Boating Basics

The Sheffield Narrowboats unofficial guide to... 

The Basics of Boating on the UK Inland Waterways

Quick Checklist (print out and keep handy) for you and your crew.



  • Slow down
    You'll soon guess the theme - and true secret of enjoyable and safe boating, but to reinforce the message that follows - please stay at a slow, and in controlled speed at all times - there really isn't any rush, wherever you're going will still be there, and the journey is always far more important than the destination.
  • Ropes
    Take care when handling and stowing ropes.  Don't put your hand within a coil of rope, keep your fingers clear to avoid possible rope-burn or trapping your hand (and you) should the rope snag or be pulled unexpectedly.
    When not in use, coil ropes neatly and keep them away from anywhere feet may go - to avoid tripping.
    Always keep the free end of your middle rope near to hand at the rear and generally on the towpath side of the boat.  Be careful when flicking the rope to the other side of the boat to ensure you do not catch any items on the roof.
  • Keep hold of the tiller
    Don't let it swing around - it may swing around and knock you overboard.
  • Wear lifejackets if at all unsure
    and please, please, please - no matter how safe you may think it is to let children play on deck, help moor, or assist at locks, always ensure they do so whilst wearing the lifejackets we provide.
  • Weed Hatch
    It's inevitable that at some point you're going to have to remove the weed hatch to clear something (usually an item of abandoned clothing, plastic bag, wire or fishing line - hardly ever 'weed'!) that has got wrapped around the propeller.  There are two risks associated with this; personal harm and potentially sinking your boat, so follow these steps carefully:
    1. Secure your boat, even if only with the centre line being held by someone on the towpath.
    3. Remove the weed hatch and clear the obstruction.
    4. Reseat the hatch and ENSURE it is correctly sealed.
    5. Start the engine and whilst watching the secured hatch, apply some power. 
    If you see ANY water leaking from the hatch, you're running the risk of sinking your boat, turn the engine off, remove the key, and re-seat and re-seal the hatch.
  • Man overboard?
    Anyone falling overboard, or into the waterway whilst, as an example, helping to moor is at severe risk of injury from the propeller, so whatever the situation:


    Stay calm, it may very well be that after a second or two they'll find they can stand up (a lot of canals and rivers are not very deep).  Think carefully before throwing the life-ring - if you do, please don't throw it at them - it may seem fairly lightweight to you, but at speed, hitting them on the head with it could knock them out and make things worse.  Throw life-rings 'near to' them.  Better still, see if you can reach them with your bargepole or boathook - both of which are to hand on the roof in front of the cockpit.

  • Gas
    Ensure gas bottles are securely retained with the chain provided.
    Exercise extreme care when changing gas bottles - and remember that the connector thread has a left hand thread!  Also be careful when lifting or carrying gas bottles - they are heavy, always lift from the knees, keeping your back straight.

    If you smell gas inside the main cabin turn off the main gas stop-cock (located in the gas locker) immediately.  Open all doors and windows, moor at the earliest opportunity and vacate the boat.
    Once safely on the towpath or bank, call us immediately.  DO NOT use your mobile telephone onboard if you suspect a gas leak.

  • Fuel
    Exercise caution when filling with diesel.  Ensure there are no naked flames, smoking or sources of ignition.  Turn the engine off and double check that the boat is securely moored.
    Try not to over-stretch the filler hose, ensure you are correctly balanced and fill slowly.  Under no circumstances should you allow yourself to become distracted.

    NEVER allow diesel to spill into the canal or river.

  • Fire!
    All of our boats have fire retardant fixtures and fittings, but a lot of the inside is made of wood - so in the event of a major fire breaking out on board, leave immediately.  Go, go now.
    Don't bother trying to put it out with the fire extinguishers, they're not going to help and are only there for really minor stuff (and because we have to provide them). JUST LEAVE, leave everything behind, don't stop to get anything, ever, not even your Rolex - that's why insurance was invented - and the insurers would prefer to pay out for a Rolex rather than a dead member of your crew.
    Get off, and get off NOW!  Get everyone else off too, and be quick about it, but calm, don't panic, and once off, stay off. 

    Dial 999 or 112 from your cellular phone (DO NOT DIAL 911 in the UK), stay calm and listen to what the operator says. Speak calmly, and clearly, you are in very safe hands and help will be with you very quickly.

    Do not, under any circumstances, ever, for any reason, get back on the boat, ever, really, we mean it.

    Move well away from the boat, alert those moored near to you.
    Await the attendance of the Fire and Rescue Service.


