Steering A Narrowboat
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Mon Oct 14, 2013 at 4:11pm

Advice on Steering A Narrowboat on Canals

No license is required to steer a narrowboat in the UK. The controls are very simple on a narrow boat and the basic skills are very to easy to pick up, it's just a matter of getting to know your boat and lots of practice!

Canals are normally narrower and shallower than rivers, are often not much deeper than the draught of the boat and are only a few times wider than the boat.  The bed of canals were made saucer shaped with the centre being deeper than the edges.  Because of this is it best to travel down the middle of the canal wherever possible, unless of course you need to pass an oncoming boat.  This means you will be in the deepest water and are less likely to stir up and scour the bottom with the propellor.  Canals were made for horse drawn narrowboats originally as there were no motorised boats and the maximum speed was only two to three miles an hour.  The maximum speed limit nowadays on all canals is 4 mph and on many you should not travel faster than 3 mph. You should keep the wash you are making down to a minimum by reducing your speed as the wash causes more mud to be washed into the middle of the canal and the bank to erode. 

A boat doesn't steer like a car - its stern swings out when you move the tiller.  You should always be aware of what the stern is doing, especially on a boat with restricted rear vision.  The boat will also always be influenced by wind and current and can drift in any direction.  Be aware of how your boat is drifting and make allowances for it.

How to Stop and Slow Down



There are no brakes on a narrowboat. To slow down the boat, you should put the engine into reverse to slow yourself down.  Move the throttle back and if necessary, put the gear lever into neutral, then into reverse, when you feel the gears have engaged gradually open the throttle.  You need to do this gradually to prevent the gear box, engine and shaft from being damaged.  Also to prevent any crew who are not aware of your intention to stop from loosing their footing or being thrown overboard.  Even though the boats engine is in reverse, momentum will keep it going forward, so it is best to moderate your speed when approaching to stop and bear in mind any wind or current which will make stopping slower.  The natural resistance of the water will act as a gentle break. 

There will be a paddlewheel effect which will kick the stern of your boat the same way every time you go into reverse.  Through experience you will find out what direction and should remember this and use it to your advantage to help you manoeuvre the boat in the direction you want to go.


In order to turn you need to understand and use all the functions of the engine, gears and rudder, practice will help you to turn proficiently.  The point of turning is the middle of the boat. A canal boat will be slow to respond so if you see that you need to make a turn up ahead slow right down. You will need to begin slowly turning as the bow reaches the turning point. Tight corners may require some reversing. If you need to turn right around to change the direction of travel a longer boat will require a winding hole.  As well as using the tiller to turn you may also find it helpful to have a crew member on the bank with a bow line, particularly if the turning space is tight.  Remember that when moving backwards the tiller direction will have the opposite effect.  So to turn the boat to the right you will have to move the tiller to the right. This is the opposite of what you would do if you were travelling forwards.

Extra Help On Learning How to Use A Narrowboat

If you want to have some tuition to feel more confident in your abilities to moor, steer or go through a lock in your narrowboat then it is worth looking into getting some proper training that is RYA approved (see the link below). There are also many sources on the internet that are worth reading or watching and our youtube channel has lots of useful videos on narrowboating. 

RYA: Inland Waterways Helmsman Course

Willow Wren Narrowboat Training