A Beginner's Guide to Canal Boating

Your Boat Holiday Introduction

At Chiltern Canal Boat Holidays, we offer self drive boating breaks for both beginners and experienced skippers. At the start of your holiday, we'll give you a hands on tutorial to show you everything you need to know about handling the boat safely during your trip. 

Couples narrowboat, mini escape driving away from a lock

Before you start your canal holiday, we'll send you a copy of our Handbook giving you lots of information about what to expect when you arrive, instructions for operating the boat, information about onboard facilities, as well as some helpful tips on 'Canal Etiquette'. We ask all our holidaymakers to read this before arriving so you know what to expect on your holiday, but a copy will also be available on the boat during your trip.

When you arrive, our team will take you through a introductory session to make sure you are comfortable with how to drive and operate the narrowboat. This will last approximately 1.5 - 2 hours and covers the following:

  • Tour of the boat and on-board facilities
  • How to operate the boat safely, including casting off, cruising and mooring
  • A hands on tutorial on how to work the locks
  • Cruising route and facilities
  • Safety & Emergency Procedures

What to Expect on Your Canal Holiday

Working the locks and bridges

Customer being shown how to work the locks

On a self drive canal holiday, you have the freedom to explore the Grand Union canal and the Chiltern Hills at your own pace and in your own way. The area is obviously known for its hills, and as such, there are a few locks of locks along the way. 

This section of the canal also includes a swing bridges. Therefore, you and your crew need to be prepared for a little bit of work during your holiday, but take it from us, it's all part of the fun!

We'll provide you with all the equipment and information you need to work the locks and bridges safely and easily.

Alternatively, contact us directly about hosting you a piloted narrowboat holiday, so you can just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Mooring

Visitor moorings stretch far and wide across the south section of the Grand Union canal. Pick a secluded spot on a quiet stretch between country villages, or pull into a Marina to meet some other narrowboaters. 

Canal Boat moored on the towpath at sunset with swans passing by

Visitor moorings on the main canal are free to use, and generally allow stays for between 2 to 14 days. Information signs are available along the route and will give you the details you need about a particular location. Otherwise, it's important to ensure you stop in a location that allows you to moor safely, without being an obstruction for other boaters. We'll give you some advice on this before you set off. 

If you do decide to stay at a marina, the marina will charge you extra for that mooring. Prices can vary considerably depending on the facilities available and the time of year. In peak season, we always recommend calling ahead to the marina to check availability as popular spots can get booked up very quickly.

More About Canal Boating

We've compiled this handy list of the most common things you need to know about driving a narrowboat:

How to steer a canal boat

A narrowboat is steered with a tiller, which is a long horizontal pole located at the back of the boat. When you move the tiller to the left, the front of the boat will move to the right, and when you move the tiller to the right, the front of the boat will move to the left. Once the boat starts to turn it will pivot from the middle, so always ensure there is enough space for the rear of the boat to move in to. 

Do I drive on the left or the right?

Look for a mooring space that is big enough for your boat as early as possible to give you plenty of time to manoeuvre carefully into it. As you approach the space

What's the speed limit on the UK canals?

The maxiumum speed limit on the UK's inland waterways is 4mph, which is about a fast walking pace. However, when you are passing other boats, whether they are moored or travelling in the opposite direction, you should always slow down. On a narrowboat you only have forward and reverse gears, so in order to reduce your speed, you should put the boat into reverse to act as a brake. 

How to moor a canal boat

Look for a mooring space that is big enough for your boat as early as possible to give you plenty of time to manoeuvre carefully into it. As you approach the space put the boat into reverse until the boat is almost stopped, and then re-engage the forward gear to move forward very slowly. Begin to turn the boat towards the bank by steering the tiller away from the bank. When the front of the boat is about 1ft from the bank, turn the tiller in the opposite direction (i.e. towards the bank) which will move the front of the boat outwards, and the rear into the bank so that it is parallel. As the boat straightens alongside the bank, put the boat into reverse again to stop the boat from moving. You can now grab hold of your central rope and step safely on to the bank.

How to cast off

As you untie the boat from the front and back mooring pins, ensure you have hold of the centre rope. Walk to the front of the boat and gently push it away from the bank. Now, still keeping hold of the centre rope, walk to the back of the boat quickly and step on the the rear deck before the rear of the boat gets too far from the bank. Stow the centre rope safely on the roof of the boat, grab the tiller and keep it straight, then place engage the forward gear to move away from the bank slowly. Once the back of the boat is clear of the bank, you can steer the boat into the centre of the canal and continue on your way.

How do canal locks works?

The purpose of a lock is to move a boat from a lower section of the canal to a higher section, or vice versa. The water level must be equal on both sides of the gates in order for the gates to be opened, so you will only ever be able to open one end at a time. You'll need to moor up before every lock to prepare it, and then after every lock to close it all again (black and white bollards are available at every lock to temporarily moor for this purpose).

  • Going Down: You must first fill the lock with water by opening the paddles at the top end of the lock. Once it is full, open the gates, drive the boat in and then close the gates again, ensuring the paddles are also closed. Once the boat is in place, open the paddles on the bottom gates to empty the water out of the lock, and boat will be lowered. Once the lock is empty, open the gates, drive the boat out and moor up, then return to close the gates and paddles.
  • Going Up: You must first empty the lock by opening the paddles at the bottom end of the lock. Once it is empty, open the gates, drive the boat in and then close the gates again, ensuring the paddles are also closed. Once the boat is in place, open the ground paddles at the top of the lock and allow the lock to fill. Once the lock is half full, open the gate paddles on the top gates too. Once the lock is full, open the gates, drive the boat out and moor up, then return to close the gates and paddles.

What do I do if someone falls in to the canal?

The first thing to do whenever a person falls in to the canal is to put the boat into neutral to stop any risk of them getting caught in a turning propeller. The safest way for the person to get to safety is to stand up and exit the canal via the bank. Do not get them to try and climb back on to the boat. If the person has fallen in to a lock, throw the life ring between the boat and the lock wall - this will stop the boat from crushing them. The person should then use the lock ladders to safely exit the water.

Also, check out the 'Boater's Handbook' video linked below. Produced by the Canal and River Trust, this handy guide shows you all the things you need to know about becoming skipper on your hire boat!

Also, check out our Frequently Asked Questions page.