Quick FAQs – Basic questions answered

Canal Boat holiday questions answered on one page (or so)

I stumbled across this article written in the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper some 10 years ago. Still relevant today – my 2 cents in {} – it addresses Frequently Asked Questions by Canadians contemplating a canal boat holiday on the high seas of the British Inland waterways system.

Are there really high seas?

No. There are very few lakes or ponds of any kind. Most of the time you are no more than six metres from shore. In fact, you can cruise hundreds of kilometres and never be far from land.

Why is it called a narrowboat?

Because it is narrow. Canals built in the late 1700s were built with locks less than 2½ metres wide and about 21 metres long. Narrowboats are long, slim vessels, less than 2½ metres wide and up to 21 metres long, which fit snugly into these locks.

Do we have to operate the locks ourselves?

Yes. That’s part of the charm. You’ll feel so pleased with yourself that you’ll want to become a lockperson {lock keeper}. Unlike Canadian lock systems, which are staffed, British canals are self-help waterways {there’s a big volunteer force of lock-keepers to assist at the busier flights}. It’s an invigorating experience. Follow the instructions and you’ll soon figure it out. Your boat-rental agent will probably show you {see Page 16 of the CRT’s Boater’s Handbook}. Take it easy. As the British Waterways guidebook advises, “Always take your time and do not leap about.”

Narrowboat leaving a lock on a canal boat holiday
A frequent canal boat holiday question is ‘How easy are locks to operate?” Locks are simple to operate. You’ll be shown how at the yard and all the tools you’ll need are onboard

Do we need special tools?

Windlasses are provided with the boat to turn the paddle mechanisms on the locks. You’ll also have a key to operate water faucets and, where necessary, swing bridges. Steel stakes and a mallet are provided for mooring along the towpath. You’ll have to figure out how to use these yourself.

Did you say we have to operate swing bridges?

Yes, in certain places. All you do is insert a key into a big magic box by the roadside and push a button. Lights will flash, gates drop and the bridge will swing automatically. But be careful. Stopping cars and vans with the push of a button generates an awesome feeling of power.

Is there much clearance in a lock?

No. Your boat may have a beam of 208 centimetres {6 foot 10 inches} and the lock will be only a few centimetres wider. If you want to practise with your car before you go, nail some two-by-fours to your garage door to give yourself eight centimetres of clearance on each side and try parking your car inside. On second thought, don’t. The difference with narrowboats is that they have indestructible steel hulls and pointy noses. As long as you get the bow somewhere near the centre of the lock, the rest of the boat will bump its way into place. But you will soon find, if you have any sense of pride, that you can park an 18-metre {60-foot, Kodran’s length} narrowboat inside a lock without ever touching the side.

There’s just the two of us. Can two people operate the boat and the locks?

Yes, but it’s awkward, especially for novices. A crew of four is much more efficient and much more fun for a pleasurable travel experience. One person drives the boat and the others work the locks. When the boat is under way, one person is required to drive, one to make tea and two to have naps.

How fast will a narrowboat go?

Not fast, but it doesn’t matter. You are restricted to 6.4 kilometres an hour on most canals to prevent shore erosion {actually slower even than this: 4.8Km/3 miles per hour is preferable}. This speed will enable the rest of your party to get their exercise by walking or skipping along the towpath beside you. If speed is an essential part of your boating holiday, then a narrowboat is not for you.

How far can we go in a day?

Don’t push it. Too many boating holidays have been ruined by trying to reach impossible goals. The rough formula for distance is this: Add the number of locks to the number of miles and divide by three. This will give you a guide to the number of hours required for your trip. Obviously, your progress will be affected by other factors, such as the number of other boaters using the canal, attacks by ferocious nest-guarding swans and the length of your pub lunches.

What happens if I fall into a canal?

Stand up and walk to shore. The canals are usually less than 1.2 metres deep and you’re only a short walk from land. But don’t swallow the water.

Do we drive on the left, as on a British highway?

