how to drive a narrowboat

The Beginner’s Guide: How to Drive a Narrowboat with Grace

Narrowboats are long thin tubes of steel. Heavy, slow and awkwardly shaped… they’re easy to drive, right?

Well, actually, yes. And quite gracefully, once you master a few basics.

Standing on the stern of a 70-foot narrowboat can be a terrifying experience. But never fear. They’re slow, so you get plenty of time to react, make decisions and think about that next maneuver.

So, what’s it like actually to drive a narrowboat?

Before You Start the Narrowboat’s Engine

There are a few housekeeping rules to apply before you drive a narrowboat.

Some Basic Checks

Okay, it’s time to clamber into the engine bay and get your hands dirty.

  • Check the coolant: You wouldn’t want the engine overheating
  • Check the weed hatch: You’ll see a rectangle lid at the prop end. Unbolt it and feel in the water for obstructions around the prop
  • Check the horn and lights work: If you have any tunnels or tight bends, both are necessary for safety

There are many additional checks you can do, but these are the basic “good practices.”

Now You’re Ready to Start the Engine

When you turn the key, look out for these lights on the control panel:

  • Engine battery indicator
  • Domestic battery indicator
  • Temperature
  • Oil pressure
  • Panel power on

Not all control panels are the same, so there may be variations, but you should have some indicator lights. However, on older model narrowboats, this may not be the case.

Place the key in and turn to the first position known as “heat.” An alarm will sound on the panel, telling you the alternator isn’t charging due to the engine not running yet. Check that the indicator lights are on.

Turn the key to start position, and it will naturally return to the heat/run position. All the lights will now go out, and the engine will continue running. At this point, do some final checks, like looking for fumes from the exhaust. Excessive fumes could be a sign that you need more oil or another problem with the engine.

Let the engine idle for five minutes or so, to allow it to warm up, much like a car.

Put the Engine in Gear

The gear lever has three positions:

  • Neutral: This is the same as a car. The engine will run but without the prop engaged.
  • Forward: This engages the prop, and moves the boat forward. There aren’t any other forward gears as such, just push the lever further forward to speed up.
  • Reverse: This is your only means of stopping the boat. Only engage reverse once you return the lever to the neutral position first and allow a few seconds.

How to Work a Narrowboat’s Tiller

Some boats have steering wheels and operate on the same principles as driving a car. Remember that, unlike a car, the steering wheel isn’t as responsive and you must allow time for the boat to adjust to the direction you want to go.

Top tip: Small and slow movements are better than yanking at the thing in frustration. If you over-steer, you’re going to snake along the canal in zig-zags.

The other more common method of steering a boat is with a tiller. It’s the simplest design and one that has been around forever.

Tillers are more responsive than wheels. The slightest adjustment will result in the craft’s front moving left or right. This is good because it means you can see and feel the movements of the boat.

Okay, so imagine your boat has a tiller. Now, it’s time to convince you that left is right and right is left. Clear so far?

With a tiller, moving it to the left makes the boat turn right, and vice versa. It can be very confusing when you first try this.

Top tip: This is a simple remedy for the confusion. Draw two arrows and stick one on the narrowboat’s right side that points left, and the left side that points right. Place them somewhere you can see them while steering, say, a locker.

I guarantee that within a few hours you’ll be steering like a pro!

Steering a Narrowboat

Okay, so you’ve set off on your adventure along the canal, but wait, you come to a bend and need to turn sharply.

The first thing to recognize is that narrowboats pivot form the center of the craft. So, for every action, there is a reaction. If the bow turns right, the stern goes left. I know, it’s ideal for narrow, winding waterways!

Now you see why narrowboats can be awkward boats to steer for beginners. Couple that with the fact that you’re standing at the back of this 70-foot craft, and your field of vision is woeful indeed. But don’t worry, you’ll soon get the hang of it.

Steering a narrowboat is mostly straightforward, helped by the fact that you’re going so slowly. The secret is to anticipate what’s ahead and adjust in small, gentle motions. 

Top tip: Place something brightly colored on the roof of your boat, at the front and center; think plant pot, or as I do, an extendable coiled red hose. It enables me to use it as a marker, so when I approach a bridge or lock, I know that if the center of my boat is lined up with the center of the bridge, I’m not going to hit it.

