How to steer a narrowboat

Few things are more daunting than when, after a thirty-minute lesson from your boat hire company, you’re handed the tiller of a 65-foot-long iron-hulled narrowboat and told not to hit anything. You were told to move the tiller right when you want to move left and vice versa, but that’s probably about the extent of the training you’ve been given regarding how to steer.

It might help if you’ve ever steered a fishing boat with an outboard motor, but that 20-foot aluminum craft is a much different beast than the 15-ton behemoth you now see stretching infinitely ahead of you from your vantage point at the tiller.

Relax! I know it’s scary, but the reality is that 99% of your time on the water there’s very little you can do that will cause any real damage because you’re only moving at 2 or 3 miles per hour. You might be embarrassed and you might encourage the wrath of some feral boat people, but it’s surprisingly difficult to cause any real damage or even any real inconvenience. And you will get better quite quickly.

Line drawing of narrowboat from above with towpath on the left side and callout text indicating the boat moves left when the tiller is turned right

Basic steering

The first, most basic steering advice to beginners is to push the tiller right to go left and push the tiller left to go right. This “opposite” advice never worked for me.

tip iconFIRST TIP: Point the tiller at the thing you DON’T want to hit. This is a handy tip for a beginner because for some reason the logic of turn right to go left doesn’t make sense to the panicked brain.

Instead my husband offered the advice of doing something more mentally understandable, pointing the tiller at the thing you don’t want to hit. But be patient, you will slowly move away from the thing you don’t want to hit, which brings us to the second tip.

tip iconSECOND TIP: You have little control over steering if the propeller isn’t in gear and turning. You may have to speed up to gain maneuverability, but if you’re in imminent danger of colliding with something, it’s better to put the throttle into full reverse.

Usually your first reaction when trying to avoid a collision is to pull back on the throttle, but as you reduce speed, you lose control and often you still hit. This does not, however, mean you should go full throttle all the time.

tip iconTHIRD TIP: The boat turns about the middle of the boat, meaning the front of the boat might not hit the bridge, but the rear will.

A narrowboat handles very curiously because it’s flat-bottomed and draws very little water. It’s surprisingly maneuverable, but moving at such low speed, you have to anticipate your turns and wait for any movement of the tiller to have any effect. Once the boat does turn, it will continue to turn for some time. You’ll quickly learn the side-to-side lazy small turns of the tiller that keeps the boat pointing in the right direction. What you don’t want to do is move the tiller from side to side quickly because it will probably have little effect.

When approaching a left-hand turn, you’ll have to guess when you want to push the tiller right, knowing that the boat will turn about the middle, and obviously the advice is opposite when approaching a right-hand turn.

tip iconFOURTH TIP: You can steer the rear of the boat, sort of, by pushing the tiller hard in the direction you want the stern to go.

You’ll often need to make quite sharp turns or multiple turns. When approaching a bridge, for instance, you’ll often find it’s not at 90° to the canal, and often the canal turns again on the other side of the bridge. The simple trick of aiming the tiller at the thing you don’t want to hit may not be enough to avoid slamming into the bridge abutments (which is why the stone work of most bridges is often protected by wooden beams). Pushing the tiller right to make the front or bow of the boat go left also makes the rear or stern of the boat go right, and that might make the right end of the boat slam into an abutment.

You can steer the rear of the boat, however, by sharply pushing the tiller in the direction you want to move the stern — in other words opposite to the way you steer the front of the boat. So to move the front of the boat, you would push the tiller left to go right, but to move the stern of the boat, push the tiller hard right to go right.

caution iconDon’t crowd the driver. The stern of the boat attracts people like the kitchen at a party, but sometimes the driver has to make sharp turns and you may find the end of the tiller in your stomach and / or get knocked off the boat.

And when I say hard right, I mean push the tiller as far to the right as you can go. This will affect the rear of the boat more than the front. You’ll learn how long to keep the tiller hard right or left—usually it’s not more than second.