OK, that's out of the way, once you've memorised it, try to memorise the rest:

Boat Handling

Boat Handling

  • Go slow whenever you can
    What's the hurry?  The faster you go, the more you're going to miss
  • Watch your wake
    Your 'wake', the waves you're causing along the towpath or riverbank can destroy natural habitats for rare or endangered plants and wildlife.  If you're making waves - or even worse, if your wake is white and splashing around, you're going far too fast - please slow down.
  • Keep in the middle
    Canals and rivers may not be as deep as you think.  The deepest part is always going to be in the middle, so try to stay there.
  • Pass on the Right
    Almost all overseas customers will be comfortable with this (except Australians and Kiwis - Hi Brian and Emily, by the way!).  Those from the UK and Eire may instinctively want to veer to the left.  Please try not to, but don't worry too much if you forget the first couple of times, other boaters will generally be quite understanding.
    Boats working in the channel will normally signal to tell you which side they'd like you to pass, or display a green or white light on that side.
    The only caveat to this is Commercial Vessels - Large commercial tankers and barges always need the deepest water.  If the deepest water is where you happen to be, they need to be there too, so move out of their way - if this means passing on the wrong side, then so be it.  Also remember that they do not have the same stopping and manoeuvring ability that you have!
  • Beware at Bridges
    In some areas it's still seen as a local sport by many young people to chuck things off bridges into canals - bikes and shopping trolleys are especially favoured.  These can cause obstructions under the water, so (yes, you've guessed it) slow down when approaching a bridge.
    Occasionally you'll see groups of young people hanging around on bridges - they'll rarely provide a problem for you, if you're worried just smile, give a 'thumbs-up' or wave and they'll usually reciprocate.
    Some bridges can also be quite low so keep in the middle and mind your head.
  • Speed limit 4mph MAX
    Most boaters will eventually come to believe that this is too fast anyway, but please, for your own safety, sanity and financial wellbeing (there are hefty fines for speeding) please keep well below 4mph.
    (You should only ever reach 4mph whilst going downhill).
  • Think ahead
    Not hard at less than 4mph, but you'll soon become very relaxed on your narrow boat - so try to think ahead, especially for bridges and bends.  If you're ever unsure what's coming up, simply pull over to the towpath, moor for a moment and go take a look!
  • Don't move after dusk
    As the sun starts to set, you should be starting to moor. 
    Simply put, you're not allowed to move after dusk.


No two locks are ever the same.  Each exhibits their own 'personality', with little quirks and characteristics that will leave you either loving or loathing them!

Whether small narrow single locks or broad, long automated commercial locks, there are a few things to always bear in mind:

  • Always approach slowly.
  • Read any instructions that may be provided.
  • Enter and leave at the slowest possible speed.
  • In larger locks, be prepared to use your middle rope for stability.
  • Manual locks need special care, keep hold of the windlass!
  • Use your 2 way radios and keep good eye contact between the Skipper and 'locker'.
  • Ensure children and pets are under control.
  • Read our advice on lifejackets!
  • Open and close paddles slowly, don't let the water move too fast, it can make your boat feel like a cork in a bottle.
  • To conserve water try to share locks with other boaters if there's room.
  • On flights of locks, walk up to the top to see if anyone is coming down before emptying locks or pounds.
  • Some locks will require the British Waterways key or an anti-vandal 'Handcuff' key.
    PLEASE remember to re-engage the lock after use and DON'T LEAVE YOUR KEY BEHIND!
  • Always close the paddles and gates unless instructed otherwise.
  • Unless it is absolutely necessary or otherwise instructed to do so, NEVER use your boat to push open lock gates.
  • The most stable position for your boat in any lock is usually going to be near where you came in (the back).  This is especially true for large and wide locks.
  • While in a lock ensure nothing on the bow gets caught (like the front fender) on any part of the lock gates - whether going up, or down in a lock.
  • As you ascend some locks, ensure the tiller doesn't become trapped under the walkway provided on some lock gates.

This is all pretty much common-sense, however the most dangerous part of any lock is the CILL - a concrete or stone ledge lurking under the water.  The position will usually be marked in white paint on the side of the lock.  Keep the boat well clear of the CILL, as the water goes down the boat can easily catch and this is a common cause of sinking boats in locks, so:


Having said all this, locks are some of the best, and most enjoyable parts of the boating experience.  Many of the older locks still bear the Masons mark, carved into each individual stone or block.  This is how the 'Gaffer' would calculate daily pay, based upon the number of marks and consequently, work undertaken.




  • Slow down
    Assess where you can moor safely
  • Moor on the towpath
    Only moor on the towpath side of the canal.
  • Please do not moor at a water point
    You may be woken very early by an angry boater needing to fill up with water
  • Please do not moor at the waiting stage for locks or movable bridges
    Angry boaters trying to navigate locks or bridges will not thank you for blocking waiting stages
  • Think twice before mooring on a bend.  Carefully assess whether you may be causing an obstruction - especially if two other boats meet where you're moored and want to pass.
  • Keep mooring ropes, or any other obstruction, clear of the towpath
    Mooring ropes and mooring pins may be obvious to you in the daylight, but at night they are invisible to towpath users.  Keep well clear of the towpath, and if in any doubt, tie a white carrier bag around the mooring pin to reflect any night light and alert towpath walkers who may (especially after an evening in a local hostelry) veer slightly off the path, and into your mooring rope.
  • Not too tight
    Mooring ropes need not bind your boat to the edge - leave some slack as the water level may rise - or fall, leaving you hanging from the mooring ropes!
  • Only hang fenders from the side once you're moored and remove them before setting off again.  Low branches may grab the fender rope and although not expensive, fenders are better on boats than hanging from trees!
  • Use all three ropes on tidal rivers
    If you have to moor on a tidal river (and generally it's best not to do so if at all avoided), use all three ropes to moor.  Also ensure, if you are using mooring pins, that they are driven securely into firm ground - don't worry about getting them out again, you'll find they're very loose in the morning!



