In many ways Narrowboating for Beginners is a book that doesn’t really need to exist. After all, my husband and I and our friends took our first narrowboat trip without the benefit of such a book and lived to tell the tale. In fact most beginners show up for their first narrowboat trip without any idea what to expect.
Of course I had done some homework beforehand. I’d visited numerous canal-related websites, watched several YouTube videos about the canals and narrowboats, downloaded brochures from many boat hires, and read LTC Rolt’s Narrow Boat and the Boaters Handbook, but none of that helped when I took the tiller that first day.
I was frankly terrified. I did get us out of the marina but I was so upset by the experience that I happily gave up the tiller to my husband and didn’t drive the boat for another two days.
After that humiliation, I decided that perhaps I’d be better at turning locks, but even though I consider myself mechanically inclined, I was often doing stupid things like trying to open lock gates before the pound had filled or trying to fill the pound with a downhill paddle still open.
By the fourth or fifth lock, however, it started making sense and even steering the boat got easier, after my husband’s suggestion of pointing the tiller at the thing you don’t want to hit.
After a time, we were all decent at steering and turning a lock, but turning the boat around was still an all hands on deck emergency and reversing the boat was impossible. And many times we realized something very important only after it was too late to do any good. For instance, we found that our boat hire had kindly provided a Pearson’s Canal Companion for us and if we’d only read it, we would have known there was a water point, a winding hole or a very good pub around the next bend. Another example was our last mooring when someone showed us the canalman’s hitch, which would have saved us from all the times we’d tied our lines into Gordian knots.
So even though narrowboating isn’t rocket science, there are still some little tricks and advice that I can offer by way of this book that should improve your first time on a narrowboat. Some things are pretty important, like keeping clear of the cill, some are trivial, like bring your own washcloth, and some will just make you say, “Oh, well that explains it,” like the fact it’s called a balance beam because it counterbalances the weight of the gate (it’ll make sense later on).
This book is primarily intended for Americans contemplating their first narrowboat vacation, but that doesn’t mean someone in the UK won’t find it useful (a UK edition where color is spelled colour may be forthcoming). Americans contemplating a canal trip assume that everyone in the UK has traveled a canal but on our trips, we kept encountering Britons who confessed it was their first trip. There are even people who live alongside a canal who have never been on a boat.
This book is not intended for people contemplating living aboard a narrowboat because there are already many good books on that subject. And this book doesn’t address pleasure boats, canoes, kayak or barges—just narrowboats. It is also intended for people traveling on canals and not navigable rivers. While much remains the same, there are special considerations when taking a narrowboat onto tidal or fast-moving waters.
This book is also not intended for people who plan to take out a narrowboat alone, although much of the information will still be pertinent. It’s challenging to single-handedly turn a lock or moor, but it can be done.
Most people are glad of a little help, but solo boaties can be prickly. They take pride in their boating skills and some may prefer to do it on their own. Always ask before lending a hand.
Finally, this book is not meant as an alternative to reading The Boater’s Handbook published by the Canal & River Trust (or the guides published by another appropriate waterway authority). Much of that information is repeated here, but consider the handbook to be definitive.
About these symbols
This is a tip icon, indicating some little idea that will make your narrowboat trip more enjoyable, like remembering to pack a flashlight for your walk back to the boat after a nice meal and drinks at a pub.
This is a note icon, indicating some information that’s interesting, like the fact that LTC Rolt and Robert Aickman established the Inland Waterways Association in 1946.
This is a caution icon, indicating advice like don’t drive your boat so fast that it leaves a wake, don’t wear Crocs on a slippery boat and don’t back up while standing next to the edge of the lock pound.
This is the danger icon, with advice like don’t let your kids run along the top of a boat while it’s in a lock, something I’ve actually seen.
This is the relax icon, reminding you that you really should enjoy your trip rather than try to go as many miles in a day as you can.