The narrowboat

Narrowboats live up to their name. They’re less than seven feet wide and a boat that can comfortably accommodate four passengers is about 60 feet long. They’re steered from the rear by a person standing in the open turning a tiller. Some private boats are equipped with a steering wheel and a covered stern, but you’re unlikely to hire such a boat.

Line drawing of a throttle control lever, just a vertical stick that pivots at the bottom
The throttle or speed lever is very simple: push forward to go forward and pull back for reverse, the farther you push or pull the faster you go forward or back. On some throttle levers, you press a button to shift to neutral. On others, you pull the throttle away from the box to shift to neutral.

Starting up

Narrowboats are powered by a diesel engine in the rear of the boat. The engine goes “putt-putt-putt,” but not so loudly to be annoying and you won’t even hear it from the front of the boat. Starting the engine is a simple procedure but there are a number of steps you have to follow.

Line drawing of ignition panel showing four warning lights, the ignition switch, the stop button and a counter indicating total hours of operation

  1. First, put the throttle in neutral (by pressing a button or pulling the throttle out)
  2. Insert the ignition key into the control panel. There are many different types of panels, but most will give you warning lights to indicate low oil level, engine overheating, glow plugs and battery levels.
  3. Turn the key to the ON position—you’ll hear an obnoxious tone indicating you have battery power. Then turn the key to the GLOW plug position (looks like a light bulb in the picture above), which heats the glow plugs. Leave in this position only a few seconds before …
  4. … turning key to the START position (light bulb with a curved arrow) and holding until the engine catches.
  5. Once started, you can release the key, which will return to the run position. Press STOP to stop the engine before switching the key to the off position.

Bilge pump

You may also be instructed to operate the bilge pump after starting the engine, but on many boats, it runs automatically.

note iconDiesel engines don’t have spark plugs and instead rely on the heat of compression to ignite the fuel, but a cold engine is hard to start, thus the glow plugs to heat the fuel before turning over the engine.