  • Go slow
    Really, it's better than revving the engine and not being able to hear yourself think.
    Go slow especially when nearing a bend - you don't know what's on the other side.
  • Pass other boats even slower
    Some canals and rivers can be narrow, other boaters may not be confident, when you see another boat coming toward you, power back (but keep control) and pass slowly and gently.
  • Pass moored boats 'at a drifting speed'
    Whenever passing moored boats, go as slow as is possible to retain control.  With practice you will know your slowing-down distance.  When passing a moored boat, you should have almost no wake.  Moored boats can be damaged if you pass them too quickly.  The occupants may have a bowl of soup thrown over them if you cause their boat to rock.  Please, even if you think it's an abandoned wreck, pass other moored boats slowly.
  • Noise travels
    Especially so on a canal or river - so even if you're not moored right next to another, please be aware of your potential for causing noise pollution.
    Please do not use the outside speakers after dusk.  Also be aware that the joviality of a group enjoying a pleasant evening on deck can disturb other boaters, especially so if those other boaters have infants on-board and have spent hours getting them off to sleep.  Please try to keep noise to a minimum, and you may even catch some of the evening wildlife doing what evening wildlife does.
  • Litter kills
    On the street or pavement (sidewalk) a discarded sweet wrapper may be unsightly.  On the waterways it could mean certain death for a Duck if it gets stuck in its gullet.  Swans are regularly injured after trying to eat plastic bottle tops.  Please don't throw anything into the waterways, however insignificant it may seem to you.
  • Pass Fishermen/women Slowly and keep in the Middle
    It may seem good sense to pull over, toward the opposite bank in order to keep clear of fishermen, but they may actually be trying to fish the other bank, so keep in the middle, slow down and they'll be happy (they'll seldom express it though).  Neither should you worry about their long fishing rods obstructing your path.  The carbon fibre rods used these days cost a fortune - no fisherman is going to let you run into it unless they're drunk, drugged or dead. 

    It's a good idea, should you become aware that a fishing tournament is being held at at certain place on a certain date, and want to avoid several hundred rods, to plan to avoid cruising that part of the waterways that day.

    Many Boaters will tell you that most fishermen are miserable, grumpy and rude, will never smile, will always believe you're too noisy, or too quiet, going too fast, or too slow, are always in the wrong position - actually 'in the wrong' full stop for being on a boat, and that they are generally a totally impossible to please waste of life sitting for hours in the most hidden part of the towpath moaning about boaters and how hot or cold it is...  While this may very well be the case, just slow down, keep in the middle, give a cheery smile and pass in peace - after all, our waterways are enjoyed in many different ways by many different folk... 

    On no account, after being shunned by a fisherman who fails to acknowledge your cheery smile, avoids eye contact or simply scowls should you shout "Cheer up chuckles, I made the effort to slow down for you, a smile's the least you can do in return"- such fishermen have no sense of humour in this respect.

Getting it wrong

Getting stuff wrong...

  • Whatever anyone may like you to believe, there isn't a boater on the British Waterways network who hasn't mucked it all up BIG TIME at some point or another.  It's a part of the learning experience so please don't worry too much when (not if) it happens to you!

    Many believe boating to be a contact sport and accept the odd 'bump' as a right of passage.  If you do bump into another boat, simply smile and say sorry - most boaters will know how you feel, may make a slightly cutting comment anyway, but will let it go and probably smile to themselves after you've gone whilst remembering the time they did exactly the same thing.

    On very odd occasions you'll find a grumpy and thoroughly nasty old/young git who'll like you to think they've never made a mistake in the history of their boating career, and they may try to give you a pretty hard time.  Again, smile, say sorry and pass in peace - you will hardly ever see such situations develop into anything more serious than a few heated words - please do not match 'like for like' if they start to swear or shout at you - just smile, stay calm and say sorry - they then have many other options other than to accept your smile.

  • OOoops...
    On very (very) rare occasions you'll possibly cause some damage to another boat. Thankfully this really is rare, but if it does happen due to your actions, call us immediately, and complete the Damage To Other form in your Boat Manual.  Get the person who is in control of the boat you've damaged to fill in the 'Part B' of the form, and ensure they have our contact details.  Once done, leave the rest to us.  We'll have assessed if you're safe to continue, and if so, just forget it (but try not to do it again, obviously!).  If your boat has been damaged in such a manner that you are unable to continue, please refer to our terms and conditions, and prepare for a few nights in a hotel :-)