3 mins

The 9 things you need to know before narrowboating

The UK has some beautiful canals and waterways and are best explored by narrowboat. But what are the essentials that you need to know...?

A dog taking on navigation duties (Shutterstock)

1. On the UK’s waterways you travel on the right. Canals can be shallow at the edges so it is fine to go down the middle if it is clear to do so but always move over and pass left hand to left hand if meeting other traffic. 

2. You stand at the back of the boat and push the tiller left to go right and vice versa. Yes, it's confusing and easy to forget! So go slow and always plan well ahead, and remember that the boat pivots from around the middle. There are no brakes, so you put the engine into reverse to stop the boat. Again, you need to plan ahead as much as possible. Practise a few times before you need to do it for real. On canals there are designated spots for turning to help make that easier, but do gen up on how to do it before having a go.

3. You navigate by the bridges. They are all numbered, and so that is how you can tell where you are. On a canal, give way at bridges to whoever reaches it first. On a river give way to boats travelling downstream.

4. Avoid the high season for your first time so that you don't have the stress of avoiding other boats, queues at locks, and people watching you fumble as you try to do anything. Go when it’s quiet and you'll also find it easier to find good moorings (and with space to manoeuvre into them) and will have your choice of riverside pubs. If you have no choice but to have a go when it's busy, then try and set off early in the mornings before there is too much traffic.


A welcome mid-afternoon drinks break (Simon Chubb)

A welcome mid-afternoon drinks break (Simon Chubb)

Touching up the paintwork (Lyn Hughes)

Touching up the paintwork (Lyn Hughes)

5. Gen up as much as possible before you go – watch the video that the Canal & River Trust have produced and download the Boaters Handbook. Make sure you have learned about the different types of locks and how to work them, including closing them after you exit. Understand the difference between going down and going up through them. They are the most nerve-wracking part of the experience for newbies, so the more prep you have put in beforehand the better. You will find most fellow narrowboaters very supportive though so don't be afraid to ask for help.

6. Don’t be over-ambitious with your itinerary and the distance you will be covering. While getting used to everything you may want to do shorter days. This also has the advantage of giving you more time to find the best moorings, and to go out and explore your surroundings. Some people take bikes or kayaks on their boats for that purpose. It's a good idea to take folding chairs so that you can sit out on the towpath if the weather is fine. 

7. You can take dogs on narrowboats but do be aware that while many canines take to it, not all do. You may want to tie them up initially and definitely when going through locks. Consider getting them a doggle lifejacket. It makes sense to have them wear a harness rather than a collar, so they are easy to grab if they do fall in. 

8. You'll need a good waterways guide such as the Collins Nicholson Waterways Guides. As mentioned in Number Three you'll know exactly where you are by the bridges, but the guide will also give you an insight into your surroundings, show where the locks, water points  and turning points are, and will have recommendations for pubs. 

9.  Go slow!  The speed limit on canals is 4mph, but you should go even slower than that past other boats (including moored ones), past wildlife and approaching tunnels. Homeowners along the waterways also appreciate you being considerate and not eroding their banks. 

Top Tip: Don’t refer to a narrowboat as a barge. A barge is bigger and wider and built to carry cargo.
Top Tip: Don’t refer to a narrowboat as a barge. A barge is bigger and wider and built to carry cargo.

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