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The Basics of Boat Handling

Posted: 8th September 2022

Are you interested in sailing a narrowboat for the first time, but not sure what you need to know? This guide covers advice from the Canal & River Trust all about the basics of how to handle your boat, so that you can take to the waterways with confidence. A day on the water offers a truly wonderful opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life, enjoy quality time with family and friends, and explore another side to the charming British countryside. If you are hiring one of our narrowboats at Saul Junction or Tattenhall Marina, our team will give you full instructions on the use and handling of your vessel, and the safety features on-board.

Table of Contents (click to jump)

The Basics of Boat Handling: The Crew


Boating is all about teamwork: your crew should all be aware of their duties, as well as safety risks and how to avoid them. Although everyone will be working together, it’s important to designate your ‘skipper’, who will need to understand the boating basics, safety guidelines and what to do in an emergency (see our Boating Safety guide). As the skipper, you should ensure your crew are able to help with mooring and navigation.

The Basics of Boat Handling: Setting Sail

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For a smooth journey, abide by these simple steps before setting off on your adventure.

  1. Check that your boat, engine, and fuel system are in good condition and meet Boat Safety Scheme requirements (link). If you’re hiring a narrowboat, our team will have this covered.
  2. Ensure that you and your crew know how to handle the boat on the waterways you’ll be using. Check that your vessel will fit through bridges and locks, and that the waterway is not too shallow.
  3. Plan your journey by allowing plenty of time to complete your route. To get an idea of the minimum time your journey will take, add the number of locks to the number of miles and divide by 3!
  4. Do not cruise in the dark or in poor visibility.
  5. Ensure you are well-stocked with fuel and water for your trip.
  6. Have a fully-charged mobile phone on-hand in case of any emergencies. Being able to make a quick emergency call in a difficult situation could make all the difference.

Let’s set sail! Before you’re ready to set off, start the engine and keep in it neutral to allow it some time to warm up. Meanwhile, the crew can get prepared. The skipper will give the go-ahead to set off, at which point the crew should untie the front and back mooring ropes from the bank (leave the ropes tied to the boat. Coil them up to make sure they cannot trail into the water and get caught in the propeller. On rivers, release the downstream rope first).

A narrowboat steers from the back, so you can’t drive away from the bank as you would in a car. Push the boat away from the bank, checking for any oncoming traffic (if you’re setting off from shallow water, push the back of the boat out, then reverse until you have enough room to straighten up). When the boat is straight, switch into forward gear and gently accelerate to an appropriate cruising speed.

The Basics of Boat Handling: Under Way

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To ensure everybody can enjoy the waterways safely, we all need to be aware and considerate of others. The general rule is to cruise on the right-hand side, but on most standard-width canals, you should steer down the middle unless an oncoming boat approaches, as the edges can be shallow. When approaching an oncoming boat, keep right and pass ‘port-to-port’ (the left side of your boat passes the left side of their boat).

Some vessels may have to pass ‘starboard-to-starboard’. Loaded cargo vessels in need of deep water, or vessels proceeding with the tide or stream, will signal this with two short blasts. A vessel overtaking another vessel as it tows from a bank must always pass on the outside, never between the vessel and bank.

Go slowly past other boats and avoid creating breaking waves! Excessive speed can damage the bank, disturb moored vessels and even dislodge their mooring pins. Keep an eye out for other waterways users – anglers, swimmers, rowers, paddle-boarders, etc. – they can’t always hear or see you approaching, so give them plenty of space as you pass by.

The Basics of Boat Handling: Steering

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Always be aware of your surroundings – on the boat, on the banks, and in the water. If your boat has a wheel, get familiar with its feel and the rudder position before you set sail. Steering the boat will be like steering a car, except it is harder to judge where the wheel should be to travel straight. Using a tiller is simple – pushing to the left will make the boat head right, and vice versa. The boat will take a few seconds to respond to the tiller, so take your time and plan ahead.

Most boats pivot from a point around half-way along their length. This means you need to be aware of the front and back of the vessel when lining up to turn into a narrow gap, or else you risk hitting the edge with the back of your boat. Be cautious of currents or strong winds that may push you off-course.

Boats don’t have breaks, so you'll need to allow yourself plenty of time to stop. To do this, ease off the throttle, move into neutral, then use reverse gear to slow down and come to a halt. Opening the throttle when in reverse gear to give more engine revs will increase the effect of braking, but remember it is extremely difficult to steer in reverse gear. You may need the occasional forward boost to gain better control.

You may accidentally go aground along your journey – meaning to catch the hull on something under the water and get stuck. Do not panic if this happens! Every boater has done this at one point or another. Use reverse gear to back away, do not attempt to force your boat over the obstacle as you may get even more stuck. If you’re firmly stuck, ask your crew to move to the side of the boat that is still floating and use your push pole to push off against a solid object or the waterway bed.

The Basics of Boat Handling: Mooring

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Now that you've used your boating basics knowledge to enjoy a successful waterways adventure, it's time to moor the boat again. Your crew should be prepared in advance to moor and know what their tasks are. As slowly as possible, come to a stop in the deep part of the water just short of where you want to moor, with your vessel straight. Slowly move forward with the bow facing the bank, use reverse gear to stop just before the boat touches the bank, and put the engine into neutral. Your crew can then step ashore and secure the mooring ropes (in strong winds, you should always moor with your boat facing into the stream to give yourself more control! It is easier to pass the mooring and then turn around than to attempt to steer into oncoming wind).

Take your front and back mooring ropes and tie them to the bollards or rings a short distance from the boat. Run them at about a 45° angle from the boat, loop them back onto the boat and tie them securely. To stop the boat moving forwards and backwards in moving water, you can use additional ropes as ‘springs’. Leave some slack in your ropes in case of dropping water levels, and remember that your anchor can be used for additional security if you feel like you need it.

Unsure of where you can moor, or for how long? It’s usually best to moor against the towpath or on signed visitor moorings, as the non-towpath side of a canal, and many riverbanks, are often private property. Make yourself aware of any time limits and abide by them – Canal & River Trust waters tend to allow up to 14 days of mooring unless there is signage to state otherwise. If you're hiring a boat from Saul Junction Marina, the Gloucester and Sharpness canal is abundant in moorings so you shouldn’t have an issue with this, but be sure to keep your fellow boaters in mind when you choose your mooring position.


  • In locks / lock approaches / lock flights
  • Blocking taps or other services unless you are using them
  • Near or under bridges
  • Near weirs
  • On the outside of bends
  • By blind spots
  • In / opposite / on the approach to turning points or winding holes
  • At junctions
  • On landing spaces for canoes, usually near locks
  • In stretches marked out for an angling match
  • Where any signs prohibit mooring

Now You Know the Boating Basics!

Now you know how to safely enjoy the British waterways on your first cruising adventure. With stunning scenery, fresh air and total tranquility, boating along the canals and rivers is not only a fun way to travel, but an incredibly safe way. Looking to hire a narrowboat for a day or mini break and try out the narrowboat lifestyle for yourself?

Saul Junction Marina
Click here
and select your vessel from our Gloucester narrowboats named after The Wind in the Willows characters.

Tattenhall Marina
Click here and select one of our three fantastic dayboats, Beeston, Bolesworth and Chester.

Mooring at our Marinas
Looking for the perfect place to moor your beloved boat? Check out our marinas, each with a fantastic range of facilities and access to a variety of cruising routes.
Deganwy Marina

Great Haywood Marina

Roydon Marina Village

Saul Junction Marina
Tattenhall Marina

For more information on boating basics, visit the Canal & River Trust.

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