Another tip is to look for the bridge number signs located in the middle of the arch above, so if you line your marker to the plaque, you’ll be fine.

Turning the Narrowboat

At some point, you’re going to have to rotate at a winding hole. It’s pronounced “Wind-ing” as in the “wind that blows” because, in the golden days of commerce on the canals, boats were unpowered, so skilled helmsmen used the wind to help turn their boats.

Approach the winding hole with the bow aiming for the center of the space on the far bank. At this point, you should have your tiller hard right (I’ll assume you’re approaching from the left). As the boat starts to turn, ease the throttle back into neutral, and then engage reverse. This will slow your forward motion and stop you hitting the opposite bank.

The tiller stays in the hard right position, and the boat will start to reverse while still turning. Now engage forward, and repeat this process until the boat has spun successfully. Then breathe a sigh of relief and pat yourself on the back.

Narrowboat Bow Thrusters

Newer narrowboats have bow thrusters fitted, especially on the larger models. Think of it as power steering for a boat. Bow thrusters are excellent for getting you out of and into tight spots along a canal route. And when you reverse, they take the guesswork out of steering the boat.

Some canal enthusiasts claim having bow thrusters is cheating, but I wonder how many of them drive a car with power steering. And if we are going to follow that line of thought, what the heck are they doing in a car at all! Surely they should be making their journey on horseback.

I think you get my point!

Bow thrusters enable single-handed boaters the freedom to maneuver more efficiently, and that’s a good thing, especially if they’re restricted in movement in some way.

But remember only to use bow thrusters sparingly, as they are there as an aid to steering.

Using Reverse Gear

There will be times when you miss a mooring spot and need to reverse back. The principles of reversing are the same as traveling forward, but what you have to consider is the flow of water over your rudder. If the bank is on your left, you move the tiller to the right, and the stern should move towards the bank. And do the opposite for a mooring on the right.

Top tip: Some of the best helmsmen stand facing the stern, with their backs to the boat, when reversing. It gives them a greater feel for the direction of the boat and stops any confusion with tiller direction.

Another tip is to periodically put your prop into reverse to clear any debris that may accumulate around the propeller and shaft.

How to Moor Up a Narrowboat

So, you’ve reached your destination without incident, and now you want to moor up. There are two ways to tackle this:

Bow First

This is my particular favorite, although it only works when there’s plenty of space to park the boat.

Point the bow towards the bank, assuming it’s on the left-hand side, with the tiller in the hard right position. Gently ease off the throttle and allow the boat to travel under its momentum. As you near the canal side, swap the tiller to the left, and the direction of travel will carry the stern into the bank.

It might be a good idea to engage reverse if you think you’re going to hit the canal side.

At this point, a member of your crew will have disembarked with the front line, to allow you to bring the stern alongside the bank. When the boat is close enough, I like to throw the crew member the center line for them to pull me in straight.

Stern First

Mooring with the stern is great for tighter spots.

So, you see a gap between two boats and decide that you’ll fit. Ease up on the throttle and try and stop opposite the space. Then, gently hold the tiller to the left and allow the stern to pull closer to the bank. Don’t worry too much about the bow at this point, as long as you’re not going to hit anything.

Top tip: Always have your center line at the stern, so that when you step off the boat once the stern is close enough to the bank, you can pull the boat in.

You can engage your bow thruster to help bring in the bow, but in quick bursts only because bow thrusters are notoriously easy to break through prolonged use.

You will find that stepping off of the stern and pulling the boat in via the center line should be sufficient.

Conclusion

Narrowboating is so much fun, and once you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll never look back. There are narrowboat helmsman courses you can take to improve your skills. They aren’t cheap, but if you can afford it, I highly recommend taking a course.

Trial and error are great teachers. And there will be errors.

But don’t worry, we were all beginners once.


Mark Weir lives on a canal boat in the heart of England, with his wife, Julie, and his grumpy dog, Eric. Mark likes to travel the waterways in his wide-beam barge, filming his exploits as he travels. Julie paints the wildlife, and Eric likes to bark, mostly.