Operating a Narrowboat

Operating a narrowboat can put some people off a canal boat holiday. At UKvacationsAfloat we make sure you get the training you need to confidently enjoy your experience. In early summer 2022 we took the opportunity to put the team at JD Boats through their paces by throwing a bunch of complete novices at them – our family!

We use a professional narrowboat hire management team at Gailey Wharf – JD Boat services. As boat builders themselves, they designed and built the fleet Kodran is a part of back in the day, and customised his interior fit-out specifically for the floating holiday customer. You can see the ingenuity in the storage options in an earlier blog, Packing for a Narrowboat Holiday here. This same team will take you through all aspects of driving a narrowboat!


Your safety is our highest priority. The team at JD Boats are certified by Midland Marine Services who are also based at Gailey Wharf and will instruct you in the key safety aspects with operating a narrowboat. Yes, they demonstrate emergency stops!

We strongly recommend children wear lifejackets at all times when outside the cabin.

You’ll have picked up your lifejackets when you first checked-in. We recommend the wearing of life jackets – one is provided for each crew member – when on deck and especially our younger crew members, particularly if they’re helping at locks and when hopping on and off the deck as you moor up. The Canal and River Trust has specific recommendations regarding boating through tunnels.

The team at Gailey will take you through the boat from stem to stern – in case you didn’t know, the ’stem’ of a boat is the central beam that curves up from the keel to the front of the boat. The ornamental stem on the front of a Venetian gondola is an example.

Actually starting from the back (stern) they first take you inside where the battery management panel is, and show you how to turn on the heating if the season requires it. Then where all the hidden storage is – there’s a separate blog post here about Kodran’s custom-built storage solutions – how to operate the kitchen galley and importantly how to flush the toilets (!)

Setting Off

Operating a narrowboat is not as daunting as it appears from the expressions on my family’s faces!

I know, you’re desperate to get going and this all seems a bit of a faff, but before you “weigh anchor” and open the throttle, it’s best to know how you’re going to stop the boat and importantly, stay stopped.

Unless you’ve spent time in the Scouts it’s unlikely you’ll know your heaving line from your soft shackle so we’ll show you a basic hitch knot to use to moor the boat once stopped and all the rope techniques in between – some of which is key to slowing the momentum of Kodran in the first place!

Now you know how to moor up, let’s get started!

Handling a narrowboat in a Lock

No not boat security this time – although it’ll be comforting to know that both fore and aft doors are lockable from inside and out. Although it’s quite safe on the friendly back-waters, it’s better to be safe and sound. We advise concealing valuables such as phones and laptops to avoid temptation, and drawing the curtains on the towpath side for privacy. It’s just common sense.

We’re talking about the watery ‘steps’ in the canal that enable you to navigate those hills and valleys the 18th century engineers couldn’t avoid. There’s a convenient example right at the wharf and our staff will take you through operating a narrowboat in a lock. Although there are several different styles of lock on the system, those on the two main cruising ‘rings’ from our base at Gailey are single locks. There’s a flight of pairs of single locks on the Trent and Mersey canal – the Cheshire Flight, sometimes referred to as Heartbreak Hill, actually a gentle rise so a bit of a misnomer – but each operates the same way so no surprises!

To operate the lock paddles which control the flow of water into and out of the lock, you’ll need one of only a couple of pieces of extra hardware onboard, a windlass. Very few locks, almost all in the built up urban areas navigated by the Birmingham Canal Network, require a separate anti-vandal key for operation.

Staging and Mooring up

Wrapping the centre rope around the mooring bollards to slow and then hold the narrowboat steady is a key skill you’ll soon learn to master safely.

It’s not just at your final destination when you need to know how to stop! In most cases you’ll have to wait prior to entering a lock to either fill or empty the lock to gain access. If your timing is good, a fellow boater coming in the other direction will leave the lock ready for you.

There are staging areas at both sides of the lock set with mooring posts. These bollards painted black with a white cap look like a row of mushrooms beside the canal. Here your centre-rope management skills come to the fore: slowing and holding the narrowboat steady against the luffing of the water as the lock fills or empties into the next pound – the stretch of canal between locks. Similarly, when you’re in a lock, mooring posts or rings set on top of the lock chamber can be threaded with the centre rope to steady the boat as it moves with the flow of water in the chamber.

Then don’t forget to get your lock crew back onboard! Once leaving the lock you’ll have to pull over again to pick up the crew members who have done all the hard work.

How to Drive a narrowboat

This simply comes with practice!

Once the basic aspects of operating a narrowboat have been covered – setting off, slowing and manoeuvring for a lock, using the centre rope and mooring up and operating the lock itself – the rest is down to you.

It was a proud moment when my family crewed Kodran for the first time and they were able to experience first hand what Enza and I had been raving about since 2016!

If you travel north from Gailey Wharf towards Penkridge, as we did on this trip, there’s several locks close together. There’s lots of navigating in and out of the towpath and main channel to allow crew members assigned to lock duty on and off the boat. You’ll also very quickly rise to the challenge of moving into a lock without touching the sides. It sure beats video gaming!

When you travel south towards the junction with the Shropshire Union canal you will not encounter any locks so there’s plenty of driving practice to be had. Narrowboat holidays are meant to be relaxing so don’t get stressed out if you seem to be zig-zagging from one side of the canal to the other at first. It does take some getting used to. But if you remember the old adage of turning around a super-tanker, then you’ll have some appreciation for the apparent lag between tiller and narrowboat!

And make sure more than one member of the crew gets comfortable steering. You’ll enjoy swapping tasks with the lock crew for example, or simply take time for yourself; after all, you’re on holiday!

We made this trip with three of our children and their partners in June 2022 as part of a trip home for a family wedding. It was the first time in the UK for some of the group so we took in Paris and London while they were with us. Easy local train connections made getting to and from Birmingham International Airport and London Heathrow a breeze, demonstrating how a narrowboat holiday from Gailey Wharf is a great juxtaposition when including multi-centre stays in Europe in the trip.

You can find more FAQs answered here and tips on our Home Page. And if this has whetted your appetite for a cruise of your own, you can find all our Booking Details here.