No, you drive boats on the right. This is a British idiosyncrasy dating back to the days of King Norbert the Navigator. Since canal bottoms are saucer-shaped, you actually drive down the centre to avoid running aground. On curves, the deepest part is on the outside of the curve, so you should keep to the left on a right-hand turn, except on a left-hand turn when you keep to the right, unless of course you meet oncoming traffic, in which case you keep to the right unless they don’t, in which case, exercise caution. At 6.4 kilometres an hour, you should have plenty of time to figure out your left from your right. At least, you would think so . . .

How do you turn around a 15-metre boat in a 12-metre-wide canal?

At strategic locations there are “winding holes,” wide spots on the canal have been created to allow turning around a boat. Theoretically, you nudge the bow into the hole and execute a neat three-point turn, as in turning around a car. Don’t be surprised it if takes 10 or 12 points.

Can I get hurt if I don’t operate the boat properly?

Of course. The boat is a piece of machinery and you are on water. Treat the experience with respect. Here’s a quote from a narrowboat manual about shutting down the engine before clearing weeds from the propeller: “If you have not done [steps]1 and 2, it is possible for someone to start the engine. If your hand is down the weed hatch, it will not be on the end of your arm when you take it out.”

Who will drive my boat through the long tunnels?

You will {but there’s very few of any length}. You’ll be too busy trying to keep your boat from bouncing off the walls to worry about being inside a tunnel. If you’re claustrophobic, get someone else to drive, go inside the boat cabin, pull the curtains and read a book. The passage can take a while — the Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent and Mersey Canal is 2.4 kilometres long, for instance. Passage takes about an hour. {tunnel safety is taken seriously by us, the CRT guidelines are here}

What happens if we meet a boat in a tunnel?

This shouldn’t happen since a boat already in a tunnel has the right-of-way. In long tunnels, tunnel keepers regulate traffic. Keep in mind that narrowboats don’t back up very well, so make sure the tunnel is clear before you enter.

Are there bats in the tunnels?

No, officially.

When’s the best time to go for a holiday on a narrowboat?

Avoid June, July and August because that’s when the waterways are most crowded {not the word I’d use; yes it get’s busy during the main holidays, which is not until mid-July in the UK. And we’re a friendly bunch: having people around to help with locks, or just to pass the time with is part of the enjoyment}. If you’re on a restricted time frame, you probably don’t want to spend much of your holiday queued up at locks and tunnels. April can be cold and rainy (I found out), May and early June are better, September, October and November can be very pleasant, even up until Christmas.

Where do we eat?

At the table. All narrowboats are fully equipped for cooking meals. Fridge, stove, sink, dishes, pots and pans are all provided. Just like an RV. You can always moor along the canal and walk to a pub, which are identified on your canal charts.

Where do we sleep?

In cabins on the boat, maybe even on the dining table. On some boats, the table converts into a platform for a bed. The person or persons using this bed should be early risers {Kodran’s accommodation is very flexible, details here}.

How do we ward off the famous English cool dampness?

Turn up the heat. Rental boats have an efficient hot-water radiator system fired by a propane gas boiler {fuelled by diesel on Kodran}. Private boats are sometimes equipped with stoves burning coal or wood. You’ll see sacks of coal or split wood on the roof of the boat.

What if the holding tank fills up?

The toilet overflows. This is probably the most critical situation that will develop on your boat. It can be a real party pooper. Pump-outs are available at boatyards along the canal. You should watch the level of liquid in the tank and pump it out before you have a crisis {unlikely to happen unless there’s a serious case of dysentery aboard; the tanks – Kodran has 2 – are huge}.

Are rentals expensive?

Maybe yes, maybe no, depends on how you calculate the cost {our tariff is here}. Keep in mind that the narrowboat is your hotel and transportation for several people for a week or two, or more.

How do we get more information on narrowboats and British Waterways?

You or your travel agent can always find information on the Internet. Check out , the official Web site for {the Canal and Rivers Trust, the new body who manages} British Waterways.

This public corporation {now a charitable trust} runs the 3,200-kilometre waterways network in England, Scotland and Wales. Almost all the information you need to plan your trip, including many links to boat rental companies {please book with us☺️}, is on this site.

You can find more FAQs answered here and tips on our Home Page. There’s a blog post about trips you can take from our home base at Gailey Wharf here and if this has whetted your appetite for a cruise of your own, you can find all our Booking Details here.