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Single-handed boating

Tony Jones lives aboard his narrowboat 'The Watchman' and regularly cruises without the help of a crew. Tony's kindly put together some helpful tips that he's picked up while exploring the inland waterways on his own terms.

The Liveaboard Guide author Tony Jones

Ladders are a relatively recent addition to the historic structures of locks and were introduced as a safety escape feature, rather than as an aid to boating. Although many single handers find the ladders useful some consider them unnecessary, preferring instead to haul their boat in and out of the lock using ropes.

This bow hauling method works fine in most cases although those locks with bridges at their entrance or exit can prove problematic. For boaters with the necessary co-ordination, one answer is to stand atop the bridge and nimbly flick the rope beneath before catching the end at the other side. For those of us lacking in the skill, using the lock ladder is arguably a more efficient method so long as one is conscious of the ever present slip hazard.

Watch out for helpful windlass wielders

One of the greatest dangers when negotiating a lock alone comes in the form of friendly help. Despite the best intentions, enthusiastic assistance from inexperienced or distracted windlass wielders can create problems and things can go wrong surprisingly quickly.

Don't be afraid to decline help as most boaters will understand that everyone has their own way of doing things. Explain that you have a 'system' and that it is hard to break the habit. Of course, if you are sharing a lock with another boat and their crew then it is everyone's responsibility to stay alert to danger. By all means enjoy the company while you can, but keep a watchful eye on proceedings to ensure everyone stays safe and stays afloat.

Befriend your centre rope

A centre rope is your greatest friend when boating alone. Make sure the end of the rope is within reach of your position at the tiller ready for when you need to step off. In most situations one can use the centre rope alone to moor to the bank while preparing a lock before using a bow rope to haul the boat in when the lock is ready. Use the centre rope again to maintain a good position in the lock, taking in or letting out slack when necessary.

Be especially careful when locking down as boats can easily be hung up if a rope is tied to a bollard. It does also help to have a centre rope on each side of the boat if possible as this avoids the need to flick the rope over chimneys and other roof clutter when the need arises.

Practice makes perfect with lift bridges

Lift bridges and swing bridges rely on the use of long ropes, convenient landing points and accurate boat manoeuvring, often supplemented with a ration of agility and climbing skill. It should always be approached slowly and methodically and it is useful to practice the process when you have a crew to step in with help should motorists become impatient.

Be aware that some electrically operated bridges have a timer to delay over-frequent usage or a locking period to prohibit usage at peak road traffic times.

Getting into the swing of things

It is often asked why most swing bridges leave single handed skippers on the other side of the cut from their moored boat. It's in fact a historical feature left over from the time when boats were pulled by horses along the towpath. An open bridge on the towpath side would ensnare the rope between horse and boat, whereas boat crews could easily negotiate bridges on the offside with no risk of entanglement.

It could be argued that bridges should be renovated to accommodate our modern engine driven boating needs but the heritage of our waterways should perhaps not be discarded so readily. I find the anomalies and ambiguity to be a rather endearing feature of boating and hope that the heritage of our inland waterways is preserved as closely a possible; even if the resulting tricky swing bridges make me curse occasionally.


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Last Edited: 12 March 2019

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