Boating Tips

Tips on driving a widebeam canal boat on the Kennet & Avon Canal. Some of the tips below will not apply to narrowboats.
Enjoy your holiday.

1. Setting off: Try to perform all your manoeuvres; entering locks, going through swing bridges and mooring up at very slow speeds. (dead slow) Always start the engine first and have a quick look to see if the coast is clear, then undo the bow line. Gently engage reverse gear until the stern line becomes tight. This will force the front of the boat into the centre of the canal. Gently engage forward, release the stern line and away you go

2. Steering : Allow yourself ten minutes to get to know the steering and the movement of the boat. You will find a canal boat is slow to respond to your commands. Don't stand alongside the tiller during tight manoeuvres, always stands in front of the tiller, in order to avoid getting trapped behind the tiller. Drive in the centre of the canal, the water is deeper, which helps steering and control of the boat. When passing a narrowboat, move to the right (port to port, the drink port is red) slow down but do not go into neutral, if you do, you will loose control of the steering (no gear, no steer). Sometimes you may have to go into reverse to slow the boat down but as a general rule, try to avoid going into reverse as the back of the boat will usually kick out to the left (prop walk). Please always give the on-coming canal boat sufficient space to pass. However, try to avoid going very close to the canal bank as this can often lead to going aground.

Going Aground: If you do go aground, do not try and power the boat out, as this usually makes it worse and can lead to damage to the propeller and the rudder. The best course of action is to put the boat into neutral and use the long boat pole to push the back of the boat into the middle of the canal therefore into deeper water. Engage reverse gear and reverse back at least a boat's length before going forward. For safety reasons when pushing the boat out it's a good idea to lean against the rear deck railings to avoid falling into the canal.

Speed: As a general rule all canal users are very friendly and helpful, but they can be sensitive to speed. The maximum speed on the canal is 4mph; however, this fact is of little help. It's a good idea to use the rev. counter as a speedometer and set two speed limits, one for passing moored boats and the other setting a little faster as a cruising speed. For example, 1100 RPM when passing moored boats, sharp bends, and bridges and up to 1400 RPM for cruising a canal boat holiday should be relaxing so chill out and enjoy. On your first trip after reaching cruising speed, as an experiment try stopping the canal boat by putting the throttle lever into reverse. This will give you a good feel for the boat's performance. When passing fishermen, also slow down and try to keep to the centre of the canal. Fishermen often fish the opposite bank, so do not be tempted to steer away from the fisherman as this can make them grumpier.

Weed Hatch: If you get something caught in the propeller you should feel the boat becomes a little sluggish and there is often more white water behind the boat. To clear the propeller put the engine into neutral then try a short burst of reverse, repeat this procedure a couple of times. If there is no improvement you will need to moor up, turn the engine off and for safety reasons put the boat keys in your pocket. Remove the lid of the weed hatch, roll up your sleeves and put your hand into the water until you can feel the propeller. Remove all the debris with your hand or use a sharp knife.

Swing Bridges: If you are operating a swing bridge and find it difficult to open you will need give the bridge a good push from the towpath side, then walk across the swing bridge and finish opening it from the other side. Keep pushing until the bridge gently touches the 'buffer stop' (wooden post covered with rubber) Resist the temptation to start closing the bridge as the boat passes through. It is easy to miss-time the closing of the bridge which may result in damage to the railings on the rear deck of the boat. Before closing the bridge, out of courtesy please look out for on-coming boats. If you are driving the boat, do not enter the gap until the bridge is fully open. If the crew member opening the bridge slips you will not have time to stop and are very likely to collide into the bridge. Don't forget to leave the bridge closed.

Locks: When operating your first lock it's a good idea to moor up and watch another canal boat going through the lock. On the Kennet and Avon canal widebeam boats are too wide to share a lock with another boat, except Weston Lock just outside Bath. Consequently, it is not necessary to tie up the boat on the white bollards.

  • When arriving at a lock, if the lock is set against you, check for boats coming in the opposite direction.

  • It is very important that there is always someone at the helm to control the boat as the water level raises and falls. It is not necessary to keep the boat straight in the lock but the boat must be in the middle. When the lock is filling with water the boat will be pushed back, this is when the helmsman gives the boat a burst of forward power. When the water hits and back of the lock the boat then is pushed forward, the helmsman can then give the boat a burst of reverse power. When the lock is emptying the boat will drift forward, again the helmsman can then give the boat a burst of reverse power.

  • To reduce the water flow in the lock, open the paddles gradually and on larger locks perhaps open one paddle at a time. The most important aspect of going through a lock is to avoid the boat getting stuck on the 'CILL' as the water level drops. The CILL is marked clearly on the lock wall in white chalk. The CILL is a wall in front of the rear lock gate. If the boat gets stuck on the CILL the boat can potentially sink. This disaster can only happen if the helmsman has wondered off and is not concentrating.

  • To avoid shouting instructions to your crew prepare in advance and even arrange some simple hand signals.

  • Beware of slippery surfaces and over helpful weirdos.

  • Be very careful when closing the paddle gear, wind the paddle up a half turn to release the safety catch then lift the safety catch up and wind the paddle down slowly. Keep a tight grip on the windlass. Do not let the paddle gear drop on its own accord.

  • When using the windlass use the square opening closest to your hand and if the paddle gear is a bit stiff use the square opening further from your hand for better leverage.

  • Remember you are in a widebeam boat and you cannot share a lock. If you are queuing to use the lock feel free you invite a narrowboat behind you to join the narrowboat in the lock. This makes no time difference to you and will save water. Close all paddles and gates when leaving a lock.

Mooring Up: Prepare mooring lines in advance. Point the boat in the direction you wish to moor, then put the engine into neutral and slowly cruise towards the towpath. Put the engine into reverse to slow down the boat. When the boat is about five feet from the bank move the end of the tiller towards the towpath and give the engine a very short burst of forward power, this will bring the stern of the boat in line with the towpath. Then put the engine into reverse again to stop the boat. If a member of your crew steps off the boat with the bow line ensure they do not pull the line in, as this will make it difficult for the stern of the boat to come alongside the towpath. If necessary, use the long line in the middle of the boat to help the mooring up procedure. Do not moor up on the white bollards just before and after locks and swing bridges, near sharp bends and opposite turning points (winding holes)

Tying Up Tie up around rings or bollards in a perfect world about 45° in front and behind the boat. If possible, tie the knot on the boat rather than on the towpath. If you need to use mooring pins; hammer in 45° in front and behind of the boat, there is no need to hit the pins very hard lots of little hits are safer than a few hard hits. It is considerate to mark the mooring pins with something bright like a carrier bag.

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