front tries to pull away from the bank with the reverse action (called prop walk i think) let her into neutral. In theory you should be moving very slowly now. The moment the other boat gets close, and you can go, do, the other boat will suck yours into it as he passed if your stationary - so get moving or jump off with a rope.


There are several sizes of lock, but all work the same way. Initially lets look at housekeeping, going up or down, tie up securely and walk up to the lock. Rules when busy are to fill the lock with boats on filling and emptying - so look out for people on the way down before you empty it and conversely for the way up. Always close gates when you leave and drop all paddles. Never allow a paddle to free fall, always wind it down. Unless the lock is wide, lift fenders.(some of that will make more sense when you read the rest)

Ok, there are three components to a lock. Gate, paddle and Cill. The gate opens to let you in, the paddle lets water into the lock, and the cill sinks unwary boaters. The principal is fairly simple, if your going up, you need the lock empty to get in, if your going down it must be full. the paddles are cranked with the key and they have a simple ratchet to hold them up, with the lock empty you can pretty much do what you want to let water in or out, so do that, and once ready, swing the gate open to let your craft in. A narrow boat will fit through a single gate of a double lock.

Once in, run a top rope to a bollard on the side and wrap it round a couple of turns - don't tie it.

Going up - close the bottom doors - don't worry if there not completely shut the water flow will close them - and open the bottom paddles on the top gate slowly - not the ones on the gate. If your single crewed you will now need to run to your rope to stop the boat being sucked into the front of the lock. Let the lock fill to half way, then open the gate paddles. Tips - if you forget to close the bottom gate paddles the lock will never fill, and if you open the gate paddles before the ground paddles the boat will get sucked forward, and water will pour into your front deck, likely sinking you. Also, if your fenders are down and the lock is tight, the fenders will jam on the wall, and the water will rise while your boat stays there - and sink you.

Going down - first of all you will see a marker on the wall saying 'cill' this is the step in the canal - if your not in front of this the back of the boat will land on it as you go down, levering the nose underwater, again, you will sink. As a guide, if your under 60ft, and the nose is touching the lower gate - your fine. There is only one set of paddles on the lower gate - so open up and hold the boat steady.


Cill - if you realize your on the cill, initially try to push forward, this is the quickest way to get out of danger - if your stuck, run to close the lower gate paddles and gently open the upper ground paddles to float yourself off.

Jammed - you can get jammed a few ways, fenders too big, in with another boat with fenders too big, in with another boat and the walls are bowed, or, with small boats, across the lock jammed on brickwork. Anyway - firstly, stop the water coming into the lock and drain it back down. Try cutting fender ropes, and rocking the boat.

Flooding - if you end up shipping water, and it gets to a stage the water is coming into vents, if you are quick enough, get a rope front and back to bollards and drain the lock enough to be below the vent holes (not further - the ropes/bollards wont hold your boats full weight) and let the bilge pump do its job. Clothes can be used to stuff holes as well, and flooding to the front deck can be slowed from getting into the main boat by closing the doors.


At some point in your boating life you will find the canal bottom is too near the surface. You will know when this happens as your journey will become briefly bumpy, then stop. Don't try to drive on, you will have to go back, reasonable revs in reverse should get you off, (be patient it takes a while to unstick) if not, rock the boat from side to side while reversing, or pull it out with a rope from the bank. Throwing passengers and luggage off the craft temporarily will help too.

Occasionally you will wake up at a mooring to find the canal has dropped overnight and your are grounded. in this instance, try to push the front into deeper water, the back will follow eventually. If this doesn't work, check nearby locks are closed properly, and let some water through locks above you.

Single handed navigation

This isn't as difficult as people make out, so don't be afraid to try. You will need an extra long top rope to make life easy. In locks you can wrap one turn around a bollard and open the paddles while still holding the rope to control the boat, you can pull the boat out of the lock and tie on with the top rope in any half arsed way, close the gates and pull the boat back to you, you can moor by getting somewhere close to the bank and jumping off with the rope and pulling it in,

Have fun!